Editorial Roundup: US

Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:

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June 30

The Wall Street Journal on allegations that Russia offered bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan:

It is going to be something to behold, on Jan. 21, 2021, when President Biden takes revenge on Russia for paying the Taliban to kill Americans in Afghanistan. He’ll task the CIA with killing the Russian agents behind the bounties, send lethal aid to Ukraine to defend itself against Russian aggression, work with allies to oust Russia and Cuba from Venezuela, withdraw from the arms deals Russia is violating, and ratchet up sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany.

Of course Mr. Biden will do none of that, which ought to put into context the latest Washington uproar over the alleged Russian bounties and President Trump. The stories, leaked by anonymous sources, are another dive into the murky Washington nexus among intelligence, the media and politics.

Mr. Trump is cast again as the villain who knew the intelligence and did nothing, or should have known but didn’t, and in any event he must be in hock to Vladimir Putin. Mr. Trump and his advisers say he wasn’t briefed on the bounties intelligence, but sources (again anonymous) say it did appear in his daily intelligence briefing that he rarely reads. U.S. intelligence chiefs are denouncing the leakers, who no doubt want to damage Mr. Trump before the election.

Our first reaction is that the Taliban have been killing Americans for years for the religious pleasure of it — why would getting paid make all that much difference? Iranians have been paying them to kill Americans, and so have jihadist elements in Pakistan, including some in the intelligence services.

A second point is why anyone is surprised that Mr. Putin’s Russia would try to make trouble for America? He’s been doing it for at least 12 years, across three Administrations, since he invaded neighboring Georgia in 2008. Mr. Biden’s reaction to that affront was to blame the George W. Bush Administration and call for a “reset” with Russia.

Mr. Putin is interfering in America’s backyard by propping up the Maduro regime in Venezuela. He is trying to drive a wedge in NATO by selling S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey. He is propping up the murderous Assad regime in Syria. He is blocking an extension of the United Nations arms embargo against Iran.

His agents traveled to the U.K. and tried to kill a Russian defector with a deadly nerve agent but killed an innocent Briton instead. His government recently imprisoned a former U.S. Marine on what are almost certainly trumped up spying charges. And, by the way, he interfered in the 2016 U.S. election under the nose of the Obama-Biden Administration. Paying to kill Americans is hardly a giant leap of bad faith for Russia’s president for life.

In the face of all this, Mr. Trump’s continuing personal solicitousness toward Mr. Putin is strange bordering on the bizarre. It’s accomplished nothing except damage his own political standing. But then Mr. Trump has toughened sanctions against Russia, has sent Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine that Obama-Biden refused to send, has withdrawn from two arms deals Russia is violating, and has tried to stop Nord Stream 2. He’s been far tougher on Russia than Obama-Biden ever was.

What we’d like to hear from Messrs. Biden and Trump this year is what they’ll do in response if the intelligence about Russian bounties is verified. Does Mr. Trump still want to reward Mr. Putin with an invitation to the G-7? If he does it would rival his near-invitation last year to the Taliban to visit Camp David as an insult to Americans who gave their lives in Afghanistan.

As for Mr. Biden, has he learned anything since his last go-round with the Russian? He now talks tough about Russia and says Mr. Putin has “no soul,” but that was true when Mr. Biden sought his Russian reset in 2009, and when Barack Obama attacked Mitt Romney as an unreconstructed Cold Warrior in 2012. Is there anything specific that Mr. Biden would do that would deter Mr. Putin from further attacks on Americans or U.S. interests?

Concern about deals Mr. Trump might strike with Mr. Putin in a second term is legitimate. If only we could trust that Mr. Biden would be any better, and he might be worse.

Online: https://www.wsj.com/

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June 30

The Los Angeles Times on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said states can’t cut religious schools out of programs that send public money to private education:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday needlessly poked a hole in Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled in a case from Montana that if a state provides a tax break that benefits students at a secular private school, it must include private religious schools as well. The decision is doubly disappointing.

First, the court has told states that they may not decide that they won’t subsidize, even indirectly, the propagation of religion, a choice that is permitted by the 1st Amendment. States should be free to decline to subsidize religious instruction so long as they treat all religious schools the same.

Second, the way the court broke down on ideological lines is worrisome at a time when debates about the role of religion loom large in America’s culture wars. All five Republican-appointed justices voted in the majority in this case; all four Democratic appointees dissented.

Tuesday’s decision involved a state program under which taxpayers received a modest tax credit for contributions to establish scholarships for children attending private schools.

After the Legislature authorized the program, Montana officials decided that its use to endow scholarships for religious schools violated a provision of Montana’s state constitution that prohibits “any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies” to any school that is “controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”

After religious schools were denied participation in the program, some parents challenged that decision. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the entire scholarship program must be invalidated.

Writing for the majority in reversing that ruling, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that Montana’s ban on aid to religious schools violated the 1st Amendment protection of the free exercise of religion by discriminating against recipients of a government benefit “because of their religious character.” He compared the Montana case to a 2017 decision in which the court held that the state of Missouri couldn’t exclude religious schools from a program that subsidized the resurfacing of playgrounds.

But, as Justice Stephen G. Breyer pointed out in his dissent, that program and the Montana plan were “importantly different” from each other. Justice Elena Kagan made a similar point during oral arguments in the Montana case. She noted that the playground decision, in which she was part of the majority, involved a “completely secular public benefit.”

Breyer wrote that the Montana case was much more like a 2004 case in which the court held that the state of Washington didn’t violate the Constitution’s guarantee of free excise of religion by excluding students studying for “a devotional theology degree” from a state scholarship program.

As Breyer noted, the court in that case concluded that Washington’s refusal to subsidize the education of clergy “was consistent with the widely shared view, dating to the founding of the Republic, that taxpayer-supported religious indoctrination poses a threat to individual liberty.” Breyer added that, like the exclusion of potential clergy from a scholarship program, Montana’s decision to bar state aid to religious education was a choice “not to fund (at a dis­tance) an essentially religious endeavor.”

In his majority opinion, Roberts acknowledged that Tuesday’s ruling doesn’t require any state to provide support for private schools, religious or secular. “A state need not subsidize private education,” he wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

As a policy matter, we believe that state financial resources should be directed toward underfunded public schools. Still, even if its practical consequences prove limited, this decision and the divisions on the court augur ominously for future cases in which the court must rule on the role of religion in public life.

Online: https://www.latimes.com/

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June 29

The New York Times on a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics:

The Supreme Court upheld abortion rights on Monday, with Chief Justice John Roberts concurring with the liberals on the court to strike down a Louisiana anti-abortion law.

That sentence might surprise a lot of people, given that the chief justice is a staunch conservative, and that the court now has a solid right-wing majority. President Trump achieved that majority by appointing two justices with the express purpose of pushing a hard-right agenda, as determined by legal groups like the Federalist Society. Obliterating abortion access in America is at the top of that priority list.

What’s more, Chief Justice Roberts dissented in a case just four years ago that struck down what was an effectively identical Texas anti-abortion law. So the central question ahead of Monday’s decision in June Medical Services v. Russo became: Would the chief justice’s disapproval of abortion outweigh his desire for the court to respect its own very recent precedent?

It turns out that it didn’t. In a concurring opinion that provided the fifth vote for a majority, the chief justice wrote that the court’s doctrine requires it to “treat like cases alike.” Because the Louisiana law — which requires doctors who perform abortions to get admitting privileges at a hospital near their clinic, supposedly in the interests of women’s health and safety — was more or less a carbon copy of the Texas law the court previously struck down, and because it burdened women in the same way, it “cannot stand,” he wrote.

That’s good as far as it goes, which is not very far. It would be a mistake to interpret this decision as a sign that the chief justice has had a change of heart about protecting the bodily autonomy of American women. Even in his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Roberts said that he still believes that the Texas case was “wrongly decided” and that he voted to strike down the Louisiana law solely out of respect for precedent. He appears to have decided that the circumstances of this case were not ideal for crippling reproductive rights — but he left the door open to doing so in the future. Monday’s decision, with the plurality opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, isn’t so much good news for reproductive freedom as it is a temporary reprieve from all the bad.

Abortion access in many parts of the country is abysmal — five states have only one abortion clinic, for instance. If the Louisiana law had been upheld, clinics in that state (which has only three such facilities) and across the country could have closed, forcing many women to travel longer distances at prohibitive expense to receive reproductive health care.

That would violate the constitutional right to have access to an abortion without “undue burden,” the standard the Supreme Court has followed since the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey. A Federal District Court in Louisiana struck down the state’s law because it posed such an undue burden, just as the Texas law had. But the conservative federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed that decision, ruling that the lower court had gotten the facts wrong — that it was not clear that the new law would actually burden women’s ability to get an abortion.

Monday’s decision reversed the Fifth Circuit ruling, holding that the district court had gotten it right the first time. The Louisiana law, Justice Breyer wrote, was “almost word-for-word identical” to Texas’ unconstitutional law and imposed identical if not greater burdens on women, and therefore was invalid.

Chief Justice Roberts’s decision to concur with the four liberal justices may enrage cultural conservatives who thought that with the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, ending the right to an abortion was just a matter of time.

But the chief justice rarely takes the direct route, preferring incremental rulings that slowly chip away at the court’s longstanding precedents. So no one should be fooled this time around: The current court is as hostile to reproductive freedom as it ever was. And Chief Justice Roberts left himself plenty of room to vote differently in any of the many cases now speeding toward the court, involving challenges to other state laws that make it difficult if not impossible for most women to obtain an abortion.

Some of those challenges — like those to laws in Texas and Arkansas that ban a common second-trimester abortion procedure called dilation and evacuation — could give the chief justice an opening to make what he might consider a more reasonable argument for further undermining abortion rights.

No doubt anti-abortion forces behind these cases will continue to push hard; they have a knack for rejiggering their strategy after each big case, and they’ve been especially aggressive in their efforts recently.

Another factor that’s nearly certainly at play here is that the lawyer who argued for Louisiana during oral arguments in March, State Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill, is widely believed to have bungled the job, answering questions so ineptly that she gave the chief justice little to work with, even if he had been inclined to side with the court’s other conservatives.

It’s concerning that this case made it to the high court at all, given its similarity to the Texas case. It’s even more concerning that the rights of millions of women hinged in part on someone having a bad day in court. But such is the state of reproductive rights in 2020: Members of the pro-choice side count their blessings over the narrowest of victories, while anti-choice crusaders continue to think big, strategic and long-term.

Online: https://www.nytimes.com/

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June 28

The Washington Post on the Trump Administration asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Affordable Care Act:

The Trump Justice Department asked the Supreme Court on June 25 to kill Obamacare. This has long been a foolish, foolhardy obsession for President Trump. Even in the middle of a widening pandemic, he seeks to eliminate health-care coverage for some 23 million Americans.

In so doing, the president betrays his responsibility to defend in court a statute that Congress passed, resorting to bizarre legal arguments that liberal and conservative legal experts have denounced. The reasoning is so far-fetched that the Justice Department initially shuddered to embrace it. Even Attorney General William P. Barr tried last month to soften the Justice Department’s stance. Government lawyers had argued that only parts of the Affordable Care Act had to go. Now they insist that if part of the law is flawed, the courts must dismantle the whole structure.

Mr. Trump claims that he would maintain protections for people with preexisting conditions and other popular elements of Obamacare. But he has no plan to do so. His position is for health-care chaos.

Anticipating the Trump administration’s court filing, House Democrats offered a different vision. Discrediting Mr. Trump’s attempts to paint them as unhinged socialists, the Democrats eschewed a revolutionary health-care agenda. Instead, they offered the Affordable Care Enhancement Act, a package of changes that would dramatically improve the existing system.

The Democrats would not touch the employer-sponsored health insurance that most non-elderly Americans depend on. Instead, they would bolster the system meant to help those without access to employer-based coverage. The centerpiece is an increase in federal subsidies that would enable low-income Americans to pay little or nothing in health insurance premiums and protect middle-income Americans from the high premiums and cost-sharing that have made it difficult for some to participate in Obamacare, particularly in rural areas. The plan would pump money into state-based “reinsurance” programs that have already proved to restrain premium costs in the states that have tried them. It would also undo some of the damage Republicans have inflicted, pressing more states to expand Medicaid and rolling back the Trump administration’s efforts to allow junk insurance plans. The result would be millions more covered Americans.

The Democrats would fund the bill by lowering prescription drug spending, a policy that requires further debate. But the overall package is solid. Unlike Republicans — who never had a plausible replacement for Obamacare, despite years of braying about its defects — Democrats are showing that they have a detailed plan to fill in the system’s gaps, in specific legislative text, that they could take off the shelf should they have the opportunity to govern. Their plan also refutes those in their party who argue that nothing but radical reform can bring progress.

Mr. Trump and Republicans, not Democrats, are the health-care radicals.

Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/

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June 26

The Star Tribune on President Donald Trump's executive order that temporarily suspends work visas:

We can’t tell you for certain whose interests are served by President Donald Trump’s latest executive order on immigration, which took effect June 24 and suspends many new work visas through the end of the year. But we can easily tell you whose aren’t — those of American businesses and industry, and thus, of Americans who benefit from those companies’ innovation and success:

• “Putting up a ‘not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses and other workers won’t help our country, it will hold us back.” (That’s from U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas Donohue.)

• “We oppose this, especially H1B visas. Those are engineering and science. The U.S. just doesn’t produce enough of those people to fill those jobs.” (From Shaye Mandle, CEO of Medical Alley, a trade group in Minnesota.)

• “In my experience, these skill sets are net job creators. Visa reform makes sense, but this is too broad.” (From Tesla CEO Elon Musk.)

Sort of sounds like they didn’t want it.

So why do it? If we take the Trump administration at its word, the president has just signed a “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the U.S. Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak.” That would seem comforting if the action were likely to produce the desired effect. But it’s not.

The order blocks visas for a variety of jobs — some skilled, some seasonal. It limits the ability of companies that operate in a global arena to arrange stints in the U.S. for nonresidents they already employ.

By one estimate — from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute — it would keep 219,000 temporary workers out. According to the Trump administration, it will free up 525,000 jobs. One or the other must have the calculus wrong.

In any case, business leaders (as expressed by Mandle, above) don’t think they’ll be able to find workers with suitable skills if they can’t draw them from overseas. It isn’t as if Americans will fill the jobs instead.

So why do it?

One possible explanation can be extrapolated from a recent comment by former national security adviser John Bolton. In an ABC News interview about his now-available book “The Room Where It Happened,” Bolton said he didn’t see any decisions during his time working for Trump for which re-election wasn’t the major factor.

But that may minimize Trump’s underlying commitment to turning U.S. policy against immigrants. After all, his like-minded adviser, Stephen Miller, reportedly told supporters during a private call in April that coronavirus-related curbs on immigration were actually part of a long-term vision.

A separate example is Trump’s expansion of the number of asylum-­seekers subject to quick deportation — within weeks, with minimal investigation of their claims. On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such people, as newly arriving noncitizens, do not have the right to contest their cases in federal court.

Online: https://www.startribune.com/

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June 25

The Toronto Star on Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ruling out a prisoner exchange with China:

We should all wish that, if we found ourselves in serious trouble abroad, our families would fight for us as fiercely as Michael Kovrig’s family is fighting for him.

They put on a full-court press, pleading with the Trudeau government to do all it can to free him, and his fellow Canadian Michael Spavor, from the Chinese prisons where they are being held on trumped-up spy charges.

Kovrig’s family also rolled out a legal opinion, backed by no less an eminence than former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, to the effect that the justice minister has full power to settle the issue by ending extradition proceedings against the Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou.

Nineteen former politicians and diplomats, largely from the Mulroney and Chrétien eras, added their weight to the argument that the only way out is a straight-up swap: we send Meng back to China in return for the freedom of the “two Michaels.”

This has been adopted in certain circles as a “realistic” solution to the impasse between Ottawa and Beijing — regrettable but necessary in a world where “rule of law” is just a slogan to be discarded when inconvenient.

It seems most popular among those who appear to be more offended by the fact that Canada is upholding the terms of its extradition treaty with the United States by detaining Meng in Vancouver, than they are by the atrocious treatment that China is meting out to Kovrig and Spavor. If we must bow the knee to one or another great power, they seem to suggest, better kowtow to Xi Jinping than to Donald Trump.

To his credit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is holding firm and rejecting this logic. On June 25, he said he “deeply disagrees” with the idea that Canada should trade Meng for the two Michaels.

No one really disagrees with the legal argument put forward through the Kovrig family and endorsed by Arbour and former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock. It’s plain that the federal Extradition Act gives the justice minister the power to end an extradition proceeding “at any time.”

The real argument is political: regardless of whether Ottawa has the legal power to send Meng home, should it do so given China’s behaviour over the past year and a half? Would it really be in Canada’s national interest to bend to naked bullying and give Beijing what it wants? And to that, the answer must surely be no.

What would Canada gain by a swap? Certainly, it would be a happy day for the two Michaels and their families, and give them full marks for pushing for such a resolution.

But that would come at the cost of showing that China can indeed get what it wants by seizing Canadians pretty much at random, jailing them in appalling conditions, and charging them with bogus crimes. China itself practically admits as much: after denying for months that their cases were linked with Meng’s, an official spokesman this week went further than ever in saying they could be freed in return for letting her return home.

If anything, that makes it harder for Canada to agree. The closer the cases are linked, the more obvious it would be that a deal would amount to a simple prisoner exchange. No principles; just cynical trading. Not only China would learn that Canada can be shoved around, its citizens seized as pawns to be traded for advantage. The rest of the world would conclude the same.

It’s not surprising that so many old guard Liberals are pressing for Ottawa to patch things up with Beijing. Some are focused on business opportunities for Canadian firms. Others got to know China at a time when it seemed possible the country would develop its own rule-of-law culture as it opened up to the world.

But China under Xi Jinping has taken a different path — one of unabashed power politics, where the interests of the ruling party dictate all. In these circumstances, Canada should stick to its principles. That will serve us better in the long run than hanging out the white flag.

Online: https://www.thestar.com/