Mike Lofgren

The strange case of Attorney General Merrick Garland

For those who were looking forward to obtaining transparency for the incompetent negligence, malfeasance, and reckless disregard for the health and safety of the American people that were the hallmarks of Donald Trump, the prospect of that reckoning has dimmed. Joe Biden's Attorney General Merrick Garland appears to be working to protect the interests of Trump and all those in his administration who may have broken the law and were investigated in federal grand jury proceedings.

Garland's Justice Department is now advocating that federal judicial procedure should be amended to instate a 50-year ban on grand jury information. What would this mean?

Had this proposal been in practice during Watergate, we still would not know until 2023 or 2024 all the facts about Nixon's crimes that were uncovered by grand juries. We would have to wait till 2069 to learn the all the legal findings that led to the Mueller report, or any other information about the potential crimes of Trump associates that were uncovered by grand juries.

No reasonable person would argue that the grand jury process doesn't need confidentiality protection—certainly while it is sitting, and for a reasonable period thereafter: say, 10 years. Judges should have the discretion to extend the blackout, but only with a plausible showing that concrete harm could come from revealing testimony. And no, personal or institutional embarrassment does not count as concrete harm.

Likewise, judges should have the discretion to take the wraps off testimony in fewer than 10 years if there is a compelling public interest—for instance, in a political or governance matter, or one involving public safety. But 50 years? That is too much like Britain's draconian Official Secrets Act, which has in many cases degenerated into a tool to protect Britain's upper-class Old Boy Network from the inconvenient exposure of their incompetence and mutual back-scratching.

This is not an outlier of Garland's brief tenure as attorney general. The Trump administration's Justice Department had collected the metadata of journalists, Democratic members of Congress, and their families. Did Garland, upon taking up his post, hold a press conference and angrily announce that the previous administration had done this, and vow to get to the bottom of it? He might have done so had he conducted himself with due diligence and found out what was going on in his own department. Then he would have acted with all deliberate speed to punish those who did it.

Instead, months passed, and it was June before we knew about it—and not from those best positioned to know, those at the top of the department. The New York Times broke the news. We are still waiting for the responsible Justice Department officials to be fired.

And does anyone know just how and why Garland conceived that the Justice Department was the proper legal representative for Donald Trump in a purely private matter that may have occurred long before he took office? The department filed a brief in June to a federal court to dismiss a defamation suit against Trump that was based on an accusation that he raped a woman in the 1990s.

It is something of a stretch for any legal authority to argue that a president can commit a crime while in office. The so-called guidelines that everybody seems to construe as preventing a sitting president from being indicted are nothing more than a Justice Department memo written while Richard Nixon was president. In other words, it is merely the biased opinion of the president's employees and does not bind the judicial or legislative branches.

Those of us old enough to remember the events reacted with a knowing shake of the head when ex-President Nixon stated in the famous Frost-Nixon interview that "Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." We figured that kind of impunity couldn't happen again.

But Garland is carrying this perversion of justice beyond the bounds of reason and decency. He is clearly stating, through his functionaries at the department he runs, that a matter between two private citizens that was alleged to have occurred decades before one of them became president is protected by executive privilege.

Am I proclaiming Garland to be a conscious agent of Trump and other reactionary forces plotting to throw a veil of secrecy and special privilege over the workings of what is supposed to be a popular self-government? He does seem to be working against what James Madison envisioned when the fourth president wrote this:

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

I know myself from having worked in government that the acculturation process steeps people in an atmosphere of knowing it all and being dismissive of the hoi polloi, of belonging to a kind of secular priesthood. People with integrity manage to keep their moral bearings and maintain a sense of responsibility to fellow citizens, but weaker personalities succumb to the temptation of feeling special, entrusted with the secrets. The riffraff, so they think, are incapable of understanding the big picture, and their rights are in any case subordinate to the greater good, which generally means the greater good of the rich and the powerful.

It is highly unlikely that Merrick Garland wittingly is acting on behalf of Trump's interests, figuratively twirling his moustache like Snidely Whiplash tying little Nell to the train tracks. More plausibly, he is behaving in the manner of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. George Orwell succinctly described Chamberlain's probable motives for appeasing Adolf Hitler:

[Chamberlain's] opponents professed to see in him a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell England to Hitler, but it is far likelier that he was merely a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights.

And so Merrick Garland is almost certainly just a bumbling geezer, doing exactly what his pettifogging legal education taught him, exacerbated by decades of conditioning in the Old Boys Club that dominates America's law guild. In so doing, he imagines he is doing what is right. Still, we need to be clear in our judgments: whether the man is acting out of sinister calculation or in the senescent fog of unconscious habit, the objective results are the same.

There is a supreme irony in this. In 2016, when Mitch McConnell blocked Garland's lifetime elevation to the Supreme Court, Moscow Mitch may have done us all a favor. In retrospect, Garland's probable judicial behavior in the event of his judicial confirmation would have caused most of us far more frustration than that trio of drones that Trump stacked onto the court, all of whom benefit immeasurably from the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His books include: "The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government" (2016) and "The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted" (2013).

How the mainstream media fell for the Lafayette Square whitewash

The gassing of protesters at Washington's Lafayette Square in June 2020, by all appearances intended to clear the area for a photo op by then-President Trump, was witnessed in person by dozens of reporters and remotely by millions of television viewers. But a review by the inspector general (IG) of the Interior Department, the parent agency of the U.S. Park Service that administers the square, ostensibly clears the Park Service of gassing the crowd to accommodate Trump.

The following headlines are typical of the major media's reporting of the finding. USA Today says "Police did not clear protesters from Lafayette Park for Trump photo op, inspector general finds." CNN: "Watchdog report finds Park Police did not clear racial injustice protesters from Lafayette Park for Trump's visit to St. John's Church last June." ABC News: "Police did not clear Lafayette Square so Trump could hold 'Bible' photo op: Watchdog." Does this mean exoneration for Trump and the agencies dealing with the incident?

No, not even close. Nor could it demonstrate much of anything, given both the predetermined scope of the report in question as well as the gradual deterioration of agency IG operations in general over the years.

As a former career staff member for Congress, I was a major institutional "customer" of IG reports. Congress created the IGs in 1978; the intention was to have an independent watchdog in each department of the executive branch to expose waste fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.

While created with good intentions, I began to sense that the IGs had gradually succumbed to bureaucratic sclerosis and capture by their own departments. They became narrowly focused on whether the subject of their investigations adhered to established processes, while ignoring questions of the competence, judgment, or honesty. In short, the watchdog seemed toothless to me.

To test my impression, I asked Brian J. O'Malley, a retired government official who had the double benefit of working both for Congress, where he was a consumer of IG material, but also in the IG office of the Transportation Department, where he helped root out the waste and contractor fraud behind Boston's "Big Dig" tunnel project.

He noted that there is more than one category of IG report. The first is an audit conducted in accordance to Government Accountability Office (GAO) standards found in a volume called the Yellow Book. It is an extensively documented process that has cross-referenceable workpapers for every finding in the audit and those are scrutinized by an independent team of auditors for thoroughness and lack of bias.

The second is an inspection conducted in accordance with those GAO standards found in the so-called Gray Book. It is a faster procedure, providing a snapshot of the operational condition of the reviewed agency's status with respect to any given situation. There are work papers to validate findings but they are not as extensively scrutinized, although they are reviewed for lack of bias.

Then there is the case of the Special Review, such as that of the Lafayette incident: Review of U.S. Park Police Actions at Lafayette Park, Case No. OI-PI-20-0563-P. It is neither an audit nor an inspection. It is a review. There are no standards for reviews, no verification by an independent reviewer, and no review for bias. In fact, the review plainly states its extreme limitations. Here are some excerpts:

Our oversight obligations are focused on the DOI, and our authority to obtain documents and statements from non-DOI entities is more limited.

... [W]e interviewed more than 20 USPP and NPS officials involved in policing the protests in and around Lafayette Park on June 1, including then USPP Acting Chief of Police Gregory Monahan, the USPP incident commander, the USPP operations commander, and the USPP deputy operations commander. We also reviewed the USPP's administrative record, emails, text messages, and video footage from observation posts.

Finally, we reviewed U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) and USPP policies and procedures, open-source videos, media articles, and congressional testimony.

Therefore, the review was only of Interior Department personnel, the department's documents and apparently some media coverage. In a footnote in miniscule font size the review points out:

Because our review focused on the operational actions of law enforcement, we did not seek to interview protesters for this review.

The principal limitation, which was rather breathtaking, was described as follows:

Accordingly, we did not seek to interview Attorney General William Barr, White House personnel, Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officers, MPD [Washington Metropolitan Police] personnel, or Secret Service personnel regarding their independent decisions that did not involve the USPP.

Despite this complete lack of information from any of the other agencies involved, the IG review stated unequivocally that there was no evidence that the Park Police cleared Lafayette Park to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John's Church. Virtually the whole review rested on the purported issue of the Park Police clearing the area to allow the contractor to install fencing.

But the Park Police would have had no idea what the other agencies were doing and what their leaders were ordering:

Finally, we found that the USPP and the Secret Service did not use a shared radio channel to communicate, that the USPP primarily conveyed information orally to assisting law enforcement entities, that an assisting law enforcement entity arrived late and may not have received a full briefing on the rules of engagement, and that several law enforcement officers could not clearly hear the incident commander's dispersal warnings.

And another tiny footnote states that the Park Police was not even running the operation:

The USPP acting chief of police was in Lafayette Park on June 1 serving in his role as the chief of police, but he did not direct the unified command.

What is one to make of this report? O'Malley told me the following: "Like many efforts by inspectors general it seeks to deflect criticism of their own department by defining problems so that they lie outside the scope of their review. It clearly does not absolve anyone in the White House or then-Attorney General Barr from meddling in the situation as a political stunt. This report is a shameful, cover-your-ass effort to throw other agencies under the bus for all the disgraceful actions on that day. It has been exploited by the malefactors of that day to provide a fig leaf of phony exoneration."

Despite most of the media having been bamboozled, some journalists weren't having any of it. The Washington Post's Philip Bump analyzed the available video of the incident, and concluded that William Barr's talking with the site commanders on scene just prior to the clearance operation would certainly tend to discredit, if not altogether refute, the IG's review.

CNN's Jim Acosta, who was covering the White House at the time of the incident, was more unequivocal: "And I have to say, when I read through this report, it sounded as if this inspector general was auditioning to become the inspector general at Mar-A-Lago because this is almost a whitewash of what occurred on June First." Inevitably, Acosta was attacked in personal terms by perennial crank Glenn Greenwald, who conveniently forgot his prior belief that civil servants were an insidious Deep State seeking to bring down Trump. Now, he accused Acosta of "maligning the reputation of a well-respected career civil servant."

The slipshod IG review is highly significant for three reasons.

First, it is symptomatic of the systemic decline of both government capacity and government's role as a disinterested organ of public service. This decay been going on since at least the early 1980s, but the rot accelerated with frightening speed during the Trump presidency. The disastrous response to the COVID pandemic in 2020 was a flashing red light warning us that when competence and honesty decline, and when agencies are hollowed out, people get hurt.

Second, it is a sign that the U.S. news media never learned its lesson from its four-year brush with covering an authoritarian political party in power. It seems so eager to show everyone that it is "balanced" that it cannot even take the trouble to thoroughly read a document. A similar phenomenon has just recently occurred with the lab theory of the origin of coronavirus.

There is no credible evidence that the theory is true – yet. Just as the IG report "exonerated" Trump of a photo-op stunt, the media is all but declaring that the Trump administration's insistence that COVID came out of a Chinese lab "vindicates" them, although the administration had nearly a year to produce evidence and showed none.

Finally, we are now facing another scandal of huge proportions: the Trump administration's seizing the metadata of journalists, Democratic members of Congress, and their families. It hardly inspires confidence that after several months in office, Attorney General Merrick Garland did not at some point hold a press conference announcing the story and vowing that the heads of those responsible would roll. Instead, the New York Times broke the news.

It is likely that after some pressure from Congress, the Department of Justice will announce that it will investigate itself. But the prospect that the department's IG will produce a more credible report than that of the Interior Department just might be a triumph of hope over experience.

Some of our top brass denounce socialism — but they run the most socialist organization on earth

America's love affair with lunacy continues undimmed. Along with flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, and fans of perpetual motion, according to a May 21 Ipsos poll, 53 percent of Republicans now assert that Donald Trump is the current president of the United States.

There is a tendency in the reality-based community to regard these folks as obscure lunatics who yell at their TVs in trailer parks when they're not ruining a relative's Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately, this epidemic of delusional belief embraces a more exalted layer of the social spectrum, a group on which the maintenance of our democracy—deeply flawed as it is—may hinge.

This May, 124 retired generals and admirals published an open letter claiming that President Joe Biden stole the election. Traditionally, this letter would have been unthinkable, but a sizable contingent of former flag officers—people whose decisions once held lives in the balance—has gone full QAnon, writing: "Under a Democrat Congress and the Current Administration our Country has taken a hard left turn toward Socialism and a Marxist form of tyrannical government which must be countered now by electing congressional and presidential candidates who will always act to defend our Constitutional Republic."

(A small but telling note: the letter employs the phrase "Democrat Congress," a grammatical barbarism that has done duty as a rhetorical device for Republican operatives for at least 40 years, demonstrating that the signatories are rabid political partisans rather than constitutional scholars).

The screed goes on, asserting that "we are in a fight for our survival as a Constitutional Republic like no other time since our founding in 1776," a claim that makes us wonder how the signers ever graduated from their service academies, since a little incident called the American Civil War is an important part of the academies' military history curricula.

They also question "the mental and physical condition of the Commander in Chief." Given the endorsement of the letter by a raving lunatic like Lieutenant General William Boykin and convicted Iran-Contra criminal Vice Admiral John Poindexter, one just might infer a degree of psychological projection on the part of the signers.

The letter garnered condemnation from other retired officers and military analysts, but also a surprising complacency from former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, who noted that no retired four-stars signed it and only a handful of three-stars: "It's not very senior… In our world it's not very significant in terms of people."

It may be cold comfort that there are "only" retired three-stars on the letter, but what about those officers who are still serving?

It turns out that the same month the letter appeared, a lieutenant colonel was removed from his command after appearing on a conservative podcast touting his book Irresistible Revolution: Marxism's Goal of Conquest & the Unmaking of the American Military, which claims that Marxist ideologies have infiltrated the military.

It is noteworthy that he was only cashiered after the podcast, whereas the book already was in print. Previously, it would have been inconceivable that a military officer could even receive permission to write an ideological screed like that. Ordinarily, they are allowed to write freely on military or technical topics, but political diatribes are strictly off-limits. Someone in the command structure was very lax.

Nevertheless, it was predictable that the Right would see him as a persecuted member of the military who fell afoul of political correctness. And sure enough, Matt Gaetz came through.

There is considerable irony in the fact that both the letter and the colonel's rant denounce "socialism," the premier bugaboo of right-wingers everywhere. At one level, it is of course the usual childish nonsense that has been disseminated for decades by the kind of mentality that once denounced fluoridation as a Bolshevik plot. Yet in a sense that is quite the opposite of what they intend, these people might have a point about socialism infiltrating the military.

All these self-styled guardians of the Republic, whether retired flag officers luxuriating in their beach-front homes in San Diego, or active-duty military vandalizing the capitol building, are beneficiaries of socialism. Their profession has a 20-year retirement, free lifetime health care for retirees, housing allowances, food allowances, privileges at heavily-subsidized commissaries and PXs (which, fittingly, somewhat resemble the special stores the old Soviet nomenklatura had), free fitness centers, golf courses, and the list goes on.

With the demise of the Soviet Union and the capitalist transformation of nominally "Red" China, socialism as a hegemonic political system is confined to backwaters like North Korea. The U.S. military is now the biggest socialist enterprise remaining on earth.

For officers, particularly those with experience in weapons acquisition, the gravy train doesn't end with retirement. Aside from their retirement pay and other continuing benefits, they can snag a job with a defense contractor to peddle influence with their former colleagues. Far from being private enterprise, defense firms like Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman are hothouse plants, sustained only by the contracts the military steers to them; they would wither and die if subjected to the cold winds of actual market competition.

Proof of this is the F-35 fighter. The most expensive weapons program in history, the plane has been a snake-bitten fiasco from its inception, and it demonstrates that nothing succeeds like failure—as long as it's too big to fail. As an engineering disaster, the F-35 ranks with the Soviet reversal of the flow of rivers into the Aral Sea.

No one can seriously argue that those who bear the brunt of battle should not be adequately compensated and granted all necessary benefits. The problem is that the vast majority of combat casualties are enlisted personnel, and only a small percentage of these will serve long enough to receive retirement pay, whereas colonels and generals by definition have enough service to receive retired pay as well as all the other benefits.

It doesn't end there. Congress usually appropriates an annual military pay raise. The brass, of course, insist that these be across-the-board. Let's say the pay raise is 3 percent. That means a buck private at $21,420 per year base pay gets a modest increase—$643—while a lieutenant general, at $199,296 base pay, receives almost $6,000. It amounts to socialism for the better-off, and it is curiously just like all the tax cuts of the last four decades: a windfall for the rich, crumbs for the working stiff. Each succeeding year of military pay raises will only increase the disparity.

The rationale for across-the-board pay raises is as an incentive in hold onto those with valuable skills. While this makes sense to keep a jet engine mechanic for whose talents a commercial airline will pay a premium, I am unaware that we have any difficulty retaining generals. In the case of my hypothetical lieutenant general, he also will likely be provided with a representational house, complete with an enlisted cook and driver, in order to ease the strain of command.

We can be rather safe in assuming that those 124 retired flag officers who wrote the letter decrying socialism knew whereof they spoke from their own deep personal experience: at the commissaries where they shop, and from the free health care they receive to the cut-price gin fizzes they drink at the local officers' club.

The congressman from Hell is a symptom of our rotten political system

Picture a member of congress and what do you see? He's a guy (those in question are usually still men, despite Marjorie Taylor Greene) with an ego the size of the Capitol dome itself, but a strangely fragile and insecure one. He'd run down his grandmother to get his mug on camera and tell the world his profound thoughts, but in private he can be strangely hollow and ignorant when the occasion doesn't call for prefabricated talking points. Imagine Ted Knight without the lovable charm.

That is a caricature, to be sure, but one that in many cases has become uncomfortably close to reality. The cause is not hard to find. For decades, large swathes of the American public have chosen to regard politics as a dirty business, and those who engage in it as scoundrels or buffoons. In so doing, they devalue the institutions that shape the civil society in which they live.

To some degree, this contempt has always been present in American political culture, but it took off in 1981 when Ronald Reagan declared that government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem. Since then, like a chorus of parrots, practically every Republican office holder has squawked this meme in unison. Eventually it became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as a glance at today's GOP will reveal.

Consider the case of Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who is now subject to a lawsuit from a former staffer. The suit claims that the staffer and other office colleagues were "recklessly" infected with coronavirus by the COVID-positive Lamborn, who lied to the House physician about his contact with staff and others. Further, he coerced the staffers not to discuss with anyone their contact with COVID-positive persons. The suit further alleges that the staffer was fired for objecting to all this.

If that weren't enough, the suit also states that Lamborn's son lived rent-free in the basement of the Capitol. Another fascinating revelation is that the congressman uses his staff members as gofers to do personal errands like moving furniture to his vacation home and requiring his employees to help his little Johnny fill in federal employment applications and answer job interview questions. Lamborn appears to view our national Capitol like a Holiday Inn: "Kids stay free!"

Behold the Congressman from Hell: not only a petty tyrant and socially dangerous misanthrope, but a chiseler and hypocrite to boot. By his lights, the federal government is evil, but when it comes to getting your kid on the gravy train, all those rock-ribbed principles about limited government go out the window. In truth, I encountered numerous Republicans during my career in Washington who railed against the federal government and devoted all the ingenuity of Hades to cutting federal benefits, but whose entire adult life was spent on the federal dime.

Lamborn is not the only Republican to endanger his staff and others. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a charter member of the Congressional Knucklehead Caucus), reportedly "berated" staff members for wearing mask.

Another revealing twist in the Doug Lamborn saga is that while lying to the attending physician, he also omitted mentioning that he slept in his congressional office. The practice of bunking in one's office is exactly what Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) warned about last year when she complained the practice risked spreading coronavirus to employees and janitorial staff.

There is another aspect to this beyond the potential of spreading disease. Fifty years ago, the notion of members sleeping in their offices was unheard of. The first time it came to my attention was in the 1980s, when a then-obscure flat-tax zealot named Dick Armey started the practice. He was widely considered a kook for doing it. Now it is all the rage, with upwards of 100 members so engaged, most of them Republicans, including House minority leader Kevin McCarthy.

They typically plead poverty. So do millions of American renters who have faced eviction during the pandemic. But the very Republicans who have no problem with the unauthorized mooching of government space for a free overnight have been very hard-line about denying rental assistance or an eviction moratorium in the various COVID relief bills. Apparently, poverty bites much harder at the $174,000 a year level, the current congressional salary, than it does for an Uber driver or waitress.

There's also the undeniable "Ick!" factor in play. House janitors, many of them women, are obliged to clean the offices late at night, potentially seeing the occupant in various stages of dishabille. As Rep. Speier notes, "During the height of the 'Me Too' movement in the House, there were stories about members in their pajamas talking to staff. It's abnormal to do that."

Beyond that, how mentally healthy is it habitually to sleep in the same cramped office you just spent ten or twelve hours in? Is living like a 22-year-old tech start-up entrepreneur a good look for people whose average age is 58?

Then there are the legal issues. What Lamborn, McCarthy, and the rest of them are doing is misappropriating federal office space for private residential purposes. At the very least, the rent they do not pay should be imputed as income on their federal taxes.

Why even bother to bring up such seemingly trivial matters when there are far bigger issues affecting the country? Simply put, the people I have described are deciding on those issues. Politicians like Lamborn or Gohmert or way too many others I have seen over the years, lack the judgment or ethics to make the proper choices. If we are facing major surgery, we certainly will try to get a specialist, if possible. Even when hiring a plumber, we'd probably read the online reviews. Yet millions of Americans vote out of ignorance or blind partisan loyalty.

The tyrannizing of staffers is another factor that gets too little attention. Many Americans write off congressional staff as hacks or drones and figure that, since they signed up for it, they deserve whatever they get. As constitutional officers, all members of Congress have wide latitude to run their offices as they see fit, and Congress as an institution has been reluctant to intervene. The Congressional Accountability Act (under which the ex-staffer of Lamborn filed the suit) was an attempt at some mitigation of workplace harassment, but it remains mostly toothless.

This issue matters: since the Newt Gingrich speakership, congressional staff has been progressively de-professionalized. House committee staff, where most of the legislative work gets done, has grown smaller in total personnel, even while those same committees load up on additional press secretaries. This means fewer legislative experts and more people like Sean Spicer and Stephen Miller—who, before their illustrious stints with Donald Trump, were congressional press secretaries.

What self-respecting professional would willingly subject himself to humiliating or even dangerous antics on the part of their employer? Increasingly, only young zealots, caught up in the holy crusade of "the movement," would want to work for some bellowing imbecile like Matt Gaetz or Jim Jordan. And even the zealots usually burn out after a few years and leave.

The moral of the story? If these congressmen run their little office fiefdoms like incompetent and half-insane despots, is it any wonder that American politics writ large is broken? And what do you think it would be like if they had unfettered control of the country?

Perhaps the most depressing conclusion is to concede the possibility that these congressmen from hell just might be an accurate reflection of the people who elect them.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His books include: "The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government" (2016) and "The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted" (2013).

Trump was no fluke: George W. Bush blazed the trail

My friend and former colleague Bruce Bartlett has done a service by reminding us that after four years of the non-stop catastrophe that was the Trump administration, we should not lull ourselves with the illusion that the 45th president was some aberration that fell out of the sky.

His flamboyant criminality and relentlessly malignant personality may exert the same sick fascination as watching a grisly car crash, but in terms of creating disasters, Trump has nothing on George W. Bush.

As Bartlett points out, Bush's presidency was filled with the same hubris, incomprehension of rational policy, and disdain for any government employee who told the president other than what he wanted to hear. There was much the same contempt for expertise ("I don't do nuance."). But understandably, Bartlett focuses on his own area of expertise, economics. National security gets only brief mention.

As one who spent a career in the national security field, I believe that's where the real demons lay. It constitutes Bush's true legacy.

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 marked the rest of Bush's presidency, gave him a convenient boost in popularity, and probably were responsible for getting him a second term. Yet he ignored so many indications of an impending attack that even the 9/11 Commission, replete as it was with equivocation, coverups, and pussyfooting generally, proclaimed that "the system was blinking red."

Yet Bush preferred to spend that summer playing golf, telling the CIA briefer who informed him of the threat, "All right. You've covered your ass, now." That behavior strangely foreshadowed Trump's dismissal of medical experts warning him of the coronavirus. Like Bush, he had better things to do—such as protecting Wall Street.

The almost incomprehensible ease with which the terrorists succeeded was such that a large portion of the American people simply could not believe it wasn't a false flag operation. This paranoia was reinforced by the speed with which Bush and his cronies exploited the attack both for crass political gain, and (even worse) to provide a flimsy excuse to invade a country which had nothing to do with the attackers—but whose leader was a bête noir of the Bush family.

The bald facts of Bush's incompetent negligence were bad enough and should have gotten him impeached. But his brazen use of the tragedy as an excuse to invade the wrong country gave impetus to a plague of conspiratorial thinking that now pervades and suffocates political thought. The bogus "technical" arguments of conspiracy buffs about the melting point of steel in the twin towers were merely the precursors of far-fetched theories about coronavirus being a hoax, and the victims being crisis actors. America's mental hygiene has never been the same since that day in September.

The crippling human and material cost of Afghanistan and Iraq set our country on a downward spiral that continues to this day.

Future historians may view 9/11's effect on the United States as spookily paralleling the 1914 terrorist incident in Sarajevo for its impact on the Habsburg Empire and the igniting of World War I. For us—although in a more protracted manner – 9/11 may have spelled the beginning of the end, just as Sarajevo did with the Habsburgs.

Initially, the government in Vienna thought the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at the hands of a Serbian gunman to be a tragedy, but by no means an existential crisis for the monarchy. But soon enough, the militant faction, led by Foreign Minister Berchtold and General Hötzendorf exploited it as a means to rid Austria of the Serbian "menace" once and for all. They contrived to send an ultimatum of demands to Serbia that no self-respecting nation could possibly accept. They succeeded in getting their war.

That eerily foretells how Bush administration gunslingers like Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld resolved to exploit 9/11. Rumsfeld jotted down in his notes,"Near term target needs—go massive—sweep it all up, things related and not." Empowering the CIA or Special Forces to locate and neutralize the 9/11 plotters wasn't enough. Bush and his paladins gave Afghanistan's Taliban regime an ultimatum they could not accept, and, for good measure, proceeded to give Iraq the same treatment. We know the rest.

The crippling human and material cost of Afghanistan and Iraq set our country on a downward spiral that continues to this day. Those hideous misadventures spawned the Department of Homeland Security, the agency with the Orwellian name whose menacing potential is held in check mainly by incompetence. Former employees tell me it is far less than the sum of the agencies that were folded into it.

Yet, even as the twin disaster of Iraq and Afghanistan became evident to any thinking person, the combination of fear, vengeance, hatred, and hubris that the Republican propaganda machine whipped up got the public into lather. Foreign policy could no longer be viewed with detachment as an issue of national interests, cost, and risk. It became one more weapon in the culture wars arsenal. The 2004 was a referendum on Iraq, and, significantly, it remains the only time since 1988 that a Republican presidential candidate won the popular vote.

Congress entered a steep decline, sinking to the level of Franco's cortes or the central committee under Stalin. Before the Iraq invasion, I conveyed my strategic concerns to a couple of congressmen. One of them slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand and said in mock regret, "Mike, I wish you hadn't told me that!" But I didn't change anyone's vote (after all, I wasn't a lobbyist with a checkbook). This, too, presages the behavior of Republican legislators toward Trump. Off the record, they are alarmed by him and disdainful. In public, they are as grovelingly adoring of him as Kim Jong Un's subordinates are to the Dear Leader.

Bush's disasters reverberate to this day. Our foreign policy establishment evidently feels toward Afghanistan as a man who has a wolf by the ears. He knows he can't hold on forever, but he dares not let go. Iraq, where al Qaeda did not exist, spawned al Qaeda in Iraq, which begat ISIS, which then spread to Syria.

It is doubtful a president with the wisdom of Solomon could solve the Middle East problems that Bush created. And, as if to magnify the errors of his Republican predecessor, Trump abrogated the nuclear agreement with Iran, one of the few positive steps the United States has taken in that region in recent decades (and an agreement that Iran was complying with). For good measure, he gave a hearty thumbs up to the Saudi monarchy's murderous bombing of Yemeni civilians.

In any case, time is not on our side. For a decade or more, liberals have congratulated themselves on projected demographic changes in the country that would mean a more diverse, better educated electorate. That change simply has not happened in an electorally beneficial manner, and is unlikely to do so in the medium term.

Indeed, because of our absurdly archaic electoral system, demographic sorting by region may actually exacerbate the inability to produce an electorate that will vote for moderate – let alone progressive—foreign and domestic policies that will not replicate the disasters I have described. And it could lead to an even more authoritarian GOP; the party that already produced Bush and Trump could stumble upon a Führer who was actually competent, and the game will be over.

Just as Austria's cumbersome dual monarchy was not up to the challenges of the 20th century, so it is in the 21st century with America's antique political system (there is only one example of an institution comparable to our own electoral college: the electors of the Holy Roman Empire, a state which ceased to exist in 1806). The very structure of our system, combined with an increasingly paranoid and disinformed electorate, means the likelihood of producing a dud occupying the Oval Office is roughly 50/50.

Austria, though, in its twilight at least produced Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Karl Popper. We seem to be stuck with Ted Nugent and Kanye West.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His books include: "The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government" (2016) and "The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted" (2013).

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