Things were never hotter in the White House’s lesser-known oval-shaped room, the one down in the basement, than they were for 11 minutes Wednesday afternoon.
And that’s really saying a lot. Because long before that oval room was elegantly re-purposed into its present function as the White House Diplomatic Room, it housed the White House’s huge roaring furnace. On just about every December day, from 1837 to 1902, it would have been pumping heat throughout the gleaming white mansion.
But this Wednesday, starting at 1 PM and lasting just 11 minutes, the old furnace room generated a very different sort of heat – a blazing hot controversy that flashed around the world with incendiary consequences. President Donald Trump stood in the Diplomatic Room and delivered a message that seemed to instantly fire up passions and tempers throughout the Middle East.
If you were to just read his words literally, you might well wonder what the fuss and fury were all about. Because the words Trump spoke, in and of themselves, could conceivably be read as a hopeful, positive message — if those words had been spoken at the end of a months-long diplomatic process that was thoughtfully conceived and carefully executed to intelligently convince the region’s players to want to consider entering a new era of prospective peacemaking.
But no. This was a Trump thing; so there was none of that advance stuff. It all just erupted as if it were a helter-skelter happenstance. Trump decided to instantly declare the United States was recognizing that Israel’s capital is Jerusalem (a designation that presumably includes East Jerusalem, which Israel seized from Jordan in 1967, when all its neighbors were plotting to push Israel into the sea). Also, Trump said he has begun plans to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv (where all the world’s embassies in Israel are) to Jerusalem.
So Trump used nice words to say he was just recognizing reality – as his idea of promoting a new era of peace. But his words triggered a predictable Arab reaction that ran the gamut from rage to outrage: The Palestinians told the world to prepare for three days of “rage.”
Trump began by telling us what all the world knows (but all the world’s statespersons diplomatically don’t dwell upon). Jerusalem is where Israel’s Knesset, prime ministers and presidents work; Tel Aviv is where all the embassies are. In 1995, Congress passed a law saying the U.S. embassy should be in Jerusalem. So all presidents since routinely signed waivers putting off the move.
“Some say they lacked courage but they made their best judgments based on facts as they understood them at the time,” Trump said. “After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. … While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver.
“Today, I am delivering.”
Trump’s top national security advisers reportedly counseled against making this sudden unilateral move. Israel’s government loved it but all other U.S. allies counseled against it. So did Pope Francis. All warned of bloodshed and that America was diminishing its ability to broker a settlement. But Trump did it his way, anyway.
But: Why now?
Why did Trump feel he needed to act as he did, at this precise moment — when all was relatively quiet on the Israeli-Palestinian front, against the advice of just about everyone (except Israel)? Here in the wide, wide world of punditry, all analysts began to feel as if they had just fallen through the looking glass. Talking heads and tweeting hands began to recycle diplomatic doublespeak doubletalk.
While I have no authoritative source to hang this on, I believe that I understand why Trump took this action at this moment. Special counsel Robert Mueller has scored a major success in convicting retired Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who is apparently now cooperating with the probe. Trump knows what else might be discovered. And that probably explains Trump’s recent uneven actions that sometimes appear to be borderline panic.
Trump clearly wanted to deflect our attention away from Mueller’s Russia probe. I believe that’s why he chose this moment to fulfill his risky 2016 campaign promise to Israel.
Time magazine declared “silence breakers” the Person of the Year for 2017, echoing and amplifying a sense, a hunch, a flickering of a notion that many of us feel but are afraid to utter aloud, lest we curse it:
Nothing will ever be the same.
A magazine can’t wipe out sexual harassment. Roy Moore may very well get elected to the U.S. Senate despite multiple allegations of preying on teenage girls. Donald “grab ’em” Trump still occupies the highest office in the land.
But to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it’s starting to bend toward justice.
“Women have had it with bosses and co-workers who not only cross boundaries but don’t even seem to know that boundaries exist,” Time writes. “They’ve had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job they can’t afford to lose. They’ve had it with the code of going along to get along. They’ve had it with men who use their power to take what they want from women.
“These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced. In some cases, criminal charges have been brought.”
#MeToo, but now what?
Before the silence breakers, sexual harassment had darkness and disbelief on its side. Now it has neither.
A Time survey of American adults conducted in late November found 82 percent of respondents said women are more likely to speak out about harassment since Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s early October downfall.
And 85 percent say they believe the women making allegations. They believe the women.
That’s huge. That moves the needle as much as any high-profile ousting, any hastily assembled sexual harassment training, any shame-filled mea culpa.
By breaking their silence, survivors made 2017 the year we finally started listening. And their voices will echo for decades, in ways we can’t even begin to measure.
“The women and men who have broken their silence span all races, all income classes, all occupations and virtually all corners of the globe,” Time writes. “They might labor in California fields, or behind the front desk at New York City’s regal Plaza Hotel, or in the European Parliament. They’re part of a movement that has no formal name. But now they have a voice.”
And we have a blueprint for talking to our daughters and sons about sexual harassment: Don’t be a bystander. Use your voice. Speak up. Speak and speak and speak and speak some more until someone listens.
“There’s something really empowering about standing up for what’s right,” Susan Fowler, who blew the whistle over harassment at Uber, told Time. “It’s a badge of honor.”
And it will change the world. It has, indeed, changed the world.
With the raft of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct complaints by powerful men roiling across Hollywood, the TV news industry and government in recent weeks, we were ready to applaud Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ call for a mandatory meeting for Wisconsin legislative staff to discuss the process for reporting inappropriate behavior.
But in short order we were left with one hand clapping — a whiff — when Republican leaders in both the Senate and Assembly agreed that such complaints against lawmakers and their staff members and the results of any investigations into them will remain secret.
“The goal of an internal process is to make sure that every single person who feels that they were a victim of some kind of harassment or sexual harassment has a way to go to be able to report it to somebody, have some confidentiality, have it investigated, because frankly, if the allegations are untrue, we want to ensure people have the right to their own privacy with a false accusation, but also if they are true, we want to make sure that the victim is protected,” Vos told a Madison newspaper.
We understand that protecting the reputation of a lawmaker who might be falsely accused is something that the Legislature is concerned with. But they should also be concerned with the working climate at the Capitol and their responsibility to let the public know when such charges are substantiated and what actions have been taken.
“I understand sometimes in the zeal of the press you don’t really worry about naming the victims and all those kinds of things,” Vos said. “Our job is to ensure that people who want to come forward feel safe and that they are confident that we will treat it with the respect and due diligence they deserve.”
That ranks up there in the “pants on fire” scale on the fib-o-meter. The fact is that across the state newspapers and other media take great pains to protect the identity of sexual assault victims day in and day out. Most, if not all, have strict policies against naming victims — unless the victim comes forth publicly.
The Legislature could have — and should have — adopted a policy of redacting names of sexual assault victims and legislators when complaints are made.
But identifying lawmakers when the results of investigations are complete and actions are taken — or no actions result — are an absolute responsibility of the Legislature and its leaders.
If Vos needs other reasons for the Legislature to be more transparent in reporting such abuses, we can give him 75,000 of them. That’s the number — in dollars — that state taxpayers paid out two years ago to a former lawmaker’s aide who complained of sexual harassment and discrimination by former state Sen. Spencer Coggs, D-Milwaukee, and was later fired during an office downsizing.
That settlement only became public this week after an inquiry from The Wisconsin State Journal because although the initial complaint was filed with the Senate chief clerk, the agreement was reached after an investigation by the Department of Workforce Development.
According to accounts in the settlement, in one instance, Coggs asked the aide if she was “showing a little more cleavage lately” and said her breasts were a “distraction in the office.” In another instance, according to the Wisconsin State Journal report, Coggs asked the aide if she had “a taste for white meat” when she and a white co-worker both asked for the same day off.
When Coggs’ office was downsized after Republicans took control of the Legislature, the aide told Coggs how important her job was to her and he responded, “You can’t create an adversarial situation and then come back and ask me for something.”
Coggs, who has since left the Senate and is now Milwaukee city treasurer, told the Legislature’s Human Resources Office in 2009 — before the state agency investigation — that the aide should have kept her concerns “in-house.”
That screams for more public accountability when state lawmakers have committed improprieties or harassed legislative staff — or others. The names can be shielded at the outset, but the public has a right to know when the results of investigations are complete, what actions have been taken and any costs to Wisconsin taxpayers.
Openness, not secrecy, is the disinfectant that will cure bad behavior and encourage Capitol staffers to come forward with complaints when they are warranted.
Election letter deadline
The deadline to submit letters related to the Dec. 19 primary election for the 66th Assembly District is 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12.