WASHINGTON — In January, a reporter contacted the nascent Biden campaign to request an interview. She wanted to ask the former vice president about lingering criticisms that were bound to come up on the trail: how, as a senator, he failed Anita Hill; his lead role in the 1994 crime bill; his vote for the Iraq war; his mixed record on abortion rights; his handsy ways; the hot mess that is Hunter.
And that little girl was me.
I was promptly rejected for an on-the-record sit-down. Talking to some in the Biden circle, I sensed a myopia. They seemed to think they could blow past the past, walling off the candidate and ignoring the imbroglios that were obvious fodder for the pack of hungry Democrats and the rapacious president who would soon be in full cry after the front-runner.
Not deigning to talk to the press to explain bad decisions to voters seemed more like Queen Hillary than Uncle Joe. Even David Axelrod, who favored Biden as Barack Obama’s running mate, has said that it is “not a tenable strategy” to meet the press only when you are rolled out to try to explain some embarrassing gaffe.
It was also a bad sign, after Biden got in trouble for bragging at a fund-raiser about working with segregationist senators, that the candidate’s advisers trash-talked him to The Washington Post, saying they had warned him to use a less toxic example of bipartisanship.
In my experience, candidates with advisers who belittle them on background do not win elections.
The aloofness and arrogance of the Biden operation came spilling out for all to see under the bright lights of the debate stage.
The 76-year-old seemed irritated and unprepared to address inevitable jabs from his younger, more nimble rivals. What did he think would happen — that they would strew rose petals along his path to the podium and beg for selfies? In the 2008 race, he was a more vivid and genial debater than Obama. Now he seems simultaneously drained and entitled.
Kamala Harris, who had been trying to appease the progressives on Twitter who berate her for her law enforcement record, suddenly found her inner cop.
Rather than asking Biden to pass the torch, she took a blowtorch to him.
“I do not believe you are a racist,” she allowed about the man who was the partner of the first black president, had a good civil rights record and claimed (unconvincingly) that he was inspired to run by his disgust at Charlottesville.
Harris snapped the cuffs on: “It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Harris was grinding her stiletto on a vulnerable part of Biden’s record. The reason Hill was eviscerated and a lying Clarence Thomas ascended to the Supreme Court is that Biden, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was bending over backward to appease uncompromising Republicans on the panel — the same men who were falsely accusing Hill of perversity, erotomania and perjury.
A Times story revealed how Biden went to Michigan before the midterms last year to reclaim the Midwest for Democrats but ended up praising Republican Fred Upton during a paid speech to a Republican-leaning audience. Apoplectic Democrats said Biden helped Upton win re-election to the House.
After Harris dressed down Biden, Michael Bennet snapped back at the front-runner. Biden was boasting that, when they were negotiating a deal in 2012 to end a government showdown, he got Mitch McConnell to allow the top individual income tax rate to rise, generating about $600 billion in revenue.
“The deal that he talked about with Mitch McConnell was a complete victory for the Tea Party,” the Colorado senator said. “It extended the Bush tax cuts permanently. The Democratic Party had been running against that for 10 years.”
Biden is selling himself as someone who can work with a Republican Party that everyone but Biden realizes doesn’t exist anymore.
Adding injury to insult, his handlers overcoached him on his signature trait of runaway verbosity. It was weird watching Biden cutting himself off midsentence — “My time is up. I’m sorry” — while all the others were talking well over their allotment. It was like the sheriff in “Blazing Saddles” holding the gun to his own head.
Biden may have been trying to limit what he said — just as he limits press exposure — to keep out of trouble. But it looked as if he lacked confidence.
After his poor debate showing, Biden tried to recover Friday in Chicago but stepped in it again, saying during a labor luncheon, “We’ve got to recognize that kid wearing a hoodie may very well be the next poet laureate and not a gangbanger.”
He argued that “the discussion in this race today shouldn’t be about the past.” But the problem at the moment is that Biden has too much past and not enough presence.
The Trump administration is not prepared for a foreign policy crisis.
But the administration has not faced an actual national security crisis that tests it and us in a profound way. There is no shortage of possible candidates — a major terrorist attack; a debilitating cyberattack; an infectious disease outbreak; an incident with North Korea, Iran, China or Russia that escalates into a broader conflict. Yet no administration in modern memory has been less prepared to deal with a true crisis than this one.
I spent nearly 25 years in government, and almost as much time studying it. When it comes to the effective stewardship of our nation’s security — especially during crises — the most successful administrations had three things in common:
- process and
People with the experience, temperament and intellectual honesty to give a president good ideas and to dissuade him from pursuing bad ones. An effective process that brings key stakeholders together to question one another’s assumptions, stress test options and consider second-order effects. And all of this in the service of developing clear policies that provide marching orders to everyone in an administration, while putting allies at ease and adversaries on notice about our intentions.
The George H.W. Bush administration’s handling of the end of the Cold War powerfully illustrates these principles. Mr. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, the national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and a remarkable team of senior officials proved to be the right people in the right place at the right time. Mr. Scowcroft’s interagency process became a model for every successive administration until this one. The policies they pursued were clear, sustained and comprehensive. The Obama administration’s successes in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice and handling the Ebola epidemic were the results of similar strengths.
When it comes to people, process and policy, Mr. Trump’s administration has gone from bad to disastrous.
For two years, cooler heads like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the national security adviser H.R. McMaster served as something of a check on Mr. Trump’s worst instincts: invade Venezuela, withdraw from NATO, evacuate every American from the Korean Peninsula.Now, their successors — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as national security adviser — are as likely to encourage Mr. Trump’s follies as to oppose them.
Equally important, the Partnership for Public Service has found that almost 40 percent of leadership positions requiring Senate confirmation remain unfilled across the administration — at last count 275 out of 705 jobs. About a third of the State Department’s 198 key posts are vacant. One-quarter of the administration’s departments are led by “acting” secretaries.
Under Mr. Bolton, the National Security Council headed by the president, the Principals’ Committee headed by Mr. Bolton and the Deputies Committee, which I once led and which coordinates policy deliberations, have gone into deep hibernation.
Some combination of these committees typically met multiple times a day. Now, it is reportedly once or twice a week at most. The result is greater control of the policy process for Mr. Bolton and fewer messy meetings in which someone might challenge his wisdom. Mr. Mattis, who once complained about death by meetings, protested to Mr. Bolton about the lack of them.
.. The absence of process has consequences. There were minimal efforts to prepare Mr. Trump for his summit with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, in which he unilaterally ended military exercises on the Korean Peninsula and mused about withdrawing all American forces. Nor was there a process to game out Mr. Trump’s recent decision to pull out of Syria — instead, the relevant committees scrambled after the fact to bring some order to Mr. Trump’s impulses. Even the welcome progress toward ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan has been hobbled by Mr. Trump’s arbitrary and then partly rescinded announcement that he was cutting forces in Afghanistan by half, thereby undercutting our leverage in negotiations with the Taliban.
As for policy, it’s the lifeblood of any administration. Secretaries, other senior officials, ambassadors and envoys all need to know what the policy is to explain it to others and bring predictability to our nation’s foreign engagements. Mr. Trump’s failure to develop policies — and his tendency to countermand them by tweet — have caused major confusion worldwide about where we stand on issue after issue. In a crisis, having clear policy principles is even more important. Take the meltdown in Venezuela. The administration deserves credit for leading the international isolation of the country’s illegitimate president, Nicolás Maduro. But there is no evidence it has a comprehensive strategy to advance a peaceful transition — or a Plan B if Mr. Maduro digs in or lashes out.
Axios reported that Mr. Trump likes to express his disdain for policy by citing the boxer Mike Tyson: Everybody has a plan until he gets punched in the mouth. It’s true that no policy fully survives first contact. But if you don’t spend time anticipating the shots you are likely to take, you wind up flailing about wildly. Which sounds a lot like Mr. Trump.
These past two years, most of our foreign policy setbacks have been modest, and mostly of Mr. Trump’s own making. These next two, we may not be so lucky.
a memo that his lawyers had prepared last year, for the special counsel, published by the Times over the weekend, which says that, because the President can legitimately stop investigations—by methods including his pardon power or by the firing or hiring of certain law-enforcement officials, which can be part of the President’s job—his actions “could neither constitutionally nor legally constitute obstruction because that would amount to him obstructing himself.” As the President’s lawyers see it, Trump, in effect, is justice.
.. what the President and his lawyers seem to be saying is that there will, or can, be no “high crimes or misdemeanors”—the standard for impeachment—for Mueller to report to Congress, because Trump can make them vanish.
.. What is especially jarring about this argument is that it posits that the President does not have to pardon himself for any potential crime to disappear; the idea that he could, maybe, someday pardon himself makes a crime un-criminal. The concept is meta-Machiavellian: it is not just that a theoretical end—a Presidential pardon or a firing of the special counsel—justifies the means; it erases the means. That which may never happen (a pardon) is treated as something that already has.
.. the part about pardons in the Constitution reads like this: the President “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” (Emphasis added.)
The President may not be willing to read the parts of sentences that he doesn’t like, but one wishes that his lawyers would. The pardon power is not absolute
.. Whether a President can pardon himself or herself for anythingis not clear, in part because no President has ever tried
.. And should an investigator just assume that anything that harms the President won’t be prosecuted, and thus needn’t be investigated?
.. Does once having been Trump’s campaign chairman mean, for example, that Paul Manafort can, as Mueller’s team alleged on Monday, engage in witness tampering?
.. That is the logic of societies that have given up on the rule of law—leaving investigators and judges and juries always guessing about whether they are obliged to ignore plain facts in order to maintain the illusion of Presidential innocence.
.. there is no question that a President can, in the course of doing things that he is allowed to do—such as hiring and firing people—commit crimes, for example by taking bribes.
.. In Trump’s view, in other words, Sessions’s very conflict—his involvement in the campaign, which is presumably what Trump was referring to when he said that he “knew better than most”—was a reason for him to stay involved.
.. The reason that there is a Russia investigation, in other words, is a failure of the President’s subordinates to use the power that his office gave them. This, for Trump, seems to be the definition of a “hoax”: people pretending that Trump is not as powerful as Trump is.
.. When NBC’s Craig Melvin asked President Bill Clinton, this week for the “Today” show, whether it would have been better for him to resign, rather than fight it out, when he was impeached on charges that he had perjured himself and obstructed justice in relation to the Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones cases, in 1998, Clinton said no and argued, “I defended the Constitution!”
.. He referred vaguely to “imagined facts” and to unspecified real ones that had been “conveniently omitted.”
.. It might seem surprising that Clinton was not better prepared for such questions ahead of his book tour. But then his wife’s Presidential campaign did not seem well prepared for such questions, either
.. “The American people, two-thirds of them, stayed with me,” he said—as if polls provided the ultimate pardon.
On Friday, after a North Korean official said that Kim was ready to meet Trump “at any time,” Donald Trump, Jr., linked to an Axios story about this statement and crowed, “The Art of The Deal baby!!!”—as if Trump’s decision to cancel the summit had elicited important new concessions from the North Koreans. But that wasn’t the case.
.. Of course, Kim is willing to meet anytime. It was he who requested the summit in the first place.
To sit down one on one with an American President has for decades been a goal of North Korea’s leaders.
.. At the very least, some detailed preparatory work would make it easier to manage expectations in both Washington and Pyongyang.
.. The evidence suggests Trump acted as he did because he didn’t like the tone of North Korea’s statements, particularly those directed at John Bolton, the national-security adviser, and Mike Pence, the Vice-President, after they both suggested that Libya’s disarmament under Muammar Qaddafi would be a good model for the North Koreans to follow.
.. This language suggests the North Koreans have learned the lesson that Pence and many other people around Trump learned a long time ago: the most reliable way to get him to do something you want is to praise him expansively and publicly.
.. the idea that Trump is some sort of master negotiator, or ace business tactician, is a fallacy propagated by himself. Trump’s actual record in doing business deals is one of overpaying, struggling to make them work, and shuffling some of his companies in and out of bankruptcy.
.. The only art he has perfected is promoting himself as a great dealmaker on the basis of such a checkered past.
.. Trump has displayed virtually no regard for the consequences of his actions on American allies, including South Korea and Japan.
.. without giving any advance notice to South Korea, which had worked for months to set up the summit, was shocking even by his standards.
.. To many people who live in Korea or in nearby countries, it seemed like an American President was behaving erratically on a matter of existential importance.
.. Trump looks impetuous and unreliable.”
.. the Trump Administration is demanding that Kim’s regime agree to scrap its entire nuclear arsenal—which it spent thirty years developing—rapidly and unilaterally.
The North Koreans, in talking about “denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula,” appear to be envisaging a much more gradual process that would involve reciprocal measures on the U.S. side.
.. China, which is also a key player, has proposed an initial “freeze for freeze” deal, in which North Korea freezes its nuclear program and the United States suspends its military exercises with South Korea.