June 15, 2020

Today was busy as the White House squared off against opponents. The president has personified his administration to such an extent that it increasingly feels like it is less a clash of political parties that fuels today’s political animosities than it is him against the world.

Today the rift between Trump and the military widened. General Robert B. Abrams, commander of the U.S. Army in South Korea, banned the display of the Confederate flag from all U.S. Army installations in South Korea. “While some might view it as the symbol of regional pride, many others in our force see it is a painful reminder of hate, bigotry, treason, and devaluation of humanity,” he wrote. “[O]ne thing is clear: it has the power to inflame feelings of racial division. We cannot have that division among us.”

In the New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni noted that Trump has always seemed to think of the military as his own—he has called it “my military”— sending troops to our southern border in 2018 on a false errand to support his narrative that the nation was being overrun by undocumented immigrants, for example, while also denigrating generals—“I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me”—and the “Gold Star” families who have lost a loved one in the service. The president’s desire to use the active military against citizens exercising their right to protest has finally pushed military leaders to the extraordinary step of denouncing the president publicly.

A bipartisan group of 23 national security leaders also took a stand against Trump today. Claiming to share the outrage and frustration that demonstrators have shown over police brutality and racial injustice, they insisted that military forces should not be used against civilians and objected to the use of the word “terrorists” to describe protesters. “We pledge to be allies in the work to heal the wounds of racism, injustice, and depression. To implement positive and lasting progress we must come together and unite behind the ideals of this nation’s founding-- that we are all created equal and deserve equal treatment under the law,” they wrote.

The Food and Drug Administration also pushed back today against the president, revoking its authorization for the emergency use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19. Trump has long touted the anti-malarial drug as a treatment for coronavirus infections, but the FDA said that BARDA, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, had concluded that “this drug may not be effective to treat COVID-19… and that the drug’s potential benefits for such use do not outweigh its known and potential risks.”

Former national security adviser John Bolton’s book detailing his time in the White House is due to go on sale June 23, and has already been shipped to bookstores. Trump is reportedly furious at what Bolton has written, and wants to stop the book’s sale. The White House stopped the book’s original planned publication date in March by holding up its review for classified information (although when transmitting the book for review, Bolton’s lawyer noted that Bolton believed he had avoided all classified information).

Today, Trump suggested a new angle: he said that “every conversation with me as president [is] highly classified…. [I]f he wrote a book and if the book gets out, he’s broken the law and I would think that he would have criminal problems. I hope so.” Attorney General William Barr agreed, saying the book was being published too quickly. Trump is reportedly looking at legal action against Bolton, but lawyers say it would be hard to block the book, since the Supreme Court in 1971 refused to let Richard Nixon block the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that the U.S. government had misled the American people about the Vietnam War.

I will admit that Trump’s attempt to browbeat Bolton amuses me. If there is one person who ain’t gonna be browbeaten, by Trump or anyone else, it’s John Bolton.

But the administration is having more luck silencing others. Although Covid-19 infections are spiking in states in the South and West, Vice President Pence today told governors to tell people in their states that the rise was due to increased testing, and to “encourage people with the news that we’re safely reopening the country.” In fact, the rise in at least 14 states is higher than that attributable to testing. Oklahoma, where Trump will restart his rallies on June 20, is one of those where cases are rising, although Pence said “The number of cases in Oklahoma is declining precipitously, and we feel very confident going forward.”

This weekend, we learned that the Centers for Disease Control had told its staff not to talk to reporters from the Voice of America, the government-funded news agency, because the independent news coverage there of the coronavirus was not positive enough to the president, who complained that VOA was run by “communists.”

Two years ago, Trump appointed to the head of the agency Michael Pack, an ally of his former chief strategist Steve Bannon. That position requires Senate approval, though, which was held up for two years because Pack’s film agency is under investigation by the D.C. attorney general’s office for financial improprieties. Under pressure from Trump, the Senate confirmed Pack earlier this month, despite his legal troubles. Today the two top editors at VOA, Director Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara resigned.

The Trump administration continues to block oversight of the $1 trillion in spending authorized by the CARES coronavirus relief act. Today we learned that last Thursday two inspectors general wrote a letter to four congressional committee chairs. The letter revealed that lawyers for the Treasury Department have concluded that Congress left a loophole in the law that excuses the administration from telling Congress who has gotten money under the program.

The Treasury Department insists it is complying with all of the requirements established by the CARES act, but lawmakers of both parties object to the Treasury Department’s lack of transparency. A spokeswoman for Richard C Shelby (R-AL), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said: “American taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent.”

And yet, for all this, today’s biggest news is that the Supreme Court began handing down this term’s decisions. It declined to hear appeals of ten cases involving gun rights, brought by advocates hoping to strike down remaining limits on gun ownership. It also declined to revisit the doctrine of “qualified immunity” for law enforcement officers protecting them from lawsuits for their actions while doing their jobs unless they violate “clearly established” constitutional rights.

Their landmark decision, though, was in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, ruling 6 to 3 that it is illegal to discriminate against LGBT individuals in employment. This is a huge deal. The decision, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, said that the prohibition against sex discrimination in the 1964 Civil Rights Act covers sexuality and gender identity. This will give support to widespread challenges to discrimination against LGBTQ Americans in other areas. Chief Justice John Roberts surprised observers by joining the majority.

Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh disagreed with the decision. In his dissent, Alito called the decision “breathtaking” in its “arrogance.” Right-wing evangelical leaders agreed. Minister Franklin Graham, who has said that God ensured Trump’s election, wrote on Facebook that it was an attack on religious freedom. “Christian organizations should never be forced to hire people who do not align with their biblical beliefs and should not be prevented from terminating a person whose lifestyle and beliefs undermine the ministry’s purpose and goals.”

The reaction that surprised me, though, was that of the president. Asked about the decision, he said that while “some people were surprised,” “we live with that decision.” “That’s what it’s all about,” he told reporters, “we live with the decision of the Supreme Court…. Very powerful, very powerful decision actually, but they have so ruled.”

His apparently easy acceptance of a decision that contradicts his own recent executive order permitting discrimination against LGBTQ healthcare rights worries me. The court is about to hand down decisions about DACA (the policy allowing undocumented immigrants brought here as children to remain in some circumstances), abortion, and-- by far most important to the president-- whether or not Congress and state prosecutors can have access to Trump’s finances.

Is he resigned to whatever the court decides in those cases? Or does he trust that they will go his way?

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Notes:

US Forces Korea memo:

Bruni: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/15/opinion/trump-military.html

National security leaders: https://www.justsecurity.org/70783/statement-of-homeland-and-national-security-leaders/

FDA: https://www.fda.gov/media/138945/download

https://www.fda.gov/media/138946/download

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/06/15/coronavirus-live-updates-us/

Bolton’s book: https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/trump-denounces-bolton-book-classified

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-says-bolton-will-have-criminal-problems-if-his-book-is-released/2020/06/15/b398559a-af50-11ea-8758-bfd1d045525a_story.html

Oversight: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/15/inspector-general-oversight-mnuchin-cares-act/

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/15/inspectors-general-congress-coronavirus-321086

Covid: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/15/world/coronavirus-usa-world.html

https://news.yahoo.com/ahead-of-tulsa-rally-pence-says-oklahoma-has-flattened-the-curve-of-covid-cases-but-data-shows-otherwise-220222591.html

VOA: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/media/top-voice-of-america-editors-resign-amid-strife-with-white-house-arrival-of-new-trump-appointed-director/2020/06/15/5880a684-af1f-11ea-8758-bfd1d045525a_story.html

Gun cases: https://www.axios.com/supreme-court-gun-rights-cases-1cfd6fcf-1139-4cd2-bb52-295183a06085.html

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/supreme-court-qualified-immunity-police-officers-rejects-cases/

LGBT case: https://www.law.com/nationallawjournal/2020/06/15/gorsuch-alito-and-kavanaugh-tangle-over-textualism-in-major-win-for-lgbt-workers/

https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/17-1618_hfci.pdf

Trump’s reaction: https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/trump-reaction-supreme-court-lgbtq-ruling

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