Love your nation. Celebrate its sovereignty. Never buy into the misguided idea that someone else’s country should tell you how to run yours. President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week was an ode to chest-thumping nationalism. But in one specialized field of human endeavor, Trump seems to believe that America is not nearly great enough: sliming political rivals.
As a presidential candidate, now and in 2016, Trump has tried to outsource opposition research to countries whose legal systems are awash in corruption or tainted by political influence.
Three years ago, he looked into a bank of TV cameras and implored Russia, “if you’re listening,” to find Hillary Clinton’s deleted State Department emails. (Russia was listening and, we’ve since learned, hopped right to it, as Robert Mueller’s investigation showed.) Trump now faces an impeachment investigation in the House for pressuring Ukraine to dig up damaging information about the 2020 Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. Heedless of the impeachment machinery whirring on Capitol Hill, he stood outside the White House on Thursday and told reporters that he’d like to see the Chinese investigate the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter in their country.
In so many other arenas, Trump has denounced and ditched international cooperation. He pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, both of which Barack Obama had negotiated. He’s questioned whether the NATO military alliance is worth the price. “America first” was the slogan that helped Trump win the presidency. But he doesn’t seem to believe it’s the tactic that will help him keep it.
Trump sees foreign-policy priorities as bargaining chips, advancing or discarding them as his needs change. In an example from 2017, he dialed back public criticism of China because he wanted the country’s help ending North Korea’s nuclear program. That summer, his aides had drafted a speech aimed at intellectual-property theft, which they viewed as a bedrock Chinese trade practice. At Trump’s insistence, they eliminated virtually all references to China in hopes of not offending its leadership at a time when he was coaxing them to lean on North Korea.
These sorts of calculations fall within the bounds of traditional statecraft. What happens, though, when Trump tosses domestic politics into the mix? What if China agreed to plow forward with an investigation into the Bidens at Trump’s behest? Could that induce Trump to go softer in U.S.-China trade talks—negotiations that influence the price of consumer goods, the livelihood of American farmers, and employment levels? When a president conflates personal politics with the national interest, we’re left to wonder.
If Trump was worried about possible corruption involving Americans overseas, he could turn to his own country’s investigators for help examining their dealings. There is, of course, a law-enforcement agency with a long tradition of investigatory work here in the sovereign United States: the FBI. It would be an abuse of power for Trump to order the FBI or the Justice Department to fast-track an investigation into any political opponent, but he would be within his rights to pass along what information he may have, Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, told me.
But Trump doesn’t want the bureau on the case. He’s spent much of his presidency savaging the FBI and the broader U.S. intelligence community, airing baseless accusations that they spied on him during the 2016 election. In an interview with ABC News in June, Trump was dismissive of the notion that it’s wrong for foreign governments to provide dirt on political opponents, and that the right thing for campaigns to do when they’re contacted is to involve the FBI.
“But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research, ‘Oh, let’s call the FBI.’ The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it,” Trump told the network’s George Stephanopoulos.
Trump conveyed his disdain for the bureau’s leadership—officials he appointed—when Stephanopoulos reminded him that FBI Director Christopher Wray had recently testified to Congress that campaigns should report instances of foreign interference in U.S. elections. “The FBI director is wrong, because frankly it doesn’t happen like that in life,” Trump said. What’s wrong is not only saying, as Trump once did, that you’d accept help from foreign countries in an election, but strong-arming them into tarring a political opponent. After he said he’d like China to probe the Bidens, the Federal Election Commission chairwoman, Ellen Weintraub, retweeted a message she’d sent over the summer that it’s illegal to solicit something of value from a foreign national as part of a U.S. election.
“Is this thing on?” Weintraub wrote, cheekily, using a microphone emoji.
Between the entreaties made to China and Ukraine, it’s clear the blowback from 2016 has not made the president any more cautious, and he continues to blur the lines between his own interests and his duties as head of state. Take the batch of text messages released by House Democrats late Thursday night. Right before a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kurt Volker, a former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, sent a message to a Zelensky aide. The note suggests that a summit meeting between the two leaders was conditioned on Ukraine’s willingness to investigate a discredited theory that Russia might not have been the ones that pilfered Democratic emails in the 2016 race.
Writing that he had “heard from the White House,” Volker told the aide that if Zelensky would agree in the call to “get to the bottom of what happened in 2016,” the administration would “nail down” a meeting between the presidents.
The texts show Ukraine was reluctant to go along with the scheme, which smacks of a quid pro quo. In one note in July, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat there, wrote that Zelensky was “sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.” Yet Ukraine may have decided that defying Trump is too risky. New reports show that Ukraine’s prosecutor general is reviewing how the country handled an investigation into the energy company Burisma Group, on whose board Hunter Biden sat. That inquiry could ostensibly lead to the sort of renewed investigation into the Bidens that Trump wants done.
There’s no obvious parallel to a president so brazenly enlisting foreign countries in schemes to discredit political rivals. As a Republican candidate in the 1968 presidential race, Richard Nixon took steps to sabotage then-President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to reach a Vietnamese peace deal. Using private surrogates, Nixon delivered a message to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that if he delayed, he might get better terms in a Nixon presidency. Nixon’s aim was to deprive the Democrats of a breakthrough in the war that might tip the election in Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s favor. Johnson would later complain that the ploy amounted to “treason,” as the author John Farrell described in his biography of Nixon.
But Nixon was only a candidate at the time, a private citizen. Trump is a sitting president.
“If you want democracy, hold onto your sovereignty,” he said in his U.N. speech. In the months leading up to that address, we now know, he was compromising U.S. sovereignty and weakening its democracy, all to extinguish the chances of a campaign opponent. In the week after the speech, nothing’s changed.
If the president takes a careful approach, a meeting with North Korea’s leader could pay dividends... But less than a day after the announcement, there were already conflicting statements on what obstacles would have to be overcome to make the meeting happen. And the key deal points of any potential breakthrough .. haven’t changed in years: We want them to abandon nuclear weapons; they want us to pull our troops out of South Korea... If he goes through with this, though, the president must treat it as the first step in a painstaking diplomatic project, not a self-aggrandizing photo op... In just over a year as president, Trump has taken us, and our South Korean allies, on a diplomatic roller-coaster ride: from the president’s August “fire and fury” remark, to his October “Little Rocket Man” tweet, to February’s announcement of new sanctions, to Thursday night’s bang-bang North Korean offer (delivered by South Korean envoys) and Trump’s acceptance... He’d have us believe that he’s been playing 3-D chess all along, making moves no one else could even conceive of. But North Korean leaders have always craved the prestige that would come along with a bilateral face-to-face between their leader and an American president.. the president has to avoid derailing the process with inflammatory statements and premature chest-thumping, something he hasn’t always resisted. He needs a serious, experienced negotiating team that includes experts outside his inner circle. Trump fancies himself a negotiator nonpareil. But from firsthand experience, we can tell him that North Korea’s negotiators are well briefed and highly attuned. If you use a wrong word in a verbal exchange, negotiations can take a major detour. Caution is essential at every step... “There is a saying in my country: it takes 100 hacks to take down a tree.” The North Koreans negotiate with patience and deliberation, something Trump must take into account... If he doesn’t want to end up looking like Kim outmaneuvered him, Trump must be prepared to slowly and carefully hammer out a realistic strategy with realistic aims, such as an eventual long-term agreement with strong verification standards and oversight. Before he can do that, here’s what he should consider:.. First, he needs to come up with some new carrots and sticks. He’s used sanctions as a stick, and he’s already given up the best carrot he had: the promise of a meeting, head of state to head of state.
.. Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated Friday that Trump has made “zero concessions,” but agreeing to meet is a concession. Unless he plans to up the ante by inviting Kim out to Mar-a-Lago for golf in the spring, the president will need a new giveaway that he can dangle in front of Kim... Second, Trump must understand that the North Koreans are not offering to denuclearize. They see their weapons capability as the only thing standing between them and regime change. They’re offering to halt their nuclear and missile programs, but not to disarm their existing arsenal — that’s been their position for years now, and Trump’s goal of reversing the Iran deal has only hardened North Korea’s stance: We can’t even trust an agreement the Americans have already signed, so giving up all our nukes wouldn’t be prudent.
.. Third, Trump must also be clear that what the North Koreans still want, as part of any deal, is the withdrawal of our roughly 38,000 troops from the Korean Peninsula.
.. The deal that’s on the table now, and has been for a while, is: that
- the North Koreans will halt their nuclear and missile programs and would allow implementation of a verification regime. In return,
- the United States would withdraw some military assets, ease economic restrictions and sign a treaty declaring a formal end to the war
.. in exchange for an increased flow of resources — food, fuel, technology — to North Korea from South Korea, China and Japan.
.. Trump routinely shoots from the hip. With the North Koreans, that’s a bad idea. He needs to be serious, worry more about what this means for American security and worry less about making himself look good.
On the White Supremacists, Neo-nazis, and their allies: First, I was impressed by their organization. They showed up in organized caravans of rented white vans, pick-up trucks, and other vehicles, and then quickly lined up with flags and started marching. I don’t know what app they were using, but it worked. (After the state of emergency was declared, the organization seemed less effective, with more confusion and milling around.) Second, they were young. The majority, it seemed to me, were in their twenties and thirties, mostly men, but a few women. I was told by one protestor that many of the older leaders were retired military.
.. They looked like they came expecting to fight, threaten, and intimidate. Some came in paramilitary garb, heavily armed. They carried an assortment of flags – mostly confederate, many representing their respective organizations, with a surprising number of Nazi flags. I’m 61, and before this weekend, I’ve never seen a single Nazi flag carried proudly in the United States. This weekend I saw many.
.. Their use of torches Friday night and slogans like “blood and soil” were clearly intended to evoke the KKK and Naziism. There was a good bit of “hail Trump” chanting with Nazi gestures.
.. he unabashed racism, the seething hatred, the chest-thumping hubris, the anti-Semitism, the misogyny, the shameless desire to harm their opponents, the gushing love for Trump, Putin, and Stalin, of all people … they speak for themselves. I was struck by how often the term “balls” comes up in their posts: these seem like insecure young men who are especially eager to prove their manhood, recalling election season bragging about “hand size.”
.. I would guess around a thousand white supremacists, and I would guess that the total number of anti-racism/anti-facism protesters was equal or greater.
.. I have participated in many protests and demonstrations over the years, but I have not seen the faith community come together in such a powerful and beautiful way as they did in Charlottesville. Brittany Caine-Conley and Seth Wispelwey deserve a lot of credit, as do the Congregate C-ville team they coordinated.
.. I met UCC, Episcopal, Methodist, Unitarian, Lutheran, Baptist (Alliance), Anglican, Presbyterian, and Jewish faith leaders, and the Quakers were out in large numbers, wearing bright yellow t-shirts. I met Catholic lay people, but I didn’t meet or see any Catholic priests. Two Episcopal bishops were present, and they had encouraged priests of their diocese to be involved. Along with those of us who participated in an organized way, it was clear that many ad-hoc groups of Christians and others came to protest, some with signs, some giving out water and snacks to anti-racist protestors.
Black, white, Latino, and Asian clergy worked and stood side by side; Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and others marched, prayed, and sang as allies.
.. The courage of the clergy present inspired me. In public gatherings and in private conversations before Saturday, participating clergy were warned that there was a high possibility of suffering bodily harm
.. A group of clergy (pictured below) walked arm-in-arm into the very center of the storm, so to speak, delaying entry to the park as they stood, sang, and kneeled. (Lisa Sharon Harper shares her reflections here.) This symbolic act took a great deal of courage, and many who did so were spat on, subjected to slurs and insults, and exposed to tear gas
.. I was deeply impressed with the Black Lives Matter participants. They went into the middle of the fray and stood strong and resilient against vicious attacks, insults, spitting, pepper spray, tear gas, and hurled objects. It’s deeply disgusting to see BLM be vilified on Fox News and other conservative outlets after watching them comport themselves with courage in the face of vile hatred this weekend.
.. Not all of the groups shared a commitment to nonviolent resistance in the tradition of Dr. King. I saw a few groups of protestors who, like the Nazis and white supremacists, came with hand-made shields and helmets, and I heard reports that some of these groups used pepper spray on the white supremacists, who were also using pepper spray, sticks, and fists on them.
.. In my fields of observation, they did not seem present to intervene quickly when skirmishes broke out. They seemed to stay back in the background. Perhaps this was intentional and strategic for reasons I don’t understand. Be that as it may, I couldn’t help but think about the contrast between the hands-off way heavily armed white supremacists were treated by police in Charlotte and how unarmed African Americans in other demonstrations have been beaten and arrested around the country over the years … or how unarmed Native Americans were treated at Black Rock a few months ago. That contrast is haunting, itself an expression of white privilege.
.. The young age of many of the white supremacists and Nazis suggests two things to me: first, that young white people are being radicalized in America today, radicalized to the point of using the ISIS tactic of killing people with a car; and second, that this problem isn’t going away fast
.. Just as male mammals seek to “mark territory,” these human groups seem determined to maintain their markers of white supremacy – namely, statues and flags associated with the era and culture of slavery.
.. White supremacist and Nazi dreams of apartheid must be replaced with a better dream
.. Our Christian leaders need to face the deep roots of white Christian supremacy that go back to 1452 and the Doctrine of Discovery, and before that, to the tragic deals made by 4th Century Bishops with Emperor Constantine, and before that, to the rise of Christian antisemitism mere decades after Jesus