Thursday, September 19, 2019

House Democrats shift focus to Trump corruption -- Sept. 19, 2019 column


The drive to impeach President Donald Trump is taking a turn. It’s emoluments time.

The House Judiciary Committee plans to meet Monday to investigate “Presidential Corruption: Emoluments and Profiting off the Presidency.”

This new tack comes with risk. Despite spending five months parsing special counsel Robert Mueller’s report about Russian influence in the 2016 campaign, House Democrats have not made their case for Trump’s impeachment to the public.

Only 37 percent of voters want Congress to begin impeachment proceedings, a Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found. Half of voters were opposed and 12 percent undecided.

Support is highest among the Democratic base but weak among independent voters, who the Democratic presidential nominee will need in 2020.   

House Democrats who back impeachment believe exposing Trump’s self-dealing – using his office for personal gain -- will gin up enough public support so lawmakers in districts Trump won will vote for impeachment.

Air Force flight crews have stayed at Turnberry, Trump’s resort in Scotland, on stopovers from the United States to the Middle East. Vice President Mike Pence stayed at Doonbeg, Trump’s resort in Ireland, even though it was across the country from his meetings in Dublin.

Trump touted his Doral golf resort in Miami for next year’s meeting of the Group of Seven world leaders.

“The public is starting to get the point that he’s been running the White House as a money-making operation for himself and his family,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the Judiciary Committee, told NBC’s Chuck Todd.

Trump’s presidency has introduced Americans to the Constitution’s three anti-corruption measures, the Emoluments Clauses.

The Framers used emolument to mean a benefit, gain, profit or advantage. At that time, foreign governments often gave lavish tokens of appreciation and friendship to diplomats, and the Framers wanted to limit foreign influence.

The Foreign Emoluments Clause in Article 1, Section 9 prohibits any person holding an “Office of Profit or Trust” from accepting “without the Consent of the Congress. . . any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind, whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

The two other Emolument Clauses concern domestic issues.    

There’s significant debate among legal scholars about what constitutes an emolument and whether elected officials, including the president, are covered by the clause, the Congressional Research Service said in a report last month.

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has presumed the president is covered, and courts have come to the same conclusion, the report said. But there have been no definitive court decisions.

When President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, he donated the $1.4 million prize money to charity.

Trump refused to put his business holdings in a blind trust, as presidents for the last 40 years have done. He set up a trust run by his sons and a Trump organization executive and said he wouldn’t talk business with his family.

Trump also said he would not profit from foreign governments that use his hotels. He has donated about $351,000 to the U.S. Treasury to cover the profits, but as he has neither disclosed his record-keeping nor how he calculated the amount, Democrats say the figure is much too low.

Three major lawsuits claiming Trump violated the Emoluments Clauses are bouncing around federal courts, but the pace of justice is slow. Trump claims he is losing money as president, largely because of his legal bills to defend himself in the lawsuits.

“It’s probably costing me from $3 to $5 billion for the privilege of being – and I couldn’t care less – I don’t care. You know if you’re wealthy, it doesn’t matter,” he said last month.  

Again, Trump refuses to provide any documentation to back up his claims.
He also complained nobody investigated Obama’s lucrative book deal.  The former president and first lady Michelle Obama signed a joint book deal for $65 million in 2017 – after he left office.

“I got sued on a thing called ‘emoluments,’” Trump said.

Trump created his problems for himself by refusing to follow established presidential norms like blind trusts and disclosure of tax returns. Democrats smell smoke, but they must find the fire to make the case.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

As D.C. dithers, students prepare for unthinkable -- Sept. 12, 2019 column


Fresh from their summer break, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday sent to the House floor three gun control bills.

The Democratic-controlled House likely will pass the bills within weeks -- but they’re probably dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate. Republicans, as usual, say the bills are flawed and violate 2nd Amendment rights.

Meanwhile, fresh from their summer break, 56.6 million American students in grades K-12 have gone back to active shooter drills.

One of the first lessons for many students this school year wasn’t about reading or writing, study habits or sportsmanship. It was about survival.

In Virginia and across the country, lockdown drills are now an essential part of the student experience.

The Virginia Code requires every public school to hold a lockdown drill at least twice during the first 20 days of each school session and two other lockdown drills during the remainder of the session.

“Unannounced drills may be more effective than announced drills since they add a component of realism,” according to state guidelines.

Drills can feel frighteningly real, as students and teachers at Short Pump Middle School in Glen Allen, Va., learned last year.

An unannounced active shooter drill -- with multiple fire alarms, loud noises and people jiggling classroom door handles from the outside – left students crying and texting farewells to parents and family. Some teachers also broke down, according to news reports.

Outraged parents complained, and Henrico County schools decided to announce all drills going forward.

Schools are in a no-win situation. Active shooter incidents in schools are extremely rare – but deadly.

Mass shootings are less than 1% of school gun violence incidents in the United States, but they account for 28% of overall deaths in schools and 14% of injuries, according to an analysis by the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, research arm of the gun control group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

So schools must prepare students and teachers for the unthinkable -- while trying not to traumatize students.

The standard response to a school emergency is: “Lock Down. Evacuate. Shelter in Place” – and wait for law enforcement.

After the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012, the U.S. Education Department said school training also may include “Run. Hide. Fight,” the response often taught in workplaces.

In the extreme case of a nearby active shooter, younger students may try to distract the shooter by throwing books and scissors. As a last resort, older students may try physical intervention.

Two students died as heroes last spring, fighting a shooter in their classrooms.

In April, Riley Howell, 21, tackled a gunman at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and refused to let go, despite being shot repeatedly. Another student was killed, and four were injured. Authorities credited Howell with saving many lives.

In May, Kendrick Castillo, 18, was only a few days short of high school graduation in a suburb of Denver when a classmate pulled a gun. Castillo charged the shooter and three other students joined him, giving classmates time to escape. Eight students were wounded.

His grieving father, John Castillo, said of his only child: “I wish he’d gone and hid, but that’s not his character.”

It’s a sad commentary on American life that we rely on courageous young people to sacrifice their lives for others when our elected officials lack the backbone to tighten gun laws.

But pressure on Congress is mounting. On Thursday, 145 CEOs urged the Senate to expand background checks to all firearm sales and pass a strong “red flag” law – also called extreme risk protection orders – allowing judges to remove guns temporarily from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

It’s time for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans to stop playing “Mother, May I” with President Donald Trump. McConnell refuses to bring a bill to a vote unless Trump agrees to sign it into law so as to protect Republicans running for re-election from a tough vote.

“Doing nothing about America’s gun violence crisis is simply unacceptable,” said the letter signed by CEOs of Twitter, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Uber, Lyft and others.

The CEOs are right, and they join a growing chorus calling on Congress to act. Congress and Trump must act before more children face the unthinkable.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Writing the next chapter with books -- Sept. 5, 2019 column


As summer unofficially wound to a close, more than 200,000 people thronged the National Book Festival Saturday, with a dozen or so hardy souls camping on the sidewalk more than five hours before the doors opened.

The reason for 3 a.m. arrivals was a cultural hero known for her day job. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew a capacity crowd of more than 5,000 to the Main Stage area, which had been doubled in size since last year’s festival.

Thousands more watched her on screens outside the Main Stage and through the website of the Library of Congress, which sponsors the annual book fest. She talked about her 2016 book, “My Own Words,” a collection of her writings, and gave encouraging words to fans everywhere.

“I’m still alive,” the indomitable Ginsburg, 86, said. Recovering from her latest cancer treatment, she said she’ll be ready to work when the court’s term begins the first Monday in October.

Other big names included chef Jose Andres, historian David McCullough and novelist Barbara Kingsolver as well as many children’s authors and activities.

The mood at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was celebratory, as people good-naturedly waited in lines -- to enter and pass through security, to hear authors speak, to purchase books at full price, and to have a quick meet-and-sign with authors.

Several people I met in lines told me seeing so many people happily loaded down with books, mostly hardbacks, cheered them. It was also reassuring to see people were polite and their questions respectful.  

For those who spend all day there, which is easy to do, the festival’s free admission eases, somewhat, the pinch of convention center prices for snacks – a bottle of water for $4.50, for example.   

Still, not bad for day that affirms ideas and reading at a time when both seem threatened.   

Book festivals have proliferated since then-First Lady Laura Bush founded the National Book Festival 19 years ago. Almost any weekend this fall, you can find a book festival somewhere in the United States. Check out the festivals list at

All this is excellent news for book lovers, but, sadly, it’s not the whole story.

The world’s wealthiest country ranks just 16th in the world in literacy. Roughly 32 million or 33 million adults – about 13% of the population -- cannot read past the third-grade level, philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, a major supporter of the National Book Festival, said at its opening gala.

These non-readers are not foreigners who are literate in another language but people who are functionally illiterate in any language, he said.

They can’t get good jobs, and thus earn much less, are more likely to get in trouble with the law, and, as Rubenstein diplomatically put it, have “not as pleasant a life” as people who can read.    

Rubenstein runs The Carlyle Group, a private investment firm, and has given millions of dollars to patriotic projects, such as restoring or repairing the Washington monument, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier and many other historic sites and museums.

He also bankrolls the Library of Congress’ Literacy Awards, which since 2013 have given $1.9 million in prizes to 120 organizations that promote literacy in 35 countries.

Yet he had more sobering news about those who are literate. “The average person in this country reads for pleasure 16 minutes a day,” he said.

I was shocked and skeptical pleasure reading was that small, so I checked the American Time Use Survey. The Bureau of Labor Statistics asks people to record how much time they spend on various activities, such as work, housework and leisure activities.

Time spent reading varies by age. People 15 to 54 read for personal interest – not for school or work – an average of just 10 minutes or less a day last year. Those 75 and older read the most -- an average of 48 minutes a day.

Rubenstein also said 25% of Americans did not read a single book last year and 30% of college graduates never read another book after finishing school.

September always feels like the start of a new year, so let’s resolve not to be average.

Let’s make sure work and our other duties don’t keep us from the joy of reading. We can put books in our next chapter, enrich our own lives and perhaps lead by example for others.  

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Swift kicks Senate, White House on equality -- Aug. 29, 2019 column


In most states, a boss who disapproves of gay or transgender people can fire or refuse to hire them.

A landlord can evict and a store owner can deny service to a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.  

No federal law prohibits LGBT discrimination, and fewer than half the states have LGBT anti-discrimination laws. Congress has failed repeatedly since the 1970s to pass bills.

The most highly paid celebrity in the world is working to change that.

Pop superstar Taylor Swift, 29, who earned $185 million pretax last year and whose net worth is estimated at $360 million, according to Forbes magazine, used her appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards Monday to try to jump start the dead battery that is the Senate.

She wants the Senate to vote on the House-passed Equality Act, a sweeping measure that would prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has no intention of allowing a vote. He and other Republicans say the bill threatens religious freedom and is an example of government overreach.  

But when Swift accepted the fan-voted prize for Video of the Year for “You Need to Calm Down,” her music video that features LGBT stars and has a strong message against homophobia, she said:

“Your voting for this video means that you want a world where we’re all treated equally under God, regardless of who you love, regardless of how we identify.”

The video invites viewers to sign her petition at, urging the Senate to vote on the Equality Act. Since June, more than half a million people have signed – “five times the amount that it would need to warrant a response from the White House,” she said.

Even Swift may not be able to move Mount Mitch, but she could influence young voters.  

After years of avoiding politics, Swift jumped into last fall’s midterm campaigns. She wrote on Instagram she was voting Democratic in Tennessee and urged her 112 million Instagram followers to register and vote.  

Within 48 hours, more than 169,000 new people had registered on, a non-partisan website, a spokeswoman told The Washington Post. While we don't know how many people swift motivated, more than half the new registrants were 18 to 29. 

A survey last year by PRRI, a nonpartisan research group, found 69% of Americans, including a majority in every state, support protecting LGBT people from discrimination. Three-fourths of those 18 to 29 back anti-discrimination laws.

The Equality Act would extend civil rights protections to include LGBT people in employment, housing, credit applications, public accommodations, jury service and other areas.

The House May 17 passed the bill 236 to 173, with all Democrats and eight Republicans voting yes and all other Republicans voting no.

In the Senate, all Democrats are co-sponsors except Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Susan Collins of Maine is the only Republican who supports the bill.

More than 200 major corporations have joined a business coalition supporting the bill, including Apple, Altria Group, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Nasdaq and Verizon.

But even if the Senate approves, President Donald Trump likely would veto. The administration opposes all discrimination, the White House said in a statement, but the bill is “full of poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights.”

It didn’t specify the poison pills, but the bill prohibits people from using religion as a defense or basis for challenging the protections. It also stops an individual from being denied access to restrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms based on gender identity.

If Congress doesn’t act, the Supreme Court may. The court in October will hear oral arguments in a consolidated case involving LGBT discrimination. The Trump administration has asked the court to rule that existing sex discrimination laws do not cover sexual orientation because Congress did not specifically mention it.

At the awards ceremony, Swift said her petition is still active and more signatures will add pressure on the Senate and White House to pass the bill “which basically just says we all deserve equal rights under the law.”

Then she tapped her wrist impatiently as if checking her watch. She’s right. It’s time to act.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

What if? Presidential hopefuls unveil plans -- Aug. 22, 2019 column


Score one for the animals.

If he’s elected president, Democratic hopeful Juli├ín Castro will end the horrible practice of euthanizing domestic cats and dogs in shelters.

Castro, former Housing and Urban Development secretary and mayor of San Antonio, released his Protecting Animals and Wildlife – or PAW -- Plan Monday.

He also would make animal abuse a federal crime, prohibit bringing big game trophies into the country and reverse President Donald Trump’s actions to weaken the Endangered Species Act that protects plants and animals from extinction.

Democrats’ No. 1 job for 2020 is sending Trump back up the escalator at Trump Tower, and Labor Day signals a new campaign phase.

Voting will begin in five months – with the Iowa caucuses Feb. 3 and New Hampshire primary Feb. 11. 

So candidates are switching from “Hello” and “No!” – that is, introducing themselves and reacting to Trump’s continual tweet machine – to “I will” -- presenting their own plans.

Just as Trump has tried to obliterate through executive actions much of what President Barack Obama accomplished, the next president could roll back much of Trump’s executive actions.

Several Democratic candidates pledge to revoke the Trump-approved permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, for example.

Castro, who also has plans for education, immigration, homeland security and housing, may be a long shot for the White House, but he’s among at least 10 contenders who will appear onstage in the next round of Democratic debates Sept. 12 and 13. The deadline for making the cut is Aug. 28.

Saving pets’ lives isn’t as high profile a campaign issue as gun control or Medicare for All, but it’s smart in Democratic primaries to stand up for animals and the planet.

About one in three Americans believe animals should have the same rights as humans, a 2015 Gallup poll found. About four in five Americans support the Endangered Species Act, an Ohio State University study reported last year.

Other candidates are also staking out high ground. Beto O’Rourke, who represented El Paso in Congress, hopes to restart his campaign in the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, by going big on gun control.

O’Rourke released his plan Aug. 16 to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. He also would force owners to sell some weapons back to the government or pay a fine, create a new gun licensing and registration system and expand background checks.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is pushing for “baby bonds,” federally funded savings accounts for each newborn that would be structured to close the wealth gap.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has offered a slew of proposals, released two new ones this week. Her plan to help native Americans has drawn praise from Indian Country.

She and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont each offered proposals to reform the criminal justice system – as have several others, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend.

The time for straight talk also apparently has arrived. When Sanders announced his plan in South Carolina, he said, “This state is a state which has an even more broken criminal justice system than the country, and the country is pretty bad.”

As some Democrats reassess Biden because of his recent gaffes, his wife stressed her husband’s top selling point.

“You may like another candidate better, but you have to look at who is going to win,” Jill Biden said this week in New Hampshire. “Your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”

Jill Biden, who teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College, also added: “And if education is your main issue, Joe is that person.”

As we approach the end of the beginning of the 2020 campaign, time may be running out for candidates still struggling to connect.

Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who has not yet qualified for the next debate, promotes yoga, mindfulness and wellness practices to help war veterans heal and to bring down prescription use and health care costs generally.

Promising to be the “Zen president,” Ryan told CNN Aug. 14 that after Trump, Americans will want a president with the “quality of equanimity in rocky times.”  

He very well could be right.

But it’s through their plans and straight talk that Democrats hope to break away from the pack.   

© Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Americana -- How we won the right we take for granted -- Aug. 15, 2019 column

"Shall Not Be Denied" exhibit at Library of Congress


Old photos show suffragists in prim white dresses and hats, but they were taunted as unladylike, unpatriotic and worse.

Men spat on them, tore at their clothes and threw lighted cigarettes their way when women marched on Washington in 1913.

In 1917, suffragists picketed the White House – the first group to do so – and, for months, in good weather and bad, silently held banners.

“FAILURE IS IMPOSSIBLE,” one banner read – but the picketers were fined for “obstructing traffic” and, when they refused to pay, incarcerated.

The women protested prison conditions with hunger strikes, and authorities forcibly fed them a mixture of eggs and milk by tube through a nostril or down the throat -- three times a day.

These courageous and inspiring women kept fighting for the most American of rights for half the population: the vote.

Two compelling exhibits in Washington commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which says the right of citizens to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The Library of Congress exhibit "Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote" and the National Archives' "Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote" both use original documents, photos, videos, artifacts and interactive media to tell the stories of suffragists and the suffrage movement and women's participation in government to the present.

After spending an afternoon at the two exhibits, I left convinced we owe the suffragists more than a debt of gratitude. We need to vote.

We tend to take the right to vote for granted, but American women fought seven decades for the vote.

The first women’s rights convention drew 300 women to Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. Many signed Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” that pointedly began: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”

The battle for the vote was on. Blacks were also disenfranchised, and suffragists first allied themselves with abolitionists. Later, the groups went their separate ways. Suffragists split among themselves over how militant their tactics should be.

While many chose confrontation and went to jail, there were light moments. The suffrage movement even had its own music. One popular song in 1916 was arrestingly titled “She’s Good Enough to be Your Baby’s Mother and She’s Good Enough to Vote with You.” 

An anti-suffrage movement contended political activity would ruin women’s morals as well as destroy the social order. Some arguments were racially charged.

The Georgia Association OPPOSED to Woman’s Suffrage, based in Macon, Ga., sent postcards to Congress in 1915 urging a no vote on suffrage.

The cards listed seven reasons, starting with “BECAUSE the women of Georgia don’t want the vote” and included “universal suffrage wipes out the disenfranchisement of the negro by State law” and “the danger to farmers’ families if negro men vote in addition to 2,000,000 negro women.” Finally, “White Supremacy must be maintained.”

The House finally passed the amendment May 21 and the Senate June 4, 1919. It went to the states where three-fourths or 36 states needed to ratify. The 36th state – Tennessee -- ratified it Aug. 18, 1920, and it went into effect Aug. 26, 1920.

The struggle wasn’t over. White women had the vote, Southern states used intimidation and unfair laws to create obstacles. 

Virginia didn’t get around to ratifying it until 1952. It wasn’t alone. Several Deep South states also took their time.

“Shall Not Be Denied” at the Library of Congress runs through September 2020, and “Rightfully Hers” at the National Archives through Jan. 3, 2021. Both are free.

At the Archives, you can use a touch screen ballot box to choose your top three contemporary issues. And if you’re not registered to vote, you can find out how to be #electionready just down the hall.

A nearby screen shows that while voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections soared compared with that of other midterms, only 49.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Turnout in the 2016 presidential election was 60.1 percent.

We can do better. No excuses.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Grandmas say something, save lives -- Aug. 8, 2019 column


A grandmother in Lubbock, Texas, prevented a mass shooting last month by persuading her grandson to let her drive him to a hospital.

William Patrick Williams, 19, called his grandma July 13 to say he was about to “shoot up” people at a local hotel and then commit suicide by cop.

The grandmother, who wasn’t identified, could hear him handling his AK-47 rifle as he spoke. Sensing he was both suicidal and homicidal, she talked him into going with her for medical help.

He gave authorities consent to enter the hotel room he’d rented, and they found on the bed the AK-47, 17 magazines loaded with ammunition, multiple knives, a black trench coat and other black items of clothing, according to a news release from the U.S. District Attorney’s Office Northern District of Texas.

He was arrested Aug. 1 and charged in a federal complaint with giving false information to a licensed firearm dealer when he purchased his rifle July 11. If convicted, Williams could receive a five-year prison term.

“This was a tragedy averted,” U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox said Aug. 2 in a statement.

Last year, another grandmother averted a tragedy.

In Everett Wash., Cathi O’Connor called 911 in February 2018 after she read detailed plans in her grandson’s journal to commit mass murder at his high school. He was modeling his attack on the 1999 Columbine massacre.

“I’m preparing myself for the school shooting. I can’t wait. My aim has gotten much more accurate . . . I can’t wait to walk into that class and blow all those [expletive]s away,” Joshua Alexander O’Connor, 18, wrote.

His grandma also discovered a semiautomatic rifle hidden in his guitar case.

He subsequently pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Those grandmothers’ heart-wrenching -- and heroic -- decision to stop their grandsons’ horrific plans undoubtedly saved lives, authorities said.

“If you suspect a friend or loved one is planning violence against themselves or others, do not hesitate to seek help immediately by calling law enforcement,” Cox added.

“If you see something, say something” has been our first line of defense against international terrorism since 9/11. It needs to be our mantra in the fight against homegrown terrorism as well.

After the most recent mass murders in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, left 31 dead and dozens injured, friends and former classmates said they had seen signs the gunmen were headed for violence. We hear similar reports whenever a mass shooter strikes.  

But few step forward to raise a concern.

Americans prize personal freedom and hate to be snitches. Plus no one can know whether someone will act on their fantasies.

O’Connor’s public defender argued in court: “In this country we do not criminalize people for thoughts. We do not punish a teenage boy for venting in his diary.”  

And yet we are grateful Cathi O’Connor found and read her grandson’s diary. Had he posted his hateful thoughts and plans anonymously on a dark website, no one might have known where he was headed.

We’re also grateful she trusted the police enough to come forward with information about her grandson’s plans. Police-community relations in many parts of the country are rocky, and lack of trust jeopardizes public safety.

Democrats and some Republicans are calling for universal background checks for gun purchasers, to reinstate the federal ban on assault weapons and to pass “red flag” state laws, which allow police to confiscate firearms temporarily from someone deemed a danger to themselves or others. Such laws are in effect in 17 states, although not in Virginia.

President Donald Trump said he supports tighter background checks and red flag laws, although we've seen him turn on a dime when the gun lobby objected. 

Republican members of Congress could not muster the political will when President Barack Obama pushed for gun control measures after the massacre of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. I doubt they’ll suddenly grow a spine.

So, as we face the growing threat from white nationalists and other virulent strains of domestic terrorism, we will rely more than ever on grandmas, grandads, other family members, teachers, classmates and friends to say something when they see something.

Our lives depend on it.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A lesson from Tricky Dick on taxes -- Aug. 1, 2019 column

“Make sure you pay your taxes,” former President Richard Nixon told David Frost in a television interview in 1977. “Otherwise, you can get in a lot of trouble.”
If Nixon were advising presidential candidates today, he might add: “And release your tax returns.”
Since President Donald Trump took office, dozens of states, including Virginia, have considered – and rejected -- requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to appear on state ballots.
But California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, Tuesday signed the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act, which passed on party line votes in the legislature.
To appear on the Democratic or Republican primary ballot, presidential and gubernatorial candidates now must release five years of tax returns, which will be posted online.
“These are extraordinary times and states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence,” Newsom said in a signing statement.
“The disclosure required by this bill will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing or influence from domestic and foreign business interest,” he added.
See you in court, replied the Trump campaign, which contends the new law is unconstitutional.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed a very similar bill in 2017, warning of a slippery slope. Next time, it could be a red state demanding a birth certificate or health records, Brown warned.
If the law withstands judicial scrutiny, Trump must release his returns by November for the March 3 primary. The law does not affect the general election in November 2020.
Trump says voters elected him even though he refused to release his returns. He has a point. If voters cared, they could have flocked to rival Jeb Bush, who set a record by releasing 33 years of tax returns in 2016.
The Constitution lists only three qualifications for president: at least 35 years old, a citizen born in the United States and a resident in the United States for at least 14 years. So how did we get here?
The Constitution also gives states authority to decide how their electors are chosen. Each state writes its own laws setting the rules for candidates to appear on state ballots, such as petitions with signatures of a certain number of registered voters.
Federal courts have struck down several state laws involving congressional elections, including term limits. The California law raises questions about what restrictions states can place on presidential candidates.
We see the tax returns of presidential candidates and presidents because of a tradition that began after a scandal involving Nixon, according to Joseph J. Thorndike, director of the tax history project of Tax Analysts and author of several books on taxation, who appeared before a congressional panel in February. 
Newspapers published stories based on leaks of details of Nixon’s tax returns, showing he had paid just $792 in federal income taxes in 1970 and $873 in 1971.
“People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” Nixon said at a newspaper editors’ convention in November 1973. “Well, I am not a crook.”
Three weeks later, he voluntarily released four years of tax returns to reporters and asked the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’ nonpartisan tax experts, to examine them.
The committee’s audit identified an improper deduction for his gift of his vice presidential papers to the National Archives as well as incorrect capital gains treatment on the sales of his apartment in New York and part of his property in San Clemente, Calif. The president owed $476,451 in back taxes and interest.
To this day, no one knows if Nixon paid up. No check was publicly shown, Nixon resigned because of Watergate and President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon.
But since 1977, IRS policy has required an audit of every tax return filed by a sitting president and vice president, Thorndike said, and every president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama has released his tax returns during audits.
California’s new law is partisan and punitive to the Trump fans, and it could backfire on Democrats.
But Nixon was right: Americans do need to know whether their president is a crook. Like his predecessors, Trump should have released his tax returns, and he should do so now.
©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Measure presidential age in ideas, not years -- July 25, 2019 column


How old is too old to be president? Ronald Reagan settled the question 35 years ago with a zinger.

President Reagan, a Republican seeking his second term, and former Vice President Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential nominee, met Oct. 21, 1984, for their second debate.

Reagan, 73, had not had a good first debate, and veteran Baltimore Sun diplomatic correspondent Henry Trewhitt raised the age issue:

You already are the oldest president in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

“Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt,” Reagan smoothly replied, “and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Everybody broke out laughing, including Mondale, a mere lad of 56.

Mondale told his wife he lost the election that night. There were many reasons Reagan swept to victory, winning every state except Mondale’s Minnesota, but the much replayed “youth and inexperience” soundbite didn’t hurt.

It’s hard to imagine an elder candidate’s snappy comeback line having the same effect ever again, considering what we know now. Five years after leaving office, Reagan wrote a letter telling the world he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Critics questioned whether he had been slipping during his second term in the White House, though loyal staff said he showed no signs of dementia.  

Now, President Donald Trump, 73, is the oldest president ever. Age is again a campaign issue as several top Democratic presidential contenders are also septuagenarians. Former Vice President Joe Biden is 76, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is 77 and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is 70.

Critics question Trump’s mental health, although he insists he’s “a very stable genius.”

Attacking Biden, Trump says he himself looks younger and is more mentally sharp than Biden.

For his part, Biden said if Trump doesn’t stop making cracks about his age, he’ll challenge the president to a push-up contest. I’d watch that.

Age inevitably factors into the Democrats’ nomination process. Pete Buttigieg, 37, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, likes to say he won’t reach the age Trump is now until 2054. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, 50, plays up skateboarding. 

If Democrats choose the safe and experienced Biden to go against Trump, Biden will need to project youth and vitality through his appearance and, more importantly, through his ideas.

It’s possible, as Sanders showed in 2016, for a party elder to attract a youthful following with bold, new ideas.

But first Biden must deal with his past, and when the Democrats meet for a second round of debates Tuesday and Wednesday, his record will also be on display.  

In the first debate, Biden seemed flummoxed by the attack by California Sen. Kamala Harris on his opposition to federal busing decades ago. Biden also has been criticized for pushing, as a senator in 1994, a crime bill now seen as draconian.

Setting a new course, Biden Tuesday proposed a sweeping plan to eliminate the death penalty, decriminalize marijuana and stop putting people in prison for drug use alone.

But New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, 50, tweeted: “It’s not enough to tell us what you’re going to do for our communities, show us what you’ve done for the last 40 years. You created this system.”

Sanders and Warren each have plans to erase student debt, which plagues millions of Americans, and provide free higher education.

Such policies are good politics. More younger voters turned out to vote in 2018 than in previous midterms, the Census Bureau reports. In 2020, one in 10 eligible voters will be members of Generation Z – born after 1995, the Pew Research Center projects.  

Young voters tend to vote Democratic. If they turn out strongly, as they have in recent presidential elections, they could make a difference for Democrats.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.