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Dan Baer: Time for U.S. to change its relationship with Saudi Arabia

Obama foreign policy expert runs for U.S. Senate in Colorado

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Daniel Baer, State Department, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, gay news, Washington Blade
Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade
Gay former U.S. ambassador Daniel Baer is running for U.S. Senate in Colorado. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Daniel Baer, a former U.S. ambassador during the Obama administration who is now vying to become the first openly gay man elected to the U.S. Senate, said the time has come for the United States to change its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

In an interview Monday with the Washington Blade, Baer said the change he envisions is “hard to describe” in a single paragraph, but made clear Saudi Arabia, despite its longtime alliance with the United States in military affairs, is “not an ally” and must change regardless of the administration that is in power.

“We have security interests across the region, and we need to have a more robust and accountable bilateral relationship,” Baer said. “That doesn’t give Saudi Arabia a special position that they don’t merit. It’s not that we should be looking for some way to be more aggressive or more confrontational with them. It’s just that Saudi Arabia does not merit — they are not an ally, they don’t share our values.”

Previously, Baer served as deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor under Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, then became U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe.

Baer spoke with the Blade shortly after winning the endorsement of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, an organization that focuses on electing LGBT people to political office, and reporting an impressive haul of $1.35 million in fundraising for second-quarter 2019 in his bid to represent Colorado in the U.S. Senate.

Criticizing the Trump administration for using LGBT people and minority groups as “fodder for the president’s populism,” Baer took particular issue with the transgender military ban and new regulations allowing medical practitioners to deny health care to transgender people in the name of religious freedom.

Baer was also skeptical of President Trump’s global initiative to decriminalize homosexuality and recalled former President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat him to the punch in pursuing initiatives in favor of international LGBT rights.

“I helped write the original policy of the United States government that we would advocate a move to drive our programs and our policy to achieve decriminalization worldwide back in 2011, I mean, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but coming from this administration, those words ring hollow,” Baer said,

Bear was also critical of the new State Department commission on “natural law” established by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“I think it’s obviously an attempt for this administration to pick and choose which aspects of human rights they want to stand behind,” Baer said. “I think it’s incredibly disturbing, that it looks like this is an attempt to redefine what are universal rights, that are not only the foundation of our constitutional system, but that are now codified in international law thanks in large part to the efforts to the United States and our allies to accomplish that in the wake of World War II.”

Read the full interview below:

Washington Blade: Given your expertise in foreign policy, how much will international affairs animate your campaign and career in the Senate?

Daniel Baer: Well, a couple things. One, when I talk to people around the state of Colorado, obviously, the issues that come up more than any specific policy issue is actually an issue of values, which is that people don’t want to live in a society that has the kind of open advocacy for hatred and division that we see emanating from the White House.

And so, I think a lot of people out there are people like me, who are motivated by our concern in this moment for our communities and our states that motivates us to get involved in new ways, and that’s the primary kind of overarching concern. Obviously, when we talk about issues that most of us care most about are the ones that hit us close to home, to the kitchen table.

That said, the conventional wisdom that is that voters don’t care about foreign policy. I found that that both underestimates the degree to which voters understand and are engaged with issues and their level of interest. Everywhere I go — rural areas, urban areas, – people understand that the issues that we care most about here in Colorado have a[n] international dimension, whether that is the economy, they understand trade and tariffs are something that impact jobs and the prices of agricultural goods here in Colorado. So, they understand that has an international dimension. 

A lot of people obviously focus on climate change and the existential threat that it poses. We understand that it’s not just a local action that has to be used to take on that threat, but also national and international action. So, issue by issue, education, even people understand that this is about preparing young people to be able to have a shot at a middle class life in a 21st century economy, and they understand the 21st century economy is a global one, so people understand that international affairs matters.

So from that standpoint, I think foreign policy doesn’t get talked about on the campaign trail. And I think, more broadly, one of the things that is resonating, that people ask most about is who can best beat Cory Gardner, and there, I think we saw in 2018 a number of people who you probably have encouraged at some point in your reporting, but a number of people who were people like me how to record public service, particularly on foreign and national security, but had never held elected office, or enormously successful at flipping swing seats.

So Elissa Slotkin in Michigan, Jason Crowe here in Colorado, Tom Malinowski in New Jersey, Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, Chrissy Houlahan in Pennsylvania, and I could go on. A bunch of those 40 seats that we flipped, and particularly those that were in swing districts were seats that were flipped by people who look somewhat like me, and in terms of our background.

And I think that’s partly because people want fresh voices, and they’re sick of career politicians, and partly because when you have a background in national security or foreign policy, you are positioned well to make the argument to swing voters, independents and disaffected moderate Republicans, that you understand that we’re all in this together, and that we have to get through this moment that we’re living through together, and that you’re committed to representing the whole. 

Obviously, when I was ambassador, I represented all 330 million Americans, not just those who voted for President Obama. And I think that’s the kind of candidacy that I offer here in Colorado, and one that is a winning background to take on a career politician like Cory Gardner.

Blade: But in terms of LGBT issues, where do you want to go?

Baer: I guess in terms of LGBT issues, I feel like the strongest argument for one of the cases that I have to make with fellow members of the LGBT community is that I just don’t just happen to be part of that community, but I’ve also, throughout my career, spent time on issues that affect our community directly.

Obviously, the work that I did at the State Department that you covered, including helping Secretary Clinton write her landmark speech and working out programs and diplomacy in a variety of countries around the world to help move towards decriminalization or keeping LGBT activists safe from harm.

That’s a meaningful, meaningful part of my background to me professionally and is meaningful to me personally, as well. And I think, going forward, certainly, if elected, I would want to be one of the co-sponsors of the Equality Act and I would want to deliver appropriate oversight of the Pentagon in reversing the ban on transgender troops that Trump has reinstated.

I’m committed to continuing to be somebody who advocates for the dignity of all Americans and all people driving that through policy.

Blade: What bothers you the most about how the Trump administration has handled LGBT rights?

Baer: I guess what bothers me the most is when you look at the way that they have – it’s not systematic, it’s knee-jerk, and — but it is across — you know, it’s not just the trans troop ban. It’s also the way that they’ve moved to exclude LGBT people from healthcare. It’s also the rhetoric of the president.

And, you know, I think what bothers me the most is that LGBT people like other people who are members of minority groups have found themselves as fodder for the president’s populism. We’re being used by him and his administration to fire up a base to distract from the real problems that face the United States and the world. And so, we’re being used as a means rather than end and that’s, that’s disgusting and disappointing.

Blade: But in his tweet, recognizing June as LGBT Pride Month, President Trump recognized a global initiative within his administration to decriminalize homosexuality. What do you make of that initiative?

Baer: I helped write the original policy of the United States government that we would advocate a move to drive our programs and our policy to achieve decriminalization worldwide back in 2011. I mean, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but coming from this administration, those words ring hollow.

I helped write President Obama’s presidential memorandum that came out on the same day as Secretary Clinton’s historic speech in Geneva, that outlined decriminalization as a priority of the United States government and charged all U.S. agencies engaged in work overseas with making that part of their work.

Blade: The person who is leading the charge on this for the Trump administration is Ric Grenell, who is U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and also considered the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Trump administration. What would be your advice to Ambassador Grenell?

Baer: Oh, I don’t have advice for Ambassador Grenell. I don’t know him. Obviously, I wish anybody who’s representing our country overseas well in faithfully requiting the duties of their office. 

I heard — I’ve seen reported that he’s been facing some real headwinds from inside the State Department and that Secretary Pompeo may be undermining him particularly in his work on LGBT issues.

It must be really humiliating or difficult to be in a position where you’re representing the country overseas, and you’re not sure if you have the backing of folks back home. And, you know, I wish Ambassador Grenell well in doing a job to the best of his ability. I don’t know him personally and I think he’s in a difficult position, as are many U.S. ambassadors who represent this administration right now.

Blade: Also at the State Department, there was news very recently that they would establish a commission on “natural law.” Are you aware of this commission and what do you make of it?

Baer: Yeah. I am aware of it. I think it’s obviously an attempt for this administration to pick and choose which aspects of human rights they want to stand behind. I think it’s incredibly disturbing, that it looks like this is an attempt to redefine what are universal rights, that are not only the foundation of our constitutional system, but that are now codified in international law thanks in large part to the efforts of the United States and our allies to accomplish that in the wake of World War II.

And the idea that an American government would be seeking to redefine universal human rights, and in a way that it would exclude consideration of large numbers of people is incredibly disturbing. And It must be — in addition to being disturbing, flies in the face of the idea of the universal commitment to the dignity of every person. 

It should also be incredibly, incredibly demoralizing to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor in which I was a deputy assistant secretary, which already is the institutional structure charged with advancing human rights in our diplomacy. And so, the idea that they’re creating this kind of council that sits in the secretary’s office or the policy planning office instead of relying on the career professionals and experts who make up the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor is another case of the Trump administration, doing damage to and undermining and insulting the career professionals who make up our State Department.

Blade: How significant do you think it is that the State Department barred U.S. embassies from flying the rainbow Pride flag on official flagpoles?

Baer: I mean, I think more significant was the number of employees who defied that order.

We’ve come a long way. You know, I helped Secretary Clinton write the cable that she sent to all ambassadors actually, a year before she gave her her famous speech…In her first year as secretary she sent a cable out to every U.S. ambassador around the world and said, gay people, LGBT people are part of our human rights work. And you should treat the human rights of LGBT people as you would any other human rights issue and this is now part of your portfolio. 

I think there was a period of enormous transformation in the work of the U.S. government during the Obama administration, in terms of our engagement and our diplomacy that human rights was human rights for everyone.

And I think it’s petty and silly that Secretary Pompeo sought fit to bar U.S. embassies from flying a flag that is nothing more than a way of communicating our ongoing commitment to the dignity of all persons during the month in which we celebrate that. I think that’s silly and petty and I think it’s more significant that a number of embassies chose to ignore that instruction, because they understood the significance to people who frankly live in a lot more fear and insecurity than at least some LGBT people in this country.

Obviously, we’ve seen a rash of killings of trans women of color in this country in the last few months, too. So there’s plenty of work left to do. But there are also places around the world where the United States embassy flying that flag is a sign of our standing with people who are vulnerable, and I think we should always be willing to do that.

Blade: I’d like to shift to some non-LGBT foreign policy issues. Generally speaking, how would you evaluate how the Trump administration has handled national security incidents in North Korea and Iran?

Baer: I think across the board, what we see in the Trump administration’s handling of what conventionally would be called foreign policy issues is that they are all reflex and no brain. 

So it’s very hard to define a Trump foreign policy because it doesn’t seem to be consistent. It seems to be a series of one-off actions that make the world more chaotic, but aren’t clear what objectives they’re they’re seeking to achieve. 

So, you know, I mean, I think the president’s love affair with North Korea and with Kim Jong Un is not something that makes us safer. It hasn’t reduced the risk posed by the North Korea nuclear program. It probably has reduced the leverage that the United States has to address that risk, and in that sense, it has made America less safe.

What the president has done vis-a-vis Iran, throwing out the Iran deal, and then talking tough about negotiating, and then conceding on all the tough requirements, before we would sit down and negotiate hasn’t made America look strong. It’s made us look weak and alienated allies that we need in order to help us make sure that we are addressing the multiple challenges to national security that emanate from Iran, including not just the nuclear program, but obviously, international terrorism as well.

So, you know, I think the consistent theme here is that you’ve got a series of actions without a clear strategy behind them. And that’s incredibly unnerving, because the world is a difficult and dangerous place, and the United States needs not only to protect the American people from the threats that we face around the world, but also to be leading in helping to address global threats that cannot be solved by any one country alone.

The vacuum of U.S. leadership in the world is something that makes all of us, not only Americans, but also others around the world less safe. 

Blade: But regardless of the administration that is in power, is it time for the United States to change its relationship with Saudi Arabia?

Baer: Yes.

I think one of the things that will go down when we look back at this period, and certainly as somebody who’s running for the U.S. Senate right now and look at the leadership that [Sen.] Chris Murphy demonstrated in calling attention to the war in Yemen, and he has demonstrated that leadership for several years, and he has built a growing chorus of voices in both the House and the Senate that recognize the role that Saudi Arabia has played in that war, and the role that the United States-Saudi Arabia plays.

To say that our relationship with Saudi Arabia should change is not to say that we don’t — we shouldn’t have one. We need to. We have relationships with difficult actors around the world. But I think certainly the relationship that the Trump administration has sought is not one that has delivered benefits for either human rights and human security in the region, or for American security interests around the world.

Blade: What would this change look like?

Baer: It’s hard to describe a bilateral relationship in a single sentence or paragraph. I mean, I think the change in the relationship shouldn’t be change for change’s sake. The change in the relationship should be driven by our recognition that one of the lessons over the last decade is that authoritarian regimes are only stable until they’re not, and the United States has long-term interests in a stable region.

We have security interests across the region, And we need to have a more robust and accountable bilateral relationship. That doesn’t give Saudi Arabia a special position that they don’t merit. It’s not that we should be looking for some way to be more aggressive or more confrontational with them. It’s just that Saudi Arabia does not merit — they are not an ally, they don’t share our values. 

They are a partner in certain regional security issues, and we should be clear-eyed about that, but they don’t get special treatment. And we should treat them with the same focus on our long-term security interest that we would treat other countries.

Blade: One more question about foreign policy: It seems that the Trump administration leadership on these issues is being taken up by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. How concerned are you about that?

Baer: On a scale of one to [laughs]? Look, I’m very concerned. Neither Ivanka Trump nor Jared Kushner has the expertise or experience to be able to be trusted to fulfill those roles skillfully and in the best interest of the American people. That’s why I’m concerned just from a quality standpoint. 

But I’m also concerned with the message it sends. This is a republic, not a monarchy. People should be selected for carrying out the most important foreign policy work of the most powerful country in the world based on their experience and skill at doing those jobs.

These are two people who have clearly been selected because of their relationship to the president of the United States, and that is a bad basis for selecting people. It’s not meritocratic, and it’s unlikely to serve the American people well, and the message that it sends around the world about who America is and what we stand for, and the quality of people that we charge with these jobs is a terrible one.

And by the way, I am somebody who having worked in the federal government for years, has enormous respect for the deep well of expertise that our federal workforce, the career diplomats, the career civil servants. That work is not only in the State Department, but in other parts of the federal government…There are world-class experts in every office that is staffed by career diplomats and civil servants.

It’s not that we couldn’t find anybody better. The president of the United States is too insecure to actually put career professionals in charge of things that career professionals should be in charge of or that serious well-respected experts should be in charge of.

Blade: Getting back to your own race, how significant do you think it would be if you were to become the first openly gay man elected to the U.S. Senate?

Baer: Look, I don’t think it’s a qualification per se, and obviously I’m running based on my record of public service and because I believe I am the most qualified candidate and because I believe I can beat Cory Gardner.

But I think, there’s no question that for me, as somebody who grew up in the Colorado that had Amendment 2 passed. I was 15 when that happened at the age when you start to think about what am I going to make of my life, and the answer that was in front of me was that the majority of people in my community had voted for an amendment to the state constitution that made it illegal to protect the civil rights of people like me. Obviously, I wasn’t out at that point, but I had sense that I might be different from other folks, and I can remember the weight of that election night when Amendment 2 passed. 

I know from my own life that having examples of people who live happy, public successful lives is really important to being able to dream their own daydreams. And so, I think while it’s not necessarily, certainly not the first reason I hope people vote for me — I hope people vote for me because they know I would do a good job at being a U.S. senator — I do think that the significance of representation shouldn’t be understated, particularly for those who have wondered whether they can live happy lives that fulfill their dreams. 

And I think I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me and have advocated for the changes in our politics that made my life so far possible that would certainly deserve credit for making it possible for there to be an openly gay man elected to the U.S. Senate for the first time in history.

Blade: I have another question for you about the 2020 election in terms of the presidential race. Will you support either Gov. Hickenlooper or Sen. Bennett?

Baer: Both Gov. Hickenlooper and Sen. Bennett are friends, and I’m excited by both of them as well as a number of others, and, you know, I understand that for a candidate it can sound like a cop-out to not give an answer on whom I’m supporting, but I think, like a lot of Americans watching the debates closely, inspired by the number of people who are running for office right now, running for president right now in different ways.

And I think they bring different things to the table and the main feeling that I have in looking at our contenders on the Democratic side is gratitude and awe for the deep bench that we have and the enormous amount of talent that we have that we bring to the table. And so, I’m continuing to cheer on a number of folks who inspired me, including Gov. Hickenlooper and Sen. Bennett.

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Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign

Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund

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Kelley Robinson (Screen capture via HRC YouTube)

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.

Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.

“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”

Kelley Robinson IS NAMED as The next human rights Campaign president

The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”

The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.

Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood, Cathy Chu, SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, Amy Nelson, Whitman-Walker Health, Sheroes of the Movement, Mayor's office of GLBT Affairs, gay news, Washington Blade
Kelley Robinson, seen here with Cathy Chu of SMYAL and Amy Nelson of Whitman-Walker Health, is the next Human Rights Campaign president. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Former Ambassador Daniel Baer explains it all on Ukraine crisis

Expert downplays strategic thinking behind Putin’s move

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Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade
Daniel Baer served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Daniel Baer, who worked on LGBTQ human rights and transatlantic issues as one of several openly gay U.S. ambassadors during the Obama administration, answered questions from the Washington Blade on Ukraine as the international crisis continues to unfold.

Topics during the interview, which took place weeks ago on Jan. 27, included Putin’s motivation for Russian incursions, the risk of outright war, predictions for Russia after Putin and how the crisis would affect LGBTQ people in Ukraine.

Baer was deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and U.S. ambassador to the Organization of Security & Cooperation in Europe.

The full interview follows:

Washington Blade: What’s your level of engagement with this affair? Are you doing any consulting work? Is the administration reaching out to you at all?

Daniel Baer: I actually think the White House is doing a pretty good job of recognizing that they need to not only have press conferences, but also talk to other people who are trying to figure out how to be constructive critics, idea generators from the outside.

Blade: OK, so you’re being solicited and engaging on this issue. My next question for you is why do you think Putin is doing this at this time?

Baer: So, I guess taking a step back from the whole thing, one of the things about a problem like this is that everybody is searching for the right answer assuming that there is a like comfortable or compelling or intellectually accurate answer, and I actually think we’re just in a really hard moment.

I don’t know why he’s doing it now. And in fact, I think that one of the puzzles that we haven’t solved yet is that all the things that he says are the reasons that he’s doing it — that he feels encirclement by NATO, … or that the situation in Ukraine is untenable — none of those things have changed. Setting aside the fact that they’re spurious, it’s not like there’s been some new move in the last 12 months that has precipitated [a reaction] on any of those fronts that you can say, “Oh, well, he’s responding to the recent meeting where Ukraine was offered membership in NATO, or he’s responding to a change in government in Ukraine that it’s clearly anti-Russia, or any other move that we’ve done.” The explanation just doesn’t hold water, and so I think we need to look for alternative ones.

The best I can come up with is actually just a broad — it doesn’t actually explain this particular moment, but I think you could look at the timing of his life. He has, I don’t know, 10 years left. And during those 10 years, it’s unlikely that Russia is going to grow more powerful; it’s much more likely that it’s going to become at least relatively and probably nominally less powerful. And so, if you’re unhappy with the status quo, and you feel like you’re a declining power, and you don’t have endless time, there’s no time like the present. And you’ll make up whatever reasons you need to in order to justify it.

I also think there’s a tendency on our part to attribute far more “strategery” to Putin than there necessarily is. I mean, he’s a bully and a thug. I think the whole Putin’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers is actually completely inverted. We’re in our own heads that there’s some kind of nuanced position that would mollify him. He’s just a gangster and he’s taking a punch because he has one. And I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that. And so, I guess the answer to why he’s doing this now, because the international conditions are such that he feels like the United States is focused domestically, the Ukrainians are not moving forward with succeeding to build — they’re kind of in stasis on building a European state— and he has, you know, he has the space to take a punch, so he’s contemplating doing it, or he’s already decided to do it. And he’s just extracting as much as possible before he takes it.

Blade: That leads me to my next question: What is your judgement of the risk of out and out war?

Baer: I don’t know because I have two hypotheses that cut both ways. One is that I think Putin is vastly underestimating the degree of resistance. On the other hand, I think that nothing short of domination is satisfactory. And so, I don’t know. I guess I think there’s a 90 percent chance that he does something, and I think there’s a 75 percent chance that what he does is not an all out invasion or ground invasion, at least not at first, but rather something that is aimed at confusing us. So some sort of hybrid or staged or false flag kind of attack in tandem with a political coup in Kiev, where he works to install a more Russia-loyal leader.

The thing with the ground invasion is that Russian soldiers’ moms are one of the only, like, powerful political forces in civil society in Russia. I just don’t see any way that a ground invasion doesn’t involve massive Russian casualties, even if they will be dominant. The people who are going to impose the consequences on him will be the Ukrainians, not the rest of us, and he should not invade, and if he does, we should, frankly, work hard to make it as painful and difficult for him as possible.

Blade: What will that look like?

Baer: I think we should at that point continue — we shouldn’t pause, we should continue to send the defensive equipment and backfill as much as possible their ability from an equipment basis to resist.

Blade: So if we were to look at a model for past U.S. engagements. I’m thinking Greece under President Truman, which was so successful that nobody really knows about it, I don’t think. Is there any model we should be looking toward, or not looking toward?

Baer: No, I guess. I’m not sure there’s any good historical model because obviously, any of them you can pick apart. I do think that one thing that has gotten lost in a lot of the analysis — and this goes back to Putin being a gangster thug, and not being such a genius — is there’s a moral difference between us. The reason why Putin gets to control the dialogue is because he’s willing to do things that we aren’t willing to do — as gangsters are, as hostage-takers are — and so yes, they get to set the terms of what we discussed, because we’re not holding hostages. We’re trying to get hostages released. And the hostage-taker has an upper hand and asymmetry because they are willing to do something that is wrong.

We shouldn’t lose the kind of moral difference there. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Ukraine is being menaced. And I’m not saying it’s our obligation [to intervene militarily], certainly not our obligation. They aren’t a treaty ally. We have neither a political obligation nor a moral one to necessarily risk our own lives, our own soldiers in defense of Ukraine. But if Ukraine wants to defend themselves, there’s a strong moral case to be made that anything, short of risking our own lives, is something that is morally good. We generally believe that self-defense from lethal threat is a reasonable moral cause and assisting others in defending themselves is too — I think there’s a lot of back and forth that get glossed over whether that’s a provocation or whatever, and I want to say to people stand back, look at this: we’ve got one party that is attacking another. And the question is, does the other have a right to defend itself? Yes. And if they have a right to defend themselves, and they also have a right to have whatever assistance people will offer them in defending themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they get to demand that we show up and fight in the trenches with them, of course, and I don’t think there’s any serious people who are recommending that but it’s a good thing to help them. It’s not like a technical thing. It’s a good thing to help

Blade: Getting into that moral background, one thing I want to ask you was about the significance of what would happen in this concept of democracy versus autocracy. First of all, how much is Ukraine a functional democracy, in the sense that if we’re defending Ukraine, we are defending a democracy, and what signal do you think it would send if that Ukrainian government fell to Russian autocracy?

Baer: I think the institutions of government that the Ukrainian people have are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment …

They are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment to the idea of democratic institutions. So the answer is today’s Ukrainian government is a mixed bag and it’s very hard to build, on the rot of a Russian fiefdom, a functioning democracy, so I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing [the changes], or that they’ve completely bungled an easy project. It was always going to be a hard project, and it was never going to be linear.

But I think that what we’ve seen from the Ukrainian people — by which I mean not Ukrainian people, but people of Ukraine — is that there is a broad part of society that a) does not want to live under a Russian thumb and b) sees its future in kind of European style democracy. And so I think that if there was, there’s no question that the Russian attack would be in part about subjugating the people of Ukraine and forcing them to live under some sort of new Russian satellite. And I think that there’s little space for serious argument that that’s something that the people of the country wish to have.

Blade: But I’m just kind of getting at — you’re kind of minimizing that this is a strategic move by Putin, but if he were to successfully dominant Ukraine it becomes a Russian satellite isn’t that saying like, “Well, ha ha West, you thought the Cold War was over and there’s going to be just be a unipolar world in the future but no, we’re gonna we have this we’re back and we’re gonna create a multipolar world for the future.”

Baer: Yeah, I mean, my answer to the Russians who always raise the multipolar world to me is, “Fine, it’s going to be a multipolar world. What makes you think that Russia is one of the poles?” Poles by definition draw people to them, they are compelling and a pole attracts, magnetically or otherwise, and there is nothing attractive about the model that Russia is pursuing. And if the only way that you can be a pole is by subjugating, to force your neighbors, you are proving that you are not one.

I think the benefits for Russia are far smaller than Putin thinks and I think the consequences for the rest of the world of allowing a violation of international order to go forward are much larger than many people recognize.

Blade: But that was their approach when they were the Soviet Union. They were subjugating the Eastern Bloc through Russian force. They did have, in theory, the concept of their worldview of you know, of socialism, or whatever you want to put it charitably, was going to be the right way to go. Is there really that much of a difference?

Baer: Yeah, however disingenuous it was, they did have an ideology . So you’re right, that was a key distinction. The other thing is that the Soviet Union in relative size — its economy and population etc. — was much larger than Russia is today. And Russia is shrinking, and its economy is less diverse than the Communist one was. I think it’s a delusion to think that they’re going to kind of rebuild an empire, even if yes, because of their willingness to do awful things, they could potentially for a time politically control through violence, their neighbors. I just don’t — in a multipolar world, I don’t see Russia being one of the poles, at least not on its current path.

Blade: How would you evaluate the U.S. diplomatic approach to this issue?

Baer: There’s been very clear over-the-top effort to include the Europeans at every step — meetings with them before each meeting and after each meeting, to force conversations into fora that are more inclusive and stuff like that. And I think that Secretary Blinken is rightly recognizing the need to kind of play a role of kind of keeping everybody on the side while we test whether diplomacy whether there’s anything to do, whether there’s any promise with diplomacy.

I think there’s kind of, sometimes kind of, two camps in U.S. foreign policy circles. One is like: We should give the Russians what they want because it just doesn’t matter that much. War is much worse than anything that we would give them. And another is that we can’t give them an inch and we have to punch them in the face whenever we can. And I think both of those are kind of knee-jerk positions that have become a bit religious for people and neither of them is paying attention to the practical challenge that’s in front of the administration, which is like this guy’s threatening to invade and we need to identify whether there’s any opportunity for a functional off ramp, and that doesn’t mean we do that in a vacuum and ignore the long-term consequences, but our problem is not a religious one, it’s a practical one. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job of threading the needle on that and being not too far forward and not too far back.

Blade: Do you see any significant daylight between the United States and Europe?

Baer: No, I mean, no more than the minimum that is possible. There’s a lot of talk about Germany these days. Look, I think some of the things they say are not particularly helpful, but I don’t actually think that in the long run, if Putin invaded, I don’t think that they would hold up sanctions or anything like that. So I think they’re on our side, even if they’re talking out of both sides, in some cases.

Blade: I am wise to the fact that this is a nuclear power. It might be a little old school, but could escalation get that far?

Baer: There can’t be war. There can’t be war between NATO and Russia. It should be avoided. Obviously, there can be, but it should be avoided.

Blade: How committed do you think President Biden is to protecting Ukraine?

Baer: Reasonably so. I think he’s enough of an old school trans-Atlantist that he understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine.

Blade: I was wondering because he had those comments from his press conference about “minor incursion” and I’m just wondering if you’re reading anything into that or not.

Baer: No, I think that was that was a — I think broadly speaking, everything he says is in line with the kind of view that you would expect. And of course, one sentence can catch [attention]. That wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that he didn’t want to draw a “red line” that would prejudge policy in response to something short of the most extreme scenario.

I think it is a good caution to not obsess over a single sentence and to look at the broad considered policy statements.

Blade: What do you think if you were looking for developments, like what would you be looking out for is significant in terms of where we are going to be going in the near future? This is one thing to keep an eye out for but is there anything else that you are kind of looking out for in terms of the near future?

Baer: I guess I would look out for whether or not the United States joins meetings of the so-called Normandy Format, which is the France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia grouping, which has so far been unsuccessful, but I think can only be successful as the United States joins it, but the Russians, I think have misgivings with the idea of our joining it.

Blade: I’m not at all familiar with that. What makes this forum particularly so —

Baer: So it was started in the summer in like June of 2015, on the margins of some meeting between Merkel and Hollande. The French and the Germans are very committed to the idea that they might be able to mediate peace between Ukraine and Russia. It was supposed to implement the Minsk Agreement, and it just hasn’t been productive so far. I don’t think that the Russians will do anything — I don’t think the Ukrainians feel comfortable negotiating anything without the Americans at the table. And I don’t think the Russians feel like anything is guaranteed without the Americans at the table. So I just, I’m fine with France and Germany taking the lead, but I think the U.S. has to be there.

And there was a meeting of this group in Paris yesterday, and which the U.S. was supportive of, and so I’m watching to see whether or not the United States gets added in some ad hoc way, whether there are future meetings. I guess the reason I would watch it, if the U.S. were to join future meetings that would signal to me that it’s actually there’s some diplomacy happening there.

That’s meant to be focusing mainly on the existing Russian invasion, the occupation of the Donbas, so that’s not about the threat of the new invasion, but it would be interesting to me if there was forward movement on other parts of Ukraine. The announcement of the American ambassador is one. I think that last week movement of troops into Belarus was a game changer for the U.S., because there are all kinds of new implications if you’re using a third country as your launchpad for war, and so it complicates things and it also looks more serious if you’re starting to deploy to third countries and stuff like that. So I think that was that last week, you noticed a difference in the U.S. tone and tenor in response to that.

So things like that. But in general, like what I would do and I don’t think people always catch this is because there’s a boiling frog aspect to it. There are statements coming out from the White House or State Department. Almost every day on stuff related to this and like last week, there was a noticeable change in the tenor as the U.S. became less, I think more pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy and those I don’t have anything better to look for in those statements as tea leaves, in terms of what the U.S. assessment is of the prospects of the escalation are, so it’s bad.

Blade: Right. That’s very sobering.

There’s a lot of talk, and I’ve just been seeing some like about in terms of, there’s like comparisons to Afghanistan and making sure that all Americans are able to get out of Ukraine. Is that comparing apples to oranges?

Baer: Yes.

Blade: And could you unpack that a little bit? I mean, I can kind of guess the reasons why. How is that apples to oranges?

Blade: Well, the level of development in Ukraine in terms of infrastructure and transport and stuff like that is not comparable to Afghanistan. I think it would be– if there were a Russian invasion–you would definitely want to, obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to be in a war zone, so you would want people to be able to evacuate and you’d have to plan for that.

A major concern [in Afghanistan] was also that there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of locals who had worked for the Americans. The Americans that are in Ukraine are not a departing occupying power. There’s just not the same footprint there — the Americans are in Ukraine or there as business people or young [people working on] democracy assistance or whatever. And it’s just it’s a different context.

Blade: Why do you think the Russians put up with Putin? I mean, this is a country that was a world power and I would think has some economic potential just given its sheer size, first of all, and they do have oil to offer people. So why aren’t the Russians like angry at him for obstructing their participation in the global order as opposed to just putting up with him for years and years and years.

Baer: Successful instrumentalisation of cynicism. The lack of a belief in an alternative will keep you from fighting for it.

Blade: That’s pretty succinct.

Baer: I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that the people of Russia could be better off or different in terms of kitchen table issues, and ease of navigating the world, prospects for their future for their children’s future. The amount of money that Putin has invested into military modernization that Russia can ill afford, while he’s cut pensions and social services and health care. It’s just it’s objectively true that the average Russian person would be better served by a different leader. But he’s done a very good job of effectively selling off the country for profit and persuading people through repression and propaganda that there is no alternative.

Blade: And Putin won’t be around forever. Once he finally goes, is an alternative going to emerge, or will it be the next guy in Putin’s mold?

Baer: I think it’s far from clear that what comes after Putin isn’t worse and bloody. Regimes like this don’t reliably have stable transitions.

Blade: Wow, okay.

Baer: Yeah, we shouldn’t… we should be careful about wishing… wishing for his demise.

Blade: That’s good to know. It’s kind of a frightful note for me to end my questions. But actually before I sign off, there’s one more thing too because I do kind of want to talk about the intersection about your old job in democracy and human rights and then a Venn diagram of that with your experience in Eastern Europe in particular. Do you have a sense of what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Ukraine or if they’re in more danger right now than they would be otherwise?

Baer: That’s a good question. I mean, my knee jerk reaction is yes. That — as mixed of a picture as Ukraine has been in the last seven years, or eight years — there have been meaningful steps forward, and certainly, in terms of visibility.

I guess, in the sense that Ukraine is better than Russia today, if you’re gay, if Russia is going to occupy or control Ukraine we can expect that it will get worse because it will become more like Russia.

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Trump ribbed Pence for thinking ‘it’s a crime to be gay,’ new book says

Former president openly wanted gay Fox News analyst for Supreme Court

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Donald Trump (left) ribbed former Vice President Mike Pence (center) in a meeting with Andrew Napolitano for thinking "it's a crime to be gay." (Blade photos of Donald Trump and Mike Pence by Michael Key; screen capture of Andrew Napolitano via Fox News YouTube)

Donald Trump, in the days before he took office after the 2016 election, openly contemplated naming an openly gay Fox News contributor to the U.S. Supreme Court amid concerns from social conservatives about his potential choices and ribbed former Vice President Mike Pence for thinking “it’s a crime to be gay,” according to the new book “Insurgency” detailing the former president’s path to the White House.

The key moment between Trump, Judge Andrew Napolitano and Pence took place during the transition period after the 2016 election when Trump invited the other two for a meeting at Trump Tower.  That’s when Trump reportedly took the jab at Pence.

“During their meeting, for part of which Mike Pence was present, Trump ribbed Pence for his anti-gay rights views,” the book says. “Addressing Napolitano, Trump gestured toward the archconservative vice-president-elect and said, ‘You’d better be careful because this guy thinks it’s a crime to be gay. Right, Mike?’ When Pence didn’t answer, Trump repeated himself, ‘Right, Mike?’ Pence remained silent.”

The potential choice of Andrew Napolitano, who was fired last year from Fox News amid recently dropped allegations of sexual harassment from male co-workers, as well as other TV personalities Trump floated for the Supreme Court, as detailed in the book, were among the many reasons conservatives feared he wouldn’t be reliable upon taking the presidency. Ironically, Trump would have been responsible for making a historic choice for diversity if he chose a gay man like Napolitano for the Supreme Court, beating President Biden to the punch as the nation awaits his selection of the first-ever Black woman for the bench.

The new book — fully titled “Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted” and written by New York Times political reporter Jeremy Peters, who is also gay — identifies Trump’s potential picks for the judiciary as a source of significant concern for conservatives as the “Never Trump” movement was beginning to form and expectations were the next president would be able to name as many as four choices for the Supreme Court. Among the wide ranges of possible choices he floated during the campaign were often “not lawyers or judges he admired for their legal philosophies or interpretations of the Constitution,” but personalities he saw on TV.

Among this group of TV personalities, the books says, were people like Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, whom Trump “regularly watched and occasionally planned his flight schedule around, directing his personal pilot to adjust the route accordingly so the satellite signal wouldn’t fade.” Trump told friends Pirro “would make a fine justice,” the books says.

Trump potentially making good of his talk about naming Napolitano as one of his choices for the Supreme Court “would have been doubly unacceptable to many on the religious right,” the book says. Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge, was friendly with Maryanne Trump Barry, Trump’s sister and a federal judge with a reputation for liberal views, such as a ruling in favor of partial-birth abortion, and is also gay, both of which are identified in the book as potential concerns by the religious right.

Napolitano and Trump were close, the book claims. Napolitano, as the book describes, had a habit of telling a story to friends about Trump confiding to him the future president’s knowledge of the law was based on Napolitano’s TV appearances. Trump told Napolitano: “Everything I know about the Constitution I learned from you on Fox & Friends,” the book says.

The book says the meeting with Trump, Pence and Napolitano when the former president took a jab at Pence in and of itself suggested Trump “was indeed serious about giving the judge some kind of position in the government.” Napolitano, known for making outlandish claims as a Fox News contributor —such as the British government wiretapped Trump Tower — never took a post in the Trump administration.

The new book isn’t the only record of Trump ribbing Pence for his anti-LGBTQ reputation. A New Yorker profile in 2017 depicted a similar infamous meeting with Trump and Pence in which the former president joked about his No. 2’s conservative views. Per the New Yorker article: “When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, ‘Don’t ask that guy— he wants to hang them all!'”The incident described in “Insurgency” was similar to the meeting detailed in the New Yorker profile.

Trump ended up making a list of names he pledged he’d limit himself to in the event he was in the position to make a selection to the Supreme Court and made good on that promise based on his selection. By the end of his presidency, Trump made three picks to the bench who were each confirmed by the U.S. Senate: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. 

But Trump limiting his options to the list of potential plans was not a fool proof plan for conservatives. To the surprise of many, Gorsuch ended up in 2020 writing the majority opinion in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County, a major LGBTQ rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which determined anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and illegal under federal civil rights law.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with Trump’s office seeking comment on the meeting with Pence and Napolitano as described in “Insurgency.” Napolitano couldn’t be reached for comment.

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