President Trump Prepares To Rule By Decree

There are grounds to believe that the Trump Administration is preparing to bypass Congress and attempt to rule by presidential decree on many important issues in the months before this year’s election. We see this in Trump’s comments in his June 19th Fox News interview by Chris Wallace and articles about the Administration’s recent consultations with Professor John Yoo regarding his interpretation of the Supreme Court’s  June 18th decision invalidating the Trump Administration’s 2017 rescission of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program.

Trump Comments in Fox News Interview[1]

Near the end of the lengthy Fox News interview of President Trump on July 19, Wallace said that Trump did not yet have a plan to replace Obamacare. Trump disagreed in the following lengthy response:

  • “We’re signing a health care plan within two weeks, a full and complete health care plan that the Supreme Court decision on DACA gave me the right to do. So we are going to . . . sign an immigration plan, a health care plan, and various other plans. And nobody will have done what I’m going to do in the next four weeks. The Supreme Court gave the president of the United States powers that nobody thought the president had, by approving, by doing what they did—their decision on DACA. And DACA’s going to be taken care of also. But we’re getting rid of it because we’re going to replace it with something much better. What we got rid of already, which was most of Obamacare, the individual mandate. And that I’ve already won on. And we won also on the Supreme Court. But the decision by the Supreme Court on DACA allows me to do things on immigration, on health care, on other things that we’ve never done before. And you’re going to find it to be a very exciting two weeks.”

Note that Trump cleverly did not mention John Yoo by name as the legal architect of this strategy.

Wallace apparently was not prepared for this answer, because he had no follow-up questions and instead immediately switched to asking about the Mary Trump book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

.The Supreme Court’s Decision on DACA[2]

The Court in a 5-4 Opinion by Chief Justice Roberts invalidated the 2017 decision by the Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Elaine C. Duke, to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) because that termination was “arbitrary and capricious” even though the Attorney General had determined that the DACA program was illegal. The defects in the DHS termination decision, said the Court, were failure to recognize that the defining feature of DACA was deferring removal of DACA recipients from the U.S. and the failure to assess “the existence and strength of any reliance interests” on that deferral by  DACA recipients.

Therefore, the only valid way for the DHS to terminate the DACA program, said the Court, was to proceed under the cumbersome Administrative Procedure Act.

Mr. Justice Thomas in his dissenting opinion for himself and Justices Alito and Gorsuch, said, “DHS created DACA during the Obama administration without any statutory authorization and without going through the requisite rulemaking process. As a result, the program was unlawful from its inception. The majority does not even attempt to explain why a court has the authority to scrutinize an agency’s policy reasons for rescinding an unlawful program under the arbitrary and capricious microscope. The decision to countermand an unlawful agency action is clearly reasonable. So long as the agency’s determination of illegality is sound, our review should be at an end.”

Moreover, said Mr. Justice Thomas, “Today’s decision must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision. The Court could have made clear that the solution respondents seek must come from the Legislative Branch. Instead, the majority has decided to prolong DHS’ initial overreach by providing a stopgap measure of its own. In doing so, it has given the green light for future political battles to be fought in this Court rather than where they rightfully belong—the political branches. Such timidity forsakes the Court’s duty to apply the law according to neutral principles, and the ripple effects of the majority’s error will be felt throughout our system of self-government.”

Yoo’s Interpretation of That Supreme Court Case[3]

Yoo, the Emmanuel S. Heller Professor of Law and Director of the Public Law & Policy Program at the University of California Berkeley School of Law, believes that the Supreme Court’s opinion is erroneous. In Yoo’s words, the opinion “upends the text, structure, and history of the Constitution, which generally prevents the occupants of a branch of government (who are temporary, after all) from binding their successors. . . . When a president wants to repeal an executive order, all he need do is issue a new executive order. . . . Recognizing a plenary power to reverse previous acts, contrary to the Supreme court’s DACA rule, comports best with the purposes behind the creation of the executive branch.”

Nevertheless, under this recent Supreme Court decision, in what may have intended as a reductio ad absurdum, Yoo said, “ presidents, including President Trump, may now stop enforcing laws they dislike, hand out permits or benefits that run contrary to acts of Congress and prevent their successors from repealing their policies for several years.” Thus, Trump, for example, could decline “to enforce the tax laws, and economic regulations . . . issue permits allowing federally financed or regulated construction project fully s to go forward . . . [and] defer action under environmental laws.”

In any event, we need an attorney knowledgeable about constitutional and federal administrative law to analyze and critique Yoo’s analysis of this Supreme Court opinion.

Trump Consultations with John Yoo[4]

We now have evidence that President Trump and others in the White House have been consulting with Yoo about this subject.

At least that is what Professor Yoo said to Julian Borger, the author of an article in the Guardian of London on these issues. There also are reports by Axios that “President Trump and top White House officials are privately considering a controversial strategy to act without legal authority to enact new federal policies-starting with immigration,” that a copy of Yoo’s article on the subject in the National Review was “spotted atop Trump’s desk in the Oval Office” and that “White House thinking is being heavily influenced by John Yoo.’”

Reactions[5]

 Yoo’s interpretation of this case was called “indefensible” by constitutional lawyer and  professor Laurence Tribe with these additional comments. “I fear that this lawless administration will take full advantage of the fact that judicial wheels grind slowly and that it will be difficult to keep up with the many ways Trump, aided and abetted by Bill Barr as attorney general and Chad Wolf as acting head of homeland security, can usurp congressional powers and abridge fundamental rights in the immigration space in particular but also in matters of public health and safety.”

Of the same opinion is Alka Pradhan, a Lecturer in Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and defense counsel in the 9/11 terrorism cases against inmates in the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. She said, “John Yoo’s so-called reasoning has always been based on ‘What can the president get away with?’ rather than ‘What is the purpose and letter of the law?’ That is not legal reasoning, it’s inherently tyrannical and anti-democratic.”

In the New Republic, Matt Ford has a more extensive analysis. He says Yoo has “a disfigured reading” of the DACA case. In Ford’s opinion, “The Supreme Court did not explicitly rule that DACA itself was legal or illegal last month, only that Trump’s efforts to reverse it violated the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal law that sets out how executive agencies write new rules and regulations. Roberts, writing for the court, concluded that the Department of Homeland Security ran afoul of the APA by not providing enough justification for its sweeping move. ‘We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies. The wisdom of those decisions is none of our concern,’ the Chief Justice wrote. ‘We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action.’”

In addition, Matt Ford asserts, “Yoo’s Trumpian turn is far from surprising. In both government service and academic life, he has advanced an untrammeled vision of executive power that brushes aside most constraints imposed upon presidents by Congress or international law. His highest-profile work came during George W. Bush’s first term in office, when he worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to other parts of the executive branch. In that role, Yoo helped draft a series of memos that effectively authorized torture of terrorism suspects and justified warrantless surveillance of Americans, arguing that the president’s wartime powers trumped almost all other constraints.”

Those memos by Yoo and Jay Bybee, says Ford, were castigated in 2009 as “professional misconduct” by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which conclusion was rejected the next year by a senior official at the Department with this comment: “While I have declined to adopt OPR’s findings of misconduct, I fear that John Yoo’s loyalty to his own ideology and convictions clouded his view of his obligation to his client and led him to author opinions that reflected his own extreme, albeit sincerely held, view of executive power while speaking for an institutional client.”

Matt Ford also notes that Yoo’s new book, Defender in Chief, is about to be published. According to its publisher, “Far from considering Trump an inherent threat to our nation’s founding principles, Yoo convincingly argues that Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton would have seen Trump as returning to their vision of presidential power, even at his most controversial. It is instead liberal opponents who would overthrow existing constitutional understanding in order to unseat Trump, but in getting their man would inflict permanent damage on the office of the presidency, the most important office in our constitutional system and the world.”[6]

Finally Matt Ford sees President Trump’s July 21st executive order excluding undocumented immigrants from the executive branch’s report to Congress on this year’s census  as a sign “that the White House is embracing Yoo’s mutilated logic.” This executive order, says Ford, contradicts the Constitution’s providing that members of the House of Representatives “are allotted according to ‘the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.’ Since Congress automatically granted citizenship to all Native Americans by 1924, the ‘whole number of persons’ now truly means the whole number.” This conclusion was unanimously affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court four years ago, but was ignored by this executive order and by President Trump’s July 21st statement that excluding undocumented immigrants from the report to Congress “reflects a better understanding of the Constitution and is consistent with the principles of our representative democracy.”[7]

It also should be noted that these latest moves by Yoo contradict what he said in February 2017, one month after Trump’s inauguration. Then Yoo had “grave concerns about Mr. Trump’s uses of presidential power” and was troubled by “little sign that he understood the constitutional roles  of the three branches.” Unless he changed, Yoo said, “our new president will spend his days overreacting to the latest events, dissipating his political capital and haphazardly wasting the executive’s powers.”[8]

Conclusion

 As an opponent of the re-election of Donald Trump, I believe he knows he is far behind Biden in nearly all the polls and needs to change his campaign message. I, therefore, believe that he will do what he mentioned in the Fox News interview and will argue that he is doing many things to meet the problems and challenges facing the U.S.

Be on guard, citizens and the Biden campaign!

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[1] Fox News, Transcript: ‘Fox News Sunday’ interview with President Trump (pp. 17-18), foxnews.com (July 19, 2020); Borger, Trump consults Bush torture lawyer on how to skirt law and rule by decree, Guardian (July 20, 2020); Marcus, Trump wants to be king. Did John Yoo just hand him the crown?, Wash. Post (July 21, 2020).

[2] Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, No. 18-587 (U.S. Sup. Ct. June 18, 2020.

[3] Yoo, How the Supreme Court’s DACA Decision Harms the Constitution, the Presidency, Congress, and the Country, National Review (June 22, 2020); Yoo, How Trump Can Weaponize the DACA Decision and Cut Taxes, Newsweek (June 24, 2020): Treene & Kight, Scoop: Trump’s license to skirt the law, Axios (July 19, 2020); Borger, supra; Marcus, supra. Ford, John Yoo’s Twisted Path to Trumpism, New Republic (the Soapbox) (July 22, 2020). https://newrepublic.com/article/158589/john-yoo-twisted-path-trumpism

[4] Treene & Kight, supra; Borger, supra; Marcus, supra.

[5] Borger, supra; Marcus, supra; Ford, supra.

[6] Macmillan, Defender in Chief: Donald Trump’s Fight for Presidential Power (2020).

[7]  White House, Memorandum on Excluding Illegal Aliens From the Apportionment Base Following the 2020 Census (July 21, 2020); White House, Statement from the President Regarding Apportionment (July 21, 2020); White House, President Donald J. Trump Is Taking Action to Ensure American Citizens Receive Proper Representation in Congress (July 21, 2020); Rogers & Baker, Trump Seeks to Stop Counting Unauthorized Immigrants in Drawing House Districts, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2020).

[8] Yoo, Executive Power Run Amok, N.Y. Times (Feb. 8, 2017).

 

Pandemic Journal (# 17): More Demonstrations of Trump’s Incompetence

Pandemic Journal (# 11) set forth at least some of the reasons why, in my opinion, Donald Trump is utterly incompetent as president. Every day seems to bring more proof for that conclusion, and I prefer to avoid documenting those reasons so that I have time to do something more personally enriching.

However, two recent incidents are so outrageous that I cannot let them go without adding them to his many sins.

 Trump’s Interview in the Lincoln Memorial[1]

On Sunday, May 3, Trump arranged to have his interview by two Fox News anchors (Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum) televised from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

During the interview, the President said the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic may reach as high as 100,000, which was twice as high as he had forecast only two weeks ago. He also claimed that his efforts had prevented that total  from reaching “a million two, a million four, a million five, that’s the minimum. We would have lost probably higher, it’s possible higher than 2.2million.” Nevertheless, the President said he favored lifting the stay-at-home orders and other restrictions.

While he admitted he had been warned about the virus on January 23, he said it was presented as “not a big deal.”  A week later, on January 30, he decided to block entry to the U.S. by most foreign nationals coming from China, but he said that was not caused by the earlier warning.

“I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no president has ever seen. The closest would be that gentleman right up there. They always said Lincoln – nobody got treated worse than Lincoln. I believe I am treated worse.”

Max Boot, an historian, best-selling author, foreign policy analyst and Washington Post columnist, places this Trump interview in a broader context. Boot observes, “We are in the midst of a once-in-a century crisis, with death totals having already exceeded the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam War and unemployment numbers approaching Great Depression levels. We are desperate for leadership of the kind provided by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. We need a president who will empathize with an ailing nation while explaining why the current sacrifice is necessary on the road to victory.”

Instead, says Boot, “we have a president who threw a pity party for himself at the Lincoln Memorial, claiming he is ‘treated worse’ than a president who was assassinated. The Civil War leader whom Trump resembles is not the resolute Lincoln but the failed Gen. George McClellan — who was indecisive, conceited and intolerant of criticism.”

Dana Milbank, another Washington Post columnist, agrees. He says, “Only a man of Trump’s peculiar sense of victimhood could believe that he has been “treated worse” than a predecessor killed by an assassin’s bullet. And a review of press criticism of Lincoln confirms, as expected, that Trump’s self-pity is as silly as it sounds.”

In response to criticism about holding the interview in the Lincoln Memorial that his aides had arranged by getting the Secretary of Interior to waive a rule against political events inside the Memorial, Trump even said that this location was Fox’s choice, not his.

 Trump’s Response to President George W. Bush[2]

On May 2, former President George W. Bush’s three-minute videotaped segment was presented on TV as part of a 24-hour live-streamed “The Call to Unite” that also featured former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Tim Shriver, Julia Roberts. Martin Luther King III, Sean Combs, Quincy Jones, Naomi Judd, Andrew Yang and others.

Mr. Bush said, in part, “Let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat,” while in the background were music and photographs of medical workers helping victims of the virus and of ordinary Americans wearing masks. Bush then concluded, “In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together and we are determined to rise.” He did not mention President Trump.

Early the next morning, Trump fired off a tweet. First, he paraphrased a Fox News personality as saying, “Oh by the way, I appreciate the message from former President Bush, but where was he during Impeachment calling for putting partisanship aside.” Then Trump added, “He was nowhere to be found in speaking up against the greatest Hoax in American history!”

A Washington Post columnist, David Von Drehle, violated his own rule for not commenting on Trump’s Twitter comments by doing so for this one because it was “so nakedly revealing of its author’s values and character.” This Trump Tweet “embraced and simplified the idea that Bush’s remarks should properly be viewed through the prism of Trump’s political fortunes. . . . No doubt the president’s florid narcissism explains part of this reaction . . . . As the only noteworthy occupant of his own psychological state, Trump seems to think everything is about him. . . . Yet here, a plea for national unity [by a former president] is the occasion for a presidential rebuke. The only sensible explanation: the president has no interest in unity. . . . Bush’s statement hit Trump like an indictment. He knows that unifying the public is not on his agenda. He has no interest in bringing us together.”

Drehle concludes, “Our life-or-death struggle with a new disease has become, for Trump, just another chance to divide the country, to leverage resentments, to fuel suspicion, to antagonize his critics — in the slim hope that he’ll galvanize his supporters while demoralizing the opposition. That’s why he thinks the Bush statement is about him.”

More General Criticism of Trump[3]

Thomas Edsall, a New York Times columnist and a full-time member of the faculty at Columbia University Journalism School, quoted the following observations about Trump from prominent academics:

  • Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard, said that Trump has responded “to the [coronavirus] crisis with his now-familiar playbook: blaming others, denying responsibility, invoking racial differences and ‘foreign’ dangers, and trying to discredit honest reporting so that he can sell a false narrative about the great job he’s doing.”
  • Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote, “The U.S. government’s pandemic leadership has been its own special brand of catastrophe. The American president denied the threat, rejected scientific expertise, spread misinformation, and left state and local governments to fend for themselves in public trust violations of the highest order. With shambolic self-governance, the U.S. government has placed its own citizens in unnecessary peril, while sidelining itself from acting as a global crisis leader in a way that is unprecedented in the last seven decades. China is all too happy to fill the vacuum.”

As noted in a previous post, George Conway and several other prominent Republicans have formed a group (The Lincoln Project) to defeat Trump’s re-election this November. Conway recently reported that Trump had responded to this group in an early morning Tweet on May 5, attacking the members of this Project as “‘LOSERS,’ ‘loser types,’ ‘crazed” and ‘a disgrace to Honest Abe.’ About me, he said, ‘I don’t know what Kellyanne [Conway, a Trump aide] did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad.”

This latest example of Trump’s outbursts prompted George Conway to say, “Now, it’s more obvious than ever. Trump’s narcissism deadens any ability he might otherwise have had to carry out the duties of a president in the manner the Constitution requires. He’s so self-obsessed, he can only act for himself, not for the nation. It’s why he was impeached, and why he should have been removed from office.”

“And it’s why he reacts with such rage. He fears the truth. He fears being revealed for what he truly is. Extreme narcissists exaggerate their achievements and talents, and so Trump has spent his life building up a false image of himself — not just for others, but for himself, to protect his deeply fragile ego. He lies endlessly, not just in the way sociopaths do, which is to con others, but also to delude himself. He claims to be a ‘genius,’ even though he apparently can’t spellcan’t punctuatecan’t do math and lacks geographic literacy, and even though his own appointees have privately called him a ‘moron,’ an ‘idiot,’ a ‘dope,’ and ‘dumb.’  Now, God help us, he fancies himself an expert in virology and infectious diseases.”

George Conway concluded, “Trump’s lying, his self-regard, his self-soothing, his lack of empathy, his narcissistic rage, his contempt for norms, rules, laws, facts and simple truths — have all come home to roost. Now he sees his poll numbers fall accordingly, and lashes out with ever-increasing anger. For deep in his psyche he knows the truth. Because he fears being revealed as a fake or deranged, he’ll call others fake or deranged. Because he fears losing, he’ll call them losers instead.”

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[1] Rogers, Most Events in the Lincoln Memorial Are Banned. Trump Got an Exception, N.Y. Times (May 4, 2020); Baker, Trump foresees Virus Death Toll as high as 100,000 in the United States, N.Y. Times (May 3, 2020); Wolfe, Dishonest Don’s Lincoln backdrop highlights his monumental errors, Guardian (May 6, 2020); Boot, Trump’s dithering proves one thing: We’re at war without a leader, Wash. Post (May 5, 2020); Milbank, ’I believe I am treated worse.’ Trump says. As if, Wash. Post (May 5, 2020).

[2] Baker, George W. Bush Calls for End to Pandemic Partisanship, N.Y. Times (May 3, 2020); Von Drehle, I usually ignore all Trump’s tweets. Not this one, Wash. Post (May 5, 2020).

[3] Edsall, Why Isn’t Trump Riding High? N.Y. Times (May 6, 2020); George Conway, George Conway: Trump went ballistic at me on Twitter. Here’s why he reacts with such rage, Wash. Post (May 6, 2020).

 

 

U.S. Needs More Democratization

A New York Times article by Ezra Klein makes a strong argument for the United States needing more democratization in order to depolarize American politics.[1]

He starts this analysis with the assertion that the current polarization of U.S. politics is due to ideological changes: “the Democratic Party has moved left, and the Republican Party has moved right. But more fundamentally, those changes are compositional: Democrats have become more diverse, urban, young and secular, and the Republican Party has turned itself into a vehicle for whiter, older, more Christian and more rural voters.”

As a result, “Democrats can’t win running the kinds of campaigns and deploying the kinds of tactics that succeed for Republicans. . . . [Democrats] can move to the left — and they are — but they can’t abandon the center or, given the geography of American politics, the center-right, and still hold power. Democrats are modestly, but importantly, restrained by diversity and democracy. Republicans are not.”

In addition, the two parties’ voters differ in what sources of information they respect and listen to. Democrats trusted “22 of the 30 sources, including center-right outlets like The Wall Street Journal. Republicans trusted only seven of the 30 sources, with PBS, the BBC and The Wall Street Journal the only mainstream outlets with significant trust.” (The other trusted sources, for Republicans were, big surprise, Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart.)

Even though Democrats have won the recent total popular vote in elections for the U.S. presidency, the U.S. Senate and the U.S.House of Representatives, the Republicans currently control the presidency, the Senate and a majority of governorships. This is due to the structure of the U.S. government which “counts states and districts rather than people, and the G.O.P.’s more rural coalition has a geographic advantage that offsets its popular disadvantage.”

This Republican advantage, however, may be temporary.  Republicans “represent a shrinking constituency that holds vast political power. That has injected an almost manic urgency into their strategy. Behind the party’s tactical extremism lurks an apocalyptic sense of political stakes.”

Klein, therefore, concludes that “one of the few real hopes for depolarizing American politics is democratization,” including “proportional representation and campaign finance reform; . . .[making] voter registration automatic and. . . [giving] Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve.” This would compel the Republican Party to become a “more moderate and diverse party.” However, “precisely because the Republican Party sees deepening democracy as a threat to its future, it will use the power it holds to block any moves in that direction.”

Without such changes, Klein argues, the U.S. will face “ a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.”

Conclusion

Klein is right to call for the need for more democratization of the U.S. electoral system.

But while mentioning the U.S. system’s favoring land and districts over people, he does not attack directly those features that do just that: the Electoral College for electing the U.S. president, the allocation of two U.S. senators to each state regardless of population and state legislatures creating the boundaries for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yes, this would require amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which may be next to impossible, but they should be mentioned.

Alex Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board, however, points out one facet of the  Electoral College: whether the individuals selected by the political parties are legally obligated to vote for that party’s successful candidate in the popular election when the 536 electors meet about six weeks after the popular election. Indeed, that very issue is now under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court in two related cases from the federal appellate court in Colorado and a state court in Washington State. In the federal case, the court held that the founders clearly intended for electors to act independently and vote according to their consciences, not to the dictates of any political party. Once a state appoints an elector, the lower court said, its power over that elector ends. They cannot punish someone, or replace him or her, for voting a certain way. This issue, says Wegman, raises the more important question, why do we have to have the Electoral College?[2]

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[1] Klein, Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, N. Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2020). Klein is an American journalist, blogger, and political commentator who co-founded Vox, where he is currently editor-at-large. He was previously a blogger and columnist for The Washington Post and an associate editor of The American Prospect. He has served as a contributor to Bloomberg News and MSNBC. (Ezra Klein, Wikipedia.)

[2] Wegman, Why Do We Have an Electoral College, Again?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2020).

 

 

U.S. Senate Hearing on Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On January 9, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing entitled “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight.” The Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues was chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a noted critic of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relation, who said the purpose of the hearing was “to establish the facts surrounding the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba, and conduct oversight over the State Department’s handling of the attacks.”[1]

The witnesses were three officials of the U.S. State Department: Mr. Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; Mr. Todd Brown, Diplomatic Security, Assistant Director, International Programs; and Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director, Bureau of Medical Services.

The hearing started with lengthy opening statements by Rubio and the Ranking Member, Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ), both very critical of the Department’s response to these incidents or “attacks.” [2] The hearing itself focused on the following four topics:: (1) the nature of the injuries; (2) the cause of the injuries; (3) the perpetrator of the “attacks;” and (4) the State Department’s appointment of an accountability review board.

  1. The Nature of the injuries

 While the symptoms may vary, all 24  of the medically-confirmed cases  have described some combination of the following symptoms: sharp ear pain, dull headaches, tinnitus (ringing in one ea), vertigo, visual focusing issues, disorientation, nausea, extreme fatigue. Some have been diagnosed with mild brain injuries similar to what might happen from a concussion.

  1. The cause of the injuries[3]

In early July, the Bureau of Medical Services at the State Department convened a panel of academic experts to review case histories and the test results up to that point. And they arrived at [the following] consensus: ‘the patterns of injuries were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.”

Mr. Brown said investigators are considering possible causes other than a sonic attack, including a viral attack. He also said the possibility that someone deliberately infected people with a virus has not been ruled out. Dr. Rosenfarb testified that evidence suggest that( this is “not an episode of mass hysteria.”

Brown also said he would not rule out a sound component entirely. He said there had been an “acoustic element” associated with the sensations and feelings experienced by diplomats who fell ill. He said it’s possible the sound masked some other technology that caused the damage.

Dr. Rosenfarb said investigators are confident that something indeed caused medical harm to the Americans.

“Perplexing” was a frequent word in this discussion.

  1. Perpetrator(s)

Senator Rubio in a Fox News interview before the hearing said Havana is one of the most tightly controlled cities in the world. “There is no way you can conduct sophisticated attacks targeting American government officials in Havana without the Cuban government at least knowing about it.” [4] He repeated this opinion or conclusion at the start and at the end of the hearing.

  1. Accountability Review Board

Senator Rubio obtained admissions from the witnesses that a “serious injury” of at least one U.S. diplomat in Cuba happened no later than May 2017 and that the Secretary of State had not appointed an accountability review board within 60 days thereafter, as required by statute, and indeed had not yet done so.[5]

Acting Secretary Palmieri tried to remedy this apparent breach by testifying that Secretary Tillerson on December 11, 2017, had decided to convene such a Board and that the statutory required notice to Congress was “forthcoming.”

The same question came up later the same day at the Department’s Press Gaggle, [6] when the Department spokesperson, Under Secretary I. Steven Goldstein, initially said, “We are going to create, as we’ve said previously, an accountability review board, and I would expect that we would have the announcements of the chair and the members of the board available for release within the next week.” He then was pressed with a reporter’s question about Senator Rubio’s apparent contention that the Department and the Secretary had violated the law by not making an earlier appointment of such a board. Goldstein had the following response:

  • “We don’t agree with [the allegation that the law was violated].The assistant secretary today made clear [at the hearing], and we have said too, that it took us time to get the investigation in place. The investigation is continuing, and we believe that we . . . had the authority to determine when the accountability review board should be set in place. I think let’s not lose focus here. There’s 24 people that had injuries, and those people are receiving treatment, and we’ve had over 20 conversations with the people of Cuba. . . . [The] government investigators have been down four times; they’re going down again within the next few weeks. And so our primary goal at the present time is to find out why this occurred, to prevent it from happening again in Cuba and the embassy of Cuba or in any other place where American citizens are located.”
  • “It took time to set up the . . . board because we were hopeful that we would be able to know what occurred. . . . [T]his investigation has taken longer than we anticipated, . . . but it is now time to go forward. . . . I expect the names [for the Board] to be announced over the next several days.”

Conclusion

Only five of the nine subcommittee members attended the hearing, and the members will be submitting written questions to the witnesses, and there will be classified briefing of the subcommittee. Thus, the complete record will not be available until later. [7]

At the conclusion of the hearing, Rubio said that the following were two established facts: (1) 24 Americans had been harmed while in Cuba and (2) the Cuban government at least knew who was responsible for causing such harm. “The idea that someone could put together some sort of action against them, 24 of them, and the Cuban government not know who did it, it’s just impossible,” Mr. Rubio said. He noted that the Americans in Havana became sick just after Mr. Trump’s election, and speculated that rogue government officials from either Cuba or Russia had sought to create friction between Havana and the new administration in Washington.

Under Secretary Goldstein voiced a similar opinion by saying, “We believe that the Cuban government knows what occurred. So what we’d like to them to do is tell us what occurred.”

After the hearing, Cuba’s diplomat who has been intimately involved in U.S.-Cuba relations , Josefina Vidal, said  the hearing was chaired by two Senators (Rubio and Menendez)  “both with a vast record of work against better relations between Cuba and the United States, and the promoters of all kinds of legislative and political proposals that affect the interests of the Cuban and American peoples, and only benefit an increasingly isolated minority that has historically profited from attacks on Cuba.” She continued:

  • “From [the hearing’s] very title “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba,” it was evident that the true purpose of this hearing . . . was not to establish the truth, but to impose by force and without any evidence an accusation that they have not been able to prove.”
  • “The State Department does not have any evidence that allows it to affirm that there have been attacks against its diplomats in Havana, or that Cuba may be responsible, or have knowledge of the actions of third parties.”
  • “I categorically reiterate that the Cuban government has no responsibility whatsoever for the health conditions reported by U.S. diplomats. Cuba never has, and never will, perpetrate such acts, nor has it or will it permit third parties to act against the physical integrity of any diplomat, without exception. The Cuban government is aware of its responsibilities and fulfils them exemplarily.”
  • “I affirm that the investigation carried out by Cuban authorities, the results of which the State Department and specialized agencies of the United States have had ample and systematic access to, has shown that there is no evidence at all regarding the occurrence of the alleged incidents and no attack of any kind has occurred.”
  • “Nothing presented by the government of the United States throughout this period, including today, provides evidence that the health problems reported by its diplomats have their origin or cause in Cuba.”
  • “We reject the politicization of this matter and the unjustified measures adopted by the United States government, with a high cost for our population, Cuban émigrés and the U.S. people. We also condemn the political manipulation of these events by anti-Cuban elements, who seek to aggravate the bilateral atmosphere, with the sole purpose of returning to a an era of confrontation, with negative consequences for both countries and the region.”
  • “Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country for Cubans, for foreigners, for accredited diplomats and for the millions of people who visit us every year, including U.S.”[8]

This blogger’s opposition to Senator Rubio’s hostile approach to Cuba has been expressed in a prior post. That approach is against U.S. economic and strategic interests. It provides openings to Russia and the EU, for example, to pursue various developments with Cuba while the U.S. stands on the sidelines. Moreover, that approach contradicts Rubio’s stated desire to support Cuba’s emerging private sector and the Cubans investing and working in that sector.

Senator Rubio also erroneously stated that it is a fact that Cuba has one of the world’s most pervasive surveillance systems in the world and, therefore, has to know if some third-party has perpetrated attacks on U.S. (and Canadian) diplomats. At most that is an allegation or theory, which has been denied by Cuba. Rubio also ignores that whatever security and surveillance system Cuba has undoubtedly is prompted, at least in part, by the long history of U.S. hostility towards the Cuban Revolution, including covert or undercover efforts to promote regime change on the island. Moreover, in its responses to the medical problems of some of its diplomats in Cuba, the U.S. repeatedly has emphasized Cuba’s obligation under the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations to protect other countries diplomats on the island, an obligation that presumably requires Cuba and other nations, including the U.S., to have some idea as to the whereabouts of  those diplomats.

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[1]  Senate Foreign Relations Comm., Subcommittee Hearing: Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight (Jan. 9, 2018); Reuters, U.S. Won’t Send Americans Back to Embassy in Havana Yet: U.S. Officials, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, In Wake of ‘Attacks,’ Tillerson Not Returning Staff to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Considers Whether Virus Might Explain Attacks in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan, 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Says ‘Viral Attack’ Among theories in Cuba Illnesses, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Harris, U.S. to Open Formal Inquiry on Americans Sickened in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018). In the days before the hearing, disputes erupted over what happened to the diplomats, as discussed in a prior post. (See also posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.)

[2] Press Release, TOMORROW: Rubio Chairs Hearing on Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 8, 2017); Press Release, Menendez Opening Statement at Cuba Hearing (Jan. 9, 2018).

[3] Some Canadian diplomats in Cuba have suffered similar injuries or effects, but on January 10, a Canadian official said Canada has not reached any conclusions on the cause(s) of such ailments. Reuters, No Conclusion on Cause of Health Symptoms at Embassy in Cuba-Canada Official, N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2018).

[4] Press Release, Rubio Presses State Department on Response to Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 9, 2018).

[5] The State Department has a statutory obligation to “convene an Accountability  Review Board” . . .  not later than 60 days after the occurrence of an incident [of] . . . .any case of serious injury.” The Department also has an obligation to “promptly notify the Committee on International Relations of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate of the incident” of the convening of such a board. (22 U.S.C. §4831.) U.S.

[6] U.S. State Dep’t, Press Gaggle (Jan. 9, 2018).

[7] The subcommittee members in attendance were Senators Rubio and Tom Johnson (Rep., WI), Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ),), another Cuban-American critic of normalization; Tom Udall (Dem., NM); and Jeanne Shaheen (Dem., NH). The absentees were Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), a supporter of normalization who was just in Cuba; Cory Gardner (Rep., CO); Johnny Isakson (Rep., GA); and Tim Kaine (Dem., VA). Two of these absentees (Flake and Gardner) and Menendez were attending the simultaneous White House conference on immigration.

[8] Vidal, Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country, Granma (Jan. 10, 2018).