Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Real Threat

Hillary Clinton in the Washington Post:

Our election was corrupted, our democracy assaulted, our sovereignty and security violated. This is the definitive conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report. It documents a serious crime against the American people.

The debate about how to respond to Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” attack — and how to hold President Trump accountable for obstructing the investigation and possibly breaking the law — has been reduced to a false choice: immediate impeachment or nothing. History suggests there’s a better way to think about the choices ahead.

Obviously, this is personal for me, and some may say I’m not the right messenger. But my perspective is not just that of a former candidate and target of the Russian plot. I am also a former senator and secretary of state who served during much of Vladi­mir Putin’s ascent, sat across the table from him and knows firsthand that he seeks to weaken our country.

I am also someone who, by a strange twist of fate, was a young staff attorney on the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate impeachment inquiry in 1974, as well as first lady during the impeachment process that began in 1998. And I was a senator for New York after 9/11, when Congress had to respond to an attack on our country. Each of these experiences offers important lessons for how we should proceed today.

First, like in any time our nation is threatened, we have to remember that this is bigger than politics. What our country needs now is clear-eyed patriotism, not reflexive partisanship. Whether they like it or not, Republicans in Congress share the constitutional responsibility to protect the country. Mueller’s report leaves many unanswered questions — in part because of Attorney General William P. Barr’s redactions and obfuscations. But it is a road map. It’s up to members of both parties to see where that road map leads — to the eventual filing of articles of impeachment, or not. Either way, the nation’s interests will be best served by putting party and political considerations aside and being deliberate, fair and fearless.

The Republicans, of course, will not listen to this.  All they will say is that she’s a sore loser and E-MAILS!  But what is so striking is that they and a lot of other people were willing — and still are — to take Trump’s word that the Russians did nothing to interfere with the election of 2016 and are just as likely to do the same next year.  Oh, but our real national security is threatened by refugees from Central America who are begging, with their last dime, for asylum.  But the systematic corruption of our electoral system?  Nah.

We have to get this right. The Mueller report isn’t just a reckoning about our recent history; it’s also a warning about the future. Unless checked, the Russians will interfere again in 2020, and possibly other adversaries, such as China or North Korea, will as well. This is an urgent threat. Nobody but Americans should be able to decide America’s future. And, unless he’s held accountable, the president may show even more disregard for the laws of the land and the obligations of his office. He will likely redouble his efforts to advance Putin’s agenda, including rolling back sanctions, weakening NATO and undermining the European Union.

Of all the lessons from our history, the one that’s most important may be that each of us has a vital role to play as citizens. A crime was committed against all Americans, and all Americans should demand action and accountability. Our founders envisioned the danger we face today and designed a system to meet it. Now it’s up to us to prove the wisdom of our Constitution, the resilience of our democracy and the strength of our nation.

The very fact that Trump and his toadies are saying “Move along, folks, nothing to see here,” is reason enough to hold hearings and get to the truth.  It may lead to impeachment; it may not.  But to sit back and do nothing is exactly what the Russians are expecting us to do.  They know we’re too easily distracted by trivial bullshit and shiny objects; while the country is obsessed with the latest Kardashian sighing, they’re robbing us and getting away with it.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sunday Reading

Be Grateful — Kori Schake in The Atlantic.

Passover and Easter are religious holidays of gratitude—gratitude for the release of the Jewish people from Egypt, gratitude by Christians for the sacrifice of Jesus in redemption for humanity’s sins. The Trump administration may have cynically calculated that releasing the Mueller report on the eve of a double holiday might dampen interest, but the timing seems oddly fitting, because the special counsel’s findings provide so much to be grateful for.

Undoubtedly, the special counsel’s report on the 2016 election makes for grim reading. A foreign government conducted a years-long campaign to undermine American democracy. It used the openness of our society and the technologies of our creation against us. Russia crafted “a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States,” paired with criminal acts designed to assist the election of Trump. And they succeeded.

The Russian influence operation should be taught in graduate schools of political science and journalism—and in intelligence training programs. Operatives began in mid-2014 to identify social fissures and build a wide following. They passed as American citizens and organizations while assisting candidates Trump and Bernie Sanders. They shifted as the presidential race narrowed to “a targeted operation that by early 2016 favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton.” They orchestrated not just internet activities but also acts in the physical world, including rallies. They intruded into the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to steal hundreds of thousands of documents, made those documents public via third parties thought to be independent of the Russian government (including WikiLeaks), attempted (in some cases successfully) to access voting machines in 21 U.S. states, and surreptitiously purchased political advertising to affect voting in swing states. The former FBI agent Clint Watts has argued that even shielding Trump from direct contact was by design, because the “standard Russian approach would have been to influence Mr. Trump through surrogates like Mr. Gates and Paul Manafort rather than through direct command.”

Nevertheless, let us be grateful that our worst suspicions were not substantiated: The president of the United States is not a traitor. A liar, a petty and ineffectual chief executive who repeatedly attempted to get others to commit illegal acts and suborn themselves for his protection—those qualities the Mueller investigation proved. But not a traitor. The Mueller investigation unearthed no evidence that the president is in the employ of a hostile foreign power or actively cooperating with a hostile foreign power to harm our country. That it even had to be proved is shocking, but it is nonetheless a relief to know that Trump is not a Manchurian candidate.

The rule of law is being upheld even where politically damaging to the powerful. Special Counsel Robert Mueller determined that Russian activities violated U.S. criminal law and charged those identified with “conspiracy to defraud the United States by undermining through deceptive acts the work of federal agencies charged with regulating foreign influence in U.S. elections, as well as related counts of identity theft.” The investigation concluded that there was no evidence American citizens had conspired or coordinated on those operations, which is also cause for relief (although the report notes a “reasonable argument” that Donald Trump Jr. violated campaign-finance laws).

Another source of relief is the extent to which the agencies of government and civil society worked as intended. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency saw the pattern of interference early and properly reported it to both the executive and legislative branches. They were unwavering in their assessments even when the president attempted to suborn them (the deputy attorney general, the FBI director, the NSA director and deputy director all documented those attempts). The Justice Department initiated investigation and sustained it against blistering pressure. Individual failures abounded, but bureaucracies are designed to buffer against individual failure, and they largely succeeded.

Journalists, too, deserve applause and appreciation. American media reported on all of the key elements in the report before its publication: Instigation of social division, the Trump Tower meeting, Paul Manafort’s decision to share polling data, WikiLeaks’ timed release of hacked emails to blunt the effect of the Access Hollywood tape, Eric Prince’s Seychelles meeting, Michael Flynn’s phone call to Russian Ambassador Kislyak, widespread lying to investigators by Trump associates. The only new element I saw in the Russia volume of the Mueller report was that Jared Kushner had devised a “reconciliation plan” for the U.S. and Russia. Journalists, too, have been under constant derogation by the president, yet have continued to provide the public with accurate information and essential insight into the conduct of administration officials.

Journalists do deserve some condemnation for their unwitting complicity in Russia’s interference campaign. Russian military intelligence rightly assessed that American journalists would be unable to resist the temptation to report on criminally acquired information. All of the major American news outlets regaled readers with stories of hypocrisy and personal quirks (John Podesta’s pasta sauce) that hurt the Democrats. Keeping our government honest requires journalists to receive leaks, and journalism is a business as well as a profession, so they are not to be maligned for writing about what the public will pay to read or watch. But in this new Wild West of cyberespionage, journalists ought to be more introspective about whether to publish stolen information.

I’m also grateful that, through this process, rather unlikely individuals have proved themselves capable of standing on principle. I confess I was surprised by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s starchiness in protecting the investigation, as well as by the number of people who simply disregarded presidential direction they considered illegal or immoral. Obviously it’s not ideal that senior government figures felt they had to ignore the elected chief executive, but even some of the least upright people the president has surrounded himself with, it turns out, have a useful sense of self-preservation, maybe a moral compass. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis got a standing ovation at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner for his integrity; the Mueller report indicates that figures of less obvious rectitude deserve credit for protecting the republic from the president.

Out To Get Them — Satire from Andy Borowitz.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Reacting to the journalist April Ryan’s call for her to be fired, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said, on Friday, that she has been the victim of the media’s “widespread anti-liar bias.”

“From their obsession with fact-checking to their relentless attacks on falsehoods, the media have made no secret of their bias,” Sanders said. “It’s open season on liars in America.”

“This is media hypocrisy at its very worst,” she added. “The same journalists who advocate freedom of speech want to take that freedom away from anyone whose speech consists entirely of lies.”

“This is nothing more or less than a direct attack on the lying life style,” she said. “You take away my right to lie and you take away my ability to earn a living.”

Kellyanne Conway, the White House senior counsellor, spoke out in support of Sanders, telling reporters, “An attack on one liar is an attack on all liars.”

“Our country has seen some dark days, from the Bowling Green Massacre to the bugging of the White House microwave,” she said. “But this might be the darkest.”

Doonesbury — Milestones.

Friday, April 19, 2019

From Here On Out

Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker:

In the most memorable scene in the most anticipated government report in recent history, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, takes us inside the Oval Office on May 17, 2017. President Trump, having fired the F.B.I. director in an apparent effort to shut down the investigation of him and his 2016 campaign, was in the middle of interviewing candidates for the new vacancy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, much to the President’s fury, stepped out of the room to take a phone call. He returned with bad news: his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, had appointed Mueller to be a special counsel and conduct an independent investigation. Russiagate would live on. Trump “slumped” over in his chair, according to the report. “Oh, my God, this is the end of my Presidency,” he said. “I’m fucked.”

For now, at least, it appears that he was wrong. The appointment of Mueller did not lead to the end of Trump’s Presidency. Not yet, and probably not ever. The release of the special counsel’s report, on Thursday, showed that Mueller did not turn up conclusive evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians who interfered in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy. But the report’s belated publication, almost four weeks to the day after Mueller submitted it to Attorney General William Barr, is hardly the “complete and total exoneration” that Trump initially claimed it was and that Barr misleadingly and incompletely portrayed to the country. We knew that wasn’t the case the minute Trump said it.

What we didn’t know until Thursday, when we finally saw the four-hundred-and-forty-eight-page document, is how much evidence Mueller had amassed about the President, panicked and in crisis mode, trying to shut down and block the investigation. The report documents ten different incidents that raise questions about the President’s behavior. Was it obstruction of justice? The Mueller report concluded (albeit in legalistic and unclear language) that that is a matter for Congress to decide. And Congress, as a matter of political calculation and senatorial math, remains unlikely to pursue the question to its bitter end.

Whatever happens, and for however long the Trump regime lasts, be it until 2021 or 2025, it will be scarred, tarred, and broken by the Mueller report, redacted or not, or whether or not it winds up as a series on Netflix.  History will prove that how Trump got to office and how he dealt with the aftereffects will overshadow and skew anything he does, and just as Watergate will forever be the tagline and epitaph for Richard Nixon, not to mention the people who worked with and for him, the story of Russian meddling and how the Trump regime responded to it will be the first line in its obituary.

And it’s all his own doing.  The only reason he’s not under indictment for collusion is that his campaign couldn’t get their act together to do it right.  As for obstruction of justice, it’s certainly not for the lack of trying.

So despite all the crowing and calls to move on from the base and the Wormtongues at Fox, Trump called it: he’s fucked.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Mueller Thursday

So, here we go.

The Justice Department plans to release a lightly redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s 400-page report Thursday, offering a granular look at the ways in which President Trump was suspected of having obstructed justice, people familiar with the matter said.

The report — the general outlines of which the Justice Department has briefed the White House on — will reveal that Mueller decided he could not come to a conclusion on the question of obstruction because it was difficult to determine Trump’s intent and because some of his actions could be interpreted innocently, these people said. But it will offer a detailed blow-by-blow of the president’s alleged conduct — analyzing tweets, private threats and other episodes at the center of Mueller’s inquiry, they added.

Attorney General William P. Barr plans to hold a 9:30 a.m. news conference to address “process questions” and provide an “overview of the report,” a senior Justice Department official said. The report will be delivered on discs to Capitol Hill between 11 a.m. and noon and posted on the special counsel’s website thereafter, the official said.

Thus beginneth the spinning.

Thursday’s rollout plan — and news of the White House’s advance briefing, which was first reported by ABC News and the New York Times — sparked a political firestorm Wednesday, with Democrats suggesting the attorney general was trying to improperly color Mueller’s findings before the public could read them.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at a news conference that Barr “appears to be waging a media campaign on behalf of President Trump” and had “taken unprecedented steps to spin Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation.” He said after his committee had time to review the redacted report, he would ask Mueller and other members of his team to testify before Congress.

And the Republicans, who impeached Bill Clinton for lying about a blowjob from an intern, will suddenly have found that their moral compass now includes giving latitude to working with a foreign hostile power to win an election.  But hey, at least there’s room to think he didn’t mean to.  Which means the excuses you’re going to hear from Fox News and the Trumpistas is that he was too stupid to figure out that he was being played by the Russians and certain members of the campaign staff, none of whom he says he ever laid eyes on.

But you know there has to be some news in the report that casts doubt on the Trump’s motives and his actions.  Otherwise, why would the White House and their cronies be gearing up such an elaborate response effort?

Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers, has said he is preparing a counter-report to Mueller’s findings and in a recent interview said his document would explain from the president’s viewpoint every episode that could be considered obstructive. Giuliani and others have long feared Mueller’s findings on obstruction, viewing them as potentially more damaging than anything found on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians.

Mueller did not find a conspiracy between Russians and Trump or his campaign, Barr said in a brief letter describing the special counsel’s conclusions shared with Congress late last month.

Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s attorneys, told The Post, “We do not discuss conversations that we may or may not have had with the president.” A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to address questions about its briefings to the White House, the report’s redactions or Mueller’s findings on obstruction.

Oh, and speaking of collusion…

Trump had also apparently been briefed in advance of the planned news conference, which he revealed Wednesday during a radio appearance only to have it confirmed later by a Justice Department spokeswoman. Barr will appear alongside Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, the spokeswoman said, and he planned to take questions.

Barr has faced intense scrutiny from the public and lawmakers on Capitol Hill for his handling of Mueller’s report so far. The Thursday news conference could give him an opportunity to address his critics — and perhaps provide them fresh ammunition. It is sure to be watched closely by Trump, an avid TV viewer whose relationship with his attorney general will almost certainly be colored by Mueller’s findings and what Barr says about them.

Since when in the course of jurisprudence and legal ethics has the prosecution worked with the defendant to provide a cover and alibi for the accused?  Maybe that works in a regime where the fix is already a forgone conclusion.  Like in Russia.

Josh Marshall:

The goal here is to max out every avenue to protect the President from the contents of the Report. Bill Barr and his friends at the White House clearly do not care what anyone outside of Trump world thinks at this point. They are not even bothering to keep up appearances at the margins. A good and increasingly relevant question for Bill Barr at this point would be at what point the statutory powers of the Attorney General can amount to obstruction of justice if exercised with corrupt intent.

[…]

Every detail of this has been planned to spin the Report or maximally conceal it in the interests of protecting the President.

None of this is on the level.

Not that it was ever going to be on the level in the first place.

So, brace yourself, kids; it’s going to be a wild ride.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Sunday Reading

Yes, It Matters — Lucas Grindley in The Atlantic on Pete Buttigieg’s sexuality.

Pete Buttigieg plays harmonica, guitar, and piano! He speaks Norwegian! Whoa, he actually speaks eight languages! I heard he even wrestled a bear live on CNN. None of the gee-whiz stories solidifying into the Buttigieg canon make any difference to me in deciding which of the Democratic candidates will get my vote. But as a gay man, I do care that Buttigieg is gay.

In my lifetime, it has been illegal for me to serve in the military, illegal for me to marry, illegal for me to adopt children, and even illegal for me to have sex. Society barred me from the first three; until 2003, the fourth meant risk of a fine or a prison sentence in some states. This discrimination did not just happen in a history book—it happened to me, and it happened to Buttigieg, too.

I am two years older than Buttigieg. We could have grown up with the same cartoons, listened to the same music, felt the same fear when we heard that Matthew Shepard had been murdered. We’ve lived through discrimination, and the fact that laws have changed doesn’t alleviate the trauma of our past. Ask our gay elders whether they’ve recovered from losing their friends and colleagues who died by the tens of thousands during the AIDS crisis. That pain is fresh.

During an interview with an LGBTQ magazine, Buttigieg described himself as “somebody whose marriage exists as a function of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court.” Our position in society is hardly secure. The fight for equality isn’t won. It still matters that I am gay, so it matters to me that Buttigieg is gay.

Today, if Buttigieg or I wish to donate blood, we must abstain from sex for one year, or our blood is deemed unfit for use. Gay people are still classified as so great an HIV risk that it’s easier to reject our blood.

In many states, it remains legal to fire gay people for being gay. And if you’re tired of hearing about that fact, imagine how tired I am of living it. There is no public-accommodations law at the federal level that stops landlords from refusing to rent me an apartment if I show up for the home tour while holding my husband’s hand.

Buttigieg was mayor of South Bend when the Indiana governor signed a law in 2015 allowing businesses to turn away gay customers. That law didn’t stick, but the governor is now our vice president, Mike Pence. He stuck. Forgive me if I like the idea of having someone in the White House who understands what I’ve been through, and who would protect me from the people who would turn me away.

An NBC News poll published in March found that 30 percent of Americans said voting for a gay or lesbian candidate would make them “very uncomfortable” or give them “some reservations.” How polite. That’s the third I worry about whenever I consider kissing my husband goodbye in public.

For the first time in my life, I’m now represented in government by another gay man, Brian Sims, the outspoken Pennsylvania lawmaker who went viral for flipping off Mike Pence. (He represents my corner of Philadelphia in Harrisburg.)

Sims told me that being gay put Buttigieg in “learning situations” that give the candidate “heightened insight into issues far beyond human sexuality.” Sims believes that a “multidimensional identity can help educate, enlighten, and ultimately solve many of our most pressing cultural problems.”

Identity matters. Like most Democrats, I have not yet decided who to vote for in a primary that is still months away. But I believe it matters that Cory Booker is a black man, that Kamala Harris is the daughter of an Indian mom and a Jamaican dad, and that Buttigieg is gay. These facets of their identities mean that they can understand the powerless, as victims of power, and that they can understand the alienated, having been marginalized.

Beyond questions of empathy, Buttigieg being out is germane because he’s a role model to those who want to come out.

Gay men are largely missing from positions of power. An out gay man has never served on the U.S Supreme Court. Not a single out gay man served on the federal bench until President Barack Obama took office. There is not and has never been an out gay man in the U.S. Senate. Buttigieg came out in 2015 on his own terms, but that counts as progress only in an unfair system. Mike Michaud didn’t have that luxury just two years earlier when running for governor of Maine; he faced a whisper campaign.

There is one (and only one) out gay man leading a Fortune 500 company: Tim Cook came out in 2014 after becoming CEO of Apple. I notice that absence and hear it like a whisper that says I don’t belong whenever I’m in a conference room dominated by straight males. I confess there was a time when I monitored the way I sat, my gestures, even whether my voice was loud enough.

“When you are a member of a marginalized or often invisible community, there is something especially powerful about seeing someone like you that isn’t actually you,” said Erin Uritus, the head of Out & Equal, a group for LGBTQ business people, when I asked her about Buttigieg. “When LGBTQ young people wonder what is in store for their future and they can look to Tim Cook or Rachel Maddow or Pete Buttigieg, their entire world opens up.”

Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different had I grown up with a gay role model. “I can’t even begin to quantify the transformative power of visibility in belonging,” Uritus said.

The movement for equal rights has made tremendous strides. But we are not immune from persecution, especially not young people. Researchers at the Williams Institute estimate that 4.5 percent of the American population is LGBTQ. They also estimate that 40 percent of youth in homeless shelters are LGBTQ.

You can be sure that LGBTQ people are paying attention to how society treats Buttigieg as a candidate. The questions on their mind: Is it safe out there? Is this really possible?

“Anytime a member of our community breaks through a barrier, it’s extremely significant,” said Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island when I asked whether it matters that Buttigieg is gay. Cicilline ought to know; he was also the first out mayor of Providence—or any state capital. “For young members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom may be suffering discrimination or bullying or even being ostracized from their own family, seeing a member of our community run for president helps them know it’s going to be okay.”

“As we continue the fight for full LGBTQ equality,” Cicilline said, “Mayor Buttigieg’s candidacy is an important measure of the progress we’ve made.”

As a gay man, I will definitely factor that progress into my vote for president.

The Fix Is In — Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker on William Barr’s choices for the Mueller report.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the intellectual polymath who represented New York in the United States Senate for twenty-four years, developed a well-founded skepticism toward government secrecy. Bureaucrats and others, Moynihan knew, could always conjure reasons to keep information under wraps, and the ratchet of secrecy generally worked in only one direction. Secrets begat more demands for secrecy, at ever greater peril to the public’s right to know what was happening in its name. Secrecy, Moynihan wrote in his 1998 book of that title, thus became “a hidden, humongous, metastasizing mass within government itself.”

That swelling mass may yet envelop the Mueller report. When President Trump nominated William P. Barr to be Attorney General, late last year, it was clear that one of his principal responsibilities would be to determine how much of the forthcoming report from Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel, would be disclosed to the public. At each stage in the process, Barr has narrowed the range of information that he says he will allow the public to see. At his confirmation hearing, in January, he pledged that he would be guided by a commitment to “transparency.” Last month, though, after Barr received Mueller’s four-hundred-or-so-page report about possible ties between President Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian interests, and the President’s attempts to cover them up, the Attorney General, on his own initiative, created a series of roadblocks to public disclosure.

Under the Department of Justice regulation that sets the rules for the release of a Special Counsel’s report, the Attorney General is supposed to consider the “interests of the public in being informed of and understanding the reasons for the actions of the Special Counsel.” But Barr erected a quasi-legal structure that gives him enormous leeway to censor much of the Mueller report. According to a letter he sent to congressional leaders, Barr established four categories that were off limits for public disclosure. They are: “Material subject to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e) that by law cannot be made public”—that is, matters subject to grand-jury secrecy; classified information; matters relating to other pending investigations; and, finally, “information that would unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties.”

The first category, about protecting grand-jury secrecy, sounds straightforward, but it isn’t. The Supreme Court has never precisely defined the scope of Rule 6(e). In its narrowest (and best) interpretation, it means that grand-jury testimony cannot be released to the public. But some courts have suggested that it covers any subject that was discussed in the grand jury—potentially a much broader category. Barr did not disclose what definition he plans to adopt, but a broad conception could keep substantial amounts of Mueller’s report out of public reach. Barr had the option of petitioning the federal district court in Washington, D.C., to relieve him of the demands of grand-jury secrecy. (Such a ruling allowed wide public disclosure of grand-jury matters during Watergate.) But there is no sign that he sought this kind of permission.

The classified-information category is the least controversial. Still, the intelligence agencies are notoriously overzealous in classifying their own information. (This is a major theme of Moynihan’s book.) If Barr were to defer to them on this issue, that act would virtually guarantee widespread deletions in the report.

The third area, concerning information about other investigations, such as those under way in the Southern District of New York, provides another expansive loophole for the Justice Department. Indeed, Mueller himself has already redacted significant amounts of information from his own court filings on this ground. Because prosecutors do not reveal the scope of ongoing investigations, there is essentially no way to check Barr’s work in this category; we will simply have to trust him. This area is a black box—and Barr controls its contents.

The fourth category is an invention on Barr’s part; there is no law or regulation prohibiting disclosures of this kind. Moreover, the words are subject to wide interpretation. What does “unduly” mean in this context? Who is a “peripheral” third party? What counts as an infringement on someone’s reputation? It’s all, apparently, up to Barr. And this category also raises the most provocative question. As is now well known, Justice Department policy prohibits the indictment of a sitting President. Thus, because Mueller cannot indict Trump, the President, by definition, becomes one of those third parties mentioned in the regulation. Considering this scenario, is it possible that Barr could also prohibit disclosure of any information about the President? This would be an outrage, but it’s a potential outcome of Barr’s four-part test.

The Attorney General also reported to Congress what he said were the principal conclusions from Mueller’s report. According to Barr, Mueller found no evidence of criminal collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but he apparently regarded the evidence on obstruction of justice by the President as too ambiguous to make a final call. News reports last week suggested that some members of Mueller’s staff think that Barr slanted the evidence in the report in order to make Trump look good. What is certain is that Barr took Mueller’s equivocating as an invitation to make his own decision to exculpate Trump. The Attorney General had no business volunteering such a judgment about an investigation he did not conduct, but, when it came to obstruction of justice, he could not resist riding a favorite hobbyhorse.

In June of 2018, while he was still a private citizen, Barr, of his own accord, wrote a nineteen-page memo to senior officials of the Justice Department asserting that, in light of the President’s inherent constitutional powers, Trump could not have obstructed justice. This memo probably played no small part in Trump’s decision to choose Barr in the first place. Barr has now turned his outsider’s judgment (which is likely wrong on the merits) into an official vindication of his new boss. In all, Barr has taken every possible step to lessen the sting of the Mueller report—and, so far, to block it from view altogether. Senator Moynihan was educated not only in the halls of academe but in the streets of New York, and he might well have reached an earthy conclusion about this Attorney General and his President: the fix is in.

Doonesbury — Gimme Shelter

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Drip…Drip…

You had to know that this — leaks from the Mueller team — would happen soon enough.  Via the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations.

At stake in the dispute — the first evidence of tension between Mr. Barr and the special counsel’s office — is who shapes the public’s initial understanding of one of the most consequential government investigations in American history. Some members of Mr. Mueller’s team are concerned that, because Mr. Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel’s findings, Americans’ views will have hardened before the investigation’s conclusions become public.

Mr. Barr has said he will move quickly to release the nearly 400-page report but needs time to scrub out confidential information. The special counsel’s investigators had already written multiple summaries of the report, and some team members believe that Mr. Barr should have included more of their material in the four-page letter he wrote on March 24 laying out their main conclusions, according to government officials familiar with the investigation. Mr. Barr only briefly cited the special counsel’s work in his letter.

However, the special counsel’s office never asked Mr. Barr to release the summaries soon after he received the report, a person familiar with the investigation said. And the Justice Department quickly determined that the summaries contain sensitive information, like classified material, secret grand-jury testimony and information related to current federal investigations that must remain confidential, according to two government officials.

Mr. Barr was also wary of departing from Justice Department practice not to disclose derogatory details in closing an investigation, according to two government officials familiar with Mr. Barr’s thinking. They pointed to the decision by James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, to harshly criticize Hillary Clinton in 2016 while announcing that he was recommending no charges in the inquiry into her email practices.

The officials and others interviewed declined to flesh out why some of the special counsel’s investigators viewed their findings as potentially more damaging for the president than Mr. Barr explained, although the report is believed to examine Mr. Trump’s efforts to thwart the investigation. It was unclear how much discussion Mr. Mueller and his investigators had with senior Justice Department officials about how their findings would be made public. It was also unclear how widespread the vexation is among the special counsel team, which included 19 lawyers, about 40 F.B.I. agents and other personnel.

What is very clear is that there’s a lot more to the Mueller report than what the Attorney General summarized in a four-page letter that read like some kid in Grade 6 writing a book report on Treasure Island: “There were no pirates.”

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sunday Reading

It’s Mueller Time — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

Late last year, Vintage Books reissued “Night of Camp David,” a political thriller from 1965 that seemed to rhyme with the strangeness of our era. The novel centers on a Commander-in-Chief named Mark Hollenbach, who is gradually coming unwound. President Hollenbach is in the habit of summoning confidants to his cabin in the Maryland woods, where, at night, he turns off the lights and rants until dawn about the conspirators encircling him. He rails against pernicious legislators, disloyal appointees, and craven reporters. For no coherent reason, he intends to distance the United States from Western European allies and make common cause with a Kremlin leader named Zuchek. He also wants to tap every telephone in the country, declaring, “No respectable citizen would have a thing to fear. It’s the hoodlums, the punks, the syndicate killers, and the dope peddlers we’re after.” Lacking Twitter, he writes deranged letters. One key character is a Supreme Court Justice by the name of Cavanaugh. The marketers at Vintage shrewdly wrapped the reissue in a black-and-white cover emblazoned with a question intended to play upon the country’s collective jitters: “What Would Happen if the President of the U.S.A. Went Stark-Raving Mad?”

The author, Fletcher Knebel, wrote a popular syndicated column in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, called “Potomac Fever,” before turning full time to fiction. “Night of Camp David” was published the same year that Congress passed the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which clarified the procedure for removing a President who is no longer able to carry out his duties. Half a century later, Potomac Fever has reached new heights; for the past two years and two months, it has been hard not to think periodically about that crucial addition to the Constitution.

The Trump Presidency has, from the first, represented a threat to truth, liberal democracy, and the rule of law. Donald Trump’s contempt for basic norms of governance is accompanied by a lack of decency, empathy, and psychological stability. This was never more evident than this week, when Trump, seemingly rattled by the imminence of the Mueller report, set off a fusillade of unhinged tweets, called the spouse of one of his senior advisers a “whack job,” raged about the late Senator John McCain in front of a military audience at a tank plant in Lima, Ohio, and pronounced the Democratic Party “anti-Jewish,” deepening, at every turn, the impression that he is unfit for government work.

The perils of such instability are incalculable. Sidney Karper, the wizened Defense Secretary in “Night of Camp David,” says of Hollenbach, “It is sheer folly to have that man anywhere near the command and control machinery.” In the novel, a self-appointed council of party leaders, Supreme Court Justices, and members of the security establishment secretly deliberates on how to deal with the delusional President, and catastrophe is averted. Hollenbach coöperates in his own removal from office, and, in the end, he is deemed to have “the finest heart in America.”

Current realities offer no such reassurance. Trump has the psyche of an emotionally damaged toddler. You hear this not only from his ideological opponents but from countless departing confidants, lawyers, and advisers. He is devoted not to public service but to feeding the demands of his ego and his appetites.

The pressures on Trump will inevitably increase now that the Mueller report has been delivered to the Attorney General. Meanwhile, a raft of investigators on various congressional committees and in outposts of the Justice Department are accelerating their searches into matters including hush-money payments, money laundering, irregular security clearances, foreign interference in the 2016 election, illegal use of inaugural funds, and improper use of foundation money. And yet it is impossible to imagine Trump changing his behavior. He retains the support of the Republican leadership; the odds of his completing his term are considerable. Trump’s affinity for the autocratic likes of Rodrigo Duterte, Mohammed bin Salman, Jair Bolsonaro, and Vladimir Putin suggests that he might refuse—as his former satrap and attorney Michael Cohen warned he would—to give up power without trying to undermine the legitimacy of the American political system. What’s more, given Trump’s skills in the dark arts of campaigning and the general public satisfaction with the economy, no matter its inequities or vulnerabilities, it would be foolhardy to discount his chance of winning reëlection.

The emergency that the Trump Presidency represents leaves the Democratic Party’s cast of candidates with a singular responsibility—to win the election—and two colossal reclamation projects. The first involves the environment. Presidential debates in past elections have largely ignored the costs of climate change. But public opinion on the topic is moving, and there is cause for at least some political optimism in the fact that many Democrats have gotten behind the idea of a New Deal-scale effort to address the issue. Candidates who can best give shape to that impulse and find a plausible way to make it a legislative reality deserve the most urgent attention.

The second reclamation concerns Trumpism. Somehow, sometime, Trump will leave the political stage; but the moral and material corruption he has inflicted will be with us for a long while. Who has the vision and the language to confront xenophobia and white-supremacist ideology? Who has the dexterity and the pragmatism to enact reforms on voting rights, health care, immigration, mass incarceration, and campaign finance, and so strengthen a stressed democracy? Who has the political acumen to argue for policies adequate to resolve our crises and, at the same time, to win back the millions of voters who cast a ballot for Barack Obama and then shifted to Trump?

Trump will be dropping loaded hooks in the water every day, but Democratic candidates ought not take his bait. He’ll use “socialism,” “Jexodus,” or whatever comes to mind as a means of distraction and division. It is perfectly legitimate to test the candidates and their potential weaknesses: Are Biden and Warren and Sanders too old? Is Beto O’Rourke the second coming of Robert Kennedy, or does he just look like him when you squint? And so on. But the kind of serious campaigns and debates that are never found in political novels are precisely what’s now required.

Spring Elsewhere — Marina Koren in The Atlantic finds out what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.

Ah, spring.

The season of vibrant flowers lining the sidewalk on the commute home, their gentle fragrance wafting into the air. Of sunshine that calls for a light jacket instead of a bulky coat. Of the passionate urge to clean everything in sight.

Outside The Atlantic’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, it’s about 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius)—not warm enough for open-toed shoes, but still more pleasant than, say, a polar vortex. I’ve been longing for this day, and it got me thinking about spring on other planets, and whether it even exists.

We owe the seasons to Earth’s axis, which stays tilted at about 23 degrees as the Earth loops around the sun. But the orientation of the planet’s hemispheres in relation to the sun changes; different parts of the Earth lean toward or away from the sun at different times of the year, and receive varying amounts of sunlight.

But how do other planets work? To find out, and also to procrastinate my spring cleaning, I reached out to some scientists who spend their days thinking about other worlds.

Mercury

“Mercury doesn’t really have anything approaching spring, or any season for that matter,” says Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist at North Carolina State University. The planet’s axial tilt, a fraction of a degree, is negligible. “The amount of daylight at a given latitude on Mercury is essentially fixed during the entire year.”

The daylight is relentless and scorching. But the orientation produces a rather cool phenomenon. “It lets Mercury have regions of permanent shadow near its poles that are never sunlit, and lets ice be present in those regions—even on the planet closest to the sun,” says Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

“It’s one weird little planet,” Byrne adds.

Venus

“There is no springtime on Venus, nor any other season—no seasons in hell!” says Allan Treiman, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

It’s difficult to sugarcoat the environment on Venus. Surface temperatures are a sizzling 870 degrees Fahrenheit (470 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt lead, all year round. Like Mercury’s, Venus’s axis isn’t tilted enough to produce a noticeable difference.

But the real reason the planet doesn’t have any seasons is its atmosphere, which is choked with clouds. “The clouds are so thick that its surface gets nearly no light or heat from the sun. Nearly all the sunlight and heat are absorbed by clouds, which then radiate heat down to the surface—the famous greenhouse effect,” Tremain says. “Venus clouds circulate faster than the surface does, so all the greenhouse heat is spread around the planet, whether it’s day or night.”

That’s not all. “To top everything else off, Venus’ day is longer than her year,” says Vicki Hansen, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. (It takes 243 Earth days for Venus to rotate once on its axis, but 225 Earth days for the planet to loop around the sun.) “So if she had spring, it would be hard to say what day it happened.”

Mars

Mars’s axis is tilted slightly more than Earth’s—about 25 degrees—which means the planet experiences distinct seasons, too. In fact, like the Northern hemisphere here, the Northern hemisphere on Mars is entering spring now.

“The Northern hemisphere is starting to heat up; the Southern hemisphere cooling off—just like on Earth,” says Don Banfield, a scientist at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science.

Well, not just like on Earth. Orbits affect seasons, too; the Martian year is twice as long as a terrestrial year, so the seasons stretch out longer. There are seasonal trends, such as summer dust storms, “but without rain and plants, they aren’t quite as obvious,” says Banfield.

Jupiter

“Jupiter does not have a springtime,” says Cheng Li, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Like Mercury, Jupiter’s axial tilt is too small to matter.

Saturn

Saturn does have spring: Its axial tilt is similar to that of Earth and Mars.

“Saturn is warm in the summer and cold in the winter,” says Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester. “The clouds and chemicals respond to these changes in sunlight. Perhaps the best example is the color of Saturn’s atmosphere, which shifts from blue hues in the winter—relatively clear skies with very few hazes—to golden hues in summer—a more smoggy atmosphere with lots of hazes.”

Saturnian spring also provides the most visibility for a massive, hexagon-shaped storm at the planet’s north pole that has mesmerized scientists for years. Some parts of Saturn can even experience miniature versions of seasons, thanks to its shimmering rings.

“A fixed point in Saturn’s atmosphere would experience additional periods when the rings shade the sun,” says Mike Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We actually have something like this at my house, because the neighboring building has a billboard on top. From a certain date in November to a certain date in February, our roof is in constant shade because the billboard blocks the sun, so our house gets colder.”

Uranus

With a 98-degree tilt of its axis, Uranus basically spins on its side. This alignment means the planet experiences the most extreme seasonal contrasts in the solar system.

“The poles get a great deal of illumination from an overhead sun that barely seems to move in the sky during local summer and a great deal of darkness in winter,” says Glenn Orton, a scientist at NASA’s JPL. “As spring begins, the sun is virtually always at the horizon for anyone living at the poles and virtually straight overhead for a Uranian in the low-latitude tropics.” (We should clarify: These are fictional Uranian residents. Alien life hasn’t been discovered there.)

During spring, a giant white cap emerges over the north pole, standing out against the planet’s usual blue hues. Scientists suspect the warming temperatures produce atmospheric changes.

This far out in the solar system—where orbits are vastly longer—seasons stretch out for years. A Uranus spring lasts 21.

Neptune

Spring on Neptune is twice as long. The planet experiences distinct seasons, but “I don’t think we’ve been able to observe Neptune long enough with enough detail to say for sure how spring in one hemisphere differs from any other season in terms of atmospheric activity,” says Anne Verbiscer, a planetary scientist at the University of Virginia.

Pluto

“Why yes, it’s springtime on Pluto right now, at least in the northern hemisphere!” says David Grinspoon, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. “And it has been since 1990.”

(Please don’t overthink the inclusion of Pluto on this list. Scientists have spent years arguing over the correct categorization of this celestial body. For some of them, the 2006 decision to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet is not the final word. We’ll leave the debating to them.)

Pluto’s orbit around the sun is highly elliptical. “The distance to the sun is quite different for the same season in the south versus the north,” Grinspoon says. “This creates asymmetrical and extreme climate behavior where, over the timescale of the seasons—which are many decades long—the atmosphere goes through the magnitude of changes that on other planets we would call climate changes.”

Spring sounds mild compared with colder seasons. Without enough exposure to sunlight, Pluto can get so cold that its atmosphere freezes and falls on the surface. “You can imagine what life would be like if we had that experience on Earth,” says Bob West, a scientist at JPL. “The air we breathe and which sustains all life on the dry land would form crystals of water, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide and fall to the ground as snow, leaving a near vacuum where once there was air.”

Wow. A little spring cleaning doesn’t sound so bad now.

Doonesbury — Origin stories.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Reality Check

Other than the fact that Robert Mueller has delivered his report to the Attorney General and no new indictments are forthcoming from him, none of us knows any more than we did before 5 p.m. Friday, March 22, 2019.

So you might as well just turn off the cable chatter and read a book, take a walk, do the crossword puzzle, clean the kitchen, or whatever.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Covering The Coverup

The New York Times is out with an analysis of how Trump and his minions have routinely tried to quash, silence, and intimidate anyone or any news organization trying to uncover the truth about whatever the hell is going in in his administration.

WASHINGTON — As federal prosecutors in Manhattan gathered evidence late last year about President Trump’s role in silencing women with hush payments during the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump called Matthew G. Whitaker, his newly installed attorney general, with a question. He asked whether Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York and a Trump ally, could be put in charge of the widening investigation, according to several American officials with direct knowledge of the call.

Mr. Whitaker, who had privately told associates that part of his role at the Justice Department was to “jump on a grenade” for the president, knew he could not put Mr. Berman in charge because Mr. Berman had already recused himself from the investigation. The president soon soured on Mr. Whitaker, as he often does with his aides, and complained about his inability to pull levers at the Justice Department that could make the president’s many legal problems go away.

Trying to install a perceived loyalist atop a widening inquiry is a familiar tactic for Mr. Trump, who has been struggling to beat back the investigations that have consumed his presidency. His efforts have exposed him to accusations of obstruction of justice as Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, finishes his work investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Mr. Trump’s public war on the inquiry has gone on long enough that it is no longer shocking. Mr. Trump rages almost daily to his 58 million Twitter followers that Mr. Mueller is on a “witch hunt” and has adopted the language of Mafia bosses by calling those who cooperate with the special counsel “rats.” His lawyer talks openly about a strategy to smear and discredit the special counsel investigation. The president’s allies in Congress and the conservative news media warn of an insidious plot inside the Justice Department and the F.B.I. to subvert a democratically elected president.

An examination by The New York Times reveals the extent of an even more sustained, more secretive assault by Mr. Trump on the machinery of federal law enforcement. Interviews with dozens of current and former government officials and others close to Mr. Trump, as well as a review of confidential White House documents, reveal numerous unreported episodes in a two-year drama.

White House lawyers wrote a confidential memo expressing concern about the president’s staff peddling misleading information in public about the firing of Michael T. Flynn, the Trump administration’s first national security adviser. Mr. Trump had private conversations with Republican lawmakers about a campaign to attack the Mueller investigation. And there was the episode when he asked his attorney general about putting Mr. Berman in charge of the Manhattan investigation.

Mr. Whitaker, who this month told a congressional committee that Mr. Trump had never pressured him over the various investigations, is now under scrutiny by House Democrats for possible perjury.

On Tuesday, after The Times article published, Mr. Trump denied that he had asked Mr. Whitaker if Mr. Berman could be put in charge of the investigation. “No, I don’t know who gave you that, that’s more fake news,” Mr. Trump said. “There’s a lot of fake news out there. No, I didn’t.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman said Tuesday that the White House had not asked Mr. Whitaker to interfere in the investigations. “Under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, then-Acting Attorney General Whitaker stated that ‘at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation,’” said the spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec. “Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony.”

The story of Mr. Trump’s attempts to defang the investigations has been voluminously covered in the news media, to such a degree that many Americans have lost track of how unusual his behavior is. But fusing the strands reveals an extraordinary story of a president who has attacked the law enforcement apparatus of his own government like no other president in history, and who has turned the effort into an obsession. Mr. Trump has done it with the same tactics he once used in his business empire: demanding fierce loyalty from employees, applying pressure tactics to keep people in line and protecting the brand — himself — at all costs.

It should be noted that the Justice Department’s denial of Mr. Whitaker’s actions is irrelevant.  It’s that Trump tried to get an attorney that was on his side to run the investigation.  Whether or not Mr. Whitaker complied isn’t the issue; that Trump tried is.

What emerges from this story is that Trump is obsessed with putting an end to any news coverage of him that isn’t fawning.  Given his past and his personality, that’s not surprising, but where it has gotten him in trouble is that in order to win over the base and win the election, he and his minions engaged in illegal acts, and now they’re trying to cover them up and intimidate and demonize anyone who is trying to get to the truth.  Innocent people don’t act like that.  If they’ve done nothing wrong, they don’t need to.

The other element in this story is the acknowledgment that the public is basically immune to being outraged or surprised by Trump.  That’s to be expected in a time when a viral meme can come and go with the lifespan of a fruit fly — this week’s media obsession is next week’s question in bar trivia contests — but whether or not the public cares or is aware of high crimes and misdemeanors really has no bearing on whether or not he should be held accountable.  Nor should the attempts by his leather-lunged supporters to distract our attention with yet another attempt to bring up Hillary’s e-mails or Barack’s birth certificate.  Those of us who are old enough to remember Watergate know that the public was far more interested in what happened to Patty Hearst than what Richard Nixon was doing in the West Wing.  It wasn’t until the Senate hearings interrupted “The Price Is Right” and soap operas that the average voter was even aware that crimes had taken place, and their response was typical: “When will I get my stories back?”

Fortunately that doesn’t matter.   Justice and the application thereof is not based on how it trends on Twitter, and no amount of threats and cries of “Fake News!” will put an end to it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Take Your Pick

According to the Washington Post’s recent poll, Americans view Robert Mueller as more credible than Trump.

Fifty-six percent to 33 percent, more say they trust Mueller’s version of the facts than Trump’s. And by nearly as wide a margin, more believe Mueller is mainly interested in “finding out the truth” than trying to “hurt Trump politically.”

Nearly two years into his investigation, Mueller has charged 34 people and secured guilty pleas from some of Trump’s closest advisers, including his former campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, national security adviser and personal lawyer. The special counsel has alleged 25 Russians, including 12 military officers, conspired to hack Democrats’ emails and wage a social media influence campaign to sway the outcome of the 2016 election, and described in astonishing detail how they did so.

Notably, though, Mueller has not brought criminal charges against any members of the Trump campaign for coordinating in that effort. He has charged several with lying to his investigators or to Congress — adding most recently to that list Roger Stone, a friend of Trump’s for decades whom Mueller has accused of trying to thwart lawmakers’ effort to investigate Russian interference in the election.

It should be noted that other than a brief statement concerning a report in Buzzfeed that they deemed “inaccurate,” neither Robert Mueller nor anyone connected directly or indirectly with his probe has uttered so much as a howdy-do to the press other than what they’ve presented in court.  So earning the public trust on this matter has been done solely on the work they’ve done while Trump has carried on as if his home was in a tree.

On the other hand, giving the people the choice between Mueller and Trump is like offering either pancakes and coffee or anthrax and ebola for breakfast.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

There’s Another Wall Being Built

There’s a wall being built, just as metaphorical as the one Trump wants to build along the southern border, but it’s the one that is really worrying him.  It’s the one being built by the Mueller investigation out of the mounting evidence of corruption, collusion, and fraud, and it’s closing in on him.

What other reason would Trump have for his panic as embodied in his tantrum yesterday after the Democratic leaders — for once unified without the mandatory hand-wringing — said no, again, to his demand for $5.8 billion to build a wall?  Even some Republicans are beginning to edge away.  He’s setting up a whole load of “Oh, look at the kitty!” moments: visit the border, cut off FEMA aid to California’s wildfire recovery, and keep the government shut down just so the cable news gallery has something else to talk about.  Meanwhile, the White House is in full-tilt panic mode to hire lawyers to fend off subpoenas from the House, hoping to stall any investigation from that end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

He knows it.  He feels it.  Brace yourself for some really wild stuff; a cornered animal fights back to the death.

HT to Digby for the photo.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

All In It Together

This blockbuster report in the New York Times pretty much confirms everything that Trump and his minions have been denying about Russian interference in the elections in the U.S.

The Russian influence campaign on social media in the 2016 election made an extraordinary effort to target African-Americans, used an array of tactics to try to suppress turnout among Democratic voters and unleashed a blizzard of activity on Instagram that rivaled or exceeded its posts on Facebook, according to a report produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The report adds new details to the portrait that has emerged over the last two years of the energy and imagination of the Russian effort to sway American opinion and divide the country, which the authors said continues to this day.

“Active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms,” says the report, produced by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company based in Austin, Tex., along with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research LLC. One continuing Russian campaign, for instance, seeks to influence opinion on Syria by promoting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and a Russian ally in the brutal conflict there.

The New Knowledge report is one of two commissioned by the Senate committee on a bipartisan basis. They are based largely on data about the Russian operations provided to the Senate by Facebook, Twitter and the other companies whose platforms were used.

Add to that the fact that the Republicans have been working quite openly to suppress minority voting for about fifty years, and … well, to quote that immortal sage Curly Joe, what a coinky-dink.

So either the Russians saw a massive opportunity to influence the election in 2016 because American voters are gullible and easy taken in by such simple tricks as well-engineered planted stories on social media — not a surprise given that millions of people will believe that Elvis is still alive and working at a Burger King in Grand Rapids if the National Enquirer says so — or a crafty election campaign just happened to bump into a bunch of Russian operatives who could pull an election win out of the trunk of their Buick.

Whether or not they actively sought each other out or just happened to be working for the same goal and found themselves along the same path, and whether or not that becomes a de facto conspiracy is a matter for the courts and a jury to decide.  But the result was what both of them wanted: the installation of Trump in the White House and corrosion of the American electoral system to the point that it could be manipulated by an outside force.

Monday, December 10, 2018

It Cannot Stand

The release of the sentencing memos by the Southern District of New York for Michael Cohen has launched a flurry of data and expectations about what could or will happen to the people who surround Trump, and inevitably, what will happen to Trump himself.  Trying to summarize it all is very difficult, but I think Adam Davidson at The New Yorker has a pretty good handle on it.

Even if we never learn another single fact about Trump, his business and campaign, and any collusion with Russia, it is now becoming clear that Trump’s bid for the Presidency was almost certainly designed, at least in part, to enrich Trump, and that he was willing to pursue the political interests of a hostile foreign power in order to make money. This scheme was executed ineptly and in ways that make it highly likely that the intelligence agencies of Russia, as well as several other nations, have been able to ferret out most of the details. This means that Trump and the people closest to him have been at enormous risk of compromise.

We will learn more facts, no doubt—many of them. Mueller has revealed only a few threads of the case. He has established that Cohen spent the months between September, 2015, and June, 2016, actively engaging the Russian government to exchange political favors for money, and that, throughout this period, Cohen routinely informed Trump of his efforts (and presumably, though it’s unstated, received Trump’s blessing). This was the precise period in which Trump’s candidacy shifted from humorous long shot to the nominee of the Republican Party. Mueller’s filing also contains suggestions that people connected to the White House, possibly including the President, knew of Michael Cohen’s lies to Congress and federal investigators, and, also, that White House officials stayed in contact with Manafort, who had been revealed to be in close touch with a known Russian intelligence asset.

This is a lot. But it’s not the complete narrative. It is not clear what happened after the notorious Trump Tower meeting of June 9, 2016. Cohen appears to have been pushed aside, and no longer to have played the role of intermediary. Does this mean that Trump insisted that his team shut off all contact with Russia? Or did he hand the portfolio over to a more trusted staffer?

[…]

Mueller’s filings do mark a different sort of end. We are at the end of reasonable debate about whether Trump is hopelessly compromised. As Mueller’s filings encircle the President, the special counsel surely knows he is at ever-greater risk of being fired. Presumably, he wouldn’t have released memorandums as damning as these if he weren’t prepared to make a fuller case. Each filing fills in the over-all picture in ever more granular detail. It seems reasonable to assume that we haven’t yet learned the most disturbing facts. But, even if we learn nothing more, we are already in an unbearable condition. The President of the United States knowingly and eagerly participated in a scheme with a hostile foreign leader who he knew was seeking to influence the Presidential election. Trump sought to profit politically and financially, many of his closest subordinates executed this effort, and he then was aware of and, it seems likely, encouraged an illegal effort to hide these facts. His reckless, unpatriotic actions have left him compromised by at least one but likely many foreign powers and have left his election open to reasonable questions about its legitimacy. And, every day, he sets policies and makes decisions that have an impact on the lives of all Americans and the fortunes of the very autocrats who hold sway over him. It cannot stand.

The scary part of all of this is that we as a nation haven’t faced this sort of threat to the very foundation of our democracy in our collective lifetimes.  Watergate was big and dangerous, too, but at the least the central figure in it — Richard Nixon — still bore some allegiance to the system of our government and yielded to the rule of law, ultimately abiding by the rulings of the courts and the Supreme Court.  And when he went, he went without threatening to hole up in his office, daring armed officers to drag him out by his heels.

We can’t be that assured about Trump.  For one thing, he has an embedded media operation that will back him no matter what.  Second, we’re seeing that his supporters at various state and local levels are willing to cheat — albeit clumsily — to win an election, and of course he had an entire foreign government at his disposal to win the last one.

So dreaming about the chances of Beto O’Rourke or debating the ages and merits of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are nothing compared to the fact that we are about to embark on a presidential campaign that has all the earmarks of one that kept Robert Mugabe in office for generations.

Which means that we need to win the next election or face the real possibility that it will be the last real one we have.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Hanging By His Thumbs

As I noted last week, Trump may be in more trouble for trying to cover up his crimes than the crimes themselves.  Now it looks like his tweets could open the door to getting him on obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

Trump took to Twitter Monday morning, haranguing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and witnesses to his ongoing Russia investigation. His tweets have become a common morning occurrence, particularly in recent weeks. But legal experts are calling Monday’s missives a newsworthy development that amounts to evidence of obstructing justice.

Trump’s first statement went out after Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney who pleaded guilty last week for lying to Congress about the president’s real estate project in Russia. In his tweet, Trump alleged that Cohen lied to Mueller and called for a severe penalty, demanding that his former fixer “serve a full and complete sentence.”

After the overt attack on Cohen came a tweet encouraging Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Trump, not to become a witness against him:

“’I will never testify against Trump.’ This statement was recently made by Roger Stone, essentially stating that he will not be forced by a rogue and out of control prosecutor to make up lies and stories about ‘President Trump.’ Nice to know that some people still have ‘guts!’”

Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that the most striking thing about Monday was that there were two statements in proximity.

“It comes very close to the statutory definition of witness tampering,” he said. “It’s a mirror image of the first tweet, only he’s praising a witness for not cooperating with the implication of reward,” he said, adding that Trump has pardon power over Stone.

“We’re so used to President Trump transgressing norms in his public declarations,” Eisen said, “but he may have crossed the legal line.”

[…]

Attorney George Conway, husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, referenced the federal statute most likely to create legal liability for Trump: 18 U.S.C. §§ 1512, which outlines the crime of witness tampering.

What is the law?

Tampering with a witness is obstruction of justice.

It’s a federal crime for an individual to intimidate, threaten or “corruptly persuade” another person with the goal of influencing or preventing his or her testimony.

Did Trump break it?

Historically, there are plenty of cases where similar statements were used as part of an obstruction-of-justice prosecution, according to former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal.

Even if Mueller could technically satisfy the statute, few prosecutors would make a congressional referral based on tweets from the president alone.

Instead, Monday’s slew of tweets probably will be used to evaluate whether Trump’s intent was “corrupt.” They will also be used to show a pattern by Trump to interfere with law enforcement to serve his personal end, Katyal said.

I can’t decide if Trump is unaware of the liability he’s exposing himself to, doesn’t care (“Neener, neener, I’m the president and you can’t touch me!”), or he’s fully aware of it and is doing it on purpose in the mistaken belief that somehow his tweeting will damage the Mueller investigation and make it impossible for the prosecutors to empanel a jury.  Or, maybe, as the article suggests, he’s just melting down.

In any case, it makes you wonder where the hell his lawyer is in all this.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Seeing A Pattern Here

Josh Marshall may be on to something.

Sometimes it’s worth stepping back and stating the obvious. Over the course of these thirty months of cover-ups, every player in the Trump/Russia story has lied about their role in the conspiracy. And not hedging and spinning fibs but straight up lies about the core nature of their involvement, their overt acts. Most – though here what we know is a bit more tentative – seem to have lied under oath, whether to congressional committees or a grand jury. Not a single one of them told a story that wasn’t eventually contradicted and disproved. Not a single one.

Who? Well, let’s see. Donald Trump, Jr., Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Donald Trump, Jerome Corsi, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Carter Page, Jared Kushner. These are ones who lied, the ones we can state definitively. I’m not including the marginal players, folks like Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan. I’m not including those who just never spoke at all – at least not in public.

His inevitable conclusion is that they’re all guilty.  Perhaps not of a crime, but an innocent person doesn’t risk criminal charges by lying.

Then again, there’s Trump who lies about everything without even thinking about it.  It’s not even to cover up suspicious activity; it’s just his natural state.  Does that mean he’s guilty?  That’s a bit harder to prove, but it does mean that convicting him of a crime, whether it’s collusion with a foreign government to win an election or taking a lot of money from unsuspecting and gullible people for a fictional university degree, is a lot harder because you have to prove criminal intent.  And it’s hard to prove that for someone who lies by nature, the same way some people fart.

So I think this is how it’s all going to end: Trump will be convicted — or at least indicted — for serial lying, not for the actual thing he’s lying about.  Trump’s defenders have already come up with a way to dismiss it, but those were the same folks who went after Bill Clinton and demanded his head for lying about his affairs, so take that for what it’s worth.  It’s an old song; it’s what’s been the downfall of just about everyone else who’s had scandal or questions arise about their behavior: the lying is what does it.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

In And Of Itself

Offering a pardon to a defendant sure sounds — at least to me — like an attempt to obstruct justice.

He’s never discussed a pardon for Paul Manafort, President Trump said Wednesday — but it’s “not off the table.”

“It was never discussed, but I wouldn’t take it off the table. Why would I take it off the table?” the president said during an Oval Office interview.

He ripped special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and charged that Manafort, former political adviser Roger Stone and Stone’s associate Jerome Corsi were all asked to lie by the special counsel.

“If you told the truth, you go to jail,” Trump said.

“You know this flipping stuff is terrible. You flip and you lie and you get — the prosecutors will tell you 99 percent of the time they can get people to flip. It’s rare that they can’t,” Trump said.

“But I had three people: Manafort, Corsi — I don’t know Corsi, but he refuses to say what they demanded. Manafort, Corsi and Roger Stone.”

“It’s actually very brave,” he said of the trio. “And I’m telling you, this is McCarthyism. We are in the McCarthy era. This is no better than McCarthy. And that was a bad situation for the country. But this is where we are. And it’s a terrible thing,” Trump added.

It all comes down to the simple fact that if there was no crime committed, then these people would have no reason to negotiate a plea deal and there would be no reason for Trump to offer a way out of this for his minions.  But dangling a pardon in front of Manafort is basically saying, “Hey, no matter what they do to you, I’ll take care of you.”

Actually, that would apply only if Trump had the same moral scruples as Michael Corleone.  But he doesn’t.  Trump has screwed people out of all kinds of deals and his word isn’t worth shit.  So one of the reasons Manafort and the rest are coming up with deals is because they know they’re dealing with an honest broker in Robert Mueller.