The right choice; the only right choice

This isn’t the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN, or any of Donald Trump’s other favorite targets.  This is the Wall Street Journal, fer cryin’ out loud, adding its credibility to that of many other outlets in reporting the story that seems to have shaken loose the impeachment process in Washington, D.C.: “President Trump in a July phone call repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son, according to people familiar with the matter, urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent.”

To summarize: the president is accused of using his official position, by withholding and threatening to withhold American military aid to another country, to pressure that country’s leader into conducting an investigation meant to damage the political career of one of his potential political rivals in advance of the 2020 election.

And this came after the report last week that someone inside the intelligence community had filed an official whistleblower complaint about Trump making a commitment to a foreign leader, which the inspector general for the intelligence community determined was legitimate and an urgent matter that should, by law, have been forwarded to Congressional committees.  But it wasn’t—still hasn’t been—because the acting director of national intelligence blocked it.  A Trump appointee who was never confirmed by the Senate, made that decision in conjunction with Bill Barr’s Justice Department.

Today Trump insisted there was nothing untoward in his conversation with the president of Ukraine, and later said he would release a transcript of that phone call…tomorrow.  We have some idea of how reliable a document that might be.  But in the meantime, these developments led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to change her mind and announce a formal impeachment inquiry.  At last.  It’s about time.

(Earlier today, prior to the Democratic caucus and Pelosi’s announcement, Slate restarted the Impeach-O-Meter as a “(still wildly subjective and speculative) estimate of the likelihood that the House votes to impeach Trump before the end of his first term” and which I intend to try to keep up with, and late this afternoon published a helpful refresher guide on How to Impeach a President.  Neat.)

Go online and search “Trump’s impeachable offenses”  to refresh your recollection if you need to.  Since inauguration day this president has repeatedly and unashamedly shown his disdain for the Constitution and the law, for tradition, for the separation of powers, and for the intelligence of the American people—especially, I think, for the ones who supported him out of a misplaced belief in his promises about…everything!

(Those are just from the past week.)

It’s past time that our Congress took the action the Constitution provides for in a case like this—this is what impeachment is there for, dammit.  Up to now the Republicans in Congress have proven themselves unable to undrink the Trump-aid, and there’s no real doubt that the Senate would never convict Trump of any accusations brought by the House.  But the Democrats simply cannot abdicate their responsibility to their constituents, and to history, to do what they can.

For so many of his actions as president, Trump deserves impeachment by the House.  He deserves to be condemned to that short short list of impeached presidents, right next to Hillary’s husband, even if he’s not removed from office by the Senate.  As a more practical matter, Adam Jentleson, a staffer for former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, argues that the impeachment process itself will hurt Trump politically, and that not moving ahead with impeachment opens the door for Trump to insist that he was fully exonerated of all wrongdoing.  You want to listen to that for the rest of your life?

There are two lessons here for House Democrats as they debate whether to open an impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

First, polling can change.

I don’t know how else to say this: getting impeached is bad. It is not something you want to happen to you, especially if you’re president. You do not want to go down as one of only four [sic] presidents in history to be impeached. This is a bad thing. Only Democrats, bless our hearts, could convince ourselves that it is good for a president to be impeached.

Richard Nixon’s approval rating was at 65 percent when his impeachment process began and only 19 percent of the public supported his impeachment. By the end, the numbers had flipped: his approval was 24 percent and support for impeachment was 57 percent.

(snip)

The second lesson from the [Merrick] Garland experience is that like nature, power abhors a vacuum. The decision not to impeach is not a decision to focus on other things, it is a decision to cede power, control, and legitimacy to Trump. Trump is not a master chess player, he just bluffs his opponents into forfeiting their moves—and that is exactly what he is doing to House Democrats.

For their part, House Democrats have argued that by foregoing impeachment they can shift the conversation to topics their consultants tell them are safer ground, like health care. That’s not going to happen. Reporters cover news, and only events that drive news can shift the message.

(snip)

Impeachment is a long process that will highlight Trump’s crimes, which according to (literally) one thousand former federal prosecutors, include “multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.” Imagine the Michael Cohen, James Comey, or William Barr hearings but on steroids, for many weeks. Anything can happen and hearings can go haywire, but the odds of making a convincing public case against Trump are stacked strongly in Democrats’ favor. Trump’s crimes are serious and laid out in meticulous detail by an unimpeachable source. The public already believes he committed serious crimes by a margin of two to one. There is already a loud chorus decrying Trump’s crimes and arguing that he should be impeached, ranging from Kellyanne Conway’s husband to a sitting Republican Congressman. In this case, the impeachment process is like one of those meals where all the ingredients come in a box: you have to boil some water and maybe crack an egg, but it’s basically idiot-proof.

If and when the House votes to impeach, the ball goes to the Senate. The Senate can ignore it, which means the House’s impeachment is the last word. That would be fine. But McConnell would be under enormous pressure from Trump and the entire right-wing echosphere to call a Kangaroo court into session for the purpose of letting Trump off. If the Senate conducts a trial, Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020—like Maine’s Susan Collins and Colorado’s Cory Gardner—will have to decide whether to vote to remove from office a President who has been shown to have committed serious crimes, or protect him. They will likely vote to protect Trump and it will cost them: they will have to explain which of Trump’s many crimes they think are no big deal, why they disagree with the many voices from their own party saying his crimes make him unfit, and why a criminal president should be allowed to continue in office.

More importantly, if the public believes Trump is guilty but the Senate lets him off anyway, he won’t ever be truly exonerated—he’ll be O.J. Simpson, assumed guilty but sprung by allies and circumstance. Some Democrats have argued that we should skip impeachment and vote Trump out instead. But if the House impeaches Trump and Senate Republicans fall in line to protect him, the argument that the ballot is the only way to remove him will be supercharged.

By contrast, declining to impeach Trump validates his claim that Mueller exonerated him.

(snip)

Even more ominously, Trump’s weaponized Department of Justice under Barr, who has shown himself to be Trump’s eager and obedient partner in abusing the power of the state to advance the president’s political interests, will inevitably invent a pretext for investigating the Democratic nominee. Democrats should consider whether they’d rather engage that fight against a president who has been impeached for serious crimes, or against a president strengthened by the de facto exoneration bestowed when his opponents declined to pursue the evidence against him.

https://twitter.com/tonyschwartz/status/1175403260590657536

And remember this:

I can always count on Dahlia Lithwick to see through to the crux of the matter: “The integrity of our democracy isn’t threatened when a president breaks the law. It’s threatened when we do nothing about it.”

It defies logic for House Democrats to insist that their sole hope for salvation will be found in the 2020 election, when the 2020 election is subject to the same acts of foreign interference that poisoned 2016; when indeed they are failing to respond to the admitted acts of interference that happen before their eyes. By refusing to hold the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responsible for any of that interference—indeed by pretending it was very, very bad but let’s look forward and not backward, House leadership is inviting even more abuse. And in the face of it, Democrats continue to insist that the long game is what matters, even as the short game is making the long game increasingly unwinnable.

The net outcome of doing nothing is not politically or morally neutral. The net outcome is future loss after future loss.

When Corey Lewandowski puts on a clinic about contempt of Congress and nothing is done by the only body capable of doing something, that sends a powerful signal that all such future contempt will be welcome and effective. And when Robert Mueller says plainly and unequivocally that the next election is already in the process of being stolen, and nobody acts to secure it, that sends a powerful signal that all such interference is welcome and effective. To be sure, Democrats have very limited power at present and nobody doubts that the Senate will cower, whatever the results of an impeachment probe may be, and fail to convict. But by sitting on that limited power, fretting about how sad and mad they are, House Democrats are in point of fact giving over those limited powers to the other side.

By seemingly forgiving and forgetting the past, House Democrats are implying that they’ll also forfeit their chance at oversight in the future. In failing to say that the last worst thing was the impassable red line, they imply time and again that they are waiting for the next worst thing, which may really be the red line. But the implication that everyone’s waiting for the “big one” ignores the fact that the big one happened when this president endangered spies in a casual conversation in the Oval Office, when he took Vladimir Putin’s side over his own security advisers in Helsinki, when he tried to have Jeff Sessions fired, and when he conditioned foreign aid on helping to bury a political adversary.

Advertisements

Is it time to talk impeachment? Of course it is

If this president, after all he’s done in just two years, including everything proved and everything illuminated in the Mueller Report, doesn’t deserve to have the House consider impeachment, why bother having impeachment in the Constitution?  What offense against the Constitution, and the law, and preserving good international relations, and political ethics and societal norms and common sense and plain old good manners, will it take for the men and women we elected to look out for our nation to get off their asses and do their jobs?  There is too much smoke there now for it not to be prudent for them to make sure that nothing’s on fire.

By the way, threatening not to work with Congress on anything—not even infrastructure!—until it stops investigating allegations of wrongdoing against him should make it clear to all that he doesn’t understand how the system works.  He wasn’t elected king.

And people who are subpoenaed by Congress don’t get to choose whether to comply or not.  Not how it works.  They can refuse to testify once they get there, and be held in contempt and go to jail as a result (and be proud that they stood up for what they say they believe in), but if they claim to believe in the rule of law they can’t ignore a subpoena.  Keep your eyes open for the proliferation of Trumpeters arguing that for some dumb reason or another the law doesn’t apply to them.  Then imagine making that argument in your own defense.

Yeah.

The story of the film so far

The top level news from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report to the attorney general on his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is important confirmation: the Russians did try to influence the outcome of our 2016 presidential election.  Based on Bill Barr’s summary of the report sent to Congress last Sunday, the only currently available report on the report’s contents (a source I choose to trust, as I trust the effort of Mueller’s team), we should now have no reasonable disagreement that Vladimir Putin’s government committed cyber war on our country, and that we should be doing something about it.  I know our president has belittled that notion in the past (disagreeing with the findings of our country’s intelligence community; not clear why), but if he’s going to accept the other conclusions from the Mueller investigation he’ll have a hard time disagreeing with this one by blaming the messenger.  (I say that despite Trump’s demonstrated disdain for anything approaching intellectual consistency, but still…)

Next up: Mueller does not find evidence to indicate that Trump or any of the people in his campaign intentionally or unintentionally worked with the Russians to influence the outcome of the election: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”  I find I agree with the analysis that this is good news…for everybody.  For Trump, certainly, in that it seems to clear him from being pursued criminally in that respect, reduces the chance of impeachment proceedings, and provides a political boost for his 2020 campaign.  But also for our country, in that we can take some solace in knowing that our president and his people did not conspire with a foreign government to seize power.  This was never a given, sadly, so it’s good to know now.

I also agree with the many who argue for the public release of Mueller’s complete report.  A shorthand argument: if the report “completely exonerates” Trump, as he insists it does, then we should all get to share the happy details.  A good longer version comes from David French in Sunday’s National Review:

The American people need full disclosure — and not just of the Mueller report itself. We need to see relevant FISA applications, supporting documents, classified testimony, and any other evidence relevant to not just the Mueller investigation itself but also to the inception of the Trump–Russia investigation. This conclusion is rendered even more urgent by two important political realities.

The first relates to the obstruction of justice. As Barr explains in his letter, the Mueller report neither accuses Trump of committing obstruction of justice in the course of the investigation, nor does it exonerate him [emphasis added]. Instead, the attorney general and deputy attorney general (both Trump appointees) examined the evidence and concluded that the evidence was “not sufficient” to conclude that the president obstructed justice. Democrats will trust this conclusion exactly as much as Republicans would trust a Democratic attorney general to evaluate the actions of a Democratic president.

(snip)

…nothing in Barr’s letter excuses the fact that Trump hired and surrounded himself with some of the worst people in politics — felons and liars who sometimes committed crimes in the ham-handed attempt to cover up their own contacts or attempted contacts with Russian assets or operatives. The president’s personal lawyer, his campaign chair, his longtime friend and adviser, and his first national-security adviser (among others) each engaged in patterns of deception that were not only criminal, they created real and genuine alarm in fair-minded Americans that at least some people in the president’s inner circle were more than willing to work with our enemies abroad to gain financial or political advantage here at home.

But these facts notwithstanding, there are still grounds for immense relief that America’s most recent presidential election has been (further) legitimized and that years of speculation about President Trump’s ties to the Russian government have proven unfounded. These last 30 months of investigations — beginning well before Mueller’s appointment — are among the most divisive and contentious events in modern political history. As we wait to read the full report and move into the inevitable battles over its contents, we can be sure that more division and contention await. Yet today, at least, we can be grateful for the good news we have, and it is good news indeed.

Mark Joseph Stern echoes French’s argument in the sense that full disclosure of the Mueller report is also necessary for analysts to determine if Barr’s quick assessment and summary of the results of the 22-month investigation were an improper effort to head off further action against the president who appointed him to the job.

Barr outlined one key finding unambiguously: The Trump campaign, he wrote, did not coordinate with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. That conclusion will come as a great relief to the president and his supporters, if Mueller’s report is as clear-cut as Barr indicates. But the attorney general’s summary includes a second finding that is confusing and equivocal. Mueller, Barr wrote, left “unresolved” the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. He instead laid out “evidence of both sides” and allowed Barr, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to use those findings to determine whether the president committed obstruction. On the basis of this evidence and analysis—which we cannot yet evaluate—Barr and Rosenstein decided that Trump did not commit such an offense.

This portion of the summary will remain a puzzle until Mueller’s report is released to the public. But Barr provided a clue to his reasoning, by suggesting that he did not see evidence Trump hampered the Russia probe with “corrupt intent.” As former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal has noted, it is hard to understand how Barr, or Mueller, or anyone, could gauge Trump’s intent, because the president has not been interviewed about his intentions. Why not? We know at least one person vigorously opposed to compelling Trump to submit to an interview: Bill Barr, whose 2018 memo declared that Mueller could not legally do so.

The full report will be beneficial to Congressional committees, too, to the extent that they are resolved to pull their heads out of their asses and start providing checks and balances of the executive branch rather than being the president’s cheering section and public defender.

So we wait, for…who knows how long.  Barr has said he’s all about the transparency, the president says he doesn’t mind at all if the report is made public, but there’s no requirement in law that it ever be released to anyone other than the AG nor any mention of a time limit for so doing.  That’s given Dahlia Lithwick time to bemoan the fact that facts don’t, in fact, seem to matter…that this issue has already devolved into political posturing and stupidity without most of us ever seeing what Mueller did, in fact, report.

Someday, when we’re sitting around the electronic campfires we’ve lit to pretend-warm the huts in our Mars colonies, we will tell our grandchildren about whatever vestigial memories we have of facts. Perhaps we will be able to date their demise to the 46-ish hours between the announcement on Friday, March 22, 2019, that Robert Mueller had submitted his final report to Attorney General William Barr, and the letter Barr released on Sunday, March 24, 2019, which purported to summarize its contents and legal conclusions entirely.

In those 46 hours, there were exactly two facts known: that nobody else had been indicted by Mueller, and that Barr did not find any proposed action by Mueller to be “inappropriate or unwarranted.” That was, quite literally, all we knew. And into that void—that absence of facts—swept the spin. On Fox News, the declamation came forth that there had been an actual finding, of, what else, “no collusion.” Indeed, as Justin Peters noted, the television news station that exists exclusively to protect and defend the president’s preferred narrative declared, without basis in any publicly known or knowable fact, that it was “No Collusion Day!” While every other network was trying to parse out scenarios and future outcomes, and carefully explaining that nothing definitive had been shared with the public, conservative media and congressional Republicans were already claiming that the facts had been amassed, and assessed and released, and supported their cause. Were they clairvoyant? Did they have some insider information? No, they just had the special feeling they get at Fox: The facts are not material to the claim. In the absence of any knowable facts, Republicans declare victory and invent their own. In the absence of any knowable facts, Democrats declare defeat.

Still, you kinda feel like there’s so much more to know, so much more you want to know.  We need to know…

The post that wasn’t because of the news that is

At first I had great plans for a post called “Fecklessness, thy name is Mitch McConnell” in which I would elegantly make the simple point that Republicans in the U.S. Senate are refusing their constitutional duty to be a check and/or balance on the president of the United States.  The Senate that last month unanimously passed a bill to fund the government while the president was on record promising to sign such a bill should not now be refusing to even consider passing the same bill because the president has said he won’t sign it.  (This is, of course, precisely what is happening.)  The job of the Senate is not to pass only those bills which the president has indicated with a wave of his hand that he will deign to accept.  If you think the bill deserves passage, as you did a few weeks ago, pass it; if the president vetoes it, override the damn veto if you can.  (Hint: you can.)  Mitch, it’s not your fault that the president’s word can’t be trusted (about anything), or that he went back on his promise because a couple of women on Fox News effectively called him a thing that can be grabbed by stars without the stars even asking permission, which they did because he hasn’t made good on his campaign promise to build a wall on our country’s southern border, even when his party controlled the House and the Senate and the White House.  It is your fault if you keep deferring to the president and the leader of your political party when you know full well he’s a lying hypocrite who not only doesn’t have the best interests of this country at heart but is using his office for personal enrichment.  And maybe working for the Russians.

It’s that working-for-the-Russians part that made me change my mind about what to write about, because—did you see this in the New York Times:

In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.

The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.

That’s the same president who’s now in the fourth week of a Fox News-inspired temper tantrum over funding of his request for more than $5 billion to support construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to fight illegal immigration, which has caused a portion of the federal government to suspend operations and more than three-quarters of a million federal employees to miss their paychecks, and who has reportedly thought about seizing federal funds allocated for Hurricane Harvey recovery and future flood control efforts in the Gulf Coast region of Texas but not yet committed to specific projects and spending it on border wall construction under a theorized declaration of national emergency.  But this is even more outrageous, I think.

I’ll offer two of the many analyses of the Times story floating around out there today.  First, in The Hill Jonathan Turley suggests “this is likely the only time in history that the FBI has investigated whether a sitting president was either a knowing or unknowing agent of a foreign power” and in the next breath wonders if this investigation explains everything away innocently: “What if there were no collusion or conspiracy but simple cognitive bias on both sides, where the actions of one seemed to confirm precisely the suspicions of the other?”  Seems unlikely, but it’s an interesting read.

Even more so is this one in Esquire by Charles P. Pierce, who everyone should be reading anyway all the time just because.  He thinks that one word in the story is a clue left by the Times reporters that today’s bombshell isn’t the end of the story.

The word is tucked into a sentence that, at first glance, seems to be a perfectly anodyne statement of the current facts. Indeed, it’s tucked into a sentence that would be an unremarkable bit of knee-jerk newspaper balance if this explosive charge of a word weren’t placed right the in the middle of it. That word is “publicly,” as in: No evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials.

(snip)

This is not a word chosen idly, not in a piece as judiciously written as this one. Clearly, the Times printed pretty much all it was given by its sources, but the implication of that “publicly” is that investigators likely know far more than what appeared in the newspaper.

More to come?  Yeah, I bet there is.

Hey America—Russia attacked you, why don’t you care?

If we can put aside, for a moment, the question of Trump campaign cooperation with agents of or working for the government of Russia to interfere in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, we are left with this undeniable fact: the government of Russia waged an on-going attack on the United States to influence the outcome of that election.

A report prepared for the Senate that provides the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign around the 2016 election found the operation used every major social media platform to deliver words, images and videos tailored to voters’ interests to help elect President Trump — and worked even harder to support him while in office.

(snip)

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” the report says. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

I say “undeniable” despite the fact that our president denies the findings of our own nation’s intelligence services, and those of every other honest broker of information out there; none of that is not good enough to satisfy the Crybaby in Chief when he feels dissed.  Now, the Washington Post reports on research being delivered to the Senate Intelligence Committee that states plainly the evidence leading to the conclusion that the Russians worked against Hillary Clinton.

The report offers the latest evidence that Russian agents sought to help Trump win the White House. Democrats and Republicans on the panel previously studied the U.S. intelligence community’s 2017 finding that Moscow aimed to assist Trump, and in July, they said investigators had come to the correct conclusion. Despite their work, some Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to doubt the nature of Russia’s interference in the last presidential election.

[Sen. Mark] Warner said the reports should serve as “a wake up call,” resulting in “some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media.” [Sen. Richard] Burr said the reports are “proof positive that one of the most important things we can do is increase information sharing between the social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them.”

The Russians aimed particular energy at activating conservatives on issues such as gun rights and immigration, while sapping the political clout of left-leaning African American voters by undermining their faith in elections and spreading misleading information about how to vote. Many other groups — Latinos, Muslims, Christians, gay men and women, liberals, Southerners, veterans — got at least some attention from Russians operating thousands of social media accounts.

Even if—if—no one in the Trump campaign was in on the deal, or encouraged it or cooperated with it in any way at all, or even said a small silent prayer to their god that the Russian actions would help their guy win, we are left with this: the Russian attacked America.  And they had help.

I don’t mean Wikileaks, although it seemed to be in on the con, too.  I’m talking about the National Enquirer.  The same National Enquirer which just admitted in court documents that it helped Trump bury Karen McDougal’s story about the affair she claimed to have had with Trump (which he denies having had) so that it wouldn’t hurt him in the election was devoted to helping Trump throughout the campaign.  The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg put the Enquirer’s contribution in perspective.

The Enquirer’s racks, under the current chief, David J. Pecker, were given over to the Trump campaign. This was a political gift even more valuable than the $150,000 that The Enquirer paid in a “catch-and-kill” deal with the former Playboy model Karen McDougal for her story of an affair with Mr. Trump.

Wondering what The Enquirer’s covers were worth to the Trump campaign, I called Regis Maher, a co-founder of Do It Outdoors, the national mobile and digital billboard company. He said a campaign with that level of national prominence would cost $2.5 million to $3 million a month.

And like the payoff to McDougal, that could be looked at as another effective campaign contribution that Trump never reported, but we probably can’t avoid that being classified as “journalism,” sad to say.

Now that federal prosecutors have cleared away some of the fog that shrouded the 2016 campaign, it’s easy to see that The Enquirer was more than just a publication that puffed up Mr. Trump while going after his rivals.

It was the real-world embodiment of the fantasy online world of trolls, Russian and domestic, who polluted the political discourse. From its perches at Publix and Safeway, it was often doing the same job as Alex Jones, of the conspiracy site Infowars, and the more strident Trump campaign surrogates on Twitter and Facebook.

The Enquirer spread false stories about Hillary Clinton — illnesses concealed, child prostitution, bribery, treason. Each cover trumpeting these tales was arguably more powerful than a tweet from an account with millions of followers.

The Republicans who’ve been taking up space in the current Congress—the one that turned a blind eye to every crazy and questionable thing Trump has done and which may let parts of our government shut down at the end of the week for lack of funds since they can’t pass a budget—have proved plainly that they’re not concerned enough about a foreign attack on our country to take any action in response.  Sad…Republicans used to claim to be the party of a strong national defense.  In two and a half weeks we’ll see another party take control of the House of Representatives, and I’m putting those folks on the clock to show Russia and the rest of the world that the America that’s been sleeping the last two years is mad as hell and is not going to take this any more.