Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Case for Impeaching Donald Trump

Donald Trump should be impeached.  At least this is the sentiment of the most partisan Democrats and across the social media chatter even though he has barely been in office two months.  But has President Trump done anything that is or likely would constitute an impeachable offense?  The answer is that it depends, but simply put, if he has committed offenses at least as serious as what Bill Clinton was impeached for then the answer is yes, but it is still too soon to tell.

What does it mean to impeach a president of the United States such as Donald Trump? There is a lot of popular confusion over the term.  Article II, section four outlines the process for impeaching and removing a president from office.  It declares that the president, vice-president, and other civil officers of the United States can be removed from office by “impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”  Removal of the president is a two-stage process.  First a major of the House of Representatives must agree on one or more articles of impeachment.  If that happens, the House then appoints a committee to lead the prosecution of the articles.  The Senate then must hear the articles of impeachment in a trial-like proceeding over which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides.  It takes a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict and if that happens, the president is removed from office.  Think of House impeachment as similar to indicting one for a crime of which then the Senate  is a trial to determine guilt.

What would Trump have to do to constitute an impeachable offense?   Article II, section four lists three possibilities.  Treason is the first, and the Constitution defines that to be engaging war against the United States or giving our enemies Aid and Comfort.  Treason is a high bar to meet, really historically requiring  something where it involves military action or issues that directly address national security.  So far there is no indication that this is what Trump has done and thus this is an unlikely impeachable offense.

The second possibility is bribery.  Bribery would be accepting payments in return for the performance or conveyance of government services or favors.  Given Trump’s extensive business holdings and refusal to divest himself of them, there is a possibility that the conflicts of interest that he personally has could rise to a constitutional level problem that would merit an impeachable offense.  For example, allegations of Russian business connections and how they might be impacting  Trump’s foreign policy decisions might be a form of bribery.

Finally, there is the phrase high crimes and misdemeanors?  What does that mean?  In adopting this phrase the constitutional framers employed language that had existed in England since  1386 when the Parliament used the term to refer to a variety of actions including the misappropriation of funds or dereliction in the performance of official duties.  Mal-administration comes to mind as a close meaning, although when that word was proposed at the Constitutional Convention by George Mason, James Madison objected to it and substituted high crimes and misdemeanors in its place.

An alternative meaning for the phrase was offered in 1970 when the House of Representatives tried to impeach Supreme Court Justice William Douglas.  The Congressman Gerald Ford said an impeachable offense was “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”  In truth, Ford is correct–impeachment is a matter of political judgment where Congress ultimately decides the fitness of a person to serve in office, such as president.

There have been three serious efforts to impeach presidents of the United States.  In 1868 the House voted on 11 articles of Impeachment against President Andrew Johnson.    The core of the charges were allegations that Johnson illegally removed Secretary of War Ed Stanton in violation of the Office of Tenure Act.  Lurking behind this impeachment were political fights over how Johnson–a southerner–was going to support the Reconstruction agenda of the Republicans in Congress.  Johnson survived removal from office when his conviction in the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds requirement.

Richard Nixon was the second president where there was a serous effort to impeach.  In 1974 the House Judiciary Committee recommended three articles of impeachment against the president-- obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress–arising out of Nixon’s refusal to cooperate with them and the special prosecutor in terms of the investigation surrounding the Watergate break-in.  Nixon opted to resign instead of facing an impeachment vote.  All these charges represented serious claims about a president breaking the law and refusing to cooperate with a criminal investigation.  They also spoke to clear abuses of presidential power.

Finally in 1998 the House voted two articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton–perjury and obstruction of justice–arising out of investigations into his sexual relationship with white House intern Monica Lewinsky and the sexual harassment law suit filed by Paula Jones against him.  The Senate acquitted him, mostly along a straight party-line vote.  For some, the charges were partisan and political and less having to do with Clinton’s real performance as president but for others there was real evidence of lying under oath that merited removal.

In the two cases where the House actually voted on Articles of Impeachment partisanship or political differences seem to be at the heart of the charges.  With Johnson arguably there were also questions about mal-administration, but it is hard to argue that with Clinton.  Perhaps the most serious charges of impeachment were against Nixon, and not surprisingly they garnered bipartisan support.

So how does all this apply to Trump?  So far his presidency has been marked by either non-or  mal-administration.  It has largely been ineffective in getting much done, and it is mired in a host of controversies that include allegations of Russian involvement in his campaign and perhaps administration.   An FBI investigation may clarify these allegations.  There are other concerns too about his competence and fitness to be president.  All of these are possible grounds that constitute high crimes and misdemeanors, yet it will take a lot to convince a Republican House and Senate of  that.   However, if history is a guide, the allegations against Trump are at least as bad as those against Clinton, and if the FBI investigation yields more proof, or if Trump remains the ineffective president  his is starting off to be, impeachment is a possible remedy.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Trump Presidency versus the Deep State

The Trump presidency is fraught with contradictions.  Among the most notable is the degree to which
the Steve Bannon war on the “deep administrative state” is at odds with a presidency aimed at making America great again.  To achieve that goal–whatever it means–it requires the Trump administration to take control of the political machinery of the state to secure policy goals, not seek to destroy it as Bannon and many Republicans aspire.
There is an old adage that the skills need to become president are different from those to be president. Presidential campaigns depend on media skills, crafting narratives and messages, and on fund raising among other things.  While some of these skills might also apply to being president, campaigning is different from governing.  Governance is more than words and rhetoric; it is formulating public policies and setting agendas.  It requires the coordination of multiple agencies and officials, working with Congress, proper use of discretion, implementation, and the oversight of programs.
Campaigning is easy, but governing is hard.  Fortunately there are careerists and a civil service in Washington that transcends presidents to maintain institutional knowledge about how to run things.  There are the 3,000 or so members of the Senior Executive Service–the most senior careerists who  run the major government agencies and programs.  There is the foreign policy establishment that generally directs the US national security and diplomatic functions of the country.   All of this is what makes the federal government work and gets things done.   It assures stability, consistency, competence.  This is the real  deep state–not the deep state of those conspiracists who still think there was a second shooter in Dallas in 1963 or who think there is a CIA coverup over area 51 in New Mexico.   Or the deep state of anti-Semites, racists, misogynists,  and homophobes who see CNN and the NY Times in a plot to oppress white Christian men.  Trump needs the real deep state–the administrative state– but he is at war with it.
Trump’s presidential campaign as an outsider was not atypical of many recent candidates.  He ran as the outsider, as someone who would “drain the swamp” of Washington.  Yet the Trump candidacy and now the Trump presidency went further.  It saw a virtue in no government knowledge or experience.  It naively believed that a bunch of real outsiders with no government experience could simply come in and get things done, such as building a Mexican wall, crushing Isis, imposing tariffs, forcing renegotiation of trade agreements, and demanding changes to health care.   To accomplish any of these tasks a president and his staff have to have a plane, and people who can execute it.  So far it does not appear Trump has either.  He is literally a man without a plan–except for one–to also destroy the current administrative state, if Steve Bannon is to be so understood.
The entire foundation of anything the Trump wants to do rests upon the deep or the administrative state.  Executive orders in part get their power from administrative law and regulations.  The ability to move on any of the issues that Trump says he cares about requires there to be a strong and viable administrative state.  Yet this is the very state Bannon wants to see wither away.  Take away the administrative state and Trump will be weak, ineffective president.  That appears where the Trump presidency is now.
The efforts to destabilize the government only weaken it.  The failure to get hi appointments named and confirmed weaken the state.   The failure to listen to those who know better or how to get things done weakens the state.  Trump may simply not realize that his tactics are at odds with policy views.  Or perhaps what Trump wants and what Bannon wants are two different things.  Trump may want to build, Bannon wants to destroy.
Back in the 1960s when people were still waiting for the revolution to occur political scientist Robert Dahl wrote a book called After the Revolution?  He pointed out that after the revolution someone would still have to pick up the garbage, make sure the streets are paved, that sewage goes down sewers, and that all the other functions that we cherish as part of civilization would go on.     Revolutions to improve the quality of life still require authority, structure, and organization, unless of course you are a complete anarchist and either don’t want that or think that a modern society can spontaneously govern and structure itself.  Maybe that is what Bannon thinks.  However the track record of complex systems simply self-ordering themselves in ways that are beneficial to all is not very good.  Free markets and capitalism are the most notable failures in that aspect.
The point here is that contrary to the simplistic view that the state is going to wither away and  allow Trump to be a strong and effective president, the two cannot stand together.  The Trump presidency is actually pursuing policies that will largely make it less effective and competent than many hoped or feared.  The contradictions of the Trump style of anti-governance doom his presidency, and perhaps setting it up to be crushed by the deep state that it resents but needs.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Democracy, Politics, and the War on Science

What is a fact and how do we know when something is true?  These are not just philosophical questions.  In this era of intense partisan polarization, especially in the United States, the very notion that both objective facts and truth exist is contested.  Contrary to the assertion of former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who once declared that Aeveryone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,@ it now seems that each person and political party does have their own facts and truth. Why? Simply putBscientific facts and truth are not the same as political facts and truth; democracy and science are often in conflict.
For 30 years, I have taught American politics, law, and public policy.  As someone with graduate degrees in astronomy, philosophy, law, and political science, my research and teaching  centers on how policy making can be more evidence-based. In most aspects of our lives and in business we are taught to draw upon the best available evidence before making decisions. The same should be true for politicians and government.  Decisions crafted on political myths and faulty or no evidence yield bad public policy, causing a waste of taxpayer dollars and failed or ineffective programs.  Yet too much policy is crafted without real evidence. 
There are many reasons for this.  One can clearly point to intense interest group politics and the corrosive impact of money on politics as possibilities.  There is also a deep-seated distrust in American culture that disdains intellectualism and intellectuals, as told by historians such as Richard Hofstadter. But perhaps most importantly, there is a profound difference residing in how scientists and politicians gather facts and think about the world.
Scientists (and most social scientists) ascribe to the scientific method. It is a rigorous approach ideally using controlled experiments where the inductive process of gathering discrete data is aggregated to test hypotheses. Statistical sampling is often employed as ways of estimating the probability that some samples are truly representative of the phenomena being studied.  One cannot examine every molecule in the universe to conclude about all of them.  Good samples allow for generalizations, but there is always a slight probability of error.
For scientists, facts are rigorously tested but cannot be proved with 100% certainty.  Science is about falsifying claims.  Scientific knowledge is also incremental, built upon what is previously known like with bricks upon one another to construct a wall.  Scientists have built a wall of knowledge, facts, and truth.  The laws of gravity, Einstein=s famous e=mc2, and 1+1=2 are examples.  Scientific facts and truth have made telephones, television, the Internet and the cure for polio possible.  If one denies scientific truth one might as well deny civilization.
But scientific knowledge is different from political knowledge.  What is political truth, especially in a democracy?  It is what 50% plus one of the population saysBmajority rule.  For elected officials, what counts as facts and truths is what they learn from their constituents.  A politician=s world is not of controlled experiments, hypotheses, and statistically valid samples; what counts as valid evidence in making policies are the stories and interests of constituents.  Hearing something from voters is powerful evidence to someone who many need their support in the next election.  What is true has less to do with rigorous method of investigation than it does with how some assertion plays well with the media or voters.
On occasion, scientific and political truths or knowledge converge, resulting in good public policy.  But historically they do not.  The tension between scientific or expert knowledge culled from rigorous testing versus political knowledge based on majority rule is deep and has existed since Plato discussed it nearly 2,500 years ago. This is the technocracy/democracy gap.  Some have more or specialized knowledge compared to others. Should the people defer to the experts or choose for themselves what they consider true?
 While science and democracy are in tension, how do we explain the partisan war on science between Democrats and Republicans in the US?  Battles over global warming and alternative facts are sourced in competing economic interests that support or sustain specific biases or factual world views.  The two parties represent divergent interests, creating financial interests in rival conceptions of truth. Right now, Republicans are representing interests generally hostile to science, including energy companies that wish to deny climate change, or workers who fear automation will un-employ them.  But this could change.
The gap between scientific and political knowledge might be bridged with more scientific education in schools.  It might also be good if we elected more scientists to office.  Together they might create conditions that make the political process more hospitable to science, yet there is no guarantee.  Differing economic interests drive scientific skepticism, as does simply fear and prejudice and something needs to be done to address both.  Yet even with all that, the challenge for scientists is convincing the public and politicians that science is not a threat but that its enables and enriches our society, not hurts it.