Coronavirus Soars, Trump Golfs, Pence Falls: Who the Hell Is in Charge of the US?

Secretary of State Pompeo leaving the Pearl Harbor-Hickam joint base in Honolulu, June 17, 2020, after meeting with Chinese officials. Amid rising Covid-19 cases and nationwide protests against racial injustices, President Trump has been golfing and tweeting white supremacist slogans. RON PRZYSUCHA/STATE DEPT.

Deep uncertainty and unease are descending across the United States just as Americans are preparing to celebrate their most important “political” holiday, Independence Day, on July 4.

Contrary to what Trump administration officials are proclaiming, the US is not containing the Covid-19 pandemic infection rate, which has suddenly surpassed its April high point, marking nearly 2.7 million cases recorded so far and about 129,000 deaths.

The European Union, reacting to the uncontrolled spread of the virus in the US, has decided that when the continent reopens for tourism on July 1, American travelers will be grouped with Brazilians and Russians, among others, who may be barred from more than half of Europe’s 27 member countries. The decision is a shock to tourists who normally flock there each summer.

In the US, many beaches, bars and restaurants were closing before the July Fourth weekend, under local or state orders to prevent gatherings of people who refuse to respect physical distancing or wear face coverings. Trump says masks are for weaklings.

July Fourth without beach parties! No happy hours with friends!

Overseas, the world looked less secure as media were reporting that Russian military intelligence had been paying Taliban fighters in Afghanistan to kill Americans and their military allies there. Donald Trump, who rarely looks at daily intelligence reports, said he wasn’t aware of this stunning development, though it was relayed to him from his own intelligence experts in late February.

In all the commotion surrounding domestic crises that are unsettling the US, issues important to the United Nations are often being ignored by a disinterested Trump and left to US officials outside the White House to deal with as they wish.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been running US-Saudi policy,  for example. On June 30, he spoke in a virtual meeting in the UN Security Council, trying to persuade the other 14 members to extend the arms embargo in the Iran nuclear deal by October. He was one of the first Council members to read his remarks but left the meeting immediately afterward.

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Soon, the focus will shift to the West Bank, where Israel may begin annexing Palestinian territory, a move that UN Secretary-General António Guterres has already condemned, with little resonance in Washington.

In American politics — all that President Trump cares about — Joe Biden, Trump’s likely rival in the Nov. 3 presidential election, is rapidly widening his lead in polls, partly because of a groundswell of multiracial street protests demanding federal action against police brutality, which routinely targets black men and boys. Trump’s most clumsy response, now a symbol of his presidency, was to stand in front of a famous Washington church holding aloft a Bible. Religious leaders of virtually all faiths were outraged.

During this unsettling time, Trump has been defending the 19th-century southern Confederacy and its leaders, traitors to the American union, whose secessionist movement led to the catastrophic Civil War, from 1861 to 1865. It cost up to 750,000 battlefield deaths, including as many as 40,000 black volunteers who had joined the northern Union army and navy.

Trump is aligning himself with the defeated slave-owning states in the South and their still-existing, offensive monuments, calling them part of the country’s heritage. He cheers on the racist slogans of white nationalists.

“Donald Trump has turned this country into a battlefield riven by old resentments and fresh fears,” Biden said on June 2 in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American independence in 1776. “Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?”

Vice President Mike Pence? He has been lying about some data on the administration’s record in dealing with the pandemic.

“We flattened the curve,” Pence said at a briefing on June 26, while reports were revealing that new cases of Covid-19 were soaring daily, especially in the southernmost states. “As we stand here today, all 50 states and territories across this country are opening up safely and responsibly,” he claimed as several states were being forced to reimpose restrictions just weeks after lifting them, cheered on by Trump.

Fatalities are declining all across the country,” Pence added, a statement immediately challenged by fact-checkers.

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At the State Department, Pompeo stays out of the line of fire by spinning a concocted reality most of the time. He has been repeatedly delivering sunny assessments of what the world thinks of the crumbling American model. At the end of March, he said:

“The United States is by far the most generous and reliable contributor to crisis response and humanitarian action through the United Nations and dozens of international organizations. U.S. assistance, monetary and in-kind contributions, expertise and technology, are indispensable to the effort to combat COVID-19.”

Referring to the current scapegoat, China, Pompeo added: “The United States has been the largest supporter of the World Health Organization since its creation in 1948. U.S. contributions to WHO in 2019 exceeded $400 million, almost double the 2nd largest member state contribution. China, in contrast, contributed $44 million.”

Two months later, Trump withdrew the US from the WHO, causing a financial crisis when the organization needed US contributions most and possibly jeopardizing such programs as global polio eradication.

In May, the US also refused to agree to a UN Security Council resolution calling for a global cease-fire, as proposed by Secretary-General Guterres on March 23, because of references to the WHO. On July 1, however, the French-Tunisian draft resolution, obtained by PassBlue, is expected to be adopted by the Council. It does not refer to the WHO but says, in part:

Underscoring that combating this pandemic requires greater national, regional and international cooperation and solidarity, and a coordinated, inclusive, comprehensive and global international response with the United Nations playing a key coordinating role”; and “commending the continued contribution and commitment of national and international health and humanitarian relief personnel to respond urgently to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dead, forgotten children in Yemen

In his Saudi-US portfolio, Pompeo most recently angered international advocates for children who live in war zones. He backed the Saudi kingdom’s demand that the UN drop the Saudi-led coalition for the second year in a row from a report backlisting countries whose forces are killing and injuring Yemeni children. The just-released document covers events in 2019.

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The coalition has been fighting a war against Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015. In 2018, UN experts deemed that all parties to the war were committing atrocity crimes.

This year alone, Saudi-led coalition air raids in Yemen rose to pre-ceasefire levels in May, according to the Yemen Data Project, a nonprofit group financed by the Open Society Foundations and others. In the final week of the month — after the cease-fire ended on May 23 — bombings reached 27 percent above the pre-ceasefire weekly average for 2020.

On June 15, Guterres complied with the Saudis’ request to be excluded from the UN’s blacklist for 2019, after numerous phone calls from Pompeo and despite evidence presented to Guterres by investigators from the office of Virginia Gamba, his envoy for children and armed conflict.

Gamba said pointedly when introducing the final report at a virtual news conference (below) that delisting the Saudi coalition was entirely the secretary-general’s decision, implying that it was not one of her own team’s conclusions. At the UN, Saudi diplomats were apparently boasting weeks before the report’s release that they were off the hook.

The role of Pompeo in delisting the Saudis — and the entire coalition, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — did not get the same attention in the US Congress this year that it did in 2019.

Last year, reacting to a UN report covering 2018, a bipartisan group of Congressional members cited the Saudis’ use of US weapons in attacks in Yemen that murdered children and other innocent civilians as a reason to block arms sales to the Saudis. But the Republican-led Senate tried and failed to override three Trump vetoes of Congressional resolutions blocking the sales of weapons, worth about $8.1 billion.

Without the mandated approval of Congress, the sales were cleared.

In June 2020, a former State Department inspector-general told Congress that Pompeo, working with aides in the State Department and the Saudis, had been devising ways in 2019 to get around Congressional oversight after the release of the UN name-and-shame report in 2018.

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Now, with foreign policy issues piling up in Washington amid growing national chaos, it appears that the fate of dead, wounded and starving children in Yemen has taken a further back seat. Some Congressional aides told PassBlue that they didn’t recall any requests in Congress for briefings this year on the matter, as members demanded in 2019.

Human-rights organizations and groups advocating for the rights and protection of children worldwide pledge to not allow Guterres’s action to go unchallenged. On June 22, a letter sent to the secretary-general by 24 nongovernmental organizations urged him to rethink his decision.

“The report found the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for killing or maiming 222 children in Yemen in 2019,” the letter said, referring to Gamba’s report. “Yet the coalition was de-listed from the report’s annexes, citing a ‘sustained significant decrease’ in casualties during the year and progress in implementing a memorandum of understanding that was signed in March of last year.

Similarly, the Myanmar armed forces, the Tatmadaw, was de-listed for recruiting and using children in Myanmar, while the report found that the Tatmadaw was responsible for eight cases of new recruitment and 197 cases of use in 2019.”

The letter to Guterres said that standards for judgment need to be strengthened.

“We also urge you to take steps to ensure that going forward, the annexes [the list of countries found in noncompliance] accurately and consistently reflect the evidence collected and verified by the UN’s Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism in line with existing criteria,” the nongovernmental organizations said.

“We have provided evidence of other concerning disparities between the annual report and its annexes in the attached annex,” they added. More transparency, they argued, could also protect the UN from strong pressure by powerful countries. (Guterres, whose term ends December 2021, has avoided saying whether he will run for a second term.)

John Bolton retaliates

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Circling back to the reports of alleged Russian intelligence agents financing the killing of Americans and their allied forces in Afghanistan, the revelations have provided an unexpected boon to John Bolton’s new book, “The Room Where It Happened,” which eviscerates Trump’s conduct and ability to carry out the work of a presidency.

Putin, among Trump’s dictatorial cronies, always seems to get a pass in the current White House, since the American president never bothers to read (or accept) negative accounts of Russian threats to the West.

Bolton, a legendary figure around the UN, is known for his unshakeable opposition to virtually all intergovernmental institutions and agreements that could bind the US or reduce its political-diplomatic freedom of movement.

Yet he is a shrewd judge of competence and character. Throughout his book, Bolton’s relationship with Pompeo fluctuates between collegial and competitive when the latter displays thin skin and petulance at real or imagined slights.

Most of all, Bolton, a conservative policy expert, judges that Trump has tarnished the brand, dismissed the American Constitution and endangers the US. In an epilogue attempting to justify his decision not to become involved in the 2019 impeachment process — a complaint of his critics — Bolton concludes:

“While liberals and Democrats focus on impeachment,” he writes in the book, “conservatives and Republicans should worry about the removal of the political guardrail of Trump having to face reelection. . . . [m]any of Trump’s national security decisions hinged more on political than on philosophy, strategy, foreign policy and defense rationales.

More widely, faced with the coronavirus crisis, Trump said, When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.”

This article was updated to include new information on a UN Security Council resolution calling for a global cease-fire.

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Barbara Crossette

Barbara Crossette

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a board member of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a contribtor to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and before that its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of "So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas," "The Great Hill Stations of Asia" and a Foreign Policy Association study, "India Changes Course," in the Foreign Policy Association's "Great Decisions 2015."

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

1 thought on “Coronavirus Soars, Trump Golfs, Pence Falls: Who the Hell Is in Charge of the US?”

  1. This is the best article I’ve read to date on Trump’s road to our destruction in the US. The tone is spot on for how Biden and every one of us should be asking what the hell is happening here and around the world because of this inept and ignorant administration.

    Reply

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