More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights

Carol Giacomo, a member of the New York Times Editorial Board and a former diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, has expressed her concern over the State Department’s creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights,[1] which was discussed in prior posts.[2]

She says the Department’s Human Rights Bureau and Congress were not included in the decision to establish this Commission. Instead it was a personal project of Secretary Pompeo and that next month the Department plans to say more about it. This underscores the concern that this commission is motivated by conservative political and religious beliefs and organizations.

This concern, she claims, also is illustrated by Vice President Pence’s promotion of religious freedom as “our first freedom” and arguing that human rights are becoming politicized and conflated with economic and social goals.

Another is a statement by a conservative religion commentator, R.R. Reno, that he is “increasingly against human rights” which “as the epitome of social responsibility short-circuits collective judgment and stymies action for the sake of the common good.” Reno is the Editor of First Things, a publication of the Institute on Religion and Public Life that “keeps its eyes on first things: our religious faith, love of family and neighbor, the sanctity of life, the achievements of Western civilization, and the dignity of the human person.”

Giacomo also reports that the House of Representatives is considering a proposal to restrict funding for this new entity while several Democratic senators have sent a letter to Secretary Pompeo expressing “deep concern” with the process and intent of this decision.

Harold Hongju Koh, a Yale law professor who was assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Clinton administration, said that a shift to “natural law” would conflict with the view that “modern human rights are based on the dignity inherent in all human beings, not on God-given rights.”

Conclusion

This blogger strives to follow Jesus as a member of a Presbyterian church and believes that religious freedom is a basic human right for all people in the world. But he worries that this Commission and related actions might be surreptitious ways to advance a conservative political and religious agenda and to promote the re-election of Donald Trump. Therefore, this blogger thinks that attention should be paid to this Commission and related activities of this Administration.

For example, for his year’s celebration of the Fourth of July, President Trump reportedly will deliver a speech at the Lincoln Memorial. [3]  Perhaps he will use that occasion to proclaim about unalienable rights.

Not mentioned by Giacomo, but probably related to the new Commission, was last July’s first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom that was hosted by the State Department and that will be discussed in a future post.

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[1] Giacomo, A New Trump Battleground: Defining Human Rights, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2019.

[2] Is The Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com(June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (June 17, 2019).

[3] Nirappil, Hermann & Jamison, Officials: Trump to speak at Lincoln Memorial during July Fourth celebration, Wash. Post (June 5,, 2019).

Senator Leahy’s Senate Floor Speech To End Embargo of Cuba

As mentioned in a prior post, on February 7, Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) introduced the Freedom To Export to Cuba Act (S.428) with cosponsors Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Michael Enzi (Rep., WY)./

On February 15, Senator Leahy delivered a lengthy and persuasive speech on the Senate floor supporting this bill and ending the embargo. Here is the text of that speech.

After commending Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) for introducing this bill and urging other Senators to support the bill,, Senator Leahy said, “This bill is about ending the anachronistic prohibitions in U.S. law that for decades have limited U.S. engagement with Cuba, including preventing American companies from exporting their products to Cuba.  The fact that legislation to do so is even necessary is illustrative of the absurdity of the situation in which we find ourselves.  Companies from Europe, Russia, China, Mexico, and every other country can sell their products to Cuba, which is just 90 miles from our coast, but American manufacturers and retailers are largely shut out of the Cuban market. . . . This bill would enable American companies to compete, which every believer in a free market should support.”

“It is also important for Senators to know that punitive actions by the Trump Administration last year to further restrict the right of Americans to travel to Cuba have had devastating consequences for Cuba’s fledgling private sector – the very people the White House and supporters of the restrictions profess to want to help.  The fact that they have said nothing about the harm they are causing Cuba’s struggling entrepreneurs demonstrates that they care more about continuing their failed policy of sanctions, regardless of who they hurt, than about helping the Cuban people or about protecting the right of Americans to travel freely.” 

“The latest ill-conceived attempt by the White House to punish Cuba would permit Title III of the Helms-Burton Act to go into effect.  This would allow, among others, individuals who were Cuban citizens when their property in Cuba was expropriated half a century ago to sue in U.S. courts any Cuban, foreign, and even American company whose business in Cuba today uses that property.  That could be an airport, port, warehouse, hotel, restaurant, you name it.  Virtually every American and foreign company investing in Cuba would suddenly be liable for treble damages.”

“The purpose, as the law’s authors made clear when it was enacted 23 years ago, is to harm Cuba’s economy by making it completely inhospitable for foreign investment.”

“As my friend in the House, Representative Jim McGovern (Dem., MA), has pointed out –

  • ‘It’s no mystery why Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump blocked Title III from going into effect every six months for the past 23 years.’
  • ‘It is hypocritical – it penalizes companies for doing what American companies do all over the world.’
  • It is contrary to international law, which recognizes the right of expropriation and requires compensation.’
  • ‘It is an extraterritorial sanction that guarantees a response from our trading partners, like Canada, Spain and the EU, including complaints at the World Trade Organization.’
  • ‘And if you care about agriculture, be warned: It will open a new front in the trade war, with all the repercussions that can bring.’
  • ‘It will allow Cuba to claim victim status and rally international support.’
  • ‘It will clog our courts with lawsuits.’
  • ‘It will make it impossible to negotiate compensation for U.S. claims in Cuba, and, in the end, hurt the very Americans who seek compensation for the property they lost.’
  • ‘It will divide us from friends and allies who are now working for a peaceful solution in Venezuela.’
  • ‘And it will guarantee that new investment in Cuba will come from the Russians, Chinese and others who are hostile to the United States, and whose state-owned companies can’t be sued in U.S. courts.’

“I agree with my friend in the other body [Rep. McGovern].  What the White House is considering would trigger an avalanche of unintended consequences that would bring U.S. commerce with Cuba to a halt, harm relations with our allies in this hemisphere and beyond, and make resolving property claims more difficult.  I ask unanimous consent that a piece by William LeoGrande on Title III of the Helms-Burton Act published in the February 13, 2019 issue of OnCubaNews be printed in the Record following my remarks.” [This article will be published in a separate post to this blog.]

Like “many issues, Members of Congress have strong feelings pro and con about U.S. relations with Cuba.  It is no secret that, after more than half a century of a policy of isolation that has achieved none of its objectives and primarily hurt the Cuban people, I, like Senators Klobuchar and Enzi and many others in this body, favor closer relations.”

“Conversely, there are those in Congress and the Trump Administration who believe strongly that we should ratchet up the pressure on the Cuban government in an attempt to achieve those elusive goals.”

“I have often spoken publicly about the lack of political freedom and civil liberties in Cuba.  But I also think it is important to try to be objective:  to criticize when called for and to acknowledge positive changes when they occur.”

“I recognize that those who favor maintaining the failed economic embargo have a longstanding, visceral antagonism and resentment toward the Cuban government.  While they rarely, if ever, mention the corrupt and brutal Batista regime that enjoyed unqualified U.S. support until it was overthrown in 1959, they have legitimate reasons to criticize the mistreatment of the Cuban people by the current government and its support for the corrupt and repressive Maduro regime in Venezuela.”

“But they too should acknowledge that threatening and bullying Cuba has not worked.  In fact it has made the situation worse, and provided an excuse for the Cuban government to blame its own failures on us.  They should also acknowledge positive changes in Cuba, but they never do.  Not ever.  It is almost as if they are psychologically, ideologically, or emotionally incapable of saying one positive thing about the Cuban government, no matter what positive things it does.”   

“Perhaps they are afraid that if they did, they would alienate their donors in the Cuban-American community.  Of course, we know that Cuban-Americans are divided about the U.S. embargo.  Some are hardcore believers in the embargo, and they always will be.  But at least as many – and increasing numbers – oppose the embargo, especially those who were born after the Cuban revolution.” 

“I wonder what the pro-embargo isolationists would say if the Cuban government were to stop harassing and abusing dissidents who favor a more democratic system.  Would those who oppose the embargo say anything positive?” 

“What if the Cuban government decided to embrace a free market economy and let private businesses flourish?  Would those who oppose the embargo say anything positive?”

“I doubt it.  I doubt it because no matter what positive reforms occur in Cuba, they will continue to defend the embargo until Cuba is a full-fledged democracy and those who currently hold power either die or are voted out of office.” 

“We all want Cuba to become a democracy, where civil and political rights are respected, and the sooner the better.  But those same defenders of the embargo support billions of dollars in U.S. aid – and weapons sales – to countries that are led by authoritarian, brutal, and corrupt dictatorships and monarchies, some of which have held power for decades or generations.”    

“How do the pro-embargo diehards reconcile that?  They don’t and they can’t.”

“The fact is, Cuba is changing.  Not nearly as fast as we and the Cuban people would like, but it is changing in ways that few would have predicted not very long ago.”

“Last year, Raul Castro’s hand-picked successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, became President and he promised a government more accessible and responsive to the people’s needs.  How he delivers on that promise remains to be seen.”   

“Since 2010, after the Cuban government recognized that the Internet is essential if Cuba wants to be part of the modern world, Internet access has exploded.  The government has opened hundreds of public Wi-Fi hot spots and cyber cafes in the past five years, and home Internet access became legal and available in 2017.  Today, almost half of the Cuban people have personal cell phones that were illegal just a decade ago.”

“As others have pointed out, these changes have encouraged new forms of communication, networking and organizing via social media.”

“But change does not come easily in Cuba, as it does not in many countries.  Last July, the government announced onerous new regulations on the private sector, covering a wide range of issues:  food safety, labor contracts, procurement, taxation, limits on the size of private businesses.  The new rules were an attempt by hardliners to crack down on the private sector, which was criticized for black marketeering.”

“But private entrepreneurs resisted, and they challenged the regulations as contradictory to the government’s own plans that recognizes the private sector as important to economic growth and employment. They appealed to government officials and spoke publicly about the harm the new rules would have on their businesses.”

“When the final regulations were issued, several that had caused the most resentment were dropped.  According to the Minister of Labor and Social Security, the decision to revise the rules was due to ‘the opinion and experiences of those directly involved.’”

“The government also retreated on a new law – Decree 349 – requiring artists, musicians and performers to register with the state and pay a large commission on their earnings from private engagements, and it banned work with objectionable content and empowered inspectors to shut down any offensive exhibition or performance.  Clearly, an attempt to further limit free expression.”

“Since the 1980s, Cuban artists have had more freedom to be critical of the government than other social sectors, and so it was not surprising that Decree 349 ignited widespread protests.  After social media was used to mobilize opposition within the Cuban arts community and among artists abroad, the government agreed not to enforce the law until implementing regulations are drafted in consultation with the arts community.”

“According to one observer, ‘during [the latter half of last year], nearly 8.9 million Cubans debated the draft of a new constitution in their workplaces, neighborhoods and schools.  Communist Party members were told not to argue with even the most radical proposals for amendments, and the ensuing debates were freewheeling, often lasting past their scheduled time.  Among the main topics: whether the president and state governors should be directly elected by voters; whether the concentration of wealth and property should be allowed; whether term limits and age limits for leaders were a good idea; and whether the Communist Party should be subordinated to the constitution and hence the law.”  Not long ago it would have been unthinkable to openly debate these issues, especially as part of a constitutional reform process.”

“One article that attracted intense debate recognized same-sex marriage, and was promoted by Raul Castro’s daughter, a long-time activist for LGBTQ rights. The proposal sparked strong opposition from evangelical churches supported by the Catholic Church.  Gay rights advocates countered with campaigns of their own.  The chance of a significant ‘no’ vote on the entire constitutional reform led the government to drop the provision from the final draft of the constitution with a pledge to consider it later.”

“This surge in mobilization by well-organized constituencies utilizing social media to resist government policy, from burdensome private sector regulations to gay marriage, is unprecedented in Cuba.  The government’s willingness to not only tolerate these organized challenges but to change policies in response to them, is significant. “   

“As has been noted, none of these issues dealt with the rigid structure of the Cuban system.  Cuba remains a one party state, in which those who challenge the system are treated as criminals.  But the precedent of organized interest groups mounting successful campaigns to challenge and change government policy is now established, which is positive.” 

“None of the longstanding critics of the Cuban government in the U.S. Congress or the Cuban-American community [has] acknowledged any of this, nor are they likely too.  For them, anything less than a wholesale change of government in Cuba is unworthy of mention, even though they apply a very different standard – a double standard – to other authoritarian governments.  In fact, they would ridicule anyone who regards such changes as positive or worthy of recognition.”

“As we know from our own experience, political reform is difficult.  Our own Electoral College, an anachronism designed to protect a slave-holding minority, remains in effect more than two centuries later.  Five times, in the world’s oldest democracy, it has prevented the winner of the most popular votes from being elected president.”  

“The Cuban people want to live better and they want a lot less government control over their lives.  Armed with cell phones and the Internet they are going to make increasing demands of their government.  This is happening at a time when Venezuela’s economy is collapsing and the survival of the Maduro regime, Cuba’s closest ally in the hemisphere, is in question.  Not surprisingly, the Cuban government is trying to limit the pace of change and to secure other benefactors.  It is turning increasingly to Russia, Algeria, Iran and other countries that welcome the chance to challenge U.S. influence in this hemisphere.” 

“This is a time for the United States to be actively and visibly engaged in Cuba, for Americans to be traveling to Cuba, for expanding educational, cultural, and professional exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, and for American companies to be competing in Cuba.  It is not a time to return to a failed policy of threats and ultimatums, driven by domestic politics rather than by what is in our national interests.”

“That is why I am cosponsoring the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act.  And it is why I intend to support other bipartisan legislation to replace our failed Cuba policy with one that serves America’s interests, not the interests of a shrinking minority, and not the interests of Russia and other countries that are reaping the economic benefits of our self-defeating policy of isolation.”

Reaction

I concur in the rationale and conclusion of this speech: end the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

While I believe there is valid documentation of the Senator’s assertion that Cuba has limits on free speech and assembly, he views this in isolation from Cuba’s situation. Cuba is a small country facing the vastly larger and more powerful  U.S., which for many years has had various hostile policies and actions against Cuba, including secret and undercover so-called “democracy promotion” programs on the island. In that context, it should be easy to understand why Cuba is concerned about dissidents and free speech and assembly.  Accordingly reliable U.S. assertions about the abolition of so called “democracy promotion” programs on the island should be a precondition to improving Cuban freedoms of speech and assembly.

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Senator Leahy,  Statement of Senator Leahy On the Freedom To Export to Cuba Act (Feb. 15, 2019). 

New Bill To End U.S. Embargo of Cuba

On February 7, U.S.Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem.,MN) introduced a bill in the Senate to end the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba: S.428: A bill to lift the trade embargo on Cuba.

The bill has two initial cosponsors: Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Michael Enzi (Rep., WY) and was referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

In a press release Senator Klobuchar said the bill “would eliminate the legal barriers to Americans doing business in Cuba and pave the way for new economic opportunities for American businesses and farmers by boosting U.S. exports and allow Cubans greater access to American goods. The legislation repeals key provisions of previous laws that block Americans from doing business in Cuba, but does not repeal portions of law that address human rights or property claims against the Cuban government.”

Senator Klobuchar added, “Instead of looking to the future, U.S.-Cuba policy has been defined for far too long by conflicts of the past. Cuba is an island of 11 million people, just 90 miles from our border—lifting the trade embargo will open the door to a huge export market, create jobs here at home, and support both the American and Cuban economies. Our bipartisan legislation will finally turn the page on the failed policy of isolation and build on the progress we have made to open up engagement with Cuba by ending the embargo once and for all.”

Cosponsor Senator Enzi stated,“History has shown that the embargo with Cuba has not been very effective. This bipartisan legislation would benefit the people in America and in Cuba. It would provide new opportunities for American businesses, farmers and ranchers. We need to open dialogue and the exchange of ideas and commerce that would help move Cuba forward. It is time to work toward positive change.” 

The other cosponsor, Senator Leahy commented, “Decades after the end of the Cold War we continue to impose punitive sanctions against Cuba, a tiny island neighbor that poses no threat to us. After more than half a century, the embargo has achieved none of its objectives.  President Obama took a courageous and pragmatic step in opening diplomatic relations with Cuba, but President Trump has reinstated the failed isolationist policy of the past.  It is up to Congress to end the embargo, which is used by the Cuban government to justify its repressive policies, and by foreign companies to avoid competing with U.S. businesses that are shut out of the Cuban market.  Lifting the embargo will put more food on the plates of the Cuban people, allow them to access quality U.S. products, and encourage reforms in Cuba’s economy, all while benefiting American companies.  I commend Senator Klobuchar for her steadfast leadership on this issue.”

Cuba relies on agriculture imports to feed the 11 million people who live on Cuba and the 3.5 million tourists who visit each year. This represents a $2 billion opportunity for American farmers annually. The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act repeals the current legal restrictions against doing business with Cuba, including the original 1961 authorization for establishing the trade embargo; subsequent laws that required enforcement of the embargo; and other restrictive statutes that prohibit transactions between U.S.-owned or controlled firms and Cuba, and limitations on direct shipping between U.S. and Cuban ports.

The legislation has been endorsed by Engage Cuba, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin America Working Group, and Cargill.

This blogger over the last eight years repeatedly has called for ending the embargo and presses the Senate and House to pass this or a similar bill and for the President to sign same.

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Klobuchar Press Release: Klobuchar-Enzi-Leahy Introduce Major Legislation To Lift Cuba Trade Embargo (Feb. 8, 2019); Enzi Press Release: Bipartisan coalition in Senate introduce legislation to lift Cuba trade embargo (Feb. 8, 2019); Leahy Press Release: Klobuchar, Enzi, Leahy Introduce Major Legislation to Lift Cuba trade embargo (Feb. 8, 2019). 

Senate Passes Bill To Expand Agricultural Exports to Cuba  

On June 28, the U.S. Senate passed, 86-11, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R.2) that relates, in part,  to U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.[1]

After an amendment introduced by Senators Heitkamp (Dem., ND) and Boozman (Rep., AR) to allow for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct foreign market development programs in Cuba passed the Senate Agriculture Committee by unanimous consent on June 13, Senator Rubio (Rep., FL) expressed his opposition to the provision and a willingness to delay consideration of the full bill.[2]

Rubio first introduced an amendment on June 26 to deny export promotion until Cuba holds “free and fair elections for a new government,” but by June 27,  he had changed his approach. Speaking on the Senate floor, he said, “I am not going to object to the ability of American farmers to market our products to a market… But while you are there… you can promote it, but you just can’t spend any of these taxpayer dollars at any of the facilities or businesses controlled or owned by the Cuban military.”

Ultimately, after negotiation between Senators Rubio, Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Cruz (Rep., TX), on one side, and Senators Flake (Rep., AZ), Heitkamp, and Boozman on the other, the bill passed the Senate with the USDA export promotion provision intact, and a modifying provision that states financial transactions must adhere to restrictions set out in current regulations, including a prohibition on “transactions with entities owned, controlled, or operated by or on behalf of military intelligence or security services of Cuba.” Most U.S. entities are already barred from engaging in transactions with the businesses on this list.[3]

The bill on June 21 had passed the House, 213-211. The Senate and House versions will now go to a conference committee to try to iron out the differences.[4]

Obviously Rubio’s efforts to impose his anti-Cuba positions on everything failed this time although he publicly will never admit to such a defeat. Instead he proclaims his qualification to promotion of trade with Cuba as a victory.

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[1] Carney, Senate passes mammoth farm bill, The Hill (June 28, 2018).

[2] Ctr. Democracy in Americas, Cuba Central News Brief: 06/29/2018.

[3] Rubio Supports Farm Bill with Important Provisions for Florida Citrus and Agriculture (June 28, 2018).

[4] Library of Congress: Thomas, H.R.2-Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018.

Senator Jeff Flake’s Courageous Defense of American Values and Democracy

On October 24  U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) gave a moving speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate rejecting President Trump’s character and actions and announcing the senator’s decision to not seek re-election in 2018.  He simultaneously extended his thoughts in the Washington Post, which commended him for his words and actions. I immediately sent him a letter thanking him for his speech and for his advocacy of U.S.-Cuba normalization, and on November 6 Senator Flake made a public response to the many letters he has received about his speech. Here is a summary of these events.

Senator Flake’s Speech[1]

The Senator said, “I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret, because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our – all of our – complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.” Below is a photograph of Senator Flake giving his speech.

“We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country – the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.”

“Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else: It is dangerous to a democracy. Such behavior does not project strength – because our strength comes from our values. It instead projects a corruption of the spirit, and weakness.”

If I have been critical, it is not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States.  If I have been critical, it is because I believe that it is my obligation to do so, as a matter of duty and conscience. The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters – the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”

“The principles that underlie our politics, the values of our founding, are too vital to our identity and to our survival to allow them to be compromised by the requirements of politics. Because politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity. I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit.”

Senator Flake’s Washington Post Article[2]

The same day as his speech, Senator Flake wrote an op-ed article in the Washington Post. He opened with a reference to one of my heroes, Joseph Welch, and his famous 1954 rhetorical question to Senator Joseph McCarthy who was attacking a young colleague of Welch: ““You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”[3]

In so doing, said Flake, “Someone had finally spoken up and said: Enough. . . . Welch reawakened the conscience of the country. The moment was a shock to the system, a powerful dose of cure for an American democracy that was questioning its values during a time of global tumult and threat. We had temporarily forgotten who we were supposed to be.”

Flake continued, “We face just such a time now. We have again forgotten who we are supposed to be. There is a sickness in our system — and it is contagious.”

“Nine months of this administration is enough for us to stop pretending that this is somehow normal, and that we are on the verge of some sort of pivot to governing, to stability. Nine months is more than enough for us to say, loudly and clearly: Enough.”

“The outcome of this is in our hands. We can no longer remain silent, merely observing this train wreck, passively, as if waiting for someone else to do something. The longer we wait, the greater the damage, the harsher the judgment of history.”

“It’s time we all say: Enough.”

 Washington Post’s Editorial[4]

The Washington Post immediately published an editorial that said the speech “was profoundly eloquent in its diagnosis of the degradation that President Trump has brought to American politics. It was also profoundly depressing. If Republicans can be honest only after they have taken themselves out of the political arena — or if by being honest they disqualify themselves from future service — then their party and therefore the nation are in even graver trouble than we knew.”

My Thank You Letter

“As a fellow U.S. citizen, I thank you for your speech yesterday on the Senate Floor. You spoke the truth about the serious challenges facing our country by the character and conduct of Donald Trump as president. You correctly pointed out that you did not want to be complicit in that conduct by remaining silent although with your recent book and other comments you hardly have remained silent.”

“I also thank you for your strong support of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation and normalization, and I know you have visited the island many times. As a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, I personally have been involved over the last 15 years with our partnership with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas and have been on three of our mission trips to the island and have welcomed Cubans visiting our church. This has led to my writing extensively on this subject and advocating such reconciliation and normalization on my blog.”

“As you well know, in recent months U.S.-Cuba relations have been troubled by medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats who had been stationed In Havana, about which I have written blog posts. I am amazed that after many months of investigations by the U.S. (and Cuba) the U.S. continues to assert that it does not know who or how these medical problems were created. I also am amazed that I have not discovered anyone who is wondering whether they were created by a secret and malfunctioning U.S. program or device. Perhaps this is something you could question in the Senate.”

Senator Flake’s Response to Letters[5]

“By the electronic bushel, in thousands of calls and letters, reactions have poured into my office.] Some wrote just to say thanks. From Arizona, from all over the country and from abroad. From all across the political map, too.”

This was a “deeply personal outpouring, the scale of which has stunned and humbled me. . . . I can say that reading these letters has been one of the most humbling experiences of my public life. . . . I am humbled because until now I didn’t fully grasp the level of anxiety and real pain that exists across the country due to the state of our national leadership.”

“These writers despair not just for the chaos emanating from the White House, but for the moral vandalism that has been set loose in our culture, as well as the seeming disregard for the institutions of American democracy. The damage to our democracy seems to come daily now, most recently with the president’s venting late last week that if he had his way, he would hijack the American justice system to conduct political prosecutions — a practice that only happens in the very worst places on earth. And as this behavior continues, it is not just our politics being disfigured, but the American sense of well-being and time-honored notions of the common good.”

 “I have been powerfully reminded that we have all been raised with fidelity to a very large idea, the American idea. When that idea comes under threat, and it seems as if the center might not hold, it is not just our politics that suffers. When a leader wreaks havoc with our democratic norms, it is not just political Washington that is dragged through the muck. When that happens, it is deeply upsetting to people everywhere, almost existentially so, and we all suffer.”

“These extraordinary and patriotic voices, calling me and themselves to action in defense of the things we hold dear, remind me that to have a vital democracy, there can be no bystanders.” I now “realize that to stand up and speak out is sometimes the most conservative thing a citizen can do.”

Conclusion

I urge my fellow U.S. citizens to join in the commendation of Senator Flake for his outspoken defense of true American values and to call for the resignation or removal of Donald Trump from office under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

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[1]   U.S. Senate, Flake Announces Senate Future ( Oct. 24, 2017); Full Transcript: Jeff Flake’s Speech on the Senate Floor, N.Y. Times (Oct. 24, 2017).

[2]  Flake, Enough, Wash. Post, (Oct. 24, 2017).

[3] An inverse historical example for Senator Flake’s criticisms of President Trump is President Eisenhower’s behind-the-scenes campaign to destroy his fellow Republican, Senator Joseph McCarthy, which  is the subject of David A. Nichols’ Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy (Simon & Schuster 2017).

[4] Editorial, Jeff Flake’s Diagnosis is right. But it’s not enough, Wash. Post (Oct. 24, 2017)

[5] Jeff Flake: In a Democracy, There Can Be No Bystanders, N.Y. Times (Nov. 6, 2017).

The Improper Use of Senate Rule XIX To Stop Senator Warren from Speaking

As has been widely reported, the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (Rep., KY), on February 7 asserted an objection to the remarks of Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem., MA) and the objection was sustained by the presiding officer, Senator Steve Dawes (Rep., MT), and by the entire Senate, 49-43. As a result, Senator Warren was prevented from making any further remarks.

This occurred during the Senate’s consideration of whether to confirm the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General when Senator Warren was reading a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, the widow of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., complaining about Session as a U.S. attorney for allegedly “using the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black Americans.”

The asserted basis for the objection by McConnell was Senate Rule XIX, which states, “No Senator, in debate, shall “directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

This Rule rarely has been used since its adoption in 1902 after a fist-fight on the Senate floor between two senators over whether the Senate would approve a U.S. treaty to annex the Philippines. Its use by McConnell has been criticized widely as impolitic and sexual discrimination as the Rule has not been used to stop male senators from doing the same thing the next day and from previously making many derogatory remarks on the floor about other senators.

The Rule, closely and properly read, does not apply to this situation for at least two reasons.

First, the Rule refers to “conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator,” and here Warren was referring to Sessions’ conduct as a U.S. attorney before he became a senator.

Second, and more importantly, the matter under consideration was whether the Senate should confirm Sessions to be the next Attorney General and, therefore, whether he had the skills, background and character to hold this important office. Hence, his entire life was relevant on at least the character issue, and the opinion of an important U.S. citizen (Mrs. King) on his conduct as a U.S. attorney around 1986 is directly relevant to the issue of confirmation. Indeed, so is the senatorial record of  any senator who is undergoing Senate review as a cabinet nominee like Senator Sessions.

As a result, Senator McConnell should apologize to Senator Warren and the entire U.S. Senate for this improper use of Rule XIX.

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U.S. Senate, Rule XIX; Berman, A Brief History of the Senate Rule That Silenced Elizabeth Warren, Atlantic Magazine (Feb. 8, 2017);; Flegenheimer, Republican Senators Vote to Formerly Silence Elizabeth Warren, N.Y. Times (Feb. 7, 2017); Lichtblau & Flegenheimer, Jeff Sessions Confirmed as Attorney General, Capping Legal Battle, N.Y. Times (Feb. 8, 2017).

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).