Friday Dec 13

Money Matters: Pharaoh Trump?

It would not serve to dwell on the bizarre nature of our current political climate, as so many have already, nor to bemoan the shocking behavior of the Commander in Chief that forces one to cringe at each new “I statement” or crass insult flung at virtually any critic. Recent days have contained a mind-boggling set of issues, any one of which might easily have destroyed most politicians. I thought I’d try to capture this, knowing it will appear in print a month from now or more. By then, who knows what will be on the plate, but just recall that this week of Labor Day 2019 saw these amazing things.

Let’s start with the National Weather Service, the reliable federal repository of the best forecasting available on which business and government both rely implicitly. At a time when first responders are still sorting through the wreckage of Hurricane Dorian, America’s leader spent five days taking issue with reporting that began with his inadvertent statement that the storm threatened the Carolinas and Georgia (which it did) to which he mistakenly added the Gulf Coast state of Alabama. He even, as reported in the press, used a Sharpie to expand an early NWS map showing possible paths it might take to extend the paths to include Alabama which flabbergasted even thosesympathetic to the guy.

That he played multiple rounds of golf as the storm left a devastated Bahamas and approached Florida only underscored the abject failure to understand a key part of leadership — one is supposed to demonstrate empathy for victims and use the bully pulpit to mobilize aid for those in need, and those who shortly will be. This doesn’t seem to register any more than the extra mulligan he grants himself on every third hole, or so some recount. But once the golf was done, he was back arguing with the press about how wrong they had gotten it when he warned Alabama about a threat that even the local NWS office debunked within minutes so as to avert any panic on the part of coastal residents. Before the weekend was out, the President had decamped from Florida to another of his golf resorts in New Jersey without ever visiting any of those affected.

Now in contrast, George Bush visited New Orleans in the days following Katrina and, as botched as the response was, few doubted that he was aware of the tragedy as it unfolded. As the inept response reached a crescendo, Bush paid the political price.

An even more remarkable contrast is with what LBJ did after Hurricane Betsy in 1965 — a precursor to Katrina — struck New Orleans in mid-September. LBJ appeared on the scene the next day, visiting shelters and stupefying the crowds who couldn’t believe the President was actually there, standing in dim flashlight beams telling them that he was there to help and by all reports, he did just that. Here are part of his remarks made during that trip:

I am here because I want to see with my own eyes what the unhappy alliance of wind and water have done to this land and to its good people. And when I leave today you can be sure that the federal government’s total resources will be turned toward helping this state and its citizens find its way back from this tragedy. I am determined that we can help these people in every way that human compassion and effective aid can serve them. I have ordered that all red tape be cut. Our assistance will be given the highest priority.

The Department of Agriculture is already providing emergency food; troops from Fort Polk have been called into action to prevent starvation and to protect life and property; the Small Business Administration will tomorrow morning begin processing the first long-term loans in New Orleans.; the Corps of Engineers is at work tonight, opening levees and dikes and removing debris. But we’re ready to do much more. Tonight, I will order the following: We will allocate the funds necessary to rebuild the streets, highways and bridges. We will repair essential facilities, such as public buildings, docks, hospitals and schools. We will distribute through the Red Cross the medicine and the food necessary to carry the victims through the emergency period. We will provide temporary housing and emergency shelter. We will supply federal equipment for construction, repair and clearing. We will assist veterans to retain their homes by a temporary suspension of V.A. mortgage payments. This nation grieves for its neighbors in Louisiana, but this state will build its way out of its sorrow. And the national government will be at Louisiana’s side to help it every step of the way, in every way that we can.

It is difficult to imagine this happening in the current environment where our leaders seem to consistently downplay any role for government. But that’s where another remarkable story picks up the thread. Politico has reported just a day ago that a regular Air Force transport plane, flying a regular supply mission to our troops in the middle east, was, instead of its usual practice of stopping at a US military base in Germany on its way, directed to land for refueling at a tiny commercial airport that serves a struggling Trump golf course on the west coast of Scotland where it bought fuel at commercial rates and where its crew were whisked off to the Trump-owned resort to spend the night. This remarkable story comes on the heels of the President himself arguing publicly that the next G7 meeting should be hosted by the US at another Trump resort — the financially flailing Doral golf course.

In both these cases, the failure of the President and his family to place assets in a blind trust as virtually all modern presidents have done so as to avoid any conflict of interest or appearance of same, there is direct financial benefit flowing to the Trump family. Evidently, the opportunity to use the presidency for financial benefit to his struggling golf resort acquisitions was just too good to let pass by. Even Rick Santorum — the arch-conservative ex-Senator and now TV analyst — said this was just “too much” and he hoped they would withdraw the G7 hosting idea. Now that’s saying something. So, with nary a Republican whimper we seem to have accepted that a President can personally profit from his office.

I have no idea if the emoluments clause of the Constitution will ever be ruled on by the courts — there are a number of cases already in process and these two recent issues will likely form the basis for additional litigation. By the time that process runs its course, many months and years will have rolled on by, and the cancer on the moral fabric of the nation will continue its inexorable progress.

Even as these matters waft through the political breezes, a more profound and deeply troubling development is emerging in federal financial affairs: the wall. The President has declared a “national security emergency” at the border and has then, based on “emergency powers” directed the Pentagon, with his acting DoD Secretary’s cooperation, to “repurpose” $3.5 billion in capital expenditures away from its Congressionally-sanctioned use and instead be used for the wall, thus circumventing the “power of the purse.” Whether this holds up in the courts is again unclear.

Finally, Trump’s new China tariffs went into effect now — effectively a tax on US consumers and businesses. I came across an interesting critique of expanding executive power from a conservative voice who suggested that Republicans may well rue the day they helped empower the Executive to so dominate Congress. It begins with this circumvention of the House via the declaration of a “national emergency,” thus enabling the Executive to grab resources to do what they want. The President seems to think that China pays the tariffs rather than consumers who actually shoulder the burden because businesses have to pass the cost on after paying the tariffs to the US government on imported materials and products they then sell or use in the US.

Thus empowered, this analysis suggested, an unfettered Executive with Democrats in control, could wreak havoc on conservative goals for smaller government and a balanced budget — not that any Republican administration in modern memory has ever brought financial acuity to the Executive branch. Instead, cutting taxes for corporations and asset holders (think the 1%) somehow noses out the idea of “balancing the budget” once they are in power. The Clinton years are the only time when a serious effort was made to bring order to the general fiscal chaos of Reaganesque GOP governance. Obama gets a walk because he took over in the face of the worst economic meltdown since the Depression — thank you, subprime lenders — and somehow managed to restimulate the economy with only paltry support from Republicans for the necessary deficit spending any recession requires (read Keynes if you’ve any doubt).

There we have it: a developing Imperial Presidency. One can use it for profit, while taxing and spending as one wishes with little restraint as our famous “checks and balances” fade into the mist. James Madison is rolling over in his grave.

Some years ago — 18 months following the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011 — I was with a delegation of NGO’s, community organizers, and labor officials assembled by the Organizers’ Forum that was visiting the democratic tumult that was Cairo. In a word, it was fascinating, but one day we met the the “owner” of a private university — thriving by all observation — who was bankrolling one of the emergent political parties. He was criticizing the Islamic Brotherhood, the community-based party that went on to win the eventual election, short-lived though their tenure was. His point, and the reason we were not to believe the Brotherhood had even a remote chance of succeeding, was that “the Egyptian people are a Pharonic people,” arguing that their millennia of history shows Egyptians thrive under the close direction of a central authority — you choose: Pharaoh or “president.” Democracy, in his view, was a passing fad.

The question we in the US have to answer is, “…are we a ‘pharonic’ people?”

Drummond Pike, a frequent Organizers’ Forum participant and contributor to these pages, was the founder and CEO of Tides in San Francisco, and continues to be involved in philanthropy and social change.

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