Tag Archives: Mueller

More Republican Legislating in Secrecy

The Republican “tax reform” plan is now public. The details, such as they are, appear throughout the media, so I won’t repeat them here.

My point isn’t so much about the terrible concepts underlying the plan as it is about the way, yet again, that the Republicans have chosen to go about the business of legislating. They created this “plan” on their own and intend, it seems, to mark it up and force it through the Congress without hearings or other meaningful opportunities for input, except, or course by the lobbyists for the large corporations and the very rich.

That is not to say that reductions in the corporate tax rate are a bad idea; frankly, I am not sure about that, except to say that the claims of massive economic growth and production of new jobs are ludicrously overstated.

No, the point I struggle to make is that this is a really bad way to legislate on any matter of great public importance, of which the country’s revenue-raising system surely is a classic example. It seems that the Republican leadership is more concerned with delivering a “victory” to their failing president than they are about anything else. In doing so, they are turning their backs on Republican fiscal responsibility doctrine, thereby making complete their surrender to the chaos politics of their chosen leader.

Here is a relevant portion of the 2016 Republican Platform on which Donald Trump was ostensibly elected:

Our Tax Principles

To ensure that past abuses will not be repeated, we assert these fundamental principles. We oppose retroactive taxation. We condemn attempts by activist judges at any level of government to seize the power of the purse from the people’s elected representatives by ordering higher taxes. [???]

We oppose tax policies that deliberately divide Americans or promote class warfare. Because of the vital role of religious organizations, charities, and fraternal benevolent societies in fostering generosity and patriotism, they should not be subject to taxation and donations to them should remain deductible. To guard against hypertaxation of the American people in any restructuring of the federal tax system, any value added tax or national sales tax must be tied to the simultaneous repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment, which established the federal income tax….

The huge increase in the national debt demanded by and incurred during the current Administration has placed a significant burden on future generations. We must impose firm caps on future debt, accelerate the repayment of the trillions we now owe in order to reaffirm our principles of responsible and limited government, and remove the burdens we are placing on future generations.

You don’t need a PhD in the dismal science [economics, for the blessedly unacquainted] to see that those principles are going to be sacrificed by a tax regime that increases the deficit by something in the neighborhood of $1.5 trillion.

Someone once said that desperate times require desperate measures. However, the economy is growing robustly and there is no known rationale for a massive deficit-based stimulus.

In any case, I digress. All these arguments can be debated but not without actually having a debate. The Republicans are set upon a course that replicates their multiple failed attempts to eviscerate the health care insurance marketplace. No hearings, no public input, just an ideologically driven attempt to remake the country in the image of Donald Trump. The Republican tax plan is not going to do much, if anything, for the vast majority of Trump’s acolytes, but they seem unaware and uncaring. The cult of personality trumps (sorry) everything for them.

There is, however, an opportunity coming up in 2018 for the country to save itself from the demagoguery of this administration and its congressional enablers by returning control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats. That chance depends upon, among other things, whether the Democrats can stop bickering long enough to vote. And, of course, there is the slow burning fuse of investigations by Special Prosecutor Mueller, drawing ever closer to the center. The only question is whether it will be in time. Tick tick tick ….

Twitch Your Eyes So They Think You’re Crazy

Imagine, if you will, that Donald Trump and family/hangers-on are in a bar planning further destruction of the poor and middle classes. Some immigrant waiters have accused the group of cheating on their taxes and undermining the Constitution. Trump’s gang doesn’t take kindly to being told the truth. The two groups are about to tangle.

The bar doors swing open and in walks Sheriff Mueller, dressed in black and sporting double holsters marked “subpoenas” and “indictments.” The Sheriff counts off his steps as he approaches the group and says softly, “it about time you boys got out of town.” They laugh. The National Marshall is on Trump’s payroll and Trump and team are sure they are above the law.

This is, of course, fiction, except for the part about Trump and team being sure they are above the law. And, further, I didn’t make this up by myself.

In case you haven’t seen it, GEICO this year produced a great ad called the “Cowboy Showdown.” You can see it at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOG8AFPQcM4.  The basic idea is that in a typical Western bar scene, the sheriff confronts a scruffy trio of cowboys who have just been accused of card cheating. The sheriff tells the thugs that it’s time they got out of town, a demand met with hostile mirth by the cowboys. The sheriff then speaks his “left foot, right foot” steps as he moves in closer and then, in a close-up, says “Twitch your eyes so they think you’re crazy.” He does, as uncertainty spreads on the faces of the cowboys. And so on.

The ad’s humor resonates because almost everyone has seen variants of the scene in old western movies performed straight and serious.

The announcement of the indictment of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates reminded me of the ad, which in my view ranks right up there with the camel ad demanding that office employees acknowledge that it is “hump day” (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LtjzQaFZ3k).  The charges follow close behind Trump’s recent tweets chastising the Secretary of State for trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear threat. In case you missed them, Trump tweeted: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…,” followed by “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

This follows other tweets in which Trump has threatened the total annihilation of North Korea, amidst name-calling reminiscent of school-yard behavior of grammar school boys.

The connection between the GEICO ad and Trump’s Tillerson take-down is that this is how Trump negotiates. The sheriff is outnumbered three-to-one and is trying to intimidate the cowboys into giving up their advantage by indicating he is nuts and may do something irrational and unexpected. This spooks them into a state of uncertainty and weakness. However, the sheriff, at the end of the ad, is still outnumbered and in a precarious situation.

This how Trump negotiates – make the other side think you’re irrational and capable of anything, in this case undermining the credibility of your official representative, and thus may at any moment unleash the full fury of American military power against a sitting-duck North Korea.

The “I may be crazy so you better be careful” strategy is not uncommon in business and other negotiations, as you know if you have experience with negotiating in high-stress situations. But the strategy rarely leads to good outcomes against experienced negotiators who are familiar with the approach and know now to deal with it. The outcome can only be positive if the other side responds rationally. If the other side is genuinely bonkers too, the outcome can quickly lead to mutually catastrophic results.

In the case of North Korea, it seems highly likely that Kim Jong-un has, at best, a severely distorted view of the United States and the political system that produced Donald Trump as president. Many people in the West see this confrontation as the worst-case scenario in which a demented, angry and generally ineffectual Trump acts out his fantasies and gets the world into a nuclear confrontation that could be avoided by adult behavior. If both Trump and Kim Jong-un are indeed crazy, as much evidence suggests, we are in a boatload of trouble as a civilization.

The case establishing that Trump may be insane is growing with every passing day. He has now threatened to abort the Iran nuclear deal, dumping it into the lap of Congress, because, most likely, he has no real idea what to do. He has threatened to cut off assistance to Puerto Rico which, according to multiple credible accounts, is in a humanitarian crisis unlike anything ever experienced in modern times. Trump seems unaware that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Or maybe he just doesn’t give a damn. They are, after all, not like the people who elected him.

And now, frustrated that the Republican-dominated Congress cannot fulfill his promise to end the Affordable Care Act, Trump also is ending the billions in federal subsidies that make it possible for the health insurance marketplaces to offer meaningful insurance for the millions of people most in need of it.

Trump’s presidency is the work of an incompetent and likely irrational madman. If not crazy in the clinical sense, he is unhinged from reality a substantial part of the time. He does not understand government, has failed to staff multiple critical leadership positions throughout the government and spends a huge amount of time golfing. He still lies constantly and is unnaturally obsessed with Hillary Clinton and with undoing everything President Obama accomplished. He is in constant conflict many of his “advisors” in the White House. Most importantly, he is set upon undermining the free press which is protected by the very same Constitution he swore to uphold on January 20.

Trump’s “eye-twitching” is the real deal, not make-believe or only for effect. He is the only president in history who took the oath of office knowing that his real intent was to undermine the federal government. His uber-entitled cabinet members, when they’re not undermining environmental protections, are flying around on private jets. His coterie of family members and true believers are enriching themselves at the expense of everyone else.

As one commentator has accurately observed,

It’s become standard for reports coming from the inside of the White House to acknowledge, slyly at first but now overtly, that Trump is in constant need of managing. He believes false reports and refuses to read truthful ones. He lashes out at anyone who hasn’t lied for him adequately. There are now entire reports devoted to his rage, his anger, his madness and his inability to accept responsibility. [http://slate.me/2ggY2xy, bold in original]

This is the situation for which the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967, was designed. Whether or not he is a moron, as the Secretary of State recently labelled him, and even if not “crazy” in the clinical sense, he is certainly mentally unstable and incapable of responsibly executing the duties of the high office he occupies. Recall that he has access to the nuclear firing codes and is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

Unfortunately, the 25th Amendment, drafted by a senior senator from Indiana with the counsel of a constitutional law professor at Fordham, contains much vague language that makes invocation even more fraught than it would, in all events, be. It has also led to some sloppy analysis and commentary about what the amendment means. There are, for example, two alternative means for removing the president due to inability to perform. Sometimes, they are conflated by well-intentioned commenters on this most serious of constitutional questions.

One method is that the “Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments” (i.e., the Cabinet) may declare in writing that “the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” In that case, the “Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”

The amendment then states that the President can make a written declaration that he no longer has an “inability,” at which point he resumes his office, unless the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet declare in writing that the President continues to be “unable” to do his job. In the case of such conflicting declarations, Congress must decide. That decision requires a two-thirds vote (known as a super-majority) of both the House and the Senate. If Congress concurs with the Vice President-Cabinet majority, the Vice President remains Acting President; if not, the President resumes his office.

It seems pretty clear that the crafters of the amendment did not want to make it easy to remove a president. That was probably wise, but now the unthinkable has happened. A president with the emotional makeup of a ten-year-old has been elected and the Republican Party is prepared to support him no matter what he does.

This brings us to the second method of removal under the 25th Amendment. To understand it, you simply substitute “a majority of … the principal officers of … such other body as Congress may by law provide” for the ‘a majority of the Cabinet.’ Everything else in the written declarations process remains the same, including the role of Congress to resolve conflicts between the President and either the Vice President-Cabinet majority or the “Vice President and other-body” majority.

This appears to be a dead letter because Congress has never created that “other body” with a group of “principal officers” who could vote on the President’s “inability” to do his job.

It may occur to you that there is a potential circularity in the alternative method. This appears so because the Congressional creation of the alternative body must be provided “by law” enacted by Congress. Since Congress cannot by itself enact a law, it could be argued that the alternative body can only be created with the cooperation of the sitting president who must sign the legislation. No one would expect a sitting president expecting a political attack by his own Cabinet would ever sign such legislation to make it easier to remove him. The answer, I believe, is the second method probably would have to be set up by a responsible and rational president who was not expecting a removal effort against him. Once the president has become irrational, he simply won’t cooperate with the Congress on any alternative removal mechanism and, thus, the alternative removal mechanism could not be used.

The apparent assumption of the drafters of the 25th that the President and the Congress would always act in advance of a crisis and do so responsibly seems naïve in the current context. In any case Congress has never passed a law to create the alternative body to address the “inability” of the President to perform his duties and, in the present political setting, it is unlikely to do so.

Where, then, do we end up? With Sheriff Mueller securing indictments. The Republicans and their news agents at Fox News are, naturally, parroting Trump’s continuous efforts to deflect attention elsewhere, usually to Hillary Clinton. Like some B-grade crime movie, Trump keeps screaming, via Twitter, “look, look, it’s not me/us, she’s getting away! Get her!”

At this point it’s a bit late for Trump and his gang to get out of town, so Sheriff Mueller will just have to finish the job he started. Trump and Fox will continue to try to undermine him. Maybe Trump will try to fire him. That would be a fatal mistake. If Trump is counting on the Sheriff to blink first, that also is a mistake. Manafort is in for a rough spell if he is found guilty, so maybe he will do the smart thing and start telling the truth. Then whose eyes will be twitching?

Voice from the Past Trying to Tip the Scale?

Call me paranoid if you like, but the publication of a think-piece by Kenneth Starr leaves me more than a little disturbed. The article is entitled “Believe in the process” in the published Washington Post of June 16, 2017 and as “Firing Mueller would be an insult to the Founding Fathers” in the online version of the Post. http://wapo.st/2rDNAja

Starr, you may recall, was U.S. Solicitor General for President Bush (41) and served as independent counsel investigating various aspects of the Clinton presidency. His story can be seen at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Starr.

Starr’s observations in the Post start off well enough, arguing that “the process, untidy and rancorous as ever, is actually working well” and that we need to “step back” and let the government finish its work. Referring to the present special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, Starr states the obvious: “the president would be singularly ill-advised to threaten, much less order, Mueller’s firing.” Starr adds that “Wisdom counsels strongly against unleashing a 21st-century version of the Saturday Night Massacre of Watergate-era infamy.”

Then, a funny thing happens. In what looks to me like a subtle attempt at gas-lighting. Starr writes:

Certainly, if Mueller wanders outside the bounds of professionalism and basic integrity, he can and should be fired. Concerns are already being raised – including about Mueller’s friendship with Comey and his staff-packing with anti-Trump partisans. He will be closely watched.

Maybe I missed it, but I haven’t noticed any “concerns” being raised about Mueller’s approach to the investigation of Trump-Russia or other possible criminal conduct by Trump and his administration. Virtually everyone who has addressed the subject has praised Mueller as a paragon of integrity and professionalism, someone beyond reproach.

Starr goes further, addressing Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions’ refusal, in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, to discuss any aspect of conversations with the president related to anything. Sessions asserted that the president should be given the questions and what amounts to an indefinite period of time to decide whether and how the questions can be answered. Starr flatly declares that Sessions “was on entirely solid ground in safeguarding the president’s right to invoke executive privilege.”

However, when Senator Kamala Harris tried to examine Sessions about why Sessions did not prepare for the inevitable questions about contacts with Trump, she was interrupted by Senator McCain waiving a verbal flag at Chairman Burr to stop Harris’ effort to get at that important question. Burr responded by effectively preventing further examination on that point. The question I have raised in other forums was, of course, not reached: why the previous intelligence leaders and Sessions’ appearance did not include White House counsel who could have advised on the spot about the assertion of executive privilege and the basis for it.

Then the Starr article gets even crazier and more troublesome. Starr goes on to say that “the early returns also suggest the absence of any Oval Office criminality.” He sells out on whether Trump’s “hope” that Comey would drop the Michael Flynn investigation was reasonably construed by Comey as a statement of presidential intention rather than a wistful wishing upon a star (no pun intended, but I do like it). Starr claims that “to hope that the director would abandon a line of inquiry is most naturally read as pleading and cajoling, but not as an order” and “in any event, at the time, Comey didn’t treat the president’s words as a directive.”

These declarations are astonishing in multiple ways that reflect an attempt by Starr to put his foot on the scale and add gravitas to Trump’s defense against obstruction of justice. There is no indication, other than Fox News and its like, that “early returns … suggest the absence of any Oval Office criminality.”

There are, I suggest, millions of Americans who believe just the opposite based on what has been disclosed thus far. Moreover, what Starr claims is the most “naturally read” thrust of the president’s stated “hope” is, in fact, downright silly, since Starr was not present to observe the president’s demeanor or fully evaluate the context. The notion that the president of the United States, known globally for his always-aggressive style, was effectively on bended knee before a man whose employment was in the president’s hands is facially absurd. And, of course, Starr ignores the most inconvenient fact, confirmed by Sessions, that Trump cleared the room before addressing his “hope” to Comey. Trump can’t begin to remember the last time he pleaded and cajoled to get his way.

Finally, there is Starr’s claim that since Comey at the time didn’t treat Trump’s words as a “directive,” the “pleading and cajoling” must not have been a directive. What would Comey have had to do to show that he took the words as a statement of what the president wanted and expected of him? Salute? Bow down? In fact, Comey went to his car and promptly wrote down what had transpired. And he asked the Attorney General to not leave him alone with the president in the future. That memorandum is now in the hands of Special Prosecutor Mueller. Starr would have us believe that Comey made the whole thing up, an act that even most of Comey’s principal adversaries seem to believe is inconsistent with both his character and long-time behavior.

I suspect we have not seen the last of Trump’s shadow team stepping forward to try to shore up the sinking ship that Trump has captained to near disaster. Newt Gingrich is another voice from the Republican past who is going to extraordinary lengths to sustain the president in his self-imposed hour of ever-deepening crisis. Gingrich for example, has stated that a president cannot, as a matter of law, commit obstruction of justice. http://bit.ly/2rFgD5N

Last time I looked, the United States was still a constitutional democracy. We do not have a king. We have not had a king since 1776 when we declared our independence and officially ended any allegiance to the King of England. Gingrich should refresh his memory regarding the U.S. Constitution.

It would not be surprising if more people like Starr and Gingrich join the proverbial circle of wagons around the White House. Even Vice President Pence is lawyering up. Give it your best shot, gentlemen. The cavalry is coming. But this is not a Western movie and the cavalry is not coming to save you.