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.

At Least Some in Public Life Are Saying It

Charles Pierce writes for Esquire and doesn’t hold back. He thinks the newspaper headlines didn’t capture the essence of our president’s appearance in the Rose Garden on Friday.

I fear they missed the story that was staring them right between the eyes…. To wit:

The President* is A Delusional Maniac With Sawdust Pouring Out Of Both Ears.

My sweet bearded Lord, what a performance. I don’t know what my favorite part was. It might have been when he admitted to NBC’s Peter Alexander that he was only declaring an emergency because he wanted to get his mitts on the money as fast as possible. It might have been the moment when he recalled how Barack Obama told him that he was planning on launching a “very big war” on the Korean Peninsula (And this was after the president* said he wouldn’t speak for Obama, and then made up a bullshit story about him.)

Was it is the revelation that Shinzo Abe of Japan had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize? Was it the way he repeatedly hung Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen out to dry, telling the reporters that the statistics on immigrants and crime produced by DHS didn’t match up with the secret “stats” he has? It may have been when he shouted out his favorite wingnut celebrities, and then said that not only did he not know Ann Coulter, but that he hadn’t talked to her in a year. Oh, OK. If you wanted to produce a commercial to sell the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, this was it.

Mr. Pierce then quotes the president regarding his phony national emergency.

It wasn’t what he said, but the way he said it. He lapsed into a sing-song cadence that was half-middle-school-taunt and half-serial-killer. No president in my lifetime ever did voice acting, let alone a voice that made you want to make sure he was kept away from the White House cutlery. The man is not all there. Everybody knows it. If your uncle behaved like the president* behaved on Friday, you’d hide his car-keys, lock up the booze, and drive him to the neurologist.

Jack Holmes, also of Esquire, agreed.

In the future, assuming there is one for this country or this species, we will look back and marvel at how the White House press corps questioned our King Lear of a president as if he were Otto von Bismarck. Over and over again, reporters sit through an incomprehensible deluge of various phrase-like objects and unfinished sentences and then stand up, one by one, to ask this guy about his China policy or whatever. It’s a kind of collective suspension of disbelief, where everyone in attendance at one of these nationally disgraceful press conferences agrees to pretend that the president is not, in fact, an old man whose brain is rapidly atrophying due to a debilitating level of cable news consumption.

Does that seem harsh? Is it untoward to state the obvious—that the President of the United States is a Fox News Grandpa who gets the lion’s share of the modicum of information he actually retains from the various blabbering heads that praise him all day through the teevee?

… The president is an experiment: he is a low-information voter, a talk-radio caller jumped up on confusion and resentment towards a changing world—not to mention ill-gotten gains—whom We, The People saw fit to make the planet’s most powerful man. [Fox News “personality”] Sean Hannity is briefing the President of the United States on what’s happening in the world. God help us all. Don’t ask him about his budget, for Christ’s sake. Ask him what the three branches of government are.

But he wasn’t done. It is quite simply impossible to wrap your head around the vast depths of the paranoid delusion and public display of non compos mentis that was on show in the Rose Garden this fine February Friday. So just concentrate on this part, here, where the president admits—while announcing he’s declared a national emergency—that there is no national emergency, he just felt like speeding things up….

This is insanity. It’s not a “national emergency” if you don’t really need to declare a national emergency, you’re just mad that Congress didn’t give you more money for your Big, Beautiful Wall. It’s time we all stopped pretending that the president is merely ignorant or rude or even crooked, and start to process the fact that he ain’t all there. How much more will he be allowed to destroy as he thrashes about on the border between his long history of skirting the law and his growing romance with the phantasmagorical as the lights begin to dim in his creaky attic?

Instead of treating this guy with respect, media people and politicians should acknowledge what most of us have known for a long time. He is seriously unfit and should be removed from office forthwith.

Investigations On Parade!

Heather Parton, also known as Digby, founder of the Hullabaloo blog, has compiled a list of planned Congressional investigations. They have a common thread. The list is organized by House committee.

Oversight:
Michael Cohen payments
Trump International Hotel lease
Census citizenship question
Prescription drug prices
Security clearances
Russian sanctions

Intelligence:
Russian collusion
Border wall
Russian sanctions

Judiciary:
Protecting Special Counsel Mueller
Family separation

Way and Means:
Trump tax returns

Natural Resources:
Puerto Rico reimbursements

Energy and Commerce:
Family separation
Environmental Protection Agency and climate change

Homeland Security:
Border security

Foreign Affairs:
Russian sanctions

Transportation:
Trump International Hotel lease
Russian sanctions

Voting matters.

Putting the Government Shutdown in Context

If you want to understand why our partial government shutdown is now the longest in history, all you have to do is read this one article in The New York Times. Its title is “In Business and Governing, Trump Seeks Victory in Chaos”.

Throughout his career, the supposed master of negotiation has followed the same pattern over and over again. Make demands, ignore advice, refuse to compromise and don’t worry about any damage done. All that matters is being “the winner”:

Quote:

Three decades ago, [Trump] waged a public battle with the talk show host Merv Griffin to take control of what would become [Trump’s] third Atlantic City casino. Executives at [his] company warned that the casino would siphon revenue from the others. Analysts predicted the associated debt would crush him.

The naysayers would be proved right, but throughout the turmoil [Trump] fixated on just one outcome: declaring himself a winner and Mr. Griffin a loser.

As president, [he] has displayed a similar fixation in his standoff with Congress over leveraging a government shutdown to gain funding for a wall on the Mexican border. As he did during decades in business, [he] has insulted adversaries, undermined his aides, repeatedly changed course, extolled his primacy as a negotiator and induced chaos….

“He hasn’t changed at all,” said Jack O’Donnell, who ran a casino for [him] in the 1980s …

[The president] briefly seemed to follow a more conventional approach for a president seeking consensus: encouraging his party leaders in Congress to negotiate a deal. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, shepherded a compromise in December that would have kept the government open and put off negotiations over a wall and other border security measures.

[Trump] was expected to sign off on the deal, but then came the suggestion from conservative critics that he had caved in to Democrats — that he was a loser. It was a perception [he] could not bear, and he quickly reversed course.

He also reverted to lifelong patterns in business …

His lack of public empathy for unpaid federal workers echoes his treatment of some construction workers, contractors and lawyers whom he refused to pay for their work on his real estate projects. The plight of the farmers and small-business owners wilting without the financial support pledged by his administration harks back to the multiple lenders and investors who financed [Trump’s] business ventures only to come up shortchanged.

And his ever-changing positions (I’ll own the shutdown; you own the shutdown; the wall could be steel; it must be concrete; then again, it could be steel) have left heads in both parties spinning…

“I think he was always a terrible negotiator,” said Tony Schwartz, co-author … of The Art of the Deal.

That book, published in 1987, was intended to be [Trump’s autobiography]. Mr. Schwartz said that he created the idea of [Trump] as a great deal maker as a literary device to give the book a unifying theme. He said he came to regret the contribution as he watched [Trump] seize on the label to sell himself as something he was not — a solver of complicated problems.

Rather, Mr. Schwartz said, [Trump’s] “virtue” in negotiating was his relentlessness and lack of concern for anything but claiming victory.

“If you don’t care what the collateral damage you create is, then you have a potential advantage,” he said. “He used a hammer, deceit, relentlessness and an absence of conscience as a formula for getting what he wanted”…

In recent weeks, … his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney … pursued a rather standard tactic in ending the impasse over border security and a wall: He tried to find middle ground between the $1.3 billion to which Democrats had once agreed, and the president’s demand for $5.7 billion. But upon learning of Mr. Mulvaney’s efforts, [Trump] snarled in front of a crowded room that Mr. Mulvaney had [“fucked it all up”] …

During his years in business, [Trump] earned a reputation as someone whose word meant very little. When a commitment he made no longer made sense, he walked away, often blaming the other party with a fantastical line of reasoning.

To win financing from Deutsche Bank to build a Trump Hotel in Chicago, for example, [he] personally guaranteed $40 million of the debt. When he could not make his payments during the 2008 financial crisis, Deutsche Bank executives were open to granting him more time to repay the loan, a person briefed on negotiations later recalled.

But before a compromise could be reached, [Trump] flipped the script. He filed a lawsuit and argued that the bank had helped cause the worldwide financial meltdown that essentially rendered [him] unable to make his debt payments. At the time, Deutsche Bank called the lawsuit “classic Trump.”

The bank eventually settled…. [Trump] expressed his gratitude to the lawyer who fought on his behalf by not fully paying his bill….

From the time he built his first Manhattan apartment building, [Trump] left a string of unpaid tabs for the people who worked for him.

The undocumented Polish workers who did the demolition work for that first building, Trump Tower, eventually won a $1.375 million settlement. Since then, scores of lawyers, contractors, engineers and waiters have sued him for unpaid bills or pay. Typically, he responds by asserting that their work did not meet his standard.

That might sound familiar to furloughed federal workers. [Trump] recently retweeted an article, attributed to an anonymous senior official in his administration, arguing that 80 percent of federal workers do “nothing of external value” and that “furloughed employees should find other work, never return and not be paid.”

[Trump] has claimed [absurdly] that “maybe most” federal workers going without pay are “the biggest fan” of his use of the shutdown to fund a border wall. In ordering thousands back to work without pay, he has put the pain for the shutdown on them…

During his years in business, [Trump] rarely displayed an interest in details or expert opinions that might have informed whether his plans would actually work. That pattern has also emerged in the shutdown dispute.

Thirty years ago, his claimed defeat of Mr. Griffin turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

Within months of completing construction on his third casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, he could not pay interest to the bondholders who had financed the project. Having overpaid and overleveraged himself on other deals, banks forced him to turnover or sell almost everything.

His wealthy father helped bail him out. But [Trump] blamed everyone else. He fired nearly all his top executives and stopped paying contractors who had built the casino.

In describing the border wall, [he] has expressed unending confidence in its efficacy. Others, including Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose Texas district includes part of the border with Mexico, have described it as a tall speed bump, nearly useless without technology to spot illegal crossings immediately and dispatch border agents to quickly respond.

End quote.

Our president has taken 800,000 federal workers and thousands of contractors and private businesses hostage. The Democrats in Congress have done what they can to reopen the government. They have also told the president that they will negotiate border security once everyone is back at work and being paid. Either the president or Congressional Republicans (without the president’s involvement) can end the shutdown. But they have to be willing to see reason and give up their hostages first.

Start the Impeachment Process Now, Part 2

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, now famous for recently proclaiming “let’s impeach the motherfucker”, and political activist John Bonifaz present the case for the House of Representatives to immediately begin the impeachment process:

[The president] is a direct and serious threat to our country. On an almost daily basis, he attacks our Constitution, our democracy, the rule of law and the people who are in this country. His conduct has created a constitutional crisis that we must confront now. 

The Framers of the Constitution designed a remedy to address such a constitutional crisis: impeachment. Through the impeachment clause, they sought to ensure that we would have the power, through our elected representatives in Congress, to protect the country by removing a lawless president from the Oval Office.

We already have overwhelming evidence that the president has committed impeachable offenses, including, just to name a few: obstructing justice; violating the emoluments clause; abusing the pardon power; directing or seeking to direct law enforcement to prosecute political adversaries for improper purposes; advocating illegal violence and undermining equal protection of the laws; ordering the cruel and unconstitutional imprisonment of children and their families at the southern border; and conspiring to illegally influence the 2016 election through a series of hush money payments.

Whether the president was directly involved in a conspiracy with the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 election remains the subject of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. But we do not need to wait on the outcome of that criminal investigation before moving forward now with an inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives on whether the president has committed impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors” against the state: abuse of power and abuse of the public trust.

Those who say we must wait for Special Counsel Mueller to complete his criminal investigation before Congress can start any impeachment proceedings ignore this crucial distinction. There is no requirement whatsoever that a president be charged with or be convicted of a crime before Congress can impeach him. They also ignore the fact that many of the impeachable offenses committed by this president are beyond the scope of the special counsel’s investigation.

We are also now hearing the dangerous claim that initiating impeachment proceedings against this president is politically unwise and that, instead, the focus should now shift to holding the president accountable via the 2020 election. Such a claim places partisan gamesmanship over our country and our most vulnerable at this perilous moment in our nation’s history. Members of Congress have a sworn duty to preserve our Constitution.  Leaving a lawless president in office for political points would be abandoning that duty.

This is not just about [the president]. This is about all of us. What should we be as a nation? Who should we be as a people? In the face of this constitutional crisis, we must rise. We must rise to defend our Constitution, to defend our democracy, and to defend that bedrock principle that no one is above the law, not even the President of the United States. Each passing day brings more pain for the people most directly hurt by this president, and these are days we simply cannot get back. The time for impeachment proceedings is now.

Begin to Impeach the Motherfucker

Leading Democrats in Congress say they should wait for the Mueller investigation’s findings before talking about impeachment, even though they don’t know what the Mueller findings will be or when the investigation will end. Meanwhile, we have a president who is unfit to serve another day.

David Leonhardt of the NY Times makes the case for impeaching him now:

The presidential oath of office contains 35 words and one core promise: to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Since virtually the moment [the president] took that oath two years ago, he has been violating it.

He has repeatedly put his own interests above those of the country. He has used the presidency to promote his businesses. He has accepted financial gifts from foreign countries. He has lied to the American people about his relationship with a hostile foreign government. He has tolerated cabinet officials who use their position to enrich themselves.

To shield himself from accountability for all of this — and for his unscrupulous presidential campaign — he has set out to undermine the American system of checks and balances. He has called for the prosecution of his political enemies and the protection of his allies. He has attempted to obstruct justice. He has tried to shake the public’s confidence in one democratic institution after another, including the press, federal law enforcement and the federal judiciary.

The unrelenting chaos that Trump creates can sometimes obscure the big picture. But the big picture is simple: The United States has never had a president as demonstrably unfit for the office as Trump. And it’s becoming clear that 2019 is likely to be dominated by a single question: What are we going to do about it?

The easy answer is to wait — to allow the various investigations of Trump to run their course and ask voters to deliver a verdict in 2020. That answer has one great advantage. It would avoid the national trauma of overturning an election result. Ultimately, however, waiting is too dangerous. The cost of removing a president from office is smaller than the cost of allowing this president to remain.

He has already shown, repeatedly, that he will hurt the country in order to help himself. He will damage American interests around the world and damage vital parts of our constitutional system at home. The risks that he will cause much more harm are growing.

Some of the biggest moderating influences have recently left the administration. The defense secretary who defended our alliances with NATO and South Korea is gone. So is the attorney general who refused to let Trump subvert a federal investigation into himself. The administration is increasingly filled with lackeys and enablers. Trump has become freer to turn his whims into policy — like, say, shutting down the government on the advice of Fox News hosts or pulling troops from Syria on the advice of a Turkish autocrat.

The biggest risk may be that an external emergency — a war, a terrorist attack, a financial crisis, an immense natural disaster — will arise. By then, it will be too late to pretend that he is anything other than manifestly unfit to lead.

For the country’s sake, there is only one acceptable outcome, just as there was after Americans realized in 1974 that a criminal was occupying the Oval Office. The president must go.

Mr. Leonhardt then discusses reasons to impeach him. He has used the presidency to enrich himself, even making decisions favoring his business’s foreign customers. He has obstructed justice. He has subverted our democracy, just one example being his violation of campaign finance laws by directing the payment of hush money in at least two cases. 

Practically speaking, the next step is for the House of Representatives to form a committee charged with drawing up articles of impeachment. Holding hearings and confirming the president’s high crimes and misdemeanors would take some time. The time to start is now. 

So perhaps newly-elected Rep. Rashida Tlaib should have said “Let’s begin the process of impeaching the motherfucker” instead of what she actually said in that bar Thursday night. That would have been more precise. And I think we can all agree that calling him a “motherfucker” was too kind.