Huricane Juan
Toronto Star
  • What?s ailing SickKids? How Toronto?s world-class children?s hospital missed the warning signs

    When Brenda Waudby pulled up the article on her cellphone, she could barely process what she was reading. She can no longer remember the headline, but the words took her back to the most horrifying time in her life. The Hospital for Sick Children. Evidence. Unreliable.

    “I felt like throwing up,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God. Here we go again.’”

    In 1997, Waudby was a single mom in Peterborough, Ont., recovering from cocaine addiction and the violent death of her 21-month-old daughter, Jenna Mellor, when SickKids pathologist Charles Smith ran a bulldozer through her life. Smith’s flawed opinions led police to charge Waudby for Jenna’s murder. It took years to regain custody of her two other children, clear her name and bring the real killer — Jenna’s 14-year-old babysitter — to justice.

    Smith’s faulty autopsy analyses tainted more than a dozen cases, including that of William Mullins-Johnson, who was jailed for 12 years after being wrongfully convicted in the 1993 death of his niece.

    In late April 2007, the province launched the Goudge Inquiry into pediatric forensic pathology in Ontario and Smith. In the months that followed, Waudby was a regular in the public gallery on the 22nd floor of a grey office tower on Dundas St. West, as the evidence untangled a knot of systemic failings at some of the province’s most trusted institutions, including SickKids.

    “I was really hopeful that they’d learned,” she said. “I was hopeful that the systems had corrected their issues.”

    That hope faded with news of Motherisk, another scandal involving a SickKids doctor, flawed forensics, marginalized parents and families torn apart.

    “It’s like we were disregarded. All we went through, that didn’t matter,” she said. “How could they forget so quickly?”

    Ten years after the Goudge Inquiry got underway, an investigation into what went wrong at SickKids with Motherisk reveals missed opportunities to contain the scandal brewing in its corridors.

    While Motherisk was actively marketing its drug and alcohol tests to child protection agencies across Canada, SickKids was cashing the cheques but didn’t seem to appreciate that what was being sold was a forensic test, used in legal cases to help determine parental substance abuse.

    From 2005 to 2015, Motherisk performed its hair-strand tests for 16,000 individuals at the request of Ontario’s child protection agencies — 54 per cent of whom tested positive for drugs or alcohol. Motherisk’s tests were also used in thousands of cases in B.C., Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

    Between January 2007 and March 2015, the lab’s revenues topped $11 million, $6.8 million of which came from children’s aid organizations, according to information released by SickKids through freedom of information legislation.

    Then in late 2014, an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling raised doubts about the accuracy of Motherisk’s hair-testing evidence in a criminal case. Concerns were warranted.

    In her blistering December 2015 report, retired Court of Appeal Justice Susan Lang, appointed by the province to review the reliability of Motherisk’s tests, eviscerated virtually every aspect of the lab’s operation.

    The lab did not double-check results before August 2010, until which point it reported screening-test results despite “an explicit warning” that the results were preliminary and must be confirmed. All the while, staff lacked the forensic training needed to meet the high bar for evidence presented in court.

    Lang also found SickKids failed to provide “meaningful oversight” or draw “clear lines of accountability”— both factors identified in the $10-million inquiry into Smith led by Justice Stephen Goudge.

    Goudge’s 169 recommendations dramatically improved expert medical evidence in pediatric death cases, but SickKids did not see the red flag with Motherisk, Lang found. “I am confident that the hospital will reflect deeply on what went wrong at (the lab) and within its own institution, particularly because it appears that the hospital has not adapted and implemented the lessons to be learned from the Goudge report.”

    In the beginning, SickKids had vehemently defended the lab, pointing to international proficiency testing the hospital said verified Motherisk’s results could be trusted. But in the spring of 2015, it was discovered that, for several years, Motherisk was submitting results to the international hair-testing body that had been obtained in a different lab. SickKids closed its Motherisk lab.

    The lawsuits SickKids now faces include a proposed class-action seeking $200 million in damages for negligence and $250 million in punitive damages. Dr. Gideon Koren, the founder and long-serving director of the Motherisk program, and Motherisk lab manager Joey Gareri are also named in the lawsuit.

    In their joint statement of defence, SickKids and Gareri refuted the claims, and said that if a custody decision was made based on a Motherisk test, which they denied, children’s aid societies were responsible. Koren, in his statement of defence, also denied the claims. He said the tests were “accurate and reliable for their intended purpose” of providing clinical information “relevant to the medical care and safety of children,” and claimed “no knowledge” that the Goudge Inquiry or report “were relevant to his role” as director of the Motherisk lab.

    A prominent clinical toxicologist and magnet for grant money, Koren retired from SickKids in 2015. He is being investigated by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, after SickKids shared findings from an internal probe of Motherisk, which also confirmed undisclosed conflicts of interest in the program’s still-operational research arm.

    His involvement has reignited old grievances about the hospital’s response to his proven dishonesty and research misconduct in a high-profile dispute with whistleblower colleague Dr. Nancy Olivieri 20 years ago, which pitted concerns about patient safety against the Canadian drug company Apotex.

    SickKids doctor Brenda Gallie, who publicly defended Olivieri at the time, traces the roots of the current scandal to the hospital’s decision to stand by Koren, who was suspended, fined and stripped of a research chair by the hospital in 2000, but retained control of Motherisk.

    “SickKids learned nothing from that. That set the stage perfectly for this,” she said. “It was just a matter of time until this emerged.”

    The hospital declined to comment on past scandals, personnel issues or specific cases, citing ongoing litigation.

    In a recent interview, SickKids CEO Michael Apkonsaid that following the Lang report and after “our own deep reflection,” the hospital has given consideration to any of its work “that could have interaction with the justice system,” and introduced guidelines requiring experts to notify the general counsel’s office and receive training before interacting with the justice system. It has also “refined” its conflict-of-interest policy “given concerns the public has raised about Dr. Koren’s research funding,” he said.

    “We’ve put new programs and policies and procedures in place to ensure that the chances of anything like this happening again are as low as humanly possible,” Apkon said.

    Notably, the hospital has hired Justice Goudge, who retired from the bench in 2014, to review its Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect (SCAN) team of doctors and nurses, who often provide expert opinions in abuse cases. SCAN’s diagnostic expertise came under fire during the Goudge Inquiry into Smith. Apkon said this review is proactive, and “is not because we have any specific concerns.”

    Goudge declined to comment on specifics of the SCAN review, but commended the hospital for reaching out to him.

    “Certainly what I’ve seen is they are wanting to learn, and they are wanting to do better,” he said in an interview. “I have no doubt about that at all.”

    Goudge said Motherisk is another example of the challenge the justice and health-care systems face in overseeing the varied skill sets in a complex hospital setting.

    “Even with the best intentions, it’s not easy,” he said.

    Criminal lawyer James Lockyer, who has acted in several wrongful conviction cases involving Smith and was instrumental in exposing the Motherisk failings, said the hospital’s status as a public institution means “we need to know how they could have gone so wrong.”

    “There’s a sense that it will go away if they avoid it, but that’s not the way these things happen,” he said. “They keep coming back to bite you.”

    An Ontario mother known as C.R. to protect the identity of her children produced dozens of clean urine tests over several years leading up to her 2009 child-protection trial, attempting to disprove what she claimed were inaccurate Motherisk drug tests, which the lab said showed she used cocaine.

    Her two daughters, who were removed at birth, were adopted into other families.

    “I don’t think any of us want this to have happened for nothing,” she said. “They didn’t clean it up the last time (after Smith), so obviously whatever they were doing, it didn’t work.”

    The Motherisk scandal is the product of failings across multiple systems, including child protection and the courts. But the story of how a world-class hospital missed the warning signs holds key lessons for an institution that can’t afford to get it wrong again.

    Participation in Lang’s closed-door review of Motherisk was voluntary, there were no cross-examinations and interviewees approved the summaries of their statements before being quoted in the final report.

    But Lang is unequivocal on a few key points: the hair-testing service Motherisk sold to child protection agencies and law enforcement was “a forensic one” and therefore needed to meet a high bar to be evidence in court. And since at least 2005, the hospital had the information it needed to know Motherisk’s high-stakes operation warranted much closer scrutiny.

    The Motherisk Program was founded in 1985 under the umbrella of the hospital’s Research Institute, but by the late 1990s, its lab’s focus had morphed from studying drugs in hair to selling services, Lang found.

    In 1998, Motherisk hosted an international workshop that discussed “the application of hair analysis in Canadian criminal and civil law.” Koren and other Motherisk scientists had authored articles that highlighted the pioneering use of the lab’s tests in Ontario courts, as early as 1999. Lab managers marketed its hair testing to child protection agencies in more than 160 presentations, beginning in the early 2000s.

    However, SickKids told Justice Lang the hospital did not become aware the lab was routinely performing hair tests for use in child protection cases until 2005.

    At that point, SickKids claims it viewed this as a shift “from research toward clinical practice,” which is related to the diagnosis and treatment of patients, rather than to forensic work.

    Koren did not respond to emails requesting comment for this story and declined to be interviewed for the Lang review. In response to Lang’s written questions, he said believed the hair tests were providing “clinical information.” The fact that only a minority of cases went to court, he said, meant “the vast majority served as a treatment tool of therapeutic drug monitoring.”

    The term “forensic” was never cited by lawyers or judges, Koren said, or by anyone at SickKids, “including risk management or the executive team,” although “all of them were well aware of our activities with (children’s aid societies) and the court.”

    The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “forensic” as “relating to or dealing with the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems.” Lang breaks it down like this: “What distinguishes a clinical test from a forensic test is the purpose behind the test. If the test is carried out or is used for a legal purpose, then it is a forensic test.”

    According to Lang, the only person in Motherisk’s management who acknowledged the lab was doing forensic work was lab supervisor Dr. Bhushan Kapur, who was hired in 2009, and did not perform the hair tests or interpret results.

    Kapur, a toxicologist, told the Star in an interview that he shared his view with Koren, but his argument didn’t get traction.

    “All you can do is you can tell the people once, twice, and then you stop. I made my feelings known,” said Kapur, adding that Koren “is a very strong personality.”

    Kapur said he was aware that the Motherisk test was marketed to child protection agencies, but, “I had fortunately nothing to do with that, because I didn’t want to be part of that. I was strictly a scientist.”

    Lab manager Gareri’s lawyer declined to comment for this story. The Star was unable to reach former lab manager Julia Klein. (Other lab employees named in the report either could not be reached or declined to comment.)

    Lang said the failure of its managers to appreciate that Motherisk was providing a forensic service was “exacerbated” by the lab’s marketing efforts — and was inconsistent with its own statements.

    A business plan from 2006-07 describes the lab as performing “tests for forensic purposes.” In a booklet in 2012, Motherisk said the lab “has translated established forensic toxicology methods (e.g. hair analysis) and applied them to children and (newborns).” And a presentation to Lang and her team at SickKids in December 2014, obtained through freedom of information, includes the logo for the Society of Forensic Toxicologists.

    “Given the manner in which (the Motherisk lab) operated, Dr. Koren, Mr. Gareri and Ms. Klein should have appreciated that (Motherisk) was carrying out forensic, not clinical, work,” Lang concluded.

    Lockyer, who represents a Toronto mother whose criminal appeal ignited the Motherisk controversy in late 2014, said the hospital’s position that it didn’t view Motherisk’s tests as forensic “makes absolutely zero sense” and is “simply not a credible statement.”

    Toronto criminal lawyer Mark Sandler, who was special counsel to the Goudge Inquiry and was consulted by the Lang review on the use of Motherisk’s tests in criminal proceedings, said the hospital’s view of the lab’s work is “very hard to understand.”

    “It had such an important impact upon child protection proceedings that oversight and accountability should have been a central feature of the SickKids approach to Motherisk,” he said.

    The hospital had several chances to put Motherisk’s operations under the microscope, including in 2008, at the height of the public reckoning on Smith.

    SickKids was not the main player in the Goudge Inquiry, which focused primarily on oversight gaps at the Ontario coroner’s office, which was responsible for the autopsies Smith performed at the hospital.

    But SickKids, where Smith was a staff pathologist for more than 20 years, was a party with standing, and witness to hours of testimony that detailed the dangers of untrained experts performing a forensic service.

    “There’s no doubt that the Goudge Inquiry was a very big red flag for the Hospital for Sick Children to think about units under its umbrella,” Sandler said.

    After Goudge, he said it would have been his “expectation” that SickKids perform an “audit or evaluative process” to make sure the accountability and oversight gaps that plagued the unit where Smith worked “did not exist for others doing similar work in the hospital.”

    It appears this did not happen.

    In an email to the Star, the hospital said it has “no information to suggest that an audit about the extent to which forensic activity was ongoing at SickKids was done.”

    SickKids said there were improvements within SCAN, including developing certification criteria and networking regularly with colleagues across the country “to address concerns about working in isolation,” the hospital said.

    In 2006 and 2008, the hospital chose not to bring Motherisk into its clinical accreditation process, which is not as stringent as forensic accreditation but ensures basic standards are being met.

    SickKids told Lang that Motherisk was not included in this process in 2008 because “it was recognized that (accreditation) may not be achieved, and sights were set on the December 2010 accreditation inspection instead.”

    Motherisk was not accredited as a clinical lab until 2011.

    Motherisk’s tests were in the spotlight in the 2009 criminal trial of Tamara Broomfield, who would be dubbed Toronto’s “cocaine mom.”

    In what appeared to be a horrendous case of child abuse, Broomfield was charged with administering cocaine to her 2-year-old son, Malique, based largely on Motherisk’s evidence. Koren testified that Motherisk’s tests of Malique’s hair showed he had regularly ingested large amounts of cocaine over 14 months leading up to his near-fatal 2005 overdose.

    Broomfield was convicted for administering the overdose and for other child-abuse charges related to her son, and sentenced to seven years in jail.

    At the time, the media coverage of the case did not trigger warning bells at SickKids.

    In October 2014, the Appeal Court overturned Broomfield’s cocaine-related convictions based on expert evidence from a forensic toxicologist, who criticized Motherisk’s methods, interpretations and the reliability of the test.

    After that decision, the list of concerned parties quoted in the Star included family lawyers, criminal lawyers, child protection agencies and a judge, demanding answers on Motherisk’s testing.

    However, emails between senior SickKids managers at that time, obtained through freedom of information, suggest the hospital leadership put winning the public relations battle ahead of addressing these concerns.

    In an email to SickKids CEO Apkon on Nov. 11, 2014, Jeff Mainland, executive vice-president of corporate strategy and communications, wrote: “Had some challenges on strategy by (Senior Management Committee) members this morning (why aren’t we doing external review?) but they largely understood the complexity of the issue and the tunnel vision of the reporter. (This refers to Star reporter Rachel Mendleson.)

    “After I walked them thru the facts and the strategy, they seemed to have more confidence in our approach,” he said.

    Two days later, on November 13, the Star published a front-page story featuring three provincial ministries with oversight of Motherisk or responsibility for the effects of its hair tests and the headline, “Why won’t they act?”

    The tone shifted.

    “If there is a decision to review, we will need some messaging,” Mainland wrote in an email to Apkon and Marilyn Monk, executive vice-president of clinical operations. “If we are truly ‘confident’ in (Motherisk), we may lean towards having the government order the review. They can set scope, be accountable for outcome and cover costs.”

    Apkon responded: “Seems like the best insurance is to do this in conjunction with the (government). They can give the review credibility and if there are positive findings we will be viewed as at least somewhat more proactive.”

    The next day, Apkon wrote to deputy health minister Robert Bell, asking for “a brief conversation” about the Motherisk lab.

    “The Star reporter is continuing to push this story and raise new concerns. I do not have concerns about the issues the reporter has raised and I believe she has all the information necessary to develop a clear picture of this domain,” he said. “However, with mounting pressure, there may be value in an external review.”

    At the same time, the hospital continued to reassure stakeholders. On November 19, Koren, with the hospital’s approval, delivered a presentation for the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) standing behind the reliability of Motherisk’s testing.

    The slide deck, obtained by the Star, states that Motherisk “adheres to the highest professional and ethical standards of laboratory practice,” trumpets the now-debunked proficiency testing results and described the screening test it used to test drugs until 2010 as “highly specific.”

    “We were told all the way up the line that there was not a problem,” OACAS Executive Director Mary Ballantyne said in December 2016. “We believed it because they (the hospital) brought their experts in to prove (it) to us.”

    The attorney general announced the review on Nov. 27, 2014. Motherisk’s hair-testing continued for another four months, until SickKids learned it had been misled about the proficiency testing, and suspended operations.

    In a recent interview, Apkon said that when questions first surfaced about Motherisk, the hospital was considering “two decisions.”

    “Do we continue to operate the lab and offer the service? And how do we collaborate to address the past testing? That’s what drove the decision-making at that time,” he said.

    Apkon said he viewed assessing the reliability of past tests as a “shared responsibility” between the lab and the judicial system, adding there was “no way” for the hospital to independently assess the impact of a particular test on a proceeding.

    The decision to keep the lab open until March 2015 was based on “the best data we had around day-to-day operations at that point in time,” he said. “As new data emerged and we began to question the credibility of the lab, we shut it down.”

    However, the emails suggest that in the interim, another red flag was raised.

    In a message to SickKids risk manager Janice Campbell on Nov. 24, 2014, lab manager Gareri asked if there was “any legislation that provides clear requirements; particularly considering the common use of our results as part of child welfare proceedings?”

    Gareri explained that Apkon advised that he get guidance on “an appropriate retention policy” for the lab’s testing samples, which at that time were being retained for up to one year, time frames he said were “deemed appropriate at our last inspection.”

    Campbell responded: “Did you have standards you based the current (standard operating procedures) on? As it seems to me extraordinarily short given other retention periods we have outlined in the hospital wide policy.”

    This policy stipulated holding on to patient records and other material for a minimum of 33 years, she said. “Also in many of your cases you would also have to consider the medical legal standard . . . the sample and all related documents should be maintained until the matter has been finally resolved . . . and all applicable appeal periods are exhausted.”

    Apkon said recently that due to “pending litigation” he could not comment on “the processes the lab used at the point it was still operating.”

    Following the interview, the Star asked SickKids again why it appears Motherisk’s retention policies were so out of line with the rest of the hospital, how the hospital justifies its decision to keep the lab open following this revelation, and whether a hospital-wide audit has been conducted as a result.

    “Clinical tissue samples are stored in the Department of Paediatric Laboratory Medicine in accordance with hospital retention policies,” the hospital replied.

    A few months before Lang released her findings, the hospital issued a public apology.

    “We deeply regret that the practices in the Motherisk drug testing laboratory didn’t meet the high standard of excellence that we have here at SickKids, and we extend our sincere apologies to children, families and organizations who feel that they may have been impacted in some negative way,” Apkon said in October 2015.

    He recently told the Star the hospital has used the events of Motherisk “to refine a number of important practices” regarding the hospital’s interaction with the justice system and its approach to conflict-of-interest management.

    “I’m really proud of the care that SickKids delivers and the research that we do here. I think we have a well-deserved reputation. At the same time, it is extremely valuable, and sometimes painful to see how we perform — our impact through other people’s eyes,” he said. “I do think it’s made us a stronger organization going forward.”

    Gallie, the doctor who spoke out during the Olivieri affair, attended the mandatory town hall meetings where Apkon informed SickKids employees of changes the hospital imposed following Motherisk. But she said she has not yet seen evidence that the hospital and its governing board of trustees recognize the need to address deeper issues.

    “I want to hear them say, ‘I’m sorry. We made a series of errors and we are examining everything in our whole structure,” she said. “I wouldn’t say they intend these harms, but to admit that they made a mistake, they can’t do.”

    Led by retired judge Judith Beaman, the Motherisk Commission is weighing the various factors that influenced the outcome of affected child protection cases in Ontario. Out of the 674 cases reviewed so far, the commission has determined in 36 cases there was a “substantial reliance” on Motherisk hair testing.

    Toronto lawyer Julie Kirkpatrick, who acted for Waudby in her appeal of her child abuse conviction and has represented C.R. since 2016, said a common thread is marginalized women, “shouting from the rooftops.”

    Waudby was exonerated in 2012 — 15 years after Smith’s flawed opinions set off a devastating chain of events.

    When Waudby returned home in January 1997, Jenna was dead at the hospital. Smith wrongly said Jenna’s horrifying abdominal injuries were inflicted before her mother left her with the babysitter, and Waudby was charged.

    In a desperate bid to regain custody of her other children, she pled guilty to child abuse, believing a deal had been made for the Crown to drop the murder charge if she did.

    Other medical experts discredited Smith’s evidence but the child-abuser label remained, even after 2005, when Jenna’s babysitter confessed to beating and sexually assaulting her. Although the babysitter, who was convicted and sentenced to 22 months in jail, had said his blows “would have” broken Jenna’s ribs, a typo in the court transcript wrongly said they “wouldn’t have” — an error that was not fixed until 2012. (The babysitter can’t be named because he was a minor when the offence occurred.)

    In a recent interview, Waudby, 51, said the Motherisk scandal is yet another reminder that “just because someone is vulnerable, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be listened to, and treated with respect.”

    Rachel Mendleson can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it '; document.write( '' ); document.write( addy_text24009 ); document.write( '<\/a>' ); //-->\n This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

  • Donald Trump?s 100-day gong show mostly plays by the rules

    WASHINGTON—The president of the United States would not stop talking about the fraudulence of the election he had just won.

    It was only three days into Donald Trump’s presidency, the very beginning of what should have been his honeymoon, but he was still consumed by his inconsequential loss in November’s popular vote. In interviews, on Twitter, in private meetings, Trump kept repeating the lie that more than three million people had voted illegally. Not only that, he announced he was launching a “major investigation.”

    Here was a troubling breach of democratic tradition. The president was casting doubt on the legitimacy of the electoral process. The president was sending the federal government on a taxpayer-funded fishing expedition because he believed nonsense from conspiracy websites.

    And then the whole thing disappeared.

    No investigation ever materialized. The president got distracted by other grievances. That was that.

    If there is a perfect metaphor for Trump’s first 100 days, it is the vanishing saga of the imaginary illegal voters. Sound and fury, revealing impulsiveness and dishonesty and a tenuous connection with reality, resulting in a media storm and nothing else.

    The story of Trump’s gong show of a young administration is a tale of broken norms of presidential behaviour. But it is also, just as importantly, about substantive norms prevailing. All the chaos has distracted from a whole lot of continuity.

    Read more:

    Trump at 100 days: The biggest, funniest and weirdest moments so far

    Here’s everything important that’s happened in Trump’s first 100 days

    ‘Trump has accomplished more in his 100 days than any other President since Franklin Roosevelt,’ White House says, falsely

    Donald Trump said 16 false things in that bizarre Oval Office interview with the Associated Press

    The man who promised that transformative change would be “so easy” has either failed in his attempts at big moves or declined to try them at all. The early tenure of the first reality-television president has been dramatic in the way that old soap operas are dramatic: captivating characters, multiple convoluted plotlines, not much changing any time soon.

    It sure feels like things are happening. The Trumpman Show is an all-day, all-night, all-consuming spectacle, can’t-miss TV even if you desperately want to miss it.

    There he is in the Oval Office, making another grandiose pronouncement. There he is in Kentucky, holding another campaign rally for some reason. Ignore Twitter for half an hour and you might miss Trump scolding an American ally, threatening a Republican congressman, casually suggesting a new international order.

    The impression of pandemonium thrills Trump’s supporters, who see a take-no-prisoners dynamo shaking up the old elite order, and frightens Trump’s opponents, who see a swindler destroying decades of progress. Yet the defining feature of his presidency has been abject nothingness.

    Trump, master showman, has been performing the appearance of doing things more than he has been doing things.

    He has not a single legislative accomplishment of significance. He has been oddly slow to fill senior positions. His first budget included such cartoonish cuts that it was dead on arrival in Congress. Though he has busied himself issuing executive orders, many have been more like press releases than immediate acts.

    His most important order, an incompetently written travel ban targeting Muslim countries, was blocked by the courts. His 100-day “Contract with the American Voter,” a commitment list to which he affixed his black-Sharpie signature, remains mostly unfulfilled.

    One by one, he has discarded pledges to revolutionize U.S. foreign policy, shifting in almost every case to the status quo. Ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran? He’s not doing it. Taking on Cuba’s Castro regime? He has shown no interest whatsoever. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem? “Not an easy decision,” he says now. Designating China as a currency manipulator? “They’re not a currency manipulator.”

    He lost a senior appointee, national security adviser Michael Flynn, over a scandal related to communication with Russia. And the FBI continues to investigate whether his campaign colluded with the alleged Russian interference in the election, casting a legitimacy cloud over his every act.

    Trump has simultaneously dismissed the 100-day benchmark as “artificial,” which is true, and claimed he has achieved more in 100 days than any previous president, which is laughable. By any objective standard, scholars say, Trump’s 100 days have been poor.

    “I don’t think it’s even in the ballpark of the 100 days of other modern presidents,” said Terry Sullivan, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina and executive director of the White House Transition Project, which provides information to incoming administrations. “This president’s not even in the farm club, let alone the major leagues.”

    The issue, Sullivan said, isn’t that Trump hasn’t signed as many bills as Franklin D. Roosevelt, with whom the concept of the first 100 days originated, or even Barack Obama. It is his failure to establish the kind of “reputation for competence” that would convince lawmakers to follow his lead in the future.

    Trump was never expected to be a master legislative tactician, winning votes by navigating the intricacies of Congress. But he has not even been an effective bully. The kind of bluster that sounded persuasive to voters has fallen flat with people who actually understand how government works.

    “I think the problem is that the president speaks to his general-election audience,” Sullivan said. “The election is over. And he doesn’t seem to have understood that.

    “He needs to be speaking to the audience of Washington decision-makers. And that audience is sophisticated.”

    Impassioned Democrats have mobilized to fight Trump, swamping town hall meetings and flooding Congress with pressure calls. Their efforts have swayed representatives from both parties. Other checks and balances, like the courts, have proven robust. But the most effective resistance to Trump’s agenda has been Trump’s own leadership.

    The president who vowed to run government like a business has instead run government like his business, a well-marketed luxury brand barely masking behind-the-scenes disarray. The ineptitude of Trump and his team has turned the most routine of presidential acts — a statement commemorating Holocaust victims, for example — into needless controversies. Policy negotiations have consisted of the Great Dealmaker making empty threats and then making concessions.

    Trump implausibly demanded immediate funding for his border wall in exchange for continued funding for Obamacare. He then capitulated to the Democrats. Trump warned he would make life difficult for the leader of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus if he didn’t support Trump’s health-care plan. Mark Meadows just ignored him. Administration officials suggested he was preparing to announce his intention to withdraw from NAFTA. When the leaders of Canada and Mexico called and asked him not to, he quickly announced he would stay in the deal.

    “I think he’s used to a situation where he just gets his way and doesn’t have to work with anyone,” said Angel Padilla, a co-founder of the leading opposition group Indivisible. “He does not know how to govern. And that’s apparent in everything we’ve seen.”

    Trump is, indisputably, a world-class real estate salesman, and he has made expert use of the White House as a visual prop. On Wednesday, he had the Senate come over for an unusual briefing about North Korea. But even the Republicans left confused, unclear what the administration’s policy was or why they had been invited in the first place.

    It is hard for Trump to marshal sophisticated policy arguments when he evidently lacks policy sophistication himself. Time and again, his attempts to achieve have been hampered by his own ignorance. It is not even clear if he knows what he himself believes.

    His greatest flop was the collapse of his effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. (He has claimed that his bill isn’t dead yet, and it appeared to have new life this week in the House of Representatives.) Even as he flailed to sell the American Health Care Act, he made clear that he wished he had instead chosen to pursue tax reform first. Only because of legal requirements, he said, was he forced to begin with health care.

    In fact, there were no such requirements. He had been persuaded to start with health care by Speaker Paul Ryan, who wanted it that way. Unless Trump was lying, always a possibility, he had been led into an embarrassing mess because he didn’t know basic facts.

    A month before he was forced to withdraw the bill from the House floor, Trump uttered the most revealing quote of his first 100 days.

    “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

    There is no talking about Trump without talking about his unwavering base. A hundred days in, almost everybody who voted for him would do so again.

    John Orr, a grain trader and Republican county chair in Nebraska, knows Trump hasn’t been able to achieve everything he wanted. But he does not blame Trump. In his view, the leading culprits include obstructionist “establishment types” and a biased media.

    Trump voters, Orr said, know it will take time for the president to overcome such entrenched interests. And they are pleased with his successes to date.

    No Trump triumph was as momentous as his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Even if Trump’s presidency is a four-year disaster, the 49-year-old conservative could well be shaping the nation’s laws for 30 years.

    “A lot of folks were fearful of who Hillary [Clinton] would appoint for the Supreme Court. So Gorsuch getting confirmed — a lot of the other things don’t even matter to a lot of people,” Orr said. “Given the circumstances, I think he’s done all he can, basically.”

    Trump has done more than get Gorsuch confirmed. He has approved the Keystone XL oil pipeline, abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership once and for all, ordered a toughening of “Buy America” trade policies. The jury is still out on his pinprick missile strike on Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians, but it was applauded by a bipartisan array of policy experts disenchanted with Obama’s inaction.

    The Syria strike was a flip-flop on his vow not to target Bashar Assad. He has reversed himself on a wide variety of domestic and foreign policy issues. He has stood firm, however, in his antipathy to Muslims and illegal immigrants.

    Though Trump has irked some anti-illegal-immigration activists by dumping his promise to cancel Obama’s protections for “DREAMers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, he has empowered enforcement agents to far more aggressively deport people, and they have. His hard line appears to have scared thousands into staying in Mexico rather than attempting to cross.

    Gorsuch aside, his most significant early impact has come through the preliminary moves of the agencies he has handed over to hard-right appointees. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said he plans to sharply curb federal efforts to foist reforms on police forces abusing civil rights. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt has begun to turn the agency away from Obama-era efforts to combat climate change.

    Environmentalists say Trump has made little progress even on rescinding Obama orders and rules on which he doesn’t need congressional help. But it appears to be coming. Off-camera, away from the bright lights of Trump’s travelling circus, his team has set the wheels in motion for a vastly different policy era.

    But tallying policy achievements and non-achievements fails to do this presidency complete justice. The normal scorekeeping methods presuppose that the administration is normal.

    This one is not close. Where on the scorecard does one put “takes governing instructions from Fox News segments?” What about “impugns the ethics of own FBI director?”

    In Trump’s first 100 days, he has attempted to discredit federal judges, worked to convince the public that the news media is an “enemy of the people,” falsely accused his predecessor of committing serious crime in cahoots with U.S. intelligence agencies. While he is not even close to the “fascist” some critics said he would be, he has waged a running war on the credibility of democratic institutions.

    In the process, he has damaged his own credibility, perhaps irreparably. The April case of the missing aircraft carrier — Trump and his team suggested it was steaming toward North Korea when it was heading the other way — merely confirmed a conclusion world governments had already drawn: nothing this president says can be trusted.

    He is averaging 2.2 false statements per day in office, telling lies about subjects as irrelevant as his television ratings. A couple of them have caused international incidents. When Trump falsely told a crowd that something terrible related to terrorism happened in Sweden the night before, or falsely told an interviewer that Korea used to be part of China, he did real damage to his country’s reputation.

    What’s most striking in transcripts of his remarks is not the mendacity. It is the incoherence. Stripped of his vocal flourishes, the words of his first three months reveal a president out of his depth, alternating between petty fixations and buzzwords he is sounding out without any evident understanding of what they mean.

    Gripping soap opera, yes, but this is also the presidency as hard-to-watch amateur improv act — its star a man playing some barely recognizable version of the part without control of his own tics.

    “I can be more presidential than anybody, if I want to be,” Trump insisted late in the 2016 Republican primary. “I can be more presidential than anybody.” The inescapable conclusion from his first 100 days is that this was a lie, too.

  • Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan pays price for rash battlefield boast

    OTTAWA—From badass to beating a retreat.

    Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is offering some clarification around his claim that he was the “architect” of the biggest Canadian military offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    Sajjan came into the defence post in 2015 boasting impeccable credentials: time in the military and tours of duty in Afghanistan, all reinforced by a photo showing him in uniform, sporting sleek sunglasses, that earned him the moniker “badass.”

    But now Sajjan seems to have overreached in a war story, telling an audience in New Delhi, India, earlier this week that he was the “architect” of Operation Medusa, the Canadian offensive in 2006 to push out Taliban fighters from the districts around Kandahar.

    “On my first deployment to Kandahar in 2006, I was kind of thrown in an unforeseen situation and became the architect of an operation called Operation Medusa, where we removed about 1,500 fighters, Taliban fighters, off the battlefield,” Sajjan said in his speech.

    “I was very proud to be on the main assault of the force,” he said in the speech, which can be found on YouTube.

    It doesn’t appear that the comments were a slip of the tongue.

    The reference to being the architect of Operation Medusa was contained in the prepared text.

    The two-week operation in September 2006 claimed Canadian lives, but is credited with reducing the Taliban’s hold around Kandahar.

    Yet Sajjan’s version of events, first reported by the National Post, stirred anger in military circles from those who thought the former soldier had overstated his role.

    One military officer told the Post it was a “bald-faced lie.”

    That forced a statement from the defence minister, who is now anxious to share the credit for Operation Medusa with “Canadian, American and Afghan soldiers.

    “Every military operation our Forces undertook in Afghanistan, including Operation Medusa, relied on the courage and dedication of many individuals across the Canadian Forces. My comments were in no way intended to diminish the role that my fellow soldiers and my superiors played in Operation Medusa,” Sajjan said in a statement provided by his office.

    “What I should have said was that our military successes are the result of the leadership, service and sacrifice of the many dedicated women and men in the Canadian Forces.

    “I regret that I didn’t say this then, but I want to do so now,’ he said.

    The statement did not offer any detail on Sajjan’s involvement in planning the offensive. His office said that Sajjan, who was a major at the time, did indeed participate in the offensive, but declined to spell out his exact role on the battlefield.

    Military historian Jack Granatstein said that Sajjan was a good intelligence officer in Afghanistan who probably provided important information, but added, “That’s probably all you can say.

    “He certainly wouldn’t have been the chief planner,” Granatstein said in a phone interview.

    “That he would say such a thing in a public address is bizarre.”

    Granatstein said the faux pas shouldn’t force Sajjan to resign, but argued it doesn’t help the cause of a minister he said has been weak in his post.

    “It’s not going to help him with the military,” Granatstein said.

    “He’s not a very strong minister thus far. He hasn’t delivered anything thus far for the (Canadian Forces).

    “This is going to make people think he’s a little bit deluded.”

    Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, who himself served several tours commanding troops in Afghanistan, was in no mood to talk about the issue Friday when he appeared at a news conference to address misbehaviour in the military ranks.

    “I’m not really aware of this case, and, quite frankly, I’d like us to keep our eye on the ball about sexual misconduct,” Vance said, pointedly refusing to take a followup question from the reporter.

    Sajjan’s remarks are a serious misstep for a defence minister whose record of military service has given him impressive credentials to interact on defence and security issues on the world stage.

    It’s a puzzling misstep, too, since Sajjan’s service in Afghanistan had already given him plenty to boast about without stretching tales.

    Sajjan served three tours in Afghanistan, including one attached to U.S. forces. He received a mention in dispatches that credited his understanding of counterinsurgency tactics for helping the planning and execution of an operation in September 2006 — it doesn’t specify which one — to secure key terrain.

    Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, the now retired Canadian officer who was commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, sang Sajjan’s praises in 2006, saying his intelligence work in the field “drove” several large-scale theatre-resourced efforts, including Medusa.

    “He was the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre, and his hard work, personal bravery and dogged determination undoubtedly saved a multitude of Coalition lives,” Fraser wrote in a letter addressed to Vancouver police, Sajjan’s employer at the time.

Arts & Letters
Sunday, 12 August 2007