Presidential Pardons

It is evident that the President of the U.S. can grossly misuse the power of the pardon, but beyond that, we do not seem to know much. Exactly what does this power entail?

  • Can the President pardon criminals before the normal judicial process has run its course (e.g., before they are sentenced)?

  • Can the President pardon a suspect before being tried?

  • Can the President pardon a person not yet arrested?

  • Can the President pardon a person before anyone even knows the person has committed a crime?

  • Can the President pardon someone preemptively, i.e., before they commit a crime?

  • Can the President, with a wink and a nod or by means of incendiary rhetoric, provoke someone into committing a crime and then pardon that criminal?

  • Can the President pardon himself?

  • Would that be called a “conflict of interest” with a tinge of “moral hazard”?

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Harvey Was Political

The decisions to pave over the wetlands were political. The decisions to locate refineries in floodplains were political. The pretense that we are not responsible for global climate disruption is political. Politicians and corporate CEO’s arbitrarily rejected scientific understanding for personal gain. Harvey was political.

The Houston flood is political, not an act of God: it is the result of a long series of political decisions, some mistakes, many intentional efforts to place corporations ahead of people. Cities should not exist on floodplains; invaluable wetlands should not be paved over; city officials should not base flood control decisions on the incomes of the residents; chemical factories and oil refineries that flood pollutants if themselves flooded should not be built on floodplains: political decisions by politicians and corporate CEOs in smoke-filled rooms.

And for the future, politicians denying the security consequences for American society of denying global warming should be cast aside like the enemies of society that they are. And there’s more. Houston is nothing. If you really want to see the future of the world, look at Bangladesh: a country of 100 million with a third of the country under water the same week as Houston. Am I saying that the U.S. will look like Bangladesh in the near future? No, I am saying that when hundreds of millions of people around the globe face natural disasters such as Houston or Bangladesh or India or Pakistan are facing this week, then a very noticeable percentage of them will attempt by any means possible to move somewhere better. We are talking about sustained refugee floods far greater than anything out of Syria, year after year…until politicians face up to the security implications of denying global warming.

The corporate executives who made the decisions–in the face of solid scientific analysis shouted from the rooftops by experts for years—have caused incalculable harm to American society and should be held criminally responsible. Katrina provided the lesson, which was ignored for personal profit, Sandy provided a second lesson, and now Harvey: three one-in-a-thousand pieces of “bad luck” resulting from “nothing” and having “no meaning at all.” The first two lessons were immediately and completely and carefully forgotten, for the convenience of a few CEO’s and their political lackeys. Harvey too will be swept under the rug by politicians who knuckle under to corporate pressure unless we insist—right now—on holding them responsible.

With Port Arthur, Texas completely under water, a resident observed:

anybody who don’t [sic] believe that climate change is real must be living in another universe, because what we’re seeing here on the ground is land erosion. There is a beach that we used to frequent when I was a kid here, and the surf sat back maybe about a good 50 yards from where it is now. Right now, that surf sits within feet, five or six feet, of the road, and you can no longer take portions of that road into Galveston from the Sabine Pass area, because the land has completely been eroded. Our wetlands and canals are breaking apart because the water is coming in from the Gulf into the marshy areas, and it’s also having a heavy impact on the natural wildlife that is there, such as the gators and other animals that need the wetlands and not necessarily salt water. [Democracy Now.]

All you have to do is open your eyes.

Harvey would, fifty years ago, have been a “once-in-1000-years” event. That was before man-caused global climate disruption; that was before 5,000,000 people decided to live and build half the nation’s refinery capacity on floodplains that constituted the prime defensive shield against disastrous flooding. The Houston disaster is man-made, and it has been made despite well-established scientific and technical understanding for several decades of the critical importance of floodplains as nature’s flood-control system and of man-made intensification of climate disruption (i.e., the argument over the portion man-made and the portion due to some possible but as yet undiscovered natural process is a red herring).

Global Climate Destabilization

The Houston flooding is an example of intensifying global climate destabilization, and, yes, it is man-made, the result of putting corporations before people.

The Houston flood is political, not an “act of God,” as those trying to evade responsibility would say: it is the result of a long series of political decisions–some mistakes, many intentional efforts to place corporations ahead of people. Energy policy should not be made for the profit of oil corporations; cities should not exist on floodplains; invaluable wetlands should not be paved over; city officials should not base flood control decisions on the incomes of the residents; when oil corporations pollute floodwaters, oil corporation executives should get long prison terms; politicians should lead, not impede, efforts to create policies to address human-caused global climate destabilization. (It’s not “warming:” is that the word anyone would use to describe what is happening in Houston?)

As for the future, politicians refusing to consider the security consequences for American society of denying on-going global climate collapse should be cast aside like the enemies of society that they are. America can no longer afford to be the land of corporations; it must become the land of people.

And there’s more. Houston is nothing. If you really want to see the future of the world, look at Bangladesh: a country of 100 million with a third of the country under water the same week as Houston. Am I saying that the U.S. will look like Bangladesh in the near future? No, I am saying that when hundreds of millions of people around the globe face natural disasters such as Houston or Bangladesh or India or Pakistan are facing this week, then a very noticeable percentage of them will attempt by any means possible to move somewhere better. We are talking about sustained refugee floods far greater than anything out of Syria, year after year…until politicians face up to the security implications of denying global climate destabilization.

Those willing to think learned from Katrina that storms in the era of global “warming” require far better long-term thinking that we, as a society, have been in the habit of devoting to flood-control. Those willing to think have learned from Houston that we, as a society, learned nothing from Katrina. We will not have to wait a thousand years for the next lesson.

Does the GOP Believe in Justice?

Giving controversial ex-sheriff Arpaio a get-out-of-jail-free card rather than working within the U.S. judicial system’s review process demeans that key pillar of democracy. Both GOP senators from Arpaio’s Arizona attacked Trump immediately, but does anyone else in that party care?

Trump’s pardon of ex-Sheriff Arpaio, who was convicted in court for defying a court order [DemocracyNow] sends a chilling message that those who refuse to obey the law can go free by supporting Trump. If a court ruling is considered incorrect, then it should be challenged in court; the American system of justice is set up with layers of review for precisely that reason. To simply dismiss a case by Presidential pardon without using the standard review process even when available does far more than allow a felon to escape: it makes a mockery of the U.S. justice system, thus constituting a direct attack on democracy, which cannot survive without general respect for the justice system as an institution. While the man in the street may be in denial about the significance of this decision and while we shall see how many GOP members of Congress who claim to be patriots and believers in justice for all will nonetheless pretend they didn’t notice, we may be certain that not just policemen with a penchant for violence but neo-Nazis and white supremacists will get the message loud and clear. America is a profoundly more dangerous place in which to live as the result of this pardon.

GOP Senator McCain said, “No one is above the law and the individuals entrusted with the privilege of being sworn law officers should always seek to be beyond reproach in their commitment to fairly enforcing the laws they swore to uphold.”

GOP Senator Flake said, “…I would have preferred that the President honor the judicial process….”

If that is what these U.S. senators think, then why are they still members of the Republican Party?

Is Anyone In Charge?

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides – on many sides…” [President Trump on Charlottesville violence, as quoted by Fox News].

What is this remark supposed to mean? Is there no distinction to be made between extremists and their victims? Are those calling for hatred and violence simply one side in a debate with those who happen to prefer some other approach? Does Trump have any idea what happened while he was playing golf? Is anyone responsible for keeping him informed of national emergencies? While he is off duty (for we all deserve a rest), who is covering for him? Do we still have a Vice President?

Should we assume that a race riot by apparent Neo-Nazis who apparently seek to re-ignite the Civil War does not qualify as an “emergency” requiring action by the nation’s Chief Executive? Then, what would? Or am I missing the point? Rather than asking if this emergency—and I assert that an act of domestic terrorism that succeeds in murdering someone does, at some level, undeniably constitute an “emergency”–rises to the level requiring Presidential attention, should our conclusion be that the events in Charlottesville constitute, in the President’s mind, a useful step in the direction he wishes this country to go?

Indeed, in Trump’s defense, the President should not micromanage every problem. That is why the nation has…well, for example, an Attorney General! Is Sessions also playing golf? OK, it is, after all, August. Who covers for the Attorney General when he is otherwise occupied?

And what about the FBI? Doesn’t the FBI have a new director? Does he also play golf? If Sessions is too busy to attend to domestic terrorism (should it occur), shouldn’t the head of the FBI perhaps stay in the office, just in case?

There was a day, perhaps now forgotten, when police dogs were turned against school children whose skin was the “wrong” color. The President of that day, although a Southerner, was first an American, and he felt it proper to send military forces to patrol the streets. He acted to protect innocent victims against extremists, even though the extremist in question was the sheriff!

Down to the very lowest level of management in the Federal bureaucracy, when the boss (even a branch manager with only 3-4 guys) is out of the office for the day, someone steps in to fill the temporary vacancy. Things happen; decisions need to be made…because even at the lowest levels of the Federal bureaucracy, the work they do matters. So, at the top…

???

  1. Play a game of golf.
  2. Threaten war against some state.
  3. Do not go back to the office.
  4. Hit the ball again.
  5. Threaten war against another state.
  6. Do not go back to the office.
  7. Hit the ball again.

Would someone kindly explain this behavior to me?

Verbal Violence Destroys Liberty

A vibrant democracy to defend our liberties requires vigorous popular involvement in politics, but that involvement must draw the line not only at physical violence but also, equally important, at verbal violence. Threats of aggression–against groups or countries–simply open the door to actual aggression.

The late 19th century was by all rights a time of great hope given relative peace combined (not coincidentally) with marked advances in science as well as average living standards in the richer societies and governance (most notably, the elimination of slavery) of the richer states. Yet these advantages were undermined by their very own dark side: the warping of advances in scientific thought (specifically, on evolution) into a fake-science conservative justification for that particular form of rape and pillage known as “colonialism,” nothing new but now “scientifically” justified. This moral contradiction between advancing knowledge and the misuse of this knowledge to export the barbarism now finally considered no longer acceptable at home laid the foundations for the catastrophe of the twin world wars to follow in the next century. The global 20th Century scourge—roughly bracketed by what we incorrectly think of as “two” world wars plus the Cold War—was the titanic struggle between the revolutionary concept of popular self-government (democratic forms plus civil liberties) and the resurgence of old autocracy in a particularly vicious new form that, depending on the state might be termed communism or fascism but which essentially amounted to claiming the moral right to govern through violence. It was precisely the morally contradictory insistence among the “most advanced” societies that–despite their rising attention to the rights of the common white men, then all common men, and finally even all common women at home—that these societies retained some right to commit arbitrary violence for profit against people abroad that led the small corner of the world that was slowly turning toward domestic freedom into this great scourge that swamped the 20th century. Someone once made a remark about “half slave and half free” that fell on deaf ears.

Democracy (a form of government), or, more broadly, freedom (the goal) rests upon a certain moral perspective. Democratic forms were enshrined in law in the Soviet Union and are today in Venezuela and Turkey. Lacking a moral underpinning based on a shared perspective that political activity must exclude violence, democratic rules fail to produce freedom.

This lesson, purchased at such terrible cost in the 20th century, is today being forgotten again, across the globe, with the result that a new version of the same old threat by those who prefer compulsion to compromise, barbarism to mutual respect (or at least, mutual tolerance). Black shirt thuggery, politicization of the judiciary, political trickery to rewrite a constitution, terrorist attacks on olive groves, extra-judicial police violence against portions of the population using “drugs” or “alien status” as the excuse, and military occupations of domestic cities holding large minority populations might still shock Americans and West Europeans, but many of the less obvious examples of political extremism are coming to be tolerated by those who know better, and not just in places like Weimar Germany, Russia, Venezuela, Israel, the Philippines, and Turkey.

Thus, the pattern repeats: 1) a vicious war to establish a moral principle; 2) the moral principle is not fully implemented; 3) a generation or a century later, the same war must be fought again. The world now stands on the edge of the moral cliff: if most of us now have learned and most of our regimes have now accepted (most of the time) that nonjudicial violence is unacceptable and so counter-productive that it is not even useful from the long-term perspective of society, we nonetheless seem to have missed the other element that simply cannot be omitted from the moral structure required for the preservation of freedom. Removing physical violence from a democratic society is not enough; one must also remove verbal violence.

Sneering, threatening, insulting–in a phrase, “verbal violence” opens the door to physical violence by dividing society into groups of winners and losers such that your status as a “loser” no longer depends on your personal attitude and effort but on your race, religion, or birthplace. Such a situation is intuitively unfair because it puts the “loser” in a hopeless position: lose forever…or respond with violence, thus burning down the house we all live in.

From this, does it not follow that verbal abuse—loud threats of nuclear aggression, sarcastic racial slurs—constitute, over the long term, attacks on our way of life fully as serious as actual actions?

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P.S. Literally minutes after writing this essay, I noted on the news that there is an official state of emergency in Virginia, illustrating the absence of borders between verbal violence and physical violence. A state of emergency indeed does exist – but not just in Virginia; the state of emergency exists throughout the whole of the United States, and those responsible should stand trial.

No One Is Above the Law

The chief executives of Brazil, Israel, Venezuela, and the U.S. are all currently under investigation and/or in the midst of a dispute with their own departments of justice. In which of these countries will the fundamental principle of democracy–that no one is above the law–be upheld?

A very interesting reaction has occurred in Israel, where the leader is not being investigated for winking at domestic racism or using terror weapons against civilian populations but simply for the humdrum crime of economic fraud. Despite the relatively minor nature of this allegation, calls are being voiced in Israel for their chief executive to step down as soon as indicted, not waiting for what might turn into a media circus trial continuing endlessly and imperiling the security of the state by distracting its chief executive from performing his duties. However much one may look askance at the daily performance of the Netanyahu regime, this call from the broader public to take democracy seriously by removing power temporarily from chief executives under legal investigation should be evaluated immediately by all democracies whose governments face such a crisis: all should be under the law, especially those with the most capability for bending the law in their own personal favor.

There is, of course, an alternative, namely, placing the judicial branch of government directly into the back pocket of the chief executive, as Putin and Erdogan have done and as Maduro is desperately trying to do.

The Way Forward on Health Care

Just as the fundamental life goals of American citizens (security, happiness, good health, help when you are in trouble, freedom to enjoy life) are not a function of party lines, the policy goals of our elected representatives do not follow party lines either, but to realize that it is necessary to wash away the rhetoric and identify the politicians’ actual priorities.

Alaska Senator Murkowski, reacting to the Administration’s apparent threat to punish the whole Alaskan population unless she kowtows on health care policy, noted that she believes in reforming “the health care industry.” That is not exactly the disagreement between her and her GOP colleagues, however: while the Senator apparently takes to heart the needs of the people of Alaska for health care, the GOP goal appears to be the elimination of government health care supports for the poor…the exact opposite.

Senator Murkowski’s stated opinion may put her at odds with the new Administration, but it should find strong support from Democratic progressives. Reforming the health care industry…indeed, ending health care as an industry, is precisely what progressives want: replacing health care as an industry for private profit with health care as a service for everyone provided by the government, as in all other modern societies.

Senators Murkowski and Sanders need to have lunch.

Mideast Sand Castles

Childish posturing? Muslim civil war? Or do the two authoritarians have a plan?

 

Albeit a bit less super than they were and surely less super than they think they are, the two old superpowers are once again intensifying their competition in the Mideast. Having made its big move into Syria to fill the vacuum left by Washington’s long-standing confusion, Moscow is now wisely consolidating its new Shi’i stronghold. Its point has been made: Mideast problems can no longer be resolved without Moscow’s participation. Washington, having forgotten its excesses earlier in this century, is grasping at loose sand trying to erect its own Sunni castle. The effectiveness of Washington’s move was instantaneous, shattering the superficial unity of the Sunni Arab Peninsula states/fiefdoms/oil baronies. If Moscow’s new-boys-on-the-block Shi’i allies were not content with their enhanced strategic position, they certainly must be now. Castles in the sand or not, the Shi’i castles look wet and well-packed relative to the massive but dried out, blowing-away-in-the-wind strongholds of the old money Sunnis.

In this interesting context, Washington’s chief has curiously decided that the timing is perfect to meet Moscow’s chief. Like everything else about the new guy on the Potomac, one can only wonder at this decision. Does he intend to cut a deal, on his heels, with the man with the Cheshire Cat grin? Putin has a couple reasons for his grin, from U.S. post-election infighting to last year’s smooth little display of gunboat diplomacy. It is hard to imagine how he might be cowed by Trump’s famous snarl.

Perhaps, however, these two gentlemen are more sophisticated than appearances would suggest. Perhaps they have something in mind that would enhance the reputation of each. Are they dreaming of a new Treaty of Tordesillas?

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Update Jul 8, 2017: If we believe a piece in the Guardian based on body language, it was all about one-upmanship, and, in the end, the great meeting boiled down to a hand wrestling match won “hands down” by Putin. The two great authoritarians strode together across the world stage looking…very small.