Trump and his associates are in hiding – Congress needs to drag them into the spotlight

Why is there even a question about prosecuting Stephen K. Bannon – and other advisors to Donald Trump — for snubbing a congressional subpoena? Since when is a formal summons optional?

For that matter, why are Republican members of Congress, including House Minority Speaker Kevin McCarthy, ducking responsibilities to testify to the Jan. 6 select committee about what they did or did not do on that insurrection day?

Bannon informed the panel last week that he would defy a subpoena, in accordance with a directive from Trump. No court has definitively said whether conversations with private citizens are covered by executive privilege, quite separate from whether the conversations were about things that are outside the scope of the job, to say nothing of illegal.

Why, in the end, isn't Donald Trump himself, for whom a subpoena now seems an inevitability, not standing up before the committee, as he does regularly now before his public rallies, and answering proudly that yes, of course he organized and enjoyed watching a mob attack the U.S. Capitol in pursuit of resolving the massive election fraud he blames for having stolen the presidency from him?

Bannon has no "executive privilege"; he wasn't even a White House employee at the time. Yes, the House should lower a contempt of Congress ruling on Bannon, and yes, he should be prosecuted for refusing a subpoena. Otherwise, take the subpoena power away from a body that cannot enforce it.

Where Is Trump?

Quite apart from whatever the 1/6 committee collects as a definitive accounting of who participated in the planning and organizing of that day's rioting, whatever it learns about the plotting that went on in the Oval Office and the delays in stopping it, to me one central mystery about all this is why Trump doesn't take credit for his work?

Does Trump think something went wrong on Jan. 6 or not? Does Trump need to protect himself from lying under oath about election fraud, or about launching a seas of illegalities in pursuit of his White Whale?

If Trump believes in the truth of his cause, why in the world is he using convoluted arguments to fight subpoenas to testify about the thing he wants to talk about every day?

Sometime this week, perhaps tomorrow, the committee, with the public blessings of Joe Biden to pursue those resisting subpoenas, will vote to recommend just that. Bannon face criminal contempt charges for refusing to cooperate with its investigation. It will be seen as an escalated legal battle over access to witnesses and documents that explain the thinking behind the Jan. 6 attack. If referred for prosecution, the Justice Department would decide whether to accept it and pursue a criminal case.

On the one hand, we have been led to expect full arguments to protect any conversations involving Trump's last month in the White House—a claim certainly discounted for anyone not part of the administration. On the other is the degree to which a president is allowed to pursue unlawful, even treasonous acts to bring down his own government.

The White House counsel's letter by Dana Remus on this topic: "Congress is examining an assault on our Constitution and democratic institutions provoked and fanned by those sworn to protect them and the conduct under investigation extends far beyond typical deliberations concerning the proper discharge of the President's constitutional responsibilities."

The difference in interpretation will be exactly the number of Democrats and Republicans in the House, because, as with the impeachments Trump faced, this is about partisan politics, not justice. It's about preserving the Cult of Trump, spilling out, as we have seen this week, into intratribal warfare among Republicans who fully embrace Trump as savior and those who do not.

No Executive Privilege

For his part, Joe Biden has told his administration to decline any claims of executive privilege to shield White House deliberations or documents in an insurrection attempt.

It's easy to become lost in the whorl of legalisms, protocols and even the politics. Actually executive privilege is just that, a protocol, not a law. As The Times and others have explained, Congress is a legislative body, not a law enforcement entity, and its ability to compel cooperation and punish wrongdoing on its own is limited. Its investigative tools are only as powerful as the courts decide, and the process of waging legal fights to secure crucial information and witnesses is likely to be a prolonged one.

My question is simpler: If the campaign we know as the Big Lie or Steal the Election is not only true, but a just attempt to right Trump's claims of election wrongdoings, why doesn't Team Trump want a public rumble under oath?

Why are Trump forces resisting the chance to make their ultimate case here rather than hiding behind would-be technicalities?

Of course, any answer that includes recognition that there were legal, moral, political, constitutional wrongdoings and actual crimes committed on Jan. 6 suggests that Trump cannot ever be allowed to serve as president again.

And any answer that includes arguments that there was no riot, that it was a peaceful gathering of patriots, that no one was stabbed, stomped or injured by Trump supporters brandishing flagpoles as weapons, that does not acknowledge calling for the public hanging of then-Vice President Mike Pence simply does not square with what we all saw with our own eyes.

The now-daily drip of memos, recollected conversations from around Trump, associated criminal cases that touch on roles during the Jan. 6 riot all point in a single direction: Trump was at the center of his own plotting that led, inexorably through thickets of individual attempts to pressure state election officials and governors to rewrite election results in Trump's favor, directly to the Jan. 6 riot.

If Trump talks the talk, he should walk the walk whether in person, deposition, statement, video. Knock off the privilege and own what you did and continue to do to undermine democracy in these United States.

'Dangerous': Inside Greg Abbott’s crazy Lone Star rebellion

Apparently, the Republican argument suggests, we should just forget about the coronavirus and ignore a disease that has killed 700,000 Americans, variously overrun our hospitals, interrupted jobs, businesses, and lives, and has spurred a strong political resistance movement.

Even as some courts have already endorsed the idea of government mandates for masks and protections against contagion, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is challenging the right of President Joe Biden to act for public health as "yet another instance of federal overreach."

It's apparently okay for Abbott to mandate against mandates not only for the state's employees but for its private businesses as well. But, by contrast, it's not okay for the federal government to tell Texas, Florida, or any state what to do about a pandemic that knows no bounds, or for companies with more than 100 employees.

That Texas is only now beginning to emerge from two months or more of spiraling covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths is not the focus of this dust-up over the rules. Rather, it's a bold political showdown.

Frankly, it's disgusting, no matter what one's politics are. No, this drawdown borders on insanity. Why do we have time, energy, and money available for endless court battles over who's really in charge?

Has Abbott not heard of the telephone, to simply call Biden and engage in some debate if they disagree?

In any event, airlines based in Texas are moving ahead with mandates anyway, guaranteeing more tumult, not less.

Why It's Strange

It is such a strange battlefield that we need to look at it for what underscores this continuing Texas rebellion, especially since it spreads so quickly to other Republican-led states. Several things that question our general understanding are coming to the surface simultaneously.

  • Discussion about countering a pandemic seems futile. Whenever one side of our cultural divide talks about medicine, the other is talking about rights, including the right to be as sick as one chooses and the right to infect others. We've passed the time of legitimate discussion about immediate health effects of vaccines; that is not even on the table in these moves by Abbott, who has been vaccinated and who has undergone a mild form of covid. The anti-vax position has become nearly fully a political one. By all medical standards, having had covid is no guarantee about carrying the contagion further or even to protection beyond some undetermined but finite time.
  • Blame for covid under anti-vax is limited now only to the also endless debate over its origin from nature or from a man-made process in a China laboratory, either as the result or by-product of some National Health Institute grant over a study of interspecies transmission. There is no acknowledgment that keeping more than 30% of adult Americans unvaccinated is a problem that manifests as a continuing public petri dish of mutation. Meanwhile, the Right is actively blaming Biden for high gas taxes, for a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, clogged supply lines and sagging international dominance—because they all are happening on Biden's watch.
  • Spending zillions of dollars on treatments for those who already have covid may blunt hospitalizations but does nothing to halt the spread of an airborne contagion. Yet, we're seeing tons of support across the political spectrum to spend $2,000 a dose for antibody treatments now emerging, even in pill form, rather than a $20 vaccine. For those who also argue against Biden's big-spending proposals as wasteful, this position seems, well, incongruous.
  • The legal arguments here are arcane, as well as, frankly, ludicrous to you and me and our jobs. Is this more about state power versus federal power in a constitutional republic than about a chance to jack up Biden and ignore a public health menace? The force of law seems to favor the federal government acting in an emergency. The practical concerns for businesses like American Airlines based in Dallas pulled among conflicting mandates from the feds, the state and demands of consumers are simply not as important to this governor as a political principle.

By all accounts from all political viewpoints, telling businesses what they cannot do is seen as antithetical to a "conservative" view that wants government restraint.

If It Quacks. . .

It is much more understandable to see the Texas challenge over covid mandates right alongside the Texas challenge over abortion, over voting rights, over the environment and even over issues of immigration.

That is, Texas politics demand that Abbott, running at least for reelection if not for president, must protect himself from absolutists even more right-wing than he himself believes. This week, we saw hardliner Republican candidate Allen West continuing to tweet from his covid hospital bed against vaccine mandates and for expensive alternative treatments. Don Huffines, a former Texas state senator who is challenging Abbott, tweeted that "Greg Abbott is a political windsock and today proves it, He knows conservative Republican voters are tired of the vaccine mandates and tired of him being a failed leader." Apparently, in response to a Huffines criticism that a state website to help teen suicide might be fostering trans discussions, Abbott had the site pulled.

About 15 million Texans have been fully vaccinated, or just over half, lagging the national average.

Why kowtowing to a minority of voters in hopes of reelection is a bit of a mystery to me. But the reason for anyone to run for governor or president should be to solve problems.

It's hard to see what problem this governor is solving other than his own political dreams.

The next battle over vaccines may be the ugliest yet

The looming covid fight is about vaccinating children, and all indications are that it will be ugly.

While tens of millions of parents, likely those who got vaccines themselves, will line up their children under 12 to protect themselves and school classmates against contagion, polls, experience, and logic show that resistance to vaccination and denial of a medical emergency will make jabbing the young even more an emotional confusion than it has been with adults.

Of course, even as we say this, we're still seeing plenty of fight over mandates for adults, now sparked anew by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott throwing his state in front of the perceived federal bulldozer for mandates by companies. None of this will help anyone medically, but apparently, there is always political gain to consider as more important.

Pfizer says its bid is ready for FDA emergency use of a vaccine for children aged 5 to 11. A decision could come early next month on a vaccine that is about one-third of the adult dosage, depending on what formulation is submitted for review.

Reason tells us that the one-third of American adults who have turned away from free vaccines will block them for their children. A recent poll published by CBS News and YouGov suggests that roughly as many parents who plan on vaccinating their younger children say they don't want their kids to receive the jab, with about a quarter of respondents saying they are undecided. There were similar results from Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

Indeed, it is a mainstay argument for anti-vax campaigns and Donald Trump that children rarely become ill from covid-19 – despite recent localized spirals of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

From what we've seen as a massively adverse response in Republican-led states to mask advice and mandates, we can already anticipate a fight over anything approaching mandates from the federal, state, or local governments – all of which back current vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, and diphtheria to enroll in public schools.

Are Children at Risk?

To the rest of us, the idea that our kids can be protected and that classrooms can operate more safely sounds like a godsend.

While young children had been thought less affected by covid, the last couple of months with the Delta variant showed differently. Nearly 30,000 children were hospitalized in August. The American Academy of Pediatrics says nearly 5.9 million Americans younger than 18 have been infected with the coronavirus. Of the roughly 500 Americans under 18 who have died, about 125 were ages 5 to 11. Children and adolescents who prove positive often are asymptomatic more than adults, studies have shown.

Schools opened across the country only to see closings days later from Covid contagion.

Meanwhile, anti-vax parents have been haranguing schoolteachers, principals, and school boards over proposed mask mandates, with pockets of violent clashes spreading over what now has become a coordinated political cause. The reasons for resisting include uncertainty about the long-term medical side effects of vaccine as well as an insistence on "individual choice" that translates into a "no" choice in real life.

For myself, I wouldn't want to take the chance of serious illness – that would be my choice, mandate, or no.

In Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee, less than a third of eligible adolescents aged 12-16 are fully vaccinated, according to a CNN analysis, as do North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Clearly, the same state divides that have shown up for adults are true for younger populations as well.

More Broadly

That CBS poll found that a majority of parents of school-aged kids—55 percent— say they believe that wearing masks should be required in schools. Some 39% percent said masks in schools should be optional, while 6% said masks shouldn't be allowed there.

In the end, of course, Covid is reflecting political divides over trust in government and over a perceived attack on who should make our public health choices.

The Washington Post reports that within days of regulators clearing the nation's first Covid vaccine for younger children, federal officials will begin pushing out as many as 20 million doses. The government has purchased enough doses to give two shots, all specially color-coded to distinguish them, to all 28 million eligible children, another massive distribution push. The dosages will be distributed in accord with a state's population of eligible children.

The issue, however, will be to persuade reluctant parents. Figuring out distribution paths when eligibility does not match acceptance of vaccines is an administrative headache, of course.

Once again, there is an opportunity before us for leaders of states and government, churches, and schools, to promote "choice" of a Covid vaccine that can prevent hospitalization and death. But don't count on it coming across that way.

It's a lot more comforting to a vocal unmasked, unvaccinated minority to yell and threaten local school board members than to worry about actual disease spreading.

The big steal of the 2022 election is well under way

We're seeing early results of the partisan campaigns of both parties to redraw Congressional districts in their favor. It's a quick dive into the poorly lit backroom of politics that can have a lasting effect on the results.

For those hoping that a decennial Census might help inform voting districts that more fairly match changing racial and ethnic population growth, the news already looks futile. For those hoping for some rational, fair, independent attempt to straighten the curious lines of individual districts, the early developments are not promising.

Instead, the building forecast is for more entrenched political party interests at the expense of the opponent party, more districts being hardened against competition, and fewer swing districts.

The forecast is for more entrenched political party interests at the expense of the opponent party, more districts being hardened against competition, and fewer swing districts.

From these still-early signals, regardless of majority outcomes in the House and Senate, therefore, we can expect that the opinions and stubbornness that many find unreasonable about matters of policy are going to grow generational roots and become sharper over time.

The Five Thirty-Eight political site, which is monitoring the reapportionment process closely, suggests that of the four states to have finalized new congressional district maps, Democrats may temporarily have gained two seats nationally, but the trends show Republicans gaining in many more as the process proceeds.

An analysis by The Washington Post suggests that the big winner so far is Incumbency and party control. Most of the emerging redistricting maps are aimed at strengthening and defending the current status. A report in The New York Times shows how in Texas, Republican mapmakers have blunted the demographic growth of communities of color to make an already politically red state even redder.

Gerrymandering

The rules over gerrymandering – the purposeful redrawing of election districts to include or exclude by race or even political affiliation – has been struck down by the Supreme Court in multiple instances. Yet the process that appoints partisans to do the reapportionment work in most states continues to do exactly that, sometimes dressing it up in fancier arguments, but with distinctly partisan and racial goals in mind.

Oregon, Maine, Nebraska, and Indiana have finished their maps, with Colorado, Arkansas, Arizona, Texas, Michigan, and Utah filing proposals. It was Oregon that favored Democrats, but those in Arizona and Texas, with bigger numbers outwardly favoring Republicans. Indiana shows little change, and an advisory committee proposal for New York that would eliminate four of the state's five Republican districts headed for a court challenge for sure.

In Iowa, the state senate already has voted to reject the first proposed map drawn by the state's nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.

If you want to play the redistricting game, the Five Thirty-Eight folks have offered a tracker.

By ensuring that most the effort is spent on preserving the current officeholders, the outlook is for sharper partisan elbows, less compromise by both sides in the House, said The Post. The Texas proposal would redraw 12 competitive congressional districts to one, the Oregon map would change two swing districts into a stronger base for Democrats. In one district in Indiana, the lines would change an area that Donald Trump won by 2 percentage points to one where he, on average, won by 6 points.

The signs are for a decade of yet more deeply entrenched partisanship. If the seat is safer, its congress member is likely to be more outspoken towards whatever the party extreme is pushing.

The Strategy

We should note that of the country's 435 congressional districts, Trump or Joe Biden won just 50 of them by five or fewer percentage points. Those swing districts could be reduced by at least a third after redistricting, experts estimate, making national House majorities dependent on a small number of local elections.

For Republicans, the emerging strategy seems to be containing Black or Brown districts in a way that smacks of segregation and moving the lines to make winning margins higher. It seems the same for Democrats, though the possible universe of left-leaning swing districts to target is fewer.

Groups like FairVote, a nonpartisan voting rights advocacy organization, are noting that partisanship is, er, trumping any attempt to widen independent voices.

When combined with a continuing Big Lie campaign about non-existent voter fraud, state laws to restrict voting access in Republican-led states, the addition of state powers to overturn opponent wins and require endless recounts, gerrymandering stands out as a powerful tool for Republicans to strengthen their hand. In doing so, it is not all Republicans, but the MAGA-Trump wing that is coming to dominate Republican primary elections.

Again, the safer the district, the louder the voice of extremes – for the Right in this instance.

Before 2011, the Post noted, at least six congressional districts in Ohio had swung back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. With new district maps in place that favored Republicans, Democrats won in four of 18 districts, and have not flipped since. In the new Census, Ohio stands to lose one more House seat, and the chances already are that it will be a Democratic district that will go.

Indeed, the Brennan Center for Justice produced a 2017 analysis of election results that shows the maps adopted for 2012 gave Republicans nationally a net benefit of 16 to 17 seats because of partisan gerrymandering.

If we were truly concerned about "election integrity," we would be coming up with fairer district mapping.

Senate report confirms again: Trump needs to explain himself under oath

There was little surprise in the disclosures this week of a Senate Judiciary Committee majority staff report detailing what amounts to a plot led by Donald Trump to overthrow last November's election.

It was neither surprising that Trump would break federal law and ethical standards to stay in office nor that his own Justice Department office would threaten to resign en masse if Trump named Jeffrey Clark, a Big Lie loyalist, as attorney general to stop the Electoral College results from being confirmed by Congress.

Nor was it surprising that Democratic-appointed staff investigators would uncover important details of what amounts to an attempted coup by Trump. Indeed, few media reports noted that it was assembled and written by the majority staff rather than by the committee as a whole – which would have meant that Republican members had signed on to fact-finding as well.

This was release of an eight-month investigation by Democrats alone. Republicans issued a separate report, which basically insists that in the end, Trump followed what his advisers told him.

The Judiciary Committee interviewed former Acting Atty. Gen. Jeffrey Rosen, former Acting Deputy Atty. Gen. Richard Donoghue, and former U.S. Atty. BJay Pak, and emails and written materials that show involvement of Republican members of Congress in the plot.

But it is as if Republicans heard different interviews than their counterpart, offering kind a gold leaf shield of partisan hyperbole about what comes as close to coup planning as possible.

Ample Evidence

The details of the report are out, and appear not only well-researched, but are attached for the public as actual evidence.

The report, non-subtly entitled, "Subverting Justice: How the Former President and his Allies Pressured DOJ to Overturn the 2020 Election" details the circumstances leading to a Jan. 3 White House meeting in which the plan to replace Rosen with loyalist Clark was discussed.

As The New York Times summarized, the top leaders of the Justice Department warned that they and other senior officials would resign en masse if he followed through. They received immediate support from Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel and his top deputy, Patrick F. Philbin. Cipollone argued the plot was a "murder-suicide pact," one participant recalled. Only near the end of the nearly three-hour meeting did Mr. Trump relent and agree to drop his threat.

Another section takes on the attempts to overturn election results in Georgia, where Trump arranged for dismissal of Pak for not jumping to pursue non-existent fraud.

Officially, this Judiciary Committee document is an interim report, since the panel is awaiting action by the National Archives to furnish documents, calendar appointments and communications involving the White House about efforts to subvert the election. That request was made in the Spring. The committee also is waiting to see whether Jeffrey Clark, who had been a lower rung Justice lawyer, will sit for an interview and help provide missing details about what was happening inside the White House during the Trump administration's final weeks. The committee has asked the District of Columbia Bar, which licenses and disciplines attorneys, to open a disciplinary investigation into Clark based on its findings.

The sheer volume of evidentiary emails, phone logs and other documents that show involvement of former Atty. Gen. Bill Barr, and Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., for pressing the Justice Department to pursue baseless election fraud, as well as similar efforts by Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Republicans simply put a different spin on those events as seeing Trump defending America elections rather than promoting his own cause.

For students of plots, there is plenty here to keep amused. For journalists, there is a certain irony is just how much of the plotting evidence is reflected in news reporting.

Jan. 6 Concerns

Much of this coup plotting is also the concern of the Jan. 6 select Congressional committee, which has subpoena power and expects to enforce it to bring an ever-increasing number of Trump advisors in for under-oath sessions.

Right now, all indications are that Trump is telling those inner-circle members to ignore their subpoenas (one has yet to be served, apparently), risking criminal charges and possible imprisonment. Trump himself is sure to resist a subpoena when the committee gets to him and claim executive privilege for the right to plot against his own government.

Again, the curiosity is why Republicans in the main are more drawn to shield Trump's lawlessness in these matters than in using all of it as a lessons-learned exercise.

What is not surprising, then, is how the report underscores the repeated attempts by Trump to promote unsubstantiated accounts of election fraud and demanding that the Justice Department jump on them.

It may be a bit self-serving, but the comments of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., majority whip and head of the Judiciary Committee, are worth a moment: "Thanks to a number of upstanding Americans in the Department of Justice, Donald Trump was unable to bend the department to his will. But it was not due to a lack of effort."

It shouldn't be too much to demand that a potential 2024 candidate fully explain himself fully and under oath.

Less than half of police killings are accounted for -- here's why

One lesson we learn over and over from the news is to check the data that gives rise to conclusions and emotions.

The New York Times report on a recent study showing official records are seriously undercounting police killings neatly captures that idea.

Researchers at the University of Washington whose work has been published in the British medical journal The Lancet looked at death records to compare them with what is known about deaths at the hands of police. What they found were patterns that more than half of the death records never mention police involvement.

Instead, being medical records, they often list specific causes of death, like asphyxiation, for example, without mentioning that there had been an issue about choke holds while in police custody.

The study covered 40 years' worth of records from the National Vital Statistics System, which collects death certificates, and compared them with data from three organizations that track police killings through news reports and public records requests. The comparison showed that 55 percent of fatal encounters with police between 1980 and 2018 were listed as another cause of death.

The conclusions pointed up the need for more reliable national records and raised questions about the degree to which coroners could be protecting police departments. The study also showed patterns of disproportionate deaths of Black men.

Specifics on Death

Of course, a death certificate asks for a cause of death, not a narrative. So, yes, an individual may have died as a specific result of heart failure rather than as the result of the encounter with police, which is not a medical category. Death certificates do not specifically ask whether the police were involved though some medical examiners include that information.

But in aggregate, the study looked at nearly 31,000 Americans who were killed by the police, with more than 17,000 of them going unaccounted for in the official statistics. The annual number of deaths in police custody has gone upward since 1980, even as crime generally has declined.

The number of fatal encounters between police and Black citizens has ballooned in part because of more reporting outside of these death certificates.

The Times reporters found that death reporting has long been criticized for fostering relationships between law enforcement and forensic pathologists who regularly consult with detectives and prosecutors, and in some jurisdictions they are directly employed by police agencies. Some pathologists say that they have been pressured to change their opinions, or that coroners, who are usually elected and are not always required to have a medical degree, can and do overrule their findings.

The Times noted examples of Ronald Greene's death in Louisiana, attributed by the coroner to cardiac arrest and classified as accidental before video emerged of him being stunned, beaten and dragged by state troopers; Elijah McClain's death in Colorado, ruled undetermined , though police had put him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with a sedative; and George Floyd in Minnesota, ruled dead as a result of drug use and underlying health conditions until the tapes of an officer with his knee on Floyd's neck emerged.

No National Standards

The point is there are no national standards, and little attempt to corral the data nationally for such analysis – something that would advance under the now-dead George Floyd Policing Bill. A federal law passed in 2014 requiring law enforcement agencies to report deaths in custody has yet to produce any public data.

That job has been left to journalists and civil rights groups. A narrower study of one year's police deaths conducted by Harvard in 2017 detailed similar results to this new research.

Obviously, the death certificate information strongly influences whether criminal charges are brought in such police deaths or whether families receive a civil settlement.

Then again, maybe as a nation, we just don't want to know, just as we really don't want to know about gun deaths or pollution effects or the practical results of a changing climate. Covid is teaching us anew that we think it is perfectly okay for individuals to "do their own research" on safety of vaccines rather than to collect and distribute this information in intelligible ways.

Since conclusions from data seem necessary for any public policy to emerge, we should welcome efforts to try to get at what the base information reflects.

The grilling of top Pentagon brass this week reveals something bigger than the GOP's hypocrisy

There was a curious hypocrisy in the Senate and House Armed Services Committee grilling of Pentagon brass this week – taking glee in apparent criticism of the White House of Joe Biden, but attacking for disagreeing with that of Donald Trump.

These were the hearings that earned headlines because Republican senators were pressing on gaps between public statements by Biden (or Trump before him) and his generals about whether they were all lined up in support of total withdrawal from Afghanistan. What emerged was that the Pentagon had advised both presidents to keep 2,500 troops longer – until Kabul fell and it became obvious that we needed an emergency effort that airlifted 120,000 Americans and Afghan allies out of the country.

In the end, the chaotic withdrawal was a logistical success but a strategic failure, Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs said.

There was blame aplenty for the generals and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin – Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., told them they should resign — but the real target was Biden, the civilian who set the withdrawal order, carrying out the agreements that Trump had made with the Taliban.

In and among the legitimate questions, what made the hearing painful was the tone and attitude of personal attacks by Republican senators towards Milley, who made the news recently for quotes and actions in trying to rein in any unlawful military forays by Trump in his last months in office.

"Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee didn't just give a dressing down to the nation's top soldier about the Afghanistan pullout; they assassinated his character and impugned his patriotism, accusing him of aiding the enemy and of placing his own vanity before the lives of the men and women serving under him," Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote, for example.

As an example, here was Tucker Carlson's opening on his Fox News commentary: "You remember Milley, he's the fleshy, hooded-eyed man who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is also a national disgrace, a living insult to the military he oversees. That's not an insult. It's objectively true. And yet somehow — despite the overwhelming evidence that Milley is dishonest, incompetent, partisan and dishonorable — he still has a highly prominent job. That's the amazing thing," said Carlson, adding, "He is still lying, and doing so with his characteristic relish and enthusiasm."

Civilian Control

The unaddressed part of the questions about Afghanistan or about Trump's last months was how the military has been tested by a pull towards involvement in the nation's divided politics.

The whole idea of civilian control is to keep the military above the daily fray of who's in charge, to maintain defense of the nation on a higher plane.

Democrat or Republican, it was fine to press the generals for the nature of their strategic advice to Trump and Biden. But, in the end, it was those two presidents who pushed for withdrawal. That's what is supposed to happen – the president points and the military executes.

Somehow, however, the increasingly sharp exchanges between Republican senators and Milley overlooked that basic principle. They wanted Milley's head on a plate in the name of "accountability" for television coverage of chaos in leaving Afghanistan.

But they did not want at all to look at the same General Milley who was ordered to don fatigues and walk with Trump during his infamous Bible photo op after the gassing and removal of peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square near the White House. They did not want to look at the dangers portrayed in the Bob Woodward and Robert Costa book "Peril" as reassuring an anxious Chinese military that Trump did not plan to attack China — an undertaking done at the request of Trump political appointees, Milley told the committee.

Instead, they saw treason in Milley's de-escalation attempts – which were carried out with the knowledge and direction of Trump's own secretaries of Defense and State. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, told Milley, "You're giving a heads-up to the Chinese Communist Party."

Book Quotes as Evil

That Milley was quoted in a book that makes Trump look bad seemed as important a character flaw as botching any kind of orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan to anyone listening to the pointed remarks from Republican senators. The sin is crossing Trump, not crossing a policy line.

"Maybe we're going to remember you three as the three that broke the military," said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. "The military was one of the most trustworthy institutions. But in order to get a name in a book, in order to not be drawn into a political fight, what you have managed to do is to politicize the U.S. military."

Civilian control, remember? Trump politicized the military. Biden made the call in Afghanistan.

Sen. Tom Cotton, who, as columnist Milbank noted had last year called for four Army divisions to put down racial-justice protests in U.S. cities, asked Milley why he didn't resign in protest when Biden (like Trump) decided against leaving troops in Afghanistan. "This country doesn't want generals figuring out what orders we're going to accept and do, or not," he replied. "The principle of civilian control of the military is absolute; it's critical to this republic."

Milbank noted, "Had the senators listened, they would have learned from the generals that they uniformly opposed staying in Afghanistan beyond Aug. 31 because it would have resulted in 'significant' U.S. casualties, that Trump's withdrawal agreement with the Taliban was violated by the Taliban from the start and left Afghan security forces demoralized, and that Biden faced the very real risk of the situation escalating into another war if he didn't withdraw."

The question is why the hearing revolved around personal attacks rather than civilian control of our military policies.

There's a big problem with religious exemptions from vaccines

The anti-vaxx protest against government mandates is in full swing, fueled, and amped by non-stop support from right-leaning commentators and celebrities, various evangelical ministers and what look to be lawsuits by the basketful.

Curiously, the goals of protest seem aimed both at allowing for individual "choice" over mandates, and, well, mandating that the executive orders themselves be declared unconstitutional. Choice for me, no choice for Joe Biden.

Despite thousands of Covid-positive tests and 10 departmental death, some 3,000 Los Angeles Police Department employees are planning to seek exemptions from getting the Covid vaccine, and a group of police has filed a federal lawsuit against the city's vaccine mandates, The Los Angeles Times reports. That is being echoed by police groups in San Diego, Chicago and New York in public service jobs, private businesses and even hospitals, says The Washington Post.

The message: I'd rather quit than be told what to do about Covid, a political mindset.

There are still some who argue on medical grounds, disabilities, or over misinformation about vaccine safety, but the tool of choice emerging seems to be a claim of religious incongruity.

Though there are variations in the mandates, claiming religious belief can exempt individuals from most mandates. The question is what does that mean?

Religion, The New Legal Battlefield

As CBS News has explored, claims for earnest religious exemption "is new territory for many employers navigating the issue, given how risky a proposition it is to allow unvaccinated employees to mingle with, and possibly infect, colleagues in the workplace."

The big question here: What makes for a vaccine waiver based on religion? In effect, it has become the emerging legal battlefield.

None of the major religions oppose vaccines. Pope Francis has blessed the vaccines, calling getting vaccinated as "an act of love" for one's neighbors. Leaders of all religions in this country and internationally have pleaded for vaccinations in this country and internationally. The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, an ardent Trump supporter, told the Associated Press this week that "there is no credible religious argument" against receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and that he is not offering nor encouraging religious exemptions.

Still, some local congregational leaders have done the opposite, decrying vaccines along with mandates. The Freedom Church in Charlotte, N.C. declared "It is despicable for a business or government agency to force someone to take a vaccine that is unproven, dangerous and not fully tested." Of course, the FDA has reviewed extensive testing and approved the vaccine as safe.

Some have asserted that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine burdens their personal beliefs because somewhere in its development the company used fetal cell lines developed from aborted fetuses – though that is not true for the far more widely used Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

In Tulsa, Sheridan Church pastor Jackson Lahmeyer, who also owns a real estate investment business, is offering his signature on religious exemption forms from covid vaccines to anyone donating even a dollar to his church for online membership, according to The Washington Post. Experts on religious freedom claims say that most people do not necessarily need a letter from clergy for a religious exemption, but Lahmeyer, who opposes both vaccines and mandates, says it is a way for him to bring the issue to the fore.

In Northern California, the pastor of a megachurch hands out religious exemption. A Texas-based evangelist offers exemption letters to anyone — for a suggested "donation" starting at $25.

No Standards

So, now cities, states, the federal government, and businesses with more than 100 employees are being told to mandate vaccines. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, they must offer exemptions to individuals with either a disability or "sincerely held" religious belief that prevents them from getting the vaccine.

But we don't know what that means. Declaring oneself a conscientious objector to war, for example, required a whole lot more backup than saying it's what I believe.

Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett without explanation recently struck down an attempt by students at the Indiana University to bypass a vaccine mandate on religious grounds.

Yet, it seems that the legal claim here is that an individual's "sincerely held" religious belief is enough to qualify for waiver. So, now we are to believe that 3,000 LAPD officers all hold the same religious belief?

By contrast, requests for exemption based on medical grounds usually come with a doctor's statement, in this case perhaps showing a known allergy to vaccine components. An employer must engage in a two-sided dialogue to determine if the worker's request can be met, but then what?

Interviews with experts indicate that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has not given the guidance on how to determine what a sincerely held religious belief is. Employers generally do not push back against employees who claim religious beliefs to skip work on a holy day, for example.

Covid is changing the rules, including the rules of protest. Simply saying, "I believe in God, I can't get vaccinated," won't fly either, one labor lawyer told CBS. United Airlines recently denied several employees' requests for religious exemptions from the airline's vaccine mandate, saying the employees will be placed on unpaid leave.

This waiver for religion makes it unclear just how hard or soft Biden's requirement for companies is in reality. The government has precedent in ordering vaccines, but has placed enforcement in the hands of OSHA, the industrial safety arm of the Labor Department, rather than departments more directly responsible for health.

Republicans are from Mars -- but too many of them are running things on planet Earth

We expect that a political opposition party will generate arguments against the sitting administration, against their political foes. That's why it seems predictable that Sen. Mitch McConnell or Rep. Kevin McCarthy, leaders of the Republicans in Congress, will take stands against policies or proposals from Joe Biden and Democrats.

Still, what we don't expect is that even in the name of passionate politics, Republican leaders will suggest that they live on another planet altogether.

That's why when Rep. Margorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) talked of "Jewish space lasers" and any number of her colleagues suggested that the Jan. 6 insurrectionists simply were "visitors" to the Capitol that day, we just close our ears and wait until they stop talking.

With would-be Republican candidates for president sound as if they are on Mars, we must take notice – these people could be running the country. The trick is in assuring ourselves that we're not just seeing a "gaffe" remark, but something that represents sustained thinking.

Here are a few that seem to do just that:

In Texas

Faced with questions about why the state's new restrictive law about abortions and vigilante justice deny medical treatments for victims of rape, Gov. Greg Abbott came up with a humdinger: He will eliminate rape in Texas – by aggressively prosecuting rapists after the fact.

Right. We will eliminate rape by arresting suspects after the rape has occurred. Skip over whether this makes any sense. My question is why isn't he eliminating rape now, without using a new abortion-restricting law as an excuse?

"Rape is a crime, and Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets," Abbott said, without explaining how he would do so or why now.

That promise has drawn more than the usual amount of notoriety and scorn, even from people who are not necessarily speaking for pro-choice movements. The new Texas law, hurriedly allowed to take effect by a U.S. Supreme Court in the middle of the night, makes no exceptions to setting a six-week deadline for victims of rape or incest. Joe Biden and Democrats have said they will consider federal measures to secure access to abortion nationwide with the Justice Department said to be exploring legal challenges, based, in part on civil rights laws.

Here was Texas Democratic Rep. Gene Wu: "Wait," Wu said in a tweet mocking Abbott's answer, "Governor Abbott had a solution to end all RAPE and he sat on it until now?"

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said, "Why don't we start by showing how Texas fares when it comes to rapes—more reported in the state of Texas than any other state in America . . . and a governor saying we're going to stop all rapes. . . We're in a preposterous state here."

Meanwhile, the copycat anti-abortion actions are continuing to spread quickly in Republican-run states. Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem this week issued an executive order restricting abortion medications usually purchased over the Internet and delivered by mail, requiring that they be picked up in person at a doctor's office. In April, the Food and Drug Administration lifted restrictions on sending abortion-inducing medications through the mail, determining that sending the medicine remotely through telemedicine did not increase risk.

Noem dictated that abortion-inducing medications such as mifepristone may be given by a physician licensed in South Dakota only after an in-person examination. Data on the number of chemical abortions performed and any complications as well as information to indicate if the woman was "coerced or sex trafficked and forced to take the pills" will also be collected, per Noem's order. Again, there was no indication of how and why this will be enforced.

In California

Conservative Republican radio host Larry Elder, who is seeking to knock off California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, in next week's recall election, told a radio interviewer, again, that if we are discussing reparations, it is slaveholder families and not former slaves who deserve payments.

Again, no gaffe here. Elder has been arguing such a position for quite a while.

"When people talk about reparations, do they really want to have that conversation? Like it or not, slavery was legal," Elder, who is Black, said. "Their legal property was taken away from them after the Civil War, so you could make an argument that the people that are owed reparations are not only just Black people but also the people whose 'property' was taken away after the end of the Civil War."

Elder said slave owners lost a significant amount of money and resources after the Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which partially abolished slavery. He noted that other countries, such as the UK, "compensated slave owners" with "substantial sums of money" after losing their "legal property," adding, "That's why there was no war in the UK: slave owners received huge sums of money," he said. UK leaders provided former slaveholders with 20 million pounds in compensation from the British Slave Compensation Commission following the abolition of slavery in the country in 1833, Yahoo News reported.

Let's just say that it is difficult to see this candidate as a healer in our divided country. Maybe it would sound better in the original Martian.

In Florida

Consistently now over months, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has distinguished himself in his stands against taking coronavirus seriously. He has declined to promote vaccines and masks – though himself getting vaccinated – even going so far as punishing school districts and cities for adopting mandates for mask-wearing. He has used manipulated data to insist that death counts from covid are falling at a time when death counts are rising sharply.

We learned more this week about why he feels the way he does. He opposes creating a "biomedical security state" through vaccine passports and mandates. Next week, Florida will start to levy $5,000 fines on businesses, schools and government agencies that require visitors to show proof of vaccination.

"At the end of the day . . . it's about your health and whether you want that protection or not," DeSantis said. "It really doesn't impact me or anyone else." In other words, would-be doctor DeSantis has determined that there is no problem with carrying viruses, that you shouldn't care if others are protected. Natural immunity, he asserted, supersedes the immunity a vaccine provides.

As it happens, I have a daughter who teaches at Florida State University, which apparently can require in-person classes, but not masks or vaccines, or even ask who is vaccinated. So, when a student popped up positive for covid last week, having exposed all, the university had no procedures in place other than for the student to voluntarily choose to seek medical advice or drop out of class to go home, since there are no quarantine facilities on campus.

Principles, yes, aplenty. Practicalities, none. How would you grade the governor as an effective leader? Approval polls have taken a dive.

While we do not understand a lot about covid, we do get that its variants spread most quickly in an unvaccinated population and that allowing a substantial minority of Americans to go unvaccinated and unmasked keeps the mutating virus around to hunt for more victims. As Washington Post columnist Philip Bump noted this week, there is such a thing as the common good. You would hope that someone wanting to be president would be stressing what the unvaccinated can do in the name of social responsibility rather than the opposite.

Maybe everyone on Mars can remain unvaccinated and unmasked.

When Trump abandoned the Kurds

While a majority of Americans say they continue to react poorly to an apparent lack of planning in the hastened, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, maybe we should be looking more closely at the distinctly Republican attempt to politicize the efforts of the Biden administration to quickly organize an unprecedented airlift rescue of 120,000 under fire as a disastrous failure.

Those same polls say we should be out of Afghanistan.

Americans are reacting to images that are embarrassing not to executing U.S. strategy.

No one, including Team Biden, would argue against the argument that withdrawal should have gone better, for all the reasons that by now we can all recount. The Afghan government and army collapsed, and within several days, created conditions that made a pullout of military and civilians dangerous and nearly impossible.

No one, including Team Biden, disputes that perhaps 100 to 200 individuals holding U.S. citizenship, shared citizenship, or special status for expedited removal, remain in Afghanistan. What Biden and company dispute is whether various diplomatic and economic levers will suffice to get those people, at least those who want out, a chance to leave under Taliban aegis.

Somehow, magically, the argument is, we should have poured more U.S. troops in, one way or another, to have them stay until all who wanted out – perhaps 300,000 Afghan citizens whom many in the U.S. don't want to provide a new home – could be airlifted out with no harm even from rogue Taliban forces or unaffiliated terrorists who showed us with a bomb and other threats that they were not heeding any Taliban orders any more than quaking under threat of American weapons.

But missing in the various explanations is a quick look back at the last two years, when Donald Trump, who now insists that any Afghan pullout he had worked out with the Taliban would be conditioned by events on the ground, pulled out from Syria and Iraq. That rewrite of recent history by Trump, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and a bevy of Republican congressional leaders whose opinions were not part of any practical discussions towards pullouts, rather overlooks Trump's history here – which is still fresh in memory.

That withdrawal in Syria and Iraq abandoned Kurds – American allies in the fight against the Islamic caliphate – in the face of oncoming conflicts with the Turks, who historically have seen the Kurds as domestic rebels, if not terrorists. It will be interesting how Trump retells his own story as his all-but certain candidacy emerges.

In other words, can we look at what happened?

Abandoning Kurds

In October 2019, Trump, and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper basically declared victory over an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq and ordered a withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria. About 1,000 American troops, mostly Special Operations forces, left quickly, following a period in which the Pentagon had slow-walked compliance with Trump's directions to move towards withdrawal, remaining inside Iraq or southern Syria.

But the decision drew criticism, now apparently forgotten, that doing so effectively ceded control of the area to the Syrian government, Russia, and the Turks, and resulted in abandoning the Kurds, America's allies in actual combat in the area. By comparison, the current debate involves rescue of local Afghans who worked as interpreters, drivers, clerical help, and cooks. There was no airlift at all of civilians who had worked with the U.S. forces; indeed, Trump barred Syrian immigration totally.

And, critics made clear, the abandonment of the area would allow renegade, fleeing ISIS fighters to regroup elsewhere to fight another day. That's exactly the current week's criticism for Biden returning Afghanistan to a would-be teeming training ground for international terrorists, including those same fleeing ISIS fighters.

Whatever rebound terrorists might make, one thing was clear: American forces would not be coming to the aid of their Kurdish allies in the face of the Turkish-backed offensive. Trump defended the abandonment, saying he was fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from "endless war" in the Middle East (familiar?), "appearing largely unconcerned at the prospect of Turkish forces attacking the Kurds, who include a faction he described as "natural enemies" of the Turks," and saying he would use economic leverage over the Turks to keep Turks from killing too many Kurds. He didn't.

How are we supposed to take current Republican criticism seriously now when they left American allies to die on the same battlefield?

Setting Up Afghan Problems

In November 2020, right after the election, the Trump White House announced that it would pull thousands of troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan by Jan. 15. In January 2021, as the new administration was just coming in, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced that the U.S. had withdrawn forces in Iraq and Afghanistan down to 2,500 in each war zone.

It was an unusual major policy shift announced during a lame duck period, clearly setting up problems for the incoming Biden administration.

It also was a change that defied clear instructions from Congress in its broadly bipartisan military budget bill not to use that money to withdraw forces in either Afghanistan or Iraq below 4,000 without providing clear evidence to Congress about the viability of the plan.

In February 2020, Pompeo and Trump completed a negotiation with the Taliban, after even considering inviting the Taliban leaders to Camp David. So much for outrage over Biden now talking with the Taliban about security arrangements during the pullout.

As one analyst wrote in a New York Times op-ed this week, "Trump agreed to withdraw all coalition forces from Afghanistan in 14 months, end all military and contractor support to Afghan security forces and cease "intervening in its domestic affairs." He forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters and relax economic sanctions. He agreed that the Taliban could continue to commit violence against the government we were there to support, against innocent people and against those who'd assisted our efforts to keep Americans safe. All the Taliban had to do was say they would stop targeting U.S. or coalition forces, not permit Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to use Afghan territory to threaten U.S. security and subsequently hold negotiations with the Afghan government.

Not only did the agreement have no inspection or enforcement mechanisms, but despite Trump's claim that "If bad things happen, we'll go back with a force like no one's ever seen," the administration made no attempt to enforce its terms.

Read it. There are no conditions on the ground outlined.

They Agree, Even if We Don't

Biden's arguments are about what we are doing overall in Afghanistan. So are Trump's.

For good or bad, the two political ends are arguing over something for which they both agree on the fundamentals. We can, and are, having a ruckus over how well the mechanics of pulling out went, but few Republican opponents are suggesting that we re-commit the kind of numbers to Afghanistan to make a major difference. From polling and endless interviews, it is clear that Americans don't have the stomach for generations-long wars to prevent possible terrorism, insisting instead that a vibrant and strong military and an effective intelligence array can respond as needed, anywhere in the world.

We can and will argue endlessly about that too.

But we should dismiss this notion that Trump, the magician, was going to extract hundreds of thousands from Afghanistan in any manner that was without the messiness of these last two weeks. And we should dismiss the defensiveness of the Biden team in insisting that the inevitability of chaos absolved them from better preparations about the processing and withdrawal of populations of this size from halfway around the world.

Get ready for what's next: Supreme Court will go far beyond women’s health decisions

We should stop and shudder about the consequences for state-sanctioned intimidation by bullies who don't like your decisions – something that did not seem to concern our esteemed Supreme Court justices one bit.

That law SCOTUS just permitted to take effect in a hurry-up midnight decision lets private citizens – vigilantes by any other name – intimidate anyone aiding an abortion. They can file lawsuits to stop Uber drivers, doctors, clinics, funders, anyone but the patient herself, for helping to make that abortion come about.

The state is even baiting that behavior with cash payments.

Once again, we have a court majority acting on some perceived moral principle without looking at the effects of the decision.

Forget lawsuits. This is the same Texas that has loosened gun laws to allow open carrying in bars, schools and churches. This is the same Texas that has declared open season on voting rights and against immigrants, so far asking its own state troopers to arrest migrants for trespassing and then offering them for deportation.

This is a state that looks kindly on protests of same-sex marriage and unkindly on protests organized by Black Lives Matter. It is among those states that allow gun owners to shoot people to stand their defensive ground.

How far away are we from having "self-anointed enforcers," as President Joe Biden called them, perhaps with guns, showing up with threats and private lawsuits or in-your-face enforcement of whatever they think voting rights should be, never mind what even the new laws are still allowing?

We've been seeing the fistfights of would-be enforcers at school board meetings over mask mandates; we've seen intimidation against gender-fluid lifestyles; we've noticed the rifles borne by white supremacist enforcers at Black rallies.

Why are the immigration arrests still being limited to state troopers; how about anyone with a gun?

In the Wild West days, it was not uncommon to take out one's six-shooter to settle some perceived dispute – ideological, personal or just plain hubristic. Then we thought we civilized ourselves.

Now when there is a weekend of gun violence in our cities, people's hair lights on fire to call for more policing.

But what the court just did was to arm private enforcement of viewpoints that happen to run counter to current federal law.

How, then, can SCOTUS allow the prosecution of the hundreds of arrested Jan. 6 insurrectionists, private citizens, for going the next, illegal step with their desire to stop a social wrong?

Following the Absurd

Where's the line here? The mere threat of litigation has prompted abortion clinics in Texas to immediately limit services in compliance with the new state law.

There are other laws that have provisions that allow private citizens to enforce them, including various environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, as well as statutes that encourage whistleblowers to report fraud and abuse within the government.

But these laws do not give people the power to sue to prevent someone else exercising a right recognized by SCOTUS.

What about vaccine or mask mandates? Do I now have the right or responsibility to sue the school or restaurant or subway if someone is not complying with a mask rule? Can I threaten the hardware store selling a flashlight to someone who is resisting a hurricane evacuation order?

The state government of Texas, Republicans of the sort who block school districts and cities from mandating masks in the name of choice, is running a sly, under-handed and hypocritical game on U.S. law. It is handing its enforcement to the public and then throwing up its hands and insisting that the state has nothing to do with the issue.

In Texas, choice is for masks, not reproductive health. That is BS.

There was an Associated Press article this week about the Chinese government running its own version of cancel culture, cracking down on revolutionary culture and broadening a campaign to tighten control over business and society to enforce an official view of morality.

The Chinese Communist Party is reducing children's access to online games, insisting that broadcasters end the hiring of effeminate men, shunning a celebrity culture and others who "violate public order" or have "lost morality."

This is weird, and highly objectionable, but at least the Chinese take responsibility for these outrageous acts (though we all would be much better served if the Chinese were equally forthcoming about Covid origins.)

Absurdities Follow Us

Juxtapose Texas law essentially disenfranchising women from their ability to make an individual choice and the re-imposition of Taliban rules over women's choices. It is openly hypocritical.

It always has been my view that abortion, like any hospital procedure, may need to be regulated for safety conditions, but not for the essential decision. That indeed should be a matter of choice, and it should be an informed one. Women considering it should seek medical, religious and family counsel.

Indeed, for all sorts of contributing reasons including health insurance coverage of contraceptives, abortions in the United States have been in decline for two decades.

But it was never a consideration – any more than dealing with cancer or a broken leg – that needs the unwanted intervention of some would-be private detective watching the Ubers dropping patients off at a Planned Parenthood clinic with a tort lawyer on speed-dial.

This is raw politics in pursuit of a singular view of morality, one that feels that conception is the start of life, but that government's responsibility to mothers and children ends at birth, not with the lifelong support of food, health and education required by that child.

We've learned the hard way that even trained police officers must adjust their attitudes and outlooks to achieve effective community policing. Even the most highly trained and focused military professionals can make mistakes in targeting. Bad assumptions about individual decision-making by people we don't know can end in tragic circumstances.

Vigilantism solves nothing. If it did, I'd make a citizen's arrest of the Texas Republican governor and attorney general for crimes against humanity.

Building fear: The real radical Republican agenda

Republicans obviously don't like being in the minority. When they can stop fighting amongst themselves or with shadows in the corner, they are already heavily under way with literal campaigning and supportive efforts in Washington aimed at the next election cycle.

Unfortunately, they're walking away from dealing with actual problems the country faces today to worry instead about being sufficiently obstinate. That's different from Democrats when they were out of the majority. It is so widespread that it deserves a spotlight.

Simply put, before the Big Steal and when there was any substance to the last election, what voters were talking about included:

  • Covid
  • healthcare access and costs
  • income inequality and jobs
  • climate change
  • race relations
  • immigration
  • returning to some semblance of normality post-Covid

You know, things that we expect from government.

Look at where we now find the political conversation. it's obvious that we're featuring discussion about anything but government, mostly centering on staying in office, anger toward all institutions and building fears of one another.

Any expectation of calming the conversation to actual issues is consistently now giving way to grievance, to say nothing of trying to get Big Solutions through a badly split Senate.

If you don't play at policy, you can't win. It is not government, but posturing that is the goal of Republicans.

The posturing about mask-wearing and vaccines alone say the great bulk of Republican leadership have power on the brain rather than disease-prevention. They spend every moment blaming Dr. Anthony Fauci for causing coronavirus and the Centers for Disease Control for flip-flopping its mask advice as the disease mutates.

Sure, you can blame Democrats for pushing for too much spending, but at least they are focused on making government services work.

For Republicans, the dissension is mostly built into the program to stop anything President Joe Biden wants to pursue, from appointees to policies to daily behaviors.

The split deepens between moderate Republicans who simply prefer tax cuts over helping people and the increasingly wacky Donald Trump majority. Trumpers may be a sideshow, politically, but a sideshow is what the GOP spends time on.

What Is the GOP Doing?

There are lots of current examples of what Republicans are doing, all in the name of individual decisions that all happen to line up in a partisan pattern. It is a kind of coordinated, if not required, version of individualism that has conformity at its base.

1. In the face of rising cases of coronavirus, particularly among the unvaccinated, Republican leaders have once again retreated to attacking the CDC and Biden's White House for "failures" to control the disease and bring on a new round of mask-wearing and to enable more mandated vaccination programs. That's
despite the idea that it has been Republican leaders who have insisted on individual responsibility rather than government mandates to control the pandemic mutations.

Donald Trump emerged to insist that "We will never go back" to mask-wearing" as if wearing a mask for self-protection, even among the vaccinated, is some kind of expression of weakness. Republicans were resisting a call for the renewal of mandated mask-wearing in the House, of course, but also in cities and counties of high case counts and for businesses to protect employees and customers. Kevin McCarthy tweeted on behalf of his colleagues that "the threat of bringing masks back is not a decision based on science, but a decision conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state."

More importantly, we're seeing state Republican governors and leaders stopping cities and businesses from seeking protections, while also not pushing more vaccines. My reality is that my grandchildren can't get vaccinations, and thus, you and I need to wear masks.

2. Withdrawing from governing. McCarthy has pulled all six Republican lawmakers off of Democrats' special committee on economic disparity in continuing protest of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's move to reject two Republicans who promised to mock the Jan. 6 proceedings from that unrelated panel. Pelosi, of course, answered by naming anti-Trump Representatives Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., to the investigating group.

We're waiting to see if McCarthy withdraws Republicans from other committees.

If you don't play at policy, you can't win. It's further evidence that it is not government, but posturing that is the goal of Republicans.

3. 'America is not racist' has become the GOP 2024 mantra, reports The news outlet adds that lightning-rod issues such as "critical race theory" and "defund the police" are now a staple for Republican candidates across the country. No matter that top Democrats, including Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have said publicly they don't believe America is a racist country. Republicans are hoping to portray the party as out of step with the thinking of mainstream America.

I get that Republicans want a banner of patriotism to wave, but using a motto like "I am not fat" never seems to get anyone back into trim shape. How about some effective policy answers instead?

4. Donald Trump supporters calling themselves an "election integrity committee" are going door to door in Pennsylvania and demanding to know whom residents voted for in the November election. Apparently it is an attempt to shore up a claim for an Arizona-style private election recount for the never-ending claims of fraudulent voting.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, the actual Republican officials who had lined up to create that state's errant revisit of all Maricopa County votes have resigned. They said the company involved, Cyber Ninjas, is working in secret doing who knows what with ballots to justify the millions of dollars spent (though none from the Trump campaign, which has not supported the effort financially) on a seemingly fruitless venture.

Whatever else one might say about it, these are efforts not dealing with any of the fundamental policy questions facing the country.

5. Playing Fast and Loose with the Law. While Republicans present themselves as supporters of Law and Order, their actions show something different.

Increasingly they want laws overturned or just ignore current-day law for political ends. So, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered the National Guard to assist state law enforcement officers in stopping civilian drivers and contractors who they believe are transporting migrants to Texans. If drivers refuse to cooperate, Abbott's executive order instructs, officers may seize their vehicles. Such moves are blatantly illegal.

Some 228 members of Congress have asked the Supreme Court to overturn abortion laws.

Republicans in the House are resisting Capitol Police who are seeking to enforce mask enforcement for staffers and visitors.

In other words, Law and Order is for chumps. Backing the Blue is enforcement when convenient, as in Black Lives Matter protests, not Capitol rioting.

Good Politics?

I don't mind debate. But ignoring what government is for – other than launching criminal probes of your political enemies — seems beyond the pale.

Maybe it all still makes for good politics. People like sticking needles in the Other Guy's voodoo dolls. A steady diet of opposition to actual governing policy, backed by right-leaning media reports that only describe the opposition in glowing terms, may be a formula for electoral success.

But, on its face, deciding that no governing should be happening seems just as outlandish as insisting that only one party's viewpoint should mandate time after time. Sure, elect a Republican House majority again, and replace Pelosi with McCarthy, and then what?

McCarthy is making clear that he doesn't want Congress to do any of its real work other than cut taxes. During the Trump years, Republicans shucked off oversight duties, ignored social and economic inequalities, allowed debt to build (only now to blame Biden and Democrats), and chose not to resolve immigration, health, education, climate or international problems any more than they now complain that Biden is not.

Coronavirus is not a Republican or Democratic issue, any more than changing climate or even marketplace inflation. What is a government issue is what to do about them. Give the Trump team credit for pushing for vaccine development, and Biden for getting them out there, over Republican-led hesitancy and outright resistance, which is worsening the situation.

Hurling slogans about patriotism and engaging in culture war skirmishes actually resolves nothing toward the goals we say we want.

'A hitman sent them': Trump broadly hints at trying it again as Capitol riot hearings begin

The formal Jan. 6 investigation by Congress kicked off Tuesday and was, of course, made almost secondary by fighting over who's doing the investigating.

The first hearing of the new, select, 13-member House committee heard from four police officers who made clear that:

  • The Jan. 6 attacks were by Donald Trump supporters, not random leftist posers
  • It was dangerous, not a gathering of "love," as Trump himself has described
  • It was out of control for hours

We heard ad nauseum from Trump's side that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a rotten person because the Democrat rejected obstructionist nominees to the committee who were out to make a mockery of its proceedings. She dared in their view to reach into Republican ranks to name two members who have publicly opposed Trump on the insurrection attempt and the continuing Big Steal campaign to declare the last presidential election a fraud.

Both Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois are paying a price among Republican colleagues for even agreeing to sit on a panel that thinks there is something more important here than party politics. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy promised retribution against "Pelosi Republicans," even as Pelosi gave Cheney a prime opening speaking role which she used to lambast her GOP colleagues.

Republican mainstay thinking is that Pelosi had wrought a biased investigation panel of specific Democratic interest and majority to bear – even though they, as a group, resisted any attempt to create a more independent, bipartisan group of investigators.

Underscoring Purpose

Kinzinger's public statements after his selection by Pelosi were in stark contrast with those of Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana or Jim Jordan of Ohio, whom he essentially replaced. "We are duty-bound to conduct a full investigation on the worst attack on the Capitol since 1814 and to make sure it can never happen again."

Banks and Jordan, by contrast, had attacked the premise of even looking at Jan. 6 is a renewed attack of Trump. They wanted rather to investigate street violence surrounding Black Lives Matter protests and why Pelosi herself had not secured the Capitol rather than look at how Team Trump had assembled and incited armed supporters and sent them to the Capitol – delaying any action to stop the rioting. Five people died in the attacks and scores were injured.

Pelosi tossed the pair and offered to keep three other nominees. Then Republicans chose not to nominate new investigators.

The purpose of the Jan. 6 committee, of course, is to examine how the riot came about, what happened and to recommend steps to stop a repeat.

Because Pelosi insisted on that purpose for inclusion on the committee, Republicans walked away – only now to bleat that the investigation is unfairly biased because Pelosi didn't include those bent on changing the purpose.

But it is literally bipartisan, if you still count being non-Trump Republicans as party members.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, Democratic head of the committee, opened with frankness: "Some people are trying to deny what happened. To whitewash it. To turn the insurrectionists into martyrs. But the whole world saw the reality of what happened on Jan. 6th. . . And all of it: for a vile, vile lie. Let's be clear. The rioters who tried to rob us of our democracy were propelled here by a lie. As chairman of this committee, I will not give that lie any fertile ground."

The hearing itself featured the emotional testimony of four law enforcement officers, particularly in annotating video clips.

  • U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell told how he was beaten, had his hand sliced open and was doused in chemical spray during the attack
  • Private First Class Harry Dunn said was called racist slurs and has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Metropolitan Police Department Officer Michael Fanone said he faced death threats with his own gun
  • Officer Daniel Hodges told of being crushed in a door by rioters and beaten.

This was no lovefest.

Rockiness Ahead

This effort is bound to prove controversial at every step. Every statement of "fact" about Jan. 6 will elicit countercharges of presumption, prejudice and denial by the non-participating Republicans. Expect constant attacks on the people asking the questions, on staffers, on versions of the story that don't begin with allegations that voters were rightfully angry because millions of votes for Trump were magically turned into votes for Joe Biden.

Four Republican congress members — Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene – held a press conference to decry that Jan. 6 arrestees are political prisoners, for example.

Still, despite court proceedings for now 500 rioters, we continue to have big gaps in the public understanding of what actually occurred, where the money and planning came from, what was going on in the White House while insurrectionists ran riot, why federal response was delayed. We can expect a lot of howling over whether the committee tries to subpoena Trump or his top aides and Trump family members to answer questions about what the expectations were in calling that midday Jan. 6 rally and sending them to the Capitol. The Justice Department decided yesterday that they could testify without the protection of executive privilege.

If Trump were as big a guy as he presents himself, you'd think he would want to face down this committee. But that has not been his pattern, and he certainly won't willingly agree to be under oath. And what of the Republican members of Congress who supposedly conducted Capitol reconnaissance tours just before the attacks?

We should probably be content to see it all as political theater rather than fact-finding, but who knows? Maybe we'll be surprised to learn that there are any number of individuals who participated or who are uncovering actual fact that can provide some answers.

As the hearing was happening, we were seeing evidence across town about why it is needed:

The Justice Department was filing a brief on arguments about whether then Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala was within his official duties as a congressman to promote the riot. He was among the speakers at the rally denouncing his colleagues for failing to overturn the election results.

As Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin noted, "This sounds absurd, but in effect, Brooks is asking the Justice Department to certify that he was acting in the scope of his duties when he tried to overthrow the government. If he succeeds, he would be immune from suit."

She said it is "akin to saying Gen. Robert E. Lee was acting within the scope of his duties in the U.S. Army when he attacked Union troops. Sedition is not within the scope of any official's duties."

Meanwhile, Trump himself broadly hints at trying again. He claims the large sums of money he is raising through front-man groups are for recounts and audits. He's apparently using the money for business and legal bills.

So much for bipartisan wondering about the future of democracy.

South Dakota's governor raises the bar on Republican crazy

Sometimes the news is so outlandish, we have to stop and consider whether we're actually living in the same world as these people.

Is Fox News' Tucker Carlson really so strapped for policies to criticize that he has decided that the NSA, the National Security Agency, is spending its efforts reading his email? Or just maybe does he cite his unshared whistleblower report to remind us all just what an important critic he is that he would draw special attention from those who spy on foreigners?

Just what is Tucker emailing that needs the attention of the NSA? He blurts it all out nightly, and maybe he should worry more that his insulting lack of professionalism, sourcing or rigor can ever get me to tune in, to say nothing of his repetitious opinions.

I, for one, hope the NSA has better things to do.

Does Keven McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, really expect us to follow his logic in linking "Critical Race Theory" with alignment with the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow because they all are about race? Yes, Mr. Leader, we do need to talk about race in this country, and to do so critically. If all talk about race makes one a racist, perhaps you need to look in the mirror.

This is talking about talking about race.

But the gold star this week goes to South Dakota's radical Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, who is parading early as a possible part of any 2024 White House ticket. She announced that she is accepting private donations to deploy state National Guard troops to the Texas border to protect us from the hordes storming the country's porous barriers.

That's right. A partisan governor is sending uniformed troops, pulled from their normal jobs, to unknown tasks that are legally questionable anyway, halfway across the country, paid for by an auto scrap billionaire who thinks Joe Biden "would rather help other countries than help America.".

When this happens in, say, Afghanistan, we generally refer to these great private army thinkers as "warlords."

At the Border

We all recognize that with the changing of administrations from Donald Trump to Biden, there has been a swell of people coming from Central America toward our border. Some of it is seasonal, some of it is pent-up hope that Biden would open borders, some of it is a huge backload of asylum cases, and some of it rank opportunism by border coyotes to fleece and harm migrants desperate for a way to feed and protect their families.

Even the Biden administration recognizes that it has a problem trying to be more humane in strictly enforcing procedures that seem hopelessly out of step with the size of the problems. And law enforcement at all levels understands that there are increases in fentanyl and other serious drugs being moved surreptitiously across the border.

Still, since numbers seem to have subsided since the annual Spring rise, it remains a bit unclear just how more personnel will translate into the no-one-can-enter policies that seem so popular with the Reoublican base, since, among other things, the people entering have no interest in following rules.

Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Doucey of Arizona have started deploying law enforcement to beef up border patrols, and asking other governors to consider doing the same. So far, Florida, Nebraska and Iowa have pledged to send law enforcement officers.

Noem appears to be the only one sending state National Guards for up to two months. The deployment is being funded by a GOP megadonor, auto salvage billionaire Willis Johnson, a resident of Tennessee and founder of auto-salvage company Copart, as funneled through his family foundation. Johnson told TalkingPointsMemo.com that, as a Vietnam vet, he is upset that "we've got people saying we can't even protect our own borders. . . God gave America to us and God can take it away," Johnson added. "I feel sorry for the Mexicans, but they need to come through the right channels," Johnson added. "I love 'em, I just think they ought to follow the rules," including Covid-9 protections.

Most coming to the border are not Mexicans, but skip that. Skip, too, that people are being quarantined for Covid testing and vaccines, or, for that matter, that coming to the border to file for asylum is perfectly legal.

Raw Politics

How about using uniformed troops at the border for actual enforcement is prohibited by law? How about this is a federal law enforcement issue and not one for the South Dakota governor? How about considering what is nutty here about using a privately funded state military agency against any target?

Indeed, why limit raising a private army only for immigration? What about sending a private army to arrest deadbeat dads or provide safe places for domestic violence victims? How about targeting corporation executives who pay no taxes? How about sending armed South Dakota troops to read Tucker Carlson's emails?

This, of course, is straight, raw politics. Noem may as well unfurl banners saying: Biden and immigration, bad, Republicans, good.

Actually, it is hard to see immigration as an issue without seeing partisan interests right up front. Of course, we could say the same about climate, environmental rules, the economy or a Congressional select committee to examine what gave rise to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The auto salvage guy made no bones about it. He called Biden an "idiot," saying that the President "just wants to do everything that Trump didn't try to do — he doesn't care if it's right or wrong . . . It's just chaos with this President, and he doesn't care."

If it all didn't matter so much, it would be easy to dismiss Noem and all the partisanship. We have real problems requiring real solutions.

Senate Dems face the ultimate test this week as Mitch McConnell stands firm

We get another peek on Tuesday at just what an upsidedown world the U.S. Senate represents with a test vote on voter rights legislation that is being washed twice, rinsed and hung out on a bipartisan clothesline just in time for Republicans to knock it down.

For weeks, we have watched Sen. Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va.) maneuver, delay, twist and turn to try to make the For the People Act appeal to a bipartisan coalition. Tomorrow, we will confirm two things:

  • Democrats will negotiate endlessly among themselves to present a bill they think should draw 10 Republican votes
  • the reality that the Republican minority will just slam the door

Without the 10 votes, Democrats will fall short of the 60 required, renewing the endless debate over changing the filibuster rules – which actually can be done with a simple majority. But centrists like Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) say such action will carry bad consequences into the future.

Instead, they insist on turning every substantial Democratic proposal from coronavirus aid to infrastructure projects into mincemeat to lure would-be right-leaning centrists.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., simply says no. "I've taken a look at all the new state laws—none of them are designed to suppress the vote," McConnell said this week. "There is no rational basis for the federal government to take over all of American elections."

What tomorrow will show is that Democrats can at least hold the 50 votes of their own tiny majority in the hope that by banding together they can shift the public spotlight onto GOP opposition after weeks of headlines about their own divisions.

By bending over backward to accommodate Manchin, Democrats can at least avoid the embarrassment of not keeping their own party in check.

Of course, dealmaking by constant self-negotiation only serves the specific needs of the Senate world itself. It may or may not address actual problems in the real world where Republican-majority legislatures in state after state are passing at least two dozen laws to restrict voting. The largest effects are predicted in areas with large numbers of voters of color.

Amid the bipartisan appeal, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) continues to argue that "the Democratic Party is the only party standing up for democracy right now."

Manchin's Move

Until Manchin came out with his list of what he would support as a voting rights bill, the effort looked to be dead. Simply because Manchin's changes made some kind of progress possible, it quickly gained traction with progressive Democrats and activists, most notably Stacey Abrams, the voting rights champion in Georgia.

But as reporters are noting, the Manchin effort actually has done nothing to improve the chances that the legislation could get through the Senate's 60-vote requirement. Manchin and Sinema also oppose dumping the filibuster rules.

What's weird about the reactions in both parties is that Manchin has allowed for some specifics that Republicans say they want, including provisions allowing for voter ID requirements, and, of course, the Democrats want provisions to counter those new state laws that Manchin has dropped.

Basically, Manchin had publicly criticized the bill as overly broad and spent a session with fellow Democrats last week to outline specifics.

Manchin supports:

  • making Election Day a public holiday
  • mandating at least 15 consecutive days for early voting in federal elections
  • banning gerrymandering
  • making voter registration automatic through state departments of motor vehicles
  • tightening campaign finance requirements like requiring online and digital ads to disclose their sources, similar to TV and radio ads
  • enacting stricter ethics requirements for presidents and vice presidents
  • requiring campaigns and committees to report foreign contacts

He opposes public financing of campaigns and no-excuse absentee voting, and sees no problem in requiring voter ID requirements or alternatives like a utility bill to provide proof of identity.

Showing Unity

The vote on Tuesday is to advance the bill for consideration, not the actual vote. But it should be a marker on where all parties stand.

For Democrats, being able to show a unified from would cement Republicans as the opposition to guarantees for voting rights. That, in turn, will renew calls from progressives to end the filibuster rule.

Still pending is the somewhat easier so-called John Lewis voting rights bill that would renew the requirement for federal review of state election law changes to assure that they are not discriminatory. Still, as Talking Points Memo points out, Manchin's notes last week about this bill would largely undercut the point of the legislation.

"But Manchin's changes, almost all erring on the side of concern that the measure overreaches, would defang many of the tools the bill provides to identify discriminatory voting practices and force those localities to obtain preclearance," the website reported.

And, of course, we still have an array of pending challenges to the November 2020 election results in Arizona and other states that want to claim retroactive election fraud.

In recent weeks, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute. Restrictions vary by state but can include:

  • limiting the use of ballot drop boxes
  • adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots
  • doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.

Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including:

  • tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules
  • clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives
  • outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections

Sounds like it's time to vote.

Happy Holidays!