Tuesday, February 14, 2017

House Trump: The blowback begins

ELECTIONS HAVE consequences,” Republicans are fond of saying. The Trump White House has found out — in swift and unspinnable events over the last 12 hours — that those consequences can be as ominous and pivotal for the winner as they’re assumed to be for the loser.

Within the administration, there’s resistance to some in the current Trump inner circle. Within the government writ large, there’s resistance to the Trump White House’s interpretation of the law.

Either way, a fledgling administration is discovering that this is what democracy really looks like.

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John Schindler, a security expert and a former National Security Council analyst, writing Sunday in The New York Observer, offered a sharp, plenary overview of one of the Trump administration’s most dangerous ironies: Spy vs. Spymaster — in the process laying out exactly why tonight’s resignation of Michael Flynn as national security adviser (after 24 whole days on the job) was a foregone conclusion:

“Our Intelligence Community is so worried by the unprecedented problems of the Trump administration—not only do senior officials possess troubling ties to the Kremlin, there are nagging questions about basic competence regarding Team Trump — that it is beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust.

“Trump’s personal national security guru can’t seem to keep his story straight on vital issues.

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“That’s Mike Flynn, the retired Army three-star general who now heads the National Security Council. Widely disliked in Washington for his brash personality and preference for conspiracy-theorizing over intelligence facts, Flynn was fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for managerial incompetence and poor judgment — flaws he has brought to the far more powerful and political NSC.

“Flynn’s problems with the truth have been laid bare by the growing scandal about his dealings with Moscow. Strange ties to the Kremlin, including Vladimir Putin himself, have dogged Flynn since he left DIA, and concerns about his judgment have risen considerably since it was revealed that after the November 8 election, Flynn repeatedly called the Russian embassy in Washington to discuss the transition. The White House has denied that anything substantive came up in conversations between Flynn and Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.

“That was a lie, as confirmed by an extensively sourced bombshell report in The Washington Post, which makes clear that Flynn grossly misrepresented his numerous conversations with Kislyak—which turn out to have happened before the election too, part of a regular dialogue with the Russian embassy. To call such an arrangement highly unusual in American politics would be very charitable. ...

“Our spies have had enough of these shady Russian connections—and they are starting to push back.”

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THIS MAY BE the most evolutionarily corrosive series of events for this still-young administration; it’s hardly the first. The incremental blowback of the intel community’s stealth resistance follows expectations of a more institutional resistance. On Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration, Jonathan Martin of The New York Times offered a news-analysis piece that (looking back now) seems to be prescient in real time:

“Mr. Trump’s vision will inevitably collide with establishment Republican leaders in Congress, and the outcome could determine not just the success of Mr. Trump’s presidency, but also the identity of his party. ...

“Mr. Trump is about to discover that his hopes for a realignment may not come easily. As in his campaign, he faces an array of obstacles: his historic unpopularity and lack of discipline, advisers who hope to nudge him back toward conventional Republicanism and, perhaps most significant, other party leaders who have a more conservative outlook on domestic policy and government spending ...”

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Flynn’s enhanced exit from the Trump White House is the most recent hobbling of an administration that deeply (and wrongly) believes in exertion of willpower as the primary determinant — maybe the only determinant — in achieving things in Washington.

Earlier Monday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema granted a preliminary injunction that blocks the Trump administration from implementing the deeply divisive Muslim ban that was, rhetorically and ethnically, a cornerstone of the edifice of emotionalism that typified much of Trump's 18-month performance-art campaign for the presidency. Her ruling is only applicable in the state of Virginia, and is expected to stay in force until a trial case is completed.

Brinkema ruled that an unconstitutional religious bias figured centrally in the ban, making it an implicit violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The First Amendment, long publicly understood as the one ensuring a free press, also sets prohibitions on preference of one religion over another.

And it wasn’t exactly a reach to find a basis for the ruling. “The president himself acknowledged the conceptual link between a Muslim ban and the EO (executive order)," Brinkema wrote. “The ‘Muslim ban’ was a centerpiece of the president’s campaign for months,” she wrote, “and the press release calling for it was still available on his website as of the day this Memorandum Opinion is being entered.”

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THE JUDGE’S ruling was the latest evidence of blowback from the government — not the government as narrowly defined in partisan political terms, but the government Trump & Co. can’t contain, the omnipresent, multi-dimensional entity that’s obligated to function regardless of which party occupies the White House. The government as necessary institution.

“Every presidential action must still comply with the limits set by Congress' delegation of power and the constraints of the Constitution, including Bill of Rights," she wrote.

Brinkema’s clear renunciation of the Trump scorched-earth operational dynamic was preceded last week by a ruling from a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding and extending a temporary restraining order from U.S. District Court Judge James Robart in Seattle. the order that first circumscribed Trump's broad ban of visitors and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.

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The impacts of Brinkema’s injunction, solid on First Amendment grounds, and the 9th Circuit and District court rulings, hard by matters of procedure and due-process, obviously have more than cosmetic implications. They underscore (like nothing coming from Capitol Hill now could) that the rule of law obtains in practice and principle — the current flurry of presidential executive orders notwithstanding.

Flynn further wounded a president who was wounded enough from the jump. That’s why he’s gone. His departure is the first rebuff to the Trump shoot-from-the-hip ethos. Team Trump will spin this as its own decision, but Flynn’s Russian connections and questions related to his character and judgment made it necessary.

They provoked a reaction that ultimately came from the institutional wing of the Republican Party, those hoping to drag the party back to something closer to its original principles — American values and competence jointly being first among equals.

And those serial rulings from the courts — the panoramic, constitutionally-based one-two punch that is the administration’s other first brush with realpolitik— announce more blowback to House Trump, from the judiciary and based in law, and saying they’re not going, gentle or otherwise, into Donald Trump’s long night.

Image credits: Trump: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters. Putin: Mikhail Metzel/Associated Press. Robart: National Law Journal.

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