The Trump/Weisselberg Tax Evasion Scheme

It wasn’t just dishonest. It was dumb.

I thought I was immune to the myth of Trump the Great Businessman. But reading the indictment of the Trump Organization and its CFO Allen Weisselberg left me shocked and appalled. For some reason, I had expected their tax-evasion scheme to be clever and sophisticated. Maybe it would push the law’s ambiguous boundaries. Maybe it would involve a complex web of shell companies and offshore accounts. Whatever it was, I was sure it was something the guy who owns your local bagel shop could never pull off.

I was wrong.

The Trump Organization paid Weisselberg (and unnamed other executives) partly in cash and partly by covering his personal expenses. Then they lied to the IRS and claimed that the cash payments were his full compensation. They kept two sets of books, one false set for the tax people, and another internal set where they recorded everything.

The scheme wasn’t just dishonest, it was stupid. It would only work if nobody looked at it. But the Manhattan District Attorney looked, and so they’re caught.

Your local bagel-shop owner would know better.

The company and Weisselberg both pleaded not guilty to the 15 felony counts in the indictment. But the public statements Trump and his people are making don’t even deny the charges. David Frum comments on the Trump Organization’s official statement:

Here is what is missing from that statement: “I’m 100 percent confident that every investigation will always end up in the same conclusion, which is that I follow all rules, procedures, and, most importantly, the law.” That’s the language used by former Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke when he was facing ethics charges in 2018. Likewise, when Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe was accused of violating campaign-finance laws in 2016, he too was “very confident” that “there was no wrongdoing.” Plug the phrases very confident and no wrongdoing into a search engine and you will pull up statement after statement by politicians and business leaders under fire. For some, their matter worked out favorably; for others, not so much. Either way, everybody expects you to say that you’re confident you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s the thing an innocent person would want to say. So it’s kind of a tell when it goes unsaid.

Speaking at a rally in Sarasota Saturday, Trump — the same guy who in 2016 said “I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them” — pleaded ignorance.

They go after good, hard-working people for not paying taxes on a company car. You didn’t pay tax on the car or a company apartment. You used an apartment because you need an apartment because you have to travel too far where your house is. You didn’t pay tax. Or education for your grandchildren. I don’t even know. Do you have to? Does anybody know the answer to that stuff?

Yes, people know. They’re called accountants, and the Trump Organization probably employs a lot of them.

Like their father, the Trump sons have been claiming that this is a “fringe benefits” case, the kind of thing that is occasionally pursued as a civil complaint, but hardly ever prosecuted as a criminal matter. Don Jr. said on Fox News Primetime:

After … 3 million documents, countless witnesses and hours of grand jury testimony, outside forensic auditors, this is what they come up with: they’re going to charge a guy who’s 75 years old on crimes of avoiding paying taxes on a fringe benefit.

Prior to the indictment becoming public, Trump Sr. said investigators were focusing on “things that are standard practice throughout the U.S. business community, and in no way a crime.”

Just Security debunks that claim. There actually are tricky fringe benefit tax issues that business owners will recognize: If your company provides you with something like a car or a laptop computer that you use for work, but also for personal matters, it can sometimes be difficult to determine exactly what part of the cost is a corporate business expense, and what part is personal income. Some companies and their executives push those boundaries a little, and it’s true that they are almost never charged with a crime.

That’s not what’s happening here.

A great deal of what Weisselberg received had no conceivable business use. OK, his car, maybe. But his wife’s car? His son’s apartment? His grandchildren’s tuition? Those aren’t Trump Organization business expenses, not even in part.

Calling bundles of cash and the provision of flat screen televisions in employees’ vacation homes “fringe benefits” – especially when they are not extra pay, but replace ordinary paycheck salary, dollar for dollar – would appear to leave no employee compensation outside the term’s potential scope.

If this stands, in other words, there’s no reason why businesses should pay any of their employees taxable salaries. If you make, say, $50,000 a year, your company could just give you a corporate credit card with a $50,000 annual limit as a tax-free “fringe benefit”.

That’s not “standard business practice”, that’s tax fraud.

Just Security’s dollar-for-dollar claim brings us to the stupidest part of the scheme: They wrote it all down.

During the time of the scheme, Weisselberg was making a fixed salary in the neighborhood of $900K per year. Instead of paying all that in cash, the company rented a New York City apartment for Weisselberg, rented cars for him and his wife, paid private school tuition for their grandchildren, and covered a bunch of other personal expenses. And the company kept a spreadsheet deducting all that from his salary, but not adding it to the W-2 forms reported to the IRS and New York state, as if Weisselberg’s personal expenses were Trump Organization business expenses. (The Trump Organization should also have been paying payroll taxes on this money, but didn’t.)

All in all, the company helped Weisselberg hide about $1.7 million of income and avoid more than $900K of federal, state, and local taxes. That’s not fudging a little on your taxes. That’s grand larceny. The Washington Post quotes law professor Dan Hemel: “If you pay your employees under the table, a good rule of thumb is not to write it down.”

On The Wire, Stringer Bell made the same point more forcefully: “Is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy? What the fuck is you thinking, man?”

The deeper into the indictment you read, the stupider the scheme gets. The rental agreement on Weisselberg apartment lists him and his wife as the sole occupants, and says it’s their primary residence. But Weisselberg didn’t tell New York City he lived there, and so skipped out on NYC income tax. Just Security explains that NYC residency is not just a personal choice:

It is a widely-known fact among New York-area taxpayers – and not just those with specific tax and accounting knowledge, like Weisselberg himself – that, if one has an apartment in New York City (as he did) and is in the City for at least a part of more than 183 days in a given year, then one counts for that year as a City resident. This is not an issue that turns on any broader (or other) facts and circumstances. Under the indictment’s stated facts, therefore, Weisselberg unambiguously was a New York City resident for all of the years from 2005 through 2013, based on an objective black-letter rule that is hardly arcane or obscure.

And then we get to the penny-ante stuff, the kind of scam you only try if you’re already in the habit of cheating:

It was a further part of the scheme to defraud that Weisselberg received unreported cash that he could use to pay personal holiday gratuities. Specifically, Weisselberg caused the Trump Corporation to issue corporate checks made payable to a Trump Organization employee who cashed the checks and received cash. The cash was given to Weisselberg for his personal use. The Trump Corporation booked this cash as “Holiday Entertainment,” but maintained internal spreadsheets showing the cash to be part of Weisselberg’s employee compensation.

Is that a “common business practice” in your experience? Did your boss ever make out a check to you, and then tell you to cash it and bring the money back to him? In any job I ever held, I would have found that a bit odd.

Finally, at least one part of the scheme seems to have broader implications: About $400K of Weisselberg’s annual income is an end-of-the-year bonus, which comes from a different Trump company as a consulting fee. This allowed Weisselberg to claim he’s self-employed — so he started a Keogh plan (a more-generous IRA for the self-employed) to avoid more taxes.

This resembles the consulting fees the NYT traced to Ivanka Trump — who likewise is simultaneously a well-paid executive and a consultant for Trump companies. This has led numerous observers to speculate that maybe this whole scheme wasn’t devised for Allen Weisselberg’s benefit. Maybe he was just piggybacking on a scheme created to benefit the Trump children.

There’s precedent for such schemes, as the NYT outlined in a 2018 article exposing the source of Trump’s wealth

Much of this money came to Mr. Trump because he helped his parents dodge taxes. He and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents, records and interviews show. Records indicate that Mr. Trump helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions more. He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings.

These maneuvers met with little resistance from the Internal Revenue Service, The Times found. The president’s parents, Fred and Mary Trump, transferred well over $1 billion in wealth to their children, which could have produced a tax bill of at least $550 million under the 55 percent tax rate then imposed on gifts and inheritances.

The Trumps paid a total of $52.2 million, or about 5 percent, tax records show.

This suggests that Don Jr.’s is-that-all-they-have ploy might just be whistling in the dark. This indictment is the Manhattan DA’s first shot. The second one might be aimed at him and his siblings.

Apart from the legal considerations, and whatever effect these charges might have on whether Weisselberg or some other executive flips on Trump, I have to wonder what this is doing to the Trump image.

To his fans, Trump above all is a smart businessman, and this scheme is not at all smart. In addition to working-class people, who have no choice about what appears on their W-2s, small businessmen are also a key part of the Trump base. If they look at this indictment at all, they have to be thinking “Even I would know better than to try that.”

Climate Change is Here

When it’s 116 in Portland and 108 in Seattle, something is wrong.

For a long time, you could only see global warming if you knew what you were looking for. It wasn’t something that announced itself in your everyday experience.

Wherever you might live, it continued to be warmer in the day and cooler at night, hotter in summer and colder in winter — the same as it ever was. Whether summers had been hotter or winters colder years ago was a topic for old people’s boring stories about the Blizzard of ’78 or the Drought of ’54.

You had to be a statistician — or trust statisticians whose work you couldn’t check — to get any coherent view of the trends in global temperature. Think of the millions of measurements, and thousands of adjustments to those measurements, necessary to produce a graph like the one below. Who made those measurements? Who compiled those statistics? Why should you trust them? If you had the resources and the will, you could find your own way to parse the data so that it said something different. Why shouldn’t you do that, or decide to trust somebody who did, rather than trust NASA or NOAA or some international consortium of scientists?

The situation was even worse if you tried to look to the future, because then you were dealing with computer models. What were they assuming? Who did the programming? Again, the graphs looked very impressive and scary. But if you didn’t want to believe them — and who did, really? — nobody could make you.

And without predictions decades into the future, climate change was no big deal. Maybe it was already a degree or two hotter than in your grandparents’ day, but so what? Life went on, people adjusted. The climate was always changing.

What it came down to, for a lot of Americans, was one more example of people with advanced degrees telling them what to do. And that might be fine if they were telling you to do something you want to do — like get a good night’s sleep, or spend more time in the sunlight. And it’s even OK if their advice is unpleasant, but matches your common sense — compound interest means you should start saving for retirement when you’re young, smoking isn’t good for you. But here the eggheads were telling you to stop driving and flying and running the air conditioner, or even to close down the mines your town depended on, the one that had employed your family for generations. And the evidence was all stuff you couldn’t touch: Look at this graph and don’t ask too many questions about how I made it, or else the world will be a hellscape after we’re all dead.

Americans already had religions based on things they couldn’t see that made threats and promises after death. They didn’t need another one.

And then visible things started to happen, maybe, sort of.

Right around the time Hurricane Katrina mauled New Orleans in 2005, you might think you were starting to see climate change in anomalous weather events. But what is “anomalous”, really? When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012, we all had a gut feeling that hurricanes aren’t supposed to go that far north. But weird weather events have been happening forever. What about the Great New England Hurricane of 1938?

The Midwestern floods of 2019 were so intense, and so close to previous major floods, that they drove the phrase “hundred-year flood” out of our vocabulary. Nobody knows what a hundred-year flood is any more. And sure, that’s strange, but is it proof? Maybe we’re just in some kind of weird flood cycle.

We got used to these kinds of arguments, to the point that they became almost ritualized: The weather would do something incredible — a big wildfire, an intense hurricane season, or a heat wave in Siberia — and somebody would immediately say: “See? Climate change.” But then somebody else would say, “You can’t really say that about one event. It could just be bad luck.” Then either people would start yelling at each other, or the conversation would bog down in the technicalities of probability — neither of which accomplished anything. Everybody continued to believe whatever they had started out believing.

The series of weird weather events should have chipped away at climate-change-deniers’ skepticism, but in fact it did the opposite. Once you’ve explained away Katrina and Sandy, it gets easier, not harder, to shrug off Harvey and Irma and Maria all happening the same year. The weather gets weird sometimes; that doesn’t mean the world is ending.

Even so, last year’s western wildfires were a little hard to account for. Not only were they record-breaking in terms of acreage and cost, but Portland suburbs had to be evacuated, Seattle had an air-quality emergency, and the smoke gave me colorful sunsets all the way out here in Massachusetts. And only a few months before, Australia had record-breaking fires of its own.

For decades, climate-change deniers have derided activists as “scare mongers” who made “apocalyptic” predictions. But you know what? Those fires in Australia looked pretty apocalyptic.

Smoke-choked Sydney in December, 2019

Still, people pointed to multiple possible causes for wildfires: over-development, say, or power lines. President Trump blamed bad forest management, echoing absurd suggestions he had made about raking in 2018.

Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources, pressed Mr. Trump more bluntly. “If we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed together protecting Californians,” he told the president.

This time, Mr. Trump rejected the premise. “It’ll start getting cooler,” he insisted. “You just watch.”

“I wish science agreed with you,” Mr. Crowfoot replied.

“Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” Mr. Trump retorted, maintaining a tense grin.

Well, it’s a year later now, and guess what? It’s not getting cooler.

Monday, it was 116 in Portland, Oregon, beating the previous all-time record (set in 1965 and 1981) by nine degrees. The heat wave covered the entire Northwest: 108 in Seattle, 109 in Spokane, 116 in Walla Walla, and 117 in Pendleton. Strangest of all was the small town of Lytton, British Columbia, where the heat wave peaked at 121 degrees, an all-time record for the nation of Canada.

121 in Canada. That’s not right.

Heat and drought have set the stage for another bad wildfire season, and it’s already starting in Canada and Washington and Oregon and Idaho and California. On the other side of the country, the Atlantic is already up to its fifth named storm of the season, Elsa. We’ve never gotten to E this fast before, and the previous record was set last year.

It’s happening. Global warming is here. It’s not just statistics and computer models any more. You can see it. You have to work not to see it.

That doesn’t mean things go straight to hell from here. The western heat wave finally broke. Today’s predicted high in Portland is 86. Next winter, it will get cold in lots of places, and if some oil-financed politician wants to bring a snowball to the floor of the Senate, he’ll be able to find one. “Damn,” one cold person will say to another, “we could use a little of that global warming about now.”

And while the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to go up every single year, not every year will be hotter than the previous one. 2016 and 2020 were the hottest years on record, but so far 2021 isn’t quite so bad, at least not globally. Fossil fuel spokesmen, including the politicians the oil companies pay for, will tell you that means it’s all over. Global warming ended in 2020, they’ll say, just like they said it ended in 1998.

Don’t believe them. Believe what you can see.

For a long time, believing what the scientists said about the climate required trusting in the invisible, and the future horrors they predicted seemed too far away to take seriously.

Not any more. Global warming is here. It’s visible. It was 116 in Portland Monday.

That’s not right.

The Monday Morning Teaser

So I’m back from the Berkshires, where people were complaining because the temperature got into the 90s. Meanwhile, it was 116 in Portland.

And that’s where the first featured post starts. I think we’re entering a new phase in the national conversation about climate change. For a long time, climate change was either some invisible thing scientists teased out of the statistics, or horrifying projections made by mysterious computer models. Then we got into a debatable period, where you could point to anomalous weather events like Superstorm Sandy as signs of climate change, or you could just say that weird things happen from time to time.

But 116 in Portland, at the same time that the hurricane season is setting records in the Atlantic — it’s too much to explain away. People are feeling in their guts now that something’s not right.

So the first featured post this week is the kind of argument I think we need to be making. Not “Hey you idiots, we were right and you were wrong.” But something more like “I get why you haven’t wanted to believe this, but things are different now.” We need to invite people to switch sides, not herd them into reeducation camps.

Anyway, that’s the point of “Climate Change is Here”, which should be out shortly. I intend it to be the kind of thing you can send to your skeptical cousin. (Let me know if it works.)

The second post covers the Trump Organization indictment that came out Thursday. You’ve probably heard a lot of the details already, so I’ll talk mainly about what I think it means more broadly. Personally, I was surprised by how simple and obvious — and downright stupid — the tax-evasion scheme was. I thought I was immune to the Trump-the-great-businessman myth, but I had expected something much more clever than this. It makes me wonder how honest, or at least semi-honest, business owners are taking this. Maybe you fudge the numbers a little on how much personal use you get out of your company’s car, but your wife’s car? your kid’s apartment? your grandchildren’s tuition? It probably never occurred to you to claim them as business expenses, but the Trump Organization did. And they got caught.

Let’s say that post gets out before 11 EDT.

What does that leave for the weekly summary? The January 6 committee, Covid case numbers turning up again, the June jobs report, some Supreme Court decisions, and a few other things. And then we’ll end with what happens when a female singing duo takes a conservative boyfriend’s advice on songwriting. I’ll predict that for maybe 1.

Confident Assertions

At this point, I feel confident to assert the results of the Michigan election are accurately represented by the certified and audited results. While the Committee was unable to exhaust every possibility, we were able to delve thoroughly into enough to reasonably reach this conclusion.

– Michigan Republican State Senator Ed McBroom
Report on the November 2020 Election in Michigan

There is no featured post this week. Just a collection of too-long short notes.

This week everybody was talking about the infrastructure deal

So is there a bipartisan deal on an infrastructure bill or not? At the moment, where is Lucy’s football exactly?

Thursday, President Biden and a group of ten senators — five Republicans and five Democrats — announced they had reached in infrastructure compromise. Reportedly, it included $579 billion in new spending over five years and $973 billion in total.

Immediately, there was skepticism: Five Republicans is not the ten needed to beat a filibuster, so where will the other five votes come from, even if Biden and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer corral all 50 Democratic votes? (Apparently 11 Republicans have endorsed the “framework” of the agreement.) And an agreement is not a bill; will even the five Republicans who worked out the compromise proposal — Rob Portman of Ohio, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Mitt Romney of Utah — stay on board as the details get filled in? Do they even really intend to vote for a bill, or is this yet another Republican ploy to run out the clock on the slim Democratic majorities in Congress?

All along, Democrats have said they were following a two-bill strategy:

Everyone in that group [of ten senators] — Republicans and Democrats alike — understood the dual tracks forward.

The bipartisan package was to be on one track. The agreement included money for traditional infrastructure — roads, bridges, rail, transit — plus some spending for clean energy. To get it to Biden’s desk, supporters would need 60 votes in the Senate, meaning at least 10 Republicans if all 50 Democrats were on board.

The rest of Biden’s proposals, which amount to trillions of dollars in spending on what he has called human infrastructure, on more programs to address climate issues and on money for social programs, would be on the other track, included in a budgetary package that would come to the Senate floor under terms of reconciliation, meaning it would need just 50 votes to pass.

The other track would also include a funding mechanism that is very popular among everyone but congressional Republicans: tax the rich and roll back some of the Trump tax cuts for big corporations.

Many Democratic pundits don’t understand why Republicans would be part of this plan. Chris Hayes, for example, asked Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut):

But like, why are the Republicans going to go for this? Like, if this is the plan — if the plan is to have your cake and eat it too and like, pass this one thing, but then all the other things they don’t like get past a reconciliation, like, what am I missing about why they’re going to vote for it?

Murphy didn’t respond crisply, but eventually got around to the right answer:

for many Republicans, this is an ability to, you know, put their name on a package and then be able to disavow parts — other parts that they may not be as comfortable with. So, there is an ability for Republicans to have their cake and eat it too as well here.

In other words, the bill I voted for is the “good” infrastructure that is creating jobs and fixing the broken parts of the country, while the bill I voted against is “wasteful spending” and “socialism”.

But within hours of Thursday’s announcement, discovery of the Democrats’ two-bill strategy was producing outrage among Republicans, causing them to reconsider their support. What had changed? Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would not pass the bipartisan package unless the reconciliation bill had also made it through the Senate, and Biden referred to the two bills as a “tandem”:

“I’m going to work closely with [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate Majority] Leader [Charles E.] Schumer to make sure that both move through the legislative process promptly and in tandem. Let me emphasize that: and in tandem.” Asked to clarify, he said: “If this [bipartisan agreement] is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it.

Saturday, Biden was walking that statement back, saying that it was not a “veto threat”. Whether that statement will be enough to save the deal is not clear, though several Republicans seemed to be back on board.

What is clear is that this is a dance. Participants simultaneously know things and don’t know them. They are by turns optimistic or outraged, without anything really having changed. The five Republicans are dancing, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are dancing, and Biden is dancing.

But we still don’t know who the dance is for. Is it for the Republican populist base, which generally likes the idea of creating jobs by rebuilding America (and many even like the idea of taxing the rich), but has been trained to respond angrily to “socialism”, and to oppose whatever Democrats support? Is it for moderate voters in West Virginia and Arizona, who want something to pass, but also want to see Manchin and Sinema standing strong for “bipartisanship” and against “the radical left”? Is it to convince 2022 swing voters that Republicans are trying to be reasonable, and aren’t intentionally sabotaging the economy under Biden the same way they did under Obama? Or is it to convince progressives that Democrats tried really, really hard for their priorities, even if they failed to pass any?

More concisely: Is the point to do something for the country, or to stake out talking points for 2022?

I don’t think we’ll know the answer until the music stops , one or two bills have been written in detail, and they have either passed or failed with some number of Democratic and Republican votes. Current predictions say that won’t happen until the fall.

and the Florida building collapse

Thursday, half of a 13-story condominium building near Miami Beach collapsed for no obvious reason.

While a number of bridges, overpasses and buildings under construction fail each year, the catastrophic collapse of an occupied building — absent a bomb or an earthquake — is rare, and investigators are struggling to understand how it could have come with so little urgent warning. … Structural engineers were shocked that a building that had stood for decades would abruptly crumble on an otherwise unremarkable summer night.

So far the death toll stands at nine, but more than 150 people are still missing.

Collapsed portion of building outlined in red. Annotation is at

The search for an explanation comes with a sense of urgency not only for sister buildings near the complex but also for a broad part of South Florida, where a necklace of high-rise condos, many of them decades old, sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, enduring an ever-worsening barrage of hurricane winds, storm surge and sea salt.

Video from a distant security camera shows the center portion of building falling first, quickly followed by an eastern section.

A 2018 report indicated that a concrete structural slab was cracking near the parking deck, near where the collapse appears to have started, and that failed waterproofing needed to be repaired to prevent expansion of the damaged area. However, the condo owners association was told that the building was “in very good shape” heading into the 40-year recertification due this year.

and Biden and the bishops

Like the story of the infrastructure bill, this week’s drama concerning President Biden and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is tricky to interpret.

President Biden is America’s second Catholic president, following John F. Kennedy more than half a century ago. Biden clearly thinks of his faith as more than just a label. He occasionally refers to his Catholicism in speeches, and made headlines by unexpectedly attending mass at a local church during his recent trip to England for the G-7 meetings.

Attending mass — a ritual consumption of bread and wine based on the last supper of Jesus before his crucifixion, also called “communion” or “the Eucharist” — is central to the Catholic faith. When someone claims to be a “practicing” Catholic, they usually mean that they regularly go to confession and attend mass. Someone who doesn’t participate in those rituals is a “lapsed” Catholic. So while cutting someone off from the mass is not excommunication, it is a major obstacle to practicing the Catholic faith and maintaining a Catholic identity.

Some number of US bishops want to cut President Biden off from the mass because he supports abortion rights, which conflicts with the position of the Church. At a recent meeting, the USCCB started a process that could end in denying communion to Biden, and possibly other pro-choice Catholic politicians. According to NPR’s report, Biden was mentioned by name during the debate.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, who leads the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, has been among the most vocal critics of Biden’s support abortion rights. He said he’s disturbed by Catholic officials who “flaunt their Catholicity” while publicly taking positions on abortion that conflict with those of the church.

“This is a Catholic president that’s doing the most aggressive thing we’ve ever seen in terms of this attack on life when it’s most innocent,” Naumann said. 

This is not a new issue for Naumann. Back in 2008, he denied communion to then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius after she vetoed an anti-abortion law.

The USCCB’s moves got a great deal of publicity, much of it negative. California Rep. Ted Lieu, also a pro-choice Catholic, pointed out the bishops’ partisan hypocrisy.

Dear @USCCB: You did not deny Communion to the following Catholic Republicans: Newt Gingrich, who believed in open marriage & had multiple divorces, Bill Barr, who expanded death penalty executions, Chris Collins, who stole by insider trading.

Countless people on social media went someplace Lieu avoided: Where was this judgmental spirit when Catholic priests were raping children entrusted to their care? How many of the bishops voting to exclude Biden actively participated in covering up that scandal, or moved known pedophile priests to positions where they could attack more Catholic children?

More in the spirit of Ted Lieu, I’ll add a few other hypocrisies: The bishops haven’t threatened Catholic Republicans who voted to kick tens of millions of Americans off of health insurance, or to deny food stamps to needy families. This is in spite of Pope Francis, who has denounced single-issue Catholicism:

Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.

But there’s more going on here than just whataboutism. It’s worth taking a step back to examine exactly what President Biden’s “sin” is supposed to be. Let’s allow for the moment the dogma that aborting a fetus at any stage for any reason is murder. (However, it’s worth noting that this issue has a history, and is not nearly so clear-cut as the Church currently pretends. “Early Church leaders began the debate about when a fetus acquired a rational soul, and St. Augustine declared that abortion is not homicide but was a sin if it was intended to conceal fornication or adultery.” However the current hierarchy may assert its authority, this is a position about which reasonable people may disagree, even if they are Catholic in every other way.)

Even granting the current dogma, though, Biden stands at a considerable distance from this sin. He (obviously) has never had an abortion himself. Nor has he ever performed an abortion. As far as we know, he has never encouraged a woman to have an abortion. So he is not “pro-abortion” in any visible sense.

What has he done, exactly, that puts him in conservative bishops’ crosshairs? He has taken a position on the role of government in the abortion decision, specifically, that government should not be the one deciding. That’s what “pro-choice” means.

The bishops, on the other hand, believe that their theological opinion about the moral value of a fertilized ovum should be written into law, and that the government should enforce it — not just on Catholic women who don’t find the bishops’ views persuasive, but on American women of all faiths. In short, they want precisely the “establishment of religion” that the First Amendment forbids.

It soon became apparent that, in E. J. Dionne’s words “The Catholic bishops’ anti-Biden campaign is backfiring.” Four days later, the USCCB issued a statement that essentially claimed it was all a misunderstanding: “There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians.”

So did we all just go off about nothing? Or did the Catholic bishops back down in the face of a public furor?

and the New York mayoral primary

New York City is having its first mayoral elections under its ranked-choice voting system. The results of the Democratic primary show both the strength and weakness of the system: Nobody was the first choice of a majority of voters, which would have led to a run-off election under previous rules. That won’t be necessary now, but the re-allocation of losing-candidates’ votes to the voters’ second or third choices is going to take some time.

In the highly anticipated Democratic primary race for mayor, as of today, Eric Adams leads the first-round count in the Democratic primary for mayor with 31.7 percent, followed by Maya Wiley in second with 22.3 percent, Kathryn Garcia in third with 19.5 percent and Andrew Yang in fourth with 11.7 percent. All other candidates are in the single digits.

The reallocation can’t even start, though, until the exact order of the finishers is established, and that can’t happen until all the absentee ballots are counted. RCV is definitely less trouble than a run-off, but it may not be much faster.

and trouble in TrumpWorld

Trump loyalists got a lot of discouraging news this week, assuming ONN covered any of it. Multiple news sites are reporting this:

The Manhattan district attorney’s office has informed lawyers for the Trump Organization that it could face criminal charges in connection with benefits it has provided to company employees, a Trump attorney confirmed Friday. The charges, which could come as soon as next week, would likely involve allegations of a company effort to avoid paying payroll taxes on compensation it provided to employees, including rent-free apartments, cars and other benefits, a person familiar with the matter said. … Prosecutors are also likely to announce charges against Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization chief financial officer, as soon as next week, people familiar with the matter said.

Weisselberg has so far been unwilling to cooperate with prosecutors on more serious charges of tax evasion and/or bank/insurance fraud concerning members of the Trump family. Presumably, these charges (if they happen) would put pressure on him.

The attempt to start an election audit circus in Georgia similar to the one going on in Arizona suffered a major blow Thursday when a judge dismissed 7 of 9 counts in a suit demanding access to the 147,000 absentee ballots cast in Fulton County. The two surviving parts of the suit seek only digital images of ballots under Georgia’s open-records law.

Rudy Giuliani’s law license has been suspended.

The New York State appellate court temporarily suspended Mr. Giuliani’s law license on the recommendation of a disciplinary committee after finding he had sought to mislead judges, lawmakers and the public as he helped shepherd Mr. Trump’s legal challenge to the election results. For months, Mr. Giuliani, who served as Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, had argued without merit that the vote had been rife with fraud and that voting machines had been rigged. … Mr. Giuliani now faces disciplinary proceedings and can fight the suspension. But the court said in its decision that he would be likely to face “permanent sanctions” after the proceedings conclude. A final outcome could be months away but could include disbarment.

The 33-page report goes through Giuliani’s lies in detail: falsely claiming that Pennsylvania counted more absentee ballots than it sent out, that his lawsuit made a fraud claim when it didn’t, that many thousands of ineligible voters — dead people, underage voters, convicted felons, illegal aliens — had voted in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and/or Arizona (the numbers he claimed were “wildly divergent” from one statement to the next, and sometimes “in the very same sentence”), and that video from security cameras showed Georgia election officials counting fraudulent mail-in ballots.

Suspending a lawyer’s license temporarily before disciplinary hearings is unusual, but the report justified the move:

We find that there is evidence of continuing misconduct, the underlying offense is incredibly serious, and the uncontroverted misconduct in itself will likely result in substantial permanent sanctions at the conclusion of these disciplinary proceedings.

It also emphasized that if Guiliani fights the sanctions, he’ll have to offer real evidence that his statements — if not true — were at least based on some information a reasonable attorney might have believed.

[O]nce the [Attorney Grievance Committee] has established its prima facie case, respondent’s references to affidavits he has not provided, or sources of information he has not disclosed or other nebulous unspecified information, will not prevent the Court from concluding that misconduct has occurred. … Nor will offers to provide information at a later time, or only if the Court requests it, suffice.

The suspension is the first shoe to drop on Giuliani; there may be several others. Dominion Voting Systems is suing him for $1.3 billion over his false statements about their voting machines, and he is under federal investigation for illegal lobbying in Ukraine.

Michigan Republicans are not going along with Trump’s Big Lie. The Michigan Senate Oversight Committee, with three Republicans and one Democrat, issued their report on the 2020 election, which “found no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud in Michigan’s prosecution of the 2020 election.”

Committee Chair Ed McBroom writes in the introduction:

At this point, I feel confident to assert the results of the Michigan election are accurately represented by the certified and audited results. While the Committee was unable to exhaust every possibility, we were able to delve thoroughly into enough to reasonably reach this conclusion. The strongest conclusion comes in regard to Antrim County. All compelling theories that sprang forth from the rumors surrounding Antrim County are diminished so significantly as for it to be a complete waste of time to consider them further.

The report examines in detail each of the Trumpist fraud claims (which duplicate a lot of Giuliani’s false claims listed above). For example, here is the section on dead people voting:

The Committee was also provided a list of over 200 individuals in Wayne County who were believed to be deceased yet had cast a ballot. A thorough review of individuals on that list showed only two instances where an individual appeared to have voted but was deceased. The first individual was a 118-year-old man whose son has the same name and lives at the same residence. The Committee found there was no fraud in this instance but was instead a clerical error made due to the identical name. The second individual was a 92-year-old woman who died four days before the November 2020 election. Research showed she had submitted her completed absentee ballot prior to the November 2020 election and prior to her death. Notably, research showed the secretary of state and clerks were able to discover and remove approximately 3,500 absentee ballots submitted by voters while they were alive but died before Election Day, which is a commendable accomplishment.

And about “illegal” absentee votes:

Many court filings and individuals highlighted a data spreadsheet by an individual who claimed to have worked with “experts” to determine whether individuals had received an unsolicited absentee ballot. The spreadsheet indicated that “289,866 illegal votes” had been cast. This figure came from the Voter Integrity Project. To arrive at this number, the group used a methodology where they called 1,500 voters and asked if they had received a ballot without requesting it, something that would be illegal although not specifically indicative of fraudulent voting. The number of affirmative answers were then extrapolated out to 289,866 voters statewide receiving these ballots which are defined as “illegal ballots.” The repeated use of the terminology “illegal ballots” is misleading and causes significant confusion as it implies fraudulent votes or votes received that do not come from legitimate sources or should not be counted. However, while it may not be lawful to send ballots without first receiving an application, voting this ballot is not an illegal action by a lawful voter and it is not indicative of fraudulent or illicit behavior of the voter nor of an illegitimate vote.

The Committee called forty individuals from this list at random. Only two individuals reported having received an absentee ballot without making a proper request. One of the two individuals is labeled as a permanent, absentee voter within the state’s QVF file, indicating that they had, at some point, requested to be placed on that list. The other individual voted via an absentee ballot in the August primary election, and it is possible they checked the box to vote absentee in the subsequent election and simply forgot they had chosen this option.

In general, this report is a good reference to use if you find yourself dealing with bizarre claims by Trumpists.

Meanwhile, Trump had a rally in Wellington, Ohio Saturday night, where he repeated many of his debunked claims. The rally was to support a challenger to Republican Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, who voted to impeach Trump in January. During his speech, Trump twice referred to mythical election-fraud problems in “Montana”, which apparently looks like “Michigan” when you see it on a teleprompter. (But tell me again about Biden’s cognitive decline.)

Warm-up speaker Marjorie Taylor Greene got cheers by calling AOC a “little communist” who “is not an American”, and agreeing with a call to “lock her up”.

Atlantic’s Jonathan Karl offers some details about Bill Barr’s final days in office — in particular, why he announced publicly that he had seen no evidence of election fraud, a statement that enraged Trump and ultimately led to Barr resigning a few weeks early. It would be nice to see that statement as a final attack of conscience, a line he ultimately could not cross, and an unwillingness to prostitute the Justice Department to politics any further.

But come on, this is Bill Barr we’re talking about. His statement was a shift in his politicization, not a renunciation of it.

To McConnell, the road to maintaining control of the Senate was simple: Republicans needed to make the argument that with Biden soon to be in the White House, it was crucial that they have a majority in the Senate to check his power. But McConnell also believed that if he openly declared Biden the winner, Trump would be enraged and likely act to sabotage the Republican Senate campaigns in Georgia. Barr related his conversations with McConnell to me. McConnell confirms the account.

“Look, we need the president in Georgia,” McConnell told Barr, “and so we cannot be frontally attacking him right now. But you’re in a better position to inject some reality into this situation. You are really the only one who can do it.”

“I understand that,” Barr said. “And I’m going to do it at the appropriate time.”

On another call, McConnell again pleaded with Barr to come out and shoot down the talk of widespread fraud. “Bill, I look around, and you are the only person who can do it,” McConnell told him.

So the no-evidence-of-fraud announcement arose from conversations between the US attorney general and the Senate majority leader about what the AG could do to help preserve the Republican majority. Barr was corrupt, from the beginning of his term right up to the end. It never stopped.

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Friday, Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for killing George Floyd, and he could be eligible for supervised release in 15 years. His sentence was longer than the 10-15 years recommended by sentencing guidelines because of “aggravating factors” in the crime. But it was still less than the 30 years prosecutors requested.

To me, the exact number of years means less than the fact that the sentence is substantial. Assuming it stands up to appeal, 22.5 years puts an end to the idea that cops can do anything and get away with it.

The Washington Post, publishing material from the new book Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic that Changed History, revealed just how scary Trump’s bout with Covid really was, and how extraordinary his experimental treatment was. And in the end, it changed nothing in his handling of the pandemic.

X-Files creator Chris Carter comes to no conclusions in his op-ed on “unidentified aerial phenomena” (a.k.a. UFOs). But he still wants to believe that alien civilizations are out there.

Protesters are disrupting school board meetings with complaints about “critical race theory”, which literally no one is teaching to K-12 students. No one would have even heard the phrase “critical race theory” if it weren’t being made into a boogeyman by conservative media. What perhaps is being taught in some (but not many) public schools is the existence of unconscious or systemic racism, or the longstanding influence of white supremacy on American history.

It’s striking how these fanned-by-national-media “grass roots” protests parallel the Tea Party disruptions of congressional town-hall meetings in the summer of 2009, when we heard so much about the mythical “death panels” ObamaCare was supposedly going to set up, and how the US was about to go bankrupt like Greece. The same playbook gets dusted off whenever Democrats have power.

and let’s close with something made up

From the Bored Panda:

Luca Luce is a professional makeup artist from Milan, Italy, who uses his own face as his canvas to create mind-boggling 3D makeup art. The Italian artist shows the power of makeup – he more than highlights and accentuates facial features; he distorts, confuses and redefines them – creating looks that are creepy yet captivating at the same time.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m on vacation this week, the first time I’ve slept away from home since February of 2020. So I’ll be taking it a little bit easy this morning: There’s no featured post, in spite of several parts of the weekly summary that are getting a bit long. As you read this, picture me sitting on the deck of a time-share condo, gazing out at the Berkshires and listening to the morning birdsong.

Wait. Where was I? OK, the weekly summary: The saga of the infrastructure bill or bills continued this week, and is likely to keep having its ups and downs for several months. That high-rise condo building in Florida collapsed for no obvious reason, making me wonder about this third-floor deck that I’m sitting on. (All over the country, I imagine, Americans are thinking about construction details they used to take for granted.) The Catholic bishops appeared to be about to deny communion to President Biden, and then backed down when the public focused more on the bishops’ greatly diminished moral authority than on Biden’s unwillingness to toe their line. The New York City mayoral primary happened, but due to ranked-choice voting, we may not know the result for some while. It was a bad week in TrumpWorld, as the Big Lie started to crumble on several fronts at once and the Trump Organization was warned about possible looming indictments. Derek Chauvin was sentenced. We found out just how bad Trump’s bout with Covid was, and how far his treatment diverged from what you or I would have received.

That should be out by 10 EDT, assuming I don’t lose too much time to the mountains and the birds.

Angry Freedom

If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life.

– Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
quoted by George Packer in “How America Fractured Into Four Parts

This week’s featured post is “Four Narratives of America“.

This week everybody was talking about voting rights

Joe Manchin, the Senate swing vote and the lone Democrat who wasn’t supporting the For the People Act, put forward his plan for defending voting rights. That plan got a big boost when Stacey Abrams supported it. Manchin believes he can get the 10 Republican votes he needs to overcome a filibuster, but Mitch McConnell predicts he’ll get zero.

So far, no Republican has expressed support for bringing the For the People Act to the floor, where Manchin could propose the amendments he wants. Even Romney and Murkowski have said they’ll support McConnell’s filibuster.

Missouri’s Roy Blunt laid out the Republican framing:

When Stacey Abrams immediately endorsed Senator Manchin’s proposal, it became it became the Stacey Abrams substitute, not the Joe Manchin substitute.

New York Magazine’s Sarah Jones explains:

Ever eager to press the case against any expansion of voting rights, Republicans fell back onto an old strategy: They racialized the proposal. The moment Abrams, who is Black, expressed a measure of support for Manchin’s compromise, it became a radical, even dangerous, idea. Her name is a byword, evidence that liberals have breached an unacceptable standard. The hope is that, to the GOP’s base, she inspires a kind of fear that Manchin — older, white, and male — can’t possibly provoke.

It’s been clear for months that this bipartisanship drama about voting rights — and the parallel dramas of Biden’s infrastructure proposal and the January 6 commission — needs to play out:

  • Democrats need Manchin’s vote either to pass the infrastructure bill through reconciliation or to circumvent the filibuster on voting rights.
  • Manchin represents an overwhelmingly Republican state, and needs to show his voters that he is trying everything to get Republican cooperation.
  • Republicans are not going to cooperate, because they don’t want the economy to do well under Biden, they don’t want the full story of 1-6 to come out, and (most of all) they don’t everybody to vote and have their votes count equally.

All along, the question has been: What happens after we get through all the predictable parts of this scenario — after Manchin has tried everything to bring Republicans in, and they have clearly refused? We still don’t know.

Ezra Klein holds out hope that Manchin knows what he’s doing, and will manage to pass meaningful legislation one way or another. I (and many other people) worry that the drama itself is the point: Manchin will be happy to have held center stage and demonstrated to West Virginia that he is at least trying to do things the right way, even if ultimately nothing is accomplished.

So anyway, what would Manchin’s version of a voting-rights bill do? He published a long list of reforms he wants. The big one is to ban partisan gerrymandering. That’s a great proposal, because even Republican voters know the practice is corrupt. (That’s why anti-gerrymandering ballot initiatives have passed even in red states like Utah.)

Beyond gerrymandering, Manchin also supports several fairly modest proposals that are likely to make it easier to vote in many states. He would allow voters who show up at the wrong polling place on Election Day to still cast a ballot, although these voters might not be allowed to vote in certain local elections. And he would require at least 15 consecutive days of early voting in federal elections.

Manchin also supports the DISCLOSE Act, which requires certain groups to disclose their election-related spending, and the Honest Ads Act, which imposes disclosure requirements on online ads.

Manchin also proposes a reasonable compromise on voter ID: You’d have to show some kind of ID at the polls, but the number of acceptable IDs would expand so that any legitimate voter could easily provide one (a utility bill showing your name and address, for example). This would make voting more like getting a library card rather than a passport or a security clearance.

Manchin’s ID compromise is good politics for Democrats. Being against voter ID in any form sounds bad to a lot of people, even if they realize that voter fraud is quite rare. Americans who have an up-to-date driver’s license, know where their birth certificate is, and have lived at their current address for many years grossly underestimate the number of legal voters who have trouble assembling a rigorous collection of ID documents. Making a principle out of “no voter ID” gives Republican fantasies of massive fraud some credibility.

His proposal restores some parts of the Voting Rights Act that Chief Justice Roberts hand-waved away in 2013, but isn’t as strong as the proposed John Lewis Act. (TPM argues that Manchin’s changes to John Lewis are major, and “gut the bill”. It would still improve on the current state of the law.)

In short, passing a Manchin voting rights bill would be a great thing, if that’s really what he’s trying to do. I hope it is.

and Juneteenth

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, but it will take a few years to determine what that means in any practical sense in most of the country. Officially, the federal government can only declare a holiday for its own workforce, so unless you work at a military base or a post office, you won’t notice much difference until your state government decides to participate.

What Juneteenth should mean for White Americans is still something of a work in progress, and there are a number of mistakes to avoid. Hardly anybody these days still remembers that Labor Day is supposed to honor the union movement. Cinco de Mayo (which isn’t an official holiday in the US) often gets celebrated in an offensive way, as Anglos wear sombreros and drink a lot of margaritas at some corporate fake-Mexican chain restaurant.

Juneteenth marks the end of slavery in the US, when a Union general began enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. Implicit in the holiday are the gaps between January 1. 1863 (when the Proclamation was supposed to take effect), June 19, 1865 (when it actually did), and the dawn of true racial equality (still to come). So it’s both a celebration and a moment to reflect on what still needs to be done.

While the holiday will always be special for Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved, the rest of us should also appreciate living in a country without slavery. So there is something here that everyone can celebrate.

and the Supreme Court

In a 7-2 ruling, the Court once again refused to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, i.e. ObamaCare.

This is the third time the Court has ruled on the ACA, and the challenges to it have become increasingly bizarre. The first challenge, in 2012, was based on a novel restriction on the commerce clause that literally had not come up in the year-long debate leading to the ACA’s passage in 2009.

The constitutional limits that the bill supposedly disregarded could not have been anticipated because they did not exist while the bill was being written. They were invented only in the fall of 2009, quite late in the legislative process.

The root idea of the first challenge was that the commerce clause allows Congress to regulate actions that affect interstate commerce, but not inaction. So penalizing people for not buying health insurance is unconstitutional.

No one had ever heard of this idea prior to ObamaCare, but the Court supported it 5-4. However, Chief Justice Roberts saved ObamaCare by reinterpreting the individual mandate’s penalty as a tax. (Congress could have written it as a tax from the beginning, but didn’t want the political baggage of “raising taxes”. The possibility that it might be unconstitutional as a penalty was not mentioned at the time by either the advocates or critics of the bill. Nobody decided to “chance it”; the inaction doctrine just wasn’t a thing.) So ObamaCare was 5-4 constitutional, but for a different reason than Congress had imagined.

The second challenge made even less sense. Somebody noticed that if you took one sentence of the bill completely out of context, it didn’t seem to allow the federal government to subsidize insurance policies bought on exchanges that HHS set up on behalf of states that chose not to create their own exchanges, even though the law specifically authorized HHS to set up such exchanges, which couldn’t function in anything like the way intended without the subsidies.

It was sort of a “gotcha” argument. No one claimed that anyone had ever intended the law to work that way, just that you could take that one sentence out of context and screw everything up. The Supreme Court rejected that interpretation 6-3, with Thomas, Alito, and Scalia dissenting.

Meanwhile, Republicans kept trying to repeal the ACA, and came within one Senate vote of doing so in 2017, even though no Republicans either in Congress or in the Trump administration had the faintest idea what to do about the tens of millions of people who would lose their health insurance.

Later that year, one part of Trump’s tax cut reduced the penalty/tax of the individual mandate to zero, and that set up the latest attempt to get the Supreme Court to skewer the ACA. Try to follow this one:

So, under current law, most Americans must either obtain health insurance or pay zero dollars. The Texas plaintiffs didn’t just claim that this zeroed-out tax is unconstitutional (on the theory that a zero dollar tax can’t be an exercise of Congress’s taxing power), they claimed that the entire law must be declared invalid if the zero dollar tax is stuck down.

It was an audacious ask of the Supreme Court — requesting the justices strike down the entire law despite only claiming that a single provision of Obamacare is unconstitutional. Especially since the provision that the plaintiffs challenged literally does nothing at all.

Not even Clarence Thomas would go for that one. (Oversimplifying just a little: The Court ruled that a tax of $0 causes no injury to anyone, so the plaintiffs don’t have standing to sue.) That made it a 7-2 decision, with Alito and Gorsuch approving of this nonsense.

Leaving us with this question: Is ObamaCare safe yet? Maybe Republicans need to learn a Hunting-of-the-Snark lesson: What the Supreme Court tells you three times is true. ObamaCare is constitutional.

The general lesson of these three cases should be that the Supreme Court isn’t willing to make a purely political decision to get rid of ObamaCare — and without politics, cases with so little merit would never have been filed in the first place. (Samuel Alito voted for all three challenges, and wrote the dissent on this one. That tells you all you need to know about him.)

So ObamaCare should be safe unless Republicans gain control of Congress and the Presidency again. And even then, repeal is starting to feel like tilting at windmills. If the GOP ever comes up with an actual healthcare policy — beyond Trump’s empty promise of a “beautiful” healthcare plan to be unveiled after the ACA was repealed — then ObamaCare might wind up in trouble again. But that seems unlikely.

Jonathan Chait sees the 12-year ObamaCare drama as a paradigm of Republican politics: They motivate their voters by inventing a dire threat to the American way of life — has anybody faced an “ObamaCare death panel” during the past dozen years? — and then they get trapped by their own rhetoric and can’t let it drop.

Turning a policy question over insurance-market regulation and subsidy levels into a cultural fight was a shrewd, and perhaps necessary strategy. But it left the party’s elite with no way to back down. Having persuaded their own voters the law was evil and an existential threat, they had to act as if this claim was true. Hence red states refusing to opt into the Medicaid expansion, even at the cost of punishing their own doctors and hospitals, who have been stuck with the cost of treating uninsured people who show up in the emergency room. …

For a lawyer in a Republican state, refusing to join a lawsuit to eliminate Obamacare merely because its legal merits were preposterous was therefore unthinkable. If they had ambitions to a future court nomination, how could they dare mark themselves as ideologically unreliable by opposing the holy cause of Obamacare repeal, in any form?

Something similar is going on now with respect to Trump’s Big Lie about the “stolen election”. Having whipped up such a fever with so little truth to it, they find themselves unable to deny even blatantly ridiculous conspiracy theories. That’s how 17 state AGs signed on to a baseless lawsuit to prevent four other states from certifying their electors. How could they not?

The other major case this week concerned balancing non-discrimination laws with the rights of conservative Christians. (Most news outlets are calling this “religious freedom”, but I see little evidence that the Court wants to protect religious freedom in general.) As is the pattern in several recent cases, the court ruled narrowly in favor of the Christian group, which was Catholic Social Services. They are allowed to continue receiving public funding in Philadelphia while they refuse to consider same-sex couples as candidates to be foster parents.

But the Court once again resisted making a sweeping ruling with broad implications. This means more such cases will be filed, and will rise up to the Supreme Court. I’m not sure what they’re waiting for.

and Biden’s meeting with Putin

The world will little note nor long remember President Biden’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva Wednesday, and that’s a nice change. One Trump-administration notion that deserves to be forgotten is that political relationships between major powers depend on the personal relationships between their leaders.

Trump was never America, and whether or not Putin liked him (or at least found him amusing) didn’t have much to do with anything. Ditto for President Xi of China or anybody else. North Korea was going to keep doing what North Korea does, independent of whether Trump and Kim Jong-un “fell in love“.

That said, it was good once again to see a president at least try to represent our nation’s interests, rather than his own. Trump could never separate the two; Russia helped him get elected, so Putin was a good guy. Trump and Putin could stand together against the American intelligence services, which worried about having a president indebted to one of our enemies.

Trump, BTW, is doubling down on that question:

As to who do I trust, they asked, Russia or our “Intelligence” from the Obama era, meaning people like Comey, McCabe, the two lovers, Brennan, Clapper, and numerous other sleezebags, or Russia, the answer, after all that has been found out and written, should be obvious.

Indeed it should.

but you should look at what George Packer has been writing

The featured post discusses his new book Last Best Hope.

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Covid case numbers are still falling: The 7-day daily average is down to 11,000. The average number of deaths per day has fallen below 300. 45% of Americans are fully vaccinated, with 53% getting at least one dose. Reported number of doses per day actually went up last week, to 1.2 million. The differences between states are getting starker. Vermont has fully vaccinated 64%, Mississippi only 29%.

Last week I anticipated the annual meeting of the Southern Baptists, which happened in Nashville this week. Tuesday, the convention narrowly defeated the most conservative candidate for president. The NYT describes the new president, Ed Litton, as a “moderate”, but in an interview with Vox, scholar Greg Thornbury pointed out that moderation is relative. (“Compared to what? Idi Amin?” Thornbury described Litton as “a pretty conservative guy”.)

The Convention also beat back a resolution denouncing critical race theory by name. The root problem seems to be that while the denomination’s recent leadership has wanted to take at least token steps towards rooting out racism and making the SBC more welcoming to people of color, the rank-and-file are still pretty comfortable with white supremacy.

I think the people who are the dyed-in-the-wool evangelicals are the people that showed up to the polls and voted for Trump in the face of four years of utter vulgarity. They did so anyway, because that’s where they are. When you looked at January 6, and you looked at the crowd that stormed the Capitol, look at how many prayer meetings there were before the storm happened? How many praise songs were being sung?

Anti-Trump Republican Peter Wehner makes a good point in an NYT column: While the SBC is trying to defend against critical race theory and wokeness, it’s ignoring a far more serious problem: QAnon and the conspiracy theory habits of thought that are taking root in evangelical congregations.

This reminds me of a rule-of-thumb I came up with years ago for separating authentic religious leaders from charlatans: An authentic religious leader challenges the congregation to think about their own failings. A charlatan flatters the congregation by talking about other people’s failings.

Not many Southern Baptists are in danger of being pulled into Marxism by critical race theory. But a lot of them are in danger of sliding into the QAnon fantasy world.

If Mike Pence can find a friendly audience anywhere, you’d think it would be at a Faith and Freedom Coalition meeting in Florida. But no. Pence was heckled Friday, facing calls of “traitor” because he refused to help Trump stay in power after losing the 2020 election.

By now, Republicans ought to understand that there’s no station where you can safely get off the Trump train. If you’re not for a full fascist takeover that makes the Donald president-for-life, eventually you’ll be discarded. Pence may not recognize that his political career is over, but it is.

The vaccine wars continue. Florida won an injunction against the CDC, which at least temporarily sets aside CDC guidelines that determine whether cruise ships can sail. A Florida law stops cruise lines from requiring passengers prove they’ve been vaccinated, but Carnival and Norwegian say they will require vaccinations anyway. Celebrity will have different rules for unvaccinated passengers, who may be charged more for testing and may not be able to get off the ship in all ports.

The Washington Post writes about the family conflicts caused when a bride wants everyone at her wedding vaccinated, and key relatives (usually her father) refuse.

Trump was interviewed by the conservative Jewish magazine Ami:

You know what really surprised me? I did the Heights, I did Jerusalem, and I did Iran—the Iran Deal was a disaster, right? And I also did many other things. Jewish people who live in the United States don’t love Israel enough. Does that make sense to you? I’m not talking about Orthodox Jews. I believe we got 25% of the Jewish vote, and it doesn’t make sense.

Two things he doesn’t seem to understand:

  • A lot of Jews take the social-justice message of the prophets seriously. They’re liberals because their God cares about the poor, the persecuted, and refugees.
  • American Jews are genuinely freaked out by the violent white supremacists in Trump’s base.

What doesn’t make sense to me is that 21% of American Jews — not 25%, Trump always exaggerates how much support he has — were able to put all that aside and vote for him anyway.

A guy who drove his car into a crowd of anti-police-brutality protesters in Minnesota has been charged with murder.

Meanwhile, that St. Louis couple who stood on the porch of their mansion waving guns at peaceful protesters have pled guilty to misdemeanors and paid a fine. They had to give up the specific firearms they misused, but nothing stops them from buying replacements.

They appeared at the Republican Convention last summer, because threatening Black people with violence is what the GOP stands for these days. The husband is currently running for the Senate, hoping to replace retiring Missouri Republican Roy Blunt.

This is a good time to do a reverse-the-races thought experiment: If peaceful White protesters walk past a Black family’s home, and the Black husband and wife come out and threaten them with guns, what happens next? Assuming they survive and escape prison, is there any chance Democrats want them running for office?

The First Dog has died. Champ Biden, a German shepherd, was 13. Champ is survived by his adopted brother, Major.

Meanwhile, Joe and Jill Biden celebrated their 44th anniversary on Thursday. You know who was also married in 1977? Donald and Ivana Trump, in April. But I don’t recall anybody making a big deal out of that anniversary. Media bias, I guess.

Lake Mead, created on the Colorado River by the Hoover Dam, seems to be drying up, due to a combination of climate change, development, and excessive water use. The current drought is exacerbating a 20-year trend. 25 million people depend on the lake for water.

Reuters described this week’s heat wave in the Southwest as “apocalyptic“. Las Vegas hit 116 degrees Wednesday and Phoenix got to 118 Thursday. Denver had three straight 100-degree days. Both California and Texas strained to keep up with the electricity demand. The heat wave and drought has raised anxiety about wildfires later in the summer.

and let’s close with a message about safety

The Danish Road Safety Council made a truly clever public service announcement about wearing bicycle helmets. A Viking warrior’s wife lays down the law: “You can go looting and pillaging all you want, but you have to wear a helmet.”

Four Narratives of America

George Packer’s new book diagnoses our divisions.

Americans today don’t need anyone to tell us that we’re deeply divided. Less than half a year ago, we saw our Capitol invaded and the certification of our election disrupted — not by a foreign power, but by our own citizens. Those citizens thought of themselves, and have been hailed by many other Americans, as patriots — even as I, and many Americans like me, see them as traitors to everything America stands for or should stand for.

During the campaign leading up to last fall’s election, it was common to hear from either side that if the other one won, America as we have known it would be seriously threatened. I said as much myself in this blog. In the popular press, it has not been unusual to hear comparisons to the period before the Civil War, or speculations about a new civil war.

Even if peace is maintained, democracy does not work well without a governing consensus. It’s fine for elections to be close, or for power to shift back and forth between rival parties, as long as large majorities agree on basic principles, and share a broad vision of what the nation is and where it should be trying to go. Disputes about tax rates or how to organize our healthcare system are on a different level from disputes about who we are.

In 2000, we had an election so close that many Americans still doubt that George W. Bush really won. And yet, few argued that the Republic could not survive either a Bush or a Gore presidency. For many, the larger problem was that the two parties were too similar. Ralph Nader based his third-party candidacy on the argument that it would make no real difference whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge. Under either Bush or Gore, America would continue to be America.

Is there some way to recover that kind of consensus?

George Packer’s new book Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal is an attempt to address that question. (The theme of that book is condensed into an article in The Atlantic, “How America Fractured into Four Parts“.) I see two main points in his analysis.

  1. We’re divided by narratives. We’re not divided into tribes, at least not yet.
  2. The root division is not Red vs. Blue, because each of those sides has its own division. Four narratives, not two, are competing for dominance.

The significance of the first point is that narratives are fluid, while tribes are fixed. You currently tell one story about your life, but a few years from now you could be telling a different one. A Trumpist might have a transformative experience and become a social justice warrior, or vice versa. But a Serb will not so easily become a Croat, or a Palestinian an Israeli. Perhaps you have multiple stories that rise and fall depending on the situation. (Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? is largely the story of how people with a political identity as union workers shifted to identify primarily as Evangelical Christians.) Over time, the stories might blend and merge, or new stories might develop.

Packer describes the main political narratives of the 1960s like this:

Through much of the 20th century, the two political parties had clear identities and told distinct stories. The Republicans spoke for those who wanted to get ahead, and the Democrats spoke for those who wanted a fair shake. Republicans emphasized individual enterprise, and Democrats emphasized social solidarity, eventually including Black people and abandoning the party’s commitment to Jim Crow.

The two narratives were shifts in emphasis, rather than diametric opposites. You could, for example, focus on getting ahead yourself inside a system that offered everyone a fair shake, or look to government to guarantee you a fair shake while not resenting the people who get ahead. (Maybe it’s fine if the Rockefellers are filthy rich, as long as I can have a secure job that pays a fair wage.)

But you will notice that neither narrative says much about our current culture wars. Abortion, sexuality, and religion play no role. The culture wars began their rise to prominence in the 70s, along with a White backlash to the advances Black people made during the civil rights era. In the decades since, the gap between rich and poor has grown, and new kinds of monopoly power have emerged. Packer names our current four narratives (with my elaboration):

  • Free America. America is the beacon of individual freedom. This narrative is the legacy of the Reagan era: low taxes, light regulation, low domestic spending. At the same time as it restricts government at home, America is a strong military power with a global agenda promoting capitalism and free trade. Championed by Republicans currently out of power within the party, like Paul Ryan and Liz Cheney.
  • Smart America. The narrative of the meritocracy. (Basically, Bill Clinton’s neo-liberalism.) Wise but complex government policies, designed by experts, help everyone go as far as their talents can take them. This narrative is optimistic, pro-technology, and comfortable with increased global interconnection and interdependence.
  • Real America. The populism of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. White, Christian, small-town people are the backbone of America, but they’ve been left behind by both capitalism and the meritocracy.
  • Just America. The narrative of anti-racism, Me Too, and defund-the-police: Multiple systems of oppression are deeply embedded in America, and rooting them out should be our central concern. This is the narrative of a generation that grew up post-911, in the shadow of the 2008 banking crisis, carrying a huge debt load, and anticipating a climate-change catastrophe. It is cynical and deeply suspicious of anyone in power.

Red America is the uneasy alliance of Free and Real America, while Blue America is an equally uneasy alliance of Smart and Just America.

Each of the narratives has problems that prevent it from becoming dominant. The Free America policies of the Reagan-Bush years destroyed the middle class and offer no way to restore it. Smart America’s meritocracy never worked all that well, and has become increasingly corrupt as the educated classes develop new ways to pass their advantages on to their children. Real America can’t offer full equality to non-Whites, non-Christians, or people with non-traditional sexuality or gender identity; at its worst, it leans towards blood-and-soil fascism. Its antipathy towards Smart America makes it suspicious of expertise in general. (See, for example, the conspiracy theories about Dr. Fauci.) Just America offers Americans little to be proud of and little to look forward too. If almost everyone is an oppressor of one sort or another, who can you trust?

In addition to these four well-conceived frames, the value of Packer’s vision lies in his ability to look beyond the debates between the four Americas and ask: What do we need in a national narrative?

Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be.

And like individuals, nations require stories with some element of positivity and hope, balanced by a realistic humility. “I suck” is not a narrative that will get you far in life, and neither is “I am a helpless victim.” But “I am perfect” requires too much denial of reality, and too much repression of the voices that will point out your failures.

The history of America has plenty of positive and negative material to work with. We both enslaved people and freed them. We went to the Moon. We achieved wealth and tolerated poverty. We ended Hitler’s genocide, but committed one of our own. We out-lived Soviet Communism without giving in to the temptation of nuclear war. We enunciated high ideals that we have still not fully implemented.

If we are going to be a democratic self-governing people, we also need a story that allows us to trust each other, and to form institutions that wield legitimate power. Packer critiques Ronald Reagan’s city-on-a-hill vision like this:

The shining city on a hill was supposed to replace remote big government with a community of energetic and compassionate citizens, all engaged in a project of national renewal. But nothing held the city together. It was hollow at the center, a collection of individuals all wanting more. It saw Americans as entrepreneurs, employees, investors, taxpayers, and consumers—everything but citizens.

We need to resist narratives that define us as competitors in a zero-sum game, as well as ones that stop us from owning up to injustices and fixing them. We need to reward individual achievement, but not abandon those who can’t compete. We need to make use of all our talents. We need to both trust and be trustworthy. We need our story to tell us that we’re all in this together.

Wanting such a national narrative is still a long way from having one. But it’s hard to find something until you start looking for it.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Joe Manchin finally laid out what he wants in a voting-rights bill. It’s a significant compromise, but it’s not bad. Sadly, it’s not going to get Republican support either. So what happens next? Is the point just to frame an issue for 2022, or is something actually going to get done?

President Biden’s meeting with Putin was blessedly uneventful. Juneteenth became a national holiday. The Supreme Court refused for the third time to end ObamaCare. The heat wave has the West worried about the looming wildfire season.

That stuff, and a few other things, will get covered in the weekly summary. This week’s featured post focuses on George Packer’s framing of the four narratives of American politics: Free America, Smart America, Real America, and Just America. I think he’s done a good job of listening to the rhetoric of the current moment, and I believe we’ll be hearing about his four narratives for years to come. That post should appear between 10 and 11, EDT. I’ll try to get the summary out by noon.

Laws and Limits

While there are supposed to be laws and limits on the presidency, Trump was unrestrained, exposing just how toothless those safeguards have become and just how urgently the nation needs to reform the office of the presidency itself.

– The Boston Globe “Future-proofing the Presidency

This week’s featured posts are “Critical Race Theory is the New Boogeyman” and “Cleaning Up After Trump“.

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s corruption

One featured post discussed this, beginning with The Boston Globe’s “Future-proofing the Presidency” series.

I missed this development back in November: In 2017, the German news magazine Der Spiegel had published a shocking cover of Trump decapitating the Statue of Liberty. But their post-election cover last fall showed Biden putting the head back on.

and Critical Race Theory

The other featured post examined how CRT is becoming just another content-free scare-label, in the tradition of cancel culture and political correctness.

and the G-7

With Biden replacing Trump, the G-7 meeting in Cornwall lacked the fireworks we’ve gotten used to. Trump had an attention-grabbing habit of insulting our democratic allies while fawning over our authoritarian enemies, but Biden has returned to more typically American behavior. It looks like we can trust him to go overseas without embarrassing us.

The seven nations all pledged to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030, and together they will donate a billion doses of Covid-19 vaccine to the developing world.

The group last met in 2018, with the 2020 meeting being canceled due to the pandemic. (If you remember, that was the meeting Trump initially awarded to his own company to host, before backing down from such a blatantly corrupt act.)

Biden is now heading to a NATO summit. From there he goes to a meeting with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva. That’s unlikely to be the lovefest it was for Trump.

This socially distanced photo of the G-7 leaders (plus two guests I haven’t identified; I’m amazed at the news sites that will publish a nine-member G-7 photo without comment) has led to a lot of humorous response.

Steven Colbert tweeted:

Before I order these figures, does anyone know if you can take them out and play with them or are they glued to the display stand?

Some people noticed the resemblance to a Star Trek crew that has just beamed down (and expressed concern about Angela Merkel’s prospects for survival, given her red top). Others thought the diplomatic meeting was about to end with a song and dance. (Both Macron and Trudeau look ready for a solo.)

and you might also be interested in

Last week I quoted Seth Abramson’s point that Trump could stop talk of a coup with a short statement saying that he would not cooperate with an effort to reinstate him as president by force. Well, this week Reuters outlined the death threats Trump supporters have been making against election officials who refused to let Trump intimidate them into overturning a legal election. This is something else Trump could probably easily stop, but doesn’t. He’s complicit.

ProPublica published an expose of how little tax the super-rich pay.

In 2007, Jeff Bezos, then a multibillionaire and now the world’s richest man, did not pay a penny. He achieved the feat again in 2011. In 2018, Tesla founder Elon Musk, the second-richest person in the world, also paid no federal income taxes. Michael Bloomberg managed to do the same in recent years. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn did it twice. George Soros paid no federal income tax three years in a row.

As is so often the case, the scandal is not that they broke the law, but that they didn’t. The biggest loophole is that capital gains on stock aren’t taxed until the stock is sold. So as Amazon stock skyrockets, Jeff Bezos can become the world’s richest man without triggering a taxable event.

Middle-class people, whose wealth is mainly in their homes, can’t do that. Even if you don’t sell it, your home is subject to property tax. It may take a while for the assessor to catch up with the value a zooming house market puts on your home, but eventually it will happen.

This is why Elizabeth Warren’s wealth-tax proposal shouldn’t seem all that radical. The New Yorker elaborated on that idea.

Here’s an example of bipartisanship: The Oregon House voted 59-1 to oust Rep. Mike Nearman, with only Nearman himself voting in his favor.

Nearman was removed for the disorderly behavior of allowing rioters into the closed Capitol building during a special legislative session on Dec. 21, 2020. His actions led to dozens of people — some armed and wearing body armor — gaining access to the Capitol, thousands of dollars in damage and six injured Salem and Oregon State police officers. …

Republicans had stayed mostly silent on Nearman’s actions until the past week, after a video surfaced that showed Nearman suggesting to a crowd days before the riot that if demonstrators texted him he might let them into the Capitol.

This is one reason why it’s not unthinkable that Republican members of Congress might have collaborated in the January 6 riot. A bipartisan commission would have been a good way to look into such possibilities, if Republicans in the Senate hadn’t filibustered the proposal to create such a commission. Treason was in the air in late December and early January. It was being spread by the President of the United States, and some number of Republican officials were infected by it.

The upcoming national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville is the latest battleground in the culture wars. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal both have good summaries. Southern Baptists may still seem quite conservative to non-evangelicals, but from the point of view of its own conservative wing, the denomination has been “drifting” to the left.

One faction argues the SBC should step back from its role in electoral politics in order to broaden its reach and reverse a 15-year decline in membership. Another faction says the denomination has been drifting to the left, and the way to retain and attract members is to recommit to its conservative roots and stay politically engaged. Each side accuses the other of straying from the SBC’s core mission.

What’s unusual about this conflict is that it seems to have little to do with theology. One side objects to “wokeness” and wants to denounce “critical race theory”, while the other wants to be more welcoming to non-whites, and to take sexual assault accusations more seriously.

So Netanyahu is finally out of power in Israel. Ben Rhodes comments:

One lesson from Israel: to defeat an autocrat who attacks democratic norms and institutions, oppositions need to unify under a big tent. In Israel’s case, that even led Lapid to compromise on who would start as PM, but he understood the imperative of getting Bibi out first.

This is an increasingly common and necessary strategy around the world. In Hungary, opposition parties have agreed to put aside differences and unify in next year’s election to oust Netanyahu’s good buddy and fellow corrupt, nationalist autocrat: Viktor Orban.

and let’s close with some maps that make an interesting point

Sometimes geology is destiny.

Cleaning Up After Trump

Voting Trump out of office stopped the bleeding, but the Republic isn’t out of danger yet.

The Boston Globe ran an important series this week: “Future-proofing the Presidency“. Over four years, the Trump administration shredded the laws, institutional norms, and political norms that we had previously trusted to protect the Republic from a corrupt or power-hungry president.

The fact that the voters managed to throw Trump out after four years should only comfort us up to a point. Because of the Trump precedents and the roadmap his administration provides, the next unscrupulous president — who could be Trump himself in 2025 — will begin his assault on democracy with a head start.

The Globe series proposes reforms to turn norms into laws and give teeth to the laws Trump ignored. The specific problems it diagnoses are: financial conflicts of interest, nepotism, immunity from prosecution, ability to shield co-conspirators, and power to obstruct congressional investigations. And the reforms it recommends are

  • require presidents to divest from all businesses and investments that could pose a conflict of interest
  • require presidents to publish their tax returns
  • require an explicit congressional waiver before a president can appoint a relative to office — even if that relative foregoes a salary
  • strengthen protections for government whistle-blowers, and extend those protections to political appointees
  • root congressional subpoena power in legislation, so that subpoenas served to the executive branch can be enforced more easily and quickly
  • allow a president to be indicted while in office, but delay the trial until the presidency ends
  • pass a constitutional amendment voiding a president’s power to pardon personal associates

The series concludes with “The Case for Prosecuting Donald Trump“. Congress’ impeachment power is broken, and can no longer be trusted to hold presidents accountable.

If Congress had played the role the Founders envisioned, by removing Trump from the presidency after his criminality became clear in the Ukraine affair, that might have been enough of a deterrent to scare future presidents straight. But lawmakers didn’t.

So now there is only one way left to restore deterrence and convey to future presidents that the rule of law applies to them. The Justice Department must abandon two centuries of tradition by indicting and prosecuting Donald Trump for his conduct in office. …

The reluctance to prosecute presidents is deep-rooted, and extreme caution does make sense. (The last thing that the country needs is for Trump to be charged, tried, and then acquitted.) But it cannot be the case that there is no line — no hypothetical act of presidential criminality that would not rise to the level of seriousness that merits setting aside our qualms. And if one accepts that there is a line, it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump didn’t cross it.

Two other of this weeks’ news stories underlined the importance of The Globe’s proposed reforms: We found out that the Trump administration subpoenaed the phone metadata of two Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee, and the transcript of Don McGahn’s testimony to Congress was released.

The two lawmakers in question — Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell — were outspoken administration critics that Trump frequently attacked on Twitter. (“Shifty Schiff” was one of his playground insult names.) Swalwell became a Democratic presidential candidate. At the time, the Intelligence Committee was engaged in an investigation of Trump’s collusion with Russia.

Not only were they targeted, but so were their family members, including their children. What’s more, a gag order has kept Apple from revealing its cooperation until recently, so the congressmen did not know they were under this kind of scrutiny, and neither did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“President Trump repeatedly and flagrantly demanded that the Department of Justice carry out his political will and tried to use the Department as a cudgel against his political opponents and members of the media,” Rep. Schiff told Recode in a statement. “It is increasingly apparent that those demands did not fall on deaf ears.”

The transcript of Dan McGahn’s testimony to the House Judiciary Committee on June 4 was released Wednesday, in accordance with the agreement that led to that testimony (after two years of legal wrangling that saw the courts refuse to back up congressional subpoenas). The transcript is 241 pages, and the main thing you can learn by reading large chunks of it is that McGahn was indeed a hostile witness. Releasing only a transcript (rather than video) means that his evasiveness will not be appreciated by the general public.

The pre-interview agreement limited questions to

one, information attributed to Mr. McGahn in the publicly available portions of the Mueller report and events that the publicly available portions of the Mueller report indicate involve Mr. McGahn; and, two, whether the Mueller report accurately reflected Mr. McGahn’s statements to the Special Counsel’s Office and whether those statements were truthful

In the early questioning, McGahn frequently claimed not to remember the events in question until his questioner noted a passage in the Mueller Report. McGahn would then respond with something like “what you’ve read in the report is accurate”. He tried hard not to introduce any new information. I also have to wonder if he used the interview’s ground rules to hide relevant conversations with Trump without perjuring himself. For example:

Q: Did you advise the President as to whether he personally could call Mr. Rosenstein about the investigation?
A: I may have at some point in time. Do you have anything in particular? I mean, I was on the job quite a while so —
Q: Understood. I’ll direct you to page 81, bottom of the paragraph.

Like Trump himself, and so many other people in his administration, McGahn seems not to recall a number of events that most other people would think of as memorable.

Q: On June 14, 2017 … The Washington Post reported for the first time that the special counsel was investigating President Trump personally for obstruction of justice. Do you recall your reaction to that reporting?
A: I don’t recall my reaction to it, no. No.
Q: You don’t recall your reaction, as a White House counsel, to learning that the press had reported that the President of the United States was under personal investigation by the special counsel?
A: I don’t recall my subjective impression on the evening of June 14th about a news report. No, I don’t.
Q: Do you recall speaking to the President that evening?
A: I do recall speaking to him, yes.
Q: Can you describe that conversation?
A: I don’t have a crisp recollection of it.

Again and again, McGahn claimed that his memory had been fresher when Mueller questioned him, so he yielded to whatever description was in the Mueller report. That raises an obvious question: Instead of questioning McGahn about Mueller’s summary of McGahn’s testimony, why doesn’t the Judiciary Committee just look at the transcripts of those interviews? And the answer is that they can’t, at least not yet. Like the McGahn subpoena itself, this was the subject of a long legal wrangle, which the Supreme Court put off deciding until after the election. So at the moment, Congress doesn’t even have access to the still-redacted portions of the Mueller report.

After Trump lost the election, the grounds for releasing grand jury records to Congress changed completely, so Congress suspended its pursuit to coordinate with the new Biden administration. In part, McGahn’s appearance was supposed to be a substitute for the grand jury material.

So that’s where the House investigation into Trump’s obstruction of justice has led: McGahn finally appeared, but under rules that allowed him to do little more than point to quotes in the Mueller report and verify that he actually said that.

Meanwhile, Rachel Maddow has been waging an almost nightly campaign for Attorney General Merrick Garland to expose and reverse Trump administration abuses in the DoJ.

About the Schiff/Swalwell subpoenas, she commented:

Given that those officials that knew about this are still in the Department right now, why did it take a New York Time article about this abominable behavior to spark an inspector general investigation today? I mean, this scandal wasn’t known to any of us in the public, but it was known to multiple officials inside the Justice Department. None of them thought to peep about it? …

It is clear that the Justice Department under President Biden does not want the job of investigating and rooting around what went rotten inside their own department under the previous president. But even if they don’t want that job, that is the job they have now. … Wake up, you guys! You’re going to work in an active crime scene, and there’s no other cops to call.

You have to fix this. You’re the only ones who can.

Trump and Bill Barr have provided the next would-be despot with a detailed plan for turning the Justice Department into a sword to attack enemies and a shield to protect corrupt friends. If there are no consequences for what they did, either to them or to the lower-level officials who went along, the danger has not passed.