As America pauses for Presidents Day – or at least the federal government does – Jim and Greg take some time to evaluate a few recent presidents who deserve a closer look at their legacies. They’re presidents many of you remember well but for some reason are rarely mentioned as leaders Americans remember most fondly.
David French of National Review and Greg Corombos of Radio America discuss Hong Kong hitting pause on an extradition agreement with the Chinese government following massive protests. They also examine the Supreme Court’s approach to Christian vendors vs. the LGBT agenda. They consider what comes next after Iran’s decision to exceed the low-grade uranium limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal. And they also discuss the Trump campaign’s decision to fire its pollsters after unfavorable leaks of bad numbers.
Jim Geraghty of National Review and Greg Corombos of Radio America congratulate the Seattle City Council for letting common sense prevail when they repealed a controversial employee tax. They recoil as GOP primary voters in Virginia nominate Corey Stewart for U.S. Senate and wonder what the real reason is for Mark Sanford’s defeat in South Carolina. They also worry that President Donald Trump may have declared the North Korea nuclear threat over too soon.
A leading expert on the North Korean nuclear threat says President Trump’s condemnation of the communist regime through powerful stories also served as an American declaration that it’s time for a regime change in Pyongyang, but warned that military action would be a big mistake.
During Tuesday evening’s, State of the Union address, Trump focused his final foreign policy item at the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and punctuated it by telling two gripping stories
First, he recounted the story of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for stealing a political poster and was returned to the U.S. in coma last year. Warmbier died days later. His grieving parents were in the gallery for the speech.
Next, Trump detailed the harrowing account of North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, who was also present for the speech.
“In 1996, Seong-ho was a starving boy in North Korea. One day, he tried to steal coal from a railroad car to barter for a few scraps of food. In the process, he passed out on the train tracks, exhausted from hunger. He woke up as a train ran over his limbs.
“He then endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain. His brother and sister gave what little food they had to help him recover and ate dirt themselves — permanently stunting their own growth,” said Trump.
He then fast-forwarded to Ji’s courageous escape from North Korea.
“Later, he was tortured by North Korean authorities after returning from a brief visit to China. His tormentors wanted to know if he had met any Christians. He had — and he resolved to be free. Seong-ho traveled thousands of miles on crutches across China and Southeast Asia to freedom. Most of his family followed. His father was caught trying to escape, and was tortured to death.
“Today he lives in Seoul, where he rescues other defectors, and broadcasts into North Korea what the regime fears the most ‑- the truth. Today he has a new leg, but Seong-ho, I understand you still keep those crutches as a reminder of how far you have come. Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all,” said Trump.
According to North Korea expert Gordon Chang, Trump was not just exposing the horrors of the Kim Jong-un regime but declaring it is unacceptable for Kim to remain in power.
“What President Trump did last night was really landmark. He made the case for regime change in North Korea. Of course he talked about the threat to the American homeland, but he linked that back to the nature of the Kim family regime.
“He did that by telling those two stories, the one of brutality towards Otto Warmbier and the other of the triumph of the human spirit, which is the escapee Ji Seing-ho. That really was, for me, the most inspirational moment of the night, when Ji held up his crutches in his right hand in a signal of victory,” said Chang, who is also author of “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World.”
“That was just so important, because what President Trump is saying is, ‘This is the regime that is threatening us,'” said Chang.
While the precise timetable is unknown, Chang says North Korea is getting closer and closer to its ultimate goal.
“The ambition for them now, as it was from the very first day of North Korea, is to take over South Korea. That is the core goal of the Kim family and is considered by the Kims to be essential for their own survival. You’ve got two Koreas, one rich and one poor and side-by-side of course and the people in the poor Korea are not going to put up with this forever,” said Chang.
“If the Kim family can’t do that, poor North Koreans are not going to sacrifice indefinitely,” added Chang.
But if Kim is inching closer to attacking South Korea and regime change is required, what is the best way to achieve that? Chang says Trump is off to a good start by going after the money.
“From the beginning, the Trump administration has tried to cut off the flow of money to North Korea. We’ve seen this for example in his landmark Sept. 21st executive order, which said if you do business with North Korea or you handle their money, you’re not doing business with the United States. That’s important.
“Also, last year the Trump administration pushed through three sets of UN sanctions. That’s a very sound policy,” said Chang.
Trump also got the Chinese to make promises to clamp down financially on Kim as well. But Chang says the commitment from Beijing is still inconsistent.
“They’re getting more serious, but they’re also violating UN sanctions. They’ve been doing that almost openly since October. We’ve seen these ship-to-ship transfers of oil. Also, North Korean ships that are under sanctions, in other words are not allowed to visit ports outside North Korea, they’ve been turning on their transponders in Chinese ports.
“When all of this activity occurs, with China smuggling commodities in and out of North Korea, it also means that Chinese financial institutions are almost surely involved. It’s up to the Trump administration to hold China accountable. It signaled that it would do that, but it really has yet to apply the full weight of American pressure to protect the American people,” said Chang.
Chang says if China was truly serious about defusing the North Korean threat, it would be acting much differently.
“They would cut off all financial transactions with North Korea. The Chinese banks would get out of the business of handling North Korean money. Also, we would see China not buying and selling commodities that are prohibited by UN sanctions. We would basically see an end to commerce between North Korea and China,” said Chang.
But while Chang and most in the Trump administration prefer to tighten the economic screws on North Korea, there are people calling for more aggressive actions.
“There are voices in the administration that are thinking that this is not a time for sanctions, this is a time to strike North Korea. That is something where I think the administration has not decided on what to do,” said Chang, who strongly discourages that course.
“I think it would be an exceedingly bad idea, but right now there are a lot of voices (advocating military action). This is where the contention is, both inside the administration and outside the administration,” he said.
Chang also hopes the State of the Union message puts an end to the efforts of some Trump critics to suggest Trump and Kim are on a similar level of malevolence and instability.
“I’ve never bought that narrative. That is really a false equivalence. President Trump is trying to contain the Kim family. The Kim family has been a threat, not only to the United States, but to the rest of the international community well before Trump became president,” said Chang.
“North Korea did not become instantly dangerous on January 20th at noon of last year. This is a problem for the entire planet, and Trump is doing his best on a very dangerous situation,” added Chang.
Next week, the Winter Olympics will commence in South Korea. In recent weeks, leaders from north and south have agreed to cooperate on some aspects of the games, including having their athletes march in to the opening ceremony together and have a joint women’s hockey team.
Chang says the cooperation has some positive elements, but fears the South Koreans are doing too much to accommodate the regime that wants to conquer them.
“South Korea should not be paying for North Korea’s team, which it is doing. And there are a lot of these inter-Korean Olympic projects, which look like violations of UN sanctions. The U.S., for a variety of reasons, has allowed this to continue, but the South Korean public is starting to rebel against this jointness, especially this joint women’s ice hockey team.
“South Korean athletes have been turfed off their own team to make way for the North Koreans. That’s played very poorly in South Korea,” said Chang.
Nonetheless, he still hopes some good comes from this moment on the world stage..
“I’m happy to have the North Koreans participate in the Olympics. It gives an opportunity for them to see the outside world and to defect,” said Chang.
Jim Geraghty of National Review and Greg Corombos of Radio America enjoy a late lunch today as they cheer the Justice Department for allowing the FBI informant to testify about his knowledge of a massive Russian bribery scheme to influence U.S. nuclear policy. They’re also exasperated as FBI files show people warned authorities about the Sandy Hook shooter’s fascination with mass killings and pedophilia and his specific statements about killing his mother and students. And they react to Kid Rock announcing he is not running for Senate and never had any intention of doing so, but Him explains why he thinks that explanation is bogus.
President Trump made an “unfortunate mistake” by re-certifying the Iran nuclear deal on Wednesday and he was pushed into a decision he didn’t want to make through the power of an entrenched government bureaucracy, according to former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
On Monday, after almost an hour of animated debate with his national security team, President Trump reluctantly declared that Iran is complying with the terms with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, hammered out by the Obama admnistration, Iran, and five other nations.
“It was an unfortunate decision for the administration to issue this certification,” said Bolton. “I think the president was blindsided by the bureaucracy.”
Bolton, who served in the State Department during the first term of the George W. Bush administration, says the foreign policy bureaucracy is a powerful force in Washington.
“It was the bureaucracy on autopilot from the Obama administration. If you don’t tell them to change direction, they just keep doing what they were doing before,” said Bolton.
But it’s not just Obama holdovers pushing the status quo. Reports confirm that Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford all pleaded with Trump to re-certify the agreement.
Bolton says the bureaucracy has a way of winning over new cabinet members to embrace existing policy.
“The bureaucracies have a way of capturing the appointees. Some of those (Trump officials) are still in the bureaucracy or never really left it. It’s an art form. People who know Washington, particularly who have watched the State Department seduce political appointees, especially Republicans and they make reasonable-sounding arguments that are simply justifications for continuing the prior policy,” said Bolton.
The Iran deal has now been re-certified twice in the first six months of the Trump administration. Each time, the official recognition of Iranian compliance has been accompanied by a Trump administration denunciation of Iran’s human rights record and sponsoring of terrorism.
Bolton says the disconnect is jarring.
“It’s a committee camel that came out and it reflects the confusion that happens when you don’t give the president options and when you don’t allow time for a full debate. Those mistakes will not be made again,” said Bolton, who firmly believes Trump will not certify the agreement again.
Those who applauded the decision to re-certify say abrogating the deal would create a great deal of chaos, particularly with our allies who were part of the negotiations with Iran.
Bolton doesn’t think that should be a deterrent from doing the right thing.
“If the allies are going to be upset by something, what you do is a vigorous diplomatic campaign to explain why we think the deal was a mistake, indeed why they made the same mistake we did, and why we’ve got to correct it before it’s too late,” said Bolton.
“The consequences of a bad deal are a regime of religious fanatics in Iran getting nuclear weapons,” said Bolton.
Bolton says the problems with the JCPOA are legion, starting with the painfully unclear language that he says Iran can manipulate and insist it is meeting its obligations.
“Many provisions of the deal are so badly worded, they’re so ambiguous, that a reasonable person could say, ‘The Iranians came right up to the line of their interpretation of the deal and they didn’t cross it so it’s hard to say it’s really a violation.’ That’s the argument,” said Bolton.
“That argument fails for several reasons. First off, the fact that the agreement is badly worded is one more reason to junk it. It shows just how poorly our negotiators, including Secretary of State John Kerry, did. It shows the leeway that it affords Iran. And it shows the way forward. They’re going to press the ambiguities right to the outer limit,” said Bolton.
And he expects Iran to eventually blow right past those limits.
“If they can hide what they’re doing, they’re going to press beyond the outer limits and make it impossible to enforce the deal strictly. That’s part of the problem. The deal is so bad that trying to enforce it strictly is like trying to nail jello to the wall,” said Bolton, while also nothing the deal offers no inspections of Iranian nuclear sites and has no binding provisions concerning ballistic missile development.
Bolton says the bottom line is that nothing has changed as a result of this agreement.
“Iran has never abandoned its policy to get deliverable nuclear weapons. It’s exploiting this deal. It’s made temporary, easily-reversible concessions. It’s cooperating with North Korea, which is getting ever closer to its own deliverable nuclear weapons capability,” said Bolton.
“We’re living in a delusion if we think this deal is slowing Iran down,” he added.
So what is the right U.S. posture? Bolton says the U.S. bring back economic sanctions immediately and be prepared to do whatever needs to be done to prevent Iran from being able to deploy nukes.
“To be realistic, if we don’t want Iran to have deliverable nuclear weapons, if that’s really what we believe, we and Israel have to look at a military option,” said Bolton.
The Iranian exile group that recently unveiled evidence of Iran violating the terms of the nuclear agreement is now detailing how the regime is allegedly fleecing its own people to fund the military and bankroll Hezbollah.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, or NCRI, is responsible for exposing Iranian nuclear ambitions some 15 years ago. Now the group is releasing, “Iran: The Rise of the Revolutionary Guards’ Financial Empire.” An additional subhead reads, “How the Supreme Leader and the IRGC Rob the People to Fund International Terror.”
The book maintains that despite appearances of an active private sector, the regime and its elite military wing, the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, really have a stranglehold on economy. The regime touts an emphasis on privitization, but that means something very different in Iran.
“Back in 2005, the supreme leader basically brought this nice looking plan called privitization, turning everything to the private sector,” said Alireza Jafarzadeh, deputy director of the NCRI’s Washington office.
“In fact, that was really a restructuring of the Iranian economy to give the ownership of a wide range of industries and institutions to those either associated directly with the supreme leader or with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” said Jafarzadeh.
He says there was nothing fair about this embrace of “privitization.”
“The government, based on the constitution, has the right to seize and confiscate property if that property is obtained through what they call illegitimate means. ‘Illegitimate means’ is something they can define any way they want to,” said Jafarzadeh.
In essence, most of the Iran economy is in the hands of just over a dozen government cronies.
“We’re talking about 14 major powerhouses that are controlling the entire economy. All of these 14 are either entirely controlled by the supreme leader or by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” said Jafarzadeh, who says just one of these entities is sitting on about $90 billion and together the 14 are rolling in hundreds of billions of dollars.
All major sectors of the economy are involved.
“We’re talking about large mines, primary industries including downstream oil and gas industry, power generation, foreign commerce, banks, insurance, roads, railroads, airlines, shipping companies, food companies, agriculture, you name it,” said Jafarzadeh.
Jafarzadeh says the Iranian people are struggling more than ever to get by, so where is this money going? He says it’s not hard to figure it out, it’s going to the military, meaning the buildup of the nuclear program.
“The official budget is anywhere from 30-35 percentof the budget is allocated to what they call defense-related issues. On top of all of that, the money they make from running the economy is directly funneled to these programs, including the nuclear weapons program,” said Jafarzadeh.
But that’s not the only places the money goes. Jafarzadeh says a lot of money also goes to foundations with troubling ties.
“It’s supposed to be a religious foundation to help the poor, but it has turned into a foundation that actually funds terror in Lebanon. Another foundation…sends a lot of money to Lebanon to support Hezbollah there,” said Jafarzadeh.
While Jafarzadeh believes the evidence of Iran commandeering the economy through a private facade to build nukes and fund terror is strong enough to take to the United Nations, he says there is something even more effective that the U.S. State Department could do by itself.
“By designation the IRGC as a terrorist organization, they can close all of these loopholes. It would make it illegal for any U.S. person or U.S. entity to deal with any of these institutions run by the IRGC or associated with them,” said Jafarzadeh.
“It would make life a lot more difficult for the IRGC to transfer funds and to all kinds of things they’re doing in the region,” said Jafarzadeh.
Jafarzadeh says the dire straits of the people is also on the brink of boiling over as they watch their government hoarding resources rather than developing ways to help the people.
“Over the past year, we had over 6,000 anti-government demonstrations and protest acts, a lot of them economically driven to begin with but they quickly turned into political slogans by the people who hold the rulers as big thieves who are plundering their resources,” said Jafarzadeh.
“If people thought that things were volatile in 2009, it’s even more volatile now and there is certainly great prospects for change,” he added.
Despite U.S. government conclusions to the contrary, Iran is cheating on the 2015 nuclear deal and is actively weaponizing nuclear weapons, according to the group who uncovered Iran’s most recent nuclear ambitions in the first place.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, or NCRI, unveiled intelligence and satellite imagery in recent days that is says it proof of Iranian actions that violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. It also alleges that the activity is taking place in areas and facilities that are off limits to regular inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The NCRI is very confident in the validity of its reports.
“These are the very same sources that have been proven accurate in the past. The network of the movement inside Iran, the MEK, was responsible for exposing the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water facility back in August of 2002,” said Alireza Jafarzadeh, deputy director of the NCRI’s Washington office.
Those revelations triggered the international response that has played out for the past 15 years. He says the group’s sources inside Iran have also made many other discoveries that have panned out over the years. And Jafarzadeh says outside experts back up those conclusions.
“Those that have seen the satellite imagery that we disclosed during our press conference have confirmed that the satellite imagery shows the construction, the way the buildings are configured, basically corroborates what we’re saying, that this facility is being used for nuclear weaponization,” said Jafarzadeh.
He says further proof that the intelligence is right can seen in the official Iranian response.
“None of them denied our claim outright. Instead, they started attacking us, saying how bad we are and why the United States should not listen to us, without addressing the particular revelation we made. They made no reference to it, nor did they invite the IAEA to come and visit,” said Jafarzadeh.
Jafarzadeh says the specific facility shown in the satellite photos depicts a location specializing in detonators. Much of the secret activity is believed to be going on at Iran’s Parchin facility, a spot that Jafarzadeh says Iran blocked inspectors from for years until finally relenting two years ago. He says it makes sense for Iran to do clandestine work there.
“They thought they closed the chapter on Parchin. Now with this new information and new evidence, there is a renewed call among nuclear experts that the IAEA should be able to go back to this place among other locations that the IAEA has never inspected,” said Jafarzadeh.
He also outlined what the process ought to include.
“The IAEA now has to have access to all of those buildings, to be able to interview their top nuclear scientists, including Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who has been the top person behind the whole program over the past 15-20 years,” said Jafarzadeh.
So why hasn’t Parchin been part of regular inspections since the JCPOA was enacted in 2015? Jafarzadeh says the Iranians successfully limited inspections to “declared sites.”
“I’m not very comfortable with the term “declared site” because these are not really sites declared by Iran. It was exposed by us and then Tehran said, ‘Oh yes, we have those sites,'” said Jafarzadeh.
“[The IAEA] basically keeps track of how many centrifuges they have, how much uranium hexafluoride was produced. They have a checklist they go through, and of course Tehran is very shrewd and they know this is not the place they need to cheat,” said Jafarzadeh, noting the violations happen at facilities the IAEA cannot access or does not know about.
Jafarzadeh says the actions of the West over the past 4-5 years have clearly emboldened the likes of Iran and he notes there are close ties between the two nuclear programs.
“There is a very, very close relationship between North Korea that is helping Iran, not just on their missile program but specifically on their nuclear weapons program,” said Jafarzadeh. “It’s a very scary situation.”
Senate Republicans voted to end the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees Thursday after Democrats refused to advance the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to a final vote, a move grassroots conservatives say had to happen out of respect for the Constitution.
Republicans cited the precedent of Democrats from November 2013, when then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid led a rules change to kill the filibuster for lower court judicial nominees and executive branch personnel requiring confirmation.
The move came after a 55-45 vote to end debate on Gorsuch, five votes short of the 60 votes needed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell then moved to consider the Gorsuch nomination under the rule change instituted by Democrats. His motion was denied, but McConnell then appealed the ruling of the chair and the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees was killed in a party line vote.
While Democrats call the move an attack on democracy, Tea Party Patriots Founder Jenny Beth Martin says it’s the Democrats who took an extreme position with their filibuster.
“When it comes to Supreme Court nominees, never in the history of our entire country have we had a partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee. It just hasn’t been done. What the Democrats are doing right now is breaking the tradition and the practice that we’ve had in this country for over 200 years,” said Martin, whose group has been aligned with the Judicial Crisis Network in pushing for the confirmation of Gorsuch.
The Tea Party Patriots are best known for advocating smaller government and lower taxes, but Martin says the Supreme Court fight is very much in her organization’s interest.
“We understand it is critically important that if we want to have constitutionally-limited government, then we have to have a Supreme Court that upholds the law and judges laws based on the Constitution,” said Martin.
She is convinced the Democrats don’t really have a case against Gorsuch but are still bitter over 2016.
“They are just frustrated that it’s not their person, that they lost the election in November, that it is President Trump who won the election and therefore won the ability to nominate Judge Gorsuch and they are doing all they can to resist what President Trump was elected to do,” said Martin.
Martin says the public is engaged on this issue and overwhelmingly in support of Gorsuch, but she says Democrats aren’t listening to all of their constituents.
“Democrat senators are listening to their base. They’re not listening to the whole of the American people, but they are listening to their base. So they are doing what they think their base wants them to do,” said Martin.
She believes the effort to filibuster Gorsuch will backfire on red state Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in 2018.
“She has said that this would be a very political maneuver if they filibustered Gorsuch. That’s what she’s doing and she’s doing it out of pure politics, not out of what’s best for the country,” said Martin.
“I know that it is a political job and the things the elected officials do they are going to look at things through the prism of politics. Sometimes you need to do what’s best for the country because you have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution for your country,” said Martin.
And Martin is firmly convinced fidelity to the Constitution will be a hallmark of Gorsuch’s time on the Supreme Court.
“He looks at the law and he respects the law as it’s written. He doesn’t intend to make law and create law out of whole cloth from the bench with his decisions, and he is going to look at the law through the prism of the Constitution,” said Martin.
With the filibuster nuked, a final Senate vote on Gorsuch is expected Friday evening.
Jim Geraghty of National Review and Greg Corombos of Radio America react to Senate Republicans nuking the filibuster rule on Supreme Court nominations. They also cheer Nikki Haley for staring down the Russians over Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people. And they discuss the removal of Steve Bannon from a key National Security Council position.