Senator Jeff Flake Condemns President Trump’s “Fake News” Tirades

On January 17, Senator Jeff Flake delivered another speech on the Senate floor that lambasted President Donald Trump, this time for his “fake news” tweets and comments.[1] This speech was a sequel to the Senator’s October 24, 2017, speech and Washington Post article rejecting the President’s character and actions.[2] Here is a photograph of the Senator giving the speech.

Senator Flake’s Speech

Near “the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America.”

“As the distinguished former member of this body, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, famously said: ]Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” During the past year, I am alarmed to say that Senator Moynihan’s proposition has likely been tested more severely than at any time in our history.”

“It is for that reason that I rise today, to talk about the truth, and its relationship to democracy. For without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, . . . our democracy will not last.”

“2017 was a year which saw the truth – objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. ‘The enemy of the people,’ was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.”

It “is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people,’ that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of ‘annihilating such individuals’ who disagreed with the supreme leader.”

“This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements. And, of course, the president has it precisely backward – despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.”

“I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of ‘fake news’ are dubious, at best. Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the globe, encounter members of U.S. based media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth.  To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice.”

According to the International Federation of Journalists, 80 journalists were killed in 2017, and a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents that the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has reached 262, which is a new record. This total includes 21 reporters who are being held on ‘false news” ‘charges.”

So “powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time in office.  Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently – to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.”

“No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have it.”

“Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.”

“No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. . . .  An “American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame — is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.”

“Now, we are told via twitter that today the president intends to announce his choice for the ‘most corrupt and dishonest’ media awards. It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are.”

“And so, 2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it. In this effort, the choice is quite simple. And in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible. Together, my colleagues, we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.”

“Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth — and not partners in its destruction.”

“It is not my purpose here to inventory all of the official untruths of the past year. But a brief survey is in order. Some untruths are trivial – such as the bizarre contention regarding the crowd size at last year’s inaugural.”

?But many untruths are not at all trivial – such as the seminal untruth of the president’s political career – the oft-repeated conspiracy about the birthplace of President Obama. Also not trivial are the equally pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate – to the effort to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all – the supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.”

“To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a ‘hoax’ – as the president has many times – is a falsehood. We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat to both American sovereignty and to our national security.  It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter, wherever the investigation leads.”

“Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks. We are told by our intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently been reported that there has not been a single cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Not one. What might seem like a casual and routine untruth – so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington – is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.”

The impulses underlying the dissemination of such untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated.”

Every “word that a president utters projects American values around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so, respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports. . . . “

“This feedback loop [from foreign leaders] is disgraceful. . . . Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.”

“We are not in a ‘fake news’ era, , , , We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.”

“In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for profound alarm, and spur to action. Add to that the by-now predictable habit of calling true things false, and false things true, and we have a recipe for disaster.  As George Orwell warned, ‘The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.’”

“Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.”

“What is the goal of laying siege to the truth? President John F. Kennedy, in a stirring speech on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, was eloquent in answer to that question:

  • ‘We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.’”

The “question of why the truth is now under such assault may well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world — made all the more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily disassembling of our democratic institutions.”

“We are a mature democracy – it is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring – or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.” 

“I will close by borrowing the words of an early adherent to my faith that I find has special resonance at this moment. His name was John Jacques, and as a young missionary in England he contemplated the question: “’What is truth’” His search was expressed in poetry and ultimately in a hymn that I grew up with, titled ‘Oh Say, What is Truth. It ends as follows:

  • ‘Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,

For the limits of time it steps o’er.

Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst.

Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,

Eternal… unchanged… evermore.’”

Conclusion

The same day as Senator Flake’s speech, Arizona’s other Republican Senator, John McCain, published an op-ed article in the Washington Post with similar criticisms of President Trump.[3] This commentary reminded us of McCain’s criticism of Congress’ ignoring regular procedures over the so-called “repeal and replace” Obama Care bill when McCain killed the bill with his negative vote.[4]

President Trump’s response to these criticisms first came from his Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, who said, Senator Flake was “not criticizing the president because he’s against oppression. He’s criticizing the president because he has terrible poll numbers and he is, I think, looking for some attention.” Note the ad hominem response and refusal to grapple with the merits.

Later that night the President on Twitter also ignored the substance of these criticisms when he  announced his “fake news” awards to CNN (four times); The New York Times (two times); and ABC, The Washington Post, Time and Newsweek (one time each).[5]

All of these comments reminded me of the struggle between the Washington Post and the Nixon White House over the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the work that is involved in publishing real news, all of which is skillfully portrayed in the current movie, “The Post.”

I commend Senators Flake and McCain for standing up for true American values in their criticisms of the President.

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[1] Press Release, Flake: Reflexive “Fake News” Claims Not Good For Democracy (Jan. 16, 2018)

[2] Senator Jeff Flake’s Courageous Defense of American Values and Democracy, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 6, 2017),

[3]  McCain, Mr. President, stop attacking the press, Wash. Post (Jan. 17, 2018); Sullivan, Arizona’s GOP Senators Assail Trump for His Attacks on the Press, N.Y. Times (Jan. 17, 2018); Reuters, U.S. Senators Rip Trump Over His Attacks on the Media, N.Y. Times (Jan. 17, 2018).

[4] McCain Floor Statement on Need for Bipartisanship (July 25, 2017)

[5] Flegenheimer & Grynbaum, Trump Hands Out ‘Fake News Awards,’ Sans the Red Carpet, N.Y. Times (Jan. 17, 2018).

 

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

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

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

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

  1. The Nature of the injuries

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

  1. The cause of the injuries[3]

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

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

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

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

“Perplexing” was a frequent word in this discussion.

  1. Perpetrator(s)

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

  1. Accountability Review Board

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Controversy Over What Happened to U.S. Diplomats in Cuba 

As discussed in prior posts, at least 24 U.S. diplomats and members of their families while working and living in Havana have suffered various ailments.[1] Controversy over what caused such ailments has surfaced just one day before a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee  conducts a hearing on the subject.

One dispute is between Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), the chair of the subcommittee, and another subcommittee member, Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), who as noted in a recent post, after a recent conference in Havana with Cuban officials, announced that both the U.S. and Cuba have no evidence of any  such “attacks.”

On January 7 Senator Rubio disagreed with this assessment with three messages on his Twitter account: “”It is a documented FACT that 24 U.S. govt officials & spouses and their spouses were victims of some kind of sophisticated attack while stationed in Havana.” He added in another tweet, “Any U.S. official briefed on matter knows full well that while method of attack still in question, that attacks & injuries occurred isn’t.” His third tweet said. “It is impossible to conduct 24 separate & sophisticated attacks against US Govt personnel in #Havana without #CastroRegime knowing about it.”[2]

Another dispute on the subject has occurred between the FBI and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.[3]

According to the Associated Press, the FBI’s Operational Technology Division has issued an interim report, dated January 4, that says after months of investigation and four trips to Cuba, there is no evidence that sound waves could have damaged the health of these people, but that the FBI will continue investigating the matter.

On January 5 Tillerson, however, said he’s not convinced that what he calls the “deliberate attacks” are over and that he still  believes that “the Cuban government, someone within the Cuban government can bring this to an end.”

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s subcommittee hearing.

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[1] See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017”  section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[2] Rubio Twitter Accountt (Jan. 7, 2018).

[3] Assoc. Press, Tillerson Tells AP Cuba Still Risky; FBI Doubts Sonic Attack, N.Y. times (Jan. 8, 2018)

No Evidence of ‘Sonic Attacks’ on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On January 6 in Havana U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) said there was no evidence of “sonic attacks’ on U.S. diplomats in Cuba.[1]

After a meeting that day with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Interior Ministry officials, Flake said that they had told him the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had made four trips to Cuba and had informed Cuban officials that the FBI had not found any evidence of such alleged attacks. Here are the Senator’s actual words to the Associated Press:

  • “The Cuban Interior Ministry is saying the FBI has told them there is no evidence of a sonic attack, even though that term is being used, ‘attack,’ there is no evidence of it. There’s no evidence that somebody purposefully tried to harm somebody. Nobody is saying that these people didn’t experience some event, but there’s no evidence there was a deliberate attack by somebody, either the Cubans or anybody else.”

Flake, a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, a frequent visitor to Cuba and an advocate for normalization of U.S. relations with the island, added that previous classified briefings from U.S. officials have left him with no reason to doubt this Cuban briefing.

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[1] Assoc. Press, US Senator Says No Evidence of ‘Sonic Attacks’ in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 6, 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).

Cuba Foreign Minister Accuses U.S. of “Lying” About Diplomats in Havana

On November 2 Cuba’s  Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez accused the U.S. of “lying” about medical problems of U.S. diplomats who were serving at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.[1]

He said, “I can affirm categorically that whoever affirms that there have been attacks, deliberate acts or specific incidents as a cause of these health damages, deliberately lies. These health damages are being used as a pretext of a political nature, with political objectives, to eliminate the progress made and damage the bilateral relationship” between the two countries.

Rodriguez added, “It is high time for the United States to tell the truth or otherwise present evidence. The Cuban government has no responsibility whatsoever for these incidents.”

These comments were made at a press conference at Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club, as shown in the above photograph. He also essentially repeated some of the comments from his November 1 speech at the U.N. General Assembly in favor of the resolution condemning the U.S. embargo of the island. He referred to the recent U.S. reduction of staffing at that Embassy, the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from Washington and the travel warning against Americans traveling to the island. Such actions, he said, were accompanied by repeated disrespectful and offensive pronouncements towards his country by President Trump, “who takes up the hostile rhetoric of the periods of greatest confrontation.”

The same day Rodriguez met with 12 U.S. senators and representatives on Capitol Hill. Although not identifeid in the U.S. or Cuban media, photographs of the meeting show Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., Vt), Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) and Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), all advocates of U.S.-Cuba normalization.[2]

Now we await the U.S. response to this accusation.

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[1] Bruno Rodriguez: There is no evidence of a sonic attack on US diplomats, CubaDebate (Oct. 3, 2017) (transcript of press conference); Bruno Rodriguez: Relations between Cuba and the US have fallen significantly due to the measures adopted by Trump, CubaDebate (Nov. 2, 2017); Havana says that Washington ‘lies’ about ‘acoustic attacks,’ Diario de Cuba (Nov. 2, 2017); Lugo (Assoc. Press), Cuba official accuses US of lying about sonic attacks, Wash. Post (Nov. 2, 2017); DeYoung, U.S. claims of health attacks on diplomats ‘deliberate lies,’ Cuban official says, Wash. Post (Nov. 2, 2017).

[2] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuban Foreign Minister meets with US Members of Congress (Nov. 3, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister meets with U.S. legislators, Granma (Nov. 3, 2017).

New U.S. Senate Bills Embrace Normalization of Relations with Cuba

A prior post discussed the recent rumors that the Trump Administration, next month, is planning to reverse various aspects of the U.S. normalization of relations with Cuba that commenced on December 17, 2014.

In resistance to this threat, the U.S. Senate this week saw two new bipartisan bills embracing such normalization.

Protecting American Travel to Cuba [1]

On May 25 A bill to allow United States citizens and legal residents to travel between the United States and Cuba (S.1287) was offered by Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) with 54 bipartisan co-sponsors (43 Democrats, 9 Republicans and 2 Independents). It would eliminate current restrictions on traveling to Cuba for tourist purposes completely and permanently deregulate U.S. travel to Cuba.

According to Senator Flake, “Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom. It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government. Lifting the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba can pave the way to meaningful change by increasing contact between Cubans and everyday Americans, and it is certain to have positive benefits for the island’s burgeoning entrepreneurial and private sector.”

Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) , one of the leading cosponsors, added, “A bipartisan majority of the Senate agrees that the federal government should not be telling Americans where they can or cannot travel, especially to a tiny country just 90 miles from Florida.  The restrictions in law that our bill would strike down are a failed vestige of the Cold War.  The travel ban is neither justified nor in our national security or economic interests.  If we don’t engage, China and Russia will – in fact they already are.  While this bill doesn’t lift the embargo, it at least would restore to Americans the freedom to travel they are entitled to.”

The increased U.S. travel to Cuba over the last two years has contributed to economic growth and job creation in the U.S. travel and tourism sectors and provided significant economic support to Cuban entrepreneurs and small business owners. Removing all restrictions on traveling to Cuba would further strengthen Cuba’s growing private sector.

Expanded travel to Cuba is supported by 81% of the American public, including 71% of Republicans plus U.S. travel groups, over 100 U.S. agriculture groups, the National Association of Manufacturers, U.S. national security experts and almost 100% of the Cuban people.

Ending the U.S. Embargo[2]

On May 25 A bill to lift the trade embargo on Cuba (S. 1286) was introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) with 13 cosponsors (9 Democrats, 3 Republicans and 1 Independent). It would 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.

“For far too long, U.S.-Cuba policy has been defined by the conflicts of the past instead of the realities of today and the possibilities for the future,” Senator Klobuchar said. “More than 50 years of isolating an island just 90 miles from our border has not secured our interests and has disadvantaged American business owners and farmers. This bipartisan legislation would benefit the people of both our countries by boosting American exports and creating opportunity for the Cuban people. We need to 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.”

Senator Michael Enzi (Rep., WY), one of the cosponsors, said, “Over the last 50 years, our strategy of isolating Cuba hasn’t been very successful. This bipartisan legislation would lift the travel restriction to Cuba, providing new opportunities for American businesses, farmers and ranchers. But trade is very powerful. It can be more than just the flow of goods, but also the flow of ideas – ideas of freedom and democracy are the keys to positive change in any nation. It is time we moved on from the failed ideas of the past and tried a new approach to Cuba.”

Another cosponsor, Senator Patrick Leahy, added, “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.  It is now 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 market.  Lifting the embargo will put more food on the plates of the Cuban people, allow them to access quality U.S. products, and spur 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. This bill would repeal 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.

Conclusion

Now is the time for all U.S. supporters of normalization to engage in public advocacy of these policies and to urge their U.S. Senators and Representatives to oppose any rollback of normalization.

We also need to express our support of those who have introduced bills in this Session of Congress to end the embargo and to expand Americans’ freedom to travel to Cuba. In addition to the two previously mentioned bills, the following bills also deserve support:

  • Senator Heidi Heitkamp (Dem., ND), Agricultural Export Expansion Act of 2017 (S.275);
  • Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), Cuba Trade Act of 2017 (S.472)(end the embargo);
  • Representative Mark Sanford (Rep., SC), Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 (H.R.351);
  • Representative Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), Cuba Trade Act of 2017 (H.R.442)(end the embargo);[3]
  • Representative Kevin Cramer (Rep., ND), Cuba DATA Act (H.R.498);
  • Representative Rick Crawford (Rep., AR), Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (H.R.525); and
  • Representative Jose Serrano, (Dem., NY), Promoting American Agricultural and Medical Exports to Cuba Act of 2017 (H.R.572), Baseball Diplomacy Act (H.R.573), Cuba Reconciliation Act (H.R.574).

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[1] S.1287: A bill to allow United States citizens and legal residents to travel between the United States and Cuba; Flake, Leahy Reintroduce Bill Restoring Freedom to Travel to Cuba (May 25, 2017); Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy on The Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 (May 25, 2017); 55 U.S. Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Life the Travel Ban on Cuba, Engage Cuba (May 25, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Lawmakers Reintroduce Bill to End Restrictions on Cuba Travel, N.Y. Times (May 25, 2017); Torres, More than 50 senators support eliminating restrictions on travel to Cuba, Miami Herald (May 26, 2017).

[2] S. 1286: A bill to lift the trade embargo on Cuba (May 25, 2017); Klobuchar, Enzi, Leahy Flake Lead Bipartisan Coalition to Introduce Major Legislation to lift Cuba Trade Embargo (May 25, 2017); Sens. Introduce Second Cuba Bill, Sending Clear Message to Trump, Engage Cuba (May 26, 2017).

[3] Representatives Emmer and Castor Introduce Bill To End Embargo of Cuba, dwkcommentariese.com (Jan. 12, 2017).