Impeachments past and present

Even though “all politics is local,” we do have impeachment hearings going on.

The US Constitution says that “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” (II.4).

What does this mean? “High crimes and misdemeanors” are somewhat in the eye of the beholder; and Nancy Pelosi has shown the way to using the term “bribery” rather than “quid pro quo,” while the term “collusion,” which Donald Trump favored in replying to the Mueller report, is not a constitutional or legal term at all.

Easier to grasp is the President’s duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” (II.3). And Congress’s job is to make the laws.

Let’s look historically at presidential impeachments, because precedent (except to a few US Supreme Court justices) is the major guide to applying the Constitution.

In 1868, Andrew Johnson was impeached for violating a law that forbade the president from dismissing without the Senate’s approval an office-holder who had been appointed with the Senate’s advice and consent. That Tenure of Office Act would make things very different in the Trump administration, with its constant turnover, but the law was in effect only from 1867-87. The eleventh of the eleven articles of impeachment brought against Johnson has a quaint but suddenly relevant resonance today: “Bringing disgrace and ridicule to the presidency by his aforementioned words and actions.” The full background was 3 years of increasing hostility (coincidentally or not, just like today) between the US House and the President, largely over Johnson’s attempts to sabotage reconstruction of the South along Republican principles (that was back when Republicans opposed discrimination and favored votes by black citizens). The House impeached Johnson but the Senate fell one vote short of conviction.

In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned before the House could impeach him, as he finally understood that it was certain to do. The triggering event, the Watergate break-in and coverup, can be compared to Russia and WikiLeaks illegally obtaining and releasing files belonging to the Democratic National Committee. In addition, the charge that the President failed to produce documents required by the House Judiciary Committee is highly relevant today, since Trump is doing the same by trying to prevent US officials from cooperating with the investigation.

For context, in 1981 the Reagan administration began surreptitiously selling arms, via Israel, to Iran in violation of a Congressional embargo. This arrangement morphed into a plan to supply arms to the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras, also in violation of Congressional action. Reagan was not impeached for violating the express will of Congress, even though his administration, like Nixon’s and Trump’s, withheld documents requested by Congress. As has been the Trump pattern, several individuals associated with the actions were indicted and convicted, though George Bush I later pardoned them (another concept to keep our sights on today). Reagan, like Trump then in his 70s, was skilled at sounding vague, and in fact does seem to have been in early stages of Alzheimer’s, although unlike Trump he remained quite popular with the public generally.

Finally, in 1998-99 Bill Clinton was impeached, but nowhere near the required 2/3 of Senators voted to convict him. The charges, lying under oath and obstruction of justice regarding one matter, his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, seem rather quaint in the Age of Trump. The usual allegations, that a president ignored and thwarted the will of Congress or exhibited a pattern of corruptness, did not seem to apply.

Takeaways for today, I think, are

• Political climate matters; congress would hesitate to impeach a popular president.

• To be effective, individual charges need to be couched in a context of abuse of office, such as “bringing disgrace and ridicule to the presidency by his aforementioned words and actions,” a phrase that seems nicely attuned to daily news for the past three. years.

• Although it is true that the government routinely engages in quid pro quo (AKA treaties, agreements, diplomatic understandings) with foreign countries, quid pro quo for personal gain is a different matter. Even Nixon was not accused of seeking financial gain, only personal political gain in the measure that the Watergate break-in was aimed at finding insider information about what Democrats knew and were planning.

In the case of Trump, the intended gain was to defeat a prospective political opponent with help from Ukraine in 2019, and (as investigated in the Mueller Report) from Russia and WikiLeaks in 2016. Trump has also been accused of seeking personal financial gain, for himself directly and through his family, from violating the emoluments clause that “…no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust… shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State” (I.9).

In addition, it would not be surprising to learn that actual or hoped-for Trump enterprises in Turkey, Russia, or elsewhere stood to gain financially from his presidency. Two possibly relevant projects from over ten years ago have already surfaced: “Trump’s company considered at least two developments in Ukraine — a hotel and golf course in Kyiv and a hotel and yacht club in the seaside city of Yalta, which is now part of the Russian-annexed area of Crimea” (from Anita Kumar, “Before his claims of corruption, Trump tried to build a resort in Ukraine,” Politico, 11/4/19. If any secret negotiations involving US foreign policy have gone on, similar to the current Ukraine imbroglio, that will give a whole new impetus to impeachment proceedings.

Divided though Americans may be since 2016, I think it is safe to say that using taxpayer funds and US foreign policy for personal gain are not concepts that, in the abstract, the public will ever approve of.

Photo by Marcin Konsek / Wikimedia Commons: Lenin embankment, Yalta, Crimea. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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First they came for the…

A reference to this famed quotation with “children” in the blank came to me today, a reference to the Trump administration’s announced intent to confine undocumented immigrant families indefinitely, thus reneging on the prior agreement that, in a 2015 court judgment, set a 20 days maximum confining migrant children.

Whom did “they” really come for, in the Nazi context? Wikipedia gives the background: German pastor Martin Niemöller embedded the idea in a much more verbose confessional (since he was once a Nazi sympathizer himself) passage in 1946. He mentioned only Communists, the incurably sick, and Jews.

Then people started making the statement more succinct and modifying the victim classes. Here is one version I find very expressive, in Wikipedia from the UK Holocaust Memorial Day Trust:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

Sad to say, scanning history, we could keep adding groups. Some particular Nazi targets for concentration camps don’t show up in standard versions of the list, such as Roma (“gypsies”), homosexuals, Social Democrats, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, “asocials,” intellectuals, and pastors (including Niemöller himself).

Recently, versions have been circulated–and appeared on signs at rallies–starting off with Muslims, journalists, and others.

The reference to children came in an email from the news organization Truthout. I didn’t find that reference on their web site but I did find “Billionaires… First They Came for the Economy” and “Climate Change: First They Came For…” (including, in the blank, Arctic sea ice, mountain glaciers, permafrost… you get the idea).

The formulation “First they came for the…” is obviously powerful, and all the more so because everyone reading it must know to fill in the blanks and end with themselves. The moral is clear. As another famous Martin, MLK Jr., said:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Above photo of Dr. Martin Niemöller in 1952 by J.D. Noske / Anefo [CC0] from Dutch National Archives in Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Civil rights, History | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Freedom from Fear… of guns

Is America’s “romance with guns” finally over? Who could feel romantic about an instrument of mass destruction?

Democrats want to pass new laws; and Republicans, for the most part, don’t. Follow the money, as they say. The career totals chart “Top 20 recipients of funds from gun rights interests among members of Congress, 1989-2018” from Open Secrets shows that all 20 (including PA Senator Pat Toomey and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) were Republicans.

It’s important that people talk about safety: gun safety, gun violence prevention, public safety, saving the depressed from turning a fatal instrument against their own lives, saving children from traumas they should not have to bear.

Two valiant Chesco legislators, among others, have recently made strong statements.

Rep. Melissa Shusterman (D-157):

“My colleagues and I have over 25 pieces of legislation that have not been passed out of committee that could put Pennsylvanians’ safety before an industry’s profits. The time is now to put an end to these hateful acts of violence. I urge our leaders to call the legislature to Harrisburg and not stand idly by.”

Rep. Kristine Howard (D-167):

“…we need to immediately pass laws requiring universal background checks and implementing a “Red Flag” law giving family members and others the power to ask the courts to remove guns from people who may be a danger to themselves and others.”

A Red Flag law might even have prevented the mass shooting in El Paso, since the accused shooter’s mother called police several weeks earlier. It isn’t clear what she told them, but a Red Flag law might have enabled her to tell police she thought her son should not own an assault rifle, and might have empowered police to take it away pending investigation.

For background, see “What Are ‘Red Flag’ Gun Laws, and How Do They Work?” by Timothy Williams in the New York Times, 8/6/19. Such laws, as just one needed measure to reduce gun deaths and injuries, appear to be helping in 17 states. It’s time for Pennsylvania to join our neighbors New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and as this month New York.

Rep. Howard reminds us that “Public records inform us that 600 women annually in America are shot to death by their partner.” Obviously a Red Flag law would help prevent such tragedies.

Similarly for suicides, which rose to 60% of all deaths by shooting in 2017. Chester County alone had 35 suicides by firearms in 2018, according to the Coroner’s office (download 2018 report).

Most of these killings and deaths could be prevented if our society made it a priority to do so, through measures like Red Flag laws, universal background checks, keeping military style weapons out of civilian hands, readily available mental health treatment, and gun locks especially in households with small children.

Like the US Senate, the PA Senate and House are controlled by Republicans. Will they let any pro-safety legislation through their road block? As some commentators have pointed out, even people who feel positively about guns can feel negatively about domestic terrorism. It is also hard to defend the role of guns in shooting partners and in killing oneself.

FDR’s famed Four Freedoms included Freedom from Fear. He was thinking of the armaments of nations; but today, we need to fear the armaments of individuals as well. Will the federal and state governments help solve the problem or just stand by as it worsens?

AK47, the type of assault weapon used by the accused El Paso shooter, from Wikimedia Commons (by gnokii at

from Wikimedia Commons. 4 of PA’s 6 adjoining states have Red Flag laws.

Posted in Guns | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Which sort of Republican are they?

The current extreme-right Republican party owes its origins to the Tea Party movement that first manifested itself ten years ago in actions against taxes and government spending. In Chester County it grew out of earlier groups opposing the peace movement and Barack Obama. Its ethos was basically anti-government and in some ways even anarchist à la Steve Bannon, in the sense of wishing to demolish government institutions without knowing or caring what might take their place.

Of politicians associated with the Tea Party and still officially representing part or all of Chester County, Pat Toomey is the prominent survivor, and unfortunately his term in the US Senate is not up for 3 more years. If we voted for Supreme Court, we could add to the list those of the “immortals” who seem determined to take down the traditional national standards of democratic governance.

The bizarre contradiction is that those anti-government and supposedly freedom-loving elements have thrown their support behind an administration that embraces big government, favors corporate interests over actual people, engages in international adventuring in league with foreign dictators, cracks down against free speech and journalists, suppresses voter rights, promotes sexuality-related behavior codes, violates internal law regarding refugee rights, discriminates against racial and religious minorities, puts children in cages, and wanted tanks to rumble through the national capital for our independence celebration.

Those one-time ostensible admirers of freedom now seem inspired by the people-opposing power-centralizing ethos of Czarist Russia, Communist China, and North Korea’s Supreme Leader.

Republican candidates for office at all levels should have to explain which sort of Republican they are: opponents of orderly government or power centralizers. Unfortunately, Republicans who publicly stand up for “government of the people, by the people, for the people” seem to have perished from the earth.

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Earth Year

The patient bee
comes to the blueberry
bush in bloom.
They haven’t heard
the bad news,
climate and storms.
Nor have the ferns,
the squirrels, the spruces.
One species
among the endangered
knows all about it,
knows it and doesn’t.

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Let’s not lose sight of economic justice

This chart from David Leonhardt, “How the Upper Middle Class Is Really Doing,” New York Times, 2/24/19, shows the winners and losers since income inequality started its leap forward in the Age of Reagan. (The inflation-adjusted chart takes into account government payments and taxes paid as well as salaries and other income.)

The bottom 50% by income gained something–but only about 1/3 of what the per capita DGP gained; and really, with rising costs of housing, health care, and education, and the spread of technology that Americans depend on, that isn’t much of a gain. Incomes for the middle 40% rose only about 2/3 as fast as the per capita GDP. The commonly envied 90th-99th percentile gained the same as the GDP. It’s above that line that the 1% and .01% rack up the big gains.

A later Pew report,”The American middle class is stable in size, but losing ground financially to upper-income families,” shows that nothing really changed here between 2011 and 2016. Basically, the more Americans earn, the more they gain every year, not just in $ but also in %.

It is clear that income inequality is higher in the US than in most other developed countries. With antiquated tax laws that favor investors, real estate developers, hedge fund operators, and heirs of the wealthy over salaried Americans, it’s no wonder that Congress and 2020 presidential candidates are talking about how to reduce economic unfairness.

As shown in this chart from Pew Research Center, “The middle class in the U.S. is smaller than in Western Europe,” 4/20/17, the US has more people in the lower and upper income groups and fewer in the middle than those eleven Western European countries:.

Posted in Economy, Taxes | Tagged | Leave a comment

Now what do I do with those political signs and wickets?

Winners exult, losers lament, and all of us wonder what to do with our growing collection of political signs and their metal support rods (AKA wickets).

They were so important to sway voters’ minds… maybe… and now??

If your candidate might ever run again for the same office, one or more years from now, save the sign in your garage or basement. A little rust won’t hurt; in fact, it makes them more secure in the ground and less easy for evil-doers to pull out.

256px-2008-08-03_White_German_Shepherd_supporting_Barack_ObamaPhoto by Ildar Sagdejev from Wikimedia Commons

You might wish to keep one sign as a memento of each campaign of historic importance… for a future collage on your garage wall, maybe?

Otherwise (and I’ve tried most of these)….

The sign, perched on its wicket and slanted at a judicious angle, is great for shading delicate plants and transplants from hot summer sun.

• A sign can also temporarily block holes in picket fences where rabbits and rodents might otherwise enter your back yard (e.g., while you’ve removed pickets for repair or repainting).

• The paper or plastic part of signs makes a good paint drop cloth. Add more signs to cover more area. You can cut the signs at the sides and fold them out to be twice as large.

• Lay plastic signs on the ground under your eaves to prevent water infiltration, and cover them with dirt or stones.

• In messy weather, use signs to protect carpet underfoot in your car (just be sure not to give a ride to the candidate in question during that time).

• The wicket is excellent for propping up floppy bushes and flowers. For lower plants, cut or bend the wicket supports. The type of wicket that looks like a ladder, with two prongs extending up into a corrugated sign, are the best for supporting plants, which are held in place by the arms.

• Here’s a remedy for those clothes hangers that dry cleaners send back pants hanging on, and whose sticky cardboard crosspiece tends to sag on reuse: cut a piece of wicket to the right length and insert it inside the cardboard. That one won’t ever sag again!

• Wedge a wicket segment between a window sash and the frame above (e.g., above an air conditioner) to prevent it from being raised from the outside.

• Insert wicket lengths between studs to hold up wall insulation and prevent sagging.

• I’ve used a wicket folded triple ply to insert inside a bamboo pole and then into a flag holder whose opening was too small for the bamboo. The metal made a strong link where wood and thinner bamboo had collapsed under the strain.

• To stitch together segments of chicken wire or garden netting to keep out birds and rodents, whether vertically or horizontally: straighten out a wicket (they are surprisingly long when bent into a straight line) and thread the resulting steel rod through the two adjoining segments.

• To weight down garden netting so birds can’t push it up.

• In art works. No kidding, I’ve seen in museums what looked to me like vertical clumps of campaign wickets with pieces of wood or corks jammed onto them. Adaptive reuse at its most esthetic.

How to cut regular metal wickets by repeated bending? Some wickets are thinner and much more bendable than others. Be careful; use gloves and eye protection. It can be done by brute hand strength, or by pliers: bend repeatedly until the metal fatigues and breaks. Hack saws take too long; this is tough metal! I guess a bolt cutter would work.

If all adaptive reuse fails, an enterprising person or organization can collect wickets and sell them to the scrap yard for a few pennies a pound and the satisfaction of recycling metal and thereby reducing carbon emissions.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | 3 Comments