May 7, 2020
There were three big stories today, and they added up to a fourth.
First, the Department of Justice, overseen by Attorney General William Barr, filed documents today to drop its case against Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. This reverses years of work on the Flynn case, and has shocked experienced prosecutors, who say it reveals that Barr is now simply working for Trump. The filing was signed by Timothy Shea alone, Barr’s hand-picked US Attorney for the District of Columbia. No career prosecutors signed on.
Flynn was a lobbyist for the Turkish government and had spent time at a state dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the FBI opened a case on him on August 16, 2016, out of concern he might be working with Russia even as he was campaigning for Trump (with his famous “Lock Her Up” chants). On November 10, after Trump was elected, President Barack Obama warned Trump not to hire Flynn for a national security post, but on November 18, Trump named Flynn his National Security Advisor. On December 29, the same day the Obama administration announced retaliatory measures for Russian interference in the 2016 election, Flynn caught the attention of the FBI by making five phone calls to the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. FBI officials and Obama officials thought the conversations sounded like he and Moscow had made a secret deal.
The FBI interviewed Flynn on January 24; he lied about those calls, saying they did not talk about lifting Russian sanctions after Trump was elected. After the interview, acting attorney Sally Yates made an urgent visit to White House Counsel Don McGahn warning him that Flynn was “compromised” and vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians. On February 8, Flynn publicly denied he had spoken to Kislyak about sanctions, but when news broke the next day that he had, his spokesman said he could not “be certain that the topic never came up.” He resigned on February 13. (The next day, Trump met with FBI Director James Comey and asked him to let the Flynn case go. When Comey continued to investigate Russian connections to the Trump campaign, Trump fired him, and the outcry led to the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to take over the investigation.)
Flynn offered to testify about the campaign’s connections to Russia in exchange for immunity from criminal prosecution, but was turned down. In November, after news broke that Mueller had enough evidence for criminal charges against Flynn and his son, he began to cooperate with the investigation.
In December 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, but was not sentenced because he had not yet finished cooperating with the special counsel’s office. Then, after the Mueller investigation ended, in June 2019, he fired his lawyers and hired Sidney Powell, who had criticized the Mueller investigation. Soon, Flynn backed away from his guilty plea, his lawyer claiming that he had been “ambush[ed]” by FBI agents trying to “trap… him into making statements they could allege as false.” In January 2020, Powell accused the government of “egregious government misconduct” and moved to withdraw Flynn’s guilty plea.
And now the Department of Justice is moving to withdraw the case. It is highly unusual to try to undo a guilty plea, and the switch signals a dramatic shift in the DOJ. The career prosecutor on the case formally withdrew from it just before the Justice Department stopped the prosecution, just as career prosecutors stepped aside when Barr interfered in Trump confidante Roger Stone’s sentencing. The filing claims that FBI agents unlawfully pursued Flynn—that there was no just cause for an intelligence investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, and that therefore his confession is immaterial.
Did you get that? The Justice Department is saying that any investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election was illegitimate, despite the report of the inspector general saying the opposite. And now, with a Trump crony at Director of National Intelligence there is little hope we will hear more about Russian interference. Both acting DNI Richard Grenell and the man Trump has nominated to replace him, Representative John Ratcliffe (R-Tx), neither of whom have experience in the intelligence community, have been vocal in their disbelief that Russia threatens our elections.
Still, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan will decide whether to accept the dismissal of the case. Sullivan ripped into Flynn in his 2018 hearing, telling him “I want to be frank with you, this crime is very serious…. Not only did you lie to the FBI, you lied to senior officials in the incoming administration…. I am not hiding my disgust, my disdain for your criminal offense.”
Trump said today that the Justice Department’s decision just adds more evidence to the idea there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia (which was, remember, not what the Mueller report said). All the Pulitzer Prizes people won for those stories should be given back, he said, because they were fake news. Trump is talking about reinstating Flynn into the administration.
And that, sadly, is not the end of the day’s news.
The next big story is the coronavirus. We are up to 76,000 deaths, and the cases show no sign of slackening. Projections for the summer are grim, with most models estimating we will well surpass 100,000 deaths.
On Tuesday, Trump justified opening businesses because he said “We can’t keep our country closed for the next five years.” But that’s not what’s on the table. What we are trying to do by holding down deaths now is to buy time before a vaccine is available, which experts said about six months ago would take at least 12 to 18 months. Trump, of course, has an interest in trying to reopen the country quickly because he sees the economy as the key to his reelection and wants it recovering by the fall. But he has admitted this will costs lives, a sacrifice he is more ready for others to make than for himself. Today, he got “lava level mad” when he learned one of his personal valets had tested positive for Covid-19, accusing his staff of not taking sufficient precautions to keep the virus away from him (despite frequent testing of everyone in his orbit).
And certainly, the economy is in free fall. Tomorrow, we get the jobs report for April. It is expected to show that the US economy lost about 21.5 million jobs last month. If that is correct, it indicates we have wiped out all of the job gains in the U.S. since mid-1999. It also puts the unemployment rate at 16%, the highest since 1939. There are answers other than sending people back to work without testing or contact tracing, however. We could, for example, provide a wage guarantee until infections recede enough to enable people to go back into the workforce with some sense of security.
The third big story is that the Republican National Committee and the Trump reelection campaign have budgeted $20 million to fight Democratic attempts to make remote voting easier during the pandemic. Although there is no evidence that mail-in voting causes fraud, and although some states already do it with no ill effects, RNC chief of staff Richard Walters fell back on the idea that easing restrictions to make it easier to vote would contaminate elections. “Democrats may be using the coronavirus as an excuse to strip away important election safeguards, but the American people continue to support commonsense protections that defend the integrity of our democratic processes,” he said, and Republicans were willing to sue Democrats “into oblivion and spend whatever is necessary.”
These three stories seem to add up to a fourth. Trump and his people are grasping power, but he knows he must resurrect the economy to win reelection. That will not be enough if the carnage of the pandemic grows, so he is determined to suppress the vote.
At least that’s what it looks like to me.