Tonight’s news dump felt different to me, as if Trump has realized that he is in trouble in the upcoming election, and rather than trying to court the independent voters he needs to win reelection honestly, is focusing instead on doing all he can to protect himself from indictments and to charge up his base.
First, though, while there is much political news, the biggest story remains the coronavirus. Today the U.S. had more than 68,000 new coronavirus cases in a single day, the seventh single-day record in the last 11 days. Yesterday’s number—also a record—was 59,886. Our death toll has topped 136,000, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top advisor to the president on the coronavirus, says he hasn’t briefed the president in two months, and is not being allowed on television because of his dire warnings about the pandemic.
The Republican governors of Florida, Arizona, and Texas, where infections are spiking, are caught between the reality of the virus and Republican ideology.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has been refusing to release data on hospitalizations, but the state today revealed that there are almost 7000 Floridians in Florida hospitals, sick with Covid-19. Florida is now one of the world’s epicenters for the disease, but DeSantis says he will not slow the state’s reopening.
In Arizona, now leading the U.S. in the growth of new Covid-19 cases with 4,221 new cases today, Governor Doug Ducey has ordered bars, movie theaters, gyms, and water parks closed to stop the spread of the virus. Bar owners are suing him.
And in Texas, where Houston hospitals have run out of room for more patients and are turning them away, county Republican parties have voted to censure Governor Greg Abbott for requiring face masks to slow the spread of the virus. They say such an order is government overreach.
Now politics: Today Attorney General William Barr, who is packing the Department of Justice with his own loyalists, announced the appointment of a new U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Seth D. DuCharme will take over for Richard P. Donoghue, who will move to the main Justice Department to oversee investigations around the country. Both men are close to Barr. DuCharme has been working with John Durham, whom Barr has tapped to try to undermine the evidence in the Mueller Report. The EDNY has been investigating irregularities in the financing of Trump’s inauguration festivities.
In any normal era, this unusual change would be the day’s major story, but it was eclipsed today by the news that Trump has commuted the sentence of his friend and associate Roger Stone, who was supposed to surrender on Tuesday to serve a 40-month sentence. A jury convicted Stone of obstructing Congress, lying to investigators, and tampering with a witness. When Trump insisted that Stone was being persecuted for his politics, the judge in his case, Amy Berman Jackson, answered that Stone “was not prosecuted for standing up for the president; he was prosecuted for covering up for the president.”
Nonetheless, Trump continued to attack Stone’s conviction. First, Barr’s Department of Justice abruptly reduced its recommended sentence for Stone against the wishes of the career prosecutors who handled Stone's case. That led to a crisis in the DOJ, as the four prosecutors quit the case.
When Jackson handed down a 40-month sentence, Trump turned against the jury that had convicted Stone, insisting without evidence that the forewoman was a biased anti-Trump activist who had tainted the jury. The judge shot down that argument, pointing out that Stone’s lawyers had not challenged her status when they could have, but, identified by Trump supporters, the forewoman—who had, after all, been doing her civic duty-- became a target.
Stone’s legal troubles stemmed from his attempt to be the go-between who funneled stolen emails from Wikileaks, a front for Russian intelligence, to the 2016 Trump campaign. But his connection to Trump is much longer and deeper: the men have known each other for many years, and it was Stone who brought his former associate Paul Manafort onto Trump’s campaign in summer 2016. Manafort was fresh from advising the political career of a Russia-linked oligarch in Ukraine, and was present at the Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016 when Donald Trump, Jr., and Jared Kushner met with Russian agents. Manafort turned the flagging campaign around, and if there are skeletons in the campaign closet, it is likely that Stone would know of at least some of them.
This afternoon, before the announcement, NBC news correspondent Howard Fineman tweeted “Just had a long talk with [Roger Stone]. He says he doesn’t want a pardon (which implies guilt) but a commutation, and says he thinks [Trump] will give it to him. 'He knows I was under enormous pressure to turn on him. It would have eased my situation considerably. But I didn’t.'”
This statement indicates, of course, that Trump is hiding criminal behavior, and that his commutation of Stone’s sentence is a bribe to keep him quiet. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) sure saw it that way: “This is, like, super simple, right? Stone had info that would have put Trump in jail. He told Trump he'd obstruct justice if he got clemency. Trump agreed. If you think it went down another way, you haven't been paying attention to the last 40 years of Donald Trump,” he tweeted.
It is interesting that Trump did not pardon Stone, but rather commuted his sentence. A presidential pardon takes away a person’s right to stay silent in court under the right established by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution not to self-incriminate. It does so because there is no need to worry about conviction: you've been pardoned. A commutation does not take away that right, so Stone now cannot be compelled to testify.
There is widespread condemnation of this commutation, and yesterday even the DOJ said it supported Stone’s imprisonment. But Trump clearly doesn’t care. His long statement upon issuing the grant of clemency was a rehash of his usual accusations about “the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump presidency.”
It was red meat for his base, and that appears to be what’s on the menu these days. Today Trump hit at educators, a traditional target of the right: “Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education. Therefore, I am telling the Treasury Department to re-examine their Tax-Exempt Status… and/or Funding, which will be taken away if this Propaganda or Act Against Public Policy continues. Our children must be Educated, not Indoctrinated!” he tweeted.
And yesterday we learned that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is planning to offer a six-day “citizens academy” course in Chicago to train people in what ICE does, including the arrest of immigrants. “You have been identified as a valued member of the community who may have interest in participating in the inaugural class of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Chicago Citizens Academy,” read a letter from ICE Chicago Field Office Director Robert Guadian. The program will “serve as a pilot for nationwide implementation,” it said. The course will include training in “defensive tactics, firearms familiarization and targeted arrests,” according to the letter, although when asked about it, ICE spokesperson Nicole Alberico said “The goal is to build bridges with the community by offering a day-in-the-life perspective of a federal law enforcement agency.”
Finally, there was news about one of Trump’s favorite Fox News Channel shows, “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Today, Carlson’s chief writer, Blake Neff, had to step down when it came out that for years he had been posting vile racist, homophobic, and sexist language on an online forum of like-minded fellow-travelers.
It appears there was at least some overlap between what Neff posted on the forum and what appeared on Carlson’s show.
"You have been identified as a valued member of the community who may have interest in participating in the inaugural class of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Chicago Citizens Academy,” read a letter from ICE Chicago Field Office Director Robert Guadian.
At last, the rollout of a government sponsored program designed to recruit and cultivate the Trump version of the Sturmabteilung, (Nazi Brown Shirts). I knew in my gut, from the very beginning, that this would happen, and now it has. This is a step into dangerous territory; there are way too many heavily armed, right and ultra-right wing people who will take great pleasure in having a government agency validate their racist behaviors. This is incredibly frightening. And sad.
Thanks, Heather, for your tireless research and writing. I cannot imagine how you keep up with it all!
This ICE story scares me. More than the rest of it, if possible.