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The Mueller Report Is No Vindication For Trump

Late in the fourth quarter of a 2003 game between Texas A&M and Oklahoma, Aggie defender Johnny Jolly tackled the ball carrier for a loss, jumped up and did a triumphant dance. It would have been entirely appropriate except that Oklahoma was leading 77-0.

The disciples of Donald Trump have been engaged in a similarly myopic display since Attorney General William Barr reported that the special counsel did not find Trump colluded with the Russian government to affect the 2016 election. They are celebrating under circumstances that should elicit humility, not hubris.

In the first place, they are responding to a cryptic summary of a report that has not been made public. If and when more of Robert Mueller’s report comes to light, it may cast a harsh light on the president.

Barr, after all, chose his words with delicate care. He said the investigation “did not establish” that Trump colluded with the Kremlin. That’s not the same as saying it established that Trump did not collude. My inability to prove that a frog is ugly does not prove that the frog is handsome.

On the second topic, obstruction of justice, Mueller furnished no grounds for presidential gloating. Barr quoted the special counsel: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Barr said Mueller found “evidence on both sides of the question.” What he found on the guilty side will be relevant to the public’s judgment of the president’s fitness for office.

Even if Trump is not convincingly implicated in these specific felonies, he has been discredited by a mass of evidence on a host of matters, including some that may ensnare him in the criminal justice system.

His lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws by paying off women who said they had sex with Trump “so as to suppress the stories and thereby prevent them from influencing the election.” Federal prosecutors said Cohen did so “in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1,” that being Trump. The president was spared indictment, but Justice Department guidelines don’t allow the indictment of a president.

The hush money payments were not the only brazen acts of deception by candidate Trump. He repeatedly denied having any business interests whatsoever in Russia, but in January his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, quoted Trump saying he tried to arrange a deal to build a skyscraper in Moscow “from the day I announced to the day I won.”

Trump’s financial interest in that project, and others that may not be known, could help explain his bizarre efforts to indulge, flatter and excuse anything that Vladimir Putin does. But maybe Trump is not acting out of naked greed. Maybe he is just the malleable dupe of a nasty autocrat who has acted to subvert American democracy.

It could be Trump is not a crook but a fool. As campaign slogans go, that one lacks something. So does “still not indicted.” But they are about the best that can be said of him and his conspicuous pattern of unsavory behavior.

Similar questions persist about his relations with the government of Saudi Arabia, whose agents murdered a U.S. resident, Jamal Khashoggi, last year. Trump claims he has no financial ties with the country, but that’s not what he said in 2015. “I like the Saudis,” he bragged. “They pay me millions and hundreds of millions.”

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman insists he is innocent, and Trump has given him the benefit of the doubt. “You have to be willfully blind” to buy that story, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said.

In December, Trump was forced to shut down his foundation after the attorney general of New York found “a shocking pattern of illegality,” including “self-dealing transactions that directly benefited Mr. Trump.” But the criminal investigation of his fraudulent charity continues.

From what is known about Mueller’s report, which covered only a narrow range of Trump’s many squalid practices, we can’t conclude that the president is a criminal. But we have abundant proof that he is the worst person ever to become president as well as the least competent and conscientious president ever.

Yet his defenders treat a decision not to pursue criminal charges as a shining affirmation of his personal integrity and presidential excellence. Their response to the Mueller findings confirms that when it comes to judging Trump, they don’t have low standards. They have no standards.

Why Trump Should Fear Nikki Haley

Donald Trump is the most vulnerable incumbent president in decades. Struggling with a stubbornly low approval rating, plagued by scandal, and facing a raft of criminal and civil investigations, he threatens to take his party down to an epic defeat if he’s renominated. You’d think Republicans might be open to an alternative.

But you can’t beat somebody with nobody, and practically speaking, nobody is the present alternative. So far, Trump has only one GOP challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is publicly pondering a race. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich is also a possible entrant.

None of them is likely to pose much danger to Trump. All come from the moderate wing of the party, which is not so much a wing as a handful of feathers. They might appeal to many independents and even some Democrats. But Republicans are not going to abandon a president who has relentlessly catered to conservatives on taxes, abortion, immigration, judges and Iran.

The history of serious challenges to incumbent presidents is that they don’t arise from the middle of the spectrum. They spring from the left in the Democratic Party and the right in the Republican Party. The rebels could claim to speak for the hardcore faithful, not the soothing centrists.

In 1992, it was Pat Buchanan who mounted a mutiny. He vilified George H.W. Bush for breaking his promise not to raise taxes, and he railed against gay rights, abortion, free trade and immigrants. He got nearly 38 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter, dogged by high inflation and gas lines, had to contend with Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose family embodied modern liberalism. Kennedy won a dozen contests in the Democratic campaign.

The most successful challenge, however, came in 1968, when Eugene McCarthy, vocally opposing the Vietnam War, stunned President Lyndon Johnson by getting 42 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. Johnson soon excused himself.

Those examples illustrate why Trump is not going to fall to a Weld or a Kasich. If anyone is going to bring him down in the Republican primaries, it will be someone with powerful appeal to the base voters, who have stuck with Trump so far.

Who would that be? The most plausible candidate is his former U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley. She is assumed to be looking to a 2024 presidential bid.

But if she is not primed to jump in if and when Trump suffers a major setback, she is missing what could be the chance of a lifetime.

Her assets are hard to overstate. She’s an uncompromising Reaganite who thrilled hawks with her aggressive rhetoric at the U.N. Critical of Trump in the primaries, she was a loyal soldier after he won. She somehow managed to stay in his good graces and depart the administration with her reputation intact, a feat akin to staying dry while swimming in a rainstorm.

Haley has not been so rash as to challenge any important article of right-wing dogma. As governor of South Carolina, Haley got a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association, won the endorsement of the anti-tax Club for Growth PAC and got a score of zero from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Compared with Trump, she is more closely aligned with congressional Republicans on policy toward Russia, NATO and Saudi Arabia. If she were to run against him, she would draw on a large stock of conservative goodwill.

Could she win? Given today’s conditions, no. But conditions are likely to get worse for Trump, not better. Republicans would be strongly reluctant to abandon him — unless he looked like a sure loser and they had an alluring alternative at hand. Haley would be exactly that.

She might be the candidate Democrats would least like to run against. She would be more than capable of uniting the GOP. But as a first-generation Indian-American woman who removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds, she would also be relatively well-positioned to appeal to some independents who find Trump distasteful, if not repulsive.

Trump may figure that the Republican electorate will stick with him no matter what, and he may be right. But with the right timing, Haley could put that loyalty to a real test.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley speaks at the National Press Club in Washington September 2, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

I Don’t Think Abortion Is Murder, And Neither Do You

At the heart of the pro-life movement is a basic premise: Abortion is murder. An Idaho state senator, however, got unusual attention in February when he voiced that sentiment that to a group of students lobbying for birth control measures.

Conservative writer Kevin Williamson was recently hired by The Atlantic magazine — and promptly fired over old tweets in which he referred to the procedure as a “homicide” that should be treated “like any other homicide.” He added that those who support capital punishment (which he doesn’t) should favor the death penalty for women who get abortions.

The view that terminating a pregnancy amounts to baby-killing is standard among anti-abortion activists, but it has currency beyond them. Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, writes, “When pollsters ask Americans whether abortion is an act of murder or the taking of a human life, pluralities or majorities say that it is.”

But this is a rhetorical device or a moral conceit, not a well-thought-out conviction. The vast majority of people who endorse it really don’t mean it. Even they exhibit a deep sense that a fetus has an appreciably lower status than an actual person.

Williamson’s controversy is proof. What doomed him was a comment suggesting that women who get abortions should be hanged — though he later wrote, “I was making a point about the sloppy rhetoric of the abortion debate, not a public-policy recommendation.”

If abortion is morally indistinguishable from killing a newborn, though, why shouldn’t those who procure abortions be severely punished? It’s the clear logical implication of the pro-life argument.

Donald Trump inadvertently deviated from the pro-life playbook in 2016 when he said women who get abortions should face “some sort of punishment,” only to recant. Mike Pence insisted that he and Trump “would never support legislation against women who make the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy.”

Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, said then, “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment.”

“Healing” is not what people normally think is appropriate for cold-blooded killers, and murder is rarely portrayed as a “heartbreaking choice.” Those who speak this way are effectively conceding that abortion is fundamentally different from homicide.

Trump is one of them. He regularly calls for tough measures to curb Chicago’s homicides, which totaled 650 last year. Nationally, however, there are some 650,000 abortions annually. If they amount to murder, then the non-fetuses who die are a small share of the homicide total.

But hardly anyone truly regards having an abortion as equal in evil to killing an adult or a child. Hardly anyone thinks a woman who has an abortion belongs in a cell next to a guy who strangles his child.

About 1 of every 4 American women will have an abortion by age 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute. If you regard abortion as murder and think your sister, daughter, aunt, niece, cousin or friend should go to prison for decades — or be executed — if she ever terminated a pregnancy, you’re being consistent. If you regard abortion as murder and think they deserve a gentle path to healing, you’re not.

But few opponents of abortion grasp what it would mean to seriously regard the embryo as a full human starting at conception. As Northwestern University bioethicist Katie Watson notes in her recent book Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law and Politics of Ordinary Abortion, half of fertilized eggs fail to implant, and up to 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

“If fertilized eggs are morally equivalent to born people,” she asks, “why aren’t we devoting tremendous research dollars to stopping miscarriages?” The silence on “natural” losses in pregnancy speaks volumes.

If abortion is not murder, it is impossible to justify banning it, early in pregnancy or later. Women have the right to control their own bodies — have knee surgery or not, donate blood or not, go sky diving or not. The freedom to end a pregnancy is part of that physical autonomy.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: A protester holds up a sign in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on the morning the court took up a major abortion case, Washington March 2, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

 

The Trump Economy Is No Great Success (And He Didn’t Build It)

Amid all the uncertainty about Donald Trump’s presidency, his admirers are sure of one thing: The economy is booming, and it’s because of him. We are riding a mighty wave of prosperity driven by his tax cuts, deregulation and business savvy.

The enthusiasm is contagious. “I’ve really liked what he’s done for the economy,” marveled Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. “Year One has been nothing short of excellent,” declared Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo. Blackstone Group Chairman Stephen Schwarzman said, “There are companies all around the world who are looking at the U.S. now and saying, ‘This is the place to be in the developed world.'”

They have some evidence to brandish: Economic growth picked up last year. The unemployment rate fell to 4.1 percent. The stock market soared by 27 percent during Trump’s first year.

So the bullish outlook is not entirely without basis. The economy is doing well in most respects, and Trump’s policies have contributed. Tax cuts are good for business, everything else being equal, and so is deregulation — though either may also have damaging consequences in the future.

But presidents don’t have nearly as much to do with our economic fortunes as Trump’s supporters believe. And if they do, those people owe Barack Obama a big fat groveling apology.

Trump is the classic example of a man born on third base who thinks he hit a triple. When he brags of low unemployment on his watch, he neglects to mention that under his predecessor, the rate fell from a peak of 10 percent in 2009 to 4.8 percent. When Republicans claim the Dow Jones industrial average as vindication, they forget that it tripled under Obama. Inflation, which they predicted would run out of control, was cut in half during his presidency.

The 2.3 percent real GDP growth Trump can point to in 2017 was better than the 2016 rate but worse than what Obama recorded in 2014 and 2015. Last year, the economy added 2.1 million jobs — which sounds good until you consider that it added even more in each of Obama’s last four years.

By two standards that Trump invoked on his way to the White House, he’s failing. The first is the trade deficit, which has grown since he took office. The second is the budget deficit, which fell from $1.4 trillion in Obama’s first fiscal year to $666 billion in his final fiscal year — and is projected to rise from $440 billion this year to $1 trillion by 2020.

Trump boasted on Twitter Wednesday: “Tremendous investment by companies from all over the world being made in America. There has never been anything like it.” Oh? From 2009 to 2016, new foreign direct investment more than doubled. Last year, it declined. Apparently, foreign investors are not feeling quite the same excitement they felt before Trump arrived.

If the standard GOP formula of tax cuts and deregulation is the key to economic progress, you have to wonder why it didn’t work for George W. Bush. Average annual GDP growth was higher during his tenure than during Obama’s, but Bush had a weaker record on job growth. The unemployment rate, which was 4.2 percent when he arrived, was 7.8 percent when he left.

The stock market declined in Bush’s first term and again in his second term, for a total loss of 25 percent. He also presided over a financial panic, a housing crash and the Great Recession, all of which struck with devastating force in the final year of his presidency and left the economy in a deep hole.

Much of what happened under Bush was not his fault, and much of what happened under Obama was not his doing. Presidents have only modest control over the enormous, unpredictable beast we know as the economy. Often they are not driving the bus but riding the train, fated to go wherever it takes them.

The Federal Reserve, Congress, foreign economies, wars and assorted unforeseen events play a role in raising or slowing growth. Simple luck and factors that may be invisible to everyone also affect outcomes. If and when the economy stalls, Trump and his fan club will deny responsibility.

For now, though, they are claiming successes that are nonexistent or greatly exaggerated. A year into his presidency, the Trump economy has yet to produce any better results than Obama did. And unfortunately, the economy doesn’t run on delusions.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.