March 2, 2018
The Sydney Morning Herald
Photo credit: The New York Times
For decades Alan Dershowitz has been a lion of the American left. He is famed as the man who Harvard appointed its youngest ever full professor of law at the age of 28 in 1967, as a constitutional law expert, as an authority on civil rights, a leading public voice in support of Israel and a two-state peace solution, as the nation’s “top lawyer of last resort”. His university biography boasts not only of his numerous honorary doctorates and best-selling books, but of the two New Yorker cartoons drawn about him and of the pastrami sandwich named after him. He is known to be a friend of the Clintons who twice voted for Barack Obama.
So the new role he has been cast in over the past year – that of a fiery Fox News champion of Donald Trump – has shocked not only his fans but even many of his friends and family. He jokes that so many of them have ceased inviting him to dinner parties that he has lost seven pounds. “I call it the Trump diet.” Beneath the joke you get some sense of real hurt.
In a wide-ranging interview with Fairfax Media this week in Sydney – where he was visiting for a series of speeches – he explained how he became troubled by Obama’s second-term foreign policy, how he views the Russia investigation to be based on a false premise, and how he believes the Trump administration will come to a natural and abbreviated end.
In August 2013 the Assad regime’s military unleashed lethal chemical weapons upon Syrian civilians in Damascus. The attack crossed a “red line” that Obama had earlier set when he declared that in such circumstances the US would take military action.
But Obama did not act and instead accepted Russian assistance in negotiating the destruction of tonnes of chemical weapons with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This, says Dershowitz, was a terrible blunder, effectively ceding the region to Russia. The result, he says, has not only been untold misery and death in Syria, but rapid expansion of the influence of Russia’s key ally, Iran. Today, says Dershowitz, for the first time there are Iranian forces – or its proxies – poised on Israel’s border.
Dershowitz now believes that whether or not the Iran deal sealed under Obama – another catastrophic mistake in his view – is abandoned by Trump, it has caused an increase in the likelihood of war in the Middle East. Israel, he says, cannot and will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran and if necessary would take unilateral action to prevent it.
Knowing what he knows today about foreign policy under John Kerry, Obama’s second-term secretary of state, Dershowitz is not sure that he could have cast his second vote for Obama. This, he says, has nothing to do, with his appearances on Fox over the past year condemning the investigation into the Trump campaign and administration.
“I am not a defender of Trump, I am a defender of the constitution. Look, I would be doing exactly the same thing if Hillary Clinton got elected and the Republicans were yelling ‘Lock her up! lock her up!’ I was one of [Bill] Clinton’s lawyers. I defended him against charges of impeachment. So for me I’m doing exactly the same thing.”
According to Dershowitz, there is no question that Russia meddled in the US election. Nor does he say that Trump did not collude – “I don’t know that”. Dershowitz’s take is that, even if Trump did collude with Putin, he did not commit a crime, he tells me.
“It would be terrible, but not a crime,” he says. And Dershowitz goes further. As the investigation turned towards suggestions of an attempt to cover up contacts between the Trump machine and Russia, or to derail the investigation, Dershowitz began to argue on air that Trump has every right to direct the Justice Department to abandon investigations.
His point of view is neither common nor popular among high-profile American legal scholars and commentators. On a CNN panel his former student, the analyst Jeffrey Toobin, looked befuddled as he declared: “I could not think Alan is more wrong.” Journal articles have been published debunking his point of view.
Dershowitz stands firm. Trump might have committed a sin, but not a crime. Since Dershowitz began articulating this point of view, not only has he lost friends, media associated with the left have stopped asking him to join panels.
Dershowitz recalls how in the 1970s he defended the right of a neo-Nazi group to march in Skokie, Illinois. His furious mother called him and demanded “Who are you going to defend – the Jews or the Nazis?”
“I am defending the first amendment,” he responded.
“I’m your mother, don’t give me that. You got to pick the Jews or the Nazis,” she responded.
“I never expected to get that today from sophisticated Harvard law professors. They’re asking me whose side I am on, the answer I am giving them, that I’m on the side of the constitutional law, doesn’t get me anywhere.”
Dershowitz believes this new censoriousness has crept from politics into broader social movements of the far left and right.
“We’re beginning to see censorship flowing out of the #metoo movement, and it has a surreal aspect to it. [They say] we want you to take down the art of Chuck Close. We want you not to show the new movie by Woody Allen. We want you maybe soon to take down Picasso and Renoir and Degas and Rodin, all of whom have terrible shifts with women.
“James Levine, the greatest opera conductor in the history of the United States, can no longer conduct the Metropolitan Opera even though he categorically denies that he did anything wrong and there’s been no proof presented.”
Dershowitz fears that due process has been abandoned in the current atmosphere.
In 2014 allegations of sexual assault against a minor were levelled at Dershowitz, part of a broader series of sensational allegations made against the financier Jeffrey Epstein. He successfully prevailed over his accusers after he was able to prove he had never met the alleged victim. The allegations were withdrawn, the lawyers who levelled them conceding they were made in error. He is now fighting to have emails which, he says, prove lawyers sought to set him up, released from a court seal.
He says too many organisations today are dismissing or abandoning staff who have suffered accusations before any due process has been undertaken because of the possibility or reputational damage.
As in his argument about the Trump case, Dershowitz is calling for a return to the law.
In social debate Dershowitz believes that as a figure of the left he has a special obligation to condemn what he sees as the excess of the left, just as those on the right should do more to condemn excess within their own orbit. Donald Trump, he says, should have done more to excoriate the racism that led to violence and a murder last year during a right-wing demonstration in Charlottesville.
Returning to politics, Dershowitz says again: “I’m not a supporter of Donald Trump. No there’s no way in which I can imagine myself voting Trump.”
He does not believe the President will be brought down by the Mueller investigation. But nor does he believe he will run for a second term. Rather, sometime before the 2020 election, says Dershowitz, Trump will declare himself the most successful president since George Washington and step down. “He wants to go down a winner.”
Asked if order might return to a world that seems more chaotic and a political culture more fractured and bitter, Dershowitz laughs.
“I said in my speech yesterday that in Israel a pessimist is one who says, ‘Things are going so bad they can’t get worse,’ and optimist is one who says, ‘Yes they can.’ So I’m a cautious optimist.”
Nick O’Malley is a senior writer and a former US correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.