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John McCain, dead at 81, helped build a country that no longer reflects his values

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Elizabeth Sherman, American University School of Public Affairs

Arizona Sen. John McCain – scion of Navy brass, flyboy turned Vietnam war hero and tireless defender of American global leadership – has died after a year of treatment for terminal brain cancer.

“With the Senator when he passed were his wife Cindy and their family. At his death, he had served the United States of America faithfully for sixty years,” McCain’s office said in a statement.

I am a scholar of American politics. And I believe that, regardless of his storied biography and personal charm, three powerful trends in American politics thwarted McCain’s lifelong ambition to be president. They were the rise of the Christian right, partisan polarization and declining public support for foreign wars.

Republican McCain was a champion of bipartisan legislating, an approach that served him and the Senate well. But as political divides have grown, bipartisanship has fallen out of favor.

Most recently, McCain opposed Gina Haspel as CIA director for “her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality” and her role in it. Having survived brutal torture for five years as a prisoner of war, McCain maintained a resolute voice against U.S. policies permitting so-called “enhanced interrogations.” Nevertheless, his appeals failed to rally sufficient support to slow, much less derail, her appointment.

Days later, a White House aide said McCain’s opposition to Haspel didn’t matter because “he’s dying anyway.” That disparaging remark and the refusal of the White House to condemn it revealed how deeply the president’s hostile attitude toward McCain and everything he stands for had permeated the executive office.

McCain ended his career honorably and bravely, but with hostility from the White House, marginal influence in the Republican-controlled Senate, and a public less receptive to the positions he has long embodied.

The outlier

McCain’s first run for the presidency in 2000 captured the imagination of the public and the press, whom he wryly referred to as “my base.” His self-confident “maverick” persona appealed to a more secular, moderate constituency who like him, might be constitutionally opposed to the growing political alignment between the religious right and the Republican Party.

McCain enthusiastically bucked his party and steered his “Straight Talk Express” through the GOP primaries with a no-holds-barred attack on Pat Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell. The two were conservative icons and leaders of the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority.

McCain branded Robertson and Falwell “agents of intolerance” and “empire builders.” He charged that they used religion to subordinate the interests of working people. He said their religion served a business goal and accused them of shaming “our faith, our party, and our country.” That message earned McCain a primary victory in New Hampshire but his campaign capsized in South Carolina, where Republican voters launched George W. Bush, the stalwart evangelical, on his path to a presidential victory in 2000 against Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore.

By 2008, McCain saw the political clout of white, born-again, evangelical Christians. By then, they comprised 26 percent of the electorate. Bowing to political winds, he adopted a more conciliatory approach.

McCain’s willingness to defend America as a “Christian nation” and his controversial choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, an enthusiastic standard bearer for the Christian right, as his running mate, signaled the electoral power of a less tolerant, more absolutist “values-based” politics.

McCain’s about-face revealed a political pragmatist willing to make peace with the Christian right and accept their ability to make or break his last attempt at the presidency.

His strategy reflected his tendency to abandon principles if they threatened his quest for the presidency. Having railed eight years prior against the hypocrisy of the right-wing religious leadership, McCain may have felt some personal discomfort kowtowing to the dictates of self-appointed moral authorities. But the electorate had changed since then, and McCain showed he was willing to shift his position to accommodate their beliefs.

The primary that year also required an outright appeal to independents and even crossover Democrats. That would potentially provide enough votes to boost him past George W. Bush, whose campaign had already expressed allegiance to the conservative religious agenda.

In 2008, Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon considered religiously suspect by many evangelicals, emerged as McCain’s main rival for the nomination.

Sensing an opportunity to establish a winning coalition, McCain jettisoned his former objections to the political influence of the religious right, shifting from antagonism to accommodation. In doing so, McCain revealed his flexibility again on principles that might fatally undermine his overriding ambition – winning the presidency.

In fact, the incorporation of the religious right into the Republican Party represented but one facet of a more consequential development. That was the fiercely ideological partisan polarization that has come to dominate the political system.

The lonely Republican

Rough parity between the parties since 2000 has intensified the electoral battles for Congress and the presidency. It has supercharged the fundraising machines on both sides. And it has nullified the “regular order” of congressional hearings, debates and compromise, as party leaders scheme for policy wins.

Fueled by highly engaged activists, interest groups and donors known as “policy demanders,” partisan polarization has overwhelmed moderates in our political system. McCain was a bipartisan problem-solver and was willing to compromise with Democrats to pass campaign finance reform in 2002. He worked with the other side to normalize relations with Vietnam in 1995. And he joined with Democrats to pass immigration reform in 2017.

But he was also one of those moderates who ultimately found himself on the outside of his party.

McCain’s dramatic Senate floor thumbs-down repudiation of the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare turned less on his antipathy to Trump and more on his disgust with a broken party-line legislative process.

On an issue as monumental as health care, he insisted on a return to “extensive hearings, debate, and amendment.” He endorsed the efforts of Sens. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, and Patty Murray, a Democrat, to craft a bipartisan solution.

Foreign and defense policy was McCain’s signature issue. He wanted a more robust posture for American global leadership, backed by a well-funded, war-ready military. But that stance lost support a decade ago following the Iraq War disaster.

McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign slogan of “Country First” signified not only the model of his personal commitment and sacrifice. It also telegraphed his belief in the need to persevere in the war on terror in general and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in particular.

But by then, 55 percent of registered independents, McCain’s electoral base, had lost confidence in the prospects for a military victory. They favored bringing the troops home.

Over the course of six months that year, independent support for the Iraq war fell from 54 percent to 40 percent. Overall opposition to the troop “surge” was at 63 percent. Barack Obama’s promise to wind down America’s military commitment and do “nation-building at home” resonated with an electorate wearied by the conflict and buffeted by their own economic woes.

Advocate for global leadership

McCain continued to assert the primacy of American power. He decried the country’s retreat from a rules-based global order premised on American leadership and based on freedom, capitalism, human rights and democracy.

Donald Trump stands in contrast. Trump, like Obama, promises to terminate costly commitments abroad, revoke defense and trade agreements that fail to put
“America First,” and rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

In his run for the presidency, Trump asserted that American might and treasure had been squandered defending the world. Other countries, he said, took advantage of U.S. magnanimity.

In Congress, Republicans have become cautious about U.S. military interventions, counterinsurgency operations and nation-building. They find scant public support for intervention in Syria’s civil war.

Seeing Russia as America’s implacable foe, McCain sponsored sanctions legislation and prodded the administration to implement them more vigorously.

Accepting the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia, McCain repudiated Trump’s approach to global leadership.

He declared, “To abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”

McCain spent his life committed to principles that, tragically – at least for him – have fallen from favor, and the country’s repudiation of the principles he championed may put the nation at risk.


The Conversation

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on on June 12, 2018.

Elizabeth Sherman, Assistant Professor Department of Government, American University School of Public Affairs

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Court Orders White House to give Jim Acosta his hard pass back

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Federal judge Timothy J. Kelly sided with CNN on Friday, ordering the White House to reinstate chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass.

The ruling was an initial victory for CNN in its lawsuit against President Trump and several top aides.

The lawsuit alleges that CNN and Acosta’s First and Fifth Amendment rights are being violated by the suspension of Acosta’s press pass.

Kelly did not rule on the underlying case on Friday. But he granted CNN’s request for a temporary restraining order.

This result means that Acosta will have his access to the White House restored for at least a short period of time. The judge said while explaining his decision that he believes that CNN and Acosta are likely to prevail in the case overall.

CNN is also asking for “permanent relief,” meaning a declaration from the judge that Trump’s revocation of Acosta’s press pass was unconstitutional. This legal conclusion could protect other reporters from retaliation by the administration.

“The revocation of Acosta’s credentials is only the beginning,” CNN’s lawsuit alleged, pointing out that Trump has threatened to strip others’ press passes too.

That is one of the reasons why most of the country’s major news organizations have backed CNN’s lawsuit, turning this into an important test of press freedom.

But the judge will rule on all of that later. Further hearings are likely to take place in the next few weeks, according to CNN’s lawyers.

(CNN)

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CNN sues President Trump for banning reporter Jim Acosta

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CNN is filing a lawsuit against President Trump and several of his aides, seeking the immediate restoration of chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s access to the White House.

The lawsuit is a response to the White House’s suspension of Acosta’s press pass, known as a Secret Service “hard pass,” last week. The suit alleges that Acosta and CNN’s First and Fifth Amendment rights are being violated by the ban.

The suit is being filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday morning, a CNN spokeswoman confirmed.

Both CNN and Acosta are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. There are six defendants: Trump, chief of staff John Kelly, press secretary Sarah Sanders, deputy chief of staff for communications Bill Shine, Secret Service director Joseph Clancy, and the Secret Service officer who took Acosta’s hard pass away last Wednesday. The officer is identified as John Doe in the suit, pending his identification.

The six defendants are all named because of their roles in enforcing and announcing Acosta’s suspension.

Last Wednesday, shortly after Acosta was denied entry to the White House grounds, Sanders defended the unprecedented step by claiming that he had behaved inappropriately at a presidential news conference. CNN and numerous journalism advocacy groups rejected that assertion and said his pass should be reinstated.

On Friday, CNN sent a letter to the White House formally requesting the immediate reinstatement of Acosta’s pass and warning of a possible lawsuit, the network confirmed.

In a statement on Tuesday morning, CNN said it is seeking a preliminary injunction as soon as possible so that Acosta can return to the White House right away, and a ruling from the court preventing the White House from revoking Acosta’s pass in the future.

“CNN filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration this morning in DC District Court,” the statement read. “It demands the return of the White House credentials of CNN’s Chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. The wrongful revocation of these credentials violates CNN and Acosta’s First Amendment rights of freedom of the press, and their Fifth Amendment rights to due process. We have asked this court for an immediate restraining order requiring the pass be returned to Jim, and will seek permanent relief as part of this process.”

CNN also asserted that other news organizations could have been targeted by the Trump administration this way, and could be in the future.

“While the suit is specific to CNN and Acosta, this could have happened to anyone,” the network said. “If left unchallenged, the actions of the White House would create a dangerous chilling effect for any journalist who covers our elected officials.”

Acosta has continued to do part of his job, contacting sources and filing stories, but he has been unable to attend White House events or ask questions in person — a basic part of any White House correspondent’s role.

Acosta is on a previously scheduled vacation this week. He declined to comment on the lawsuit.

On CNN’s side, CNN Worldwide chief counsel David Vigilante is joined by two prominent attorneys, Ted Boutrous and Theodore Olson. Both men are partners at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

Last week, before he was retained by CNN, Boutrous tweeted that the action against Acosta “clearly violates the First Amendment.” He cited the Sherrill case.

“This sort of angry, irrational, false, arbitrary, capricious content-based discrimination regarding a White House press credential against a journalist quite clearly violates the First Amendment,” he wrote.

David McCraw, the top newsroom lawyer at The New York Times, said instances of news organizations suing a president are extremely rare.

Past examples are The New York Times v. U.S., the famous Supreme Court case involving the Pentagon Papers in 1971; and CNN’s 1981 case against the White House and the broadcast networks, when CNN sued to be included in the White House press pool.

The backdrop to this new suit, of course, is Trump’s antipathy for CNN and other news outlets. He regularly derides reporters from CNN and the network as a whole.

Abrams posited on “Reliable Sources” on Sunday that CNN might be reluctant to sue because the president already likes to portray the network as his enemy. Now there will be a legal case titled CNN Inc. versus President Trump.

But, Abrams said, “this is going to happen again,” meaning other reporters may be banned too.

“Whether it’s CNN suing or the next company suing, someone’s going to have to bring a lawsuit,” he said, “and whoever does is going to win unless there’s some sort of reason.”

(CNN)

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US attorney general Jeff Sessions fired by Trump

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions has resigned as the country’s chief law enforcement officer at President Donald Trump’s request.

Sessions announced his plan to resign in a letter to the White House on Wednesday.

Trump announced in a tweet that Sessions’ chief of staff Matt Whitaker would become the new acting attorney general.

The attorney general had endured more than a year of stinging and personal criticism from Trump over his recusal from the investigation into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Trump blamed the decision for opening the door to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation and began examining whether Trump’s hectoring of Sessions was part of a broader effort to obstruct justice.

Timeline:
1973-1975 – Practices law in Alabama.

1975-1977 – Assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.

1981-1993 – US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.

1986 – President Ronald Reagan nominates Sessions to become a federal judge. The Senate Judiciary Committee opposes the nomination following testimony that Sessions made racist remarks and called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.”

1995-1997- Alabama Attorney General. During this time, an Alabama judge accuses Sessions of prosecutorial misconduct related to the handling of evidence in a case but ultimately, Sessions is not disciplined for ethics violations.

1996 – Elected to the US Senate. Re-elected in 2002, 2008 and 2014.

1997February 2017 – Republican senator representing Alabama.

February 2, 2009 – Votes in favor of the confirmation of Eric Holder as attorney general.

April 23, 2015 – Votes against the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general.

February 28, 2016 – Becomes the first sitting US senator to endorse Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

November 18, 2016 – President-elect Donald Trump announces he intends to nominate Sessions to be the next attorney general.

January 3, 2017 – An NAACP sit-in to protest the nomination of Sessions as US attorney general ends when six people are arrested at Sessions’ Mobile, Alabama, office.

February 8, 2017 – After 30 hours of debate, the US Senate confirms Sessions as attorney general by a 52-47 vote.

March 1, 2017 – The Washington Post reports that Sessions failed to disclose pre-election meetings with the top Russian diplomat in Washington. Sessions did not mention either meeting during his confirmation hearings when he said he knew of no contacts between Trump surrogates and Russians.

March 2, 2017 – Sessions recuses himself from any involvement in a Justice Department probe into links between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

March 10, 2017 – The DOJ abruptly announces the firing of 46 US attorneys, including Preet Bharara of New York. Bharara said that during the transition, Trump asked him to stay on during a meeting at Trump Tower.

April 3, 2017 – The Department of Justice releases a memorandum ordering a review of consent decrees and other police reforms overseen by the federal government in response to complaints of civil rights abuses and public safety issues. During his confirmation hearing, Sessions expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of Justice Department interventions in local police matters.

July 21, 2017 – The Washington Post reports that Sessions discussed policy-related matters with Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak before the 2016 election, according to intelligence intercepts. Sessions had previously claimed that he did not talk about the campaign or relations with Russia during his meetings with Kislyak.

October 4, 2017 – In a memo to all federal prosecutors, Sessions says that a 1964 federal civil rights law does not protect transgender workers from employment discrimination and the department will take this new position in all “pending and future matters.”

November 14, 2017 – During a House judiciary committee hearing, Sessions says he did not lie under oath in earlier hearings regarding communications with Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign, and denies participating in any collusion with Russia. Sessions also says the DOJ will consider investigations into Hillary Clinton and alleged ties between the Clinton Foundation and the sale of Uranium One.

January 4, 2018 – Sessions announces that the DOJ is rescinding an Obama-era policy of non-interference with states that have legalized recreational marijuana. The reversal frees up federal prosecutors to pursue cases in states where recreational marijuana is legal.

March 21, 2018 – Sessions issues a statement encouraging federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for certain drug-related crimes, as mandated by law. Seeking capital punishment in drug cases is part of the Trump administration’s efforts to combat opioid abuse.

May 7, 2018 – Sessions announces a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border crossings, warning that parents could be separated from children if they try to cross to the US from Mexico. “If you cross the border unlawfully, even a first offense, we’re going to prosecute you. If you’re smuggling a child, we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”

May 30, 2018 – Trump again expresses regret for choosing Sessions to lead the Justice Department. In a tweet, he quotes a remark from Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) who said that the president could have picked someone else as attorney general. “I wish I did!,” Trump tweeted. He had first said that he was rethinking his choice of Sessions as attorney general during a July 2017 interview with the New York Times.

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