U.S. gathering on religious freedom sets up competing narratives

The U.S. will host a first-of-its-kind gathering on international religious freedom next week, an assembly being hailed by evangelical voters who helped propel President Donald Trump into office.

The three-day Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom has become the hottest ticket in Washington, with more than 80 countries sending delegations, hundreds of rights activists attending, and a number of others being shut out for political reasons as well as lack of space.

The gathering gives Trump a high-wattage spotlight for showing his pro-Christian bona fides to the evangelical voters who helped him win the Oval Office. But it also gives the president’s critics a platform to assail what they see as his hypocrisy on human rights, especially when it comes to Muslims, whom Trump once proposed banning from U.S. soil.

“We’re living in the eye of a paradox: Both narratives are out there and perception is reality,” said Chris Seiple, a religious-freedom expert who advised the ministerial organizers. He said the Trump administration is trying to tackle the topic without favoring any one religious group, and in doing so is setting “a new precedent in diplomatic history on this issue in that it is bringing together governments and grass roots — top-down and bottom-up meet.”

The administration is heavily promoting the assembly, set for Tuesday through Thursday at the State Department. At least 40 foreign ministers are expected to show, including some from countries with questionable religious-rights records. Vice President Mike Pence, who has close ties to evangelical Christian groups, is planning to deliver a speech on the event’s final day.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has talked up the gathering in several interviews in recent days, calling it a “historic opportunity.”

“Religious freedom is something that’s very important to me personally; it’s very important to President Trump,” Pompeo told ABC Radio Australia. “And the State Department is going to lead the world in opening up religious freedom to every citizen.”

When Pompeo announced the event in May, he indicated that most countries asked to send delegations would be “like-minded” — with good records on religious freedom — but that some trying to improve their standing could also get invited.

But according to a State Department staffer, countries that managed to snag seats include Bahrain and Hungary, whose governments have been accused of hostility toward some religious groups. In Bahrain, Shiite Muslims, many of whom are opposition activists, have faced crackdowns by the Sunni-led monarchy. Hungary’s increasingly autocratic ruling party has faced a backlash over a law stripping recognition from a range of religious groups.

But China, Saudi Arabia and most other so-called Countries of Particular Concern — as designated by the State Department — were left off the invite list. One exception is Uzbekistan, a CPC country that appears to have made significant progress in improving its religious-rights record; it has been invited to set an example for others.

“There is clearly an effort here to use the peer pressure of the international community to urge respect for religious freedom,” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “The importance of this is to send a very strong message that America is once again concerned about religious freedom. They see it not as an American right, but as a human right.”

The State Department staffer said that Russia and Turkey, whose religious-rights records have been increasingly problematic, were left off the invite list. The staffer added that administration officials hoped to highlight in particular the religious abuses by the government of Iran, an Islamist-led country that the Trump administration has singled out for pressure to the point where analysts say it is effectively aiming for regime change.

On the civil-society front, the administration is taking an inclusive approach: Invitees range from atheists to Scientologists, according to the State Department staffer. Representatives of more broad-based organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, are also on the list. Many are hosting side events.

Trump, who avoids church and has a long history of sexual dalliances, has more than any president in modern history delivered on promises to evangelical voters, who helped propel him into the White House. In January, he became the first sitting president to address the annual March for Life rally in Washington. By the conclusion of next week’s event, the administration expects to announce a series of proposals, including plans for other countries to replicate U.S. institutions, as well as naming religious-freedom ambassadors.

“There will be some very tangible items which the administration wants to release,” Perkins said. “But the biggest thing here is this sends a message, a significant message, that religious freedom is a priority for the United States."

Brian Hook, a top aide to Pompeo, said in a recent interview with Crux, a news site focused on Catholicism, that the administration “decided to convene a ministerial on religious freedom because we don’t think that enough attention has been given to the persecution of Christian minorities around the world.”

The State Department sidestepped questions from POLITICO about whether this was indeed the case, but Pompeo and others have been careful not to make it appear that one religion will get more attention than others.

Still, few religious groups are as excited about the gathering as evangelical Christians. While activists in that category have been exceptionally supportive of Trump’s broader agenda, they haven’t always been happy with the administration’s handling of Christian persecution abroad. In particular, they have pressured the administration to send more aid to Christians in Iraq, who the U.S. has said were facing a genocide under the rule of the Islamic State terrorist network.

Pence last October promised U.S. Christian-rights activists that the administration would speed up and increase aid to those endangered Christians. Earlier this summer, he came under withering criticism from lawmakers and activists who said the aid had not materialized. Under pressure from the vice president, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced shortly afterward new measures to direct tens of millions of dollars more in aid to the religious minorities.

Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a vocal advocate for Christian minorities in the Middle East, said she and others were closely watching to see whether Pence and USAID would make good on their latest promise. Still, she praised the upcoming ministerial.

“It’s substantive and important,” she said. “It’s an important networking opportunity for all of us. But it also will be directed at creating institutions in other governments for advancing religious freedom around the world.”

The three-day event is being held 20 years after President Bill Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act, which requires the president and Congress to weigh religious freedom issues in U.S. foreign policy.

It will include opportunities for survivors of religious persecution to share their stories at a time when authoritarianism is on the rise and parts of the world are seeing spikes in religious oppression. One group likely to get special attention is the Rohingya, Muslims subjected to what the U.S. labels an ethnic cleansing campaign by Myanmar’s Buddhist-dominated army.

The gathering will also include opportunities for activists to raise concerns with U.S. officials. Human rights activists, while stressing that they are happy the U.S. is holding the ministerial, say they will not hold back in criticizing the Trump administration.

In particular, they expect to raise questions about the president’s views on Muslims, whom he has denigrated on multiple occasions, and his administration’s dramatic reduction of the number of refugees the U.S. accepts. Many refugees are fleeing religious persecution.

In addition, rights activists say they will make it clear to the administration that it cannot use religious freedom as a proxy for all sorts of human rights. To that end, they will probably criticize its decision to quit the U.N. Human Rights Council, Trump’s affinity for authoritarian leaders, his attacks on the news media and his repeated proposals to slash funding for foreign aid.

“This is an administration that has been, to put it plainly, horrendous on human rights, so many in the human rights community are appropriately skeptical,” said one top official with a prominent organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. “As always with these big, flashy ministerials, however, actions will speak louder than words, so the meeting really needs to be judged on what it produces.”

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/07/21/religious-freedom-gathering-state-department-narratives-735085

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Week 61: The News Was All Russian and Mueller Made None of It

From every news tributary and watercourse flowed one story this week that drowned out all others: Its name was Russia.

The big gusher remains Russian’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of it, which will put former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort on trial next week. But a new feeder stream opened up as President Donald Trump completed his trip to Helsinki where he genuflected to Russia President Vladimir Putin, made a series of secret deals and promises with the strongman, pronounced Putin’s proposal that Russian investigators interrogate American citizens—former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul specifically—an “incredible offer”, and flipflopped yet again on the question of Russian culpability in the monkeywrenching of the election. This flash flood culminated an invitation by Trump for Putin to visit the White House in the fall—a knockdown surprise to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats!—presumably for continued salaaming and selling out of American interests. Or maybe the notoriously optics-obsessed president just wants a do-over before the midterms to prove that he’s not a treasonous Russian stooge, as more than one appalled observer alleged.

But the deluge didn’t stop there as the Department of Justice—and not the special counsel—expanded the Russia storyline by charging Russian Maria Butina for failing to register as an agent of a foreign government. Butina, who swam in Republican Party circles under the guise of being an international gun rights advocate and U.S. graduate student, worked at the direction of sanctioned Russian official Alexander Torshin, according to the criminal complaint, to infiltrate and influence U.S. organizations “for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

Acting out a script that was more Get Smart than The Americans (the FBI was following her for years), Butina used the sourdough of her affiliation with the National Rifle Association to bake relationships with others in the conservative movement. She befriended David Keene, past chair of the American Conservative Union and one-time NRA president. She buttonholed Gov. Scott Walker. She arranged for Torshin to meet Russophile Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) during his visit to St. Petersburg. (Rohrabacher has been warned by the FBI that Russian spies were trying to recruit him.) She asked questions of candidate Donald Trump at a Las Vegas forum. Her subject of interest? Economic sanctions against Russians, the same topic broached by the Russians who called on Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower. She helped to set up back channels between the Kremlin and U.S. politicians. She proposed to bring Putin to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast. And she reported on her actions back to Moscow through Torshin. On the night of Trump’s victory, she messaged her handler: “I’m going to sleep. It’s 3 a.m. here. I am ready for further orders.”

Assisting Butina in her international intrigues was “U.S. Person 1,” identified by multiple news organizations as Paul Erickson, a longtime, minor Republican figure. Erickson, who lobbied on behalf of Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the mid-1990s, had a romantic relationship with Butina and cohabitated with her (and was business partners with her), tried and failed to introduce candidate Trump to Torshin at the 2016 NRA convention.

According to the Washington Post, security clearance problems foiled Erickson ambitions for a job in the Trump transition. By a single measure, he did have some influence in the forming of the new administration. “One person recalled his lobbying to get K.T. McFarland named as an adviser to Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser,” the Post reported. After Flynn was caught back-channeling with the Russian ambassador on the subject of sanctions, the White House reluctantly ejected him from his position and McFarland was eventually sent packing, too.

The Butina indictment doesn’t expose a saucy spy scandal as some headlines would appear to suggest. She did offer sex to an unnamed person “in exchange for a position within a special interest organization,” according to a court filing, but the criminal complaint offers no evidence of the sleuthing and secret-stealing performed undercover that we associate with real spying. If anything, Butina was an overcover agent, not a sleeper agent like Anna Vasilyevna Chapman who was busted in 2010 for espionage. She spoke with a Russian accent, traveled back and forth between the U.S. and her home, and provided go-between services for Russians seeking politically connected Americans. Unless the prosecution has something more up its sleeve, the charges against Butina—failure to file as a foreign agent, visa fraud—are as common in Washington as jaywalking.

But the known details of the Butina operation reveal Russia’s persistent pursuit of influence, connections, and introductions that are consistent with the patterns of manipulation through hacking and social media interference, which have already earned indictments from Mueller. The Butina operation is also consistent with the path-paving done by Russia influencers in their meetings with Trump figures like Manafort, George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and others. Russian efforts to influence and meddle continue, according to FBI Director Chris Wray. The Russians remain “the most aggressive actor” against the United States as they “sow divisiveness,” he continued.

The Russia tide was turned slightly at the end of the week with news of a secret recording between Trump and his former attorney, Michael Cohen, talking two months before the election about payments to a Playboy model who claims to have had a 10-month affair with Trump. The tape was part of the materials seized by the FBI in searches of Cohen’s office and residences in April. “The recording’s existence appears to undercut the Trump campaign’s denial of any knowledge of payments to the model,” the New York Times reported.

Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s current attorneys, attempted to play down the importance of the recording but in a way that inadvertently magnifies it. “It can’t be more than a minute and a half. …Twice someone walks in—someone brings soda in for them. It’s not some secret conversation,” Giuliani told the New York Times. “Neither one seems to be concerned anyone would hear it. It went off on irrelevant subjects that have nothing to do with this.”

What a peculiar perspective for the president’s attorney to share! Whenever I talk on the phone about payments to conceal my extra-marital affairs I shut and lock the door, I stick to the topic, and make my attorney swear a blood oath he’s not recording our words.

******

Send sleeper agents to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts used a student visa to get a job writing for this column. My Twitter feed has offered sex in exchange for work. My RSS feed’s clandestine work is limited to wet jobs.

Source: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/07/21/week-61-the-news-was-all-russian-and-mueller-made-none-of-it-219027

Republicans Have an Alger Hiss Problem Named Mariia

Alleged Russian spy Mariia Butina was arrested just a few days short of the 70th anniversary of the last major accusation of Russian infiltration in America’s political system: when on Aug. 3, 1948, Time editor and ex-communist Whittaker Chambers publicly accused former high-ranking State Department official Alger Hiss of being a Soviet agent.

Rattled Democrats, including President Harry Truman, handled the fallout poorly, hesitating to distance themselves from Hiss and unwittingly feeding a conservative narrative that they were soft on communism.

Republicans are now having their own Alger Hiss moment. Butina’s alleged efforts to ingratiate herself with conservative movement organizations and the Republican Party shows that Russia’s interest in Trump is not an operation focused on one man. As explained in the Justice Department affidavit, in October 2016 Butina reported to her Russian mentor that Republicans “are for us” and Democrats “against.” This is not just about one seductive spy, or even one president; it’s about how intertwined Russia and the Republican Party are becoming, and whether the Republican Party is willing and able to disentangle itself.

Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950, for falsely denying in his 1948 congressional testimony that he gave Chambers confidential State Department documents to be delivered to the Soviets. He served 44 months in prison, then spent the next 42 years maintaining his innocence, ever after intercepts declassified just before his death strongly indicated Hiss was a Soviet agent for years.

Shortly before his fall, Hiss had risen high enough in the State Department to serve as the acting secretary-general of the United Nations, during the 1945 San Francisco conference that finalized the international organization’s charter. When rumors of his Soviet ties prompted his resignation at the end of 1946, his reputation remained strong enough for a Republican, John Foster Dulles, to engineer a smooth transition into the presidency of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His guilt, while hotly debated for decades, left a lingering stain on the Democratic Party and on liberalism, making it difficult for the party to win the public trust on matters both foreign and domestic. If Republicans handle their Alger Hiss moment as awkwardly as Democrats did, they face a similar fate.

Why was Hiss such a touchstone for the Cold War era? Because for much of the left, he was an honorable man who served 14 years in three government departments during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, only to be smeared in a wave of anti-communist hysteria. For the right, he was proof that communists were crawling throughout our government and that liberal Democrats should be suspected of harboring secret, anti-American agendas. As Chambers wrote in “Witness,” when he fingered Hiss and “aimed at Communism,” he also struck out at “the forces of that great socialist revolution, which in the name of liberalism … has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.” Once Hiss served time – even though he was never convicted of espionage — the right had the upper hand in the argument.

The case marked the beginning of the post-World War II ideological fault lines that would shape American politics during the Cold War. The dueling testimonies of Chambers and Hiss to the House Un-American Activities Committee riveted the nation. The relentless pursuit of Hiss made a young congressman from California – Richard Nixon – a rock star in his party before there were rock stars. Days after Hiss’s conviction in 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy infamously took the anti-communist crusade to the next level, waving a long list of names he dubiously claimed were Communist Party members working in the State Department.

The Truman administration was blindsided, though it shouldn’t have been. The FBI had been investigating Hiss in 1945 and 1946, and then-Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes and Under Secretary Dean Acheson were fully aware (though Truman may have not been). That scrutiny led to Hiss’s quiet resignation. And yet, Truman condemned the 1948 hearings as “a red herring” that was “serving no useful purpose” and “slandering a lot of people that don’t deserve it.” After the conviction, Acheson, now secretary of state, remained loyal to his longtime friend. “Whatever the outcome of any appeal … I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss,” said Acheson, citing the Gospel of Matthew for good measure (“I was in prison and ye came unto me.”) All Truman would offer was a less dramatic “no comment.”

Their posture was politically devastating, especially since the Hiss case overlapped with the communist takeover of China. Truman and Acheson “lost China,” conservative Republicans thundered. One Republican senator even speculated that Hiss had shaped the State Department’s China policy.

The 1952 Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, suffered as well. In 1949 he had given a deposition for the perjury trial in which he said Hiss had a “good” reputation and that he hadn’t heard any speculation of communist sympathies. The Republican vice-presidential nominee, the newly famous Nixon, hammered Stevenson for bad judgment. The man at the top of the ticket, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, campaigned with McCarthy and charged that communism had “poisoned two whole decades of our national life.” Stevenson won just nine states.

The cruel irony was that Truman and Acheson were no softies when it came to communism. They were the architects of the anti-communist, quasi-militaristic “containment” strategy after World War II, a policy both credited for ultimately winning the Cold War and maligned for goading the U.S. into the messy Korean and Vietnam wars — hardly evidence of communist control of the State Department.

The Truman administration received little contemporaneous credit for “containment” at the time, thanks to the triumph of Mao in China and the unpopularity of the inconclusive Korean War. There’s not much Truman and Acheson could have done about those events (short of staying out of Korea and allowing it to follow China’s lead) but they could have taken the Hiss scandal far more seriously.

Acheson was blinded by friendship. Truman genuinely believed there was little to it, not just Hiss but the whole, in his words, “communist bugaboo.” A year and a half before the Hiss revelations, Truman had already been pressured to install a “loyalty” program for federal employees, which vetted three million people through 1951. Several thousand resigned, but no one was indicted for spying.

That wasn’t good enough in the wake of the Hiss conviction. In retrospect, Truman and Acheson would have had far more credibility – and perhaps could have even blunted McCarthy’s witch hunt – if they had expressed their own outrage after the Chambers allegations and renewed their vows to eradicate any communist traces in government.

Fast forward to today. We have evidence of a Russian spy infiltrating the conservative movement and the Republican Party in order to influence U.S. politics and foreign policy. We have copious evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to help elect a Republican president, who has proceeded to frequently parrot the Putin line.

Surely, our conservative elder statesmen, who for years crowed about Hiss, wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes as Truman’s Democrats. Right?

If anyone should have learned political lessons from the Alger Hiss affair, it should have been the fervently anti-Russia yet pro-Trump conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt. One of his radio show trademarks is asking first-time liberal guests whether they believe Hiss was a communist and a spy. If guests say no or dodge the question, unable to allow Hiss’s culpability to complicate the liberal narrative of a 1950s sullied by McCarthyism, Hewitt shreds their credibility.

Hewitt, like most Republican officeholders and conservative media figures, expressed disappointment at Trump’s performance in Helsinki, but treated the president as if he had goofed rather than actively pursued a strategy of closer ties with Putin. “Every presidency has a worst day. I hope and pray yesterday was that,” Hewitt tweeted. On air, he lamented that Trump got “played” and conceded, “I thought he could handle Putin, and I was wrong.”

Hewitt notably drew a connection between the Hiss and Butina cases, posting on Twitter that Butina is “not a one-off.” But he’s not dwelling on it. He offered no scolding of Butina’s conservative abettors. And he proceeded to criticize the latest indictments issued by the special counsel of 12 Russian officers for being issued just before Trump traveled to Helsinki, echoing his on-air guest Alan Dershowitz’s opinion that the Justice Department is inappropriately interfering with foreign policy. If one were genuinely horrified by Trump’s foreign policy agenda, interference with it would not be one’s top concern. (It’s also worth noting that, according to Bloomberg, the DOJ gave Trump the option of having the indictments made public after the summit, and he chose to do so beforehand.)

Other prominent Republicans also stopped well short of determined outrage in the face of increased Russian infiltration and influence. The typical Republican reaction on Capitol Hill was to welcome Trump’s grudging, not-so-credible walkback from a few of his Helsinki comments. On the Butina case, we mostly hear silence from conservatives — including from Butina’s main mark, the NRA — though Fox News host Tucker Carlson spent three minutes with the Washington Examiner’s Byron York downplaying the charges. And some fringe right-wing voices are even thanking Russians for their participation in American politics; they saved us from Hillary Clinton after all. (One exception on the Right: Daily Beast columnist and my “The DMZ” podcast co-host Matt Lewis, who explored why conservatives have become “vulnerable to being duped.”)

Even among Putin critics, flirtations with Russia don’t enrage conservatives today the way they did 70 years ago because we are not presently in a titanic struggle between communism and capitalism that seems to threaten the American way of life. Of course, at the time when Hiss and a handful of others lower in the Roosevelt administration were part of the “communist underground” in the 1930s, the Cold War had not yet begun, and during World War II, America and the Soviet Union were allies of convenience.

Chambers’ biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, suggested Hiss and others “functioned less as moles than as ideological freelancers … trimming the differences between the United States and the Soviet Union … These were not dual loyalties; they were negotiable loyalties.” Another prominent New Dealer fingered by Chambers as a Soviet informant, Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White, was described by historian Stephen Schlesinger as someone who “wanted to help the Russians but did not regard the actions he took as constituting espionage.” However, their actions looked much different when they came to light after World War II ended and the Iron Curtain came down.

Conservatives who have reveled in the history of Alger Hiss should be acutely aware of the risks inherent to guilt-by-Russian-association, and should be doing everything in their power to fully sever those associations. Granted, this is easier said than done. The contemporary figure who most closely parallels Hiss is not Butina, but Trump. Butina is a Russian who can easily be cast aside. But polling still suggests that rank-and-file Republicans are unfazed by Trump’s ties to Russia – the vast majority of Republicans approved of Trump’s performance in Helsinki. For a Republican officeholder to vociferously attack Trump as a Putin ally is to risk losing office in a Republican primary.

But conservatives have long lionized Chambers for being a brave truth-teller. They may wish to re-read his memoir, which begins with his pessimistic belief that by leaving the Communist Party, he was “leaving the winning world for the losing world.” Still, it was better “to die, if necessary, rather than to live under Communism.”

Soviet communism is dead. But Putinism lives, and is all too often echoed by Trump and his loyalists. Republicans have a choice to make: Repeat the mistakes made by Alger Hiss’ defenders out of short-term political expediency, or live up to the honorable example set by Whittaker Chambers, even if it means taking the chance of joining the losing world.

Source: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/07/21/republicans-mariia-butina-alger-hiss-problem-219028

The Real Scandal in the Fight Against Opioids

Some snapshots from the nation’s fight against drug abuse: President Donald Trump at every opportunity calls for the building of the wall, which he says will stop drugs (along with immigrants) from entering the country; he has also endorsed tougher criminal sanctions for traffickers, including the death penalty for major ones. Twenty-four states are suing Purdue Pharma (the maker of OxyContin) and other manufacturers of painkillers for their deceptive marketing practices. Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are preparing to try Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Mexican cartel leader, on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and horrific acts of violence. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced plans to open four supervised drug-injection sites in the city; San Francisco, Seattle and Philadelphia have similar intentions.

None of this, however, is likely to make much of a dent in an epidemic that last year claimed 64,000 lives due to overdoses, for they fail to address the truly urgent need in the fight against substance abuse: repairing and expanding a treatment network that is severely underfunded, badly splintered and completely overwhelmed. At a time of widespread anguish and hand-wringing about addiction, neither the president, nor Congress, nor governors, nor journalists are paying enough attention to the one thing that could truly make a difference: more and better treatment.

According to a 2016 report by the Surgeon General, only 1 in 10 people who needs drug and alcohol treatment gets it. Of course, not everyone who needs treatment wants it, but enough do to create shockingly long waiting lists across the country. In West Virginia, the state with the highest rate of overdose deaths, there are a mere 171 beds for detox (which weans users off drugs over a period of days) and 151 for longer-term residential treatment, forcing carpool moms and dads to drive up to five hours to find an opening. (The number of beds is expected to more than double thanks to new state and federal funding, but that’s still a fraction of what’s needed.) In New Hampshire, another hard-hit state, waits of four to six weeks are common for a publicly funded residential bed, while in Maine the primary detox facilities are the state’s 15 county jails. The small subset of users who have private insurance can generally gain quick access to facilities that cost up to $10,000 a week and (in the upper tier) feature saunas, yoga, rock climbing and aromatherapy. The vast majority who rely on Medicaid or are uninsured, however, face long waits for admission to facilities that often lack even basic medical, psychiatric and therapeutic services.

For those in the grip of drugs, the openness to treatment is often fleeting, and if a slot is not immediately available, they’re back on the street, snorting, shooting up, overdosing, landing in emergency rooms or worse. In New Hampshire, a heroin user was found dead in his apartment along with a list of rehab facilities on the table next to his bed, which he had called in vain. In Springfield, Massachusetts, beds are in such short supply that those seeking help sometimes have to get arrested so that a judge can mandate them to a facility. In Huntington, West Virginia, the parents of a 21-year-old woman spent 41 days trying to get her into a facility, without success; on the 42nd day, she overdosed and died.

Dr. James Berry, the director of the addictions program at the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown, says hospital emergency rooms throughout the state “are flooded every day with scores of people who are desperate for treatment.” The courts are similarly overwhelmed. “I get calls from various courts asking for help in getting people into treatment because it’s not available in local communities.” The three hardest words for a user to say are “I need help,” he observes. If they can’t get it when the window is open, the opportunity quickly fades. “Every community should be able to provide immediate access.”

But does treatment work? By now, there is a shelf-full of studies showing that it significantly reduces the harms associated with drug and alcohol abuse. According to the Surgeon General’s report, every dollar spent on treatment saves about $4 in health care costs and $7 in criminal costs. The savings mount when one adds in family anguish, days lost at work, child abuse and neglect, newborns going through withdrawal and homelessness. Needless to say, relapse often occurs; in fact, it is chronic. Yet even if people refrain from using drugs for a limited period, the benefit-to-cost ratio is high. And over time, many do return to a productive life.

In the case of opioids, the treatment options include two medications, methadone and buprenorphine, that both have a well-documented record of helping stabilize users. Yet these treatments remain in pitifully short supply, particularly in rural areas that have been especially hard hit by the epidemic. Since methadone and buprenorphine (marketed under the name Suboxone) are both opioid-based, they are frequently dismissed as just another form of addiction, but this is misguided, for both reduce the craving for drugs and the symptoms of withdrawal and so help the drug-dependent function normally.

That making such treatment more accessible could help stanch the current epidemic is clear from the nation’s experience with an earlier one—the heroin wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, President Richard Nixon (of all people)—intent on combating the crime associated with drugs—set up a special drug-abuse prevention office in the White House and authorized its director, Dr. Jerome Jaffe, to make methadone (and other forms of treatment) widely available. Clinics were quickly established across the country, and within 18 months almost everyone seeking treatment could find it. Both heroin use and the crime related to it sharply declined.

Unfortunately, during his 1972 reelection campaign, Nixon—wanting to look tough on crime and drugs—began shifting federal attention away from treatment to law enforcement and incarceration. In May 1973, New York adopted the Rockefeller Drug Laws, mandating long prison sentences even for minor offenses. Other states rushed to copy them, and the war on drugs was on. Prisons filled with low-level offenders, many of whom would have been more effectively dealt with through treatment. During the Reagan years, the national treatment network set up under Nixon crumbled. When the crack and cocaine epidemic hit in the mid-to-late 1980s, the treatment centers that remained were completely overwhelmed; waiting lists grew and crime rates and the associated costs soared.

Amid today’s exploding opioid use, we are paying the price for this long neglect of the nation’s treatment infrastructure. The Trump administration in its 2019 budget has proposed an additional $900 million for Health and Human Services to help address the epidemic—a mere droplet of what’s needed. To make treatment available on demand would require spending tens of billions of dollars annually for years to come. That might seem like a lot, but it’s modest compared with the estimated $450 billion that substance abuse costs the nation every year.

Some of the needed sums could be diverted from programs that seek to keep drugs out of the country, for they are generally futile. Despite all the efforts to seal the nation’s borders against drugs, they continue to pour in; heroin and cocaine are easily concealed and transported, and hypertoxic fentanyl can be purchased online with cryptocurrencies. The war on drugs in Mexico, meanwhile, is not only ineffective but counterproductive; the drive to dismantle the Mexican cartels has served mainly to destabilize the market, setting off bloody wars among traffickers, with countless civilian casualties. Our anti-drug efforts should be directed at reducing the demand for drugs rather than cutting off the supply—an approach that is not only more humane but also more cost-effective.

In addressing demand, it’s essential to offer a full array of services. The effectiveness of methadone and buprenorphine can be enhanced when accompanied by counseling. To treat the most serious cases, residential facilities (both long- and short-term) need to be vastly expanded. Supplementary services are needed to help those in recovery find jobs, housing and mental-health support. Outreach workers are needed to locate users and connect them with services. Central intakes need to be established in cities and towns to help connect people with services and track their progress through the system. More doctors and nurses should be trained to diagnose drug disorders and prescribe medications like buprenorphine. Treatment should be made more available in the nation’s prisons and jails, and schools should have counselors trained to watch for adolescents struggling with drugs and alcohol. Needle-exchange programs should be expanded and more closely connected with treatment facilities. And the treatment industry as a whole should be subject to stricter regulation and oversight. (Many centers are unlicensed and amateurishly run.)

All of this would require a vast expansion in staffing. Establishing treatment on demand could thus become a substantial provider of jobs, especially in regions where factories have shut down. Rehab centers could even be opened in shuttered industrial facilities.

Finally, news organizations need to rethink their approach to the drug issue. They too often focus on sideshows—the drug war in Mexico, police raids in big cities, the culpability of Big Pharma. (The number of opioid prescriptions nationwide actually peaked in 2012, and in 2016 they reached their lowest level in a decade, yet the epidemic continues.) Journalists should instead seek to expose the glaring gaps in the nation’s treatment system and dramatize the plight of those who want help but can’t get it—the real scandal in the fight against drugs.

Source: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/07/21/opioids-treatment-politicians-media-219023

Coats faces greater scrutiny as fallout from Russia summit spreads

As the fallout from his Russia summit spills into the weekend and spreads among his staff, President Donald Trump is retreating to the site of his most consequential personnel decision, the dismissal of FBI Director James Comey last spring.

Trump’s return to his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey, where he often surrounds himself with close friends and family, follows a calamitous week, beginning with the news conference in Finland with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and ending with news that the president’s longtime personal attorney made a recording of Trump talking about payments related to a former Playboy model.

Trump loyalists have come to see the White House staff’s response as insufficiently supportive, as officials inside struggle to explain the president’s seesaw statements about Putin and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The hair-trigger situation culminated in an on-brand yet off-message remark by his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, stirring further angst among some in the president’s inner circle.

Trump, according to two outside allies, has grown exasperated with Coats, whom he blindsided Thursday when White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced on Twitter that the administration was working to bring Putin to Washington this fall. The news landed while Coats was in the middle of a live interview with NBC in Aspen, Colorado.

Republicans in Congress have managed to block measures backing the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. But the Trump allies told POLITICO that directly confronting, let alone firing, Coats — who before the latest blow-up over Russia was believed to be weighing his own retirement date — could create an uncontainable firestorm on Capitol Hill.

One former Trump senior official described the situation to POLITICO in one word: “meltdown.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, including whom the president will meet with this weekend.

On Friday, Coats called and spoke with Vice President Mike Pence, according to a person familiar with the conversation. In the past he has said he has a good relationship with Trump, and in late 2016, when he was still a U.S. senator representing Indiana, he praised the president-elect’s negotiating skills.

Coats, who strongly denied plans to retire when asked by POLITICO in February, was seen by intelligence-watchers as bringing a calming stability amid friction between Trump and the national security establishment.

Still, some who have kept in contact with his office had been saying for months that it made sense that Coats, who came out of retirement last year when Trump selected him, wouldn’t want to stay in the intelligence role indefinitely.

For one thing, Coats turned 75 in May — and he previously indicated that he didn’t want to work long past that age, according to several of these people.

“He was not particularly eager to take the job to begin with and was sort of talked into it on the theory of when the president asks, you should serve,” one former high-ranking intelligence official, who is in regular contact with current intelligence leaders, said early this year. Like others who spoke to POLITICO, the former official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations.

As the director of national intelligence, Coats is in charge of coordinating the work of 17 military and civilian intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency and FBI — a task he has carried out with a notably low public profile. His time in that office coincided with the rise of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director, who served a much more vocal role for the Trump administration on issues such as Iran and North Korea. Both men, in their roles, provided Trump with his daily intelligence briefing, Pompeo explained earlier this year during an event at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

A second former senior intelligence official said of the post of director of national intelligence: “The role typically has been low-key. But Director Coats has been particularly absent from public view.”

In his statement to POLITICO in February, Coats said that in the coming months, he would be “excited to lead the upcoming announcement and implementation of the ODNI transformation and IC future-focused initiatives my team has been working on for the past year, which will help ensure the Intelligence Community is best positioned to address the current and future threats facing our nation.”

A Coats retirement or dismissal would set the stage for a potentially contentious fight over who should replace him, particularly with Trump’s outreach to Putin reaching new levels of engagement and the upcoming midterm elections.

Among the agencies Coats works with, the FBI in particular has come under heavy criticism from the White House and congressional Republicans who accuse it of being biased in its investigation of whether Trump team colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. The bureau is also looking at whether Trump and his aides may have obstructed justice in the probe.

Trump’s struggle with the intelligence community was already well underway when he announced Coats’ selection in early January 2017.

This was a rocky period when the incoming president was repeatedly casting doubt on intelligence agencies’ conclusion that top Moscow officials had orchestrated a sweeping digital influence campaign eventually aimed at putting the billionaire in the Oval Office. Similar to his more recent attacks on the FBI, Trump argued then that intelligence agencies were pushing a false narrative aimed at undermining his administration.

Soon after the election, The Intercept reported that Trump and his top advisers had worked on a plan to scale back the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — and had even discussed scraping the director post entirely. For both Republicans and Democrats rattled by the reports, Coats was a reassuring presence.

“He seems like a reasonable person, gets along with people, isn’t going to rock the boat, willing to do it,” the former senior official told POLITICO. “Put that all together, I could see how they arrived at him.”

Indeed, Coats’ confirmation hearing reflected a sense that the former lawmaker — who had also served as an ambassador to Germany during the George W. Bush administration — was taking the job out of a sense of duty.

“You’ve agreed to do a job that many have called thankless — why?” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Chairman, asked Coats.

“I believe, if asked by your leader of your country to serve your country again, the answer needed to be yes,” he responded.

But Coats’ role was soon complicated by the rise of Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas who had made a name for himself on the House Intelligence Committee and the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Observers speculated that Pompeo’s rise as Trump’s go-to person on intelligence issues might have made the job less desirable for Coats.

Trump and much of his national security team view the CIA, not ODNI, as the embodiment of the American intelligence apparatus, according to current and former intelligence-focused individuals both on and off Capitol Hill. Well before Pompeo was elevated to secretary of state, Trump’s team turned to him to deliver public remarks on the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea and WikiLeaks — which he labeled a “non-state hostile intelligence service” — and to forcefully push back on criticism of Pompeo’s recent meetings with two Russian spy chiefs.

Last November, at Trump’s request, Pompeo met with William Binney, a former National Security Agency official turned surveillance critic who has disputed Russian involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee leading up to the 2016 election. Many observers thought the meeting lent credence to a notion that Pompeo’s own agency has discredited.

Trump has also continued to toy with overhauling the U.S. intelligence apparatus, according to news reports. Foreign Policy reported last month that the president might choose Stephen Feinberg, a billionaire private equity executive, to helm a key intelligence advisory board.

During this period, Coats has mostly stayed out of the spotlight.

If Coats were to step down, Trump might struggle to get a successor confirmed, given the looming 2018 midterms and the Russia controversy. Observers have also long speculated that career intelligence professionals might not want the job, given the contentious relationship between Trump and the broader intelligence community.

Matthew Nussbaum contributed to this report.

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/07/20/trump-coats-putin-summit-fallout-russia-735089

How the Fed’s Powell prepared for Trump’s criticism

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has been preparing for this moment.

Since taking the helm of the central bank in February, Powell has downplayed the risk that President Donald Trump would try to influence the direction of Fed policy. “No one in the administration has said anything to me that really gives me concern on this front,” he declared on Marketplace radio last week.

But at the same time, Powell, a Trump appointee, has worked for months to shore up goodwill and support for the Fed. He held more than two dozen meetings with lawmakers between February and May, steered clear of commenting on issues outside the Fed’s jurisdiction, and repeatedly made the case for the central bank’s political independence.

The moment that Powell had to have known was coming finally arrived on Thursday. “I don’t like all of this work that we’re putting into the economy and then I see rates going up,” Trump told CNBC. “I’m not thrilled.” That was followed up by a couple of sharp tweets the next morning.

Powell did not put out a statement in response, letting his words from the interview last week stand on the question of Fed independence.

“We have a long tradition here of conducting policy in a particular way, and that way is independent of all political concerns,” the Fed chief told Marketplace. “We do our work in a strictly nonpolitical way, based on detailed analysis. … We don’t take political considerations into account.”

“I’m deeply committed to that approach,” he added. “And so are all of my colleagues here.”

The Fed already faces a delicate balancing act in supporting sustained economic growth without stoking inflation, as the near-record-long expansion continues. Now that the president has openly criticized the Fed, every action it takes might be viewed through the lens of a reaction to him.

“If the decision is to slow [the pace of rate hikes], I would expect Trump to crow and call it a triumph, and that will be devastating for the Fed’s reputation,” said Peter Conti-Brown, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

And if the central bank raises rates again, as it has projected it will do twice more this year, “I fear this will now be set up as the Fed defying Trump,” he added.

But experts suggested Powell’s political savvy might help him navigate headwinds from the White House, particularly by heading off criticism from the more powerful threat to the Fed: Congress, which can do whatever it wants to the central bank through legislation, and public opinion.

He has already got a head start; in a Senate that can agree on few things, Powell — a Republican originally nominated to the Fed board by former President Barack Obama — received 84 "yes" votes for his chairmanship earlier this year.

“Jay Powell’s professional identity has been in politics and in the private sector, and this caused a lot of people to pause on his candidacy to be Fed chair,” Conti-Brown said. “But Powell might have a skill set that is uniquely able to build political coalitions on a front like this.”

In recent decades, presidents have tended to avoid commenting on Fed actions — a policy formalized under former President Bill Clinton — under the assumption that short-term politics cloud the central bank’s ability to act in the long-term interest of the economy.

Strong advocates of Fed independence point to a previous Fed chairman, Arthur Burns, who was pressured by former President Richard Nixon in the lead-up to the 1972 presidential election to keep interest rates low. That episode eventually contributed to a rapid rise in prices, requiring one of Burns’ successors, Paul Volcker, to raise interest rates as high as 20 percent to combat inflation.

In a speech in May, Powell seemed to directly refer to this episode to make the case for the firewall between the Fed and politics, in an apparent precautionary message to Trump.

“For a quarter century, inflation has been low and inflation expectations anchored,” he said. “We must not forget the lessons of the past, when a lack of central bank independence led to episodes of runaway inflation and subsequent economic contractions.”

Beyond repeatedly affirming the Fed’s political independence, Powell has also made a notable shift in how he communicates compared with his academic economist predecessors: speaking in language that the average person could understand, in the hopes that the Fed will seem less mysterious.

“Because monetary policy affects everyone, I want to start with a plain-English summary of how the economy is doing, what my colleagues and I at the Federal Reserve are trying to do, and why,” he said at the start of a press conference in June.

“In particular, we think that gradually returning interest rates to a more normal level as the economy strengthens is the best way the Fed can help sustain an environment in which American households and businesses can thrive,” he added.

Powell also frequently refers to the limits of Fed power, even clarifying: “I don’t think of myself as the guy running the economy. You know the economy is a $20 trillion economy.”

He has also cautiously avoided any direct criticism of the president’s trade policies, though he has warned of the potential consequences if it leads to prolonged economic warfare.

“I’m not an independent agency that has any authority over trade,” he told a lawmaker who asked if the U.S. was in a trade war.

Luckily for Powell, members of Trump’s own party are generally supportive of the Fed’s rate hike campaign, favoring a return to a more traditional monetary policy. And Democrats, who are more likely to favor slower increases in the hopes that the unemployment rate will continue to drop, have tended to be less openly critical of the Fed.

“Presidents should respect the independence of the Federal Reserve,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in a statement Thursday. “I asked Chair Powell under oath at his nomination hearing if he would maintain that independence and he assured the Senate that he would. I take him at his word.”

Market participants and Fed watchers alike downplayed the notion that Powell would be swayed by the president, and St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said he was “not surprised” by Trump’s remarks.

“I’m used to debating monetary policy on a wide basis around the world,” Bullard told reporters on Friday. “I doubt there will be any influence one way or another.”

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/07/20/trump-federal-reserve-powell-criticism-702248

Trump’s new midterm threat: A trade war smacking voters

President Donald Trump’s trade wars could become a major political drag for Republicans, with job losses and price increases piling up just as voters head to the polls in November.

Trump jolted markets once again early Friday when he said he’s prepared to impose penalties on some $500 billion in Chinese goods regardless of the consequences that might ensue, economic or political. “Look, I’m not doing this for politics,” the president said on CNBC. “I’m doing this to do the right thing for our country.”

But market analysts, industry experts and economists warn that the economic fallout of the president’s tariffs — those that are already in effect and those he’s threatening to impose — is only going to intensify over the coming months and could reach a peak around election time.

“We’re already hearing complaints now from companies, so by the time we get to the midterms, you’re going to be hearing governors, mayors, Congress complaining about jobs, about cost increases, about problems,” Carlos Gutierrez, the former Commerce secretary under President George W. Bush, told POLITICO. “The question is: Will that be strong enough to offset the idea that we have to get tough on our trading partners, and that our jobs are being stolen overseas?”

It takes months for most consumers to feel the impact of tariffs, but as the fall approaches, everything from groceries to appliances could start to cost more at major retailers across the country. Democrats could use these price increases as a political cudgel against Republicans in swing districts as they try to take back control of Congress.

Trump has so far suffered little political blowback for his tariffs and trade threats, saying that he is simply following through on promises he made during the campaign to crack down on trading partners, even close allies, and put America first. Since March, he has imposed blanket tariffs on nearly all imports of steel and aluminum and placed penalties on $34 billion in goods from China, a total likely to increase to $50 billion next month and into the hundreds of billions later this year.

In return, countries have retaliated with tit-for-tat duties on everything from U.S. agricultural goods to Kentucky bourbon and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, aiming to sway top Republican lawmakers by hurting constituents in their districts.

But Trump and his party could soon begin to face consequences as companies in the coming months start reporting lower earnings, reassessing their supply chains and holding back on investment, all of which will begin to ripple throughout the economy and could lead to a slowdown or full-blown recession, experts say.

If all of the tariffs that have been proposed take effect, they would bring down long-run U.S. GDP by 0.47 percent — about $118 billion — in the long term and cost more than 364,000 jobs, a new analysis from the Tax Foundation shows. The International Monetary Fund also warned this week that trade tensions could cut global output by some $400 billion by 2020, and that the U.S. is "especially vulnerable" to effects of an international slowdown.

Price increases would vary by product, ranging anywhere from a few cents on a can of beer or soup to around $6,000 on a family car, if the administration moves forward with auto-specific tariffs it has threatened.

Even if Trump doesn’t move forward with any additional duties, the uncertainty caused by his policies and rhetoric is leading some companies to begin pulling back investments in research and development. They’re afraid that if they develop products for foreign markets, those markets might no longer be accessible to them in six months or a year.

The agricultural industry has been particularly vulnerable: Countries like Mexico have begun to diversify their import markets by buying more corn and soybeans from Brazil instead of the United States, in an attempt to reduce their dependence on a country that could erect new trade barriers at any time based on the president’s whims.

And while the administration has so far taken pains to avoid hitting consumers directly, leaving products like flat-screen televisions and cellphones off the list of products facing tariffs, they will be unable to continue to do so as the list of goods caught in the crossfire begins to expand.

“If this escalates into a full-blown trade war, the innocent victims are going to be American consumers,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. “That’s what we’d like to avoid.”

As midterm campaigns heat up, vulnerable Democrats and Democratic super PACs are already using the president’s trade war — and the Republican Party’s reluctance so far to challenge him on it — to frame their opponents as complicit in an escalating trade battle with no end in sight.

The Democrat-aligned group American Bridge launched an effort Thursday aimed at targeting Republican candidates for, as the group says, “failing to stand up to Trump’s trade war.” In one of two launch ads, the group targets Josh Hawley, who is running to unseat Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, for saying that he supports Trump’s goals on trade and feels that the president is doing the right thing.

“Hawley welcomed this trade war,” it reads at the end of a minute-long spot featuring clips of local farmers and manufacturers complaining about the harmful effects of Trump’s tariffs. “Now Missouri families are paying the price.”

The president has so far ignored increasing calls from Republicans in Congress to back down on trade, or at least to begin pursuing dialogue with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The White House insisted this week that trade talks with Beijing are ongoing, but there are no formal discussions on the books and the two sides have not met at the ministerial level since Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross traveled to China early last month. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will have informal opportunities to talk with his Chinese counterparts at the G-20 finance ministers’ meeting in Buenos Aires this weekend, but no formal bilateral meetings are expected.

Instead, Trump has sought ways to expand his tariff crusade: Beyond ratcheting up duties against China, he has directed the Commerce Department to conduct investigations examining whether to impose penalties on imports of cars and car parts, as well as uranium. And he has continued to frustrate Canada and Mexico by refusing to back down from what they see as unreasonable demands in the ongoing renegotiation of NAFTA.

Moving forward with either car tariffs or a NAFTA withdrawal before November elections would be an “enormous political mistake,” said Bill Reinsch, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If he does that, you’ll see an immediate sharp consumer impact, which I think will translate into a political reaction. Everything else will be like sand leaking out of the bag.”

But even the slow accumulation of economic effects could build up enough by November that consumers will be feeling the pain. It might be difficult for everyday Americans to recognize at this point how the tariffs will affect them, given that many of those proposed are not yet in effect, so in the meantime, the retail industry is working to educate consumers that “there are greater consequences, and price increases and real impacts” that could be coming in the near future, Shay said.

“That’s going to create a lot more attention around the things that right now sound a lot more hypothetical,” he added.

So far, at least, polls show that Trump appears to still have the support of the bulk of Republican voters when it comes to tariffs. Nearly three-fourths, or 73 percent, of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who responded to a Pew Research survey out this week said they felt increased tariffs would benefit the country. Roughly the same percentage — or 77 percent — of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents felt the opposite.

But reaction overall is trending increasingly negative: Nearly half, or 49 percent, of all respondents to the Pew poll said they feel tariffs are a bad thing for the country, up 4 percentage points from a similar survey done in May.

The partisan split bodes well for Trump, who has so far shown little willingness to heed anyone’s advice over trade policy beyond his own and who will likely barge into the midterms with the same protectionist messages that helped him win over laid-off factory workers and struggling farmers in 2016.

Democrats might try to point to a worsening economy to say that Trump’s policies are wreaking havoc across middle America, but the White House has already begun to fire back that the long-term payoff will be worth it.

“It’ll be those two competing narratives” during midterm campaigns, said Gutierrez, who now chairs the board of the National Foreign Trade Council. “It all depends on how bad the numbers get and how much pain there is that can’t be offset by simply saying, ‘We’re doing this for the country and we’re getting tough on our trading partners, so it’s worth the pain.’”

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/07/20/trump-trade-war-tariffs-midterms-2018-701466