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.

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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.

Seatbacks in the upright and locked position, please; we’re about to encounter some (more) turbulence

If you were thinking that someday the chickens of justice would come home to roust, probably in that thing on the top of Donald Trump’s head, then today could be the day they start.  Very excited at the news of the first indictments in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation and of charges against three people, including a guilty plea that ties the Trump presidential campaign to Russian attempts to influence the election.  En garde!

One-time Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime business partner Rick Gates are named in indictments alleging felony conspiracy, but the indictments make no reference to the presidential campaign nor any reference to coordination between the campaign and Russia.  Up front, let’s remember that an indictment is not proof of a crime, and that Manafort and Gates both pleaded not guilty to the charges today.  But let’s remember as well that an experienced and skilled investigator and prosecutor like Mueller doesn’t go the grand jury with charges without having a strong case.  (Yes, yes, I know about grand juries and ham sandwiches, but still.)  Also, we should have faith that this is just the first public step in a well-developed-and-researched case(s), not the last.

Why was it again that Manafort was the former campaign chairman?  Oh yeah, because he was fired from the campaign after it was learned he’d received more than $12 million in payments from a former president of Ukraine, a pro-Russia politician whom he had worked with for years, that he had failed to disclose.  And for what has he been indicted?  Conspiracy against the United States of America, conspiracy to launder money, and more.

I believe in giving credit where it’s due, especially in areas where it rarely ever is: the president was accurate when he tweeted this morning that the indictments of Manafort and Gates make no reference to the Trump campaign, nor do they allege wrongdoing in relation to the campaign.  Now, on the other hand (you saw this coming), he tweets that as if it’s all that needs to be said ever again on the topic, as if that proves the ultimate innocence of Trump, and all the Trumpets, and the campaign, of all the Russia allegations, and then (of course) uses it as a springboard (again) to suggest the real investigation should be aimed at Hillary Clinton.  (Heavy sigh.)

But he offers no comment at all on the rest of the indictment news, which I think is far more important on its face: the fact that former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pled guilty earlier this month to lying to the FBI in the Mueller probe, which is the “most explicit evidence [so far] connecting the Trump campaign to the Russian government’s meddling in last year’s election.”

Short version: Papadopoulos tried repeatedly to arrange a meeting between a London-based professor and Trump campaign officials…because he was told by the professor in April of 2016 that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, at a time long before the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign were public knowledge…and then he lied to the FBI about how valuable he considered the professor but now acknowledges he knew then that the professor had “substantial connections” to Vladimir Putin’s government.

It’s unbecoming for a graying, overweight man in his 60s who is not Santa Claus to be giddy, but I’m right on the edge of that with today’s news.  Mueller is ready to start showing his cards, and I trust that he (a) is smart enough to believe he has the goods, and (b) has all the ducks properly aligned, before he starts to deal the cards.  Charles Pierce has the same feeling: this is just the beginning, or as he puts it, the snowball has started to roll downhill:

For a while on Monday, whomever in the White House is charged with the task of hiding the presidential* telephone had done a fairly good job. The president*’s Twitter account was rigged for silent running. Republican congresscritters also were maintaining a discreet distance in the immediate aftermath of the news. (Congressman Sean Duffy of Wisconsin popped up on Three Dolts On A Divan to say “dossier,” “Hillary,” and “uranium” a few times, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it.)

At the very least, it would seem to me, Republican congressional leaders ought to be forced to take a position as to what they would do if the president* fired Robert Mueller now that the first shoe has dropped. This should be an easy one, of course, but there is that tax bill to pass, and all that money to shove upwards to the donors, so obligations to the Constitution can wait.

This isn’t going to go like a Perry Mason murder trial, where the real killer suddenly feels remorse and rises to confess the whole thing.  Trump won’t go away easy; we can expect he’ll resist every step of the way because he still believes he’s smarter and luckier (and richer, and better looking) than everyone else.   And of course, there’s the general understanding that he will lie…about everything, as he has done, even when lying doesn’t help his cause.  He operates as if he firmly believes that everyone accepts everything he says as gospel because, well, because it’s him saying it; the fact that he is often wrong and contradicts himself is apparently irrelevant to the true believers.  Now, that was probably a good bet to be true when he lived in a universe wholly populated by people dependent on him for their financial well being.  For the rest of us, the vast majority of the world’s people who don’t have a financial relationship with Trump, it’s annoying and pathetic.  But we know it’s coming, so we’ll deal with it.

Despite the agony I imagine the president will put the country through, I admit I relish the thought of that day when we’ll get to see this guy go up in flames.  But it won’t be tomorrow…author Kevin Kruse (@KevinMKruse) tweeted a reminder earlier today that it was almost two years between the first Watergate-related indictments (of the Watergate burglars) and Richard Nixon’s resignation.  And it was close to the end of that period before the Republican Congressional leadership moved past their private disgust and went public with their opposition to the president of their own party.

There’s no encouraging reading yet on how far the Republicans who control Congress today will let this go before publicly standing up to the White House.  You’d like to think they’d already be taking a stand against a good bit of what Trump has been doing, but as Pierce noted, there are still rich Americans in desperate need of tax cuts, which means Republicans have some pipers to pay before they can stand up for America.