Ryan J. Suto's Blog

17 January 2017

Trump’s ties and voter oversight

The past ten days have brought to surface a list of revelations about, and statements from, President-elect Donald Trump. These realities force Americans to inquire as to motivations of Trump and his staff in the Administration’s stance toward Russia. But more importantly, they force each of us to examine exactly how a large swath of voters allowed themselves to be swayed by foreign actors during the election itself.

To start, a briefing from leaders of US intelligence agencies and the release of an unclassified report found that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election represented “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort beyond previous election-related espionage.” Afterward, the Trump team begrudgingly admitted that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Despite the continued and months-long stream of condemnations of the election interference from both sides of the political aisle, Trump himself seemingly never speaks ill of Russia or her president, Vladimir Putin. Notably, Putin does not appear on the New York Times’ running list of people or things Trump has insulted, while civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, General Colin Powell, Chief Justice John Roberts, Senator John McCain, NATO, the UN, and the Broadway musical Hamilton have all caught the President-elect’s ire. In fact, Trump often praises Putin, most recently for Russia’s response to increased US sanctions, perhaps due to Trump’s documented relationship with the man, which goes back to at least 2013.

Early last week Buzzfeed published an admittedly unsubstantiated report that Russia has substantial Kompromat on Trump: compromising material which includes evidence of legal, financial, or moral misdeeds for the purpose of blackmail, influence, or control. The material allegedly stems from Trump’s 2013 visit to Moscow during his Miss Universe pageant held just outside that city. Importantly, allegations in that report include a continuing relationship between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government. A Trump aide later confirmed that Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has been in frequent contact with Russia’s ambassador to the US in recent weeks. The FBI has since confirmed that Russia hacked the Republican National Committee during the election, as well, but did not leak whatever information was obtained.

Later in the week we learned that top US intelligence agencies expressed “high confidence” that Putin himself ordered electoral interference at the expense of Clinton, and that the CIA and FBI are investigating whether Russia financially contributed to the Trump campaign. Despite this news, Trump later expressed the possibility that he may remove sanctions the US has placed on Russia in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and extended after the meddling in the 2016 election. Further, Trump advisers have stated that the President-elect’s first foreign policy trip will be to Iceland to meet with Putin within weeks of his Inauguration. Trump has still not released his tax returns, but we know he has continuously tried to do business in Russia in the past.

In sum, there is reason to believe that Russian officials, acting on the orders of Vladimir Putin, may have used their ability to blackmail Trump, both with the material in the dossier published by Buzzfeed and any information obtained from hacking the RNC, as leverage to gain influence with his campaign, which may include financial contributions, in order to undermine the Clinton campaign and convince the American people to elect Trump. As further evidence, since his victory, Trump has expressed his intention to re-evaluate US sanctions on Russia, his top aides continue frequent contact with Russian officials, and once sworn in he plans on immediately meeting Putin in person.

Under relevant federal law, an organization or individual, which agrees or consents to be indirectly supervised, directed, financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part by a foreign government or political party is an agent of a foreign principal, and must register as such with the Department of Justice. Further, public officials who act as agents of a foreign principal would be in violation of 18 US 219 and are subject to fines or imprisonment.

Whether the President-elect or any or his organizations, appointments, or advisors meet the legal standard to qualify as agents of a foreign principal requires more evidence beyond what is publicly available. The law requires more than a mere confluence of interests between foreign and domestic actors, but actual direction or supervision of foreign actors over domestic actors. The possession of blackmail material would be key to establishing this link. However, our intelligence agencies may plausibly corroborate the existing allegations and may yet uncover further connections between Trump, his staff, and Russia. This reality brings America to the three following questions:

First, how did we allow so many of our individual political judgments to be influenced by a foreign power? No public information implies that Russia infiltrated US election software. Instead, in November only Americans voted, but too many of us were insufficiently critical in both how we discerned factual articles from inaccurate or purposely misleading ones and how we weighed the value of the factual information, which was available. As much as we may point fingers at Trump or Putin, we too must look inward for both blame and solutions. Russia and other adversarial actors may be emboldened by the results of the 2016 election interference and seek further influence in 2020 and beyond. We the people must change if the results are to, as well.

Second, how do we convince Speaker Paul Ryan and Republicans on the Hill to use the threat of impeachment to obtain sufficient financial and other information from Trump and his staff for a proper investigation into potential coordination with Moscow? Luckily Trump’s affinity toward Russia and propensity to insult even allies have made him unpopular among his own party leaders. Nonetheless, broad and sustained political mobilization will be required to convince Congressional Republicans that impeaching a Republican president is politically advantageous for them individually and as a party.

Third, how do we prevent foreign powers from influencing our elections again? Neither our Constitution nor our laws can prevent a sufficiently large number of Americans from making gravely poor decisions. However, strengthened required financial disclosures for candidates and appointments or other transparency and ethics legislation may constrain our future potential lapses in judgment. 

Irrespective of any potential forthcoming revelations or allegations regarding relationships between an adversarial country and the man who will be our president before week’s end, our country has already ventured into uncharted waters, guided by a minority of voters who allowed themselves to be steered by a foreign power. Is the American ship seaworthy? How we act now, with Republican leaders at the helm, can only answer this question. 

02 December 2016

Politics is Perception

The political games the Republicans are playing leave the Democrats with no strategy moving forward

The Out-Party Game

Recently President Barack Obama pointed out that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP figured out something very important during the Obama presidency: most Americas either don’t know or don’t care about the nuance of how government works:
And the problem is, is that the general public is not following the intricacies of the legislature and they’re not interested in who’s to blame, they just want to see stuff done. And the one guy they know is the President of the United States, so if things don’t get done, that can advantage the politics of the other party.
Americans know that the president is in charge of the government, and so if they are told that the government is not working, and they don’t see it working, it must be the president’s fault.
This is how the Republican Party survived — and actually thrived through — eight years of obstructionism in Congress. By blocking nominations, budgets, and legislation — much of which that would have actually helped their own constituents, and some of which Trump has championed as his own — the GOP was able to convince enough Americans that the resulting ineffective governance was Obama’s fault all along. He is the president, after all, and he is responsible for getting things done. Republicans were able to ignore a Supreme Court nominee for eight months, along with 90 other judicial nominations, without any electoral punishment — and they knew they could do it, because not enough Americans concern themselves with esoteric notions like structural democracy.

The In-Party Game

Now Trump is showing the next phase of this strategy: pure theatre. First, Trump claimed credit for keeping a Ford plant in the US that wasn’t actually slated for closure or relocation. Now, he claims to be saving jobs at a Carrier plant which actually amounts to a state tax break deal from the governor of Indiana — soon to be Vice President Mike Pence — and still allows for jobs to be shipped to Mexico.
But most Americans don’t read beyond these headlines. They don’t understand or care about the details, such as an incoming president’s legal inability to unilaterally provide incentives for an individual firm to change their financial decisionmaking. And Trump knows this. He knows that his Tweets and his statements will create headlines that will get tens of millions of views, whereas the resulting fact-checking and counter-arguments will merely get thousands of views among his supporters. Further, he and the GOP have already convinced 86% of Republicans that the ‘mainstream media’, the ones best positioned to uncover the facts behind his claims, are untrustworthy.
Like a lucky hat during a baseball game, Trump supporters will cling to these superficial displays as the cause of all that is good while overlooking the bad — or likely blame it on Obama. No rigorous investigation of cause-and-effect will take place. And without hold of either the House or the Senate, the Democrats have little ability to even use the Repbulican’s obstructionist playbook. They have little ability to undermine the empty theatrics of the Trump Administration that will echo among his supporters.
The Democrats cannot count on Trump’s scandals or failures to shake his support come 2020. If Trump keeps up his smoke and mirrors theatre and Americans take them at face value, the next election may actually be more ‘post truth’ than 2016.

13 September 2016

Five MENA policy challenges that go beyond ISIS

The current US presidential campaign debate on Middle East policy has focused disproportionately on the US response to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). This series will focus instead on five alternative Middle East policy challenges facing the next president. Each post below has been originally published at LobeLog.

Five issues ignored during the 2016 presidential election

Amid an election full of outlandish statements, Twitter spats and ad hominem accusations, many important problems facing America have failed to grace headlines. I address five of them in a series on Fair Observer:

1. The Harm of Judicial Elections in America

2. Suspicion in America: Creating a Problem for a Solution

3. Landscape of Inequality: How America Funds Public Schools

4. Continuing Opacity: Surveillance Under the Next Administration

5. The Fairytale of America and its Lost Civic Ideals

01 September 2016

Kaepernick and American-ness

There are two major issues underlying the dialogue surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s decision to remain seated during the national anthem: 1. Race and 2. Symbolism.

1. Our society questions the American-ness of People of Color more readily than the American-ness of white people.

I can't count how many times I've heard Asian Americans asked, ‘OK, but where are you REALLY from?”, when their family has lived in the US longer than mine has. Or heard fans of Mexican soccer criticized for a lack of patriotism in a venomous way that fans of European soccer are not. Remember when even elected officials questioned the American-ness of a US-born black presidential candidate, but uttered nothing about his white opponent who was actually born abroad? Or perhaps when a former president suggested administering loyalty tests to Muslim Americans.

In our society, if you aren't an English-speaking white Christian, you have the burden of proof to show your American-ness.

2. Americans are fiercely protective over our symbols: the flag, the Constitution, the pledge of allegiance, the national anthem. Our Founders are held as not wealthy aristocrats who bright and ambitious, but prophets, bestowing upon us words and ideals beyond the tampering of mere mortals. We have been uniquely hesitant to modify our Highest Law, having only done so on 18 occasions since 1787. While others insult America and its military, like Donald Trump, they are careful to not deviate from reverence of national symbolism. When any public figure denies the sanctity of these symbols, they face quick reproach from many corners. 

Both of these issues are symptoms of the same sickness: insecurity. Americans are insecure about what it means to be American. Like a paranoid lover, we desire uncritical loyalty. Like a worried child we clench tight the words of our Founders as though they are the strands of our safety blanket.

This insecurity is at least partly caused by the many Americans who provide demographics as the identity of American-ness: Anglophone, white, Christian. And as those demographics dwindle, anxiety rises. Unfortunately for them, demographics are transient; human migration is the most stable truth of our short history.

As Americans continue to react to the contemporary model of globalization—which has temporally trailed reactions in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe—our collective identity must be more resilient than demographics and more flexible than worship of parchment from a horse and buggy generation.