Ringleaders and Foot Soldiers

Ours is not a system of justice where foot soldiers go to jail and the masterminds and ringleaders get a free pass.

Rep. Jamie Raskin

This week’s featured post is “Trump still has no counter-narrative“.

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s crimes

Last Monday, the 1-6 Committee held its last public hearing. The executive summary of its final report was released Monday, and the 800-page full report on Thursday

The committee also announced that it had made criminal referrals to the Justice Department.

The committee’s historic referral says there is sufficient evidence to refer Trump for four crimes: obstructing an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the government, making knowingly and willfully materially false statements to the federal government, and inciting or assisting an insurrection.

I summarize Committee’s version of the January 6 plot (and Trump’s lack of any credible response) in the featured post. Briefly, the Committee sees January 6 not as a one-day event, but as the unsuccessful culmination of Trump’s months-long scheme to remain in power after losing the 2020 election. In their telling, Trump knew he had lost the election, knew that his fraud claims were false, knew that his false-elector scheme was illegal, knew that the Constitution did not give Vice President Pence the powers Trump pressured him to exercise, and knew that his January 6 speech would incite violence.

Trump responds with ad hominem attacks on the Committee and its witnesses, and he encourages his people not to testify or provide documents. I don’t believe this is how innocent people behave.

In my view, the one part of this narrative where the evidence is not iron-clad (yet) is in Trump’s connection to those who organized the violence. Those arrangements appear to have gone through Trump’s consigliere Mark Meadows, and then through Roger Stone and Mike Flynn. None of those three have answered questions about this. Meadows has been cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify. Stone and Flynn testified, but repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment.

There is reason to hope that the Department of Justice will have better luck getting at least a little cooperation from one or more of them, most likely Meadows.

I am largely in agreement with David Frum, who observes how the responsibility for calling Trump to account for his crimes keeps getting passed from one body to another.

Robert Mueller believed he had no power to indict Trump for obstructing his investigation of Russian influence on the 2016 election. When Trump then tried to extort Ukrainian President Zelenskyy into investigating Biden, the House impeached him, but to his defenders in the Senate

Holding Trump to account should be somebody else’s job: in this case, the voters.

When the voters accepted that responsibility and voted to remove Trump from office (by seven million votes), he tried to overturn the election by fraud and ultimately by force. When those actions led to a second impeachment that could have banned him from holding any future office, Mitch McConnell admitted

There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of [January 6].

But he decided that accountability and consequences were still somebody’s else’s job.

We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former Presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.

Now, once again, Trump has been investigated by a body that had no power to indict him. The January 6 Committee could only make a referral to the Justice Department, which it has done.

That leaves nobody for DoJ to pass the buck to. The final decision rests with Jack Smith and Merrick Garland. If they choose not to indict Trump, that will be the end of any consequences. Trump will have proven he is above the law.

There has been some debate about whether the 1-6 Committee should have bothered with criminal referrals, given that the Justice Department has no obligation to follow up on them. I think the referrals are important from the point of view of history and narrative.

Every time some official body investigates Trump and then declines to do something, his supporters take that inaction as vindication. The same thing would have happened here, as in “The Committee made a bunch of noise, but in the end even they didn’t claim Trump had committed any specific crimes.”

And if the Justice Department would decline to indict Trump — for what it’s worth, I believe it will indict him, that I’m not sure what the charges will be — the historical record wouldn’t have any explicit claims against him beyond the second impeachment, which had to be put together quickly and missed the full breadth of the conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.

One sidelight of the report is an account of how Cassidy Hutchinson’s original TrumpWorld lawyer tried to influence her testimony.

Hutchinson stressed that he “never told me to lie,” but did say Passantino instructed her to say “I do not recall” and encouraged her to “use that response as much as you deem necessary.”

“I said, ‘But if I do remember things but not every detail, and I say I don’t recall, wouldn’t I be perjuring myself?'” Hutchinson asked Passantino, she told the committee. “Stefan said something to the effect of, ‘The committee doesn’t know what you can and can’t recall, so we want to be able to use that as much as we can unless you really, really remember something very clearly.”

… In a later conversation with Passantino on March 1, Hutchinson said he told her, “We’re gonna get you a really good job in Trump world,” and “We want to keep you in the family.”

The interview transcript also reveals Ben Williamson, another White House aide who was close to Meadows, told Hutchinson the night before her second deposition in March that “Mark wants me to let you know that he knows you’re loyal, and he knows you’ll do the right thing tomorrow and that you’re going to protect him and the boss.”

Hutchinson got a new lawyer before her second appearance before the Committee.

It was fascinating to watch how Fox News’ web site covered the criminal referrals. The news article disappeared from their front page quickly; it mentioned the four crimes by name, but gave no hint of the evidence behind the charges. The only person quoted was a spokesman for Rep. Jim Jordan, who characterized the referrals as “just another partisan and political stunt”.

The news article was quickly followed by an analysis article, which did not even list the charges. Instead, the article emphasized that a congressional referral “holds no official legal weight”, is just “theater”, and will be “ignored” by DoJ because it will be a “prosecutorial liability”.

Keep this in mind if you find yourself arguing with someone who mainly follows Fox News and other conservative media: The evidence against Trump has been systematically hidden from them.

The House Ways and Means Committee has voted to reveal six years Trump’s tax returns, as well as tax returns for eight of his businesses.

These returns are the outcome of a three-year court battle to enforce a fairly clear law, passed in 1924 after the Teapot Dome scandal, that allows certain committees of Congress to request individual tax returns from the IRS. Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused to obey that law, and the case had to go all the way to the Supreme Court.

I am not sure why the returns had to be released to the public (though it’s worth noting that all major presidential candidate since Nixon have released their returns voluntarily, so it’s not like Trump has suffered some unprecedented injury). The New Yorker interviewed Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal about that.

Apparently, the failure to give Trump’s returns to Congress was not the only obligation that Trump’s IRS ignored. IRS policy requires that tax returns of presidents and vice presidents be audited annually, but audits of Trump’s taxes didn’t begin until after Neal requested the returns be released to his committee. (Audits of both Obama and Biden have been performed on schedule.) None of the Trump audits have been completed.

Neal phrases his responses carefully, but he clearly intends to leave the impression that it is necessary to release the returns so that the public can do the kind of auditing that the IRS hasn’t done. I have no idea whether that makes sense.

and President Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington

The Ukrainian president made a surprise visit to D.C. just before Christmas, and spoke to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. He spoke in English and invoked iconic moments in America’s past struggles to achieve or defend freedom: Saratoga and the Battle of the Bulge. He thanked America for its support in both weapons and money, and asked for more.

Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.

The MAGA right erupted in outrage. Matt Walsh tweeted “Get this grifting leech out of our country please”. Tomi Lahren tweeted: “No more money to Ukraine!!! We can’t fight this war for you for eternity!!!” (I’m puzzled how anyone could look at Ukraine’s bombed-out cities or consider its thousands of war dead and conclude that we are fighting this war for them. We’re helping to bankroll a war they are fighting for themselves with great courage. This is not like Afghanistan, where officials couldn’t surrender or leave the country fast enough as soon as we started turning off the money.) Tucker Carlson seemed deeply offended that Zelenskyy addressed Congress in his combat sweater (clearly the worst offense against America since President Obama’s tan suit).

The point was to fawn over the Ukrainian strip club manager and hand him billions more dollars from our own crumbling economy. It is hard, in fact, it may be impossible to imagine a more humiliating scenario for the greatest country on Earth.

As he so often does (and will if he becomes speaker), Kevin McCarthy seemed not to know what to do with himself.

Lawmakers rose to applaud. McCarthy, who vows to probe Ukraine’s use of U.S. funds, froze in his chair before eventually lumbering to his feet. … McCarthy’s unease was understandable. Zelensky’s joint-session address celebrated U.S. support for Ukraine’s defenses against Russian invaders, and many in McCarthy’s Republican caucus (whose votes McCarthy needs to become speaker) want to cut off U.S. aid. Most GOP lawmakers skipped the speech entirely, and a few in attendance — Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Tim Burchett — sat through it sulking. Other Republicans trashed Zelensky, calling him “the Ukrainian lobbyist” (Rep. Thomas Massie), “the shadow president” (Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene) and a “welfare queen” (Donald Trump Jr.).

Trump and his cultists decided many years ago to side with Russia. It must be very frustrating that Putin has joined Hershel Walker, Keri Lake, and the Atlantic City Taj Mahal in the long list of slow horses Trump has bet on. Putin was supposed to be the prototype fascist strongman. The fact that he turns out to be surprisingly weak and ineffective is deeply embarrassing to fascists everywhere.

and the closing days of a sane Congress

The new Congress, with a Republican House majority, will take office on January 3. Meanwhile, the current Congress passed the bill that it had to pass to prevent a government shutdown. The $1.7 trillion bill will keep the military and a variety of other programs funded through the end of FY2023, i.e. September 30.

This is probably the last time between now and 2025 that the government will be funded without a hostage-taking drama.

One provision that made it into the bill was a revision of the Electoral Count Act. The revision makes clear the vice president’s role in counting electoral votes, eliminating any ambiguity that some future Trump might try to take advantage of. It also resets the threshold for challenging a state’s electoral votes. Previously, one member of each house was enough to start a debate about a state’s electoral votes. Now it will require 1/5th of each house.

Kevin McCarthy still doesn’t have the votes to become speaker. It’s hard to guess what kind of deal he can make with the five Freedom Caucus members who have pledged not to vote for him, because (unlike progressives that Nancy Pelosi had to negotiate with in past Congresses), they don’t seem to want anything in particular out of government, or even for the government to function at all.

One of the new Republican congressmen is George Santos of New York, who apparently isn’t who he says he is. In the simplest sense his name does appear to be George Santos, but beyond that, just about everything he told voters was a lie. He didn’t graduate from the college he claimed or work and the investment bank he claimed. One company he did work at is being investigated by the SEC for being a Ponzi scheme.

Santos is a Brazilian immigrant with a criminal record who was evicted from apartments in 2015 and 2017, but now somehow has enough money to contribute $700K to his own campaign. No one knows where his money comes from.

Kevin McCarthy appears to be standing by Santos, because his Republican majority is tiny and he needs every vote if he’s going to become speaker. As Adam Kinzinger said in his farewell speech to the House on December 15, today’s Republican Party has “embraced lies and deceit“.

and you also might be interested in …

Does Texas Governor Gregg Abbott know the true meaning of Christmas or what? His latest migrant-busing stunt resulted in three busloads of asylum seekers (not illegal immigrants; seeking asylum is recognized in US law) being deposited outside Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence at the Naval Observatory. (A private aid agency took the migrants to a local church. I don’t know what happened to them from there.)

“Governor Abbott abandoned children on the side of the road in below freezing temperatures on Christmas Eve without coordinating with any Federal or local authorities,” White House assistant press secretary Abdullah Hasan said in a statement. “This was a cruel, dangerous, and shameful stunt.”

Up to a point, I can sympathize with border states who feel that the burden of our immigration problem falls disproportionately on them. Wanting to slough that burden off on other states or the federal government is understandable. What I can’t sympathize with is Governor Abbott’s callous indifference towards the individuals involved. They may not be white and they may not speak English, but they are people.

Eric Swalwell tweeted:

Guess we know how Greg Abbott, a “practicing” Roman Catholic, would have treated Jesus, Mary & Joseph.

It’s also worth pointing out that Republican Thom Tillis and Democrat-turned-Independent Kyrsten Sinema worked out a bipartisan compromise proposal to that would cut the number of asylum-seekers in the US by putting more resources into the asylum-court process — smaller case backlog, faster decisions, fewer people waiting around for their cases to be heard. The proposal would in addition have given legal status to the “Dreamers” — children brought into the US illegally who have grown up here, most of whom know no other home.

The proposal died, largely because of a no-compromise attitude on the part of conservatives. It will not be revisited in the new Congress, because Kevin McCarthy has vowed not to consider any immigration reform compromise.

Amnesty is a nonstarter. It won’t be taken up by a House Republican majority.

Keri Lake’s lawsuit to overturn her election defeat in Arizona was thrown out. She lost.

Republicans lost the majority in the Pennsylvania House in the fall elections, but they could maneuver to hold the speakership. Power matters; the will of the voters doesn’t.

Maybe the problem of tall trucks should be handled the way we handle our gun problem.

This week I learned that chicken tikka masala is not a traditional Indian dish. One of the people credited with inventing it was a Pakistani immigrant who opened a restaurant in Glasgow in the 1960s. The NYT published his obituary Friday.

By this point in the season I get cynical about Christmas songs. I think “Last Christmas” is a jealousy ploy, and I doubt that “someone special” is a real person. I also don’t trust Mariah Carey: If she got me, she’d soon remember all the other stuff she wants for Christmas.

and let’s close with something cranky

Mark Woodley is a sports reporter for KWWL in Waterloo, Iowa, but when a blizzard hit he got drafted into storm coverage. He wasn’t happy about it.

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  • George Washington, Jr.  On December 26, 2022 at 1:20 pm

    Imagine if the Santos narrative was reversed. The Democrats have a razor-thin majority, and one freshman congressman is found to have largely fabricated his past, but otherwise, doesn’t have any real scandals and is a reliable Democratic vote. Expelling him and holding a new election will probably allow the Republican (let’s say it’s Kari Lake) to win. Would you want him expelled? I sure wouldn’t, at least not without evidence of illegal activity.

    Santos may be a liar, but as far as I can tell, he’s not MTG, Boebert, Jordan, Gaetz, or any of the other traitors. I’d trade him for any one of them.

    • jrlevine  On December 26, 2022 at 4:51 pm

      The evidence against Santos is much much stronger that it was against Al Franken

      • George Washington, Jr.  On December 26, 2022 at 5:42 pm

        Franken should never have resigned. But his replacement was another Democrat (actually, Tina Smith is a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Laborer Party, Minnesota’s version of Democratic). I’m not sure Franken would have resigned if Minnesota had a Republican governor who would have appointed a Republican to fill his seat.

        Other than his creative history, Santos is a garden-variety Republican. Republican voters tend to hold party affiliation above personal integrity, otherwise, Herschel Walker wouldn’t have done as well as he did.

  • Meredith Lewis  On December 26, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    I hope you’re recovering well from your bout of Covid.

    I just shared this to Mastodon, by the way. Seems like a nice platform.

  • Creigh Gordon  On December 26, 2022 at 5:34 pm

    Nobody should be surprised that Republican hardliners try to shut down the government and generally obstruct everything, they have made it perfectly clear that they dislike and distrust the government. They believe that the only legitimate role for government is protection of private property rights (that is, police domestically and military internationally). They particularly don’t want the government doing anything that upsets the status quo of their privilege.

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