Best of Enemies – See It

We saw the movie, Best of Enemies, last night. The theater was only about half full, which was too bad for the people who missed a really engaging story, based on a true story. The acting by Taraji P. Hensen and Sam Rockwell was Oscar-level with a nicely nuanced minor-role performance by Anne Heche as the wife of Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis.

Without giving away anything, the basic story is that, by 1971, Durham NC had desegregated most of its public facilities but not the schools. You will recall that the seminal Supreme Court school-desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education was handed down in 1954.

The elementary school attended by black activist Ann Atwater’s daughter is all but destroyed in a massive fire. There are hints that the Klan caused the fire but that line is never explored. No one messes with the Klan in 1971 Durham …. except Ann Atwater. Like some modern-day resisters, she takes plenty of grief but gives some back through sheer grit and determination.

The central drama centers around a “charrette” led by a black man. The Oxford English dictionary defines “charrette” as “A public meeting or workshop devoted to a concerted effort to solve a problem or plan the design of something.” In the movie it is the equivalent of a mediation involving the entire community with blacks and whites in the same room but largely sitting on opposite sides of the center aisle.  The goal is to address the issue of what to do with the black kids that must attend school somewhere to finish their academic year while their school is repaired. The logical choice, of course, is to move them to the closest “white school.”

I must say that we both thought there was considerable sugar-coating of the interactions in the charrette, given the level of racial hostility and general mistrust, not to mention endemic ignorance among most members of the white community. But there is drama enough.

What I found most interesting was the role of the Klan in the town. They had completely corrupted the power structure and were cruel and efficient in the methods they used to suppress dissent from their “white power” creed. Recalling my own upbringing in a large (for the times) southern city, I never saw the overt presence of the Klan but its “philosophy” was ever present in the mentality of most white adults and the children in whom they inculcated their deeply racist view of the world. I grew up in a town where there were still “whites only” and “colored only” water fountains side by side in the local Sears store.

In 1971 Durham, the ability of the Klan to function more or less in the open and unchallenged rested to a significant degree on the isolation of its victims. No digital communications network existed that could instantly transmit information or alarms to summon help. An individual person, particularly a woman, living alone was especially vulnerable. And if the Klan was good at nothing else, it knew very well how to exploit that isolation to instill terror without fear of reprisal.

If you see this excellent movie, and you should, observe the Klan at work and think about what made it possible, even in the presence of many right-thinking white people, to press its “whites are superior” message on everyone in the community. The movie will almost certainly lead you to think about the contemporary parallels in the racist tropes spread by the current president and the Republican Party as well as the emergence from the shadows of the Klan or Klan-like acolytes who have been in hiding all these years, waiting for their Grand Dragon to call them out again.

Redactions of Mueller Report Must Be Coded

Anyone with experience in redacted documents knows that every document tells a story, or at least part of one. A skilled redactor working, for example, to assert attorney-client privilege can render the story told by a document meaningless and destroy its role in piecing together the larger story.

As the day for release of the redacted version of Mueller’s report draws nearer, the relevant Congressional committees should make clear that merely blacking out sections of the report will not be accepted. If there are legitimate reasons for redactions, they should be coded with a legend that makes clear the basis for each and every redaction. The known candidates appear to be: (1) grand jury material required by law to remain undisclosed, (2) material that might reveal counter-intelligence content or methods that would damage national security, and (3) executive privilege asserted by the president.

Deciphering a document involving so many possible redaction rights will be next to impossible unless each is specifically supported by one of those three considerations. And each redaction must be limited strictly to what is absolutely required by the relevant privilege. If, for example, a statement is sourced to an intelligence branch but the statement itself is not sensitive, then the statement should not be redacted; only the source of the statement may be redacted.

The need for this approach is particularly acute in the case of the Mueller report because we know that the Attorney General is disposed to protect Trump at virtually any cost. We also have reason for suspicion because of reports that members of the Mueller investigative team have expressed concerns that the AG’s “summary” of the report did not properly convey the content of evidence related to, among other things, collusion with Russia. The White House has, typically, flip flopped like a fish on the dock as to whether it accepted that the Mueller report should be publicly disclosed. Trump would be more than happy with disclosure if he were as sure as he claims that the report exonerates him. Finally, the matter at hand involves the some of the most serious of possible misconduct by the nation’s chief executive, including possible grounds for impeachment.

For all those reasons at least, the coding of all redactions is essential to preserving the public’s right to know as much as possible about whether the president of the United States colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election and the evidence indicating that he obstructed justice in multiple public and still undisclosed actions.

Media Incompetence Rampant

I well understand how difficult traditional news reporting is in the current times. I have just starting reading Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism & Why It Matters Now to get the perspective of Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian during the most tumultuous period of digital disruption beginning in the late 1990s.

One consequence of the shift to electronic news distribution seems to have been a marked decline in the quality of the writing, reflecting in many cases a decline in the underlying thinking involved in learning, writing about and disseminating the “news.” It may be that the real cause of this change is the speed with which digital news output must be delivered in order to compete and be relevant in a landscape where there are literally dozens of outlets immediately available with versions, true or otherwise, of any given story. Another factor likely is that some stories are reported before they are “ripe,” in the sense that there has not been time enough to verify everything and the media entities figure they’ll just update the story when more information becomes available. Sometimes, the update never happens because everyone involved has moved on to other “breaking” stories. Everything is always “breaking” in this environment. “Breaking News” has become one of the most used and least meaningful headlines ever conceived. When every story is “breaking,” nothing is “breaking.”

Often the errors are subtle but still very important, particularly if they lend credence to versions of truth that are, in reality, questionable or outright false. A case in point, that inspired this post and is but one of many instances I’ve seen, is a recent article in Newsweek, https://bit.ly/2OP3KTY, entitled “Poll: More Than Half of Americans Say They Definitely Won’t Vote for Donald Trump in 2020 Despite Mueller Findings,” authored by Alexandra Hutzler on 3/28/19. I want to emphasize here that I am not picking on her; she is not alone in making the terrible mistake I am about to describe. Her article caught my attention because it seemed to contain some good news in the midst of what looked like, for a while, the Mueller debacle.

The thrust of the piece is that “fifty-three percent of voters say they will “definitely will not” cast their ballot for Trump in the 2020 election if he is the Republican Party’s nominee, according to a new poll by Quinnipiac University.” Fine; that’s great news from where I sit, though one would hope that by now the percentage of people who see through the criminal façade of the Trump administration would be must higher.

In any case, the article includes these lines:

“Despite special counsel Robert Mueller’s finding that there was no collusion between Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, more than half of Americans say they definitely won’t be voting for the president in 2020 …. While the dark cloud of the Mueller investigation has been lifted from Trump’s presidency, the Quinnipiac survey showed that his Democratic rivals are gaining popularity in the 2020 race.” [emphasis added]

It is a fact that there is no evidence that Mueller made a finding of “no collusion” other than the “summary” declaration by the recently appointed Trump appointee Attorney General Barr who auditioned for the job through a gratuitous memo asserting, in essence, the total immunity of the president from accountability while in office and perhaps thereafter as well. No one other than Mueller and his team and various people in the Justice Department have seen the actual Mueller report. [I am assuming here that copies have not been surreptitiously provided to the White House, a proposition in which I have only limited confidence.]

Furthermore, we now have reports from inside the Mueller team expressing deep concern about the extent to which AG Barr has gamed the situation with overly generous (to Trump) interpretations of what the Mueller report actually says. There is simply no basis in reality for the media to take Barr’s version of the Mueller report as definitive or even reliable to any degree. To have done otherwise is at best sloppy journalism and at worst a form of pandering that raises serious questions about the trustworthiness of a news “institution” like Newsweek.

Perhaps Ms. Hutzler can be forgiven for a “rookie mistake,” as she graduated from college and was hired by Newsweek only last year. I’m happy to assume that with respect to her, but not with respect to the editors at Newsweek. This is one of the reasons for having editors, to ferret out implicit bias in stories. This mistake was not particularly subtle and, in the context of the immediate controversy surrounding the Barr gambit, it should have been caught and fixed before publication.

I emphasize again that this incident is just one of many that I have observed in reading the “news” about the Mueller report and the Barr flim-flam. Trump is, of course, delighted to see stories like this that support the “complete exoneration” theme he has been so desperate to reach for the past two years. But there is no exoneration, just more questions. All the more so as the Mueller investigators are now talking about the Barr maneuver. The least the mainstream media can do is avoid supporting a grossly false narrative until the evidence is in. This issue will be crucially important in the run-up to the 2020 reckoning when, it seems certain, there are going to be issues of further foreign interference, voter suppression and false claims of a “rigged election if I lose” by Trump.

Issues raised by Mueller/Barr/Rosenstein

The Republican Party’s simulacrum of the Keystone Kops has reached a new low point. You would have thought that with two years to plan for it, the “machine” that supports Donald Trump would have figured out a coherent way to issue the Mueller report without stirring up yet another firestorm of suspicion and uncertainty. But, no, they did it again.

We know now that about three weeks ago Mueller’s team met with Attorney General Barr and Deputy AG Rosenstein to, apparently, reveal the gist of the forthcoming report. And maybe more. Since the meeting was not revealed until after Mueller’s report was transmitted, we don’t know but, as with all meetings associated with Trump (Trump Tower, Putin, Kim Jong Un, etc.) the shroud of secrecy simply raises suspicions. It seems likely more was discussed than just a simple heads-up to what was coming because it took less than 48 hours for two more curious events to unfold: (1) a “high level official” at DOJ disclosed that Mueller’s report did not recommend or plan more indictments – Mueller was done; (2) Barr/Rosenstein produced a four-page letter in which they, after allegedly a 48-hour review of the report and supporting evidence, decided that Trump did not obstruct justice, despite Mueller’s own finding that the evidence on that issue did not exonerate the president.

Alarm bells began to ring immediately. It was no surprise that Barr, handpicked by Trump after Barr volunteered a long memo basically undermining the legitimacy of the Mueller investigation, would want to clear the president as fast as possible. Many people are saying that Barr’s mission from Day One on the AG job was to declare the president “not guilty,” one way or the other. Rosenstein had, we understand, already resigned but planned to hang around until Mueller reported, further raising suspicion that the fix was in. For his part, and in keeping with virtually everything he has done, Trump immediately declared himself completely exonerated by Mueller despite the plain words of Mueller’s report, quoted by Barr/Rosenstein, that the evidence did not exonerate him on obstruction of justice.

If you’ve been following the story, you’re familiar with most of the foregoing. Trump supporters and much of the media are, of course, declaring total victory and telling the rest of us to “move on.” To this I say “no so fast.” I list below four sources of thoughtful and professional analysis of why there are so many questions about the Mueller report and the Barr/Rosenstein scheme to rewrite it for public consumption. If you read them, you will see that these are not just partisan screeds but serious, sometimes legalistic, explorations of the situation which, in fairness to my side, deals with some of the most consequential issues in modern American history: did the president of the United States or people working with and for him conspire with a foreign power known to have interfered with the national election?

Given the overarching importance of these questions, it is not too much to ask that, given the more-than-odd way Mueller’s report has been rolled out, we pause for a bit to think deeply about what is going on here. Just as Republicans didn’t want a “rush to judgment,” despite constant demands to bring the investigation to a close, we don’t want and will not accept a rush to judgment now based on a partisan “summary” of what must be a profoundly complex and crucially important document.

Read the following as you will.

https://www.lawfareblog.com/four-principles-reading-mueller-report  

NOTE: the above link is to an article presciently written before the Mueller report was transmitted.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/24/opinion/barr-mueller-report.html

http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/03/if-trump-obstructed-justice-he-cant-be-exonerated.html?utm_source=fb

https://www.lawfareblog.com/what-make-bill-barrs-letter

 

Semi-Final Thoughts on Mueller Report

Donald Trump and his enablers are jumping around like a bucking bronco that has just thrown its rider. This is to be expected. Supporters of the president are calling for revenge against those who questioned the president’s patriotism. Also to be expected from that crowd.The Trump gang does not, of course, care a whit about propriety as long as they win. Whether they have won remains to be seen, however.

I say that for several reasons, not least of which is the stunning revelation that Mueller’s team met with the Attorney General three weeks ago and disclosed that Mueller would make no finding on the obstruction of justice issue. Small wonder, then, that Barr/Rosenstein were able to absorb the entire Mueller report and provide their own crucial conclusion on obstruction (i.e., no obstruction) that Mueller had, on the evidence, declined to make.

Speaking of wonder, one must wonder now what else transpired during that meeting. Did Mueller’s people provide the AG with some or all of the evidence accumulated during the investigation? Apparently they did, because it would otherwise be impossible for Barr/Rosenstein to arrive at the conclusion of “no obstruction” as quickly as they did after Mueller’s report was “officially delivered” on Friday. This would also explain how an as yet unnamed “high official” at DOJ knew immediately after the report was delivered that there were no further indictments forthcoming.

If this is true, why was it done? I had originally thought it most likely that the Mueller report itself was just a summary, making the Barr/Rosenstein letter to Congress a summary of a summary, in which case Barr/Rosenstein wouldn’t have cared what the evidence was. Likely they don’t care anyway, but it is difficult to understand why Mueller would have provided a briefing to Barr/Rosenstein three weeks before releasing the report. Are we to believe as well that Barr/Rosenstein did not communicate the revelation to Trump before the DOJ letter was sent to Congress? It’s possible but if it were communicated in advance, we would have a hint as to why Trump was so suddenly down with the idea of pubic disclosure of the report.

All this is somewhat speculative, of course, but Mueller did the country no favors with these maneuvers. New questions arise at every turn. I confess that I decided early on not to watch the media circus of speculation and instant analysis that the Barr/Rosenstein letter inevitably created.

The ultimate question here – what role did Trump and his associates (family as well as hired hands) play in the documented Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election – will only be settled if and when the evidence on which Mueller relied is laid out for the public to digest. How much credence did Mueller give to Trump’s own statements and conduct in light of his refusal to be interviewed? It seems that Mueller discounted Trump’s own statements (Holt interview) about why he fired James Comey. If so, why did Mueller discount that evidence on both the collusion issue and the obstruction issue? Very importantly, how did Mueller square the Trump Tower meeting and Trump’s role in lying about its purpose with the conclusion that there was no collusion?

Was the no-collusion finding based on a lack of hard evidence such that Mueller, applying a strict beyond-a-reasonable doubt standard as a jury would do, felt no crime could be charged? To what extent did Mueller use the standard of probable cause in evaluating the evidence against Trump on collusion?

I could go on with this but it is pointless unless and until the full Mueller report and the evidence on which it was based are disclosed. Given the revelation of an undisclosed meeting between Mueller and DOJ leadership weeks ago at which Mueller’s findings were disclosed, such disclosure is essential if this sordid chapter of American history is to be put to rest.

The Mueller Report – Where From Here?

It is more than curious that Attorney General Barr and Deputy AG Rosenstein were able, in a matter of hours, to conclude that the massive evidence accumulated in the Mueller investigation in fact established that Trump did not obstruct justice when the Mueller report itself, according to quotations provided by Barr/Rosenstein, found that the evidence was inconclusive and did not exonerate the president on the obstruction issue. Not only is the Barr/Rosenstein conclusion not supported by the material they did disclose, there was no explanation of why Barr/Rosenstein felt it was appropriate for them to make their exoneration statement when the issue of how much of the Mueller report will be disclosed is still unresolved. Put that on top of the statement from an unnamed but high-ranking DOJ official on Saturday that the Mueller report contained no further indictments. Why, and who, was in such a hurry to begin pumping up the “not guilty” narrative for Trump?

The foregoing suggests to me that, in addition to other high crimes and misdemeanors, Trump has succeeded in undermining the core integrity of the Department of Justice. At the same time, the media seem to have lost their minds entirely and are reporting the story as if it were written by Barr/Rosenstein on their behalf.

Unless and until, the Mueller report, and the evidence on which it was based, is disclosed, the case against Trump will remain open. The only excuses for redaction of the report and withholding the evidence involve clear national security, executive privilege and grand jury limitations. The public is entitled to know how Mueller arrived at the conclusion that events such as the Trump Tower meeting and the multitude of lies told by Trump personally and by his family and other enablers did not support a finding of collusion. The public is also entitled to a deep understanding of the basis for Mueller’s conclusion that the evidence on obstruction was inconclusive when Trump admitted to, for example, firing James Comey for a corrupt reason.

I expect that after Trump does his victory dance, claiming exoneration when the Mueller report itself found no conclusion on that issue was possible, he will take the same position on disclosure that he took with his tax returns. He first said he would release them, then refused. He said just the other day that the Mueller report should be publicly disclosed but now, on the strength solely of the Barr/Rosenstein summary, he will almost certainly reverse his position again.

The battleground will now shift entirely to Congress and perhaps the courts as the various open cases against Trump and the Trump organizations proceed. There is no reason to give up, as some people, in shock no doubt, have suggested. Making a case against a sitting president, aided by a political party that is 100 percent invested in protecting him, was always going to be hard and take a long time. Trump’s victory claim is itself based on a false representation about the Barr/Rosenstein summary of the Mueller recommendations. No surprise that he would lie about that since he has lied about so many other things.

Hopefully, this development will awaken the Democratic Party to the difficult road ahead. Already, before the issues are even remotely resolved and while the actual Mueller report is still a mystery, pundits are predicting an easy win for Trump in 2020. Were that to happen, democracy as it has been known in America for my lifetime and beyond would likely be destroyed, possibly for decades. We would then be faced again with the duty outlined in the opening words of the Declaration of Independence: “when in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands ….”

So let’s keep our wits about us and get about the business of planning and executing the political force that is necessary to fulfill not the ambitions of the plutocracy that now governs this country but the wishes and needs of the majority that voted against Trump in 2016 and can, with the right leadership and the right understanding, prevail.

We’re Not Better Than This

Rep. Elijah Cummings wrapped up the day-long public hearing today with the repeated statement that “we are better than this.” I understand what he was trying to say but I have to say it is simply not true. Michael Cohen’s riveting and history-making testimony, supported by documents, showed conclusively that the sitting president of the United States engaged in fraudulent and criminal schemes to cover up payments that were directly related to the 2016 election, not to mention other matters related to tax fraud and other actions that were, even after Watergate, unimaginable for the highest officer in the federal government.

I have written elsewhere that I did not believe Cohen would lie in this testimony because he knows that Robert Mueller and the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York were watching. He also has seen what has happened to Paul Manafort whom Mueller has called to task for lying during his promised cooperation with the Special Prosecutor’s office. Cohen would have to be insane to testify falsely at this point. He may be many things, not much to admire, but I doubt he is insane.

For their part, the Republicans on the committee were unanimous in their relentless repetition of one theme: Cohen has lied before and can’t be trusted now. What is most compelling is that no Republican asked any questions about Trump’s conduct. Their entire “defense” was to attack, again and again, Cohen’s credibility while ignoring the documents Cohen produced to support his testimony. The best they could do was to place into the record articles written by various people about, again, Cohen’s credibility. The Republicans have, I suggest, essentially confessed that Cohen spoke the truth today. Their attempts to deflect were, I believe, a complete failure.

That is not to say that Trump’s political base won’t continue to talk the party line in support of Trump. They will likely see the “rat” claim that Trump made as more compelling and important than the president’s underlying criminal behavior. It will be very interesting to see whether any Republican in Congress, in either house, concludes that the president is no longer supportable. I seriously doubt it.

A final observation. I don’t pretend to understand all the political machinations or strategies that underlie the holding of a hearing such as occurred today, but I was extremely concerned at Chairman Cummings’ reluctance to control the hearing. This enabled Republicans to posture, to talk over the witness, to interrupt other committee members and generally to comport themselves as a bunch of hooligans. Cummings allowed the Republicans to make repeated scurrilous comments about his motives and leadership without response. This was very disappointing. He has more patience than I do. In a similar situation, I would have rigorously enforced proper order and the courtesies that the Republicans loudly bemoaned when, for example, Rep. Tlaib objected to the sordid display of Republicans bringing a black woman into the committee area to “bear witness” to Trump’s alleged non-racism. Cummings should have ruled Reps. Meadows and Jordan were out of order.

The Republicans disgraced the Congress and disgraced themselves today. They should be, but aren’t, ashamed.

The good news is that revelations made today will have legs. There will be more and deeper investigations as a result of Cohen’s testimony, including, very importantly, the names of witnesses who know even more about, and have documents that will show, Donald Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors.