Some Decisions Should Be Easy

Some smart people make them difficult.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, announced a decision yesterday:

The Mueller report lays out facts showing that a hostile foreign government attacked our 2016 election to help Donald Trump and Donald Trump welcomed that help. Once elected, Donald Trump obstructed the investigation into that attack. 

Mueller put the next step in the hands of Congress: “Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.” The correct process for exercising that authority is impeachment.

To ignore a President’s repeated efforts to obstruct an investigation into his own disloyal behavior would inflict great and lasting damage on this country, and it would suggest that both the current and future Presidents would be free to abuse their power in similar ways.

The severity of this misconduct demands that elected officials in both parties set aside political considerations and do their constitutional duty. That means the House should initiate impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States.

She explained her decision to Rachel Maddow last night. The senator begins speaking at 1:25 of this short video. If you watch it, you’ll see that Sen. Warren is a very smart person who made an easy decision (it’s more evidence that she should be our next president).

Rachel Maddow: “What made you decide to take this step today?”

Elizabeth Warren: “Well, I read the report.”

There are other smart people reading the Mueller report (or being told what’s in it) who believe the issue is much more complicated. They’ve seen polls that say the American people aren’t enthusiastic about impeachment. They’re concerned that impeaching the president would “tear the country apart”. They assume that Republican senators would never vote to remove this president, no matter what he’s done. They’re worried that Democrats would suffer in the next election. They think the election would end up being all about impeachment, not the issues voters really care about. They think most voters are too cynical to care about the president’s behavior. For some reason, they think that publicizing the president’s misdeeds in televised hearings would discourage Democratic voters and energize Republican ones.

It’s unfortunate that some of the smart people having trouble with this decision are Democrats in Congress.

From Jamil Smith, writing for Rolling Stone:

Despite a few outliers, such as freshmen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib [and now Elizabeth Warren], most Democrats in Congress have not recognized that the responsibility of impeachment is now at their doorstep, so I fully expect the Democratic Party as a whole will pull its punches.

The pathetic part is that it isn’t because it isn’t “worthwhile.” Impeaching a man who did nothing to stop a foreign attack on American elections on his behalf, then went on to a presidency where he obstructed justice while locking up migrant kids and letting Puerto Rico drown? Yeah, that’s worthwhile. No, they’ll hold off from impeachment… The common perception appears to be that an attempt at impeachment — with Republicans holding a slight but firm majority in the Senate — would be doomed to failure and the entire enterprise would hurt the chances of swing-state Democrats seeking re-election. But it is foolish to assume that every impeachment effort would go the way of Newt Gingrich in the Nineties, when a harebrained effort to fire President Bill Clinton backfired on the Republicans at the ballot box [and ignoring how impeaching a corrupt Republican president, Richard Nixon, helped the Democrats in the 1970s]….

Should Democrats take impeachment off the table, they would let [him] get away with it. It is that elementary. There is no guarantee that he will not repeat the very same encouragement of those Russian efforts, all the while playing dumb so as to avoid legal culpability.

If Democrats were smarter, they would understand that initiating the impeachment of [this president] might actually galvanize their base because it would demonstrate that leadership was willing to take the obvious, the logical and the constitutional step once presented with such an abundance of evidence. They would grasp that the visual of their party standing up to a president wedded equally to corruption and to his assortment of bigotries would be appealing to an electorate where black voters are increasingly driving the conversation. Democrats would seize upon the Mueller Report as a flashpoint for organization and recruitment, rather than take the task of prosecution that the Constitution assigned to Congress, hand it off to voters and call that “democracy.” It is up to us as citizens to choose our elected officials, not to do their jobs for them.

How about this instead? Since there is plenty of evidence that the president abused his office, the House of Representative should begin impeachment proceedings. If the evidence is there (hardly an open question at this point), let the House send the matter to the Senate for final determination. If they choose to, let each Republican in the Senate argue that the president’s behavior hasn’t been all that bad. But let’s see how all the senators vote when they have to go on the record, after hearing all the evidence and arguments.

Whatever Congress ends up doing, the presidential candidates will proceed with their campaigns, emphasizing the issues they want to emphasize. Then, in the next election, let the voters decide whether they prefer Democrats or Republicans. If our system of government still works, the Democrats will take the presidency, the House and the Senate in the 2020 election.

It’s really that simple.

Tell Pelosi to Impeach the Bastard Now

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sent a letter yesterday to her Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives:

In his summary letter and press conference, Attorney General Barr presented a conclusion that the President did not obstruct justice.  The Mueller report appears to directly undercut that claim.

Our Chairmen are studying the report, and have released a joint statement.  As we continue to review this document, we will have more to report and will update you on the next steps that must be taken.  The Caucus is scheduling a conference call for Monday to discuss this grave matter, which is as soon as our analysis and this Holy Season’s religious traditions allow.

The Mueller report states, “We concluded Congress has authority to prohibit a president’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice,” which “accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”  Congress will not be silent.

Sure, Congress won’t be silent, but will the Democrats begin impeachment proceedings or will they merely proceed with their plans to investigate and publicize the president’s unfitness? I’m not going to repeat the overwhelming arguments for impeaching the president. If you’re not convinced, you might dip into these commentaries:

Greg Sargent, The Washington Post, “Democratic Equivocation Over Impeachment Is a Moral and Political Disaster”

Noah Bookbinder, The New York Times, “Mueller’s Damning Report”

Brian Beutler, Crooked, “Democrats’s Impeachment Panic Is Endangering the Country”

Heather Digby Parton, Salon, “Roadmap for Impeachment: Mueller’s Purpose Is Clear”

Yoni Applebaum, The Atlantic, “The Mueller Report Is an Impeachment Referral”

The Moscow Project (unsigned), “The Mueller Report, Like the Watergate Roadmap, Should Be Considered an Impeachment Referral”

George Conway, The Washington Post, “Trump Is a Cancer on the Presidency — Congress Should Remove Him”

Charles Pierce, Esquire, “The Mueller Report Is a Challenge to Congress: Save the Republic. Impeach the President”

Michelle Goldberg, The New York Times, In a Functional Country, We Would Be on the Road to Impeachment”

Really, now that we have the redacted Mueller report, no argument is needed to justify the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives taking action next week.

But if you would like to give Speaker Pelosi some encouragement on the matter, you can send her a message at Speaker Contact. Or you can call her Washington office at (202) 225-4965 or her San Francisco office at (415) 556-4862.

I sent her a few thoughts. It was easy:

Madame Speaker: This is not a moment for political calculations or equivocation. It is time to fulfill your responsibilities as Speaker of the House. You must initiate impeachment proceedings against the president. We know he is guilty of obstruction of justice. The rule of law demands action now. Not impeaching him will give him license to behave even worse (and to argue that if he had done anything wrong, the Democrats would have impeached him). But even from a political standpoint, it would be a terrible blow to Democratic voters across the country who gave you back the House majority and want the president to be held to account. You must act and act now. 

Contacting the House member for your district is also a good idea. You can find their contact information at Directory of Representatives.

We need to decide as a nation if the rule of law still applies to the government of the United States or if our presidents are above the law. Now is the moment to answer that question.

Day By Day, It’s Getting Worse

David Rothkopf, a political scientist with years of experience in academia, government and the private sector, spoke out on Twitter yesterday. He is not a radical leftist by any means. Quote:

Something broke in America this week. We have been spiraling downward since Trump’s election, but this week, we crossed a line. The President and his men began asserting that they were above the law–and effectively no one in our system did anything to stop them.

The Attorney General sneered at the Congress and placed himself imperiously above its questions. He continued to arrogate onto himself what portions of the Mueller Report–paid for by the people, essentially in its totality to the Congress to do its duty–we would see.

He asserted again that he was the final arbiter of whether obstruction of justice by the president had taken place. He even went so far as to imply that law enforcement authorities carrying out their duty to protect America were somehow “spying”, perhaps illicitly on the Trump campaign. (Ignoring that the reasons for the investigation in question were not only sound…but the core reason…that Russia had sought to aid the Trump campaign in the election had been proven again by Mueller.)

At the same time, the Secretary of the Treasury and the head of the [Internal Revenue Service] determined to violate a law that required in no uncertain terms for them to provide the president’s tax returns to the chairman of the House Ways and Means committee.

At the same time a purge at the Department of Homeland Security took place and it became quickly clear it was because the president and his team were frustrated that officials would not act in violation of the law. We learned that the White House promised pardons to those who break the law, encouraging a crime and abetting it. We learned that they considered an egregious abuse of power that would involve releasing illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities controlled by Democrats.

We saw the president complain that our military would not rough up immigrants. We saw him continue the charade of an emergency at our southern border which was an excuse for him illegally divert government resources to an unnecessary, racist, vanity project.

The president repeatedly called law enforcement officers who investigated him traitors, guilty of treason–a crime that carries with it the death penalty. We discovered that the president considered appointing his grossly unqualified daughter to be head of the World Bank.

It is the stuff of the world’s most dysfunctional governments. But rather than generating a response from within our system commensurate with the threat, nothing occurred. The [Republican] leaders in the Senate circled round the president and supported his abuses.

In so doing, they sent a message that they would never challenge him much less convict him of the myriad crimes he has committed. The checks and balances our system was built upon are gone. Worse, the courts are being packed with Trump cronies–often unqualified.

Agencies are being left to appointed caretakers some outside the normal chain of succession, many unconfirmed for their current posts by the Senate. Political opponents tip-toed around these crimes daring not to appear “too extreme.”

This is how democracies die. The rule of law is slowly strangled. The unthinkable becomes commonplace. The illegal becomes accepted–from violations of the emoluments clause to self-dealing to Federal election law crimes to serial sexual abuse.

What once was black and white blurs into grey. Right and wrong, old principles, enduring values, fade from memory. Authoritarians arrive in our midst not in tanks but in bad suits and worse haircuts.

I have long thought our system was better than this–more resilient. But candidly, I’m no longer sure. I remain hopeful…hopeful that the next election cycle can redress these manifold wrongs. But it will not be easy. It will be too close. Trump may be with us for six more years.

Why? Because we allowed ourselves to become inured to the unthinkable. We are dying the death of a thousand cuts. Right now, this week, the president and his band of thugs are winning. They have become unabashed in their attacks on the law.

They are daring someone to enforce it. But what if…what if the courts rule against them but they ignore it? What if the Treasury Secretary has violated a law and no one arrests him. What if the president steals and canoodles with enemies and he goes unpunished?

Their crimes will only grow more egregious and their ways will only grow more ingrained in our system. Their violations will in fact become the system itself. Corruption will be the norm-greater corruption,to be sure, since it it was corruption that got us here in the first place.

Our only hope is recognizing the seriousness of our situation. This is not politics as usual. This is not an erosion of what was. This is a full blown crisis, the greatest American politics has faced in half a century…perhaps much longer.

It is not a time for equivocation. It is not a time for patience. It is time for those who seek to protect the rule of law to step up to protect it or the chance may not soon again return.

Unquote.

I’ll add that the president also tweeted a video yesterday that made it look like Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim women now serving in Congress, had minimized the 9/11 attacks. It was an invitation to his most demented followers to teach her a lesson. This from a person whose first reaction to 9/11, delivered that day on television, wasn’t an expression of sorrow or anger. It was that one of his buildings was now the tallest in Lower Manhattan.

The Nation’s Chief Law Enforcement Officer Is Bad News

William Barr, the new U.S. Attorney General, was confirmed two months ago. At the time, Dianne Feinstein, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s senior Democrat, was reported to have said that Barr’s refusal to commit to releasing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report was “disqualifying”. She also said she was worried that Barr “would be unable to stand up to” the president. 

Brian Beutler of Crooked.com suggests that Barr’s brain may have been damaged by too much exposure to Fox News. Instead of standing up to the president, he’s encouraging the creep’s worst impulses. Quote:

Barr is the common thread connecting the deceptive propaganda of Trump’s non-exoneration exoneration, and the administration’s abdication of its duty to take care that the laws of the U.S.—even ones Trump doesn’t like—are faithfully defended. The former required Barr to usurp Congress’s role as the proper arbiter of Trump’s non-prosecutable misconduct, the latter required him to subvert his own institution, and both required him to serve Trump personally, instead of the United States. Barr plainly relished the abuses of power, even if he notionally disagreed with the strategic wisdom of making frivolous arguments in court.

But Trump has never wanted for advisers who hate Obamacare and would help him conceal his wrongdoing. What he lacked before was an attorney general who was as enthusiastically contemptuous of the rule of law as he is, and willing to compromise the ideal of non-partisan law enforcement on his behalf.

Trump has spent the entirety of his presidency bumping up against institutional restraints, determined to jump them.

The notion that the conservative establishment had erected guardrails around Trump by putting “adults in the room” with him is an artifact of the transition, when Trump had little real discretion over who would serve in his White House and cabinet. Trump undertook basically no preparation for the presidency, so when he won the election unexpectedly, he had no choice but to defer to his party, which promised to provide his fledgling administration a thin veneer of competence.

Within hours of his inauguration, Trump’s basic unfitness for office had overwhelmed these functionaries, many of whom were less “adults in the room” than opportunists who hoped to milk their fiefdoms for all they could—to advance Trump’s racist, kleptocratic agenda, while keeping a foot planted within the political elite, where they expected to return eventually.

Ousted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is the two-faced poster child for these “adults,” none of whom are in the room anymore. Her presence like theirs wasn’t much of a restraint at all. Nielsen ripped migrant children from the arms of their parents and placed them in makeshift jails where more than one of them died. Trump lost faith in her not because she wasn’t willing to disgrace herself (she lied under oath to Congress, and committed crimes against humanity that will make traveling abroad a dicey proposition for the rest of her life), but because she wouldn’t defy court orders and black-letter law.

Trump purged Nielsen and the rest of her department’s senior leadership reportedly because he became convinced that more committed, less careerist officials would help him assert dictatorial power. But it’s hard to fathom that Barr’s arrival and his demonstrations of loyalty had nothing to do with the decision. Trump could have made his move at any time, but he did it now at the worst possible time for disruption, for a reason.

It’s possible that Barr would draw the line at Trump’s suggestion that border agents ignore immigration judges, but we can’t blame Trump for thinking otherwise.

Having declared Trump’s legal innocence and concealed the Mueller report for him, Barr has now turned his talents to providing the administration flimsy legal cover for violating the law that requires the Treasury Department to turn Trump’s tax returns over to Congress. He appeared before the Senate Wednesday to claim Obama administration officials had engaged in “spying” on the Trump campaign, and now threatens to take punitive action against them.

The political establishment’s hope that Barr would serve as a new adult in the room to replace departed ones was always misplaced. He first gained notoriety as the George H.W. Bush attorney general who completed the Iran Contra coverup, and came to Trump’s attention by writing an unsolicited memo that disparaged the Russia investigation and asserted presidents can’t obstruct justice in the course of their official conduct. In between he worked in private practice, but also seems to have allowed conservative propaganda to rot his brain. In 2017 he emailedNew York Times reporter Peter Baker to declare, “I have long believed that the predicate for investigating the uranium deal, as well as the [Clinton] foundation, is far stronger than any basis for investigating so-called ‘collusion,’” which is something only a person overfed on a diet of Fox News would say. Reviving the debunked SPYGATE conspiracy theory is no different, except he now controls the Justice Department where he can substitute Trump’s ravings and lies and authoritarian predilections for the rule of law.

Trump has noticed, and is adjusting to a new, less constrained, far more dangerous phase of his presidency.

Unquote.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi responded to Barr’s recent behavior:

“Let me just say, I’m very, very dismayed and disappointed that the chief law enforcement officer of our country is going off the rails yesterday and today,” Pelosi told reporters at a Democratic Party retreat in Virginia.

“He is attorney general of the United States of America, not the attorney general of Donald Trump.”

So far, that isn’t true. He’s doing the job he was hired to do: protect his boss, not the United States.

Last Words For Now On That Situation

From Victoria Bassetti, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice:

Eighty-eight words. That’s all we have of the Mueller report. After 22 months of near-total silence, Robert Swan Mueller, III, has spoken — just not to us. Last Friday, he submitted a report of unknown length on his investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election to Attorney General William Barr [NOTE: It’s reported to be more than 300 pages long, in fact, apparently longer than required by the Special Counsel statute]. Barr in turn has deigned to make public a few extracts of the report, sprinkling a bit of it into his own letter to Congress.

The crux of the Mueller report, as conveyed by Barr, lies in two sentences. The first, that the investigation “did not establish” that the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government. As to whether the president obstructed justice when he tried to derail the investigation, Mueller notes that  “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

With his feral flair for spin, President Donald Trump moved quickly to ignore the actual conclusions and market the Barr letter with its grand total of 88 words from Mueller as a “complete and total exoneration.” Or as one Twitter wag put it: “Classic Trumpian paradigm: ‘I got away with it = I didn’t do it.’”

Pay particular attention to two of Mueller’s phrases: “did not establish” and “did not exonerate.” Lawyers will know that those two phrases actually hint at the opposite of a complete Trump vindication. The first suggests that there was in fact some proof — just not enough to establish criminal wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt. We do not know how much evidence Mueller uncovered, but his wording intimates more than the bare minimum. Otherwise, he would have simply said there was no case to be made. He is, after all, a famously direct and to the point man. As for “did not exonerate,” that’s as close as a prosecutor gets to saying, “You were in the wrong, but we can’t convict.”

All told, the small parts of the Mueller report that peak out from Barr’s letter suggest difficulty building a criminal case but nothing even close to a clean bill of health. That’s why releasing the full Mueller report is so important. While the headline is clear — no more indictments — the details matter enormously. It’s not far different from a visit to the emergency room where an ER doctor tells you: “No, you’re not having a heart attack right now but look at that cholesterol level, artery blockage, shortness of breath, and, oh there’s a spot on the X-ray.” Great to learn about no heart attack; not smart to walk out before hearing the rest of the diagnosis.

Mueller’s eighty-eight words of consultation filtered through a second party are not enough. And the need for a comprehensive account of what the investigation found has only been made more urgent by President Trump’s recent series of attacks on the very idea of the investigation. On Sunday he called the investigation “an illegal takedown that failed.” The following day he threatened retaliation. “There are people out there who have done very bad things, I would say treasonous things against our country. And hopefully, people that have done such harm to our country — we’ve gone through a period of really bad things happening — those people will certainly be looked at,” the president said.

Full disclosure of the Mueller report would reveal whether a host of concerns — about Russian attacks on our election system, Russian efforts to infiltrate and work with the Trump campaign, the campaign’s response to those efforts, and finally Trump’s efforts to pervert the administration of justice for his own purposes — were valid or not.

A decision on when and how much of the report to release rests in the hands of Barr — who is also, presumably, the man on the receiving end of the president’s demand to investigate the investigators. During his confirmation hearings earlier this year, Barr told senators that his goal with regard to the Mueller report “will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law.” A larger challenge lies before him: to provide as much transparency as he can for the health of our democracy.

From the “What A Day” newsletter at Crooked Media:

The deadline six House committee chairs set for Attorney General William Barr to turn over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s full report is April 2, but Barr has already informed House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler that he’ll miss the deadline. Barr also will not commit to providing Congress the full report, and only provided Nadler the report’s official page count on the condition that he not share the number publicly. 

Nearly a week after Mueller submitted his report, all we know about it, beyond what’s in Barr’s highly political three-and-a-half page summary, is that it is somewhere between 300 and 1000 pages long.

This is an unacceptable state of affairs, and it’s past time for House Democrats to use their official powers to either obtain the report itself, make its details public, or get some answers from the Justice Department.

Here’s what Democrats can do.

  • Subpoena the report. This is the most obvious step they can and presumably will take, but it would likely tee up lengthy legal battles over what the administration has a right to withhold. On the other hand, the threat of a subpoena might allow Democrats to secure a public and airtight commitment from Barr to share the entire report minus the narrowest omissions (say, to protect ongoing investigations) by a specific date.
  • Subpoena Mueller. There has been a lot of chatter about Barr’s forthcoming testimony to Congress, but he has already revealed himself to be an unreliable narrator. Mueller remains widely trusted, but he can’t speak out of turn. Subpoenaing him would unshackle him, personally, and leave it to the administration to decide whether to silence him—but by silencing him, they’d give up the game.
  • Begin impeachment proceedings. House leadership has made clear that Democrats are terrified of impeachment, but that may be the only way they can successfully secure Mueller’s grand jury materials, which are otherwise bound by strict secrecy requirements. That’s what happened during Watergate, and it should be on the table today.
  • Lose their shit. It sounds silly, but a sustained Democratic message that the administration is hiding something, and that they must release the full report might just work better than anything else. Last year, Republicans generated days of anticipation by making the Twitter hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo go viral. This was about an absurd, conspiracy theory-ridden document that their own party wrote, but they were able to create a widespread sense that the government was hiding something explosive from the public. That’s what’s actually happening now, and Dems shouldn’t shy away from building public pressure.

The Democratic toolbox also includes holding Barr and other officials in contempt of Congress and threatening to withhold funds from certain Justice Department components or programs. But the key is to demonstrate that concealing Mueller’s findings is unacceptable, and they won’t get away with quietly burying it. Asking nicely, which has been the Democrats’ disappointing approach to oversight thus far, will not suffice here.

Today, Republicans on the House intelligence committee publicly called upon the committee’s chairman, Adam Schiff, to step down at a hearing that was supposed to be about whether President Trump’s business negotiations with Moscow—which he lied about throughout the campaign and well into his presidency—left him compromised.

Schiff’s response was to deliver Republicans the shaming they deserve. 

Hopefully this is a lesson Democrats will heed about who they’re dealing with. When they returned to power, Democrats set about trying to restore comity on their committees, after enduring years of Republican abuse. They were not rewarded for their kindness because Republicans understand that they’re not there to make friends. [End quote]

Personal Postscript:

#ReleaseTheReport

Sometimes the Rank Stupidity Gets You Down

This is one of those times. Special Counsel Robert Mueller gives the results of his two-year investigation to the new Attorney General William Barr. Two days later, Barr issues a four-page letter that is supposed to summarize Mueller’s findings.

The letter mentions that Mueller found a significant amount of criminal activity and referred several items to other officials for further investigation, but gives the impression that the president himself didn’t do anything wrong. The president and his supporters declare total victory. No collusion after all! Millions absorb the headlines. Media figures blame their colleagues for giving Mueller’s investigation too much attention, for misleading the public, for being too tough on the president.

But it’s bullshit.

First, consider who wrote the letter and who concluded that Mueller didn’t find enough evidence of obstruction of justice. William Barr is a Republican lawyer who delivered an unsolicited 19-page memo to the Justice Department and the president’s lawyers in June, in which he argued that Mueller’s inquiry into obstruction of justice was “fatally misconceived”. Barr claimed that, given the nature of their authority, it’s extremely difficult for presidents to obstruct justice. He saw no reason to conclude that our current president committed a crime, even though the president tried in various ways to limit investigations into his own activities by, for example, firing the head of the F.B.I. Lo and behold, six months after Barr issues his memo, the president selects Barr to be his new Attorney General (after firing the previous Attorney General because he wasn’t sufficiently loyal).

Barr’s letter says another Republican official, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, agreed that Mueller’s evidence was insufficient. But last May, Rosenstein wrote a memo that purported to explain why the president fired the head of the F.B.I. He claimed James Comey’s dismissal had nothing to do with the Mueller investigation, even though the president admitted on national television that Comey was fired because of “this Russia thing”. Rosenstein now concludes that no obstruction of justice occurred, even though he played a questionable role in the president’s behavior that’s at issue.

Now consider the Barr letter itself. It helps a lot to pay close attention to the actual wording of a document like this, even though nuance doesn’t easily translate into headlines. My first impression was that Barr was making this argument. (1) Mueller didn’t find evidence that the President was part of a criminal conspiracy with the Russian government. (2) The president cannot be accused of interfering with an investigation if the investigation fails to find sufficient evidence of an actual crime. (3) Since we are not accusing the president of criminal conspiracy, we can’t accuse him of obstructing the investigation to see if said conspiracy occurred.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds fishy to me. But who knows? They say the law is an ass.

So it was good to see similar reactions to Barr’s letter. William Saletan offers a close reading of the letter at Slate. His article is called “Bill Barr’s Weasel Words”. Everyone who is interested in this fiasco should read his article. He highlights ten instances in which Barr’s language is suspicious or simply misleading. This may be the most important, since it underlies everything else:

“The Russian government.” … Mueller says his investigation didn’t prove that members of the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” The sentence specifies Russia’s government. It says nothing about coordination with other Russians. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, gave campaign polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian associate who has been linked to Russian intelligence. Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner met secretly in Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected lawyer. But neither Kilimnik nor Veselnitskaya is part of the Russian government….

(There were more than 100 meetings between campaign officials and various Russians. Everyone in the campaign, including the president, pretended that none of these meetings occurred.)

Saletan’s main conclusion is that the letter doesn’t show the president to be innocent. Instead, it shows that Attorney General Barr defined criminal behavior in such a way that it didn’t apply to what the president did.

Another article worth reading was written by Neal Katyal, a law professor who drafted the special counsel regulations under which Robert Mueller was appointed. His article is called “The Many Problems with the Barr Letter”. Here’s how it begins:

On Sunday afternoon, soon after Attorney General Bill Barr released a letter outlining the Mueller investigation report, President Trump tweeted “Total EXONERATION!” But there are any number of reasons the president should not be taking a victory lap.

First, obviously, he still faces the New York investigations into campaign finance violations by the Trump team and the various investigations into the Trump organization. And Mr. Barr, in his letter, acknowledges that the Mueller report “does not exonerate” Mr. Trump on the issue of obstruction, even if it does not recommend an indictment.

But the critical part of the letter is that it now creates a whole new mess. After laying out the scope of the investigation and noting that Mr. Mueller’s report does not offer any legal recommendations, Mr. Barr declares that it therefore “leaves it to the attorney general to decide whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.” He then concludes the president did not obstruct justice when he fired the F.B.I. director, James Comey.

Such a conclusion would be momentous in any event. But to do so within 48 hours of receiving the report (which pointedly did not reach that conclusion) should be deeply concerning to every American.

The special counsel regulations were written to provide the public with confidence that justice was done. It is impossible for the public to reach that determination without knowing two things. First, what did the Mueller report conclude, and what was the evidence on obstruction of justice? And second, how could Mr. Barr have reached his conclusion so quickly?

Mr. Barr’s letter raises far more questions than it answers, both on the facts and the law.

As headline writers suggest that everything is rosy in Trump World, and the president pretends he’s been the victim all along, we need to keep in mind that we haven’t seen the actual Mueller report, we haven’t heard Barr and Mueller testify before Congress, and we don’t know how the many other investigations into the president’s activities and associates will turn out. It is way too soon for anyone to hold a parade in the president’s honor. This isn’t the end, it’s just the end of the beginning.

Fourteen Felonies?

Michael Cohen, the president’s former “fixer”, testified before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday. He described the president as a racist, a conman and a cheat — no news there. He also said the president is a criminal — ditto.

But Ken Gude, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, performed a public service by attempting to list “the incredible number of felonies that Cohen directly implicated Trump in”. We don’t know for sure if the president committed all these crimes. On the other hand, Cohen was merely answering questions, not telling us everything he knows about the president’s illegalities. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive collection of felonious behavior:

1. Conspiracy to defraud the United States (collusion) – Cohen’s allegation that Trump and Stone spoke about the impending Wikileaks release of [Democratic National Committee] emails before they were released with [Roger Stone] asserting to Trump that he had communicated with [Julian Assange of Wikileaks].

2. False statements – In response to a written question from Mueller, Trump reportedly denied ever having spoken to Stone about Wikileaks. Cohen said this is false.

3. False statements – In response to a written question from Mueller, Trump reportedly denied knowing about Don Jr’s Trump Tower meeting with Russians. Cohen said this is false.

4. Campaign finance violations – Cohen provided a check that shows that Trump reimbursed him for the $130,000 he paid to Stormy Daniels to conceal their affair.

5. Conspiracy to defraud the United States (election fraud) – Cohen alleged that Trump directed him and Allen Weisselberg of the Trump Organization to conceal his affair with Stormy Daniels with the intention of fraudulently influencing an election.

6. False statements on a loan application – Cohen brought Trump’s partial financial records for 2011-2013 that Cohen alleged showed that Trump falsely inflated the value of his assets to obtain a loan in order to purchase the Buffalo Bills.

7. Insurance fraud – Cohen alleged that Trump would make false insurance claims.

8. Tax fraud – Cohen alleged that Trump would knowingly provide inaccurate lower values of his properties in order to fraudulently obtain tax benefits.

9. Witness tampering – Cohen said that Trump’s threatening tweets were an attempt to intimidate him, saying Trump could do “a lot” to hurt him and his family.

10. Suborning perjury – Cohen says that in a meeting in the White House, Trump indicated that he wanted Cohen to provide a false message saying “No Russia. No collusion.”

11. Suborning perjury – Cohen says that Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow edited his Congressional testimony to falsely shorten the duration of the negotiations on the Trump Moscow project.

12. Obstruction of a Congressional proceeding – The witness tampering and the suborning perjury constitutes obstruction of a Congressional proceeding.

13. Perjury – Cohen says that Trump’s 2013 sworn testimony that he wouldn’t recognize Felix Sater was clearly false, explaining that Sater had an office on the same floor as Trump in Trump Tower.

14. Illegal use of charity assets for personal benefit – Cohen alleged that Trump directed him to get a straw bidder to buy a portrait of Trump at an auction and that Trump then directed the Trump Foundation to reimburse the fake bidder with its assets.

Cohen testified in closed sessions on Tuesday and Thursday. Might he have described a few more felonies? Let’s put it this way. If our legal system works as it should, the Donald will spend his twilight years living in confined quarters at the government’s expense.