Tag Archives: Trump administration

How the Trump Grift Works

https://theweek.com/political-satire/1015579/trump-persecuted

Trump’s lawsuit against Hillary’s vast conspiracy was dismissed, and the Durham investigation is winding down without proving much of anything. But in their day, these two Trump-will-be-vindicated hoaxes kept the money flowing in.


When I was growing up fundamentalist, Jesus’ second coming was always imminent. Any day now, the Heavens would open and there He would be, declaring an end to secular history and beginning a period of judgment that would separate the believers from the unbelievers. On that day, the doubters would be proven wrong and there would be “wailing and gnashing of teeth”. The righteous, on the other hand, would “shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father”.

And in the meantime, you should keep sending in your money.

You can’t fully understand Trumpism without holding that picture in mind. Whatever evidence of Trump’s criminality the “fake news media” might present, and whatever testimony the 1-6 committee gets from Trump’s own people, the real Truth is going to be revealed any day now. His persecutors will be routed, and their sinister plots will be revealed.

In the meantime, keep sending Trump your money.

Like Jesus’ second coming, Trump’s final vindication can be predicted again and again — and those predictions can fail again and again — without undermining the basic narrative that it’s coming any day now. [1] Just scrap the old details for new ones and you’re good to go. Did Trump leave the presidency without invoking Q-Anon’s “storm”? Did none of his 82 post-election lawsuits prove fraud, even when he got them heard by judges he appointed? No problem: Those fantasies kept the money rolling in until new fantasies could be ginned up.

Recently, two other major Trump-vindication vehicles have gone bust: the Hillary conspiracy lawsuit and the Durham investigation. Each was a big deal in its day, but, you know, life moves on. The suit got dismissed and the investigation is closing up shop without finding any of the crimes Trump promised.

But never mind, they kept the money flowing.

The great Clinton conspiracy. It sounds weird to say this, but one of the most amusing things I read these last two weeks was Judge Donald Middlebrooks’ dismissal of Trump’s sprawling lawsuit against Hillary Clinton, Jim Comey, and everybody else the Former Guy has ever blamed for investigating his collusion with Russia.

Middlebrooks’ opinion reads like a professor grading the work of a particularly disappointing first-year law student. The judge keeps backing up to explain fundamental things the student (i.e., Trump’s lawyers) should have read in the textbook (i.e., landmark precedents).

A complaint filed in federal court must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Each allegation must be simple, concise, and direct. Each claim must be stated in numbered paragraphs, and each numbered paragraph limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances.

Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is 193 pages in length, with 819 numbered paragraphs. It contains 14 counts, names 31 defendants, 10 “John Does” described as fictitious and unknown persons, and 10 “ABC Corporations” identified as fictitious and unknown entities. Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is neither short nor plain, and it certainly does not establish that Plaintiff is entitled to any relief.

More troubling, the claims presented in the Amended Complaint are not warranted under existing law. …

At this stage, a court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept as true all the plaintiff’s factual allegations. However, pleadings that “are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” A pleading that offers “labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.”

The rest of the ruling is a series of that’s-not-what-the-law-says, the-reference-in-your-footnote-doesn’t-support-the-point-you’re-making, and so on, culminating in the judge’s refusal to let Trump’s lawyers amend their complaint a second time:

It’s not that I find the Amended Complaint “inadequate in any respect”; it is inadequate in nearly every respect. … At its core, the problem with Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is that Plaintiff is not attempting to seek redress for any legal harm; instead, he is seeking to flaunt a 200-page political manifesto outlining his grievances against those who have opposed him, and this Court is not the appropriate forum.

I’m reminded of the scene in The Paper Chase where Professor Kingsfield says to a student, “Here is a dime. Call your mother and tell her there is serious doubt about you becoming a lawyer.”

The inescapable conclusion of Judge Middlebrooks’ critique is that no competent lawyer ever intended this complaint to be the basis for a serious lawsuit. Rather, the only credible purposes would have been to get headlines for filing the suit, and to fund-raise off of those headlines.

In short, the anti-Hillary suit was part of the continuing grift against Trump’s own followers: Neither Hillary nor any of the other defendants was ever going to pay Trump damages, but the prospect of the vast Trump-persecuting conspiracy finally being exposed would induce the MAGA cultists to keep their wallets open.

What Trump wanted out of the Durham investigation. That’s Obama on the far left. https://www.conservativedailynews.com/2019/10/bull-durham-grrr-graphics-ben-garrison-cartoon/

Durham. When Trump accuses his opponents of doing something, it’s only a matter of time before he does the same thing himself (if he hasn’t already). In his mind, the Mueller investigation was an expensive taxpayer-sponsored witch hunt against him. So of course he had to have his own expensive taxpayer-sponsored witch hunt.

When Bill Barr announced this investigation in 2019, conservatives were expecting the grand finale to the Mueller story, the counter-attack that would uncover all the illegal machinations the FBI and others had done to try to nail Trump. As recently as February, Trump was still promising that Durham was finding evidence of “the crime of the century” and “treason at the highest level”. He was “coming up with things far bigger than anybody thought possible”.

Durham may go down as a great hero in this country that will be talked about for years.

But that was all part of the grift. Trump was reacting with such glee to a court filing related to Durham’s indictment of Michael Sussman, a minor figure accused of a minor crime that Durham could not prove. (The jury acquitted Sussman after only six hours of deliberation.) No “crime of the century” involving high-profile conspirators like President Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Now the Durham investigation appears to be shutting down, having lasted longer and cost more than the Mueller probe it was supposed to be investigating. It also has accomplished far less: Mueller proved that Russia did help the 2016 Trump campaign, and that it committed crimes to do so. Mueller didn’t come up with enough evidence to indict the Trump campaign itself in the conspiracy, though he did trace a suspiciously large number of links between Trump’s people and Putin’s. The investigation dead-ended at Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, both of whom were convicted of felonies, but got pardons from Trump, presumably as a reward for their silence.

Durham has one case left: against Igor Danchenko, who is accused of lying to the FBI about the information in the Steele dossier, which Trump wants to claim was the sole source of the Trump/Russia investigation. (It wasn’t. It wasn’t even the primary source.) Again, somebody may have lied about something that, in the end, didn’t really matter. Or maybe not: Durham’s standards appear to be far lower than Mueller’s, so his Danchenko case may be no more convincing than the one against Sussman.

But while Durham’s long-running investigation may look like a flop from a legal point of view, Atlantic’s David Graham explains that it did what it was supposed to do:

Even if Durham approached the probe with earnest sincerity, the real reason he was appointed is that Donald Trump’s political con requires the promise of total vindication right around the corner. For a time, Durham provided that hope for Trump backers. But now, as Trump moves on to other ploys, the Durham probe has served its purpose, even though it has produced no major convictions or epiphanies.

The grift goes on. So now is Trump’s Save America PAC going to apologize for raising money under false pretenses and send it all back? Don’t be silly. The Great Orange Conman has indeed “moved on to other ploys”. Now that investigations on numerous fronts threaten to expose his crimes, he needs your money more than ever.

Don’t ask what he did with the quarter-billion-plus he’s already collected, or why such a fabulously wealthy man needs your money at all. [2] The Forces of Evil are still at work, conspiring to find the top-secret documents Trump stole, expose his fraudulent business practices, and piece together his conspiracy to steal the presidency. So it’s time for all red-blooded Americans to step up, forget all the times Trump has lied in the past about conspiracies against him, and send in their money. (Also, stand by to riot again if he’s indicted.)

Objectively, things may keep looking worse and worse for Trump, but that’s how this story is supposed to go: the worse, the better. Signs of the End Times just lead to the Great Judgment.

Any minute now, the trumpet will blow, and the sky will be full of angels.


[1] I am reminded of one of the great opening paragraphs of any autobiography ever. In Knee Deep in Paradise, TV actress Brett Butler wrote:

I spent the first twenty years of my life waiting for two men I was reasonably certain would never come back – my daddy and Jesus Christ. I don’t wait for them anymore. My dad, anyway. And at least with Jesus I didn’t spend all that time thinking he was gone because of something I did.

[2] Again, there’s a religious parallel. As Captain Kirk once asked: “What does God need with a starship?

“Fascist” is a description, not an insult.

https://www.creators.com/read/andy-marlette/09/22/332870

After two years of claiming Joe Biden is senile (and deceptively editing videos to prove it), falsely claiming that his presidency is illegitimate, and pretending that “Let’s Go Brandon” and “FJB” are clever things to display on t-shirts, flags, trucks etc.; after declaring that liberals in general are groomers, pro-pedophile, communists, libtards, and baby-killers — MAGA Republicans are now deeply offended that the President has begun hitting back.

How dare he!

Biden’s counter-attack started on August 25, when he described “extreme MAGA philosophy” as “semi-fascist“. It continued in a prime-time speech Thursday night from Independence Hall in Philadelphia:

MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love. They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fanned the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.

They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, brutally attacking law enforcement, not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger at the throat of our democracy, but they look at them as patriots. And they see their MAGA failure to stop a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election as preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections.

They tried everything last time to nullify the votes of 81 million people. This time, they’re determined to succeed in thwarting the will of the people.

If you doubted a single word of that, Trump proved Biden’s point Thursday by promising — if he should ever become president again — to “look very, very favorably about full pardons”, with a “full apology”, no less, for his Brownshirts, the rioters he drew to Washington and incited to attack the Capitol on January 6.

Apparently, Trump supporters should be free to beat up police and intimidate Congress. The law should not apply to political violence, if that violence works to Trump’s advantage.

https://buffalonews.com/opinion/adam-zyglis-2022/collection_10d8d684-6f18-11ec-8781-d72e4b72c14d.html#1

But in spite of the obvious truth in Biden’s remarks, the pro-fascist voices shrieked in horror: Biden had “insulted” “half the people living in this country“, i.e. everyone who voted for Trump. (Who aren’t “half the country”, by the way. That’s why he lost.)

But two points: (1) Not all of those 74 million Trump votes came from “MAGA Republicans” or even Trump supporters; they just liked him better than Biden. And probably most of those voters did not expect Trump to try to hang onto power by inciting violence after he lost; they might not have voted for him if they had.

Immediately after January 6, lots of Republicans felt that way — not just Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, but also Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and many others. But then elected officials saw which way the wind was blowing within the GOP, and most of them weathervaned back into the MAGA fold. They aren’t Trumpists, they’re just opportunists and cowards.

So Biden carefully targeted his criticism:

Now, I want to be very clear, very clear up front. Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know, because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans.

But the MAGA folks ignored that part of the speech and continued to insist that Trump voters ARE Trump; you can’t attack him without attacking them. Which also proves Biden’s point: Telling the masses to identify with the Leader, to see his pains as their pains and his enemies as their enemies, is one of the traits of fascism.

Which brings up the second point: (2) Biden (and me and a lot of other liberals) are not using “fascism” as an insult. It is descriptive term that means something — and that meaning clearly applies to Trump and his personality cult.

In 2015, I felt obligated to write an article describing what I meant by “fascism” before I started using the word. I boiled it down to these key characteristics:

[Fascism is] a dysfunctional attempt of people who feel humiliated and powerless to restore their pride by:

styling themselves as the only true and faithful heirs of their nation’s glorious (and possibly mythical) past,

identifying with a charismatic leader whose success will become their success,

helping that leader achieve power by whatever means necessary, including violence,

under his leadership, purifying the nation by restoring its traditional and characteristic virtues (again, through violence if necessary),

reawakening and reclaiming the nation’s past glory (by war, if necessary),

all of which leads to the main point: humiliating the internal and external enemies they blame for their own humiliation.

Again, I haven’t changed that definition (not even the italics) since 2015. Trump and his movement have spent the last 7 years proving me right about them, from the demonization of Muslims to the intentional cruelty of his border policy to the mob violence of January 6.

And what unites Trump’s mob? Identification with one of the groups that might feel aggrieved by the slipping of its former dominance. If the core of your identity is to be White, male, Christian, rural, or heterosexual, and you feel wronged by a society that no longer honors you as you feel you deserve (or sufficiently punishes people who are different from you), then you are a “real American” who needs to bask in the gold-plated glow of Trump’s reflected greatness, and needs his strength to strike back at those who have looked down on you.

As I said in 2015, fascism appears mercurial because it’s not “political” in any ordinary sense; it has no characteristic ideology or economic program, just friends and enemies. Fascism is a phenomenon of social psychology. It’s about dominance and grievance and humiliation and projecting images of strength, not potential solutions to the problems of Americans’ real lives.

The GOP’s decision not to write a platform in 2020 was textbook fascism: Our policy is Trump. Today, the way a candidate gets Trump’s endorsement and the backing of his cult is not to champion a set of ideals or policies, it’s to champion Trump himself, and his made-up grievances about the 2020 election and the FBI’s “invasion” of Mar-a-Lago.

Imagine a candidate who pledged to advance all of the Trump administration policies, but said that Biden had been legitimately elected and the January 6 riot was wrong. Could that candidate get Trump’s endorsement? I think not.

Trump doesn’t have policies, he has grievances. If you also feel aggrieved, he wants you to identify your grievances with his, and to vicariously experience satisfaction when he is victorious again and achieves a humiliating revenge against his enemies.

That’s what fascism is all about.

https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/bagley/2022/09/02/bagley-cartoon-maga-meltdown/

What’s the point of punishing Trump?

https://www.politico.com/cartoons/2022/06/01/matt-wuerker-cartoons-june-2022-00036472?slide=4

Or Alex Jones? Or Deshaun Watson?


The Info-warrior. Friday, a Texas jury assessed $45.2 million in punitive damages against Alex Jones, on top of the $4.1 million it previously ordered him to pay in ordinary damages. The $49.3 million total would go to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. On his widely viewed program Info Wars, Jones repeatedly claimed that the massacre was a hoax designed to give the government an excuse to confiscate guns, that Heslin and Lewis were “crisis actors”, and that their son never existed.

Because a large number of Jones’ fans actually believe the dark fantasies he spins, Heslin and Lewis have not only seen their grief exploited for someone else’s gain, but they’ve been harassed and even in physical danger for the last nine years.

As the linked article makes clear, the total amount Jones ends up paying could go either up or down. He might appeal to get this judgement reduced, but he also faces additional cases brought by other victims of his malicious lies. Or he might wriggle out of accountability by abusing the bankruptcy laws.

Like a lot of people, I take satisfaction from the prospect of Jones paying millions of dollars. I don’t throw the word evil around lightly, but Alex Jones qualifies. He has amassed a huge fortune by slandering people who have already suffered something worse than most of us can imagine. This is purely predatory behavior, and there is no excuse for it.

The quarterback. Last Monday, another punishment was announced (pending appeal): NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson will be suspended for six games. Watson was the target of lawsuits by 24 female massage therapists. Despite playing for a team (the Houston Texans) that had its own massage therapists, Watson arranged private appointments with more than sixty women, 24 of whom claim he tried to pressure them into sexual acts.

Watson sat out all last season (with pay) while the Texans watched the progress of the cases against him and tried to decide what to do with him. (He had demanded a trade before the scandals broke, but his value was hard to determine until the criminal probes concluded.) Ultimately, Watson was not indicted and he has settled all but one of the suits. The Texans then traded him to the Cleveland Browns, who signed him to a five-year $230 million contract. The contract was structured to have a large signing bonus, but a small first-year salary. As a result, he’ll lose only $345K if he misses the six games.

Like a lot of people, I had the exact opposite reaction to this announcement: Really? That’s all? I don’t know what I thought justice would be, but this isn’t it. If the decision stands, Watson will be back on the field for the Browns’ game against Baltimore on October 23. He should barely notice the lack of $345K, and it will be as if nothing ever happened. Come February, his accusers might be watching him in the Super Bowl. [1]

The former president. Meanwhile, the mills of justice grind very slowly in the case of Donald Trump. The House January 6 Committee has put together a compelling case that he did the single worst thing any American president has ever done to the country: He lost an election and tried to stay in power anyway. The January 6 attack on the Capitol was the culmination of a much larger anti-democracy plot, which he set in motion and tried to benefit from.

If he had succeeded, the republic set up by the Founders would effectively have fallen. After ignoring the Constitution and overruling the voters in 2020, why would he ever give up power? And if he should happen to die or retire, why should any future president give up power?

Whether Trump will face any consequences for these actions is still up in the air. Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republican senators refused to hold Trump accountable in his second impeachment trial. A Georgia prosecutor is investigating the former president’s attempts to reverse that state’s 2020 election, and the Department of Justice finally appears to be going up the chain from the January 6 rioters to the plotters whose will they were carrying out.

Will any of that lead to indictments? Convictions? Jail time? It’s still not clear.

The point of punishment. I’m discussing these three men together — Jones, Watson, Trump — because their cases raise a common theme: What is punishment for? How much is enough? Thinking about Jones and Watson, I believe, can give us insight into what we should want for Trump.

As I said above, it’s satisfying to see bad men punished. That’s a very human response. Particularly when evil-doers appear to prosper, it’s easy to convince yourself that anything bad that might happen to them is justified and even good. [2]

At the same time, I believe that the propensity to glory in revenge (whether personal, vicarious, or rooted in some abstract sense of justice) is not humanity’s best feature. At some point we need to let the Past pass, so that we can move ahead unencumbered.

But when is that? When can we say “OK, enough”? [3]

Nixon. Before we think about that, I want to consider one more example: Richard Nixon. President Ford pardoned Nixon about a month after he resigned, and as a result Nixon was never held fully accountable for his crimes. He never went to prison. He never even had to stand trial, so no once-and-for-all judgement about his actions was ever recorded.

At the time (I turned 18 shortly after the pardon, so I got to vote against Ford in 1976), I thought Nixon got off too easily. OK, he had to leave power, but most of us never have much power. If being returned to the ranks of ordinary citizens counts as “punishment”, then presidents really are above the rest of us in a way that I think the Founders never intended.

But as I look back now, I’m willing to cut Ford a little more slack. Even without a trial or prison, Nixon became a cautionary tale in American politics. For decades afterwards, a stain of illegitimacy hovered over everything he did. No American politician wanted to hear his or her actions compared to Nixon’s. His name went unmentioned at Republican conventions. Post-Nixon presidents couldn’t justify their actions by citing Nixon as a precedent.

In retrospect, I think that was a good outcome.

What I want for Trump, Jones, and Watson. What I want for each of them is not some specific punishment. What I want is an outcome that makes them cautionary tales for anyone in a position to offend in similar ways.

I want current and future sports stars to consider their possible actions and think “I don’t want to become another Deshaun Watson.” I want current and future conspiracy-theory entertainers to think, “That might gain me some viewers, but it’s a little too much like Alex Jones.”

And most of all, I want a stain of illegitimacy to fall across everything Donald Trump ever did. I want the adjective “Trumpian” to become a pejorative label that every major American politician tries to deflect, just as no one wanted to be “Nixonian” for the rest of the 20th century. I want the advisors and assistants in all future administrations to consider what happened to Trump’s people and think about what they might be risking.

What kind of punishments would do that?

It’s tempting to see the Nixon example as proof that punishment isn’t necessary at all. But Nixon was a very different case: By the time he left office, his party had already turned against him. He was never again a force in American politics.

By contrast, Trump is actively trying to return to power, and remains a cult figure whose members regard him as a hero.

He won’t go quietly into the Past, so he has to be brought down. I don’t see how that happens without mug shots, a trial, and an orange jumpsuit. The evidence against him needs to be presented in a court where he is not in control, with the result (I hope) that a jury unanimously convicts him of crimes. He needs to go to jail.

His trial and sentencing will be traumatic for the country, but his own actions and lack of remorse make it necessary. There needs to be an outcome whose reality he can’t deny. His followers may continue to claim, against all evidence, that he won the 2020 election. But if he’s in jail they can’t claim that a jury acquitted him.

How much jail time? Revenge says “He tried to overthrow my country’s Constitution and sent his mob to attack my Capitol.” The rest of his life would not be long enough to satisfy my desire for Revenge.

But that’s not an urge I want to indulge. So: how long? Long enough for the country to move on, and for the Republican Party to find new leaders. A four-year political cycle needs to come and go without any expectation that he might participate.

So that’s what I want: four years.


[1] For comparison, Tom Brady served a four-game suspension at the conclusion of the Deflategate saga. The Patriots managed a 3-1 record while he was gone. After he returned, the team continued on to the Super Bowl, where Brady led a historic comeback against the Atlanta Falcons and was named MVP. That game is considered one of the highlights of his career.

[2] I believe this is where the myth of Hell comes from. For many people, the vision of bliss in Heaven would be incomplete without the knowledge that the people who abused them in life are suffering endless torment. My own beliefs about God or the afterlife are uncertain, and waver sometimes from day to day. But one thing I’m certain I don’t believe is that a loving God condemns anyone to eternal suffering.

[3] My detailed analysis is in a sermon I gave in 1999, “Forgiveness“. I stand by it.

Inside the White House on 1-6

https://www.facebook.com/Marc-Murphy-Cartoons-195711040642

Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony Tuesday damaged both Trump’s image and his legal position.


The top assistant to Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, whose desk was just steps away from the Oval Office, testified to the 1-6 Committee Tuesday [video transcript]. She made an impressive witness and told a compelling story.

In my mind (and I suspect in Liz Cheney’s as well), these hearings serve two parallel purposes:

  1. assembling evidence that will force the Justice Department’s hand and get Trump indicted,
  2. breaking his hold on the Republican Party so that he will never return to power.

Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony served both. Which purpose you find most important determined which part of her testimony you focused on.

Personally, I want to see Trump in jail, because I think that’s necessary to deter future fascist presidents from arranging their promotion to Führer. So I focused on the legally significant claims:

  • Trump had been warned before January 6 about the potential for violence.
  • When he told his rally crowd to march on the Capitol, he knew they had weapons.
  • He tried to stop the Secret Service from taking those weapons away.
  • Only the Secret Service prevented Trump from going to the Capitol with the mob.
  • He didn’t want to tell the mob to leave the Capitol, because (in Meadows’ words) “He thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”

We’re still guessing what Trump planned to do if he got to the Capitol, but Hutchinson testified “I know that there was a conversation about him going into the House chamber at one point.” She said that on January 2 Rudy Giuliani told her about plans for the 6th: “The President’s going to be there. He’s going to look powerful. He’s — he’s going to be with the members. He’s going to be with the Senators.”

Breaking into the Capitol at the head of an armed mob to prevent Congress finalizing the election he lost — that sounds like something from the final days of the Roman Republic.

But if you’re mainly focused on GOP politics, probably the most significant aspect of Hutchinson’s testimony was how humiliating it was for Trump. In a dispassionate voice, she told about incidents when Trump behaved like a bratty toddler.

https://cartoonmovement.com/cartoon/anger-management

She described helping the White House valet clean ketchup off the wall of the Oval Office dining nook, after Trump had thrown his lunch at the wall. (He was upset because Bill Barr had told the public that his election-fraud claims were false.) She said that it was not the only time Trump had broken White House dishes during a fit of anger.

Putting this in presidential perspective: Remember what a scandal it was when Obama put his feet up on the Resolute Desk? “This arrogant, immature & self-centered man has no sense of honor, or of simple decency,” declared OutragedPatriots.com.

Imagine if our first Black president had broken White House china in a temper tantrum and left ketchup stains on the walls!

And then there was Hutchinson’s second-hand account of Trump trying to force the Secret Service to drive him to the Capitol.

https://theweek.com/political-satire/1014787/the-trump-tantrum

And when [Secret Service Agent] Bobby [Engel] had relayed to him we’re not, we don’t have the assets to do it, it’s not secure, we’re going back to the West Wing, the president had a very strong, a very angry response to that.

Tony [Ornato] described him as being irate. The president said something to the effect of “I’m the f’ing president, take me up to the Capitol now” to which Bobby responded, “Sir, we have to go back to the West Wing.” The president reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel. Mr. Engel grabbed his arm, said, “Sir, you need to take your hand off the steering wheel. We’re going back to the West Wing. We’re not going to the Capitol.”

Mr. Trump then used his free hand to lunge towards Bobby Engel. And Mr. — when Mr. Ornato had recounted this story to me, he had motioned towards his clavicles.

Trump has always been more concerned about his image than about the law, so TrumpWorld responded to this account rather than the parts of Hutchinson’s testimony that were more legally damaging.

An anonymous source countered Hutchinson’s testimony-under-oath by claiming that “Two Secret Service agents are prepared to testify before Congress that then-President Donald Trump did not lunge at a steering wheel or assault them.” This is a very specific denial that I could imagine as part of testimony that supported 99% of what Hutchinson claimed. (“It was more of a reach than a lunge, and I wouldn’t describe that as an assault.”)

CNN then found other anonymous Secret Service agents who backed up Hutchinson’s account. Whether the incident happened exactly as she described it or not, it is clear that Hutchinson did not make the story up. It was circulating in the White House, as she said. She never claimed to be in the car, witnessing the tantrum herself.

We’ll see if any of this additional testimony actually happens. After all, Trump and his people have a long history of promising proof that never appears. Hutchinson made her statements under oath, and that has to give them more credibility than anonymous sources describing what somebody else might be willing to say.

In addition, I find it striking that no one from TrumpWorld stepped up to dispute the legally damaging parts of Hutchinson’s testimony. It’s scary that a guy who can’t be trusted with the White House china had the nuclear codes, but breaking dishes isn’t illegal.

Here’s a point that the I don’t think is getting enough stress in the public conversation: This is not a debate between two versions of what happened on January 6. The committee is presenting a narrative of what happened, and Trump’s people are refusing to discuss the matter — not just refusing to testify under oath, but refusing to comment at all. Trump complains about the hearings being “one-sided”, but he has chosen not to present a side.

If he had the confidence and courage to go under oath, as Hillary Clinton did during the Benghazi hearings, Trump (or Mark Meadows or Rudy Giuliani) could tell the committee (and the country) an alternate story, if he has one.

But even short of testimony, Fox News would readily give Trump all the air time he wants, with none of that annoying cross-examination or fact checks or follow-up questions or risk of perjury. He could explain why he didn’t believe his own experts when they told him that his fraud claims were false, and that Mike Pence had no power to reject electoral votes certified by the states. He could tell us which of his many debunked fraud claims he still believes, what the fake electors were for, what he intended the crowd to do when they got to the Capitol, when he first learned that violence had broken out, what he was thinking when he attacked Vice President Pence in a tweet (and in particular, did he know at the time that the crowd was already calling for Pence to be hung?), why he waited so long to ask the rioters to go home, and so on.

But he won’t do any that. His “side of the story” never gets any more detailed than saying that he did nothing wrong.

He refuses to go on the record in any form (and certainly not under oath) because he knows that he can’t defend any detailed account in which he did nothing wrong.

He knows he’s guilty.

All of which raises the question: Will it make any difference? Will the Justice Department indict Trump? Or anybody inside the White House who wasn’t physically present at the Capitol Insurrection? Lawrence Tribe says yes. Jeffrey Toobin urges DoJ not to. Jack Goldsmith says it’s a tough decision.

The January 6 hearings are accomplishing more than you think

https://jensorensen.com/2022/06/22/january-6-hearings-democracy-cartoon/

You may not see it, if you don’t understand how conservatives change their minds.


After more than two years of Covid, persistent inflation, and a year or so of Democrats failing to either eliminate the Senate filibuster or pass anything significant in spite of it, lots of us have gotten depressed. One result of that widespread depression is that every news story is seen through a lens that is dim to the point of blackness: Nothing good is happening, because nothing good can happen. That’s just how the world is. Even stuff that looks good for a while will ultimately turn out badly.

So it’s no wonder that even the January 6 hearings — which have contained startling new information and dramatic testimony, presented with considerable narrative skill — are often being construed as yet another disappointment, yet another example of America’s endemic hopelessness: Sure, the ratings have been better than expected, but the only people watching are the people who don’t need to watch. They were already convinced Trump was guilty. That’s why they’re watching.

Fox News, on the other hand, is pretending the hearings aren’t happening, and the MAGA cultists are averting their eyes. Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson are talking about Biden falling off his bicycle or some other trivia. So what’s being accomplished?

Let me suggest a radical reinterpretation of these facts: MAGAworld refusing to engage is a good sign. This is exactly what you should have expected to see if things were going well.

https://www.gocomics.com/garymarkstein/2022/06/18

That reframing depends on understanding two things: First, nothing gets watched by everybody, and yet somehow the information gets out. You didn’t have to watch the Super Bowl to learn that the Rams won. People who have never seen Star Wars know who Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are; if you talk about a “flaw in the Death Star”, they’ll get the metaphor. Hit songs you don’t like nonetheless get into your head. Personally, I have done my best not to keep up with the Kardashians, but there seems to be no way to avoid it.

So don’t think Trumpists aren’t learning anything from these hearings.

https://theweek.com/political-satire/1014494/if-a-tree-falls

But the more important thing you need to appreciate is how conservatives change their minds. They do it without ever admitting they were wrong. Typically the process goes like this:

  1. “I believe X, and anybody who denies X hates America.”
  2. Silence.
  3. “I never believed X. The people behind X were never true conservatives.”

Blocking out the hearings is Step 2. They’re looking away because they know they have no answers. If they thought they could take on this argument and win, at least in their own eyes, they’d be all over it. Fox News could be doing nightly counter-programming, tearing apart the committee’s witnesses and letting John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani and Jeff Clark explain their side of the story. Mike Pence and Pat Cipollone could be begging to testify under oath, so they could refute all the other witnesses’ testimony.

It’s not happening. Even the most blinder-wearing Trumpist understands that his side doesn’t dare take the field in this battle. Even if they don’t understand why, it’s got to be undermining their confidence.

Instead, there’s silence. Step 2.

The clearest historical example of the three-step process is White Evangelicals and segregation. During the 50s and 60s when the issue was being decided, White Evangelicals almost unanimously defended Jim Crow. Jerry Falwell, for example, preached in 1958:

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision [to desegregate public schools] would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.

Today, if you look, you can still find openly white-separatist branches of Christianity. But they’re on the fringes. No big-name preacher of the Religious Right would denounce Brown v Board of Education in the stark terms Falwell used.

But you know what you won’t find? A come-to-Jesus moment when some major preacher announced that he had been wrong about race, begged God’s forgiveness for his errors, and implored his congregation to turn themselves around in a similar way.

It never happened.

Instead, sometime in the 70s most right-wing preachers just stopped talking about the bad old days of Jim Crow. (Falwell’s segregationist sermons quietly disappeared from his church’s web site. Today, the only place you’ll find the quote above is in anti-Falwell articles.) And years later, when they started talking about the Civil Rights movement again, they had always been on the right side of it. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist, right?

Same thing with George W. Bush and the Iraq War. In 2002, nobody was hotter to invade Iraq than conservatives, and after the initial invasion overran the country quickly with few American casualties, right-wingers were arguing about just how high Bush should rank on the list of our greatest presidents. (Probably not in the Washington/Lincoln stratosphere. But maybe in the Reagan/Truman tier.)

Sometime during his second term, though, they started to go silent about Bush’s greatness, and by 2010, the Tea Party was claiming that Bush had never really been a conservative at all. Bush went from the highest presidential approval rating ever recorded — 90% in 2001 — to one of the lowest — 25% in 2008. During that whole time, though, I don’t remember hearing anyone admit that they’d been wrong about him.

There was no I-have-seen-the-light moment about Iraq comparable to Walter Cronkite turning against the Vietnam War. Conservatives just went silent for a while, and when they spoke up again, it was to claim that they had always been on the other side. Donald Trump is a perfect example. At first he was for the invasion. Then he thought it was a good idea that Bush had screwed up. Then he had always been against it.

So if you’re depressed that no MAGA types are facing up to the way that Trump fooled them, don’t be. That was never going to happen. But it doesn’t mean that Trump won’t someday be a friendless pariah.

I feel very confident in predicting that there will never be a we-were-wrong-about-Trump moment, either for the GOP in general or for your cousin who posted all those MAGA memes on social media. But you know what could happen? They might focus their outrage on something else for a while — critical race theory or transgender people or something — and then at some point start saying, “Trump did a lot of good things, and I like his Supreme Court picks, but I never bought all his bullshit.”

That could be happening right now.

The hearings, week two

https://theweek.com/political-satire/1014477/team-rudy-and-team-normal

Or “Why I’m not ready to make a hero out of Mike Pence”.


Monday was the second hearing [video, transcript], while the third hearing [video transcript] was Thursday. Two more hearings are scheduled tomorrow and Thursday at 1 p.m.

The daytime hearings have been fleshing out the case presented in the opening prime-time hearing on June 9th, which I covered last week.

Last Monday’s session focused on all the people within the Trump campaign and Trump administration who told Trump he had lost the 2020 election and debunked his claims of fraud. But Trump dismissed the views of Attorney General Bill Barr, his successor Jeff Rosen, campaign chair Bill Stepien, White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, and others as they refuted very specific claims of fraud — claims Trump would keep repeating.

Instead of accepting what his own experts (who christened themselves Team Normal) told him, Trump sought out less qualified people (Team Crazy) who would tell him what he wanted to hear, like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell.

The hearing also surfaced a new possible criminal charge: fund-raising fraud. The people who kept contributing to Trump after the election were told their contributions would go into an “Official Election Defense Fund”.

[C]ommittee investigator Amanda Wick … disclosed that Trump aides Hanna Allred and Gary Coby said no fund technically existed. She also noted that most of the money went to Trump’s Save America PAC and that very little was used for challenging the election results.

So not only did Trump’s fund-raising pitches rely on lies about election fraud — giving Trump a financial incentive to keep lying — they also lied about where contributors’ money would go.

https://theweek.com/political-satire/1014482/just-give-more

The third hearing centered on the plot to miscount electoral votes that was designed by lawyer John Eastman. As before, Trump’s advisors within the administration told him the plan was illegal and unworkable, but he sought out Eastman to be told that he could still hang onto power.

The plot centered on constructing slates of phony electors from the states where Biden’s win was clear but not overwhelming. Based on Trump’s false claims of fraud, the false electors would have their ballots delivered to Congress. On January 6, Eastman’s plan had Vice President Pence either accepting their votes as legitimate, or refusing to accept any votes from those states because their legitimacy was “contested”. Either would erase Biden’s Electoral College margin and re-elect Trump. Failing that, Pence could send this phony controversy back to the state legislature to be resolved. This would both delay Biden’s recognition as President-elect, and would shift pressure to Republican majorities in the legislatures to reverse the will of their states’ voters. (We might expect mini-January-6 riots in state capitols.)

Widely respected conservative Judge Michael Luttig testified that not only did this plan have “no basis in the Constitution or laws of the United States at all”, it constituted “a clear and present danger to American democracy”, one that continues as we move towards the 2024 election.

Fortunately, Mike Pence chose not to cooperate with this plan. Pence’s chief counsel Greg Jacobs testified at length about the pressure Trump and Eastman put on Pence, and described what could have happened as “a constitutional jump ball situation, political chaos in Washington, lawsuits, and who knows what happening in the streets”. When White House lawyer Eric Herschmann expressed a similar fear to Eastman — “You’re going to cause riots in the streets.” — he reported Eastman “said words to the effect of there has been violence in the history of our country, Eric, to protect the democracy or protect the republic.”

https://claytoonz.com/2022/06/13/pardon-party/

Pence came off well in Thursday’s hearing, looking like a modern-day Horatius-at-the-bridge defending American democracy against coup and chaos. And while I appreciate how hard it must have been to toss away the benefits he had earned by four years of complete subservience, I have a hard time seeing him as a hero.

I think Mike Pence should have won the 2021 Darth Vader Award for waiting until the last possible moment to do the right thing. Similar to Darth, if Mike had done the right thing sometime sooner, maybe that last possible moment would never have arisen. In particular, what if Pence had stated publicly, weeks in advance, that he did not have and would not try to exercise the power to discard electoral votes that had been certified by the states? What if he had announced that he had consulted with the attorney general and others within the Trump administration, and had determined that the Trump/Pence ticket had lost the election fair and square?

Maybe Trump’s cultists wouldn’t have arrived in DC on January 6 with the expectation that Biden’s election could still be reversed. Maybe the 1-6 violence would never have happened.

I interpret Pence’s drama as a microcosm of what the GOP spent four years doing: All through the Trump presidency, Republicans in his administration and in Congress had hoped that someone else would stop him before he destroyed American democracy. That’s why Pence kept temporizing, not committing to Eastman’s coup plan, but telling Trump he’d continue to study it. Maybe the whole thing would fall through for some other reason, and Pence would never have to stand up to Trump and Trump’s cult of personality.

Just about every major Republican — not just Pence, but Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, and many, many others — could have gone public before things got out of hand, but they decided not to. It was easier just to humor Trump and hope that his whole attempt to stay in office in spite of the voters would just run of steam somehow.

Mike Pence was the one who wound up with no one to pass the buck to. If he had gone along with Trump on January 6, then there would have been no orderly transfer of power, and Trump would either have been overthrown by violence or become de facto autocrat-for-life.

Pence isn’t a hero; he’s just the Republican who lost the game of hot potato.

One Year Later

News is supposed to be “the first rough draft of History“, but in practice News and History interface badly. Events of historical significance may happen with a bang, but they often come into focus slowly, as more and more information gets revealed and synthesized into a larger picture. But News, as its name suggests, emphasizes each new detail as it comes out, typically at the expense of the larger picture.

Today, for example, we might find out the color of the car that ran us down, and that it was a 2018 model (and not the 2017, as some at first thought). Is that important in the larger scheme of things? Not really. But it’s new.

For the reader/viewer, the News is like watching the edits to a document flash across your screen without having the document itself open. Now more than ever, a journalist worries about boring those in the audience who already know everything except the new detail. And the unfortunate result is that the public often loses sight of History’s current draft: At this moment, what do we think really happened?

That’s what anniversaries are for. On the one hand, it’s entirely meaningless that Thursday was January 6 again. The Capitol insurrection was part of the four-year presidential cycle, so nothing similar was happening or threatening to happen on Thursday. But on the other hand, the calendar was inviting us to step out of the 24/7 news cycle review the larger narrative as we now know it.

Here’s how I tell that story: It begins with Trump.

https://theweek.com/political-satire/1008693/the-maestro

Plan B. In 2020, Donald Trump wanted the voters to re-elect him as president. But early on, he hatched a Plan B to stay in power in spite of the voters: If he lost, he would claim the election was rigged against him, and use all the powers of the presidency and of his personality cult to overturn the American people’s decision.

He began setting up Plan B well before the election, telling his supporters that the vote count would be full of fraud — which, of course, would all work against him. This was not a new idea for Trump, who never acknowledges his defeats. You may remember that a few weeks before the 2016 election he set up a similar claim:

Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naïve.

In 2016, even having the Electoral College appoint him president wasn’t good enough to satisfy his ego. He claimed fraud to explain why he had lost the popular vote by 2.9 million. [1]

In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.

What you probably don’t remember, though, is that he also claimed fraud when Ted Cruz beat him in the 2016 Iowa caucuses.

Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it.

That’s Trump: He can never lose, he can only be cheated out of victory.

But what is mere immaturity in a six-year-old (“I didn’t lose. You cheated.”) and a character flaw in a private citizen becomes a threat to the Republic when it’s backed by the kind of power Trump wielded in 2020. So his crushing seven-million vote defeat at the polls led to a massive disinformation campaign, which he used to justify pushing on every weak spot in the electoral system in an attempt to reverse the clear decision of the voters.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/01/05/year-living-dangerously/

Disinformation. His fraud claims were endless, and from the beginning they were all bullshit. [2] Due to the the unprecedented number of early and mail-in votes occasioned by the Covid pandemic, the ballots took longer than usual to count. But there was never any legitimate reason to doubt the result when it finally came in: Biden won, Trump lost.

It’s time-consuming to go through the debunking of all of the bullshit claims, particularly if you want to believe Trump really won. [3] But at this point you don’t really have to get into the details, because the claims don’t even have the shape of truth: Authentic investigations get narrower as they hone in on what really happened, while bullshitters constantly jump from one dubious claim to the next: What about this? What about that? When Trump and his supporters claim fraud today, they spew the same litany of bogus claims they made from the beginning: overseas servers, hacked voting machines, mail-in ballot fraud, dead people voting, mysterious suitcases of ballots, and so on. All bullshit, all debunked many times.

What we never hear from Trump and his allies is a single coherent theory of who did what when, backed up by credible responses to the criticisms of that theory. After having more than a year to assemble such a theory and millions of dollars to fund investigations, that deficiency should make even the most adamant Trump partisans stop and think.

I don’t think Trump himself actually believes any of his fraud claims. [4] We now know that from the beginning, his own people were telling him they were false. Trump had to go to considerable effort to find advisors who would maintain the fantasy that he had really won. [5] Unfailingly loyal Trump supporters like Jared Kushner and Mike Pence may not have openly disputed the fraud claims, but they were noticeably absent from the Stop the Steal campaign.

The point of the claims wasn’t to establish truth, but to justify action.

Overturning the election. After it became clear that he had lost the election, Trump’s Plan B had two prongs:

  • Push on every vulnerable point in the system that leads from an election in November to an inauguration in January.
  • Stir up enough doubt to make it easier for Trump partisans within the system to yield to his pressure and harder to do their duty.

What Trump realized perhaps better than any defeated president before him was that elections do not certify themselves. At every level there are people who must sign off on the results: Yes, these are the totals we counted at my precinct. Yes, this the sum of all the vote reports we received from the precincts in our county. Yes, these are the statewide totals that determine which slate of electors represents our state. And finally, January 6, when Congress would total up the electoral votes and proclaim the winner of the 2020 election.

All those people are human, and so they can be pressured or bamboozled out of doing their legally-defined duty. In Michigan, for example, Republicans on the Wayne County Board of Canvassers were pressured not to certify. Then the focus shifted to the state board, where one Republican member folded to Trump, but the other, Aaron Van Langevelde, did not. Later he told his story.

In November, we were tasked with certifying the results of the presidential election in the midst of widespread public discontent and controversy. Misinformation about the election – and election law – was rampant and growing worse by the day.

As tensions escalated, some political leaders urged the Board to withhold certification based on unproven allegations of voter fraud, even though we had no legal authority to do so. The Board was essentially asked to disregard the oath of office, to abandon its longstanding ministerial (or administrative) role, and to ignore a clear legal duty, along with a hundred years of legal precedent. We were asked to take power we didn’t have. What would have been the cost if we had done so? Constitutional chaos and the loss of our integrity. Our institutions and the rule of law were being tested. And as tensions worsened, it was clear that my family and I were in danger.

Trump put pressure on Republican state officials to block certification and substitute their own preferences for the will of the voters. His most famous attempt to suborn election fraud was recorded by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. After badgering Raffensperger with wild false claims, Trump makes his ask:

All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we [need] because we won the state.

And he issues this threat:

But the ballots are corrupt. And you are going to find that they are — which is totally illegal, it is more illegal for you than it is for them because, you know what they did and you’re not reporting it. That’s a criminal, that’s a criminal offense. And you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer. And that’s a big risk.

In other words, what if Trump does manage to stay in power? What might his Department of Justice do to Raffensperger?

Trump filed scores of bullshit lawsuits, hoping for favorable results from judges he had appointed. He did not get them. One Trump appointee, appellate court judge Matthew Brann, wrote:

Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.

Trump then pressured Republican-controlled state legislatures, pushing the dubious theory that legislatures can overrule the choices made by their voters. After meeting with Trump, the Michigan speaker of the House and Senate majority leader issued a statement:

The candidates who win the most votes win elections and Michigan’s electoral votes. We have not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan and, as legislative leaders, we will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors, just as we have said throughout this election

His plan to pressure Georgia legislators corruptly involved the Department of Justice. Trump sycophant Jeffrey Clark composed a letter for Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to sign that would falsely tell Georgia officials that DoJ had

identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in many states, including the state of Georgia.

The letter went on to recommend — as if DoJ had any business making such a recommendation — that the legislature convene a special session to investigate the election and possibly name a new slate of electors.

Rosen refused to sign the letter, and Trump decided not to sack Rosen in favor of Clark after he was threatened with mass resignations at the Department of Justice.

In the end, none of these efforts succeeded in stopping the states Trump lost from naming electors, or stopped those electors from voting for Biden.

But someone still had to count those votes: Congress, on January 6, in a joint session chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.

January 6. Three months before the election, with Trump trailing badly in the polls, I addressed the widespread Democratic worry that Trump would simply refuse to leave office.

Here’s something I have great faith in: If the joint session of Congress on January 6 recognizes that Joe Biden has received the majority of electoral votes, he will become president at noon on January 20 and the government will obey his orders. Where Donald Trump is at the time, and whatever he is claiming or tweeting, will be of no consequence.

If Trump’s tweets bring a bunch of right-wing militiamen into the streets with their AR-15s, they can cause a lot of bloodshed, but they can’t keep Trump in office. They are no match for the Army, whose Commander-in-Chief will be Joe Biden.

So if Trump wants to stay on as president, he has to screw the process up sooner; by January 6, it’s all in the bag

Congress and Pence, like Aaron Van Langevelde and Brad Raffensperger and everyone else in this long process that normally we hear nothing about, had a ministerial role to play on January 6. Their job was to count the electoral votes and announce a winner. They had no constitutional power to overrule the voters, the electors, or the states’ decision to appoint the electors. They all knew that.

Trump tried to claim otherwise. We have since heard reports from multiple sources about the pressure he put on Pence to overstep his legal powers. A memo by Trump advisor John Eastman outlines the plan:

At the end [of the session], he announces that because of the ongoing disputes in the 7 States, there are no electors that can be deemed validly appointed in those States. That means the total number of “electors appointed” – the language of the 12th Amendment — is 454. This reading of the 12th Amendment has also been advanced by Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe (here). A “majority of the electors appointed” would therefore be 228. There are at this point 232 votes for Trump, 222 votes for Biden. Pence then gavels President Trump as re-elected.

Alternate branches of the Eastman scenario involve Pence saying there is no majority of 270 and sending the election to the House, where the GOP controlled 26 of the 50 state delegations. Or perhaps the states could be asked to reconsider their electors, giving Trump another chance to lobby their legislatures.

Or perhaps the whole process could be sufficiently derailed that January 20 would come and go without Congress announcing a winner. Then we’d be off the constitutional track entirely, and what the Army decided to do might matter, as it does in so many third-world countries.

These are the plans Trump was referring to at the January 6 rally, where he said

John [Eastman] is one of the most brilliant lawyers in the country, and he looked at this and he said, “What an absolute disgrace that this can be happening to our Constitution.”

And he looked at Mike Pence, and I hope Mike is going to do the right thing. I hope so. I hope so. Because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election. … All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify and we become president and you are the happiest people.

It’s worth considering what the success of the Eastman plan would have meant to the future of American democracy:

The legal merits of the argument don’t matter very much — Eastman’s interpretation is widely derided as crazy, but the key point is that even if he’s right, he would have identified a wormhole in the Constitution permitting the vice-president to override the election results. Since the vice-president’s interests are typically aligned with the president’s, this power would allow the president’s party to stay in office through an indefinite series of elections.

The mob. Trump advisor Peter Navarro now confesses that he plotted to overturn the election, but for one thing: He denies that mob violence was part of that plan.

It may not have been part of Navarro’s plan, but it clearly was part of Trump’s. His initial invitation to the event on December 19 promised it “will be wild!” Anyone following the social media discussion prior to January 6 knew that people were coming with violent intentions. A pro-Trump election protest in DC on December 12 now looks like a trial run: It led to violence by the Proud Boys, who were also involved on January 6.

If anyone involved in planning the January 6 rally and demonstration was worried about inciting violence, that concern barely shows up in Trump’s speech. His instruction to “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” at the Capitol was hard to notice in the face of his 23 admonitions to “fight”.

We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.

We now know that Trump was watching closely on TV as his followers fought police and broke down barriers to get into the Capitol. His former press secretary Stephanie Grisham (who was still Melania’s chief of staff on January 6) told CNN

All I know about that day was that he was in the dining room, gleefully watching on his TV as he often did, “look at all of the people fighting for me,” hitting rewind, watching it again — that’s what I know.

When Kevin McCarthy talked to Trump from inside the Capitol, asking the president to call off his supporters, Trump replied: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

“Fighting for me” involved setting up a gallows and chanting “Hang Mike Pence”, a sentiment that Trump has never criticized. In an interview in March, author and ABC White House reporter Jonathan Karl

reminded Trump that some of his supporters involved in the violent attack were calling for Pence to be killed.

“Well, the people were very angry,” Trump said.

“They said, ‘hang Mike Pence,’” Karl told Trump.

“It’s common sense, Jon. It’s common sense that you’re supposed to protect,” Trump said. “How can you, if you know a vote is fraudulent, right, how can you pass on a fraudulent vote to Congress?”

The possibility that his mob might have found Pence and actually tried to hang him [6] seems never to have bothered Trump.

There are many horrible almosts from January 6, but one of the worst is that the mob might have found the boxes that contained the electoral votes.

Both Democrat and Republican members of the House of Representatives and Senate needed to read aloud the certificates inside the boxes that recorded each state’s electoral votes. Congress then needed to count those votes before Vice President Mike Pence could confirm President-elect Joe Biden as the winner of the election.

One video shows how the Senate Parliamentarian’s office had been ransacked after extremists besieged the Capitol. Papers and files were strewn across furniture and the floor, possibly suggesting the mob had been searching for the boxes containing the votes needed to certify Biden’s win.

Copies existed, but loss of the originals would have been one more step off the constitutional track, and would have opened up new avenues for procedural delays and claims of illegitimacy.

As yet, the public has not seen a smoking gun, but the overwhelming weight of the evidence we do have says that Trump intended violence from the beginning. He had two goals for his mob: to delay Congress from certifying Biden’s win, and to intimidate Pence and others into going along with his unconstitutional plan to stay in power.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/01/06/over-barrel/

The past year. Initially, it looked like Trump had finally gone too far. Republicans had stuck by Trump through “grab them by the pussy“, through his “blame on both sides” defense of the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, through his siding with Putin against his own intelligence services at Helsinki, through his Ukraine extortion scheme, and many other outrages that they surely didn’t believe they had signed up for when they nominated him in 2016.

But trying to stay in power after losing an election is the worst abuse of his office that any American president has ever committed. Gloating at Kevin McCarthy while a mob threatened even the Republican members of Congress — it was too much.

For a few days. Then the Party began to rally around him. McCarthy went to Mar-a-Lago to kiss Trump’s ring only 22 days later. Mitch McConnell made a tough-sounding denunciation of Trump on the Senate floor, but only after he had rallied the troops to defend him in his second impeachment trial. Lindsey Graham had announced in a January 6 speech that he was “done” with Trump, but he really wasn’t.

Instead, it’s the Republicans who defended democracy against Trump who are on the outs. Aaron Van Langevelde wasn’t renominated. Brad Raffensperger faces a tough primary. Liz Cheney was cast out of the Wyoming GOP.

The only problem today’s Republican Party has with Trump’s attempted coup was that it failed. Next time they’ll try to do better.

Perhaps the best measure of how far the Party has moved in the last year was Ted Cruz groveling to Tucker Carlson on Thursday. Cruz’ sin, for which he could not apologize abjectly enough to placate Carlson, was to call the January 6 rioters “terrorists”. They weren’t terrorists “by any definition”, Carlson claimed. To say they were is “a lie”.

How about this definition, Tucker?

The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property in order to coerce or intimidate a government or the civilian population in furtherance of political or social objectives.

That definition could be illustrated by this iconic photo.


[1] He appointed a commission to gather evidence of the 2016 fraud, but he disbanded it before it could issue a report admitting that it had found none.

[2] Bullshit sounds pejorative, but it is actually a well defined term.

When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

[3] Many of the claims have been debunked in detail by Republican election officials who were rooting for Trump to win: most recently in Arizona, but also in Michigan, Georgia, and elsewhere.

[4] Whether Trump believes anything at all is still an open question. David Roberts’ analysis from 2016 holds up pretty well.

When he utters words, his primary intent is not to say something, to describe a set of facts in the world; his primary intent is to do something, i.e., to position himself in a social hierarchy. This essential distinction explains why Trump has so flummoxed the media and its fact-checkers; it’s as though they are critiquing the color choices of someone who is colorblind.

… It’s not that Trump is saying things he believes to be false. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have beliefs at all, not in the way people typically talk about beliefs — as mental constructs stable across time and context. Rather, his opinions dissolve and coalesce fluidly, as he’s talking, like oil on shallow water.

[5] That’s how you wind up with a legal team like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell.

[6] Or Nancy Pelosi or any other elected officials they went looking for.

Cleaning Up After Trump

https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/cartoons/donald-trump-justice-department-bill-barr-20200217.html

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.

What Makes Trump an Autocrat?

The most dangerous thing about Trump is that he doesn’t see his power as belonging to the Office of the Presidency. It belongs to Donald J. Trump.


When used sloppily, the word autocrat is little more than an insult. An “autocrat” may simply be an executive who makes decisions you don’t like, one who acts on his own judgment rather than factoring in your point of view. The baseball GM who trades your team’s best pitcher is an autocrat. The boss who rejects all your suggestions is an autocrat.

But the sloppiness isn’t in the word itself; autocrat and autocracy really do have meanings that can be applied precisely. Calling a government an autocracy distinguishes it from a republic under the rule of law. Under the rule of law, powers belong to offices rather than individuals. The people who occupy those offices hold those powers in trust for the republic, and are constrained to use them to fulfill the missions the law assigns.

But in an autocracy, the distinction between person and office vanishes. The powers of an office belong to the person holding it, to use as that individual sees fit, including for financial or political benefit. Lower officials may or may not be disciplined by higher officials, but the law itself does not constrain them, and the highest official is accountable to no one.

Applying that word to the current administration has seemed like a stretch for most of the last 3 1/2 years. Sure, Trump has been cutting corners, subverting democratic norms, and fairly often even breaking laws, but life in the US just hasn’t felt like North Korea or Russia or Saudi Arabia. For the most part, it still doesn’t.

However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the non-autocratic feel of the United States has been due to Trump not getting everything he wants. He is, at heart, an autocrat. Those are the leaders he admires and the club he wants to join.

I am the State. In his heart, Trump has been an autocrat from the beginning. He has never understood or recognized the difference between his office and his person. That has been clear, for example, in the way he speaks and tweets. To him, speaking as President is no different than speaking as Donald Trump. His monologues flow easily from announcements of policy to expressions of petty resentments to grade-school insults against those who challenge him. While often hidden in the beginning, this attitude also has shown up in his behavior: Recently the public discovered that early in 2018, he tasked the Ambassador to the United Kingdom with bringing the British Open to the Trump Turnberry golf course. After all, why shouldn’t his ambassador drum up business for his golf course? He often has used his power as president to draw business to his hotels or his resorts.

His rhetoric equates threats to his personal future in politics with threats to the United States, in an I-am-the-State fashion. He has often described the Russia investigation — the attempt to discover just how involved the Trump campaign was in Russia’s effort to get him elected — as “treason” or a “coup“. His well-deserved impeachment, which flawlessly followed a process laid out in the Constitution, was likewise “treason” and a “coup“. The whistleblower who made Congress aware of his illegal attempt to extort political favors from Ukraine is “a spy”, and Trump strongly implied that he should be executed: “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.” Removing Trump from office, no matter how lawfully or justifiably, is equivalent to overthrowing the government of the United States.

In his book, James Comey tells the story of President Obama inviting him to have a conversation before nominating him to be FBI director. After the nomination, Obama tells him, they won’t be able to do this any more, because the President and the FBI director conversing outside of official channels would be improper. But Trump recognizes no such propriety. He regularly tweets out instructions for the Justice Department to investigate or lay off of people he either likes or doesn’t like. He has opinions as an individual, so why shouldn’t he express them as President?

The presidential power to pardon, more than any other power of the presidency, has been treated as a personal power to be used according to Trump’s whims and interests. All other recent administrations have made the pardoning power into a process centered on the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, usually with a few additional special cases (some of which were regrettable). But Trump has abandoned that process entirely; his pardons and commutations are pure expressions of personal favor granted to political allies, co-conspirators who might otherwise rat him out, criminals popular with his base, former contestants on his TV show, and friends of celebrities he wants to impress.

The original purpose of the pardoning power in a lawful republic, according to Alexander Hamilton, was to temper the justice system with mercy, so that it would not “wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel”. (Obama used his power this way, for example, when he commuted the excessively harsh sentences in hundreds of nonviolent drug cases.) But under Trump, the pardon has reverted to its royal roots: It is an expression of the sovereign’s personal beneficence, and puts the recipient in his debt, as Dinesh D’Souza clearly understands, as does Rod Blogojevich.

Adults in the room. The primary reason America hasn’t felt like an autocracy these last few years is that Trump’s efforts have not gone unopposed. The fundamental drama of the last 3 1/2 years has been the battle between Trump’s autocratic impulses and the republican values embedded in the United States government. (From the point of view of his supporters, who are rooting for the autocrat, this has been cast as a struggle against the “Deep State”.) Trump’s initial set of appointees had reputations and careers before they entered his administration, and many of them imagined that they were taking positions in a merely eccentric version of a typical Republican government. As a result, they frequently frustrated their boss’s desires.

  • Jeff Sessions may have been a racist and a xenophobe, but he also believed he was Attorney General of the United States. Power over the Justice Department belonged to Sessions’ office, not to him personally. And although the President had appointed him, his power did not derive from the person of Donald Trump. Sessions infuriated Trump by following Justice Department rules and recusing himself from the Russia investigation. He also ignored Trump’s repeated demands to launch investigations into “the other side”, i.e, Trump’s political opponents.
  • John Kelly and his deputy (and eventual replacement) Kirstjen Nielsen were anti-immigrant and went along with the cruel policy of family separations, but both saw the Department of Homeland Security as being defined by law. Nielsen was forced out after she refused to do “things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum”.
  • Rex Tillerson shared Trump’s pro-Russia views, had a basic hostility to the institutional culture of the State Department, and signed off on the second and third Muslim bans. But he believed he represented the United States rather than Trump, whom he regarded as a “moron“. Trump, Tillerson said later, hated to be reminded that his foreign policy was bound by laws and treaties. He “grew tired of me being the guy every day that told him, ‘You can’t do that, and let’s talk about what we can do’.”
  • Jim Mattis and H. R. McMaster enjoyed the large budgets Trump gave the Pentagon, but held traditional conservative views about America’s special role in global security. Their primary loyalty was to the longstanding mission of the Defense Department, not to Donald Trump. Consequently, they supported NATO and resisted abandoning allies like the Kurds.
  • Don McGahn was the primary lawyer for Trump’s 2016 campaign. But as White House Counsel, he repeatedly ignored Trump’s orders to obstruct justice.
  • Dan Coats was an early opponent of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and shared a number of Trump’s other views. But as Director of National Intelligence he believed in the mission of the intelligence services: to figure out what is going on in the world and report it as accurately as possible. After Trump sided with Putin against the intelligence services in Helsinki, Coats was not cowed: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”

I’m not sure who started using this phrase, but early on these people (plus a few others) came to be known (behind Trump’s back) as “the adults in the room“. Any kind of crazy idea might pass through Trump’s head, but the “adults” would keep him from doing too much harm. Republican Senator Bob Corker even tweeted about it: “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”

It’s not my intention to idealize the “adults”, because (as I indicated above) a lot of nasty stuff happened on their watch. I also don’t want to paper over the widespread corruption in the early Trump years. In addition to the “adults”, Trump’s Class of 2017 included Scott Pruitt, Michael Flynn, Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, and many others who left in well-deserved disgrace. Wilbur Ross belongs in that group as well, but is somehow still running the Commerce Department.

In spite of their flaws, though, each “adult” in his or her own way believed in the United States as a republic under the rule of law. They believed that there were things Trump could not do, and could not order them to do.

They’re all gone now. Jeff Sessions was replaced by Bill Barr, who has no trouble using the Justice Department to protect Trump’s friends and attack his enemies. The roles Kelly and Nielsen had at DHS are now filled (illegally, it seems) by Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli, who created and managed the masked federal police who invaded Portland against the will of all local officials. Dan Coats’ job is now held by Trump loyalist John Ratcliffe, who has shown little interest in telling Trump anything he doesn’t want to hear, or keeping the public informed about Russia’s continuing efforts to aid Trump’s re-election. In place of Jim Mattis, we have Mark Esper, who was slow to oppose Trump’s impulse to use active-duty troops to put down peaceful protesters, but still not docile enough to make his job secure. McGahn’s replacement Pat Cipollone was in the room when Trump discussed pressuring Ukraine for dirt on Democrats, and said nothing.

Autocratic achievement unlocked. At this point, Trump’s conquest of the executive branch of government is virtually complete. The Pentagon is still holding out, but most of the rest has become his personal instrument, to do with as he will. Two recent examples stand out: the abuse of the Justice Department to suppress Michael Cohen’s book, and the sabotage of the Postal Service to undermine voting by mail.

Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen is serving a prison sentence, part of which results from him following Trump’s instructions to break the law. Like many non-violent criminals (Paul Manafort was another), Cohen was furloughed from prison to reduce crowding during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the Justice Department tried to use that situation as leverage to eliminate a problem for Trump’s reelection campaign:

But to remain at home, he was asked to sign a document that would have barred him from publishing a book during the rest of his sentence. Mr. Cohen balked because he was, in fact, writing a book — a tell-all memoir about his former boss, the president. The officers sent him back to prison. On Thursday, a federal judge ruled that the decision to return Mr. Cohen to custody amounted to retaliation by the government and ordered him to be released again into home confinement.

In America as we have known it, no one connected with overseeing a federal convict should know or care how that person’s writings will affect the presidential race. But in Trump’s autocracy, things are different. If you work for the Justice Department, you work for Trump.

Trump’s continuing failure to mobilize the country against Covid-19, a failure unparalleled in any other first-world nation, has made the prospect of voting in person in November risky. (It is still unclear how many infections resulted in Wisconsin after the Republican legislature forced voters to wait in long lines to vote in the state’s primary.) Certainly the prospect of voting in person has become less attractive, particularly to citizens with prior conditions that make them especially vulnerable.

Voting by mail, which states like Washington have been doing for years anyway, is the obvious solution. But that’s only if you want people to vote and to have their votes counted. If you’re trailing badly in the polls, as Trump is, and might be looking for an excuse to influence or challenge or ignore the election results, raising uncertainty about voting by mail is one possible strategy. And the best way to cast doubt on the viability of voting by mail is to cast doubt on the Post Office’s ability to deliver ballots in a timely way, particularly if those ballots are mailed from zip codes known to include many Democrats.

“If carriers are being told that, at the end of your shift, you need to be back at the office even if you haven’t collected all the mail that day, there could be ballots in those mailboxes,” says Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the nonprofit Democracy Fund Voice and a former Obama appointee to the Commission on Election Administration, a panel created in 2013 to identify best practices in running elections. “If the truck drivers are being told, ‘You leave the post office to take that day’s mail to the processing plant at your scheduled time to leave, even if all the carriers aren’t back in yet with that day’s mail,’ that can have an impact.”

And so the Trump donor newly installed as Postmaster General is intentionally slowing down the mail: eliminating overtime, getting rid of sorting machines, and in general gumming up the works. Trump has been quite open about what he’s doing. Commenting on negotiations on a new Covid-response package, Trump told Fox News:

If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money [for the Post Office]. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting; they just can’t have it.

In any past election, it would be inconceivable that the President would be manipulating the Post Office in an effort to stay in power. But something has changed during the Trump administration: It’s not your Post Office any more, it’s his Post Office.

That’s how autocracy works.

Those Executive Orders

Like everything Trump does, they don’t match what he’s says he’s doing.


Remember the government shutdown that lasted from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019? Congress was refusing to fund Trump’s border wall, so he pulled out of a previously settled deal to fund the government. When public opinion didn’t rally behind his position, he relented on funding the government, but declared a state of emergency and used it to seize money Congress had appropriated for other purposes and redirect it to his wall. The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the legality of this move, which seems to usurp Congress’ constitutional power of the purse, but it has allowed construction to continue so long that the case may become moot because the money is already spent.

Cases like these are never one-offs. Having gotten away with something once, Trump is bound to try it again.

So here we are: The CARES Act was passed in March as an emergency appropriation intended to see the country through the economic impact of the Covid-19 epidemic. At the time, no one imagined that the US would botch its response to the epidemic so badly that a thousand people a day would still be dying in August, so most of the CARES provisions ran out on July 31, including a moratorium on evictions and the $600-per-week enhanced unemployment payments.

Nancy Pelosi’s House had the foresight to pass a follow-up, the HEROES Act in May. But Mitch McConnell refused to bring it to the floor of the Senate, and did not start negotiating any CARES extensions at all until late July. With much of the Republican Senate caucus already plotting their resistance to the Biden administration, McConnell doesn’t have the votes to pass any CARES-extension bill without Democratic buy-in. So he left the negotiations to the White House team of Steve Mnuchin and Mark Meadows.

The White House refused to budge from its plan, which is about 1/3 the size of the HEROES plan, and contains no money to fill the budget gaps of state and local governments. Politically, Trump looks like the one with the most to lose if nothing gets done and the economy crashes, so Pelosi is not inclined to cave in to his demands without getting some concessions in return. So no deal has gotten done. (Has anybody noticed that our Art-of-the-Deal President never seems to get to Yes on a deal?)

So we’re back to the emergency-executive-powers trick. Or something. Maybe.

Saturday Trump signed three memos and an executive order which, in typical Trumpian fashion, don’t actually do what he claims. Here’s what is kinda/sorta in them.

  • A $400 unemployment enhancement to replace the CARES $600 replacement. Except that $100 has to come from the states, which may not have any money to cover it. The $300 federal contribution comes from a $44 billion pot of money that FEMA has, and of course won’t need during this record-threatening hurricane season. (This is literally an idea out of House of Cards, which FEMA officials rejected as unrealistic at the time.) Since we’re talking about 30 million unemployed people, the money will run out in about five weeks, assuming that they actually receive it and that it’s legal for Trump to spend it this way at all.
  • Eviction protection. Except, not really. The executive order asks relevant government officers to “consider” doing something to stop evictions, and to “identify” existing federal appropriations that might help stressed renters and homeowners, assuming that there are any such appropriations. If your landlord has a court date for your eviction, nothing in this order interferes with that proceeding.
  • Cuts in payroll tax deductions. The order doesn’t actually cut what you or your employer owe in Social Security and Medicare taxes. It just stops collecting those taxes for a while. So temporarily you might see more money in your paycheck, assuming you’re still getting one from somewhere, but your arrears will be building up, and will come due after the election. If he’s re-elected, Trump wants to cancel that debt too, but that just raises a new question: How do Social Security and Medicare get funded?

So basically what we have is flim-flam put together with a constitutionally questionable claim on FEMA money. In the context of the border-wall emergency, Trump is pushing us closer and closer to a model where the President can take any money Congress appropriates and spend it however he wants. It should go without saying that this is very, very far from the process the Founders thought they were establishing.

James Fallows raises the question we should all be asking:

I am not aware of any of the “strict constructionists” who blasted Obama for executive-order overreach, who have weighed in about Trump’s l’etat-c’est-moi wave of appropriation-by-exec-order. Are there any?

To be fair, a handful of Republican lawmakers have said something that expressed concern of some sort. But most of the hand-wringing was of the “Now look what the Democrats made him do” variety. If you’re looking for a flat-out “This is unconstitutional”, you won’t find it. Apparently respect for the Constitution is like fiscal responsibility or free trade or freedom or any of the other high-minded principles Republicans have put forward over the years. All such principled expressions are made in bad faith, and go out the window as soon as they become inconvenient.