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The President Is Winning His War on American Institutions – The Atlantic

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McCabe said that losing had been difficult but that Jill was back to taking care of children in the emergency room.

“Yeah, that must have been really tough,” the president told his new FBI director. “To lose. To be a loser.”

As McCabe held the phone, his aides saw his face go tight. Trump was forcing him into the humiliating position of not being able to stand up for his wife. It was a kind of Mafia move: asserting dominance, emotional blackmail.

“It elevates the pressure of this idea of loyalty,” McCabe told me recently. “If I can actually insult your wife and you still agree with me or go along with whatever it is I want you to do, then I have you. I have split the husband and the wife. He first tried to separate me from Comey—‘You didn’t agree with him, right?’ He tried to separate me from the institution—‘Everyone’s happy at the FBI, right?’ He boxes you into a corner to try to get you to accept and embrace whatever bullshit he’s selling, and if he can do that, then he knows you’re with him.”

McCabe would return to the conversation again and again, asking himself if he should have told Trump where to get off. But he had an organization in crisis to run. “I didn’t really need to get into a personal pissing contest with the president of the United States.”

Far from being the political conspirator of Trump’s dark imaginings, McCabe was out of his depth in an intensely political atmosphere. When Trump demanded to know whom he’d voted for in 2016, McCabe was so shocked that he could only answer vaguely: “I played it right down the middle.” The lame remark embarrassed McCabe, and he later clarified things with Trump: He was a lifelong Republican, but he hadn’t voted in 2016, because of the FBI investigations into the two candidates. This straightforward answer only deepened Trump’s suspicions.

But the professionalism that left McCabe exposed to Trump’s bullying served him as he took charge of the FBI amid the momentous events of that week. “Once Jim got fired, Andy’s focus and resolve were quite amazing,” James Baker, then the FBI general counsel, told me. McCabe had two urgent tasks. The first was to reassure the 37,000 employees now working under him that the organization would be all right. On May 11, in a televised Senate hearing, he was asked whether White House assertions of Comey’s unpopularity in the bureau were true. McCabe had prepared his answer. “I can tell you that I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard,” he said. “I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.” He was saying to the country and his own people what he couldn’t say to Trump’s face.

The second task was to protect the Russia investigation. Comey’s firing, and the White House lies about the reason—that it was over the Clinton email case, when all the evidence pointed to the Russia investigation—raised the specter of obstruction of justice. On May 15, McCabe met with his top aides—Baker, Lisa Page, and two others—and concluded that they had to open an investigation into Trump himself. They had to find out whether the president had been working in concert with Russia and covering it up.

The case was under the direction of the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. McCabe doubted that Rosenstein, whose memo Trump had used to justify firing Comey, could be trusted to withstand White House pressure to shut down the investigation. He urged Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel to take over the case. Then it would be beyond the reach of the White House and the Justice Department. If Trump tried to kill it, the world would know. McCabe pressed Rosenstein several times, but Rosenstein kept putting him off.

On May 17, McCabe informed a small group of House and Senate leaders that the FBI was opening a counterintelligence investigation into Trump for possible conspiracy with Russia during the 2016 campaign, as well as a criminal investigation for obstruction of justice. Rosenstein then announced that he was appointing Robert Mueller to take over the case as special counsel.

That night McCabe was chauffeured in the unfamiliar silence of the director’s armored Suburban to his house in the Virginia exurbs beyond Dulles Airport. Jill was making dinner while their daughter did her homework at the kitchen island. McCabe took off his jacket, loosened his tie, and opened a beer. Ever since Comey’s firing he’d felt as though he were sprinting toward a goal—to make the Russia investigation secure and transparent. “We’ve done what we needed to do,” he said. “The president is going to be out for blood and it’s going to be mine.”

“You did your job,” Jill said. “That’s the important thing.”

In the coming months, when things grew dark for the McCabes, Jill would remind Andy of that evening together in the kitchen.

The tweets abruptly resumed on July 25: “Problem is that the acting head of the FBI & the person in charge of the Hillary investigation, Andrew McCabe, got $700,000 from H for wife!” By now Trump knew McCabe’s name, but Jill would always be the “wife.” The next day, more tweets: “Why didn’t A.G. Sessions replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation but got … big dollars ($700,000) for his wife’s political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives. Drain the Swamp!”

The tweets mortified McCabe. He had no way of answering the false charge without calling more attention to it. He went into headquarters and made a weak joke about the day’s news and tried to keep himself and his organization focused on work while knowing that everyone he met with was thinking about the tweets. Baker, who also became a target of Trump’s tweets, described their effect to me. “It’s just a very disorienting, strange experience for a person like me, who doesn’t have much of a public profile,” he said. “You can’t help having a physiological reaction, like getting nervous, sweating. It’s frightening, and you don’t know what it’s going to mean, and suddenly people start talking about you, and you feel very exposed—and not in a positive way.”

The purpose of Trump’s tweets was not just to punish McCabe for opening the investigation, but to taint the case. “He attacks people to make his misdeeds look like they were okay,” Jill said. “If Andrew was corrupt, then the investigation was corrupt and the investigation was wrong. So they needed to do everything they could to prove Andrew McCabe was corrupt and a liar.”

Three days after the tweets resumed, on July 28, McCabe was urgently summoned to the Justice Department. Lawyers from the Office of the Inspector General who were looking into the Clinton email investigation had found thousands of text messages between McCabe’s counsel, Lisa Page, and the bureau’s ace investigator, Peter Strzok. Both of them had been central to the Clinton and Russia cases; Strzok was now working for Mueller. During the campaign, Page and Strzok had exchanged scathing comments about Trump. They had also been having an extramarital affair. Page and Strzok were among McCabe’s closest colleagues; Page was his trusted friend. This was all news to him—terrible news.

The lawyers fired off questions about the texts. Because McCabe was a subject of the inspector general’s investigation of the Clinton case, he told the lawyers in advance that he wouldn’t answer questions about his involvement without his personal attorney present. In spite of this, their questions suddenly veered to the second Wall Street Journal article, with its suggestion that McCabe had been corrupted by Clinton. One of the lawyers wondered whether “CF” in a text from Page referred to the Clinton Foundation. “Do you happen to know?” he asked McCabe.

“I don’t know what she’s referring to.”

“Or perhaps a code name?”

“Not one that I recall,” McCabe said, “but this thing is, like, right in the middle of the allegations about me, and so I don’t really want to get into discussing this article with you. Because it just seems like we’re kind of crossing the strings a little bit there.”

“Was she ever authorized to speak to reporters in this time period?” a lawyer asked.

“Not that I’m aware of.”

This wasn’t true. McCabe himself had authorized Page to speak to the Journal reporter. But he had stopped paying attention to the lawyers’ questions, which weren’t supposed to have come up at all—he wanted to put an end to them. He had to think through how he was going to deal with this new emergency. The Page-Strzok texts were bound to leak, and they would be claimed by Trump and his partisans as proof that the FBI was a cesspool of bias and corruption. Page and Strzok would be personally destroyed. In New York City that day, Trump made his remark about Central American “animals,” and he urged law-enforcement officers to rough up suspected gang members. The bureau would have to formulate a response and reaffirm its code of integrity. And the McCabes were back in the president’s crosshairs.

McCabe had the sense that everything was falling apart. It’s not hard to imagine the state of mind that led him to say, “Not that I’m aware of.” He had done it before, on the other terrible day of that year, May 9, when a different internal investigation had blindsided him with the same question about the long-ago Journal leak, and McCabe had given the same inaccurate answer. A right-down-the-middle career official, his integrity under continued assault, might well make such a needless mistake.

That was a Friday. Over the weekend he realized that he had left the lawyers with a false impression. On Tuesday he called the inspector general’s office to correct it. That same week the Senate confirmed Christopher Wray as the new FBI director, and McCabe went back to being the deputy. After 21 years as an agent, he planned to retire as soon as he was eligible, in March 2018, when he turned 50, and go into the private sector. But it was already too late.

On December 19, testifying before a House committee, McCabe confirmed Comey’s account of Trump’s attempt to kill the Russia investigation. Two days later, before another House committee, he was asked how attacks on the FBI had affected him. “I’ll tell you, it has been enormously challenging,” McCabe said. He described how his wife—“a wonderful, brilliant, caring physician”—had run for office to help expand health insurance for poor people. “And having started with that noble intention, to have gone through what she and my children have experienced over the last year has been—it has been devastating.”

Two days before Christmas, Trump let fly a menacing tweet: “FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits. 90 days to go?!!!” No personnel issue was too small for the president’s attention if it concerned a bureaucrat he considered an enemy. Another tweet that same day and one on Christmas Eve repeated the old falsehoods about Jill’s campaign. She couldn’t stop blaming herself for all the trouble that had come to her family.

Just after the holidays, McCabe learned that his part of the inspector general’s report on the Clinton email investigation would be released separately. Instead of later in the spring, the McCabe piece would be finished in just a couple of months. In January 2018, Wray, the new director, forced McCabe out of the deputy’s job. Rather than accept a lower position, he went on leave in anticipation of his retirement in mid-March. At the end of February, the inspector general completed his 35-page report with its devastating conclusion: McCabe had shown “lack of candor” on four occasions in his statements about the Wall Street Journal leak. The Office of Professional Responsibility recommended that he be fired. To some in the Justice Department, this represented accountability for a senior official.

McCabe received the case file on March 9. FBI guidelines generally grant the subject 30 days to respond, but the Justice Department seemed determined to satisfy the White House and get ahead of McCabe’s retirement. He was given a week. On Thursday, March 15, he met with a department official and argued his case: He’d been blindsided by questions about an episode that he’d forgotten in the nonstop turmoil of the following months, and when he realized that he’d made an inaccurate statement, he had come forward voluntarily to correct it. McCabe thought he made a solid argument, but he knew what was coming.

On Friday night, watching CNN, McCabe learned that he had been fired from the organization where he had worked for 21 years. He was 26 hours away from his 50th birthday.

An hour after the news broke, Trump broadcast his delight: “Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI—A great day for Democracy.” It was his eighth tweet about McCabe; there have been 33 since then, and counting.

“To be fired from the FBI and called a liar—I can’t even describe to you how sick that makes me to this day,” McCabe told me, nearly two years later. “It’s so wildly offensive and humiliating and just horrible. It bothers me as much today as it did on March 16, when I got fired. I’ve thought about it for thousands of hours, but it still doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.”

The extraordinary rush to get rid of McCabe ahead of his retirement, with the president baying for his scalp, appalled many lawyers both in and out of government. “To engineer the process that way is an unforgivable politicization of the department,” the legal expert Benjamin Wittes told me. McCabe lost most of his pension. He became unemployable, and “radioactive” among his former colleagues—almost no one at headquarters would have contact with him. Worst of all, the Justice Department referred the inspector general’s report to the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C. A criminal indictment in such cases is almost unheard of, but the sword of the law hung over McCabe’s head for two years, an abnormally long time, while prosecutors hardly uttered a word. Last September, McCabe learned from media reports that a grand jury had been convened to vote on an indictment. He and Jill told their children that their father might be handcuffed, the house might be searched, he might even be jailed. The grand jury met, and the grand jury went home, and nothing happened. The silence implied that the jurors had found no grounds to indict. One of the prosecutors dropped off the case, unusual at such a crucial stage, and another left for the private sector, reportedly unhappy about political pressure. Still, the U.S. Attorney’s Office kept the case open until mid-February, when it was abruptly dropped.

Andrew and Jill McCabe
Andrew and Jill McCabe (Peyton Fulford)

McCabe discusses his situation with the oddly calm manner of the straight man in a Hitchcock movie who can’t quite fathom the nightmare in which he’s trapped. Jill, who is more demonstrative, compares the ordeal to an abusive relationship: Every time she feels like she can finally breathe a little, another blow lands. On any given night, a Fox News host can still be heard denouncing her husband. Just recently, a reporter for a right-wing TV network, One America News, announced on the White House lawn that McCabe had had an affair with Lisa Page. It was a lie, and the network was forced to retract it, but not before McCabe had to call his daughter at school and warn her that she would see the story on the internet.

McCabe has written a book, and he appears regularly on CNN, and he volunteers his time with the Innocence Project, working on the cases of wrongly convicted prisoners. Jill is getting an M.B.A. while continuing to do the overnight shift at the emergency room. But they’ve come to accept that they will never be entirely free.

Every member of the FBI leadership who investigated Trump has been forced out of government service, along with officials in the Justice Department, and subjected to a campaign of vilification. Even James Baker, who was never accused of wrongdoing, found himself too controversial to be hired in the private sector. But it is McCabe’s protracted agony that provides the most vivid warning of what might happen to other career officials if their professional duties ever collide with Trump’s personal interests. It struck fear in Erica Newland and her colleagues in the Office of Legal Counsel. It chilled officials farther afield, in the State Department. “There’s a lot of people out there,” Jill said, “who are unwilling to stand up and do the right thing, because they don’t want to be the next Andrew McCabe.”

4. Ends and Means

Nothing constrained Trump more than independent law enforcement. Nothing would strengthen him like the power to use it for his own benefit. “The authoritarian leader simply has to get control over the coercive apparatus of the state,” Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes write in their new book, Unmaking the Presidency. “Without control of the Justice Department, the would-be tyrant’s tool kit is radically incomplete.”

When Trump nominated William Barr to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general, the Washington legal establishment exhaled a collective sigh of relief. Barr had held the same job almost 30 years earlier, in the last 14 months of the first Bush presidency. He was now 68 and rich from years in the private sector. He had nothing to prove and nothing to gain. He was considered an “institutionalist”—quite conservative, an advocate of strong presidential power, but not an extremist. Because he was intimidatingly smart and bureaucratically skillful, he would protect the Justice Department from Trump’s maraudings far better than the intellectually inferior Sessions and his ill-qualified temporary replacement, Matthew Whitaker. Barr told a friend that he agreed to come back because the department was in chaos and needed a leader with a bulletproof reputation.

Before Barr’s confirmation hearings, Neal Katyal, a legal scholar who was acting solicitor general under Obama, warned a group of Democratic senators not to be fooled: Barr’s views were well outside mainstream conservatism. He could prove more dangerous than any of his predecessors. And the reasons for concern could be found by anyone who took the trouble to study Barr’s record, which was made of three durable, interwoven strands.

The first was his expansive view of presidential power, sometimes called the theory of the “unitary executive”—the idea that Article II of the Constitution gives the president sole and complete authority in the executive branch, with wide latitude to interpret laws and make war. When Barr became head of the Office of Legal Counsel under George H. W. Bush, in 1989, he wrote an influential memo listing 10 ways in which Congress had been trespassing on Article II, arguing, “Only by consistently and forcefully resisting such congressional incursions can executive branch prerogatives be preserved.” He created and chaired an interagency committee to fight document requests and assert executive privilege.

One target of Barr’s displeasure was the Office of the Inspector General, created by Congress in 1978 as an independent watchdog in executive-branch agencies. “For a guy like Barr, this goes to the core of the unitary executive—that there’s this entity in there that reports to Congress,” says Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush. When Barr became attorney general in 1991, he made sure that the inspector general’s office in the Justice Department had as little power as possible to investigate misconduct.

Barr has even expressed skepticism about the guidelines, established after Watergate, that insulate the Justice Department from political interference by the White House. In a 2001 oral history Barr said, “I think it started picking up after Watergate, the idea that the Department of Justice has to be independent … My experience with the department is that the most political people in the Department of Justice are the career people, the least political are the political appointees.” In Barr’s view, political interference in law enforcement is almost a contradiction in terms. Since presidents (and their appointees) are subject to voters, they are better custodians of justice than the anonymous and unaccountable bureaucrats known as federal prosecutors and FBI investigators. Barr seemed unconcerned about what presidents might do between elections.

The Iran-Contra scandal that took place under Ronald Reagan shadowed Bush’s presidency in the form of an investigation conducted by the independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. Barr despised independent counsels as trespasses on the unitary executive. A month before Bush left office, Barr persuaded the president to issue full pardons of several Reagan-administration officials who had been found guilty in the scandal, in addition to one—former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger—who had been indicted and might have provided evidence against Bush himself. The appearance of a cover-up didn’t trouble Barr. But six years later, when the independent counsel Kenneth Starr was investigating President Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction in a sex scandal, Barr, by then a corporate lawyer, criticized the Clinton White House for attacks on Starr that could impede the investigation and even intimidate jurors and witnesses.

Here is a glimpse of the second strand in Barr’s thinking: partisanship. Less conspicuous than the first, which sheathes it in constitutional principles, it never disappears. Barr is a persistent critic of independent counsels—except when they’re investigating a Democratic president. He’s a vocal defender of presidential authority—when a Republican is in the White House.

This partisanship has to be understood in relation to the third enduring strand of Barr’s thinking: He is a Catholic—a very conservative one. John R. Dunne, who ran the Justice Department’s civil-rights division when Barr was attorney general under Bush, calls him “an authoritarian Catholic.” Dunne and his wife once had dinner at Barr’s house and came away with the impression of a traditional patriarch whom only the family dog disobeyed. Barr attended Columbia University at the height of the anti-war movement, and he drew a lesson from those years that shaped many other religious conservatives as well: The challenge to traditional values and authority in the 1960s sent the country into a long-term moral decline.

In 1992, as attorney general, Barr gave a speech at a right-wing Catholic conference in which he blamed “the long binge that began in the mid-1960s” for soaring rates of abortion, drug use, divorce, juvenile crime, venereal disease, and general immorality. “The secularists of today are clearly fanatics,” Barr said. He called for a return to “God’s law” as the basis for moral renewal. “There is a battle going on that will decide who we are as a people and what name this age will ultimately bear.” One of Barr’s speechwriters at the time was Pat Cipollone, who is now Trump’s White House counsel and served as one of his defenders during impeachment. In 1995, as a private citizen, Barr published the same argument, with the same military metaphors, as an essay in the journal then called The Catholic Lawyer. “We are locked in a historic struggle between two fundamentally different systems of values,” he wrote. “In a way, this is the end product of the Enlightenment.” The secularists’ main weapon in their war on religion, Barr continued, is the law. Traditionalists would have to fight back the same way.

What does this apocalyptic showdown have to do with Article II and the unitary executive? It raises the stakes of politics to eschatology. With nothing less than Christian civilization at stake, the faithful might well conclude that the ends justify the means.

Barr spent the quarter century between Presidents Bush and Trump in private practice, serving on corporate boards, and caring for the youngest of his three daughters as she battled lymphoma. Barr and Cipollone also sat together on the board of the Catholic Information Center, an office in Washington closely affiliated with Opus Dei, a far-right Catholic organization with influential connections in politics and business around the world. During those years, the Republican Party sank into its own swamp of moral relativism, hitting bottom with Trump’s presidency.

Trump’s arrival brought Barr out of semi-retirement as a reliable advocate. When Comey reopened the Clinton email investigation 11 days before the election, Barr wrote an approving op‑ed. When Trump fired Comey six months later, supposedly for mishandling the same investigation, Barr published another approving op-ed. The only consistent principle seemed to be what benefited Trump. Then, in June 2018, Barr wrote a 19-page memo and sent it, unsolicited, to Rod Rosenstein. The memo argued that Robert Mueller could not charge Trump with obstructing justice for taking actions that came under the president’s authority, including asking Comey to back off the Flynn investigation and then firing Comey. In Barr’s expansive view of Article II, it was nearly impossible for Trump to obstruct justice at all.

Writing that memo was a strange thing for a former attorney general to do with his spare time. Six months later, Trump nominated Barr to his old job.

After Barr assumed office, his advocacy for Trump intensified. When Mueller completed his report, in March 2019, Barr rushed to tell the world not only that the report cleared Trump of conspiring with Russia, but that the lack of an “underlying crime” cleared the president of obstruction as well—despite 10 damning examples of possible crimes in the report, which Barr finally released, lightly redacted, three weeks later. Those extra weeks allowed Trump a crucial moment to claim complete exoneration. Then he turned his rhetorical gun on his pursuers. He wanted them brought down.

Two investigations of the investigators were already in the works—one by the Justice Department’s inspector general, focusing on electronic surveillance of a Trump-campaign adviser (Barr called it “spying”), and a broader review by John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, under Barr’s supervision. In an interview with CBS in May, Barr prejudged the outcome of Durham’s review, strongly implying that the Russia investigation had been flawed from the start. He located the misconduct in the deep state: “Republics have fallen because of [a] Praetorian Guard mentality where government officials get very arrogant, they identify the national interest with their own political preferences, and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion, you know, is somehow an enemy of the state. And, you know, there is that tendency that they know better and that, you know, they’re there to protect as guardians of the people. That can easily translate into essentially supervening the will of the majority and getting your own way as a government official.”

Even if this were true of the Russia case, the attorney general had no business foreshadowing the result of investigations. And when, in December, the inspector general released his report, finding serious mistakes in the applications for surveillance warrants but no political bias—no “Praetorian Guard”—in the Russia investigation, Barr wasn’t satisfied. He announced that he disagreed with the report.

President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr at the White House, November 26, 2019 (Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux)

Barr uses his official platform to gaslight the public. In a speech to the conservative Federalist Society in Washington in November, he devoted six paragraphs to perhaps the most contemptuously partisan remarks an attorney general has ever made. Progressives are on a “holy mission” in which ends justify means, while conservatives “tend to have more scruple over their political tactics,” Barr claimed. “One of the ironies of today is that those who oppose this president constantly accuse this administration of ‘shredding’ constitutional norms and waging a war on the rule of law. When I ask my friends on the other side, ‘What exactly are you referring to?,’ I get vacuous stares, followed by sputtering about the travel ban or some such thing.”

The core of the speech was a denunciation of legislative and judicial encroachments on the authority of the executive—as if presidential power hasn’t grown enormously since 9/11, if not the New Deal, and as if Trump’s conduct in office falls well within the boundaries of Article II. In October, at Notre Dame, the attorney general recycled his old jeremiad on religious war. For Barr the year is always 1975, Congress is holding hearings to enfeeble the presidency, and the secular left is destroying the American family. He is using his short time remaining onstage to hold off the coming darkness, and if Providence has played the cosmic joke of vesting righteous power in the radically flawed person of Donald Trump, Barr will do what he must to protect him: distort the Mueller report; impugn Justice Department officials; try to keep the Ukraine whistle-blower’s complaint from Congress via spurious legal arguments; give cover to White House stonewalling of the impeachment inquiry; create an official channel for the delivery of political dirt on the president’s opponents; overrule his prosecutors on behalf of Trump’s friend Roger Stone.

Barr and Trump are pursuing very different projects—the one a crusade to align government with his idea of religious authority, the other a venal quest for self-aggrandizement. But they serve each other’s purpose by collaborating to destroy the independence of anything—federal agencies, the public servants who work in them, even the other branches of government—that could restrain the president.

“Barr is perhaps the most political attorney general we’ve ever had,” a longtime government lawyer told me. He described the devastating effects on law enforcement of Trump’s unending assault and Barr’s complicity. “I know from talking to friends that many of the career people are distressed about two related things. One is the sense that legal decisions are being driven to an exceptional degree by politics.” The Justice Department, disregarding the views of career lawyers, has taken extreme positions—for example, that the White House could refuse to provide any evidence in the impeachment hearings, and that neither the House of Representatives nor the Manhattan district attorney can subpoena Trump’s personal financial records. The other cause of distress, the lawyer said, is Barr’s willingness to attack his own people, joining Trump in accusing government officials of conspiring against the president.

Even far afield from Washington, morale has suffered. A federal prosecutor in the middle of the country told me that he and his colleagues can no longer count on their leaders to protect them from unfair accusations or political meddling. Any case with a hint of political risk is considered untouchable. The White House’s agenda is driving more and more cases, especially those related to immigration. And there’s a palpable fear of retaliation for any whiff of criticism. Prosecutors worry that Trump’s attacks on law enforcement are having a corrosive effect in courtrooms, because jurors no longer trust FBI agents or other government officers serving as witnesses.

As a result, many of the prosecutor’s colleagues are thinking of leaving government service. “I hear a lot of people say, ‘If there’s a second term, there’s no possible way I can wait it out for another four.’ A lot of people feared how bad it could be, but we had no idea it would be this bad. It’s hard to weather that storm.” What keeps this prosecutor from leaving is a commitment to his cases, to the department’s mission, and to the thought “not so much that you could make a difference in this administration, because that doesn’t seem possible anymore, but so you can be here in place when what we think will be a need to rebuild comes.”

When Trump launched his campaign, he was suspected of seeking only to enrich himself. The point of the presidency was more high-paying guests at the Trump International Hotel, down the street from the White House. If Trump’s tax returns and financial records are ever made public, we’ll know just how much the presidency was worth to him.

But Trump’s ambitions have swelled since the election. He hasn’t crushed the independence of the Justice Department simply to be able to squeeze more money out of his businesses. Financial self-interest “is why he ran,” Fred Wertheimer, of Democracy 21, says. “But power is a drug. Power is an addiction—exercising power, flying around in Air Force One, having motorcades, having people salute you. He thinks he is the country.”

5. “No Statement”

As a candidate, Trump learned that a foreign country can provide potent help in subverting an American election. As president, he has the entire national-security bureaucracy under his command, but he needed several years to find its weak spot—to figure out that the State Department could be as corruptible as Justice, and as useful to his hold on power.

When Mike Pompeo took over as secretary of state, in April 2018, the State Department was already ailing. Diplomacy has been an atrophying muscle of American power for several decades, and the status of Foreign Service officers has steadily diminished. In the mid-1970s, 60 percent of the positions at the level of assistant secretary and above were filled by career officials. By the time of the Obama administration, the figure was down to 30 percent, while ambassadorships had become a common way for presidents to thank big donors. “This wasn’t invented in the beginning of 2017 with this administration,” William Burns, a deputy secretary of state under Obama, told me. “Unqualified political appointees have been with us long before Donald Trump. As in so many areas, what he’s done is accelerated that problem and made it a lot worse.”

Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, bled the department dry. To purge it of bloat, he tried to gut the budget, froze hiring, and pushed out a large cadre of senior diplomats. Offices and hallways in the headquarters on C Street grew deserted. When Pompeo became secretary, he promised to restore “swagger” to diplomacy. He ended the hiring freeze, promoted career officials, and began to fill empty positions at the top—but he brought in mostly political appointees. According to Ronald Neumann, a retired career ambassador who is now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, the politicization of the State Department represents “the destruction of a 100-year effort, from Teddy Roosevelt on, to build professional government separate from the spoils system.” The destruction, Neumann told me, is a “deliberate process, based on the belief that the federal government is hostile, and now you have to put in loyal people across the board in senior positions to control the bastards—the career bureaucrats. In the past it has been primarily a frustration that the bureaucracy is sclerotic, that it is not agile. But it was not about loyalty, and that’s what it’s about now.”

Under Pompeo, 42 percent of ambassadors are political appointees, an all-time high (before the Trump presidency the number was about 30 percent). They “are chosen for their loyalty to Trump,” Elizabeth Jones, a retired career ambassador, told me. “They’ve learned that the only way to succeed is to be 100 percent loyal, 1,000 percent. The idea that you’re out there to work for the American people is an alien idea.” Of the department’s positions at the level of assistant secretary and above, only 8 percent are held by career officials, and only one Foreign Service officer has been confirmed by the Senate to a senior position since Trump took office—the others are in acting positions, a way for the administration to sap the independence of its senior officials. Many mid-level diplomats now look for posts outside Washington, in foreign countries that the president is unlikely to tweet about.The story of how the first family, Rudy Giuliani, his two former business associates, a pair of discredited Ukrainian prosecutors, and the right-wing media orchestrated a smear campaign to force Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch out of her post in Kyiv because she stood in the way of their corrupt schemes has become famous as the origin of Trump’s impeachment. The story of how Yovanovitch’s colleagues in the State Department responded to the crisis is less well known. It reveals the full range of behavior among officials under unprecedented pressure from the top. It shows how an agency with a long, proud history can be hollowed out and broken by its own leaders.

Tom Malinowski, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey and former State Department official, was born in Communist Poland to a family that had lived through World War II. “I’ve often asked myself the alternative-history question of what might happen if the Nazis took over America,” he told me. “Who would become, out of opportunism or maybe even shared outlook, one of them? Some people would. Most people would keep their head down. Some number of people would be courageous and do useful things. A smaller number would do recklessly useful things. And then some number, hopefully also small, would take advantage of the situation to help themselves.”

Masha Yovanovitch, like Andy McCabe, had no public profile but was widely respected among colleagues. She joined the Foreign Service in 1986, when she was 28 years old, and rose through the ranks of the State Department to become the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, then Armenia, and then, in 2016, Ukraine. At the embassy in Kyiv she became known as a dedicated fighter of the corruption rampant among Ukrainian political and business leaders. And, as with McCabe, her professionalism left her vulnerable when a gang of thugs set out to destroy her career. Corruption, the theme of her work in Ukraine, was also the theme of its abrupt end. “You’re going to think that I’m incredibly naive,” she told the House during her testimony, “but I couldn’t imagine all the things that have happened.”

In early March 2019, David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, paid a visit to the embassy in Kyiv. He asked Yovanovitch, who planned to end her tour that summer and then retire, to stay another year. With Ukrainian elections coming up, the embassy couldn’t afford to be temporarily leaderless. She thought about it overnight and agreed.

Two weeks later, on March 20, The Hill, a Washington newspaper, published an interview with Yuriy Lutsenko, one of the dirty Ukrainian prosecutors who had been thwarted by Yovanovitch. Lutsenko accused her of trying to stop legitimate prosecutions. The article also reported that the ambassador was heard to have openly criticized Trump. The president retweeted the story, which was composed almost entirely of lies. It was followed by several more articles filled with conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s interference in the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton. The reporter, John Solomon (who stands by his stories), was getting his information from Giuliani and his associates. Solomon had come to The Hill from Circa News, a right-wing site that had published an identical falsehood about McCabe—that he had openly trashed Trump in a meeting—two years earlier. The Russia and Ukraine scandals are best understood as a single web of corruption and abuse of office, and Solomon is one of many strands connecting them.

Another is Joseph diGenova, a right-wing Washington lawyer, former appointee of Barr, and friend of Giuliani’s who had asserted in 2016 that FBI agents were furious with James Comey for closing the Clinton investigation. On the same day the first Hill story about Yovanovitch was published, diGenova appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and said that Yovanovitch “has bad-mouthed the president of the United States to Ukrainian officials and has told them not to listen or worry about Trump policy because he’s going to be impeached. This woman needs to be called home to the United States—” “Oh, immediately,” Hannity interjected. Two nights later, Laura Ingraham repeated the story on her show. Victoria Toensing, diGenova’s law partner (and wife) and a frequent Fox News guest, texted one of Giuliani’s cronies: “Is the Wicket [sic] Witch gone?” On March 24, in a tweet, Donald Trump Jr. called Yovanovitch a “joker.”

The State Department called The Hill’s original story a “complete fabrication.” But as the lies spread among conservative media, triggering a barrage of attacks, Yovanovitch found herself in a crisis. Hale, the department’s No. 3 and its senior career diplomat, sent an email to two colleagues: “I believe Masha should deny on the record saying anything disrespectful and reaffirm her loyalty as Ambassador and FSO to POTUS and Constitution.” Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor who, with no relevant experience, had been made ambassador to the European Union, gave her the same advice directly. “Tweet out there that you support the president, and that all these are lies,” Yovanovitch recounted him saying during her impeachment testimony. “You know the sorts of things that he likes. Go out there battling aggressively and praise him.”

Yovanovitch felt that she couldn’t do it. Like Erica Newland, she had taken an oath to defend the Constitution, not the president. Instead of tweeting allegiance to Trump, Yovanovitch recorded a public service announcement urging Ukrainians to vote in that country’s upcoming presidential election. She tried to connect this civic duty to her role as a nonpartisan government official. “Diplomats like me make a pledge to serve whomever the American people, our fellow citizens, choose,” she told the camera. Presidents Bush and Obama had both appointed her to ambassadorships, “and I promote and carry out the policies of President Trump and his administration. This is one of the marks of a true democracy.”

Whatever impression this civics lesson made on Ukrainians, it did nothing to stop the vicious campaign against her back home. The United States was no longer the democracy that American diplomats hold up as a model to foreigners.

On March 24, unable to function in her post, Yovanovitch wrote a desperate email to David Hale. She asked for a statement from the secretary of state saying that she had his full confidence, that she spoke for the president and the country. Hale called Yovanovitch that afternoon and asked her to put her concerns in writing. She sent a longer email, describing the figures who were attacking her—including Giuliani and Lutsenko—and attempting to interpret their motives.

The next day, at a weekly meeting of senior officials in the secretary’s office, Hale brought up Yovanovitch’s request. Pompeo was confronted with a dilemma—stand up for his people or appease the White House. He solved it by punting, saying that no statement would be made on her behalf until Giuliani, Hannity, and others were asked for their evidence. Later that week Hale sent word to the European bureau: “No statement.”

Yovanovitch herself never got an answer from Hale. “Basically, we moved on,” Hale said during his testimony at the impeachment inquiry. “For whatever reason, we stopped working on that—at least, I stopped working on that issue. I was not involved in doing it, so I wasn’t paying a great deal of attention to it.” Expressing support for Yovanovitch might have made things worse, he noted. “One point of view was that it might even provoke a public reaction from the president himself about the ambassador.”

A couple of bureaucratic levels below Hale, George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe, was fighting on behalf of the besieged ambassador. Kent had been her second in command at the embassy in Kyiv, where corruption had been his major focus. He knew all the Ukrainian players involved in the campaign against her, and he was outraged by the slanders, which had begun to tar his name as well. He had strengthened the original State Department response to the first Hill article, inserting the phrase complete fabrication, and when the attacks intensified he told Hale that the department needed to stand behind Yovanovitch. He spoke up despite his vulnerable status as a mid-level officer in line for a promotion to a senior position.

“Moments like this test people; they bring out one’s true character,” said Malinowski, who, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, heard days of testimony from ex-colleagues during the impeachment inquiry. “In normal times, it’s hard to know who would do what under those circumstances.” Kent’s first impulse was to prevent American policy from being corrupted in Kyiv and Washington. Hale, in a more powerful job, put bureaucratic hierarchy and his own secure place in it first. As a result, Yovanovitch had no one to press the urgency of her case with her leadership.

“I believe moral courage is more difficult than physical courage,” Ronald Neumann, the retired ambassador, told me. “I was an infantry officer in Vietnam. Some courageous officers on the battlefield became very cautious bureaucrats.” Physical courage in battle is made easier by speed, adrenaline, comrades. “Moral courage—you have, in many cases, lots of time, it’s a solitary act,” he said. “You are fully aware of potential repercussions to your career, and it’s harder. It shouldn’t be harder—you’re not going to get killed—but that’s the way it is.”

Things quieted down for a few weeks. On April 21 Volodymyr Zelensky, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, was elected president of Ukraine in a landslide. Right away, the White House let Pompeo know that Trump wanted Yovanovitch gone. The media storm kicked up again. On the evening of April 24, Yovanovitch hosted an embassy event to honor a young Ukrainian woman, an anti-corruption activist who had died after a sulfuric-acid attack and whose murder remained unsolved. After midnight, a call came in from the State Department: Yovanovitch was to get on the next plane home. She asked for a reason but was given none, other than concern for her security.

She was back in Washington on April 26. That was the day Pompeo, with great fanfare, unveiled his “Ethos” initiative, which included a new mission statement that the secretary himself recited before hundreds of Foreign Service officers: “I am a champion of American diplomacy … I act with uncompromising personal and professional integrity. I take ownership of and responsibility for my actions and decisions. And I show unstinting respect in word and deed for my colleagues and all who serve alongside me.” Pompeo didn’t meet with his ambassador to Ukraine after summarily recalling her, or ever again, nor did he say a public word on her behalf. Other officials told Yovanovitch that she had done nothing wrong but had somehow “lost the confidence of the president.” The department found her a temporary teaching post at Georgetown, but her career as a diplomat was over.

“I, on a personal level, felt awful for her,” Kent told the impeachment inquiry, “because it was within two months of us asking her—the undersecretary of state asking her—to stay another year.” When, in late May, Giuliani resumed his campaign of lies, telling Ukrainian journalists that Yovanovitch and Kent were part of a plot against Trump led by George Soros, there was no rebuttal from the State Department. Hale sent word that Kent should keep his head down and lower his profile on Ukraine. Kent canceled several scheduled appearances at Washington think tanks.

By then America’s Ukraine policy had fallen out of the regular State Department channels and into the hands of the “three amigos”—Ambassadors Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine, wanted to arrange a meeting between Zelensky and Trump, and in July he told Kent that he was going to see Giuliani to discuss Ukrainian investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden’s family and the 2016 election. Kent later said that when he asked Volker why he would do that, Volker replied, “If there’s nothing there, what does it matter? And if there is something there, it should be investigated.” Kent told him, “Asking another country to investigate a prosecution for political reasons undermines our advocacy of the rule of law.” But if this principle had ever had currency in the Trump administration, it no longer did.

On July 25, after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, Trump called Zelensky and asked for “a favor”—an investigation of the Bidens that was tantamount to Ukrainian interference in the U.S. presidential campaign in exchange for the release of American military aid and a personal meeting in the Oval Office. A day or two later, Kent heard about the call from Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert in the White House, who had been among those—including Pompeo—listening in. Vindman told Kent that Trump had called Yovanovitch “bad news,” and that the conversation had gone into highly sensitive matters—so sensitive that Vindman couldn’t share them with his colleague. Kent didn’t try to learn more. For all his outspokenness in Yovanovitch’s defense, Kent wasn’t the type of official who wanted “to be in the middle of everything.” In his impeachment testimony, he never mentioned writing a dissenting cable, or speaking to the inspector general. He carefully avoided the media.

The professional code of Foreign Service officers nearly kept the story of Trump’s attempted shakedown of Zelensky a secret. “It’s not in their DNA” to go public, Tom Malinowski said. Only one bureaucrat—the whistle-blower—made it possible for the American people to find out about the quid pro quo. The complaint surfaced on September 9, just days before Zelensky was scheduled to meet CNN’s Fareed Zakaria to discuss an interview, during which he likely would have announced the investigations that Trump wanted.

On September 25, the White House released a rough transcript of the July 25 call. In it, Trump said that “the former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news” and “she’s going to go through some things.” During the impeachment inquiry Hale explained, in high bureaucratese, “That was not an operational comment that had been operationalized in any way.”

At the State Department, Ambassador Michael McKinley read the transcript and had a visceral, almost physical reaction: He was appalled. McKinley was Pompeo’s senior adviser, having been brought back from his post in Brazil to serve as a link between the secretary and the Foreign Service. He and Hale were the only career officers among the department’s leadership, but he never made it into the secretary’s inner circle of political appointees, which included Pompeo’s former business partners. Until September 25, McKinley hadn’t paid enough attention to connect the dots of the Ukraine story. Now he found that Trump’s words spoke for themselves.

The next day, McKinley picked up where Kent had left off the previous spring. According to his impeachment testimony, he went to see Pompeo and asked, “Wouldn’t it be good to put out a statement on Yovanovitch?” Pompeo listened, and then he said, “Thank you.” The conversation lasted about three minutes.

In the last days of September, McKinley kept pushing for a statement praising Yovanovitch’s professionalism and courage. He heard from eight or 10 colleagues that the State Department’s silence in the face of an ugly presidential attack was demoralizing. On September 28 he emailed five senior colleagues, including Hale, insisting that the department needed to say something. Four wrote back agreeing. Hale didn’t reply; he told a colleague that he didn’t think McKinley’s effort would go anywhere. A few hours later Pompeo’s spokesperson informed McKinley that, in order to protect Yovanovitch from undue attention, the secretary would not release a statement.

The next day, a Sunday, McKinley told his wife that, after 37 years in the Foreign Service, he had to get out right away. Though he never spoke publicly until he was subpoenaed to appear before the House during the impeachment inquiry, his departure was so sudden that it had the quality of a resignation in protest. Pompeo, known in the department for his temper and bullying, spent 20 minutes on the phone from Europe with McKinley and gave him a tough time. Later, the secretary lied in an interview with ABC, saying that McKinley could have come to see him about Yovanovitch anytime but never had.

Before leaving, McKinley paid a visit to Hale and told him, one Foreign Service officer to another, that the department’s silence was having a terrible effect on morale. Hale flatly disagreed—he asserted that morale was high. Afterward, Hale met with Pompeo and identified a different threat to morale—McKinley’s negativity.

“I was flying solo,” McKinley told the House during the impeachment inquiry. “I didn’t know what the rules of engagement were. But I did know that, as a Foreign Service officer, I would be feeling pretty alone at this point.” So he got in touch with Yovanovitch, whom he knew, and with Kent, whom he didn’t. McKinley wanted to find out how they were doing. He was surprised to learn that he was the first senior official to contact them about the transcript of the Ukraine call. Kent was picking apples with his wife in Virginia when McKinley reached him. Afterward, he had to Google McKinley to find out who he was. “He appeared to me … to be a genuinely decent person who was concerned about what was happening,” Kent said in his impeachment testimony.

In early October, after House committees issued subpoenas for documents and scheduled depositions, the State Department ordered its personnel not to cooperate. Pompeo sent a letter to Congress calling the requests “an attempt to intimidate, bully, and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State.” He also said publicly that Congress had prevented Foreign Service officers from talking to the department’s lawyers, which wasn’t true—the lawyers wouldn’t talk to Kent, who had received a subpoena and was willing to testify. Kent felt bullied not by Congress, but by his own agency.

On October 3, the State Department’s European bureau met to discuss how to respond to the subpoenas. When Kent noted that the department was being unresponsive to Congress, a department lawyer raised his voice at Kent in front of 15 colleagues, then called him into the hall to yell some more. He was putting Kent on notice not to cooperate. Kent wrote a memo about the encounter, which he gave to McKinley, who sent it to Hale and othersand then the memo disappeared into the files with all the other documents that the department refused to turn over to Congress.

The career people testified anyway. None of them had ever received this kind of public scrutiny. Some were being regularly attacked by name on social media and right-wing websites. All of them were facing steep lawyers’ bills. (Former colleagues set up a legal fund and raised several hundred thousand dollars.) Pompeo and his State Department continued to say nothing in their defense. But one after another they came forward. Marie Yovanovitch, whose mother had just died, didn’t lose her composure when Representative Adam Schiff read aloud a nasty tweet Trump had just written about her. George Kent testified in a bow tie and matching pocket square like a throwback from an era of great diplomacy, saying with a wry smile, “You can’t promote principled anti-corruption action without pissing off corrupt people.” David Hale, pale and terse, also testified. Toward the end of his testimony, Democratic Representative Denny Heck of Washington begged Hale to say that Yovanovitch was a courageous patriot and that what had happened to her was wrong. Hale’s voice faltered as he replied, “I believe that she should have been able to stay at post and continue to do the outstanding work—”

Heck wasn’t having it. “What happened to her was wrong?”

“That’s right,” Hale said.

“Thank you for clarifying the record. Because I wasn’t sure where it was that she could go to set the record straight if it wasn’t you, sir, or where she could go to get her good name and reputation back if it wasn’t you, sir.”

Tom Malinowski, listening to his former colleagues, thought that their testimony said something about what has happened to the State Department. “There’s a lot of pent-up anger and trauma, and this was an outlet for the institution,” he said. “These men and women were speaking for their colleagues about more than just what happened with Ukraine.”

Bureaucrats never received such public praise as they did during the weeks of the impeachment inquiry. But the hearings left a misleading impression. The Ukraine story, like the Russia story before it, did not represent a morality tale in which truth and honor stood up to calumny and corruption and prevailed. Yovanovitch is gone, and so is her replacement, William Taylor Jr., and so are McKinley and others—Lieutenant Colonel Vindman was marched out of the White House in early February—while Pompeo is still there and, above him, so is the president. Trump is winning.

In his fourth year in power, Trump has largely succeeded in making the executive branch work on his personal behalf. He hasn’t done it by figuring out how to operate the bureaucratic levers of power, or by installing leaders with a vision of policy that he shares, or by channeling a popular groundswell into government action. He’s done it by punishing perceived enemies, co‑opting craven allies, and driving out career officials of competence and integrity. The result is a thin layer of political loyalists on top of a cowed bureaucracy.

Justice and State were obvious targets for Trump, but the rest of the executive branch is being similarly, if more quietly, bent to his will. One of every 14 political appointees in the Trump administration is a lobbyist; they largely run domestic policy. Trump’s biggest donors now have easy access to agency heads and to the president himself, as they swell his reelection coffers. In the last quarter of 2019, while being impeached, Trump raised nearly $50 million. His corruption of power, unprecedented in recent American history, only compounds the money corruption that first created the swamp.

Within the federal government, career officials are weighing outside job opportunities against their pension plans and their commitment to their oaths. More than 1,000 scientists have left the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and other agencies, according to The Washington Post. Almost 80 percent of employees at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture have quit. The Labor Department has made deep cuts in the number of safety inspectors, and worker deaths nationwide have increased dramatically, while recalls of unsafe consumer products have dropped off. When passing laws and changing regulations prove onerous, the Trump administration simply guts the government of expertise so that basic functions wither away, the well-connected feed on the remains, and the survivors keep their heads down, until the day comes when they face the same choice as McCabe and Yovanovitch: do Trump’s dirty work or be destroyed.

Four years is an emergency. Eight years is a permanent condition. “Things can hold together to the end of the first term, but after that, things fall apart,” Malinowski said. “People start leaving in droves. It’s one thing to commit four years of your life to the institution in the hope that you can be there for its restoration. It’s another to commit eight years. I can’t even wrap my head around what that would be like.”


This article appears in the April 2020 print edition with the headline “How to Destroy a Government.”

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Cabinet slashes budgets to pay for 6 new ministries, including ‘alternate PM’ – The Times of Israel

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Cabinet slashes budgets to pay for 6 new ministries, including ‘alternate PM’ – The Times of Israel_5ed43a3d6fdc5.jpeg

The cabinet on Sunday approved widespread fiscal reforms that will cut the budgets of most ministries in order to fund the establishment of six new ministries, including the office of the “alternate prime minister,” in a series of controversial decisions.

A unity coalition deal between Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz ended over a year of political deadlock when the most minister-rich government in Israel’s history was sworn in earlier this month. New ministerial positions were created to accommodate the cabinet’s 33 ministers, who number over a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers.

The price tag for the overhead costs of the new government has been estimated as high as a billion shekels ($285 million) over its three-year span. There have been widespread accusations that the government is overlarge and costly at a time when the economy is being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the new offices created Sunday was the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office, which will be held by Defense Minister Gantz for 18 months and then be transferred to Netanyahu as part of a power-sharing deal designed to allow him to keep the prime ministerial title even after vacating the post. Unlike other ministers, a prime minister can remain in his post even after he is indicted on criminal charges.

Other offices are Ze’ev Elkin’s Water Resources and Higher Education ministries; Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Ministry of Community Empowerment; David Amsalem’s Cyber Ministry; and Tzipi Hotovely and Tzachi Hanegbi’s Settlements Ministry.

Gantz — who is currently defense minister, in addition to the new post of alternate premier — is set to take over as prime minister in 18 months under the coalition deal, at which point Netanyahu will become alternate prime minister.

As the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office was approved, Netanyahu on Sunday denied reports that the alternate prime minister would also be granted an alternate prime minister’s residence. “It’s not true. It didn’t come up and it won’t,” he said.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz are seen at the Knesset, May 17, 2020. (ALEX KOLOMOISKY/POOL)

In order to create the new posts, ministers approved a government decision that will see a 1.5% cut to the budgets of all government offices, specifically at the upper personnel level. The move will slash 300 posts from the various offices to free up some NIS 100 million ($28.5 million).

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi opposed the budget cuts to foreign service, whereupon the cuts to his ministry were reduced from NIS 11.5 million ($3.2 million) to NIS 4.8 million ($1.3 million), the Walla news site reported.

Incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, right, with his predecessor, incoming Finance Minister Israel Katz, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 18, 2020 (Foreign Ministry)

On the 22-item agenda, the cabinet was also voting on filling the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, led by Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, and other ministerial panels; appointing directors general of the defense and economy ministries; and giving the green light to new Finance Minister Israel Katz’s program to encourage employment amid the pandemic.

In a Saturday night address, Katz presented his new Finance Ministry plan aimed at encouraging employers to take back employees placed on unpaid leave during the height of the pandemic in March. For every employee called back, places of business will receive a grant of NIS 7,500 ($2,141) starting on June 1, according to the plan. An additional grant of some NIS 3,500 ($1,000) will be handed out to employers for employees called back in May. Katz said some NIS 500 million ($142 million) have been allocated for businesses that would put employees back to work.

Economy Minister Amir Peretz opposed the treasury proposal during the meeting, arguing that it rewards employers who dropped their workers while harming those who kept their employees on the payroll even at a loss, according to the Globes business daily.

Katz retorted: “There is an alternate prime minister. There is no alternate finance minister. I am the finance minister and I will lead the implementation of the government decisions, which I proposed, and which were accepted by an overwhelming majority,” the Ynet news site reported.

Incoming Economy Minister Amir Peretz at a changeover ceremony in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sunday’s cabinet meeting also saw Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri receive building and planning powers that were previously under the treasury’s purview, while the Health Ministry was granted additional powers to combat the coronavirus.

The meeting on Sunday was held in the Foreign Ministry’s auditorium as the regular cabinet meeting rooms were not large enough to accommodate all the ministers while maintaining social distancing, according to reports.

Opposition chairman Yair Lapid issued a statement blasting the government after ministers approved funding for the newly formed offices created by the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition deal.

“The government handed half a billion shekels to itself today. Not for the self-employed, not for the unemployed, not for small businesses, but for itself,” said Lapid.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid at the Knesset as the 35th government of Israel is presented on May 17, 2020. (Knesset/Adina Veldman)

“For redundant offices like the Water Resources Ministry, the nonexistent Community Empowerment Ministry and for deputy ministers that no one needs. Detached lawmakers, we’ve had enough of you.”

Separately, last Wednesday,  a bill allowing ministers to give up their positions as Knesset members in order to enable a different member of their party slate to take their spot in parliament passed its preliminary Knesset plenary reading. The so-called Norwegian Law — which still requires three more votes to become law — would allow any MK who is appointed to a cabinet post to resign temporarily from the Knesset, thereby permitting the next candidate on the party’s list to enter parliament in his or her stead.

The opposition has blasted the bill, and the coalition’s rush to pass it, as a way of pushing more people into sweetheart jobs on the taxpayers’ dime.

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Tapper: Some of Trump’s allies think he’s not up to the task – CNN

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In Days of Discord, President Trump Fans the Flames – The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — With a nation on edge, ravaged by disease, hammered by economic collapse, divided over lockdowns and even face masks and now convulsed once again by race, President Trump’s first instinct has been to look for someone to fight.

Over the last week, America reeled from 100,000 pandemic deaths, 40 million people out of work and cities in flames over a brutal police killing of a subdued black man. But Mr. Trump was on the attack against China, the World Health Organization, Big Tech, former President Barack Obama, a cable television host and the mayor of a riot-torn city.

While other presidents seek to cool the situation in tinderbox moments like this, Mr. Trump plays with matches. He roars into any melee he finds, encouraging street uprisings against public health measures advanced by his own government, hurling made-up murder charges against a critic, accusing his predecessor of unspecified crimes, vowing to crack down on a social media company that angered him and then seemingly threatening to meet violence with violence in Minneapolis.

As several cities erupted in street protests after the killing of George Floyd, some of them resulting in clashes with the police, Mr. Trump made no appeal for calm. Instead in a series of tweets and comments to reporters on Saturday, he blamed the unrest on Democrats, called on “Liberal Governors and Mayors” to get “MUCH tougher” on the crowds, threatened to intervene with “the unlimited power of our Military” and even suggested his own supporters mount a counterdemonstration.

The turmoil came right to Mr. Trump’s doorstep for the second night in a row on Saturday as hundreds of people protesting Mr. Floyd’s death and the president’s response surged in streets near the White House. While most were peaceful, chanting “black lives matter” and “no peace, no justice,” some spray painted scatological advice for Mr. Trump, ignited small fires, set off firecrackers and threw bricks, bottles and fruit at Secret Service and United States Park Police officers, who responded with pepper spray.

The police cordoned off several blocks around the Executive Mansion as a phalanx of camouflage-wearing National Guard troops marched across nearby Lafayette Square. A man strode through the streets yelling, “Time for a revolution!” The image of the White House surrounded by police in helmets and riot gear behind plastic shields fueled the sense of a nation torn apart.

Mr. Trump praised the Secret Service for being “very cool” and “very professional” but assailed the Democratic mayor of Washington for not providing city police officers to help on Friday night, which she denied. While governors and mayors have urged restraint, Mr. Trump seemed more intent on taunting the protesters, bragging about the violence that would have met them had they tried to get onto White House grounds.

“Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence,” the president wrote on Twitter on Saturday morning. “If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action.”

His suggestion that his own supporters should come to the White House on Saturday foreshadowed the possibility of a clash outside his own doors. “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???” he wrote on Twitter, using the acronym for his first campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Asked about the tweet later, he denied encouraging violence by his supporters. “They love African-American people,” he said. “They love black people. MAGA loves the black people.” By evening, however, Mr. Trump’s supporters were not in evidence among the crowds at the White House.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington responded sharply on Saturday morning, saying her police department will protect anyone in Washington, including the president, and by Saturday evening her officers were out in force around the White House.

But she called the president a source of division. “While he hides behind his fence afraid/alone, I stand w/ people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Right after the murder of #GeorgeFloyd & hundreds of years of institutional racism,” she wrote. “There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone …”

After his morning barrage, Mr. Trump tried to recalibrate later in the day, devoting the opening of a speech at the Kennedy Space Center following the SpaceX rocket launch to the unrest in the streets and clearly trying to temper his bellicose tone.

“I understand the pain that people are feeling,” he said. “We support the right of peaceful protesters and we hear their pleas. But what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or peace. The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters and anarchists.”

The days of discord have put the president’s leadership style on vivid display. From the start of his ascension to power, Mr. Trump has presented himself as someone who seeks conflict, not conciliation, a fighter, not a peacemaker. That appeals to a substantial portion of the public that sees in him a president willing to take on an entrenched and entitled establishment.

But the confluence of perilous health, economic and now racial crises has tested his approach and left him struggling to find his footing just months before an election in which polls currently show him behind.

“The president seems more out-of-touch and detached from the difficult reality the country is living than ever before,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who has been critical of Mr. Trump. “At a moment when America desperately needs healing, the president is focused on petty personal battles with his perceived adversaries.”

Such a moment would challenge any president, of course. It has been a year of national trauma that started out feeling like another 1998 with impeachment, then another 1918 with a killer pandemic combined with another 1929 given the shattering economic fallout. Now add to that another 1968, a year of deep social unrest.

It is fair to say that 2020 has turned out to be a year that has frayed the fabric of American society with an accumulation of anguish that has whipsawed the country and its people. But in some ways, Mr. Trump has become a totem for the nation’s polarization rather than a mender of it.

“I am daily thinking about why and how a society unravels and what we can do to stop the process,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. “The calamity these days is about more than Trump. He is just the malicious con man who lives to exploit our vulnerabilities.”

As the nation has confronted a coronavirus pandemic at the same time as the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, whatever unified resolve that existed at the beginning of the twin crises quickly evaporated into yet another cultural clash. And the president has made everything into just another partisan dispute rather than a source of consensus, from when and how to reopen to whether to wear a mask in public.

Mr. Trump led no national mourning as the death toll from the coronavirus passed 100,000 beyond lowering the flags at the White House, posting a single tweet and offering a passing comment on camera only when asked about it. Rather than seek agreement on the best and safest way to restore daily life, he threatened to “override” governors who prevented places of worship from resuming crowded services.

“Crisis leadership demands much more from the White House than irresponsible threats on social media,” said Meena Bose, director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University.

Mr. Trump’s initial response to the rioting in Minneapolis, where a police officer has been charged with murder after kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he cried out that he could not breathe, underscored the president’s most instinctive response to national challenges. Threatening to send in troops, he wrote early Friday morning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Only after a cascade of criticism did he try to walk it back, posting a new tweet 13 hours later, suggesting that all he had meant was that “looting leads to shooting” by people in the street.

“I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means,” he said, a reformulation that convinced few if any of his critics.

Even some of Mr. Trump’s usual allies were distressed at the original shooting tweet. Geraldo Rivera, the television and radio host who often spends time with Mr. Trump at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, decried “the recklessness” of that message and called on the president “to self-censor himself.”

“Come on, what is this, sixth grade?” Mr. Rivera said on Fox News. “You don’t put gasoline on the fire. That’s not calming anybody.” He added: “All he does is diminish himself.”

But many of the president’s defenders rejected the idea that he had mishandled the crises, pressing the argument that Democrats and the news media were to blame for the turmoil in the streets, which spread from Minneapolis to New York, Atlanta, Washington, Louisville, Portland and other cities.

“Keep track of cities where hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and serious injuries and death will take place,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has served as Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, wrote on Twitter on Friday night. “All Democrat dominated cities with criminal friendly policies. This is the future if you elect Democrats.”

Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who was pardoned by Mr. Trump for tax fraud earlier this year, amplified the point on Twitter. “It should be no surprise that every one of these cities that the anarchist have taken over, are the same cities run by leftist Democrats with the highest violence, murder and poverty rates,” he wrote on Twitter. “They can’t handle their cities normally, so how are they going to deal with this?”

Mr. Trump, who this past week retweeted a video of a supporter saying that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” (though the supporter insisted he meant that in a political sense), picked up the theme on Saturday.

With crowds visible from his upstairs windows, Mr. Trump reached for his phone and again assailed the “Democrat Mayor” of Minneapolis for not responding more vigorously and called on New York to unleash its police against crowds. “Let New York’s Finest be New York’s Finest,” he wrote. “There is nobody better, but they must be allowed to do their job!”

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