No big deal, Vladimir.

Two weeks ago I posted an explanation of why I believe that we should be concerned about the potential for divided loyalties when it comes to president-elect Donald Trump and Russia.  Trump’s actions this week could turn me into a budding conspiracy theorist.

Reacting to the sanctions imposed on Russia by President Obama for attempting to influence the outcome of the presidential election by hacking into emails Trump sniffed that he would look into the allegations of hacking when he had a chance, but that it was “time to move on to bigger and better things.”  In other words, no big deal, just get over it, folks.  Today he praised Russian president Vladimir Putin for not retaliating against the United States for the sanctions, stating “I always knew he was very smart.”  Trump’s point – that Putin was being the bigger and smarter man than our own president – could not have been made any clearer.

Trump’s position on the hacking and the sanctions puts him at odds with senior Republicans in Congress.  At one end of the spectrum are Senators McCain and Graham, who long have considered Russia an implacable foe of the United States and routinely refer to Putin as a thug and a murderer.  House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell both back the sanctions, with Ryan pointing out that “under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests.” McConnell added “The Russians are not our friends,” and went out of his way to express his support for the CIA and its work.

It is obvious that the more experienced (and knowledgeable) Republicans in Congress are becoming increasingly leery of Trump’s overtures toward Putin.  It is worth emphasizing that Trump need not be this overly solicitous of Putin now in order to reset the United States’ relationship with Russia after he takes office.  Trump’s verbiage at this point is intended to clear out the weeds, and by the weeds I am referring to everyone in the Executive Branch whose opinions on Russia Trump finds objectionable.

Robert Baer, an intelligence and security analyst, author and former CIA operative, said today on CNN that if he was still in the CIA he would be headed for the door.  Although there may not be a mass exodus of career intelligence analysts I have no doubt that Baer is correct about the demoralizing effect of Trump’s attitude about the value of intelligence from the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.  That is entirely by design.

Trump eschews the daily intelligence briefings, questioning their value.  He openly insults the CIA by referring to them as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”  Trump is deliberately undermining what soon will be his intelligence agencies, telling them that he will not be relying on their findings.

Rudy Giuliani, perhaps the most disappointing of all Trump sycophants, pointed the way forward for Trump on the hacking issue:

“Here’s what you do: You get your own people to review it.  There’s no question that the intelligence that President Obama has been getting has either been incompetent or politicized. I do cybersecurity for a living, and this is prolific, and there should be very strong reactions against anyone who did it. But I would urge President Trump, when he becomes President Trump, to have his own intelligence people do their own report, let’s find out who did it, and let’s bang them back really hard.”

You can be sure that Trump’s “own intelligence people” are not going to confirm that Russia was behind the hacking.  If he is not going to use the CIA, NSA or the FBI for intelligence gathering, who is he going to use?  Kellyanne Conway?

In 2008 Donald Jr. stated that money was “pouring in” to Trump projects from Russia, and that Russian money made up a “disproportionate” cross-section of Trump “assets.”  Eight years later and after electing Trump president we know nothing more about the extent to which the Trump empire has been or will continue to be dependent on Russian financing, or about the nature of any control retained by Russian banks and oligarchs over Trump projects.  How can that possibly be?  Are we that trusting, or that stupid?

Long story short, we have no idea how deeply beholden Trump and his family are to the Russians.  Am I overstating the concerns?  If your answer is Yes, explain to me the basis for your conclusion, because the relevant facts have been withheld from us.  Once Trump becomes president do you think the FBI or CIA will be trying to ascertain the nature of Trump’s relationship to his Russian financiers?  This just gets scarier.

As an aside, Trump’s closeness to Putin could spell trouble for another of Trump’s new-found friends, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Russia’s rapidly expanding military and political ties with Iran pose a threat to the United States’ interests in Afghanistan and also pose a threat to the long-term survival of Israel.  The decline of the United States’ influence in the Middle East coupled with the rise of a Russia-Iran alliance is not good news for Israel.

In a non-alternate universe leaders of both parties would be insisting on full disclosure of the documents and details pertaining to all money from Russian banks and oligarchs lent to or invested in Trump projects.  If concerned Senators are looking for an opportunity to press that point the confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, a Putin friend and Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of State, seems like a place to start.

December 30, 2016

Trump’s divided loyalties when it comes to Russia.

The least that we have the right to expect from president-elect Donald Trump is his undivided loyalty when it comes to our relationship with a hostile foreign power.  There is compelling evidence that when it comes to Russia we are not going to get that from Trump and that he is going to try to balance the interests of the United States with his personal and business interests.  It is an incredibly risky proposition.

Trump intends to dramatically reset the relationship between the United States and Russia by reversing policies toward Russian currently held by the United States and its allies without any cogent explanation of why he believes that doing so will improve Russia’s behavior.  It appears likely that Trump will try to relax economic sanctions against Russia without demanding an end to Russian intervention in Ukraine and will cooperate with the Russians in combating rebel forces seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without insisting that plans be made for Assad to step down.  And that may only be the beginning.

There is little doubt in my mind that Trump’s judgment is affected by his desire to retain the flow of money from Russian oligarchs into Trump’s projects and by the prospect of Trump’s businesses gaining favored access to the Russian real estate market.  Cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin is the best way for Trump to keep his Russian creditors and investors happy and to realize his dream of a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Putin wants a favor from Trump – relaxation of the economic sanctions imposed in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea.  And Trump is falling all over himself to deliver that favor to Putin.  The extent to which Trump will go to accommodate Putin was made strikingly clear by the manner in which Trump bashed the CIA’s conclusion that Russia hacked into emails in an attempt to influence the election in Trump’s favor.

Trump has every right to be cautious about accepting the CIA’s opinion, and could have diplomatically expressed concern about the conclusions without dismissing them out of hand.  Instead he ridiculed the findings with a gratuitous insult of the CIA’s competence, reminding everyone that “these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Why would Trump react so vehemently and attack the general credibility of the agency that the United States depends upon to provide information critical to our national security?  There is only one reason:  Trump knows that Congress never will relax the economic sanctions against Russia if it believes that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the presidential election and relaxation of the sanctions is vitally important to Putin, and therefore to Trump.

Trump put the CIA and other intelligence agencies on notice that he is not going to let the facts get in the way of his intentions toward Russia and that these agencies better not try to persuade him otherwise.  It is a terrible start to his relationship with agencies that will be expected to provide the intelligence presumably used by him to help guide foreign policy.

What does Trump want from Putin in return for relaxing the sanctions against Russia?  We know that Russian banks and oligarchs within Putin’s inner circle have invested heavily in Trump’s projects and lent him money.   Russian financiers came to Trump’s rescue when banks in the United States were no longer willing to lend him money.  In 2008 Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. said at a real estate conference in New York that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” He added that “we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

The problem is that we don’t know how much money is involved and, more importantly, what strings are attached to that money because Trump refuses to tell us.  How heavily dependent are Trump’s projects on Russian financing?

After his 2008 remarks Donald Jr. clammed up on the subject of Russian money.  Ordinary prudence in such situations by public and private entities dictates that a conflict of interest is assumed until proven otherwise by full disclosure of the relevant financial information.

For the same reason the American public should have the opportunity to judge for itself whether Trump’s commitments to his Russian creditors and investors pose a potential conflict with his duty as president to act solely in the best interests of the United States.  If denied that opportunity the public has every reason to assume the worst.  Dr. Evelyn Farkas, formerly Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, wrote in a commentary this week that based on what we know – and on what we don’t know because of Trump’s refusal to disclose the extent of his financial ties to Russia  – it remains possible that Trump is in a fact a puppet of Putin.  Strong stuff.

Trump long has sought entrée to the Russia real estate market without success.  To succeed in Russia it helps to have a friend in high places and there is no friend in a higher place in Russia than Putin.  Trump wants access to Russian money and to the lucrative Russian real estate money.  Putin holds the keys to both.  Sometimes it doesn’t pay to look past the obvious when trying to figure out a person’s motivations.

Equally obvious has been the dramatic difference between Trump’s approach toward China and his approach toward Russia.  Trump has criticized China harshly and repeatedly and his opening gambit in establishing his relationship with Chinese leaders was to speak with the president of Taiwan.  One of Trump’s vaunted negotiating techniques is to be unpredictable and keep the other side off-balance, and nothing unsettles the Chinese quite like the prospect that the United States might change its one-China policy.  It was a message to Chinese leadership that everything could be on the table.

On the other hand Trump has refrained from criticizing Russia and has been almost fawning in expressing admiration for Putin.  Trump generally reserves such fawning praise for occasions when he is talking about himself.

In contrast with his message to China that everything could be on table for negotiation when he becomes president Trump already appears to have taken major issues off of the table for purposes of talking to Russia.  He indicated that he is willing to accept the annexation of Crimea by Russia on a permanent basis, believes that the economic sanctions against Russia should be lifted, and supports Russian intervention on the side of al-Assad.  Why would he weaken his hand with Russia before taking office?  The only parties he has unsettled with his approach toward Russia have been our allies.

The planned nomination of Tillerson as Secretary of State confirms Trump’s intention to build a strong relationship with Putin.  Tillerson has been a friend of Putin for nearly 20 years and rose to the top at Exxon on the strength of his performance managing the company’s Russian account.

Tillerson negotiated ExxonMobil’s massive deal with the Russian oil company Rosneft, 75% of which is owned by the Russian government.  Putin himself awarded Tillerson the highest medal bestowed by Russia on a foreign national for his efforts.  The deal, signed in 2011, gave Exxon access to vast Arctic oil reserves inside Russia and makes Rosneft a partner in projects in the U.S. including projects in Texas and in the Gulf of Mexico.

At the time the deal was estimated to be worth approximately $300 billion; projections now are that it is worth upwards of $500 billion and is described as the largest deal of its kind in history.  The deal was suspended in 2014 when sanctions were imposed on Russia because of its annexation of Crimea.  Unsurprisingly, Tillerson became an outspoken critic of the sanctions.  The deal cannot proceed until the sanctions are lifted.

Tillerson has no diplomatic or public sector experience.  He has worked at Exxon his entire career.  There is one reason and only one reason that Trump wants Tillerson:  Tillerson’s close ties to Putin.

Tillerson, who is a talented and widely admired international businessman, is not necessarily a bad choice for Secretary of State, but this is not about Tillerson.  This is about Trump and what Trump sees happening if he and Tillerson can thaw the relationship between the United States and Russia.  Tillerson is but a means to an end.  Of all possible candidates for Secretary of State Trump selects the person said to be the American with the closest relationship to Putin.  Coincidence?

Do I believe that Trump is intent on selling out the United States and its allies to Russia for personal gain?  No.  I believe that this is as much about grandiosity as avarice and that Trump believes that he can successfully negotiate with Putin where others have failed.  I also believe that in Trump’s megalomaniacal mind he thinks that he can negotiate a deal that helps both the United States and the family business.  What could possibly be wrong with that?

Against the weight of most expert advice, and contrary to the positions of our allies as well as his own party, Trump may have convinced himself that relaxing the sanctions against Russia will change Russia’s behavior for the better.  If that is what he believes then he has no idea who he is dealing with in Putin.

Like the former KGB agent that he is Putin has played to Trump’s ego masterfully, convincing Trump that the two of them can engineer a grand deal that showers Trump with glory as the greatest deal-maker on the world stage.  Although Putin has the measure of Trump I question how much Trump knows about Putin.

I am currently wading through The Shadow of the Winter Palace by Edward Crankshaw.  The 1976 book, which my wife bought from a second-hand book seller, chronicles Russia’s drift toward revolution beginning with the “Decembrist” revolt in 1825.  The pre-soviet history of Russia is absolutely fascinating, and I enjoyed Robert Massie’s 2011 book on Catherine the Great enough that I went back and read his 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Peter the Great.

A little knowledge of Russian history is helpful because contemporary experts on Russia and Putin have suggested that Putin models his style of leadership on the tsars, and is best described as an imperial leader rather than as a soviet one.  “What the West is dealing with today is an imperial Russia. Under Putin’s leadership, Russian policy is more like that during the time of the tsars before the 1917 Russian Revolution,” according to Luke Coffey of The Heritage Foundation.  “The difference between Russia and the West right now is that Russia has a strategy that it is willing to follow and the West is hoping the problem disappears.  The U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy when all it has right now is a response,” stated Coffey.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, reportedly has been influential in crafting some of Trump’s policy positions.  If so, Trump’s pivot toward Putin is at odds with the foundation’s traditional wariness of Russian motives.  In a report released last year the foundation described the situation as follows:

“The long-run history of Russia’s relations with the West raises a fundamental question for American comprehensive strategy. Since at least the 17th century, Russia has been torn—and has oscillated—between viewing itself as a basically Western nation or as a great and imperial power that embodies values apart from those of the West and has historical license to control its neighbors in the name of increasing its power and advancing its concept of civilization. It is possible to view the rise of the Putin regime as simply another moment in Russian history when the pendulum has swung away from the West.  If that is the case, Russia is a problem that will be with the West for a very long time, although its urgency will wax and wane.”

In addition to his designs on restoring the geopolitical dominance of mother Russia, Putin also is a thief and, according to Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and most other intelligence experts, a murderer.  The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen is a sobering account of how the former mid-level KGB agent found his way to the top of the Russian government, often using ill-gotten gains to purchase the loyalty of political allies.  Suffice it to say that there is nothing uplifting about Putin’s character or inspirational about his rise to power.  His only friends are people that he finds useful.

Putin is not interested in some grand rapprochement with the United States.  He is interested in a relaxation of sanctions that will allow Russian to strengthen its economy and make more money available to cause mischief around the world.  The sanction that Putin is most interested in relaxing is the one that has stalled implementation of the deal between ExxonMobil and Rosneft.  Rosneft has been a bountiful source of cash for the Russian government, and any source of cash for the Russian government is a source of personal wealth for Putin.

Putin will make some minor concessions in order to allow Trump to claim success in any deal but no deal is going to deter Putin from continuing to militarize the Arctic, threaten Russia’s neighbors, aggressively pursue space-based nuclear weapons, expand cyber warfare capabilities, and play a spoiler role by involving Russia irresponsibly in the world’s crises and problems.  Putin wants the economic sanctions on Russia lifted so that he can redouble his efforts to undermine democracies around the world.  Putin will keep any deal that he makes with Trump only so long as it suits Putin’s purposes.

To Putin this is just another instance of buying and selling favors, and no one understands pay-to-play any better than Vladimir Putin.  He used his positions in the government of St. Petersburg and later his position as Deputy Chief of the Presidential Property Management Department in the Russian government to enrich himself and reward his friends.  According to Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy, Putin’s power (and enormous personal wealth) is based on a comprehensive system of bribery, kickbacks, and other corrupt practices.  Dawisha estimated Putin’s personal wealth at approximately $40 billion.

Of course Putin not only rewards his friends; he punishes his enemies.  They end up in prison or, as in the case of Boris Nemtsov and others, dead.

Is it harsh to suggest that our president-elect might be unduly influenced by the prospect of personal gain?  Not unless you believe that there is no reason for ethics laws requiring financial disclosures and prohibiting conflicts of interest because you trust all elected officials to disregard conflicts when making decisions.  I understand that such laws do not apply to the president, but tell me one thing in Trump’s background and character that would convince me that he is the exception to the rule and that we do not have to worry about conflicts of interest when it comes to him.

And please don’t insult my intelligence by telling me that any potential conflicts of interest will be resolved by turning over the Trump business empire to Trump’s sons.  I don’t care if it is Eric and Donald Jr. rather than Dad showing up at the grand opening of the Trump Hotel and Casino in Moscow, the conflict of interest would be precisely the same.

I do not know at this point whether anything can be said or done to assure us of Trump’s undivided loyalty when it comes to the relationship between the United States and Russia.  As with any number of other things in the Trump presidency we are going to have to watch him like a hawk and hope for the best.  I think that we are also going to need more than a little luck.

December 16, 2016

Fundamental principles, with exceptions based on “media exposure.”

An article this week by Childs Walker of The Baltimore Sun described how the service academies are making it easier for graduates to go directly from a service academy into the NFL.  An exception to the policy of requiring graduates to serve at least two years of active duty before applying to go into the reserves was made for Keenan Reynolds, the Naval Academy graduate now on the Ravens’ practice squad who was allowed to go into the Navy Reserve immediately after graduation.

The policy has been changed, and in the future all academy athletes will be allowed to apply to go directly from the academies into the reserves in order to pursue careers in professional sports.  Decisions on the applications will be made on a case-by-case basis and presumably will continue to be based on the existing standard, which is “a strong expectation their professional sports activity will provide the DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national recruiting or public affairs.”

I bit my lip on this issue when it was announced in May that the policy had been changed for Reynolds, out of concern that I did not want my comments to appear to be personal to Reynolds, who by every measure is a remarkable young man with his head and his heart in the right places.  Of course, now that I think about it many academy graduates are remarkable people in their own rights, but there is a bigger issue.

The bigger issue is the matter of misplaced values.  The new policy elevates the value of major collegiate and professional sports over the value of service to country and fulfillment of contractual commitments.  It also elevates the importance of professional sports over the importance of other professional and occupational pursuits.

First of all, let’s sort out the bullshit:  Opening this pathway to a professional sports career and making it public is all about recruiting standout male high school football and basketball players to the service academies, period.  To star athletes for whom playing in the NFL or NBA is their dream the prospect of waiting two or more years after graduation before trying out for a professional team can end any thoughts they have of attending service academies.

Moreover, the appeal of attracting standout football and basketball players to the academies lies mainly in the desire of alumnae to bask in the reflected glory of successful academy football and basketball teams.  They also enjoy the cachet of having fellow alumnae playing in the NFL and NBA.  Graduates of the service academies dominate the halls of the Pentagon, and exert an enormous influence on academy policies.  They want their alma maters to win football and basketball games (especially football), and that is what is driving the policy change.

Any other claim is window dressing.  The statement by Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus that increasing the number of academy graduates playing in the NFL and NBA helps recruiting in general is unprovable, and dubious.  For one thing, any enlisted man or woman (or officer, for that matter) who joins the service because of the success of an academy football or basketball team is misguided, and enlisting for the wrong reason.  Join the Navy and go to war because “our” football team had a winning season?  In other words, any claim that the new policy has to do with anything other than winning more football and basketball games is smoke headed right up your arse.

Also, put out of your mind that this has anything to do with recruiting high school athletes who play minor sports or with recruiting female athletes in general.  Do you think the brass care about recruiting women to academies who hope after graduation to play in the WNSL (that’s the Women’s National Soccer League for you non-soccer fans) or the WNBA?  The new policy will have to be administered in a non-discriminatory manner, so there will women allowed to pursue their dreams of playing in the WNSL or the WNBA, but that is not what this policy is about.  This is about football and men’s basketball.

Before I go any further I should disclose facts that may influence my point of view.  I owe my college education to the fact that I received a four-year ROTC scholarship, which came with an obligation to serve four years on active duty with the Army.  I served that time plus three more years on active duty, and an additional 18 years in the reserves.

My grandfather, father, both uncles, brother, son and son-in-law all served in the military, with all branches covered – Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.  There is no anti-military bias in my family, and I do not begrudge any veteran any benefit or advantage to which he or she is entitled.

I also am a college and professional football fan, with loyalties to the University of Pittsburgh and the Ravens, respectively.  I am trying to downsize, and came across a scrapbook in which I have newspaper clippings of college football games going back to 1957.  (No, I didn’t throw it away.)  College football has changed considerably since then and not all for the better.

Money is of course the big factor behind the changes to the revenue-producing college sports and it dominates all other considerations.  Players at football factories such as Alabama and Ohio State live lives that are only superficially similar to the college experiences of other students.  It is fair to say that teams from those schools play on behalf of the schools without really being part of the schools, and football certainly is not part of the core academic missions of the schools.  If anything the teams are part of the fundraising side of the institutions rather than the educational side.

What has become of college football is a story in itself, but suffice it to say that no other country uses its universities as the training grounds for major professional sports.  The NFL, with its enormous profits, benefits directly from the training provided to its future players by these schools but returns none of those profits to the schools.  That also is quite different from many European countries, where professional soccer teams have their own “academies” and pay youth teams and training programs for the costs of developing players.  Of course the NCAA itself needs no financial help from the NFL, given that it has plenty of money of its own.  Both the NFL and NCAA have pretty sweet deals, and there is a lot of money in a relatively few hands.

Someday things may change, but it won’t be any time soon.  In the meantime I do not believe it is necessary to elevate major collegiate and professional sports to an even higher plane in our society.  Playing on the Ravens’ taxi squad does not equate to military service and should not be treated as such for purposes of fulfilling a commitment made at the time of entering a service academy.  And I don’t accept for one minute the argument that serving a military commitment in the reserves is the same as serving it on active duty.

Roger Staubach graduated from the Naval Academy in 1965 and served four years on active duty, including one year in Vietnam.  He subsequently played ten years for the Dallas Cowboys, winning two Super Bowls.  He repaid the Navy for his education by serving out his full active duty commitment before going on to play professional football.

Staubach’s career reflected the principles of commitment and sacrifice.  So did the career of Napoleon McCallum.  After McCallum graduated from the Naval Academy in 1985 he was able to play one year of professional football with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1986 because he was stationed in Long Beach, and the Navy did not prohibit secondary employment that did not interfere with duty requirements.  He was reassigned to sea duty in 1987, however, and missed the next three seasons of professional football while fulfilling the remainder of his service commitment.

McCallum’s interrupted pro football career, which ended because of a severe leg injury in 1994, never picked up where it left off when he went to sea in 1987.  McCallum made sacrifices because of the commitment he made to the Navy, and those sacrifices were based on the principle that service to his country came first.

At some point when you start making “exceptions” to fundamental principles they no longer are fundamental principles – they become sort of like guidelines that can be ignored if expedient to do so.  Repaying a four year education with five years of active military service to your country is the deal, and making exceptions to the deal to allow graduates to play professional sports (at salaries generally exceeding those paid to second lieutenants and ensigns, by the way) is contrary to the principle that a deal is a deal, and to the value properly placed on service to the country.

Finally, why isn’t the same policy applied to academy graduates who aspire to pursue careers in the private sector in business, medicine, science, engineering, music or, heaven forbid, law?  Is a graduate who displayed exceptional scientific aptitude and who wants to pursue a career in research without going on active duty less deserving of the chance to go directly into the reserves?  Apparently yes, because it is unlikely that a career spent in a laboratory “will provide the DoD with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national recruiting or public affairs.”  Do we have to measure everything in this country by its value in gaining “media exposure”?

In my opinion the policy change is misguided and points the ethos of the service academies in the wrong direction.  Yes, I understand why well-intended football fans wanted to see a wonderful young man like Keenan Reynolds be able to pursue a professional football career without making the sacrifices that Staubach and McCallum made.  On the other hand, sacrifice sometimes is the consequence of adhering to principles, and academies should be embracing that fact rather than shying away from it.

Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, 2016

Seeing beyond a Baltimore teacher’s meltdown.

Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises saw hate when she looked into the heart of a white Harlem Park Elementary and Middle School teacher caught on video using the N-word during a tirade directed at her eighth grade students, most of whom were black. Erica Esha Deminds, the mother of one of the students sent out of the classroom for misbehavior, saw something different: the frustrated teacher’s passion for her students.

What explains the difference? Ms. Santelises, who fired the teacher, saw the woman as an employee who embarrassed her employer. Ms. Deminds, on the other hand, saw the teacher as a human being. Ms. Santelises was angry; Ms. Deminds was compassionate. And while the reaction by Ms. Santelises may be understandable, the reaction by Ms. Deminds was admirable.

Harlem Park Elementary and Middle School is located in a community plagued by poverty and crime. The academic performance of its students, most of whom are black, is consistently among the worst in the state. It is not an easy place to teach.

Ms. Deminds, who is black, likely knows what fate holds for uneducated young men and women on the streets of her West Baltimore neighborhood. And she understood that the teacher was trying to warn unruly students when she told them that without an education, they would wind up as “a punk-ass [N-word] who’s going to get shot.” According to Ms. Deminds, the teacher’s “message was right — her approach was wrong.”

Ms. Deminds saw beyond the meltdown and the language used by the teacher. “It bothered me to see her that way, but she’s not a nasty teacher,” Ms. Deminds told The Baltimore Sun. “She was more so hurt than anything because she couldn’t get the kids to learn, and she couldn’t get them to listen.” Ms. Deminds described the teacher as “a woman who wanted to teach these kids because she’s passionate about her job.”

Ironically, it was Ms. Deminds who posted the video of the tirade, which quickly went viral. It was also Ms. Deminds who put the outcome of the incident in its proper perspective: “She loses her career, the kids lost their teacher. Nobody wins in this situation.”

Ms. Santelises rejected suggestions that the teacher’s meltdown reflected a lack of training and support. “There are many people who struggle with classroom management, but they don’t resort to hate language,” Ms. Santelises said. “We can’t provide enough support to counteract what’s in someone’s heart.”

Ms. Santelises, who also is black, assumed that it was racism in the teacher’s heart that caused the teacher to use the N-word. Why not assume instead that the teacher overheard the term used countless times by her students and blurted it out in the heat of the moment in a well-meaning, but inappropriate attempt to get the students to appreciate the dire consequences of the failure to get an education? In fact, why assume anything at all? Wasn’t it enough to fire the teacher for her behavior and language without condemning her character?

Notwithstanding the unnecessary harshness of her explanation, Ms. Santelises did what she probably had to do by firing the teacher. Ms. Deminds did something that she did not have to do; she displayed empathy and came to the defense of the teacher’s character without condoning her behavior.

It was the ordinary mother, not the professional educator, who taught us a lesson about understanding and compassion.

December 5, 2017

[Published as an op-ed by The Baltimore Sun on December 5, 2016 but not posted to my blog until January 12, 2017.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Senator Currie brings up bad memories.

The other day I tweeted that Maryland State Senator Ulysses Currie of Prince George’s County was a “self-serving piece of crap” in response to the announcement that he had abruptly rescinded his resignation from the State Senate.  Calling Currie a piece of crap was harsh and unnecessary – have I learned nothing from our president-elect about the use of Twitter?  I will say in my own defense that this latest story about Currie rubbed me the wrong way.  I will explain.

First of all, I did not believe him when he said that what caused him to change his mind was the lack of civility among those seeking to fill the remainder of his term.  Secondly, and most importantly, the announcement by Currie reminded me of what I regard as one of the most pathetic and maddening episodes in Maryland’s long history of political scandal.

When Currie, 79, submitted his resignation he explained that his failing health would not allow him to complete his term ending in 2018 and that he simply did not have the strength to do the job.  In rescinding his resignation he stated that he was doing so primarily because he couldn’t tolerate the lack of civility among the candidates seeking to be chosen by the Democratic State Central Committee to serve out his term.  Currie said the succession battle “has created a level of divisiveness and discord I have rarely seen in Prince George’s County and which I cannot allow to continue.”

Oh, and Currie also said that he had wanted his wife, the Rev. Shirley Gravely-Currie, to take his seat as a caretaker until the 2018 election.  According to Currie she was the only person who “came forward without the intention of using the appointment to gain an election advantage over others.”

Sorry, Senator, but I don’t believe that the main reason behind the withdrawal of your resignation was the bickering.  I believe that you were disappointed when you found out that your “keep it in the family” succession plan wasn’t going over very well and that your wife did not have the votes to get appointed to the seat.  You aren’t the player in state politics that you were a decade ago and once you submitted your resignation you lost whatever influence you had left.

By all accounts Currie, a former school teacher, is unfailingly pleasant and has been a model of civility during his 30 years in the General Assembly.  He makes it a point to try to get along with everyone and is liked by virtually everyone who meets him.  Before his fall from grace he also was one of the most powerful legislators in Annapolis.

In 2010 Curry was indicted on federal charges  that he took more than $245,000 in bribes to use his position and influence to do favors for a grocery chain, Shoppers Food Warehouse.  The charges stemmed from revenue from a “consulting contract” with Shoppers that Currie failed to disclose as required by state ethics law on financial disclosure forms.  The financial disclosure forms are filed annually by legislators and Currie did not disclose his relationship with Shoppers in any of the five annual submissions covering the period that he received money from Shoppers.

State officials testified at trial that Currie’s failure to disclose that he was working for Shoppers led them to react to his requests on behalf of Shoppers’ as if he was making them in his capacity as a state legislator rather than as a lobbyist for Shoppers.  Prosecutors argued that Currie’s failure to report his employment by Shoppers was evidence that Currie realized that the arrangement with Shoppers was illicit and that he was taking bribes rather than doing the “normal” favors that legislators do for constituents.

Although prosecutors described the arrangement with Shoppers as a “pay-to-play” scheme Currie was acquitted of the charges by a federal jury.  A number of jurors later commented that Currie’s wrongdoing was an ethical lapse for the General Assembly to deal with rather than a crime.  As one juror observed:  “There was clearly a conflict of interest, questionable stuff that needs to be looked at.”

Most observers attributed his unexpected acquittal in large part to the parade of current and former state officials who went before the jury and attested to Currie’s reputation and character.  Character witnesses included U.S. House Minority Whip and former president of the Maryland Senate Steny Hoyer and former governor Robert Ehrlich.  Some saw the number of high-ranking officials willing to testify on Currie’s behalf as a testament to the goodwill that Currie had accumulated through years of public service; others saw it as a nauseating example of the so-called “culture of corruption” that prevails in Annapolis.

Personally, what I found most offensive about the character testimony was what it said about state government.  Timothy Maloney, a highly regarded lawyer and influential former state delegate, was the first character witness called by the defense and Maloney implied that dimwittedness could be behind Currie’s failure to adhere to state ethics laws.

Maloney’s unforgettable testimony was that Currie was not among the more intelligent members of the General Assembly:  “No one would call him smart,” was how Maloney described Currie to the jury.  He’s just not very astute when it comes to the mechanics of legislating,” Maloney further explained. “I think most legislators would tell you the same thing. . . . It hurts me to say that, because he’s a wonderful, wonderful person.”

Currie was not just some backbencher.  At the time of Maloney’s testimony Currie had been in the General Assembly for 24 years, the last eight of which he was chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, one of the most important positions in the General Assembly.

Defense attorneys tried to walk Maloney’s characterization back a bit, with other witnesses describing Currie as disorganized and sloppy with paperwork rather than as just plain stupid.  Currie’s attorneys argued to the jury that Currie was not trying to hide an illegal arrangement with Shoppers; he was just too forgetful and careless to correctly fill out financial disclosure forms.

Currie was appointed to the post because he was a loyal Democratic foot soldier in the General Assembly who never made waves.  The man who appointed him, Senate President Mike Miller, said after Currie was acquitted:  “Senator Currie is a good and decent man.  He may have made some mistakes, but he did not commit a crime.”  In the upper reaches of state government loyalty often is valued above all else, including competence.

I was not upset that the jury acquitted Currie on the bribery charges.  Juries are there to make decisions and generally do the best job that they can.  I was angry at the idea that a person who is not very smart and had not learned the “mechanics of legislating” despite a lengthy career in the General Assembly could be named to lead the Senate committee charged with considering all legislation that affects the state’s operating and capital budgets.

I was dumbfounded when his friends and former friends in the General Assembly came forward to defend him by matter-of-factly describing the former chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee as too forgetful or disorganized – or as too stupid – to abide by state ethics law.  The whole episode had a surreal and distasteful quality to it.  Certainly Currie’s actions were not the most venal in the long history of political scandal in Maryland but the story of his rise to prominence in the General Assembly and his trial and acquittal painted a singularly unflattering portrait of state politics.

So, Senator Currie, I regret calling you a piece of crap; that fails to give you credit for rising from the humblest of beginnings and treating people with dignity and respect during your entire career.  I don’t regret calling you self-serving, however, and it is time for you to take the pension that you earned for your 30 years in the General Assembly and enjoy your retirement.  You are a nice man but, despite your protestations, the citizens of your district and the state will get along fine without you or your wife.

December 5, 2016