Monthly Archives: September 2019

Sharpiegate: a bellwether of the Trump administration’s attempts to strip state institutions of their authority

As a storm brews over an apparently doctored map showing the path of Hurricane Dorian, why can’t the US president admit when he gets it wrong?

Last week a new word entered the Washington lexicon: Sharpiegate, named after the marker pen that generally sells for less than $1. That’s because it’s the writing instrument of choice of US President Donald Trump, who spurns the $120 rolling ballpoint pens preferred by his predecessors.

The president likes Sharpies because they write smoothly and boldly in thick, indelible strokes, perfectly conveying his now-familiar signature, which has been compared to an electrocardiogram reading. And since so much of his presidency has been based on imprinting his ECG signature on declarations and executive orders, Sharpies are now closely associated with him. His campaign team is even selling Sharpies decorated with his signature now for $15.

The Sharpie became an issue when, following the trauma of Hurricane Dorian, what should have been a minor mistake turned into a prolonged political struggle over truth and reality.

Just over a week ago, the president, who had extensively tweeted news and advice about the impending hurricane, had mistakenly warned the people of Alabama, together with the Carolinas and Georgia, that they were in its destructive path and were “most likely to be hit harder than anticipated”. The National Weather Service, however, said no such thing, and in an immediate response reiterated that Alabama faced no risk at all.

So far, no big deal. Everybody makes mistakes.

But not this president. What should have been a minor hiccup became a seemingly endless tug-of-war over whether Mr Trump is capable of error.

The Trump administration issued numerous statements by senior officials backing up his claims, all completely unconvincing, as the president angrily insisted that he, and not the government’s scientists, had been correct.

Last Wednesday, the president summoned reporters into the Oval Office and brandished a map purporting to show the projected trajectory of the hurricane. It had been crudely altered with a Sharpie to show the storm winds reaching Alabama.

According to the Washington Post, senior unnamed officials confirmed that the president had made the alteration himself. While Mr Trump denied knowing who had doctored the map, his inability to admit a simple human error and move on has been obsessive and perturbing.

For several years in these pages, I have been tracking the progress of deinstitutionalisation in the US under Mr Trump. This recent incident, however seemingly absurd, constitutes a new threshold in an alarming process.

It is unlawful for anyone to tamper with an official US government meteorological map. It is also a perfect example of how Mr Trump is more comfortable with a psychologically affirming narrative than objective, quantifiable reality, and the extent he will go to assert the primacy of myth, politics and ego over fact. Government scientists and meteorologists have now been formally warned to “only stick with official National Hurricane Centre forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts”, which has been interpreted as a reprimand for criticising Mr Trump, even if he is misleading the public on a matter as serious as the path of a hurricane.

Time and again, it has not mattered to him what relevant and qualified authorities say about crowd size, voting patterns, immigration, terrorism, economic trajectories, climate change, scientific findings, or any number of other measurable, objective realities. These cases constitute a clear pattern of this administration batting facts aside in favour of a narrative that is more emotionally satisfying, ideologically buttressing and politically empowering.

In recent weeks deinstitutionalisation has taken a qualitative leap forward in several crucial ways.

The attack on fact-based reality and the scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is one example.

Another is Mr Trump’s ongoing war with the Federal Reserve Bank and its chairman in maintaining that, even though the economy is strong, the bank should lower the prime interest rate anyway, presumably because that might help secure his re-election.

Mr Trump has amplified his attacks on the press, the FBI, Congress, courts, his own bureaucracy and, seemingly, anyone and anything that might provide an alternative source of authority and information.

The prime target remains the media, ever the low-hanging fruit in democratic politics, with Mr Trump now even turning on Fox News, which is split between entirely supportive and moderately supportive programming, as insufficiently “working for us anymore” and, as a consequence, “we”, meaning his political support base, “need a new network”.

Deinstitutionalisation is even targeting the electoral process itself.

The Federal Election Commission has been allowed to dwindle below a quorum, so there will apparently be no referee for accountability in the forthcoming election. And Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, now commonly referred to as “Moscow Mitch” because of his refusal to do anything to stop Russian meddling in US elections, has blocked every effort to create a national set of election standards.

Deinstitutionalisation has also come to the Republican primaries, given that three relatively minor candidates are standing against Mr Trump. Caucuses and primaries within the party have been cancelled in South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona and Kansas, ostensibly to save money.

And Mr Trump, who is sworn to uphold and enforce the law, allegedly told his officials to disregard laws and simply seize land to build his wall along the southern border, promising them pardons if needs be, according to the Washington Post and New York Times, although administration officials claimed he was merely joking.

American deinstitutionalisation is rapidly accelerating. Many hope all this will be easily reversed when Mr Trump leaves office. But as any parent of young children will tell you, it’s incredibly hard to remove ugly stains left by a misused Sharpie.

How to Fix Trump’s Middle East Peace Fiasco

How the U.S. can rebuild a foundation for diplomacy with the Palestinians.

U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt, a principal designer of President Donald Trump’s promised Middle East peace plan, resigned last week, having never revealed a word of the mysterious plan or presided over a minute of actual negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s clearer than ever that the administration’s rethinking of U.S. Mideast peace policy has been a crushing failure. The question now is how to move beyond it.

There’s a mess to be cleaned up, to be sure, one that was created by the Trump peace team, headed by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, when it smashed the agreed-upon basis for talks by recognizing Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem, without distinguishing between the West and East parts of the city. The team also cut off diplomatic relations with the Palestinians, leaving the U.S. as the only major world power without direct ties to one of the key parties. Indeed, the administration cut off all aid to anything and everything Palestinian, including security forces, health and education programs, and even people-to-people peace programs.

Worst of all, the White House endorsed Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights, thus encouraging Israel to annex more occupied territories.

Meanwhile, Kushner, Greenblatt and David Friedman, the American ambassador to Israel, made it clear their boss no longer endorsed a two-state solution and would push only for what they have vaguely called Palestinian “autonomy,” presumably within an unequal Greater Israel. That’s obviously a nonstarter, not only for the Palestinians but also for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries.

In all this trouble-making, the White House has followed its Obamacare playbook: Repeal, but don’t replace. Destroy the existing, agreed-upon framework for negotiation toward a two-state solution without bothering to propose an alternative.

If the goal is to build a new consensus for a Greater Israel, it means open-ended conflict into the foreseeable future, and it forecloses the prospect of a robust alliance between Israel and Gulf Arab countries against Iran.

But it’s not too late to resurrect America’s commitment to a two-state outcome, even if it has to wait for the next U.S. president.

Washington should begin by clarifying that its recognition of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem applies only to West Jerusalem and not to occupied East Jerusalem, whose status must still be determined by negotiations. It should then re-endorse the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and the United Nations Security Council resolutions — all approved by the U. S. — that call for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The U.S. should especially reiterate its support for Security Council Resolution 2334, which demanded an end to Israeli settlement expansion. Israel needs to hear that America will not endorse additional annexations or major settlement activity.

The Arab states should be reassured that the U.S. continues to share the broad goals of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative: the full integration of Israel into the region and the establishment of a Palestinian state — though that should not mean plunging headlong into a quixotic effort to achieve immediate change. The building blocks for a peace agreement on both sides need to be carefully developed.

Diplomatic ties to the Palestinians must be restored and the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington, reopened. There’s no need to move the American Embassy back to Tel Aviv from West Jerusalem, but the U.S. should reopen its consulate in East Jerusalem, its diplomatic mission to the Palestinians.

It is also important to stop the situation on the ground from further deteriorating. That means selectively restoring aid to Palestinians, targeting on-the-ground efforts to improve the quality of life in the West Bank and building civic, social and political institutions. The Palestinian justice system, in particular, needs urgent attention to promote the rule of law.

Also imperative is to seek a solution to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that doesn’t unduly empower the militant group Hamas.

The crucial truth is that Israeli-Palestinian peace is still possible, despite the terrible situation the Trump administration inherited and the untold additional damage it has done. But it will require that the framework for peace be salvaged. The appalling alternative is to wait for another explosion of violence, which is otherwise unavoidable.

How a 17-year-old Harvard student has become symbolic of the bias of an entire system

Thought police officials have gone far beyond their legitimate security mandate in banning Ismail Ajjawi from entering the US.

The disturbing case of Ismail Ajjawi tell us much about the increasingly hostile American attitude to the outside world.

The 17-year-old Palestinian refugee from Tyre, Lebanon, secured a coveted scholarship to attend Harvard University but on his way to take up his hard-won place at one of the world’s leading educational institutions, he was denied entry by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at Boston Logan International Airport last week.

Mr Ajjawi says a CBP agent questioned him for five hours, including about his religious practices, and discovered Facebook posts by people he is friends with that were critical of US policies. He says the woman started screaming at him, even though, as he pointed out, he had not authored, endorsed or even “liked” them. Yet his visa was then revoked and he was immediately deported.

The NGO that administers these scholarships, an American non-profit organisation called Amideast, has long faced obstacles to Palestinians pursuing scholarships they have earned to US universities.

Israel has repeatedly blocked Palestinian students from travelling to the US, particularly from Gaza, as part of its punitive campaign against the population.

Worse still, Hamas has also blocked Palestinian students from leaving Gaza to pursue US scholarships, appallingly claiming to be protecting them from western influences.

But it is extremely unusual for such students to denied entry by US officials.

In part, this is the result of new Trump administration policies requiring visitors to submit all their social media usernames for the past five years.

Billed as a counterterrorism and national security measure, in the current atmosphere it is plainly degenerating into a campaign to enforce a narrowly drawn political correctness by self-appointed thought police officials, going far beyond their legitimate security mandate.

There are numerous anecdotal reports of CBP and immigration officials adopting aggressive tones and attitudes towards travellers on the grounds of some insufficient acquiescence to the US administration’s world view.

In this case, however, no such opinions were discovered at all. Rather, like millions of people worldwide, Mr Ajjawi had a mere distant online connection to people who expressed criticism of certain policies – something that is now apparently sufficient to be denied entry into the US.

Hostile attitudes from the top have fed a growing and arbitrary intolerance by US officials on the operational immigration frontlines, who it seems now feel empowered to adopt extreme attitudes towards certain visitors.

It is also reflective of the growing desire to find any rationalisation, no matter how tenuous and absurd, to deny entry to migrants, particularly those from Muslim countries.

This incident is less a direct result of State and Homeland Security department policies and more indicative of a growing attitude of intolerance and thin-skinned hypersensitivity to any criticism, in this case even by third parties.

However, given that Mr Ajjawi is a Palestinian, this administration’s antagonism towards Palestinians is surely part of the backdrop to his treatment.

Under president Donald Trump, the US has backed the Israeli occupation and annexation of Palestinian territories and eliminated all diplomatic representation for and from the Palestinians. It has cut off all aid to Palestinians and denied visas to non-violent Palestinian leaders with deep connections to the US such as Hanan Ashrawi.

The State Department has long stopped referring to occupation in any official documents such as its annual human rights reports. It has also now dropped any mention of Palestine or the Palestinian Authority from its publications and website.

The entire thrust of the Trump administration’s approach has been to shift US policy and political discourse to accepting that the occupied territories are simply part of Israel and are neither Palestinian nor occupied. That has involved, in practice, a rejection of all things Palestinian.

That is not directly related to Mr Ajjawi’s ordeal – but it’s not irrelevant either.

The scrutiny levelled at him, with his phone and laptop searched for five hours, speaks to an attitude of jingoism and xenophobia, especially towards Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians.

Such attitudes are endemic in the administration, as indicated by Mr Trump’s Twitter posts and his comments aimed at immigrants, foreigners and all those who disagree with him, from telling four congresswomen of colour to “go back” to their countries of origin to using an expletive to describe African countries.

If critics of Mr Trump or US policy, even members of Congress born in the US, should “go back”, then it makes a kind of twisted sense that anyone whose online associates might have also been critical should simply be denied entry in the first place. So much quicker and easier that way.

The good news is that there has been a widespread outcry about the injustice of this case and Harvard University, Amideast and others are calmly and intelligently working to reverse Mr Ajjawi’s exclusion and get him to Harvard as soon as possible.

The bad news is that this is how things are now, and not all instances of unjust abuse will be this blatant and high profile or get this much exposure.

The US is still the world’s greatest power. But under Mr Trump, it is increasingly thinking and acting like a small, besieged, fearful little country.