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A year of integrity from Mueller

The following appears in today’s Washington Post.

It has been a year since Special Counsel Robert Mueller took over the Justice Department’s Russia investigation. Since then, by all appearances, he has performed with professionalism, integrity and remarkable efficiency.

That is not President Donald Trump’s view, of course. The president rants frequently, inappropriately and with no foundation against a supposed “witch hunt.” His complaints only further the impression he has something to hide. So do the attacks on Mueller from the Trump claque in the House of Representatives. So did last week’s rather pathetic chiming in from Vice President Mike Pence, who instructed the special counsel, “It’s time to wrap it up.”

In fact, in the space of only one year, Mueller has secured guilty pleas from, or indictments against, 19 people and three firms, including very senior figures: Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

He obtained an indictment against a Russian company that helps illuminate the Russian effort to influence the 2016 election. He has done his work without leaks or drama, even as Trump and his allies continually slander him and his motivation.

Nor is there any evidence Mueller has overstepped proper boundaries of prosecutorial behavior. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein ordered the special counsel to investigate Russia’s 2016 election interference and any matter that “arose or may arise” in doing so. It is only logical that would include Manafort’s pre-election ties to Russia and the president’s possible post-election efforts to subvert the probe. Any good prosecutor would cover those bases.

Initially, Republican lawmakers praised the selection of Mueller and emphasized his reputation for honesty. Now that Trump has decided on a strategy to discredit the investigation, most GOP lawmakers are descending to the level of courage we have come to expect in the Trump era and are staying relatively mute. Polls still show wide public approval of the Mueller probe, but among Republicans Trump’s attacks are having an effect.

Mueller deserves more backup from Republicans in Congress — in both word and legislation. They should make clear he will be given such time as he needs to complete his investigation. Republicans had no objection while independent counsel Kenneth Starr investigated President Bill Clinton for nearly five years on issues neither as complex nor as important. The American people deserve to learn as much as possible about the Kremlin’s 2016 meddling, how U.S. officials responded to it and whether any U.S. officials cooperated with it.

Some lawmakers have been willing to stick up for Mueller; the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, approved a bill on a bipartisan basis that protects him from inappropriate termination. So far Senate and House GOP leaders have been unwilling to bring such a bill to a vote.

That has left lawmakers scrambling for other options, which could include a bill requiring Mueller to release a public report on his findings, regardless of his fate. That is less than the bare minimum, but it would be better than nothing.

Fear freezes Republican budget cut proposals


When President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he could not have foreseen today’s Republican Party.

A bill authored by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would require the federal government to balance the budget each year was soundly defeated last week in the Senate. Even Paul admitted he thought the bill had no chance, but he told the Washington Post his purpose was to point out Republican hypocrisy. Paul accused his Republican colleagues of engaging in an “unholy alliance” with Democrats to keep increasing spending, thereby adding to the deficit and national debt, which now exceeds $21 trillion with no end in sight.

In the House, Republicans pushed back against President Trump’s proposal to cut a measly $15 billion from several programs. For Congress, $15 billion is pocket change, but even this small amount is too much for the GOP, which fears Democrat campaign commercials accusing Republicans of not caring about children and wanting to evict grandma from her home.

Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., exposed Republican fears in a comment quoted by the Post: “I worry about the messaging the Democrats will be able to do off it. Those ads write themselves.”

This scenario happens with regularity. Are Republicans so stupid they can’t see it coming? Are they so inept they can’t devise a strategy to overcome the left’s predictable tactics and put them on the defensive for their failed, expensive and unnecessary programs, along with their refusal to reform entitlements, the real driver of debt?

If the only motivation for Republicans is the next election, and the one after that, ad infinitum, why have any Republicans in Congress at all? Why have a Republican Party, which once was supposedly the party of small government, low taxes and individual responsibility? Now it seems the GOP has joined the other side and has become part of the problem rather than the solution.

It’s not that Republicans — and Democrats for that matter — don’t know how to balance the budget. The bipartisan Balanced Budget Act of 1997 would have balanced the budget by 2002. Unfortunately, the law had a short lifespan. By 1999 and 2000, new legislation was introduced and passed that effectively obliterated the previous attempt at fiscal discipline.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump rightly criticized President Obama for almost doubling our national debt to more than $19 trillion, and growing. “And yet, what do we have to show for it? Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our airports are in Third World condition, and 43 million Americans are on food stamps.”

Even some Democrats get it right sometimes, though when spending push comes to election shove they usually vote with the big spenders. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., has said, “Obviously, there has to be a profound change in direction. Otherwise, interest on the national debt will start eating up virtually every penny that we have.”

Well, maybe not obviously to many Republicans.

Republicans need to stop fearing the fear factor and start winning arguments. They can start by asking Americans if they want their money to continue to be spent on failed and unnecessary programs. They should then propose alternative programs that do work and promote the power of the individual, which once was paramount before government became our “keeper.”

Fear is not a policy for Republicans. It is surrender. As John F. Kennedy said in another context, “We can do better.”

Trump uses his power to attack the weak

How does President Trump act when he feels on top of the economic and diplomatic world? As his influence solidifies within the GOP? As his poll numbers tick upward?

If a recent Cabinet meeting tirade is any indication, political security has not translated into magnanimity. According to press reports, Trump spent 30 minutes dressing down his homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, for insufficient zeal in closing the southern border to illegal immigrants. One consistent source of tension between the two has been Trump’s desire to use family separation as a deterrent against illegal crossings.

Trump unbound is increasingly impatient with the excessive humanity of some of his own staff. This is not a problem he has, to be clear, with his chief of staff. Asked if family separation was cruel and heartless, John Kelly replied, “I wouldn’t put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States.” He described the family-separation policy as a “tough deterrent.”

No, pulling crying children from the arms of their parents is not heartless at all. They will be taken care of, “or whatever.” For Kelly and Trump, the defining characteristic of these migrants is their illegality, not their personhood or their dignity. This is the definition of dehumanization.

A few points. First, the debate over a border wall is a policy matter. The separation of children from their parents as a deterrent is a human rights abuse. And the Trump administration, at its highest levels, cannot tell the difference.

As usual, Trump and his team are operating in a complete vacuum of historical knowledge. Family separation is not new to America. It was essential to the practice of chattel slavery. If enslaved people were truly property, they could not also be husbands and wives, or constitute true families. If those emotional and moral bonds were conceded as valid, slavery’s whole structure of dehumanization would crumble. Which is exactly why abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe emphasized the cruel separation of families in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Inhuman immigration enforcement is not the moral or legal equivalent of slavery. But a nation with this history should take particular care when contemplating family separation as official policy. Few human beings would treat other human beings in this manner. Which is exactly why Trump and Kelly must present “illegals” as lesser beings defined by their criminality.

Second, if the deterrence of crime is the only standard we employ in immigration enforcement, what is the limiting principle? Why stop at the separation of families? Why not put able-bodied illegal immigrant children to work in salt mines? Why not plant landmines at the border? Why not strafe illegal immigrants from attack helicopters?

The answer, of course, is that America, by definition, has a higher standard than legality. Our country’s most basic commitment — and its limiting principle — is universal human rights and dignity. This does not prevent the government from enforcing reasonable immigration laws. It does forbid the government from inhumanity in the enforcement of immigration laws. And there is no definition of inhumanity that does not include the intentional separation of parents from their children.

The fragmentation of families can be a tragic byproduct of the criminal justice system. Many American children must visit a parent in prison. But if the breakup of families were proposed as a tough deterrent for crime — as a policy and a punishment — it would rightly be seen as a betrayal of American values. As it would be at our borders.

Third, Trump’s policy of family separation illustrates the swift downward spiral of demagoguery. In 2012, citizen Trump criticized Mitt Romney’s “crazy policy of self-deportation, which was maniacal. It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote. ... He lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country.” By his candidacy announcement tour in 2015, Trump had discovered the visceral appeal of presenting Mexican migrants as rapists and murderers. Now he feels comfortable proposing the punishment of children and the purposeful destruction of migrant families as a deterrent. And he feels comfortable because the Republican Party has surrendered, step by step, to his agenda of dehumanization.

Other American presidents have used their accumulated political capital for humanitarian goals. Trump is a leader who, as he grows politically stronger, is using his power to attack and exploit the weak and vulnerable. America’s president is the bullier of children.