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A state of emergency …


The only conceivable path Donald Trump has to re-election next year is to continue to fire up faithful fans by invoking his dystopian view of a nation threatened by an immigrant horde determined to storm the southern border and wreck havoc on America. It is the one constant theme of his presidency and the overriding theme of his State of the Union speech this week, a speech laced with words like bloodthirsty, sadistic, venomous and chilling.

Trump has perfected the politics of resentment, fear and scapegoating that Republicans have been shoveling ever more aggressively toward their “base” since Barry Goldwater invoked “extremism in defense of liberty” more than fifty years ago.

That the image of the “lawless state of our southern border” is at odds with the facts hardly seemed to bother cheering Republicans in the House chamber Tuesday night. Republicans have largely embraced Trump’s resentment theory of politics, which is exemplified by his demonization of refugees and immigrants, while they have simultaneously tied the party’s future to Trump’s frayed coattails.

The overheated rhetoric about border threats, of course, also clashes with Trump’s claims about the strength of the American economy and his calls for unity, the issue that members of Idaho’s congressional delegation chose to emphasize in their reaction.

By general consensus of fact checkers the biggest whooper in Trump’s speech was his claim that a border wall built during the George W. Bush administration had reduced violent crime in El Paso, Texas. But, the actual statistics show that violent crime in El Paso – one of the safest larger cities in America – had actually plummeted before the barrier was constructed. Such twisting of reality helps explain why those who represent the border, Texas Republican Will Hurd for example, reject Trump’s wall as a waste of money, an ineffective simplistic symbolic fix for a complex problem.

While Trump did attempt the rhetoric of bipartisanship in the face of another looming government shutdown over funding the wall he offered no path out of the political dead end he himself has created. He avoided mention of the declaration of a national emergency, a tactic likely illegal and surely to be immediately challenged, but he left that explosive option on the table.

That Republicans actually tolerate talk of a declaration of national emergency over Trump’s failure to secure a policy objective that he could not accomplished when his party controlled Congress is Exhibit A in how completely the GOP has abandoned common sense, old fashioned conservatism and the Constitution. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham recently actually said Trump “must” invoke emergency powers to construct a border wall “if the White House and Congress fail to reach a deal.”

Idaho Senator Jim Risch also seems resigned to a Trump strategy that will include a national emergency. Risch predicted recently to KBOI radio’s Nate Shelman that the president’s Constitutional overreach was likely to happen, and apparently that is just fine with him.

“I think that the President has figured out that (House Speaker) Nancy (Pelosi) is not going to give the President a dime for the wall,” Risch said. “They hate this president so badly, that they won’t do anything for him, or give him anything that makes it look like a victory, so they are not going to vote for it. They’re happy with the shutdown.”

That is typical of Risch’s constant partisan gaslighting – the super partisan blaming others for partisanship – as well as his acquiescence to all things Trump and it begs the question conservative columnist George Will asked recently about Graham and could have asked about Risch.

“Why do they come to Congress, these people such as Graham,” Will wrote recently. “These people who, affirmatively or by their complicity of silence, trifle with our constitutional architecture, and exhort the president to eclipse the legislative branch, to which they have no loyalty comparable to their party allegiance?”

Once again history provides some perspective if we’re willing to understand what is at stake. In the early 1970s, in a true bipartisan effort, Senators Frank Church of Idaho, a Democrat, and Charles Mathias of Maryland, a Republican, worked for months to craft legislation – the National Emergencies Act – ensuring that Congress and not a president will define and supervise a true national emergency. The two senators co-chaired a Special Committee on the Termination of National Emergencies, determined to unwind generations of presidential emergency declarations dating back to the Great Depression. In their view such open-ended exercise of one-person power created vast opportunities for Constitutional overreach by the kind of president the nation now suffers. Their subsequent legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House and unanimously in the Senate.

Church and Mathias, apropos of the current moment, were, as constitutional scholar Gerald S. Dickinson wrote recently, “acutely aware of and sought to prohibit a future president from taking advantage of the emergency powers for partisan and policy purposes.”

In testimony before a Senate committee in 1976, Church said the president “should not be allowed to invoke emergency authorities or in any way utilize the provision of [the National Emergencies Act] for frivolous or partisan matters, nor for that matter in cases where important but not ‘essential’ problems are at stake.” He might have been talking about “the wall.”

Church, as his biographers note, believed containing a president’s ability to invoke a national emergency was one of the Idahoan’s proudest moments, an affirmation that Congress, armed with the Constitution, can and should stand against the overreach of a would be autocrat.

We shall see where all this is headed, but make no mistake Congress can halt the national emergency nonsense and doing so would be a profoundly “conservative,” not to mention Constitutional thing to do.

As for Risch and others like him in Congress don’t expect them to protect congressional prerogatives or stand up to a demagogue. When he recently became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a position Church once held, he proudly proclaimed that he would be no Frank Church. On that much, at least, his is absolutely correct.

The old con isn’t selling


When Oregon Republican Congressman Greg Walden went to Bend recently for his first town hall meeting there in two years, he came armed with what he must have thought were two sure fire applause lines.

Walden, a widely respected Republican and until Democrats recaptured the House of Representatives last November the chairman of Energy and Commerce Committee, is a lot like Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson. They were among a tiny handful of Republican House members who split with their party and the president on the issue of the recent government shutdown. When Walden reminded 400 of his constituents gathered in a central Oregon high school auditorium that he had voted with Democrats to reopen the government he got a healthy round of applause.

But when Walden tried to pivot to a key GOP talking point, it didn’t go so well.

“So, tax cuts,” Walden said, ”it is no secret I’ve supported them. And I think they’ve had a strong effect on the economy.”

Here the crowd took over, interrupting the congressman, as Oregon Public Broadcasting recorded, with “a chorus of boos and heckles.”

Walden, in Congress since 1998, was left to say: “OK, let’s try and be respectful.”

The old, sure fire GOP applause line of “every tax cut is good for you” may finally have reached its sell-by date. It just doesn’t seem to be working for Republicans in part because they have handed huge windfalls — again — to the super wealthy and big corporations, windfalls that have directly contributed to skyrocketing deficits and deepened worry about the strength of the economy.

The prediction by virtually every Republican elected official that the $1.5 trillion tax cut would spur investment, job growth and wages has turned out to be just a political talking point rather than some kind of economic miracle. “There hasn’t been a huge surge in response to tax reform,” said Eric Zwick, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. What did boom were corporate stock buy backs.

Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, told CNN Business, that he saw “no evidence at all” that the tax cuts have lifted business spending above what would have happened anyway.

A survey of American businesses published this week by the National Association for Business Economics found 84 percent of businesses surveyed indicated that the big tax cuts had “not caused their firms to change hiring or investment plans.”

Meanwhile, the deficit grows and, no, the tax cuts don’t pay for themselves. The Congressional Budget Office estimates a $900 billion deficit this year, growing soon to $1 trillion and reaching that number faster than CBO had been predicting.

Financial writer Jim Tankersley put an exclamation point on the trend recently when he noted, “If growth fades in the coming years — as many economists believe it will — the cuts could exacerbate the deficit even more.”

It is a complicated and at times very cynical story about how cutting taxes, particularly for the most wealthy, became a bedrock principle of Republican politics. Republicans have beaten Democrats over the head with “tax and spend” labels at least since the 1970s, but it wasn’t always so. President Dwight Eisenhower actually believed in rather than just talked about balancing budgets and he insisted that the government had to have the revenue to keep the public books in the black.

More recently, rank-and-file Republicans — the Idaho congressional delegation comes to mind — have mastered the political jujitsu of advocating huge tax cuts for those at the top of the economy while preaching the need for balancing the budget. Now that the GOP has a president who seems to care less about fiscal responsibility and has lost control of one house of Congress, Republicans are against talking about balanced budget amendments.

Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Charles Grassley of Iowa, both of whom voted for the tax cuts, actually had the chutzpah to introduce balanced budget legislation recently.

Lee said, presumably with a straight face, “As our federal debt continues to rise at an alarming rate, the least we can do is require the federal government to not spend more money than it has at its disposal.”

One reason the old tax cut then deficit handwringing game has worked so well for Republicans is that the tax code is complicated, indeed downright eye-glazing to many. It’s even difficult for many certified public accountants to navigate the exemptions and loopholes. But the simple language of cutting taxes is easily understood, except perhaps when the fuzzy logic and dodgy math finally loses its political power.

Before last November’s midterm election, Republicans knew from their own polling that they had lost the messaging battle over their tax cut. Bloomberg News obtained internal GOP survey results that confirmed — by a 2-to-1 margin, 61 percent to 30 percent — that voters saw through the hype and knew that “large corporations and rich Americans” benefited over “middle class families.”

That explains why Walden got hooted down at his town hall recently and why you no longer hear Mike Crapo, Jim Risch or Simpson say much about the “signature” accomplishment of the first two years of the Trump administration.

More and more, the tax debate in American politics is going to be shaped by fundamental issues that voters do seem to understand. Economic policy, including repeated tax cutting for the very wealthy, has for the last generation contributed to a hollowing out of the middle class, a flat-lining of income growth, creating vast and growing disparity in wealth and stifling opportunity.

In another recent survey a sizeable majority of Americans now say that “unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy” is a bigger problem than “over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity.” Among young Americans that belief is even more surely held.

Ironically, by embracing a candidate who refused to release his own tax returns and gleefully oversold his tax cut, Republicans may have finally lost the political advantage they’ve held on tax issues since the Reagan years.

It was quite a con while it lasted.

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.

In boardrooms, too


One-hundred-and-two years ago this month, an extraordinary 37-year-old crusader from Missoula, Mont., became the first woman to sit in the United States Congress. Jeannette Rankin would likely take some satisfaction in knowing that more than a century later, 131 women now grace the halls of Congress. But she would probably also be saying such progress took too long and genuine equality for women is still a goal, not a reality.

Unquestionably, the environment for women in politics and government has improved, even vastly improved since Rankin’s day.

Idaho, for example, recently elected its first woman lieutenant governor and women were nominated for a number of offices contested in the 2018 election. Still, women occupy only 23 of the 105 seats in the Legislature, Idaho hasn’t elected a woman to Congress in a quarter-century and just one woman sits on the Idaho Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is a good case study of how barriers still remain for women. Justice Robyn Brody campaigned her way on to the court in 2016, while former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, with numerous opportunities to appoint a woman, inexplicably never did during 12 years in office. Otter recently passed over three eminently qualified women to appoint the only male offered up by the Idaho Judicial Council. A woman hasn’t been appointed to the Supreme Court since 1993.

Female representation in Idaho business is generally about as impressive as Otter’s record of appointing women to the high court.

The eight most prominently traded public companies in Idaho currently have 74 board members and only 10 of them are women. Micron, an international company with a big presence in Boise, in Asia and in Europe, has two women on its board, as does food producer Lamb Weston.

Boise Cascade, Hecla Mining and US Ecology each have a single woman board member, while U.S. Geothermal and Pet IQ have none. A company often properly characterized as conservative to a fault, Idaho Power Co., actually has three women among its 10 board members.

There is abundant research — the global nonprofit Catalyst collects much of it — that clearly shows diversifying a corporate boardroom, and particularly advancing women to key governance positions, leads to improved financial performance, helps promote innovation and even reduces controversies related to how a company is managed.

California recently mandated that every publicly traded company in the state have at least one woman on its board by the end of the year and as many as three by 2021. Some experts have suggested that mandates or quotas will inevitably lead to legal challenges and then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the legislation even while expressing concern about how it will work in practice.

Still, Iceland, Norway and France have shaken up corporate governance by instituting quotas that require certain levels of female representation in the boardroom. In 2017, women occupied more than 40 percent of the board seats in the largest public companies in all three countries, a major improvement from 10 years earlier.

Idaho being Idaho, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Legislature to mandate female representation on the boards of companies located or operating in the state, and such a mandate may not be the most effective way to create these opportunities for women.

New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin suggests, “Investors, big and small, can use their influence to press corporate boards to diversify. Firms like BlackRock and pension funds like CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, are already working to effect change.”

The Public Employee Retirement Fund of Idaho, or PERSI, currently has $17 billion under management on behalf of tens of thousands of beneficiaries. That’s $17 billion worth of leverage if the PERSI board wants to exercise that leverage. The board, by the way, currently has a vacancy and Gov. Brad Little should appoint a woman to join the two already on the board, creating a female majority.

As Sorkin notes, the huge California public retirement system told more than 500 companies in 2017 that they needed to improve diversity, and the California fund has “voted against directors at companies that have failed to respond to its requests.” It’s worth noting that more than half of the members of the CalPERS’ board are female.

Ultimately, however, and for the near term at least, it is corporate CEOs and corporate board members — mostly older white males — who must change the dynamic that keeps women out of too many boardrooms and prevents too much talent from contributing. If business leaders make more opportunities for women a genuine priority, it will happen and at a much faster rate.

When Rankin ran for Congress in Montana in 1916, the huge Anaconda Copper Mining Co., one of the industrial giants of its day, dominated the state’s economy. She was no fan of “the Company,” regularly lamenting its influence over Montana politicians and its disdain for its workers and their unions. The big boss of Anaconda was a tough Irish businessman named Cornelius “Con” Kelley, a titan of American industry. When Kelley died in 1957 it took two long paragraphs in his New York Times obituary to list his dozens of corporate directorships. It is a safe bet he never shared the boardroom with a woman.

Rankin, after two terms in Congress separated by more than 20 years, never served on a corporate board. And as a proud Republican progressive of the old school, she would likely have been appalled by the thought of lending such support to a corporate cause.

Rankin lived out her life as a pacifist, an advocate for women, education and peace, even leading a protest against the Vietnam War at age 88. Change comes slowly — too slowly much of the time. Montana hasn’t elected another woman to Congress since Rankin was last on the ballot in 1940.

We should do better.

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.

All quiet on the Risch front


Idaho Sen. Jim Risch became chairman of the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee last week and as nearly his first act he bashed the two Idahoans who held that position in the past, William Borah and Frank Church.

In an interview with Idaho Press reporter Betsy Russell, Risch also said his “repertoire does not include sparring publicly with the president of the United States. For many, many different reasons, I think that’s counterproductive, and you won’t see me doing it.”

In one interview, the new chairman offered a remarkable display of historical ignorance, senatorial obsequiousness, hubris and blind partisanship. Call it “the Risch Doctrine.”

Let’s take them one by one.

“William Borah was around at the time when it was very fashionable, and indeed you could get away with non-involvement in a great matter of international affairs,” Risch told Russell.

The senator is correct that Borah, who represented Idaho in the Senate for 33 years, was, to say the least, skeptical about an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. More correctly, Borah was a non-interventionist, an anti-imperialist and a politician who believed passionately that the Senate must exercise a significant role in developing the country’s foreign policy. He would have been the last to say he would avoid “sparring publicly” with a president. He did so repeatedly, including with presidents of his own Republican Party.

Borah’s determined opposition to the peace treaty after World War I was based in large part on Woodrow Wilson’s arrogance in insisting that the Senate rubber stamp his handy work, accepting his terms or no terms.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Risch says he has his disagreements with President Donald Trump, but you’d be hard to pressed to find even one, while his record is ripe with acquiescence to an administration whose foreign policy from Syria to North Korea and from NATO to Saudi Arabia feels more unhinged, more chaotic by the day.

While Borah elevated the Foreign Relations Committee to something approaching equal standing with Republican presidents such as Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, Risch is first and last a partisan, even to the point of going down the line with Trump, while many other Senate Republicans broke with him this week over sanctioning a Russian oligarch. With a Democrat in the White House, Risch was never reluctant to bash a foreign policy decision. His “sparring” was always in plain sight. Now, it’s all quiet on the Risch front.

Risch also could not refrain from repeating an old smear against Sen. Frank Church, effectively accusing Church of weakening the nation’s intelligence agencies.

“In my judgment,” Risch said, Church “did some things regarding our intelligence-gathering abilities and operations that would not serve us very well today. We need a robust intelligence operation.”

We have a robust intelligence operation, one that has frequently made serious mistakes that require constant vigilance from U.S. senators.

Risch should know this. He’s on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but he has repeatedly excused Trump’s own disregard, indeed contempt, for intelligence agencies, including dismissal of an FBI director who was just a bit too independent for Trump’s taste. You have to wonder if the new chairman has read even a summary of Church’s still very relevant work.

What Church’s landmark investigation really did in the 1970s was to explain to the American people, as UC-Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted told me this week, “what the CIA and FBI and other agencies had been doing in their name during the height of the Cold War.” As professor Olmsted, a scholar of American intelligence and its oversight noted, Church’s investigation “revealed many abuses and some crimes that had been committed, for example, by the CIA.”

One of those crimes was spying on American citizens. The National Security Agency actually conducted mail and phone surveillance on Church and Republican Sen. Howard Baker.

“Thanks to the Church Committee,” Olmsted wrote, “we now know that the CIA engaged mafia dons to stab, poison, shoot and blow up Fidel Castro; that it tried to poison Patrice Lumumba’s toothpaste and that it hired goons to kidnap the general in Chile who was trying to uphold his country’s constitutional democracy and thus stood in the way of a U.S.-backed coup. (He was killed in the course of the kidnapping.) The committee also revealed the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program, including the harassment of Martin Luther King Jr.”

Church didn’t weaken the intelligence community — he held it accountable. His work created the modern framework for congressional oversight, that is if Congress would use the power of oversight, and Church’s investigation led to the protections of the so-called FISA court that requires a judge to sign off on surveillance of a kind that the intelligence agencies once initiated on their own.

“This is a great time to be a Republican,” Risch told a partisan crowd at a Lincoln Day dinner in Shoshone last week. “You will not hear about this in the national media, but we have done a great job running this country.” Quite a line to utter while a quarter of the federal government remains shut down and while the president is operating with an “acting” chief of staff, Interior secretary, Office of Management and Budget director, attorney general, Defense secretary and has yet to even nominate ambassadors to a couple dozen countries.

Jim Risch, the committed partisan, has always been the kind of politician focused on his next election. He’s up in 2020 in what should be one of the safest seats in the country and he’s put all his chips on Trump.

But what if things are different in a few months or in a year? What if Robert Mueller’s investigation unspools a web of corruption that makes President Richard Nixon and Watergate look like a third-rate burglary? What if Risch has bet on the wrong guy?

He’s standing on the rolling deck of the USS Trump right now, raising nary a question about a president implicated in scandal from porno payoffs to Russian collusion. The super-partisan will never change, but his hubris may yet — and again — get the best of him.

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.

The Otter legacy


The presidential historian Robert Dallek has frequently said that it typically takes 50 years after a president leaves office to fully reckon with their legacy. It takes that long for the documents to become available, for the memoirs to be written and for the consequences of actions to become clear.

This is typically good news for most presidents. Historians are engaging, for example, in a broad reassessment of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency and Ike is looking better all the time. David McCullough’s masterful biography of Harry Truman rescued “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” from the ranks of the mediocre to something closer to near great. Recent new books about Richard Nixon and Franklin Roosevelt, while essentially affirming what has long been known about their presidencies, offer fresh insights. Roosevelt really was the transformative president of the 20th Century and Nixon really was a crook.

So, as one of Idaho’s longest serving governors prepares to saddle up and ride back to his ranch, is it fair to immediately assess Butch Otter’s legacy? The simple answer is probably not, but the human answer is sure, why not, everyone will.

Almost precisely two years ago in an editorial headlined “Otter Needs A Lasting Legacy” the Idaho State Journal newspaper grappled with the Otter legacy question by asking
“aside from being a crafty politician, what has Otter accomplished for Idaho?”

In a way that is still a valid question. And given Otter’s remarkably long political career it’s amazing that the answer is still elusive. It’s difficult to remember when Otter wasn’t a fixture in Idaho politics. First elected to the state legislature in 1972 at age 30, Otter has spent all but ten of the last 42 years in one or another state office. He is the longest serving Lieutenant Governor in Idaho history and he ends his run tied with Bob Smylie as the second longest serving governor.

Smylie is remembered as the father of the state parks system, the guy who defied much of his party to bring Idaho’s tax structure into the modern era. Other long serving governors, Democrats John Evans and Cecil Andrus for instance, left lasting marks on the state. Evans, like Andrus and Phil Batt later, pushed back against environmental abuses by the Department of Energy (DOE). It is an enduring part of Evans’ legacy that he forced an end to the DOE practice of injecting water containing low-level amounts of nuclear waste into the Snake River Aquifer. And Evans worked with Republican Attorney General Jim Jones to resolve a massive water rights dispute that in the hands of lesser talents might have crippled Idaho agriculture and energy for decades.

Andrus created kindergartens, pushed the Sunshine Initiative, signed the legislation creating Boise State University, helped engineer wilderness protection in the Sawtooths and River of No Return and had his own high profile and vitally important battles with DOE. Batt, a one-term governor, should be remembered for finishing much of Andrus’s fight with DOE and the scrappy little onion farmer became a champion of farm worker rights. After a dozen years it is difficult to point to even one singular accomplishment during Otter’s tenure. His governorship remains a career in search of a legacy.

In valedictory exit interviews Otter has touted his approach to managing the state’s fiscal affairs during and after the Great Recession as a part of his legacy and that may indeed be fair. Any governor would have struggled with the slumping economy and declining revenue that Otter had to confront two years into his first term. Yet part of that legacy must also be the hits suffered by education budgets that even with recent increases leave Idaho at the bottom of most national education rankings. Balancing the state budget is after all a Constitutional requirement, while improving funding and outcomes in the state’s educational system requires a level of leadership and innovation that Otter never quite seemed to master.

Otter can also point to the fact that Idaho remains among the fastest growing states with an unemployment rate well below 3 percent, yet economic growth has largely been powered by explosive – and some might say unsustainable – growth in the Boise Valley.

Historians are likely going to remember the governor’s frequent struggles to get on the same page with his overwhelmingly Republican legislature and the scandals large and small that seemed to dog his administration. But also credit Otter’s willingness to engage with almost anyone, his sense of humor and his genuine nice guy personality. He stands out as one of the best retail politicians in modern Idaho history. He never met a stranger, can quote Shakespeare from memory and clearly grew into the job, while moderating his once flaming libertarianism to the realities of governing.

I remember Otter, while lieutenant governor slipping quietly through the back door into Cece Andrus’s office for their frequent confidential chats, interactions that both men – poles apart politically – came to enjoy and value. Politics and policy aside he’s a decent fellow, an immensely likeable guy.

Ironically, it may well be an Otter vote in October 2001, while a member of Congress that will ultimately define his legacy. With the nation still reeling from the terror attacks of September 11, Otter voted against a Republican president and the Congressional leadership of his party when he opposed the Patriot Act, which he saw as a vast overreach that gave the government unprecedented access to American’s personal information. It was a principled, difficult vote that Otter acknowledged years later might be “the incident that a lot of people used to define me.” It was the also the kind of courage and conviction in the face of great pressure that one wishes more politicians, Otter included, more often embraced.

How Butch Otter is ultimately remembered will have a lot to do with what happened or didn’t happen on his long watch. Sorting that out will take more time. The success or lack thereof of his long-groomed successor Brad Little will also help frame his legacy.

Today, as he rides off after one last rodeo, I’ll wish him happy trails and generous historians in his future.

Into the swamp


When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke slinks away next week from the big building on C Street in Washington, D.C., he will have, in the space of less than two years, placed himself in the history books along side Albert Bacon Fall.

For a guy who once claimed to be a "Teddy Roosevelt Republican," committed to conservation and protection of public lands, to leave office under an ominous ethical cloud and compared to Warren Harding's Interior secretary who went to jail over the Teapot Dome scandal is a stunning come down. Once a rising Republican star, the former Montana congressman, now seems certain to be dogged by a host of investigations and forever tainted by association with the administration of Donald J. Trump.

When Zinke was named to the Interior post - Washington's Cathy McMorris Rogers and Idaho's Raul Labrador were contenders, but passed over - he was widely praised even by conservation groups. Zinke had crafted a bipartisan image in Congress, "the only Republican to support a Democratic amendment to permanently authorize the so-called Land and Water Conservation Fund," as Politico noted. But proving the truism that absolutely everyone who works for Trump is tainted by the proximity, Zinke will be remembered, perhaps even beyond his grifting ethics, for rolling back national monument designations and generally trashing the conservation legacy of previous Republican and Democratic administrations.

The two Idahoans who have served as Secretary of the Interior - Democrat Cecil Andrus in the 1970s and Republican Dirk Kempthorne for the last three years of the George W. Bush administration - were polar opposites in political ideology, but each understood that serving as the chief steward of all the people's land carries a solemn obligation. While Kempthorne will likely be best remembered for the six-figure remodel of the secretary's office bathroom, he did bring a spirit of collaboration to the job. Andrus' legacy as one of the nation's great Interior secretaries is secure, in part, because he engineered the largest conservation initiative in history by protecting vast swaths of the last frontier - Alaska.

Zinke, despite the conservation rhetoric that temporarily assuaged some skeptics, attempted to transform the Interior Department into an extension of the oil, gas, mining and grazing industries. Zinke did his best to make true the old joke that the Bureau of Land Management, the BLM, is actually the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. This, of course, was Trump's aim in the first place.

The president, who one assumes has never spent a night under the stars, never fished a Western trout stream or devoted a second to thinking about conserving America's most special places for future generations, turned stewardship of the environment over to fraudsters. Ethical shenanigans forced Scott Pruitt out of the Environmental Protection Agency - remember the $50 a night condo he rented from the wife of an energy industry lobbyist and his $3 million a year security detail? And Zinke now leaves subject to a potential criminal investigation involving the chairman of the oil services company Halliburton and some land Zinke owns and wants to develop in western Montana.

Trump appears poised to name as Zinke's replacement an oil and gas lobbyist, the current No. 2 at the department, who literally has to carry a card with him delineating all his potential conflicts of interest. Into this swamp Labrador and soon-to-be-ex-Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter have stuck a toe. Each has been mentioned as a potential secretary of the Interior. Labrador needs a job and seems to be campaigning for the position. He tweeted fulsome praise toward Trump last week for - wait for it - signing an executive order, something Trump does over and over again in lieu of having a real agenda. Otter doesn't need a job and should trust his gut and hang out at his ranch.

Vast acreage of the federal government during the Trump administration has become an ethics-free zone. A former Trump national security adviser may yet go to jail, three cabinet secretaries have resigned amid swirling scandals and the president himself is buffeted by a dogged special counsel, involvement in a campaign finance scandal that paid off a porn star, a corrupt family foundation and lord knows what else.

Remember draining the swamp? Zinke's imminent departure reminds us that promise was as phony as Mexico paying for a wall.

The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, a decorated Marine Corps combat veteran, who leaves after issuing a withering indictment of the president's abandonment of allies and leadership on the international stage, should also give any Interior aspirant ample reason for pause.

If Trump comes calling on Labrador or Otter, they should remember the words of the conservative scholar Eliot Cohen, a State Department counselor to Condoleezza Rice during the second Bush administration.

Writing last week after Mattis' resignation over a matter of principle, Cohen said in The Atlantic: "Henceforth, the senior ranks of government can be filled only by invertebrates and opportunists, schemers and careerists. If they had policy convictions, they will meekly accept their evisceration. If they know a choice is a disaster, they will swallow hard and go along. They may try to manipulate the president, or make some feeble efforts to subvert him, but in the end they will follow him. And although patriotism may motivate some of them, the truth is that it will be the title, the office, the car and the chance to be in the policy game that will keep them there."

But, it's not worth it. Anyone who gets close to this chaotic mess will get stained, or even destroyed. The evidence is in plain sight. The swamp devours the swamp's own creatures.

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.

Idaho needs a governor’s house


Idaho officials need to get serious about an official residence for the governor - or, failing that, they need to end the increasingly dubious practice of padding the governor's salary in the disguise of a "housing allowance."

Goodness knows the state is frugal about most things - look at the parsimonious spending on public schools, higher education and highways - but the Governor's Housing Committee (there really is such a thing) seems to display little compunction about spending thousands of dollars a year on a housing allowance for the chief executive.

The Housing Committee - four legislators and the director of the Department of Administration - voted earlier this month to increase the housing allowance new Gov. Brad Little will receive next year. The new amount is $4,551 per month or $54,612 per year, a figure that is more than the average Idaho salary. And for what?

To their credit, the two Democratic legislators on the committee voiced concern about the practice of what amounts to paying the governor to live in his own home and ultimately voted against the increase. Idaho hasn't had a governor's residence since the state sold the old official residence in Boise's north end in 1989 after then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus said he preferred to live in his own Boise home. At this point, the state started providing a housing allowance.

The old house, built in 1914 by architect Walter Pierce - incidentally the chairman of the committee that oversaw construction of the Idaho Capitol Building - had seen better days by the 1980s. Warped doors didn't work well and one first lady complained that plugging two appliances into the same kitchen outlet was a sure way to blow a fuse.

Andrus occasionally used the place for a quiet meeting away from the Capitol. I remember one time when he and then-Sen.Jim McClure convened in the dining room, and away from prying eyes in the Statehouse, to work on a plan for an Idaho wilderness bill.

The original Idaho residence - it would be an overstatement to call it a "mansion" - was purchased by the Republican-led Legislature when Benewah County physician C.A. "Doc" Robins was elected governor. Robins was not a wealthy guy, unlike recent Idaho governors, and needed a place to live. The Legislature obliged.

Now Idaho is one of only six states without an official residence. It should. I've had the good fortune to visit several official residences in other states where the governor's house is often a historic building that reflects the culture of the state.

The Utah residence, for example, is a marvelous old house, beautifully restored to its 1902 style and located in a historic Salt Lake City neighborhood.

The Michigan governor has the use of two houses, including a summer place in a marvelous setting on Mackinac Island where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.

A better approach for Idaho, despite what the naysayers have long held, would be to actually provide an official residence for the governor and devote the cash that currently goes to padding the chief executive's salary to maintaining a facility that would soon enough become an iconic part of the capital city.

Dirk Kempthorne tried to accomplish that goal with what turned out to be an ill-considered notion to have the state accept J.R. Simplot's donation of his monstrosity on the hill in Boise and convert it to an official residence. The house, with all the charm of a Soviet-era apartment building, was a money pit. After costing the state a bundle, the property was returned to the Simplot family who improved the aesthetics of the Boise foothills by demolishing the place.

Another property in the foothills and long envisioned as the site of a governor's residence was wisely abandoned to a higher and better use as open space.

Still, despite this star-crossed history, with a little effort and not that much money, Idaho could set out to acquire a suitable executive residence, a place where governors would want to live and entertain. An appropriate location would be along one of Boise's stately and historic avenues - Harrison or Warm Springs. Locate a suitable structure, hopefully with some history and Idaho style, set aside some money in an endowment to maintain the home and devote a room or two to showcasing the history of Idaho's governors.

With the current arrangement, Idaho will just keep paying thousands of dollars annually to its governor for housing, while the state accumulates no equity and no real benefit. Some day the state may have a governor who is not independently wealthy or a near-Boise resident and may actually need a place to live.

Little, like every governor in recent times, wants nothing to do with this conversation and says he plans to live in a condo owned by a subsidiary of a company owned by his family.

For the more than $200,000 the state will hand him in housing allowances during the next four years Idaho could make a nice down payment on a real house. It would be money better spent.

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.

Yielding to moral and intellectual rot


In the wake of the latest revelations about the president of the United States, the extent of the intellectual and moral rot of the modern Republican Party has - again - come into sharp focus. A party that once built a brand around "family values" has decided Donald Trump's involvement in a scheme that paid off a porn star and a Playboy model to hide affairs shouldn't be treated as criminal.

The National Review's Jonah Goldberg, no squishy liberal, says the party - leadership and followers - is guilty of "outsourcing our moral, our political judgment to legalisms."

The new GOP brand: moral relativism.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, dismisses Trump's involvement in felony campaign finance violations, crimes that Trump's one-time lawyer Michael Cohen will serve jail time for, as essentially a paperwork mistake. "These guys were all new to this at the time," the senator says and besides what's a little hush money to quiet a scandal during a presidential campaign. "Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to campaign finance issues," Thune says.

Or this from Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, a pillar of propriety on everything but presidential misconduct: "President Trump before he became president, that's another world. Since he's become president, this economy has charged ahead ... And I think we ought to judge him on that basis other than trying to drum up things from the past that may or may not be true."

You can search high and low for any Republican concern that Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State and CEO of Exxon, said recently: "So often the president would say, 'Here's what I want to do, and here's how I want to do it' and I would have to say to him, 'Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can't do it that way. It violates the law.' "

Few Republicans have bought more heavily into the party's moral and intellectual rot than the Idaho delegation. After a brief flurry of indignation when Trump was caught on videotape bragging about assaulting women, the get-along-go-along Idahoans have been pretty much in lockstep with Trump and they generally decline to say anything even remotely critical regarding his behavior.

Sen. Jim Risch is the worst offender.

Risch, soon to be carrying Trump's water as the high-profile chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, couldn't even bring himself to condemn the administration's handling of the brutal murder of a Saudi national who was also a columnist for the Washington Post. The CIA has concluded that the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder, a position Trump refuses to accept, presumably because it would cause him to have to do something that might upset oil prices or, more likely, his own business interests.

In an interview with the editorial board of the Idaho Falls Post Register last week, Risch said that he had reached a conclusion about who was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but that he couldn't discuss it without revealing classified information.

That is simply an absurd statement.

Other senators in both parties have laid the responsibility directly at the feet of Mohammed bin Salman, but as the Post Register noted: "On all questions having to do with bin Salman's direct responsibility, [Risch] deflected," obviously in deference to Trump.

Meanwhile, as the New York Times has reported, the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been counseling his Saudi pal, the crown prince, "about how to weather the storm, urging him to resolve his conflicts around the region and avoid further embarrassments."

Or as one wag put it: "The president's son-in-law is giving the Saudi prince some tips on how to get away with murder."

Trump deference - or better yet servile submissiveness - is a pattern with Risch. In the face of much evidence that North Korea's dictator snookered Trump during talks in Singapore in June, Risch has helped maintain the fiction that Trump knows what he is doing.

Risch has backed administration policy in Yemen where the Saudis, with U.S. help, have bombed the country back to the Stone Age. By some estimates, 85,000 children may have already died in Yemen, with as many as 12 million more people on the brink of starvation.

Risch, with a seat on the Intelligence Committee, has been almost completely silent on Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, speaking only to dismiss its importance. "Hacking is ubiquitous," Risch said in 2017 before adding, "Russia is not, in my judgment, the most aggressive actor in this business."

We now know that at least 14 individuals with direct or close ties to Russia, from the Russian ambassador to the lawyer who set up the infamous Trump Tower meeting during the campaign, made contact with Trump's closest advisers, his family and friends during an 18-month period and during the campaign.

We also know that, while Trump's story continues to shift, special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted a bus load of Russian agents and gained convictions of Trump's campaign chairman, former national security adviser and many others. The investigation goes on, more indictments loom and Risch seems to care not at all.

When Risch made his Faustian bargain to support Trump after the notorious "Access Hollywood" tape emerged, he said he had no choice but to support the con man his party had embraced.

"Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country," Risch said.

In reality, by ignoring and excusing the inexcusable, he has put party loyalty above both his country and our Constitution.

Paul Waldman in the Washington Post put a fine point on this kind of moral rot when he wrote recently of Trump: "Once he's no longer president - perhaps in 2021, or perhaps even sooner - everyone who worked for him, supported him or stood by him is going to be in an extremely uncomfortable position."

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.

Locking out Idaho


In 2017, nearly 335,000 Idahoans owned a hunting and/or fishing license. The Idaho sportsman’s “caucus,” while hardly ever speaking with one voice on anything, arguably represents the largest special interest group in the state. All those hunters and fisher people should be increasingly up in arms about a trend that portends ill for public access to increasingly large swaths of Idaho and the West.

The brewing controversy has come into sharp relief with gates that have gone up at a long open public road just north of the Bogus Basin ski area and east of Horseshoe Bend in Boise County. The road, apparently built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, has long provided public access for hunting and hiking on property once owned by Boise Cascade Corp., and Potlatch. As the Idaho Statesman reported recently, “The gated stretch of road has been privately owned but publicly accessible for decades. It provides access to neighboring public lands and a network of secondary roads.”

The current owners, the hard-right billionaire Wilks brothers of Cisco, Texas, put up the gates a while back and dug trenches to prevent bypassing the closure. The U.S. Forest Service, which has long maintained the road, has received plenty of complaints. Similar activity took place in Adams County last year and only stopped after the Forest Service pushed back.

The Texans are notoriously tight-lipped about what they’re really up to, but a safe guess would be that they intend to monetize their Western holdings by selling multimillion dollar “ranches” and private hunting compounds. The weekend hunter, the family camping trip and good neighborly Idaho values will be the losers.

The Wilks’ ownership is now close to 200,000 acres in Idaho, much of it in southern Idaho and it’s land with a contentious history. One-time Idaho governor and eventually assassinated martyr Frank Steunenberg controversially bought up some of this same land in the early 1900s to create the Barber Lumber Company, a predecessor of Boise Cascade. Steunenberg received help in that endeavor from a crafty lawyer by the name of William Borah, who was eventually acquitted of charges that he had abetted fraud in the timber acquisition.

When Boise Cascade later acquired the same land, the big timber company managed it well for the most part and, understanding Idaho custom and culture, facilitated public access. Texans apparently have a different ethic.

Idaho law prevents the kind of road closures the Wilks have precipitated in Boise County, but the law offers only a criminal penalty, which means Boise County — a big county with a tiny population where they change prosecuting attorneys like the rest of us change socks — will have to find the resources to challenge the closure. Don’t hold your breath. The county will need specific and aggressive state help.

“Counties are strapped for resources, especially rural counties where these violations are happening,” says Brian Brooks, the executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation. Brooks’ group discovered the deed that documents that the Boise Ridge Road should remain open in perpetuity. But his group can’t sue because there is no civil penalty in Idaho law.

“Choosing to derail county budgets to prosecute billionaires over access issues, while burdened with more heinous crimes, is not financially practical,” Brooks says. “It’s time we give citizens legal recourse to enforce public access.”

Or how about this: Soon-to-be Gov. Brad Little, who knows the Boise front like the inside of the Statehouse, could order his Fish and Game Department to aid the county and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden could put some staff on the issue. They would be on the right side of Idaho sportsmen and women, and would send a big message to rich out-of-staters who represent a growing threat to public access across the West.

Since selling their fracking and oil field services company to the government of Singapore in 2011, the Wilks brothers, huge contributors to Republican causes in Texas, have been buying up the West. According to Forbes magazine, the brothers have bought more than 672,000 acres of land in five different states, including Idaho.

The Wilks boys, according to the Dallas Morning News, are big supporters of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and have spent at least $6 million on Texas political races in the past two election cycles. They are also very involved, according to the Texas Tribune, in a host of Tea Party, anti-abortion and anti-gay rights efforts. There is no clear evidence that they’ve been playing financially in Idaho races, but stay tuned.

In Montana, where the brothers own nearly 360,000 acres, they have been trying to engineer a huge land swap with the Bureau of Land Management, have been in protracted fights with longtime ranchers over water rights, have sparked squabbles over hunting access and have spent heavily in support of Republican candidates. Earlier this year, the Wilks brothers were part of a not-very-transparent group that engineered a controversial re-write of Idaho’s trespass law, a sloppy and rushed process that Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter complicated when he wimped out and allowed the legislation to become law without his signature.

The Montana situation is politically instructive. The Wilks’ oil leases with Republican U.S. Senate candidate Matt Rosendale became an issue in Rosendale’s race this year against Democrat Jon Tester, as did the Republican’s shifting stands on access issues. By contrast, Tester is co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsman Caucus and has made access to hunting and fishing a cornerstone of his Montana message. Tester won his recent Senate election in a state that President Donald Trump carried by more than 20 points. Montana, like Idaho, is a very conservative state, but also a place where public access to hunt and fish is a very big deal.

The politics of resisting billionaire private landowners shutting off historic public access should be a no-brainer, even for conservative Idaho Republicans. Forcing a couple of high rolling Texans to take down a gate in Boise County would be a good place for Idaho’s political leaders to start to draw their own line.

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.