Very much in the weeds today, but they are interesting weeds for those of you who don't mind a deep dive.
The administration’s rationale for the attack on Qassim Soleimani has now devolved into Trump today tweeting that although the attack was definitely “eminent,”—he withdrew the tweet and corrected the spelling—“it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past.” But it does really matter… because of our laws. Under the 1973 War Powers Act, the president must confer with Congress before launching an attack except in cases of an imminent threat.
Trump retweeted an image of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in a turban and a headscarf in front of an Iranian flag with the caption “Democrats 2020,” and the message “The corrupted Dem[ocrat]s trying their best to come to the Ayatollah’s rescue.” Trump then went on to accuse the media and Democrats of “trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy, only because I did what should have been done for 20 years.”
In response to the backlash over the images, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham went onto the Fox News Channel to defend the president, saying “I think the president is making clear that Democrats are parroting Iranian talking points and almost taking the side of terrorists and those who were out to kill Americans.”
I have written before about that fact that what is at stake over the question of whether or not an attack from General Soleimani was “imminent” is America’s rule of law, but I want to add here for people who are just now starting to pay attention to American politics: IT IS NOT NORMAL FOR THE PRESIDENT TO ACCUSE THE LEADERS OF THE OTHER PARTY OF BEING TERRORISTS.
The only other time we have seen this in America was from southern elite slaveholders in 1860, when they accused Lincoln and the Republican Party of backing a race war. They stifled all opposition and fell back on fear-mongering because they knew they were going to lose at the ballot box in a free and fair election.
Today’s GOP has gone a long way on voter suppression and disinformation, and Trump and some of his people are still trying to make that work. Trump’s unhinged tweets today are an example of such disinformation, and there was also follow-up news on voter suppression from the story I wrote about on December 16, the story of the purge of more than 200,000 voters in Wisconsin, a key state that Trump won in 2016 by less than 23,000 votes.
In December, Judge Paul Malloy ordered a purge of more than 234,000 voters from the rolls in Wisconsin. When the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which is evenly split between the parties, asked Malloy to put the decision on hold until after the 2020 election, he declined. So, as expected, the commission appealed to the state court of appeals, and said it would wait 12 to 24 months before purging the voters who had failed to answer a state letter asking if they still lived at the address the state had on file for them. That made a conservative law firm ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which favors Republicans 5-2, to take up the case, and to file a motion with Malloy’s court to hold the Wisconsin Elections Commission in contempt of court, asking it to fine five of the six members of the commission up to $6000 a day until they purged the rolls, explicitly stating that they want it done before the next elections.
Today, Malloy found the commission in contempt, and said that if it does not immediately begin the voter purge, three of its six members will be fined $250 day. Those three are the Democrats on the commission.
But some Republican leaders seem to be facing the reality that doubling down on Trump, regardless of what he might have done, is politically dangerous. CBS News today reported that the White House is expecting that there will be Republican defections from the party line on refusing to call witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial. It is not clear to me that this article is anything other than a safeguard in case there are those defections, but it does indicate that not all GOP leaders are comfortable refusing to call witnesses in the Senate trial, especially in the face of polling that shows a strong majority of Americans, including almost 2 out of 3 Republicans, think the president’s top aides should testify.
And, as I wrote last night, there will be more news dropping the might well implicate Trump more deeply in the Ukraine scandal. There was big news today about political operative Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump friend (and sometime lawyer) Rudy Giuliani who has been charged with illegal campaign finance schemes as he spread Russian money around to various GOP candidates, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Since his arrest in October, Parnas has tried to buy good will by offering up his cellphones to the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by Adam Schiff (D-CA), who was the one who broke on the Ukraine Scandal in the first place on September 13. (Sheesh. Just four months ago today. We’ve lived a lifetime in the past four months.)
Today, Parnas’s lawyers turned over the contents of his cellphones to the House Intelligence Committee, and it seems possible, at the very least, that those will shed more light on the firing of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. But—and here’s the interesting part—remember that Parnas, his partner Igor Fruman, and Giuliani wanted Yovanovitch out of her position so they could maneuver a corrupt pro-Russian figure into the leadership of Ukraine’s state gas company, Naftogaz.
Parnas and Fruman, we now know, paid Giuliani $500,000. After Parnas and Fruman were arrested and the payment became known, Giuliani said he was confident the money came from “a domestic source,” and said in an interview, “I know beyond any doubt the source of the money is not any questionable source…. The money did not come from foreigners. I can rule that out 100%.” But that was not true. We now know that the money came from Dimitry Firtash, a Ukranian oligarch currently under federal indictment and fighting extradition from his location in Vienna, Austria.
So I wonder what might be on those cell phones about Russian money, and Naftogaz, and Giuliani... and maybe his chief client. And that is not the only place we might learn more about that arrangement: today, after a lawsuit by an ethics watchdog group, the Energy Department agreed to begin releasing Ukraine-related records, including then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s communications with high-level Ukranian officials. Perry was named one of the “Three Amigos” in charge of Ukraine affairs by acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
So more avenues for presidential exposure keep opening. It is no wonder that the White House is trying to get the Senate to keep open the option of dismissing the impeachment charges right off the bat in a Senate trial, what Trump called in a tweet this weekend “outright dismissal.” He tried to argue that even permitting a trial added credence to the Democrats’ “witch hunt,” but Senate Republicans are showing little interest in killing the trial so abruptly, aware that voters will see that as a cover-up.
And, finally, the economic historian in me cannot let it pass without noting that the Treasury Department announced today that the federal deficit-- not the debt, mind you, but the deficit, the gap between yearly spending and income—surpassed $1 trillion in 2019. That is, in 2019, the government spent a trillion more than it brought in. I hope to get enough space from breaking news to write more about the economy at some point, but this gap is part of what is fueling Trump's economic boom, and it is of concern.
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