The Lawless Presidency

By David Leonhardt, New York Times, June 6, 2017

Excerpt – Democracy isn’t possible without the rule of law — the idea that consistent principles, rather than a ruler’s whims, govern society…. Even amid bitter fights over what the law should say, both Democrats and Republicans have generally accepted the rule of law. President Trump does not. His rejection of it distinguishes him from any other modern American leader…Trump’s view of the law, quite simply, violates American traditions. The behavior has no precedent. “Trump and his administration are flagrantly violating ethics laws,” the former top ethics advisers to George W. Bush and Barack Obama have written. Their attitude is clear: If we’re doing it, it’s O.K.

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Democracy isn’t possible without the rule of law — the idea that consistent principles, rather than a ruler’s whims, govern society.

You can read Aristotle, Montesquieu, John Locke or the Declaration of Independence on this point. You can also look at decades of American history. Even amid bitter fights over what the law should say, both Democrats and Republicans have generally accepted the rule of law.

President Trump does not. His rejection of it distinguishes him from any other modern American leader. He has instead flirted with Louis XIV’s notion of “L’état, c’est moi”: The state is me — and I’ll decide which laws to follow.

This attitude returns to the fore this week, with James Comey scheduled to testify on Thursday about Trump’s attempts to stifle an F.B.I. investigation. I realize that many people are exhausted by Trump outrages, some of which resemble mere buffoonery. But I think it’s important to step back and connect the dots among his many rejections of the rule of law.

They are a pattern of his presidency, one that the judicial system, Congress, civic institutions and principled members of Trump’s own administration need to resist. Trump’s view of the law, quite simply, violates American traditions.

Trump has erased this distinction.

He pressured Comey to drop the investigation of Trump’s campaign and fired Comey when he refused. Trump has called for specific prosecutions, first of Hillary Clinton and more recently of leakers.

The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is part of the problem. He is supposed to be the nation’s head law-enforcement official, but acts as a Trump loyalist. He recently held a briefing in the White House press room — “a jaw-dropping violation of norms,” as Slate’s Leon Neyfakh wrote. Sessions has proclaimed, “This is the Trump era.”

Like Trump, he sees little distinction between the enforcement of the law and the interests of the president.

COURTS, UNDERMINED. Past administrations have respected the judiciary as having the final word on the law. Trump has tried to delegitimize almost any judge who disagrees with him.

His latest Twitter tantrum, on Monday, took a swipe at “the courts” over his stymied travel ban.

Let’s walk through the major themes:

LAW ENFORCEMENT, POLITICIZED. People in federal law enforcement take pride in trying to remain apart from politics. I’ve been talking lately with past Justice Department appointees, from both parties, and they speak in almost identical terms.

They view the Justice Department as more independent than, say, the State or Treasury Departments. The Justice Department works with the rest of the administration on policy matters, but keeps its distance on law enforcement. That’s why White House officials aren’t supposed to pick up the phone and call whomever they want at the department. There is a careful process.

It joined a long list of his judge insults: “this so-called judge”; “a single, unelected district judge”; “ridiculous”; “so political”; “terrible”; “a hater of Donald Trump”; “essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country”; “THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!”

“What’s unusual is he’s essentially challenging the legitimacy of the court’s role,” the legal scholar Charles Geyh told The Washington Post. Trump’s message, Geyh said, was: “I should be able to do what I choose.”

TEAM TRUMP, ABOVE THE LAW. Foreign governments speed up trademark applications from Trump businesses. Foreign officials curry favor by staying at his hotel. A senior administration official urges people to buy Ivanka Trump’s clothing. The president violates bipartisan tradition by refusing to release his tax returns, thus shrouding his conflicts.

The behavior has no precedent. “Trump and his administration are flagrantly violating ethics laws,” the former top ethics advisers to George W. Bush and Barack Obama have written.

Again, the problems extend beyond the Trump family. Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, has used political office to enrich himself. Sessions failed to disclose previous meetings with Russian officials.

Their attitude is clear: If we’re doing it, it’s O.K.

There’s Still Hope for the Planet By David Leonhardt

New York Times, July 21, 2012

You don’t have to be a climate scientist these days to know that the climate has problems. You just have to step outside.

The United States is now enduring its warmest year on record, and the 13 warmest years for the entire planet have all occurred since 1998, according to data that stretches back to 1880.  No one day’s weather can be tied to global warming, of course, but more than a decade’s worth of changing weather surely can be, scientists say. Meanwhile, the country often seems to be moving further away from doing something about climate change, with the issue having all but fallen out of the national debate.

Behind the scenes, however, a somewhat different story is starting to emerge — one that offers reason for optimism to anyone worried about the planet. The world’s largest economies may now be in the process of creating a climate-change response that does not depend on the politically painful process of raising the price of dirty energy. The response is not guaranteed to work, given the scale of the problem. But the early successes have been notable.

Over the last several years, the governments of the United States, Europe and China have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on clean-energy research and deployment. And despite some high-profile flops, like ethanol and Solyndra, the investments seem to be succeeding more than they are failing.

The price of solar and wind power have both fallen sharply in the last few years. This country’s largest wind farm, sprawling across eastern Oregon, is scheduled to open next month. Already, the world uses vastly more alternative energy than experts predicted only a decade ago.

Even natural gas, a hotly debated topic among climate experts, helps make the point. Thanks in part to earlier government investments, energy companies have been able to extract much more natural gas than once seemed possible. The use of natural gas to generate electricity — far from perfectly clean but less carbon-intensive than coal use — has jumped 25 percent since 2008, while prices have fallen more than 80 percent. Natural gas now generates as much electricity as coal in the United States, which would have been unthinkable not long ago.

The successes make it possible at least to fathom a transition to clean energy that does not involve putting a price on carbon — either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program that requires licenses for emissions. It was exactly such a program, supported by both Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 campaign, that died in Congress in 2010 and is now opposed by almost all Congressional Republicans and some coal-state and oil-state Democrats.

To describe the two approaches is to underline their political differences. A cap-and-trade program sets out to make the energy we use more expensive. An investment program aims to make alternative energy less expensive.

Most scientists and economists, to be sure, think the best chance for success involves both strategies: if dirty energy remains as cheap as it is today, clean energy will have a much longer road to travel. And even an investment-only strategy is not guaranteed to continue. The clean-energy spending in Mr. Obama’s 2009 stimulus package has largely expired, while several older programs are scheduled to lapse as early as Dec. 31. In the current political and fiscal atmosphere, their renewal is far from assured.

Still, the clean-energy push has been successful enough to leave many climate advocates believing it is the single best hope for preventing even hotter summers, more droughts and bigger brush fires. “Carbon pricing is going to have an uphill climb in the U.S. for the foreseeable future,” says Robert N. Stavins, a Harvard economist who is a leading advocate for such pricing, “so it does make sense to think about other things.”

Those others things, in the simplest terms, are policies intended to help find a breakthrough technology that can power the economy without heating the planet. “Our best hope,” says Benjamin H. Strauss, a scientist who is the chief operating officer of Climate Central, a research group, “is some kind of disruptive technology that takes off on its own, the way the Internet and the fax took off.”

Governments have played a crucial role in financing many of the most important technological inventions of the past century. That’s no coincidence: Basic research is often unprofitable. It involves too much failure, and an inventor typically captures only a tiny slice of the profits that flow from a discovery.

Although government officials make mistakes when choosing among nascent technologies, one success can outweigh many failures. Washington-financed research has made possible semiconductors, radar, the Internet, the radio, the jet engine and many medical advances, including penicillin. The two countries that have made the most progress in reducing carbon emissions, France and Sweden, have done so largely by supporting nuclear and hydropower, notes Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif.

The story of shale gas, a form of natural gas, is typical, in that it depends on both private-sector ingenuity and public-sector support. Halliburton first figured out how to recover natural gas from limestone deposits at a field in Kansas in 1947. But its technique proved ineffective in extracting gas from shale rock. For decades, geologists remained skeptical that the enormous amounts of gas in shale formation could ever be extracted.

“You’re using our retirement money on something that’s no good,” Dan Steward, a geologist at Mitchell Energy, the company that eventually succeeded, recalled hearing from colleagues. Mitchell Energy, however, kept attacking the problem, with help from both government funds and computer mapping that came from a federal laboratory.

Solar and wind power today fall into a category that natural gas once did: for all their promise, they cannot compete on a mass scale with existing energy sources. Wind electricity costs between 15 percent and 25 percent more than standard electricity. Solar power often costs more than twice as much.

Federal subsidies can help close the gap. More important, they can finance research that may lead to a technological leap that brings down their costs.

In relative terms, the sums for clean-energy research that many scientists and economists support are not huge. A politically diverse group of experts recently set a target of $25 billion a year in federal spending on research and development (some of which could come from phasing out ineffective programs). That amount is slightly below the budget of the National Institutes of Health and only 3 percent as large as the Social Security budget. Other experts put the ideal figure closer to $50 billion.

At the recent peak, in 2009, all federal spending on clean energy — including money for research and subsidies for households and businesses — amounted to $44 billion.  This year, Washington will spend about $16 billion. The scheduled expiration of a tax credit for wind, originally signed by the first President George Bush in 1992, would help reduce the total to $14 billion next year, and current law has it continuing to fall in 2014.

The combination of these expirations, which Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution calls a major, little-appreciated policy shift, and the latest temperature readings have not exactly left climate scientists brimming with cheer. This summer’s drought has affected as much of the country as the Dust Bowl drought. Large patches of Colorado have burned. Atlanta has recorded its hottest day in history this year. Dallas endured 40 straight days above 100 degrees last July and August — and this year so far has been even hotter than last year.

On the other hand, the weather has made the climate harder to ignore. And when you look closer, there are some reasons for hope — tentative, but full of potential — hiding beneath the surface.

David Leonhardt is the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/22/sunday-review/a-ray-of-hope-on-climate-change.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120722