The Long December

It’s been a long December
And there’s reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last.

Counting Crows

This week’s featured posts are my end-of-the-year summaries: “The Yearly Sift 2020: State of the Sift” and “The Yearly Sift 2020: Themes of the Year“.

But it’s 2020, so the news didn’t slow down for the holiday week. Here’s what’s been happening.

This week everybody was talking about vetoes

Trump threatened to veto the $2.3 trillion package that includes $900 billion of Covid relief and money to keep the government open past today. Then he did nothing for several days. Then yesterday he finally signed it. The enhanced unemployment benefits included in the CARES Act ended Saturday, so his delay means that states won’t be able to restart the benefits until the first week of January.

The announcement that he had signed the bill was quickly followed by a bizarre statement that makes the signing sound like something other than a capitulation. Trump’s statement invoked the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, as if he believes this law does the opposite of what it really does.

Congress passed the ICA in response to President Nixon’s executive overreach – his Administration refused to release Congressionally appropriated funds for certain programs he opposed. While the U.S. Constitution broadly grants Congress the power of the purse, the President – through the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and executive agencies – is responsible for the actual spending of funds. The ICA created a process the President must follow if he or she seeks to delay or cancel funding that Congress has provided.

The process is for the President to make a list of the desired cuts and then send it back to Congress, which can just ignore the criticism — as it certainly will in this case. The President then must spend the money appropriated in the original bill. So the list of rescissions Trump announced (which may or may not ever appear; remember all the times he has said that a health care plan was coming) is just symbolic. Even Fox News says

with only a few days left in this Congress, such a request is nearly out of the question

In addition to “demanding” and “insisting on” changes in the bill he signed, Trump’s statement falsely claims Congress has agreed to change Section 230 of Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects social media companies from certain lawsuits. (Trump would like to sue Twitter for continuing to flag his lying tweets about the election as “disputed”.) Congress has also, the statement falsely asserts, “agreed to focus strongly on the very substantial voter fraud which took place in the November 3 Presidential election”.

It is unclear whether Trump issued this toothless statement to fool his supporters, or if his staff fooled him into thinking the statement somehow continues the fight. It does not. He surrendered.

On Wednesday, he did veto the National Defense Authorization Act, which is one of those must-pass bills that allows the government to do things like buy weapons and pay the troops. A vote to override is scheduled for this afternoon in the House, though Senate procedures may delay their vote until Sunday. The ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee sent out a carefully phrased note to his colleagues.

Your decision should be based on what is actually in the bill rather than distortions or misrepresentations. … Your decision should be based upon the oath we all took, which was to the Constitution rather than any person or organization

You mean, some “person” is demanding loyalty to himself rather than to the Constitution, and is spreading “distortions or misrepresentations” about the contents of the NDAA? Whoever could that be?

Trump’s stated objections to the bill are tangential, to say the least.

Trump vetoed the bill after Democrats and Republicans refused to include his last-minute demand to repeal legal protections for social media companies [Section 230 again], which is unrelated to the defense legislation. He also objected to provisions that would remove the names of Confederate leaders from Army bases and place limits on his plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Europe.

Trump describes the bill as “a gift to Beijing”, which might be one of the “misrepresentations” Rep. Thornberry had in mind. The bill also funds a new cybersecurity effort, which probably is not going down well with Trump’s handler in Moscow.

Amanda Marcotte has an interesting theory: Trump’s vetoes and veto threats are intended to pressure Mitch McConnell into helping him steal the election.

To be clear, this isn’t 11th level chess. It’s actually Trump employing junior high school bully logic: McConnell wants a thing (this paltry coronavirus relief bill), and so Trump is threatening to take it away unless Trump gets what he wants (a successful coup). Trump, being very dumb, has not considered the possibility that McConnell couldn’t give in to the extortion if he tried because there’s actually no secret file in McConnell’s office labeled “How To Steal Any Election.”

and pardons

Three weeks ago in “Pardons and Their Limits” I talked in general about the issues involved in the pardons Trump might issue. Now we have some actual pardons to discuss.

The Washington Post sums up what’s wrong with them:

Larry Kupers, the former acting head of the Justice Department Office of the Pardon Attorney, who served in the Trump administration until he left in mid-2019, said in an interview that the president has been abusive in failing to go through the normal channels to review requests for clemency.

Normally, such requests go through his former office and recommendations are eventually sent to the White House. Most of Trump’s actions have been made on requests that did not go through the office. “It is abusive in the sense that very few of his grants, commutations or pardons really went to any legitimate purpose,” Kupers said.

“The purpose of the pardon power set out by Alexander Hamilton — that is mercy and reconciliation and I would add to that forgiveness. I can’t think about any of his grants that come under those categories. They are all grants to cronies or are partisan in the sense that he wants to excite and please his base.”

One striking thing that you might miss or misunderstand: Writers trying to be fair to Trump are sure to mention the dubious pardons of previous presidents — Ford pardoned Nixon; Clinton pardoned Marc Rich; Bush the First pardoned the Iran-Contra conspirators; and so on. What’s important to notice is that the worst examples from America’s past are the run of the mill now. Just about all of Trump’s pardons are self-serving, corrupt, or otherwise damaging to America.

The latest batch included the pardon everyone expected: Paul Manafort, who gets his reward for keeping quiet about the collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. His pardon ties a nice bow on Trump’s obstruction of the Mueller investigation.

Among the partisan pardons are three corrupt Republican congressmen: Duncan Hunter, who was convicted of stealing campaign funds for personal use; Chris Collins (insider trading); and Steve Stockman (charity fraud). All three were clearly guilty of money crimes that served no political purpose; they were just greedy, and grabbed the money because they could. They all deserved their punishment, and could be poster boys for the swamp that Trump promised to drain. It is impossible to imagine a corrupt Democratic congressman — or even a never-Trump Republican — getting a similar pardon. The message this sends to corrupt Republican politicians everywhere is: Go for it. Even if you’re caught, eventually a Republican president will pardon you.

But probably the least deserving beneficiaries of Trump’s largesse are the four Blackwater mercenaries convicted of the Nisour Square Massacre. They killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including two children. There is no doubt they are guilty, or that their crime is heinous. I reconstruct Trump’s thinking like this: They’re Americans and they killed non-white foreigners, so who cares?

This is reminiscent of Trump’s pardon in 2019 of convicted murderer Major Matt Golsteyn, of whom Trump tweeted:

We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!

It is hard to overstate how much damage these pardons (and Trump’s overall attitude towards murderers in uniform) do to the reputation of the United States and the morale of our armed forces. What must our soldiers think, when they hear their Commander in Chief call them “killing machines”? Former head of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey tweeted in response to the first talk of such pardons:

Absent evidence of innocence or injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously. Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us.

The Blackwater pardons go beyond simple corruption. They are evil for evil’s sake.

Josh Marshall’s take on the pardons as obstruction is interesting: He doesn’t think they matter that much. More important than sending people to jail is figuring out what happened, and he expects that to come out of the documents that will be available to the Biden administration.

A new President not invested in the cover up changes the equation dramatically. Everything that has been bottled up at the DOJ, in the intelligence services, in the President’s tax returns, in the voluminous records of the US government have been bottled up because of the President’s slow-rolling, mostly spurious claims of executive privilege or simple non-compliance. All that power disappears on January 20th and translates into the hands of Joe Biden. An ex-President has no privileges to claim whatsoever. In the past, incumbent Presidents have deferred to former President’s on claims of privilege. But that is purely a courtesy. All of these documents and records are the property of the United States government and they are under the control of the incumbent President, who will be Joe Biden in 26 days.

What Biden will do with this power, I can’t tell you. But it will be up to him. And there is quite a lot that remained hidden during Trump’s presidency that can now be uncovered.

In general, I’m against a tit-for-tat view of democratic norms. We believe in democracy and Republicans don’t, so we have a different obligation to maintain its norms. It’s frustrating, but necessary.

In this case, though, I think a exception is called for: Trump has violated so many norms that I think his claims of privilege deserve no deference from his successor. Give him his legal rights and nothing more.

and the Nashville bombing

A car-bomb rocked Nashville at around 6:30 on Christmas morning. It was placed in a touristy area of downtown, but at a time when tourists wouldn’t be there. Police have identified the bomber and believe he died in the bombing, possibly intentionally. Officials are being careful not to assign motives before they have clear evidence. The bomber seems to have been a loner who purchased and assembled the bomb components himself.

The bomber clearly was trying to destroy property rather than kill people. Gunfire apparently was intended to draw police to the area, but the bomb-carrying RV warned people away by blaring a recorded warning that counted down to the explosion. He has been described as “a hermit”, and there are reports that he had been giving away major possessions, as if he expected to die soon.

The bomb was next to an AT&T hub and knocked out some services, but no one knows yet whether that was the purpose. Unconfirmed speculation says that the bomber was paranoid about 5G. You may have seen a photo purporting to be the bomber wearing a Trump hat, but International Business Times claims the photo is a hoax. A scraggly beard makes the Trump-hat photo hard to compare to the clean-shaven photo released by police.

Trump spent the weekend golfing, with no comment on any of the news. Bryan Tyler Cohen makes a sage observation:

Just so we’re clear, Trump is staying silent on Nashville until he finds out whether the person responsible supports him or not.

His concern with “terrorism” and “law and order” never includes violent acts by his supporters.

and you also might be interested in …

Brexit finally got done, more or less.

WaPo’s editorial board reviews the state of Trump’s wall as he leaves office: $15 billion spent, environmental damage, and no benefit to speak of. Oh, and Mexico never paid a dime.

Here’s the New Hampshire I remember:

In Concord on Monday December 21st of 2020 at ten a.m., a group of over one hundred people from across New Hampshire gathered at the now-closed state house steps to invoke their Right of Revolution as specified in Article Ten of the Bill of Rights of the NH Constitution.

The maskless gathering seemed to be motivated by the fairly meager emergency orders of Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who was described as “hiding in his home on Christmas Eve” like that was a strange thing to do.

The Trump claims of electoral fraud all fall apart when looked at in any detail. They rely on their bulk, not on their quality. Here, WaPo’s Phillip Bump focuses on one. And Sidney Powell’s secret “expert” witness isn’t particularly expert.

and let’s close with something judgmental

On bad days, I agree with Eileen McGann’s “I Think We’re Just Too Stupid for Democracy“. Unfortunately, as she observes, “All of the alternatives are worse.”

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  • rmc0917  On December 28, 2020 at 3:00 pm

    One interesting thought about the pardons, is that now the Manaforts and Flynns is that they can no longer invoke the Fifth Amendment if they are subpoenaed to testify before Congress. If they lie under oath, that is a new offense not covered by their pardons. This actually may help us get the real story out in the open.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On December 28, 2020 at 3:25 pm

      You’re assuming they won’t fall back on the tried and true “I’m sorry, but I don’t recall.” They can only be charged with perjury if they make provable false statements; it’s almost impossible to prove that someone really remembers something when they say they forgot. What will get those cowards to talk is if Trump’s support among his cult craters, and testifying against him is viewed as desirable. But if that happens, people like Flynn and Manafort will already be talking to promote their own self-interest.

  • Anonymous  On December 29, 2020 at 9:09 pm

    “His concern with “terrorism” and “law and order” never includes violent acts by his supporters.”

    Maybe “law and order” is code for “Keep the Black people in line.”

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