Media Global Economy 2019.12.20
Trump is an odd president
Since the launch of the Trump administration, we have been seeing politics different from the American democracy we respect as the ideal form of government.
Americans have proudly described their country--which is made up of various races and where different cultures interact--as a melting pot. We have believed that cultural diversity and the capacity to embrace people constitute the engine that powers the development of America. .
US President Donald Trump, however, has made remarks that seemed to condone racial discrimination. This is something most people have tried to eliminate since the end of WWII. He has also denounced such minorities as blacks, Muslims, and Hispanics. These acts by Trump were enthusiastically welcomed by white workers who felt their employment and social stability were being undermined by minorities. This is how Trump incited and exacerbated the divisions in American society. .
Trump's oddity is evident in other fields as well. On the diplomatic front, Trump seems to have a liking for autocrats in non-democratic countries, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. .
That Russia instigated cyber-attacks in the 2016 US presidential election was a common understanding even within the Trump administration. Still, Trump told reporters that there were no such attacks simply because Putin denied them. Trump seems more ready to accept what these autocrats have to say than majority opinions within the US government. .
He treats US allies in Europe more like enemies, demanding that they increase defense spending and cut their trade surplus with the US. Speaking impromptu, the US president lauded British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a staunch Brexiteer, as "British Trump." .
More recently, Trump withdrew US troops from Syria, paving the way for Turkish forces to attack the Kurds, who cooperated with the US to drive out IS. He even invited autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House in the face of bipartisan opposition from Congress. During a joint news conference with Erdogan, Trump said "I'm a big fan of the president." .
His immigration policy is no exception. Trump is building a wall along the Mexican border in defiance of the Congressional budget resolution. He argued that immigrants from Latin America are the main culprits in crime and drugs and are stealing jobs in the US. On the trade front, Trump pulled the US out of the TPP, saying that free trade meant less domestic employment. In disregard of the WTO Agreement, Trump raised steel tariffs and waged a tariff war with China. .
Russia-gate and Ukraine-gate
Some members of Congress insisted that Trump be impeached over Russia-gate. .
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, was reluctant to begin the process of depriving Trump--who was elected by popular vote--of the presidency. Even if the House of Representatives opens the impeachment procedure on Trump, convicting him requires a two-thirds majority vote of the Senate. As Republicans hold a majority of the upper house, the chances were thought to be slim. In short, Pelosi worried that opening the procedure would backfire. .
Over Russia-gate, Special Counsel Robert Mueller spent as long as 22 months investigating whether Trump's close aides had colluded with Russians and whether Trump had obstructed justice. .
Mueller did not acknowledge the collusion. As for alleged obstruction of justice, however, Mueller pointed out many cases that suggested obstruction of justice by the President. While noting that no conclusive evidence had been found that the President had committed a crime, Mueller concluded that the President was not exonerated either. He added that the President would not be indicted in accordance with the Department of Justice's internal regulations, suggesting that the President could be criminally indicted after leaving office. In response, Trump maintained that he was exonerated from both collusion and obstruction of justice charges. .
Regarding the more recent Ukraine-gate, Pelosi initiated an impeachment inquiry into Trump. .
It all started from a whistleblowing. The whistleblower revealed that, Trump, in his telephone talks with Ukraine's president, pressured him to investigate former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden in return for some 400 million dollars in military aid aimed at protecting the country from possible Russian invasion. The whistleblower, who remains publicly unidentified, is said to be a CIA official who was informed by a White House official. .
Joe Biden is a strong Democratic candidate for US presidency. When he was US vice-president, his son Hunter Biden received a huge monthly compensation of some 50,000 dollars (or 5.5 million yen) as a board member of Ukrainian gas company Burisma. The US had been calling on Ukraine to fight corruption. Trump says that Joe Biden unjustly pressured Ukrainian authorities to halt investigations into corruption allegations. .
Trump is alleged to have called on his Ukrainian counterpart to launch an investigation aimed at proving that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. His alleged motive was to deny Russia-gate altogether. .
A covert diplomatic channel
Government officials' testimonies in the impeachment inquiry in Congress have revealed the following facts. .
In an inquiry hearing, Trump denied the allegations by publishing a non-verbatim transcript of his telephone conversation. However, government officials who were at the hearing testified that they clearly heard Trump pressure the Ukrainian president. The long-lasting investigations into alleged corruption at Burisma have nothing to do with Hunter Biden. (Trying to associate these two factors is like threading a needle in the dark.) It was Russia that had interfered in the 2016 presidential election, not Ukraine. .
There were two diplomatic channels with the Ukrainian government. One was the formal channel aimed at assisting Ukraine in reining in threats from Russia under the US national security policy. The other was an informal covert channel aimed at denying Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 election and smearing Trump's political opponent Joe Biden in order to help Trump be reelected. State Department officials in charge of the formal channel were not informed of the covert channel. Fiona Hill, the former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council, condemned the covert channel operations as a "domestic political errand." .
Those involved in the covert channel in addition to Trump include Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney and former New York City Mayor; Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State; Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union; and Mick Mulvaney, White House Acting Chief of Staff. .
Considering the US Ambassador to Ukraine a hindrance, Giuliani slandered her and directed Pompeo to dismiss her from the ambassadorship without giving a specific reason. She testified that she was suddenly ordered to take the next plane back to the US. During his testimony before Congress, Trump criticized her, saying that the countries including Somalia where she assumed ambassadorship went awry eventually. .
Among those involved in the covert channel, Sondland made contact with Ukrainian government officials. .
A hotel owner, Sondland became US ambassador to the EU after donating more than one million dollars to Trump. Because Ukraine is not an EU member state, the ambassador to the EU has no formal authority to engage in US diplomacy with Ukraine. .
When he was subpoenaed to testify, Sondland first denied any interference by Trump. But he retracted his denial after most other witnesses testified otherwise. When he made a phone call to Trump from a restaurant in the Ukraine, a staff member of the US Embassy was also nearby and overheard the critical part of the phone conversation because Trump's voice was so loud. This staff member testified that in this phone conversation, Trump made a remark calling on Ukraine to investigate Biden. Sondland told this staffer that what mattered for Trump was not competition with Russia but the investigation into Biden. .
The Trump-led Republican Party has become more like a cult group
During this series of hearings before Congress, Trump and Republican legislators revealed their ugliness. .
First of all, the White House refused Congressional subpoenas for relevant documents. It also demanded that White House staff defy Congressional subpoenas to testify. Trump maligned White House staff members who complied with such subpoenas. The act of deleting the part where Trump pressured the Ukrainian president from the memorandum of the telephone conversation likely constitutes obstruction of an investigation. .
Republican legislators are making desperate efforts to display their allegiance to Trump. All the seats in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs next year. Defying Trump means that he will put up a rival candidate in a Republican primary, making it extremely difficult to run for the final election. When Trump demands that the whistleblower be publicly identified and subpoenaed, they parrot his words. The aim is to scare potential whistleblowers into silence. But this aim is unattainable. .
A Republican legislator once called for subpoenaing the whistleblower who gave rise to the impeachment inquiry. A Democratic lawmaker retorted to the effect: "O.K. You're right. We welcome the subpoena of President Trump, who gave rise to all this in the first place." It is also suspected that the Republican ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee was involved in covert channel operations. Unfortunately, the Republican Party today seems like a cult group headed by Trump. .
Vindman says he can make remarks that contradict the wishes of the President because this is America
But every cloud has a silver lining, as a favorite proverb among Americans has it. .
In stark contrast with these ugly politicians were those subpoenaed who bravely testified facts inconvenient to Trump and other Cabinet members. .
Standing out among them was Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council (NSC). .
A US Army lieutenant colonel of Russian-Jewish descent, Vindman and his brothers came to the US from the Soviet Union with his father when he was three. All the money his father had back then was 700 dollars. Vindman and his two brothers later joined the US military. With a good command of Ukrainian and Russian, Vindman served at the US embassies in Kiev and Moscow. He is highly respected within the military. He also has a Purple Heart. .
Upon hearing Trump's telephone conversation, Vindman reported to a White House legal advisor that it was improper for the US President to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent. .
Republican legislators slammed Vindman, accusing him of his superior's questioning the righteousness of his decision and having little allegiance to the US. They noted that he was asked by Ukraine to assume the post of defense minister for the country. In short, they attacked Vindman to damage his credibility as a witness. .
As a witness, Vindman appeared first in a closed hearing and then in an open, televised one. In this second hearing, his hands were shaking as he read the prepared text, apparently in anticipation of such criticism. .
In his statement, he spoke to his deceased father to the effect: .
In Russia, you can't make remarks that contradict the President unless you are ready to risk your life. Dad, my testifying in US Congress today is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to United States of America. I can make remarks that contradict the wishes of the President because this is America.
This remark was met with warm applause within the hall. The child from a poor immigrant family has made his dream come true in the US. Such an episode is more likely to appeal to the conservative Republican Party.
Of course, the evaluation of Vindman within the White House hit rock-bottom. Trump is reportedly outraged. He told reporters that he didn't know Vindman at all. The US President argued that while they had heard the telephone conversation firsthand in a separate room, Vindman testified based on the hearsay from a person who gained the information secondhand.
However, the Department of Defense, which has assigned him to the White House, is set to protect him from any retaliation at any cost at the initiative of its secretary, Mark Esper. This is not because he is a member of the US Army. This is because the DOD believes that he acted rightly for the benefit of the nation.
Japan will not have a Vindman
What about Japan?
It would be better, of course, if we had a society where there was no need for whistleblowing or any other act by government officials to divulge irregularities at the top. But the realities prove otherwise.
On November 21, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga defended Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the allegation that Abe used the publicly funded cherry blossom viewing party he hosted to his own advantage. Regarding the fact that the government discarded the list of guests on the same day when an opposition lawmaker demanded that the list be submitted to the Diet, the top government spokesperson said he saw no problem with this fact, arguing that the official in charge disposed of the list without knowing that such a demand was made.
Few people take this at face value. In the cronyism allegations known as the Moritomo Scandal, government officials tampered with government documents and used other diversionary tactics in apparent consideration of the wishes of the Prime Minister's Office (Kantei).
The concentration of the power to assign senior ministerial officials on Kantei has caused government offices to design and develop policies that please Kantei. The total lack of leadership on the part of Kantei is a problem. And yet, the concentration of power on Kantei under the long-lasting Abe administration is taking its toll. Officials who go against the wishes of Kantei seem to be expelled from the process of making important decisions within Kantei and other government offices.
The tenure of Abe as prime minister has recently exceeded that of Taro Katsura, who hailed from the same prefecture as Abe. A professor of Japanese studies who is based outside Japan noted earlier that Abe would start to make desperate efforts for legacy-making because the prime minister has no track record to be proud of. He explained that Abe fears he will be remembered merely for his longest tenure in a political quiz program.
Still, Abe may need to address another "l"--the liabilities of his administration.
How will he exit from unprecedented radical monetary easing? How will he fight fiscal deficits?
His social security reform remains inadequate as well.
Abe also made little progress in his agricultural policy reform. The fake news concocted by Abe that the government had abolished the gentan (rice acreage reduction) policy is still around (see "No More of the False Report of Abolition of the Gentan Policy!"). All he did was to take a stab at reforming Japan Agricultural Cooperatives and achieved only a measure of success. He bragged that he did something no other prime minister dared to do for the past four or seven decades. And the public seems to remain misled by his braggadocio, which is long on rhetoric and short on substance.
In prewar Japan, Taro Katsura was invariably disregarded as a second-rate politician, whose only appeal was his long tenure in office. Yukio Ozaki, who toppled the Katsura Cabinet, was better known--for his eloquent speeches. Respected politicians in prewar Japan included Hirobumi Ito, Taisuke Itagaki, Shigenobu Okuma, Takashi Hara, and Tsuyoshi Inukai. Nobody cited Katsura.
Nevertheless, Katsura seems to have left no liabilities behind. How can a sense of no way out be dissipated that stems from the concentration of power in Kantei? Unless this can be achieved, a person like Vindman will not emerge in Japan.