Walking the talk

For starters, they did ask—many times, starting before his term was even over, so don’t give me that “all they had to do was ask” bull.

The federal government tried and failed repeatedly for more than a year and a half to retrieve classified and sensitive documents from former President Donald J. Trump before resorting to a search of his Mar-a-Lago property this month, according to government documents and statements by Mr. Trump’s lawyers. (emphasis added)

The documents, including an unsealed, redacted version of an affidavit from the Justice Department requesting a warrant to conduct the search, make clear the lengths to which the National Archives and the department went before officials pursued a law enforcement action to recover the material.

The FBI knew that Trump had documents at his home in Florida that he was not supposed to have: he had already given them 15 boxes of official material in January of this year, and the FBI and the National Archives suspected there were more documents in Florida that should be returned to the government and that Trump was obstructing their efforts to retrieve them.  Why they thought that is undoubtedly in the redacted parts of the affidavit, parts we haven’t seen but which the federal magistrate judge did read and consider before approving the search warrant.

the affidavit states that the National Archives spent six months in the latter half of 2021 trying to get more documents. And then the FBI got involved. The Post…reported that all this year, Trump resisted handing much of anything over, to the point where his allies feared he was “essentially daring” the FBI to come after them.

Trump was also warned before he even left the White House that taking any official documents with him, let alone national secrets, was illegal under the Presidential Records Act. And even Trump’s attorneys agreed that the former president needed to give the documents back…

(snip)

Included in the paperwork with the affidavit was a formal notice that the redacted memorandum was being released. In it, the Justice Department writes that the redactions are necessary to protect “a broad range of civilian witnesses.”

“This language suggests that people inside Trump’s former administration, or at Mar-a-Lago, are providing information to the FBI,” [former federal prosecutor Barbara] McQuade said.

The redacted affidavit itself suggests that the investigation includes detailed monitoring of Mar-a-Lago to find out how many boxes of official material were still there and where they were being stored.

To be clear: the classified status of some of these documents is only part of the issue.  The laws make clear that no former president is permitted to take control of these types of records—”mere possession of these documents is a crime under some of the statutes cited in the affidavit, whether or not they are classified.”

Trump filed a legal motion this week, arguing that, as president, he had the right to declassify any classified documents and that his continued possession of the material was based on “executive privilege.” A judge should have no problem dismissing both arguments. First, while a president can declassify documents, there is a process for doing so; at the conclusion of the process, the special classified tabs and markings would be removed. Yet the tabs and markings are still on the documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago. Second, mere possession, much less declassification, of some documents, such as those marked OCORN, must first be approved by the originating agency. That doesn’t seem to have been done either. Third, a president—certainly an ex-president—has no executive privilege to hold documents that properly belong to the National Archives.

If you think about it, Trump’s argument that he had declassified the classified documents…doesn’t help.

On top of which, the whole “I raised my magic hand and the documents were declassified” argument has a distinctly “what excuse do they have today” air about it.

These actions by the FBI and the Department of Justice are reassuring: federal law enforcement is walking the talk about no one being above the law.  And to those who’ve been clutching their pearls for almost three weeks now at the audacity of the government for having the nerve to search the home of a former president, I think the best and easiest response is to say, we’ve never had any reason to believe that any other former president had ever committed acts that would call for government action like this.  But this guy has.  And if you’re straining to keep up with all the other investigations involving the former guy, here’s some help.

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…