Tag Archives: Obstruction

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.

 

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-E

E. Mueller’s Inexplicably Generous Treatment of Trump’s Knowledge of Events

Another of the remarkable and unexplained conclusions reached by Mueller was that the evidence of Trump’s knowledge about Flynn’s lies about Kislyak was inconclusive. II MR-46. This conclusion seems flatly inconsistent with Trump’s statement to Christie that firing Flynn ended the Russia collusion issue.  II MR-38. We are asked to believe that Flynn told McFarland that his contacts with Kislyak had averted a major policy conflict with Russia but she did not pass that on to Trump! And that neither she nor Bannon could remember this major development! This is yet another example of Mueller’s lack of aggressive approach to Trump. WHY didn’t the SCO interview Trump to get at answers to these critical questions instead of saying they had enough evidence and it was late in the investigation? It is also unclear why it mattered so much whether Trump knew about Flynn’s deception close to the time the Kislyak talks occurred.

Even more puzzling is Mueller’s conclusion that Trump’s effort to get K.T. McFarland to write an internal email saying that Trump did not direct Flynn to talk to Kislyak was not an attempt to have McFarland lie. II MR-48. What then was Trump trying to get McFarland to do?  What is the alternative explanation for Trump’s request of her? This is another example where evidence of corrupt intent is simply written off as “insufficient” without explanation. IF SCO had interviewed Trump, questions like this could have been resolved instead of being left open and then construed as exonerating Trump.

A similar problem arises regarding Trump’s campaign to have Attorney General Jeff Sessions un-recuse himself regarding the Russia investigation. In a footnote Mueller says it was unclear that Trump was aware of White House counsel’s admonition not to contact Sessions. II MR-50, n. 289. Why isn’t Trump chargeable with constructive knowledge of WH counsel’s directive? Trump declined to read documents — does that relieve him of responsibility for knowing what was official White House policy that had been put in writing?  Moreover, if the SCO had interviewed Trump, it could have gotten answers to these questions left open and ultimately construed in Trump’s favor on grounds that the evidence did not show he knew something that, on a common sense view, he almost certainly did know.

Mueller’s generous treatment of Trump continued in the discussion of Comey’s briefing of the Gang of Eight legislators in March, 2017, about the Russia investigation. Mueller said it’s “unclear” whether Trump knew about the briefing at the time, but notes taken by McGahn’s chief of staff say that “POTUS in panic/chaos.” II MR-52. How/why would Trump be in a panic if he didn’t know about Comey’s briefing of Congressional leaders? How could the president be ignorant of such developments that might have such huge impacts on his presidency and to which he had devoted so much attention in the past few months?

 The Comey briefing led to one of the clearest cases of obstruction of justice, in that Trump demanded, and McGahn complied, that McGahn contact Dana Boente, then acting assistant attorney general at Justice, to publicly correct the “misperception” that Trump was under investigation. II MR-54,55. Once again, Trump insiders had failed memories of demands Trump made for intervention with the Department of Justice. II MR-5. And, there is no attempt to explain inconsistencies in other testimony from some of the same insiders, claiming Trump never ordered them to do anything wrong. These statements from NSA Director Rogers are inconsistent with the contemporaneous memo of the President’s call and of NSA Deputy Director Ledgett’s characterization of the extraordinary nature of the call. II MR-56. Why is there no consideration of these inconsistencies?

When Trump then reached out directly to Comey to ask him to relieve the impression Trump was under investigation, the Report, unbelievably, turns to McGahn’s asserted recall of what Dana Boente told him Comey had told Boente about Trump’s contacts with him. II MR-59.  As usual, Boente claimed not to recall this discussion. II MR-60.

Then, in one of the most remarkable moments in the Report, Mueller drops into a footnote (II MR-59, n. 376) the reminder that White House counsel had advised Trump not to contact DOJ about the investigation. Mueller seemingly attached no significance to the extraordinary & undisputed fact that Trump on multiple occasions ignored the advice of his White House attorneys by reaching out directly to Comey to discuss relieving the pressure of the Russia investigation. WHY? This was not the conduct of an innocent man.

Mueller seemed to be impressed with the fact that the people involved claimed that they did not interpret Trump’s repeated importunings as “directives” to interfere in the investigation. II MR-60. These people were all Trump appointees and true believers in his politics, who would naturally seek to maintain favor with him by declining to interpret his repeated requests as “directives.” In any case, the real question is not what they thought, but what Trump intended and the only way to get to the bottom of that ultimately was to interrogate him, which SCO, curiously, declined to demand. Trump’s attempts to secure a champion at DOJ included personal contacts with Coates, Pompeo, Rogers and Comey. Despite that, Mueller, with his usual reticence to accept the obvious, concludes that “the evidence does not establish that the President asked or directed intelligence agency leaders to stop or interfere with the FBI’s Russia investigation.” II MR-60.

The same question arises in connection with Trump’s multiple attempts to prevent AG Sessions from recusing himself from oversight of the Russia investigation. A couple of things are clear. Trump thought the AG worked for him personally and therefore that Sessions should remain in place to do Trump’s bidding regarding the investigation. And, White House counsel tried to cut off communications with Sessions about recusal to avoid the appearance of attempted interference with the investigation. Yet, once again, Mueller states it was “not clear” that the “no contact” directive was conveyed to Trump. II MR-61. HOW is it remotely plausible that White House counsel, in a matter of seminal importance, would not have conveyed this information to the one person whose knowledge of it and compliance was the most important? Why didn’t the SCO demand Trump answer this question? He refused to do so even in writing and the SCO let him get away with it!

Mueller repeatedly and uncritically refers to Trump’s asserted belief that the Russia investigation was somehow interfering with, Miller his ability to conduct foreign policy but never discussed how that interference worked or what real impact it had on a president who, by all accounts, spent most of his time watching television and playing golf. II MR-61.

Another point of clarity in the Report is the finding that Trump lied about the basis for firing Comey. II MR-62. Why would he do that except to cover up his corrupt motive to which he shortly confessed? Trump’s lies about his conduct, in the context of his other actions, were a clear case of cover-up that could have been treated as a separate offense by Mueller if he had the aggressive instincts of a prosecutor rather than the timidity of an equivocator.

A related question – why was Stephen Miller not indicted for his role in preparing a phony letter to cover Trump’s tracks regarding the firing of Comey? II MR-64. Another related question: the final stated reason for firing Comey was pretextual. All Trump cared about was establishing that he was not under FBI investigation and that he was firing Comey because Comey refused to say that publicly. The Rosenstein/Sessions memo was constructed as an alternate explanation that Trump then adopted while still insisting, against advice, that the point about his not being under investigation be prominently included in the firing letter. II MR-67. Yet, again, no indictments were brought against any of the president’s men for conspiring and lying to cover the tracks of a discharge action plainly intended to obstruct the FBI investigation. See, e.g., II MR-70 regarding lies told by Sean Spicer, then Press Secretary about the motivation for the Comey firing.

Mueller basically gave a pass to all Trump’s enablers who accepted and acted on his directions. Michael Cohen, in later testimony before Congress, spoke specifically about how Trump rarely gave specific directions for anything. He spoke in “code,” that Cohen claimed he understood. It is beyond credibility that, by the time of Comey’s firing, the president’s men did not also understand how he “directed” what he wanted done, what he insisted upon, without ever explicitly saying so. Mueller appears to have completely overlooked this aspect of Trump’s directorial style, crediting him with innocence because there was no overt statement by him that amounted to a confession. In the future, then, Trump’s enablers have no reason to fear repercussions when they willingly follow his non-order orders.

Further evidence of Mueller’s timidity may be found in his ultimate conclusion that “the anticipated effect of removing the FBI director … would not necessarily be to prevent or impede the FBI from continuing its investigation.” II MR-74. That astonishing statement shows Mueller going out of his way to avoid the overt implications of evidence regarding Trump’s actions that were, by Trump’s own admission, intended to interfere with the Russia investigation. Why else would he have fired Comey and handled the firing as he did, including conspiring to give the impression that Rosenstein/Sessions were responsible for the firing? A seasoned prosecutor like Mueller surely knew better, but falls all over himself in avoiding the plain implications of Trump’s conduct. Moreover, even if the investigation would have been unfazed by Comey’s firing (and thus completely ignored by the surviving DOJ attorneys), the clear intent of the discharge was proven and, as Mueller’s own statement of the governing legal tests showed, an attempt to obstruct does not have to be successful to violate the criminal law.

Curiously, the Report takes a somewhat different approach to assessing evidence of Trump’s intentions when it addresses Trump’s attempts to have the Special Counsel removed. II MR-84 thru MR-90. This may be the result of superior clarity of the evidence but this is not apparent from the Report language. One explanation may be that the “committee” of lawyers that drafted the Report were assigned different sections and that each one had a different approach. The analysis highlights the fact that Trump lied publicly about whether he had tried to have Mueller removed, an approach Trump had taken to other issues but which led to Mueller equivocating about the strength of the evidence. II MR-90.

It is a fair question as to why Mueller did not indict Cory Lewandowski whom Trump chose as the go-between to direct AG Jeff Sessions to publicly speak about the unfairness of the SCO investigation and to limit its authority to future elections only. The recited evidence clearly shows that both Chief of Staff Kelly and Lewandowski himself were well aware of the impropriety of Trump’s demands and took actions to conceal his conduct from exposure. II MR 91-93 & n. 604.

Regarding the infamous Trump Tower meeting, the evidence is clear that Trump took overt actions to cover up the situation. II MR-98 to MR-107. Yes, Mueller concludes that Trump’s actions were merely part of a press strategy and not an effort to affect the SCO investigation or the related work of Congressional investigations. This is an astonishing judgment when the SCO allowed Trump to avoid testifying and be examined about this subject. It is therefore impossible to conclude that these obstructive acts did not occur. Moreover, Trump clearly acted dishonestly regarding disclosure of the information and created a misleading paper trail that could have affected decisions at SCO about what to do regarding the Trump Tower meeting. Mueller resolved all doubts in favor of Trump even in face of evidence of his lies and duplicity regarding the issue at hand.

Other instances of Mueller’s resolving doubts in favor of Trump or his people involved Trump’s effort, using his personal counsel, to have McGahn publish a statement denying that Trump had asked him to fire Mueller. Mueller resigns to a footnote and fails to explain the conflict between Hope Hicks & Gen. Kelly regarding whether the McGahn resistance story was correct. II MR-114, n. 788. Kelly, Sarah Sanders and Rob Porter all experienced memory failure regarding aspects of Trump’s demands and denials about trying to get McGahn to fire Mueller. Trump, of course, remorselessly lied to his own staff about what he had said. II MR-115. He continued to press McGahn to “correct” stories that ” McGahn repeatedly told Trump, and others, was accurate as written. II MR 116-117. Mueller resorts to the gentlest possible language when describing these activities, using phrases such as “runs counter to the evidence” as opposed to the more precise “he lied.” II MR-118.

Rob Porter played a direct role in delivering Trump’s demands to McGahn (II MR-116) but, without explanation, was not indicted for conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-B, C

B. Governing Legal Standards

Little value can be gained by repeating Mueller’s recitation of the legal standards for judging whether criminal obstruction of justice has occurred. Of the three tests (obstructive acts, nexus to a pending or contemplated official proceeding and corrupt intent), the Report conclusively shows (1) multiple, repeated obstructive acts by Trump personally, in some of which he was aided and abetted by members of the White House staff and (2) clear nexus to multiple investigations, including some of the obstructive acts themselves.

Given the rhetorical and other linguistic hoops that Trump and his attorneys/advisors have been willing to jump through to defend him, it is worth nothing that Mueller made plain that “an improper motive can render an actor’s conduct criminal even when the conduct would otherwise be lawful and within the actor’s authority.” II MR-9. Equally, if not more, important, is Mueller’s determination that criminal obstruction can exist even if the attempt is unsuccessful. II MR-12. It also includes “witness tampering” and attempts to influence others not to cooperate with law enforcement. II MR-10, 11, 12.

C. Trump’s Refusal to Cooperate

Mueller’s treatment of the president is noteworthy and inexplicable in several ways, given the gravity of what was being investigated.

Mueller allowed Trump to dither away a year following the SCO’s request for a voluntary interview. II MR-13 Trump ultimately agreed to answer some written questions about “Russia-related topics” but refused to answer any questions regarding obstruction of justice or events occurring during the transition. Despite concluding that the SCO had both the authority and the legal justification for a grand jury subpoena of Trump, the SCO decided not to force the issue. The SCO reasoning behind this extraordinary decision was that a such a late stage in the investigation, a subpoena, and the inevitable legal dispute to follow, could result in a “substantial delay.” The SCO also believed it had separately found evidence sufficient to “understand relevant events and to make certain assessments” even without Trump’s personal testimony. II MR-13.

This decision is quite remarkable. The investigation was in a “late stage” because Mueller had allowed Trump to fend off a decision and play an obvious delaying game for an entire year. Moreover, the statement that the investigation was at a late stage was not explained in the Report. Was there an internally-imposed deadline on when the investigation had to conclude? If so, who imposed that deadline and when? If not, then the “late stage” rationalization is pure vapor and another example of kid-glove treatment for a person as to whom substantial evidence existed of multiple acts of obstruction of justice. The decision left the SCO to infer conclusions based on circumstantial evidence in some cases and, while this is normal and often unavoidable (II MR-13), there was no compelling reason for the SCO to allow itself to be maneuvered into this position. Moreover, the credibility factors that apply in assessing testimony, enumerated by Mueller in details (II MR-14) all would work against Trump.

The ultimate outcome of Mueller’s reticence was that the door was opened for Attorney General Barr to declare falsely that the case was not even close and that Trump was innocent of all the charges. This opportunity to undermine the credibility of the Mueller investigation traces directly back to the strategic mistake of allowing Trump to avoid testifying.

The bulk of Volume II of the Mueller Report is devoted to a lawyerly application of the three obstruction elements to the various discrete situations in which Trump or his enablers in the White House or elsewhere attempted, one way or another, to derail the Russia investigation and any evaluation of his acts of obstruction. Several major points stand out.

First, Trump lied about numerous events. For anyone following the arc of his presidency with a reasonably open mind, this comes as no surprise. One obvious lie, for example, was Trump’s claim that he had no business dealings in Russia. II MR-15. An interesting thing to note is that as regards WikiLeaks release of Clinton’s emails, there was evidence Trump was plugged into the information pipeline about what WikiLeaks was planning to do. II MR-18. That portion of the Report is heavily redacted, indicating on-going investigation into the WikiLeaks connections. Mueller’s refusal to discuss the Report publicly leaves us to wonder what this on-going matter is about, a subject that should be pursued in his upcoming public testimony before Congress.

Mueller also notes that the Campaign tried to distance itself from people who were publicly identified as connected to Russians. Vice President Pence joined in the denials of Russia connections. II MR 20-21. All these moves are equally, if not more, plausible as efforts to conceal the Russia connection by outwardly disassociating from campaign people whose connections became known and publicized. Mueller also cites the opinion of unnamed Trump advisors for the point that Trump genuinely believed the stories about Russia connections undermined the legitimacy of his electoral victory. II MR-23. No doubt the stories did have that effect because the Russian support for Trump plainly does de-legitimize his standing as a “duly elected” president.

The inclusion and apparent full crediting of these statements from Trump campaign insiders, without Trump himself being questioned, seems designed to buttress the idea that Trump genuinely believed the Russian interference was a false story designed to undermine his legitimacy. But even if true, these claims about what he was thinking are entirely self-serving and based on interested 3rd party statements not supported by his own testimony under examination.

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-A

In many ways, the obstruction of justice issue is the easiest to understand. But, among other factors, because the Attorney General, a Trump appointee, took it upon himself to assert publicly conclusions that the Mueller Report plainly did not reach, the question has been clouded in the public mind. Republican lackies for the president, and the President himself, continue to repeat the AG’s lies about the Report.

The following analysis will endeavor to tell the truth about the Mueller Report and to ask fair questions that remain in the Report’s wake and as a result of Mueller’s refusal to speak about the substance of the Report.

A. Declining to Decide – Why Was This Not Disclosed at the Outset?

The Report opens with a summary statement of five major-impact concepts that shaped the investigation and the Report as its outcome (the Report says there are only four, but a careful reading indicates five).

  1. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) accepted the 2000 Justice Department legal conclusion that a sitting president could not be indicted – the Report refers to this as a limitation on “prosecutorial jurisdiction;” II MR 1.
  2. The OSC believed, independent of the Justice Department’s opinion about constitutional constraints, indictment of the sitting president would “place burdens on the President’s capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct.” II MR 1.
  3. Investigation is nonetheless permitted during the presidential term, immunity does not follow the person after presidential service is over and, very importantly: “if individuals other than the President committed an obstruction offense, they may be prosecuted at this time.” II MR 1.
  4. The OSC decided not to apply an “approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes” because it would be unfair to make such findings when the opportunity for a speedy trial on the charges would not be possible. II MR 2
  5. Notwithstanding (4) above, if the OSC concluded that the president did not commit crimes, it would have so stated, but it could not so state based on the evidence developed; therefore, the Report neither accuses nor exonerates the president. II MR 2

These introductory words in the Report raise many questions, among them:

  1. If the SCO knew at the outset that it would not issue indictments, why was this not disclosed at the beginning?
  2. I will go into this in much more detail later, but given the overwhelming evidence that Trump engaged in multiple acts of obstruction, why was not a single person indicted from his staff, his cabinet and in the Republican Party that supported his every falsehood and deflection?
  3. How was the investigative approach altered to assure that a “judgment that the President committed crimes” was not the result?
  4. Why was the Special Counsel prepared, if the evidence supported it, to publish a conclusion that the president was innocent of obstruction while being unwilling/unable to publish a conclusion that crimes were committed even if the evidence overwhelmingly supported that judgment? In light of this, the worst that the president could have faced was a finding that the evidence did not exonerate him. Considering that the alternative, an indictment, was never a possibility, Trump easily could see the outcome as a victory. And he did. And it appears that, at least in that sense, this was inevitable. The deck was stacked in Trump’s favor from the beginning.
  5. Was Mueller’s “no finding of innocence” a kind of double wink, saying, in effect, “my hands were tied, but here’s the evidence for Congress to make the obvious conclusion of guilt and impeach? Maybe, but that seems pretty naïve considering that, until the 2018 mid-term elections, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and still control the Senate.

I’m not going to go into the details here, but I studied the entire 2000 Justice Department opinion finding that indictment of a sitting president is unconstitutional and it is remarkable in its presumption of undemonstrated facts. It employs extreme language when discussing the presumed burden on the president of having to defend an indictment while in office and seems to be written more to justify a pre-determined result than to analyze the situation neutrally. Like the Mueller investigation itself, the 2000 OLC opinion, like the 1973 opinion that it confirms, seems to have a pre-ordained outcome. Considering that the current occupant of the White House spends little time actually doing presidential work, the overblown language of the OLC opinions rings hollow, turning, as it does, entirely on the presumed interference with presidential responsibilities of the obligation to defend criminal charges.

Turning to the matter at hand, the Mueller Report begins with a summary of the “issues and events” that were examined for obstruction evidence. It includes:

(1) Trump’s lies about his business interests in Russia;

(2) Michael Flynn’s lies about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Kislyak;

(3) Trump’s attempt to extract loyalty commitments and a pledge to leave Flynn alone from then FBI Director Comey;

(4) Trump’s attempt to direct his Deputy National Security Advisor (K.T. McFarland) to produce a letter falsely stating the president had not directed Flynn to discuss U.S. sanctions with Kislyak (why would Trump try to manufacture evidence that he was innocent of soliciting help from Russia if he were innocent?);

(5) Trump’s attempt to prevent Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself regarding the Russia investigation;

(6) Trump’s attempt to use U.S. intelligence officials and again the FBI Director to make public statements exonerating him from involvement in Russian election interference;

(7) Trump’s firing of FBI Director Comey for the expressed purpose of relieving himself of the Russia investigation;

(8) Trump’s manipulation of the Comey firing letter to make it appear the firing was based on DOJ recommendations when in fact Trump had decided to fire Comey before hearing from DO;

(9) Trump’s attempt to have White House counsel tell the Acting Attorney General that the Special Counsel had conflicts of interest and must be fired;

(10) Trump’s attempt to limit Special Counsel to investigating future election meddling;

(11) Trump’s false narrative about the origins of the Trump Tower meeting, including repeated false denials by his personal attorney that Trump had any role in Trump Jr’s statement about the meeting;

(12) Trump’s attempts to pressure Sessions into un-recusing regarding the Russia investigation;

(13) Trump’s attempts to have White House counsel McGahn falsely state that Trump had not ordered him to have the Special Counsel removed; and

(14) Trump’s attempt to influence testimony from Flynn, Manafort and Cohen, including involvement by Trump’s personal attorney.

The Report then went through a most curious “on the one hand, on the other hand,” regarding Trump’s possible motives for interfering in the SCO investigation, defined by the point at which Trump became aware that he was personally under investigation. Mueller referred to these as “overarching factual issues.” II MR-7. Mueller expressed concern that some of Trump’s actions were within his Article II authority and that his motives should be judged in light of the fact that the investigation found no underlying crime in the Russia investigation, even though such a finding was unnecessary and despite the fact that Trump acted, throughout the entire period, as if he were guilty. II MR-7. Here, Mueller seems to have forgotten his own admonition that the absence of discovered evidence of participation in Russian interference was not proof that no such participation occurred. Finally, Mueller cites the fact that some of Trump’s allegedly obstructive conduct took place in public, although, again, the harm done would be the same for public as for secretive obstructive acts. II MR-7.

My sense of this odd insertion into the Report is that Mueller is revealing a disinclination to hold the president to account when he can’t indict. He is, in effect, gilding the lily in favor of Trump. However, in next analyzing various defenses asserted by Trump’s attorneys, Mueller concludes, correctly I think, that the corrupt use of Article II powers is not immune conduct. Mueller notes that the requirement of corrupt intent is a high standard and “requires a concrete showing that a person acted with an intent to obtain an improper advantage for himself or someone else, inconsistent with official duty and the rights of others.” II MR-8.

In the end, Mueller reaffirms the “principle that no person is above the law.” II MR-8. The Report then also concludes that based on the evidence adduced, the SCO could not find that the president committed no obstruction of justice crime. Therefore, although forbidden by policy from stating the prosecutorial conclusion that crimes were committed, the Report “does not exonerate him.” II MR-8.

Despite the clarity of that conclusion, the sitting Attorney General and then Trump himself concluded that the Report did exonerate him. Those statements by the AG and the President were false. The AG also said that he had independently evaluated all the evidence underlying Mueller’s Report and that he, the AG, had concluded that there was no evidence to support a finding of criminal conduct by the president. All that need to said about that is it is extremely unlikely that the AG personally was able to review the entirety of the evidence gathered by Mueller’s team in the time the AG had with the draft report. In making these claims, the AG stepped out of his role as Attorney General of the United States and acted as if he were Trump’s personal attorney defending him against Mueller. Barr’s conclusions should be discounted completely since they conflict with the evidence disclosed in the Report that clearly and strongly demonstrates that Trump did commit obstruction of justice on multiple occasions.

The President Is Not Above the Law

The Wall Street Journal’s June 1-2 Opinion piece entitled “Congress Can’t Outsource Impeachment” (at A13) is remarkable both for its deliberate distortion of the facts about the Mueller Report and the illogic of its arguments dressed in the sheep’s clothing of constitutional rigor.

One of the authors is David B. Rivkin, Jr., a partner in a big Washington DC law firm, who, according to the Federalist Society, is “lead outside counsel for the 28 States that have challenged the constitutionality of EPA’s Clean Power Plan…. He also has represented the 26 States that have challenged the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act [Obamacare].” The other author, Elizabeth Price Foley, is “of counsel” to the same law firm and a professor at Florida International University College of Law.

The Opinion piece consumes two-thirds of an entire page of the WSJ. The essential argument is that, consistently with the constitutional separation of powers, Congress may not “outsource” an investigation of the president’s conduct to any part of the Executive Branch by demanding that the Department of Justice turn over documents obtained in its own, probably unlawful, investigation of the president. Instead, according to Rivkin/Foley, Congress must somehow conduct an independent investigation, not relying on the prior work of the Executive Branch, and then only about “open and notorious” crimes and misdemeanors. Such an independent investigation, with possible impeachment as its sole possible outcome, must “articulate clear evidence” of the alleged crimes at the outset.

The article goes on to conclude that since the president oversees the Executive Branch, investigations of a sitting president by the prosecutors in that government division are also inappropriate and invite a “coup.” Thus, absent some open and obvious violation of a law, the president, in the authors’ view, is immune from accountability except by being voted out of office in the next election. He is, as a practical matter, a King of the United States while he serves. These ideas resemble very closely the thoughts and words of the current sitting president but are at total war with the meaning of the Constitution and a politically driven misrepresentation of the separation-of-powers scheme set out there.

In reaching these astonishing positions, the Opinion piece misstates the conclusions of the Mueller Report, not once, but six times! Let’s take a closer look.

The authors note that the Mueller investigation “found no wrongdoing by President Trump” and after two years of work, the Mueller team “did not find that Mr. Trump had committed crimes.” While it’s certainly true that Mueller, feeling bound by DOJ policy that forbids indicting a sitting president and for reasons of fairness (unfair to accuse but hold no trial) did not state ultimate conclusions that crimes were committed, he did in fact lay out in detail the evidence of multiple explicit attempts by Trump, directly and through subordinates, to quash/deflect/control and actually terminate the Mueller investigation. The Report then applied the law to the facts and … stopped there, for the reasons stated. But in the end,

“… if we had confidence … that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” [Mueller Report at 394]

There is no ambiguity about that statement, particularly considering the detailed legal analysis that preceded in, an analysis that thoroughly demolishes the argument of Trump’s attorney that when the president fires the FBI Director, he is exercising his constitutional authority and may not be questioned about it no matter what his motives. In those circumstances, the president argued, he is per se immune from challenge. Mueller demolished that argument in the closing sections of his report.

Rightly or wrongly [see Note at end], Mueller believed he could not reach a traditional prosecutorial finding, but that did not stop him from finding the facts and laying them against the legal standards for obstruction of justice. Mueller walked the investigative horse right up to the trough but did not drink — a far cry from finding the president was innocent. The Mueller report makes no finding that Trump did not obstruct justice and any suggestion to the contrary is, to put the best light on it, political gaslighting.

Rivkin/Foley have conflated what Mueller stated about ultimate conclusions with what Mueller reported about the facts and legal elements of obstruction of justice. The authors say that it was then Attorney General Barr’s “duty” to make the findings that Mueller declined to make, but the source of that “duty” is neither clear nor obvious. Trump’s appointed AG himself blatantly misrepresented what Mueller had found by claiming that Trump was in fact “exonerated” when Mueller explicitly said otherwise.

Rivkin/Foley repeat their misstatement of Mueller’s conclusions multiple times: “the nation’s law enforcement officials have concluded Mr. Trump has not committed any crimes;” “he was cleared by the Mueller investigation;” “criminal accusations that prosecutors have rejected;” “second-guessing the prosecutors and recasting Mr. Trump’s conduct as criminal law violations.” Repetition does not make the statements any truer. All are plainly contrary to the facts and of a piece with AG Barr’s false narrative. Indeed, it seems virtually certain that they are based entirely on Barr’s misrepresentations about the Mueller report rather than the report itself.

Distilled to its central ideas, the Rivkin/Foley argument comes down to this:

  • Congress must conduct its own investigation of the facts if it wants to consider impeaching the president – it can’t just collect the documents Mueller found/created because Mueller doesn’t work for Congress; that would be “outsourcing” and outsourcing is bad;
  • The only potentially impeachable conduct is “open and notorious” such as an overt refusal to follow a law directed at the president’s execution of his duties; they cite the example of Andrew Johnson’s firing of War Secretary Edwin Stanton in “open defiance” of the Tenure in Office Act;
  • Impeachment can only begin when Congress is able to “articulate clear evidence” of high crimes and misdemeanors.

The practical effect of this approach is that the president can be neither investigated nor impeached by either the Executive Branch (FBI/DOJ) or Congress.

How then is Congress to “articulate clear evidence” when it has to, in effect, recreate the entire Mueller investigation from scratch? If the standard is that the “high crimes and misdemeanors,” in order to be impeachable, must be conducted openly and obviously in public by refusing to follow an explicit statutory command, how does the country deal with a president who, like Donald Trump, operated behind the public screen, using intermediaries to direct much of his dirty work of suppressing investigation, urging/threatening witnesses to secure false testimony and all the rest that is set out in nauseating detail in Mueller’s report?

Rivkin/Foley want this both ways, with the end result that the president cannot be investigated or held to account for obstruction of justice at all. And, in truth, they concede this at about the two-thirds mark in their exegesis when they dispute Mueller’s argument that the president may be guilty of obstruction of justice, even when purportedly carrying out his Executive Branch authority, by firing the FBI Director when he has corrupt motives to protect himself personally rather than to execute some policy within his constitutional authority. In the authors’ view, the president is simply and totally immune from accountability in such cases. Neither the Executive Branch nor Congress can investigate him and, since the courts are not equipped to conduct such activities at all, there is no one left but King Donald.

With all due respect, there are no kings in America. That’s one of the main reasons the Revolutionary War was fought. So much blood was not shed to put in place a system in which an elected executive becomes a ruler above the reach of law. Mueller’s report, at 181, states it well:

… the protection of the criminal justice system from corrupt acts by any person – including the President – accords with the fundamental principle of our government that “[n]o [person] in this country is so high that he is above the law. [case cites omitted; italics added]”

Note to Readers: I have finished reading the entire Mueller Report, all 448 pages. While I appear to be defending the Report in the above post, I rely on it mainly to prevent the distortion of its meaning, however constrained, as Trump’s supporters continue trying to rewrite history in his favor. I am convinced that Mueller made catastrophically poor decisions in the course of the investigation that led to outcomes far short of what was justified by the facts uncovered, among other shortcomings. I will shortly be posting a series of articles analyzing the Report in detail, so stay tuned.

Issues raised by Mueller/Barr/Rosenstein

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

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

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

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

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

Read the following as you will.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shilling for Trump

Well, well, well. As the rumors of more indictments of Trump acolytes circulate in the winter winds of Washington, the Trump enablers in Congress appear to have been overcome with a bad case of nerves. They are pulling out the stops in an overt effort to derail the investigation by Special Prosecutor Mueller before it makes another public move against the Trump team. Trump himself approved the release of classified information in the now infamous “Nunes memo,” and promptly tweeted that the memo completely exonerated him of any charge of collusion or obstruction of justice. In case you don’t do Twitter, here is what he said:

This memo totally vindicates “Trump” in probe. But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on. Their was no Collusion and there was no Obstruction (the word now used because, after one year of looking endlessly and finding NOTHING, collusion is dead). This is an American disgrace!

Au contraire, I suggest that his personal involvement in the release of the memo and attempt to use it to thwart the Mueller investigation represents, by itself, hard evidence of a direct attempt by Trump to obstruct justice by interfering in the investigation regarding his and his allies conduct. Bad move.

Today I want to turn to Alan Dershowitz who, not long ago, was a “regular” on CNN, first as a seemingly independent “legal expert” and then, increasingly, making partisan arguments in support of Trump’s position that “because I am President, I can do no wrong.” Dershowitz, a highly educated and aggressive advocate, is now a “regular” on Fox News.

Dershowitz has now argued that the Nunes Memo is a credible document entitled to respect andfurther validation. See http://fxn.ws/2DYLWDO While acknowledging that the memo is a “second hand, hearsay, account,” Dershowitz nevertheless says the memo establishes “probable cause” (the legal standard for making an arrest), for further investigation. His use of the term “probable cause” is an unsubtle way of suggesting, without saying it, that the Nunes document is evidence that a crime was committed by the FBI and/or Justice Department in applying for legal permission to surveil Carter Page, a Trump promoter and campaign worker. Dershowitz repeats his earlier call for a “nonpartisan commission of objective experts to investigate the entire issue of Russian involvement in the election and other claims made by either party about any unfairness surrounding it.” [my emphasis]

Putting aside where on this planet and this country, such “objective experts” might be found, Dershowitz, to his credit, adds that the Democratic version of the Nunes claims, also “secondhand and hearsay,” should also be released (not happening while Republicans are running things) and that this will “help to level the playing field.” Then, subject to “real needs of national security,” whatever that means and whoever would decide, the public should get the entire “redacted version” of the FISA application for surveillance of Carter Page and be able to judge for themselves whether the FBI and Department of Justice engaged in a flam-flam, not once, but at least four times, with the FISA judges (different ones for each renewal of the FISA warrant).

So what we have here, according to Dershowitz, is a situation where secondhand, highly partisan hearsay “information” from Republicans like Nunes with a history of secret dealings with the White House about the Russia election interference raises sufficient issues that we should stop the Mueller investigation and start all over again with a “nonpartisan commission” of “objective experts” to consider the issues raised by Russian interference, all because of a partisan contention that one person was surveilled inappropriately supported only  by “secondhand hearsay” information.

If this weren’t so serious. it would be laughable. Whether or not it’s true that Congress should have proceeded by nonpartisan commission rather than a special prosecutor, it is too late to change trains. The Mueller investigation is way down the tracks. The desperate maneuver of releasing only the Republican version of the Nunes memo indicates pretty clearly that the heat is being felt in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Whether deliberate or not, Dershowitz’s argument would lead to a massive slowdown, perhaps a complete shutdown, of the entire investigation, which is, of course, exactly what Trump and the Republicans in Congress wanted when they released the memo.

Dershowitz disagrees, of course, arguing that the “American public has lost faith in the objectivity of congressional committees.” No doubt, they have. Why would it be otherwise? The secret maneuvering of the Republican leadership, Nunes’s dark-of-night visits to the White House and all the other nonsense would give the Pope a headache. The notion that the public can effectively act as a jury viewing a heavily redacted document while Republicans and Democrats hurl invectives at each other about its meaning is a bridge way too far, a prescription for delay and ultimate failure. Imperfect as the process may be, the Special Prosecutor has the intelligence, independence and proper tools to do the job that needs doing.

If the President would just shut up, the entire process, and the American people in the bargain, would be well served. The fact that he keeps proclaiming his innocence when he hasn’t been charged with anything is quite telling. His behavior is that of a guilty person flailing in panic at the realization that his conduct is about to be laid bare for the world to see.

As a final word on this, do not fall prey to the facile word play of skilled advocates like Dershowitz. His legal credentials and carefully crafted arguments may seem reasonable on the surface. Before making a judgment about this, read the piece in Politico by Paul Rosenzweig at http://politi.co/2DW2fkG entitled “Even If You Take the Nunes Memo Seriously, It Makes No Sense.” The conservative R Institute, with which Rosenzweig is a Senior Fellow, sits quite far from the left wing of the Democratic Party. He is clearly not a partisan for the anti-Trump side of this fight.

The article addresses this: “let’s take the Nunes memorandum on its merits and assume that it is what it purports to be—an accurate summary of a purported problem with the FISA application process. What then should we make of it?” Rosenzweig, in my opinion, eviscerates the Nunes/Dershowitz/Trump position on the FISA application.  Read it – it’s short and accessible — and then judge for yourself.