Tag Archives: Mueller

“Lawless White House” – the Mueller Report – “Oh! What A Tangled Web We Weave …”

The rest of line, you likely know, is “when first we practice to deceive.” Originally published in 1808 but completely relevant to the politics of today. The quote of a “lawless White House” is in the extraordinary book I’m about to describe.

We’ll never know the whole truth about Russian interference in the 2016 election or, most likely, many of the other crimes committed by Donald Trump and his White House/Congressional enablers. Most of the relevant documents have likely been destroyed or hidden away from the prying eyes of investigators armed with subpoenas and, one may wish, indictments. Trump and his enablers have shown they have no regard for law and will do anything to avoid being held accountable.

A bitter pill to swallow. There is, however, still much we don’t know that can be discovered despite the fact that the relevant rules favor the criminals and traitors – see, e.g., the accused is innocent until proven guilty, proceedings of the grand jury are secret, non-disclosure agreements are enforceable, attorney-client privilege and executive privilege, to name just a few.

In 2019 I read every word of and wrote extensively about the Mueller Report, with emphasis on what seemed to me the glaring shortcomings of the investigation and the conclusions reached. The links to those posts are set out at the end of this post for those who care to look back. Little did I know what was really going on. I had only the report itself and various news reports as sources.

But now we have Andrew Weissmann’s remarkable book, Where Law Ends—Inside the Mueller Investigation, published in Sept. 2020, but which I have just discovered and read compulsively. It is a barn burner in the truest sense and should be read by everyone who is genuinely interested in saving our democracy. When you are done, you will understand much better the frailties of our constitutional system and the means by which a putative dictator can undermine the separation of powers and subvert the rights we have taken for granted.

You know you’re in for a wild ride in the Introduction, where Weissmann describes AG William Barr’s 4-page letter purporting to explain and elaborate on the Mueller Report as “so many deceptions,” “deliberately worded obfuscations,” and “unbridled lies.” Weissman, after a long career in the FBI under Mueller, was put in charge of the “M Team” for the Special Counsel Investigation. The M Team was the group of lawyers, FBI agents and others who would determine what crimes had been committed, if any (obligatory qualification there) by Paul Manafort, who for a time was Donald Trump’s campaign manager, among many other roles. The other teams were the “R” (to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign with Russian bad actors) and the “600” team (to determine whether Trump had obstructed justice in violation of federal law).

Weissmann thus was in the center of the investigation, privy to most of the challenges and involved in most of the discussion of strategy and tactics as Trump’s determination to undermine the investigation at all costs became apparent.

I am only going to touch on some highlights, that I hope will induce everyone reading this to acquire and digest Weissmann’s book. A full summary would far exceed the bounds of a reasonable blog post and give away too much of the astonishing revelations.

With books like this one, there are often questions about the content and timing of publication. The Twitterverse and other commenters reacted as expected, with some questioning “why wait so long?” “why not reveal everything, including the secret grand jury evidence?” and so on. My response to those critics is (1) pre-publication review was essential to the book’s publication at any time, (2) the book is meticulously fact-oriented and replete with legal analysis (presented mainly in laymen’s’ terms) – something of this nature could not be rushed, and (3) Weissmann gained nothing personally or professionally from delay – he was and is committed to the preservation of law and would have been foolish to violate the confidentiality of grand jury proceedings.

It is also telling that, atypically of exposé books, Weissmann does not make himself the unsung hero of the tale. Quite the contrary, he admits to more than one serious error of judgment in dealing with Mueller and Mueller’s uptight top deputy (Aaron Zebley, Mueller’s former Chief of Staff at the FBI) who was brought in from Mueller’s law firm even before Weissmann was hired. Weissmann takes great pains to explain the competing considerations and why he made particular decisions, while also, appropriately in my view, assigning serious errors to people who deserved the rebukes in light of everything known at the time. Anyone who has been involved in any kind of serious investigation (I have) can surely appreciate the difficult choices confronting the leadership of the investigative teams. Nevertheless, rigid thinking and timidity in the face of threats from the subjects of the investigation led to catastrophic errors.

More important, this is a true inside account of the investigation. Weissmann, while in thrall of Mueller before, during and after the investigation/report, is unrelenting in exposing the investigation’s problems and mistakes, laying out the consequences in stark terms. Examples abound throughout the 346 pages. It reads like a good murder mystery, but you know from page one that it is real, not fiction, and all the more chilling for that.

Weissmann flatly accuses the Trump administration of unlawfully interfering with the DOJ Criminal Division in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases. Trump had always railed against the FCPA because it interfered with his ability to bribe foreign officials to get development rights he was after overseas.

James Comey comes in for particularly harsh assessment regarding his decision, shortly before the 2016 election, to disclose the discovery of additional emails on the computer of Anthony Weiner who was (inexplicably, to me) the husband of Huma Abedin, a senior aide to Hillary Clinton. Weissmann sets out the multiple options Comey had in addition to the two he claimed were the only ones open to him. Weissmann at 54.

Weissmann also endorses the critique of Comey by Deputy AG Rosenstein while noting that Rosenstein was effectively covering for Trump’s desire to remove Comey because Comey refused to drop the investigation of General Michael Flynn. Weissmann notes that Trump’s statement on the Comey firing was drafted by Trump with Stephen Miller before Rosenstein became aware of Trump’s plan to fire Comey. Thus, “The White House’s effort to pass off the Comey firing as Rosenstein’s idea was a fabrication.” Weissmann at 60. Only one of many, it would turn out.

The White House also withheld from the Special Counsel an important document pertinent to the Russian interference in 2016. Trump’s lack of concern or interest about it made for Obstruction of Justice No. 11 in the pantheon of obstruction uncovered by Mueller, or would have been uncovered. If Mueller had insisted that Trump testify under oath.  Weissmann at 61. In any case, the firing of Comey is explained and shown to be a clear case of obstruction of justice by Trump. Weissman at 64.

An entire chapter of the book is devoted to the infamous Trump Tower meeting, that was the subject of withheld information (Jared Kushner) and lies (Papadopoulos). Weismann at 86. Among the conclusions: “it was clear that the highest levels of the Russian government were trying to help Trump and damage his opponent” and “the Trump campaign was extremely receptive to this help.” Weissmann at 88.

In a second chapter entitled “The Trump Tower Cover-Up,” Weissmann notes that neither Donald Trump nor Don Jr. ever agreed to meet with the investigators voluntarily and neither was brought before the grand jury. And the parties coordinated their versions of events to, among other things, support Don Jr’s claim that he had never meet any Russian officials. Weissmann at 103. Weissmann concluded that Trump himself lied about the Trump Tower meeting, that lying was in effect a basic Trump strategy for solving problems and that he seemed to believe there were never any consequences to his doing so. Weissmann at 107. History, so far, shows that Trump’s belief in his invulnerability is justified.

That episode reveals one of the serious points of disagreement within the investigative team. Team 600 concluded that it had found no evidence, through a witness or documents, that proved the president’s motive in lying was to deceive Congress and thus he could not be found to have engaged in criminal obstruction of justice. Weissmann calls this conclusion “timorous,” which in retrospect seems an understatement at best. Weismann at 108. At 110, Weissman concludes, more precisely, that the Trump Tower meeting was “damning.”

This episode, however, was prescient for the future of the investigation as Mueller and Zebley adopted a narrow and rigid view of the mission of the Special Counsel, what the evidence showed and what was risked by being too aggressive in the investigation. See, e.g., Weissmann at 128-129. Eventually, for a time at least, Mueller realized how impactful Russian interference could be and authorized a more full-throated investigation into all aspects of Russian interference, Weissmann at 132, but the ongoing reality was that Mueller was influenced far too much by Trump’s shenanigans throughout the investigation and creation of the final report.

That observation brings me to the most important points about this book. I may have more to say about the details in a future post, but it is vital to understand the overall process and how Mueller’s and Zebley’s conservatism led to a flawed process and failed report.

The harsh and ugly truth is that the presidency, in the wrong hands, gave the subject of the investigation an unequaled power to influence the behavior of witnesses, principally in this case Paul Manafort, but others as well. One such influence is the pardon power that Trump unsubtly dangled to assure witnesses that if they remained loyal to him, even to the extent of repeatedly lying to the investigators, they would be spared any consequences. And we know that this was a situation where loyalty to Trump was indeed rewarded with pardons or commuted sentences– for Manafort, for Flynn, for Stone, for Bannon, for Papadopoulos and others. https://bit.ly/3hfx7O3

The other major influence was Trump’s ability to fire the Special Counsel and thus end the investigation. If Mueller’s fears about this were based on the idea that the Republican Party (his party) would not hold Trump to account, he would have been right to be concerned. Nevertheless, Weissmann argues, persuasively, that the impact of this concern unduly colored many of the most important judgments made in the ultimate report.

Whether or not our skepticism is warranted, the book makes very clear that these two elements: Trump’s ability to pardon wrongdoers and his power to fire the Special Counsel, when used to serve Trump’s personal interest, are matters of the most profound concern for the future of our governance.

One of the most remarkable effects of this, when combined with the relentless attacks from the right-wing “media,” was that while Ivanka Trump, for example, almost certainly had relevant information about, for example, the Trump Tower meeting, the decision was that Ivanka was not to be interviewed. Weissmann at 117-118. Don Jr similarly could have been subpoenaed after refusing to be interviewed, but this was not done either. Weissman at 118. Astonishing. Fear of being fired also impacted decisions regarding how broadly to look into Trump’s finances in search of indirect Russian contributions (the Deutsche Bank subpoenas, for example, still not fully fleshed out). Weissmann at 147-148.

It is clear that Trump’s willingness to, directly and indirectly, threaten the Special Counsel with termination had major effects on the scope and aggression of the investigation. That reality explains many of the obvious and serious defects in Mueller’s final report discussed in detail in my earlier blog posts and exposed by Weissmann’s inside knowledge.

Weissmann demonstrates a clear-eyed understanding of the extent of Donald Trump’s corruption: “One cannot plausibly deny that Trump was seeking foreign assistance from Russia and was open to accepting it if offered.” Weissmann at 126, 135, 140. He labels Trump a continuing “counterintelligence threat.” As long as he remains free and unindicted for his multiple crimes in office, Trump remains such a threat despite his lazy indifference to national security briefings that have been a daily staple in the lives of presidents for a very long time. He knows a lot that would be valuable to our adversaries. Continuing through to the end of his presidency, Trump never acted against the Russian interference that was proven to continue into the 2020 campaigns. Weissmann at 218-219, 222. The book lays out a stark and disturbing list of failures to confront the Russian interference threat. Weissmann at 224.

Similarly, Weissmann describes how Rick Gates was aggressively pressured by Paul Manafort and unnamed others to refuse cooperation to the investigation. Weissmann at 206-208. The prospect of a pardon from Trump was part of the “package” of sweeteners to keep Gates quiet. Ultimately, the pressure failed to silence Gates, but just barely.

One particularly interesting story involved Manafort ginning up attacks from Fox’s Sean Hannity against the Special Counsel investigation in violation of the trial judge’s bail orders that had permitted Manafort to remain free pending trial. The investigators correlated Manafort’s texts to Hannity with on-air smears of Mueller and staff. Aaron Zebley, however, prevented the submission of the texts to the court, saying, “they are too explosive.” Weissmann at 209.

Much of the story of the Mueller investigation reads like the script of a television drama series. Typically, parts of such plots are so over the top, so corrupt and malign that they strain credulity. Trump, however, must have studied those shows because his conduct with people like White House counsel McGahn showed a willingness to flout the law at will. Trump never believed, and likely still does not believe, that he can be held accountable. He genuinely believes he is above the law and able, as he said, “to do whatever I want.”

Skipping much material that I may cover in a future post, Weissmann’s narrative ends full circle, reviewing then-Attorney General Barr’s letter purporting to summarize the Mueller Report, but which in fact was a green light to unleash Trump’s corruption in full and unrestrained flower. It led directly to the Ukraine extortion attempt that led to Trump’s first impeachment. Weissmann at 331. And to Giuliani, Nunes, and the political forgiveness of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, that Weissmann refers to as the “gaggle of presidential defenders and conspirators.” At 332.

Weissmann surgically dissects Barr’s falsities, noting, for example, that Barr’s claim that the president had “full cooperated” with the investigation “”is not just untrue, it’s astonishingly far from the truth.” Weissmann at 333. The same for Barr’s claim that Trump had not asserted presidential privilege to withhold information.  And the same for Barr’s assertion that Trump had formed a “sincere belief” that his presidency was being undermined by the investigation, a claim whose provenance was never explained and in any case was irrelevant to the question whether Trump had obstructed justice.  Weissmann rips Barr’s claim that the Russian active measures were directed at “social discord” rather than helping Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. Lie after lie after lie.

Weissman concludes with some recommendations for ways to strengthen the Special Counsel regulations but, more importantly, disputes compellingly the DOJ policy, adhered to strictly by Mueller, that if the president could not be indicted, it was improper to accuse him of wrongdoing. Weissman at 342. A sitting president can indeed defend himself if he chooses to do so. The policy makes no sense. I addressed the no-indictment policy in a prior post on this blog.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, Weissman notes that the presidential pardon power in the Constitution should not be used to protect the president personally by, in effect, covering up the crimes of others who would, absent the pardon power, have incriminating information on the sitting president. He argues that it should be unconstitutional for a president to use the pardon power to protect himself, independent of whether that power could be used to directly pardon himself. Weissmann at 344. That seems exactly right to me, although I have some doubts that the “conservative” majority now on the Supreme Court wouldn’t just take the simple-minded approach that the words conferring the pardon authority contain no limitations and therefore are absolute. That is a view that would further cement the anti-Constitutional idea of the imperial presidency that Trump tried to impose on the country. We can see in the events of January 6, among many other examples, where that leads.

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Links to Posts re Mueller Investigation:

Mueller’s Indictment of Russia Hackers   https://bit.ly/3gQe7Xb    July 13, 2018

Mueller’s Indictment of Russia Hackers – Updated  https:://bit.ly/3h33lvl July 14, 2018

The Mueller Report – Where From Here? https://bit.ly/3gZQElm   March 24, 2019

Semi-Final Thoughts on Mueller Report https://bit.ly/3j8gVRh  March 25, 2019

Issues raised by Mueller/Barr/Rosenstein https://bit.ly/3wSPjni March 27, 2019

Redactions of Mueller Report Must Be Coded  https://bit.ly/3j8nX8q April 6, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA https://bit.ly/3jeBNGr  July 9, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I — TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – A https://bit.ly/3dagOkk  July 10, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – B https://bit.ly/3zNATqe  July 10, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – C  https://bit.ly/3xTRsPI  July 11, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – D  https://bit.ly/3vUR1D9  July 11, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – E https://bit.ly/2U46bIX  July 11, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-A   https://bit.ly/3gQAXOu   July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-B, C  https://bit.ly/3A5gf5l   July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice – D    https://bit.ly/3wVcw8l   July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-E   https://bit.ly/3gRyKlW  July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice – F   https://bit.ly/3gRHR61  July 23, 2019

Rebuttal to “The case against indicting Trump”

 

It’s fair to say that I mostly agree with positions taken by Randall D. Eliason, who is an adjunct faculty member and teaches white-collar criminal law at George Washington University Law School. Some of his WAPO articles are listed at https://wapo.st/3nKdvDc

Nevertheless, having addressed the subject of pardons/indictment of Donald Trump (https://bit.ly/3m32c8L),  I feel compelled to respond to this latest set of arguments as to why the U.S. government should let Trump and his family walk away unscathed from the wreckage he has wrought on the country and the treasure he has stolen. https://wapo.st/39fwOk1 So, I plunge ahead.

Eliason’s first argument is,

“Launching criminal investigations into an outgoing president would set a dangerous precedent. In this country, we don’t use the criminal justice system to punish political opponents.”

This is a problematic framing of the issue. The purpose of criminal actions would not be to “punish political opponents.” First, the issue is crimes committed in office, not “punishing political opponents” for being opponents or for pursuing policies with which we disagree. Second, it’s far from clear that Donald Trump will remain a “political opponent” once he is out of the presidency. There is speculation, of course, that he has tasted the drug of political power and, like every addict, will be unable to resist going back for more. But there are a multitude of obstacles to his being a serious political force once he is not commanding the news cycle all day and night every day and night. [For clarity, I am fully aware of my assumption that the media will cease amplifying every stupid and outrageous thing Trump says and does and that it will pay most of its attention to the actual government and what it is doing for the country].

Eliason anticipates my position to some degree, in noting that Trump’s supporters will see criminal investigation as an effort to silence Trump in anticipation of his next run for the presidency. No doubt that is true. The “minds” of politicians like Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and the Grim Reaper Mitch McConnell will explode with endless invective as occurred when Trump was impeached, and Republicans became hysterical even though they knew they would not admit relevant evidence or witnesses of the crimes Trump had committed in the Ukraine affair.

The question on this issue, I respectfully suggest, is not what Republican sycophants will say but whether what they say is worthy of consideration and continuing influence in the nation’s public affairs. Catering to them, I believe, will have the effect of validating Trump’s rhetoric in a way that is fundamentally inconsistent with the core of the country’s reason for existence, it’s “soul,” if you will.

Eliason also argues that many of Trump’s actions are not “actually criminal.” Fine, I have no objection to giving him a pass on those, no matter how offensive his views and behaviors may have been. There are still plenty of grounds for indictment, including the ones that the Democrats, for reasons I have never understood and railed against at the time, failed to bring in the impeachment articles. I refer the ten (minimum) instances of “obstruction of justice” established by the Mueller Investigation. No indictment was brought on those very strong cases only because Department of Justice policy (dubiously) forbad indictment of a sitting president. See https://bit.ly/3768GNI  https://bit.ly/372xCG3 https://bit.ly/35YyjB5  https://bit.ly/35WpnMg https://bit.ly/2UUurKR

There are likely many others, some of which will only be discovered when the documentary record of Trump’s White House is available for inspection (assuming, of course, that they don’t destroy the key documents before exiting). For example, there are the original notes of the call with Ukraine President Zelensky that we were told had been stored in a secure White House server and have never seen the light of day. The records related to the policy of caging kids at the southern border will also make interesting reading. Because Trump was known to destroy documents he created and given other propensities of White House aides to do whatever Trump demanded, there is a high risk that many documents have been destroyed and, if so, there is the question whether such conduct should go unpunished because Republicans don’t care about such niceties as federal record retention laws or the Hatch Act that was deliberately violated repeatedly by Trump’s staff.

Eliason addresses the obstruction of justice issues but resists criminal enforcement because “the Democratic House of Representatives did not even see fit to impeach the president over those alleged crimes.” To that, I retort, “so what?” That was a political decision, one that was terribly misguided in my view, but, in any case, it was not a creditable judgment that a criminal case could not be based on obstruction. I simply don’t understand Eliason’s conclusion that the “book appears largely closed on Trump’s obstruction.”

Eliason then turns to the “other punishments” of Trump’s misconduct, noting that “the country saw his behavior and booted him.” And Eliason is likely right that “Trump is destined to go down in history as an impeached, disgraced president.” Trump won’t care much about the judgment of history, however. He will spend his remaining years in luxury, denying the truth, interfering in political issues solely for attention and generally being disruptive to keep attention on himself.

That leads nicely into Eliason’s final argument, that “criminal investigations would guarantee that the next few years continue to be all about Trump.” My answer is that even if Trump is allowed to just walk away, he will do everything in his power to keep the media attention on himself. And he will be aided in this by the same collection of spineless, traitorous Republican politicians that have been too cowardly to stand up to him for the past four years.

So, while there are respectable arguments that the United States should just write Trump’s presidency off as a terrible mistake and focus entirely on repairing the damage, I continue to believe that such focus will be impossible and will in fact be continually impaired by Trump’s arrogant interference. If he is under criminal indictment, his attorneys will almost certainly advise him to shut his mouth, stop tweeting and behave responsibly for once in his life. He may resist. So be it. But any way you look at this, Trump is going to be around and will refuse to be ignored.

Finally, I observe that in his closing, Eliason acknowledges that grounds may well exist to pursue a former president. He mentions one who “sold our most sensitive intelligence to an enemy.” I remind us all that there were multiple instances in which Trump gave intelligence information to Russian diplomats and in which he destroyed notes or otherwise prevented record-keeping of conversations with leaders such as Vladimir Putin. In these types of cases, Eliason admits that “it would be unimaginable to say that president is immune from prosecution” While he thinks Trump’s record in this regard is not egregious enough, I contend we don’t know enough at this time to reach that conclusion. There are plenty of grounds for concern in the cases I have mentioned. This goes well beyond “norms” and other traditional practices that Trump savaged.

The solution to the problem of “appearances of weaponizing” the Department of Justice is not to do it. President Biden can make clear, and live by his word, that prosecutorial decisions will be made solely by prosecutors and that he will stand by whatever decisions they make. Republicans will scream like stuck pigs, of course, but we have heard more than enough of their false moralizing and false equivalencies for many lifetimes. The republic’s best move, then, in my opinion, is to put Trump on the legal defensive by aggressively pursuing well-founded, sharply focused criminal indictments for his worst crimes in office.

 

Defeating Trump’s Coup d’état

Donald Trump is planning to take control of the U.S. government regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election. I believe that deeply. Even if I’m wrong about that, we must prepare on the assumption that I’m right. If wrong, and he goes quietly, fine. If I’m right, saving the country and its republican form of democracy will likely depend on how we prepare in the next three months.

The classical definition of a coup d’état is the “sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.” But there are other, more subtle ways of accomplishing a coup. Trump himself, a master of the “I am a victim” trope, has argued repeatedly that the Mueller investigation was an attempted coup. Many Republicans have reiterated that “argument.” Now the argument has morphed into an attack on mail-in voting, a process similar to absentee voting and identical to the voting procedures used in five states: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah.

Timothy Snyder, author of  On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from The Twentieth Century, has described Trump’s position as a “prime historical fascist tactic”: create a crisis, then use that as an excuse to reject the peaceful transfer of power. Snyder knows a thing or two about tyranny and how it can work to destroy a democracy. He has written that “Trump’s ‘Delay the Election’ tweet checks all 8 rules for fascist propagandahttps://wapo.st/3i0remw We ignore his warnings at our extreme peril.

Since Trump can’t legally delay the election on his own, his main task is to find someone to foul up the election so he can claim a right to stay in power. The tactic is not unlike the infamous “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest,” an utterance by a king that led to the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has launched a multi-front attack to get his way: undermining the U.S. Postal Service and claiming mail-in voting is the cause of massive voter fraud.

Let’s move from the sublime to the practical. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, there are about 200,000 polling places in the United States even after the Republicans’ massive voter suppression efforts in multiple southern states to reduce polling places so as to increase voter travel and waiting-in-line times. Election Administration & Voting Survey, 2018 Comprehensive Report to Congress. https://bit.ly/39UakD7

That Report notes that,

more than120 million Americans voted in the 2018 general elections, a turnout rate of 52 percent of the Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP) .… turnout in the 2018 general elections increased in nearly all states when compared to 2014. Some states saw turnout levels that approached those of a typical presidential election.

That was the glorious Blue Wave that swept Democrats into control of the House of Representatives. Moreover,

More than half of voters cast their ballots in person on Election Day, and one-quarter of participants cast their ballots by mail. Nearly one-fifth voted early at in-person early voting sites, a rate that more than doubled since the 2014 elections. In six states, more than half of ballots were cast at in-person early voting sites. Although the overall rate of by-mail voting has not changed significantly since 2014, the states of California, Montana, and Utah saw large increases in their statewide by-mail voting rates.

These remarkable results involved more than 600,000 volunteer poll workers. However, nearly 70 percent of responding jurisdictions reported that it was “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to obtain a sufficient number of poll workers. That was, obviously, long before the coronavirus pandemic. This year the challenge will be massively greater.

There are numerous other obstacles to more robust voting. For example,

Thirteen states do not offer online voter registration

Fewer than half of states allow for same day voter registration

Only three states run their elections entirely by mail (4 others have all-by-mail voting in select local jurisdictions

About a quarter of states require in-person early voters to provide an excuse for doing so

Less than one-third of states have vote centers or allow voters to cast ballots at any polling place in their jurisdiction.

That is what Republican control of many state legislatures, combined with active Republican voter suppression tactics, have left us.

Given the pandemic and ongoing threats to voting by Republicans in 2020, what could go wrong? Answer: everything; the signs are unmistakable.

Republicans, including Trump himself, have publicly admitted that, for example, changes like universal automatic voter registration and mail-in voting will favor Democrats. Therefore, Republicans conjure various bogus and non-evidence-based claims of massive voter fraud, mistakes and delays, even as Trump’s appointee to head the U.S. Postal Service works to cripple the Service’s ability to adapt to major volume increases for the upcoming election. And Trump urges the voter suppression work onward because, as Prof. Snyder has observed, he pretty well knows he’s going to be defeated in a fair election process.

What can Democrats do to avoid the roadblocks Republicans are going to place in the path of increased voter turnout?

The answer is to plan out every potential obstructionist scenario and prepare countermeasures accordingly.

At the most basic level, it is crucial to identify polling places where long lines are likely on November 3. For every such location, Democrats should provide portable toilets, snacks, water, rain ponchos and anything else that will make it easier for voters to stay in line as long as it takes. Virtually everyone who gives up and leaves the line will not return later to vote, so it crucial to help every Democrat stick it out as long as needed.

The actual voting process must be closely observed to assure that bogus obstacles are not thrown in the path of voters. In cases of asserted issues, poll watchers must insist that provisional ballots be provided, and a close count must be maintained of how many such ballots are collected. Watching the final tally at the end of the voting day is equally important. This process can be tedious and a bit complicated; trained observers are important, as their mere presence will discourage shenanigans during the counting and reporting process.

To the extent consistent with local laws, videos and photographs should be taken of the physical setup of each polling place. Record any incidents of potential voter interference outside the polling station. The recent incidents in Minnesota, for example, in which armed “protesters” demanded removal of mask requirements and opening of lockdowns at state legislatures and elsewhere are evidence suggesting that armed groups may appear at polling places in “open carry” states to try to intimidate voters by their presence.

Democratic watchers must be present to record any such incidents and to reassure waiting voters that they should not be deterred from exercising their right to vote. Armed “militias” should not be allowed to, for example, interrogate voters approaching the polling station about why they are there. Poll-watchers should be equipped with contact information for the State and Local Police as well as key media outlets in the area. The more eyes on the situation, the less likely actual acts of intimidation will be successful. In polling places located where potential disruptions are considered most likely, Democrats should always have more than one person on-site from opening to reporting of the final tally.

These recommendations are a tall order, requiring a large commitment from many people. Nevertheless, the stakes are also extremely high — nothing less than the survival of American democracy. Trump intends to steal the election by whatever method works and he has started multiple paths to that end. Having sent federal “troops” to Portland and other cities on the pretext of protecting federal property, with the predictable result of further destabilizing the situation and increasing the violence, he will stop at nothing to get what he wants. The people must stop at nothing to thwart his plan to undermine democracy.

It’s important to remember that Trump’s hard-core supporters are a minority of the voting population. Hillary Clinton’s popular vote was larger by just under 2.9 million votes. Her defeat was a product of many things, not least of which was Russian interference and the Electoral College, the vestige of a past time that enhances the voting power of the smaller states and thus, for example, enlarges the impact of southern state resistance to social policies favored by Democrats. It is likely Trump is getting help from Russia again this year. The election rules are fixed for now so the answer to Trump is maximum Democratic voter turnout.

Also keep in mind that Trump has lied repeatedly about his agenda. Just one example — his lawyers are in court right now trying to end insurance protection of pre-existing conditions. If re-elected, Trump will have free-reign to bring down what remains of America’s best institutions. If defeated, we can immediately begin rebuilding a civil society that treats all citizens fairly and promotes the common good of everyone, including recovery from the pandemic.

It’s up to you. If you can do it, please volunteer to help on Election Day. We must prepare for the worst case if we’re going to win.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Impeachment – Why and What?

I recently heard that a friend of mine was confused about the impeachment process now underway in the House of Representatives. I will try here to clarify, in simple English and without legalisms, what is going on and why.

The president is currently subject to an “impeachment inquiry” started by a resolution of the House of Representatives. The “inquiry” is a fancy term for an investigation. That investigation is about the question whether the president in his dealings with Ukraine committed “treason, bribery or other high crimes or misdemeanors,” that are the criteria for impeachment in the U.S. Constitution. If impeached (by the House adopting articles of impeachment) and convicted (by the Senate finding that the asserted crimes in the articles are true), he may be removed from office. Since he is still president during this process, he cannot be indicted (according to the Department of Justice). Once removed, however, he can be indicted, tried, convicted and sent to prison for crimes committed while in office.

The investigation is being conducted through two main processes.

The first process is the gathering of evidence through testimony-under-oath by various witnesses who have been subpoenaed (ordered to appear) or have volunteered to testify. Initially, those depositions (taking testimony under oath recorded verbatim) were conducted in private sessions open to members of the three investigating committees from both parties. Despite the opportunity to be present and ask questions, Republicans have complained bitterly about what they hysterically and falsely called “secret” sessions, even to the point of storming into one of the sessions in a group, violating the security requirements that apply to the site of the depositions.

The second process is the public hearing phase, now being broadcast on many TV stations, in which the same witnesses are called to be examined in public, again by both Democrats and Republicans. Now the Republicans, including the president himself, are bitterly claiming that the hearings should not be public. In the end of their rhetoric, what the Republicans want is to shut down the impeachment process entirely. That is not going to happen.

Why, then, is this impeachment inquiry happening? The essence of it is that Donald Trump tried to use Congressionally approved funding to help Ukraine defend  against further military incursions by Russia and also the prospect of a meeting with Trump for the newly elected Ukraine president (Zelensky) to leverage Ukraine’s new leadership to announce investigations into the then-leading challenger to Trump’s re-election, Joe Biden. The immediate target of the investigation would be Biden’s son, Hunter, who was, for a period, being paid $50,000 a month to sit on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. Republicans claim that this arrangement was part of the historic and endemic corruption that has afflicted Ukrainian political leadership for a very long time, but thus far no evidence has turned up to indicate that either Joe or Hunter Biden broke any laws.

All this is complicated by a number of details that are not central to the issue of what the president did, but they certainly illuminate his motives and explain his conduct. For one, Trump used his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani to engage with the Ukrainians and to promote false conspiracy theories about the Biden’s and to lead a smear campaign against the sitting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Trump eventually fired her without notice or explanation.

There are many other characters in this drama, some with long titles and long histories as diplomats in the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. Republicans have attacked many of these people because they obtained some or all of their information about Trump’s campaign against Biden through other sources. Indeed, the initial report that started all of this came from an anonymous whistleblower. The Inspector General of the Intelligence Community within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reviewed the whistleblower’s report and found it credible and disturbing. The impeachment inquiry followed.

It is important not to be distracted by the efforts of Republicans to focus the fight on side issues, such as the identity of the whistleblower or the “hearsay” nature of some of the evidence against Trump. The most damaging evidence was direct and produced by Trump himself, in the form of a memo (not a transcript) of his call with Ukraine President Zelensky in which Trump called on Zelensky to start the investigation. There is much additional testimony from Trump appointees, like Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, who personally participated in the leveraging of Ukraine.

The impeachment may be broadened before it’s over. One example comes from the Mueller investigation. Mueller’s final report found 10 instances of obstruction of justice by Trump and/or members of his staff and administration. These may, and in my opinion definitely should, be included in the forthcoming articles of impeachment. A second major example is playing out in the courts now – Democrats in the House are seeking  access to many of the redacted materials in the Mueller Report that may show that Trump lied to Mueller and is thus guilty of the high crime of perjury.

So, the impeachment is pretty straightforward when the Republican smoke is cleared away. Trump tried to induce Zelensky to publicly announce a Ukrainian investigation of the Biden’s to damage Joe Biden’s challenge to Trump’s re-election. The evidence on this is clear. He did it. The evidence of obstruction of justice in the Mueller Report is also clear. The House of Representatives is collecting the evidence and presenting it through public hearings. Eventually, when the hearings are completed, the House will have the opportunity to vote on “articles of impeachment.” These are like a criminal indictment. They will state the specific charges of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” that the House leadership believes are the basis for impeaching the president.

If the articles are approved by a majority vote in the House prior to the 2020 election, the impeachment moves to the Republican-controlled Senate for “trial” to determine if the president is guilty of the charged offenses and, if so, what the penalty should be. This process will be controlled entirely by Republicans and, absent a massive change in positioning, Republicans will refuse to convict the president regardless of the charges and regardless of the evidence.

The question of judging Trump’s conduct in office will then move to final determination in the election of 2020.

Impeachment – Who Should Testify?

In keeping with their desperate and ill-conceived defense of the indefensible president, Republicans have submitted a list of proposed witnesses they claim should be called to testify in next week’s public hearings on the impeachment of Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, the list includes the heretofore anonymous whistleblower who first revealed the president’s treachery in trying to leverage Ukraine’s president to publicize an investigation of Joe Biden by withholding Congressionally-approved aid. Republicans also want testimony from Biden’s son and random others.

Of particular interest, however, is the omission of most of the administration personnel with actual knowledge of the president’s demands, including, most notably, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney and appointed “fixer” to replace the disgraced and jailed Michael Cohen.

How should Adam Schiff, who chairs the House investigation, respond to these requests?

The issue in the hearings – the only issue – is whether the president of the United States committed impeachable offenses. The witness list, therefore, should consist only of people who can present factual information about that question. The whistleblower is not such a person because his report of the president’s wrongdoing was obtained from others who almost certainly will testify about their firsthand knowledge of what transpired.

I think of the whistleblower as similar to a person who hears others shouting “fire” and calls 911 for the fire department to report what he heard. He can’t say there was actually a fire or any details because he didn’t see it. He heard from others who saw it and he took action to help. Therefore, in the ensuing investigation of the fire, his testimony would at most establish that someone shouted “fire,” but he could not testify about the details of the fire he didn’t see. His testimony would be essentially useless on the origin of the fire, how it spread, who fought it, etc. If he chose to be identified, he might be hailed as a hero but his information about the fire itself would be useless. An imperfect analogy, I suppose, as most analogies are, but sufficient to make the point.

The Republican demands for exposure of the whistleblower are an essential element of the only “defense” Trump has – distraction from the central and only real question: the president’s conduct in connection with aid to Ukraine and the 2020 election interference he sought from a foreign government. The same is true about the demand for Hunter Biden’s testimony. Republicans want to create a sideshow about alleged corruption in the Biden camp which, even if true (and it has not been shown by evidence from any credible source), is not relevant to the president’s attempt to obtain foreign interference in the election. It is the president’s conduct, and no one else’s, that is at issue in the impeachment process.

I well understand that, when push comes to shove, Trump’s defenders will argue it was a legitimate exercise of presidential foreign policy authority to try to ferret out corruption by a person who was Vice President at the time. However, the evidence is clear, and mounting with every passing witness, that the sole purpose of Trump’s Ukraine maneuver was to help him defeat a domestic political opponent in 2020. Absent Biden’s prominent standing among the top challengers in 2020, Trump would have had no interest whatsoever in Biden’s involvement in Ukraine.

The answer to the question posed, then, is straightforward: individuals with direct knowledge of Trump’s conduct should testify. This is the investigative phase of the impeachment process and the sole issue is the president’s conduct. If Republicans want to produce witnesses to testify about Trump’s character, in mitigation of the possible penalty, that testimony will only be relevant in the Senate trial where the issue is conviction (or not) based on the evidence adduced in the House process. It is laughable, of course, that Republicans would introduce character evidence in the Senate, as that would create the opportunity for full exploration of Trump’s personal conduct in a host of areas, including defrauding charities, cheating the military and many others. Such a development would not deter the Republican majority from finding Trump “not guilty” but it would add to the ammunition available to the Democratic nominee in the 2020 campaign. The Senate trial, managed by #MoscowMitch, will be a brief affair with a foregone conclusion.

An overarching question remains as to how broad the House articles of impeachment should be. There are reported indications that Democrats are planning to limit the articles to the Ukraine situation. I am speculating, but must assume the rationale for that is to anticipate and undermine the argument that the impeachment process is just political revenge and an attempt to undo the election of 2016.

That would be a huge mistake. It would allow Trump to escape the findings of the Mueller investigation that Trump committed at least 10 acts of obstruction of justice. Prior posts in this blog covered the details. If the issue is going to be presented of criminal acts by the president, and there is an entire bag full of evidence of at least 10 such crimes in addition to the Ukraine scenario, limiting the charges will be interpreted by Republicans, and possibly the electorate, as proof that the Mueller Report was wrong and that Trump is innocent. The evidence of Trump’s guilt is overwhelming and he has thus far produced nothing substantive and relevant that could defeat that evidence.

Of course, in anticipation of the public hearings next week, Trump has announced he “may” issue a “transcript” of another Ukraine call. When? Why, Tuesday, of course, the day before the hearings begin. Classic Trump deflection and distraction. The first release of the “notes” from the call with President Zelensky were a disaster for Trump as those notes established the very crime he had denied. The second release will be more suspect since Trump is now in more serious trouble than he ever imagined and he likely will use the second call notes to try to repair the damage. I have previously written about the problem of calling these reports “transcripts” and the concerns expressed there are even more serious in the promised second release. CNN, among others, continues to misuse the term “transcript” to describe these notes, the original source of which are locked away in an ultra-secure computer somewhere in the White House.

A final point – the refusal of the Trump administration to produce witnesses subpoenaed by the House committees has led to multiple legal proceedings designed to test the extent to which the Executive Branch can claim, as this administration has, “absolute immunity” from Congressional oversight. Those cases are generally being decided against the administration that will certainly want a final ruling from the Supreme Court before complying. Democrats, wisely, I think, have not taken that bait entirely. Schiff has said repeatedly that the House will simply assume that the evidence that would have been adduced from non-appearing witnesses would be adverse to the president.

Schiff’s position is entirely consistent with the way legal presumptions operate. A party who claims “Proposition A” to be true but refuses to produce evidence of the truth of “A” risks a finding that “A” is not true. Withholding evidence is, in effect, an admission. The House has every right to draw adverse conclusions from the refusal of administration witnesses to testify, especially since those who have done so have uniformly supported the conclusion that Trump did indeed try to leverage Ukraine as charged for the purpose of unlawfully securing foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Republican Children of the Corn Violate Law Helping Matt Gaetz Find His Blankie

It seems this was inevitable. Backs against the wall, unable to defend the conduct of their president on the substantive merits, the Republican Party decided, apparently with the president’s foreknowledge and approval, to disrupt the lawful proceedings of House investigative committees looking into the president’s conduct through an “impeachment inquiry.” https://bit.ly/2NaUiKn  In simple English, the House committees are collecting evidence through sworn testimony of witnesses with information about, among other things, Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine into investigating Trump’s current principal Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.

Roughly two dozen Republican House members forced their way into the hearing, leading to a five-hour delay in testimony that was about to start when they interrupted. They apparently left their lunch boxes and blankies outside but chose to take their cell phones into the room, violating House rules about bringing electronic devices into a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility). The Republicans don’t care, of course, about national security being compromised when it comes to protecting Trump from accountability.

The Republicans would have you believe that they have been excluded from the investigation, but the reality is that Republican members of the six investigative committees have the right and are exercising that right to be in the room during the taking of evidence. The full list of committees is: Financial Services, Judiciary, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Oversight and Reform and Ways and Means. The fact of six committees’ involvement likely arises from the breadth of the possible violations of multiple laws by the president and his enablers.

Rep. Swalwell reported that the majority of Republican members of the investigating committees in fact come into the room to complain about the process, then leave before the evidence is taken, all the while complaining that the evidence is not being taken in public. Likely they are afraid that Trump will find out they listened to evidence about his crimes and take away their lunch money.

Given that Republicans have not in fact been excluded from the investigation, what was the purpose of the multitude of law violations by Republican members of Congress, beyond the obvious publicity stunt and suck up to Trump who had just complained they were being too timid? Most likely it is the product of Donald Trump’s desperation that his scams of the American public and multiply treasonous conduct are being exposed and may yet lead to his removal from office and indictment for obstruction of justice, among other things. Maybe they just thought they could somehow stop the whole process by creating the threat of daily interventions. Maybe they didn’t know what the hell they were doing. Someone may have said: “We can’t just sit here and do nothing while Democrats compile an irrefutable case of repeated illegal conduct by our lord and master Trump, so let’s storm the castle! And they all yelled “Yeah, let’s storm the castle!” And, lacking pitchforks and lighted brooms and unable to find a castle, they grabbed their cell phones and stormed into the SCIF.

Putative Congressman Steve Scalise then lied to reporters outside the room: “Voting members of Congress are being denied access from being able to see what’s happening behind these closed doors, where they’re trying to impeach the president of the United States with a one-sided set of rules, they call the witnesses.” What he would have said if he uncharacteristically respected the truth was that some voting member of Congress were denied access because they don’t sit on the committees conducted in the investigation. This is not hard to understand, except maybe for Scalise and his brave band of castle stormers.

I am not making this stuff up. The article cited above includes this statement from Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama (where else? – sorry Alabama, but you elected these people so you own them):

“When we walked in, they looked dumbfounded and the room just came to a stop. And we lined up along the wall or sat in chairs expecting them to do something. And after several minutes, Adam Schiff got up and just walked out. And while he was walking out I said, ‘Don’t go.’”

Oratory of that caliber will almost certainly make the history books used in Alabama schools, if any, in the future, if any. If you want a model for a forceful entry, absolutely line up along the wall and sit in chairs. Powerful stuff.

The Republicans reportedly believe that the information and transcripts should be made available to all members of Congress, unlike the underlying evidence in the Mueller investigation that they claimed completely exonerated Trump.  Logic is not Republicans’ strong suit. My response is: be patient, folks; remember that patience is a virtue and virtue is its own reward; the evidence you claim you want to see will be coming out in due course. Then, I bet, you’ll be screaming that disclosure was an unjustified assault on the president’s good character.

According to reporting by The Hill,

The move by House Republicans comes a day after another witness, top diplomat William Taylor, testified that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country to conduct a pair of investigations — one into 2016 election hacking, the other into the family of former Vice President Joe Biden — that might have helped Trump’s reelection campaign next year.

Looks like Mr. Trumpski is in a bit of a bad spot here. The more evidence comes out, the more he squawks, but he has produced no evidence of his own to counter the sworn testimony of many people who became aware of his attempt to leverage Ukraine into finding dirt on Joe Biden and his family. Screaming “I’m innocent” is not going to save him from the political guillotine.

 

Whistling by the Graveyard

On August 25, 2018, the New York Times published a “News Analysis” of Donald Trump’s treatment of the American legal system:  Trump’s War on the Justice System Threatens to Erode Trust in the Law, by Michael D. Shear and Katie Benner. https://nyti.ms/2oINv1V

The piece opens with this:

In his attempt at self-defense amid the swirl of legal cases and investigations involving himself, his aides and his associates, Mr. Trump is directly undermining the people and processes that are the foundation of the nation’s administration of justice.

The result is a president at war with the law.

Further, and presciently,

The president’s public judgments about the country’s top law enforcement agencies revolve largely around how their actions affect him personally – a vision that would recast the traditionally independent justice system as a guardian of the president and an attack dog against his adversaries.

The comment ends with this:

“No matter when this all ends, Trump will have caused long-lasting damage to the ability of the Justice Department and the F.B.I. to execute on its mission…. He is sacrificing our public safety and national security on the altar of his own ego.” [quoting Christopher Hunter, a former FBI agent and prosecutor]

Certainly, the authors could not have precisely foreseen how Trump’s approach to governance would lead to the present circumstances, but their overall impression of the direction of Trump’s presidency was stunningly accurate.

Now, perhaps emboldened by what he convinced himself was “exoneration” by Mueller and thus a free hand going forward, Trump has been caught out trying to use a foreign power to influence the 2020 election. And, the evidence is clear, Trump and his loyal team of lawyers, who were also allowed to skate by Mueller, have clumsily tried to cover up the president’s crimes by secreting the records in a computer system designed to contain only coded high-security information. Indications are that this is not the first time they have done this. As we have come to expect, Trump responded to all this by threatening his “enemies,” attacking the press and deflecting by inventing others’ offenses that he purports to expose.

All of that was simply too much for the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who called for an impeachment inquiry and had the votes to do it. Trump responded by declaring that Pelosi was no longer the Speaker of the House. This from a man who publicly swore a solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Also, as we have come to expect, Republican enablers in and outside the White House rushed to Trump’s defense with all manner of false and hysterical claims. While the wagons were being circled, more news emerged, including that Secretary of State Pompeo was listening on the Trump-Zelensky call even though he indicated otherwise in television interviews. Trump is demanding to “face my accuser” and has said that the White House is trying to determine the whistleblower’s identity even though the governing law provides for protection of that individual’s identity. Trump supporters have offered a large cash award for anyone who will conclusively identify the whistleblower. Trump has not repudiated them for this action, arguably putting the whistleblower’s life in danger.

And so it goes. Meanwhile, the Editorial Board of the New York Times and the editors of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have both called for Trump to resign. Likely, other major newspapers will join the list. What goes around ….

The Times if, of course, still trying for “journalistic balance,” by giving print space to defenders of Trump to make their case. The same Sunday that the Times printed “The Allegations Are Grave. An Election Is at Risk. The Founders Were Clear,” a half-page op-ed appeared, entitled “Impeachment Is an Act of Desperation,” by Christopher Buskirk, publisher and editor of the very conservative website American Greatness. Buskirk’s argument is the reason for the title of this post.

Buskirk posits that by proceeding with an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s conduct, the Democrats are playing into the Republicans’ hands and assuring Trump of victory in 2020. Why? Because (1) “we’ve all been down this road before” and nothing Trump has done or said so far has affected his support that “has bounced around in more or less the same range since he took office,” (2) what about Hunter Biden in Ukraine? (3) impeachment “success requires broad public support,” and (4) Democrats can only beat Trump by focusing on the issues.

The corollary to the first point is that “there will be no resignation, there will be no conviction in the Senate.” That is probably true, but it misses the point that Trump’s conduct is so egregious across a broad range of areas and issues that a well-presented impeachment case in the House will serve the Democratic agenda in 2020 as well or better than any candidate on her/his own. It also ignores the Democratic sweep of House seats, and return to a majority there, in 2018. Finally, to claim that Trump’s popularity has not been affected by his prior egregious acts in office ignores the reality that his “popularity” is very low. These are not the likely elements of a winning position.

Buskirk’s second point is the classic Republican trope transplanted from Barack Obama (the usual target of Trump ego-angst) to Joe and Hunter Biden. But, no matter what the Bidens may have done in Ukraine, and so far there is no evidence of wrongdoing, a point made repeatedly by past and present Ukrainian officials with reason to know, it would not justify Trump’s attempt to arm-twist a foreign government into investigating a domestic political opponent. Except for self-defense against physical threats, American law does not support a defense that “someone else broke the law so I can too.” This is essentially the “Hillary’s emails” defense and it’s worthless. As Yogi Berra famously said, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Buskirk’s third point – impeachment success requires broad public support – is, I believe, simply wrong. Impeachment requires only a smartly executed process of compiling and presenting for public viewing the evidence of corruption in the multiple scenarios in which Trump has acted as if he were above the law. But even if Buskirk’s claim is right, we are in early days and it’s premature to conclude that the public won’t get on board as the evidence of Trump’s venality and illegality is presented. Again, this assumes the presentation is properly done. I have argued repeatedly that this must not turn into another political show with politicians sitting on the House committees trying to act like practicing prosecutors. Develop a list of “points to be proved” and leave the questioning to experts that know how to do it.

Finally, the fourth point that defeating Trump requires beating him on the “issues,” is an attempt to divert attention from what is at the root of the current mess. Trump has willfully violated a serious federal law designed to protect American elections from foreign interference and then tried to cover it up. Moving the records to a secret computer for coded security information is functionally equivalent to Richard Nixon’s deletion of 18.5 minutes of tapes involving a crucial meeting between the President and his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, the revelation of which ultimately destroyed Nixon’s support in the Senate and forced his resignation prior to being impeached and removed. Trump’s crimes are extremely serious and they follow a thoroughly documented showing of at least 10 prior instances of criminal obstruction of justice in the Mueller Report. He was only saved from indictment by Mueller because the Department of Justice, dubiously, has opined that a sitting president may not be indicted.

Buskirk argues that impeachment of Trump now is just “political theater” and “more Washington psychodrama.” He claims the voters are simply uninterested in the crimes Trump may have committed and that they “just want to know what Washington is going to do for them.”

Methinks Buskirk has it backwards. Trump’s most ardent supporters seem only interested in political theater. The proof is evident in the endless tapes of Trump’s rallies that have little or nothing to do with “issues” and everything to do with performance. Trump is a star in that crowd because … he’s a star. He gives voice to their anger and fear and they see no irony in the fact that he is rich and unlike them in almost every way. He does not really share their fear and anger; he puts on the show they came to see and they love him for it even though the hard evidence is that he has done virtually nothing to make their lives better.

And that is the ultimate point. Even if Buskirk’s assessment regarding the “issues” is correct, it fails to reckon with Trump’s massive and ongoing failure to deliver on most of his electoral promises. If indeed it is only “issues” that will motivate the voters, and Trump’s illegal and immoral conduct of the Office of President and multiple violations of his oath of office are not “issues” of interest or force in the election, Trump’s performance still fails. Most of his governance actions are for “show” to impress his political base but it is not a stretch to show how he has failed to deliver.

So, is impeachment a mistake? I don’t think so. Democrats have been handed a weapon by Trump that needs to be used with surgical precision. We have a criminal in the White House, a person who does not respect the office he holds or guiding principles of the government he swore to serve. It should not be hard for the Democrats to show this to the electorate in a compelling way, to motivate their own base to go the polls in 2020 and, if Donald Trump still sits in the White House, to send him packing.

Going Along to Get Along

Since the news of Donald Trump’s latest criminality is racing ahead faster than I can keep up, I’m just going to engage in a little homespun philosophizing for a moment. The subject is “inevitability.” By that I mean the inevitability that some things that start badly will end badly.

Trump, we now know (Mueller) was elected with the substantial help of Russia. To that extent, at least, he is an illegitimate president. The majority of the American electorate, by a margin of about 3 million votes, wanted someone else to be president. Someone who, while far from ideal and with some troubling history, had shown for many years a high degree of intelligence, commitment to important human values and a willingness to serve her country, if not perfectly, at least with a serious commitment to protect its interests.

The person who was elected was not demonstrably qualified to be president. He was qualified, if at all, to be what he was: a real estate tycoon, staked by cash from his father, who had managed to bankrupt casinos, an airline, and a multitude of other businesses bearing his name. He had a reputation for dishonesty, for refusing to pay his bills, for using the legal system to bully and intimidate others and a reputation as a misogynist who was buddies with the likes of Jeffrey Epstein. His life was so exposed to public view that there was no doubt about his character and values, made all the clearer by the revelations in the Billy Bush Access Hollywood tape. Many Republican stalwarts of the day, such as the US Senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, spoke of him in the most derogatory terms imaginable: “a race-baiting xenophobic religious bigot” who is “putting our soldiers and diplomats at risk” and “empowering our enemies.” https://cnn.it/2DjJHdC Another Republican leader of presumed integrity, Mitt Romney, described this person as “so not smart.”

Nevertheless, with help from Russia, Donald Trump rose to the top of the manure pile that was the Republican nominee class. Further aided by the Electoral College, a vestige of another time and country we thought had passed into history, Trump vanquished all the Republican contenders and won the general election. His most ardent supporters didn’t care whether he was qualified. They were against his opponent and liked that he “told it like it is” even though independent fact-checkers found that Trump lied multiple times a day. It took only a few days for his prior critics, Graham and Romney among them, to undergo a complete transformation. Romney went begging for a Cabinet job (rejected) and Graham became one of Trump’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders. When Robert Mueller produced conclusive evidence that Trump had committed at least 10 significant acts of criminal obstruction of justice, Graham said he didn’t care about that “obstruction of justice stuff.” https://bit.ly/2mAPxAt

In office, Trump’s conduct has matched his résumé. His speech is full of bigoted and often incomprehensible hate rhetoric. His policies have been rejected by the courts in a multitude of cases. His cabinet appointees proved to include a large number of grifters in it for the perks and unqualified incompetents with no idea how to manage a large federal department. Many have resigned in disgrace. There have been more indictments and jail terms handed out in Trump’s administration that in any modern presidency except Nixon (who resigned when impeachment was imminent) and he’s only in his third year.

The evidence is now in, and Trump has admitted most of the essential actions involved, showing that Trump tried to get the help of a foreign power to undermine his (currently) main 2020 challenger, Joe Biden. The evidence of Trump’s illegal conduct was apparently recognized by multiple staff and thus the records of the call were moved to a coded computer intended for other purposes on the “direction of White House lawyers” or other “White House officials,” which may be the same thing in this case (to be determined).

This is not, of course, out of the ordinary. The Mueller Report, about which I published a series of too-long analyses in this blog, documented multiple undisputed cases in which White House staff were directed by Trump to engage in acts constituting criminal obstruction of justice. While Mueller was unduly impressed with the failure of some of those staff, including attorneys, to carry out all of Trump’s obstruction directives, I showed there were cases in which they clearly did what Trump demanded. Mueller’s failure to indict those people remains unexplained and inexplicable.

This, then, is the central theme of the Trump administration. An entire collection of Republican elected officials, comprising a majority of the Senate, and a number of White House staff, including attorneys, have actively participated in the crimes and the coverup of those crimes.

Why do they risk everything for this?

It’s hard to fathom. For some, no doubt, it’s just the money. Or it’s just keeping the job. For some, it’s possibly the innate resistance we all have to uncertainty and major changes in our lives. For some, I’m sure, there is a misguided attachment to some ideology that they convinced themselves is being promoted by this president.  In all cases, it’s easier, much easier, to go along to get along than to do the right thing. It’s hard to give the advice no one wants to hear. If, as in Trump’s case, the boss has a short fuse, is easily angered and has made clear that personal loyalty to him is more important than virtually anything else, it’s hard to get yelled at, called out and humiliated in front of colleagues for not being a “team player,” “putting everyone at risk” and being called a rat. It’s very hard to be the odd-man-out when a big challenge is on the table and everyone else is either deferring to someone else or simply agreeing to avoid being called out. Going along to get along is the easy path. Standing on principles is very difficult.

Thus, going along rules the day. With each affirmation, each failure to object, the pressure to stay that course mounts until, in all likelihood, the possibility of taking a stand for principle, for the right thing, doesn’t even arise any more.

These outcomes, which are commonplace in society and entrenched in Trump’s history and his performance as president, are, I think, the inevitable consequence of electing someone who is fundamentally not competent to do what is probably one of the most difficult jobs in the world. And that inevitability is all the more assured when the mitigating influences are stilled.

It’s not just the Mitt Romneys and Lindsey Grahams and Mitch McConnells who are responsible, though they certainly bear huge responsibility. It’s also the voters who stayed home; it’s the voters who said “if it’s not Bernie, I won’t vote or I’ll just vote for Trump;” it’s the voters who didn’t think about the question of qualifications at all and just thought it was cool that Trump called his opponents by insulting nicknames and threatened to ban Muslims and immigrants from the United States. It’s the voters who still think a woman’s place is … nowhere. It’s the voters who are racists and religious bigots. It’s the inevitable result of all those actions, inactions and indifference.

There was, I believe, no chance that Donald Trump’s presidency could have been successful by any reasonable standard. It was clear early on that the Republican Party establishment would go along to get along; that the types of people Trump admired and appointed to cabinet and high government posts were often unqualified ideologues, in it for themselves and no one else. It was clear that nothing of substance was going to change. Inevitability was driven by the root problem of Trump’s incompetence, dishonesty, immorality and insecurity, all of which was there to be seen.

We now have arrived at the denouement of this sad, pathetic saga. Trump has admitted to seeking the aid of a foreign power to help him win the 2020 election. He participated in a coverup, adding to the multiple violations of fundamental American law of which he is guilty. He was aided in this by multiple White House staff who were going along to get along.  The time has come for a reckoning.

As I have written elsewhere, the proceedings in the House of Representatives should move forward with deliberateness. The relevant committees should hold multiple hearings to set out the evidence not only about the Ukraine episode and coverup but also the evidence of criminal obstruction of justice from the Mueller Report. The evidence should be presented by experts, and hostile witnesses should be cross-examined by retained expert trial counsel.

Above all, take the time to do this right. The American public needs to understand all of what happened, presented in a way that ordinary people can understand. DO NOT allow another Lewandowski style hearing to occur. If the committees are going to do their jobs, insist that testimony be presented under oath and if questions are refused without claims of 5th Amendment privilege, arrest the witnesses and hold them in contempt of Congress. This is the job the American people expect and deserve from their elected leaders. The time has come for a reckoning.

There is much talk in the press about whether a majority of Americans support impeachment. That, I suggest, is the wrong question. This is not a political popularity contest whose outcome should depend on ever-shifting polls. Impeachment, rarely used because it is so serious, is about holding to account a lawless regime that threatens to undermine the democratic republic that was created by the Constitution. If the case is properly made, the majority of Americans will support the action. The Republicans in the Senate will undoubtedly act as they have always acted, supporting the regime no matter what it does. So be it. Make the case for the voters to see. Do it professionally and soberly in keeping with the gravity of the task.

It will be hard for politicians, especially those running for president, to give up some of the limelight but it is essential that they do so in the interest of bringing an end to the massive and unrelenting corruption that has infested the Trump presidency from its inception. The time has come for a reckoning.

 

Omertà – The Vow of Silence

Once again, it is reported that putative president Trump has “ordered” certain citizens to either limit or completely refuse to respond to questions from a duly authorized congressional investigating committee looking into, among other things, Trump’s conduct of the office of president and probable instances of illegality as documented in the recent report of the Office of the Special Prosecutor (the Mueller Report). This is not the first time, not is it likely to be the last, as Trump desperately employs every tactic possible to prevent a true accounting of his crimes.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, reportedly has said that Trump’s position is a “shocking and dangerous assertion” and that

 “The President would have us believe that he can willfully engage in criminal activity and prevent witnesses from testifying before Congress – even if they did not actually work for him or his administration.”

Yes, that is exactly what Trump is doing. Trump appears to believe he’s still running a reality TV show.

On the face of it, Trump’s demands for omertà, the mob vow of silence regarding talking to law enforcement, are just another example of multiple instances of his criminal obstruction of justice. It appears that his lawyers have advised him that this strategy can be based on the principle of “executive privilege” that was analyzed and interpreted narrowly in the seminal case of United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), in which President Nixon tried to defeat a congressional subpoena for the Watergate tapes. Trump’s position has more kinship with the Mafia version of omertà than to any legally sound claim of executive immunity from congressional oversight.

For one thing, in the current situation, Corey Lewandowski, the target of one subpoena, never worked in the White House. At a minimum, that reality makes the extension of executive privilege to Lewandowski’s actions and knowledge a bridge too far. As for testimony by former White House aides Rob Porter and Rick Dearborn, Trump has asserted “absolute immunity” to their responding to any and all questions about their time in the White House.

This seems on its face to be a losing position. United States v. Nixon pretty well disposed of the idea that executive privilege was “absolute” and that a president could prevent the production of evidence by blanket assertions of privilege. At best Trump may buy some time with this stalling tactic but is almost certain to lose in the courts, assuming, of course, that the House Judiciary Committee does not simply accept this rejection of American constitutional principle.

Trump has not thus far asserted any other basis for preventing the testimony of former aides. He has not, for example, claimed that they signed non-disclosure agreements. Even if they had done so, I suggest any such agreements would be void on their face as against public policy. Trump may not have figured it out yet, but he is neither a king nor a CEO of the United States. As putative president, he is subject to the constraints implied by the separation of powers that was created by the Constitution. He cannot, therefore, expect to shield the public’s business from scrutiny by demanding that public servants who happen to have worked in the White House refuse to testify in response to oversight by congressional committees.

Other than executive privilege or private agreements, no other basis appears possible to permit the president to order private citizens to refuse subpoenas properly issued by congressional committees. What then should happen if, as expected, Lewandowski, Porter and Dearborn elect to tow the Trump line?

I suggest that the next steps should be to hold the three witnesses in contempt of Congress. If, as I believe to be true, their arrest is provided for in the criminal code, they should be arrested. I understand they are in a difficult place, caught between two warring forces in a contest for the preservation of democracy in America. They are, however, making a choice in following Trump’s demands. They could choose to do otherwise and act as good citizens providing the knowledge they have in response to questions from the investigating committees. If, as appears to be the case, they elect omertà, they should face the consequences of their choice.

A contempt of Congress citation should also be issued against the president. Likely he cannot be arrested while holding office, but his improper use of executive privilege to shield his administration and himself personally from congressional oversight should be met with every indicia of formal legal force that the circumstances will support and let the courts sort it out.

We have reached the point of no return regarding Trump’s abuse of his office. The congressional staff memo about which I posted yesterday clearly supports impeachment for the obstructive conduct of this president. No reason appears for treating him with the proverbial kid gloves. He is itching for a fight and the House investigative committees should give it to him. Nothing is to be gained by timidity in the face of Trump’s continued rejection of democratic and legal norms and constraints on his behavior. His legal position is untenable. The time to act aggressively against his administration has arrived.

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice – F

F. The Inexplicable Treatment of Trump’s Personal Attorneys & Other Enablers

Another unexplained aspect of the Report relates to Trump’s use of his personal attorneys (never identified) to communicate with Flynn and his attorneys. Trump’s personal counsel appear a number of times in the report. II MR 121-122. A fair interpretation of this evidence is that Trump used his personal attorney to try to influence Flynn’s cooperation with the SCO, first with cajoling about how Trump cared about him, then with implied threats about Trump’s presumed anger. A further fair argument can be made that Trump’s personal counsel was a knowing participant in an obstruction effort. Why is this not at least mentioned in the Report?

The Report relegates to II MR-122, n. 839 the extraordinary decision not to try to interview Trump’s personal attorneys “because of attorney-client privilege issues.” Given the active role those lawyers played in some of Trump’s obstructive acts, it is hard to understand a decision not to try to learn something from them. Attorney-client privilege does not protect an attorney who is participating in a criminal enterprise. This is known as the crime-fraud exception to the general privilege rule. If Trump’s personal counsel were actively and knowingly participating in an attempt to obstruct justice by, for example, influencing Gen. Flynn’s testimony or by attempting to unlawfully procure the firing of the Special Counsel, the privilege likely does not apply. It is, moreover, inconceivable that Trump’s attorneys acted on their own without consulting their client. We are left to speculate as to why Mueller did not pursue this seemingly fruitful source of information.

We can’t be sure, of course, whether to credit Rick Gates assertion that Paul Manafort had talked with Trump’s personal counsel and been assured that they would be “taken care of” if they did not talk to the SCO. Mueller, however, clearly believed Gates’ account of these conversations with Manafort. II MR-123 & n. 848, 850. This is a subject that could have been pursued directly with Trump’s counsel if Mueller had been more aggressive in seeking the full body of evidence rather than simply assuming that the privilege would be upheld.

One of Trump’s personal attorneys during this period was Rudy Giuliani who gave multiple interviews in which he suggested Trump might pardon Manafort, then, following the classic Trump playbook, claimed he was misunderstood and not signaling anyone. II MR-124. This was fertile ground to discover whether Trump and Giuliani had mapped out this strategy to obtain Manafort’s silence or other forms of cooperation. A good argument could be made that Trump-Giuliani had waived the attorney-client privilege when Giuliani told the Washington Post that Trump had consulted his attorneys about granting pardons to Manafort. II MR-127. Manafort had some kind of joint defense agreement with Trump and was coordinating his Mueller interviews with Trump’s attorneys. II MR-127. That fact alone warranted taking Giuliani’s testimony under oath. It is all the more compelling because Trump publicly contradicting Giuliani’s statements. II MR-128. Instead, Mueller concludes that the evidence on Trump’s personal participation in all this was inconclusive (II MR-132), an amazing conclusion in light of his decision not to press for an interview of Giuliani and/or Trump.

Mueller digs deep to find alternative explanations for Trump’s comments about the treatment of Manafort. II MR-133. In the totality of circumstances regarding Trump’s repeated litany of claims that he and others were being treated unfairly, this is astonishing, especially considering that at times Trump claimed he knew very little about what these people did for him and the campaign. Normally you can’t have it both ways but Mueller lets Trump get away with it.

Note that there are substantial redactions in this part of the Report for Harm to an Ongoing Matter, suggesting that additional investigations have been farmed out to the US Attorneys’ offices. II MR 128-130.

Trump’s personal attorneys played a further role in Cohen’s false testimony to Congress. II MR-139. A joint defense agreement existed between Cohen and Trump plus other unnamed individuals involved in the Russia investigation. II MR-139. The identity of all the other individuals is not revealed in the Report. Why is this not addressed? The president’s personal attorney played an active role in assuring Cohen that his loyalty to Trump would be rewarded. II MR-140.

Despite the fact that drafts of Cohen’s false testimony to Congress were discussed with members of the Joint Defense Agreement and that false testimony to Congress under oath is a crime, Mueller did not see the drafts because of concerns about the common interest privilege. But it is not clear who raised those concerns. This is another example of Mueller seeming to act as counsel for the defense.

Perhaps because Cohen was in almost daily contact with Trump’s personal attorney about Cohen’s Congressional testimony, Mueller, in this one case, indicates an attempt was made to interview counsel. But the counsel declined, citing “potential privilege concerns.” II MR-143. What precisely those concerns were is not explained. Nor is there any indication that the SCO aggressively pursued this obviously important testimony about an agreement to suppress truthful information being sought by Congress. Who exactly is the “President’s personal counsel” that is referred here? Is it the same person throughout? Trump hired and replaced many attorneys during this time. Why does the SCO not identify these people by name?

This is not the normal or effective way to handle privilege disputes. The privilege-claiming party should be presented with the questions and compelled to explain with specificity why each question cannot be answered even in part because of privilege. Mueller may have gone through this exercise but there is no evidence of that anywhere in the Report.

Further puzzling issues arise from Mueller’s failure to pursue Robert Costello who, in the period following the raid on Cohen’s home and office, was used as a go-between connecting Giuliani and Cohen and assuring Cohen of Trump’s continued favor. II MR-146. Costello’s offering to support secret communications between the White House and Cohen appears to have been of no concern at the SCO. One question is which personal counsel to the President was assuring Cohen that if he continued lying, Trump would protect him? Why does Mueller protect the identity of President’s personal attorney engaged in a cover-up and overt acts of witness tampering/obstruction of justice?

 Beyond that, Mueller accepts that Trump’s personal counsel was working with Cohen on false testimony to Congress but does not attribute that conduct to Trump and never goes after the counsel for aiding & abetting false testimony or giving message to Cohen that he would be protected if he stuck to the party line. Why was Mueller so reticent about these compelling facts that do not appear to be disputed? Faced with an apparent conspiracy to submit false testimony to Congress, resistance by Trump & by his personal attorney (who refused to provide his version of his conversations with Cohen who was not his client and thus not covered by any plausible claim of privilege), Mueller simply assumed he couldn’t get evidence about Trump’s discussions with his personal counsel and didn’t even try to pursue this line. II MR-154. No presumption of privilege should attach to conspiracy to commit a crime. Mueller’s unwillingness to tangle with Trump’s personal attorneys is inexplicable and unconscionable malpractice. Why was Trump’s personal attorney not charged with suborning perjury in connection with Cohen’s false testimony that Trump’s personal attorney helped facilitate?

Mueller’s approach is particularly disturbing because Trump refused to answer the written questions posed to him about the Trump Tower meeting. II MR-149. What Trump did say was that he couldn’t remember his conversations with Cohen. After Cohen pled guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Tower meeting, Trump refused to provide any more information about his role and turned sharply against Cohen. II MR-151. Thereafter, Giuliani made public statements that conflicted with what Trump was now saying, then “walked those back.” II MR-152. Mueller seems completely bamboozled by all this, unable to make the obvious conclusions.

Trump refused to clarify what Mueller calls the “seeming discrepancy” between his statements about the Trump Tower project in Russia made before and after Cohen’s guilty plea. Mueller engages repeatedly in speculation about what Trump might have meant rather than concluding that, having declined the opportunity to set the record straight, Trump should be estopped to deny the discrepancy and to deny what Cohen said was the truth eventually.

I have asked repeatedly in these evaluations of the Mueller Report why Trump’s enablers were not indicted. Mueller addresses very briefly at II MR-158 where he leaps a giant chasm of evidence to conclude that because a few of Trump’s aides refused to carry out his blatantly obstructive orders, virtually all of them were allowed to walk away unscathed, including Trump’s personal attorneys and others who, according to undisputed evidence, did carry out Trump’s orders to try to intimidate witnesses, terminate the SCO investigation and other forms of interference detailed throughout the Report. Mueller calls the “pattern” one in which Trump’s enablers resisted his obstruction directives, but the evidence adduced shows that in most cases the White House staff did exactly what Trump wanted them to do. The “pattern” is the exact opposite of Mueller’s conclusion.

The Mueller Report ends with a lengthy, lawyerly analysis of the statutory and constitutional defenses asserted by Trump’s attorneys. The analysis is unobjectionable and supports not only the conclusions Mueller did reach but re-emphasizes the lingering questions about the conclusions he declined to reach. In particular, we are left to wonder why so few of the obvious enablers of Trump’s overt obstructive acts were not held accountable. Mueller’s treatment of “presumption of privilege” issues is inexplicable, given that much of the enabling activity was in support of federal crimes. We can only hope, though likely in vain, that Congressional hearings will flesh out the hanging questions.