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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

No, Kyrsten Sinema Is Not Like John McCain

I don't know Kyrsten Sinema, but I did know John McCain. Not at all intimately, to be sure, but just enough to say -- despite her pretensions and the fantasies of her flacks that she is the reincarnation of the war hero in a purple wig -- that Kyrsten Sinema is no John McCain.

Lately Sinema has advertised herself as a "maverick," by which she means that she flouts the positions and policies of her party's leadership, and is supposed to pair her with McCain, who sometimes strayed from the Republican party line. Her most notorious attempt at imitation occurred last year with a gesture on the Senate floor marking her vote against a minimum wage increase. Her coy mimicry of the admired war hero was synthetic, leaving an unpleasant odor in its wake. When McCain delivered his bold "thumbs down" on gutting Obamacare, he was protecting Arizona's working families – not betraying them.

Why Sinema behaves so erratically these days is mysterious to many pundits, in part because she simply refuses to talk with journalists. Her Sphinx act would have been impossible for McCain, who frequently and happily discussed in detail why he acted and voted as he did -- or almost any topic that a reporter might bring up.

Sinema may not hate journalists—who knows?—but she plainly doesn't want to hang out with them. Like I said, she's no John McCain.

Indeed, I first met the late senator when he approached me at a Washington dinner to say a few nice words about a recent TV appearance where I had expressed views he certainly did not share. I had no problem reaching him for an interview in the years following that friendly introduction – and he was even more easily available to those who covered him regularly. Candid and thoughtful, he saw engagement with the press as a vital part of the job. He loved being known as a "straight shooter," a nickname he aimed to deserve.

There could hardly be a sharper contrast with the squirrelly Sinema. A political reporter who has covered her for the New York Times recently wrote that she's "one of the most elusive senators on Capitol Hill," noting that she "doesn't engage with Washington reporters in a serious way." She also doesn't engage with reporters in an unserious way, again unlike McCain, who had a sense of humor, too. She applies the same arrogant disregard to her constituents, with whom she doesn't deign to meet in public.

Her secretive style wouldn't have impressed McCain, famed for hosting what the Arizona Republic called "his free-for-all town hall sessions." Just enter "McCain" and "town hall" in a search engine to see video of what those were like.

Sinema's shifting ideological colorations display a kaleidoscopic, almost dizzying opportunism – which isn't quite the right look for a politician emulating McCain. Yet there was an episode in McCain's career that invites comparison with the way she operates now.

In 1991, following the crisis that bankrupted the savings-and-loan industry, McCain was one of five US senators investigated for intervening with regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a crooked financier whose Lincoln Savings & Loan went under at a cost of $3.4 billion. Like McCain, the other four – including Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), Don Riegle (D-MI), Alan Cranston (D-CA) and John Glenn (D-OH) – had taken big donations from Keating. Keating had also provided the McCain family with free flights and hospitality at his Bahamas estate on three occasions as well as various other favors.

The Senate Ethics Committee investigated "the Keating Five," ultimately issuing wrist slaps, but the public hearings and news reports were nevertheless damning. Here was a clique of politicians who looked as if Keating had bought them rather cheaply.

The emerging image of Sinema -- who opposes lower prices for prescription drugs after taking nearly a million dollars from the Pharma lobby and has become a darling of K Street – is no more flattering. So far, Sinema shows no signs of the remorse that overcame McCain, who publicly flagellated himself for "the worst mistake of my life" and later fought for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms that Republicans opposed.

So when Sinema postures as a rebel and invokes McCain, don't get distracted by the superficial pretense. McCain learned from his mistakes. Sinema hasn't learned from the real McCain. But, like I said, she's no John McCain.

What Merrick Garland Must Do Now

The coming weeks will be the most consequential of Merrick Garland's life — not just for the attorney general himself but for our country. Garland will have to decide, presumably with the support of President Joe Biden, how to address the looming authoritarian threat of former President Donald J. Trump and his insurrectionary gang. His first fateful choice will be how to deal with Stephen K. Bannon, the fascism-friendly, criminally pardoned former Trump senior adviser who has defied a subpoena from the House Select Committee investigating the events of Jan. 6.

That panel has issued a contempt citation of Bannon, which will reach the floor for approval by the full House early next week. When that resolution passes, as it assuredly will, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will ask the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to open a prosecution of Bannon, which could ultimately cost him a year behind bars and a fine of $100,000. (Trump won't be able to deliver a pardon, as he did last January to save Bannon from prison for defrauding gullible Trumpists in a "build the wall" scheme.)

Unless Garland instructs him not to do so, the U.S. attorney will commence that prosecution. If Garland fails to allow the prosecution to proceed, he will cripple the constitutional order and rule of law in the United States that he claims to uphold.

There is no conceivable basis in law for Bannon's refusal to testify about Jan. 6 and surrender relevant documents in his possession. His cocky assertion of "executive privilege" is entirely hollow for several reasons. He hasn't worked in the White House since 2017. He cannot claim to be following Trump's constitutional orders. And since Trump is no longer president, he no longer possesses the power of executive privilege, which only the sitting president, that is, Biden holds. And Biden rejected Trump's privilege claims over his documents and ordered that they be turned over to Congress.

Beyond all that, any such privilege claim is wholly void against an investigation of high crimes by public officials, as established in the Watergate case. Indeed, that exception would be especially salient and powerful in confronting a criminal conspiracy against the Constitution.

"Sloppy Steve," as Melania Trump called him, was a central organizer of the Jan. 6 events in Washington and predicted the night before the Capitol Hill insurrection that "all hell is going to break loose" on "one of the most historic days in American history." Well, the investigators want to know all about just what he knew and when he knew it.

Garland has a profound responsibility to act expeditiously and forcefully to curtail Bannon's lawless defiance of Congress. Dithering is unacceptable, and the attorney general should ask the district court to expedite this docket. Just as Trump sought to conceal the truth in the Russia investigation and both impeachment inquiries, he is now seeking to cover-up what actually happened on and around Jan. 6. He obstructed those probes through assertions of privilege and felonious misuse of the pardon power, among other tactics.

That obstruction cannot be allowed to happen again. If the Justice Department proves too paralyzed to handle Bannon's defiance, then Pelosi can invoke the "inherent contempt" power to have him arrested. Although nobody has been busted under that authority for more than a century, that's no reason not to do it now. There's always an open cell in the D.C. jail.

Garland's fateful responsibilities extend beyond the House subpoenas. As evidence of constitutional crimes mounts around the former president, so too does the duty of the attorney general to demonstrate that no one, emphatically including Citizen Trump, is above the law.

We now know that Trump demanded that the Justice Department elevate his election fraud lies on at least nine occasions, according to a new report from the Senate Judiciary Committee. He urged the department's top officials to "say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the (Republican) Congressmen." That was a brazen violation of federal law, which prohibits any official from attempting to "deprive or defraud" Americans of a fair election process. He broke the same law when he threatened Georgia officials if they failed to "find" enough votes for him to win the state.

And there remains a gigantic file of evidence, gathered by former Special Counsel Robert Muller, showing that Trump obstructed justice 10 times during the Russia investigation. Were he not a sitting president at the time, his conduct would have warranted multiple felony indictments. As former national security officials Mark Medish and Jonathan Winer write in a new article for Just Security, "Granting a president carte blanche to obstruct justice is at odds with the rule of law and America's founding principles, which abhorred arbitrary rule of tyrants."

Upholding the law is essential, regardless of threats of violence from Trump's fanatics or warnings that future Republican regimes will carry out vengeance. The phantom specter of payback is not a legal category. Surrender to the seditionists is not an option under the law. Garland, the whole world is watching.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Tell The Truth About The Coup -- Or Go Directly To Jail


Overturning the results of a national election is not the kind of crime that any single conspirator can perpetrate -- not even the most powerful man in the world. To mount an attempted coup against the constitutional order was the work of many dirty hands. Just ask Donald Trump, whose aggressive and lawless attempt to nullify his defeat can now be seen as a multi-layered putsch that secretly involved many individuals and organizations over a period of several months – and extended far beyond the array of thugs and misfits who assaulted the Capitol on January 6.

It will surprise nobody who has been paying attention that these covert actors emerged from the far right, which has posed a chronic threat to democracy for decades and finally consolidated its control of the Republican Party under Trump. The most effective response to that threat must occur on at least three levels: identifying every perpetrator; holding them all accountable by every lawful means, including criminal prosecution; and erecting every legislative and political bulwark to prevent any repetition of their crimes.

Like their boss Trump, these co-conspirators are habitual offenders. Fortunately, many of them also share his tendencies toward self-exposure, bluster, and hysterical excess. But others are deceptive, manipulative and ruthless, also like Trump.

For months following the outrages of January 6, attention was focused on those directly involved in that day's insurrectionary violence – the QAnon fanatics, the neo-fascist Proud Boys, the paramilitary Oath Keepers, and the angry, alienated Trumpsters who followed along. More than a few have prior criminal records, and most will be apprehended and punished.

But lately we have gotten a glimpse at the schemers whose weeks and months of planning led to those traumatic hours on Capitol Hill. We are beginning to learn that Trump and his shock troops never intended to accept an election that he didn't win, and how they plotted to subvert it.

In the Washington Spectator, Anne Nelson shows that a key hub of the coup was the Council for National Policy, which has existed since the Reagan era as a kind of Central Committee for the right-wing, primarily evangelical but also secular. Investigative reporting by Nelson and others has revealed that CNP leaders and affiliates in both Washington and contested states were activated as early as August 2020 in a coordinated effort to discredit the election, which they apparently expected to lose.

Notable on the long list of CNP members who organized that "Stop the Steal" campaign during the period leading up to Election Day and beyond included convicted felon Ali Alexander, a close associate of Roger Stone; Charlie Kirk, whose Turning Point student group brought busloads to the capital on January 6; Ginni Thomas, spouse of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the center of a web of far right organizations; and Cleta Mitchell, a prominent Republican elections lawyer who joined the cries of "fraud" voiced by Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell.

Nelson outlines how the Trump campaign actually sought to steal the election with pressure campaigns in the contested states, especially Georgia, where Cleta Mitchell participated in Trump's notorious phone call pressuring state officials to "find 11,780 votes" that would undo his defeat. When Georgia officials—Republicans at that--rejected that bullying overture from the White House, Trump turned to the Justice Department – and to law professor named John Eastman, an eminence in the conservative Federalist Society. In another illuminating essay published by the Washington Spectator, former State Department official Jonathan Winer explains Eastman's radical legal theory, under which GOP state legislators could simply proclaim "fraud," toss out the popular vote, and anoint Trump.

The full picture of this plot – not a theory but a real and very sinister conspiracy – has yet to be fully exposed, but we know that months before January 6th, the CNP and its allies were working to mobilize state legislators to discard actual votes and install fake electors. To uncover every aspect of the coup means thwarting the coverup that Trump is orchestrating, as he orders his former staffers to invoke imaginary "executive privilege" and avoid testifying before House and Senate investigators. Steve Bannon, Mark Meadows and all the conspirators must be compelled to testify and produce documents – or go to jail.

Yes, We Really Can Save The Earth (And Here’s Proof)

Reprinted with permission from Creators

Anyone who lives in the world of scientific reality — which we all do, although some like to pretend we don't — may feel dejected these days by the inevitability of catastrophic climate change. For years now, the news about the fate of the Earth (and the living things that inhabit our planet) has grown increasingly grim, with doomsday projected to arrive sometime before the end of this century.

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Hands Off General Milley — He Did Nothing Wrong

What Gen. Mark Milley has learned during his most recent years of service is what most Americans have now come to understand about former President Donald Trump. He was always a highly dysfunctional and dangerous leader, or as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi succinctly told the general, "crazy." Treating him as a "normal" president would involve unacceptable risk.

That knowledge had to be a stunning realization for a military leader raised in our country's traditions of strict civilian control of the armed services. When the civilian in control has lost control of himself — and struck many around him as unstable from the beginning — then the burden of averting disaster inevitably falls heavily on flag officers at the pinnacle of the command structure. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appointed by Trump himself, Milley confronted the conundrum in the frenzied final days of Trump's misrule.

Anyone who judges what the JCS chairman did must take into account the ominous context of his actions.

According to Peril, the aptly titled new book by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, tensions with China increasingly spooked top officials in the Pentagon as Election Day approached in the fall of 2020. Intelligence suggested that the Chinese military feared a U.S. military strike, ordered by Trump, who was screaming about "kung flu," which could erupt into a catastrophic conflict. Not only Milley but also then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper sent calming messages to their Chinese counterparts, urging them not to "over-read" Trump's belligerent threats during the presidential campaign.

It isn't clear whether Esper or Milley told the irrational Trump about those contacts. Milley has described the calls as "routine" and "perfectly within the duties" of his job.

The effects of their soothing outreach dissipated in the election's aftermath, when Trump's mad and bad behavior attempted the ultimate destabilization of the American order, climaxing in the attempted coup of January 6. Observing the potentially lethal mischief of a deranged president, the Chinese government went on red alert.

Woodward and Costa report that on January 8, as the full dimensions of Trump's assault on our political system emerged, Milley reached out to the Chinese leadership again. He offered assurances that Trump would not attack China and therefore China need not contemplate the launch of any preemptive or defensive attack on the U.S. The Post reporters write that Milley promised to deliver a secret warning to the Chinese if any such attack was imminent — although Axios reports a slightly different version, in which the JCS chairman says, "We'll both know if we're going to war ... there's not gonna be some surprise attack and there's no reason for you to do a preemptive strike."

At the same time, Milley sought to reinforce the safeguards within the U.S. chain of command, which are designed to prevent a nuclear strike by a crazed president who attempts to act unilaterally. Milley reiterated to top generals and admirals that they were not to undertake any military action outside those protocols that he feared Trump might attempt, perhaps through a lower-ranking officer.

Unsurprisingly, Trump is enraged by the revelation of his top general's profound sense of responsibility, which has put on public display again the utter disrespect and mistrust he engendered in every experienced official he appointed. They all knew firsthand that he was absurdly unqualified to be president, his incapacity exceeded only by his frightening arrogance. Beyond the forced displays of toadying by his Cabinet, not one person who observed him close-up thought he was competent or rational.

In Trump's cartoon presidency there were endlessly embarrassing and outrageous moments — and then there were other moments when an unstable narcissist with access to the nuclear codes could have become a threat to the world. If Trump had turned into such a menace, Milley's choices were very narrow indeed.

Milley upheld his oath out of patriotism to the highest degree, contrary to the right-wing banana republic chorus that ludicrously claims he committed "treason." Milley aimed to preserve stability and avoid crisis by following all the protocols. He retains the full confidence of President Joe Biden, for good reason.

Our flag officers are not about to follow the impulses of a real traitor like former Gen. Michael Flynn, the convicted criminal pardoned by Trump, who urged that Trump institute martial law. Gen. Mark Milley did his duty and performed under pressure with composure and honor. He is owed thanks, not insults.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com

Why Biden’s Approval Ratings Will Rise Again

When President Joe Biden announced his new plan to mandate vaccinations and additional strong measures to curtail the spreading coronavirus, he was refreshingly brisk and blunt. It was a speech that marked an important step toward restoration of American political sanity.

"My message to unvaccinated Americans is this: What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see? We've made vaccinations free, safe and convenient," the president said. And then he sounded the bass note: "We've been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us."

Evidently the president now realizes that the great majority of this country's citizens — after enduring the lockdowns, wearing the masks, taking the shots — are frustrated and yearning for effective action against the pandemic and its human accomplices. They see no reason to tolerate collusion in the spread of a deadly disease that has killed hundreds of thousands and threatens to kill many more with surging variants. They are ready to crack down on the selfish, stupid minority who cannot be bothered to protect their neighbors or themselves.

Does that sound angry? Until now, most expressions of rage, not to mention violent threats and acts, have come from the opposite direction. Everyone has seen viral videos of outrageous misconduct and vile assaults from the opponents of masking and vaccination, encouraged by right-wing media outlets that confuse "freedom" with promiscuous infection. This week, millions watched a disgusting person intentionally cough on a woman and her daughter in a grocery store because they were masked. Happily, that person's employers at SAP watched it too, and fired her sorry ass.

Yes, Americans have seen enough of that literally sickening behavior. When Biden said, "our patience is wearing thin," he was putting it mildly. He knows, because recent polls have suggested that patience with him was beginning to diminish too.

While the chaotic U.S. departure from Afghanistan may have influenced the dip in Biden's approval ratings, his deeper problem was the raging wave of coronavirus infections and deaths brought on by the Delta variant. The high ratings he enjoyed since taking office owed much to his deliberate and determined offensive against the pandemic; when he was perceived to falter over the past few months, his numbers slipped. Meanwhile, public support has been rising for vaccine mandates and a tougher approach overall.

The trend first became obvious in California, as so many trends do. The recall campaign against Gov. Gavin Newsom, it should be emphasized, caught fire when he was caught flouting his own COVID-19 regulations at a fancy Napa restaurant. The latest surveys, however, show Newsom pulling ahead because of his own government's vaccination mandates — and because he has rightly warned against the "anti-vax Republican government" that would take over if voters boot him. He has saved his political career by putting vaccine mandates at the center of his administration. If the election were held today, he would likely win by as much as 20 percent, perhaps more.

Even before Biden announced his own new suite of policies, the vaccination rate was steadily increasing again, largely thanks to public and private sector mandates that have gained traction since early summer. By overwhelming majorities, the public approves of those requirements at work and at school — and the result is that vaccine hesitancy has been steadily diminishing, with polls showing resistance at its lowest level since the question was first asked.

The most bracing moment in Biden's speech came when he informed the governors of Texas and Florida, and any others who might follow them, that his administration will financially and legally bolster any school district they attempt to intimidate from protecting teachers and students. In that instant, he confronted the toxic bullying by Republicans who want to prolong the pandemic for partisan gain — and showed who is tougher.

What Americans want from their leaders is usually simple enough. They want compassion, common sense, decency, and above all strength of conviction. In a word, they want the kind of leadership that Biden is providing. His numbers will soon rise again as the infection numbers fall.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com

Looking Right Through Kevin McCarthy

Of all the Republican politicians who have ascended to leadership in Congress during the past few decades, none is a duller and more obvious hack than Rep. Kevin McCarthy. The House minority leader possesses none of the villainous charisma of Newt Gingrich or the ruthless greed of Tom DeLay, the ideological fervor of Paul Ryan or the puppyish desire to please of Eric Cantor, the louche cynicism of John Boehner or the predatory criminality of Dennis "Coach" Hastert.

Nobody expects the transparently empty McCarthy to stand up for principle of any kind. It is giving him a lot to call him a small-minded partisan, an assiduous corporate fundraiser, and a mediocre climber for whom ideas and ideals are so much grist for the Fox News mill. His far-right rivals in the GOP caucus, such as Rep. Jim Jordan, allow him to hold power because they can manipulate him so easily. His theme song should be "Mr. Cellophane" from the musical Chicago.

Weak in both intellect and character, McCarthy embodies the most banal defects of his predecessors — and so it is that he presides over the final stages of Republican decay, as the party formed to preserve the Union and democracy degenerates into an instrument of fascist insurrection.

As a perfectly hollow hack who first rose under Boehner's tutelage, McCarthy makes the hack Boehner now seem like a big man. McCarthy was against Trump's big lie before he was for it. After denouncing Trump, he ran with his tail between his legs to Mar-a-Lago, parroted the big lie and backed a lawsuit to overturn the election results in two states. Then he denied supporting Trump's claims of election fraud and grudgingly admitted that President Joe Biden had won. And then, within hours after the January 6 attack on the Capitol that clearly terrified him, he nevertheless voted against certifying the Democratic victory in two states — after he had told a reporter that he knew Biden was the legitimate victor.

McCarthy has continued this ridiculous dance — both accepting and not accepting Biden's legitimacy — while he obviously covers up the seditious conduct of his extremist members, from Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene to. Matt Gaetz and Madison Cawthorn.

But since his attempts to block any investigation of the conspiracies that led to the Capitol takeover on January 6, have failed, McCarthy has become an even more desperate performer. This week he sought to obstruct the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack by absurdly pretending to be a mob boss, as he made an unconvincing threat against telecom companies if they comply with lawful requests from that panel. Though he didn't specify any consequences, he warned that Republicans "will not forget" when they regain the majority.

Rarely has a politician so obviously exposed such blatant consciousness of guilt. Opening himself to an ethics complaint, which has now been filed against him, McCarthy continues his bad acting, showing his fear that the suspicions and speculations about the gang of loony Republicans in the days before that insurrection are true.

McCarthy led the expulsion of Rep. Liz Cheney from her position as the chair of the House Republican Conference to satisfy his insurrectionist caucus. But there's another reason he purged her. She's got his number. And now she's the vice chair of the January 6 investigative committee. McCarthy has reason to engage in his silly threats, his obvious obstruction of Congress, his false bravado. He's scared. But the more he dances, the more everybody sees right through him.

I tell ya Cellophane, Mr. Cellophane shoulda been my name,

Mr. Cellophane 'cause you can look right through me ...

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com

There’s One Path Forward — And It’s Mandatory

After Americans hoped that mass vaccination would bring COVID-19 under control — and permit the restoration of something like normal life — we are instead witnessing an explosion of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Despite the vaccine, the dangerous delta variant threatens younger people and even children, who escaped the worst of last year's carnage.

To an alarming degree, this crisis is the result of open sabotage of public health, coming from Republican politicians and right-wing media figures — who seem weirdly eager to doom their gullible constituents for a distorted conception of "freedom." No sane ideal includes the right to infect others with a deadly disease. Take it from George Washington, who ordered the compulsory vaccination of the Continental Army against smallpox during the American Revolution.

Now there is only one way, the George Washington way, to put an end to this nightmare: the mandatory vaccination of every eligible man, woman and child. The alternative is to endure a chronic disaster, as vaccine resistance promotes the growth of potentially more contagious and deadly viral mutations.

From the moment he became president, Joe Biden focused on outreach, persuasion and every means of encouraging voluntary vaccination. For a while that appeared to be working well, especially in parts of the country where science holds more sway than conspiracy theories and superstitions. But there is no way to cordon off the fools, dupes and charlatans from the rest of us. That is why infections are spiking even in places where vaccination and masking rates are high.

More recently, Biden has announced vaccination requirements for federal workers, employees of federal contractors and military personnel. He has also endorsed and even urged vaccination mandates by private corporations and other entities. But he has hesitated to insist on certain national policies that would lead to universal inoculation.

No doubt the president and his advisers dread the polarization that such measures would inevitably cause. They may fear an upsurge in anti-vaccination violence from the kind of pathological personalities who assault store clerks, teachers and even nurses for wearing masks.

But as he weighs next steps against the pandemic, Biden should keep in mind that despite the noise created by right-wing media, vaccine mandates are popular. In late July, 56 percent of adults said employers should require vaccination for both employees and customers, while only 32 percent objected, according to a Morning Consult poll. A July Gallup Poll found that 60 percent of adults believe that high school and middle school students should be vaccinated to return to school.

And earlier this summer, a survey by a consortium of universities found that 64 percent of adults support a national vaccine mandate for everyone. According to FiveThirtyEight, only three states didn't show majority support for the strictest requirement — North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Biden, of course, knows that his initial popularity stemmed largely from his handling of the pandemic, which contrasted so nobly with the feckless former guy. To regain that commanding position — and to fulfill the promises he made on taking office — he can demonstrate the strength to push back the forces imperiling the nation's recovery. He can start by renewing his call for mandatory vaccinations and bringing together government, business and labor to support that call, and by using his executive authority to establish vaccination requirements for anyone traveling interstate by air, rail, bus or boat.

Moreover, anyone who seeks to discourage vaccination by violence or threats should be subject to immediate prosecution by federal authorities, without exception.

Not only is mandatory vaccination morally sound and politically popular, but it also works. When French President Emmanuel Macron announced a new hard line on "vaccine passports" for access to all kinds of public venues, predictions of political disaster ensued. After all, France was the home of the "yellow vests," whose insurgency against fuel taxes came close to toppling his government two years ago.

Macron's new law has provoked some protests, but they have dissipated. During its first two days the mandate sparked a surge in vaccination appointments of 2 million, roughly the equivalent of 10 million in the United States. Across the continent, such statutes have allowed the European Union to rapidly surpass the U.S. in vaccine uptake.

There is only one path forward, and the nation is losing patience while we wait for Biden to lead us in that direction. The public interest demands even stronger action now to save all of our lives — including those of citizens who are resisting science and common sense.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com

Trump, The Taliban, And The Fall Of Kabul

When we last heard from the Taliban ten months ago, they had an urgent message addressed to the American people. In early October 2020, the same Taliban official now appearing on screens everywhere as their official spokesman took the highly unusual step of endorsing a candidate for president of the United States.

Their man was then-President Donald J. Trump.

"We hope he will win the election and wind up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan," said Zabihullah Mujahid during an October 10 interview with CBS News.

If not quite equal to North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un's "love letters," their endorsement radiated warmth. The Taliban spokesman predicted Trump "is going to win the upcoming election because he has proved himself a politician who accomplished all the major promises he had made to American people."

The endorsement gleefully insulted American democracy, too. Trump, crowed the Taliban, was the man who "could control the situation inside the country," meaning our country. Trump, it emphasized, was the kind of leader that the Taliban admires.

Trump, who disdained wearing masks and social distancing, had fallen ill with Covid-19, and the Taliban leadership expressed their sympathy and concern. "When we heard about Trump being COVID-19 positive, we got worried for his health," another Taliban official told CBS, "but seems he is getting better."

Perhaps the Taliban chiefs were then still hoping for an invitation to Camp David, a prize the American president dangled in 2019. Their peculiar affinity has not received the attention that Trump's bizarre infatuation with the North Korean dictator did. Of course, from gay rights to the subjugation of women, the Taliban share certain fundamentalist superstitions with the Republicans.

But the immediate occasion for the Taliban endorsement was Trump's announcement that he expected to withdraw the last U.S. troops before the New Year. "We should have the small remaining number of our brave men and women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas," Trump tweeted on October 9. His endorsement by the Taliban came the very next day.

The Trump administration's impulsive, often idiotic approach to national security served our Islamist adversaries very well. Among other things, Trump forced the release from prison of over 5,000 Taliban fighters — including the commanders who ultimately led the takeover of Kabul.

Imagine the horror show on the ground in Afghanistan if the U.S. government had tried to fulfill Trump's pledge to pull every American out by Christmas. Or even by last May, the date ultimately negotiated but pushed back four months by the Biden administration, which came into office without any idea what Trump was doing because he denied access to crucial information during the transition. Meanwhile, at Trump's instigation the Republicans were busily spreading lies about the election and plotting an insurrection at home.

So while congressional Republicans and right-wing pundits work themselves up into a lather over the collapse of the Afghan regime and ensuing chaos, we can put their sudden indignation into perspective. Very few have any standing to criticize Biden after silently passing over Trump's withdrawal plan, which they're now trying to erase.

Nor does that smaller faction of erstwhile Republicans — the Never Trumpers — have much credibility to complain about Biden. Most of them, such as Rep. Liz Cheney, who is bravely taking on Trump, are implicated in the Bush administration decisions that led inexorably to this humiliating moment. They cheered the catastrophic Iraq invasion and the concomitant failure to support a successful Afghan occupation.

Those who say that the Afghanistan project was always doomed offer a powerful argument. But if there ever was an opportunity for a government to prevail there, it was squandered in the sands of Iraq.

By the time Biden entered office, the choices before him were extremely narrow. He could follow through on Trump's badly negotiated scheme, or he could resume our role in a slow, brutal, hopeless civil war that might cost another 100,000 Afghan lives along with more American blood and treasure. He promised to end the war and has the courage to fulfill that pledge. Nobody should be surprised by his policy choices.

But Biden should have known better than to believe reassurances about how long the Afghan regime could stand without our troops and air power. The inadequate plans for withdrawal, the premature decision to abandon the Bagram airbase and the failure to begin an early rescue operation for our Afghan friends all deserve criticism and inquiry.

Fortunately, congressional Democrats seem ready to scrutinize these intelligence and policy misjudgments. Were Republicans in charge of Congress during a Trump administration withdrawal, rest assured there would be no searching oversight but only an obsequious rubber stamp.

Keeping his promise to end the forever wars probably won't diminish Biden. He must bend every effort to save the Afghans who assisted the U.S. and those who were building whatever civil society existed there. But Americans should think long and hard about the terrible errors of the last 20 years.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com

The Sedition Caucus, Under Oath

It is an indisputable fact that House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, were at the very heart of former President Donald Trump's coup plot to overturn the 2020 presidential election. While more than hints and clues have pointed to their involvement ever since the January 6 insurrection, their central role emerged this past week when notes of a December 27, 2020, conversation between Trump and the acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen were disclosed.

Informed by Rosen that the Department of Justice could not and would not reverse President Joe Biden's election victory, Trump urged him to "just say the election was corrupt [and] leave the rest to me and the [Republican] congressmen." Moments later, Trump referred specifically to Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, founder of the Freedom Caucus and close associate of Mark Meadows, the former Freedom Caucus chair who left Congress to become Trump's White House chief of staff.

Jordan is so far unwilling to say whether he will testify about the insurrection if he is summoned, just as he refused years ago to assist official inquiries into hundreds of sexual assaults on the Ohio State wrestling team in which he was suspected of complicity or worse. But this time, if the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol requests his appearance, either voluntarily or by subpoena, he will have to show up or face legal consequences. So will several other members of the Capitol Hill "sedition caucus" who sought to invalidate Biden's election, including McCarthy and Arizona Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs, Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, to name a few of the most prominent.

And so will their longtime confederate Meadows, who has already been subpoenaed by the House Oversight Committee in the Rosen matter and "may face significant criminal exposure," according to the Just Security website published by New York University School of Law.

Each of these Republican myrmidons has serious questions to answer. Brooks, donning a flak jacket when he addressed the pre-riot Trumpist rally at the Ellipse on January 6 calling for "kicking ass," has claimed immunity, a justification denied by the DOJ. Boebert allegedly gave a tour through the Capitol with unknown persons later identified as insurrectionists in December and January. "Stop the Steal" organizer Ali Alexander boasted of concocting a plan to intimidate Congress from certifying the election with Gosar, Biggs, and Brooks.

Jordan was implicated in the coup effort very early, even before Election Day, when he publicly accused Democrats of planning to corrupt the balloting. In the weeks leading up to the insurrection, he plotted with Meadows and Trump at the White House; in the days afterward, he was given the Medal of Freedom by Trump in a closed ceremony there. It is undoubtedly the first time that high honor has been awarded for seditious conspiracy against the Republic.

As the Lincoln historian and former presidential adviser Sidney Blumenthal pointed out in a recent Guardian column, members of Congress possess no immunity against a subpoena from a House investigating committee. Moreover, as Blumenthal also noted, there is richly ironic precedent to summon all of these characters, voluntarily or otherwise, in the official Senate probe of John Brown's infamous Harpers Ferry raid on the eve of the Civil War. Leading that investigation was none other than Mississippi Sen. Jefferson Davis, the traitor who later served as president of the Confederacy (whose battle flag soiled the Capitol hallways on January 6.)

Harper's Ferry was the last domestic insurrection to come under congressional scrutiny — until now. Among the witnesses called to testify about the events leading up to Brown's attack were two antislavery Republican senators suspected by Davis of knowing or aiding him. And it is safe to say that Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, and other Democrats on the committee are aware of that precedent.

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, one of two Republicans named to the committee by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has suggested that Jordan and McCarthy, both of whom spoke with Trump on January 6, should be called — and a very large and rapt television audience awaits her questioning of them.

Meadows, who spent that day and the days preceding the insurrection with Trump in the White House and knows what the former president did and didn't do, will have to face the music. It will not be the last time he's been caught in a coup. In January 2013, when he conspired with Jordan to overthrow Republican House Speaker John Boehner, he was exposed in the failed attempt. He later came to the speaker's office, according to Boehner, got down on his knees, and pleaded, "Will you please forgive me?" Meadows will undoubtedly have another opportunity to get on his knees soon.

These ultra-right Republicans are the face of an authoritarian and frankly nihilist insurgency that began its takeover of the Grand Old Party back when their model Newt Gingrich rose to power as speaker. It is no surprise that this miscreant crew now surrounds their would-be dictator Trump like a praetorian guard, or that they spearheaded his attempt to destroy democracy. But the time is rapidly approaching when they will have to answer for those actions under oath. Of course, Jordan and Meadows and Brooks and Boebert and the other members of the gang can always plead the Fifth Amendment.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com

Murder Rate Rose In Republican Cities, Too

If you're worried by the rise in violent crime — a real and troubling phenomenon — don't ask Republicans for solutions. All they can offer is a blame game that relies on dubious cherry-picked data. To get their message, just glance at Breitbart.com, the home of hard-right hackery: "Violent Crime Surges 25 Percent in 2021 With Democrats in Washington." You can find dozens of similar headlines across right-wing platforms, which invariably announce "skyrocketing crime rates in Dem-run cities." (Stay tuned for grainy video of a disturbing attack.)

Then there's former President Donald Trump himself, the loudest presidential loser in history, blathering fantastical statistics that are meant to show how dangerous life is in America now that he's gone.

Such assertions may momentarily satisfy the two-minute anger ritual that substitutes for critical thinking among the Republican base. Whenever something bad is happening, it can only be the result of a conspiracy implicating Democrats, immigrants, minorities, immigrants and minorities in cities — and preferably all of the above. Rising crime fulfills both the cynical strategy of Republican politicians and the primitive emotions of their voters.

But should you wish to understand what's actually happening, not only in major cities but in towns and counties of every size, then it's worth examining data beyond the Republican talking points.

Murder rates are indeed going up in cities around the country. And because most cities are governed by Democratic mayors, it is accurate to say that violent crime rates are rising in "Democrat-run cities." But, as the Republicans parroting that line of propaganda know, it's also accurate to say that violent crime is rising in "Republican-led cities."

While the murder rate has gone up in Chicago and Detroit and Philadelphia, all run by Democrats, the murder rate has likewise gone up in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; in Fort Worth, Texas; in Fresno, California; and in Miami, Florida. Every one of those cities is run by a Republican mayor and overseen by a Republican governor.

Jacksonville, Florida, is known as the "murder capital" of the Sunshine State — and has had a Republican mayor for the past six years. Fort Worth survived its most violent year in the past quarter century in 2020, with a murder rate that nearly doubled from the previous year. Betsy Price has been the city's Republican mayor for the past 10 years.

The point is not, of course, that Republican mayors are culpable for the shocking upsurge in violence that beset their cities last year — nor were they probably responsible for the sharp drops in crime that the entire country experienced over the past two decades. The underlying causes of crime rates, whether trending up or down, have puzzled criminologists, cops and other honest experts for many years.

Equally inaccurate is the claim that "defund the police" — a wrongheaded and confusing slogan briefly popular in the aftermath of George Floyd's 2020 murder — has sparked the growing number of urban killings. But the data show clearly that the same trend is evident across cities, whether they increased or decreased police funding. Even stupid slogans don't kill people.

Guns do kill, however — and among the suggestive statistics of the pandemic is the alarming national flood of firearms purchases. While most crime remains relatively low compared to previous decades, gun violence is way up. The National Rifle Association might tell you that more guns make us more safe, but life doesn't actually work that way.

The extremes on both sides of this issue are misguided. We would almost certainly be safer with more and better-trained police as well as fewer and better-tracked guns. Still, the plain fact is that we don't yet know for sure why the rates of the worst violent crimes went up over the past year or so.

What we do know — and what someone should tell Trump whenever he opens his mouth to exacerbate racial polarization — is that the sharp increase began in 2020. Yes, that was during his presidency. So, you could write a headline blaring: "Homicide Rates Increased 53 Percent in Major Cities Between 2019 and 2020," and that would be true, too.

Would that claim prove anything? Not really. Except that on issues of public policy, the former guy and his little partisan echoes should pipe down.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Will Americans Go Backward Into Disease And Depression, With Trump?

In the professional stratum of politics, few verities are treated with more reverence than the outcome of next year's midterm, when the Republican Party is deemed certain to recapture majorities in the House and Senate. With weary wisdom, any pol or pundit will cite the long string of elections that buttress this prediction.

Political history also tells us that many factors can influence an electoral result, including a national crisis or a change in economic conditions — in other words, things can change and even midterm elections are not entirely foretold. There have been a few exceptions to this rule, too.

Such an exception ought to be possible in a country where, increasingly, the Democratic Party represents majority opinion on most salient issues, while the Republican Party wields power mainly because of rules, traditions, population imbalances and constitutional anomalies that thwart the majority. In no other democratic nation is the will of most citizens so systematically frustrated.

So the Democrats must fight their way uphill, and they would be wise to start now. The way to begin is to define the terms of battle with a message that reflects the lived experience as well as the hopes and expectations of voters in America after former President Donald Trump's 2020 election loss — and draws a powerful contrast with the opposition.

That message begins with the behavior of the Republicans, who no longer even pretend to have policy solutions to the crises that America confronts. Instead, they function solely as sycophantic servants of Trump, whose synthetic grievances over his impeachments and defeat continue to be their shared obsession. The Grand Old Party is no longer grand and scarcely a party, but it is terribly "old" in the most insulting sense: an entity decrepit and stuck in the past.

In recent days, the Republican leadership and a few of its media minions have seemed to sense how badly and bloodily they botched the pandemic. Suddenly, after more than a year of pretending it would go away and months of undermining the vaccination campaign, some of them are urging Americans to get inoculated. But with so many loonies and cultists infesting their active base, the party can't dispel the aura of needless, stupid death that surrounds it. Geniuses that they are, the Republicans apparently noticed President Joe Biden's strong approval, which rests on his competent, compassionate, scientific response to the pandemic.

Meanwhile that awful negative aura extends over the Republican obstruction of Biden's investments in economic recovery and national infrastructure, which are favored by a big majority of voters — and even a plurality of their own party rank and file. As the benefits of the Democratic program reach more households, the inadequacy of the Republicans will only be underlined.

The last time Democrats defied the midterm curse was in 1998, when Newt Gingrich overplayed his hand by impeaching Bill Clinton — another Republican outrage against the popular will. Their paranoid and conspiratorial tendencies have only grown worse over the past two decades.

Today's Republicans can be relied upon to exhibit the same character deficit as the 2022 cycle unfolds. That process began earlier this month, when a mob of fascist thugs disrupted a town hall hosted by Democratic Rep. Katie Porter in her Southern California district. While Porter spoke about solutions to climate change and the pandemic, they interrupted her with shouted slogans and tried to drown her out. The disturbance was planned, organized, and led by her Republican opponent, a white nationalist and anti-vaccination activist who disgracefully joined in physical attacks on her supporters.

The attack on Porter, so reminiscent of the worst Tea Party scenes in 2009, is a harbinger of things to come. It is a clear reminder to every voter of what the GOP now represents as an engine of authoritarian violence, big lies and bigotry — the continuation of January 6. They are nothing more than Trump, a hollow figure who returns endlessly to a past that reeks of depression, disease and deception. And they are willing to violate every democratic principle to drag the country backward with him.

But most Americans don't want to go backward with Trump and his goons. Now they must mobilize to defend democracy and keep moving forward.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

The Pedophiles' Best Friend Is A Trump Republican

Of all the lurid nonsense circulating among conspiracy-addled Republicans, none of their theories is viler than the libel of child sexual abuse that began under the rubric of "Pizzagate" and became the basis of the cult ideology of QAnon. So successful was the smear campaign begun by followers of Donald Trump that millions of deranged people now believe those gothic horror tales targeting the likes of Hillary Clinton, Chrissy Teigen, and Tom Hanks, with the connivance of Republican politicians in search of Jewish space lasers.

Then there's real life, in which actual, detestable pedophiles and other sex offenders can depend on their reliable defender Kenneth W. Starr to shield them from the punishment they deserve. Yes, it's that Ken Starr, the Savanarola of sexual propriety, who is the pedophiles' best friend.

What we have learned in recent days about the sanctimonious Starr, from his alleged sexual infidelities to his zealous defense of the late Jeffrey Epstein, not only strips away his pious pretensions as sheer hypocrisies but also raises serious questions about his conduct that must still be answered.

A former public relations executive named Judi Hershman opened the latest inquest into Starr's iniquities on July 13 when she published an essay on Medium titled "Ken Starr, Brett Kavanaugh, Jeffrey Epstein and Me" that detailed, among many other things, her own illicit affair with the former independent counsel. Her account of an episode with the borderline Kavanaugh and his uncontrollable temper when they both worked for Starr on the Clinton prosecution, as well as her disillusionment with the misogynistic Starr, is worth reading. Yes, that Ken Starr, who, she says, took her hand and "placed it on his crotch."

Hershman recalls Starr's attempt in 2010 to deceive her into "counseling" Epstein, whom he whitewashed as "a very wealthy, very smart businessman who got himself into trouble for getting involved with a couple of underage girls who lied about their ages." He explained that "everyone deserves representation" and that the very smart businessman had "promised to keep it above 18 from now on." By then Epstein had raped scores of underage girls, and thereafter continued to do so.

Hershman writes that at the time, it didn't occur to her that Starr himself would be lying about Epstein, or that he might have been involved in executing the "secret and egregious sweetheart deal" that allowed the very smart businessman to evade justice for so many years.

But according to a new book by Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown, who first blew the lid off that deal, Starr was zealously committed to the Epstein defense. Her earlier reporting led to the dismissal of Alex Acosta, the U.S. Attorney in Florida who signed off on that agreement, from former President Donald Trump's cabinet.

In Perversion of Justice, Brown writes that Epstein brought on Starr and Jay Lefkowitz, his longtime associate and partner at Kirkland & Ellis, because of their connections in the Bush Justice Department. Starr's campaign on behalf of Epstein included a "brutal" smear of a female prosecutor and an insider lobbying effort at the department's Washington headquarters.

Apparently, Starr has a strangely protective attitude toward molesters and rapists, even when he isn't being paid big money to defend them. A few years after his crusade on Epstein's behalf, he and his wife sent a letter to a county judge urging leniency for Christopher Kloman, a retired school administrator and friend of the Starrs who pled guilty to molesting five girls at the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia. They thought he should be sentenced to community service, but the judge instead gave him 43 years in prison.

Americans first glimpsed the dark side of Starr's character when he published the salacious Starr Report (co-authored by Kavanaugh) that led to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. They learned more about him when he was booted from the presidency of Baylor University for covering up the rampant sexual abuse of women on campus, including a gang rape by football players. With his partisan fanaticism and his bogus religiosity, he was a natural for Trump's impeachment defense.

Considering the smears perpetrated against Hillary Clinton in recent years, it is ironic indeed to review the unsavory conduct of a man who spent so much public time and money attempting to frame her for crimes she didn't commit as first lady. But these revelations about Starr should evoke more than bemused contempt.

What Julie Brown's book demands is a full investigation of an authentic conspiracy to pervert justice by Republican prosecutors and lawyers, including Starr. The Justice Department and the House and Senate judiciary committees must not let them get away with it.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this column wrongly identified the former US Attorney in southern Florida as Alex Azar -- the former secretary of health and human services. Azar has no connection with the Epstein case and we regret the error.]

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com

How The Republican Party Became A Death Cult

The childish narcissism and prideful ignorance of the American right — as personified in its idol, former President Donald Trump — have transformed "conservatism" into a public health menace. Republicans in office and their media echoes are the principal obstacles to vaccinating enough Americans to achieve herd immunity from COVID-19, which would be awful even if their gullible audiences were the only potential victims.

But the rapid spread of the highly contagious and harmful delta variant is a warning that large pools of unvaccinated human hosts create the perfect environment for further mutations that may overcome vaccines and kill more efficiently. This means, in short, that the Republicans resisting vaccination and encouraging others to resist are a danger to all. After whining bitterly for the past year about masks and shutdowns, these same complainers may now make a safe reopening impossible.

The campaign to thwart vaccination grows more intense on the right as the Biden administration seeks desperately to prevent a viral catastrophe. It is a campaign of fear and lies, seemingly designed to ensure that the maximum number of Americans will succumb to the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 99 percent of those Americans now dying from coronavirus infection are unvaccinated. The Republicans urging their constituents to reject the vaccine appear determined to massacre them in a terrible parody of the Darwinian theory of natural selection.

What's so strange about this strategy is that its only possible result will be to cull the gullible who make such easy marks for every "conservative" crusade, con and scam. Perhaps the point is to block President Joe Biden's vaccination campaign from ultimate success, even if such partisan recalcitrance mostly kills their own.

Equally sinister is the fact that many of the loudest voices hindering universal inoculation belong to hucksters who are already vaccinated themselves. Consider the Fox News Network, where hysterical anti-vaccine messages are broadcast every day and night, most prominently by Tucker Carlson — who refuses to disclose whether he (and his family) have been vaccinated.

Sean Hannity at first refused to say whether he got the shot, but then admitted that he had. With his usual intellectual consistency, Hannity continued to discourage vaccination anyway. Jesse Watters, Brit Hume, Harris Faulkner, the hosts of "The Five" and "Fox & Friends," and nearly every other on-air personality are all inoculated. We can be confident that the studio personnel, camera crews and all the office staff who work for the network are vaccinated too.

We know for certain, too, that Rupert Murdoch is not only vaccinated but went to London last December so he could jump the line for a jab. The marauding billionaire Fox News boss clearly knows how to keep himself safe but doesn't care if hundreds of thousands of his network's viewers are imperiled. The profits from stoking stupidity have always been irresistible to him.

Why Republicans have decided to pursue this destructive obsession to the point where it specifically threatens their voters and donors is difficult to comprehend. After all, they spent months insisting that the Trump administration deserved all the credit for the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, a gross exaggeration of a scientific process that occurred over many years and outside the framework of Operation Warp Speed. Trump got the shot and has declared vaccines to be "safe and effective" and "a miracle."

Yet almost every day, Trump's lackeys ratchet up the anti-vaccine melodrama to new and highly fictionalized extremes. Crazed members of Congress declare that the nation faces a "Marxist" conspiracy to force everyone to get a shot. Their foam-flecked rhetoric threatens the safety of health care workers who will soon be visiting households to inform the unvaccinated about the shot and where to get one. For trying to save lives, those workers will encounter scorn and perhaps violence.

The Republican loudmouths must be unaware that mandatory vaccinations have been a reality in this country for decades — and of course have saved millions of lives. Today, according to the CDC, every single state, red or blue, mandates various vaccinations for staff and students in public schools. Thousands of businesses, large and small — and probably not operated by Marxists — are requiring employee vaccination now.

Does freedom require us to allow stupid people to endanger everyone else and the future of society? Or should we be seeking to free ourselves from the ravages of a disease that has killed 600,000 of our people and millions around the world?

It isn't a hard question. Get vaccinated.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

What Patriotism Means -- And Doesn't Mean -- In America Today

Marking this year's Independence Day will feel different to most Americans because the yoke of an oppressive presidency has been lifted from the nation. Over the past four years we endured the rule of a man unfit for the responsibilities of his office, unwilling to honor the oath he had sworn to uphold the Constitution and unable to lead our diverse people as we seek a more perfect union. The end of that unwholesome episode is ample reason for celebration — and an occasion to reflect on what patriotism means to us.

No American president in memory has so starkly epitomized the distinction between patriotism and nationalism as former President Donald J. Trump. And what he has showed us, in his typically crude style, is that lurking behind the loudest manifestations of nationalism is usually a gross betrayal of American ideals. We have also learned important lessons, sometimes — but not always — uplifting, about the values held by our fellow Americans.

Trump's misuse of national symbols and slogans was embedded deeply in his presidential campaign and the authoritarian movement it spawned. Ignorant of the rules and protocols that surround our flag, he hugged it to himself as if it were his personal property. Contemptuous of our constitutional traditions, he told voters that only he could "make America great again." Oblivious to the historical meaning of a phrase used by Nazis to weaken our resolve against fascism, he proclaimed "America First" as the foundation of his foreign policy. Or perhaps he did know — as so many of his bloody-minded supporters surely do.

From the day that he opened his first presidential campaign with the utterance of racist tropes, to the day that he tried to hang onto the presidency by inciting an insurrection at the Capitol, Trump violated every principle that an American patriot should uphold. He sought the highest office with the assistance of a foreign adversary in a manner that his own campaign manager deemed "treasonous," and then compounded that offense. He repeatedly undermined confidence in our democratic system, an act he has vowed to continue until his final breath. He purposely damaged the alliances that have protected our security for 75 years. He spit on the principles of liberty that distinguished us and our allies from the regimes that aim to humble us and cultivated dictatorships because he adores that vile and alien form of government.

Unhappily we watched as Trump infected the Republican Party, which was founded by Abraham Lincoln, with the nationalistic bluster that is his political brand — and displaced its policies and principles with conspiratorial obsessions and a personality cult. The party that once prided itself on its support of national security, military valor and the rule of law has discarded those standards. Trump's nasty little minions disparage the U.S. Army, the FBI, flag officers and decorated heroes, merely to please their Dear Leader. Those debased displays have settled the question of whether conservatives are more patriotic than liberals, which I have sometimes contemplated in this space.

But we have also watched over the past four years as some lifelong Republicans confronted the truth about Trump and what his rise proved about their party. Forced to choose between party and country, many of them made the truly patriotic decision to fight against Trumpism, even if it meant turning their backs on longtime friends and joining with their former foes in the Democratic Party. With those courageous acts, they salvaged a measure of honor for traditional conservatism.

At the moment, Trump and his minions are once again brandishing "patriotism" and so-called "patriotic education" to demonize Americans who are willing to face the ugly facts about American history, from slavery and Jim Crow to the dispossession and genocide of native Americans to the bigotries that still deface our country. It's another big lie.

On this holiday, let's acknowledge that love of country need not be blind. Generations of Americans of all backgrounds — the Black soldiers who return home to communities that violated their dignity, the Nisei troops who defended a nation that interned their families, the Native code-talkers from impoverished reservations — have proved their loyalty over and over again, despite their own deep awareness of how distant we are from that more perfect union. My father was a soldier too, and I stand with them.

Know your country, love your country, and defend your country's ideals of liberty and equality against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Happy Fourth.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Yes, There Is A Conspiracy

Conspiracy has replaced policy as the motivating force of the Republican Party and its media minions — but only the most flimsy and imaginary conspiracies qualify for partisan attention. Actual criminal conspiracies that threaten the nation merit no concern.

That's why congressional Republicans killed the independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection but now insinuate that the terrible events of that day were secretly instigated by the FBI. While there is no shred of evidence to support that fraudulent and insulting claim, the Party of Trump can say anything to its moronic cultists without fear of contradiction. They're faithful supporters of law enforcement, except when they're insulting law enforcement officers, accusing them of felonious schemes or perhaps trying to maim them.

Such fabrications ought to be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention over the past few years. Concocted to distract from real events and issues, they have become the standard Trumpist retort whenever a troubling question arises.

When the collusive relationship between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and the Kremlin became too obvious to ignore, the response from the suspected perpetrators (and traitors) in the White House was to scream "conspiracy." Somebody was conspiring to mount a "witch hunt" against Trump, whether it was the Deep State, the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS, the fake news media, or all of them combined. Investigators and subpoenas uncovered the facts, which included Trump Tower meetings with Russian agents, interference by Russian intelligence assets to support Trump, and even a handoff of sensitive campaign materials to a Russian spy. Then came the cover-up, with Trump promising (and eventually delivering) pardons to Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, and other crooks who might incriminate him.

Dismissing all of that, Attorney General Bill Barr pretended to see a possible conspiracy against Trump — and even deputized a U.S. Attorney named John Durham to uncover it. By the time that probe came up empty, however, everyone had presumably moved on.

Now the Republicans want to avoid a thorough investigation of the January 6 insurrection — and the malign and traitorous actors behind it — at any cost. Any serious probe will not only incriminate Trump and certain figures around him but may well implicate members of the House Republican caucus who encouraged the violence. We already know at least a few of their names, including Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs of Arizona, Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. All of them are frantically trying to conceal the horror of that day. Their actions scream consciousness of guilt.

Equally troubling for the Republican leaders is the prospect of testifying under oath about their own knowledge of what went down. They don't want to discuss the very strange failure by Trump to respond to pleas for help while the rioters hunted for members with intent to kill — as recounted by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. It's just too sickening, and so is their cowardice.

The Justice Department is prosecuting extremely violent conspiracies by members of the Trump-affiliated groups that attacked the Capitol, notably the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and the QAnon cult. When all of the connections between those scummy outfits and Trump's circle are finally revealed, McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pray that America will no longer be paying attention.

If the fascist faction in the House — and their spokesman Tucker Carlson, the Fox News fabulist — believe their own slanders of the FBI, they should be clamoring for an independent investigation. But they're manufacturing a lie — and they know it.

Fortunately, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just announced the formation of a House select committee to mount a full investigation of the January 6 insurrection. That special committee will have subpoena authority and, hopefully, a Democratic chair who will pursue the facts without remorse or fear. Unlike the independent commission, which Republicans rejected despite concessions to all of their demands, this committee will face no deadlines, nor require bipartisan agreement on investigative decisions.

Yes, there was, and is, a conspiracy against democracy, whose ringleaders will be exposed — despite the Republican leadership's desperate attempts to shield them.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.