George W. Bush; Barack Obama; Donald Trump (Getty/AP/Salon)

How the Iraq war and the Great Recession of 2008 paved the way for the Trump catastrophe

America's failures have painted us into a corner. Impeachment isn't the only answer, but it's a necessary start


Bill Curry
June 17, 2019 10:00AM (UTC)
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In my dream, it’s 2021. Donald Trump has lost by the biggest popular vote margin in history. (The Electoral College? Unanimous!) Criminal charges rain down on him. As squad cars ring Trump Tower, a nasal voice shouts, “Come and get me, dirty coppers!”  From a bullhorn, the reply issues: “Come out with your tiny hands in the air!”

Nancy Pelosi must have dreams just like it. “Sources” say she seeks to quell impeachment by declaring she’d rather see Trump in jail. Who wouldn’t? But would the next batch of Barrs, Muellers and Rosensteins be any more likely than the last to get the job done? It’s a sweet dream, but a risky bet.

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Pelosi assumes that Trump loses and a Democrat orders it done. Last week, Sen. Kamala Harris made an unseemly pledge to do just that. Harris, an ex-prosecutor, should know better. Among the abuses for which Trump ought to be impeached is his use of his office to punish and bully critics. Democrats must be clear: Federal prosecutors may bring obstruction and corruption cases against anyone they believe guilty, Trump included, but a Democrat won’t weaponize the law.

It doesn’t mean a Democratic president can’t conduct an inquiry or name another special counsel, but there’s no assurance one would. Trump’s ascendance marks the third time this century that criminal or otherwise invidious behavior brought catastrophe upon our country. The first two times, a Democratic president decided it wasn’t worth the aggravation of finding out how it all went down. Some history.

After the Iraq war, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown appointed a commission to investigate how exactly his country stumbled into such a tragic fiasco. The Chilcot Report (for Lord John Chilcot, who led the commission) was an account of political bungling and deception as thorough and damning as the Pentagon Papers. Its 2016 release made former Prime Minister Tony Blair, chief accomplice to George W. Bush in that disastrous undertaking, into a social leper. Unlike Robert Mueller, Chilcot had an absolute right to interview any witness and compel production of any document he felt he needed; nearly all his interviews were done in public, and he delivered his report direct to the people of the United Kingdom.

The war was hatched in America by ideologues bent on exporting democracy via bribery and force of arms.  In the eyes of many, it surpasses Vietnam as the worst foreign policy blunder in our nation’s history. In a speech to the nation summarizing the case for it, Bush leaned heavily on the only possible rationale for an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation:

Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.

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For months, his vice president and national security adviser peddled “evidence” of nuclear and chemical weapons. Before his speech, Bush was told by experts at the Department of Energy that the evidence was false, but he kept the news to himself. To this day it remains unproven who was lying, and who was only lied to.  

The Congressional Budget Office says the war cost the U.S. $2 trillion. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz puts it at $3 trillion. Nearly 4,500 U.S. military personnel died there, and tens of thousands more suffered disabling physical and psychic wounds. Iraqi casualties remain in dispute — as Gen. Tommy Franks informed reporters, “We don’t do body counts” — but estimates range from 180,000 to more than a million deaths. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees counted 3.7 million refugees. Americans think the war’s over. Last month, it took 166 Iraqi lives.

In 2009, as Gordon Brown was launching the Chilcot Inquiry, Barack Obama was being pressured to take a similar look back at how America was lured or lied into war. Obama took a different tack. Rather than appoint a commission with plenipotentiary powers, he did nothing. Aides said he thought retracing Bush’s path to war would make it hard to forge bipartisan alliances with Republicans.

Similar concerns colored his take on the other huge crisis he inherited, the 2008 Wall Street meltdown that leveled the global economy. No one knows its true cost, only that the number exceeds most human minds’ ability to conceptualize. A Government Accountability Office study put the U.S. cost at $22 trillion.

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Social and political costs were even higher. Post-meltdown austerity measures, following on decades of stagnant wages just as millions of Middle East refugees flooded Europe, rocking center-left coalitions that had ruled the West since World War II. Far-right political parties the old order was too polite to label fascist began to metastasize. Britain got Brexit. America got Trump.  

When the crisis broke, Obama was running for president. His closing stump speech was a litany of vows to curb corruption; above all, to punish Wall Street fraud. His administration never brought a case. Three years later, he went on “60 Minutes” to explain that the worst behavior wasn’t actually illegal. Given his dazzling intellect and access to wise counsel, one assumes he knew that what he said wasn’t true.

Privately, Obama revealed his thinking. He worried that prosecutions would hurt banks. He worried he’d lose personal support in the business community. (A major culprit, Goldman Sachs, was also his biggest donor.) And he worried he’d lose business backing vital to building bipartisan coalitions in Congress.          

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Lying was as much a cause of the Great Recession as it was of the Iraq war. Loan originators lied about applicants’ creditworthiness. Investment bankers lied about the toxicity of mortgage portfolios. Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s and Fitch all lied. So did Obama and most of Congress, which meant major reforms, excepting only Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, were designed to curb “irrational exuberance,” not the immorality at the root of what befell us.

Instead of going to prison, bankers got bailed out, while homeowners got betrayed. Like the meltdown itself, the government’s response helped incite a populist revolt. Obama and Clinton Democrats were deaf to it, but Trump’s final 2016 TV ad began “Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment.” In the last week, it replaced nearly every other ad he had up in the industrial Midwest.

These failures — to investigate the origins of the Iraq war and the Great Recession and punish the culprits — were not anomalies. After 9/11, no one had the stomach to hold George W. Bush to account for ignoring intelligence reports on his desk, so the bipartisanship crowd invented a structural failure and wasted years rearranging intelligence and homeland security bureaucracies, resulted in a new Cabinet-level post, the Director of National Intelligence, who lacks the authority to direct anyone to do anything.

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It happened after the 2000 election: Media barons set out to fix the exit polls, Congress set out to rid the world of hanging chads via nifty paperless ballots and the Democratic Party set out to rid the world of Ralph Nader. Thus, a pioneering GOP foray into voter suppression went nearly unremarked. Despite butterfly ballots, staged riots, a chief election official doing double duty as a Bush campaign chair and a Supreme Court concocting phony equal protection claims to rob Al Gore of real due process, Bush was clothed in legitimacy, leaving millions of Americans to conclude that the system was indeed rigged.        

I doubt we’d be saddled with Trump had we not come to resemble him: way too materialistic, more than a bit narcissistic, unfocused, unlettered, infantile, even amoral. Our responses to these crises suggest that we also share a high tolerance for lying, a limited capacity for self-examination and an unspoken belief that the rich and powerful are above the law. Which brings us to the latest in our recent line of failures to look either evil or ourselves in the eye, the Mueller Report.

We live in a moment when comedians provide better political analysis than politicians or pundits, so it’s no surprise Bill Maher was first out of the box in April with a stinging rebuke of Mueller. What does surprise is that with two months gone by so few others have joined him. If Maher’s takedown of the report (“one feckless punt after another”) overstates the case, it’s by less than you may think.

One of the few things Attorney General William Barr said about the Mueller report that is likely true is that he was surprised Mueller made no finding as to whether Donald Trump obstructed justice. He wasn’t surprised Mueller didn’t charge Trump with a crime, only that Mueller wouldn’t say whether Trump had committed one.

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Both men adhere to two Justice Department opinions: one written by Nixon’s Justice Department just before Nixon got impeached; the other by Clinton’s just after he got impeached. The authors of both opinions claim that while in office, their bosses can’t be prosecuted, even under sealed indictment. Both concede that no language in the Constitution supports the claim; neither cites a Supreme Court case other than to distinguish present facts from seemingly adverse holdings.         

The opinions, written by men who hoped the president thought well of them, rest on the notion that a criminal trial would intrude too much on his dignity and convenience. It seems a rickety table on which to lay a claim of immunity. What shocked Barr was that Mueller decided, all on his own, to put even more weight on it. To Mueller, it’s unfair to a president you don’t charge with a crime even to say he committed one, because he can’t answer in the court you didn’t haul him into. Such an aerial display of circular logic hadn’t even occurred to Barr, who spends every waking moment thinking of ways to get Trump off the hook.    

Mueller’s mandate was not only to decide whether to prosecute possible crimes but to complete the intelligence investigation into Russian election meddling begun by James Comey. He nailed the Russians but dropped the ball when he got to Team Trump. It’s why the media thought he found no collusion between Russia and the campaign. He found collusion aplenty but thought he didn’t have enough proof to charge conspiracy. He repeats the familiar line that collusion isn’t a crime. But did Trump encourage Russia? Is he beholden to Putin? Mueller never says.

Collusion isn’t a crime, except when it is. Mueller’s easiest cases pertained to laws barring foreign donations to or expenditures on American political campaigns. The infamous Trump Tower meeting hosted by Donald Trump Jr., and Paul Manafort’s serial sharing of polling data from swing states with a man linked to Russian intelligence, are prime targets. Mueller says he didn’t bring charges because he couldn’t establish the value of the intel, or that the likely defendants knew the law.   

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Leave it to Congress to make ignorance of the law a defense to political crimes. Some say Don Jr.’s ignorance of politics makes him hard to go after. The problem may be Mueller’s ignorance of politics. The value of the intel? A pearl beyond price, worth many multiples of the $25,000 felony threshold. Knowledge of the law? Manafort has spent his whole adult life evading laws on foreign influence peddling. Donald Trump Jr. has spent his life peddling influence around the world. Of course they knew.

Mueller doesn’t know because he never asked. His report contains the sentence, “Donald Trump Jr. declined to be voluntarily interviewed.” Really? And then what happened? From Trump Sr., Mueller accepted written responses delivered through lawyers. The first seven were versions of “I don’t recall,” as were most of the rest. Manafort just lied.

Mueller is often praised for not leaking to the press. I wish he had. If word had gotten out that he thought a Justice Department memo meant he couldn’t complete his assignment, or that he doubted Manafort and Trump Jr. grasped the import of their misdeeds, it would have caused such a storm he might have changed course.

Democrats don’t criticize Mueller partly out of fear Republicans will say they turned on him for disagreeing with them. But in his views of Trump, Mueller’s closer to them than to his Republican brethren. Democrats seethe because Mueller left the country in the lurch. Mueller’s a patriot. So’s Obama. Yet both let the powerful slip the noose. As Maher would say, time for new rules.

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Some have called Mueller’s report an impeachment “road map.” It isn’t. Maps give directions and don’t come redacted. For anyone mounting a defense of our elections, it does provide a superb précis of Russian subversion strategies. It also tells you all you need to know about obstruction of justice. But impeachment should go places Mueller didn’t. Besides obstruction, charges should include:

Collusion

Mueller confined himself to possible charges of criminal conspiracy, but there can be no doubt Trump’s standing invitations to foreign subversion are impeachable. Our founders would deem his actions treasonous. Some legal scholars say treason can only occur when a foreign power formally declares war on us, but as with that immunity memo, no language in the Constitution, the federal statute on treason or any holding of the Supreme Court supports their view. Would anyone say a surprise attack on our electric grid wasn’t an act of war? Is an attack on our democracy less of one? Trump has taken to accusing the FBI of treason, once again projecting his sins onto others. We should take the word back, but whatever we call it, voters will see it as our founders would see it, as treason.              

Corruption

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There’s no more powerful issue in today’s world than corruption. In every poll that includes it, voters call it the problem they care about most because it’s the one that keeps all their other problems from ever getting solved. Trump’s surely the most corrupt president we’ve ever had. His most recent competitors for the title, Richard Nixon and Warren G. Harding, can’t touch him. His administration is a ceaseless tableau of venality and greed. To neglect to impeach him for corruption would be an unconscionable oversight.

Lying

On April 26, the Washington Post feted Donald Trump on an astonishing achievement: Ten thousand lies or misleading statements in 826 days as president. He’s the most prolific liar in the history of American politics; the easiest to spot, hardest to shame. The most pernicious too. No democracy can survive the normalization of lying. Nixon and Clinton were both impeached for it. Do we care enough about lying to impeach a president for it today? We’re in deep trouble if we don’t.    

Pelosi’s notion of leaving Trump’s case to law enforcement is seductive, but even if Democrats win in 2020, one easily imagines a President-elect Joe Biden doing for Trump what Obama did for Bush and Cheney. If Pelosi punts, John Roberts becomes the new Bob Mueller; the high-minded Republican Democrats pin their hopes on. It’s enough to trigger Bush v. Gore flashbacks, even before you factor in all the Trump judges now infesting the courts with ideology and partisanship.

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Impeachment is rife with risk. As we saw with Brett Kavanaugh, Democrats don’t know how to comport themselves in hearings; how to defend themselves; how to prosecute a case in unison rather than profile for the cameras. Many urge them to focus on a broader agenda, more relevant to voters’ lives. Good luck getting the media to focus on anything other than Trump. Democrats are producing decent legislation now, but with Mitch McConnell declaring everything DOA in the Senate, no one’s watching. As long as Trump’s in office, all politics will be about him.

The Democrats’ worst fear is that hearings fail to stir the public and that facing not only likely Senate acquittal but public resistance they’re left at the end with no choice but to surrender. They underestimate both their present case and what an inquiry into the long criminal enterprise that is the life of Donald Trump will surely add to it.

They also underestimate the risk of inaction: a dejected base, a public more easily misled by Trump’s bellows of “No obstruction! No collusion!” And they can count on McConnell to provide the political cover they need and a less awkward segue than they fear. A readymade slogan works on many levels: “Senate Republicans won’t impeach Donald Trump — but on Nov. 3, you can!”

The Iraq war and the Great Recession were the worst shocks to our system of recent times. We see the effects of our failure to hold the culprits to account. As I write, National Security Adviser John Bolton, a key member of the Iraq cabal, maneuvers the nation into war with Iran. Had we conducted an investigation like the Chilcot Inquiry, Bolton would be no more able than Tony Blair to steer us toward war. Mick Mulvaney spends parts of his days dismembering the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Had we prosecuted Wall Street fraud, his job would be harder. Last week we saw the effects of Mueller’s dereliction as Trump invited further foreign subversion, casually telling George Stephanopoulos he’d commit the very felonies with which Mueller failed to charge Manafort and Don Jr.

Donald Trump has hurt America more than the Wall Street meltdown, or even the Iraq war. His attacks on the rule of law threaten our democratic way of life. People who fear overuse of the word “treason” recoil even more from the word “fascist.” It is radioactive, owing to its connection to the word “Nazi.” But Trump checks every box for fascism, as surely as he does for “narcissistic personality disorder.” He’s no Hitler, but he’s long since put Juan Perón in his rearview mirror and he’s gaining on Mussolini. It’s a far more accurate label for Trump than “authoritarian.” It has the added benefit of letting his supporters know which team they’re suiting up for — and for conveying the magnitude of the present crisis, there’s nothing like it.

The political system we purport to cherish is under mortal threat. We need our own Chilcot Inquiry, in which every witness appears, every document is produced, every interview is conducted in public and the final report goes straight to the American people. The lesson of the Mueller report is that a Democratic House of Representatives is the only means we have left. We need an impeachment inquiry and we need it now. Bob Mueller threw away his shot. Everything now rides on Nancy Pelosi not throwing away hers.

 


Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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