With Trump, putting America first is not an option

In this Aug. 7, 1974 file photo, Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., center, speaks to reporters after meeting with President Richard Nixon at the White House to discuss Nixon’s decision on resigning. Flanked by Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, left and House GOP Leader John Rhodes of Arizona, right, Goldwater said Nixon has made “no decision” on whether to resign. (AP Photo)

On Aug. 7, 1974, three top Republican leaders in Congress paid a solemn visit to President Richard Nixon at the White House, bearing the message that he faced near-certain impeachment due to eroding support in his own party on Capitol Hill. Nixon, who’d been entangled in the Watergate scandal for two years, announced his resignation the next day.

Could a similar drama unfold in later stages of the impeachment process that Democrats have now initiated against President Donald Trump? It’s doubtful. In Nixon’s time, there were conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans. Compromise was not treated with scorn.

In today’s highly polarized Washington, bipartisan agreement is a rarity. And Trump has taken over the Republican Party, accruing personal rather than party loyalty and casting the GOP establishment to an ineffectual sideline.

“In the past in the U.S., party members would dissociate themselves from disgraced leaders in order to preserve the party and their own reputations,” said professor Nick Smith, who teaches ethics and political philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. “But now President Trump seems to have such a personal hold on the party — more like a cult leader than a U.S. president — that the exits are closed as the party transforms into his image.”

The delegation that visited Nixon was headed by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the GOP’s unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1964. Goldwater, who had a long tenure as a party elder, was joined by Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, a Republican known for his strong support for civil rights, and Rep. John Rhodes of Arizona — the GOP leaders in their respective chambers.

They told Nixon there were no longer enough Republican votes to spare him from impeachment, given the release two days earlier of a 1972 tape recording contradicting Nixon’s tenacious denial of any role in cover-up of the Watergate break-in.

“He’d been proclaiming his innocence and suddenly they’ve got this evidence showing he’s been lying all this time,” said Thomas Schwartz, a history and political science professor at Vanderbilt University. “We don’t have the equivalent of that now.”

For now, though, Trump has a firewall in the form of Republicans who see more harm in opposing him than supporting him. Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, cited the increased political polarization of recent years as a reason why most Republican officials will stick with Trump “as long as their own status is not in danger.”

“For the president’s partisans in Congress, it’s ‘our guy on his worst day is better than your guy on his best day,’” Jillson said. “They stick with him to get the judicial appointments, the tax cuts.”

That would change if Trump’s troubles become so serious that congressional leaders think it will affect them and their party, Jillson said.

“Everyone among the Republicans in Congress has a beef with the president but they’re afraid of him,” said Jillson. “If he weakens, that fear will subside.”

The Watergate scandal overlapped with late stages of the Vietnam War, which had bedeviled both Nixon and his Democratic predecessor, Lyndon Johnson. In that era, Congress was more powerful in relation to the executive branch than it is now, with more leaders of national stature, several experts suggested.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, suggested that with the death last year of Arizona Sen. John McCain, there’s no Republican currently in Congress who could replicate Goldwater’s 1974 role.

“Who would go and be credible with Donald Trump, so that he would listen?” she asked. “Mitt Romney? Mitch McConnell? Lindsay Graham? Trump will turn on any of them the minute they say something uncongenial.”

A key then-and-now difference, Jamieson said, is that Goldwater represented the same conservative constituency as Nixon and conveyed the message that Nixon was losing its support.

Trump, she said, has a different relationship with his base than Nixon did with his: The base is loyal to Trump personally, rather than to a party establishment.

During Trump’s first two years in office, one of the few Republicans in Congress to tangle regularly with him was Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who decided not to seek reelection in 2018. In a column in The Washington Post on Oct. 1, Flake lambasted his fellow Republicans still in Congress for failure to break with Trump and oppose his reelection.

“At this point, the president’s conduct in office should not surprise us. But truly devastating has been our tolerance of that conduct,” Flake wrote. “From the ordeal of this presidency, perhaps the most horrible — and lasting — effect on our democracy will be that at some point we simply stopped being shocked.”

David Gibbs, a political science professor at the University of Arizona, recalled that Nixon had won reelection by a landslide in 1972, and yet many people who supported him, including Republicans in Congress, were willing to turn against him as evidence of a Watergate conspiracy accumulated.

In contrast, Gibbs now sees the United States as divided 50-50 along the “tribal lines” of Democrats versus Republicans, with Trump’s base remaining loyal no matter what sort of negative picture is painted by his critics.

“The two sides are roughly evenly matched, with neither one able to deliver a knockout blow, and thus there’s political paralysis,” Gibbs said. “The hyper-partisan tribalism makes bipartisan consensus for removing a president virtually impossible.”

Another big change since 1974 is the proliferation of media outlets and the advent of social media, which is used by Trump himself and partisans on all sides to promote their agendas and demonize opponents. Nixon had neither the equivalent of Fox News to support him nor the soapbox of Twitter to accuse his detractors of treason and witch-hunting.

The changing media landscape “has resulted in a political and news environment that moves at light speed compared with the Watergate era,” said David Cohen, a University of Akron political science professor. “The sheer information we are inundated with daily is like drinking out of a fire hose and it is impossible to swallow it all.”

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Trump calls on China to investigate Bidens


President Donald Trump speaks to the media. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Ensnarled in an impeachment investigation over his request for Ukraine to investigate a chief political rival, President Donald Trump Thursday called on another nation to probe former Vice President Joe Biden: China.

“China should start an investigation into the Bidens,” Trump said in remarks to reporters outside the White House. Trump said he hadn’t directly asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to investigate Biden and his son Hunter but said it’s “certainly something we could start thinking about.”

Trump and personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani have also tried to raise suspicions about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China, leaning on the writings of conservative author Peter Schweizer. But there is no evidence that the former vice president benefited financially from his son’s business relationships.

Trump’s requests for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to dig up dirt on Biden, as well as Giuliani’s conduct, are at the center of an intelligence community whistleblower complaint that sparked the House Democratic impeachment probe last week.

Trump’s comments came as he publicly acknowledged that his message to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other officials was to investigate the 2020 Democratic presidential contender. Trump’s accusations of impropriety are unsupported by evidence.

“It’s a very simple answer,” Trump said of his call with Zelenskiy. “They should investigate the Bidens.”

Trump has sought to implicate Biden and his son in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.

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Volker: What role did he play in Ukraine debacle?

Former U.S. special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Kurt Volker was little known outside of foreign policy circles as the special U.S. envoy to Ukraine until last week, when the whistleblower complaint against President Donald Trump recast the once obscure diplomat as a central figure in the unfolding impeachment inquiry.

Volker is scheduled to testify in private Thursday to congressional investigators who want to ask about any role he may have played in Trump’s efforts to press Ukrainian officials for damaging information about the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Volker resigned Friday after being asked to testify to Congress about the complaint, which describes how Trump in a July 25 phone call repeatedly prodded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for an investigation of Biden and his son, while his administration delayed the release of military aid to help Ukraine fight Russia-backed separatists. The complaint says Volker met in Kyiv with Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian political figures a day after the call and he provided advice about how to “navigate” Trump’s demands.

“I think he was doing the best he could,” said retired senior U.S. diplomat Daniel Fried, who described the actions of his former colleague as trying to guide Ukrainians on “how to deal with President Trump under difficult circumstances.”

Volker’s role, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s confirmation that he was also on Trump’s July 25 call, deeply entangles the State Department in the impeachment inquiry now shadowing the White House.

The State Department said Volker has confirmed that he put a Zelenskiy adviser in contact with Rudy Giuliani, at the Ukraine adviser’s request, and Giuliani has said he was in frequent contact with Volker.

Separately, The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that Volker met last year with a top official from the same Ukrainian energy firm that paid Biden’s son Hunter to serve on its board. The meeting occurred even as Giuliani pressed Ukraine’s government to investigate the company and the Bidens’ involvement with it.

Pompeo accused the congressional investigators of trying to “bully” and “intimidate” State Department officials with subpoenas for documents and testimony, suggesting he would seek to prevent them from providing information. But the committee managed to schedule the deposition with Volker as well as one next week with Marie Yovanovitch, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was removed from the post last spring.

The spotlight is an unlikely place for Volker, who was brought into the Trump administration by Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to serve as envoy for Ukraine. He worked in a volunteer capacity and had retained his job as head of the John McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.

Though his name may not have been known before last week to most Americans, Volker had a long diplomatic career, often working behind the scenes. He was a principal deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs before becoming the U.S. ambassador to NATO in 2008.

In his most recent role as envoy to Ukraine, he spoke openly of U.S. support for Ukrainian sovereignty. Last year, he criticized the expansion of Russian naval operations and Russia’s resistance to full deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine to monitor the fight against the Russia-backed separatists.

Pompeo himself mentioned Volker during an appearance in Rome on Wednesday when he confirmed his participation in the call, saying he had been focused on “taking down the threat that Russia poses” in Ukraine and to help the country build its economy.

Fried described Volker as a “dedicated public servant and professional, a problem solver.”

“In all of the years I’ve worked with him, we never had a partisan conversation,” Fried said. “He’s an utter professional.”

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Impeachment fever swamps gun control efforts

Rep. Gabby Giffords, speaks during a news conference to announce the introduction of bipartisan legislation to expand background checks for sales and transfers of firearms, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

After back-to-back mass shootings in Ohio and Texas this summer, gun control burst back on the scene as a major political issue for Democrats. Now it risks taking a back seat as impeachment fever overtakes Washington.

Gun control advocates are determined to prevent that from happening.

Ten White House hopefuls will be in Las Vegas for a forum on gun policy on Wednesday, almost two years to the day after a gunman killed 58 people at a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. The event is being hosted by MSNBC, March for Our Lives and Giffords, the advocacy organization set up by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot and gravely wounded during a constituent meeting in 2011.

The forum is an effort to keep gun violence front and center of the debate and gives 2020 presidential candidates a chance to showcase their plans to combat the epidemic. Polls show that a majority of Americans favor stricter gun laws, while even more support specific proposals like universal background checks. But negotiations between President Donald Trump’s administration and lawmakers have halted over background checks legislation, an effort that faced long odds even before the impeachment inquiry began.

“Impeachment sucks everything out of the room. Certainly it’s the focus of Trump’s attention,” said Jack Citrin, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of California-Berkeley. “If you need to reach some kind of bipartisan agreement and one party is determined to throw the president out of office, rightly or wrongly, it’s a little hard to see how that builds the kind of goodwill that’s necessary on this or any other issue.”

Ariel Hobbs, a 21-year-old student organizer with March for Our Lives in Houston, said her group wants “to hear from the candidates that they are taking this seriously and they understand they can no longer ignore America’s gun violence epidemic.” She doesn’t think the impeachment inquiry is a reason for lawmakers to stop their push for a bipartisan solution.

The 10 candidates slated to participate in the forum are former Vice President Joe Biden; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Obama Housing Secretary Julián Castro; California Sen. Kamala Harris; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; and businessman Andrew Yang.

O’Rourke recast his campaign around gun control after the August shooting in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, where a gunman targeting Hispanics killed 22 people. O’Rourke even vowed to ban assault weapons, saying at a debate in Houston in September, “Hell, yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47, and we’re not going to allow it to be used against your fellow Americans anymore.”

One expert said he doesn’t see a downside for O’Rourke or any of his fellow presidential candidates to talk about impeachment alongside other issues like gun control.

“If (O’Rourke) is pointing out that because of impeachment, the president has decided not to work at all on an issue that involves people’s lives, he could make the argument if he wanted that this is itself an impeachable offense,” said Michael Green, a history professor at the University of Las Vegas-Nevada focused on state and national politics. “If you are trying to get your base, your base probably does not mind the idea of impeachment.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut has been leading negotiations with the White House on a background checks deal and will attend the forum. The conversations have gone silent in the past two weeks, but he’s told the White House that he’s still willing to talk. Trump himself has accused Democrats of ignoring other issues to focus on impeachment.

“The Democrats are so focused on hurting the Republican Party and the President that they are unable to get anything done because of it, including legislation on gun safety, lowering of prescription drug prices, infrastructure, etc. So bad for our Country!” he tweeted Sept. 24.

Murphy says reaching consensus may still be possible.

“I think that the president is going to have some pressure to show that impeachment isn’t consuming him, and a breakthrough on a background checks deal that nobody thought was possible would probably be a pretty good tonic for the administration right now,” he said.

While his fellow Democrats may not be keen on the idea of giving Trump a win, Murphy said he’ll keep pushing because gun control remains top of mind for voters.

“Our party needs to find mechanisms to keep our focus on the issues that matter to voters, and guns is right at the top of that list,” he said. “The forum is an effort to try to keep the primary dialogue focused on an issue that is absolutely going to be top of mind for swing voters.”

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved