The End of Life as We Know It

As an innately curious person, I read a lot: the Washington Post (all of it), excerpts from the New York Times and other news publications (courtesy of Apple iPhone) and, of course, many books. The books include much fiction, history and science. The history informs my understanding of the world in general, the fiction moves me in mysterious ways and the science … the science stuns and often frightens me.

I am currently plowing through Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, subtitled The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, by Lisa Randall, the Baird Professor of Science at Harvard, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and on and on. She studies “theoretical particle physics and cosmology.” Professor Randall has a PhD from Harvard University and has held professorships at MIT and Princeton University. She has received honorary degrees from Brown University, Duke University, Bard College, and the University of Antwerp.

So, you might say, what’s this obscenely smart woman got to do with me or the “end of life as we know it?” Here is what.

Chapter 11 of Dark Matter is entitled “Extinctions;” it explains the five major mass extinctions that have been documented through the Earth’s roughly 4.5 billion-year existence, following the emergence of the first life (as revealed by fossils aged 3.5 billion years old). Chapter 11 has a subsection called “A Sixth Extinction?” I will not go on and on about this; rather, I will just set out some of the facts supporting Prof. Randall’s “very disturbing speculation” about what is happening right now to our planet, the only home humans will likely ever have.

During the past 500 years, 80 species of mammals, out of less than 6,000, have gone extinct.

That rate of mammal extinction is 16 times normal – in the last century the rate has increased by 32 times.

In the past century, amphibians have become extinct at a rate almost 100 times higher than before – 41 percent more are threatened now.

Extinction of bird species in the last century are higher than average by 20 times.

Changes in environmental factors now are similar to those that occurred during the Permian-Triassic Extinction some 250 million years ago.

Prof. Randall believes, as do almost all knowledgeable and qualified scientists around the world, that “Human influence is almost certainly largely to blame for the recent diversity loss.” Dark Matter (PB ed. 186)

80 percent of North American large animals were driven to extinction when Europeans arrived here.

These dramatic effects occur from a combination of pollution, land clearing that destroys habitat, overfishing, ocean acidification, species invasion and homogenization of animal populations.

Prof. Randall concludes the chapter with these observations:

Even if new species do emerge or conditions ultimately improve, a dramatically altered world is unlikely to be good for us as a species…. Life has evolved with delicate balancing mechanisms. It is not clear how many of these can be altered without dramatically changing the ecosystem and life on the planet. You would think we would have considerably more selfish concern for our fate – especially when so many such losses can most likely be prevented. After all, unlike the creatures 66 million years ago whose fate was determined by an errant meteoroid, humans today should have the capacity to see what is coming. [Dark Matter, PB ed. 188]

The Sound of Fear, Starring the Trump Family Deniers

The latest revelation about the collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is about a meeting attended by the campaign manager Manafort, Trump Son No. 1, Donald Jr., and Trump-in-Law Jared Kushner. I won’t waste your time with the details which were first reported by the New York Times, a newspaper of global fame to which the Trump family has been notably hostile. Maybe not a good move on their part.

I want instead to focus on the narrative that the Trump Family, and its enablers like Kellyanne Conway, have tried to spin in response to the now-admitted meeting whose stated-in-advance purpose was to secure dirt on Hillary Clinton that was sourced in the Russian government. That narrative has a familiar ring as it seems to follow almost exactly the concept of “alternative pleading” that law students learn about in courses on trial practice.

The idea of alternative pleading is that since, in the early stages of a lawsuit, you don’t know for sure how things are going to play out, you, as the defendant accused of some wrongdoing are entitled by rules of court to plead alternative defenses, including defenses that are inconsistent with each other. The evidence will then show what it shows and some defenses will fail while others may succeed. To some extent it resembles the old saw about throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.

To illustrate, suppose a lawsuit is filed against D claiming D’s conduct was the proximate cause of injury to plaintiff P resulting in damages of X amount, which P therefore is entitled to recover from D. D’s typical first step is to move to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. That is, in simple English, even if everything alleged by P is true, there was nothing wrong with D’s conduct and thus the suit should be dismissed. A “fake suit” in current Trumpian parlance.

Kellyanne Conway, among others, has made this precise argument: even if Junior was seeking dirt on Clinton, this is politics and there was nothing wrong with seeking such dirt that might help the Trump campaign. But this argument ignores the fact that the source of the information was the Russian government, which suggests conspiracy with a foreign power to affect the outcome of an American election. Most rational people consider that seriously wrong, possibly criminally wrong.

So, what next? Faced with the revelations about Junior’s meeting, to which he has confessed publicly via the Family’s chosen medium, Twitter, the Trump Family Deniers change the tune, moving toward classical alternative pleading. First, the story was “there was no such meeting,” Then, if there was a meeting, I didn’t attend it. But if I did attend a meeting, it was a waste of time because we didn’t learn anything with which to smear Clinton so I left the meeting empty-handed. So, even if I did attend the meeting with the intention to do harm to Clinton, no harm to Clinton arose from my conduct, so everything is okeydokey. No harm, no foul. Finally, even if there were some harm, we were just amateurs at politics so we can and should be forgiven our sins and let bygones be ….

In a lawsuit, this sort of stairway to the basement approach is perfectly acceptable practice and the Trump Family Deniers’ playbook appears to follow it quite closely. The problem, of course, is that this is not a lawsuit, not yet anyway.

Instead, it is the early-to-middle stage of investigation into one of the greatest scandals in the history of American politics. One of the singular features of the scandal is that, from the very outset, during the campaign itself, Trump made no secret of his desire for assistance from Russia among others and no secret of his desire to buddy-up with Vladimir Putin (who will be featured in my next blog post). At the same time. Trump repeatedly denied there was any connection between him and Putin or between his campaign and anyone connected with the Russian government. His fame as liar-in-chief, thoroughly documented by many observers, led many to suspect that the denials were false.

Slowly but surely, more revelations of contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign have emerged.  All the while Trump and his enablers, including Attorney General Sessions as well as several family members and key campaign players, have denied there is anything there. Their stories have changed over time, of course, as new revelations undermine the previous denials. This is starkly shown by the latest stories about Junior and Kushner meeting with a promised source of incriminating evidence on Clinton.

Even if it is true that the Russian lawyer with whom Junior/Kushner/Manafort met did not actually have any useful information and was really trying to influence Trump on the issue of adopting Russian children or to blunt the move to increase U.S. sanctions on Russia, the fact remains, and at this point appears to be undeniable and undenied, that the purpose of the gathering, from Junior’s point of view, was to seek Russian help in the battle with Clinton. And, of course, he wants everyone to believe that the President knew nothing of the meeting.

So craven are the enablers of the Trump Family Deniers that Ed Rogers, in an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning, http://wapo.st/2uaPmNy, singing the familiar tune “hysteria among the media,” argues that,

No senior campaign official, much less a family member of the candidate, should take such a meeting. Having the meeting was a rookie, amateur mistake. Between human curiosity and a campaign professional’s duty to get the dirt when you can, Trump Jr. likely felt that the person had to be heard. However, the meeting should have been handed off to a lackey. Said lackey would have then reported the scoop — or lack thereof — and awaited further instruction. [emphasis added]

What can one say after that? A fair reading of it, I suggest, is (1) perfect execution of “we were just amateurs at politics” defense, and (2) in a play right out of the Godfather, never send anyone from the family to do the dirty work and leave fingerprints; send in one of the stooge soldiers who can be sacrificed if necessary to protect the family, (3) seeking dirt from dirty sources like the Russian government is just good political fun, so what’s the problem?

This “win at any cost” mentality may be part of what led Trump to confess to Lester Holt in the now famous interview that he was going to fire FBI Director Comey because of Comey’s pursuit of the Trump-Russia connection regardless of what the leadership of the Department of Justice recommended. Trump and his very very rich family are accustomed to getting their way without arguments and if you do argue, you’re fired.

Maybe I’m being naïve about politics but I continue to struggle with understanding how the Republican Party can continue to support this president, given that he has no real connection to conservative political values that have driven the Republican Party historically and is making a complete hash of the office of the President. He has accomplished nothing of positive significance since taking office six months ago while destroying international relationships that have sustained world peace for decades. More about this in the next post.

Sessions’ Testimony Evaluated – Part 4 (Last)

Readers will likely be glad this is the final installment on the Sessions testimony. We concluded the last post with the exchange in which Sessions claimed that after his recusal he simply stopped being interested in the Trump-Russia issue and received no briefings and read little or nothing substantive about it.

Under questioning by Senator Harris, Sessions repeated his fan dance regarding disclosure of his notes and other relevant documents by saying,

I will commit to reviewing the rules of the department and as and when that issue is raised to respond appropriately.

“When that issue is raised?” It had just been raised by Sen. Harris’ request for the documents. Sessions yet again gets away with saying, in effect, “when, as and if you ask for documents after the hearing, I will consider whether to provide them.” We can only hope that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has reviewed the testimony and is demanding those documents.

In one of the highlights of the hearing, Senator Reed asked Sessions this:

… on July 7th when Mr. Comey made his first announcement about the case, you were on Fox News, and you said, first of all, director Comey is a skilled former prosecutor and then you concluded by saying essentially that it’s not his problem. It’s Hillary Clinton’s problem. Then in November, on November 6th, after Mr. Comey again made news in late October by reopening, if you will, the investigation, you said, again, on Fox News, you know, FBI director Comey did the right thing when he found new evidence. He had no choice but to report it to the American Congress where he had under oath testified the investigation was over. He had to correct that and say this investigation ongoing now. I’m sure it’s significant, or else he wouldn’t have announced that.

So, in July and November director Comey was doing exactly the right thing. You had no criticism of him. You felt that in fact he was a skilled professional prosecutor. You felt that his last statement in October was fully justified so how can you go from those statements to agreeing with Mr. Rosenstein and then asking the president or recommending that he be fired?

Once again, perhaps due to the way the hearing was structured, Sessions escaped with a statement that the problem was that Comey was obligated to advise that he had reopened the Clinton email investigation because he had, in error, gone public about the investigation initially. That may be true, at least arguably, but it doesn’t answer the question of why Sessions thought he had license to address Comey’s firing, having previously blessed both the initial disclosures by Comey as well as the follow-up announcement about reopening the investigation and recused himself from the investigation. Sessions’ inconsistency was laid bare for all to see, but he skated away without much notice with some double-talk. Here, again, the Democrats, and the country, certainly could have been helped by a more rigorous approach to the questioning.

I apologize again for this, but the following exchange between Senator McCain and Sessions bears extensive quotation because it is so revealing of the selective memory of the Attorney General:

MCCAIN: Over the last few weeks the administration has characterized your previously undisclosed meetings with Russia ambassador Kislyac as meetings you took in your official capacity as a U.S. Senator and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. As chairman of the that committee, let me ask you a few questions about that. At these meetings did you raise concerns about Russia invasion of Ukraine or annexation of Crimea?

SESSIONS: I did, Senator McCain, and I would like to follow up a little bit on that. That’s one of the meetings — that’s one of the issues that I recall explicitly. The day before my meeting with the Russian ambassador, I’d met with the Ukrainian ambassador, and I heard his concerns about Russia, and so I raised those with Mr. Kislyak, and he gave, as you can imagine, not one inch. Everything they did, the Russians had done, according to him was correct, and I remember pushing back on it, and it was a bit testy on that subject.

MCCAIN: …. Did you raise concerns about Russia’s support for President Bashar Al Assad and his campaign of indiscriminate violence against his own citizens including his use of chemical weapons?

SESSIONS: I don’t recall whether that was discussed or not.

MCCAIN: Did you raise concerns about Russia’s interference in our electoral process or interferences of the electoral processes cause of our allies?

SESSIONS: I don’t recall that being discussed….

MCCAIN: Yeah. In other words, Russia-related security issues, in your capacity as the chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, what Russia-related security issues did you hold hearings on or otherwise demonstrate a keen interest in?

SESSIONS: We may have discussed that. I just don’t have a real recall of the meeting. I may, I was not making a report about it to anyone. I just was basically willing to meet and see what he discussed.

MCCAIN: And his response was?

SESSIONS: I don’t recall. [all emphases added]

I will just leave that one there.

Chairman Burr ended the hearing with the usual fawning all over the witness for his years of sacrificial service to the country. He then asked Sessions to “work with the White House” to “see if there are any areas of questions that they feel comfortable with you answering and if they do, that you provide those answers in writing to the committee.”

The hearing was held June 13, almost a month ago. There has been no follow-up indication that Sessions has acted on that request and no indication that the Intelligence Committee has pursued him about it.

My overall conclusion about Sessions’ testimony is that he was repeatedly allowed to escape answering hard questions, due largely to ineffective examination by senators who seem either ill-equipped or poorly prepared to go toe-to-toe with a skilled attorney intent upon avoiding political or personal damage arising from his potential complicity in the Trump-Russia collusion scandal. The hearing may yet provide some fodder for Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation but nonetheless a real missed opportunity.

Sessions’ Testimony Evaluated – Part 3

In the previous post, I began reviewing the questioning by the Committee following Sessions’ opening statement. While this is “old news” in one sense, I believe Sessions will yet come to play an important role in the Trump-Russia saga; it is, therefore, appropriate to fully consider the issues raised by his testimony under oath before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

We left off the last post with a brief discussion of the inexplicable reality that Sessions claimed to have agreed with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein in discussions prior to Sessions’ confirmation as Attorney General that Comey’s conduct as FBI Director was unacceptable, yet he never discussed the issue with Comey. Instead he, allegedly, waited until President Trump asked for recommendations from Rosenstein and Sessions regarding Comey’s status.

Of course, Trump subsequently stated in the Lester Holt interview that he had already decided to fire Comey because of the Russia investigation. One interpretation of this is that Trump set up Rosenstein and Sessions by asking for their recommendation when he didn’t need it, then used it as a cover which he subsequently blew due to his obsession with being seen as the all-powerful leader who needs no help from underlings in making important decisions.

Returning to the hearing, Senator Warner asked whether Sessions ever discussed with Comey what happened in the Comey-Trump meeting from which all others were asked to leave the room. Sessions never answered the question but did confirm that Comey was concerned about the meeting and that Comey’s recall of what he, Comey, said to Sessions about the meeting was consistent with Sessions’ recall.

This episode is concerning because it illustrates that these Senators, who have a critically important role to play as investigators, are perhaps not being properly supported by staff who should be passing them notes or whispering in their ear to assure that complete follow-up questions are pursued. Not all Senators are equally equipped to engage in effective cross-examination of evasive witnesses and should have some professional and timely legal help when it matters most.

One of the most interesting parts of the questioning related to Sessions’ justification for having recused himself from the Russia investigation but nevertheless participating in the firing of Comey. Sessions said the Russia investigation was just one of thousands underway and that he had a responsibility to manage the leadership of the Department of Justice and thus could, in effect, disregard the Russia investigation when making the leadership call.

There was considerable sparring between Senator Heinrich and Sessions regarding the latter’s refusal to answer questions about conversations with President Trump, to the point at which Heinrich flatly accused Sessions of impeding the Committee’s investigation:

you are obstructing that congressional investigation by not answering these questions, and I think your silence, like the silence of Director Coats, like the silence of Admiral Rogers speaks volumes.

Sessions then sought refuge in advice he claimed to have received from DOJ lawyers that Sessions’ preservation of Trump’s later ability to assert Executive Privilege was proper. Heinrich accepted that claim at face value without further exploration, wondering aloud why Sessions had not said that initially. Heinrich ended his examination with this statement:

I find it strange that neither you nor deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein brought up performance issues with director Comey, and, in fact, deputy FBI director McCabe has directly refuted any assertion that there were performance issues.

It is worth noting that after Heinrich implicated Coats and Rogers, Chairman Burr came to their defense, pointing out that Rogers had testified in closed session for two hours and that all questions could then have been asked of him. It appears that political kinship counts for more than truth seeking in these proceedings.

I am going to close this post with a long quotation of the Q&A between Senator King and Sessions, interspersed with my “English translation” of Sessions’ responses. The quote mainly speaks for itself.

SESSIONS: What we try to do, I think most cabinet officials, others that you questioned recently, officials before the committee, protect the president’s right to do so [assert Executive Privilege]. If it comes to a point where the issue is clear and there’s a dispute about it, at some point the president will either assert the privilege or not or some other privilege would be asserted, but at this point I believe it’s premature. [emphasis added]

KING: You’re asserting a privilege.

SESSIONS: It would be premature for me to deny the president a full and intelligent choice about executive privilege. That’s not necessary at this point.

In English, Sessions is saying that he is not going to answer, now or in the future, questions that might reveal anything about the President’s statements or statement made to the President unless and until two conditions are met: (1) “the issue is clear and there’s a dispute about it,” and (2) the President asserts some privilege related to it. Until then, Sessions rather than the Intelligence Committee will decide whether it is necessary to take the questions to the President and right now it’s “not necessary” so let’s move on.” And he gets away with it again.

King then asked Sessions for his view about Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Sessions’ answer is astounding for someone who had previously claimed he was responsible for managing the Department of Justice:

KING: Do you believe the Russians interfered with the 2016 elections?

SESSIONS: It appears so. The intelligence community seems to be united in that, but I have to tell you, senator king, I know nothing but what I’ve read in the paper. I’ve never received any details, briefing on how hacking occurred or how information was alleged to have influenced the campaigns.

KING: Between the election, there was a memorandum from the intelligence community on October 9th, that detailed what the Russians were doing after the election, before the inauguration. You never sought any information about this rather dramatic attack on our country?

SESSIONS: No.

KING: You never asked for a briefing or attended a briefing or ruled are the intelligence reports?

SESSIONS: You might have been very critical if I as an active part of the campaign was seeking intelligence related to something that might be relevant to the campaign. I’m not sure —

KING: I’m not talking about the campaign. I’m talking about what the Russians did. You received no briefing on the Russian active measures in connection with the 2016 election.

SESSIONS: No, I don’t believe I ever did.

Just a Little Information for Our Files …. Coo Coo Ca Choo

You may recall the similar line from the song, Mrs. Robinson, made famous by Simon & Garfunkel oh so many years ago. In what only a few years ago would have sent Republicans into paroxysms of anti-big-government hysteria, Not-My-President Trump has created a “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” to try to prove that his oft-repeated claim that massive voter fraud deprived him of a majority vote in the last election.

There is no even preliminary evidence that the claim is true and it has been rejected by electoral officials of both parties in multiple states and locales. But, in keeping with Trump’s personal code of conduct that no lie is too big to tell or act on, especially with taxpayer money, Trump ordered his Vice President, usually standing in the background saluting his Great Leader, to command a formal commission of the federal government to “investigate” voter fraud throughout the country. The silence of the Republican Party about this action speaks volumes about its lack of integrity and moral vacuity. Do bear in mind that this Commission has nothing to do with the Russian interference in the 2016 election to which virtually the entire U.S. intelligence community has attested and which Trump continues to deny.

The Executive Order creating the Commission provides for no more than 15 additional members some of whom must be “individuals with knowledge and experience in elections, election management, election fraud detection, and voter integrity efforts” supplemented by, well, anyone Trump chooses for any purpose whatever, regardless of actual qualifications related to the subject matter of the Commission’s work. So far as I can tell, the known appointments to date are former or current secretaries of state from Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire and Maine. Christy McCormick, a former Justice Department attorney and a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, will also be on the panel, along with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach serving as Vice Chair under Pence. Reports indicate also that Hans von Spakovsky, a conservative “voting rights expert” will also participate with an as-yet unspecified role.

One must wonder if Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire and Maine were selected because they have vast experience with voter fraud (presumptively absurd) or because they have very little suspected fraud, in which case, why would you choose them?

No need to tarry over that question because the really interesting part is that the Vice Chair of the Commission, without waiting for the Commission to meet and without the benefit of any public input, has already sent a letter to the secretaries of state for all 50 states asking for “publicly available voter roll data … including, if publicly available under the laws of your state” the following information:

  • full first and last names of all registrants,
  • middle names or initials if available,
  • addresses,
  • dates of birth,
  • political party (if recorded in your state),
  • last four digits of social security number if available,
  • voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward,
  • active/inactive status,
  • cancelled status,
  • information regarding any felony convictions,
  • information regarding voter registration in another state,
  • information regarding military status, and
  • overseas citizen information.

Further, “be aware that any documents that are submitted to the full Commission will also be made available to the public.”

I confess that I did not realize that such data was available for the asking by members of the general public or not-general public (Super-Pacs are people now too, you know; so are corporations who employ millions of voters, but more about that in a minute).

What we have here is the first attempt ever, of which I am aware, to create a nationally scoped federally controlled database of voting behavior tied to the identity of individual voters. And it covers eleven years of voting. Let that sink in a minute.

Call me paranoid if you like, but this raises memories of the line in the old WW II movies in which an imperious Nazi always demands “your papers please,” the “please” being a euphemism for “or I will kill you.”

Nothing in the Executive Order creating the Commission authorizes the collection of this type or massive amount of data about voting behavior. The Commission’s job is to study “registration and voting processes used in Federal elections.” The EO is clear that the Commission is advisory only and thus has no independent power to act on whatever findings it makes.

The Commission’s report to the president is to discuss

 (a)  those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections;

(b)  those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that undermine the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections; and

(c)  those vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for Federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting. [emphasis added]

I cannot see any logical basis to infer from such a study description a basis or need for the individualized voting information demanded by the Commission’s letter. The language of the EO speaks of laws, rules, etc. and does not mention collecting data on individual voting histories associated with named voters absent reasons to believe actual fraud in voting occurred.

I don’t know whether law students are still taught about ultra vires, a Latin phrase meaning “beyond authority,” but the concept clearly applies here. The demand for massive volumes of individualized voting behavior data is ultra vires of the Executive Order.

I understand all too well that our so-called president thinks he can do anything he wants to do, without regard to legal process. The repetition of that mistake continues to frustrate him, as it most recently did when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned an EPA decision, made without process or opportunity for public input, to delay an Obama-era rule restricting methane emissions from certain oil/gas wells which rule had in fact been subject to such processes for input.   Such mistakes, combined with the sloppy drafting of Executive Orders and the president’s uncontrollable mouth and Twitter habit, have defeated many of his major initiatives. [Parenthetically, hats off to the Sierra Club for filing this suit, with others.]

In the case of this Commission on Election Integrity, the primary pushback is currently coming from the states, a majority of which have apparently told the Commission to get lost. Fortunately for me, the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, is one of those, so I won’t have to sue the United States to prevent it from collecting information that I believe violates my right of privacy in my voting practices. It is curious, though not surprising, that a president who seems to treasure the phrase “witch hunt,” does not recognize that this Commission is charged with precisely that type of search. Things may have worked this way in the private TrumpWorld that the president formerly ran [and may still be running despite blatant conflicts of interest] but that don’t work that way in the government world where the rule of law applies to everything.

Earlier I mentioned that corporations are “people” in the eyes of the law now. Since the data the Commission intends to collect will be available to the public without apparent limitation, we can infer that the Super-Pacs and large corporations with active political interests will be interested in this information. Do you want your employer to know whether you voted and, possibly, by inference for whom you voted? Where is the Republican Party, that great defender of individual freedom from overweening government interference in the personal lives of citizens?

The Executive Order authorizing this Commission is another example of the incompetence and bad intentions of the Trump administration. Its only substantive purpose is to support the so-called president’s political agenda which includes his insistence that he would have won the popular vote but for massive illegal voting. Intelligent conservatives surely see what is going on here but cleave to the president with the argument that in a democracy there is no more important matter than the sanctity of the vote. They are partially right, but chasing after faked issues is not going to improve the integrity of voting protections. The truth is that the real goal of Trump’s agenda is suppression of anti-Trump votes. Republicans know that, and are complicit in the scam that this Commission on Election Integrity represents.

In the end then, we are again reminded of the phrase from Mrs. Robinson,

Going to the candidates’ debate

Laugh about it, shout about it

When you’ve got to choose

Every way you look at it you lose.

Sessions’ Testimony Evaluated – Part 2

In the previous post, I discussed the opening of Attorney General Sessions’ testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In this part, I will begin reviewing the questioning by the Committee:

Chairman Burr began by asking about Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech at the Mayflower Hotel, to which, as noted in Part 1, the Russian Ambassador, and known spy, Sergey Kislyak was invited. Burr offered up this softball:

Would you say you were there as a United States Senator or as a surrogate of the campaign for this event?

To which Sessions said:

I came there as an interested person and very anxious to see how President Trump would do in his first major foreign policy address. I believe he had only given one major speech before and that was maybe at the Jewish event. It was an interesting time for me to observe his delivery and the message he would make. That was my main purpose of being there.

What? Sessions was sworn in as Attorney General on February 9, recused himself from the Trump-Russia investigation on March 2 and on April 27, the date of the Mayflower speech, he wants us to believe he was just another guy interested to see how the President would handle himself at his second big speech, the first having been given at the “Jewish event.” Wait, the “Jewish event?” What kind of language is that? The reference is to Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was two days before the Mayflower event.

Putting that aside, for now, Sessions’ explanation for his presence at the Mayflower speech simply beggars the imagination. He was present at an invitation-only VIP reception for about two dozen people, including Kislyak, and it is utterly implausible that he was there just out of curiosity about Trump’s speech-making capabilities.

Sessions then introduced the concept of “appropriateness” to his testimony. When Senator Warner asked for a commitment to make himself (Sessions) available to the committee in the weeks/months ahead, Sessions said he would do so “as appropriate,” citing his belief that it was not “good policy” to “continually bring cabinet members or the attorney general before multiple committees going over the same things over and over.” Then this ensued:

WARNER: Appropriations committee raised that issue.

SESSIONS: I just gave you my answer.

WARNER: Can we get your commitment since there will be questions about the meetings that took place or not, access to documents or memoranda or your day book or something?

SESSIONS: We will be glad to provide appropriate responses to your questions and review them carefully. [emphasis added]

Sessions continued to avoid answering even simple direct questions:

WARNER: You have confidence [Robert Mueller] will do the job?

SESSIONS: I will not discuss hypotheticals or what might be a factual situation in the future that I’m not aware of today. I know nothing about the investigation. I fully recuse myself.

WARNER: I have a series of questions, sir. Do you believe the president has confidence?

SESSIONS: I have not talked to him about it.

There then ensued a struggle between Sen. Warner and Sessions over whether anyone at DOJ had discussed presidential pardons with “any of the individuals involved with the Russia investigation.” Interestingly, Sessions treated that question as seeking information about conversations with the President and refused to answer. Warner asked about “other Department of Justice or White House officials,” but again Sessions refused.

We have a right to have full and robust debate within the Department of Justice and encourage people to speak up and argue cases on different sides. Those arguments are not — historically we have seen they shouldn’t be revealed.

This, I suggest, is tantamount to a statement that the Department of Justice will simply not answer to the investigative bodies within the United States Congress. It would be quite significant if DOJ lawyers were already talking about presidential pardons related to Trump-Russia, but Sessions essentially said “none of your business.”

Finally, for today, Warner did obtain Sessions’ concession that while he claimed to have had severe concerns about James Comey’s performance as FBI director even prior to being confirmed as Attorney General, he never discussed those concerns with Comey. Instead, he endorsed Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein’s memo to the President that Comey should be summarily fired.

Sessions’ Testimony Evaluated – Part 1

Given the speed with which events overrun, and overwrite, memories, I am going to devote a lot of words to the testimony of Jefferson B. Sessions III, attorney general of the United States, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 13, 2017. This analysis is based on the transcript of the hearing published at http://politi.co/2rtgQJf with correction of obvious typos. A full evaluation is going to require multiple posts, so please bear with me. I think this worth doing because of the gravity of the issues raised.

Note at the outset one unusual feature of the hearing that distinguishes it from normal investigative legal work: both Chairman Burr and Vice Chair Warner go on at some length to detail the areas of inquiry, including specific questions they intend to ask the witness. This is part of the politesse of the political process that deters the kind of relentless interrogation that true investigative work involves. This was well illustrated when Senator McCain leapt into action to alert the Chairman that Senator Kamala Harris was being too aggressive in her very lawyer-like cross-examination of Sessions about the nature of his preparation, or lack of it, for testifying.

Also of special interest was Warner’s commendation of the Chairman about his remark at the end of the Comey hearing the week before that, given the “pattern of administration officials refusing to answer public, unclassified questions about allegations about the president in this investigation,” it was “not acceptable for [witnesses] to come forward without answers.” Later, Sessions would refuse to answer multiple questions on the grounds that the President should be given a prior opportunity to invoke Executive Privilege regarding answers to questions involving conversations with him and any member of the Cabinet and, likely, any member of White House staff.

Sessions’ opening remarks asserted that he did not remember what would in all events have been a casual contact with Russian Ambassador, and known Russian spy, Sergey Kislyak because they were both invited to Trump’s first foreign policy speech preceded by a private reception for perhaps two dozen people. This description is not implausible in the context of Washington political processes, but the question, not asked by any Committee member, was why was the Russian Ambassador invited in the first place to this small private and exclusive gathering that was attended by Trump himself, however briefly?

Sessions then undertook to address his response to Senator Franken during the AG’s confirmation hearing. The exact question posed, after a short recital of current press reports, was

if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”

Sessions never answered that question. Instead, he said:

Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.

During his Intelligence Committee testimony, Sessions entered a sweeping denial of any discussions with anyone about campaign interference, and a flat denial of knowledge of such conversations by anyone else in the Trump campaign organization. This he remembered quite clearly. Then, referring to Senator Franken’s question about then-current press reports, Sessions said:

That was the context in which I was asked the question and in this that context my answer was a fair and correct response to the charge as I understood it. I was responding to the allegation that surrogates had been meeting with Russians on a regular basis. It simply did not occur to me to go further than the context and to list any conversations that I may have had with Russians in routine situations as I had many routine meetings with other foreign officials.

On its face this is not a completely implausible explanation. However, there are other relevant facts that raise questions about plausibility.

Sessions was sworn in as Attorney General on February 9. His testimony maintained that until his formal recusal on March 2, a period of three full weeks, he received no information or briefings related to the Russia investigation other than discussions related to press reports that might bear on the need to recuse himself.

But, most curiously, Sessions expressly denied that his recusal had anything to do with possible campaign wrongdoing. Instead, he claimed his recusal was based entirely on a federal regulation, 28 CFR § 45.2, that forbids a DOJ employee from participating in a criminal investigation of an organization if the employee had a personal relationship with the target. A waiver is possible if the employee’s superior makes certain findings but there was no chance of a legitimate waiver for Sessions who stated he believed the regulation “required” his recusal. Sessions then declared that such a recusal could nevertheless not be allowed to stop him from running the Department of Justice and, therefore, he acted properly in presenting to the President

my concerns and those of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the ongoing leadership issues at the FBI as stated in my letter recommending the removal of Mr. Comey along with the Deputy Attorney General’s memorandum on that issue…. Those represent a clear statement of my views. I adopted Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein’s points he made in his memorandum and made my recommendation. It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render the attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations.

This statement raises more fundamental questions that were never addressed by the Committee.

First, if, as Sessions claims, the recusal was based solely on the “campaign relationship” issue covered by the regulations, why did it take three full weeks for him to recuse himself? The governing regulation is only a few paragraphs and is very explicit. The President was reportedly furious about Sessions’ recusal and tweeted about it. What went on during that three weeks?

Second, whatever the asserted reason for the recusal was, if the recusal was from the Russia investigation, defined as the question whether there were inappropriate/unlawful contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians, being led by FBI Director Comey, how can Sessions, in the guise of managing the Department of Justice, justify recommending the firing of the person heading the investigation? Sessions appears to believe that he is free to do anything he chooses in the Russia investigation because his recusal was based on something other than his interactions with “representatives” of the Russian government. It is difficult to imagine a court accepting such twisted reasoning which effectively vitiates the recusal as regards anything related to the Trump-Russia investigation.

This concludes consideration of Sessions’ direct testimony. In the next installment, I will take up the questioning by the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.