Capitol commentary: Calm before the storm

By Fred Benson

Over the past 10 months, our current president has succeeded in casting a pall of chaos, uncertainty, prevarication and fear over the citizens of the United States and our allies abroad. During a recent dinner honoring his senior military commanders and their spouses, he gestured towards his guests and then said to the assembled press, “You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.” Asked several times after the dinner what storm he was referring to, he would say only, “You’ll find out.”

There is indeed a good chance that when the storm he forecasts arrives, it will be one he created but not the one he anticipated. This maelstrom will result from the cumulative damage foisted on the United States by a president whose leadership style and performance are cause for increasing public concern.

As his legislative agenda was faltering ignominiously throughout the first 10 months of his administration, the president signed more than 100 executive orders and other documents clearly designed to repudiate key actions of the Obama presidency regardless of their merit. Withdrawal from the Paris accord on climate change and the obliteration of existing rules and regulations established to protect the environmental health and safety of U.S. citizens comprise a giant leap backwards.

His efforts to withdraw the United States from its international obligations have not only undermined America’s reputation as a trusted ally but also paved the way for China and Russia to fill the resulting leadership gaps in critical areas around the globe. Similarly, his decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership provides an easy road for China to establish clear leadership of Asian-Pacific trade matters.

The president’s campaign promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was trammeled into dust by members of his own party. So, now, he is attempting to systematically disembowel the existing health care law by ordering piecemeal changes that will, he thinks, force Congress into delivering on his promise. Lost in the fog is that another 20 million Americans may lose health coverage as a result.

The president’s tax reform proposal is a thinly disguised attempt to favor the very wealthy by spreading crumbs to the middle class. The proposal offers the rich a five-course menu of lower tax rates, decreased corporate taxes, an end to the estate tax, elimination of the alternative minimum tax and a new loophole that will allow certain wealthy individuals to file taxes as small businesses at a much lower rate.

With his immigration reform proposals running afoul of courts around the nation, the president again has taken the executive order route to accomplish his anti-immigrant agenda piecemeal. His recent change of heart away from supporting legislation to allow 800,000 young immigrant “dreamers” to remain in the U.S. is an excellent example of his true intent.

The United States has been at war continuously since 9/11, with more than 240,000 U.S. troops now deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Niger and Somalia, and an additional 37,000 troops engaged in classified assignments in other locations. The strategic importance of these constantly expanding, vague and, as learned recently, risky commitments has not been appropriately justified by the commander-in-chief.

Despite the assurances of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is abiding by the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, the president seems set to renege on the agreement if Congress does not act to correct some of the deficiencies he sees. His top military advisers and other signatory nations urged him not to do this, and if Congress is not able to address his concerns, Iran may be free to restart its nuclear program.

There also is concern that the president is playing too loosely with the most destructive nuclear arsenal on Earth. He has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and once asked “why do we need these weapons if we are not willing to use them?”

No more need be said about the tension between the U.S. and North Korea than this: watching the two presidents engaging in a foolish schoolyard shouting match with millions of human lives in the balance is nothing short of sickening.

Against the unanimous advice of his military advisers, he also has registered interest in expanding the American nuclear arsenal, now containing 4,000 active warheads, more than enough to destroy much of the planet. There also is growing uneasiness in Congress that the current nuclear weapons launch protocol would allow the president to deliver a first, preemptive, nuclear strike without their involvement.

Taken in the aggregate, the actions or inactions described above have undermined the fundamental values of our democracy along with our carefully honed, time-tested international leadership commitments.

The first gusts of the approaching storm are being felt as four sitting GOP senators (McCain, Corker, Flake and Sasse) have spoken out candidly against the president’s behavior and performance. When more Republican members of Congress realize that the president is placing their country, their party and their own reelections in jeopardy, perhaps they will then have the nerve to voice openly the concerns they now state privately in the halls of the Capitol. And when those American citizens supporting this president begin to understand just how much they and their families are being disadvantaged by his egregious performance, the storm will hit – hard – and sweep him from office.

Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes “Capitol Commentary,” an independent political newsletter.

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