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Our Man in Winston-Salem

26 February 2021 @ 5:01 am

“You watch, he’s going to win.” That was U.S. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, election eve 2016. As he sat in his house on Pine Valley Road in Winston-Salem, Burr was bullish on Donald J. Trump’s chances of capturing the White House. Longtime aides and family members rolled their eyes. OK, whatever you say.

Burr had good reason to believe. The 60-year-old former appliance salesman was on the same ticket with Trump, running for his third term as a Republican from the Tar Heel State. For more than a year, Burr watched voters turn out with building intensity. In tiny places down east such as Rose Hill, Trump rallies would be scheduled for 12,000 supporters; 25,000 would show up. And the first 5,000 of them waited in line for two hours.

The crowds listened as Trump gave away the game, one Burr had spent a career playing. The Manhattan real estate developer ridiculed George W. Bush’s presidency, railed against bipartisan trade deals that closed thousands of American factories, attacked policies that favored illegal immigrants over U.S. citizens, and picked apart spymasters and their benefactors for shoddy track records and pushing a fraudulent war in Iraq.

Burr could admit some of these inconvenient facts (in 2004 he said that NAFTA was “a net loss for North Carolina”) but he resented Trump’s lambasting of the Bush family and GOP orthodoxy. He realized, though, that it was in his best interest not to make waves and to focus on winning his own race. The evidence at GOP headquarters in Forsyth County was clear: Everyone who came in asked for a Donald Trump yard sign. Every other person asked for a Donald Trump and a Richard Burr yard sign.

Burr’s campaign style harkened back to his days in sales. He would slide into his Acura and drive from place to place, spend half the day walking up and down Main Street in little towns across the state. Talk to voters, shake hands. When they asked why he wasn’t in one of the big cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh, or Greensboro, Burr would answer, “That’s not where my people are.”

If Burr grew tired, he checked into a Comfort Inn. “Can I get access to the conference room?” he would ask the front desk clerk. Sometimes at two o’clock in the morning, the senator would get up out of bed and go print something he needed for the next day’s campaign schedule.

Now, in the most unpredictable campaign in modern American history, Burr seemed to be coasting to victory against a liberal state rep from Raleigh, Deborah K. Ross. As the days to the election dwindled, the man at the top of the ticket was catching tailwinds, too. Hillary Clinton’s line that Trump was a sinister, shadowy figure tied to Russian president Vladimir Putin wasn’t getting traction with voters.

On election night, Burr made his way to nearby Forsyth Country Club where his supporters gathered. Phillip Phillips’ song “Home” played over the sound system: “Hold on to me as we go/As we roll down this unfamiliar road/And although this wave is stringing us along/Just know you are not alone/’Cause I’m going to make this place your home…

At 10:32, Burr bounded up on the podium in the dining room to celebrate victory. His supporters cheered. “Wow!” he said. “This one is better than all the rest… This is a victory for all those who have believed in me, and those who have continued to have confidence in the fact that my values match your values.”

Burr thanked his family, and quoted from a sermon delivered by his father, the late Rev. David Burr, who pastored the First Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem from 1962 to 1986. “He said there’s always work to be done by the living and it’s our responsibility to get in on the action. He taught me to do my part. I intend to carry out my duties through this next Senate term, as I’ve tried to do to the best of my ability for the past 22 years.”

The usual GOP tropes followed. “We will not retreat in the cause of freedom”; “we have freedom coursing through our veins”; “we live in the greatest land known to mankind.” It should have been a freewheeling, relaxed night for a man who announced months earlier that this would be his final race, but Burr read from a script. He seemed uneasy.

Just as Burr said, “We don’t know what we might face in the nation ahead,” Trump was coasting to critical victories in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

“Life is and always will be a circle,” Burr continued. “People are born, they live their lives, hopefully making a difference, and then their lives come to an end and they’re replaced by a new generation.”

At 2:30 a.m., the networks declared the winner of the presidency. Chyrons spread across every channel: DONALD TRUMP ELECTED PRESIDENT. With that news, Richard Burr was forced into a decision, one that would define his character and chart a divided course for the nation.

* * *

Until 2017, when Burr became chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I hadn’t given a serious thought to his career since he got elected to the U.S. House in 1994. Why should I? For most of a decade, Burr was a standard-issue, post–Cold War GOP congressman. Ran for and won a Senate seat in 2004, focused on constituent services, reelected twice.

The idea of Burr overseeing all of the spy agencies called to mind Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene’s darkly comic 1958 novel that parodies espionage bureaucracies. Greene writes about a vacuum cleaner salesman, James Wormold, who gets approached by a British intel officer. “We must have our man in Havana, you know,” the officer says. London is setting up the Caribbean network and wants Wormold to spy for them. The salesman accepts the offer because he needs additional income to support his extravagant teenage daughter. He makes up information about Russian threats, draws diagrams of vacuum cleaners that he says are missiles, creates fake agents from names in the phone book, and then packages the reports to his spymasters. London is impressed.

If you ask former aides to name Burr’s chief accomplishment, they don’t mention his work with spy agencies. Instead, they cite things such as his maneuvering of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to benefit North Carolina. “Richard came up with the idea that if you’re going to drill off the coast, we want royalties and we want them coming in to help beach nourishment, the intercoastal waterway, and dredging,” a longtime aide says. “This made the environmentalists say, ‘Wait, we’re going to get a pile of money for this?’”

As much as I love my home state and still follow politics there, I had never heard that Richard Burr got this money coming in, or that it mattered. The media always gets things backwards or misses the real story. Other than Burr being a fellow Demon Deacon, to me he was just another D.C. Republican who sang from the same songbook that got him elected to Congress.

When Burr arrived in Washington in 1995, another Wake Forest alumnus and I met him in the bar at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. Richard ordered a beer. “Bring it in the bottle,” he told the waitress, “makes me think I’m back home.” He struck me as the personification of Tom Wolfe’s good old boy. It never occurred to me that one day Richard would become so skilled at playing the game.

He wasn’t destined for the game, the United States Senate, or the chairmanship of a committee that oversees all of America’s spies. His father was a prominent preacher and president of the Rotary Club. Burr’s most overt connection to politics was ancestral—he’s a distant relative of Aaron Burr, who for many Americans has gained notoriety as the character in Hamilton who kills Lin-Manuel Miranda in a duel. Before that, Aaron Burr was vice president under Thomas Jefferson, a fate that would cause him to become one of the most reviled figures in American history.

Richard’s dad was devoted to debunking the attacks against Aaron Burr, his ninth-generation cousin. Most of them stemmed from Jefferson’s determination to crush him because he was threatened by Burr’s appeal. Jefferson accused Burr of treason, without evidence (as we now say). Burr, he asserted, was guilty of “stoking a rebellion, deceiving and seducing honest and well-meaning citizens, under various pretenses, to engage in their various criminal enterprises.” In 1807, Jefferson had Aaron Burr arrested for “suspicious activities.” Of Burr’s guilt, Jefferson declared, “there can be no doubt.” Burr was put on trial. And acquitted twice.

“Aaron Burr has been given a bad deal,” Rev. Burr said to the Associated Press in 1987. At the time, he was president of the Aaron Burr Association. On the matter of the duel, Rev. Burr said, “Hamilton is the one who challenged Burr and Hamilton lost, obviously.” About whether Burr was a traitor, Rev. Burr said, “It’s taken some time for the real facts to surface… he was completely exonerated.”

With no proclivity for politics, Richard turned to athletics. At the R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, he played football. Burr became a star linebacker and helped take the team to a district championship where he was selected Forsyth County’s offensive player of the year in 1973. His performances caught the attention of Chuck Mills, head coach of the football team at Wake Forest University, the “Demon Deacons.” Mills signed Richard to a football grant-in-aid to play in 1974.

Going into that season, Mills told the campus newspaper, the Old Gold & Black, “We honestly feel we are on the precipice of a solid and respected football program.” To anybody who followed sports on Tobacco Road back then, there seemed to be a specter hanging over Wake Forest. In an unguarded moment on local radio discussing the upcoming football schedule, Mills alluded to it. “Saturday, September 28, will be the best Saturday of the season,” he said, “because on the 28th, we don’t have to play anybody.”

Demon Deacons are accustomed to losing in athletics. In fact, in the 71 years before Richard joined the football team, Wake had only 25 winning seasons. In Richard’s freshman year, they lost game after game. By mid-season, the Deacs were listed on the Los Angeles Times “Bottom 10” rankings.

But Richard still looked promising. At 6’2’’ and 195 pounds, he was a solid player, big and fast, who stayed banged up. (My parents were friends with another player, Solomon Everett, and we attended many games.) Richard kept moving and sustained so many injuries and scars that teammates nicknamed him “Zipper.”

* * *

There was a time when the giants of North Carolina politics, in both parties, were outraged over abuses from the national security state. Long before Sen. Sam Ervin became a folk hero for presiding over the Watergate hearings, the Democrat from Morganton led a crusade against Army spying on civilians. He was celebrated by Robert Sherrill, Washington correspondent of The Nation, for being “the closest thing we have to a Federal Ombudsman in the crusade against Big Brother.”

Sen. Jesse Helms, a staunch anticommunist, condemned FBI wiretapping and bugging as “the whole smelly mess of American politics.” In 1974, Helms said, “Bobby Kennedy tapped telephones of everybody in sight, including 38 Senators… let’s see who else has been doing it.”

In 1975, the Senate voted 82-4 to establish the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Agencies, to launch a massive investigation into allegations of wrongdoing. Members included Sen. Robert Morgan of North Carolina, a graduate of Wake Forest University Law School, who took a special interest in the probe.

Morgan said he was drawn to the inquiry when he heard how I.R.S. agents had “engaged in a lot of illegal activities” to entrap taxpayers. “I remember a case of a banker from the Bahamas being in this country and they investigated,” Morgan said. “The I.R.S. wanted some papers in his briefcase so they literally set him up with a woman in Florida, in Miami, and then got him about half drunk, and while he was drunk with the woman, they robbed his briefcase, photographed the records, and put them back.”

The committee exposed espionage on U.S. citizens, such as opening mail, listening in on phone calls, and bugging bedrooms; interference in domestic politics; harassment and character assassination of civil rights leaders, Vietnam War protesters, and radicals; and subversion of foreign governments.

In August 1975, Committee chairman Sen. Frank Church of Idaho appeared on Meet the Press to explain why the committee was vital. “In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air,” Church said. “These messages are between ships at sea, they can be between military units in the field—we have a very extensive capability of intercepting messages wherever they may be in the airwaves… no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability, to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.”

“If a dictator ever took charge in this country,” Church said, “the technological capacity that the intel community has given government could enable it to impose total tyranny and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.”

Committee members were hopeful that what they launched in 1975 would be permanent. They wanted to inspire an enduring mission of “seeing to it that all government agencies… operate within the law and under proper supervision.”

* * *

In 1978, Richard graduated with a communication degree from Wake. He emerged into a state that was the headquarters of industry—tobacco, textiles, and furniture. Cannon Mills in Kannapolis produced half of the nation’s towels and a fifth of its bed sheets. Almost 35 percent of North Carolinians worked in manufacturing, more than any other state. Rev. Burr helped Richard get a full-time position with Carswell Distributing Co., which sold appliances in the Winston-Salem area. One of his first jobs was demonstrating kerosene heaters to potential customers.

Richard purchased a house on Polo Road, near the Wake Forest campus. The place needed a lot of work, and Richard had just the man for it, an undergraduate named Tom Fetzer. They met when both were students who landed jobs at The Hub Ltd., a men’s clothing store at Hanes Mall. Soon, Fetzer learned a key fact about his friend: “Richard Burr is the tightest man you have ever met.” Richard showed Fetzer his new house and said, “If you help me fix this place up, I’ll let you live here for free.” Fetzer agreed and moved in. “I went in as his indentured servant.”

The house needed a lot of work. “There was scraping paint, painting, all kinds of stuff,” Fetzer says. “One day Richard asked me to mow the backyard. I said, ‘Alright.’ So I’m out there mowing the backyard and, all of a sudden, my legs just catch on fire. I had hit a ground wasp’s nest that he knew was there—he just didn’t know where it was. Richard stood on the screened porch and watched me to find out where it was.”

Oil prices were high during the winter of 1979 and Richard’s house had an oil furnace in it. “But he never burned a drop the whole time we lived there,” Fetzer recalls. Instead, Richard purchased a wood-burning stove from his employer, put it in the basement, and it theoretically heated the whole house. “Well, I lived in the bottom floor bedroom and I would go to bed with a sweatshirt, a stocking cap, and ski gloves. You could see your breath in my room,” Fetzer says.

During the time they lived together, Fetzer, not Burr, was the one interested in politics. That summer, a prominent Republican lawyer, Fred Hutchins, hosted a fundraiser at his residence for John P. East, a political science professor from East Carolina University. He was running to defeat Sen. Morgan in the 1980 election, the same senator who exposed the spy agencies’ wrongdoings. Fetzer was friends with Hutchins’s daughter and Hutchins asked him to bartend for the event. It was there that Fetzer met Thomas F. Ellis, the top strategist for East and Helms, who had also helped engineer Ronald Reagan’s 1976 primary victory in North Carolina. “Come see us when you finish school,” Ellis told Fetzer. When classes were completed that fall, Fetzer went to Raleigh to meet Ellis and was hired for $850 a month to work in East’s campaign. In November 1980, East defeated Morgan by a little more than 10,000 votes.

For the next decade, Burr continued to work for Carswell as a salesman. He married a girl from nearby Salem College, Brooke Fauth, and they had two boys (Fetzer is godfather to their oldest son). Fetzer kept active in politics and in 1988, he challenged incumbent congressman David Price, a Democrat from the Triangle. “Even though George Bush won the presidential election I got soundly trashed,” Fetzer says.

During a Christmas visit to the Burrs following that defeat, Burr informed Fetzer he might run for Congress. “We were in his kitchen and I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, the boys are getting to be of age and I’m really worried about where this country is headed, what kind of future they’re going to have. It’s something I want to do.’ I never saw it coming,” Fetzer says. “But Richard turned out to be a natural politician.”

* * *

Between 1969 and 1975, North Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District was represented by a former pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell. After Watergate he was defeated by a 40-year-old mortgage banker and newspaper publisher, Stephen L. Neal, a Winston-Salem native.

I remember Neal as a centrist Democrat who was able to hold on through the Reagan and Bush landslides of the ’80s. In 1992, Burr declared against him. “We will run a campaign based on a theme of ‘It’s time to make Washington work again.’” (Has it ever?) He came to the Wake Forest campus, where I was a student, looking for support that fall. His pitch was that he was prompted to run by “lack of representation” from Neal. After a year in which the insurgent candidacies of Patrick J. Buchanan and Ross Perot revealed voter outrage toward the establishment, Burr’s anodyne message was ill-suited for the political climate.

When he spoke to a small meeting in the Benson Center that I attended, he said, “I truly believe we’re at a crossroads in America this year. America must choose between decay and prosperity. As long as our policy is anti-business… anti-growth, we are not going to change.” In addition to generic platitudes, Burr also expressed support for the line-item veto, something even Reagan couldn’t get passed despite pushing for it during his two terms.

Nobody on the national GOP level thought Burr stood a chance at winning, for good reason. Bill Clinton was running for president at the top of the Democratic ticket and Neal dismissed Burr as a “Japanese-appliance salesman.” (As a top North Carolina Democrat puts it, “At that time, Japanese products were not real welcome here in North Carolina.”) Sure enough, Burr went down to defeat.

“We thought we had a shot,” Chuck Greene says. He was just out of Wake Forest and worked as Burr’s western field director. “Actually, we didn’t do too bad. If you look at the final outcome, and it being a big Democratic year with Bill Clinton’s victory, and Steve Neal outraising us, to get to 47 percent, where we ended—we thought that was pretty good.”

For Republicans in Washington, the race put Burr on the map. As for Neal, he decided to get out while he was still ahead.

* * *

In 1994, North Carolina had a “blue moon election,” as it’s known in the state, a rarity where contests for the Senate or governor aren’t on the ballot. President Bill Clinton had grown unpopular in North Carolina and Hillary’s plan to overhaul health care had hit roadblocks. Sensing an opportunity to chalk up a win, then-House minority whip Newt Gingrich put the big GOP money behind him. Burr raised more than $600,000. For the first time since 1972, the Fifth District seemed winnable for Republicans. Neal announced his retirement and Democrats drafted state senator Alexander “Sandy” Sands as their successor to Neal.

While the GOP pushed Gingrich’s Contract with America as its nationwide theme, the biggest local issue was NAFTA. Burr declared his support for the free trade agreement and followed the party line that NAFTA would be a winner for the district. He also attacked Sands for raising his own salary while in the General Assembly. “That was technically not correct,” Sands recalls. “We voted as a legislature to adopt the budget which gives every state employee a certain percentage raise. It applies to everybody, and never went into effect until you got reelected.”

That November, Burr won with 57 percent. SALESMAN BURR HEADS TO WASHINGTON was the headline in the Charlotte Observer. There was a pullout quotation from Burr’s wife, Brooke: “He was always a leader. He was on the football team. He was in a fraternity. He never missed a Sunday at church.”

Before Burr was sworn into office, he met with his campaign strategist Paul Shumaker. “You have ten years to find a landing place for me statewide,” he said. His message to Shumaker was, I believe in term limits, and five terms is the most I am going to serve in the House. For the next few years, “We went through a process of preparing him to run statewide and building relationships,” says Shumaker.

It didn’t take Burr long to master the way people in Washington speak without saying anything. Appearing with a group of House Republicans in 1995 to announce the formation of a group called the Mainstream Conservative Alliance, Burr said the mission was “fiscal sanity.” He declared, “Solutions are bipartisan. We’ve got a long way to go in this institution, but this is the first step of one that I think will be many in the foreseeable future and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Later that fall, Burr appeared at a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, the Washington Issues Seminar, moderated by Rep. Bill Hefner, an old-line Democrat and former gospel singer in the Harvesters Quartet, who represented the Eighth District. In the morning session, Hefner urged everyone to get their coffee and danish and settle in as he introduced the new congressman. “Richard’s a very articulate young man from Winston-Salem, and in just the short while that he’s been here, I’ve learned to have a great amount of respect for him.”

Burr strode to the front wearing his horizontal striped tie and congressional pin, shaking a few hands as he moved along. He joked about trying to work his way through Gingrich’s reading list. Referring to the 53 Republicans who got elected nationwide with him, Burr said, “This is not a partisan class,” even though what had happened was considered a political revolution and the first time the GOP would have control of Capitol Hill since 1952.

Before signing off, Burr acknowledged another participant in that morning’s affair, Albert R. Hunt, Jr., then the Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, and also a graduate of Wake Forest, class of 1965. Hunt was one of the most prominent mediocrities in all of Washington journalism, always a reliable source of useless conventional wisdom and left-wing takes. Outside the Beltway, reporters marveled at how Hunt kept his job. But Burr took a different approach. “I don’t think there’s an individual who has a better grasp of what’s happening in the city,” he said. When I heard that line, I knew Richard was well on his way to punching all the right tickets for success in D.C.

* * *

“Are you familiar with Wilkes County?” Neal Cashion, the former mayor of North Wilkesboro, asks me. He’s describing the long odds he faced in 1996 when he tried to unseat Richard Burr. “I’ve lived here all my life. Hell, when you live here and you’re a Democrat, you have to fight the weather, the devil, and the Republican Party—and just about in that damn fashion, to tell you the truth about it.” I checked, and the last Democrat to carry Wilkes County for president was Andrew Jackson, in 1832. Cashion says Governor Jim Hunt asked him to run to fill the Democratic ticket. “They needed a full slate that year,” he says.

He recalls putting some $100,000 of his own money into the race, and getting a little help from the Democratic Party, but it was impossible to persuade big business to give him a listen. Cashion called the Miller High Life plant in Rockingham County to ask if he could tour and meet the workers, and executives said, no, we’re for Richard Burr, we can’t let you in here.

“The Clinton-Gore bunch came out against tobacco so, you know, it was kind of like standing on the corner raising money,” Cashion recalls, “wishing in one hand and taking shit in the other and seeing which fills up first.”

Burr and Cashion did meet for one debate, in Winston-Salem. “I probably did a pretty good job,” Cashion says. “That was my first ever debate as any kind of a candidate. In a small-town race you don’t have that type of thing. That’s where Burr kept bragging about being a Presbyterian minister’s son. They made a video of it.”

How did you size up Richard Burr? I asked. “He was very polished, very familiar with the issues, he was in Newt Gingrich’s pocket.”

Cashion says, “I’m not a Richard Burr fan. I always thought his daddy was a nice fella. He used to come up here and preach in our church some. His son didn’t like staying a Presbyterian for one reason or another.” The Burrs now attend Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, known more for the social climbing of its members than the teachings of its reverend.

“I grew up in my grandfather’s house and my grandfather was a big Presbyterian,” Cashion says. “And you always hear about, ‘Well, we got to do this for the preacher, we’ve got to help the preacher’s son do this, we’ve got to help the preacher’s wife do that, we’ve got to help the preacher’s daughter’—always wanting to do something for the preacher’s young’uns, all the time having to take up a collection. And it made me think, Burr bragged about being a Presbyterian minister’s son and the first time he gets a chance he changes his religious affiliation to something else. I thought, damn, what a traitor. It’s the damn truth. He sucked on the Presbyterian teat for years, and then spit it out for some reason.”

With the district leaning more Republican, Burr carried 62 percent of the vote and secured his place in Washington. Neil Cashion says he’s happy these days just watching the Golf Channel.

* * *

In February 1999, a small group of businessmen who supported Burr asked him to run for governor. Shumaker talked Burr out of it by saying they were looking to protect their own business interests. “My job is to protect your interest,” Shumaker told him. “You’re not ready for this, nor is this your issue set.”

Burr stayed in Congress and, after 9/11, grew to believe that spies were the first line of defense against the jihadists. He took a spot on the House Committee on Intelligence, where he sat next to Nancy Pelosi and questioned top intelligence officials. In October 2002, he voted in favor of the war in Iraq and became a strong supporter of President George W. Bush. He began to view the FISA court and the Patriot Act as tools spies could use to beat back the terrorist threat.

When top political aides in the Bush White House went looking for potential U.S. Senate candidates to run for 2004, Burr impressed them as being someone they could rely on. (“Their main criteria were people who would do what they wanted,” says longtime North Carolina political strategist Carter Wrenn, who worked for Helms and East.) Karl Rove says he talked to the Burrs—“he does not make a political decision without his wife, Brooke, she’s very smart”—and told them that if Richard decided to run, “we’re in, money, marbles, and chalk.”

Burr never had to worry about an election again. His commitment to deal-making was viewed in the Senate as serious-mindedness and earned him plaudits from Teddy Kennedy and Harry Reid. Among GOP Senate leadership, Burr was the workhorse guy. There’s no drama with him, he’ll put his head down. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Burr turned to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the spy agencies for guidance on next steps. McConnell groomed Burr to take the place of the retiring vice chairman on the Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia (one of Burr’s close friends).

While the tobacco, textiles, and furniture industries that once filled little cities all across North Carolina closed, Burr grew to love the briefings and the collegiality with the spymasters. He even refused to condemn waterboarding. In 2013, during an interminable hearing with CIA director John Brennan, Burr joked, “I’m going to try to be brief because I notice you’re on your fourth glass of water, and I don’t want to be accused of waterboarding you.” He said he considered any effort to hold hearings on CIA torture as an attempt to smear the Bush administration. When a staffer for Sen. Dianne Feinstein discovered that the CIA was spying on committee computers, Burr didn’t seem to be bothered by it. Living in the world of espionage—“It’s what he gets up and breathes for,” says one former aide.

* * *

If Donald Trump’s trip down the escalator in 2015 revealed anything, it was that he did not belong to The Club. As Gore Vidal describes in his 1967 novel Washington, D.C., “No one was ever quite sure who belonged to The Club since members denied its existence, but everyone knew who did not belong.” Burr knew right off that Trump was not a member, nor would he ever be. This was reinforced when Trump said the espionage business was a waste of money and incompetent, insofar as they missed the end of the Cold War, 9/11, WMD, and the rise of China.

I spent a year conducting the Playboy Interview with former NSA and CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden when Trump was running for president. The last spymaster to sit for a Playboy Interview was William Colby in 1978. Colby’s more than 10,000-word interview maintained the tradition of publicly staying out of domestic politics. Hayden’s did not.

In August 2016, Hayden and other former national security officials, from the Nixon to the Bush administrations, signed an “open letter” that was publicized through every media outlet in the world. “Trump has dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” they wrote. “We are convinced that he would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being. None of us will vote for Donald Trump.” Trump responded by saying that people such as Hayden were the same ones who brought us the war in Iraq and allowed Americans to die in Benghazi.

Days after Trump was elected, President Obama ordered our 17 intelligence agencies to conduct an investigation and write a report about alleged Russian interference in the election. The report was released to the public on January 6, 2017. It said that all of the spy agencies were in agreement that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. Presidential election.” The document was a tool meant to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s election.

With six years remaining in his political career, Burr was in the position to correct the narrative that the election was stolen by Putin for Trump, as chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence. He refused to push back and decided that he was going to undertake the same investigation that Obama had ordered, except this time run it through the Senate committee.

A few days later, BuzzFeed published the notorious “Steele Dossier,” written by a British spy, Christopher Steele, who hated Trump and was paid by Hillary’s campaign. The document portrayed Trump as a Russian stooge cavorting with prostitutes in Moscow. Despite its lack of evidence, it circulated among top U.S. spies, who seemed to relish reading and disseminating it. Over Twitter and in person, President Trump attacked the dossier and the espionage apparatus that generated it.

This “antagonism, this taunting to the intelligence community,” as Rachel Maddow described Trump’s response, caused Hayden, Brennan, NSA director James Clapper, CIA deputy director Michael Morrell, and FBI director James Comey to double down against the president. They broadcast their antipathy for him through a myriad of channels, continued spying on Trump and his advisors, and sought to neutralize him through leaks. Their anger was telegraphed in the interview Sen. Chuck Schumer gave Rachel Maddow shortly after Trump was sworn in. “Let me tell you,” he said, “you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you… From what I am told, they are very upset with how he has treated them and talked about them.”

On March 29, 2017, I watched as Burr appeared on the podium in the Senate Radio-TV Gallery studio. He was sweating as he announced his probe. “Our mission is to earn the trust and respect of the intelligence community so they feel open and good about sharing information with us because that enables us to do our oversight job that much better,” he said.

For the next three years, Burr said he was overseeing “one of the biggest investigations that the Hill has seen in my tenure here.” He didn’t really “oversee” it. He put a longtime aide, Chris Joyner, who had also worked as a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, in charge and ceded considerable authority to the committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner, Democrat, of Virginia. In public, Burr bragged about the extraordinary number of witnesses he and the committee questioned. In reality, some vital witnesses never even laid eyes on Burr.

Tom (I shall disguise his real identity) got subpoenaed by Burr and Warner for “documents related to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.” Tom was ordered to appear in person at the committee or go to jail. Tom hired a lawyer, complied with Burr’s request, and appeared on Capitol Hill for what he thought was going to be an interview with Chairman Burr. “Not only did I not see Burr, but the staff played a game with me where they pretend, ‘Oh we’re so bipartisan, you won’t even be able to guess who works for whom.’ You’ve got all these people in the room with various agendas and in between questions they run outside and leak to the press. A bunch of really shitty, untalented people. In the intelligence community, they’re looked down on as losers and wannabes, people who couldn’t get into the agencies.” In the end, Tom spent close to $250,000 on lawyers and his life was ruined.

Burr and Warner released five volumes of a study that concluded that Russia did what they had been doing since the Bolshevik Revolution—though in 2016 they were so stupid they spent $100,000 on Facebook ads, some of which appeared after the election. Out of some 200 witnesses, none could swear to having any evidence that the Trump campaign colluded, conspired, or coordinated with any member of the Russian government.

While committee staff members were investigating Trump and Russia, FBI agents caught the committee’s director of security, James A. Wolfe, leaking classified and disparaging information about Trump and others close to the president to reporters, including one with whom he was having sex. (“I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else,” Wolfe texted the reporter in 2017. “I always enjoyed the way that you would pursue a story like nobody else was doing in my hallway.”) After Wolfe pled guilty to lying to the FBI and was set to be sentenced to prison, Burr, Warner, and Feinstein wrote to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and beseeched her to give Wolfe leniency. In December 2018 she sentenced Wolfe to two months in prison and fined him $7,500.

At the end of Our Man in Havana, Wormold confesses. His “intelligence” has been a scam. There is no threat. The spymasters in London need to keep this quiet. Determined to avoid embarrassment, they give Wormold an award, the Order of the British Empire, and a prestigious teaching post at headquarters.

Soon after President Trump left office in January, officials at the Department of Justice contacted Burr. For almost a year, they’d investigated him because following a private briefing from intel agencies in early 2020 regarding the coming pandemic, he liquidated his stocks. The Burrs were spared some $250,000 in losses. We won’t be charging you with any crimes, Justice officials at long last informed him.

“The case is now closed,” Burr announced in a statement. “I’m glad to hear it. My focus has been and will continue to be working for the people of North Carolina during this difficult time for our nation.”

John Meroney is contributing editor of Garden & Gun and consulting producer of the upcoming CNN Originals documentary series, The Woman Who Took Down the KKK.

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Cuomo’s Other Negligence Crisis

25 February 2021 @ 7:00 pm

Mike Carey is not surprised that Gov. Andrew Cuomo failed to protect vulnerable New Yorkers in nursing homes during COVID. In fact, as shown in emails he shared, he and others warned Gov. Cuomo’s office in March 2020 that a crisis was forming.

“If you, the governor and all other top NYS mental health officials continue to ignore our whistleblower complaints,” Carey stated in an email to an official in the State of New York Office of People with Developmental Disabilities, on March 23, 2020, “regarding the coronavirus pandemic your negligence could lead to the catastrophic loss of lives of people with disabilities, as well as state and private caregivers.”

Carey knows first-hand how New York Governor Andrew Cuomo deals with New York State’s most vulnerable. Fourteen years ago, his son Jonathan died at a group home after an employee abused him. Jonathan Michael Carey “was developmentally disabled, he had autism and he was non-verbal and only 13 years old when he was killed. Almost all of dozens of safety and abuse prevention bills along with the critical 911 Civil Rights Bill have been blocked from becoming law by the Cuomo administration who runs the mental health care system,” Carey recently stated in a press release on the anniversary of his son’s death on February 15.

Carey’s story was featured in a series of articles in the New York Times in 2011; the publicity led Gov. Cuomo to proclaim he would act to clean up abuses in about one thousand group homes for the mentally challenged throughout New York State. Cuomo created the Justice Center, which was supposed to take over all investigations into abuses at these homes.

Rather than solving the problem, according to Carey, Cuomo’s solution only exacerbated it. He claims the Justice Center has buried most complaints, while accused group home employees have been shuffled from one home to another. He has watched as Cuomo’s administration has acted with impunity, often ruling through executive order and refusing to provide data on complaints of abuse at group homes.

Carey was one of several New York whistleblowers featured in a 2018 documentary entitled Whistleblowers. “It’s not documented, it didn’t happen,” he said in the documentary.  “This agency is a complete fraud,” Carey continued, referring to the Justice Center, “Corrupt to the core and literally burying thousands of cases every single month. Criminal cases.”

He then explained the process by which the state buried these cases. “What the state is doing is circumventing, bypassing the 911 call systems. So, if you’re a victim of a sex crime, basically the call goes from the mandated reporter into a state abuse hotline, which is all internal. They funnel the complaint right back to the facility where the state crime occurred.” He said, “Then, basically, they give the facility all the time and the ability to move and destroy the evidence.”

In 2018, Cuomo fired Jay Kiyonaga after he engaged in “improper and sexually inappropriate acts” directed at female subordinates, according to a 2018 New York Post article. He was then administrator of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs. 

Carey said in the documentary he believes one third of the residents of these group homes continue to be sexually abused in them. The state paid $3 million to the family of a boy abused in one of these homes in 2018; according to a press release from Carey, the abuser called the home“a predator’s dream.” “The lack of supervision there made it easy to do what I did,” he said of the group home system under Cuomo. “I could have stayed in that house for years and abused him every day without anybody even noticing at all.” 

Now, as Cuomo’s controversial decisions regarding his state’s elderly and disabled citizens during the coronavirus crisis come under scrutiny, whistleblowers like Carey recognize the same patterns they have been concerned about for years. In fact, they warned Cuomo’s administration early and repeatedly that New York state’s most vulnerable were not being protected from COVID. 

“Dear Commissioner Kastner: Why is OPWDD sending vulnerable medically frail individuals from OPWDD group homes and non-for-profit agencies to day programs during the COVID-19 outbreak?” one whistleblower asked via email on March 11, 2020. “OPWDD has trained me to take proactive approaches to situations that could jeopardize our individual’s health and well-being.”

“Dear Commissioner Kastner & all others in positions of responsibility. People with disabilities MUST be minimally protected as anyone else,” Carey stated in another email from March 11, 2020. “Neglecting them in this Coronavirus CRISIS would be considered ‘gross & deliberate indifference’ and felony criminal according to NYS penal law 260.25. EMERGENCY ACTION MUST BE TAKEN NOW TO PREVENT DEATHS.”

As in the widely reported nursing home COVID deaths, the extent of the abuse in homes for the disabled was initially obscured, with relevant data hidden. Carey said he only discovered how far the group home crisis went after filing numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and piecing together the data himself. Much like with COVID, the Cuomo administration took significant steps to control the flow of information, denying repeated FOIA requests as Carey continued to ask for data for Justice Center abuse numbers. 

“Dear Records Officer Delia,” Carey says in an email on July 20, 2020, “As you are fully aware, your response is in direct violation of NYS FOIL law. The PUBLIC information I requested is a click of a button away.”

Carey was able to get enough data early on to show that abuse continued to be a huge problem in group homes. In a FOIA request from 2016, Carey asked how many reports the hotline, which was created to handle complaints, received since its inception on June 30, 2013. The response stated the hotline had received 18,145 substantiated complaints and another 37,474 unsubstantiated complaints.”

Carey said in his analysis of current data he’s been able to gather, he estimates this hotline continues to receive approximately 8,000 complaints monthly.

  Damning Justice Center Foil (1) by mikekvolpe on Scribd

An email to Governor Cuomo’s press office was left unreturned.

Michael Volpe has worked as a freelance journalist since 2009, after spending more than a decade in finance. He’s based in Chicago.

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Liz Cheney Lays Down Her Marker

24 February 2021 @ 10:35 pm

“These ideas are just as dangerous today as they were in 1940,” Rep. Liz Cheney told the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute this week, “when isolationists launched the America First movement to appease Hitler.”

It wasn’t subtle.

The most famous Republican in the country to vote to impeach Donald Trump last month all but explicitly linked “America First,” the foreign policy program favored by the former president (and until recently, Cheney’s own party), with the ancestor by the same name. That is, the now-controversial but once reasonably popular “America First” movement that questioned U.S. entry into World War II before the Pearl Harbor attacks. Conventionally hawkish Republicans have been lampooned by critics for incessantly seeing fresh “Munich moments” behind every corner. On that score, Cheney did not disappoint.

She played the hits.

“Weakness is provocative,” Cheney told the forum’s chair, Roger Zakheim. America must be clear-eyed in accepting its exceptionalism, she argued, and implicitly siding with Democratic characterizations of the Trump years, Cheney stuck the knife in further, saying the GOP must not “become the party of white supremacy.”

Cheney is a top member of House Republican leadership, having retained her post following censure by her hometown Republican Party and a failed backbench effort to remove her in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, told reporters emphatically, “yes,” it is appropriate for Trump to speak at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) this weekend in Orlando. Cheney, alongside McCarthy, said equally as emphatically: “I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.” Channeling the anxiety in the high command over the party’s potentially riven future, McCarthy said: “On that high note, thank you very much.”

Cheney’s continued public fusillades against both Trump and Trumpism are a problem for a party licking its chops to get back into power as quickly as possible. Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the party’s main Senate campaign arm, authored a memorandum this week addressed to “Republican voters, activists, leaders and donors” saying in the language of the moment,”the Republican civil war has been canceled.”

Scott, who harbors 2024 presidential ambitions, wrote: “This is real life folks. If they can cancel the President of the United States, they will have no problem cancelling you and me….Today, we must show our Democrat adversaries that, as Mark Twain would say, reports of the death of the Republican coalition and the American Dream are wildly exaggerated. The truth is the exact opposite. The table is set for us.” But it remains to be seen how sharp the knives are on that table.

The divide in the Republican Party is perhaps best understood as four-part.

First, there are those loyal (enough) to the former president who emphasize a more classically Reaganite legacy—low taxes and the like. This includes former White House officials such as Larry Kudlow, who has returned to television on Fox News, and Brooke Rollins, a veteran of the Koch network who has founded a new think tank. Rollins is mulling a future political run in Texas.

Second, there are those loyal to the president who proclaim a thirst for the comeback—that is, that Trump should run in 2024 and seek a rematch with Biden, or whichever successor. Figures who have favored this course in recent weeks include Trump-favorite Rep. Matt Gaetz and former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

Third, there are those (officially, at least) unashamed of the Trump years, but who would also potentially favor a “Trumpism without Trump.” This faction is underrepresented in frontline politics, and perhaps over-represented in intellectual circles.

Former Office of Management and Budget director Russ Vought has started a new policy shop in recent days seeking to preserve the policy gains, as he sees them, of the Trump years. Other groups have signed onto pro-antitrust and anti-Big Tech statements, in a swipe at the party’s more market-deferent old guard.

Figures such as Tucker Carlson of Fox and potential Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance have charted perhaps more independent courses, but are at times seemingly borne back ceaselessly to Trump the man. Take Vance’s recent lamentation of the former president’s deplatforming. Add to that the cold reality that suspicions around voter fraud are now plainly in the party’s mainstream. Trump’s address this weekend in Florida for CPAC, potentially officially declaring a political future, is seen by this group as of preeminent importance.

But fourth and finally, there are those who would like to ignore Trump’s plans—their own plans, plainly, are expungement and restoration. Both Cheney and the Reagan Institute’s Zakheim are progeny of an ousted party elite. Cheney is the daughter, of course, of the former vice president. And Zakheim is the son of the former Pentagon comptroller, Dov Zakheim, who urged a tactical vote for Joe Biden last year.

Introducing her, the younger Zakheim openly flattered the Wyoming representative, comparing her to Margaret Thatcher. “If these past few months have proven anything,” Zakheim said. “It’s that Congresswoman Cheney certainly has the resolve, fortitude and conviction of 21st-century Iron Lady.”

Cheney was once spoken about as future Speaker, but mounting such a bid is now unimaginable, in the current landscape of the House. Only time will tell if political liability will simply make her aim higher—that is, if Cheney is imbued with the ambition to seek the presidency that eluded her father.

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The Lies Aren’t Secret

24 February 2021 @ 5:01 am

Secrecy is the ultimate entitlement program for the Deep State. The federal government is creating trillions of pages of new secrets every year. The more documents bureaucrats classify, the more lies politicians and government officials can tell. In Washington, deniability is prized far more than truth. 

At the end of the Trump era, the Deep State is triumphant at home and abroad. Trump’s epic clashes with federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies helped cripple his administration, and they illustrate the continued danger of Deep State secrecy. If all of the FBI’s shenanigans on Russiagate came to light, it would be far more difficult for the FBI to manipulate American politics and presidents in the future. If CIA records on Syrian rebels were exposed, the Biden administration would have far more difficulty dragging America back into the Syrian civil war. But both seem unlikely. Recent court rulings make clear how badly Trump failed to drain the swamp. 

On January 12, 2017, FBI chief James Comey attested to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court that the Steele dossier used to hound the Trump campaign had been “verified.” But on the same day, Comey emailed then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: “We are not able to sufficiently corroborate the reporting.” That email was revealed last week thanks to a multi-year fight for disclosure by the Southeastern Legal Foundation.

The first three years of Trump’s presidency were haunted by constant accusations that he colluded with Russians to win the 2016 election. The FBI launched its investigation based on ludicrous allegations from a dossier financed by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. In late 2019, an Inspector General report confirmed that the FBI made “fundamental errors” and persistently deceived the FISA Court to authorize surveilling the Trump campaign. 

If the FBI’s deceit and political biases had been exposed in real time, there would have been far less national outrage when President Trump fired Comey. Instead, that firing was quickly followed by the appointment of  Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate the Russian charges. In April 2019, Mueller admitted there was no evidence of collusion. Conniving by FBI officials and the veil of secrecy that hid their abuses roiled national politics for years. Not one FBI official has spent a single day in jail for the abuses. The Bureau’s charade simply confirms the nearly boundless prerogatives of the nation’s most powerful law enforcement agency.

Absurd secrecy rationales also made mincemeat of Trump’s foreign policy. One of Trump’s biggest failures abroad was his failure to end U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. Beginning in 2013, the Obama administration began covertly providing money and weapons to Syrian groups fighting the government of Bashar Assad. The program was a catastrophe from the start: CIA-backed Syrian rebels ended up fighting Pentagon-backed rebels. Much of the U.S. aid ended up in the hands of terrorist groups, some of whom were allied with Al Qaeda. Providing material support to terrorist organizations is a federal crime, except apparently when the weapons are sent by U.S. government agencies. 

Appeals court decisions on Syria FOIA requests epitomize how the “rule of law” now amounts to little more than political appointees reciting empty phrases to rubberstamp federal coverups. Too many federal judges behave on par with the bureaucratic dregs who supervise traffic courts which uphold every speeding ticket that police ever issue.

When Trump tried to end the Syria weapons program, a Washington Post article portrayed his reversal in apocalyptic terms. Trump responded with an angry tweet: “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad.” That disclosure spurred a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the New York Times for CIA records on payments to Syrian rebel groups. The CIA denied the request and the case ended up in court.

CIA officer Antoinette Shiner warned the court that forcing the CIA to admit that it possessed any records of aiding Syrian rebels would “confirm the existence and the focus of sensitive Agency activity that is by definition kept hidden to protect U.S. government policy objectives.” Of course, “kept hidden” doesn’t apply to CIA “not for attribution” bragging to reporters. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius proudly cited an estimate from a “knowledgeable official” that “CIA-backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years.” 

Federal judges, unlike Syrian civilians slaughtered by U.S.-funded terrorist groups, had the luxury of pretending the program doesn’t exist. In a decision last July, the federal  appeals court of the Second Circuit stressed that affidavits from CIA officials are “accorded a presumption of good faith” and stressed  “the appropriate deference owed” to the CIA. The judges omitted quoting former CIA chief Mike Pompeo’s description of his agency’s modus operandi: “We lied, we cheated, we stole. It’s like we had entire training courses.”

Since Trump’s tweet did not specifically state that the program he was seeking to terminate actually existed, the judges entitled the CIA to pretend it was still top secret. The judges concluded with another kowtow, stressing that they were “mindful of the requisite deference courts traditionally owe to the executive in the area of classification.” Judge Robert Katzmann dissented, declaring that the court’s decision put its “imprimatur to a fiction of deniability that no reasonable person would regard as plausible.”

On February 9, another federal appeals court shot down a FOIA request from BuzzFeed journalist Jason Leopold who had sought the same records based on Trump’s tweet. Leopold succeeded at the district court level. Federal Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled in favor of disclosure last November, declaring that “it seems wildly unlikely that, in the eight and a half years since the Syrian civil war began, the Central Intelligence Agency has done no intelligence-gathering that produced a single record even pertaining to payments [to] Syrian rebels.”

But the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia rushed to the rescue of the CIA’s prerogative to deceive the world, or at least American citizens. The court unanimously overturned the earlier ruling, declaring, “Did President Trump’s tweet officially acknowledge the existence of a program? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. And therein lies a problem.” The judges proffered no evidence that Trump had tweeted about a program that didn’t exist. The judges reached into an “Alice in Wonderland” bag of legal tricks and plucked out this pretext: “Even if the President’s tweet revealed some program, it did not reveal the existence of Agency records about that alleged program.” Since Trump failed to specify the exact room number where the records were located at CIA headquarters, the judges entitled the CIA to pretend the records don’t exist.   

In his final months in office, Trump repeatedly promised massive declassification which never came. Was the president stymied by individuals he had unwisely appointed such as CIA chief Gina Haspel and FBI chief Christopher Wray? Or was this simply another series of empty Twitter eruptions which Trump failed to follow up? Instead, his legacy is another grim reminder of  how government secrecy can determine political history. There is no reason to expect any sunshine on federal atrocities from the Biden administration. Biden’s Justice Department is continuing the Trump administration’s effort to extradite Julian Assange, whom Biden denounced in 2010 as a “high-tech terrorist.” Will the Biden administration ruthlessly prosecute federal whistleblowers like the Obama administration did?

James Madison, the father of the Constitution, declared in 1798 that “the right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon…has ever been justly deemed, the only effectual guardian of every other right.” Unfortunately, Americans have lost that right. America is becoming an impunity regime, in which government officials pay no price for their abuses. This is not a partisan issue: Republicans and Democrats have partnered for decades to keep Americans in the dark. Vast secrecy means that the political system, regardless of its external forms, is based on blind trust in officialdom. Pervasive secrecy defines down self-government: people merely select their Supreme Deceivers.

James Bovard is the author of Lost RightsAttention Deficit Democracy, and Public Policy Hooligan. He is also a USA Today columnist. Follow him on Twitter @JimBovard.

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We Must Build an Elite for this American Moment

24 February 2021 @ 5:01 am

When Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America, the conservative movement was, at best, unprepared to lend support to his agenda and, at worst, eager to undermine it. As a result, the failure of his administration to implement policy was largely one of personnel. With some notable exceptions, the White House as well as the executive branch departments and agencies were filled with and crippled by saboteurs, grifters, and clueless incompetents who wouldn’t know statecraft if it slapped them across the face.

Make no mistake, even before Trump took office—indeed, essentially as soon as he started making headway in the primary—the permanent power structure in American politics went into overdrive to ensure that its own agenda would endure. That establishment agenda had already unmistakably failed America. Indeed, it was that failure that would swiftly carry an outsider into the White House. Persisting nevertheless, this program ignominiously prioritizes porous borders, endless war, pandering to corporations, attacks on religion, assaults on freedom of expression, and the hollowing out of our economy. This has resulted in family breakdown and cultural degradation.

The permanent power structure almost succeeded in maintaining the status quo. Yes, President Trump was unable to hold on to office. But the record-shattering number of votes he received, and his enduring popularity in the Republican Party, shows something has fundamentally changed not just on the right, but also on the other side of the aisle as well. For according to exit polls, millions who self-identify as Democrats also cast their ballots for Trump. The people are ready for something different.

But apparent as that all is, it belies a simple truth about the last four years. It was the responsibility of supposedly conservative elites—those individuals in think tanks, media, academia, and private industry who possess real power on the American right—to help bring to fruition the agenda that Trump ran and won on in 2016. Our movement, unfortunately, wasn’t ready.

Both in word and deed, our ruling class regularly commits violence against the treasured building blocks of civilization, all while enriching itself and augmenting its own power. While the American left is apparently eager to be led by a ruinous cadre of aloof management consultants, race-hustlers, and literal anarchists, the right is overseen by tired nostalgics, corporate shills, and bow-tie clad “intellectuals” who fiddle while our cities burn. This “conservative” elite class is clamoring to restore its agenda, which proved time and time again to be an electoral disaster and a civilizational dead-end. 

If we don’t form our own elite, one that is patriotic and acts as a champion for the great middle of our nation, the old regime will continue to win, and America will continue to lose. Across time, every society has had an elite—the select group of people whose actions, words, and decisions decisively impact the common good. Yet over the last half-century in America, every institution of elite formation, from higher education to electoral politics to corporate culture, has either been corrupted or atrophied to the point of ossifying, with dire consequences for all of us. 

Over the last few years, there has been a wave of intellectual dynamism on the American right as many new voices sought to grapple with the societal import of Trump’s election and presidency. We benefited extraordinarily from their work. It nourished our worldview, it invigorated our spirit, and, critically, it opened our eyes to what must come next. Our nation and the conservative movement need an agenda informed by priorities that strengthen families, protect America’s national sovereignty, and ensure prosperity for all. Building coalitions, overtaking institutions, and completing the realignment of the conservative movement is the challenge ahead to ensure that happens.

But having the right priorities isn’t enough for this task. Someone can believe all of the right things about immigration, foreign policy, economics, and culture. But if they don’t also have the strategic wisdom and personal character required to lead, they will be swiftly defeated. Virtuous, tactical statesmen, and not only policies, are required for us to succeed.

That is why we launched American Moment. Our mission is to identify, educate, and credential young Americans who will implement public policy that supports strong families, a sovereign nation, and prosperity for all.

We aren’t a mass organization of young people looking to suddenly change the culture, nor do we claim to be philosophers with grand visions for the arc of human history. Rather, we’re focused on constructing an infrastructure for personnel. We’re building the cadre of staffers, operators, and leaders who will do the nuts-and-bolts work behind the scenes. It will be equipped to ensure that things actually get done, that words are met with substantive action, and that the future of American statecraft will prioritize our national interest.

Fortunately, the raw talent needed to meet that challenge is out there in the country. American Moment will spearhead the endeavor to find and connect the young people who will make up a new elite—one that loves its fellow countrymen and seeks their flourishing. We are honored and thrilled to lead this historic cause, and we sincerely hope you will consider joining us.

Saurabh Sharma, Nick Solheim, and Jake Mercier are the Co-Founders of American Moment, an organization dedicated to identifying, educating, and credentialing young Americans who will implement public policy that supports strong families, a sovereign nation, and prosperity for all.

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Ro Khanna Squares Off With UAE Ambassador

23 February 2021 @ 7:00 pm

Why would the ambassador of a country with just 1.5 million citizens feel able to shout at a member of the U.S. Congress? “Because for decades, we have pursued a foreign policy that put their interests ahead of our own,” wrote Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in a tweet. “We created this monster.”

Rep. Ro Khanna’s efforts to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen so infuriated United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba that he went to the California Democrat’s office and screamed at the congressman during a meeting, said Khanna.

“I’ve never had an ambassador of another country come to my office and literally yell at me, but that’s what I had with the ambassador to UAE,” Khanna said during an interview for the Intercept’s podcast “Deconstructed.”

A lead sponsor of a resolution to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen being waged by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Khanna was shocked by the ambassador’s shouting.

“I was just taken away,” Khanna said. “It led me to think that there’s a real arrogance, a real sense of entitlement, a sense that he thought himself so powerful that he could act that way. And I’ve never really seen that before…I just thought this was an indication of how entrenched these interests were.”

While the Congressman, sworn in January 2017, is relatively new to Washington, Otaiba is well known in the rarefied circles of the Washington establishment. Three years ago, Huffington Post published a piece about him that teased: “Yousef Al Otaiba is the most charming man in Washington: He’s slick, he’s savvy and he throws one hell of a party. And if he has his way, our Middle East policy is going to get a lot more aggressive.”

Since 2015, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been at war with the Houthi forces in Yemen. The war has killed 100,000 people in Yemen, including more than 12,000 civilians, as well an estimated 85,000 dead due to famine as the result of the war, according to ACLED. Six years of war in Yemen has also left 2.3 million children under 5 years old facing acute malnutrition in 2021, with 400,000 of those children at risk of dying without urgent treatment, according to the United Nations World Food Program.

Otaiba is a key figure in the UAE’s Washington influence game. He was often seen wining and dining members of the Obama administration and Congress; the Four Seasons in Georgetown was his favorite power-breakfast spot, reported the Huffington Post.

“He doesn’t work the tables. People come to him,” says one regular. He makes the perfect Washington dinner guest: A Muslim who’ll raise a glass and offer inside insights on the volatile politics of the region. “He is incredibly savvy,” says a former White House aide. “He throws great social events. He understands how Washington works, how the Hill works, which a lot of these countries don’t. He knows the dynamics and how to pit different entities against each other when he needs to.” Richard Burr, the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says, “I’ve spent probably more time with Yousef than I have anybody.”

…“He’s influential with certain parts of the Hill, making them doubt what this [Obama] administration is doing with regard to Iran. And it feels less partisan because it’s not Israel but an Arab country,” says the second senior U.S. official. The first U.S. senior official added that Otaiba and Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer are very close. “They agree on just about everything,” he says. (Excluding the Palestinians, he clarified.)

The UAE took several key positions that put them at odds with the Obama administration: The Gulf state bitterly protested Obama’s Iran nuclear deal; helped fund the toppling of Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi; and in August 2014, together with Egypt, launched secret bombing raids in Libya to aid anti-Islamist forces. The UAE also temporarily backed out of helping the U.S. in Syria.

After Obama left office, Otaiba cozied up to Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East peace deal architect Jared Kushner. Kushner often left the State Department in the dark as he worked diplomatic back channels, which suited Otaiba just fine. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was caught off guard when Saudi Arabia and UAE announced their blockade of Yemen, according to reports. Tillerson later pushed the two nations to scrap a planned invasion of Qatar, directly after which Tillerson was fired. Leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE later claimed they had worked their back channels and close relationship with Kushner to have Tillerson fired-by-tweet.

These decisions all show Otaiba, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE’s growing regional power and influence during the Obama and Trump years. At one time, it would have been unthinkable for a diplomat from a small country to scream at a congressman from a nuclear powerhouse like the United States. 

“But the UAE now considers itself to be part of the management team when it comes to overseeing the U.S.-led Western global project,” reports the Intercept. “Otaiba’s posture toward Khanna reflects the evolving nature of the world’s governing elite.”

Khanna had earned Otaiba’s wrath by sponsoring efforts in the House that would end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen. The legislation matched a war powers resolution Sen. Bernie Sanders had introduced in the Senate in 2017. In 2019, the resolution passed both chambers, but Trump vetoed it.

A representative of the UAE in Washington, D.C., denies the ambassador raised his voice at Khanna, but the ensuing controversy has led to an interesting development. Last week, Otaiba invited Khanna, outspoken opponent of the war in Yemen, to join the diplomat on his official podcast.

“Over thirteen years in Washington, and even longer in public service, I have raised many issues with many people—but I have never once raised my voice,” Otaiba wrote to Khanna. “Making my point directly and calmly is more my style. And that’s how I remember all of our meetings. Let’s prove the point that two passionate advocates can have another direct and calm discussion about serious issues.”

In an official letter, Khanna responded by saying that he could not appear on Otaiba’s podcast unless the diplomat used his influence to secure the release of Adel Al-Hasani, a well-known Yemeni journalist imprisoned for over five months by forces aligned with the UAE. Al Hasani’s attorney said he has been tortured in prison and is in declining health.

“Right now, it would not be appropriate for me to appear on your podcast while a well-known journalist is detained with the support of your government,” Khanna wrote in the letter. “Al-Hasani’s release [would] highlight the pivotal role the UAE can play in building bridges between disparate groups in the Middle East and the US, and how both of our nations can help bring an end to the war in Yemen.”

As one of his first acts on foreign policy, President Joe Biden ended U.S. support for Saudi-led offensive operations. Khanna said he is not yet ready to reintroduce his war powers resolution, because he wants to give the Biden administration and regional forces time to end the conflict.

“What activists must now advocate for is for President Biden to say these words: ‘All bombing and war funding to Yemen must stop’,” said Khanna. “We have a moral duty to act to end the war, not just wash our hands of it. We can always tell the Saudis we will stop providing tires for their airplanes if they continue to bomb.”

The peculiar arc of this story, from the shouting, to the war powers resolution, to the podcast invite, all show something we don’t see very often in Washington anymore: the power that individual members of Congress can wield, should they choose to use it.

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Sobran, Fusion, and Realignment

23 February 2021 @ 5:01 am

M. Joseph Sobran, Jr., was a raging lib. Nobody wants to hear this, but it’s true. The controversial columnist—who would have been 75 today—would have made John Locke blush like a schoolgirl.

More on that later. Before any satisfactory account can be made of what Joe Sobran was (and why it matters), what he was judged to be must be addressed. Sobran was fired from National Review after a protracted dispute about alleged anti-Semitism, and now tends to be mentioned only in sanctimonious whispers, as a hard-right crank and certified loon.

His focus—some called it an obsession—on Israel’s supposed inadequacy as an ally of the United States led to charges, first by Norman Podhoretz before being picked up by William F. Buckley (Sobran’s boss and sometime mentor), that Sobran was an anti-Semite. Buckley, to his credit, agonized over the allegations. Perhaps less to his credit, he published his agonizing for the world to see, first as a single-essay issue of National Review, and then, with copious responses (including Sobran’s own) in book form as In Search of Anti-Semitism.

Sobran’s early responses in his defense noted that Buckley never actually accused him of being an anti-Semite. “All he really did—to Pat [Buchanan], Will Buckley [Sr.], and me—was to juxtapose us with the word ‘anti-Semitism,’ which is in itself enough to create a foul impression, no matter what the logical and syntactical ligaments may be.” These first rebuttals display Sobran in his prime, and NR‘s John O’Sullivan even called Sobran’s contribution to the book “a fine example of the polemicist’s art.”

But as time went on, Sobran—perhaps from the pang of what he felt was betrayal, perhaps from bitterness at the loss of his career—began to spiral downward. His savage wit devolved at times into gratuitous cruelty, with some later newsletters and columns calling into question the insistence of his NR colleagues that the Joe Sobran they knew was not capable of hatred. His infamous 2002 appearance before the Institute for Historical Review, which peddles in Holocaust denial, cannot be excused. If there is any explanation to be found for Sobran’s reprehensible actions in later life, it may be in O’Sullivan’s own concern expressed in the foreword to In Search of Anti-Semitism:

It cannot be in anyone’s interest to drive people into anti-Semitism by accusing them of it peremptorily. If the venial sins of the Right are first equated with more serious left-wing offenses and then punished with still greater severity, they are likely to become mortal: mortal sins, mortal wounds, perhaps both. If so, the result will be needless bitterness, broken friendships, a harsher tone in conservative debate, and the waste of some remarkable talents.

It was the spiral of these later years, as much as the Podhoretz-Buckley condemnation, that stained the man’s memory for so many who might otherwise find great value in his work. Joe Sobran thus cannot be absolved for the pall that has fallen over his legacy. But anybody who studies the full saga carefully and with a fair mind will conclude that the pall should not have fallen so heavily.

It is, therefore, welcome that reevaluations of Sobran’s legacy have abounded in the decade since his death. But their substance has been almost uniformly restricted to a plea that the man not be judged by his darkest hour. This singular focus has, of course, left much unsaid about his finer ones.

His was a rare talent, fueled by a remarkable mind. A friend of Sobran’s once revealed his process to me: Forty minutes before his deadline, Joe would stroll into the NR office with a stack of assorted newspapers, plant himself at his desk, light up a cheap Italian cigar, and spend half his time paging through the papers until inspiration hit. Then he would crank out a column, pristine, in twenty minutes.

In caliber of writing, he was surpassed among conservatives only by the masterful D. Keith Mano (his NR colleague), and in clarity of thought he was entirely unmatched. As Matthew Scully put it in an NR obituary, “[Sobran’s] was a style that looked easy, except no one else could duplicate it, making points that seemed obvious, except no one else had thought of them. The quality of Joe’s thinking was so evident that you could forget to compliment the quality of the writing.”

But what “Joe’s thinking” actually was may surprise those who have only heard him mentioned in passing as a crank. His admirers typically call him a paleoconservative, and that’s one way of looking at it. But the defining feature of Sobran’s work is an intense commitment to a particular understanding of freedom. That he was a conservative is indisputable, given his eloquence on the importance of tradition or his vicious invectives against the evils of abortion. This was no reflexive apostle of license, as many are who bear the “libertarian” label today. Yet that, too, was a label Sobran bore proudly.

The best encapsulation of Sobranism may be found in Pensees: Notes for the Reactionary of Tomorrow, a long essay (just short of 32,000 words) published in NR in 1985. Sobran’s remarkable body of work, exemplified in Pensees, should remind the reactionary of today he can love liberty, hate government, and still remain in the right; that there is, in fact, a militant philosophy of freedom that cannot be reduced to crack, porn, sodomy, and guns; that maybe, just maybe, there is a possible libertarianism not consumed by degeneracy.

His thesis is deceptively simple, rooted in two principles: humility and gratitude. A conservative is a person who sees that the world is good, rejoices in that goodness, and recognizes that he would not do very well to remake it from scratch. Just as this worldview, planted as it is firmly on the ground, discourages utopian endeavors, so too it mandates the preservation of what good we have built through conservative action:

The world is inexpressibly complex. Every individual is a mystery to every other, so much so that communication is difficult and fleeting. Moreover, the past is a mystery too: very little of it can be permanently possessed. We have various devices—words, rituals, records, commemorations, laws—to supply continuity as forgetfulness and death keep dissolving our ties with what has existed before.

There is no question of “resisting change.” The only question is what can and should be salvaged from “devouring time.” Conservation is a labor, not indolence, and it takes discrimination to identify and save a few strands of tradition in the incessant flow of mutability.

The same humility that inspires this traditional conservatism must be applied, as Sobran sees it, to every act of government. Drawing on Aristotle, he points to the plain ideal of “few laws, seldom changed.” At times, Sobran’s reverence for habitual rhythm, for the preexisting order of things, approaches something like natural law philosophy. At others, his pragmatic approach to cultural sensibilities, to the limits and prerogatives of government, presages Michael Warren Davis’s sensibilism. On the whole, Sobran’s vision suggests the “politics of limits” that TAC’s executive director has emphatically endorsed.

Of course, at the time Sobran was writing—two, three, and four decades ago—the institution most in need of a reminder of its limits was the state. (This is not to say that the state no longer needs such a reminder; only that it now has a great many rivals.) On the one hand this was a practical matter: “Maintenance,” Sobran wrote, “is a demanding activity, and the state that maintains a traditional order against all the forces of decay is not ‘doing nothing.’ It is doing plenty. It is doing nearly all we can or should ask.” But it was also a matter of principle. Freedom is worth preserving, and a government that denies its citizens’ freedom—or a government action that impedes it—does not deserve conservatives’ support.

This is where Sobran’s principal value lies for us today. As, post-Trump, conservatives attempt to mold a new agenda, and to give it philosophical support, the manifest failures of fusionism (and of neoconservatism) tempt many to abandon the idea of a freedom-loving liberal conservatism altogether. But Sobranism situates liberty in its proper place: a high place, far preferable both to no place and to the highest place. Freedom is a substantive thing—not merely the negative freedom of Hayek (whom Sobran cites frequently, and approvingly), but a positive set of conditions which must be met for a person to live a meaningfully free life. Man cannot be free in chaos.

If anyone can resurrect the dead idea of fusionism in 2021, it may be Joe Sobran’s ghost—an eminently unlikely champion. Though thinkers on the right today tend to remember liberal-traditional fusion as a relic of the National Review era, Sobran’s brand reminds us that freedom is a good thing—if only an intermediate good—and it should not be a) abandoned in the pursuit of other ends, or b) mistaken for an ultimate end unto itself. Sobranite fusionism is not an attempt to reconcile wild liberty with restrictive order, but a humble recognition that real liberty quite simply does not exist without order underlying it, and that order is a natural—perhaps supernatural—thing, beyond human powers to create and barely within human powers to affect. The only good government is the one that recognizes that, and upon that recognition labors diligently both to preserve “a traditional order against all the forces of decay” and to foster the righteous freedom that such order makes possible.

Like other lovers of freedom, from Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn to Hans-Herman Hoppe and beyond, Sobran flirted with the crown. “At least we know that a hereditary monarch didn’t seek the job and didn’t need a sociopath’s skills to get it. If power must be given to someone, maybe it’s wisest to impose it on someone who has no choice about it.” But in the end—after making the acquaintance of Hoppe and his mentor, Murray Rothbard—Sobran settled on a philosophical anarchism.

He can hardly be blamed for this. If the two tasks of government are maintaining traditional order and preserving the freedom of citizens, the state had manifestly failed on both counts in Sobran’s lifetime, and can hardly have expected to keep hold of his faith. (The situation has certainly not improved.) That Sobran at last abandoned the state is not, in fact, entirely surprising, given that the chief goods of life—the proper ends of politics—as he saw them, were effectively outside its purview. The scene that opens Pensees is indispensable:

At certain moments I find myself enjoying life in a certain way. I may be alone, or with friends, or with my family, or even among strangers. Beautiful weather always helps; the more trees, the better. Early morning or evening is the best time. Maybe someone says something funny. And while everyone laughs, there is a sort of feeling that surges up under the laughter, like a wave rocking a rowboat, that tells you that this is the way life should be.

Moments like that don’t come every day, aren’t predictable, and can’t very well be charted. But the main response they inspire is something like gratitude: after all, one can’t exactly deserve them. One can only be prepared for them. But they do come.

This may seem a thousand miles from politics, and such moments rarely have anything to do with politics. But that is just the point.

This is, for Sobran, the beginning and end of the political: to foster and protect the good life. Anything that cannot do that is utterly useless, and anybody who refuses to is pretty much the same. Sobranite politics are about escaping politics altogether, about preserving the kind of world in which people are properly free—not merely free from direct impositions, but free to live well. Whatever you call that—libertarianism, fusionism, anarchism, crackpottery—is all I want to call myself, and all a decent conservative movement should ever aim to be.

The post Sobran, Fusion, and Realignment appeared first on The American Conservative.

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Tom Cotton Further Positions Himself as Trump’s Heir

22 February 2021 @ 5:01 am

Sen. Tom Cotton is still a young man in a hurry.

A near-certain 2024 candidate, Cotton is quietly hatching his next plans, picking up his appearances on Fox News and having the conversations with mentors and potential donors that all would-be young presidents do. But, of greatest importance, the Arkansas senator (perhaps very cleverly) has split the baby on the voter fraud imbroglio that has riled the Republican Party.

Cotton declined to object to the certification of the Electoral College vote, as rival senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley did, but did not break with Donald Trump personally. Meanwhile, after registering her disappointment with him in a revealing profile by Tim Alberta, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley can’t get the former president to return her calls. And if you’ve turned on the news lately, you would have noticed neither Hawley nor Cruz can catch much of a break, with slip-ups of their own making.

But Cotton is, generally speaking, drawing neither the media’s nor a president-in-exile’s fire. Though he never risked going down with the Trump ship, if Cotton is catching his attention, it is, strikingly, only to the senator’s political benefit.

Cotton recently heaped praise on Trump in a new report on China. Succinctly titled “Beat China,” the report advocates for “targeted decoupling” with the country, a phrase only factions of the Trump administration ever threatened.

“The Trump administration’s most consequential policy will prove to be, in my opinion, a tougher stance against the People’s Republic of China,” Cotton writes. “This approach deserves praise, and it ought to form the starting point for a long-term, bipartisan national strategy. The ultimate objective of that strategy should be, to quote the document that launched this country’s ultimately successful strategy against the Soviet Union, the ‘breakup or the gradual mellowing’ of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) power.”

Elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, and then the Senate in 2014, Cotton had considered a presidential run as early as 2016, according to those familiar with the situation. Once Trump secured power in Republican politics, Cotton endorsed him with a gusto that other party elites did not, proclaiming his support for the new standard-bearer at the 2016 convention. Vanquished 2016 contenders Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, for example, were more recalcitrant, with the Florida senator appearing just by video (well before that became a COVID-era norm) and the Texas senator notoriously urging a vote of conscience (before reversing himself that autumn).

When Trump triumphed, administration acolytes tried to recruit Cotton to serve as either CIA director or Defense secretary. Cotton, by most accounts, took a hard pass on a stint in the Trump White House. It was another move in a long line of careful calculations, and another subtle distinction from his conservative rivals.

Cotton was seen in conservative circles as a younger, if more secretive, version of Mike Pompeo, a politician a decade his senior. Speculation about his joining the Trump team reached its apex as the hawkish duo of Pompeo and John Bolton took over the administration’s foreign policy, while Trump perpetually struggled to assert his control over the Pentagon to any degree. Though the two were seen as basically an item in Washington for much of their tenures, Bolton now feuds with Pompeo, openly deriding Trump as unfit for service and chiding Pompeo for nakedly positioning himself for the presidency.

Set to duel in 2024, and occupying remarkably similar turf, it’s plausible a similar fate could befall the Cotton and Pompeo relationship. Contrasting their approaches to taking Republicans back to power, then, may be useful.

While Pompeo is formally banned from and sanctioned by the People’s Republic, with his new report, Cotton is not shy about trying to claim the China topic for himself. The status of Taiwan is a particular point of focus.

“To be sure, the [Chinese Communist Party] will risk a military conflict to preserve its hold on power at home—for example, to secure control over Taiwan—or if tempted by American irresolution,” Cotton writes. Lyle Goldstein of the U.S. Naval War College calls Taiwan “the most dangerous place on Earth.” And many regional experts believe that Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, will mount an invasion this decade. The most aggressive leader since Mao, he will almost certainly secure a third term in office, unprecedented in the modern era.

If Cotton goes further in the coming years, and explicitly vows a military response to such an invasion as president, he will be out of the gate ahead of his competitors. Himself a product of elite institutions, Cotton signals that he realizes corporate America leans heavily Democratic, and is skeptical of a changing of the guard on China: “The most significant domestic resistance will come from the China Lobby: American and Western companies profiting off economic integration with China.”

Cotton is an old antagonist of Iran realists, spearheading the effort to tell the Iranians in 2015 that Barack Obama’s nuclear deal (JCPOA) with Tehran would be null and void under a Republican president; every Republican, even realist Rand Paul, signed on. Regardless of what you think of the maneuver, Cotton ended up being right about what would happen. The deal was null and void under Trump, with Iran hawkishness seemingly the price that had to be paid for a conservative president who was otherwise more skeptical of intervention in the Middle East than any president in a generation. It’s extremely unclear if President Joe Biden will be able to spend or is truly interested in parting with major political capital to revive it.

Cotton, in some ways, is up to his old tricks with a Democratic president. He joined, if not led, the chorus of Hill skeptics of the appointment of Robert Malley, who led negotiations as special envoy on Iran. But there’s something theatrical about the conflict, with the stakes on the Malley appointment seemingly performative, and both sides dug in.

Biden might not move much on Iran, a deeply incendiary issue that will attract a full-court press from the Iran-hawk chorus in Washington. He is getting in his subtle digs, like pointedly only calling Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a conservative who threw in hard with Trump, weeks and weeks after assuming power. But Biden watched his younger, more charismatic predecessor, Barack Obama, struggle mightily on the Iran issue (even getting turned down for a majority Jewish country club after his presidency), and in the end, for what? While the president has appointed Malley, Biden has notably not thrown a bone to Ben Rhodes, the bête noire of the Iran hawks. Those who would still seek a less stringent approach, then, to the country are in a funk. “Biden is, in effect, continuing Trump’s failed ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” national security analyst Joe Cirincione concludes in a Quincy Institute publication.

While Cotton doesn’t think that approach has failed, he might not think it’s very interesting—or, at least, one that has mass popularity. The senator notably singled out “endless wars” in his 2020 convention speech last summer. Cotton is certainly still an Iran hawk, even an uber-hawk, but recent activity makes clear it is China that is increasingly commanding his focus. One can see here an emerging distinctions between Cotton and Pompeo, who ran a patently neoconservative State Department and, when asked about “endless wars,” said “endless wars are a direct result of weakness.”

If Cotton has a second issue after China, it’s the new culture war. Cotton’s social media feed is replete with castigations of teachers’ unions for keeping America’s public schools closed. And he has set himself apart as the leading, unabashed advocate of military force to repel violent protesters—of all stripes.

Pompeo, on the other hand, has gone the other way, diving further into stateside Iran and Israel trench warfare. This is a gambit to corner the neoconservative-inclined donor base, as he touts his record on Israel to Evangelicals in the early-voting states of Iowa and South Carolina. It could work.

Pompeo tweeted of a former official who is not in the Biden administration:

Critics pointed out that it is probably not what Rhodes said, and noted that Rhodes is himself Jewish; they also dredged up Pompeo’s record of inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims.

And what did Cotton have to say about any of this? For not the first time in recent months, he was studiously quiet.

The post Tom Cotton Further Positions Himself as Trump’s Heir appeared first on The American Conservative.

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Berkshire Hathaway’s Pipeline Payday

19 February 2021 @ 5:01 am

In the last days of January, after freshly sworn-in President Joe Biden promptly took his executive axe to the Keystone XL pipeline, an explainer began to circulate on Facebook. Over a nondescript image of a pipeline segment cresting a vaguely Midwestern-looking hill, the post claimed:

The Keystone pipeline. Cancelled by Biden on first day. Warren Buffet [sic] owns the railroad that is now transporting all that oil. Warren Buffet donated 58 million to Biden campaign. Warren Buffet would lose billions in transport fees if the pipeline is completed. See how politics works? It is not an environmental issue, it is a money issue…

It paints a nice picture. The pieces all fall into place, and they line up pretty well with our prior knowledge of the players involved. They don’t call him Quid Pro Joe for nothing, right? And it would hardly be the first time Berkshire Hathaway used political influence to kill a pipeline project, as Arthur Bloom’s work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline here at TAC shows. Thankfully, the arbiters of truth and democracy come quickly to dispel our illusions. Fact checks from Politifact, Reuters, and the Associated Press all rate the post false, pointing to a few key pieces of evidence.

The first is fairly important: Warren Buffett didn’t donate $58 million to Joe Biden’s campaign. That’s not really a surprise; $58 million is a hefty chunk of change, even as a hypothetical percentage of Biden’s $1.69 billion campaign haul—the largest in American history. Buffett is well known for cutting tiny checks, even to the candidates he really loves. Hillary Clinton, who’s essentially what you would get if you plugged Warren Buffett’s fantasies into the computer from Weird Science, pulled a measly $25,000 from the Oracle of Omaha. Joe Biden, whose off days can make even Hillary seem charismatic, could hardly have expected to multiply that number by a factor of 2,320.

In fact, Buffett didn’t even make a small donation to Biden’s 2020 campaign, nor endorse the candidate publicly, according to his assistant Debbie Bosanek, as quoted in the fact checks. This despite Buffett’s reported private affinity for the new president, and Biden’s previous number-two role in Buffett’s beloved Obama administration. Some have suggested that the mega-investor’s uncharacteristic silence this cycle—he went so far as to speak onstage at a Clinton rally last time around—was due to a fear of alienating pro-Trump consumers in an already rocky, mid-pandemic moment for Berkshire Hathaway. Whether or not that explains it, it’s safe to say that Buffett’s campaign-season stinginess is not indicative of any disfavor with President Biden.

Nonetheless, the stinginess is real, and strikes a pretty damning blow to the viral claim. And the specific assertion was hardly credible to start with. If you wanted to pay off a politician in exchange for killing a project you don’t like, wouldn’t you be a little less obvious about it? But the atmosphere of dirty power at the top of our political-economic system is getting harder to deny with each passing day. We live under a kind of loose, elusive oligarchy—a nebulous network of interdependent power-brokers in government and business—that can rarely be tied down to hard money. You scratch Warren Buffett’s back because he’s Warren Buffett, not because he bought you six and a half minutes of television ad time.

Even if we allow a bit of flexibility on the hard claims, though, the fact-checkers take issue with the general principle. Warren Buffett has publicly voiced his support for the Keystone XL project on multiple occasions dating back to 2013. Former Omaha World-Herald staff writer Steve Jordon, who wrote a weekly column on Buffett from 2008 to 2018 (not much happens in Omaha) observed in 2014 that “[Buffet’s] pro-pipeline stance has confounded opponents who think it’s out of line with his support of former President Barack Obama, who blocked the project while in office, and his philanthropic support of humanitarian works.”

But the particular support for Keystone XL should confound observers; the daylight between Warren Buffett and Barack Obama is typically invisible to the naked eye. A marked disagreement on such a high-profile issue should warrant a second look. Scattered, throwaway comments of noncommittal support in CNBC etc. interviews through the years have been taken without question as proof positive of Buffett’s sincere commitment to the pipeline project. Little consideration has apparently been given to the fact that Warren Buffett is a very smart man, and may give some thought to the things he says on national TV.

In fact, Buffett has established a bit of a pattern in these affairs. In 2011, President Barack Obama proposed the Buffett Rule (named for super-fan and super-donor Warren), a 30 percent minimum tax rate for Americans with annual income over one million dollars. Buffett himself had called for a higher tax rate on the super-rich in a 2011 op-ed for the New York Times. The Obama White House was happy to play along, and a Democratic Senate followed suit with the Paying a Fair Share Act of 2012. A legislative filibuster rendered the bill dead on arrival. Of course, Buffett can hardly have been worried that he’d ever get the tax hike he asked for; but even if it had come, as Arthur Laffer pointed out at the time, the “effective tax rate on his true income would hardly budge” given that “Buffett shields almost the entirety of his true income from federal income taxation, and he makes clear his belief that he can do more good with his wealth than Uncle Sam.” It’s easy to beg for higher taxes when you know you won’t have to pay up, and it’s great PR to boot. The same can be said of an oil pipeline that would chip away at your bottom line.

But that brings us to the final objection. Would the Keystone XL pipeline really chip away at Berkshire Hathaway’s bottom line to begin with? The fact-checkers, again, say no. To defend the claim, they cite a number out of context: Only about 3 percent of Canada’s exported crude oil is transported by rail (4 percent goes by truck, and a whopping 93 percent by pipeline). From this small number, combined with Buffett’s public dismissiveness of Keystone XL as a competitor to his railroad, the conclusion is drawn that Berkshire Hathaway—a multinational holding company that ranks within the top-10 largest corporations worldwide by virtually any standard—has no real skin in the game here.

It’s a deceptively small number for a lucrative enterprise that no sensible investor would ever want to lose. After all, 3 percent of the petroleum exporting capacity of the fourth-largest crude oil producer on the planet isn’t exactly a mom-and-pop operation. That number works out to well over 41 million barrels of crude in 2019 (the last year for which the Canadian government has released data) alone. Taking into account the $10-15 per barrel cost of transporting by rail, Berkshire Hathaway’s oil-transport endeavor is somewhere around a half-billion dollar industry. Percentages are tricky. Warren Buffett’s $85-billion net worth is a mere one fortieth (give or take) of 1 percent of all the wealth in the world. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take his place, given the chance.

Even admitting this high valuation at the present moment, however, many will claim that transport by rail is, if not already a thing of the past, at least on its way out the door. Pipelines are the future. With the Keystone XL project—an expansion of an existing pipeline system—decisively nixed by the president, oil will just travel through the pipelines we already have. But this ignores an important, obvious question: Why was the Keystone XL project initiated in the first place? It wasn’t just for fun.

The Keystone XL pipeline project came into being because existing pipelines could not handle surging oil exports. Insufficient transport capacity led to an exporting bottleneck, which in turn led to more crude being delivered from the U.S. to Canada on freight trains, which are both more expensive and significantly more dangerous—prone to accidents harming both humans and the environment—than their pipeline alternative. In 2008, 9,344 train cars full of crude oil arrived in the United States; by 2014 that number had risen to 540,383. (A single car holds, on average, about 650 barrels.) Volume has fluctuated significantly since that 2014 peak, but it is safe to say that this is hardly a dying industry. The facts are clear, if inconvenient: In the absence of expanded pipeline infrastructure, oil does travel by rail. To say otherwise requires the memory-holing of years of contentious, public debate over the relative risks of one versus the other. A single, typical headline from the Washington Post in October of 2018: “As Canadian pipeline plans falter, more oil is moving by rail—prompting familiar fears.”

So, the claim that oil transportation by rail is virtually irrelevant holds very little water. Still, what is Berkshire Hathaway’s real involvement here? Even if, contra the fact-checkers, the freight train business is booming, does Warren Buffett care? John Mitchell, whose incompetence (coupled with Ben Bradlee’s malice) toppled the greatest president this nation has ever seen, at least had the right idea here: watch what they do, not what they say. Yes, Warren Buffett has said—especially while Barack Obama, who was never going to allow the project to go forward, occupied the Oval Office—that Keystone XL might be a nice idea. But the famously cautious investor’s oil-transportation business has been carried out with very little apparent doubt. That is, corporate decision-makers seem reasonably confident that they can count on at least 40 million barrels riding their rails each year, and possibly much more.

In late 2009 (incidentally, the year Obama took office) Berkshire Hathaway took full ownership of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company in a $44-billion deal. The acquisition itself can’t have had anything to do with Keystone—oil is an even smaller part of the rail business than vice versa—but at the same time it can hardly be unimportant to the current discussion that Berkshire Hathaway owns the single largest freight railroad network on the continent. In another point for the Facebook memers and against the professional fact-checkers, excess oil that would have run through Keystone XL really is going to cross our northern border via Buffett-owned railroad lines.

More interesting than the railroads themselves, however, are the cars in which the oil will be carried. Since 2013—two years before President Obama moved to block the Keystone project, when the pipeline controversy was just boiling up—Berkshire Hathaway has been 100-percent owner of the Marmon Group, itself a holding company whose primary business is railroad tank cars. Two of its most important subsidiaries are the Union Tank Car Company (UTLX) in the U.S. and its Canadian affiliate Procor. Each is the largest tank-car company in its country. This would, of course, be an unwise investment if freight rail were about to be made obsolete by pipeline expansion.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. In 2015 (the year Obama finally took action against Keystone XL) the Union Tank Car Company acquired 25,000 new cars, a 20-percent increase in its total holdings. In that same year, the Federal Railroad Administration imposed new, stricter regulations on tank cars used to transport hazardous materials like crude. The expensive process of retrofitting, or the even more expensive process of new construction, would be required of any company that wished to remain in the supposedly fading business. UTLX wasted no time, becoming the very first company to produce new, FRA-compliant DOT-117 tank cars, heavily protected against fire, spills, and other unpleasant accidents.

Even with these new regulations, however, accidents were not entirely eliminated. In June of 2018, 14 retrofitted tank cars derailed while carrying crude oil from Canada on a BNSF line, spilling 230,000 gallons into a state waterway. Berkshire Hathaway had an easy solution: simply ban the use of retrofitted cars—many of which, including those that derailed, were owned by ConocoPhillips—and permit only new-construction DOT-117s on its rails. A happy coincidence for fellow Berkshire Hathaway asset UTLX. The aforementioned pipeline bottleneck had surged tank-car leasing rates by more than 150 percent.

The facts add up to two undeniable conclusions, both of which fly in the face of so-called fact-checks. First, Keystone’s cancellation is going to force more crude oil to travel southward by rail. Canada’s production volume, and our reliance on Canadian imports, are only increasing. Given pipelines’ finite capacity, increases in volume without pipeline expansions inevitably force reliance on rail. And second, this shift will substantially benefit Berkshire Hathaway, which owns both the railroads that will carry the oil and the cars it will be carried in.

Just as in Virginia, when powerful people tied to the company killed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Berkshire Hathaway is the winner in this game. The losers, again as in Virginia, are the workers involved: The killing of the Keystone XL project annihilates roughly 11,000 jobs. Again, the scale is minuscule if you go by percentages—a mere .007 percent of U.S. jobs cost by Biden’s decision; not nearly enough to meaningfully affect the economy’s performance statistics for his first year in office. But at the human level, it’s devastating.

Struggling communities in the Midwest eagerly looked to the Keystone project as an opportunity for economic revival. That revival isn’t coming; nor are the jobs or the cash the pipeline promised to deliver. We are told—with force enough to invite a little doubt—that nobody benefits from their suffering. But if a young South Dakotan is sitting at home right now unemployed, he might take a little stroll down to the train tracks—BNSF-owned, of course. If he waits long enough, a freighter is bound to roll by heading south. Like everything else, it won’t bother to stop in his little town, but if it passes through just slow enough he might be able to make out that ubiquitous yellow “UTLX” stenciled on the sides of the black—all new, leak-proof, fire-resistant—tank cars carrying oil from the north.

The post Berkshire Hathaway’s Pipeline Payday appeared first on The American Conservative.

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From Malthus to Trump? Our Changing Environmental Politics

19 February 2021 @ 5:01 am

There’s an old clip of Gore Vidal from (when else?) 1968 in which our most literate of trolls gazes cooly at his interviewer and proceeds to recommend all manner of horrible things. He begins with concerns about overpopulation, warning that the human race is having too many children and that a global famine is only a few years away. From there, it’s on to compulsory birth control, sterilization, the state limiting the number of children families can have—the whole Malthusian wish list done in elegant drawl.

I like Vidal, as it happens, but this rambling is proof of two things. First, despite how loony our politics might seem today, the Overton window used to be a whole lot wider. And second, even as the litter was being picked up, even as the fires on the Cuyahoga River were being doused, there was a quarter of the left in general, and the environmental movement in particular, that viewed humanity as a cancer on the planet. Vidal was only parroting Paul Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb, released that same year, advocated strict limits on human reproduction. And Ehrlich was only echoing a broader Malthusian sentiment that had first taken hold in America back in the 1950s.

If you want to know why conservatives became so vehemently opposed to the environmentalist movement, this is it right here. They came to see it as not pro-ecology but anti-human. Today, the so-called Malthusian Moment has passed. You can still read the occasional swivel-eyed essay demanding that we not have kids to save the planet, but such arguments are relatively rare and tend to get swatted down even by progressives. Accordingly, the right is now taking a fresh look at its own approach to the environment. A new generation of conservatives is rising that might support fracking and resist climate change eschatology, but that also seeks to preserve our national parks and endangered species from the excesses of industry. Conservation has become a new watchword on the right. Malthus might still be out but TR is back in.

All of which raises a question: what will the politics of the planet look like in the years to come?

Part of the answer, I think, depends on how hard Joe Biden is willing to push his climate agenda. And judging from the first month of his presidency, he’s willing to push pretty hard. One of Biden’s first moves upon taking office was to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, which was supposed to carry oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s estimated that this will kill 11,000 seasonal jobs, which is why even the head of the AFL-CIO union, one of Biden’s biggest backers, was uneasy about it.

Biden also plans to sign on with the Paris climate accord, which requires nations to cut their emissions. He has temporarily suspended all oil and gas drilling on federal lands (such extraction accounts for about a quarter of our crude oil output). He has committed the EPA to reinstating dozens of environmental regulations that were rolled back under Donald Trump. He has pledged to make America carbon neutral by 2050.

What of the jobs that such a green blitz will inevitably kill? The answer for Biden is the same as ever: replace them with new, safe, well-paid, unionized, presumably gender-fluid “green” jobs. Whether or not the good people in coal and oil country want to have their livelihoods socially engineered in this way is another story entirely. And that matters. Like many journalists, I did the whole ridiculous white-working class safari routine back in 2016, embarking into the wilds of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia to figure out what this whole MAGA thing was really about. What I found were people anxious not about secularism or libertarianism but about the future of their jobs. They blamed the federal environmental bureaucracy for crushing the coal sector and worried that the fracking industry, in which many of them now worked, would be next. One guy told me his vote for Trump could be summed up in three letters: EPA.

Now Biden is promising more of the same. That this could backfire, that those affected have the right to vote and could even help drive a political realignment, never seems to have occurred to anyone on the left. Such economic disruption isn’t on the scale of what was advocated by those mid-century Malthusians, but it has done real damage and is a major and often neglected factor behind the Trump phenomenon. It also poses challenges for the environmental politics of the future. Can the left balance its blues with its greens? Or will it continue to forfeit Allegheny hardhats in favor of climate activists with “Save the Planet” bumper stickers on their Gulfstream jets? Can the new and ostensibly pro-worker right hold onto these voters? Even post-Trump? And how will conservatives balance the demands of employment, stability, and anti-Biden partisanship with their growing interest in conservation?

These are all questions in need of answers. In the meantime, we can at least be thankful for this much: No one is suggesting putting sterilants in the water.

The post From Malthus to Trump? Our Changing Environmental Politics appeared first on The American Conservative.

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