It’s Not Over At All

From attorney George Conway:

Attorney General William Barr’s letter revealed something unexpected about the obstruction issue: that Mueller said his “report does not conclude that the President committed a crime” but that “it also does not exonerate him.” The report does not exonerate the president? That’s a stunning thing for a prosecutor to say. Mueller didn’t have to say that. Indeed, making that very point, the president’s outside counsel, Rudolph W. Giuliani, called the statement a “cheap shot.”

But Mueller isn’t prone to cheap shots; he plays by the rules, every step of the way. If his report doesn’t exonerate the president, there must be something pretty damning in it about him, even if it might not suffice to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. And in saying that the report “catalogu[ed] the President’s actions, many of which took place in public view,” Barr’s letter makes clear that the report also catalogues actions taken privately that shed light on possible obstruction, actions that the American people and Congress yet know nothing about.

At the same time, and equally remarkably, Mueller, according to Barr, said he “ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment” regarding obstruction. Reading that statement together with the no-exoneration statement, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Mueller wrote his report to allow the American people and Congress to decide what to make of the facts. And that is what should — must — happen now.

From columnist Greg Sargent:

One glaring analytical error we’re seeing in the coverage of Robert S. Mueller III’s findings is the idea that we’re suddenly in a “post-Mueller” political world. The suggestion is that there’s been a sudden, clean break from a rapidly receding past in which the special counsel’s activity threatened President Trump, to a new future in which it does not.

The reality is quite different. In fact, while Mueller’s no-conspiracy finding does close one chapter of this affair, the Mueller probe and its spinoffs added substantial new material to the building case against Trump’s corruption, and they have spawned other investigations that will keep that process moving forward….

Because of all these investigations and their consequences, Trump has been implicated in a criminal hush-money scheme…  We have also learned from Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen that Trump may have gamed his assets for insurance and tax fraud purposes — and that clues to these potential crimes may lie in his tax returns. Cohen also says those returns might shed light on his family’s extensive history of tax fraud.

All that has led to a plethora of other investigations into multiple Trump organizations, which largely grew out of the Mueller investigation. Some of what we learned has created new avenues of inquiry for House Democrats, who are looking into everything from Trump’s role in the hush-money scheme, to whether Trump’s lawyers coached Cohen to lie to Congress about his Moscow project, to his financial entanglements with Russia…. 

Given that the White House is resisting all Democratic subpoena requests — something that we should remember in tandem with likely Trump efforts to keep Mueller’s findings buried — it’s hard to say where all this will end up. But one thing that’s clear is that the focus on Trump’s corruption will continue to intensify and broaden.

The emerging narrative is that demoralized Democrats are debating how to “move on” from Mueller. But Democrats don’t have to get drawn into that debate. That’s because the Mueller probe and its spinoffs have actually made the political terrain a lot more fertile for the focus on Trump’s corruption than before. And the ongoing ripple effects of those investigations will continue to do so.

For example, in one development today:

House Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Elijah Cummings has requested ten years of documents related to President Donald Trump’s past financial dealings….

The request comes after testimony from Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, raised questions as to whether Trump inflated or deflated the value of his financial assets during the course of past business transactions….Cohen said that Trump would inflate his total assets in order to obtain more favorable treatment from banks (in addition to deflating his assets in order to reduce his tax burden).

In his letter to [tax and accounting firm] Mazars LLP, Cummings requested “all statements of financial condition, annual statements, periodic financial reports and independent auditors’ reports.” He also asked for “all engagement agreements or contracts related to the preparation, compilation, review, or auditing of the items” used to determine Trump’s net worth—specific, it appears, to his use of brand value to inflate that net worth. 

And this:

The head of the House Intelligence committee wants to know if [the completion of the Special Counsel’s inquiry into potential criminal conspiracy regarding Russia] means the FBI’s counterintelligence probe into the same question has also concluded.

Rep. Adam Schiff [announced] that he’s begun negotiations with the intelligence agencies to get an answer to one of the many unknowns about the Mueller probe currently hidden behind the veil of Attorney General William Barr’s letter on Sunday purporting to summarize it.

“At this point, we don’t know whether any of the counterintelligence findings are part of the Mueller report,” Schiff said. “We have initiated discussions with the intelligence community to make sure that we obtain whatever is found in the counterintelligence investigation, or whether that [inquiry] is still ongoing.”

In January, The New York Times, citing in part the FBI’s former top lawyer, James Baker, reported that the bureau opened a counterintelligence inquiry into Trump’s ties to Russia in May 2017 after the president fired Director James Comey, who was then in charge of the overall Russia probe. Mueller, soon empaneled as special counsel, inherited that investigation.

Current and former FBI and Justice Department officials have characterized a counterintelligence probe into a sitting president—with its implication that the president, wittingly or not, posed a threat to national security — as unprecedented…. 

The bureau’s counterintelligence investigations seek to understand the surreptitious activities of a foreign power and their possible connections to Americans. Since their objectives are not necessarily to bring charges, their standards of evidence are well below those of criminal inquiries. It is possible that Mueller closed the counterintelligence inquiry, and it is possible that Mueller passed it back to the FBI. Schiff wants to know either way.

The Corruption of the Republican Party, Minus 400 Words

An internet person said: if you’re going to read one article this week, it should be “The Corruption of the Republican Party” by the American journalist and author George Packer. Of the article’s 2,100 words, I think the 1,700 below are the most important.

Why has the Republican Party become so thoroughly corrupt? The reason is historical—it goes back many decades—and, in a way, philosophical. The party is best understood as an insurgency that carried the seeds of its own corruption from the start.

I don’t mean the kind of corruption that regularly sends lowlifes … to prison. Those abuses are nonpartisan and always with us. So is vote theft of the kind we’ve just seen in North Carolina…

And I don’t just mean that the Republican Party is led by the boss of a kleptocratic family business who presides over a scandal-ridden administration, that many of his closest advisers are facing prison time, that Donald Trump himself might have to stay in office just to avoid prosecution…

The corruption I mean has less to do with individual perfidy than institutional depravity. It isn’t an occasional failure to uphold norms, but a consistent repudiation of them. It isn’t about dirty money so much as the pursuit and abuse of power—power as an end in itself, justifying almost any means…. it’s far more dangerous than graft. There are legal remedies for Duncan Hunter, a representative from California, who will stand trial next year for using campaign funds to pay for family luxuries. But there’s no obvious remedy for what the state legislatures of Wisconsin and Michigan, following the example of North Carolina in 2016, are now doing.

Republican majorities are rushing to pass laws that strip away the legitimate powers of newly elected Democratic governors while defeated or outgoing Republican incumbents are still around to sign the bills. Even if the courts overturn some of these power grabs, as they have in North Carolina, Republicans will remain securely entrenched in the legislative majority through their own hyper-gerrymandering—in Wisconsin last month, 54 percent of the total votes cast for major-party candidates gave Democrats just 36 of 99 assembly seats—so they will go on passing laws to thwart election results. Nothing can stop these abuses short of an electoral landslide. In Wisconsin…, that means close to 60 percent of the total vote.

The fact that no plausible election outcome can check the abuse of power is what makes political corruption so dangerous. It strikes at the heart of democracy. It destroys the compact between the people and the government. In rendering voters voiceless, it pushes everyone closer to the use of undemocratic means.

Today’s Republican Party has cornered itself with a base of ever older, whiter, more male, more rural, more conservative voters…. They could have tried to expand; instead, they’ve hardened and walled themselves off. This is why, while voter fraud knows no party, only the Republican Party wildly overstates the risk so that it can pass laws (including right now in Wisconsin, with a bill that reduces early voting) to limit the franchise in ways that have a disparate partisan impact. This is why, when some Democrats in the New Jersey legislature proposed to enshrine gerrymandering in the state constitution, other Democrats, in New Jersey and around the country, objected [and the proposal was withdrawn].

Taking away democratic rights—extreme gerrymandering; blocking an elected president from nominating a Supreme Court justice; selectively paring voting rolls and polling places; creating spurious anti-fraud commissions; misusing the census to undercount the opposition; calling lame-duck legislative sessions to pass laws against the will of the voters—is the Republican Party’s main political strategy, and will be for years to come.

Republicans have chosen contraction and authoritarianism because, unlike the Democrats, their party isn’t a coalition of interests in search of a majority. Its character is ideological. The Republican Party we know is a product of the modern conservative movement, and that movement is a series of insurgencies against the established order. Several of its intellectual founders … were shaped early on by Communist ideology and practice, and their Manichean thinking, their conviction that the salvation of Western civilization depended on the devoted work of a small group of illuminati, marked the movement at its birth.

The first insurgency was the nomination of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. He campaigned as a rebel against the postwar American consensus and the soft middle of his own party’s leadership. Goldwater didn’t use the standard, reassuring lexicon of the big tent and the mainstream. At the San Francisco convention, he embraced extremism and denounced the Republican establishment, whose “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” His campaign lit a fire of excitement that spread to millions of readers through the pages of two self-published prophesies of the apocalypse, Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo and John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason. According to these mega-sellers, the political opposition wasn’t just wrong—it was a sinister conspiracy with totalitarian goals…

The insurgents were agents of history, and history was long. To avoid despair, they needed the clarity that only ideology (“the truth”) can give. The task in 1964 was to recruit and train conservative followers… Established institutions that concealed the truth—schools, universities, newspapers, the Republican Party itself—would have to be swept away and replaced or entered and cleansed…  these were not the words and ideas of democratic politics, with its ungainly coalitions and unsatisfying compromises.

During this first insurgency, the abiding contours of the movement took shape… Conservatives nursed a victim’s sense of grievance—the system was stacked against them, cabals of the powerful were determined to lock them out—and they showed more energetic interest than their opponents in the means of gaining power: mass media, new techniques of organizing, rhetoric, ideas. Finally, the movement was founded in the politics of racism. Goldwater’s strongest support came from white southerners reacting against civil rights…. Modern conservatism would never stop flirting with hostility toward whole groups of Americans. And from the start this stance opened the movement to extreme, sometimes violent fellow travelers.

It took only 16 years, with the election of Ronald Reagan, for the movement and party to merge. During those years, conservatives hammered away at institutional structures, denouncing the established ones for their treacherous liberalism, and building alternatives, in the form of well-funded right-wing foundations, think tanks, business lobbies, legal groups, magazines, publishers, professorships. When Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the products of this “counter-establishment” … were ready to take power.

Reagan commanded a revolution, but he himself didn’t have a revolutionary character. He didn’t think the public needed to be indoctrinated and organized, only heard.

But conservatism remained an insurgent politics during the 1980s and ’90s, and the more power it amassed—in government, business, law, media—the more it set itself against the fragile web of established norms and delighted in breaking them. The second insurgency was led by Newt Gingrich, who had come to Congress two years before Reagan became president, with the avowed aim of overthrowing the established Republican leadership and shaping the minority party into a fighting force that could break Democratic rule by shattering what he called the “corrupt left-wing machine.” Gingrich liked to quote Mao’s definition of politics as “war without blood.” He made audiotapes that taught Republican candidates how to demonize the opposition with labels such as “disgrace,” “betray,” and  “traitors.” When he became speaker of the House, at the head of yet another revolution, Gingrich announced, “There will be no compromise.” How could there be, when he was leading a crusade to save American civilization from its liberal enemies?

Even after Gingrich was driven from power, … he regularly churned out books that warned of imminent doom—unless America turned to a leader like him (he once called himself “teacher of the rules of civilization,” among other exalted epithets). Unlike Goldwater and Reagan, Gingrich never had any deeply felt ideology. It was hard to say exactly what “American civilization” meant to him. What he wanted was power, and what he most obviously enjoyed was smashing things to pieces in its pursuit. His insurgency started the conservative movement on the path to nihilism.

The party purged itself of most remaining moderates, growing ever-more shallow as it grew ever-more conservative… Jeff Flake, the outgoing senator from Arizona, … describes this deterioration as “a race to the bottom to see who can be meaner and madder and crazier. It is not enough to be conservative anymore. You have to be vicious.” The viciousness doesn’t necessarily reside in the individual souls of Republican leaders. It flows from the party’s politics, which seeks to delegitimize opponents and institutions, purify the ranks through purges and coups, and agitate followers with visions of apocalypse—all in the name of an ideological cause that every year loses integrity as it becomes indistinguishable from power itself.

The third insurgency came in reaction to the election of Barack Obama—it was the Tea Party. Eight years later, it culminated in Trump’s victory… In the third insurgency, the features of the original movement surfaced again, more grotesque than ever: paranoia and conspiracy thinking; racism and other types of hostility toward entire groups; innuendos and incidents of violence. The new leader is like his authoritarian counterparts abroad: illiberal, demagogic, hostile to institutional checks, demanding and receiving complete acquiescence from the party, and enmeshed in the financial corruption that is integral to the political corruption of these regimes. Once again, liberals … couldn’t grasp how it happened. Neither could some conservatives who still believed in democracy.

The corruption of the Republican Party in the Trump era seemed to set in with breathtaking speed. In fact, it took more than a half century to reach the point where faced with a choice between democracy and power, the party chose the latter. Its leaders don’t see a dilemma—democratic principles turn out to be disposable tools, sometimes useful, sometimes inconvenient. The higher cause is conservatism, but the highest is power. After Wisconsin Democrats swept statewide offices last month, Robin Vos, speaker of the assembly, explained why Republicans would have to get rid of the old rules: “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”

As Bertolt Brecht wrote of East Germany’s ruling party:

Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Good News for a Change (We May Have Finally Hit Bottom)

Maybe it was the insane spectacle of a TV morning show host much more interested in Hillary Clinton’s emails than 100 other possible topics during a nationally broadcast interview that was supposed to deal with national security and who should command the most powerful military in the world. Maybe it was the realization that her dangerously unqualified opponent might win in November if the media keeps treating him as if he’s a normal candidate and a normal person.

But the editorial board of the influential Washington Post finally concluded that “the Hillary Clinton email story is out of control”. The editorial is here.

Of course, so is the Clinton Foundation story. Although the Clinton Foundation presents the possibility of conflicts of interest, the Trump Foundation is a scheme by which Trump takes credit for giving away other people’s money and uses “charitable contributions” to buy crap for himself and operate a political slush fund.  A Washington Post reporter, David Fahrenthold, has been telling that story in articles like thisthisthis and this. A representative quote:

For months, The Washington Post has been looking for evidence to back up a key claim Donald Trump makes about himself: that, in recent years, he has given millions of dollars to charity out of his own pocket. There is no evidence of that in the files of Trump’s nonprofit, the Donald J. Trump Foundation. And Trump has not released his tax returns, which would detail his recent charitable giving.

In an effort to find proof of Trump’s personal giving, The Post has contacted more than 250 charities with some ties to the GOP nominee….

So far, The Post‘s search has turned up little. Between 2008 and this May [2016] — when Trump made good on a pledge to give $1 million to a veterans’ group — its search has identified just one personal gift from Trump’s own pocket.

If you have any information about a charitable gift given by Donald Trump, please email fahrenthold@washpost.com.