Tag Archives: Ukraine

Whistling by the Graveyard

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

The piece opens with this:

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

The result is a president at war with the law.

Further, and presciently,

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

The comment ends with this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Along to Get Along

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do they risk everything for this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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