May 26, 2023 (Friday)While we wait to learn more about a possible budget deal under which Republicans would agree to raise the debt ceiling before June 5, the date Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says will see the U.S. run out of funds, there is an interesting story coming out of Texas that might well shed light on the current dynamics in the Republican Party. On Wednesday, witnesses testified before the Republican-led Texas House General Investigating Committee about how the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, has committed crimes in office, including trying to hide an affair, using his office to help a donor, building a culture of fear in his office, using his power to retaliate against opponents, misusing official information, and abusing his office. As attorney general, Paxton is in charge of overseeing the enforcement of the law in the state. On Thursday the committee voted unanimously to recommend that Paxton be impeached and removed from office, citing 20 counts, including bribery and retaliating against whistleblowers, for his impeachment. Paxton is not unused to trouble. He has been under a felony indictment for securities fraud since 2015, successfully holding off the charges through repeated delays. In 2020, eight of his top advisors accused him of abusing his office to help a wealthy donor, Nate Paul, resist an FBI investigation. But he has maintained his popularity with Republican voters in Texas by standing as a fervent Trump supporter and attacking the Biden administration, and party leaders would not turn on him.That formula appears to be less potent than it used to be. It turns out that the House committee began investigating Paxton in March, after he tried to get $3.3 million of taxpayer money to settle a lawsuit with four whistleblowers who said he retaliated against them after they tried to expose his unsavory relationship with Paul. Apparently aware of what was about to drop, Paxton on Tuesday accused House speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, of being drunk at a public hearing and said he should resign. Once news of the committee vote dropped, Paxton on Friday attacked the “illegal impeachment scheme” and asked supporters to descend on the Texas Capitol for the impeachment vote. Paxton accused those calling for his impeachment of helping President Biden. “The House is poised to do exactly what Joe Biden has been hoping to accomplish since his first day in office: sabotage our work, my work, as attorney general of Texas,” Paxton said. He refused to take questions. Right-wing figures, including the head of the Texas Republican Party and key Trump advisors—but not Trump himself—have declared their support for him. Texas governor Greg Abbott has stayed silent. The full House will take up the question of Paxton’s impeachment tomorrow, with both Paxton’s supporters and Democratic supporters coming for the event. Patrick Svitek of the Texas Tribune noted today that the impeachment effort has set off “a political earthquake in Texas.” “Republicans have chosen to remain largely silent during years of alleged misconduct and lawbreaking by the attorney general. Now they will have to take a public stand,” he wrote. Local observers recognize the battle as one between far-right extremists, represented by Paxton, and Republicans who are trying to recover the party from the Trump wing. There is likely a political calculation behind this move. Texas is a crucially important state for 2024, and voters are angry at the apparent corruption of prominent Republican figures like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Some leaders are likely eager to cut loose some big fish to reassure voters that they are not, in fact, the party of corruption. But in states that are currently dominated by Republicans so thoroughly that they are essentially one-party states, there are indeed systemic corruption problems because there is not the oversight that a healthy opposition party brings.Both Paxton’s actions and his attempt to dismiss his Republican accusers as working for Biden appear to be a classic example of the behavior of political leaders in a one-party state. He has allegedly used his office to reward friends, retaliate against enemies, and avoid accountability for apparent lawbreaking. This pattern is common in authoritarian governmental systems; it was also common in the American South from about 1874 to 1965, when the Voting Rights Act that protected Black voting finally broke the one-party region dominated by white men.Tomorrow, as Republican leaders in Texas look toward the 2024 election, they are going to have to decide whether to back an apparently corrupt attorney general who is popular with the Republican base or appeal to Republicans turned off by how extreme the party has become and get rid of him. It will take a majority of the 149-member House to send the articles of impeachment to the Texas Senate for a trial. All 64 House Democrats will likely vote for impeachment. It is not clear what the Republicans will do.
June 19, 2023 (Monday)Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in China, where he has met in the past two days for a total of more than ten hours with China’s top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, and with Foreign Minister Qin Gang. Today, he met for 35 minutes with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Blinken called the talks “candid, substantive, and constructive.“The backdrop to the talks is that under President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the United States has taken steps to bring supply chains back to the United States and has also limited the export to China of technology that can be used for the development of military weapons. Those actions have led Chinese leaders to accuse the U.S. of seeking to “decouple” from China and to contain China’s economic development. China’s economy is reeling after shutting down for the pandemic, raising concerns about a global economic slowdown. In the past two and a half years, the U.S. has also worked hard to create and deepen alliances around the world. Those alliances, especially in the Indo-Pacific region and in Africa, have shifted the balance of global power at the same time that China’s support for Russia has tied China to an epic mess. As David Ignatius put it this week in the Washington Post, Biden is trying to create a more stable strategic balance between China, India, and Japan. “Rather than walking a bipolar tightrope between Washington and Beijing,” Ignatius notes, “the administration is trying to build a matrix of relationships, with the United States as a key interlocutor in each node.”Those relationships include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—an international organization that includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—and an alliance with the Pacific Islands Forum, an 18-member organization, with which the U.S. held its first summit ever in September 2022. They also include AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom, designed to “promote a free and open Indo-Pacific that is secure and stable.” For the U.S. these alliances have meant stronger military cooperation with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, as well as with India, whose prime minister, Narendra Modi, will make a state visit to Washington, D.C., this week in a demonstration of India’s deepening ties to the U.S. just as both India and China have revoked the credentials of each other’s journalists. China has been building up its military presence on India’s border, pushing India toward the U.S. While Blinken was in China, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was in Japan for a trilateral meeting with Japan and the Republic of Korea, and other meetings with the U.S., Japan, the ROK, and the Philippines. Of his meetings in China, Blinken told reporters that he emphasized to his Chinese counterparts that the U.S. is interested in reducing the risk of economic cooperation, not in “decoupling.” The U.S. and China engaged in almost $700 billion in trade last year, he said, and that trade benefits both countries. But the U.S. is “investing in our own capacities and in secure, resilient supply chains; pushing for level playing fields for our workers and our companies; defending against harmful trade practice; and protecting our critical technologies so that they aren’t used against us.” Blinken also emphasized that the U.S. does “not support Taiwan independence” and opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo there, noting that if China provokes a crisis there, it could produce an economic crisis that affects the entire world. With 70% of the world’s semiconductors manufactured in Taiwan and 50% of commercial container traffic going through the Taiwan Strait, there is no room for a conflict there. The U.S. is pushing China to stop violating human rights and to release the U.S. citizens it holds. It is also calling for China to cooperate on stopping its exportation of the precursor chemicals that enable drug lords to manufacture synthetic opioids and street fentanyl, which is the number one killer of Americans from ages 18 to 49.Blinken told reporters that he had emphasized “direct engagement and sustained communication at senior levels,” to avoid conflict, but China has, so far, refused to reinstate communication between military leaders. Blinken also noted that China is in a unique position to play a constructive role in working toward a just peace in Ukraine, and in pressing North Korea to stop its nuclear program and to start engaging responsibly with the rest of the world. When a reporter asked why the U.S. should continue to engage in talks when China won’t agree to military-to-military channels of communication, Blinken answered: “Because, as we’ve seen, we’re not going to have success on every issue between us on any given day, but in a whole variety of areas—on the terms that we set for this trip, we have made progress and we are moving forward…. At the end of the day, the best way that we can advance our interests, stand up for our values, and make sure that we are very clear about our intent—the best way to do that is through direct engagement, through diplomacy.”The other big news today was an eye-popping interview of former president Trump by Bret Baier of the Fox News Channel, in which Trump seemed to agree that he had broken the law by retaining documents, saying he had not handed over to the National Archives the documents he kept because he wanted to take his personal material out of the boxes and was “very busy.” Legal commentator and former U.S. acting solicitor general Neal Katyal tweeted: “The breaking news is that the Special Prosecutor, Jack Smith, has a new addition to his legal team tonight. An unpaid new deputy Special Counsel. His name is Donald J. Trump.”In the interview, Trump also denied that he had the secret document he claimed to have on a recorded tape, saying he is up against “dishonest…thugs.” Today, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart ordered Trump’s lawyers not to disclose evidence to the public about the classified documents at the heart of the case involving Trump’s refusal to return those documents. He also limited Trump’s access to that material, saying he may review the materials only “under the direct supervision” of his lawyers and that he “shall not retain copies.”