November 17, 2019

Today was a relatively quiet day in Washington. Aside from lots of speculation about what drove Trump to go to the hospital yesterday and the fact that Fox News reporter Chris Wallace corrected Steve Scalise (R-LA) when he tried to dismiss the many witnesses against Trump as “Schiff’s witnesses”—Wallace said "No, sir. They're career foreign service officers and these are people who worked in the Trump administration" —nothing huge happened. You can safely ignore tonight’s letter if you have more pressing things to do.

For my part, I spent my day finalizing the page proofs of my new book (which actually has nothing to do with these letters—it was finished more than a year ago). A tiny part of the book looks at the mechanics of how the Republican Party took control of the country, with a focus on how Florida’s 1998 voter ID law purged up to 100,000 Democratic voters in the state before the 2000 election. I explained that when the election came down to Florida’s Electoral Votes, and control of the state came down to a few hundred votes contested between Democratic candidate Al Gore and Republican candidate George W. Bush, the Supreme Court stepped in to decide the election. A friend read the proofs for me, and asked why I had not mentioned the Brooks Brothers Riot. I had no good answer, so today I went back to the sources.

For those of you who don’t remember everything that happened in those crazy days when we were all trying to figure out what the heck had happened in the 2000 election, the Brooks Brothers Riot was made up of a bunch of Republican operatives, many of whom had flown in from other states, who gathered on November 22, 2000 at the Miami-Dade polling station where Florida officials were attempting to recount the confusing ballots, to insist that the Democrats were trying to steal the election. Their noise and outrage helped to get the recount called off. As I was reading through the articles about the riot, the name Roger Stone jumped out at me. That name meant nothing to me in 2000, but it sure does today.

This is the same Roger Stone who advised the Trump campaign and who has just been convicted for lying to Congress about his connections to Wikileaks before the 2016 election. Wikileaks worked to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and promote Donald Trump by dumping emails that Russia had hacked from the Democratic National Committee. Stone is a no-holds-barred political operative who got his start on the 1972 reelection campaign of Richard Nixon, whose face is tattooed on Stone’s back (no, I’m not kidding) and who, after Nixon's fall, went on to start a political consulting firm with Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman from June to August 2016 (who is also now a convicted felon), and Lee Atwater, the man behind the viciously racist Willie Horton ad that sank Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988 (Atwater apologized for his actions as he was dying).

At the time of the Brooks Brother’s Riot, Stone claimed he was there “as a volunteer,” and “knew nothing about the protesters other than the fact I approve of Republicans expressing their First Amendment rights.”

This was a lie. In reality, Stone was a key operative, eavesdropping on the Democratic recount team with a walkie-talkie and determined to undermine the recount to get Bush in office, regardless of the popular vote or the real outcome in Florida. “What I admire about Nixon was his resilience,” he later told a reporter, “It’s attack, attack, attack. Al Gore thought the recount was a high-minded policy debate. He didn’t understand that it was an extension of a war, of a political campaign.”

That comment jumped out to me, just as Stone’s name had. That’s it, isn’t it? While the rest of us believe in the rules of democracy, people like Stone and Manafort see political engagement as a war in which winning is everything. It is worth lying, cheating, and stealing, because the goal is not better government, the goal is to win, and then to use that victory to reward your friends and hurt your enemies. After working for Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, Stone and Manafort advised dictators. Then they turned their hands to the Trump campaign. Their approach to politics appears by now to be embedded in today's Republican Party. Jennifer Rubin, a conservative writer at the Washington Post, had a story today entitled “The Party of Lying Liars,” in which she laid out a litany of Republican whoppers, designed solely to appeal their base and thus stay in office.

Weirdly, as tired as I am, it strikes me that today’s politics is like baseball, in a way. So long as the two teams operate within the rules, with umpires doing their best to keep everyone honest, the game pushes everyone to work hard, and the teams put on a good show for their fans. But if one team can start to cheat, and to win by cheating without getting called on it, it could field weaker and weaker players. Then those players would have to cheat more, and start to spike their opponents in order to keep winning. No one would get better at the game: the cheaters would get better at cheating while the other side simply tried to defend itself and make a few runs. The fans could no longer appreciate the game, but rather would simply want their team to win and to hurt the other guys. Pretty soon, as their players got weaker, the only way for the cheaters to win would be to call in reinforcements who would pummel their opponents into submission. And the fans of the winning team might cheer… but then, firm in a victory that could not be challenged, realize that the same violent actors that ruined the other team were now entirely in control of the field, and that the game wasn’t baseball any more.

The answer to preserving the “game” of democracy, it seems to me, is not to fight dirty like Stone has done, but rather to back the umpires, insisting on the rules. Only a few of us benefit from a rigged “game” in which the winners prevail by cheating. We are all better off if the game is played fairly.

After more than 40 years of “attack, attack, attack,” Roger Stone has been found guilty of lying to Congress and is awaiting sentencing. Perhaps, after taking a very long break, the umpires are back on the job.

November 16, 2019

Today’s biggest story set the scene for news that continues to develop about the Ukraine scandal.

The big story, in terms of its ability to frame the crazy events coming at us at top speed, happened last night, when Attorney General William Barr gave a speech to the Federalist Society, a group of conservative and libertarian lawyers who argue for an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. The conviction of members of the Federalist Society that courts should not do anything that is not listed in the original Constitution makes them great friends to business and to white men, since they focus on the protection of property and deny that laws can regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, or protect minority or women’s rights. The Federalist Society organized in 1982 to push back against what its members felt was an activist court system that tried to reorganize society from the bench. It has been extraordinarily successful in taking over the courts: currently five members of the nine-member Supreme Court are current or past Federalist Society members: Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh.

In his speech, Attorney General William Barr claimed he was going truly to be an originalist, and explained by taking American history back to its roots. In contrast to every single American historian in, well, American history, Barr argued that Americans had rebelled not against King George III in 1776, but rather against Parliament. What the Founders feared, he said, was not a strong executive, but rather a strong Parliament. (You can tell where this is going, right?) Barr was setting up the idea that Congress has grown far too strong lately (in fact, virtually every scholar will tell you that it is the Executive that has grown terribly strong since 1981) and that it is badly hampering the president’s ability to do his job. The president should be able to act on his own initiative, and not be checked by either congressional or judicial oversight, Barr insisted, in a theory known as that of the “unitary executive.”

Barr did not stop there, though. He went on to blame “The Resistance” for sabotaging the Trump administration, and claimed that its members were “engaged in a war to cripple, by any means necessary, a duly elected government.” More, he claimed “the Left” is “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.” Conservatives, he said, were at a disadvantage against progressive’s “holy war” because they “have more scruple over their political tactics” especially when facing “a hyper-partisan media.” (You might want to reread those last two sentences.)

Richard Painter, who was George W. Bush’s ethics lawyer, called this a “lunatic authoritarian speech.” Attorneys General are supposed to be non-partisan, and Barr lumped all opposition to Trump as the dangerous far left. The “Left,” in America, generally refers to those few people who advocate for communism—a system in which the government owns and controls all industries and businesses-- or anarchy, a system in which there is no central authority at all. It’s actually a pretty small group. But Barr, and other recent Republicans, have included in “the Left” everyone who believes that the government has any role to play in regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, and promoting infrastructure, all those things the Federalist Society opposes. In fact, most of us, regardless of whether we vote Republican or Democratic, want some basic regulations, social welfare programs, and infrastructure development.

But now the Attorney General, who is charged with overseeing our justice system, has declared that anyone standing in the way of Trump is not just a member of “the Left” but also is waging war against America. Painter is quite right: this is the language that enables a leader to imprison people he considers his enemies.

Barr is not saying all this in a vacuum. More news dropped today about the Ukraine scandal, filling in the lines we already suspected. Congress released transcripts today from Tim Morrison and Jennifer Williams, both of whom were deeply involved in the Ukraine mess and were on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky. A long-time career official in the State Department, Morrison replaced Fiona Hill as the Senior Director for Russia and Europe in July 2019. Williams is another long-standing career officer in the State Department. Since April 2019, she has been the Special Adviser for Europe and Russia for Vice President Mike Pence. Morrison said that Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland made it clear that aid was being withheld until there was an announcement about an investigation into Burisma, the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.

This jibed with the opening statement of David Holmes, the political counselor at the Embassy in Kyiv, who testified for seven hours yesterday behind closed doors. Holmes was an eye-witness to the efforts of Trump, his lawyer Rudy Giuiliani, and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, to pressure the new Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation into Burisma, the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. Holmes’s opening statement was explosive. It was not only first hand, but also it tied Trump directly into the efforts, and it made very clear that the administration was demanding the announcement of an investigation before it would release the money Congress had appropriated for Ukraine’s fight against Russian incursions. Holmes also said that he had reported what he had heard to John Eisenberg, Legal Advisor to the National Security Council, the same man to whom Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman had reported the July 25 call, and, once again, Eisenberg had done nothing. (Eisenberg is refusing to honor a subpoena to testify.)

Then, CNN dropped the story that at last year’s White House Hanukkah party Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman met privately with Trump and Giuiliani. After the meeting, Parnas told two people that the president had given him a secret mission to pressure the Ukraine government to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. The Wall Street Journal reports that in February, Parnas and Fruman met with the Ukraine President at the time, Petro Poroshenko, and his Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, offering to invite Poroshenko to a White House State dinner if he publicly announced an investigation. As I wrote here two days ago, this would have boosted both Poroshenko’s and Trump’s reelection campaigns. In March, Lutsenko smeared U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch to an American reporter and Sean Hannity ran with the story on his show, but the scheme fell apart when voters elected Zelensky instead of reelecting the corrupt oligarch Poroshenko. Then they had to scramble to come up with a new plan, and the whole ham fisted Ukraine scandal took off.

The Ukraine scandal is fleshing out, and it is truly astonishing that there is not more evidence that can be read in Trump’s favor. This increasingly just looks like a shakedown that weakened national security to help Trump rig the 2020 election. Meanwhile, in northern Syria, where Turkish and Russian troops moved in when we moved out, the Russians boasted yesterday that they have now occupied a former U.S. air base.

Trump spent several hours today at Walter Reed hospital. The visit was unexpected and unannounced, but the White House said he had decided to have portions of his annual physical done three months early.

November 15, 2019

Sheesh, what a day! The stories themselves were expected, but there were surprises in them that will end up in the history books.

Today was the second day of public testimony in Trump’s impeachment hearing and it had, one might say, pizzazz. Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch testified, clearly articulating that Trump undercut American policy to fight corruption in Ukraine, seeking instead to use backchannel leverage for his own benefit, quite like the oligarchs with whom he was working. Her testimony was clear and compelling, showing that Trump and his people were working with corrupt oligarchs to overturn the rules of law in Ukraine and, by extension, in America.

This was the gist of the testimony even before it offered a real-time example of Trump’s tactics. While Yovanovitch was speaking, the president tweeted “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”

Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff read the tweet to Yovanovitch in real time, and we saw, live, the reaction of a woman who has worked for the State Department with distinction for 33 years, to such commentary from the president. Pressed by Schiff, she said it was “intimidating.” This was exactly the word Schiff wanted her to say, of course, because intimidating a witness is a crime. Immediately after Yovanovich’s testimony, the hearings stopped briefly so House members could attend a vote. In the break, news anchors discussed the exchange over the tweet. Democrats were adamant that they had a new article for impeachment, and even Republicans shook their heads. Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace noted “the really dramatic moment is that this wasn’t just testimony about the past, this played out in real time with the president attacking her… and she said ‘I feel this is quite intimidating.’ That does raise the possibility of witness intimidation as a new charge here.” For his part, Trump later told reporters he was just exercising his right to “free speech.”

This moment, the moment that Americans watched their president attack a public servant testifying before Congress, will make the history books.

For their part, the Republicans are still playing to the Fox News Channel to try to keep their base. It particularly pissed me off that, at one point during today’s testimony, Ranking Member of the Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes (CA) set up a storming-the-SCIF type moment. No one can speak to the record in the House without being recognized by whoever is the Chair at that moment (for obvious reasons). Going into these hearings, the committee members agreed that the Chair and the ranking member could only yield their time to their own respective counsels.  Nonetheless, Nunes tried repeatedly to yield his time to another House member, Elise Stephanik (R-NY). When Schiff denied her the floor, she repeatedly accused him of silencing her. And that, of course, has played on the Fox News Channel: Schiff is “GAGGING THE GENTLEWOMAN.” It was another manufactured outrage. These drive me nuts because they are straight up lies, and seem to me to be profoundly disrespectful of both voters and the rules by which our democracy operates.  

While Yovanovitch was testifying in public, a staffer at the US Embassy in Kyiv, David Holmes, testified behind closed doors about the telephone call he witnessed between Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Trump the day after the infamous July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky. The one he heard was quite a call. According to Holmes, Trump asked Sondland if Zelensky was going to “do the investigation” and Sondland assured the president that “He loves your ass…. He’s gonna do it….” Holmes claims to have asked Sondland “if it was true that the President did not give a s--- about Ukraine,” and that Sondland answered that Trump cared only about “Big stuff…. That benefits the President, like the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, a federal jury convicted Trump’s campaign advisor Roger Stone on seven counts of lying to Congress about his relationship with Wikileaks and its dump of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and of tampering with a witness. The jury took less than two days to reach a verdict. Trump immediately called the verdict a “double standard like never seen before in the history of our Country,” and asked why “Crooked Hillary, Comey, Strozok, Page, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper, Shifty Schiff, Ohr & Nellie, Steele & all of the others, including even Mueller himself” weren’t in similar trouble.

Later today, against the advice of the Pentagon, the president pardoned three soldiers convicted of war crimes. He appears to be testing how far he can go with pardons, and there is speculation that this was a test drive for a pardon of Stone, who has been one of his team for a long time. Tonight, on Tucker Carlson’s show on the Fox News Channel, Stone’s daughter asked Trump to pardon her father. I would add that it is not a good thing for a president who has clearly exhibited authoritarian impulses to advertise that he is willing to pardon people who commit war crimes.

I don’t really have a strong closing for tonight. I’m just sort of gobsmacked that we have a president, a man who holds the same office that Abraham Lincoln did, who has pardoned war criminals, been shown to have extorted a foreign leader for help in his own reelection, and threatened an American patriot while she testified before Congress. All in one day.

An early night for me, and I need it. G’night, all.

November 14, 2019

Last night, NBC News complained that the day's impeachment hearings, featuring testimony from former Ukraine Ambassador William Taylor and diplomat George Kent, had been substantive but lacked "pizzazz," so likely would not convince Americans to pay attention to Trump's scheming. Today, Fox News Channel personalities continued to harp on the idea that the hearings were "boring." A strong Trump backer, Mark Meadows (R-NC), said it was hard for him to stay awake through yesterday's events.

Interesting. I can see why Trump's people want badly to convince their base not to tune in to hear such solid witnesses tell such a damning story. And sure, sitting and watching five hours of people talking isn't everyone's cup of tea (it sure isn't mine-- I have to knit or clean the kitchen or bake while I listen). But boring? Can't wrap my head around that.

To me, what is playing out in America right now is the most dramatic story in human history. It is timeless. It is the story of whether or not people will consent to being ruled by a few wealthy leaders without check, or whether they will stand up for their right to self-determination and equality before the law. Yesterday, the central stage of that drama was a hearing room with a bunch of guys in suits (except for Jim Jordan), who were performing for the cameras and the president watching the feed; in 1776 it was a bunch of young men in knickers and wigs who argued for days over the wording of the Declaration of Independence even as they knew royal officials would execute them if their rebellion failed. In 1860 it was a tall, absent-minded and brilliant backwoodsman who left his lucrative law practice to stop the spread of slavery; and a hundred years later it was a Black former sharecropper who had been beaten almost to death by police to keep her from registering her Black neighbors to vote. For none of these people did the work of democracy have pizzazz. It was slow and grinding and threatened-- and sometimes took-- their lives. But there is a reason we honor these boring men and women, and don't remember their flashy neighbors.

The three things that jumped out at me today speak to this larger story: the president appears to be continuing his pattern of aligning himself with foreign oligarchs rather than with democracies. Yesterday, while the impeachment hearings were taking place in the Capitol, Trump was hosting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House. Erdoğan is an authoritarian ruler whose troops overran northern Syria after Trump pulled the US troops out in mid-October. The troops have been accused of war crimes in their attacks on the Kurds, our former allies in the fight against ISIS there. Trump praised Erdoğan and permitted him to show a propaganda film presenting the Kurds as terrorists to Senators invited to a meeting. A White House visit strengthens Erdoğan's position in Turkey and in Syria.

The next story that shows Trump aligning with foreign oligarchs comes from Josh Kovensky at TalkingPointsMemo. Kovensky takes the story of the Ukraine scandal back in time to the beginning of the year, and the longer scale puts some key events into place. In February 2019, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch with a reputation for corruption, was facing an election in March, and then a runoff in April. His chief prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko-- also famous for his corruption-- made a deal through Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman that Poroshenko would be invited to the White House, which would boost his standing at home. In exchange, Lutsenko would announce investigations into the 2016 election and the Bidens. That should help Trump.

The deal got underway in March, when Lutsenko talked to journalist John Solomon, for The Hill newspaper, smearing Marie Yovanovitch (the U.S. Ambassador working against corruption, who is testifying tomorrow) and announcing investigations, as planned.

But then, in April, Poroshenko lost to Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump's folks had to figure out a workaround with a new man. Hence Giuliani's announced trip to Ukraine in May when he said "We're not meddling in an election; we're meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do." (Remember that?) Popular outcry forced Giuliani to cancel the trip, and the White House then turned to yet another channel to make the announcement official. I won't belabor the rest of the Ukraine scandal timeline here (although I'm happy to rehash it if it would be useful); Kovensky fleshes it out in his piece (linked below or searchable). The point I want to make tonight is that Trump was quite comfortable working with a corrupt oligarch to undermine fair elections both abroad and at home.

The third thing that happened today was that Trump's lawyers asked the Supreme Court to block states from getting his tax returns. Their argument is that a sitting president cannot be investigated. A current Department of Justice policy (not a law!) says that a sitting president cannot be indicted. They are pushing this argument to say that a sitting president cannot even be investigated. So long as he is in office, he is above the law.

Interestingly, they are echoing the argument King Charles I made in 1649 when he insisted that Parliament could not question his actions because his power was given by God and the laws of the land. He was untouchable. It was in part Charles's argument that inspired the Founders to put impeachment into the U.S. Constitution in 1787. In a country based on the idea that everyone is equal before the law, they believed that the representatives of the people must have a way to check an executive run amok.

And now, centuries later, we are still struggling over this epic question. Can a nation based on the idea of equality and self-government survive? Or will it inevitably revert to a traditional regime in which a few rich men are better than the rest of us, and whose rule therefore must not be challenged?

Its a question that might not have a lot of pizzazz, but it sure isn't boring.

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