Tag Archives: Trump

The Doomsday Scenario – Strangelove as President

You’ve seen one of the movies, most likely. One masterpiece that comes to mind is Dr. Strangelove, subtitled, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” If you are one of the five living people who hasn’t seen it, Wikipedia summarizes the story like this:

The story concerns an unhinged United States Air Force general who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It separately follows the President of the United States, his advisors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Royal Air Force (RAF) exchange officer as they attempt to prevent the crew of a B-52 plane (who were following orders from the general) from bombing the Soviets and starting a nuclear war. [https://bit.ly/39fqU0M]

There are other such stories, including the similar Seven Days in May, about a “military-political cabal’s planned takeover of the United States government in reaction to the president’s negotiation of a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union.” [https://bit.ly/2Xip8cF]

At the root of each drama is the conflict between the civilian and Constitutional leader of the military (the President) and the military leadership. Usually, it’s the military people that go off the reservation. In the real world, we had the opposite, terrifying scenario of the President of the United States becoming unhinged from reality and unrestrained by Constitutional or any other restraints (including his Cabinet). Trump was behaving so irrationally that the senior military authority, General Mark Milley, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, undertook steps to be sure that Trump’s lunacy did not destroy the world.

Republicans, and even a few Democrats, are losing their minds over this. Ignore the Republicans, who, as with COVID-19, Ukraine and many other situations, can be counted upon to suspend all rational thinking in favor of obeisance to Donald Trump. Especially people like the morally compromised Senator Marco Rubio. Their reaction is predictable and meaningless.

Our attention is captured, however, as it should be, when someone like Ret. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, driven out of the service by Donald Trump, complains that Gen. Milley should be removed because he “usurped civilian authority, broke Chain of Command, and violated the sacrosanct principle of civilian control over the military.” https://wapo.st/3zbu9Ry

Despite my great respect for Lt. Col. Vindman for his courageous stand against Trump’s lies about the Ukraine extortion, I disagree with his judgment on Gen. Milley.

In time of crisis, there are two essential options: (1) look to an authority source for direction and mechanically do what it says, or (2) use judgment to assess whether the authority source works in the situation at hand and, if not, choose another course of action. People face these choices every day in one way or another, thankfully almost always in situations trivial by comparison to the problem Gen. Milley faced. They make such choices on the spur of the moment, often without much thought. Sometimes they are right and sometimes not.

For example, in a different realm, the standard instruction is: don’t run from a bear; running will trigger its predatory instincts to attack. Also, don’t get between a mother bear and her cubs.

Fine, but what if you’ve wandered between the mother and cubs before you are even aware of their presence. The rules then are more complicated: if it’s a brown bear and it charges you, fall into a fetal position, trying your best to protect head, neck and stomach. If it’s a black bear, fight back. Throw things, get “big,” shout. Brown bears are more aggressive typically but may lose interest when you cease to be a threat. Black bears are ferocious but may yield and run from a fight.

If it’s a polar bear, well, hope your estate plan is in order.

The point is that these “rule book” principles are fine until they don’t work. If a grizzly attacks, you go fetal and he starts eating you, it may be that the stick lying beside you is your only remaining hope of survival. So, you grab the stick and poke him in the eye or other sensitive place, make a lot of noise and fight like hell for your life. You’re going to die otherwise, so you do what you have to do. Your options are few so you do what you can to change the odds.

Imperfect as analogies may be, the ultimate question is crisis is: will following the authority solve the problem or do I have to improvise and do the unthinkable?

Gen. Milley was faced with precisely this situation. [Disclosure: I haven’t yet read the Woodward/Costa book that revealed this story and even then might not have all the information.]

Gen. Milley had the real-life Dr. Strangelove in the role of President of the United States. His choice was to follow the rule book, let events take their course. He realized he could possibly be witness to, and complicit in, the destruction of the world as we know it if Donald Trump, desperate to cling to power, were to issue orders for a nuclear strike against China. Evidence was abundant that Trump was having serious mental disfunction. This was nothing new, but the loss of the 2020 election unhinged him from reality to a degree not previously seen. He claimed without evidence that the election had been stolen; he refused to cooperate in the peaceful transition of power; on January 6 he had urged his followers to use force to stop the final step in certifying the election result; he openly sought to reverse election counts in multiple states by pressuring state officials.

Donald Trump spit in the face of the constitutional order, giving every indication that he might be prepared to do something even more unprecedented in human history to retain power.

In those circumstances, perhaps one person alone stood as the final bulwark against insanity on the loose. That was General Milley. He chose to act rather than be another passive instrument of Trump’s delusion. I think I understand the tendency of people like Lt. Col. Vindman to turn to the “book” in cases like this, but history should vindicate the judgment of Gen. Milley that the evidence of irrational behavior was too strong, and the weakness of the inner Trump circle was too compromised, to simply hope for the best. The nation, indeed the world, should be grateful.

Note: Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post opinion piece on this issue raises questions regarding the lessons to be taken from this episode and how we shore up the constitutional order against a future Trump. https://wapo.st/3hEyKpm Those are very important questions that require the most serious consideration.

 

Afghanistan

Republicans are ecstatic that the mess in Afghanistan has given them another excuse for deflecting attention from the treasonous insurrection of January 6. Afghanistan is a mess, of course, and little that the White House can say about it is going to fix it in the near future, or ever. Understanding full well that the President is “responsible” for what happens on his watch, the sudden awakening of Republican and media angst over the plight of Afghan citizens is more than a little hypocritical and nonsensical.

That noted, I am not here to defend the seemingly failed planning by our military and intelligence people around the final departure of American and allied troops. I will just note before getting on with my points that the departure of Western troops from Afghanistan was never going to be met with the Taliban stepping back, popping some champagne, and waiting for the last troops and fleeing citizens to depart. The handwringing over this is, in my opinion, beyond absurd. And, after twenty years, it is simply ludicrous to suggest, as someone on CNN just did, that, ‘we promised them democracy – how can we just abandon them now?’ I will leave it to others to sort that out. Given the response so far, the media will have a lot to say about it.

My mission here is to place some context around the Afghanistan scenario, observations that some may find objectionable but which, I firmly believe, are reality.

Whatever the actual thinking was in sending American forces into Afghanistan, we were apparently trying to achieve two goals: (1) deny a base to Al Qaida-like terrorists, a task thought to be achievable by applying broad and constant military pressure against any “group” thinking of launching attacks against the United States in the vein of the September 11, 2001, and (2) while we were there, engage in some Western-style nation-building by promoting democratic political values and processes for adoption by the tribes and warlords that had dominated Afghan society for a very long time.

What could go wrong?

The one essential thing that went wrong, in my view, safely ensconced in my living room, is the same thing that went wrong in Vietnam, the first war officially “lost” by the United States since the country’s founding: we underestimated our adversaries. Déjà vu all over again.

Incidentally, “lost” in this setting doesn’t mean we were defeated. It means we didn’t win.

Americans have, I believe, been underestimating our adversaries since before the country was founded in 1787. The westward expansion from the original colonies followed the repression and subjugation of native populations east of the Mississippi River. Encounters with the Indians of the Western Plains met a formidable collection of adversaries, particularly the Comanche and Apache tribes. Underestimation of the native people, who were regarded as savages by white settlers and government/military alike, led to many deaths, until the white man’s superior firepower and ruthless violence finally overcame the natives’ resistance to expansion into their territory. Suggested reading: Empire of the Summer Moon.

The invincibility of the United States military was well-established in the American mind by the beginning of World War I and proved itself in World War II, albeit with many setbacks, not least of which was, of course, the Day of Infamy, the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that led to our entering the war in the first place. Not long after WWII ended, and after renewed isolationism reduced our military capabilities, the U.S. was caught by surprise again by the invasion of North Korea into South Korea. We suffered huge setbacks in that conflict as well, basically fighting to a draw, but coming away with some sense of having prevailed. North Korea did not get South Korea. We didn’t win, but neither did they.

Then there was Vietnam. Undeterred by the dismal failure of France to overcome resistance to the continued colonization of the country, the United States crept its way into full-throated engagement against the army of “little men in black pajamas” (a common way at the time of denigrating the enemy that was, in truth, winning the war). South Vietnam ostensibly was critical to U.S. interests in preventing communism from “taking over” Southeast Asia, a continuation of the “red menace” thinking of the 1950s. Accustomed to “winning” and to maintain the myth of American fighting superiority against all enemies, the U.S. government lied its way into an impossible situation: an unwinnable jungle war in which superior technology (total air superiority, napalm, carpet bombing, Agent Orange and more) failed to break the will of the resistance.

In January 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese armies stunned the world with the Tet Offensive, launched country-wide on the Lunar New Year festival when many of the South Vietnamese forces were on holiday leave. https://bit.ly/3z0psuw While the battle(s) were ultimately won by Western forces, the cost was staggering. As the Wikipedia article notes,

The offensive had a strong effect on the U.S. government and shocked the U.S. public, which had been led to believe by its political and military leaders that the North Vietnamese were being defeated and incapable of launching such an ambitious military operation; American public support for the war declined as a result of the Tet casualties and the ramping up of draft calls.

The war went on for seven long years more, leaving us with the Pentagon Papers and the now iconic scene of an American helicopter airlifting terrified Vietnamese from a building in Saigon (not the American embassy).

Much happened thereafter even before the 1991 Operation Desert Storm to drive Iraq back out of Kuwait. Most of the details are lost to memories, but you can review them here. https://bit.ly/3sE6UxR Prepare to be jolted. Desert Storm did not take long and “victory,” once again, belonged to the Western coalition led by the United States. We were once again winners.

The confidence of Americans was then shaken to the core by the attacks of September 11, 2001. The enemy, it seemed, was roaming free within the country and, armed with boarding passes and box cutters, was able to murder thousands in a few minutes. The furious response at yet another Day of Infamy was not short in coming.

Undeterred by history, and fully aware of the failure of Russia to subordinate the country, the United States entered Afghanistan in 2001 and in 2003 invaded Iraq. The U.S. left Iraq “officially” in 2011 but military engagements continued largely outside the interest of media and the public. See https://bit.ly/2W8W8nt for a short history.

We remained in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, and others, until President Trump, in what was to be his final year in office, negotiated an agreement with the Taliban (not including the Afghan government, our putative ally) to withdraw U.S. forces by May 1, 2021. President Biden, following up Trump’s prior decision and based on his own long-standing opposition to continuing a futile fight not strongly supported by the Afghan government or its people, decided to end the American military presence and ordered the final removal of U.S. troops. In about a week the Taliban launched a remarkable takeover of the country, leading to scenes of chaos at the Kabul airport as fleeing Afghans and Americans, who were warned of our imminent departure some time ago, tried to escape.

Chaos reigns in Afghanistan and the Republicans here have something new to cheer and deflect about. Officials in other countries are also quick to scoff at the “embarrassment” of a U.S. retreat in the face of the total collapse of the Afghan army that the U.S. spent 20 years training and funding and supplying. That’s not going to change.

The question remains — Why are we reliving, yet again, the tragic scenario of having fought a long and, in the end, futile war at staggering cost in treasure and, more importantly, human suffering?

There are, as always, many likely factors that contribute to the repetition of this behavior, but I believe there is one predominating force that drives the others. That is the core belief in American Exceptionalism.

Americans seem to have a compelling need for the myth of American Exceptionalism no matter what the evidence shows. It appears to be an essential element of national identity. The belief is reinforced regularly – in school lessons, in the celebration of July 4 Independence Day, in (at least in theory) Memorial Day celebrations and the formal ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery (Arlington gets 3 million visitors a year; many of them witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb) and the periodic national obsession with domination of the Olympic Games medal count.

A critical component of American Exceptionalism is that the country is invulnerable to invasion by foreign troops. America is especially blessed, I was taught at an early age, by its geographical position on the planet. It is “protected” on the north by Canada and in the south by Mexico, neither of which is a threat as a haven for an invading army. Of course, the advent of the airplane and the aircraft carrier changed the threat scenario as we learned on December 7, 1941. The well-worn aphorism, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” became popular despite our unusual place in the world. https://bit.ly/3AX01dS During the 1950s period of the nuclear arms race, people in my generation were constantly reminded of the new peril to our very survival. We literally stood on the brink of nuclear holocaust in what became the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

We survived that threat, narrowly, and we “showed” the world in our response to the 9/11 attacks that the United States was still not to be trifled with. We were prepared to destroy entire countries and their civilizations to preserve our own.

But it was a shocking realization that we were not as secure as we thought, not as invulnerable to foreign or domestic threats after all and, after revelations like the torture in the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, not as pure of heart as we had been told.  Nevertheless, the insecurity fostered by changes in the world situation enabling our enemies to reach us with horrifying violence, of which we had been convinced we were immune, actually reinforced the commitment to the idea of American Exceptionalism. The more vulnerable we became, the more determined we were to believe in and act out the mythology of American Exceptionalism. If we weren’t so great, after all, why would they keep coming after us?

If we are the “best” of people, the purest example of the success of the Enlightenment, the people most committed to the preservation of democracy around the world, leaders of the Free World, then it follows we are not only exceptional but also entitled to special deference because of “who we are.” We hear this in political speech, among many other places, all the time. This mind-set primed many Americans to believe in the Fortress America idea, that we are essentially alone, that our very salvation as a nation and culture depends on “America First.” We are so special, so powerful, we don’t need other nations; America can go it alone. Trumpism.

Except that it’s just not true. We don’t much like to hear about it, but the fact is that the country was formed by taking, through force and artifice, the land of the natives who were here before the “white man” arrived. The evolution of the body politic led to a national constitution that, as an essential condition to its creation, formally embraced the idea that some people, brought here against their will and whose labor was taken without compensation, were less than fully human.

That ugly compromise with colonies whose economies and lifestyles were dependent upon human slavery conflicted with the moral fabric that underlay the national idea and eventually led to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet I was “taught” in junior high school history class in the 1950s that the Civil War had nothing to do with enslaved people and we were not to discuss the subject in class. We now see that many Americans believe that the Confederacy was an honorable undertaking that gave rise to some abstract idea of “heritage” justifying, among other things, the continued display of the Confederate flag as a symbol equal, if not superior, to the Stars and Stripes of our national flag.

And while the war was won and the enslaved people technically freed, much of the country refused to accept the idea of equality. Jim Crow laws and decades of other forms of discrimination produced a huge and possibly permanent economic underclass. Recall that school desegregation was not officially ended in this country until 1954 and violent resistance to it continued long after.

The country has continued whistling by the graveyard, pretending to be something it is not, thereby preventing the national reckoning that, in the long run, could unite most of the population around a common set of principles. If you have not seen the marvelous scene from the TV series, The Newsroom, in which Jeff Daniels, playing the anchor man, appears on a panel discussion and is asked, “what makes America the greatest country in the world?,” you really owe it to yourself to watch it. You can see it here: https://bit.ly/3AUkQXt If you’ve seen it, watch it again.

It’s a bit out of date (2012) and a touch misogynist (though I suspect/hope the writers meant “men” to refer to humans) and some of the data has changed. Nevertheless, in many respects, it sounds in the present moment. It’s a powerful statement of reality that conflicts with the mythology that has built up around the history of the United States.

That truth is complicated, and complication is something the human mind tries to avoid. Myths are more attractive. They’re easy to articulate and easy to believe. You can read all about that in any good book on behavioral economics. You could start with Thinking, Fast & Slow by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, one of the originators of the concept.

Lest you think this is apologia for Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan, let me disabuse you now. That slogan presupposes something that is blatantly false and plays on fear: fear of losing, blaming others for the perceived loss while simultaneously giving the national treasure away to the already wealthy and to the corporations whose lust to consume at any cost our precious resources is boundless.

The MAGA slogan is a scam, perpetrated on the willing (74 million voted for Trump in 2020 despite everything known about his grift, incompetence, dishonesty and failure to be courageous when courage was the only currency that could have saved the country from more than 600,000 deaths to COVID-19). No, if you’ve read any of my prior posts in this blog, you should be clear that I am not about MAGA.

Let’s look at some facts. These are, like science, true whether you believe them or not.

The U.S. economy is large, with the highest Nominal GDP. https://bit.ly/3sEPzFa [all cited data is pre-pandemic; the economic and social devastation caused by COVID-19 is staggeringly large but not yet measured.] Our economic “system,” measured by GDP, is thus a huge success. But not without cost. The United States ranks second only to China in delivering carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (we are fourth in per capita emissions). https://bit.ly/3B1NFB9 The United States is a prototype example of the Tragedy of the Commons on a global scale. We’re big but not the best.

And, before you start chanting “we’re No. 1, we’re No. 1,” recall that we don’t produce nearly as much stuff as we did in the good old days, while we consume enormous amounts of almost everything imaginable and then some. Much of that “stuff” comes from other countries, as we learned to our chagrin during the pandemic when many supply chains failed. Thus, while “the U.S. economy is at the forefront of technology in many industries … it faces rising threats in the form of economic inequality, rising healthcare and social safety net costs, and deteriorating infrastructure.” https://bit.ly/37VcSB5 Let’s review just a few details.

Based on the “the percentage of people between the ages of 25 and 64 who have completed some kind of tertiary education in the form of a two-year degree, four-year degree or vocational program,” the United States ranks only sixth. https://cnb.cx/3xWa2pW  We lead the world in persons incarcerated per 100,000 population [https://bit.ly/3z7HEm4] There are more guns in private hands in the U.S. than in the next 9 countries combined. https://bit.ly/3iZwc6d The U.S. literacy rate ranks 125th in the world. https://bit.ly/3svc8Me Of the 37 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD), the U.S. had the third highest poverty rate. https://bit.ly/3sB0rnh Finally, the U.S. ranks 15th on the U.N. Education Index. https://bit.ly/2WdIu2g

All that said, most people with some awareness of world affairs and conditions would not trade places with citizens of other countries. Viewed in its entirety and all things considered, the United States remains a pretty good place to live for most of its inhabitants, especially the white population. But we cannot have a realistic view of our place in the world, let alone within the country, if we have a glassy-eyed fantasy version of reality about the country, its values and what we can expect or demand of it. One can always say, “we could do better,” but the Afghanistan situation was a long-term losing proposition. Our chances of accomplishing the original goals were limited to non-existent and after twenty years of trying, there is no point to pretending otherwise.

Maybe we could have prepared better, but let’s not forget that the outgoing administration refused to cooperate with Biden’s transition team. We can’t know for sure what the implications of that non-cooperation were, but it’s not an unreasonable speculation that they had an effect. In any case, the idea that there was a clean simple way to exit Afghanistan is pure fantasy.

The Taliban weren’t going to let a power vacuum exist after we left. The speed of their advance through the country, facing little to no opposition from the Afghan government forces, is the clearest indication of the inevitability of the chaos that ensued. All the handwringing and political theater isn’t going to change that.

It’s curious indeed that Republicans who were all in on Trump’s desire to seal the U.S. borders to prevent immigrants from entering are now all about admitting huge numbers of Afghans fleeing the Taliban. Or are they just expecting other countries to take them? Politics and mythology can easily confuse one’s thinking. It would be interesting if Republicans applied their newly discovered empathy for Afghans to the COVID-19 pandemic that is ravaging their states, overwhelming their healthcare systems and killing their children.

Afghanistan is lost. The central issue is not whether we could have done a better job with the exit of military forces. We could have. The real issue now is whether we will simply reinvent the history to say that we “won,” and continue the fantasy of American Exceptionalism while not actually doing much to make the fantasy a reality. How, for example, will the Western international community of nations relate to Afghanistan under Taliban control? What happens regarding the seemingly inevitable human rights issues that are going to arise immediately regarding women there? What will United States policy toward a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan be and how will it be enforced?

Everything reasonable that can be done to avoid unnecessary bloodshed during the continuing evacuation should, obviously, be done but the focus must now be on the future. That future is as uncertain as it has ever been. That’s not Joe Biden’s fault. It’s not even Donald Trump’s fault. At this point the idea of fault is beside the point. It falls to President Biden to try to fashion a workable answer in a country that still lives in a fantasy dream of who we are and what we can do in a modern world.

A Tale of Two Worlds

I love the New York Times. I hate the New York Times. It has the best stories.  It has the worst stories….

What?

Maybe that reminds you of the remarkable opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities that didn’t occur to me until I had penned the opening lines of this post:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Dickens, writing in 1859, two years before the start of the American Civil War, was on to something fundamental. He could have been writing today.

I pretend no such comparison, of course. It’s just that as I read the New York Times Sunday Review “Guest Essay” by Christopher Caldwell, entitled, What if There Wasn’t a Coup Plot, General Milley? [https://nyti.ms/3fsvPPC], I experienced the cognitive dissonance that I wrote about in a prior post: Media Bias—Who Are the Victims? [https://bit.ly/2Vf7PIH] Caldwell is the author of a book, published in January 2020, that Amazon describes as explaining how the social justice “reforms of the past fifty years gave the country two incompatible political systems—and drove it toward conflict.” I haven’t read the book, but the description suggests, not surprisingly, that the liberal movement toward equality, educational opportunity and the rest are the root cause of Donald Trump’s appeals to racism and xenophobia. That’s an argument for another day, perhaps.

Here we are in August 2021, more than six months past the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol that killed police officers among many other outrages and Mr. Caldwell suggests that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, was hallucinating when he viewed Trump’s post-election assault on the Constitution as “some kind of coup.”  Caldwell is offended by Milley’s suggestion, reported in a new book, that a coup would fail because the military would step up to prevent it.

While some might greet such comments with relief, General Milley’s musings should give us pause. Americans have not usually looked to the military for help in regulating their civilian politics. And there is something grandiose about General Milley’s conception of his place in government. He told aides that a “retired military buddy” had called him on election night to say, “You represent the stability of this republic.” If there was not a coup underway, then General Milley’s comments may be cause more for worry than for relief.

Caldwell claims that Milley’s only evidence of a coup was the January 6 attack, and this is where the idea of Two Worlds comes in. Caldwell says, “that day’s events are ambiguous.”

Seriously? Ambiguous? This is better, I suppose, than the argument I encountered on LinkedIn recently in which a large number of Trumpers stated, I kid you not, that the January 6 attack did not happen and that the videos are “all lies.”

To be more than fair, Caldwell accepts the reality that,

On the one hand, it is hard to think of a more serious assault on democracy than a violent entry into a nation’s capitol to reverse the election of its chief executive. Five people died. Chanting protesters urged the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence, who had refused Mr. Trump’s call that he reject certain electoral votes cast for Joe Biden.

But then Caldwell dismisses the entire event as “something familiar: a political protest that got out of control.” Caldwell says that what he describes as merely “contesting the fairness of an election” and calling the election a “steal,” while “irresponsible” coming out of the mouth of a president, are mere hyperbole equal to “calling suboptimal employment and health laws a “war on women.”

Nor did the eventual violence necessarily discredit the demonstrators’ cause, any more than the July 2016 killing of five police officers at a rally in Dallas against police violence, for instance, invalidated the concerns of those marchers.

There are so many problems with this exercise in deflection and what-about-ism, it’s hard to know where to begin. Suffice to say, Mr. Caldwell has chosen to ignore the planning that we now are beginning to understand went into the January 6 attack. The “protest that just got out of hand” is a convenient intellectual ruse to plaster over the realities revealed by, for example, the New York Times’ video, “Day of Rage”. See https://nyti.ms/2VLfDSI

Caldwell is quite comfortable observing that Trump “ended his presidency as unfamiliar with its powers as with its responsibilities. That is, in a way, reassuring.” In effect, Caldwell seems to argue that Trump was too ignorant and incompetent to bring off a real coup. So, no need to worry.

Then, after noting that the few rational people in Trump’s administration left or were ousted, his claims of a stolen election inspired his followers. And, Caldwell hastens to declare,

Republicans had — and still have — legitimate grievances about how the last election was run. Pandemic conditions produced an electoral system more favorable to Democrats. Without the Covid-era advantage of expanded mail-in voting, Democrats might well have lost more elections at every level, including the presidential.

If you’re going to claim legitimacy for arguments of electoral unfairness arising from a public health crisis, then you must also address how that public health crisis unfolded. And there, my friends, is where we find Mr. Caldwell’s hero stuck in the sucking muck of his incompetence and indifference. Trump’s legendary and thoroughly documented mishandling of the pandemic is likely at the heart of his defeat, and he cannot have it both ways. If the pandemic was another “Democrat hoax,” it cannot be blamed for his defeat.

Mr. Caldwell continues his monologue lost in the illogic of his argument that what began as a perfectly rational, if not necessarily correct, dispute about election procedures spun out of control in the hands of an “infuriated and highly unrepresentative hard core.” That “hard core” was precisely the group of politicians and supporters that Trump turned to in his desperation. His one true skill, inspiring hatred and irrational behavior, rose to the occasion just when he needed it most. Trump urged the mob to go to the Capitol, told them he would be there with them – and they believed him. Many of them have argued in court that they could not have committed crimes because they were “invited” into the building by Trump himself.

Undeterred by reality, Caldwell says.

The result was not a coup. It was, instead, mayhem on behalf of what had started as a legitimate political position. Such mixtures of the defensible and indefensible occur in democracies more often than we care to admit. The question is whom we trust to untangle such ambiguities when they arise.

Caldwell assumes away the central issue by simply declaring the situation was ambiguous and that the debate about the election just got out of hand when the mob listened to Trump claiming that the nation would be destroyed if the election were allowed to stand.

Under the rules of logical reasoning, defects in the premise remain in the outcome of a logical progression from that premise. By January 6 there was no even superficial plausibility to the argument that the election was flawed by fraud and “stolen,” notwithstanding the absurd claims of Republican politicians that the mob was just a bunch of friendly tourists. It is therefore impossible to logically argue that a rational dispute about the validity of the election simply got out of hand and led to the vicious beating of police trying to protect Members of Congress carrying out explicit Constitutional responsibilities.

In the end, Caldwell’s argument is that January   6 was not a coup attempt because he says so. And, therefore, he concludes that military leaders should not have “any kind of role in judging civilian ones.”

Most thoughtful people who respect the Constitutional scheme, despite its flaws, would agree that in normal circumstances the military should stay out of politics. Trump’s aspiration to turn the US into a “banana republic” notwithstanding, we remain a democratic republic and our military is subordinate to civilian authority. However, the Trump crowd should not get the wrong idea about that. Recall that it was Trump who called out military forces against civilian demonstrators in Washington. Gen. Milley had every reason to be concerned that Trump’s disrespect for, and fundamental ignorance about, the Constitution and his oath of office might lead to an attempt to use the military to overturn the election. I, for one, am happy to hear the General say “hell, no, not now, not ever.”

Lost in Space

I am harping a bit about the failure of the mainstream media to recognize the peril in which the country, and the MSM itself, finds itself. This failure is reflected in numerous ways, the latest being the decision of favorite New York Times to publish on page 21 of Sunday’s edition a story about the astonishing direct efforts by Donald Trump to suborn the Department of Justice to support his unfounded claims that the 2020 election was invalidated by fraud. Not only is Trump guilty of this effort to subvert the election, but compelling evidence has been produced that he had secured the support and active cooperation of Jeffrey Clark, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division. https://nyti.ms/3iy3Gsw

This story is related to the on-going attempts of Trump and his enablers in Congress and the Republican-controlled states to overturn the lawful election of Joe Biden for President. That is the most important story of our time, right up there with the pandemic. If Trump had succeeded (or succeeds in the future), the democratic republic known as the United States of America would be finished. Seriously, is there a more important story than that?

As usual, the key players at the Justice Department have gone dark, refusing to comment substantively. But the testimony of Jeffrey Rosen, who was Acting Attorney General at the time, indicates that despite being directed otherwise, Clark continued having private conversations with Trump while Trump was still president. Clark even “drafted a letter that he asked Mr. Rosen to send to Georgia state legislators, wrongly asserting that they should void Mr. Biden’s victory because the Justice Department was investigating accusations of voter fraud in the state.” The proposal was rejected but the apparent fact remains that Clark engaged in multiple violations of DOJ policy, and possibly federal law, in working collaboratively with Trump to overturn the election.

Clark has a spectacular resume. https://bit.ly/2VG7yi4 That fact does not mean that he was incapable of the acts to which Rosen, with a similar resume (https://bit.ly/37vlgqu), has testified. The story mentioned almost in passing the suggestion by one of Trump’s lawyers that Trump “might take some undisclosed legal action if congressional investigators sought “privileged information.” That is, of course, a huge issue, but privilege (executive or attorney-client or whatever) cannot be used to coverup conversations about the commission or attempt at commission of a crime.

I well understand that there are many other big stories afoot at the same time. The Times front page this morning covers some of those: the Cuomo scandal, Republicans supporting infrastructure legislation, problems attributable to children being denied in-classroom learning, restaurant struggles in New York City and, of course, the Olympics. But page 21 for the inside story of attempts to defeat the lawful transfer of power?

Meanwhile, my other favorite publication, the Washington Post, has once again elected (it clearly had a choice) to publish an op-ed that undermines the effort to rid the country of COVID-19 through vaccinations and other public health measures. https://wapo.st/3iwpgxx This piece was written by Drew Holden, a public affairs consultant in D.C. and a former Republican congressional staff member. There is no surprise, therefore, that he objects to the recently re-established mask mandate in Washington, including those already vaccinated. Typically, he downplays the significance of the Delta Variant that is sweeping the country and overwhelming medical resources in numerous states. He focused on a “slight uptick in local cases” and “only three deaths from the coronavirus in the past two weeks and with a positive test rate hovering around 1 percent.Only three dead in two weeks, so who cares?

The author’s data, however, is massively contradicted by the Center for Disease Control’s COVID Data Tracker, https://bit.ly/3Cs8qrt. And, of course, the author dredges up the usual Republican talking points about overbearing government (ignoring, for example, the new Red Hero, the Governor of Florida, who has worked around the clock to defeat public health measures in his state that might help control the virus — #DeathSantis doesn’t hesitate to overrule local officials and to prevent Florida jurisdictions from following CDC guidance). So much for the principle of limited government.

Apparently no fan of logical consistency, Mr. Holden argues that while indoor mask mandates will reduce viral transmission, they will undermine the effort to persuade more people to vaccinate. He argues that more vaccinations are the “best way” to prevent more deaths, a view that most rational humans would accept, but Holden argues that vaccination is the only viable path forward, so the solution is to use the “best message” by repeating over and over again that vaccines are safe and effective.

Mandating masks even for the vaccinated sends a clear (if unintended) message to the contrary: Even when you have the vaccine, you aren’t really safe to yourself or others, even if we just told you the opposite was true. How can those already deservedly distrustful of the medical wisdom of the government overcome their skepticism if the government itself can’t seem to get the story straight?

Wow. If the author were really paying attention, he would understand that no one has claimed that vaccines were 100 percent security against COVID infection. This has been clear since the earliest public disclosures of the vaccines. The author also confuses mask requirements with other forms of incentive to vaccinate.

I could go on and on about this piece, but the real issue I want to raise is: why does the Washington Post continue to give credence and exposure to views like this? Is the Post’s commitment to truth tied to both-sides-ing issues of public health? Does the Post really believe that this type of message is essential to understanding the public health risks of another, and perhaps yet another, surge in COVID cases? If the Post is going to continue both-sides-ing COVID messaging, should it not explain its editorial policy to its readers?  If the issue were whether it is in the national interest to maintain a union of 50 states or whether we’d be better off as a nation by having multiple states secede, would the Post also both-sides that issue? How about smoking? Does the Post intend to publish both-sides commentary on the benefits and detriments of smoking tobacco? Wearing seat belts? How is this different?

Vaccinate or Else!

Somewhat, and only somewhat, like the Most Interesting Man in the World from the beer ads, I don’t usually curse but when I do, well …. run.

As the world crumbles around us, I am sick to f*cking death of the whining, immoral, selfish, ignorant, indifferent fools who refuse to get vaccinated because of … what? Their “rights?” Their “freedom to choose?” I am not interested. I don’t want to hear it anymore. We now have people seriously saying we should pay these people to vaccinate. Or just be nice and understanding of their concerns. Or just leave them alone because they’re Americans and have the right to decide how to protect themselves and their families, never mind the impact their intransigence and ignorance may have on others, including children who are, for all practical purposes, entirely at the mercy of decisions made by adults.

No, no and more no. I lost a relative to COVID. I lay her death at the feet of Donald Trump and the mob of lying, sniveling cowards who supported him while he knowingly downplayed the severity of the coronavirus, promoted the use of medically unsound remedies, and generally allowed the country to sink into near oblivion. More than 600,000 dead in the United States alone. Most of them On Trump’s watch.

In early 2020 we lived in New York City, the epicenter of the initial coronavirus explosion in the United States. Within days of my wife’s office in midtown Manhattan closing (in mid-March,) I experienced what turned out to be mild symptoms of COVID as then understood. A local clinic doctor, dressed like a spaceman, said, “You almost certainly have COVID, but we have no tests for people like you who are still standing. Even if we confirmed it, we would just send you home. So, go home, stay there and good luck.” Given my health history, this was a terrifying direction that felt like a potential death sentence.

My wife was not as lucky as I was. She had been incredibly healthy, worked out all the time, ate right and all the rest but within days was in extremis with every known COVID symptom except the very worst ones – she had no lung or brain involvement. Some days you just get lucky. It was terrible. No other words for it.

I did what I could to help her through long nights when she was unable even to walk unaided, fevered, with severe body aches and all the other horrors you have likely read about by now. We lived about 50 yards from the Emergency Room entrance to Mount Sinai West hospital and, on many nights, I thought we were on the verge of having to take her in, knowing that she would be alone under the “no visitors” policies. The horror went on for over two weeks around the clock. People were dying left and right. Many of those who survived had permanent heart, lung and brain damage. The sirens bringing victims to the hospital blared throughout the day and night, day after day. It felt like the end of the world.

We were among the most fortunate in that we both recovered, long before much was even known about the virus, long before there was any realistic suggestion that a vaccine might be developed in less than a year. We were, of course, in lockdown. Our essential needs, and a few luxuries, were met by a stranger in our building, with a big heart and a lot of courage. [See the text of Angels In New York reposted below, originally in my discontinued blog AutumnInNewYork.net]

COVID is thus not an abstraction for us. It has taken the life of someone we knew and loved. It destroyed our sense of security in life – that if we worked hard and subject to the usual ups and downs, all would somehow be well. The pandemic stole more than a year of my waning lifetime. We burrowed in like animals, waiting for an invisible monster to slide silently into our lives again and possibly destroy us. We were afraid of everything: the mail, the Amazon boxes, the concierge at the front desk, the neighbors.

But, as I said, we were among the very fortunate who survived, almost entirely intact. When we moved to Washington in late 2020, a flukish circumstance enabled us to be vaccinated in January-February of 2021. We joined the growing legion of the saved, eventually able to walk outside without masks, to eat outdoors in restaurants without feeling we were placing our lives on the line and generally to resume a semblance of normal life. This was true freedom.

Now, inevitably it seems, the Delta Variant of COVID has arrived, reaching the United States virtually overnight, and is rampaging through the country. And what happens? The former president, who downplayed the virus at the outset, called the virus a “Democrat hoax,” secretly had himself vaccinated and is focused entirely on promoting the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen. His voice could have been influential in altering the course of the Delta Variant infection but, no, he only cares about himself. One of his chief sycophants, Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida, has taken up the mantle of COVID-denier-in-chief, while the Delta Variant ravages his state. His continuous mixed messages just end up reinforcing the resistance.

And on and on it goes. If this keeps up, we are facing another wave of avoidable deaths (almost all current COVID deaths are from unvaccinated people) and possibly nationwide lockdowns that would deal a death blow to the economy and to hope itself.

I am in no f*cking mood for more of this ignorant nonsense. This is like sitting in theater watching a group of fools enter the haunted house, knowing they are headed into dangers they don’t see even though the evidence is everywhere. The feeling of impending doom can be a high for fans of horror movies, but I always hated them. My new sense of impending doom is far more profound and realistic now.

And, so, what is happening? CHAOS. The Republican Governor of Alabama has awakened from her self-induced political coma to say “it’s “time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks.” https://wapo.st/3x2eOSo Why now? Here’s why: her state has had a “92 percent increase in coronavirus infections and a 72 percent rise in hospitalizations over the past week.” But just one-third of Alabamians are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest levels in the nation. Meanwhile, “exhausted health providers say they are bracing for case spikes that are largely preventable, driven by the hyper-transmissible delta variant.” And, once again, and totally predictably, “hospitals are becoming overwhelmed in states with low vaccination rates.” And, also predictably, “a number of prominent Republicans and conservative media voices continue to shower vaccines with skepticism, and social media disinformation continues largely unabated.”

Examples of failed strategies abound. The National Football League adopted new rules that a team

“could be forced to forfeit a game if there is a coronavirus outbreak linked to unvaccinated players. The move has both competitive and financial implications: Players won’t get paychecks for forfeited games, the NFL said. About 80 percent of all NFL players had at least one shot before the rules took effect, said league spokesperson Brian McCarthy, who credited seminars about the vaccines’ benefits, on-site vaccinations and other tactics.”

The operative word is “could,” because the policy has two conditions: a game must be canceled because of a coronavirus outbreak among unvaccinated players or staff members and cannot be rescheduled. In any case, many players among the college-educated vaccination holdouts may well be prepared to take the chance. The policy applies to mostly very well-off athletes and staff for whom the risk of financial sacrifice may be a small price they can easily afford to pay. If the NFL wants to stop the virus, it needs to tell the players: “vaccinate or you’re off the team.” More on that in a moment.

A well-meaning article in the New York Times, Should Vaccinated People Start Wearing Masks Again?  https://nyti.ms/3BBvaoq has a lot of nice advice and information about masking and distancing practice in the face of the Delta Variant, but the problem now is that the complexity of the situation has worsened.  People generally don’t do well with such complex decision-making. The article presupposes freedom of choice, deep understanding of risks, a multitude of factual situations and more. It’s just too much to expect.

Contrast that with the decision of more than 400 colleges and universities requiring returning students for in-person classes to be vaccinated. The schools have simplified the decision-making: vaccinate or study elsewhere. Period. Hospitals and health systems are now also lining up to mandate vaccination or strict testing regimens that could lead to being sent home without pay or termination of employment.

The federal government has stated, correctly in my view, that private companies may require vaccination to return to work in offices. Failure to return could result in loss of employment and unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, the data on the benefits of vaccination is overwhelming:

As of July 12, more than 159 million people in the United States had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Of those, just 5,492 had breakthrough cases that resulted in serious illness, including 1,063 who died. That’s less than 0.0007 percent of the vaccinated population. Meanwhile, 99 percent of deaths from Covid-19 are among the unvaccinated.

 In this one instance, I find myself partially aligned with Dr. Leana S. Wen, a regular WAPO columnist who seems always to find grounds for disagreeing with Democratic health policies. https://wapo.st/3iK5ddB  Dr. Wen says, “the Biden administration needs to strongly urge a return of covid-19 restrictions.” She’s not referring to lockdowns, at least not yet. She notes that “the CDC’s honor system didn’t work” but that “vaccinated people are still well-protected” and thus “in settings where everyone is known to have immunity, no additional restrictions are needed.”

In all other contexts, however, where the risk of infection spread is present, “indoor mask requirements should be reinstated.”

The problem, yet again, is that urging jurisdictions to follow science is no longer a realistic option. Los Angeles County issued a new mask mandate, only to find that its sheriff declined to enforce it. At the risk of letting some reality creep in, Dr. Wen notes, correctly, that “the areas with the lowest vaccination rates are also the ones least likely to implement mask mandates.” Nevertheless, she sticks to the “Biden administration can make a difference” theme.

Then, Dr. Wen makes what I believe to be a classic mistake:

The federal government could also use this opportunity to — finally — incentivize vaccination. It could say that areas with high vaccine uptake do not need to reimplement mask mandates, and mandate vaccination on planes and trains and in federal buildings.

Incentives have been tried in various places and they don’t solve the core problem. And a random policy on travel will just confuse everyone even more and lead to further non-compliance. Wen gets its right with her next suggestion:

And [the Biden administration] can finally get behind a vaccine verification system that would allow restaurants, gyms, workplaces and universities to create safe, maskless environments where everyone is vaccinated.

But, it’s going to require more than encouragement and cheering from the sidelines to get this done. We need, must have, a nationally mandated policy on vaccination.

I’m with Max Boot on this. https://wapo.st/3i55mt4: “Stop pleading and start mandating.”

…. even as evidence grows that vaccines are safe and effective, resistance to them is also growing. A recent Post-ABC News poll found that 29 percent of Americans said they were unlikely to get vaccinated — up from 24 percent three months earlier. Only 59 percent of adults are fully vaccinated.

…. the biggest obstacle to vaccination is now Republicans who are being fed a steady diet of anti-vaxxer propaganda by Fox “News” Channel, Facebook and other social media, and reckless demagogues such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

This is madness. Stop making reasonable appeals to those who will not listen to reason. (According to an Economist/YouGov poll, a majority of those who refuse to get vaccinated say vaccines are being used by the government to implant microchips.) It’s a waste of time. Start mandating that anyone who wants to travel on an airplane, train or bus, attend a concert or movie, eat at a restaurant, shop at a store, work in an office or visit any other indoor space show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test.

I understand the argument that Republican Governors may resist a national vaccine passport, but that’s too damn bad. The federal government has the authority under the Commerce Clause, among other powers, to compel compliance. It should act before it’s too late.

The argument that the federal government should step in with financial awards for getting vaccinated suffers from multiple problems. Principles developed in behavioral economics tell us that people are more concerned about loss than about gain. Offering some modest amount, declining over time, as recommended by Charles Lane in WAPO, https://wapo.st/3kSyfue, not only rewards the wrong behavior, it assumes that the recalcitrance of anti-vaxxers and COVID-deniers can be overcome with a few pieces of silver. For some, maybe that’s true, but it seems unlikely for the vast majority, and we have little time to lose with such experiments.

Adopting a strong, mandatory federal policy that supersedes all conflicting state laws, regulations and mandates (recall the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause), with significant consequences attached to non-compliance, is now the fastest path to assuring the bulk of holdouts are vaccinated in time to prevent the worst consequences of an uncontrolled pandemic resurgence. The mandate must be accompanied by clear and specific instructions on the acceptable proof of vaccination.

Anticipating the objections, yes, of course, the plan would require some form of exception for limited religious and demonstrable medical issues involving people with relevant co-morbidities, small children and the like. Compared to the consequences of an uncontrolled and continuously morphing viral pandemic, those are small problems. Some of those affected would, however, experience limitations on their behavior until we can be satisfied that herd immunity has been achieved.

Will this approach have implementation issues? Very likely. We have fiddled around so long that a rational, well-executed plan may be nearly impossible, but that’s not cause to shy away from trying. At this stage, we are grasping at straws, but it seems apparent that nothing of a “voluntary nature” is going to overcome the suicidal tendencies of, mainly, Republican anti-vaxxers. They are unmoved by the data showing that most of the deaths and other serious consequences of COVID infection are among the unvaccinated.

We must, therefore, remove the question from consideration: you want to drive, you get a license. You want to go to restaurants, movies, bars, travel, etc., you get vaccinated. Otherwise, stay home in lockdown. Our lives depend on it. End of story. If the vaccine resisters don’t approve, well, return to the first sentence of my second paragraph ….

************

Repost of Angels in New York [from April 20, 2020]

Just when you least expect it and are sinking into the despair of self-isolation with a sick spouse and extreme personal vulnerability to the coronavirus, someone appears as if by magic to save the day. It’s not magic, of course; it’s human kindness and generosity at its best. I referred to her as an angel in an email and, with no prompting from me, my wife used the same terms. It must therefore be true.

The story is simple enough. My wife has come down with what appears to be COVID-19. We don’t know how it happened. We’ve taken all the precautions. Nonetheless, a doctor in a televisit said she thought it was COVID. It fits the symptoms list perfectly. Fortunately, so far, there are no breathing issues. But you may take my word for it – this virus is mean as a junk yard dog. Everything bad you’ve heard about it is true.

Anyway, my own vulnerability has led my wife to vehemently object to my leaving the apartment. Since she became ill six days ago, I have left only twice to pick up food deliveries and packages at the concierge desk and that was over her protest. When she started to need some things we had consumed, like ginger ale, I found that it is impossible to order online at CVS for delivery of items sold “only in store.” We then recalled that a few people in our building (700 apartments in two towers) have volunteered through the resident portal to help people like us. One of them was recent. I found her message and we began to communicate.

Skipping some of the details, she instantly agrees to trek to the CVS around the corner to buy whatever we need. Faced with imminent store closure (it’s Saturday night at 8 pm and the normal “open 24 hours” has apparently been suspended), she makes them stay open until she gets everything we asked for and delivers it to our door. She exhibits no impatience whatsoever as we text back and forth about the options/brands, etc. She wants us to have exactly what we want, not just what is convenient for her to grab and go. I am a bit overwhelmed.

This leads to a second trip the next day when we discover other needs. She texts me from the store to recommend an over-the-counter medication that may help my wife’s nausea (it did) after consulting with the pharmacist about it. She sends photos of various options so I can choose specifically what she should buy.

She patiently helps me struggle to reimburse her through her website (standby re that), but refuses to accept anything beyond the actual cost of the purchases. She says: “no way I’m taking anything other than exact amount.  Grandpa, who stormed the front in Battle of Bulge, would be horrified and embarrassed if I were to dishonor family name during time of national crisis.”

Now, I know I’ve encountered someone very special. An angel in human disguise. In New York City. We exchange a bunch more emails and texts after I check out her website where she manages, as a hobby, a meditation/mindfulness training program for working people. My wife in particular is interested in this for her post-recovery work life. It turns out this new friend-by-text and I are both alums of Yale University (me, Yale College, she the Law School) and Harvard (me the law school, she the Business School). To respect her privacy, I will not identify her by name. Her resume is intimidating. I joke that I and members of my class often observe that we probably couldn’t get into Yale now and her background shows why. She finds this amusing. She has a sense of humor and an infectious positive attitude toward life. [Is it a pun to refer to “infectious positive attitude” during a pandemic?]

I explain that since there is an immutable rule of life that no good deed goes unpunished, there will be two consequences to her work as Good Samaritan for us: one is that my wife must make dinner for her when the lockdown ends and life returns to some semblance of normality. The other is that I will write about her in this blog.

This is a story that must be told and included in my tales of life in New York City. She demurs on the blog but we agree she will bring dessert of her choice to the dinner. She sends me a remarkable photo of a multi-color dessert cake she had baked and says, “be afraid.” Date to be determined but I am optimistic we will make this happen.

And, for sure, my wife and I will be made better by having known this generous, ebullient, kind-hearted person, an unexpected benefit from the pandemic. As I conclude this post at 7 pm, I hear the New Yorkers that have balconies applauding, banging pots and cheering for that other group of angels working in the Emergency Rooms and ICUs around the city. This happens every day and apparently has started a national “movement,” as well it should. Giants and angels come in all sizes and in many disguises. If you’re lucky enough, an angel will find you too. I hope so.

Twilight Time?

It is a desultory day in Washington, overcast and gray, with predictions of potentially catastrophic storms, flash floods and tornados, almost none of which are likely to happen. They are predicted every time a “storm” passes through. We persist. But the weather threatens to postpone the baseball game on which I have been counting to distract from all the other negatives – being alone on Saturday night, the air outside so heavy that it is hard to breathe (earlier the heat index was 111, now a refreshing 92), Chinese leftovers from last night for dinner (wasn’t great then, likely less so now), and so on.

And then there is the blow to my already dwindling hopes for our country. No doubt I am under the stultifying influence of having, foolishly I admit, undertaken to argue with a bunch of “business people” on LinkedIn, which has, sadly, become yet another forum for right-wing hysteria. At times the people involved have been vicious, but what is most dispiriting is that they, as classical Trump acolytes, simply cannot accept what I believe to be reality. One example: they reject the reality of the January 6 assault on the Capitol. One of them flat-out called it “all lies.” The videos are just “fake news” to them, further evidence that the “left” has stolen from them their rightful leader whom some still appear to believe will be “restored” in August. They think the violence following George Floyd’s murder is no different than the insurrection at the Capitol.

I have been seeking to understand that type of thinking for some time. For a while I was impressed by George Lakoff’s Moral Politics, that argues the core issue is different understandings of proper family life and hierarchies of morality and social order. And there are others that, at one time or another, seemed to be on to something.

Then, today, I finished Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy, subtitled The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. I didn’t much care for most of it; too much personal style and mostly about Europe, Poland in particular, but … near the end, I am afraid to think she nailed it. The book mainly lays out the ways in which authoritarian ideas emerge and irreparable divisions develop in societies that were seemingly oriented toward, if not in fact, functioning democracies. The stories are compelling if remote from my experience.

But the ultimate conclusion is something else again: it’s as if the explanation was staring us in the face, was so obvious, and the same time so frightening, that we didn’t see it.

Applebaum notes that Trump’s inaugural speech signaled the beginning of the revelation in its early and repeated references to the decline of America and its values, what he called the “American carnage.” He posited a state of fundamental conflict between the government and the people, and between the United States and the rest of the world. Trump’s solution: “America First.”

Applebaum tellingly analyzes Trump:

To the millenarianism of the far right and the revolutionary nihilism of the far left he adds the deep cynicism of someone who has spent years running unsavory business schemes around the world. Trump has no knowledge of the American story and so cannot have any faith in it. He has no understanding of or sympathy for the language of the founders, so he cannot be inspired by it. Since he doesn’t believe American democracy is good, he has no interest in an America that aspires to be a model among nations.  [Twilight at 154]

Applebaum then observes that Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric translates directly to a form of moral equivalence. The essence of that equivalence is that all countries, certainly all governments, are corrupt in equal measure. If all are corrupt, then “whatever it takes to win is okay.” [Twilight at 155] This, she notes,

is the argument that anti-American extremists, the groups on the far-right and far-left fringes of society, have always made. American ideals are false, American institutions are fraudulent, American behavior abroad is evil, and the language of the American project – equality, opportunity, justice – is nothing but empty slogans. The real reality, in this conspiratorial view, is that of secretive businessmen, or perhaps “deep state” bureaucrats, who manipulate the voters into going along with their plans, using the cheesy language of Thomas Jefferson as a cover story. Whatever it takes to overthrow these evil schemers is justified….

This form of moral equivalence – the belief that democracy is no different, at base, from autocracy – is a familiar argument, and one long used by authoritarians….

… this is what Trump has proven: beneath the surface of the American consensus, the belief in our founding fathers and the faith in our ideals, there lies another America, Trump’s America – one that sees no important distinction between democracy and dictatorship. This America feels no attachment to other democracies … The unity of this America is created by white skin, a certain idea of Christianity, and an attachment to land that will be surrounded and defended by a wall. This America’s ethnic nationalism resembles the old-fashioned ethnic nationalism of older European nations. This America’s cultural despair resembles their cultural despair. [Twilight at 155-158]

This explanation flies in the face of much of the rhetoric of the Republican Party, including Trump’s most ardent acolytes who speak passionately, but falsely, after freedom and “the American way of life.” The relentless drumbeat of USA, USA and the flags and all the rest obscure the real message.

Applebaum’s book has many other insights to commend it for reading by anyone interested in the question whether we are in the twilight of democracy, but for me, she has encapsulated in the above quotes the true explanation of the Trump phenomenon. It comes down to the simple proposition that Trump and those who support him do not believe in the democratic principles on which the country was founded.

Some time back I had speculated that Trump’s election in 2016 led him to believe that he had somehow been granted ownership of the country, that he was owner and CEO of the United States vested, as he saw it, with unlimited power (“I can do whatever I want”). He is another dictator in the making, another Viktor Orbán (Hungary), another Vladimir Putin wannabe. Those men aren’t interested in democracy – they just want to rule. That is Trump as well, and the Republican Party now belongs to him, just as Don Jr. proclaimed a while back.

These people do not recognize the fundamental legitimacy of the legal and traditional arrangements that have been the foundation for our democracy since the Constitution was ratified. Think back to Trump’s statements and behavior. Trump does not believe in democracy. That is why Trump saw no real problem in proclaiming, against all the evidence, that the election was stolen and why he saw no problem in directing a mob of true believers to attack the Capitol on January 6.

This is not about policy disputes over immigration policy or tax philosophy or deficit spending. It is about the essential principles that must be respected if a democratic republic is to function. Thinking of this as just another, though perhaps more serious, dispute about political philosophy, fatally overlooks the reality that the Republican Party no longer operates under the rules and principles of a free democracy.

Democratic politicians who think that Trump is just a temporary phenomenon who can be dealt with by traditional political means are making a potentially fatal mistake. The danger of further attacks on the national government is very real. All elements of the government, including particularly law enforcement and the military, must be prepared to respond as necessary to put down any such assaults. The next time must be the last or surely we will lose our republic, just as Ben Franklin warned. It is past time for the government to demand accountability for the many crimes committed by Trump and his henchmen while in office. This is necessary to make clear that there will be no repeat.

 

“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.

*********

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

What Do You Call a Collection of Traitors & Cowards?

There is a gaggle of geese (also a press gaggle and, generically, any group)… a coven of witches, pride of lions (definitely not lions), herd of giraffes (also cattle) … getting warmer.

Not that important, I suppose, to have a name for the mob of people who attacked the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in an attempt to stop the election of Joe Biden and replace him with the dictator Donald Trump. I was inspired to think about this when I found this site https://bit.ly/3xRc2QA which the FBI’s display of 1,175 photos of people they are still seeking to arrest for their role in the January 6 insurrection (a very few since arrested). The list bears this note:

If you have any information on the individuals pictured above, please call 1-800-CALL-FBI or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov. Please reference the photo number, including the AFO or AOM if applicable, when calling or submitting information online.

Aside from the outrageous nature of the attack itself, the shocking thing about these photos is that many of them are very clear, full face shots that could be identified readily by any number of friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers or customers. Still, however, these people are at large. I’m sure most people who read this blog will not know any of these charmers, but just in case, I am writing this post in the hope that readers will review the photos and report anyone they know.

I understand the idea that “ratting out” someone is frowned upon, even by upstanding people of strong religious and patriotic values. But these people were trying to overthrow the democracy on which your freedoms depend. Don’t think for a moment that if they had succeeded in installing Trump for a second term, despite his election loss, everything would just have continued as before. Recall that Trump himself spoke on multiple occasions about a third term, to rousing applause from his rally acolytes. It was no joke then and certainly no joke after January 6. So, please review the photos and see if you recognize anyone. If you do, report them to the FBI.

And don’t miss the list of arrest announcements at the bottom of the pages of photos. Each is linked to a press release with details of the person’s involvement in the January 6 attack. Makes interesting reading.

While I’m on this subject, I want to make a few comments about some of the “defenses” that I have heard made by January 6 defendants who have been arrested.

One is the “pure of heart” defense, which goes something like, “I was there because I truly believed what Trump had said and I thought I was patriotically defending my country…blah, blah.” Nonsense, you don’t get passing grades in school even if you convince yourself that Martians ate your homework. Belief is a choice you make and every person who claims they believed Trump had access to information that would have shown he was lying about the election. No defense.

Then there is the “I didn’t know it was illegal” defense, based on the idea that the Capitol is a “public building” and therefore the public has the right to go there any time and under any circumstances the public chooses. No, actually, untrue and any person with a functioning mind would know, from personal experience and casual observation, that “public” buildings are normally guarded now-a-days and access is strictly controlled. Moreover, and it pains me to have to add this, there were Capitol police on site who were obviously indicating that access to the building was not open, and no normal person would think it’s just fine to ignore their presence and their resistance to entry.

Finally, there is the “I just got caught up in the crowd” argument. Well, that could possibly be true for a few of the people who walked to the Capitol from Trump’s incendiary speech, but … once there, it should have been clear, again to anyone with a functioning mind, that the crowd had turned into a violent mob and that it was better to skedaddle than to just go along to get along. This “defense” is nonsense and, in my view, even if factually accurate in a handful of cases, it is no excuse. It reads a lot like “yeah, I knew my friends were going to rob the store, but I drove the get-away car anyway because, you know, they were my friends.”

Rant over. Please look at the FBI photos and see your fellow Americans at play. If you recognize anyone, turn him/her in to the FBI. You will feel better for it.

 

A Darkness in the Heart

A few days ago, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, releaseddocuments showing ex-President Trump’s efforts to pressure the Department of Justice (DOJ) to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.  https://bit.ly/35wq4uL Maloney’s release says, in part,

These documents show that President Trump tried to corrupt our nation’s chief law enforcement agency in a brazen attempt to overturn an election that he lost. Those who aided or witnessed President Trump’s unlawful actions must answer the committee’s questions about this attempted subversion of democracy.

This is not really new. Recall that on May 3, 2017, more than four long long years ago, I published, https://bit.ly/3vObOrS that included a 24-item list of indictable/impeachable offenses by Donald Trump. That was long before the March 2019 Mueller Report, laying out conclusive evidence of at least ten instances in which Trump obstructed justice. And longer still before the July 2019 phone call in which Trump threatened the President of Ukraine that he would withhold Congressionally-approved aid if Ukraine did not announce an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden. See https://bit.ly/3vBQ7LF It was even longer before the January 6, 2021 Trump-inspired and Trump-led (“I will be there with you.”) attack on the Capitol, for which I recommended that Trump be indicted, arrested and charged with Sedition & Felony Murder. https://bit.ly/3q7iaSb

Thus, it comes as no surprise that unleashed Trump has once again committed multiple crimes. [An aside: this is not an exaggeration. I will soon be reviewing the extraordinary memoir, Where Law Ends, by Andrew Weissmann, the inside account of the Mueller investigation that reveals in horrifying detail the determination of Donald Trump to retain power and remain unaccountable to the people, including multiple crimes in office]

In a nutshell, as exposed in the released documents, here is how Trump attempted to subvert the Department of Justice in the wake of his 2020 election defeat [full details here; https://bit.ly/35wq4uL]:

Trump Sent Bogus Election Fraud Claims to Top DOJ Officials Minutes Before Announcing Their Promotions to the Top Two Spots in the Department

Trump Used Official White House Channels and a Private Attorney to Pressure DOJ to Urgently File a Supreme Court Lawsuit to Nullify the Election

      • The draft 54-page complaint demanded that the Supreme Court “declare that the Electoral College votes cast” in six states that President Trump lost “cannot be counted,” and  requested that the Court order a “special election” for president in those states.

Trump Enlisted Assistant AG Jeffrey Clark in an Attempt to Advance Election Fraud Claims; The White House Chief of Staff Pressured DOJ to Investigate Conspiracy Theories At Least Fives Times

 Examples [“Rosen” refers to then Deputy AG Jeffrey Rosen]:

      • On December 30, 2020, Mr. Meadows forwarded Mr. Rosen an email from Cleta Mitchell, a Trump advisor who later participated in a January phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.  During that call,  President Trump reportedly asked Georgia election officials to “find” enough votes to declare him the winner of the state.  The December 30 email contained allegations of “video issues in Fulton County.”  Mr. Meadows wrote to Mr. Rosen:  “Can you have your team look into these allegations of wrongdoing.  Only the alleged fraudulent activity.”
      • Later on December 30, 2020, Mr. Meadows emailed Mr. Rosen a translation of a document from an individual in Italy claiming to have “direct knowledge” of a plot by which American electoral data was changed in Italian facilities “in coordination with senior US intelligence officials (CIA)” and loaded onto “military satellites.”  This individual claimed that the true data, as well as sources within the conservative wing of the Italian secret service, confirmed that Donald Trump was “clearly the winner” of the 2020 election.

Further nuances and details about these sorry episodes were reported in the Washington Post. https://wapo.st/3q4tP49 One element of that recital is the repetition of “no comment” and no response to inquiries from the press about the narrated events. Even those Justice Department officials who were steadfast in declining Trump’s overtures to overturn the election are apparently unwilling to address the revelations in the emails released by the Oversight Committee. And, quite expectedly, Mark Meadows and Trump himself had nothing further to say regarding their blatant attempts to overturn the election.

 What Should Happen Now

Trump and all of the people involved in attempts to suborn the Department of Justice should be indicted under 18 USC § 371,arrested and tried. It’s past time to put a stop to Trump’s campaign to undermine the central fabric of our democracy.

The US Criminal Code, 18 U.S.C. § 371, if violated when two or more persons conspire either to (a) commit any offense against the United States, or (b) defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose. Both offenses require the traditional elements of conspiracy: an illegal agreement, criminal intent, and proof of an overt act.

In Hass v. Henkel, 216 U.S. 462 (1910) the Supreme Court stated:

The statute is broad enough in its terms to include any conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing or defeating the lawful function of any department of government . . . (A)ny conspiracy which is calculated to obstruct or impair its efficiency and destroy the value of its operation and reports as fair, impartial and reasonably accurate, would be to defraud the United States by depriving it of its lawful right and duty of promulgating or diffusing the information so officially acquired in the way and at the time required by law or departmental regulation.

In Hammerschmidt v. United States, 265 U.S. 182 (1924), the Court elaborated:

To conspire to defraud the United States … also means to interfere with or obstruct one of its lawful governmental functions by deceit, craft or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest. It is not necessary that the Government shall be subjected to property or pecuniary loss by the fraud, but only that its legitimate official action and purpose shall be defeated by misrepresentation, chicane or the overreaching of those charged with carrying out the governmental intention.

A multitude of later cases confirm the ongoing vitality of those early definitions.

Proof of conspiracy requires knowledge by the perpetrators that the statements were false. The claims made by Trump, Meadows and others acting on Trump’s behalf were not just obviously false but bordered on hallucinatory. Trump’s repeated claims that there was “no way” he lost Georgia, for example, have no plausible factual predicate and after sixty lawsuit failures, no plausible factual basis has been presented. Trump’s claims were a blatant attempt to both “interfere or obstruct legitimate Government activity” and/or to “make wrongful use of a governmental instrumentality.”

The Manual of Model Criminal Jury Instructions: 8. Offenses Under Title 18, referring to 18 USC § 371,  states,

A conspiracy is a kind of criminal partnership—an agreement of two or more persons to commit one or more crimes. The crime of conspiracy is the agreement to do something unlawful; it does not matter whether the crime agreed upon was committed….

One becomes a member of a conspiracy by willfully participating in the unlawful plan with the intent to advance or further some object or purpose of the conspiracy, even though the person does not have full knowledge of all the details of the conspiracy. Furthermore, one who willfully joins an existing conspiracy is as responsible for it as the originators.…

An overt act does not itself have to be unlawful. A lawful act may be an element of a conspiracy if it was done for the purpose of carrying out the conspiracy. The government is not required to prove that the defendant personally did one of the overt acts.

A conspirator may not defend on the basis that he believed in fantasies when he made claims he knew were unjustified. In this case Trump and his henchmen tried to enlist the personnel and resources of the nation’s top law enforcement agency to accomplish what they failed to accomplish in the election, knowing to a moral certainty that their claims lacked a basis in reality. The conduct in question occurred almost two months after the election and after numerous lawsuits throughout the country failed to persuade a single judge (including some Trump himself appointed) that there was any basis for claims of election fraud that could change the result. Even Trump’s Attorney General Barr publicly rejected the fraud claims.

I am not alone in advocating strong and prompt action to stop Trump’s continuing effort to overturn the election . Jennifer Rubin suggested the following in the Washington Post on [https://wapo.st/3wz0sJM]:

    1.  criminal investigation into post-election actions in which officials were pressured to change election outcomes, including attempts at DOJ and at state officials such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger,
    2. create strict guidelines for Justice Department attorneys regarding efforts to undo lawful elections, including whistleblower protections and mandatory duty to report such actions to Congress,
    3. sue to stop the bogus so-called “audits” in Arizona and elsewhere,
    4. develop federal legislation to strengthen the Electoral Count Act, such as requiring a supermajority to challenge electoral votes.

Rubin’s final recommendation is probably the most important: establish an election-monitoring program for 2022 and 2024 that will assign Justice personnel to prevent voter intimidation, measure wait times, observe election counting, receive complaints and, ultimately, render a report on the functioning of elections in all 50 states.  That’s the most critical because Republicans throughout the country are legislating changes in local election procedures to enable Republican-controlled legislatures and political appointees to control and even overturn election results.

Following Republicans’ uniform refusal to hold Trump accountable for any of his many crimes in office, it is now clear that the fate of the nation’s election system is under systemic attack. It is no exaggeration to say that Republicans are prepared, without compunction, to adopt totalitarian tactics to establish themselves as the permanent ruling party in American politics. They seem to believe that the majority of Americans will accept such actions in peaceful submission. That, I believe, is a fundamental misjudgment, the consequences of which are unimaginably horrible. Among many other things, the United States is no longer separated from its enemies by oceans that take weeks or months to cross. A violent civil conflict would expose the country to attacks from which it could never recover.

In any case, there is no reason to sit idly by while the Republicans attempt in plain view to subvert the Constitution and establish a Republican dictatorship under Donald Trump. Aggressive and immediate actions can prevent the unthinkable and avert more drastic measures later. Trump and his co-conspirators should be indicted forthwith. Time and opportunity are wasting.

DOJ Defends Trump’s Defamation of Jean Carroll

The Twitterverse is aflame with indignation at the news that the Department of Justice has filed a brief in the case of E. Jean Carroll v Donald J. Trump “in his personal capacity.” DOJ’s brief argues that, based on federal statutory law and multiple court precedents, Trump’s statements that Carroll was lying when she claimed he raped her, while offensive and potentially defamatory, were “within the scope of his employment as President” and thus the United States of America in its sovereign capacity may, indeed must, replace Trump as defendant and Trump’s attorneys as his representatives in the litigation.

This was a genuinely shocking development, especially considering that neither Trump nor any of his co-conspirators have been brought to justice in any way in connection with the January 6 assault on the Capitol that he inspired and directed, nor for any of the acts of obstruction of justice that were described in detail in the Mueller Report. While it’s obviously true that many of the mob that attacked the Capitol have been arrested and charged with various offenses, and others are being hunted as we write, the suspicion is that there were many senior Trump aides, likely including some members of Congress, who were guilty of conspiring to cause the insurrection/sedition of January 6. Many people around the country are outraged that the DOJ would undertake to defend Trump in the Carroll defamation case.

I am among those outraged Americans. At the same time, I am, or was, a licensed attorney and, therefore, had to take the time to read the cases cited by DOJ to try to understand the legal basis for its stunning decision to take over Trump’s defense. I have completed my review of DOJ’s brief and the cases cited and will now set out my views about them.

Preliminary Statement

The position outlined by DOJ amounts to a per se position. That is to say, given DOJ’s articulation of its theory of the case, it is almost impossible to think of a situation in which a sitting president, accused of defamation, responds with, we’ll assume, outright lies constituting blatant overt defamation of the accuser and such responses would not be determined to be within the scope of the president’s employment by the federal government.

I will try to explain why this is wrong. Considerable simplification is necessary. You can read DOJ’s brief in full here: https://bit.ly/3g2Vfnr

Background to DOJ’s Analysis

Under the  federal statute known as the Westfall Act [technically, the Federal Employees Liability Reform and Tort Compensation Act of 1988] bars tort claims against government employees acting within the scope of their employment. Instead, such claims must be brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act, but the catch is that unless the government consents to be sued, defamation cases are barred and, in effect, even though the plaintiff may have been defamed, there is no legal remedy. The District Court succinctly explained it this way:

the FTCA specifically excepts libel and slander cases from the United States’s consent to be sued. Thus, if this really is a suit against the United States, it is one to which the United States seemingly has not waived its sovereign immunity.

As the District Court also noted in the Carroll case,

Because the Westfall Act operates where a lawsuit could have been brought against the United States under the FTCA, the statutes share the same threshold requirements. Thus, in order for the Westfall Act to apply, the defendant must be an “employee of the Government” who was acting within the scope of his or her employment.

Because the goal of all this is to protect federal employees who are claimed to have committed torts  (civil wrongs, such as libel) from having to defend suits when the employees were acting with the scope of their employment, the Attorney General may certify that challenged conduct was indeed within the scope of employment and, therefore, the United States becomes the defendant in lieu of the employee originally sued and the DOJ takes over the defense.

Certifications can be challenged, however, and that is what has happened in the Carroll case. Under the Westfall Act, the question of “scope of employment” is decided according to the law of the state with the closest connection to the events in question.

You can read the District Court opinion here: https://bit.ly/3cs3Huw

Facts in the Carroll case

Carroll claimed in a book that was reported in New York Magazine that Donald Trump raped her in a department store in the mid-1990s. About two hours after the magazine published, Trump, on his own initiative, issued a statement denying that he knew Carroll, asserting that the report was false and designed to sell books. Shortly thereafter, in response to a press inquiry and in an interview, Trump expounded at length on his position that Carroll had fabricated the entire story.

Carroll sued Trump in New York state court, claiming defamation. After ten months of litigation, DOJ decided to step in, removed the case to federal court and certified the scope of employment necessary to invoke the Westfall Act.

DOJ’s Argument

To some degree, DOJ’s framing of the issues stacks the deck in its favor. That is what litigants do when they file briefs arguing for their preferred outcome. We should not, therefore, be shocked that DOJ did that here. There are, however, fair questions to be raised about the approach DOJ took in its analysis of the legal issues.

I will not discuss the threshold question whether the President of the United States is a “employee of the federal government.” Carroll argued the negative; DOJ strongly disagreed and, I believe, has the better argument on that question. A large part of its brief was devoted to that issue.

The critical issue remains whether Trump’s unilateral declaration that Carroll was lying about the alleged rape was within the scope of Trump’s employment as president.

DOJ describes the key question as “whether a high-ranking elected official subject to close public scrutiny acts within the scope of employment when making public statements denying and responding to serious accusations.” And,

The FTCA and Westfall Act, and the common law tort principles that they incorporate, recognize that in some instances employees will commit torts—including intentional torts—for which the employer bears responsibility, even when the employer disapproves of or expressly forbids the tortious conduct. Conduct that falls within the scope of employment for purposes of the Westfall Act thus need not be authorized or acceptable. Indeed, the premise of a scope-of-employment analysis is that a tort may have been committed. Under the Westfall Act, even conduct involving “serious criminality,” … or which runs “contrary to the national security of the United States,” … may fall within the scope of employment. In making and defending a Westfall Act certification, therefore, the Department of Justice is not endorsing the allegedly tortious conduct or representing that it actually furthered the interests of the United States….[case cites omitted]

… the question in a Westfall Act case is whether the general type of conduct at issue comes within the scope of employment. Speaking to the public and the press on matters of public concern is undoubtedly part of an elected official’s job.

Stated differently,

The key inquiry is whether the conduct at issue is of the type an official generally performs, rather than whether the particular allegedly tortious act was improper.

And,

in undertaking a scope-of-employment inquiry, a court must look to “the type of act” the defendant took, rather than its “wrongful character.”

And,

What matters is whether the underlying activity itself was part of the employee’s duties.

DOJ then makes the great leap, sliding past the fact, not disputed to my knowledge, that Trump initiated his public attack on Carroll in the first instance. It was not in response to media inquiries but occurred almost immediately after the New York Magazine publication of her book excerpt. That is why I put bold-face type on that fact earlier. DOJ:

When members of the White House media asked then-President Trump to respond to Ms. Carroll’s serious allegations of wrongdoing, their questions were posed to him in his capacity as President. Likewise, when Mr. Trump responded to those questions with denials of wrongdoing made through the White House press office or in statements to reporters in the Oval Office and on the White House lawn, he acted within the scope of his office.

This is critically important because the cases cited by DOJ are all distinguishable from the Carroll situation. In the opinion in Council on American Islamic Relations v Ballenger (444 F3d 659), on which DOJ heavily relies, the Congressman’s comments about CAIR were made in the context of an explanation why the Congressman’s marriage was dissolving currently which was a matter bearing on his ongoing conduct while in office. Trump’s comments, initially given of his own volition and not in response to media questions, were about events that happened more than two decades ago.

In Does 1-10 v Haaland (973 F3d 591) the statements made by the Congressman were “intended to convey the politicians’ views on matters of public interest to their constituents,” namely an incident at Lincoln Memorial between students and a Native American veteran. Clearly that is not what the Trump-Carroll dispute involves.

In Operation Rescue National v. U.S. (975 F. Supp. 92), “Senator Kennedy said, in part, that the proposed legislation was needed because “we have a national organization like Operation Rescue has as a matter of national policy firebombing and even murder …” The District Court found that that Kennedy’s comments were within the scope of employment because,

Senator Kennedy was providing political leadership and a basis for voters to judge his performance in office—two activities that public officials are expected, and should be encouraged, to perform,”…. In this sense, the Senator’s employer was his constituents and he served them by fully informing them of his views and working to pass legislation he believed would benefit them.. [italics added]

The Operation Rescue analysis is particularly interesting. The court flipped the employment relationship to one in which Kennedy was working for his constituents. If so, the “scope of employment” analysis that would substitute the United States for Kennedy should have failed.

The bottom line is that the DOJ analysis leading to its decision to replace Trump with the United States government is pedestrian. It fails to account for important differences in the Trump case from the precedents cited. And, worse, it creates a nearly per se rule that immunizes all future presidents from slanderous/defamatory statements about disputed matters without regard to the time when those events occurred. DOJ’s analysis is a license for a sitting president to defame people he may have harmed long before taking office. Trump accused Carroll of lying on three separate occasions at least. Under DOJ’s interpretation of the Westfall Act, he could have spent hours more on national television at his rallies and in other public statements attacking her credibility and, after all that abuse, she would have no effective remedy. The United States has not waived sovereign immunity for defamation and there is nothing to suggest that it intends to do so in the future.

Admittedly, the case law opens the door to this approach, but DOJ did not have to walk through it. Given Trump’s history of grifting at the expense of the government, and thus of taxpayers, it is painful to see the Department of Justice bend over backwards to continue putting resources at his disposal while giving him, and future presidents, an essentially free hand.

The legal precedents that make this possible should be closely re-examined. The Westfall Act should be amended to put at least some fences around permissible expression by a sitting president who already has enormous advantages in the fight for public opinion. What happened to Ms. Carroll, regardless of the truth of the underlying allegations, should not be repeated. Republicans would, no doubt, oppose any legislation that might prevent Trump from doing what he does. The only hope for rectifying this miscarriage of justice is to replace more Republicans with Democrats in Congress.