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Boris Johnson can turn his victory into history if he can save the UK from division

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for Buckingham Palace where he will seek permission to form the next government during an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Downing Street on December 13, 2019 in London, England.

Dan Kitwood | Getty Images News | Getty Images

It is just the sort of script one might expect from Boris Johnson, one of the most enigmatically fascinating personalities of our times.

Prime Minister Johnson – who famously craves both public attention and a place in history – won the former and a shot at the latter through a British election victory this week that was the most convincing conservative victory since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. To save the United Kingdom itself, however, he must reverse course, or at least amend direction, on much of what he has said and done to win in the first place.

I opposed Brexit on economic and political grounds yet, at the same time, Johnson might have the political flexibility, the intellectual chops and the Churchillian ambition to confound his critics along the five lines of action he must simultaneously pursue to find his historic place.

  • Most importantly, he’ll have to negotiate a “no-tariffs, no-quotas” trade deal by end-2020 with a European Union that he has disparaged, knowing that it by some distance is the U.K.’s major trade partner.
  • Second, he will have to rapidly restore external economic confidence in a country that has been suffering disinvestment, an economic slowdown, and doubts about its continued role as a European and global financial hub.
  • Third, he should still aspire to get a trade and investment deal with an impeachment-distracted President Trump. At the same time, he should share with voters how unlikely that will be and embrace what might be faster and easier opportunities in Asia, namely negotiating his way into the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
  • Fourth, he’ll have to abandon much of the populist rhetoric that got him elected and embrace his encouraging “One Nation” message of this week that could heal the country’s divisions – and perhaps also slow a European-wide and global populist trend.
  • Finally, he’ll need save the United Kingdom from unraveling by convincing Scotland and Northern Ireland of their future place – while heading off another Scottish independence referendum. A successful EU negotiation will help that.

Media pundits in recent months have compared and associated the rise of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump as populists who have turned their countries’ politics upside down. Yet the comparisons only go so far, given Boris’ bookish, multilingual, multicultural background and intellectual passion.

He was born in Manhattan as Alexander, then raised in Brussels until age 11, before being shipped to British boarding a year after his mother’s breakdown, a life richly chronicled by Tom McTague in The Atlantic last July. Somewhere along the way the quiet child became the boisterous, eccentric British Boris. He developed a comic demeanor, a disheveled mean (and mane), a rapier intellect with a taste for the classics, and an insatiable desire to be liked.

From all of this grew his self-proclaimed ambition to be “world king.”

“I often thought that the idea of being world king,” said his mother of her illness’ impact on Boris, “was a wish to make him unhurtable, invincible somehow, safe from the pains of life, the pains of your mother disappearing for eight months, the pains of your parents splitting up.” The biographer Sonia Purnell says Johnson told girlfriends that his way of coping was to make himself invulnerable “so that he would never experience such pain again.”

The Brexit referendum and— three years later— his election vote are part psychological and part political drama for Boris Johnson, the stuff of a West End musical. His Friday speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street showed how quickly he can change his tune from that of the campaign to one of governance.

Speaking to those voters who opposed him and wished to remain in the EU, he said, “I want you to know that we in this One Nation Conservative government will never ignore your good and positive feelings – of warmth and sympathy toward the other nations of Europe.”

He went further.

“As we work together with the EU as friends and sovereign equals in tackling climate change and terrorism, in building academic and scientific cooperation, redoubling our trading relationship…,” he said, “I urge everyone to find closure and let the healing begin.”

If the U.K.’s economy emerges as robust and healthy, other European countries might wonder about the value of staying in.

That will be easier said than done as Johnson will now have to decide what kind of U.K. he wishes to build – one more akin to its neighbors in the EU or one more resembling a low-tax, deregulated Singapore-on-Thames.

“Brexit will formally happen next month, to much fanfare,” writes the Economist, “but the hardest arguments, about whether to forgo market access for the ability to deregulate, have not begun. Mr. Johnson will either have to face down his own Brexit ultras or hammer the economy with a minimal EU deal.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, enamored by his colleague’s intellect and linguistic skill, has called Boris Johnson “a leader with genuine strategic vision” who should be taken seriously. This week he extended an olive branch while in Brussels, telling “British friends and allies something very simple: by this general election, you confirmed the choice made more than three years ago, but you are not leaving Europe.”

On the other hand, he has warned, the best way to reach the most ambitious trade agreement with the EU would be if the U.K. essentially says “we don’t want to change very much.”

So, the drama will continue. If the U.K.’s economy emerges as robust and healthy, other European countries might wonder about the value of staying in. If Johnson defines his country as too close to the European Union, irrespective of economic logic, his base may well ask what the past three years’ drama has achieved other than serving Johnson’s own political ambitions.

It’s time to raise the curtain on the next act.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.





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Donald Trump’s Senate trial likely to further tear at national divides

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Democrats are furious at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan for the trial, which will force House impeachment managers to deliver their case in two marathon 12-hour sessions that could stretch into the middle of the night. Trump’s legal team will then have equal time to respond. The opening arguments are expected to begin Wednesday afternoon.

The blueprint could lead to the President being acquitted within a matter of days, which may also satisfy his demands for the trial to be over before he heads to Capitol Hill for his State of the Union address on February 4.

“It’s clear Senator McConnell is hell-bent on making it much more difficult to get witnesses and documents and intent on rushing the trial through,” House Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said on Monday evening.

“On something as important as impeachment, Senator McConnell’s resolution is nothing short of a national disgrace. … Senator McConnell’s resolution stipulates that key facts be delivered in the wee hours of the night simply because he doesn’t want the American people to hear them.”

Schumer vowed to challenge the Kentucky Republican’s plan with amendments on Tuesday at the start of the trial. Democrats are expected to try to force an early vote on the issue of calling new witnesses, a step that is provided for in McConnell’s resolution at the end of the grueling process of prosecution and defense presentations.

The fact that McConnell’s resolution includes language on potential votes over witnesses appears to be an attempt to navigate between Trump’s demands for a swift acquittal and the desire of vulnerable swing-state Republican senators to avoid offering the impression that the trial is not fair.

Trump is facing two articles of impeachment, alleging abuse of power in Ukraine and obstruction of Congress, after he intervened to stop key officials from testifying to the House investigation before he was formally impeached in December.

The trial is an emblem of wider political divides

Republicans on the spot as Senate braces for impeachment drama

The disputes over process at the start of only the third impeachment trial of a president reflect America’s internal political estrangement, which has been exacerbated by a presidency built on exploiting societal fault lines.

Because everybody accepts that the President is almost certain to be acquitted, each smaller battle in the trial takes on extra political importance.

Democrats want to call new witnesses including former national security adviser John Bolton, who branded Trump’s unofficial envoy to Ukraine, Rudy Giuliani, as a “hand grenade,” and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who essentially confirmed a quid pro quo in Ukraine in public.

Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland called for a process that allows testimony from key witnesses under oath.

“How can you have a fair trial if you don’t hear from witnesses who have direct knowledge to the key facts?” Cardin said on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.”

But Republicans are threatening to match such demands with subpoenas for former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter — despite the lack of any evidence that either was involved in corruption in Ukraine.

A new CNN/SSRS poll published Monday highlights the pressure on Republican senators — such as Colorado’s Cory Gardner, Maine’s Susan Collins and Arizona’s Martha McSally — who face tough reelection races.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents said the trial should feature testimony from new witnesses who did not appear in the House impeachment hearings. The poll also explains the wider political dynamics around the trial.

About half of Americans — 51% — say Trump should be removed from office. But his approval rating remains at a steady 43%. The fact that only 8% of Republicans think Trump should be kicked out of the Oval Office helps explain why there is no two-thirds Senate majority to eject him.

There are already suspicions that McConnell’s conditions for the prosecution and defense cases each to be presented in two 12-hour blocks are an attempt to hide the most damning allegations against Trump in late-night sittings.

Cardin suggested the plan may be designed to “saturate the hours so people don’t pay attention and try to get this over quickly rather than allowing a fair trial to take place.”

The dispute over witnesses who Democrats say are needed to ensure the trial offers a “fair” examination of Trump’s alleged offenses is merely a symptom of the unbridgeable chasms between Republicans and Democrats.

In a sign that McConnell’s rules will likely prevail, one moderate Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said he would support them and pointed out that they did guarantee a vote on witnesses.

“Just because the House proceedings were a circus that doesn’t mean the Senate’s trial needs to be,” Alexander said in a statement.

“We have a constitutional duty to hear the case. That means to me, No. 1, hear the arguments on both sides, and not dismiss the case out of hand. No. 2, ask our questions, consider the answers and study the record. No. 3, be guaranteed a right to vote on whether we need additional evidence. Evidence could be documents; it could be witnesses; or there could be no need for additional evidence,” he said.

But there’s no agreement even on basic facts: The rough transcript of a call that appears to show Trump leaning on Ukraine’s President for dirt on Biden, Trump’s potential 2020 rival, is touted by the President and his supporters as “perfect.”

There’s not even a common understanding of the meaning of impeachment itself. Trump’s defense will be anchored on an argument that Congress’ ultimate sanction against a president requires the commission of a crime.

But many scholars believe historical evidence shows the founders meant for the “high crimes and Misdemeanors” phrase in the Constitution to encompass abuses of the public trust by presidents using their power for personal gain.

In keeping with the tone of the Trump presidency, the White House defense brief released on Monday does not fully engage with the mountains of evidence suggesting troubling presidential conduct unearthed by the House impeachment inquiry.

It instead uses sloganeering and insults to blast the impeachment as a “charade” and claims that it is a “dangerous perversion” of the Constitution.

The clashes at the start of the trial also exemplify another dominant political theme of the era, of how a Senate Republican caucus that is ruthlessly competent in wielding power is in lockstep with a President who harbors an expansive vision of his own largely unrestrained authority.

At its root, the trial will raise a profound question about a core principle of American democracy — whether the checks and balances that prevent one branch of government becoming too powerful are now unfit for that purpose.

Democrats reject Trump’s defense

Trump's legal team argues impeachment process a 'charade'

In a new pretrial brief filed on Monday, House Democratic impeachment managers pushed back on Trump’s response to the Senate summons, in which his lawyers argued that he had acted within his rights in Ukraine.

“President Trump maintains that the Senate cannot remove him even if the House proves every claim in the Articles of impeachment. That is a chilling assertion,” the nine-page brief said.

“The Framers deliberately drafted a Constitution that allows the Senate to remove Presidents who, like President Trump, abuse their power to cheat in elections, betray our national security, and ignore checks and balances,” the House managers wrote. “That President Trump believes otherwise, and insists he is free to engage in such conduct again, only highlights the continuing threat he poses to the Nation if allowed to remain in office.”

Trump’s legal team laid out the most detailed summary of its defense on Monday.

“The Senate should speedily reject these deficient articles of impeachment and acquit the president,” the brief said.

“The Articles themselves — and the rigged process that brought them here — are a brazenly political act by House Democrats that must be rejected,” the 110-page brief argues.

The President’s lawyers also construct a new argument that he was well within his powers to ask Ukraine to investigate Biden.

“House Democrats’ accusations rest on the false and dangerous premise that Vice President Biden somehow immunized his conduct (and his son’s) from any scrutiny by declaring his run for the presidency,” the lawyers write. “There is no such rule of law. It certainly was not a rule applied when President Trump was a candidate. His political opponents called for investigations against him and his children almost daily.”

Such arguments are why many Democrats are wary of any step that could lead Hunter Biden to testify, as it could satisfy Trump’s hope of dirtying the former vice president’s image ahead of a possible November election duel.

Trump’s claim that the impeachment is invalid because it does not charge a criminal offense is also a controversial position. It is expected to be laid out by veteran Harvard Professor Emeritus Alan Dershowitz.

Impeachment attorney and CNN legal analyst Ross Garber faulted the constitutional grounds for Dershowitz’s argument.

“I’m not sure of anybody who defended more impeachments than I have. And even I think Dershowitz is wrong on this. I don’t think you need a technical criminal violation for there to be an impeachable offense,” Garber said.



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China confirms fourth coronavirus death, as WHO prepares to meet | News

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The senior health official investigating an outbreak of pneumonia in China stemming from a new coronavirus has said the disease can spread from person to person but can be halted with increased vigilance, as authorities confirmed the fourth death from the infection.

Zhong Nanshan, the head of the National Health Commission, said there was no danger of a repeat of 2002’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic that killed nearly 800 people across the world, as long as precautions were taken.

“It took only two weeks to identify the novel coronavirus,” state news agency Xinhua quoted Zhong as saying late on Monday.

More:

Earlier, Zhong acknowledged patients may have contracted the new virus without having visited the central city of Wuhan where the infection is thought to have originated in a seafood market.

“Currently, it can be said it is affirmative that there is the phenomenon of human-to-human transmission,” he said in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.

A fourth person died on January 19, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said on Tuesday. The 89-year-old man, who had underlying health diseases including coronary heart disease, developed symptoms on January 13 and was admitted to hospital five days later, it added.

Outbreak spreads

The outbreak has spread from the central city of Wuhan to cities including Beijing and Shanghai, with more than 200 cases reported so far. Four cases have been confirmed outside China – in South Korea, Thailand and Japan.

Australia on Tuesday said it would screen passengers on flights from Wuhan amid rising concerns that the virus will spread globally as Chinese travellers take flights abroad for the Lunar New Year holiday that starts this week.

A man showing symptoms of the new disease who had travelled to Wuhan was in isolation as health officials awaited test results, public broadcaster ABC reported on Tuesday

“The outbreak could perhaps not have come at a worse time,” said Al Jazeera’s Katrina Wu, who is in Beijing.

“This is the peak travel season in China. The government has always boasted that during the Lunar New Year you see two to three billion trips being made across the country and Wuhan is not a small city; it’s about 11 million people who will be travelling not only in China, but overseas. It’s a major transport hub.”  

Authorities around the globe, including in the United States and many Asian countries, have stepped up the screening of travellers from Wuhan.

China virus

China says it has stepped up surveillance and quarantine measures as it tries to stop a new coronavirus from spreading further [Stringer/Reuters]

Zhong, the head of the National Health Commission, said two people in Guangdong province in southern China caught the disease from family members who had visited Wuhan.

He added that 14 medical staff helping with coronavirus patients had also been infected.

The Wuhan virus causes a type of pneumonia and belongs to the same family of coronaviruses as SARS. Symptoms include fever and difficulty in breathing, which are similar to many other respiratory diseases and pose complications for screening efforts.

SARS originated in southern China in 2002 and spread to 26 countries across the world over the following months, infecting more than 8,000 people before it was brought under control, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO, which is due to hold an emergency meeting on the outbreak on Wednesday, has said an animal source appeared most likely to be the primary origin of the Wuhan outbreak

Enhanced screening

South Korea on Monday reported its first case of the new coronavirus – a 35-year-old woman who had flown in from Wuhan.

Thailand and Japan previously confirmed a total of three cases – all of whom had visited the Chinese city.

China New Year

The outbreak is spreading as China gears up for the Lunar New Year festival when hundreds of thousands of people visit family or take holidays [File: Aly Song/Reuters]

WHO has said the jump in new cases was the result of “increased searching and testing for [the virus] among people sick with respiratory illness”.

Wuhan authorities said they have installed infrared thermometers at airports, and railway and coach stations across the city. Passengers with fever were being registered, given masks and taken to medical institutions.

Chinese state media moved to calm the mood as discussion swelled on social media about the coronavirus spreading to other Chinese cities.

Weighing in on the matter for the first time, China’s President Xi Jinping said on Monday that safeguarding people’s lives should be given “top priority” and that the spread of the epidemic “should be resolutely contained”, according to CCTV.

Xi said it was necessary to “release information on the epidemic in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation”, and ensure people have a “stable and peaceful Spring Festival”, the broadcaster said.





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Far from Senate, Biden still navigates impeachment politics

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DES MOINES, Iowa – Joe Biden will have Iowa virtually to himself in the coming days as several of his top presidential rivals decamp to Washington to participate in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. But as Biden seeks to leverage his freedom with a final campaign blitz in the critical early voting state, he and his advisers know that the proceedings in Washington could overshadow any closing case they try to present.

Although he will be far from Capitol Hill, Biden is intertwined with the root cause of Trump’s impeachment case: The president pressured the Ukraine president to declare a public investigation of Biden and his son Hunter Biden based on discredited theories about the younger Biden’s foreign business dealings.

Biden himself sought to sidestep the issue during public appearances on Monday. But aides to the former vice president worked furiously to get ahead of any effort by Senate Republicans to use the trial to malign him.

Kate Bedingfield and Tony Blinken, top campaign aides to Biden, distributed a memo to the media saying Trump “is the only American president to have weaponized foreign and national security policy in an attempt to coerce a foreign country into lying about a rival presidential candidate.”

The document reflects that Trump’s claims have no basis and underscores the Biden campaign’s long-established strategy of aggressively countering Trump’s broadsides, a lesson his aides say they learned from Hillary Clinton’s handling of Trump in 2016. But it is also an acknowledgment that Biden cannot necessarily control this story line, especially as some Republicans and conservative media push the idea, however unlikely, that the Bidens should testify before the Senate.

With that in mind, the memo urged media not to repeat a “malicious and conclusively debunked conspiracy theory” from the White House and GOP claiming that the Bidens engaged in wrongdoing when Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm while his father handled U.S. foreign affairs in the same country.

Indeed, Trump’s unsupported assertions have always depended on the discredited accusation that the elder Biden pressed for the firing of top Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin to spare his son’s company, Burisma, from scrutiny. Ousting Shokin was, in fact, the official position of the U.S. government and its Western allies, including European Union nations and the International Monetary Fund leadership, because Shokin was believed to be incompetent or corrupt himself.

House impeachment articles now being considered by the Senate are pegged to disclosures that Trump held up congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine as he pressured President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce an investigation into the Bidens.

The Biden campaign insists that Trump’s trial won’t distract from the former vice president’s campaign effort and can be a boon to Biden’s argument that he is the Democrat with the best shot to defeat Trump in November.

“It’s certainly not something people talk about at town hall meetings,” insisted senior campaign adviser Anita Dunn. “It illustrates the lengths to which Donald Trump will go not to run against Joe Biden.”

Yet there are instances from the campaign trail showing potential risks for Biden.

In late December, he spent several days dealing with questions about whether he’d testify if called. He eventually told a voter at one of his events that he’d comply with a subpoena, though he sees no legal basis to be called, because the impeachment case against Trump is about the president’s actions, not Biden’s or his son’s. It now seems unlikely that the Bidens will be called. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he prefers a quick trial that is virtually guaranteed to end without Trump being convicted and removed from office.

Earlier in December, Biden angrily rebuked an Iowa voter who accused him of “selling access to the president” and getting Hunter “a job and work for a gas company that he had no experience” to justify. Biden called the man “a damn liar.” He offered the usual details during the campaign event and to reporters afterward: Hunter Biden joined the Burisma board without notifying his father; there’s no law preventing a vice president’s son from taking international posts, just as Trump’s children still advance his real estate interests abroad; and Ukrainian officials have said they found no wrongdoing in Hunter Biden’s service on the board.

Yet the result was a new round of headlines and a day of cable news coverage involving Trump, Biden and Ukraine. And, on that day at least, it overshadowed what would have been a significant story for Biden: an endorsement from former Secretary of State John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

——-

AP National Political Writer Steve Peoples in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

___

Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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