Donald Trump is not the first president Asa Hutchinson wanted, and tried, to take down. Nor, I will contend, is he even the second.
Will the third (or fourth?) time be the charm for the man we could dub the Arkansas Charger?
His first presidential target was — who else but fellow Arkansan, Bill Clinton. In 1999, Hutchinson helped deliver the case for Clinton’s impeachment for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
“I could actually help our country go through a difficult time,,” Hutchinson said of this 15 years later, “and so I accepted that responsibility reluctantly.”
“Reluctantly,” perhaps. But vigorously: Hutchinson detailed what he called Clinton’s “seven pillars of obstruction.”
The Arkansas Charger won the first prosecutorial round: the House voted to impeach. But the Senate did not convict, and Clinton, though humiliated and shamed (in those distant, more naive times), managed to complete his term.
Hutchinson soon left the House to join the new George W. Bush team, first as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, then as Undersecretary, Number Two in the new, post 9-11 Department of Homeland Security (or HS). In January 2005, though, Bush passed over Hutchinson to appoint Michael Chertoff as head of HS. Hutchinson, who had wanted the promotion, resigned and went home to Arkansas.
Clearly Hutchinson was eager to gain higher office; but was failure to get the HS top job the only reason for his leaving Washington in 2005?
At this point, indulge me in some speculation, the point of which should soon become clear enough: first of all, the record shows that replacing Tom Ridge at Homeland Security proved to be a tough task.
Bush’s initial pick, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, was widely respected. But Ridge quit in late 2004. Ridge later cited disgust at what he saw as incompetence and political meddling by the re-election campaign, needlessly jacking up terror alerts to boost Bush’s re-election chances (the ploy worked tho).
One other confirmed data point is that in January 2004, Ridge was named in a lawsuit by Maher Arar, a Canadian resident of Syrian origin. In September 2022, Arar was abducted by HS agents from an international flight that stopped over in New York City, acting on an unverified report by Canadian police that he was connected to Al Queda.
Arar was then deported to Syria, where he was held and tortured — all without charge, trial or conviction of any crime. After a year, he was finally cleared, released, and returned to Canada for recovery.
Arar’s U.S. lawsuit was ultimately dismissed. But a Canadian government inquiry upheld his innocence, and in 2006 the Prime Minister formally apologized and Arar won a C$10 million damage settlement.
What’s Maher Arar got to do with Asa Hutchinson, or taking down a president? Stay with me.
The answer begins with noting that Arar’s abduction and lawsuit were opening chapters in a bottomlessly sordid (and still unfinished) furor and saga over U. S. torture programs. It involved U. S. border authorities, who had become part of the sprawling new Homeland Security department. That scandal exploded into the public awareness in April 2004, when horrific photos of U. S. torture were leaked from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
One shocking revelation after another then followed: of “torture taxi” flights carrying captives who were blindfolded, shackled and drugged, to face illegal torture and deaths in secret U. S. prisons hidden in several countries, and at the U. S. Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba.
The official response to these disclosures can moderately be said to include stonewalling, obfuscation, deception, deflection, resistance and redaction. That, along with impunity for all involved in creating and managing the torture network (except for a very few low-ranking troops, most of whom were having such fun they took selfies with inmate victims in the Abu Ghraib torture pornfest).
Did being named in Arar’s torture lawsuit have any effect on Tom Ridge’s departure? We don’t know, but he left soon afterward.
George Bush first tapped Bernard Kerik to replace him. But Kerik, onetime New York City police commissioner under mayor Rudolph Giuliani, immediately ran afoul of ethics rules, regarding illegal hiring of a foreign-born nanny. This was but the first of many related infractions, which culminated in Kerik’s conviction in 2009 on several federal felonies, which put him in the pen for three years. His ordeal was finally (for now) crowned with the quintessential Participation Trophy of our time, a pardon from the 45th president (doubtless delivered with a brand-new red MAGA cap).
But about the Homeland Security job? Bush then named Michael Chertoff, a federal judge who was soon revealed by the New York Times to have consulted extensively with intelligence agencies about how much torture they could get away with, mainly by redefining it as especially-refined artisanal forms of “coercive interrogation.”
In such a debased policy atmosphere, this news likely burnished Chertoff’s appeal. The Senate confirmed him unanimously in February 2005.
Asa Hutchinson’s HS office was a ringside seat for the rapidly-unfolding torture scandal. Secret bases, clandestine kidnap flights, waterboarding — all made an utter bloody hash of federal and international laws; they were devastating to U. S. pretensions of righteousness on the world stage. Soon there was much loose talk about a Bush impeachment, the Hague and international arrest warrants.
Was Hutchinson ultimately relieved to be passed over for the HS spot? It gave him a respectable off-ramp from a regime that was beginning to come apart. That’s speculation; but there’s no question that early 2005 was a fine time for an ambitious but honest conservative to quietly get the hell out of George Bush’s Washington. And he did; just six months ahead of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the reputation of the Bush “team,” including the botched emergency response efforts now under the HS, almost as hard as it did the New Orleans levees.
Michael Chertoff led HS for the rest of Bush’s second term, and the first 21 hours after Barack Obama’s inauguration. By then, the Iraq war was almost over (and another military failure), and two consequences among others were becoming evident: on the one hand, the torture coverup (plus participant impunity) were largely complete, aided by a general public willingness — nay, eagerness — to “forget” it ever happened.
Yet on the other hand, despite the refusal of any accounting or justice, torture’s dishonor and stigma still stained many of the main figures. George W. Bush, soon reduced to watercolor painter, occasional big-pay dinner speaker, and baseball aficionado, exemplifies this invisible exile. Or Donald Rumsfeld, his war-planning Defense Secretary, who retired to a shoreside Maryland estate which is named (aptly some hoped), Mount Misery.
Were those paltry penalties enough? There is reason to suspect that some felt they were not.
And one of them was likely Asa Hutchinson.
Hutchinson concluded that his post-Washington path back to public prominence led, like that of his old rival Bill Clinton, through his home state. But it took him from 2005 til 2014 to win another election in Arkansas, as governor.
In the meantime, he was busy. There was legal and consulting work, on which we shall not dwell. That’s because there soon appeared another project, the Good Deed of our title.
The Good Deed is not a secret, though it might as well have been. Its goal was to rip open the thick curtain of secrecy, specifically the shroud of classified documents, lies and amnesia about the Iraq era torture program. Yet if the government, the military and the spy agencies kept refusing to come clean about it, then citizens, an independent, bipartisan knowledgeable, experienced, accomplished group of them, would need to do so instead.
Enter a Washington nonprofit called the Constitution Project. It came up with the idea, the staff and the funding. Its specialty was convening such bipartisan citizen task forces, supporting their in-depth exploration of some neglected public matter, then distilling their work into thick reports that could, if properly launched and managed, command serious public attention, and start (or re-start) broad discussion.
Asa Hutchinson agreed to be the Co-Chair of this effort; the official task force was eleven, with a staff of eighteen.
If one twist of fate had turned only a week or two later than it did, we would likely know much more about this task force.
But what did its work have to do with taking down a president? George W. Bush (and Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney), and some others (but not all) were by then also finished in Washington.
Well, yes and no. Out of office, yes. Their wars, on the ground, were either at an end or sputtering toward one. The generals were redeployed, lobbying for such as Raytheon, or chattering on airport screens. The rubble and aftermaths, for good or ill, were now in other hands.
But not entirely — in many ways not at all. George Orwell is our guide here, in this familiar quote from Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
The struggle over the “new” past of the “War On Terror” was (and is) by no means over. The reputations of its principals are still much in play: rehabilitation efforts are underway. Inside the U. S. borders, its tortures and torturers may seem to be down the Memory Hole. Yet a closed or closing domestic consensus of silence could perhaps, with the right stroke at the propitious time, like John Wilkes Booth’s single bullet in Ford’s Theatre, be reopened.
Or so the Constitution Project’s task force, with Asa Hutchinson in the front rank, thought. And by early spring 2013, their report was in its final draft: 600 pages, It came with a regrettable but doubtless unavoidably euphemized title:
The Report of The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment
(“Detainee treatment”? This anodyne phrase elides the initial & most basic Memory Hole point of engagement: the report was spawned by torture, and in reaction to ongoing efforts to deny and prevent speaking this fact of torture plainly. Fortunately, much of the report’s text, from the very first sentence of its first “General finding” cogently refutes this work of concealment and silencing.)
However misnamed, it was, the members modestly averred,
the most comprehensive record of detainee treatment across [torture] multiple administrations and multiple geographic theatres – Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and the so-called ‘black sites’ – yet published.”. . .
The Task Force makes a number of specific findings and recommendations. Some seem like common sense; others will undoubtedly generate controversy. Some can be implemented by executive action alone; others will require legislation. Regardless, we urge policymakers to give this report and these recommendations their full and immediate consideration.”
We’re going to skip consideration of the recommendations, good as most are: the full text is available online for that. The goal here is not to argue a side in that debate, but to consider why this attempt at major, cleansing truth-telling misfired, why what is from every angle visible to me a Good Deed, did not achieve its goal. Neither its stated goal, nor the implicit ones that peeped from between the lines, of dealing a further major blow to the lingering stature and credibility of torture’s authors and abettors, beginning at the top, in the White House during two — and perhaps now three? — presidencies.
How did this impact (not) happen, and why?
The answer, it turns out, is straightforward: Fate. Blind, merciless , implacable Fate. To wit:
The report was dated April 15, 2013.
April 15 was a Monday. Congress was in session, but not in crisis. The news media were in town. It should have been great timing.
But 400 miles northeast, in Boston, Fate was in motion. There it was Patriots Day, a major Massachusetts holiday, with fair if chilly weather.
On Patriots day the Red Sox always play a morning ballgame. That Monday they faced the Tampa Bay Rays, before a 99% full Fenway Park crowd of 37400+.
Outside, more crowds lined the streets, waiting for signs of the day’s other main tradition, the breathless legions of runners in what was the 117th annual Boston Marathon. More than 27000 people were running with many thousands more along the route, especially near the finish line downtown.
By 2:55 PM, the ballgame was over (Sox won, 3-2), runners were arriving, and the festivities were in full swing.
Three people were killed, nearly three hundred wounded, many seriously. The bombers, two brothers of Chechen origin, were later said to have meant the bombs as retaliation for U. S. wars in Muslim countries.
And the bombers were still at large, so amid the mayhem there began a massive five-day manhunt. Swarms of police, local and state, were joined by the FBI and National Guard. with much of Boston locked down in fear and suspense. President Obama visited Boston, and addressed the nation about the bombings and their impact. After shootouts and chases, on early Saturday, April 20, one bomber was killed during a confrontation with police, and the other was caught. He is in prison, sentenced to death.
Oh wait — torture report? WHAT torture report?
By 3 PM Monday, the explosions meant the media had ONE topic, which completely filled a full news week, with a long “tail” after that. The torture report never had a prayer of gaining any visibility in that fixated torrent. (The report’s failure was likely a serious blow to the Constitution Project. By 2017, it was absorbed by another DC nonprofit.)
That launch-fail doesn’t dilute the report’s quality. But if there’s any validity to my speculation about Asa Hutchinson’s hopes that it might slow or halt the ongoing coverup of torture and the whitewashing of those responsible, that was another miss: it’s as if the sniper’s target suddenly stumbled and the single bullet simply whizzed past it into the dirt.
But wait. The report came out ten years ago. Since then Hutchinson has served two terns as Arkansas governor, and now has his sights set on the White House. To get there, he has to take down another ex-president, who has loudly praised torture and the endless detentions at Guantanamo.
For that matter, if Hutchinson gets past 45, there is yet a fourth presidential aspirant in the lineup with more than talk about torture on his record:
Florida governor Ron DeSantis served as a Navy lawyer at Guantanamo in 2006, during a period when force-feedings, which many observers call torture, were being administered. Former inmates have said they recognized him from their time there, adding he seemed to be both supervising and enjoying the force-feedings. (DeSantis denied that the inmates had recognized him.)
So could Fate possibly be moving again to revive some of the potential of a searching but long forgotten report Asa Hutchinson co-chaired, as ammunition for, say, looming primary debate face-offs between the Arkansas Charger, 45, and the Demon of Disney?
Am I predicting that Hutchinson will be the 46th president?
No; que sera sera. But come on, man: much stranger things have happened.
So, do Good Deeds anyway. And watch out: no Good Deed goes unpunished.