Tag: Congress

A Trade Armistice in the Works?

President Trump set off another round of Twitter hyperventilation and financial market selling these past 18 hours with his latest threat to assess duties on another $200 billion of Chinese imports. What to make of this?

I see two (and only two) ways of looking at this. You can conclude that Trump is irrational, engaging in rhetoric and taking actions that are inconsistent with his goals, or you can see him as rational. You may not like his goals, but that doesn’t make him irrational.  And he may be rational, but that doesn’t mean he’s not misguided.  It seems to me, though, that if you think Trump’s irrational, then there’s not much use in trying to make heads or tails of the daily gyrations. There’s no basis, really, for offering much in the way of useful analysis of U.S. trade policy for the next couple of years.

I see Trump as rational, but deeply misguided. His unpredictability is risky and frustrating, but it’s also a staple of his governance. Unpredictability is the most predictable feature of this administration. But Trump’s goal is consistent and predictable.  Trump’s goal is to cut deals that make him look Herculaean. The deals he most covets are those that cast him as fixing the trade problem with China and fixing the “worst trade deal ever negotiated,” NAFTA.

From the outset, Trump set his sights on “fixing” the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with China.  Is that a worthwhile priority of trade policy?  Absolutely not. But Trump is convinced that reducing the deficit is priority number one.  He sees his high stakes engagement as worthwhile because he miscalculates the potential benefits and costs of his approach. I see the upside of Trump’s approach as offering potentially smallish benefits (getting China to do something that may benefit U.S. exporters), but the downside (a deleterious trade war that leaves the world in far worse shape) as severe and significant. My own approach would be far more risk-averse.

Trump wants the Chinese to buy more American goods and services.  On its face, this is a reasonable desire for a U.S. president to have.  But Trump wants the Chinese government to commit to purchasing more U.S. goods and services, somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 billion to $200 billion per year (which, of course, reinforces the fact that China’s economy is centrally directed, which is the basis for the legitimate problems in the economic relationship in the first place.) Threatened tariffs of 25 percent on $50 billion of imports from China, announced as result of a U.S. investigation into Chinese technology and IP practices, are Trump’s initial leverage in getting the Chinese to commit to more purchases. Beijing’s announced retaliation slightly negates that leverage, but then the administration cracked down on ZTE, the Chinese information and communications technology company that admittedly violated U.S. export control laws by selling certain products to Iran and North Korea, and was cut off from U.S. suppliers of semiconductors and other critical components.

The on-again-off-again-on-again sanctions seem to be conditioned on whether and to what extent Beijing commits to purchasing U.S. exports, and that decision now seems to be conditioned upon Trump granting a reprieve to ZTE. Trump has already given ZTE a reprieve on paper (with certain conditions and requirements), but Congress seems to have strenuous objections, and is considering an amendment to the defense authorization bill to prevent Trump’s reprieve from taking effect.

Trump’s latest threat to hit another $200 billion of Chinese products with tariffs is just as much a threat to Congress as it is to China.  Either the Chinese will relent and agree to purchase U.S. stuff (without need of reinstating ZTE) and the tariffs will be called off or Congress, fearing (more than Beijing does) a trade war that will take down U.S. manufacturing and agricultural interests and their representative in Washington, will relent on its legislative push to block ZTE.  Of course, relenting on ZTE while continuing to treat Canada, Mexico, the EU and other allies as national security threats (especially since that designation has resulted in those countries applying tariffs to U.S. agricultural and manfuacturing exports, too) isn’t going to sit well with Congress either. 

So, in order to fix these asymmetries and make Congress and U.S. allies whole (wholer, whole-ish): Congress abandons its legislation to block ZTE, which gets back in business (with conditions); the U.S.-China tariff war is called off; China signs purchasing orders for $100 billion to $200 billion of U.S. exports; the steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the EU are removed; and the NAFTA negotiations are restarted and concluded before the midterms. This gives Trump two major pyrrhic victories that will reinforce his greatness to his base.

Seems to me these are the only outcomes that could remotely explain (if not justify) the ride Trump is taking us on. I see it as misguided, but not irrational.

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To Prevent Torture Redux, Look Beyond Haspel

On May 9, CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel will get her chance to shape–or reshape–the narrative surrounding one particular episode in her 30+ year CIA career: her time running one of the now-infamous Agency “black site” interrogation centers used in the Bush administration’s torture program. Haspel’s challenge will be in getting Senators and the public to look beyond existing media accounts about her alleged role in running the “black site” at which al Qaeda suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was repeatedly waterboarded, and her role in carrying out the destruction of videotapes showing the gruesome sessions. 

Despite the benefit of an unprecendeted (and in my view very legally questionable) CIA domestic influence operation on her behalf, Haspel has her work cut out for her. It’s unlikely that the “I was just following orders” line will do anything other than sink her nomination. If she has and claims to Senators, as former CIA Station Chief John Bennett has suggested, that she has learned the proper lessons from the episode (i.e., that torture is wrong, that she would refuse a Trump order to restart a new torture program, etc.), should she get the chance to lead the Agency? Would she actually serve as a check on Trump? On the latter question at least, I think the answer is a resounding “no.” The reason is that America’s first torture program got off the ground because lots of people in government–not just at the CIA–elected to not only go along with it, but facilitated it.

It took a pliant Secretary of State to not make waves about the “black sites” being set up and run outside the control of the local U.S. ambassadors, generally the person in charge of all U.S. government activities, programs, and relationships with the host nation. It took an eager group of lawyers in the Department of Justice’ Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to write the opinions effectively redefining torture out of existence, thus providing a legal shield for anyone participating in the program. If there’s one issue that is more important than who is running the CIA, it is who is in charge at DoJ, and especially what kind of lawyers populate OLC. Just because the McCain-Feinstein anti-torture amendment is law does not mean the next John Yoo or Jay Bybee won’t try to redefine it for executive branch agencies charged with starting a new torture program. 

In the first torture program’s aftermath, a new and untested president insisted that Americans “….look forward as opposed to looking backward” on the U.S. torture program. Because the CIA is one of the federal agencies exempted from normal Office of Personnel Management rules (i.e., CIA is an excepted service), Obama didn’t actually need to have a federal prosecutor file charges to get rid of CIA personnel involved in the torture program. He could’ve fired them himself. He didn’t, and that’s one reason why Gina Haspel now has a shot to run the CIA. 

To recap: At the State Department, we now have a pliant Secretary who in the past has clearly stated his support for the first torture program, like President Trump. We have a Justice Department that is constantly under siege from a White House that clearly has a “loyalty test” it tries to impose on those working there. And we have a previous manager of America’s first torture program teed up to lead the federal agency that ran that same program. The conditions are certainly ripe for a Torture Redux. The question now is whether the Senate recognizes the danger and will act accordingly. We will know soon enough.

The FISA Follies: The “Schiff Memo” Edition

On Saturday (Feb. 24), House Intelligence Committee Democrats were finally able to publish their rebuttal to the “Nunes Memo” written by the committee’s GOP majority staff and released earlier this month. So what have we learned from this Democratic rebuttal memo? As it turns out, not much we didn’t already know—though you wouldn’t get that impression from the media’s reaction to and characterization of the “Schiff Memo” following its release. 

NPR’s Philip Ewing and his editors preferred to treat the dueling memos episode as a game:

The more a game is played, the more adept teams become at its rules and strategies. Basketball defenders deliberately foul an opponent to force a free-throw. A manager brings up a left-handed reliever to pitch inside to a dangerous left-handed hitter.

The Republican memo gambit and last weekend’s Democratic riposte complete the first enactment of what could become a recurring sideshow inside Washington. The majority uses its control of the committee and its alliances inside the executive branch to release an unexpurgated file even if some of the relevant agencies object—as the FBI and Justice objected to the release of the Nunes memo.

The minority can’t twist the arms of the agencies controlled by its opponents and it can’t get parity with the opening shot: Nunes’ memo was released by lunchtime on a Friday following a week of extensive coverage. Schiff’s memo came out with no preliminary fanfare on a Saturday afternoon.

So will this be the template for each game? Or will Nunes and Schiff take a different approach next time? And with the rules more or less set, how will other players respond? Round Two is already different: Nunes suggested he was preparing another memo about what he calls problems with President Obama’s State Department. So a former State official wrote a column in the Washington Post that tried to short-circuit that attack.

So for NPR, allegations of FBI/DoJ potential misuse of the FISA process is like watching a Wizards-Celtics match-up on ESPN.

The FISA Follies: “War of the Memos” Edition

As I was preparing for a Demand Progress-sponsored panel on Congressional oversight of intelligence matters on the afternoon of February 9, Demand Progress Policy Director Daniel Schuman and I agreed that if President Trump was going to refuse to “declassify” the House Intelligence Committee Democrats rebuttal to the “Nunes Memo,” he would wait until the late Friday news cycle to do it. We didn’t have to wait long for that prediction to come true

In a moment, I’ll get to the issue of whether Trump actually has the authority under the Constitution to do what he did, but I want to start with is this paragraph from the New York Times story referenced above:

But Donald F. McGahn II, the president’s lawyer, said in a letter to the committee on Friday night that the Democratic memo could not be released because it “contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages.” He said the president would again consider making the memo public if the committee, which had approved its release on Monday, revised it to “mitigate the risks.”

In that same NYT story, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff provided further context:

In a statement on Friday night, Mr. Schiff said that Democrats had provided their memo to the F.B.I. and the Justice Department for vetting before it was approved for release by the committee. The Democratic memo was drawn from the same underlying documents as the Republican one.

“We will be reviewing the recommended redactions from D.O.J. and F.B.I., which these agencies shared with the White House,” Mr. Schiff said, “and look forward to conferring with the agencies to determine how we can properly inform the American people about the misleading attack on law enforcement by the G.O.P. and address any concerns over sources and methods.”

So if Schiff is to be believed, House Intelligence Committee Democrats ran their memo by Justice Department and FBI officials prior to the unanimous committee vote to release his memo, then sent the memo over to the White House for reaction. Trump and his team then demanded still more redactions. If the above account is correct, the same Justice Department or FBI officials who reviewed the original “Schiff Memo” apparently demanded still more redactions once it got to Trump’s desk.

It’s this sequence of events which brings me to the question of whether Trump has the authority under the Constitution to censor or rewrite Congressional work product, with or without Congressional assent, if it contains references to Executive branch information asserted as being classified, in part or in whole. The short answer is no. The longer answer is still no, but with some caveats.

The FISA Political Follies Continue

Last night, POLITICO ran a FISA-related story with the lede,”Republicans authorize sharing of classified report on FBI, DOJ officials’ conduct.” These are the two opening paragraphs:

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have authorized their colleagues to access a highly classified report that they say details their concerns with the conduct of top FBI and Justice Department officials, as well as the agencies’ handling of a controversial surveillance program.

“We have concerns — FISA concerns — that all members of the body should know,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), a member of the committee, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Some of President Donald Trump’s allies in the House have argued that the program was inappropriately used to surveil a foreign policy aide to the Trump campaign.

Since then, several other House GOP members have weighed in on Twitter about the memo in question: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), and House Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC).

Of the seven members I’ve seen raise this issue either in the POLITICO story or on Twitter, only one–Meadows–voted against the FISA surveillance expansion bill (S. 139) when it was before the House last week. That fact certainly raises some interesting questions the other six who did vote for S. 139 should answer:

  • When did the Representative learn of the HPSCI majority staff report in question—before or after the vote on S. 139
  • If the Representative learned of the memo before the vote on S. 139, why did he not publicly push for its release to all House members prior to the vote on S. 139? 
  • If the Representative learned of the memo before the vote on S. 139, why did the Representative vote in favor of a FISA bill that Fourth Amendment experts across the political spectrum argue would make such abuses more likely?
  • Since Meadows voted against S. 139, does he believe the House leadership should allow a new FISA reform bill to be brought to the floor to address the alleged abuses detailed in the memo?

Fear and Mass Surveillance: Our Constitutionally Toxic Political Cocktail

At 12:51pm on January 18, 2018–just a day before it was set to expire–the Senate followed the House’s lead and reauthorized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act (FAA) Section 702 mass surveillance program for another six years by a vote of 65-34.

Writing for JustSecurity.org in October 2017, I made this prediction about the then-looming debate over extending the mass surveillance authority embodied in Section 702: 

Absent another Snowden-like revelation, Section 702 of the FAA will be reauthorized largely without change, and any changes will be cosmetic, and almost certainly abused. Whether it has a “sunset” provision or not is now politically and practically meaningless.

As it turns out, that prediction was optimistic. But first, a recap of the events of this week.

House Votes To Reauthorize FISA Section 702 Mass Surveillance Program

Two months of drama in the House of Representatives over the soon-to-expire FISA Section 702 mass surveillance program came to an end this morning, with a bipartisan group of House members first defeating a FISA reform amendment (USA RIGHTS Act) offered by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), then passing the GOP House leadership bill. The key votes in support of the GOP House leadership effort came from Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-CA).

The progressive activist group Demand Progress, which spearheaded the campaign on the political left for meaningful surveillance reforms, issued a blistering statement after the vote, the key paragraph of which follows:

Demand Progress has opposed the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act from the start and has instead urged the House to pass strong reform legislation, like the USA RIGHTS Act, which was offered as an amendment but defeated 183-233, despite strong support from members of both parties. 55 Democrats voted against the amendment, where a swing of 26 votes would have meant its adoption and the protection of Americans’ privacy. The USA RIGHTS amendment would have enacted meaningful reforms to Section 702, which are imperative given the government’s historical abuse of surveillance authorities and the danger posed by future abuses.

Amash garnered 58 GOP votes for his amendment (offered with several other Democratic and Republican House members), by far his best showing since his first attempt to rein in federal mass surveillance programs in the summer of 2013, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations. 

The FISA Amendments Act was first passed in 2008, when Pelosi was Speaker. In her floor speech in support of the FISA Amendments Act on June 20, 2008, Pelosi made this claim:

Some in the press have said that under this legislation, this bill would allow warrantless surveillance of Americans. That is not true. This bill does not allow warrantless surveillance of Americans. I just think we have to stipulate to some set of facts.

In fact, as Demand Progress noted in their 2017 report on Section 702, the FISA Court itself found the federal government had done exactly that in a number of cases. But as is so often the case in politics, it is emotion and perception, not facts and reason, that dominate debate on Capitol Hill. Today was another one of those days.

 

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