July 17, 2018

Mr. President, Time to Come Clean

I am not the only person who has called President Donald Trump’s performance at yesterday’s press conference with Vladimir Putin treasonous. We have a president who fights with our allies—and just about every other country, actually—but praises Russian and its virtual dictator Vladimir Putin. Trump appears, at least in foreign affairs, not to be interested in making America great again, but in making Russia great again.

Ever since Trump entered the presidential race, he has studiously avoided saying anything negative about Russian and its leader. He has had personal ties to Russia (which he has repeatedly denied) and has appointed people to office who also have had ties to Russia. And yet, to any objective observer, Russia is a bad actor.  It has a repressive government with an abysmal human rights record, has annexed the territory of another country by force and is supporting a foreign rebellion, has assassinated critics both domestically and on foreign soil, and has interfered in votes in democratic countries. Apparently, Trump is fine with this, yet he has no trouble castigating U.S. allies for virtually anything they do.

In an earlier post, I suggested that Putin has some specific hold on Trump:
Putin must have something so damning on Trump that our president dare not anger Putin, lest the Russian leader tell what he knows.
After yesterday’s dismaying press conference, the theory that Putin has blackmail material on our president is the only viable explanation of Trump’s behavior other than that Trump is an amoral imbecile. It is hard to pick one of these two theories as the more likely, but I am inclined to think that Trump is subject to extortion by the Kremlin.

How bad can it be, Mr. President? It is time to free yourself of Putin’s hold over you. We know you are a shady businessman; we have come to terms with the golden showers story; we know you are a sexist pig. Have you killed anyone (directly, anyway)? Have you cheated on your income tax? Fess up. Nothing you say will make us think less of you than we already do. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by coming clean.

July 15, 2018

Peter Strzok on the Hot Seat

Peter Strzok
Peter Strzok
On television Thursday, I watched parts of the joint session of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees. Committee members were questioning FBI counterespionage expert Peter Strozok. It was exciting viewing.

Strozok famously exchanged anti-Trump text messages with attorney Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair. Strozok and Page were both members of Robert Mueller's team investigating connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. When Mueller became aware of Strozok’s remarks to Page, Mueller dismissed him from the investigation. Republicans have aggressively tried to use Strozok’s alleged bias to discredit the Mueller probe as a political witch hunt. After extensive questioning of Strozok in closed session, Republican committee members expected to pillory him in public and advance their thesis about Mueller’s investigation.

The planned Republican exposé of Mueller team bias, however, turned into a donnybrook. Rachel Maddow described the hearing this way on her July 12 show:
This is not what Republicans were expecting or hoping for from their data—put Peter Strzok in the hot seat, right? They thought this would be beat-the-piñata day. Turns out, the piñata is alive and has its own bat.
Congressional witnesses tend to sit back and take hostile questioning from their interrogators. Not Mr. Strzok. He defended both the FBI and his actions as aggressively as Republican members attacked them. He asserted that he never has and never would lie under oath. Referring to FBI personnel above and below him, he argued, “They would not tolerate any improper behavior in me, any more than I would tolerate it in them. That is who we are as the FBI.”

Of course, it must be said that Strzok is hardly blameless. He used an official, rather than a personal, telephone to send his messages. His excuse that he did so late at night and without much forethought is a poor excuse. His comments using an official channel did nothing to advance the contention that his personal views were unconnected to his official actions as a member of the Mueller team.

What Strzok did not assert is that his suggestion that a Trump presidency would be a threat to the Republic was a perfectly rational evaluation and one held by many, perhaps even most, Americans. He did say that “we” would stop Trump was intended to refer to voters, not to himself or the FBI. Unless you are a member of Congress with an “R” by your name, that is easy to believe.

Strzok’s primary argument was that, in his professional capacity, he was able to set aside his personal views and perform his duties objectively. (His testimony was more compelling than this description suggests, but that isn’t relevant to the point I want to make here.)

Strzok’s GOP inquisitors refuse to believe is that a person can have strong personal views and yet keep those views from affecting one’s professional responsibilities. But this capacity is a foundation of our legal system. Jurors are expected to put aside their personal views and any knowledge remotely relevant to a case and to base their verdict only on court testimony and the law. Likewise, judges are expected to rule in accordance with relevant laws and regulations, to keep their own views from injecting bias into a case, and to fairly explain the law to jurors.

The irony, of course, is that the kind of disinterested execution of one’s duty appeared to be utterly foreign to Republican members of Congress, who, in former times, would have been expected to be seeking truth rather than mere partisan advantage, to be “defend[ing] the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic [emphasis added],” as their oath pledges. Instead, in attacking the FBI’s attempts to protect the country, they were playing into the hands of Vladimir Putin. Their objective was to smear Strzok’s name and promote their theory that the Mueller investigation cannot be an honest one because it was being conducted by people whose primarily failing is that they are human.

Hostility toward the witness reached its peak in the questioning of Texas Republican Louie Gohmert.
The congressman accused Strzok of lying when he said that his personal opinion did not indicate that he was biased in his work on the Mueller investigation. “I wonder how many times did you look so innocently into your wife’s eyes and lie to her about Lisa Page,” Gohmert said. Democrats on the committees were incensed at this uncalled for remark.

The failure to set aside personal opinion and agenda in the cause of good government, however, was most obvious in the congressman who chaired the hearing, Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. Although he deserves credit for letting Strzok speak his peace, he was totally disdainful of Democratic attempts to make use of legitimate parliamentary maneuvers. When a motion was made to adjourn, it was ignored; pleas of personal privilege were ignored. A lot of shouting went on back and forth during the hearing.

In short, Republican committee members could not put their personal agendas aside to do their duty and to seek the truth, yet this is what they expected of Mr. Strzok. Ironically, there is no evidence to suggest that Peter Strzok did not do his duty as he was pledged to do. Republican members of Congress continue to protect the president at all costs.

July 11, 2018

Make American Great Again—Really

Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” played on the prejudices and misperceptions of one segment of the American population. It implied that America was not great but had been great at some earlier time. In fact, America under Barack Obama was great—less great because of a Republican Congress, of course—and could look forward to being even greater.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump is destroying much of what has been great about the United States—its strategic and moral global leadership, its acceptance of minorities, its protection for our environment, its willingness to welcome oppressed foreigners, its commitment to the rule of law, its protection of the least of society, its embrace of science and truth, and its striving for economic justice.

Ironically, as Trump destroys the best of America, “Make America Great Again” becomes not a piece of cynical propaganda but a rational goal of our debased democracy.

Let us indeed make America great again by getting rid of Republicans in general and Donald Trump in particular.


Trump’s slogan is beginning a beacon of hope.

July 10, 2018

The Future of Roe and Obergefell

I listened to the first hour of 1A this morning, where the possible repercussions of the president’s choice for the next Supreme Court justice was discussed. As usual, opinions among the guests were mixed. One of the panelists tried to reassure listeners that, with Brett Kavanaugh on the high court, neither Roe v. Wade nor Obergefell v. Hodges was likely to be overturned.

I would like to be comforted by this assertion, but, alas, I am not. The Supreme Court could decide that either of these cases was wrongly decided.

I won’t claim the title of prognosticator, but I suspect that Obergefell v. Hodges is indeed safe. It has created facts on the ground that cannot easily be dispensed with. Would the Supreme Court dare to un-marry gay couples or upend the plans of engaged couples eagerly awaiting their nuptials? Overturning Obergefell would create a citizen backlash that could severely damage the reputation of the court. That won’t happen.

On the other hand, even though the right to obtain an abortion continues to be supported by most Americans, I believe that the ascent of Kavanaugh endangers Roe. That decision, too, created facts on the ground, but those facts are invisible. One cannot tell by looking at an adult female whether or not she has had one or more abortions. Even if abortion were totally outlawed—not a likely outcome even if Roe is eviscerated—there is nothing for the court to undo. What is past is past, and those who have benefited from Roe cannot have that benefit taken away from them. The Supreme Court can repudiate Roe without the disruption of society that would be caused by doing the same to Obergefell.  There would be protests, of course, but they would likely be of no effect. A product of The Federalist Society such as Brett Kavanaugh would be overjoyed at the opportunity to overturn Roe, and we should not overlook that fact.

Although it is unlikely, Democrats might be able to delay confirmation of Kavanaugh, take back control of the Senate in November, and block any Trump Supreme Court nomination other than that of Merrick Garland. That would be a great outcome, but certainly not one to be counted on.

As a practical matter, as I argued in an earlier post, the greatest defense against attempts to strip away the right to an abortion is having large numbers of women admitting to having had abortions and being glad that they did so. Additionally, it would be helpful for older women to come forward who suffered from pre-Roe back-alley abortions, telling their stories of trauma and, in some case, loss of fertility. We also need to hear from family members who lost loved ones through back-alley abortions or whose loved ones wanted but could not obtain an abortion and died from complications of childbirth.

Not respecting the choices of women must be as unacceptable as sexual harassment and rape.

July 9, 2018

Two Complaints about Bishop McConnell

On the whole, I have been pleasantly surprised at Dorsey McConnell’s performance as Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh. Most especially, I was pleased with the way he handled moving the diocese to accept the blessing of same-sex unions. He created a process that allowed people of the diocese to discuss their views toward homosexuality in small meetings, after which he authorized priests to proceed with blessings. It was not transparent how the outcome of the meetings led to the bishop’s ultimate decision, but I think the fact that fewer people participated than had been anticipated suggested that, in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the matter was less controversial than might have been thought. Of course, the exit of parishes supporting deposed bishop Robert Duncan altered the philosophical balance of opinion in the diocese.

Recently, however, Bishop McConnell has taken two actions of which I heartily disapprove. On June 27, he sent e-mail to “Diocesan and Parish Leadership” announcing that he had suffered a mild stroke and would have to reduce the burdens of his office. The body of the message was the following:
Dear Friends,

Recently I awoke in the middle of the night to find a numbness in my right arm and a confusion in my speech. (I could think of exactly what I wanted to say, but the words did not come out in any way resembling spoken English). The symptoms resolved within a few hours, and I have not had a recurrence.

It has taken some time for my doctors to find out exactly what happened, but in the last few days the picture has become clear. I am one of 24% of the adult human population walking around with a small hole between the atrium and ventricle of my heart, known as a patent foramen ovale or PFO. Ordinarily this would be of little concern; however, in extremely rare instances, a clot can travel through the hole and pass into the brain. This is apparently what happened to me, causing a small stroke in the left hemisphere, near the "language center,” briefly affecting the sensation in my right arm as well.

The source of the clot that caused it is still a mystery. There is no evidence of it occurring in my legs, my carotid arteries, or anywhere else in my vascular system. I have no history of stroke in my family, no evident plaque anywhere, and no other indication of risk. Since the event, I have been on a regimen of one low-dose aspirin per day, which— along with compression socks when I fly— will remain a part of my ordinary life, though my doctor may eventually recommend a prescription blood thinner.

All of this has come at some cost to my stamina. I am reviewing my calendar and work habits, and have asked for the assistance of my staff to help me achieve a more regular schedule. I will curtail my international travel, as well as my commitments to the National Church, and may limit the number of events I am able to attend within the Diocese on any given day. Please rest assured, however, that I generally feel well and energetic.

Betsy and I ask for your prayers. Please know you are always in ours.

Faithfully your bishop,

(The Right Reverend) Dorsey W.M. McConnell, D.D.
VIII Bishop of Pittsburgh
June 27, 2018
When a leader has a serious negative health event—if his schedule and life are being affected, the event described is serious—it is not only leaders who have to be told; so do ordinary citizens. If the governor or president suffers a stroke, people expect to know about it. This is not the first time Bishop McConnell has chosen only to inform diocesan leaders about matters affecting the diocese. The bishop asked for the prayers of the message’s recipients. Are the prayers of diocesan laity of no consequence? When diocesan news is distributed, the question to be asked is whether laity need not be told. Transparency should be the default, even when it is assumed that laypeople will not be interested. In fact, laypeople should be encouraged to care about the diocese, which is facilitated to letting them in on what is going on.

Mercifully, Bishop McConnell did not instruct diocesan leaders to keep the information in his message confidential. My own rector and other clergy I know about explained the bishop’s letter in church the Sunday after it was sent. Clearly, they thought the people needed to know about the bishop’s health.

My second complaint against Bishop McConnell is rather more complex, but I won’t attempt to give a full explanation here. Just days before the opening of the 79th General Convention, the bishop, along with Bishop Nick Knisely of Rhode Island and Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of Long Island, offered a resolution for consideration by the convention. Somewhat misleadingly titled “Marriage Rites for the Whole Church,” B012 was intended to be an alternative to Resolution A085, which had been proposed by the Task Force on the Study of Marriage. (The Living Church, prior to the beginning of the convention, offered a succinct review of A085 and B012. You can find that review here. Note that the links to the respective resolutions in that piece point to the resolutions as marked up by the convention as of the time they are accessed. A later Living Church article can be found here. As of this writing, the revised B012 has passed in the House of Deputies and is being sent to the House of Bishops for consideration.)

Essentially, A085 would have given same-sex marriage rites prayer book status and made the liturgy available to all congregations interested in using. B012, on the other hand, continued the trial status of such liturgies indefinitely. Significantly, it provided for bishops not approving of same-sex rites to require congregations wishing to use them to request DEPO (Designated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight), allowing same-sex marriage under the oversight of a more accepting bishop. (There are currently eight diocesan bishops who have disallowed same-sex marriages in their dioceses.) Such a procedure, which was invented by Episcopal bishops in a different context and never embraced by the General Convention, is ill-defined and cumbersome. Moreover, it makes same-sex marriage in The Episcopal Church less than fully embraced and makes diocesan bishops the princes who determine the religion of their subjects, a notion more feudal than democratic.

The Episcopal Church is, and should be, ruled by the General Convention, and individual bishops should not be able to veto procedures adopted by the convention. I was very disappointed by Bishop McConnell for his support of B012 and for that of Bishop Knisley as well. (I count Bishop Knisley as a friend; I do not know Bishop Provenzano.) Bishops out of step with the General Convention have been the source of much mischief in recent years, and B012 was an invitation to continued mischief.

As it happens, the matter of same-sex marriage collided with the other big topic at this year’s General Convention, namely prayer book revision. As a result, in a House of Deputies legislative committee, A085 was put aside and B012 was put forward with massive changes. The indefinite trial status remains, pending prayer book approval, but the diocesan bishop veto has been eliminated. It is to be hoped that the House of Bishops can accept this seemingly reasonable compromise.

July 6, 2018

Save Democracy

I have done my best as an ordinary citizen to oppose the ignorant, narcissistic, vindictive, and racist autocrat who has become president of the United States. One of my tactics has been to devise buttons that I and others can wear. Before the 2016 presidential election, I designed a button that asked: “How would Jesus vote?” I thought the correct answer was obvious, but other self-described Christians either had a different answer or failed to ask the question.

After the election, I designed another button that I expected to be wearing daily for four years: “Don’t blame me. I voted for her!” I convinced fewer people to wear these than I had hoped.

My latest button is shown here:

SAVE DEMOCRACY/VOTE DEMOCRATIC

Donald Trump has been sabotaging democracy at home and abroad, wreaking havoc on the environment, favoring the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, destroying the goodwill and authority of the United States in foreign affairs, and enriching himself and his family at every opportunity. He now seems intent on destroying the world economy based on his own naïve mercantilist fantasies.

The only way to contain the pestilence that is the Trump administration and its congressional enablers is to mobilize citizens to turn out in large numbers in November and to vote for Democrats—any Democrat over any Republican. This is the motivation for the button shown above. At least until the midterm elections, I will be wearing one of these buttons every day.

I have only a few of the Save Democracy/Vote Democratic buttons left, although I can have more made if the need arises. If you are interested in having a button, let me know here.