Posts Tagged ‘James Comey’

9/11/22: How bin Laden is Winning

September 12, 2022

9/11/2022:  How bin Laden is Winning

Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I READ YOUR BOOK!

—–Patton, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (1970; 20th Century Fox) film

            In sports, the great strategic coup is when one side can break the code the other side uses, read their signals, or best of all, steal their playbook.  When you have your opponent’s playbook, you know what they’re going to do almost as soon as they do; you can see their lineup and know what they’re going to try, and work to counter it immediately.  You know how they’ll try to defend against you, and avoid their traps.  It almost takes the need for great athletes and coaching out of the game, which is why it was such a huge scandal when a prominent NFL coach was alleged to have stolen his opponent’s signals.  It was seen as such a big advantage that it ruined the game.  In much the same way, the Watergate scandal began as an attempt by the Republican party to steal the political playbook from its Democratic rivals, to know their strategic intentions, to wiretap their communications, and thus to know everything they were planning to do so as to counter it immediately.  Again, since the point of a political campaign is supposedly to have a contest between ideologies, policies and visions of the future, this was seen as sleazy because it gave one side too much advantage.

            The same principle applies in war, of course.  In that great movie Patton, Gen. Patton wins a decisive victory over the German army because he read Rommel’s book on military tactics and knew what to expect from the attackers.  At the battle of Midway, the Americans turned the tide of the war because they had broken the Japanese code and knew their entire battle plan.  But in war, this is not seen as “unsporting,” as if the victory was somehow sullied; the goal is to win, to survive, and stealing the opponent’s playbook is simply good intelligence.  It may not guarantee victory, but it comes pretty close.

            In 2004, the United States stole al Qaeda’s playbook.  Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Islamic Nation Will Pass, is a pseudonymously published text, written in Arabic and said to have been read by most of al Qaeda’s top leaders.[1]  It is a strategic plan for how a militarily weaker force can use terrorism and political maneuvering to seize power.  The first step is to use low-level terrorist attacks to force the governing power to spread its forces out to provide security.  Of course, this ultimately can’t work.  Sure, you can guard all the government buildings, military bases and so-called “legitimate targets,” but then the terrorists switch to places of worship, shopping malls and markets, schools and anywhere that’s vulnerable.  These smaller, near-constant attacks are the real point, but the terrorists also need to appear powerful and visible in order to recruit; so they should stage the occasional major, flashy attack that grabs international attention.  This in turn gains more foot soldiers, suicide bombers and saboteurs to further undermine the local government.  The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were, essentially, publicity stunts.  The ongoing civil wars, assassinations, bombings and looting and chaos in Pakistan, Libya, Nigeria and other countries with large Muslim populations are the primary strategic work.  When a local government can no longer provide even basic security or services due to the relentless attacks of terrorists within its borders, it will collapse into chaos, or “savagery,” with small groups banding together along ethnic or tribal lines to fend for themselves.  At that point, the writer using the name “Abu Bakr Naji” says, the jihadist group that cause the trouble in the first place can step in to fill the power vacuum, as the most powerful local force, and begin providing services (as the “management” part of the equation) to win the people over.  Eventually, the author claims, people will be so grateful for some sort of stability that they’ll accept, and eventually even love the same terrorist group that previously made their lives so hellish. 

            And where does the United States fit into all of this?  So far as I can see, it doesn’t, and that’s the point.  The jihadists aim to establish a caliphate, and the major powers are in the way.  They can’t really be integrated into a caliphate unless either they all convert to Islam or accept second-class status as dhimmi paying tribute to their Muslim overlords, neither of which is likely in the foreseeable future.  But the Soviet failure in Afghanistan convinced the jihadists that all these richer, more powerful nations could be bankrupted, which would in turn lead different regions and groups to turn on each other in a struggle for resources.  At that point, they would be unable to continue their international cultural hegemony.  Right now, people from Riyadh to Rome, Beijing to Bagdad  and points in between, no matter what their professed religion, preferred economic system or political structure, want Levis and hamburgers and Hollywood movies and countless other trappings of Western culture.  They want Western styles and standards, and even Western freedoms.  They rightfully reject our colonial, imperial history, but often in the name of our own values of equality and justice.  And even if they want the fruits of Western culture without Western values and principles, they find that is wanting the tree without the root; the goodies are byproducts of millions of free individuals working together in creative and innovative ways that other cultural systems don’t.  So if you’re a jihadist, or other authoritarian, you need to stop the flow of Western culture itself into your realm.  Osama bin Laden saw this as clearly as did Khomeini, but they had different strategies.  The Iranian strategy has been more traditional:  seize power in a country, gain regional political and military influence, and control your borders, educational system, and press, to keep out foreign influences.  Bin Laden’s plan was more aggressive:  lure the United States and Europe into expensive, unending wars, while undermining their international allies in more moderate Muslim nations like Indonesia, until the Western powers first lose the ability to support their allies, then become consumed by internal dissention and conflict, and finally lose the ability to export their poisonous ideas like feminism and democracy. 

            So, we have the terrorists’ playbook.  We know what they want to do, and what they want us to do, so we can choose to target efforts to frustrate them while avoiding the missteps they count on us making.  They want us to bankrupt ourselves, abandon our allies, internationally isolate ourselves, adopt a siege mentality where we waste resources trying to turn every important infrastructure or social gathering point into a fortress while growing more and more anxious as this fails, turn on our own fellow citizens over sectarian, ethnic and regional differences in a misdirected effort to gain a sense of physical and psychological security, until we finally collapse as a “United” States of America.  All we have to do to win the war the jihadists started on September 11, 2001 is to not do those things, and as far as possible do the opposite:  avoid national bankruptcy, build up our international alliances, preserve overall internal security and a safer society rather than trying to fortify every school, church, grocery store etc. while leaving all points in between as free-fire zones, and above all, we should build stronger ties of mutual trust and support among different groups within our society.  That is how you win the War on Terror.

            The Republican Party has not done those things.  In fact, it has done the opposite.  Slowly at first but with exponentially increasing speed, the Republican Party has followed the script al Qaeda wrote for us.  Our national debt has gone up dramatically whenever Republicans have seized control of our federal finances, while state governments under Republican control have generally relied on federal funds to keep them afloat far more than have comparable Democratic-run states.[2]  Republicans consistently push policies that help the rich while taking money away from the poor and middle classes, now actually proposing to raise taxes on half of all Americans just to preserve the tax cuts for billionaires and corporations they passed in 2017.[3]  They spent four years shredding national alliances that their predecessors of all political stripes spent decades or even centuries nurturing, while praising foreign dictators for being “strong leaders” and “smarter than us.”  They defund public schools and vilify teachers as a class as “groomers” for some alleged international Satanic pedophile conspiracy, while sending armed guards into schools allegedly to keep the children safe but who spend more of their time physically subduing the students themselves than any actual protecting.  They work tirelessly to bring guns into more homes, churches, schools, stores, in some places even bars, despite evidence that this will only increase the violence and loss of life among citizens and despite poll numbers showing most Americans want more sensible gun control, not less.  And through a continuous torrent of hateful and fearful rhetoric, cruel and pointless laws, certifiably unqualified judges making rulings that threaten national security, domestic tranquility and shred all trust and respect for the once-independent but now blatantly partisan judiciary, they work tirelessly to divide Americans and pit them against each other, feeding their base with the absurd belief that the White Evangelicals who are numerically a minority but who dominate all aspects of our society are somehow the most persecuted people on the planet, who must arm up and lash out to “defend” themselves from Jewish space lasers and NASA pedophile colonies on Mars.  If the GOP had studied Abu Bakr-Naji and said, “Here’s what the jihadists say we’re supposed to do,” they could not have done a better job of following bin Laden’s script. 

            Are Republicans actively seeking to conspire with al Qaeda to fulfill bin Laden’s plans?  Not really; but they might as well be.  The seemingly paradoxical and nationally destructive actions of the GOP in this century make sense when we remember that “terrorism” isn’t an ideology; it’s a strategy.  The Republican response to jihadist terrorism has often amounted to “fighting fire with fire.”  In response to the reasonable fear Americans felt about bloodthirsty religious fanatics burning with hatred towards the U.S. government and democracy in general, Republicans have increasingly courted support from bloodthirsty religious fanatics burning with hatred towards the U.S. government and democracy in general, except that they fight for White Supremacy and the Confederacy instead of Islam and the Caliphate.  And these domestic terrorists, naturally, adopt many of the same arguments, tactics and goals of other successful terrorist groups:  sowing fear and division, encouraging hundreds of low-level terrorist attacks and violent crimes with very occasional high-profile operations to raise their visibility and help recruit followers, trying to stretch the resources of the lawful authorities while wearing down the will to resist among the people.  The people who advocated for “religious” private schools as a way to preserve segregation, and then reorganized themselves and rebranded as the “Moral Majority,” who came out days after the 9/11 attacks while the World Trade Center was still smoldering to blame the Jews and feminists and liberals and thus sought to sow division and hatred among neighbors at a time of maximum national unity, have continued that work of divisiveness and deceit to this day. 

            Again, I ask rhetorically, are they all or even most trying consciously to destroy the USA?  Not really.  When Jerry Falwell Sr. and the other future founders of the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition etc. first set out to defend the “religious” private schools, (the “segregation academies” that were set up to circumvent the Brown v. Board of Education decision) they didn’t think of themselves as fighting to overturn the Constitution or relitigate the Civil War; Falwell described himself as a “superpatriot” even before he was “born again” for Christ.  At the time, he stated he saw desegregationists like MLK as part of the godless Communist threat against the nation, while the segregation academies were founded by Evangelical churches and thus were religious schools, so defending them was defending religious liberty.[4]  But this very “super” patriotism blinded him to the Gospel truth, which King represented, that all people are God’s children and should be treated with equality and dignity, regardless of skin color or even nationality.  Falwell’s religious politics confused the Kingdom of God, the United States and the status quo, which tends to this day to idolize (literally) the social status quo of Falwell’s youth in the 1950s.  This is a politically powerful synthesis which elevated many pastors, politicians and others to wealth and influence, and birthed many socially prominent organizations; but theologically, it is idolatry, weakening the spiritual power of the “Religious” Right.[5]  And not only is its source of power flawed, but its moral compass is misaligned; instead of pointing towards the Pole Star which for Christians is Christ who saved the world through love, humility, folly and weakness, it points towards a Gospel that both needs the United States as a worldly base, and privileges the United States because it serves the Evangelical cause.

            In its early embrace of the segregation academy movement, the nascent Religious Right allied with White Supremacists and other domestic terrorist movements.  Indeed, this alliance goes back even further to the founder of Christian Reconstructionism, Rousas Rushdooney, whose conversion to Evangelicalism led him to neo-Confederate circles and thus to become a slavery defender and Holocaust denier.  The founders of the Religious Right were racists in some cases, and in other cases racist-adjacent or racist-allies.  And that means they were, as they once said of a political opponent, palling around with terrorists.  They didn’t necessarily endorse the methods of the KKK or American Nazis, but they did adopt many of their political policies (attacking public schools, women’s equality, workers’ rights, racial justice and so on) and much of their rhetoric (fear of foreigners and their contamination, and obeisance to American military imperialism).  And that political agenda, suited to the needs of a politically weak, morally corrupt minority, was pretty much identical with al Qaeda’s goals decades later:  divide America, weaken it, plunge it into chaos, play upon the fears of White Protestant Evangelical Conservatives, start a civil war or something close to it, and then take over by imposing a new power structure based on racial and ideological purity.

            The reason it seems as if the Republican Party has spent the last 20 or so years playing the part written for it by Osama bin Laden is that al Qaeda and the Know-Nothings, KKK, American Nazis and White Supremacist terrorist groups have similar agendas, and thus adopt similar tactics.  These domestic terrorist groups have in turn corrupted or co-opted more “mainstream” conservative groups and gradually radicalized them, until we reached the point where today it is not unusual to hear terrorists’ words uttered by elected government officials and a U.S. Congressman who fled the terrorist mob on January 6th 2021 personally gave a flag that had flown over the Capitol to a convicted insurrectionist—and the world barely batted an eye.[6]  We may have won the war against the jihadists, but one political party surrendered in the War on Terror, switched sides, and now fights to not only keep terrorism alive to threatened American lives, but seeks to inject its agenda into the American political mainstream. 


[1]Abu Bakr Naji Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Islamic Nation Will Pass, translated by William McCants (2006:  The John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University) https://www.academia.edu/24287794/Abu_bakr_naji_the_management_of_savagery_the_most_critical_stage_through_which_the_umma_will_pass

[2] Allan Sloan and Cezary Podkul, “Trump’s Most Enduring Legacy Could Be the Historic Rise in the National Debt;” Washington Post January 14, 2021 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/01/14/trump-legacy-national-debt-increasee/) For an example of Republican economics on the state level, see Jeremy Hobson, Dean Russell and Samantha Raphelson, “As Trump Proposes Tax Cuts, Kansas Deals with Aftermath of Experiement;” NPR October 25, 2017 (https://www.npr.org/2017/10/25/560040131/as-trump-proposes-tax-cuts-kansas-deals-with-aftermath-of-experiment) For a discussion showing how Republicans tend to rely on Federal subsides of their states more than the Democrats whom they call “moochers,” see John S. Kiernan, managing editor, “Most and Least Federally Dependant States,” Wallethub March 15, 2022 (https://wallethub.com/edu/states-most-least-dependent-on-the-federal-government/2700)

[3] Rep. Don Beyer, chair, “Senator Rick Scott’s Plan to Raise Taxes on Working Families and Slash Essential Programs Would Cost Jobs and Reduce Economic Growth; Joint Economic Committee Democrats April 13, 2022 (https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/democrats/2022/4/senator-rick-scott-s-plan-to-raise-taxes-on-working-families-and-slash-essential-programs-would-cost-job-sand-reduce-economic-growth)

[4] Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right, “ Politico  May 2014 (https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133)

[5] James B. Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell:  the Christian in Politics;” 1982:  College of William & Mary (https://scholarworks.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/)

[6] Aaron Pellish and Marshall Cohen, “Republican Congressman Presents Convicted January 6th Rioter with Flag Flown Over U.S. Capitol After Her Release from Prison;” CNN September 11, 2022 (https://www.cnn.com/2022/09/10/politics/louie-gohmert-january-6-simone-gold/index.html).  So a U.S. Congressman awards a national honor to a perpetrator of one of the greatest terrorist attacks against this country on the anniversary of another, and the circle is complete.

What the Right Gets Wrong: about Idolatry

January 4, 2021

What the Right Gets Wrong:  about Idolatry

I the Lord your God am a jealous God

—-Exodus 20:2

            What is “idolatry”?  The Religious Right would say that such things as Santeria and Voodoo are idolatrous.  They combine Christian and non-Christian religious practices into one religion.  In the case of Santeria, more common in my native Florida, they sometimes quite explicitly rename and rebaptize the orisha of Yoruba sorcery as Catholic saints.  Although in the days of slavery there was an attempt to make the religion seem Christian to outsiders, its emphasis on animal sacrifice, spirit possession and other traditional African practices show that it is far different from the Catholicism of the Cuban plantation owners and masters. 

            Many in the Religious Right consider Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be idolatrous as well.  Both religions use images of Christ and the saints in worship, and Catholicism in particular has a strong emphasis on the saints as intermediaries who can receive prayers, intercede with God on behalf of the faithful, and even perform miracles to aid those who call on them.  All of this is abhorrent to Evangelical Protestants, and as a child I was often warned to be wary of those idolatrous Catholics.  Today however the Religious Right includes both Catholic and Protestant and they often set aside their theological differences in favor of political cooperation.

            Catholics and Orthodox, and maybe some followers of Voodoo and Santeria, would say that these saints or spirits are lesser beings than the Creator, even servants, and therefore it is no disloyalty to the Creator to pray to them.  Fundamentalist Protestants, on the other hand, reject all this imagery and iconography and ritual and prayer to intercessory powers, saying they are violations of the majesty of the One God.  God will surely smite such false worship, for the LORD is a jealous God.

            But many of the largest, richest Protestant churches, and the most powerful and celebrated preachers, are themselves idolaters.  The foremost example in the 20th Century was the Christian Nationalists.  In the 1930s a particularly odious example arose, the “German Christians.”  They sought to combine their primarily Lutheran heritage with the militarism and nationalism of Adolf Hitler. To them, any church that dissented from the rising political regime of the Nazi party was not only threatening the unity of the nation; it was rebelling against God, who established all nations and leaders and had chosen their nation to dominate all others as the foundation for the new Kingdom of God, the Holy Roman Empire reborn.  Not all Christians agreed with this mixing of nationalism and Christianity, however, and in 1934 a gathering of Reformed, Lutheran and United church leaders met in Barmen, Germany, where they approved and issued The Theological Declaration of Barmen.  Relying explicitly on Scripture for each of its main points, it argued that not only was this Christian nationalism theologically wrong, but that it was heresy.  In seeking to give the Church explicit political power, and in seeking greater union between Church and State, the German Christians were actually demoting the Church and turning it into an organ of the State (Barmen Declaration II, 5).  The Church should obey the Gospel alone, and not be swayed by allegiance to political movements (Barmen II, 3).  The declaration culminates with the final anathema, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans” (Barmen II, 6).  While the German Christians argued that the Nazi state was a Christian nation and thus the protector of the Church, those now known as the Confessing Churches argued that this pretense really meant replacing Jesus with the State as the center of concern.  The Church was being seen and being used as a means to an end, that end being the unity and strength of the State, and in particular the strength of the ruling political authorities of the State. 

            The Religious Right would say that this happened in a foreign land; while those Europeans were easily deceived, the United States is a blessed nation, a Shining City on a Hill, and could never be lured into idolatry.  Or, they might go further and say the Germans were corrupted because they were socialists; after all, Socialism is right there in the name “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”  Sure, they fought Communists, first on the streets of Germany and then across Europe; but really they were Socialists just like Stalin and Hugo Chavez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:  all Socialists, all exactly the same.  The Religious Right, on the other hand, are all Capitalists and thus love Freedom and are Good and Right—again, it’s there in the name “Right Wing.” 

            And because they are capitalists and capitalism is Good, many of them embrace a theology known as “The Prosperity Gospel.”  According to this theology, which has roots in the “power of positive thinking” of Norman Vincent Peale and more recently in such preachers as Jim Bakker, God wants all the faithful followers of his son Jesus to have “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).  Whatever you ask for, if you believe, you will receive (Matthew 7:7; Mark 11:24).  And so on, and never mind where the Bible hints that these are spiritual blessings (Luke 11:13); God knows you want nice clothes and a minivan and a good job and early retirement and three square meals plus a day, and God is good and wants you to have whatever you ask.  So just believe in God and Jesus, as the preacher tells you and describes them, and you will get all the worldly goodies you desire.  Believe in God and Jesus SO THAT you can get all the worldly goodies.  In the Prosperity Gospel, in the version of Christianity taught by chair of the spiritual advisory board serving Donald Trump, God and Jesus are there waiting for you to show up with your spiritual ATM card to withdraw cold, hard cash to buy everything you desire; or, if your credit runs out, it’s because you didn’t believe hard enough or obey your preacher closely enough.  Just as your worldly job is a means to an end, that end being your paycheck, so too does the Prosperity Gospel proclaim that if you work for God, He will give you an even bigger paycheck, and all this faith is the means by which you can attain worldly prosperity. 

            In Catholicism, we pray to the saints and to the Virgin Mother, who prays to the Father for us, who saves us from our sins, and that is called “idolatry” by the Evangelical Protestants.  In Evangelical Protestantism you pray directly to the Father through Jesus, and the Father will give you miracles and magic and fulfill your wishes for comfort and profit and even for power over others, and somehow that isn’t idolatry?  One prays to something that is not God to reach what is God; the other prays to God like a letter to Santa, making God the tool and prosperity the goal.  But of course, that’s Capitalism and therefore Good and therefore holy.  Right?

            No!  Idolatry is not whether you have an empty cross or one with the crucified Christ.  It is not whether you have no pictures in your church, or only pictures of Jesus, or pictures of all the saints.  Idolatry is when you make the ultimate reality, God, a tool of your own tiny ambitions.  As Kierkegaard put it:

If someone who lives in the midst of Christianity enters, with knowledge of the true idea of God, the house of God, the house of the true God, and prays, but prays in untruth, and if someone lives in an idolatrous land but prays with all the passion of infinity, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol—where, then, is there more truth?  The one prays in truth to God although he is worshipping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshipping an idol.[1]

            Idolatry is, in a way, the natural default for the human-deity relationship.  It is the childish (in Kierkegaard’s terms, “esthetic”) understanding.  God is to be understood and used; God acts and thinks just like us, and can be flattered like us, grows cross like us, kicks ass like we imagine we would do if we were gods, and showers money, political control, fame, military might and everything else we imagine as “good” on those who please Him.  And since most of us live in a patriarchal culture, we imagine God as an older, rather stern male ruler.  We want, as Kierkegaard said, a direct relationship to God, one that is straightforward, where we know the rules and know how to work the rules to get what we want, like a teenager who knows that if he or she just gets good grades and isn’t arrested for drinking then Dad will give them a car next birthday.  What we don’t want is what Kierkegaard says is true worship:  to love God, to know that God is beyond all comprehension, to orient all one’s own personal ambitions and values around that idea of being utterly transparent in the presence of God, who wants to be in that relationship despite the fact that literally nothing one could do could possibly “earn” one a spot in Heaven.     The Prosperity Gospel is not “gospel” at all, in any meaningful sense.  It is not “gospel” in the sense of being a message about Jesus, who said that if you follow his way you’ll end up like him, serving God and loving unconditionally, with no place to lay your head, carrying your cross.  It is not “good news,” but just the old “works righteousness,” the old magical thinking, the old drudgery, where you do everything to try to follow the rules laid down by your taskmaster the preacher in the name of the boss in Heaven and, if you’re good, you’ll get a raise and maybe even a Christmas bonus.  And in the sense that we use “gospel” to mean “truth,” it is most assuredly not gospel.  It is just a way to make the rich comfortable since they can measure their virtue the way we measure our value to the company by our paycheck; and it is a way to humiliate the poor in the same way, while pacifying them that if they just obey their human taskmasters who claim to speak in God’s name, they too can earn a promotion.  It is idolatry, pure and simple. 

            The truth be told, however, idolatry is not confined to the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.”  It is central to the entire so-called “Religious Right.”[2]  Jerry Falwell Sr. described the USA as the last bastion for Christian mission and for worldwide evangelism.[3]  Without the United States, God would have no earthly basis for spreading the Gospel or for any of the other missions to feed the poor, bring medicine and other good works done by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Thus it is the duty of every Christian to support the U.S. military and American efforts to fight Communism everywhere.  While God may be able to raise up children for Abraham out of these stones here (Matthew 3:9) apparently God needs the U.S. Army, Navy and all the rest to guard and spread His kingdom.  And in exchange for doing the good work of God, God will give the U.S. security and prosperity.  What hubris!  No longer are Christians to regard themselves as mere unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10); instead we can expect a payoff in this life.  If the U.S. government fights legalize marijuana, fights pornography, upholds traditional heterosexual marriage and enforces other purity and behavioral laws, it can expect God’s blessing.  However, doing that stuff Jesus talked so much about—-feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and so on (Matthew 25:31-46; see also Amos chapters 1-8, Micah 3, Isaiah 3:14, Isaiah 5:8, Ezekiel 18:5-9, Luke 16:19-31, and the Epistle of James)—that would be too expensive, that would be “socialism” and take away from spending on the all-important military, and would reduce the poor person’s dependence upon the churches and thus might reduce their control.  What hubris!  What arrogance!  The Jesus who tells his followers to put away their swords, and assures them that he could call upon twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:52-53), but who tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) needs the USA to carry out his purposes; and the God who could do all this needs the nation so much that He is willing to bargain with its leaders that if they’ll enforce this strict moral code (much of which is nowhere in the Bible) while leaving the private sector to decide whether or how to care for the poor (though the prophets said rulers would be judged by how the poor were treated) then God will provide worldly success and prosperity to the nation.  This is little more than the Prosperity Gospel for nations instead of for individuals; and it is just as idolatrous. 

            We don’t have to take my word, or Niebuhr’s word for the claim that nationalism is a form of idolatry, a betrayal of true and faithful religion.  The prophet Jeremiah dealt with much the same thing, in the final days of the kingdom of Judah (Jer. 7).  His book, which seems to have been dictated by him directly to his scribe Baruch, describes the sins of the rich and powerful as they plotted and blundered their way to destruction by the Babylonian army.  There was plenty of straight-up idolatry, the sort that literalists denounce, with people praying to the Baals even at shrines set up in the temple of YHWH.  But along with this, Jeremiah condemns as equally bad the social sins, such as oppressing the resident immigrant and the poor, stealing, perjury, and adultery.  But the people who did these things felt safe and had no desire to repent, because the temple of YHWH was there in the city and God needed that temple, the last one left after the ravages of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies.  Speaking to the faithful church-goers, the people entering the Temple to worship the true God, Jeremiah says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words:  ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’” (Jer. 7:4).  Only if you repent of your sins, Jeremiah tells them, can you or the nation be saved.  But they did not repent, either of their crimes against the poor or of their combining of worship of YHWH with foreign deities.  And in the end, God allowed the city called by God’s name, the throne of David, and the Temple built by Solomon to honor the one true God to be destroyed—undoubtedly to the astonishment of those firm believers in Israelite exceptionalism, convinced as they were that God needed them and their nation and that thus they could bargain with God.  They were sure that if they agreed to offer sacrifices in the Temple then the LORD would simply look the other way while they robbed and oppressed the poor.  And as the prophet Amos made clear, it is not just the one who breaks the law to rob the poor who will be punished; even the powerful ones who creates unjust laws and profit from them are damned (Amos 2:8). 

            The one who denies food to the poor, or beats up a gay person, or imprisons an immigrant, or despises a different race, or burns down a mosque so that God will see and be pleased and reward them is exactly the same spirit as the one who cuts out a child’s heart as a gift to some god or demon so the sun will come up and the crops be plentiful.  It is human sacrifice, nothing more:  I will sacrifice this other person’s liberty, dignity, even their life so that some powerful spirit being will grant me power and success.  Falwell’s claim that feeding the hungry is a sin if done by a governmental agency but a virtue when done by individuals or churches is, at best, nonsense:  what else is the government for, except to carry out large-scale projects that many people need but that no one individual can achieve alone?  More likely it is not so much confusion and nonsense as it is that old-fashioned sinful evasion of God’s will, pronouncing human precepts as the divine will (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:6-8, among others).  It is wrong, Falwell says, to allow a government to do God’s work of justice and care; it is holy to stop the government and leave it to your own will—if you decide to get around to it.  This is idolatry in its purest meaning:  self-worship.  The true worship of the true God is much harder and more troubling:  to care for those God cares for, the poor, the immigrant, the one without family to help (Psalm 146:9, James 1:27 etc.); and to do it knowing that no matter how much you give, it does not earn you anything extra (Matthew 20:1-16) since everything you have was a gift from the start. 


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 201

[2] For a more detailed yet accessible discussion of this, see James Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell:  the Christian in Politics;” https://scholarworks.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/ (The College of William and Mary, 1982), pp. 78-115

[3] Comey, p. 60

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 4

June 26, 2019

The President’s Efforts to Remove the Special Counsel

Of all the consequences of firing Director Comey, the worst from Trump’s perspective was the appointment of a Special Counsel to lead the investigation into Russian subversion of our electoral process. This was, of course, inevitable, given the gravity of the question of the integrity of our elections, the lack of trust most Americans had that the President would address the problem in an honest and impartial manner, the deep concerns of most of the nation’s law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies, and the fact that almost everyone else was either a potential suspect or a witness at this point. This was totally predictable and unavoidable in the view of anyone with any political sense or understanding of how American government works, but it caught Mr. Trump completely by surprise. The report states: “According to notes written by Hunt, when Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, the President slumped back in his chair and said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.’” Given that Clinton survived a Special Prosecutor with far more sweeping powers and far less neutrality than Mueller had, this seems rather melodramatic. He then became angry at Attorney General Sessions for not protecting him. I have to confess, I have to agree to a point, given that Sessions apparently recommended firing Comey and the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to take over the investigation after that was as predictable as a third Sharknado movie.   Several witnesses report that Trump was in a rage, and he demanded Sessions resign. Sessions agreed, wrote out his resignation letter and handed it to Trump. Trump decided let Sessions stay as AG, but refused to return the letter until other advisors pressured him over several days to do so.

All of this seems understandable given Mr. Trump’s well-known temper and political ignorance, and by itself not very significant. His later efforts to hit back at the Special Counsel before he even began his work, however, were more questionable. Trump began pushing for Special Counsel Mueller to be removed, alleging conflicts of interest. His own advisors told him his claims were, in Bannon’s words, “ridiculous and petty” and Department of Justice ethics officials examined the question and found no cause for concern. Despite this, Trump pressured White House Counsel McGahn to push Deputy AG Rosenstein to fire Mueller over these alleged conflicts. McGahn pushed back, telling Trump that firing Comey wasn’t even his “biggest exposure” compared to his “other contacts” and his efforts to end the Flynn investigation. The report goes on to describe increased pressure from Trump to fire Mueller, and apparent efforts by various advisors and staff to derail these efforts by leaking them to the press, refusing to cooperate and so on. McGahn even prepared to resign rather than participate in firing Mueller, though ultimately he was talked out of resigning by Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. In the end McGahn did not resign, and Trump did not ask him the next day whether he had instructed Rosenstein to fire Mueller as Trump had wanted.

The Special Counsel considered these facts to be relevant to determining whether this behavior constitutes obstruction of justice:

  1. Obstructive Act: The report considers whether firing Mueller would have naturally delayed, chilled or otherwise impeded any further investigation. After all, firing Mueller would probably have meant he was replaced, but even so the investigation could have been crippled. Therefore, the proposed firing could have obstructed the investigation. It is also crucial to consider whether Trump actually ordered Mueller fired, or merely suggested the DOJ investigate these alleged conflicts of interest. Ultimately, the report rejects Trump’s denials that he ordered McGahn to order Rosenstein to fire Mueller; not only did it find McGahn a more credible witness than Trump with no motive to lie, but his other actions supported his story, other witnesses corroborate parts of it, and DOJ was already well aware of the allegations Trump was making and had concluded they were baseless. So Mueller’s office found Trump’s claim that he was merely making a suggestion that they look at these supposed conflicts to be unbelievable, while McGahn’s claim that Trump told him “Mueller has to go” likely true.[1] Thus we have an attempt to perform an act that would be likely to impede further investigation; this attempt was not carried out only because McGahn refused to do as ordered, and Mr. Trump was either persuaded to drop the matter or otherwise lost interest in it, as he lost interest in firing Sessions.
  2. Nexus to an official proceeding: By this time Mr. Trump knew he was under investigation; he had been warned by McGahn of his legal exposure, the Special Counsel’s office had informed the White House that they’d be interviewing witnesses to Trump’s interference in Comey’s investigation, and Trump himself tweeted that he was under investigation. Therefore, he knew there was an official investigation which could be crippled or completely derailed by firing the Special Counsel, yet he sought to do so anyway.
  3. Intent: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s attempts to remove the Special Counsel were linked… to reports that the President was being investigated for potential obstruction of justice.” From his immediate “I’m fucked” to his pushing previously refuted allegations against Mueller and finally to his ordering Mueller be fired, it is clear that he was primarily concerned with protecting himself; and his later denials of having ordered McGahn to fire the Special Counsel suggest he knew the order could be seen as improper.

Once again, the report cites the existence of all three essential ingredients of an obstruction of justice: the act itself, the investigation to be obstructed, and the intent to do so. Mr. Trump had the desire to end the investigation and discussed “knocking out Mueller” by alleging conflicts of interest which his own people described as “silly” and “not real.” The only reason he did not “knock out Mueller” was that his own staff and advisors, realizing the enormity of his proposed actions (McGahn described it as “crazy shit”) refused to cooperate. Attempted obstruction of justice, like attempted murder, is still prosecutable; whether this act does indeed rise to the level of criminality is something that can only be determined, says Mueller, by an impeachment hearing before Congress, where all evidence can be presented and the President can offer his defense against the charges.

[1] Of course too, McGahn answered questions under oath and in person; Trump has refused to do so.

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 3(c)

June 23, 2019

How does all of this relate to the three constitutive elements of an obstruction of justice?

  1. Obstructive Act: It is true that Mr. Trump was aware that James Comey was not only investigating Trump’s friend Michael Flynn but was also looking into other aspects of Russian efforts to help elect Trump, including whether any other American citizens had committed crimes. On the other hand, he was advised repeatedly that firing Comey would not end the investigations; as Steve Bannon told him, “You can’t fire the FBI.” Trump even acknowledged as much during his interview with Lester Holt, saying it was likely firing Comey would actually prolong the investigation. What seems to have most troubled Mueller and seems most likely to be part of an illegal obstruction of justice is the way Trump handled it. The vengefulness, the petty cruelty, and the public attacks on the investigation and cries of “Witch hunt!” afterwards seem, according to the report, intended to affect and obstruct whatever future investigators might take over after Comey’s departure. True, there might be other, legally innocent motives, such as paranoia, sadism, or stupidity. That question falls under “intent.” What we can say is that there were in fact official investigations that could be disrupted by this behavior, that Mr. Trump was aware of these investigations and continued in this behavior anyway, despite the fact that his office requires him to support upholding the laws of the nation without undue personal prejudice.
  2. Nexus to a proceeding: You can’t obstruct justice unless there’s an official proceeding to obstruct. In this case, while there was no official grand jury at that time investigating the Trump campaign, there was a criminal investigation of Flynn that Trump had tried to shut down, and public knowledge that the FBI was looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including the crime of hacking the DNC’s computers. Thus there was a nexus to at least one official proceeding.
  3. Intent: As the report states: “Substantial evidence indicates that the catalyst for the President’s decision to fire Comey was Comey’s unwillingness to publicly state that the President was not personally under investigation, despite the President’s repeated requests that Comey make such an announcement….the President’s over stated rationales for why he fired Comey are not similarly supported by the evidence.” In other words, the report says that Comey was fired for not publicly clearing Trump, and that Trump and others working on his behalf lied about the true reasons for the firing. As stated earlier, intention to deceive is tacit acknowledgment of wrongdoing; if it doesn’t prove impure motives, it at least implies such. But why, the report asks, what this so important? Was it merely for political reasons, because “this Russia business” was making it difficult for Trump to carry out his agenda for the nation? Was it because, as has been stated outside the Mueller but in multiple press reports and books, that Mr. Trump gets angry when anyone mentions that Russia helped elect him because it takes away from his own sense of accomplishment? Or are there other, criminal reasons for Trump’s repeated demands for Comey to publicly announce his innocence? There are the demands that Comey pledge his “loyalty” to Trump personally, and his claim that he thought the Attorney General was not doing enough to protect him personally. He also said he wanted to be able to tell his Attorney General “who to investigate.” Comey was interfering with these goals by the fact that he’d taken over the investigations after Sessions recused himself, and by the independent way he was handling the investigations. Also, when Trump was railing against Sessions for recusing himself and for not doing more to protect Trump and punish Trump’s foes, Sessions had suggested firing Comey, either because he was suggesting to Mr. Trump that this would solve his problems or perhaps merely to redirect Trump’s anger onto someone else. In addition, as the Muller report states, “…the evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the President personally that the President could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal and political concerns.” Thus there is a strong prima facie case that Trump was motivated by personal goals rather than national interests in firing Comey, the definition of “corrupt intent.”

As Mr. Mueller stated, we need to have some sort of a hearing to allow the accused party the chance to clear his name. Legally, there is no law against being stupid, sadistic, deceitful, vain, vindictive, paranoid or obstinate. These may be reasons to say someone is unfit for an important office, but they are not crimes. Perhaps Mr. Trump was not trying to shut down or intimidate other investigations, and anyone or everyone around him who might think about challenging his orders. Perhaps he was just running the White House the way he’d run his businesses: as his wife says, if he feels you’ve hit him he’ll hit back ten times harder.[1] Perhaps, as many who have or do work for him are reported to have said, he’s very insecure about his election victory, and his desire to have Comey and others come out and publicly say he had nothing to do with Russia is his way of insisting that he won on his own, without Putin’s help, despite what Putin said at Helsinki and what every U.S. intelligence agency has said. But as Mueller said, the only way to bring these facts out, and show whether or not Trump had corrupt motives or simply acted foolishly in ways that appear corrupt, is to have an impeachment investigation, where all the facts can be presented and the President can take the opportunity to personally defend himself under oath. As it stands, the report states, there is evidence that the President* knowingly and intentionally obstructed justice, seeking to impede and influence official investigations of crimes as well as undermining counterintelligence operations, for corrupt personal reasons.

[1] Ali Vitali, “Melania Stumps for Donald Trump: ‘He Will Punch Back 10 Times Harder;” NBC News.com April 4, 2016 (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/melania-stumps-donald-trump-he-will-punch-back-10-times-n550641). Or as Mr. Trump says on Twitter: “When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!” @realDonaldTrump Twitter 11 Nov. 2012. These claims, I believe, fit the dictionary definitions of “vindictive” and “vengeful.”

 

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 3(b)

June 21, 2019

As we’ve seen before, Donald Trump was intensely concerned, if not absolutely fixated on getting James Comey and everyone else to proclaim publicly that he was not under investigation, even if government ethics and legal advisors said no such statement should be made before the investigation concluded. He also repeatedly stated that the job of the Attorney General is to protect him from investigation and scandal, to investigate whomever he wants investigated and to not investigate anyone he doesn’t wish investigated. As the FBI investigation into Michael Flynn unfolded, Trump became increasingly concerned that he might be publicly implicated and increasingly active to try to control the investigation and the public perception of it. The investigation into Flynn not only led to probable obstruction of justice (I say “probable” because there has been no impeachment inquiry to determine one way or the other) but also to further possible crimes by the Trump election and transition teams, aimed at suppressing investigation of improper assistance from Russia and improper promises made to Russia. Eventually even the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee decided they had to see what Comey had to say about these matters. Trump told his advisors this was Comey’s “last chance” to publicly clear him. However, Comey refused to say who was or wasn’t under investigation, citing FBI policy not to comment on ongoing investigations. This infuriated Trump, initially at Sessions for not protecting him more. Sessions then seems to have suggested firing Comey as a way to deflect Mr. Trump’s ire. Trump then decided to get rid of Comey, despite being advised by Steve Bannon that this was a bad idea and that it would not end the investigations.

Trump initially drafted a letter firing Comey, mentioning that Comey had privately told him he was not under investigation but still saying he was a failure. His advisors urged him to let Comey resign, but Trump was determined to fire and humiliate him. They then decided that the reasons Trump gave for wanting to fire Comey in the draft letter he’d prepared were not good enough and might look suspicious, so they decided to have Rod Rosenstein write a “recommendation” that Comey be fired for other reasons, including his handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. They decided to use Rosenstein’s draft as the justification for firing Comey even though everyone knew those weren’t the real reasons, to give Trump cover. The only major contribution Trump made to the second letter was to insist it say something about Comey having told him he wasn’t under investigation.

Despite the pretext provided by Rosenstein, the firing of Comey was received badly by the press. After all, Trump had himself endorsed Comey despite knowing previously about his treatment of Clinton and even praising him for it. The other major claim, that Comey had lost the faith of his people at the FBI, was demonstrably false, as quickly seen in the negative reactions to news of Comey’s firing. Furthermore, there was something curiously vindictive about Trump’s actions. Normally, someone in Comey’s position would be allowed to resign; instead, he was fired with no warning, finding out while giving a public speech. Furthermore, Trump was furious that he was allowed to fly back to DC instead of being stranded in California where he had been speaking to new FBI recruits, and further sought to prevent Comey from entering the FBI building even to remove his own personal possessions. This is not how normal people treat employees who haven’t worked out on the job. This is how you treat people you personally hate, The only reasonable explanation is that Trump was trying to make things as humiliating and painful as possible for Comey, either out of vengefulness or to send a message to all other present and future government officials that he would do the same to them if he wished.

The White House story regarding the firing of James Comey quickly fell apart. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was one of a platoon of Republican voices claiming that Comey was distrusted by his colleagues and that most were glad to see him gone; however, these claims were, to put it politely, “without foundation” by her own admission under oath. The claim that Comey was fired for treating Clinton unfairly was laughable, given that Trump had benefited from this, that he had supported Comey in the job for several months while knowing all about this, and furthermore that Comey had been fired not as soon as Trump had the right and power to do so but only after he began investigating Republican actions. When the decision was made to shove Rod Rosenstein out in front of the cameras to tell the world that it was he, and not Mr. Trump who had initially thought Comey should be fired, Rosenstein refused, since it was a lie and he knew it, and furthermore he did not want to be the one seen to be responsible. White House Counsel Don McGahn and the White House Counsel’s office agreed that the White House was creating a false narrative by claiming Rosenstein had initiated the firing, and that it was necessary to set the record straight. The fact that the cover story wasn’t working, coupled with this legal advice, seems to be why Mr. Trump gave the now-famous interview with Lester Holt, wherein he affirmed that he had decided to fire Comey regardless of what was recommended “because of this Russia thing” which was “made-up.”

To be continued….

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 3(a)

June 18, 2019
  1. The Firing of FBI Director James Comey

Often in stories there’s a point where things go from maybe bad to major crisis in an instant. If we read the Mueller Report as a political novel, the turning point is the firing of James Comey. Prior to this, many of the characters seemed to think that while the President of the United States was breaking the law, maybe he was just such a novice, so insecure and so used to instant gratification that he just didn’t understand the significance of his actions. He seems to have approached the Flynn investigation like the town millionaire in an old TV show saying to the local sheriff, “I know my boy shouldn’t have been driving so fast and maybe he’d had a few beers, but how about I pay the hospital costs for the old lady and you let it slide. After all, he’s basically a good boy. Say, how’s your reelection campaign coming?” Yes, it’s sleazy; but it’s the sort of corruption of and by the rich that we all always sort of knew went on anyway. The boss wanted to get his favorite Yes Man out of trouble. Is that the end of the world? The White House efforts to get the FBI, CIA or anyone to say publicly that Mr. Trump was definitely totally not being investigated also seem like heavy-handed elitism in action, like someone who is getting carried away with his image and an army of sycophants and fixers trying to satisfy him; but again, while the report indicates they likely broke the law, it’s not like they broke the legal system itself. In fact, if the Flynn incident reminds me of the bullying millionaire in Perry Mason episode trying to bend the town to his will, the reaction to the public confirmation of the existence of an FBI investigation seems more like an old-timey Hollywood diva in some drama, or maybe real life, who’s terrified of being linked to scandal rightly or wrongly, and goes so far to try to squelch the story that she or he ends up actually making things worse. Again, not good, but nothing we haven’t survived before.

The Comey firing changed everything. It is impossible to overstate this, from a political or literary perspective. Politically, we need only look at the reaction at the time. People with decades of experience in national security and law enforcement, who had served both Republican and Democratic administrations with dedication and distinction, were so shocked by the unprecedented audacity and destructive nature of Trump’s actions that they seriously believed, and still do believe that the president of the United States might be an agent of a foreign government, or at least a complete dupe and puppet. It has been credibly reported that there was serious examination of the Constitutional options for removing him from power before he could do irreparable harm to the nation or possibly end it.[1] People who know more than you do, more than I do, who have spent their lives looking at these sorts of matters and who have the training and personality to be far less partisan than you or I, looked at President Donald Trump and how he acted in his firing of the director of the FBI and thought it more likely than not that he is either a mole or a dupe, a willing or unwitting Russian intelligence asset, and considered whether it would be possible to legally and Constitutionally remove him and replace him with Vice President Pence, lest he should betray the nation to its enemies and possibly destroy it. People who compare Trump to Nixon are unfair to Nixon; even in the midst of the Watergate investigation, no one really thought Nixon was working for the Russians. Nixon could go to China because even people who thought he was neurotic, paranoid, racist and a lawbreaker conceded that he was an American who truly put “America first” in the good sense, in the sense that he would not knowingly weaken the nation for his own profit or put another nation’s interests over our own. People who know more than we do about what’s going on in our government today do wonder, seriously worry that the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is either being bribed, blackmailed, or simply so disloyal to the nation that he is willing to sacrifice us at the behest of Russia, and possibly other authoritarian governments. If this were a horror movie, this is the point where the hillbillies go from vaguely threatening talk to firing up the chainsaws. This is the point in the story where we go from “The president broke the law” to “the president is breaking America.”

 

To be continued….

[1] Maureen Groppe, “What to Know about the 25th Amendment: It

s never been used, but ex-FBI head says officials thought about it;USA Today updated Feb 14, 2019 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/09/05/could-25th-amendment-used-remove-trump-office/1012979001/

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 2(c)

May 29, 2019
  1. The President’s Reaction to Public Confirmation of the FBI’s Russia Investigation

The second area of concern for the Mueller Report is Trump’s reaction to the FBI investigation of Russia’s efforts to disrupt and control the U.S. elections, including connections between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian intelligence. As discussed in Volume One of the report, there were extensive connections between the Kremlin and Trump Tower, but ultimately the Special Counsel decided he could not establish that there was a conspiracy. There was extensive indirect coordination, and both sides definitely acted in ways that benefitted the other and expected to benefit from the other; but given the apparent lack of concrete payoff for Russia, Mueller decided that there was not a full-blown conspiracy, at least not one he could prove with the evidence he had. But even if there is no “crime,” there can still be an obstruction of attempts to investigate. Mueller discusses efforts by Donald Trump to take control of the investigation, and the reasons he sought to do so. In early March, Trump learned that Sessions was intending to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions considered this a no-brainer; he was part of the Trump campaign and thus a potential subject of investigation, so for the investigation to have a shred of credibility he had to step away. Furthermore, there were those two meetings he had with the Russian ambassador which he had not disclosed to Congress. Again, Mueller did not find anything nefarious in those meetings, but they had to be investigated and so Sessions had to recuse. This was also the advice he received from the ethics officers at DOJ. Trump by contrast expressed his concern that if Sessions recused himself he’d be unable to protect Trump from investigation, which Trump considered more important than whether the investigation would have any credibility. After the recusal, White House ethics officers stated that the White House should have no further contact with Sessions about this topic; nevertheless, Trump personally continued to press Sessions to unrecuse himself.

By March 20th, FBI Director Comey was authorized to publicly confirm that there was an active investigation of Russia’s interference in our election, but to refuse to comment about any particular persons who might or might not be under investigation. Comey followed these instructions, refusing to tell Congress whether or not Mr. Trump was being investigated. This is said by the report to have made the President’s frustration “worse,” and that’s after previous testimony had described the White House as “in chaos.” Trump is described as being “beside himself,” and began considering by the 21st whether he could fire Comey without a specific cause. The evidence presented is that White House and DOJ officials advised that firing Comey would make things worse, not better, as it would not shorten the investigation and would look suspicious.

Mr. Trump also repeatedly asked other intelligence community officials, such as then CIA Director Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats if they could make public statements that he, Donald Trump, was not under investigation. Both of these men gave testimony that differed substantially from that given by their staff and other witnesses. In particular, the report says that Pompeo was asked to stay behind after a meeting to talk privately with Trump, but he said he had no such recollection. This is significant because, as Mueller stated earlier, a desire to discuss things privately suggests that Trump may have realized that he was suggesting something irregular that had to be concealed from other aides and officials. More significant are the discrepancies in Dan Coats’ testimony; his staff confirmed that he said he’d been asked to contact Comey about the FBI investigation and felt it was an improper order, while he testified Mr. Trump never asked him to speak to Comey. As well as repeatedly complaining to Coats about the investigation, Trump also contacted the NSA Director, Admiral Michael Rogers, and asked him if he could publicly refute the notion that Trump himself was under investigation. This request, witnessed by the Deputy Director as well, was said to be “the most unusual thing” the Deputy Director had experienced in 40 years of government service, and struck both of them as so strange and improper that they immediately drew up a memorandum, signed it together, and put it in a safe. However, Director Rogers said he did not interpret it as an “order” so he did not do anything about it.

On March 30 the President directly contacted Comey and asked him to “lift the cloud” over him concerning the Russia investigation. Comey contacted his immediate supervisor at DOJ, Mr. Boente, about the conversation, asked for guidance, and said he was uncomfortable with the fact that the President was directly contacting him about this. At this time, Trump was not in fact under direct investigation, and his concern was to get that word out. Trump said it was fine to investigate his “satellites” but he wanted the world to know that he himself was not being investigated. So he was not asking anyone to lie, but he was interfering with the investigation by pushing to have information publicly released before the investigation was concluded. Also, a public statement that he was not being investigated could have hindered a future investigation if one became necessary.

  1. Obstructive Act: There is some question in the report whether there was an obstructive act at all. The principle persons involved, Pompeo, Coats, Rogers and apparently even Comey, did not feel that Mr. Trump’s repeated pleas for public statements of his innocence were “directives to improperly interfere with the investigation,” and in fact they often did not carry out those requests because they saw them as foolish or improper requests but not direct orders. But other witnesses testified that at the time Coats at least did feel that he had received just such a directive to improperly interfere, i.e. obstruct the investigation.
  2. Nexus: Since all these actions by the President came as a result of the investigation of Russian interference in our elections, there is a nexus to an official proceeding even though it had not reached the grand jury at that time.
  3. Intent: At this time Trump was not trying to shut down the investigation; he agreed that if “some satellite” of his had been working with Russia “it would be good to find that out.” But it is clear that he had personal reasons for involving himself in the investigation; it was interfering with his desire to develop closer ties to Russia, and he felt that the implication that Russia had helped elect him undermined the greatness of his electoral victory.

Overall, then, this is less clearly a case of obstruction of justice than the Flynn episode seems to be. The nexus to an investigation is clearly established. The intent to intervene for personal and political reasons, rather than simply for the good of the nation and the integrity of the investigation, is a bit less clear but Mueller seems to feel this too is established. In fact, Trump’s repeated efforts to clear his name troubled those he contacted as possibly improper and definitely irregular, and in fact he was advised against these repeated outreaches to Comey and Sessions by his own advisors and legal counsel partly because it would tend to undermine the integrity and credibility of the investigation. The real question is whether there was in fact a real obstructive act. Was Mr. Trump ordering people to interfere in the investigation, or was he merely venting? Was he trying to clear his name because he knew or believed he had done nothing wrong, or was he trying to drag others into a cover-up? Mueller gives more weight to the testimony of Coats and the other officials than to other witnesses, partly because only they were at these private meetings with the President while other witnesses mostly recalled what their bosses said or did immediately afterwards. This might have been ruled mere hearsay in court, though an impeachment hearing might give this testimony a different weight. While a later investigation, either an impeachment or a criminal trial after Mr. Trump leaves office, might wish to look harder at this evidence and try to resolve the discrepancies, the Mueller Report simply presents the sometimes conflicting testimony and leaves it there for the reader’s consideration.

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 2(b)

May 23, 2019

In Volume II of the Special Counsel’s report, Mueller describes ten areas that could represent obstruction of justice. In each case, he presents all the evidence he was able to gather, including facts as testified by eyewitnesses or by intelligence sources, as well as areas where he was not able to ascertain the facts because witnesses, including the President* lied, refused to answer or claimed not to remember.   After presenting the history of the events and all the evidence he had available, he offers an analysis as to whether each of the three essential elements for an obstruction of justice case were present: the obstructive act, the nexus to an official investigative proceeding, and the intent. Some of these, on close consideration, he does not seem to consider obstruction. In no case does he come out and say that any is obstruction; as we’ve seen, he had already ruled out any possibility of making that determination himself, since he sees this as the job of Congress. But in some cases, he states that the three essential elements definitely appear to be present, thus leaving the reader with the only logical conclusion that the White House was in fact obstructing justice and continues to do so.

  1. The President’s Conduct Related to the Flynn Investigation

Before Michael Flynn began his work as Trump’s National Security Advisor, he had two phone conferences with the Russian ambassador. Since there is only one President at a time and until January 20th that was Obama, it was improper for him to discuss foreign policy matters. Nevertheless, Flynn discussed the sanctions Obama had imposed on Russia in retaliation for its interference in our election. While lying to the press is not a crime, Flynn lied under oath to the FBI about these calls, which is a crime. These lies occurred while Mr. Trump was President. And because he had committed a crime and Russia knew about it, he was vulnerable to being blackmailed by Russia. This was a serious matter. The President had a private dinner with James Comey, the director of the FBI, and asked for him to swear loyalty to Mr. Trump personally, and shortly thereafter asked him to go easy on Flynn. He also fired Sally Yates, then Acting Attorney General, who initially brought concerns about these lies to White House attention. Despite having been briefed before becoming President about the Russian efforts to subvert our nation’s electoral process, and advice from his own advisors that Flynn had possibly violated U.S. law, it was not until Feb. 13 that Flynn was finally forced to resign, and even then White House efforts continued to cover for him.

  1. Obstructive Act: Comey claimed that Trump privately asked him to “let Flynn go.” Trump disputed Comey’s account, but Mueller points out that there is good evidence that Mr. Trump lied; not only did Comey testify under oath (something Trump has refused to do) but there were independent witnesses that Trump did indeed hustle everyone else out of the room so he could talk privately, which he denied. Was this really an “obstructive act,” or merely Trump expressing the wish that Flynn be spared further humiliation? Mueller argues that it was obstruction. First, Trump arranged to make the statement privately, suggesting that it was intended as a request that he did not want others to overhear. Second, he was Comey’s boss, and when your boss says “I hope you’ll do this,” that is generally a request. His thrice-repeated “let this go” reinforces the view that this was an order.
  2. Nexus to a proceeding: At the time of this clandestine meeting, there were no grand jury subpoenas out as part of the FBI investigation. However, everyone in the White House knew that Flynn had lied, that this was a violation of U.S. law, and that the FBI at least might prosecute. Thus there was a nexus to a possible proceeding, and attempting to head off such a possibility qualifies as obstruction of justice.
  3. Intent: While there was an attempt to get McFarland to falsely claim that she knew President Trump had not directed Flynn to discuss sanctions, there is no evidence that at that moment he actually had directed Flynn to do so. There is therefore no evidence that Trump was trying to cover up any criminal activity of his own. That is significant, since it goes to the question of intent: did Trump intend a cover-up? Did he have a personal stake in Flynn’s fate?

What Mueller did find is that while Trump may not have had a personal legal stake in the Flynn investigation, he did have a personal emotional stake. He considered and still considers any mention of Russian interference to be a challenge to his legitimacy and to the greatness of his achievement. There is evidence that Flynn was fired to try to end the Russia inquiries, that Trump reacted with “annoyance and anger” when the Flynn story broke because he thought it made him look bad, and that when told that firing Flynn would not end things he tried to pressure Comey to wrap things up. Also, while Trump has been publicly supportive of Flynn, privately he has been disappointed and angry and has mostly been motivated to keep Flynn from saying negative things about him. Overall, Mueller shows that Trump’s concerns were personal, rather than motivated by sympathy for Flynn or concern for justice: he didn’t want to look bad and thought that Flynn’s actions cast doubt on Trump himself.

Thus, the Special Counsel finds that all three elements of an obstruction of justice seem to be present:  the obstructive act itself, the official investigation which is being obstructed, and the motive to do so.  To confirm whether this is in fact obstruction of justice, and to punish the violation of law if it is, requires that Congress investigate and hold impeachment hearings; no other remedy is permitted under DOJ guidelines, while impeachment and possible removal is.  After removal from office, the DOJ guidelines forbidding prosecution of a sitting POTUS would no longer apply, and a criminal investigation could proceed.

To be continued….

Of Gospel and Heresies: This Holy Nation

April 25, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: This Holy Nation

 

 

            The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LordThus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

            For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.           

 

—–Jeremiah 7:1-15

 

Does God need us? From the perspective of traditional Christian theology, the question seems almost silly. God is omnipotent and omniscient and perfectly good: how could God need anything from humanity? God offers Israel a covenant, but there’s no indication in the Torah that God would be the worse if Israel refused; rather, it was Israel, not God, who was told “I have set before you life and death; choose life, and live.”

Israel is God’s chosen people, and they have always understood that this is a privilege and a gift. Sometimes, however, they seem to have thought it was an advantage, a perk rather than a responsibility. That was certainly the case in Jeremiah’s day. He preached to the nation of Judah in its final days, when it was really reduced to just its capital, with the superpowers of Egypt on one side and Babylon to the other. Despite their precarious situation, many were confident, and their priests and prophets told them not to worry. After all, the Temple was in Jerusalem, and God would not allow the last and greatest center of worship to be destroyed. After all, if the Temple were destroyed, who would recite the psalms glorifying the LORD? Who would teach Torah to the people, and where would they go to learn it? How would God receive sacrifices and vows? God needed the Temple, so God needed to protect the nation; without it, worship of the LORD would vanish from the Earth.

Jeremiah was called to go preach condemnation and warning to God’s people. This was dangerous work; people got killed for preaching what the king didn’t want to hear. But Jeremiah obeyed and said to the people: God doesn’t need this temple. God doesn’t need you. God loves you, God cares, God wants to teach you. But if you will not treat your fellow human beings with respect and justice, if you will not love your neighbor as yourself, if you will not care for the alien, the widow and the orphan, the immigrant and the aged and the poor, then God will cast you and this temple away. God doesn’t need the smug, the self-righteous, the entitled. God wants the humble, the caring, the grateful.

This attitude towards God, and this message, existed long before Jeremiah and long after. In the days of Amos, during the reigns of King Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel, two of the most successful rulers of their nations, he warned God’s people that they were being judged based on how they treated the poor among them; “they who trample on the head of the poor and thrust the afflicted out of the way” would be punished just as surely as any of those “wicked, pagan” nations around them.

Amos 9:7—Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?

Yes, God says, I take care of your nation; it is the apple of my eye. And I also care about all nations, and establish them; and I judge them, and will judge you. If you are arrogant, taking God’s love as a possession and a magic charm, as if the covenant binds God and not you, then you will be the one who loses. You need God; God doesn’t need you.

In the days of the Messiah, the prophet John the Baptizer spoke against the religiously complacent, the arrogant who thought being God’s chosen meant a free pass. “Repent! And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘I have Abraham for my father.’ I tell you that God is able to make children for Abraham out of these rocks here! Do what God tells you to do; love your neighbor as yourself, be honest with each other, and love God with all your heart and mind and strength.” God doesn’t need the people. God doesn’t send John, or Jesus, because God is desperate for love or for help. God sends prophets and priests and finally the Son because God loves us, and God knows that while God doesn’t need us, we need God.

Despite the many Scriptural criticisms of nationalism, it has become the cornerstone of the Religious Right. In the 20th Century, probably the most important Christian Nationalist was Jerry Falwell Sr. In books such as Listen Up, America! as well as in sermons and other public statements, Falwell argued that without the United States to serve as a base for world evangelism, Christianity itself might be endangered and could even vanish from the earth.[1] The world is caught up in a death struggle against the godless Communist Russia and the Christian United States; if the United States did not survive as a launching point for missionary activities, godlessness would win. It is thus essential to the Kingdom of God, Falwell says, not only that the United States remain morally pure (this defined primarily in terms of sexual discipline and general asceticism) but also militarily and economically dominant. Thus, Falwell ignores the Torah, Prophets and even Gospel passages that seem to contradict laissez-faire capitalism or militarism, since he believes God needs a strong army and a strong business community to preserve his earthly outpost. Without strong men, whether generals, tycoons or potentates, to support God’s Kingdom and to keep all the bad people in line, God’s kingdom will fail.

This is not the theology of the Bible, however, but only the edited version preached by Christian Dominionists like Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell. How can I dare say this? How can I, a mere insignificant dust mote in the winds of history, dare challenge the leaders of one of the most powerful political movements in the most powerful nation known to humanity? Only because it has happened before. The theology that said that God needed an earthly Temple and earthly political protection motivated the false prophets who challenged Jeremiah, who spoke lying words of comfort, and who supported the rich and the powerful in Jerusalem by saying that no matter how terribly they treated their poor neighbors and rejected God’s calls for justice, God would never allow the nation to fall because God needed the Temple and the priests and the kingly line. That theology failed. It was proven false when God did, in fact, allow Jerusalem to fall, the Temple to be destroyed, and the rich and powerful, the political and religious leaders, to be killed, enslaved or exiled. But that was not the end for God’s reign; it was only the beginning. The end of the Temple meant the beginning of the synagogue, which brought teaching of the Torah to all the nations where the Jews had settled. And in time, God raised up a new ruler, as is written in Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
2 I will go before you
and level the mountains,*
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness

and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.  (Isaiah 44:45-45:4)

 

God calls Cyrus, King of Kings of the Persians, an anointed one, or in Hebrew, “Messiah,” even “though you do not know me.”   God uses whomever and whatever God needs, whether or not that person consents or even knows it. God used Cyrus and Cyrus’s ambitions for God’s own purposes. God allowed Judah, the self-righteous nation, to fall, and used Persia, who did not know God, to rebuild Jerusalem and to fulfill a far greater mission than Israel and Judah had ever conceived.

The Biblical foundation underneath today’s so-called Christian Dominionism, or Christian Reconstructionism, or Christian Nationalism, is that which was announced in the book of Deuteronomy: obey the covenant with God and be blessed, rebel and be punished. It structures much of the Bible’s understanding of Israelite history. Scholars have noted too that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy more often than any other book in the Hebrew Scriptures. But even in those same Scriptures, the Prophets criticized that same theology, and in particular how humans, with our inclinations towards selfishness, self-aggrandizement and short-term thinking, have often twisted that theology to suit our own pride. The prophet Jeremiah even announced that the old Deuteronomic covenant was being replaced because humans had broken it so thoroughly. In its place would be a new covenant, not written on stone but on the hearts of believers. That is the covenant that was proclaimed by Jesus: the covenant that everyone would love the Lord their God, and their neighbor as themselves, and would be loved in turn by God directly. It does indeed call for the redemption of the nation, but it does so not by establishing an empire of rulership over other peoples but by loving and redeeming each individual.

 

[1] As discussed by James Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics,” honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982 (https://publish.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/) p. 57

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 7)

March 13, 2018

So Falwell’s faulty exegesis points towards a deeper problem that, in Niebuhr’s eyes, undermines Falwell’s entire project and makes him a “false prophet:” pride. His inability to imagine that America might have faults, might have mixed motives in its foreign aid policies for example, or that racism, segregation and apartheid might be as abhorrent to God as is Stalinism are all examples of this. Really, though, his pride runs deeper than this, to the very foundation of his entire theological enterprise. Falwell’s crusade is based on the claim that America is essential to Christ; without the United States to use as a launching pad for missions, the Gospel could not spread or survive in the world. Falwell’s entire argument rests on this belief. It justifies and motivates his argument that America must stay militarily strong, so that it can cow other, godless nations. It justifies denying help to the poor and vulnerable, since the sole purpose of the State is to be an army guarding the Church, and any penny spent on Social Security or education takes away from the military budget. Those poor people demanding help from their government are dangerous parasites, weakening the State when it has to be strong. Quite simply, the State doesn’t exist to serve the poor; it exists only to serve the Church by physically protecting it from foreign armies and local criminals, and then by getting out of its way. But that “Church” it serves is not, again, just any old religious establishment, and not even any and every Christian institution; it is only the Evangelical churches that spread the properly conservative, economically laissez-faire capitalist message that will empower the business world and the military to do their jobs of making the USA the most kick-ass power on the planet whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom. Other religions, even other Christian denominations, risk God’s wrath and thus weaken the nation, undermining its sole purpose of spreading Christian fundamentalism.

Why does God, who is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones here (Matthew 3:9), need the United States? Why does the Church, which spread under the persecution of pagan Rome as well as the God-fearing religious leaders of its day, need an army so desperately that God must accept a state whose economic policies impoverish other peoples as well as many of its own citizens? It seems incredibly arrogant to claim that the United States is the essential nation, or even an essential nation in God’s plan. This pride prevents any meaningful, prophetic voice from being raised; if the United States is the essential nation in God’s plan, it must be a “godly” nation by definition, and anyone who says it is falling short is challenging God’s judgment in having chosen it and made it the cornerstone of the Kingdom.

And in particular, the purpose of the State seems to be nothing more than to perpetuate and strengthen the State, and otherwise to leave the Church free to send missionaries wherever it wants. Insofar as it does anything else besides strengthen and enrich itself, it imposes controls on individual lives, restricting religious expression that doesn’t conform to Fundamentalist Protestantism, restricting sexual expression, restricting freedom of speech if that should entail criticizing Fundamentalism or capitalism, or in short, the State is to use force to impose Falwell’s theology. Anything else risks God’s wrath, which is the only thing that could weaken the nation. This reasoning was in full evidence on September 13, 2001, when Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson agreed on national television that the reason terrorists had been able to attack the United States was because of feminists and other people who disagree with their beliefs.[1] Their pride cannot accept that perhaps bad things happen for no morally good reason, and even less can they allow that maybe they themselves are the ones who are morally judged, despite repeated warnings in the Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles that God will judge nations based at least partly on how they treat the poor. The one sin they recognize is Not Being Like Us; that is what God punishes, because God needs the United States and needs it to be conformed to the theological vision of Jerry Falwell.

In the final days of Judah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel argued against false prophets who preached that God would never allow Jerusalem to fall, no matter how corrupt its government nor how decadent and oppressive its wealthy class, because God needed the Temple. 2500 years later, the pride of the 20th Century gave rise to similar false prophecy. And that pride bore fruit in the Prosperity Gospel: the belief that God rewards good people and good nations with wealth, health and power, so anyone you see who is strong and rich must also be godly and good; and contrariwise, anyone who is suffering, or poor, or a nation that is weak, must be wicked and deserves whatever it gets and even whatever the “godly” people do them. This thinking starts from a sound Biblical starting point: the book of Deuteronomy, the one Christ is said to have quoted from the most. In that book, Moses warns the people that if the nation strays from its covenant with God, the nation will be cursed. From this idea, it was deduced that whenever we see sickness, that person must have done something wrong; and when we see national disaster like famine, the nation must have done something wrong. And likewise, if we see a rich, healthy person or a strong nation, it must be because God has blessed that person or nation for being so good. However, this goes beyond the actual message of the Bible. The entire book of Job aims to refute this simple equation of suffering with wickedness; Job is a righteous man, yet he suffers. His friends insist that he must in fact be wicked, and urge him to repent. He refuses, insisting on his innocence. Finally God rebukes the friends, and says that Job is the one who spoke truly (Job 42:7-9). Jesus, too, criticizes the easy equation of virtue and wealth, or sin and suffering (Luke 13:1-5; Luke 16:19-31; John 9:1-3). Anyone following the logic of the Prosperity Gospel, or even the simplistic, prideful interpretation of Deuteronomy, would confidently claim that the blind beggar or the poor Lazarus were certainly sinners, or at least that their parents sinned and their sins were being visited upon the children. Or, today we might say that Lazarus must be lazy and the blind beggar’s parents were foolish not to have bought health insurance or to have worked hard enough to be able to provide for their son. The idea that perhaps the only “purpose” of suffering people is as a call to the rest of us to do God’s work by caring for them and caring about them—that idea simply does not fit human pride. It would mean admitting that evil and destruction are beyond our control, even when we are doing everything we can to conform to our understanding of righteousness and to force others to do so as well. It would mean admitting that we need to repent, just as much as “they” do. And it would mean that we can be judged even if we have good things that we got lawfully and honestly, simply because we were callous and self-indulgent.[2]

[1] Marc Ambinder, “Falwell Suggests Gays to Blame for Attacks,” ABC News, Sept. 14, 2001 (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=121322&page=1) The 700 Club, Sept. 12. 2001 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMkBgA9_oQ4)

[2] Remember, in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, there is no word that the rich man did anything “wrong;” he wasn’t a thief, and he didn’t fail to go to Temple. He was a good, laissez-faire capitalist, as far as the story depicts; and since it is a story, we can’t just say “well, he must have been a bad man, Jesus just didn’t mention that he was an embezzler.” That’s our pride talking, rewriting the Bible to fit our own standards. The only facts that exist about the Rich Man are that he had a good life, and anyone looking at him would have thought him blessed by God; but he ignored the poor man, and for that lack of love for his fellow human being, he wound up in Hades.