Neil Baron

This is Biden's best hope to stop Trumpism's threat to democracy

As Donald Trump flew from Washington, DC for the last time as President, he promised, "we will be back in some form." He could be right.

Trumpism is still with us. The insurrection at the Capitol demonstrated that the biggest threat to America's democracy is our uninformed, angry electorate eager to embrace misinformation and a Republican party that abandoned its constitutional responsibility to check a rogue president. This lethal combination enabled Trump to convince 52% of Republicans the election was stolen by massive voter fraud.

The founders of the Constitution saw this coming and tried to prevent it. In the wake of tyrannical King George III, the founders worried that American voters weren't informed or educated enough to vote intelligently and could be misled into electing another tyrant -- one that would exercise presidential power in dangerous ways.

So they provided in Article II that the president would be chosen by electors appointed "in such manner as the state legislatures may direct." They believed the electors would be most likely to possess the knowledge and discretion necessary to elect a responsible and well-motivated president.

But the state legislatures gave control back to the public by awarding their electoral votes to the winners of their popular votes. So we made the founders' nightmare come true by electing a tyrant who would deceive the electorate, culminating in Trump's most malevolent lie and the insurrection at the Capitol. Sadly, the founders did not foresee the complicity of congressional Republicans who embraced Trump's assault on the core of our democracy: the right to vote.

The threat to our democracy is still with us. It has survived the change in leadership, and persistent voter support for Trump continues to hold Congressional Republicans hostage.

Informing the uninformed is essential to eroding the leverage Trump has over congressional Republicans. It won't be easy. There's a mantra that Trump supporters will never change their minds. It may be true regarding the QAnon shaman's followers. But Biden could prove it wrong with respect to other Trump supporters, by speaking directly to them with understanding and empathy instead of argument and confrontation.

Non-judgmental exchanges have been effective in changing the views of Trump supporters before. When People's Action took that approach, for every 100 conversations with Trump defenders, 3.1 switched to supporting Biden. That's more than Trump's margin of victory in 2016. If 3.1% of Trump voters had switched to Clinton in 2016, it would have given her the equivalent of 108 electoral votes and flipped the election results. People's Action's softer method proved about 102 times more effective at converting individual voters than the typical hard sell presidential campaigns use.

Although Biden can't have in-person dialogs with Trump supporters, he can speak to them in a non-confrontational way as he explains how and why he'll fix Trump's broken policies.

Biden's plan to vaccinate 100 million people in his first 100 days will resonate with Trump supporters who shared or witnessed the sickness, death and economic pain caused by Covid-19. It will also contrast sharply with Trump's delay in distributing the vaccine, waiting more than two months to approve the CDC's plan and stifling its June proposal to help states with a vaccination strategy. Biden's 100-day plan will be part of the federal leadership Democratic and Republican governors alike pleaded for, but which was rejected by Trump.

Biden's stimulus plan could generate credibility and trust among Republicans, because it reflects their legitimate concern that some one-time checks would go to those who were not hurt by the pandemic and don't need the money.

Next Biden needs to end Trump's aggressive trade war and explain why. It hasn't narrowed our trade deficit world-wide or with China. Nor has it slowed China's economy, which is the only major one that's growing. Trump's tariffs effectively cut off American companies' access to Chinese markets when Beijing lowered tariffs on its other trading partners, who then cut their U.S. purchasing.

The tariffs slowed U.S. economic growth, costing the economy nearly 300,000 jobs and $316 billion. U.S. companies lost around $46 billion, forcing them to cut jobs, freeze or lower wages, and raise prices for American consumers. Farmers lost most of their $24 billion Chinese market and many went bankrupt.

Trump supporters believe Trump was tough on China. But during his administration China ended Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status with Trump's approval, sent ships to threaten maritime rights of countries in the South China Sea, and conducted aerial reconnaissance threatening Taiwan. After four years of Trump, China continues to force American companies to transfer their technology to do business there, to steal their intellectual property, and to subsidize state-owned enterprises. It's also the world's most preeminent cyberattacker.

It won't be hard for Biden to improve on those dismal results. He needs to pressure China to stop its anti-competitive practices and cyberattacks as Trump promised but failed to do. In fact, Biden should dismantle Trump's entire foreign policy, which has effectively ended America's post-Cold War global leadership and destroyed the international cooperation that could have mitigated American suffering from Covid-19.

Communicating what he's doing to improve American lives and recover America's global respect and leadership is Biden's best hope for bringing the country together and eroding Trumpism's threat to democracy. Trump and his enablers dragged us into a post-truth universe, but as we saw clearly this month, it's not a place where democracy can survive for long. President Biden's most crucial mission is to pull America back to truth-based discourse and rational policy decisions.

*Neil Baron is an attorney who has represented many institutions involved in the international markets and advised various parts of the federal government on economic issues.

Trump's biggest betrayal yet could come in the last days of his presidency

Donald Trump is a lame duck. His decisions in the final weeks of his presidency will be driven by delusion, self-enrichment, and trying to handicap Joe Biden so Trump won't be shamed by comparison. He could wreak untold damage on America unless he's finally checked by Congress.

In the past his advisers stopped him from making misguided decisions, but not anymore. After the election he replaced top Pentagon officials with sycophants. He fired Homeland Security Director Chris Krebs and Defense Secretary Mark Esper by tweet. Those firings could foretell more unchecked decisions with disastrous consequences.

A disturbing pro-Russian pattern in Trump's decisions suggest the worst is yet to come. His continued alignment with Russian interests must be viewed in light of his decade-long dependency on Russia for financial survival after numerous bankruptcies. "Russians make up a … disproportionate cross-section of … our assets," said, Donald Trump Jr. Eric Trump bragged, "We don't rely on American banks; we have all the funding we need out of Russia."

Trump's financial records show he owes $421 million that comes due over four years with the questionable ability to repay it. Some estimates have it at $1.1Band put Trump's net worth at a fraction of what he claims. U.S. banks stopped lending to him in the mid-2000s, so he'll need help from somewhere else. Russia is a likely go-to source.

It's therefore not irrational to worry that Trump may have cut a deal with Vladimir Putin. It could look something like this: Trump weakens NATO's defenses against Russian aggression. In return Putin continues to keep Trump afloat financially and wouldn't spill the beans about Trump laundering Russian money through his golf courses and condo sales, Trump's links to Russian organized crime, or his pursuit of Russian election help. Trumpreciprocates by pardoning Russians indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The plot thickens: Trump's withdrawal of troops throughout Europe including 12,000 troops from Germany, which Republicans and Democrats in Congress are trying to block, will degrade NATO'sdefenses. The downsizing is scheduled to occur before Biden takes office, complicating his plans for rebuilding America's commitment to NATO.

Trump terminated the Open Skies treaty which provided for U.S. and European reconnaissance flights to surveil Russian military activity along Europe's border, and banned Russian missiles capable of reaching Europe in minutes. Trump wants to liquidate the specialized aircraft that conducted the flights, which will make it harder for Biden to reinstate the surveillance.

A Putin deal wouldn't be the first time Trump put personal gain ahead of U.S. security interests, over objections from the U.S. military and both parties. Trump and Ivanka took payoffs from China after Trump lifted a bipartisan ban on sales to Chinese tech company ZTE. Trump sold $8.4 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia after boasting that the Saudis spend millions on his businesses.

Trump's troop withdrawal from Syria was carried out against bipartisan and military outrage. It pushed Turkey to partner with Putin in forcing the Kurds from Syria. Turkey is NATO's most important military deterrent to Russian aggression. Its partnership with Putin strained Turkey's commitment to NATO, and creates concern over whether Turkey would deploy troops to resist a Russian incursion into NATO territory. Three lawsuits allege Trump's businesses in Turkey influenced his foreign policy. His business interests there include Trump Towers in Istanbul.

Russia has been targeting its neighbors Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – all NATO members -- ever since it lost control of them when the Soviet Union collapsed. If Putin were to exploit the opportunity Trump handed him, those three Baltic nations would be in Russia's crosshairs.

It seems unimaginable that any American president would facilitate or that Congress would tolerate a Russian incursion into NATO. But in Trump's case it's not so far-fetched, given his history of compromising American interests for his own enrichment, his incessant devotion to Putin, his disregard for American security interests (he doesn't read daily briefings), his conviction he can get away with anything, and the complicity of Trump's Republican subjects in Congress.

It may seem improbable that Putin would venture militarily into NATO territory before Biden takes office. But it's worth noting Russian forces are ready to do so. They could reach the outskirts of Estonia and Latvia in 30 to 60 hours, according to the Rand Corporation.

Russia currently has a large military force along Europe's Eastern border and a history of invading or controlling nearby sovereign nations such as Georgia,Crimea, and the Ukraine. Putin knows Biden would probably follow Obama's example of acquiescing to Russian aggression, and that Estonia's and Latvia'slarge ethnic Russian minorities would be welcoming.

Trump has made his commitment to defending Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania conditional on them "paying their fair share" – a point on which Trump still seems unsatisfied.

Putin has the motive, means and the inclination. Given the opportunity it's not unthinkable that he'd make the move. If he does, Biden would face the dilemma of what to do about Russia's presence in NATO territory.

Trump has piled a hundred last straws on the backs of Congressional Republicans, but their backs haven't broken yet. If Russian troops entered NATO territory, that could be the straw that finally breaks their loyalty to him.

Congressional Republicans should fear Trump's threat to America's national interest more than his political clout. Many among the 74 million who voted for Trump voted for the party and its conservative policies -- not for the man. Others bought into Republican propaganda warning that Biden would institute socialism and questioning his mental acuity. They settled for Trump. But they aren't cultists with blind allegiance who will adhere to Trump after he's lost his presidential powers.

There's more to worry about. Congressional Republicans and Trump's inner circle are concerned that Trump is delusional with no grip on reality. They note he regularly stumbles, slurs, gets confused, has trouble synthesizing information and exhibits signs of dementia.

Psychologist John Gartner believes Trump suffers from "malignant narcissism," a diagnosis which combines paranoia, sociopathy, and sadism --"the closest thing psychiatry has to a true human monster." More than 800 mental-health professionals warned, "failing to…understand the psychological aspects" of humiliating Trump "could lead to catastrophic outcomes." Now that he's been humiliated there's no telling what he's capable of.

Both Gartner and Trump's Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recommended invoking the Twenty-fifth Amendment to remove Trump. Maybe it's time to follow their advice before he scorches the earth behind him.

*Neil Baron is an attorney who has represented many institutions involved in the international markets and advised various parts of the federal government on economic issues.

Trump is on a final crime spree of negligent homicide

Germany and France just imposed nationwide lockdowns in response to a new wave of Covid-19 cases and deaths. Donald Trump mocked them and refused to follow suit, even though the U.S. has more deaths per 100,000 people and record daily cases continuing to surge in 44 states. Trump exposing Americans to death from Covid-19 is not only a reason to vote him out of office; it also fits the definition of criminal negligent homicide.

That crime occurs when a person who is aware of the risk causes the death of another by a careless or reckless act, or by failure to perform a duty. The crime does not require an intent to cause death. It is punishable by imprisonment for six months to ten years, depending on the state.

Trump was well aware of the risk of death from his brazen actions, omissions, and failure to fulfill his acknowledged duty to keep Americans safe. The upward trajectory of Covid cases and deaths, now at 8.93 million and 228,000 respectively, has been a siren alerting everyone to the risk that many people would die. Even 70% of Republicans were alarmed. Indeed, Trump admitted on February 7 that he knew Covid was a deadly threat.

Today it's estimated that another 250,000 to 300,00 Americans will die from the virus in the coming months. Not even President Trump, with his penchant for dismissing inconvenient facts and fake news and conspiracy theories, can claim he was or is unaware of Covid's risk of death.

In fact, he was aware of our vulnerability to deadly pandemics even before he took office. President Obama presented a simulation of a global pandemic to Trump's transition team and warned that the U.S. could face shortages of ventilators, anti-viral drugs, and other medical essentials. Trump was told we would need to mount a unified national pandemic response. Trump was also told that unless he invested more in biodefense now, we'd pay much more in "human and economic costs" later.

Trump ignored those warnings and never prepared for a pandemic. He fired Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, who advocated strengthening our pandemic defenses, and didn't replace him until February, 2020. Trump's National Security Council adviser disbanded the entire U.S. pandemic response team.

As a result, we were not prepared for the onslaught of Covid-19 and suffered more deaths that we otherwise would have. This year, the U.S. experienced such acute shortages of protective equipment that Trump had to ask to ask other countries for supplies, even while he boasted, "We have millions of masks being done. We have respirators. We have ventilators."

Trump underplayed the virus's risk and encouraged Americans to abandon caution while he knew it was deadly, causing additional casualties. He predicted the death rate "within a couple of days is going will be close to zero," and that the virus would "disappear like a miracle." He falsely claimed we were "very close to a vaccine," and falsely assured the public that COVID-19 was "totally under control."

Trump's Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx hobbled the CDC's collection of hospital data by handing it over to a private company, despite the objections and advice of her staff. The company's reporting understated the number of reported cases – a result Trump cherished because it obfuscated the damage he's wreaked upon America.

Trump discouraged wearing masks and social distancing, both by personal example and through his aides. His inexperienced science adviser Scott W. Atlas claimed that masks were ineffective and that children could not contaminate others. Many Americans believed him and chose not to wear masks or social distance, which may have added as many as 130,000 deaths.

Unlike previous Presidents, Trump failed to fulfill his duty to lead the fight against a pandemic. President Obama coordinated a 10,000-person international team to stop Ebola in West Africa and prepared U.S. states­­­- for a possible outbreak. As a result only two people contracted Ebola while on American soil and neither died. Obama also led distribution of respirators, protective masks, gowns and gloves to U.S. states to combat the H1N1 virus in 2009.

Trump has disgracefully abandoned the global leadership role the U.S. played over seven decades in fighting infectious diseases, including Ebola, tuberculosis, malaria, yellow fever, AIDS, avian influenza and Zika.

He also failed to meet his responsibility under the Defense Production Act, which authorizes the President to force production and distribution of materials needed in a crisis. Instead, he admonished governors that the federal government is "not a shipping clerk" and that states should procure their own supplies, even while governors pleaded for national leadership.

Trump may not be the only elected official who should worry about being charged with negligent homicide. All 24 Democratic governors and 19 of 26 Republican governors issued stay-at-home orders, but seven GOP-controlled states never did, despite rising covid numbers. State officials responsible for putting their citizens at risk aren't immune from the risk of being held criminally responsible. Negligent homicide is a state, not a federal, crime, so Trump could not interfere with prosecutions or pardon state officials convicted of it. They should ask themselves if currying Trump's favor is worth the risk.

*Neil Baron is an attorney who has represented many institutions involved in the international markets and advised various parts of the federal government on economic issues.

Trump's unraveling series of blunders is costing American lives — and will test his 'Fifth Avenue shooting' theory

This time, Donald Trump’s decisions are costing American lives. Congressional Republicans are complicit because they didn’t reign him in, and haven’t called him out.

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Trump's highest crime: Why Democrats should impeach the president for treason

The House Intelligence Committee's impeachment report is narrowly focused on Ukraine, though Adam Schiff has not ruled out impeachment for matters beyond that. The report makes no mention of treason, but it’s Donald Trump’s most serious offense. Trump's behavior meets the definition of treason in Article III of the Constitution: "adhering to...Enemies [and] giving them aid and comfort."

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Learning from Watergate: Here's how Democrats can rake Trump over the coals and finally turn his voters against him

House Democrats can finally rein in Donald Trump through their many planned investigations if the hearings are televised.  Televised hearings could erode Trump’s base to the point where Republicans no longer need it to get elected. That's what happened to Richard Nixon when 85 percent of U.S. households watched the Watergate hearings. Variety called them “the hottest daytime soap opera.”

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Here's Why Trump Tries So Hard to Be on Putin's Good Side

Donald Trump's insistence on a summit with Vladimir Putin, disregarding the advice of aides and worries of allies, is consistent with his obsession with the Russian leader. But it’s inconsistent with his pattern of choosing policies that resonate with his supporters -- there’s no indication that Trump's followers condone this bromance.

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What's the Republicans' Game Plan for 2018 Elections?

It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Trump’s base?

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After Devastating 2016 Loss, Democrats Pitch Populist Election Agenda

A massively unpopular GOP health care bill gives Democrats an opportunity to win support by making new economic proposals voters desperately need and want. Sensing the opening, Democratic leaders are finally rolling out a new "better deal" economic plan. But they aren't seizing the opportunity because there’s not much new in it. 

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The Insidious Effect on the Psyche of Trump's Torrent of Lies

There’s a problem with the media’s repetitive refutation of Donald Trump’s lies: It makes them more credible. Research finds that repeating a lie, even to refute it, imprints it on our brains, and they become more memorable than the refutations.

Most presidents lie. Nixon said he was not a crook. Reagan said he wasn’t aware of the Iran-Contra deal. Clinton said he did not have sex with that woman.

But Trump’s lies are different. They are more frequent and glaringly contradict the facts: Obama wiretapped the phones at Trump Tower; there was record turnout at Trump’s inauguration; Trump knows no one who has anything to do with Russia; he knows more about ISIS than our generals.

How many times and from how many different newscasters and experts have we heard about these lies? Even in the face of constant references to their falsity, they are still there, imprinted on our brains.

Why do such lies persist in our memories, while repeated proof of their falsity fades; and why do we still believe the lie, or not change our opinions of the liar? Two theories can explain this.

One theory is called “confirmation bias.” It describes the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.” Some psychologists describe it as the “prevalence of directional reasoning that aims not at truth, but at the vindication of prior opinions.” Even the most well-educated and smartest among us succumb to this phenomenon.

Psychological studies find that to conclude that a statement is a lie, our brain must first record the statement for an instant as true. We must accept something to understand it. Only then, can we engage it to process the refutation. However, the imprint of the statement endures, while the refutation fades in our memory. Also lucky for Trump, is that our brains are particularly ill-equipped to deal with lies when they come not singly but in a constant stream.

These phenomena are alive and well among Republicans. Eighty-six percent of them continue to support Trump despite the media’s repeated debunking of his obvious lies.

Joseph Goebbels wrote, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it … The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the … consequences of the lie.” Hitler coined the expression “the Big Lie” in Mein Kampf. He wrote of a lie so "colossal" that no one would believe anyone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously." 

Trump seems to understand this. According to his ex-wife, Ivana, he kept My New Order, a book of Hitler's collected speeches, near his bed and read it from time to time. Trump himself said in The Art of the Deal, “Tell people a lie 3 times, they will believe anything.” He clearly knows that colossal lies attract colossal press coverage, and that it works for him even when the press refutes them.

As Goebbels said, “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from [its] … consequences.” To be sure, there are consequences. 

I have participated in rating the sovereign debt of several countries. I doubt that Trump’s behavior by itself will lower S&P’s double A+ and Moody’s and Fitch’s triple A ratings of U.S. debt (as it might in other countries). But Moody’s and Fitch already have their U.S. ratings on negative outlook, and given continued fiscal deterioration or continued political brinksmanship, which can be caused by the poor governance we’re witnessing in the Trump administration, downgrades are possible.

Another consequence: Media coverage has made the world aware of Trump’s lies and his responses with incessant tweeting and vicious attacks on the press and other critics. As a result, our allies and trading partners are uncertain and worried about our trade, economic and military relations with them, which has frozen progress in those areas.

We know the media, particularly broadcast media, must be conscious of their ratings. But their fundamental mission is to inform and not distort information by excessive coverage in pursuit of higher ratings. It’s a thorny problem for journalists to know when coverage distorts. Perhaps they should report the lies enough to debunk them through evidence and experts, and be reasonably confident that their reporting has been heard.