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By Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

AUSTIN, Texas — President Barack Obama said Thursday that the country was still caught up in the kind of debates that marked the civil rights movement as he called on Americans to set aside cynicism and push for the ideals reflected in the Civil Rights Act.

As he offered a tribute to President Lyndon Johnson at a 50th anniversary celebration of the law, Obama recalled the political gridlock and ideological division Johnson faced — and overcame.

“If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because today we’ve become locked in the same great debate, about equality and opportunity, and the role of government in ensuring each,” Obama said.

“Our society is still wracked with division and poverty,” he said, adding that “it’s easy to conclude that there are limits to change … that politics is a fool’s errand.”

“I reject such thinking,” he said. “I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts. … Because of the civil rights movement, because of the laws that LBJ signed, new doors of opportunity swung open. … They swung open for you and they swung open for me, and I’m standing here because of it.”

As Obama recounted the fights over Johnson’s Great Society programs, his address turned into a meditation on his own role in history.

In his keynote, Obama examined that question in a personal way, talking about Johnson’s mastery of the legislative process and his own frustrations in dealing with lawmakers.

“Sometimes you’re stymied. The office humbles you,” Obama said. “You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history.”

But he spoke hopefully about the power to “bend those currents … by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates.”

It is possible to achieve change by working “within the confines of our world as it is, but also by reimagining our world as it should be,” Obama said. “This was President Johnson’s genius.”

Five years into the presidency, Obama had mostly left Johnson unmentioned until the summit marking the anniversary of the civil rights laws that changed the face of America.

Advisers close to the president have bristled at comparisons between Johnson, a master at working Capitol Hill, and Obama, who openly admits that pretty much anything he supports is doomed in the divided Congress.

Civil rights veterans and historians have debated that Johnson-Obama comparison on the sidelines of the summit this week.

In Obama’s defense, scholars note that, in passing civil and voting rights bills, Johnson benefited from an increasingly powerful social movement and the growing consensus around racial equality.

“By the early 1960s, there was a moral consensus on what needed to be done on civil rights,” said H.W. Brands, a presidential historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

Thus, some veterans of the civil rights movement say Obama deserves more leeway in the analysis. Obama faces opposition that views him as “other,” said Julian Bond, an early organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a prominent civil rights leader.

Johnson, tasked with forging a coalition of moderate Republicans and Northern Democrats, “never faced anything like this, even when he was dealing with his most passionate opponents,” said Bond, now a professor at American University and the University of Virginia.

And even Johnson saw the limits of his powers of persuasion. In the 1966 midterms, Democrats lost seats in Congress and Johnson began to feel backlash from lawmakers he had successfully won over, particularly when it came to funding the Great Society programs he had gotten passed.

But in his remarks to the summit Wednesday night, former President Bill Clinton praised political courage that outlasts political capital.

“That is often the case with big votes that change millions of lives,” Clinton said. “I’ve had my fair share of tough phone calls to good people who lost their seats after we won this or that big measure by just a vote or two in the House or the Senate.”

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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  • 1.Why did Trump choose to hide certain specific files and not others at Mar-a-Lago? What were the criteria that Trump used to keep some files concealed and not others? Who selected those files? Did Trump consult or direct anyone in his selection of secret files? Trump was notorious for being too impatient to read his briefing papers, even after they had been drastically shortened and simplified. Is there the slightest evidence that he spirited these papers away so that he could consult or study them? Who besides Trump knew of the presence of the files he had concealed at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 2. Mar-a-Lago has an infamous reputation for being open to penetration even by foreign spies. In 2019, the FBI arrested a Chinese woman who had entered the property with electronic devices. She was convicted of trespassing, lying to the Secret Service, and sentenced and served eight-months in a federal prison, before being deported to China. Have other individuals with possible links to foreign intelligence operations been present at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 3. Did members of Trump's Secret Service detail have knowledge of his secret storage of the files at Mar-a-Lago? What was the relationship of the Secret Service detail to the FBI? Did the Secret Service, or any agent, disclose information about the files to the FBI?
  • 4. Trump's designated representatives to the National Archives are Kash Patel and John Solomon, co-conspirators in the investigations into Russian interference in the presidential election of 2016, the Ukraine missiles-for-political dirt scandal that led to the first impeachment in 2019, and the coup of 2020. Neither has any professional background in handling archival materials. Patel, a die-hard Trump loyalist whose last job in the administration was as chief of staff to the Acting Secretary of Defense, was supposedly involved in Trump’s “declassification” of some files. Patel has stated, “Trump declassified whole sets of materials in anticipation of leaving government that he thought the American public should have the right to read themselves."
  • The White House counsel failed to generate the paperwork to change the classification markings, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t declassified.” If Pat Cipollone, the White House legal counsel, did not “generate the paperwork,” was he or anyone on his staff aware at all of the declassifications? The White House Staff Secretary Derek Lyons resigned his post in December 2020. Did his successor, who held the position for a month, while Trump was consumed with plotting his coup, ever review the material found in Trump’s concealed files for declassification? Or did Patel review the material? Can Patel name any individual who properly reviewed the supposed declassification?
  • 5. Why did Trump keep his pardon of Roger Stone among his secret files? Was it somehow to maintain leverage over Stone? What would that leverage be? Would it involve Stone's role as a conduit with the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers during the coup? Or is there another pardon in Trump’s files for Stone, a secret pardon for his activities in the January 6th insurrection? Because of the sweeping nature of the pardon clause, pardons can remain undisclosed (until needed). Pardons are self-executing, require no justification and are not subject to court review beyond the fact of their timely execution. In other words, a court may verify the pardon was valid in time but has no power to review appropriateness. A pardon could even be oral but would need to be verifiable by a witness. Do the files contain secret pardons for Trump himself, members of his family, members of the Congress, and other co-conspirators?
  • 6.Was the FBI warrant obtained to block the imminent circulation or sale of information in the files to foreign powers? Does the affidavit of the informant at Mar-a-Lago, which has not been released, provide information about Trump’s monetization that required urgency in executing the warrant? Did Trump monetize information in any of the files? How? With whom? Any foreign power or entity? Was the Saudi payment from its sovereign wealth fund for the LIV Golf Tournament at Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club for a service that Trump rendered, an exchange of anything of value or information that was in the files? If it involved information in the files was it about nuclear programs? Was it about the nuclear program of Israel? How much exactly was the Saudi payment for the golf tournament? The Saudi sovereign wealth fund gave Jared Kushner and former Trump Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin $2 billion for their startup hedge fund, Affinity Partners. Do the Saudis regard that investment as partial payment for Trump’s transfer of nuclear information? Were Kushner or Mnuchin aware of the secret files at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 7.Did Trump destroy any of the files? If so, when? Did those files contain incriminating information? Did he destroy any files after he received the June subpoena?
  • 8.Were any of the secrets of our allies compromised? Has the U.S. government provided an inventory of breaches or potential breaches to our allies?
  • 9.Does the resort maintain a copying machine near the classified documents that Trump hid? Were any of the documents copied or scanned? Are Trump’s documents at Mar-a-Lago originals or copies? Were any copies shown or given to anyone?
  • 10.Trump’s lawyer Christina Bobb has revealed that a video surveillance system covers the places where Trump hid the files at Mar-a-Lago, and that the system is connected to a system at his other residences at the Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey and Trump Tower in New York City. According to Bobb, Trump and members of his family observed the FBI search and seizure of his files at Mar-a-Lago, “actually able to see the whole thing” through their surveillance system. Who has that surveillance system recorded entering the rooms where the files were kept?

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