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Bernie Sanders To Democrats: This Is What a Radical Foreign Policy Looks Like

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Bernie Sanders, now the most popular politician in the United States by a country mile, has long been obsessed with breaking up big banks and getting Medicare for all Americans. He can speak for hours about the evils of income inequality and the grotesquerie of the “billionaire class.”

On foreign policy? Not so much. 

Yet this week, the independent senator from Vermont finally delivered his major foreign affairs speech at Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri, part of the Green Foundation Lecture series. Winston Churchill gave his “Sinews of Peace” speech at Westminster College — in which he famously introduced the world to the concept of “The Iron Curtain” — as part of this lecture series in 1946. Mikhail Gorbachev’s memorable 1992 account of how the Cold War ended was also part of this series. Thus, on the basis of his appearance in Fulton, you might say that Sanders is now playing in the Foreign Policy Big Leagues. 

Beforehand, he sat down with me to talk through his thinking on global affairs. 

“I think what we have to do is take a hard look at where we are today in terms of foreign policy, and where we have been for many years,” Sanders tells me when I go to meet with him in his Senate office in Washington, D.C. the day before his big speech in Missouri. “And I think the main point to be made is that no country, not the United States or any other country, can do it alone.  That if we’re going to address the very deep and complicated international issues that exist, we need to do it in cooperation.”

The senator is tieless, in a crumpled navy suit and light blue shirt. His shock of white hair is, as usual, unruly. He looks distracted and exhausted, perhaps the result of having spent the previous week pitching his landmark Medicare for All single-payer bill to Congress and to the country. 

“Many of my colleagues, Republican colleagues, here in the Senate, for example, disparage the United Nations,” he says, sitting across the table from me, in front of a wall of Vermont tourism posters. “While clearly the United Nations could be more effective, it is imperative that we strengthen international institutions, because at the end of the day, while it may not be sexy, it may not be glamorous, it may not allow for great soundbites, simply the idea … of people coming together and talking and arguing is a lot better than countries going to war.”

I ask him how such rhetoric differs from past statements in defense of the U.N. and of international cooperation offered by leading Democrats, such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry.

“Excuse me.” Sanders doesn’t like to be interrupted. “Let me just talk a little bit about where I want to go.” 

The senator makes clear that “unilateralism, the belief that we can simply overthrow governments that we don’t want, that has got to be re-examined.” After referencing the Iraq War — “one of the great foreign policy blunders in the history of this country” — the senator touches on another historic blunder which, to his credit, few of his fellow senators would be willing to discuss, let alone critique. “In 1953, the United States, with the British, overthrew [Mohammed] Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran – and this was to benefit British oil interests,” he reminds me. “The result was the shah came into power, who was a very ruthless man, and the result of that was that we had the Iranian Revolution, which takes us to where we are right now.”

Does he regret not speaking with such passion, bluntness, and insight on international affairs during his failed primary campaign against Clinton? He shakes his head. “No, I think we ran the kind of campaign that we wanted to run.” There’s a pause. “But I think that foreign policy is clearly very, very important.”

During the Democratic presidential primaries, politicians and pundits alike agreed that Sanders had a foreign policy deficit. “Foreign policy,” wrote David Ignatius, the Washington Post’s foreign affairs doyen, “is the hole in Sanders’s political doughnut.” Patrick Leahy, Sanders’s fellow senator from Vermont, was only a tad more diplomatic in an interview with the New York Times. “It’s not the subject he gravitates to, that’s fair to say,” acknowledged Leahy.

A long-promised set piece speech on foreign policy during the campaign never came, and the Sanders campaign website lacked a foreign policy page for the first few months of his candidacy. Some of the figures identified by the senator as outside advisers on national security issues later claimed to hardly know him.

His discomfort with the topic is palpable, but the truth is that the 76-year-old Sanders is far from a foreign policy neophyte. In the 1980s, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he was an outspoken critic of U.S. interventions in Latin America, becoming the highest-ranking elected U.S. official to visit Nicaragua and meet with President Daniel Ortega (which earned him the soubriquet “Sandernista”). He even went on honeymoon to the Soviet Union in 1988, as part of his effort to establish a sister city program between Burlington and Yaroslavl.

Since 1991, Sanders has served in Congress, as a member of the House and then the Senate, debating and voting on military action, foreign treaties, trade deals, arms sales, international aid, and climate change agreements. Few critics have paused to consider the fact that a President Sanders would have arrived in the White House in January 2017 with far more foreign policy experience under his belt than Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. (Oh, and of course former reality TV star Donald J. Trump.) 

Nevertheless the impression persists that Sanders is out of his depth when it comes to the outside world. Perhaps in anticipation of another presidential bid in three years time, the Vermont senator has been taking steps to correct that impression. So far this year, Sanders has hired Matt Duss, a respected foreign affairs analyst and former president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), as his foreign policy adviser, and has given speeches at the liberal Jewish lobbying group, J Street, where he condemned “Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories” as being “contrary to fundamental American values,” and at the centrist Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, where he rebuked Russian President Vladimir Putin for “trying to weaken the transatlantic alliance.”

Last week, my colleague Glenn Greenwald penned a column in The Intercept headlined, “The Clinton Book Tour Is Largely Ignoring the Vital Role of Endless War in the 2016 Election Result.” Greenwald argued that Clinton’s “advocacy of multiple wars and other military actions” pushed some swing voters into the arms of both Donald Trump and third-party candidates, such as Jill Stein. I ask Sanders whether he agrees with this analysis.  
“I mean, that’s a whole other issue. And I don’t know the answer to that.”


I persist. Surely he’d concede that foreign policy was a factor in Clinton’s defeat?
He doesn’t budge. “I want to talk about my speech, not about Hillary Clinton.”

So foreign policy plays no role in elections?

“The answer is, I don’t know,” he responds wearily. “You can argue that somebody would say, ‘Well Bernie Sanders was too soft on defense, I’m not gonna vote for him because he’s not prepared to bomb every country in the world.’ Do you know how many voters I’ve lost because of that? We don’t know, that’s speculation.” (Not quite: Greenwald cited an academic study published earlier this year which argued “that had the U.S. fought fewer wars, or at least experienced fewer casualties, Clinton would have … won the election.”)

I ask him if there is a foreign policy equivalent to Medicare for All — that is, a radical progressive policy proposal that Sanders intends to campaign on and make mainstream.

“I wouldn’t look at it like that,” he tells me. “Anyone who thinks there is a simple solution in dealing with all of the horrific and longstanding conflicts in the world would be mistaken … Where we’ve got to be radical is to understand we cannot continue with simply using military as a means of addressing foreign policy issues.” 

Despite once having hung a picture of legendary antiwar activist Eugene Debs in his congressional office, Sanders is not a pacifist. He backed NATO’s air campaign in Kosovo in 1999 and the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001. Yet he opposed the Iraq War and voted against the arming and training of Syrian rebels. So, I wonder, does he have his own test that has to be met before the United States should use force? 

The senator makes it clear to me that, in his view, military action should be a last resort, except in cases of genocide. “I think there has to be a legitimate understanding that American interests are being threatened. Obviously if someone was going to wage war against the United States, attack the United States, there is very good reason to respond.” He continues: “When you’re looking at genocidal situations, where people are being slaughtered right and left … we need international peacekeeping force to address that.”

Earlier this week, the president of the United States made what some might call a genocidal threat at the U.N. in New York: “If [the U.S.] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

I remind the senator that both Obama and Trump came to office pledging to meet with their North Korean counterparts — yet Obama never did while Trump is now busy mocking Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man.” Does Sanders think a meeting between the two heads of state would be of value?

The senator says he would not object to “face-to-face meetings done in good faith” — rather than as cynical photo opportunities — and says that “in general, discussions and face-to-face meetings” are worthy of support. 

So, to be clear, would he support a U.S. president sitting down with the leader of North Korea to try and resolve the nuclear crisis? He shrugs. “Could I see that? Yeah, I could see that, yeah.”

One foreign policy issue, however, on which Sanders has attracted criticism from members of his own left-wing base is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Some pro-Palestinian progressives have accused him of giving Israel a pass. In an interview in April, for example, Sanders dismissed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; he also signed his name to a controversial letter attacking the U.N. for having an “anti-Israel agenda.”

Nonetheless, it is undeniable that in recent years the Vermont senator, who is Jewish and briefly lived on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s, has taken a more pro-Palestinian position on the conflict and, specifically, against the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu. “There comes a time when … we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” he told Clinton during a Democratic primary debate in April 2016.

These days, unlike other members of Congress, Sanders has no qualms about identifying, and decrying, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But does he accept that the United States is complicit in Israel’s occupation, through its military aid and arms sales? And does he also accept, therefore, that the occupation of the Palestinian territories will never end until the U.S. stops arming and funding the Jewish state?

“Certainly the United States is complicit, but it’s not to say … that Israel is the only party at fault,” he tells me. However, he adds, “in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations the United States has got to play a much more even-handed role. Clearly that is not the case right now.”

Would he, therefore, ever consider voting to reduce U.S. aid to Israel — worth at least $3bn per annum — or U.S. arms sales to the Israeli military?

“The U.S. funding plays a very important role, and I would love to see people in the Middle East sit down with the United States government and figure out how U.S. aid can bring people together, not just result in an arms war in that area. So I think there is extraordinary potential for the United States to help the Palestinian people rebuild Gaza and other areas. At the same time, demand that Israel, in their own interests in a way, work with other countries on environmental issues.” He then, finally, answers my question: “So the answer is yes.”

It is — by the depressingly low standard of modern U.S. politics — a remarkable and, dare I say it, radical response from Sanders. “Aid to Israel in Congress and the pro-Israel community has been sacrosanct,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency noted earlier this year, “and no president has seriously proposed cutting it since Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s.”


Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing Labour Party leader in the United Kingdom, who is constantly compared to Sanders, grabbed headlines in May after urging Britons in a speech, to “be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working” and to draw “connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home.” In the past, the Labour leader has labelled NATO a “danger to world peace” and called for engagement with groups, such as the Irish Republican Army, Hezbollah, and Hamas. 

You might say Corbyn is a genuine radical on foreign policy. Is the more cautious Sanders willing to match the Labour leader’s rhetoric on terrorism and the West’s response to terrorism? Does he, for example, think the United States has lost the so-called war on terror?

“Well, no, that’s too general of a question,” he replies dismissively. “I think you best deal with terrorism by trying to understand the root causes of those problems: the massive poverty that exists, the lack of education that exists, that when you drop a drone, for example, that kills innocent men, women, and child, that it only forms more antagonism toward the United States.”

I ask about the role of Saudi Arabia in allegedly supporting and funding terrorism. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers, lest we forget, were Saudi citizens. So is it an ally or enemy of the United States?

“It is not just that many of the 9/11 bombers came from Saudi Arabia,” he says, “what I think is more significant is their … continuing to fund madrasas and to spread an extremely radical Wahhabi doctrine in many countries around the world. And they are funding these mosques, they’re funding the madrasas, and they are fomenting a lot of hatred.”

Sanders wants the United States to pivot away from blind, uncritical support for the Gulf kingdom. He even seems to suggest that the United States should embrace the Saudis’ mortal enemy: the Iranians.

So could this be his foreign policy equivalent of Medicare for All? Trying to end almost four decades of hostility and mistrust between the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran? Without firing a shot? It would be a dramatic and historic shift in approach. During the presidential primaries, Sanders was attacked for suggesting that the U.S. should “move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.”

Yet, almost two years later, he isn’t afraid to make the case again. “I think that one of the areas that we have got to rethink, in terms of American foreign policy, is our position vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia,” he tells me, leaning forward in his chair. “For whatever reason — and I think we know some of the reasons having to do with a three-letter word called oil — the United States has kind of looked aside at the fact that Saudi Arabia is an incredibly anti-democratic country and has played a very bad role internationally, but we have sided with them time and time and time again, and yet Iran, which just held elections, Iran whose young people really want to reach out to the West, we are … continuing to put them down.”


While Sanders has “legitimate concerns … about Iran’s foreign policy” he wants a more “even-handed” approach from the United States to the “Iran and Saudi conflict.”

So I try to pin him down on the nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and ask again: Does he or does he not consider Saudi Arabia to be ally of the United States in the so-called war on terror?

He pauses. “Do I consider them an ally? I consider them to be an undemocratic country that has supported terrorism around the world, it has funded terrorism, so I can’t … No, they are not an ally of the United States.”

Wait, maybe this is the foreign policy Medicare For All — downgrading diplomatic ties with one of the world’s worst regimes. Distancing Washington from Riyadh. But could Sanders really pull it off? Help persuade his fellow senators, on both sides of the aisle to depart from the decades-long bipartisan consensus on Saudi Arabia as a key U.S. ally? In June, the senator joined four Republicans and 42 Democrats to try and block a $510 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. They were defeated — but by only six votes.

Greeted by a cheering crowd of students Thursday and awarded an honorary degree by the college in advance of his speech, a stern Sanders denounced the global war on terror as “a disaster for the American people” because it “responds to terrorists by giving them exactly what they want.”

He also offered a rousing defense of Obama’s key foreign affairs legacy: the Iran nuclear deal. “We must protect this deal,” Sanders told his audience, citing the nuclear agreement as an example of “real leadership” on the part of the United States.

Over the course of an hour on Thursday, the independent senator offered an unashamedly progressive, diplomacy-oriented, non-militarized vision of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century: “The goal is not for the United States to dominate the world. … Our goal should be global engagement based on partnership, rather than dominance.

At a time when the U.S. president is beating the drums of war, threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea and tear up the Iran nuclear deal, it is both refreshing and admirable to hear a leading U.S. politician speak in this direct way. Sanders tells me that he wants a “serious discussion about foreign policy” — which, shamefully, is something his Democratic colleagues in the Senate have yet to agree to. For example, he points to a vote in the Senate on Monday, which authorized a whopping $80 billion annual increase in Pentagon spending. “Is that really a wise investment?” he asks.


“I dare say,” he adds acidly, “that most of the people who voted for this huge increase in military spending really would not be able to tell you exactly why it is needed.” 

Only four Senate Democrats joined Sanders to vote against the bill. Why does he think the rest of them voted for it?

“You’ll have to ask them,” is the curt rejoinder. 

Some of his critics on the left, however, don’t think Sanders goes far enough. Writing in July, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic castigated Sanders over his “relative silence on Obama’s foreign policy” and his “fairly conventional foreign policy thinking throughout his Washington career.” Such critics tend to want to see a full-throated, Noam Chomsky-style denunciation of U.S. imperialism from Sanders — and they want to see it yesterday. 

Interestingly, in 1985, Sanders invited Chomsky to speak in Burlington City Hall, introducing him to the crowd as “a very vocal and important voice in the wilderness of intellectual life in America” and saying he was “delighted to welcome a person who I think we’re all very proud of.” In 2016, when I interviewed Chomsky for my Al Jazeera English show, UpFront, the veteran philosopher and foreign policy critic heaped praise on Sanders as a “decent, honest” politician with “the best policies.”

I ask Sanders if, three decades later, he still agrees with Chomsky’s blistering critique of U.S. foreign policy across the board, including his provocative description of the United States as a “rogue state.”


Sanders cuts me off before I can finish my question. “OK, I get it. Noam Chomsky has played an extraordinarily important role. I am a United States senator. We live in different worlds.” He quickly — and conveniently — changes the subject. “Bottom line is I think we need to rethink foreign policy … and that means dealing with issues like income and wealth inequality, which is not only an American issue, it is a horrific global issue.” 

Sanders is now in his element and on a roll. “We have six of the wealthiest people who have more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population. We need to deal with the issue of climate change, because if we don’t get our act together internationally on that, we may not have much of a planet left for our children and our grandchildren.” 

Let’s be clear: On foreign policy, Sanders does not go as far in a left-wing direction as his old friend Noam Chomsky or even his U.K. counterpart Jeremy Corbyn. But his renewed interest in foreign policy and his willingness to break with the established consensus could be among his most radical acts yet.

“Where we’ve got to be radical,” Sanders tells me, “is to understand that we cannot continue with simply using military as a means of addressing foreign policy issues. Where we have got to be radical and forceful, in an unprecedented way, is to force debate and discussion on the causes of international conflict – and certainly, we have not been doing that, and we need more American leadership to do that.”

Thursday

Rich People Just Care Less



Turning a blind eye. Giving someone the cold shoulder. Looking down on people. Seeing right through them.

These metaphors for condescending or dismissive behavior are more than just descriptive. They suggest, to a surprisingly accurate extent, the social distance between those with greater power and those with less — a distance that goes beyond the realm of interpersonal interactions and may exacerbate the soaring inequality in the United States.

A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.

Bringing the micropolitics of interpersonal attention to the understanding of social power, researchers are suggesting, has implications for public policy.

Of course, in any society, social power is relative; any of us may be higher or lower in a given interaction, and the research shows the effect still prevails. Though the more powerful pay less attention to us than we do to them, in other situations we are relatively higher on the totem pole of status — and we, too, tend to pay less attention to those a rung or two down.

A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain. In 2008, social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and the University of California, Berkeley, studied pairs of strangers telling one another about difficulties they had been through, like a divorce or death of a loved one. The researchers found that the differential expressed itself in the playing down of suffering. The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, and Michael W. Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have done much of the research on social power and the attention deficit.

Mr. Keltner suggests that, in general, we focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work. The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.

While Mr. Keltner’s research finds that the poor, compared with the wealthy, have keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions, in general, those with the most power in society seem to pay particularly little attention to those with the least power. To be sure, high-status people do attend to those of equal rank — but not as well as those low of status do.

This has profound implications for societal behavior and government policy. Tuning in to the needs and feelings of another person is a prerequisite to empathy, which in turn can lead to understanding, concern and, if the circumstances are right, compassionate action.

In politics, readily dismissing inconvenient people can easily extend to dismissing inconvenient truths about them. The insistence by some House Republicans in Congress on cutting financing for food stamps and impeding the implementation of Obamacare, which would allow patients, including those with pre-existing health conditions, to obtain and pay for insurance coverage, may stem in part from the empathy gap. As political scientists have noted, redistricting and gerrymandering have led to the creation of more and more safe districts, in which elected officials don’t even have to encounter many voters from the rival party, much less empathize with them.

Social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.

Freud called this “the narcissism of minor differences,” a theme repeated by Vamik D. Volkan, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, who was born in Cyprus to Turkish parents. Dr. Volkan remembers hearing as a small boy awful things about the hated Greek Cypriots — who, he points out, actually share many similarities with Turkish Cypriots. Yet for decades their modest-size island has been politically divided, which exacerbates the problem by letting prejudicial myths flourish.

In contrast, extensive interpersonal contact counteracts biases by letting people from hostile groups get to know one another as individuals and even friends. Thomas F. Pettigrew, a research professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, analyzed more than 500 studies on intergroup contact. Mr. Pettigrew, who was born in Virginia in 1931 and lived there until going to Harvard for graduate school, told me in an e-mail that it was the “the rampant racism in the Virginia of my childhood” that led him to study prejudice.

In his research, he found that even in areas where ethnic groups were in conflict and viewed one another through lenses of negative stereotypes, individuals who had close friends within the other group exhibited little or no such prejudice. They seemed to realize the many ways those demonized “others” were “just like me.” Whether such friendly social contact would overcome the divide between those with more and less social and economic power was not studied, but I suspect it would help.

Since the 1970s, the gap between the rich and everyone else has skyrocketed. Income inequality is at its highest level in a century. This widening gulf between the haves and have-less troubles me, but not for the obvious reasons. Apart from the financial inequities, I fear the expansion of an entirely different gap, caused by the inability to see oneself in a less advantaged person’s shoes. Reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.

Noam Chomsky: Who Owns the World?


Friday

Stop being afraid of more government. It’s exactly what we need.



Seeing the devastating effects of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and of wildfires out West, one cannot help but think about the crucial role that government plays in our lives. But while we accept, even celebrate, the role of government in the wake of such disasters, we are largely blind to the need for government to mitigate these kinds of crises in the first place.

Ever since President Ronald Reagan, much of the United States has embraced an ideological framework claiming that government is the source of our problems. Reagan famously quipped, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Reagan argued for a retreat from the vision of an activist state and advocated instead a strictly limited role for government, one dedicated to core functions such as national defense. Outside of these realms, he believed, government should simply encourage the private sector and market forces. 

Reagan’s worldview grew out of the 1970s — a period marked by fiscal mismanagement, government overreach and slowing growth. It might have been the right attitude for its time. 

But it has stayed in place for decades as a rigid ideology, even though we have entered a new age in which America has faced a very different set of challenges, often desperately requiring an activist government. This has been a bipartisan abdication of responsibility.

For decades now, we have watched as stagnant wage growth for 90 percent of Americans has been coupled with supercharged growth for the richest few, leading to widening inequality on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. It has been assumed that the federal government could do nothing about this expanding gap, despite much evidence to the contrary. 

We have watched China enter the global trade system and take advantage of its access to Western markets and capital, while still maintaining a massively controlled internal economy and pursuing predatory trade practices. And we have assumed that the U.S. government can’t do anything about it, because any action would be protectionist.

We watched as financial institutions took on more and more risk, with other people’s money, effectively gambling in a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose system. Any talk of regulation was seen as socialist. Even after the system blew up, causing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the calls soon came to deregulate the financial sector once again because, after all, government regulation is obviously bad.

In this same period, technology companies have grown in size and scale, often using first-mover advantage to establish quasi-monopolies and quash competition. The digital economy was supposed to empower the individual entrepreneur, but it has instead become one in which four or five companies utterly dominate the global landscape. A new technology company today aspires simply to be bought by Google or Facebook. And we assume that the federal government should have had no role in shaping this vast new economy. That would be activist and bad. Better for government to simply observe the process, like a passive spectator watching a new Netflix drama.

And then there is climate. These hurricanes have not been caused by global warming, but their frequency and intensity have likely been magnified by climate change. Particularly calamitous hurricanes have their names retired, and in the last 20 years there have been about as many names retired as in the preceding 40 years. California has had more than 6,400 wildfires this year. The 17 hottest years on record have all taken place in the past two decades. 

And yet, we have been wary of too much government activism. This is true not just in tackling climate change but in other areas that have contributed to the storms’ destructive power. 

Houston chose not to have any kind of zoning that limited development, even in flood-prone areas, paving over thousands of acres of wetlands that used to absorb rainwater and curb flooding. The chemical industry has been able to persuade Washington to exercise a light regulatory touch, so there is limited protection against fires and contamination, something that was made abundantly clear in the past couple of weeks. And now, of course, low-tax and low-regulation Texas has come to the federal government, hat in hand, asking for more than $150 billion to rebuild its devastated state. 

We are living in an age of revolutions, natural and human, that are buffeting individuals and communities. We need government to be more than a passive observer of these trends and forces. It needs to actively shape and manage them. Otherwise, the ordinary individual will be powerless. I imagine that this week, most people in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico would be delighted to hear the words “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Saturday

The deal Trump wanted with Russia



There comes a point in the unspooling of every complex political-financial-legal scandal when the story becomes so complicated that it’s easy to lose the thread of what matters. The facts dribble out, in ever more confusing increments. The lengthy cast of characters resembles a Russian novel. Competing news demands our attention. 

That is where we are now when it comes to the investigation of President Trump and Russia. Harvey deluged the Texas Coast, drowning out the news about Trump’s involvement with Russia. Still, that news is, or should be, huge. The latest revelations feel, at least for now, like more of a political bombshell than a legal problem, but the two are closely related; consider how many public officials have landed themselves in legal jeopardy trying to save their political hides.
To recap, what we know now that we did not know a week ago:

While he ran for president, Trump was simultaneously — and secretly — pursuing financial opportunities with a foreign adversary. Not just any adversary, but Russia, a country described by his party’s previous presidential nominee as the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” And not just pursuing financial opportunities in Russia, but actively seeking the help of at least one senior Russian official to gain government approval for the project.

Once again: This is not okay. When you run for president, you cannot — you should not — put yourself in the position of using that candidacy as a door-opening business opportunity. You cannot — even if the prospect of winning seems remote — put yourself in a position of being financially beholden to a hostile foreign power.

Trump Tower Moscow was not another instance of Trump as unabashed cross-promoter-in-chief, like using the campaign press corps to help tout the reopening of his Scottish golf course. It represented something much more disturbing, even unpatriotic.

It was possible, when The Post first broke the news of the failed deal, to discount the proposal as braggadocio from Felix Sater, the Russian-born real estate developer pushing the deal. “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater emailed Trump Organization executive vice president Michael Cohen, detailed by the New York Times.

But as it turned out, this was more than Sater freelancing in Trump’s name. The Post next reported that Cohen emailed Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in January 2016 in a bid to save the languishing deal; that Cohen discussed the project with Trump on three occasions; and that the effort was dropped when Russian government permission was unforthcoming.

The Trump Organization not only pursued this opportunity in secret, it — indeed, Trump himself — actively misled the public. Imagine how much more sharply people would have responded to Trump’s already repulsive praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin during that time — “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country” — if they knew that Trump had just signed a letter of intent with a Russian firm to develop a Trump-branded tower in Moscow.

And as the question of Trump’s Russian connections became increasingly controversial, he somehow omitted the just-abandoned deal. “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia,” he tweeted in July 2016. This past January, as Trump prepared to take office, he reiterated, “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” Shades of Bill Clinton — it depends on what the meaning of “have” is.
As recently as his interview this summer with the New York Times, Trump disingenuously played down his financial interests in Russia. “I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? . . . They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that. Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one.” Including the one he was pursuing while running for president, but failed to mention.

We have become inured to Trumpian self-dealing, from doubling membership fees at Mar-a-Lago to profiting off his government-owned D.C. hotel. This one goes beyond pure greed. It edges into serious questions about whether Trump’s positions on Putin and Russia have been and remain tainted by considerations not of what is best for the nation but what benefits Trump’s bottom line.


Friday

On Voting Reforms, Follow Illinois, Not Texas

Editorial of the New York Times


In the face of America’s abysmal voter participation rates, lawmakers have two choices: They can make voting easier, or they can make it harder. 

Illinois made the right choice this week, becoming the 10th state, along with the District of Columbia, to enact automatic voter registration. The bill, which could add as many as one million voters to the state’s rolls, was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican who had vetoed similar legislation last year.

Under the new law, all eligible voters will be registered to vote when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles or other state agencies. If they do not want to be registered, they may opt out.
“The right to vote is foundational for the rights of Americans in our democracy,” Mr. Rauner said at a bill-signing ceremony on Monday. “We as a people need to do everything we can to knock down barriers, remove hurdles for all those who are eligible to vote, to be able to vote.”


Consider Texas, which is pushing relentlessly in the opposite direction of Illinois. Republican lawmakers there passed in 2011, and continue to defend today, one of the nation’s most restrictive voter-ID laws, which has been tied up in court challenges from the start. Last week a federal judge in Corpus Christi struck down the law on the grounds that it intentionally discriminated against black and Latino voters, who tend to vote Democratic, in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. The acceptable forms of identification — a gun permit, for example, but not a student ID card — were more likely to be held by white voters, the judge found.

The judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos, had invalidated portions of the law in 2014, but gave the state a chance for a do-over. In her latest ruling, Judge Ramos found that Texas’ fixes offered no improvement. For instance, a new provision requires prospective voters without a photo ID to sign an affidavit that threatens severe penalties for perjury — but that only “trades one obstacle to voting with another,” the judge wrote. (President Trump’s Justice Department disagreed. The department under President Barack Obama had sued to block the original law, but now it has switched sides, arguing that the revised law is not discriminatory.)

The voter-ID law is one of several recent cases in which federal courts have found that Texas is discriminating against minorities in voting. You’d think state officials would get the message, but they’re as defiant as ever. Ken Paxton, Texas’ attorney general, has appealed the rulings, calling them “outrageous.”

What’s really outrageous is the brazenness with which Republican lawmakers continue to hawk their antivoter laws, and their bogus claims of widespread fraud, pretending to care about electoral integrity when what they’re really after is a smaller, whiter electorate that they believe is their ticket to eternal victory. If Texas really cared about integrity, it would invest in educating the public about how to get the free identification that it now offers as one option. 
But even though an estimated 600,000 registered Texas voters lack that ID, the state issued only 869 free IDs between 2013 and 2017, according to a report by ProPublica.

Meanwhile in Oregon, which in 2015 became the first state to pass automatic voter registration, more than 272,000 people were registered in the law’s first year, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. Of these, 116,000 were found to be unlikely to have registered otherwise, and 40,000 of that group voted in 2016, helping Oregon achieve the nation’s largest turnout increase from 2012 — 4.1 points, to 68.3 percent. Contrary to Republican fears, that increase did not equal Democratic gains. Democrats lost seats in the State Legislature, even though the new voters were more racially diverse than previously registered voters.

In other words, increasing voter participation should be a bipartisan project. That hasn’t been the case for years, and it won’t be as long as President Trump is in the White House, deputizing his merry band of vote suppressors to justify his myth of illegal voters.

Thursday

Trump Associate Boasted That Moscow Business Deal ‘Will Get Donald Elected’





The associate, Felix Sater, wrote a series of emails to Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, in which he boasted about his ties to Mr. Putin. He predicted that building a Trump Tower in Moscow would highlight Mr. Trump’s savvy negotiating skills and be a political boon to his candidacy.

“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Mr. Sater wrote in an email. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

The emails show that, from the earliest months of Mr. Trump’s campaign, some of his associates viewed close ties with Moscow as a political advantage. Those ties are now under investigation by the Justice Department and multiple congressional committees.

American intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 presidential election to try to help Mr. Trump. Investigators want to know whether anyone on Mr. Trump’s team was part of that process.

Mr. Sater, a Russian immigrant, said he had lined up financing for the Trump Tower deal with VTB Bank, a Russian bank that was under American sanctions for involvement in Moscow’s efforts to undermine democracy in Ukraine. In another email, Mr. Sater envisioned a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Moscow.

“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Mr. Sater wrote.

Mr. Sater said he was eager to show video clips to his Russian contacts of instances of Mr. Trump speaking glowingly about Russia, and said he would arrange for Mr. Putin to praise Mr. Trump’s business acumen.

“If he says it we own this election,” Mr. Sater wrote. “Americas most difficult adversary agreeing that Donald is a good guy to negotiate.”

There is no evidence in the emails that Mr. Sater delivered on his promises, and one email suggests that Mr. Sater overstated his Russian ties. In January 2016, Mr. Cohen wrote to Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, asking for help restarting the Trump Tower project, which had stalled. But Mr. Cohen did not appear to have Mr. Peskov’s direct email, and instead wrote to a general inbox for press inquiries.

The project never got government permits or financing, and died weeks later.

“To be clear, the Trump Organization has never had any real estate holdings or interests in Russia,” the Trump Organization said Monday in a statement. Mr. Trump, however signed a nonbinding “letter of intent” for the project in 2015. Mr. Cohen said he discussed the project with Mr. Trump three times.

The Trump Organization on Monday turned over emails to the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian meddling in the presidential election and whether anyone in Mr. Trump’s campaign was involved. Some of the emails were obtained by The Times.

Photo
A portion of an email Mr. Sater sent to Mr. Cohen on Nov. 3, 2015.
The emails obtained by The Times do not include any responses from Mr. Cohen to Mr. Sater’s messages.

In a statement on Monday that was also provided to Congress, Mr. Cohen suggested that he viewed Mr. Sater’s comments as puffery. “He has sometimes used colorful language and has been prone to ‘salesmanship,’” the statement said. “I ultimately determined that the proposal was not feasible and never agreed to make a trip to Russia.”

The emails obtained by The Times make no mention of Russian efforts to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign or the hacking of Democrats’ emails. Mr. Trump, who began praising Mr. Putin years before the presidential campaign, has said there was no collusion with Russian officials. Previously released emails, however, revealed that his campaign was willing to receive damaging information about Mrs. Clinton from Russian sources.

Mr. Sater said it would be “pretty cool to get a USA President elected” and said he desired to be the ambassador to the Bahamas. “That my friend is the home run I want out of this,” he wrote.
Mr. Sater — a former F.B.I. informant who is famous for having once smashed a martini glass stem into another man’s face — has maintained a relationship with Mr. Cohen over the years. The two men have spent decades operating in the world of New York commercial real estate, where the sources of funding can be murky.

Through his lawyer, Mr. Sater declined on Monday to address why he thought the deal would be a political win for Mr. Trump. He said he brought the project to Mr. Cohen in late 2015, but that he was not working for the Trump Organization and “would not have been compensated” by them.

“During the course of our communications over several months, I routinely expressed my enthusiasm regarding what a tremendous opportunity this was for the Trump Organization,” Mr. Sater said.

Mr. Sater was a broker for the Trump Organization for several years, typically paid to deliver real estate deals. A company he worked for, Bayrock, played a role in financing the Trump SoHo Hotel in New York. Mr. Sater and Mr. Cohen even worked together on a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia that they sought to get in front of Mr. Trump’s national security adviser earlier this year.

As a broker for the Trump Organization, Mr. Sater had an incentive to overstate his business-making acumen. He presents himself in his emails as so influential in Russia that he helped arrange a 2006 trip that Mr. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, took to Moscow.

“I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin,” he said.

Ms. Trump said she had no involvement in the discussions about the Moscow deal other than to recommend possible architects. In a statement, she said that during the 2006 trip she took “a brief tour of Red Square and the Kremlin” as a tourist. She said it is possible she sat in Mr. Putin’s chair during that tour but she did not recall it. She said she has not seen or spoken to Mr. Sater since 2010. “I have never met President Vladimir Putin,” she said.

The Times reported earlier this year on the plan for a Trump Tower in Moscow, which never materialized. On Sunday, The Washington Post reported the existence of the correspondence between Mr. Sater and Mr. Cohen, but not its content.

Spokespeople for the House Intelligence Committee had no comment on the documents.
Mr. Cohen has denied any wrongdoing, and the Trump Organization turned over the emails to the House as part of his ongoing cooperation with the investigation.

Earlier this month, Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen M. Ryan, wrote a letter to congressional investigators that contained what he said was a point-by-point refutation of a dossier suggesting that Mr. Cohen colluded with Russian operatives. That dossier, compiled by a retired British spy and briefed to Mr. Trump during the transition, was published online early this year.

“We do not believe that the committee should give credence to or perpetuate any of the allegations relating to Mr. Cohen unless the committee can obtain independent and reliable corroboration,” Mr. Ryan wrote.


Wednesday

Trump would slash disaster funding to the very agencies he’s praising for Harvey response



As he toured rising floodwater in Texas on Tuesday, President Trump effusively praised his administration’s Hurricane Harvey response, an effort he began touting on Twitter last weekend even before the storm made landfall.

But not too long ago, the president proposed a budget calling for cuts to some of the federal government’s most consequential efforts to prepare states and local communities and help them recover from catastrophic events such as Harvey.

Congress is likely to approve a Harvey recovery bill, as it has after past disasters, to cover the huge cost of storm damages. The cuts proposed by the Trump administration would slice away funding for long-term preparedness efforts, many of them put in place to address the sluggish federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The proposed cuts would include programs run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose new administrator was praised by Trump in a tweet last weekend for “doing a great job”; the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which helps rebuild homes, parks, hospitals and community centers; the National Weather Service, which forecasts extreme storms; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose research and community engagement help coastal residents prepare for disaster.

“The president has definitely sent a signal with his budget that emergency management is not of interest,” said Scott Knowles, a historian at Drexel University who studies risk and disaster.

Some threatened programs, Knowles said, are “small-budget efforts with big national impact” — training programs that coach local officials on natural disaster response and mapping efforts that show ever-changing flood plains created by new development.

Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,800 people, most of them in Louisiana, led to the creation of federal programs to help governments better predict disasters and deal with their effects. Some were put in place during the Obama administration in response to rising concerns about climate change and its future impact on sea levels.

The budget released by the Trump White House in March cuts roughly 9 percent for disaster-relief programs across the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. The cuts are in keeping with the president’s goal of creating a leaner, more efficient government that asks more of the private sector and the states, a goal FEMA Administrator William B. “Brock” Long has reiterated in recent days.

The cuts also shift away from Obama-era “resilience” efforts to prepare for climate change.
Trump officials recently struck down an Obama administration rule requiring building projects in line for federal funding to strongly consider climate change risks — for example, by elevating structures in flood zones away from the reach of rising water.

The goal of the Obama rule was to mitigate the costs to taxpayers of damage claims under the federal flood insurance program.

Climate scientists have warned that coming decades will bring rising sea levels, along with more frequent and serious flood risks to housing, offices and infrastructure. But Trump officials say that removing the rule streamlines the approval process.

NOAA would lose about $200 million in a handful of programs that help coastal states brace for future climate change and adverse climate and weather events.

The proposed cuts would withdraw support for research and engagement in coastal communities. The $73 million Sea Grant program, for example, gathers information on areas including fisheries management and storm preparation.

The budget would also eliminate $667 million from FEMA for state and local grant funding. It also would require local and state governments to match 25 percent of the federal dollars they receive.

Money to help homeowners and businesses rebuild after a disaster and cover other needs goes through HUD’s $3 billion Community Development Block Grant Program. Trump is proposing to zero it out, and it is unclear how disaster recovery money would be affected or delivered without the program.

The Weather Service would lose $62 million now used to update its weather models and allow it to predict changing weather further out. The National Flood Insurance Program would lose $190 million for mapping flood-prone areas, information that can affect flood insurance premiums.

And the Agriculture Department would lose $114 million in disaster assistance to help farmers recover livestock, crops and equipment, an impact that would be particularly felt in Texas, where farm areas are flooded.

“The USDA offices serve as primary sources of contact for rural counties,” said Derek Hyra, director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University. After a disaster, “they’ll go to the feds and say: ‘Here’s what happened to my farm. How do I get operating again?’ ”

The Department of Health and Human Services preserves spending levels for most preparedness and response programs, including its hundreds of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other medical professionals who are now deployed to Texas. But a national hospital preparedness fund would be cut by $27 million to $227 million. The program is being redesigned to steer money to parts of the country with the greatest need and withhold dollars from areas that “fail to deliver results.”

Wendy Smith-Reeve, Arizona’s emergency management director and president of the National Emergency Management Association, called the proposed cuts “incredibly impactful.” To push back, she said, states need to do a better job showing the Trump administration “what our investment is” in preparing for disasters.

It is unclear whether the cuts will survive in Congress, which has made little progress toward approving a budget for the next fiscal year. Lawmakers are scheduled to resume negotiations when they return to Capitol Hill next week.

Experts say that an emergency relief measure would not cover the longer-term losses to many disaster programs.

“The consensus is that politicians get rewarded for coming to the aid of disaster victims,” said Patrick Roberts, a public policy professor at Virginia Tech who specializes in emergency management, “but with mitigation, the benefits are harder to see.”

He said that every dollar spent on mitigation projects before a disaster saves four dollars in recovery expenditures.