The U.S. Senate’s Dysfunctional Confirmation Process

The recent squabble over new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony at his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee highlights the dysfunctionality of that process. After examining the current process as used for Sessions, suggestions will be made for an improved process.

The Current Process

Every member of the committee is allotted a set number of minutes to make statements and ask questions. The committee chair (now a Republican) opens followed by the ranking member of the other political party (now a Democrat). Then a member of the majority party (Republican) is granted the same privilege before returning to someone from the minority party (Democrat). The committee members also are permitted to submit written questions to the nominee after the hearing.

As a result, the time and ability to ask follow-up questions is severely limited and indeed is sidelined by the structure of the hearing.

In addition, the senators are used to making political speeches and hogging the limelight. Some are not lawyers by training or have forgotten how to ask questions designed to elicit useful information. These facts also adversely affect the ability of a hearing to obtain pertinent information from the nominee.

Committee’s Confirmation Hearing for Sessions

The above problems were exemplified at Mr. Sessions January 10 confirmation hearing by his responses to questions from Minnesota’s Senator Al Franken and New Hampshire’s Senator Patrick Leahy:[1] Here are those exchanges:

  • Franken:CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, ‘Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.’ These documents also allegedly say quote, ‘There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.’
  • “Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
  • Sessions:“Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
  • Leahy: “Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?”
  • Sessions: “No.”

Franken’s question was clearly too verbose and difficult to understand and was focused on what Sessions would do in the future as Attorney General if there were evidence that the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government during the campaign. Sessions’ volunteering that he did not have communications with the Russians during the campaign is now shown to be incorrect, but it was not responsive to the question.

Leahy’s question is better, but is still limited to contacts with Russian government officials “about the 2016 election.” Thus, Sessions’ flat “No” may or may not be truthful in light of subsequent disclosures that he had at least two meetings with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S.

Committee’s Post-Hearing Proceedings for Sessions

After the hearing, Senator Franken submitted 20 such questions with many subparts, but none concerned Russia. Senator Leahy also submitted 37 such questions, again with many subparts. Other written questions came from four of the 11 Republican committee members and from all of the other seven Democratic members.[2]

One of Leahy’s question (No. 22) concerned Russia with subparts about the U.S. intelligence community’s report about Russian interference in the U.S. election of 2016, and Sessions said he had not reviewed the report, “but have no reason not to accept the [report’s] conclusions.”

Another subpart (e) of that Leahy question stated: “Several of the President-Elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” Sessions response: “No.” (Emphases added.)

This written question from Leahy comes closer to asking the appropriate foundation question, but it was still limited to contacts “about the 2016 election,” which provided Sessions with a basis to interpret that limitation and to say “no” if any such contacts were not about the election as so interpreted.

Supplemental Committee Proceedings for Sessions

The truthfulness of Sessions’ responses to these questions was called into question by a March 1 Washington Post report that he had had at least two meetings with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. in this time period. Indeed, this report prompted Senator Franken to state that Sessions had misled the American public about his contacts with Russian officials and that he should reappear before the committee to answer “tough questions” on this subject.[3]

The Attorney General, however, immediately responded to these concerns. On March 1 his spokesperson said that he did have the two meetings with the Ambassador that were referenced in the Washington Post article, but that they were in his capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump supporter, and that there was no discussion about issues regarding the presidential campaign. The next day Sessions said his hearing testimony was “honest and correct as I understood it at the time” although he was “taken aback” by Franken’s question and was focused on its reference to possible contacts between Trump campaign surrogates and Russian officials. “In retrospect,” he said, “I should have slowed down and said I did meet one Russian official a couple times, and that would be the ambassador.” Sessions also said that the September meeting at his office with the Ambassador included two of the Senator’s senior staffers, that the two principals talked about a trip the Senator made to Russia in 1991, terrorism and Ukraine, that the conversation became “a little bit . . . testy” and that the Senator declined the Ambassador’s invitation to lunch. In addition, on March 2 Sessions recused himself from “any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”[4]

The Judiciary Committee Chair, Senator Chuck Grassley (Rep., IA), resolved this controversy by rejecting the request by the Democratic committee members for another public hearing and by offering Sessions an opportunity to supplement his testimony in writing.

Sessions did so on March 6 with the following statement after repeating the previously quoted Franken question and Sessions’ answer:[5]

  • “My answer was correct. As I noted in my public statement on March 2, 2017, I was surprised by the allegations in the question, which I had not heard before. I answered the question, which asked about a “continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,” honestly. I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian Ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them.”
  • “As I discussed publicly on March 2, 2017, I spoke briefly to the Russian Ambassador at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in July 2016. This was at the conclusion of a speech I had made, when I also met and spoke with other ambassadors. In September 2016, I met with the Russian Ambassador at my Senate office in the presence of members of my professional Senate staff. I do not recall any discussions with the Russian Ambassador, or any other representative of the Russian government, regarding the political campaign on these occasions or any other occasion.”

Sessions then responded to two questions posed in a March 3 letter by the Democratic members of the committee. The first asked why he had not supplemented the record to note any contact with the Russian Ambassador before its public disclosure. Sessions said, “Having considered my answer responsive, and no one having suggested otherwise, there was no need for a supplemented answer.” The second question asked why he had not recused himself from “Russian contacts with the Trump transition team and administration.” Sessions said the scope of [his] recusal as described in the Department’s [March 2] press release would include any such matters. This should not be taken as any evidence of the existence of any such investigation or its scope. Suffice it to say that the scope of my recusal is consistent with the applicable regulations, which I have considered and to which I have adhered.”

After the submission of this Sessions’ letter, Committee Chair Grassley released the letter as an attachment to a press release announcing that there “are no plans to ask Sessions to come before the committee before an annual oversight hearing, as is customary.” Grassley also stated, ““I appreciate Attorney General Sessions’ quick action to clear up confusion about his statement and I look forward to confirming the team who can help him carry out the functions of the department, like going after sex offenders, protecting Americans against terrorists and criminal activity, and stopping drug traffickers.”  Grassley added that Sessions had recused himself as he said he would in his hearing testimony in sharp contrast to the failure of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to do so with respect to investigation of Hillary Clinton’s personal email server and classified information found on it.[6]

A Suggested Different Procedure

The squabble over Sessions’ testimony regarding contacts with Russians could have been eliminated by a procedure whereby an attorney on the committee staff with experience of interrogating witnesses would do the questioning on selected topics, rather than having only the senators on the committee do so. The following is a better way of asking Sessions about whether he had any contact with Russian officials:

  • On February 28, 2016, you endorsed Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.[7] Correct? (Sessions: Yes.)
  • On and after February 28, 2016, to the present, have you had any communications, oral or written, with any Russians? (Sessions: Yes.)
  • Identify all such communications by their date, location and the names of the Russians.
  • For all such communications, identify any other persons present, the length of the communications or meetings, state the substance of the communications and identify all documents (including, but not limited to, letters, memoranda, agendas, notes, audio and/or video recordings) regarding or reflecting the communications.

Conclusion

Although this Senate procedure is flawed and should be changed, a prominent New York Times’ columnist, Nick Kristof, asserts, “there has been too much focus on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not enough on Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager” with respect to connections between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. Instead Kristof identifies specific facts or “dots” to support his suspicion “that Trump’s team colluded in some way with Russia to interfere with the U.S. election” and supports a full and fair investigation to determine whether that suspicion is validated.[8]

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[1] Carroll, In context: What Jeff Sessions told Al Franken about meeting Russian officials, PolitiFact (March 2, 2017).

[2] U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Nomination of Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, to be Attorney General (Feb. 28, 2017).

[3] Entous, Nakashima & Miller, Sessions met with Russian envoy twice last year, encounters he later did not disclose, Wash. Post (Mar. 1, 2017); Franken, Sen. Franken’s Statement on Report That Attorney general Jeff Sessions Misled American Public under Oath During Confirmation Hearing about His Contact with Russian Officials (Mar. 2, 2017); Demirjian, O’Keefe, Horwitz & Zapotosky, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will recuse himself from any probe related to the 2016 presidential campaign, Wash. Post (Mar. 2, 2017).

[4] Dep’t of Justice, Attorney General Sessions Statement on Recusal (Mar. 2, 2017).

[5] Letter, Sessions to Grassley & Feinstein (Mar. 6, 2017); Assoc. Press, Sessions Clarifies Testimony on Russia, Says He Was Honest, N.Y. Times (Mar. 6, 2017).

[6] Grassley, Grassley: Attorney General Clears Confusion on Hearing Testimony (Mar. 6, 2017).

[7] Stokols, Sen. Jeff Sessions endorses Trump, Politico (Feb. 28, 2016).

[8] Kristof, Connecting Trump’s Dots to Russia, N.Y. Times (Mar. 9, 2017).

Trump’s Macroeconomic Idiocies

President Trump continues to spout with expensive ways to implement at least some of his campaign promises. He has not yet submitted a proposed budget for the federal government that would reveal whether and how the competing needs for federal expenditures would be reconciled.

So far, however, Trump continues to utter macroeconomic idiocies. Here are a few.

First, he urges unspecified huge increases in military spending.

Second, Trump continues to call for the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump initially said it would cost $8 billion and subsequently upped his figure to $10 to $12 billion. Last October, however, the MIT Technology Review put the real figure at $27 to $40 billion. (Editorial, The Costs of Mt. Trump’s Dragnet, N.Y. Times (Feb. 26, 2017.)

Second, Trump has called for expansion of U.S. arrests and deportation of undocumented aliens.  Already such efforts annually cost over $19 billion, and the American Action Forum recently estimated that expelling all unauthorized immigrants and keeping them out would cost $400 to $600 billion. (Iibid.)

Moreover, says that Forum, such drastic actions would reduce the U.S. GDP by $1 trillion. “Farms and restaurants, hotels, manufacturers, retail businesses–all sectors of the [U.S.] economy benefit directly or indirectly from immigrant labor.” In addition, they pay income, property and sales taxes and make financial contributions to our Social Security Administration while generally not collecting any Social Security benefits. That Administration estimates that such contributions annually total $13 billion while only getting back $1 billion. (Ibid.)

Another glaring socio-economic idiocy of Trump’s suggested massive increase of deportations of unauthorized immigrants is its failure to recognize obvious U.S. demografic trends. The U.S. has low birth rates and aging and declining population in many parts of the country, especially in rural areas. Immigrants are needed in those areas to care for older citizens in their own homes or in assisted-living centers of various kinds while foreign-born primary-care physicians already are a major provider of medical care.  (E.g., Karl, Minnesota used to attract more people from other states than it lost to them. Now it’s the opposite. What happened!, Minn. Post (Feb. 24, 2017).)

Third, the recent heavy rains in Northern California and the threatened collapse of the Oroville Dam have highlighted the dangerous condition of many dams and other important infrastructure systems throughout the U.S. and the need to repair, modify and replace many such structures. An expert pointed out, “Most of the dams in the [U.S.] are over 50 years old” and desperately need such work. (E.g., Assoc. Press, Rural California Levees Beseiged by Pounding Wet Winter, N.Y. Times (Feb. 24, 2017); Griggs, Aeschylus & Almukhtar, America’s Aging Dams Are in Need of Repair, N.Y. Times (Feb. 23, 2017).) An objective analysis of competing demands for federal funds should put this demand at the top of the list.

Fourth, Trump also has called for reduced taxes and unspecified changes to health care insurance

Conclusion

From a macroeconomic perspective an argument could be made for a stimulative federal budget with expenditures exceeding revenues. But the Trump proposals to date show no sign of confronting the questions of how much is too much.

There are many reasons to oppose Trump’s trumpeting the proposed U.S.-Mexico wall and expansion of arrests and deportations of undocumented foreigners: human rights, human decency and promoting positive relations with neighboring countries. They deservedly have received much attention. Yet another reason is their enormous cost.

Trump and Rubio Share “Similar Views” on Cuba

At President Trump’s rambling press conference on February 16 he said that over dinner the previous night he and Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) “had a very good discussion about Cuba because we have very similar views on Cuba.” Trump added that “Cuba has been very good to me, in the elections. . ., the Cuban people, Americans.” (Torres, Trump: Rubio and I have ‘very similar views on Cuba,’ Miami Herald Feb. 16, 2017).)

No details were provided on which views were similar, but Rubio’s opposition to former President Obama’s normalisation of U.S. relations with Cuba is well known, and during last year’s presidential campaign Trump voiced similar thoughts. (See posts listed in ¨ U.S. and Cuba in the Trump Administration, 2017¨section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com–Topical: CUBA.)

As  an advocate of such normalization, this is disturbing, but unfortunately not surprising, news.

 

Trump’s Unfounded Fear of Refugees

We all know full too well about President Trump’s repeated assertions of fear of refugees killing and harming Americans as purported justifications for his proposed restrictions on admission of refugees into the U.S.

There are so many reasons to reject and oppose these assertions and restrictions. Here are just two.

First, as Nicolas Kristof, New York Times columnist, points out, the facts do not support the claimed fear. In the last 40 years, “terrorists born in the seven nations in Trump’s travel ban killed zero people in America” while Americans with guns killed 1.34 million. This includes 230,123 murders by Americans who were Muslims.  The latter set of murders is exceeded by murders with guns by American husbands.  (Kristof, Husbands Are Deadlier Than Terrorists, N.Y. Times (Feb. 12, 2017).)

Second, all of the scare tactics of Trump and his allies fail to mention that refugees are those individuals who have proved, under international and U.S. law, that they have a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Assembling the evidence and legal arguments for a claim to ‘refugee’ status is not easy by itself, and such a claim is subject to cross examination and vetting by representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or the U.S. government.

It is not easy to persuade these officials as I can attest as a pro bono attorney for aliens who have sought asylum in the U.S. by proving that they were “refugees” under the previously mentioned laws. (Refugee and Asylum Law: Modern Era, dwkcommentaries.com (July 9, 2011); Multilateral Treaties Ratified by the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 9, 2013); Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer, dwkcommentaries.com (May 24, 2011).)

Indeed, a detailed review of the current, more elaborate, multi-year oUNHCR and U.S. procedures for reviewing and vetting applications for “refugee” status, especially from Syria and Iraq, has been provided by a former U.S. immigration officer. (Hall, Refugees are already vigorously vetted. I know because I vetted them, Wash. Post (Feb. 1, 2017).)

Given these legal requirements and the extensive vetting of claims for refugee status that exists today, it certainly always would be legitimate to consider in a calm and rational manner whether improvements could be made to U.S. procedures for evaluating such claims. But to scream or tweet an unspecified need for “extreme vetting” is hysterical poppycock.

Senate Confirms Nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State

On January 23 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a straight party-line vote, 11 to 10, approved the nomination of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State. [1]  On February 1 the full Senate did the same, 56 to 43, which was the largest negative vote for confirmation for this position in the Senate’s history. [2]

Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Committee, said the following:[3]=

  • “I personally have no doubt that Rex Tillerson is well-qualified. He’s managed the world’s eighth largest company by revenue with over 75,000 employees. Diplomacy has been a critical component of his positions in the past, and he has shown himself to be an exceptionally able and successful negotiator who has maintained deep relationships around the world.”
  • “The other absolute standard we apply to each of these nominees who come before us is to ensure they have no conflicts of interest related to their position.”
  • “The non-partisan director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) recently stated that Mr. Tillerson is making ‘a clean break’ from Exxon and is free of these conflicts. He has even gone so far to say that Mr. Tillerson’s ethics agreement ‘serves as a sterling model for what we would like to see from other nominees. He clearly recognizes that public service sometimes comes at a cost.’”
  • “I believe inquiries into Mr. Tillerson’s nomination have been fair and exhaustive. His hearing lasted over eight hours, and he’s responded to over 1,000 questions for the record. I’m proud of the bipartisan process, which is in keeping of the tradition of this committee that we pursued this, regarding his nomination, and I think that while our opinions and votes today may differ, that the process has been very sound.”

Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., RI), voting against confirming this nomination, said the following:[4]

  • “I believe Mr. Tillerson’s demonstrated business orientation and his responses to questions during the confirmation hearing could compromise his ability as Secretary of State to forcefully promote the values and ideals that have defined our country and our leading role in the world for more than 200 years. I will therefore not be supporting his nomination with my vote in Committee or on the Senate floor.”
  • “The United States plays a unique and exceptional role in world affairs.  Our values are our interests, as I said at Mr. Tillerson’s hearing. And our leadership in supporting democracy, universal human rights, unencumbered civil society, and unabridged press and religious freedoms is indispensable if these ideas and ideals are to be real and tangible in the world.”
  • “Mr. Tillerson equivocated on these self-evident truths under direct questioning, repeatedly prioritizing narrow business interests ahead of these core national security interests.  The power of the Secretary of State to call out wrong, to name and shame, and to fight each day on behalf of the American people and freedom-seeking people the world over is an enduring symbol to the oppressed and the vulnerable that the United States has their back.”
  • “Mr. Tillerson was unwilling to characterize Russia and Syria’s atrocities as war crimes, or Philippine President Duterte’s extrajudicial killings as gross human rights violations. And he was not willing to dismiss with unqualified clarity a registry for any ethnic or religious group of Americans.”
  • “I also believe Mr. Tillerson misled the Committee regarding his knowledge of ExxonMobil’s [well documented] lobbying on U.S. sanctions [against “some of the worst human rights abusers in the world such as Sudan, Syria, and Iran”]. Additionally, ExxonMobil’s stance on U.S. sanctions against Russia for their illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea, Ukraine in 2014 was well known at the time . . . . This is why it is particularly concerning that Mr. Tillerson indicated during questioning that he was not willing to recuse himself from matters relevant to ExxonMobil for the entire duration of his term.”
  • “While I was pleased that Mr. Tillerson said that he would support the laws I have written to hold accountable human rights abusers globally and in Russia specifically, and that America should have a seat at the table when discussing climate change with the international community, merely being willing to uphold the law or being willing to participate in global diplomacy are simply the necessary prerequisites for the job, not sufficient cause for confirmation.”
  • “On Russia more broadly, I am concerned as to whether Mr. Tillerson would counsel President Trump to keep current sanctions in place. . . . He showed little interest in advancing the new Russia sanctions legislation I’ve introduced with Senator McCain and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Russia attacked us through cyber warfare and has committed even greater atrocities in Ukraine, Syria, and Eastern Europe. They must be held accountable and our bipartisan legislation is an important tool to do so.”
  • “Strangely, he was quick to caution about easing sanctions on Cuba because it would benefit a repressive regime, but seemed indifferent to doing business with Russia knowing that that business helped finance their ongoing violations of international norms.”
  • “Finally, America deserves a Secretary of State who will take advantage of every smart power tool in America’s diplomatic arsenal before recommending the use of force. I was therefore disturbed when Mr. Tillerson signaled during the hearing he would have recommended using force sooner when asked about real-world scenarios. The Secretary of State must be the consistent voice in any Administration that ensures the President has exhausted all diplomatic efforts before we put our brave men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

Senate Debate and Vote

During the debate, supporters stressed Tillerson’s qualifications and the importance of confirming the president’s choice or this important position.

The affirmative vote of 56 was recorded by all 52 Republican senators plus three Democrats (Heitkamp (ND), Manchin (WV) and Warner (VA)) and Independent King (ME).

The negative vote of 43 was registered by  the other 42 Democrat senators and Independent Sanders (VT).

Conclusion

In the meantime, there have been at least four major developments linked to the future role of the State Department and its new Secretary.

First, a White House post, “America First Foreign Policy,” has no specific references to Cuba. But it does have this helpful general statement: In “pursuing a foreign policy based on American interests, we will embrace diplomacy. The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends, and when old friends become allies.”

Second, the White House has informed at least 13 career Foreign Service officers in charge of the State Department’s bureaus responsible for policy, security and other matters that they will not be retained in those positions. A Department spokesman said, “These positions are political appointments, and require the president to nominate and the Senate to confirm them in these roles. They are not career appointments, but of limited term.” However, as Nicholas Burns, former under secretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration and a longtime diplomat, said, “Normally the outgoing person would stay in the job until his or her successor is confirmed. What you don’t want to have is a vacuum without senior leadership.”[5]

Third, the Trump Administration on January 27 issued an executive order banning admission into the U.S. of all refugees worldwide and all immigrants from seven states with majority-Muslim populations while simultaneously welcoming Christian immigrants from those same countries. This immediately prompted lawsuits in federal courts across the country with a federal court in Seattle on February 3 issuing a temporary restraining order against implementation of the executive order and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit the next morning denying the Government’s motion to stay the lower court’s order.[6]

Fourth, in another immediate reaction to that executive order, over 900 State Department diplomats prepared and submitted a dissent cable objecting to that same executive order because of its impact on “green card holders, visa holders, visa seekers, the young, the old, and the sick.” [7]

On the periphery perhaps of the above turmoil is whether the Trump Administration will abandon or alter the Obama Administration’s pursuit of normalisation of relations with Cuba. As noted in a prior post, the Administration recently stated it has commenced an overall review of U.S. policies regarding Cuba, which in the abstract sounds like a reasonable thing to do. Previous statements by President Trump and Mr. Tillerson, however, suggest that a significant retreat is on its way, a development that would be very troubling to this blogger and other supporters of normalisation.[8]

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[1] Flegenheimer, Mike Pompeo Is Confirmed to Lead C.I.A., as Rex Tillerson Advances, N.Y. Times (Jan. 23, 2017); Schor, Senate panel approves Tillerson nomination, Politico (Jan. 23, 2017); Cama, Senate panel votes to confirm Tillerson, The Hill (Jan. 23, 2017); Demirjian & Sullivan, Tillerson approved by Senate panel as secretary of state, Wash. Post (Jan. 23, 2017).

[2] Harris, Rex Tillerson Is Confirmed as Secretary of State Amid Record Opposition, N.Y. Times (Feb. 1, 2017); Assoc Press, Senate Confirms Tillerson To Be   Secretary of State, Wash. Post (Feb. 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, Senate roll vote for Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, Wash. Post (Feb., 1, 2017).

[3] Corker, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Approves Nomination of Rex Tillerson to Be Secretary of State (Jan. 23, 2017).

[4]Cardin, Cardin Statement on Tillerson Vote (Jan. 23, 2016).

[5] Gearan, Trump administration choosing to replace several senior State Department officials, Wash. Post (Jan. 26, 2017); Schwartz, Facing Replacement, Top State Department Officials Resign, W.S.J. (Jan. 26, 2017).

[6] E.g., Full Executive Order Text: Trump’s Action Limiting Refugees Into the U.S., N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2017); Ländler, Appeals Court Rejects Request to Immediately Restore Travel Ban, N.Y. Times (Feb. 4, 2017).

[7] Reuters, Trump’s Early Moves Spark Alarm, Resistance, N.Y. Times (Feb. 1, 2017); Biddle, New Memo from State Department Dissent Chanel Describes Anguish of Spurned Refugees, The Intercept (Jan. 31, 2017).

[8] These posts to dwkcommentaries.com have discussed preliminary indicators for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations: The Future of U.S.-Cuba Normalization Under the Trump Administration (Dec. 22, 2016); Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson Addresses U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba (Jan. 12, 2017); Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State Nominee, Provides Written Responses Regarding Cuba to Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Jan. 23, 2017).

Jesus’ Inaugural Address       

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

Jesus’ Inaugural Address was re-delivered at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church on January 22, 2016, by its Senior Pastor, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen.[1]

The Biblical Text for the Day

Jesus’ original address was set forth in Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV),which sets the scene as the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. When Jesus went to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath day, someone asked him to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah [61: 1-2]. He did just that with these words from the scroll:

  • “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After sitting down, Jesus told the members of the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Prompted then by comments and questions from members of the congregation, Jesus added, “There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

“When [the members of the congregation] heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

The Old Testament passage was Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, which described how the priest read the book of the law of Moses to the people and which is referenced in the sermon.

The Sermon

The sermon reminded us that according to Luke, “Jesus has been out on the hustings, working his way through the towns and villages of Galilee. Having been baptized in the Jordan by John and tested by temptation in the wilderness for forty days, Jesus has been on a preaching tour. He’s been campaigning his way across the rugged hill country, teaching, healing, and listening. Meeting and greeting.”

“Now he comes home, to the hill town of Nazareth. Many there have heard about Jesus’ Galilean tour, about his preaching and healing in Capernaum and other villages. They’ve been expecting something similar when he got back home; perhaps they even felt they now deserved his attention.”

“It’s a dramatic moment for Jesus: part-coming out, part-opening act. Joseph’s son, the carpenter, enters the synagogue for Shabbat worship as he’s done hundreds of times. He’s there with friends and neighbors who’ve known him all his life. He’s now about 30 years old – no longer the little boy, no more the teenager, but a mature man.”

“People find their usual places in the synagogue that evening as the service begins. After the opening words, probably a sung psalm or two, Jesus walks to the front of the gathered crowd and unrolls a scroll, apparently prepared by him beforehand.”

“It’s is an age-old scene for Jewish worshippers. We just heard a passage from the book of Nehemiah from 600 years before the time of Jesus, describing the ritual that day in the synagogue in Nazareth: ‘So they read from the book,’ the text says, ‘From the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.’ (Nehemiah 8:8) That was the heart of the Jewish worship experience: a reading of the ancient word of God, and a sermon interpreting it. And that’s what takes place in Nazareth. Jesus reads scripture and then he ‘gives the sense, so that the people understand the reading.’ That day the carpenter becomes a preacher.”

“Jesus reads the previously quoted words of Isaiah, concluding with the words ‘To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,’ which sometimes is translated as ‘proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ These words refer ‘to the day when God’s reign would break forth in concrete ways: the poor would be lifted up, the oppressed set free, forgiveness extended, debts relieved, slaves released. The acceptable year of the Lord. It points to the long-awaited year of Jubilee, when all relationships would be made right and God’s intentions for the human family would take root. It’s nothing short of a realigning of human relations, a reconfiguration of human community based on God’s expectations – and that’s where Jesus starts: as the theme for his inauguration speech. Jesus chooses the acceptable year of the Lord.”

“That text from the old prophet becomes the focus of his first sermon, and it will frame his entire ministry, from beginning to end. That’s the signal he’s giving by choosing this passage. Call it the plumb line for his life, or the bottom line of the gospel, or a theological line of justice in the sand, here Jesus declares his core values. His life will be defined and measured by those values.”

“Having finished the reading, Jesus carefully rolls up the scroll and gives it back to the attendant. He then sits down to preach, as was the custom, and when he sits, Luke tells us, all eyes are riveted on him. ‘Today,’ he says, ‘this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:21) The time for which you faithful people of God have waited for generations, he says, that day has finally come.”

“There’s a murmur of approval across the congregation. There’s delight among them. The people in the synagogue are pleased with what they hear from Jesus at the start of the sermon. Their homegrown preacher-prophet healer seems to be saying God is about to bless the Hebrew nation in a major way, and Nazareth, perhaps, in particular. So they’re happy as he starts out.”

“Remember this is a people living under Roman occupation, a people dominated by outside forces for as long as anyone can recall, a humiliated people. Jesus reads Isaiah’s Jubilee text and announces that God’s promises are now being fulfilled. The congregation in Nazareth takes that as an affirmation of their hope for themselves. Their nation, they imagine, will finally be made great again, by God’s own hand.”

“But then Jesus really begins to preach, and the sermon takes a turn they don’t like. To describe how he understands the acceptable year of the Lord, Jesus cites two stories from Hebrew tradition, the tradition the people gathered there know well.”

“First, he reaches back to the time of Elijah, when there was famine in the land. It had not rained for three years and six months. Nothing was growing, No harvest at all. People were starving, including the prophet Elijah. So the prophet cries out to God and is saved from death not by an Israelite, Jesus reminds them, but by a foreign woman, a non-Jew, and a widow, at that. There were many widows in Israel, Jesus says, if God had needed to work through a widow, but God chose instead to work through the most vulnerable person imaginable, a widow not even from the Hebrew tribe, to save the man of God.”

“As if to say: what do we learn from that story?

“Then Jesus reminds them of the story of the prophet Elisha. In his time, Jesus says, there were many people suffering from leprosy, but God chose a foreigner called Naaman, a Syrian with leprosy, not an Israelite, but instead a foreigner to be healed by the power of God through the ministry of Elisha. Jesus is making the point here that the acceptable year of the Lord is coming not only to the Hebrew people but to all God’s children. Things will be turned upside down when the Jubilee begins. Women will have power. Foreigners will be blessed. Gentiles will be included in the promise of God. All those excluded now from the circle, he is saying, those despised because of who they are or what they believe or where they come from, those deemed by cultural and political norms to be outside God’s reach, are now welcomed in.”

“That is the acceptable year of the Lord.”

“The people of Nazareth are now not happy at all. They’re not cheered by this message from Jesus. They had assumed all along that God’s love was primarily for them, that they had an exceptional place in the heart of the Almighty. But now they hear that God’s love will reach to the poor everywhere who will be lifted up, to the oppressed everywhere who will be set free, to the hungry and thirsty everywhere who will be satisfied.”

“God’s favor is not reserved exclusively for one tribe or own nation or one religion.”

“Jesus is telling his friends and neighbors they are not the sole recipients of God’s grace. And they do not like that word. In fact, it’s too much for them to bear, and in their rage they turn on him. They drive him out of the synagogue, out to the edge of town to throw him off a cliff, but it’s not yet his time. Jesus breaks free from the crowd and leaves Nazareth as fast as he can.”

“The prophet is not welcome in his own town. Jesus is one of them, but our nation first is not the plumb line this carpenter will use.”

“At the heart of Jesus’ concern are the wounded and lonely, the lost and rejected; those living in poverty, barred from and broken by systems of power and privilege. A plumb line for the poor will set the course for his life, and the life of the church. The bottom line of God’s inclusive love becomes the measure of his ministry, and of our faithfulness. A line in the sand, a justice line in the sand for those whom God loves this whole world over, determines his agenda.”

“And it determines ours as well, as Christians in these troubled times.”

“It is not acceptable that racial disparities still pervade our national life. Every person is made in God’s image.”

“It is not acceptable that some are paid less for the same work, or that many are not paid a livable wage while others make millions. God’s children are all of equal value.”

“It is not acceptable that many in our land are ensnared in generational poverty. God lifts up the poor.”

“It is not acceptable that American prisons are overflowing. God sets the prisoners free.”

“It is not acceptable that good health care is out of reach for many. God heals the sick.”

“It is not acceptable to ignore the impact humanity has on the earth and its climate. God calls us to be stewards of creation.”

“It is not acceptable to demean those of other faith traditions. God goes by a thousand different names.”

“In his sermon in the synagogue that day Jesus declares it is now the acceptable year of the Lord. In so doing, he defines the ministry of the church, our ministry, yours and mine, and the ministry of this congregation.”

“It is time for the unacceptable to end. We can be complacent no longer. We have been called, urgently summoned, to love God and to love neighbor.”

“It is not simply the inauguration speech of Jesus that day in Nazareth; it is ours, as well.”

“Now the work begins.”

“ Thanks be to God.”

Westminster’s Congregational Reaction

Everyone in the congregation that day, knowing that this rendition of Jesus’ inaugural address came only two days after the inaugural address of President Donald Trump, rose in a standing ovation to the sermon and the challenge to begin our work to end the unacceptable in our land.

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[1] The bulletin the text of the sermon and a video for this service are available online.

 

 

 

New U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, May Present a Challenge for Supporters of U.S.-Cuba Normalization

Nikki Haley, now the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., has dropped hints that she may present a challenge to supporters of U.S.-Cuba normalization. The first was in her testimony regarding Cuba before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.[1] The second was in her initial appearance at the U.N. on January 27.

Appearance Before Senate Foreign Relations Committee

On January 18, 2017, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held Nikki Haley’s confirmation hearing, and at the hearing or thereafter in writing she provided the following testimony regarding Cuba.

  1. Question: “Do you agree that the U.S. should help support private entrepreneurs in Cuba with training or other assistance, so they can build businesses, market their products and services, and compete with state-owned enterprises?”

Answer: “Unfortunately, Cuba does not have private entrepreneurs and working independently is not a right but a privilege granted only to supporters of the regime.”

Analysis: “That’s just wrong, as the BBC and a million other reputable sources confirm.”

  1. Question: “Do you agree that after more than half a century the U.S. embargo against Cuba has failed to achieve any of its principal objectives?”

Answer: “We should be clear about a few things. The goal of the embargo was never to cause regime change, but rather to raise the costs of the Cuban government’s bad behavior.”

Analysis: “That was a whopper, as this Voice of America op-ed, and a vast historical record shows.”

  1. Question: “Will you continue the recent practice of abstaining to the UN General Resolution pertaining to the statutory U.S. embargo on Cuba?”

Answer: “No.”

Analysis: “Too bad. Ambassador Samantha Power’s speech when the U.S. abstained on the embargo resolution last year was a truly great moment.”

  1. Question: “Do you support continued diplomatic relations with Cuba?

Answer: She submitted an 85-word response that according to the CDA, didn’t directly answer the question.

On January 24, the Committee approved her nomination, 11-2 (with negative votes from Democratic Senators Coons (DE) and Udall (NM)).

Action by the Senate

The full Senate followed suit the same day, 96-4 (with negative votes from Coons and Udall plus Democrat Senator Heinrich (NM) and Independent Senator Sanders (VT)) .[2]

The Committee Chair, Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN) supported the nomination with this statement: “Governor Haley is a fierce advocate for American interests. As South Carolina’s Governor, Nikki Haley is a proven leader. I believe she has the instincts that will help her achieve reform. Having run a state government, she has dealt with tough management and budgetary issues. I believe that experience will serve her well, and I strongly support her nomination.” He added, “I believe she knows the United Nations needs reform and change. We have a right to demand value for our money. I think our nominee has said she will demand that. . . . Experience shows that when we have strong U.S. leadership at the U.N. we can get results. As South Carolina’s Governor, Nikki Haley is a proven leader. . . . I believe she has the instincts that will help her achieve reform. Having run a state government, she has dealt with tough management and budgetary issues.”

The nomination also was supported by Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., MD), the Committee’s Ranking Member, who said, ““What Governor Haley lacks in foreign policy and international affairs experience, she makes up for in capability, intelligence, and a track record of building coalitions in South Carolina. Her nomination was surprising to many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, but I have been impressed by her forthrightness on core American values, her willingness to admit what she does not know, and her commitment to seeking the facts and speaking truth to power, whether within the Trump Administration or with an intransigent Russia and China in the Security Council.”

Ambassador Haley’s Initial Appearance at the U.N.

Ambassador Haley @ U.N.
Ambassador Haley @ U.N.

On January 27, only three days after her confirmation, she made her very first appearance at the U.N. General Assembly and delivered a blunt warning to every nation in the world. She said, “You’re going to see a change in the way we do business. Our goal with the administration is to show value at the U.N., and the way we’ll show value is to show our strength, show our voice, have the backs of our allies and make sure our allies have our back as well. For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names; we will make points to respond to that accordingly.”[3]

Conclusion

First, her lack of knowledge regarding Cuba may not be surprising since her prior experience has been in state government, but it is a troubling sign that she may not be committed to normalization.

Second, her statement that she would not abstain on the forthcoming U.N. General Assembly resolution against the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba is also troubling by itself. It is even more troubling when coupled with her recent statement at the U.N. that the U.S. would be taking the names of those countries that do not have the U.S.’ back and responding accordingly. That suggests that the U.S. may seek to take some kind of action against virtually every country in the world that supports that resolution.

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[1] Ctr. Democracy in Americas, Cuba News Blast (Jan. 27, 2017).

[2] Press Release, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Approved Nomination of Nikki Haley to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Corker Votes to Confirm Nikki Haley as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Corker Statement on Haley Vote (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Cardin Statement on Haley Vote (Jan. 24, 2017); Assoc. Press, Senate Confirms Trump’s Nominee for US Ambassador to UN, N.Y. Times (Jan. 24, 2017); Carney, Senate confirms Trump’s UN ambassador, The Hill (Jan. 24, 2017).

[3] Sengupta, Nikki Haley Puts U.N. on Notice: U.S. Is ‘Taking Names,’ N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2017).