Thursday, September 26, 2019

A call + a `favor' = impeachment -- Sept. 26, 2019 column


For Democrats, the smoking gun arrived gift-wrapped from the White House. 

President Trump ordered notes of his phone call with the president of Ukraine released Wednesday because, he said, they showed the call was “innocent,” “wonderful” and “perfect.” Hogwash.

Trump told President Volodymyr Zelensky he needed “a favor” and directed him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who Trump believes his likely Democratic opponent in 2020, and his son, Hunter Biden.

“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great,” Trump told Zelensky, referring to Attorney General William Barr.

He also urged Zelensky to work more closely with his personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani.

The United States has been “very, very good to Ukraine,” Trump said, adding Ukraine hadn’t reciprocated.

At the time – July 25 -- Trump was holding up nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, although Zelensky did not know it.

There’s no explicit quid pro quo in the call, and Trump insists he’s innocent and wanted only to investigate corruption. Most Republicans on Capitol Hill are backing him up.

“Nothing (no-quid pro quo) burger,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, tweeted, although Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said the matter is “deeply troubling in the extreme.”

The five-page memo reconstructing the call provided a picture of Trump’s misuse of his office for political gain.

The call came to light through news reports about a secret whistleblower complaint in August by an intelligence officer. While Trump had promised an “unredacted transcript” of the call, the notes contain ellipses indicating words left out. 

The call persuaded House Democrats who had been on the fence it was time to begin the impeachment inquiry.

The complaint, unclassified and released Thursday by the House Intelligence Committee, reports an “urgent concern” that Trump “is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election.”

The complaint also reports the White House tried to cover up the call.

“The actions of the Trump presidency have revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday, announcing the official impeachment inquiry, even before the notes and the complaint were released.

Trump’s defiant defense appears to be “I did it. So what?”

As we know, Trump’s MO is to tar his rivals. Joe Biden is the new Hillary Clinton, the 2016 presidential rival Trump labeled “crooked Hillary.”

In a news conference Wednesday, Trump lobbed unsubstantiated charges against the Bidens, as he has previously, claiming they took $1.5 billion out of China. He also claimed several congressional Democrats threatened to withhold funds from Ukraine.

Hunter Biden served on the board of a natural gas company in Ukraine that was investigated by Ukrainian authorities, but he was not accused of any wrongdoing.

As for impeachment: “It’s all a hoax, folks. It’s all a big hoax,” Trump said. “Impeachment for that?”

Impeachment is serious business, a last resort used only three times in American history.

The House draws up an indictment, called Articles of Impeachment. A simple majority vote of the House would send the indictment to the Senate for a trial presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Two-thirds of the Senate must vote to convict and remove the president from office.

The constitutional standard for impeachment is “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

These do not have to be violations of criminal laws, but, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers: “offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

Democrats have little time to make their case before the end of the year. The danger for them is winning the battle but losing the war. If the Republican-controlled Senate leaves Trump in office, he and his supporters will celebrate his victory and vindication all the way to the polls in November.

Impeachment now seems inevitable. It will be an ugly spectacle, a mud bath from which no one will emerge clean. Even if he wins, Trump will carry an indelible stain into history.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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.