Heather Cox Richardson

May 8, 2020 (Friday)

Yesterday’s attempt by the Department of Justice to withdraw the case against Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn after he had already pled guilty has roiled the country with its assault on the rule of law. Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI about five phone calls between himself and the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, on December 29, the same day the Obama administration announced retaliatory measures for Russian interference in the 2016 election. Flynn told the officials that he and Kislyak did not talk about lifting Russian sanctions after Trump was inaugurated, but news quickly broke that they had. He resigned, pled guilty, and cooperated with the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn resigned on February 13, 2017, and the next day Trump summoned FBI Director James Comey to the Oval Office and asked him to drop the case against Flynn. Comey continued to investigate Russian connections to the Trump campaign, and Trump fired him on May 9, 2017. The next day he met in the Oval Office with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and with Kislyak. He told the men that “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job…. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” He added: “I’m not under investigation.” American journalists were barred from the event, but Russian journalists took photos. Comey’s firing led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, with Mueller essentially taking over where Comey left off.

Today we learned that the DOJ move to dismiss the case against Flynn came after a phone call yesterday between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they discussed the US investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. While the White House simply said that the two leaders had discussed the pandemic, arms control, and the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe day, Trump told reporters: “I said, ‘You know, it’s a very appropriate time, because things are falling out now and coming in line showing what a hoax this whole investigation was, it was a total disgrace, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a lot of things happen over the next number of weeks…. This is just one piece of a very dishonest puzzle.”

First off, let’s be clear that the US intelligence community, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, all have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump’s campaign. In January 2017, shortly before Trump took office, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a report that aggregated the findings of the FBI the CIA, and the NSA (National Security Agency, which operates under the authority of the Director of National Intelligence).

It said: “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations. We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”

Since this assessment, Trump has attacked FBI agents for launching an illegal investigation and setting out to destroy him for political reasons. But the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, has consistently supported the work of the intelligence community. On April 21, 2020, it released the fourth of five volumes about Russian interference in 2016. This volume examined the “sources, tradecraft, and analytic work behind the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) that determined Russia conducted an unprecedented, multi-faceted campaign to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” In other words, was the FBI out to get Trump, or was it doing its business the way it should?

Like the previous ones, this volume agreed with the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election to favor Trump. It concluded that intelligence analysts were under “no political pressure to reach specific conclusions.” Chairman Burr said “The ICA reflects strong tradecraft, sound analytical reasoning, and proper justification of disagreement in the one analytical line where it occurred.” Additionally, Burr warned that Russian interference is ongoing, and threatens the 2020 election.

The Mueller Report also established that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Russian operatives “carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,” and they stole emails from the Democratic National Committee, as well as Democratic officials, and released the stolen documents.

But that’s not all from the Mueller Report. It “identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign.” The next sentence is difficult, but it’s important to read the original, and the one after it, because they are so very deliberately worded: “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Then it added: “A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.”

Essentially, the Mueller Report says that the Russians wanted to help Trump win, and the Trump campaign was willing to accept help, and that there was evidence the two sides were working together, but Mueller did not have enough evidence—in part because witnesses were lying or withholding evidence—to make a criminal indictment.

Still, Trump has spent his whole presidency trying to convince Americans that all of these independent career officials and elected officials are persecuting him because they didn’t want him to be elected (although, of course, if so, all their efforts were for naught, because he IS president, and no one has seriously challenged his election). In addition to attacking the intelligence community, he has tried to advance the theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that attacked the 2016 election-- a theory that in her testimony before the House Intelligence Committee Russia expert Fiona Hill explained was Russian propaganda.

And now, Trump’s loyalist in the Department of Justice, Attorney General Barr, has thrown out the findings of his own Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowitz, who concluded in December 2019 that the FBI investigation of Trump’s campaign was not politically motivated, and that it was begun legitimately. The argument for throwing out the Flynn case is that the FBI interview in which Flynn lied did not have “a legitimate investigative basis,” and therefore the statements were not material even if they were false. This is directly counter to what the DOJ’s own inspector general established.

Barr has appointed his own special inspector to look into the origins of the Russia probe. He tapped Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, whose inquiry quietly shifted to become a criminal investigation last October. Some observers are concerned that Durham will prosecute those involved in the Russia investigation to give Trump political fodder before the 2020 election. Trump’s comments to reporters today, along with a tweet, were ominous. He tweeted: “Yesterday was a BIG day for Justice in the USA…. Congratulations to General Flynn, and many others. I do believe there is MUCH more to come! Dirty Cops and Crooked Politicians do not go well together!"

It seems equally likely to me that Trump is simply undermining opposition in the intelligence community so that he can move to lift the sanctions Russia so badly wants gone. In any case, Russia looks to be as big an issue in 2020 as it was four years ago.

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May 9, 2020 (Saturday)

If you google the history of Mother’s Day, the internet will tell you that Mother’s Day began in 1908 when Anna Jarvis decided to honor her mother. But “Mothers’ Day”—with the apostrophe not in the singular spot, but in the plural—actually started in the 1870s, when the sheer enormity of the death caused by the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War convinced American women that women must take control of politics from the men who had permitted such carnage. Mothers’ Day was not designed to encourage people to be nice to their mothers. It was part of women’s effort to gain power to change modern society.

The Civil War years taught naïve Americans what mass death meant in the modern era. Soldiers who had marched off to war with fantasies of heroism discovered that long-range weapons turned death into tortured anonymity. Men were trampled into blood-soaked mud, piled like cordwood in ditches, or transformed into emaciated corpses after dysentery drained their lives away.

The women who had watched their men march off to war were haunted by its results. They lost fathers, husbands, sons. The men who did come home were scarred in body and mind.

Modern war, it seemed, was not a game.

But out of the war also came a new sense of empowerment. Women had bought bonds, paid taxes, raised money for the war effort, managed farms, harvested fields, worked in war industries, reared children, and nursed soldiers. When the war ended, they had every intention of continuing to participate in national affairs. But the Fourteenth Amendment, which established that African American men were citizens, did not include women. In 1869, women organized the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and the American Woman’s Suffrage Association to promote women’s right to have a say in American government.

From her home in Boston, Julia Ward Howe was a key figure in the American Woman’s Suffrage Association. She was an enormously talented writer, who had penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic in the early years of the Civil War, a hymn whose lyrics made it a point to note that Christ was “born of woman.” Howe was drawn to women’s rights because the laws of her time meant that her children belonged to her abusive husband. If she broke free of him, she would lose any right to see her children, a fact he threw at her whenever she threatened to leave him. She was not at first a radical in the mold of reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, believing that women had a human right to equality with men. Rather, she believed strongly that women, as mothers, had a special role to perform in the world.

For Howe, the Civil War had been traumatic, but that it led to emancipation might justify its terrible bloodshed. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 was another story. She remembered:

"I was visited by a sudden feeling of the cruel and unnecessary character of the contest. It seemed to me a return to barbarism, the issue having been one which might easily have been settled without bloodshed. The question forced itself upon me, “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone know and bear the cost?”

Howe had a new vision, she said, of “the august dignity of motherhood and its terrible responsibilities.” She sat down immediately and wrote an “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World.” Men always had and always would decide questions by resorting to “mutual murder.” But women did not have to accept this state of affairs, she wrote. Mothers could command their sons to stop the madness.

"Arise, women! Howe commanded. Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

Howe had her document translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Swedish, and distributed it as widely as her extensive contacts made possible. She believed that her Women’s Peace Movement would be the next great development in human history, ending war just as the anti-slavery movement had ended human bondage. She called for a “festival which should be observed as mothers’ day, and which should be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines” to be held around the world on June 2 of every year, a date that would permit open-air meetings.

Howe organized international peace conferences and American states developed their own Mothers’ Day festivals. But Howe quickly gave up on her project. She realized that there was much to be done before women could come together on such a momentous scale. She turned her attention to women’s clubs “to constitute a working and united womanhood.”

As she worked to unite women, she threw herself into the struggle for women’s suffrage, understanding that in order to create a more just and peaceful society, women must take up their rightful place as equal participants in American politics.

Perhaps Anna Jarvis remembered seeing her mother participate in an original American Mothers’ Day when she decided to honor her own mother in the early twentieth century. And while we celebrate modern Mother’s Day, in this momentous year of 2020, it’s worth remembering the original Mothers’ Day, and Julia Ward Howe’s conviction that women must make their voices heard.

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May 10, 2020 (Sunday)

Today the president tweeted a lot, even for him. In one hour this morning, he tweeted or retweeted 52 times. By the end of the day he had averaged a tweet every 7.5 minutes. None of the tweets mentioned the almost 80,000 Americans who have died from Covid-19, or any plans for addressing the pandemic.

Trump appears to be upset about the recent prominence of former President Barack Obama in the news. On Friday, a tape of Obama talking to about 3000 former staffers leaked. In it, Obama expressed dismay over the decision of the Justice Department to try to drop the case against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. He warned that “our basic understanding of the rule of law is at risk,” and noted that once a nation abandons the rule of law the destruction of its legal government is often rapid. He also called Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic an “absolute chaotic disaster.” Since leaks from Obama officials are scarcer than hen’s teeth, we have to assume this leak was deliberate.

Trump’s morning tweetstorm makes the president seem preoccupied with Obama. He seems tied to the idea that the FBI was investigating the links of some of the people on his campaign to Russia, a situation he called “OBAMAGATE!” on Twitter this morning. He retweeted the claim by conservative talk show host Buck Sexton that Obama “used his last weeks in office to target incoming officials and sabotage the new administration.” Trump added to the tweet “The biggest political crime in American history, by far!” He retweeted an account that, at the time, had 43 followers, saying, “Unless people are indited [sic] and put in prison the corruption will continue. People will continue to run with fake news and conspiracies until they are shown individuals being handcuffed and prosecuted. Its [sic] also time to fire people from the FBI, CIA, DOJ, DNI #CleanHouse.”

Trump’s power struggle against any oversight of his presidency is approaching a critical moment. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether Congress or state prosecutors can investigate him for potential wrongdoing. There are three different cases, which involve two issues.

The first two cases have to do with congressional oversight of the president. The House Oversight Committee is investigating Trump’s finances, following his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen’s testimony last year about a $130,000 payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about their sexual relations, a payment that should have been disclosed. Cohen also testified that Trump routinely exaggerated his assets when getting loans and deflated them when it came time to pay taxes. A year ago, in April 2019, the committee issued a subpoena to the president’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, seeking the relevant financial information.

The second case is similar. House committees have subpoenaed financial records from Capital One and Deutsche Bank to investigate the “questionable financing” of Trump’s businesses before his presidency, to see whether “any foreign actor has sought to compromise or holds leverage, financial or otherwise, over Donald Trump, his family, his business, or his associates.” (Remember, in 2008, Donald Trump, Jr. famously said at a New York real-estate conference “In terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets…. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”)

The third case involves the question of whether a president can be investigated for violating state law. Cyrus Vance, Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, is also investigating hush money Trump paid to Daniels and to another woman, Karen McDougal, a Playboy model who also says she had an affair with Trump. Vance and state prosecutors have subpoenaed several years of tax documents from Mazars USA concerning both Trump himself and his business, the Trump Organization.

An internal memo adopted by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 1973, during the Watergate crisis, says that a sitting president cannot be indicted for a crime. This is why Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was operating within the Justice Department, never entertained the question of whether the president had committed a crime: Mueller never considered that part of his charge.

The question at stake before the Supreme Court this week is not whether a president can be indicted, but whether he can even be investigated. Trump’s lawyers maintain the answer is no. They say that congressional committees can only investigate subjects about which Congress can make laws; they can’t investigate whether the president broke the law because that would violate our system of the separation of powers. States can’t investigate the president because they can abuse that power, gumming up a president’s schedule so that he cannot perform his duties. More, Trump’s lawyers are saying that not only does the president enjoy immunity from oversight, so do his businesses.

Every court that has heard these cases has sided against the president, in favor of oversight.

There is also precedent that bears on these questions. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that President Richard Nixon had to hand over to a special prosecutor tapes he had recorded in the Oval Office with advisors about the Watergate scandal. Nixon did so, and resigned shortly thereafter. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that President Bill Clinton did not have immunity from civil litigation for events that happened before he took office, and that he must respond to a harassment suit by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. This case led to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

On its face, it seems like the court’s decision should be clear, as lawyer George Conway, who ghostwrote briefs for Paula Jones, explained Friday in the Washington Post. But this Supreme Court has indicated a willingness to break precedent in favor of a strong executive. Still, there is yet one more twist in this saga: because of the pandemic, the arguments will be streamed live, and open for the public to tune in, so it is likely the arguments on both sides will be in the news.

The importance of the upcoming Supreme Court arguments might have had something to do with today’s tweet storm.


Available as a free newsletter at heathercoxrichardson.substack.com

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We’ll see if the recent Republican rigging of the Supreme Court will be so effective that it overturns this precedent.

Ha, who am I kidding. It’s the Supreme Court (albeit with some different judges) that stole a presidential election from Al Gore!

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Let me guess: burying intensifies?

May 11, 2020 (Monday)

The announcement last week by the Department of Justice that it would drop criminal charges against Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI, has set up a conflict between the Trump administration and the rule of law.

On Thursday, Timothy Shea, interim U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and a protege of Attorney General William Barr, filed a motion to drop the charges against Flynn just hours after the lead career prosecutor in the case withdrew. Shea argued that the Russia investigation was not legitimate, and that therefore Flynn’s lies to the FBI were immaterial.

On Sunday, Mary McCord, who was the acting assistant Attorney General for National Security from 2016 to 2017, early on in the Russia investigation, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times accusing Barr of twisting her words to justify dropping the case against Flynn. McCord noted that both the DOJ and the FBI recognized that Flynn’s lies about his discussions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak would leave him open to blackmail from Russians. What they disagreed about was when to warn the White House that Flynn was compromised. Barr’s many quotations of her to suggest she opposed the investigation were taken out of context, she wrote; she did not “anywhere suggest that the F.B.I.’s interview of Mr. Flynn was unconstitutional, unlawful or not ‘tethered’ to any legitimate counterintelligence purpose.”

Today nearly 2000 former officials in the Justice Department called for Barr to resign from his office and for Congress to censure him. The former officials charged him with introducing “political interference in the Department’s law enforcement decisions.” “Attorney General Barr’s repeated actions to use the Department as a tool to further President Trump’s personal and political interests have undermined any claim to the deference that courts usually apply to the Department’s decisions about whether or not to prosecute a case,” they wrote. “Governments that use the enormous power of law enforcement to punish their enemies and reward their allies are not constitutional republics they are autocracies.”

In the New York Times, Georgetown law professors Neal K. Katyal and Joshua A. Geltzer warned that the dismissal of the case against Flynn was not simply about letting off a friend of the president. They noted that “this move embeds into official U.S. policy an extremist view of law enforcement as the enemy of the American people.” The Trump administration’s actions condemn fundamental U.S. institutions: the FBI and the Department of Justice. If the goal was simply to shield Flynn, they note, Trump could have pardoned him. Instead, the Trump administration is discrediting the fundamental institutions that establish the rule of law.

This ties into Trump’s push today to spread the idea of “Obamagate.” He tweeted about this repeatedly on Sunday, but he ran into trouble at his news conference on Monday, a conference that was theoretically about the coronavirus. “Obamagate” is a new conspiracy theory suggesting either that President Barack Obama has committed treason by criticizing Trump on a leaked phone call or that Obama set up Flynn as part of a grand scheme to undermine the Trump campaign, and later administration, with a bogus Russia investigation. (There is no evidence of this, of course.)

Today Philip Rucker of the Washington Post asked Trump: “In one of your Mother’s Day tweets, you appeared to accuse President Obama of ‘the biggest political crime in American history, by far’ — those were your words. What crime exactly are you accusing President Obama of committing, and do you believe the Justice Department should prosecute him?”

“Uh, Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time,” Trump said. “It’s been going on from before I even got elected, and it’s a disgrace that it happened, and if you look at what’s gone on, and if you look at now, all this information that’s being released — and from what I understand, that’s only the beginning — some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.”

When Rucker pressed the president to explain what, exactly, the crime was, Trump replied: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”

A number of Trump loyalists are now throwing their weight behind this “Obamagate” meme and are calling for prosecution of those members of the FBI and DOJ that investigated Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) claimed that Flynn was entrapped and called it “tyranny,” saying that those responsible “ought to be prosecuted.” When asked about holding senior Obama administration officials accountable for the investigation that ensnared Flynn, Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA) the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee told a radio station, ““Nobody more than me wants to see these people prosecuted.”

(Nunes, you will recall, did not disclose during the impeachment hearings that he had been in contact with political operative Lev Parnas, who is now under indictment for contributing Russian money to American political campaigns.)

But as Trump’s people seek to prosecute officials in the Obama administration, Trump continues to maintain that he himself cannot be subject to oversight. Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether Trump can keep his financial records secret from Congress and state prosecutors. At heart, this is a question about whether the president is above the law.

And so, we struggle to preserve the rule of law in America, the fundamental principle on which this country was based.

Meanwhile, we learned tonight that a previously undisclosed report from the White House shows that numbers of coronavirus infections around the country are rising, not falling, as Trump has said. The coronavirus situation is so bad in the Navajo Nation in the U.S. Southwest that Doctors Without Borders, the international organization best known for sending medical professionals into third-world countries and international conflict zones, had dispatched a team to the U.S.

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May 12, 2020 (Tuesday)

A lot happened today, but I am grappling with just two things tonight.

First, what happened today: White House coronavirus task force medical expert Anthony Fauci testified remotely before a Senate health committee. He warned that reopening states too aggressively would lead to “needless suffering and death.” He also said the death toll from coronavirus—currently more than 80,000-- was “almost certainly” higher than known.

The other big event was that the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether Congress or state prosecutors can subpoena information from the president or from his accountants or his bankers. The questioning appeared to go poorly for Trump’s lawyers, who had to argue against precedent and in favor of the idea that the president can largely act without oversight, but we will not know for a while—until June, at least—how the court will decide.

Less momentous, but still eye-opening, was the president’s tweeted suggestion that MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough had murdered an aide in 2001 when he was a congressman from Florida. It’s mind boggling that a president would make this sort of unhinged allegation, but here we are.

To me, the two big stories from today were about what I see as a gamble on the part of Trump and his sycophants to grab power of the national government, and a surprising move on the part of a judge to undercut that power grab.

Tonight we learned that Trump’s acting Director of National Intelligence, Richard Grenell, has declassified the names of the Obama administration officials who interviewed Michael Flynn in January 2017. Grenell handed over the names to the Department of Justice.

Trump has lately been pushing the idea of “Obamagate” as a terrible political scandal. While he has been unable to define exactly what he means by that term, it appears to be the idea that the entire apparatus of government that investigated the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian operatives in 2016 was somehow not a legitimate attempt to protect the nation but was instead an attempt to undercut the Trump campaign.

Last week, the Justice Department, led by Attorney General William Barr, attempted to dismiss the case against Michael Flynn, a member of the Trump campaign and transition team who twice pleaded guilty to lying to federal officials about his contacts with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The argument for this dismissal was that the investigation into Russian dealings with the Trump campaign was illegitimate, and thus Flynn’s lying to federal officials immaterial. Since this idea of “Obamagate” gained a popular foothold, a number of pro-Trump officials have been calling for the prosecution of Obama officials who participated in the Russia investigation.

Grenell has been vocal in his defense of Trump, insisting that Russia did not, in fact, interfere in the 2016 election, despite the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee. For him now to declassify the names of the F.B.I. officials who interviewed Flynn and to hand those names to the Department of Justice, overseen by Trump supporter Attorney General William Barr, is ominous.

It suggests that the Trump administration really is contemplating legal action against F.B.I. officials who were investigating the attack on the 2016 election. This is unprecedented. More, though, it suggests that the Trump administration does not anticipate a Democratic presidency following this one, since it could expect any precedent it now sets to be used against its own people. That it is willing to weaponize intelligence information from a previous administration suggests it is not concerned that the next administration will weaponize intelligence information against Trump officials. That confidence concerns me.

But that’s only one side of the story with the Flynn case. The other side is just as interesting. The Justice Department’s move to drop the case against Flynn had to be approved by a judge. Tonight, that judge, Emmet G. Sullivan, moved… sideways. It was a really interesting move. Rather than deciding the issue at hand, the U.S. District Judge, who is known as a stickler for institutions, said he would receive briefs from interested third parties to offer opinions about the case. This means that the 2000 former Department of Justice employees (of both parties) who demanded Barr’s resignation over the Flynn case can now be heard. It will invite public scrutiny of the case, and means the case will not get swept under the rug.

Flynn’s lawyers instantly cried foul. Not only do they not want more attention to the facts of the case, but also it is possible that Sullivan’s order will permit him to require both sides to revisit the case, producing evidence and calling witnesses. Rather than enabling Trump to turn the tables on the original Russia investigation and invert it so that it serves his purposes, Sullivan’s move could remind people that there was a reason for the Russia investigation in the first place and rehash some of the stories of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian operatives.

Both of these stories seem to me a preview of the 2020 election. Trump is going to attack his predecessor and argue that Obama officials engaged in an illegal underground campaign to weaken him. He might even try to prosecute officials who were part of the investigation into Russia’s actions in 2016. Sullivan’s unexpected move suggests that not everyone will let this attempt to sway the 2020 election go unchallenged.

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This last bit seems like quite a self-own by Trump and his cronies. The only way that the Trump campaign had deniability about conspiracy to undermine the 2016 election in the Mueller Report was that it attempted to, and was unsuccessful, in making contact several times. If Flynn was able to make contact and agree to terms with Kislyak, then that would turn the dotted line between the Trump Campaign and the Russians into a solid red arrow.

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Well, yeah. They are idiots.

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May 13, 2020 (Wednesday)

With Trump behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in most polls, with unemployment worse than it’s been since the Great Depression, and with almost 85,000 Americans dead and no sign of a let-up, Trump knows he’s in trouble. Welcome “Obamagate,” a scandal Trump says is “the biggest political crime in American history, by far!”

But even Trump cannot say what, exactly, the crime is. When asked by Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker, he said: “It’s been going on for a long time. It’s been going on from before I even got elected. And it’s a disgrace that it happened.” But when pressed to name an actual crime, all he could say was: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the papers, except yours.”

The “scandal” generally seems to be an attempt to argue that Russia did not, in fact, attack our 2016 election, and that the efforts on the part of the FBI to investigate those attacks, and the connections between members of the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, were not legitimate attempts to protect our nation from attack. Instead, they were an effort to undermine first Trump’s election and then his administration.

Here’s what actually happened: On July 31, 2016, the FBI, then directed by James Comey, opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether people in Trump’s campaign were coordinating, intentionally or by accident, with the Russian government. What sparked the investigation was information that campaign member George Papadopoulos had boasted that the Russians had damaging information on Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton.

At the same time, CIA Director John Brennan was bringing together officials from the FBI, CIA, and NSA to investigate Russian interference in the election.

The FBI investigation, named Crossfire Hurricane, focused on people with known ties to Russia or Russian oligarchs. That included former General Michael Flynn, who had worked as a consultant for Russian companies (as well as Turkish ones). Flynn had sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a formal dinner in Russia in December 2015, for which he was paid at least $45,000, but he skipped the clearance a retired military official should have had to do accept payment from a foreign government. Flynn began to advise the Trump campaign in February 2016, and at the Republican National Convention led the crowd in chants of “Lock Her Up!”

On November 10, President Barack Obama warned Trump against hiring Flynn for a sensitive position, but eight days later, Flynn became Trump’s National Security Advisor. On December 29, Obama expelled 35 suspected Russian intelligence agents from the U.S. in retaliation for Russian interference in the 2016 election. That day, Flynn spoke on the phone with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, whom he had known since 2013. U.S. intelligence agencies routinely monitored Kislyak, and they briefed Obama administration officials, who thought the call sounded like Flynn and the Russians had a secret agreement.

The FBI interviewed Flynn on January 24, 2017. He lied about the content of the call. This sent acting Attorney General Sally Yates rushing to Trump’s White House Counsel Don McGahn to warn him that Flynn was possibly open to blackmail by the Russians. On February 8, Flynn denied speaking to Kislyak about sanctions, but when intelligence officials indicated that he had, he claimed that “he couldn’t be certain the topic never came up.” Flynn resigned at Trump’s request on February 13, 2017.

The next day, Trump met with Comey and asked him to drop the case against Flynn. Comey refused. Trump fired him, then told Kislyak “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the case because he, too, had met with Kislyak. The Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (appointed by Trump) then appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller, former head of the FBI, to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, including whether Trump campaign officials had worked alongside them….

And, as our intelligence agencies had, Mueller concluded that yes, the Russians attacked our 2016 elections, and that members of the Trump campaign accepted their help, although his report did not go so far as to assert they were deliberately working in tandem.

So, too, did the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, which is due to issue the fifth and final volume of its investigation in the next few weeks.

When Trump continued to insist that the Crossfire Hurricane Investigation was illegitimate, the inspector general of the Department of Justice, Michael Horowitz, investigated and concluded that it was indeed legitimate (although he excoriated the FBI for mistakes agents made in the reapplications of wiretapping authorizations for one of the people they were investigating, Carter Page).

In the midst of the Mueller investigation, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and after cooperating with the Mueller investigation, has been awaiting sentencing.

Enter “Obamagate.”

Last Thursday, the Justice Department, now under strong Trump supporter Attorney General William Barr, asked the judge to throw out Flynn’s case, reiterating that the Russia investigation was not legitimate, and therefore that his lies were not material. This has led close to 2000 former DOJ officials to call for Barr’s resignation.

The idea appears to be to turn the tables and claim that those investigating Russian interference were the criminals, while those caught in the investigation are victims. Thus Obama and Vice President Biden, along with the career intelligence and justice officials who tried to defend the country against foreign interference, are all part of a “Deep State” conspiracy to injure Trump.

Trump’s appointees are helping him create this disinformation. His acting Director of National Intelligence, Richard Grenell, who has been vocal about his conviction that Russia did not attack us in 2016, recently declassified a list of U.S. officials who called for the “unmasking” of the individual mentioned in intelligence documents, the man who turned out to be Michael Flynn. Requests for such “unmasking” are common; names help officials understand the significance of the reports they are reading. Indeed, unmasking has increased dramatically in the Trump administration. But in Trump’s narrative, the unmasking of Flynn was a “massive thing” that shows the unfairness of those investigating the Russian connections in 2016.

Today, three Republican Senators released the names of those who asked to unmask Flynn. The Senators are: Ron Johnson (R-WI), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), and Rand Paul (R-KY). The list included more than three dozen Obama White House officials, including Biden, Comey, Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper. Paul has called for hearings on the matter, much like the many, many hearings Republicans held about Hillary Clinton’s emails, and much like the investigation Trump wanted Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce.

While requests for unmasking are common, there is something interesting here: the requests are mainly from BEFORE Flynn’s call with Kislyak, and come from Treasury, NATO, and intelligence officials. “If you want to be transparent and fair, show us the document that led all these senior authorized government officials to request this information, that freaked them out all at the same time,” national security lawyer Mark Zaid commented to the Washington Post.

Still, today on the Fox News Channel, Trump said, “This was all Obama. This was all Biden. These people were corrupt. The whole thing was corrupt and we caught them. We caught them.”

Then, tonight, we learned that the FBI served a search warrant on Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) for insider trading in stocks in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. A warrant for a senator would have had to be approved at the highest levels of the Department of Justice, where Barr holds sway. Burr is not the only senator who made exquisitely timed stock trades after hearing a private briefing for senators on the dangers of the coronavirus; Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) did, too, along with one or two others.

So why Burr? Remember I mentioned that the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed with the Mueller investigation, and that It was due to release the final volume of its report soon? Burr is the chairman of that key committee. If he is discredited enough to lose his chairmanship, McConnell will get to choose his replacement. And it’s a pretty safe bet the committee will no longer support the conclusions of the Mueller Report.

Still, the game is not over. Judge Emmet G. Sullivan has appointed a former judge, John Gleeson, to oppose the request of the Justice Department to drop the case against Flynn and, in addition, to see whether Flynn has committed perjury. This might well rehash the evidence about Russian interference in our affairs that seems to have been pushed aside by the Ukraine scandal, impeachment, and now the pandemic.

In any case, it should help to combat the disinformation campaign intended to convince us that down is up and up is down, and that the Russia scandal belongs to anyone but Trump.

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This is what should be scaring the shit out of Republican politicians. You can be 99.5% Trump’s lackey, like Burr, and still get held under the tires of a speeding bus. There are all kinds of historical precedents for authoritarian dictators who would punish their allies on a whim, but I’m not sure we’ve seen one as capricious as Trump before.

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Right? And yet none of the many he’s tossed tumbling into the ditch have managed to get up, brush themselves off, and go after him effectively!

I’ve long been amazed at how big the army of rejected former Trump allies must be by now. And by how quiet they remain.

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I think it makes sense. This guy and his goons don’t follow the rules. While in politics before the current regime it would be damning to go on TV and trash the people who ruined your career by airing their dirty laundry, Trump has plenty of people who will volunteer to go after your family if you turn on him. It’s self-preservation to stay quiet. I can’t blame them. Look at what they’ve done to everybody who testified in the impeachment inquiry. Almost all of those witnesses have had to go into hiding. They get death threats. Gordon Sondland used to be a very visible member of society in Oregon. Even before the stay-at-home order, he had basically gone into hiding. And that’s a guy who donated $1M to Trump’s inauguration.

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Likely so. Ugh.

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so you’re saying the seth rich conspiracy theory was more right wing projection?

i guess it’s possible. i think also even people who get bussed are doing pretty well financially, and even manafort, et al are out of jail. it’s not like being bussed has that high of a real world price

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May 14, 2020 (Thursday)

As predicted, today North Carolina Senator Richard Burr resigned his chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee after being served a warrant by the FBI. Burr is being investigated for what appeared to be insider trading in stocks after receiving a classified briefing on the dangers of the novel coronavirus.

But Burr was also the chair of a bipartisan committee that had endorsed the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, concluding that Russians did, in fact, attack America in 2016. The committee went beyond Mueller’s conclusions to suggest that members of the Trump campaign had welcomed that intervention. The committee is due to issue its final report soon. Now, with Burr out of the chairmanship, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will appoint a successor. It seems likely that the new chair will change the forthcoming report to support Trump’s new narrative that the Russian investigation was illegitimate rather than to accept the findings of the intelligence community and Robert Mueller’s team.

The attempt of Trump’s party to reinforce the president’s new narrative that somehow the Obama administration attacked his presidency showed today in another way, too. Under pressure from Trump, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced that the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, which he chairs, would begin hearings in June on the origins of the Russia investigation. Although the Justice Department’s own inspector general has agreed that the investigation was legitimate, Trump continues to insist that it was not, and lately he has had the support of Attorney General William Barr in that assertion. The Senate investigation will begin with the case of Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to federal officials but whose case the Justice Department is now seeking to abandon on the ground the investigation itself was illegitimate.

While Graham agreed to call senior officials to testify, he has drawn the line at demanding that former President Barack Obama appear. Trump tweeted today: “If I were a Senator or Congressman, the first person I would call to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR, is former President Obama. He knew EVERYTHING. Do it [Lindsey Graham], just do it. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more talk!” To this, Graham responded that he would not do so. “[H]auling a former president before an oversight committee, I don’t think that’s been done before. And presidentially, I’d be careful what I wish for,” he said.

There is, of course, a larger story behind this rush to create a dread conspiracy. The manufactured investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails consumed the 2016 election season until even now many Americans believe she broke laws, although last October the State Department’s final report on the issue concluded Clinton engaged in no wrongdoing. Then, of course, Trump tried to strong arm Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky into making a public announcement that his government was investigating Joe Biden’s son Hunter as well as searching for proof that Ukraine, rather than Russia, attacking us in 2016. The Trump campaign is well aware of the power of investigations to sway public opinion.

So, as economist and political advisor Robert Reich put it on Twitter: “How to run for re-election with 85,000 dead in 10 weeks because you denied the problem, and 36 million jobless in 8 weeks because you did squat? Invent a conspiracy against yourself.”

But will this conspiracy theory stick with voters?

Two people today, one a journalist and one a classics professor, independently noted to me that Trump’s recent attack on Obama completes a classic story arc. Trump’s political career began with conspiracy-theory attacks on Obama. Trump’s “birtherism” theory was that Obama was born not in America but in Africa, and thus was ineligible to be president. After four years of promises to his base that have ended up in chaos, now characterized by death and unemployment, Trump has returned to where he began, with a conspiracy-theory attack on Obama. In literature, that narrative arc—the return to the beginning—means the story is nearing its end.

Indeed, it’s a little hard to believe that any but Trump’s staunchest supporters will look around at where we are right now and conclude that the problem is what Obama did four years ago, rather than what Donald Trump is doing now.

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May 15, 2020 (Friday)

I’ve grown to hate Friday nights. Fridays themselves have been quiet lately, and then along about 10:00 pm… wham. The Friday night news dump.

Tonight’s news dump was Trump giving notice that he intends to fire yet another inspector general, this one from the State Department. Trump wants to replace Steve Linick, a career official from the Justice Department appointed to his position by President Barack Obama in 2013, with an ally of Vice President Mike Pence. Trump says he no longer has the “fullest confidence” in Linick. Trump plans to replace Linick with Stephen Akard, who was chief of staff for the Indiana Economic Development Corporation when Pence was Indiana governor.

Linick had issued a number of reports lately about Trump appointees retaliating against career employees. Even more important to Trump, perhaps, is that at the State Department, Linick oversaw Trump’s loyal Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Tonight, after news broke of Linick’s firing, Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted on an official account that Linick had just opened an investigation into Pompeo. MSNBC reporter Chris Hayes noted that “Engel is an extremely cautious politician. For him to put this out is mind-blowing.”

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy tweeted: “Using foreign aid to destroy rivals. Weaponizing the judiciary. Firing all the inspectors general. Democracies begin to die when a leader starts to destroy the limits on his power, and his faction decides that he is more important than the republic. Welcome to that moment.”

But Walter Schaub, who used to direct the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, points out that the law requires the president to give 30 days notice of such a removal because Congress intended for its members to be able to prevent exactly the sort of purge in which Trump is engaging. Republican Senators are required by law to stop this behavior… but they refuse. It is a mistake, Schaub points out, to consider this firing a done deal. Trump has to give notice so that Congress can weigh in. He has done so, and now it is in the hands of Congress, just as the previous notice that Trump was removing other inspector generals has been.

In other news, there is mounting pressure on the Justice Department to release the transcripts of the phone calls between Michael Flynn and Russian officials, both from people who believe the transcripts will exonerate him and from those who believe they will confirm his guilt. The Justice Department has released a trove of information about Flynn’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, including confidential memos and internal deliberations. But it steadfastly refuses to release the transcripts, despite an order from Judge Emmet Sullivan to do so. Sullivan has recently named retired federal Judge John Gleeson to review Flynn’s case.

A follow up to yesterday’s news about Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) stepping down from his position as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee during his investigation for insider trading: Before he stepped down, Burr submitted the final report of the committee on Russian interference in the 2016 election to the intelligence community for review so it can be declassified. That process could take many months, as it did for previous reports. In those cases, though, the committee did release a set of general findings before the final volume was available. Here… we’ll see.

The other big piece of news is that the House of Representatives has passed a new $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill. Both the president and Senate Republicans have said the bill is a non-starter; as such, it should be seen as a Democratic marker of the party’s priorities. The bill provides nearly $1 trillion for the state, local, and tribal governments that are suffering as the lack of tax revenue during this crisis is forcing them to slash social programs from their budgets. It provides direct payments to individuals, hazard pay for essential workers, money for coronavirus testing and contact tracing, unemployment benefits, housing support, student loan forgiveness, and food stamp money.

It also provides for universal mail-in ballots, and $25 billion for the United States Postal Service.

Meanwhile, White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow has suggested reviving the economy not by putting money in the hands of ordinary Americans, but by slashing the 21% corporate tax rate, cutting it in half for companies willing to bring their operations back to the United States. The White House also wants liability protection for businesses that reopen, and a payroll tax cut. Such a cut would inject money into the economy immediately, but only by taking money that would otherwise fund social Security and Medicare.

The two approaches reveal very different visions of the way the economy works.

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May 16, 2020 (Saturday)

Today former President Barack Obama gave two virtual graduation speeches. Midday, he spoke to the graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and in the evening, he spoke to the high school graduates of 2020 in an event called Graduate Together.

Both speeches were a striking contrast to the language we have become accustomed to hearing from today’s White House. And while they were directed at this year’s graduates, they mapped out more generally a new direction for America than the one we have taken since 2017.

The former president noted that we are in a frightening moment, when we are coping with a deadly pandemic and a terrible recession. But he also heralded the enormous possibilities of a time when all the cards have been thrown up into the air, waiting to be gathered up into new patterns.

Obama noted that the pandemic had “fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.” “Turns out that they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions.”

He called for today’s youth to honor “honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others.”

He rejected the aggressive individualism that has defined America since the Reagan years. “[I]t doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick…. [O]ur society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.”

He placed America’s strength in community. “No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job, and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path.”

He urged young people to change the world. “If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you. With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative. Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore ‘this is how it’s always been done.’"

“More than ever,” the former president said, "this is your moment—your generation’s world to shape.”

[Photo: Children’s driftwood fort, 2018]

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Obama is a man of tremendous intelligence, powerful eloquence, integrity, responsibility, and vision for a better America. All the sorts of qualities you’d want in a president. And things you won’t find even a trace of in the Orange Occupant of the Oval Office.

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May 17, 2020 (Sunday)

Three stories tonight.

One from the future, one from the past, and one from the present.

From the future…

The story of Trump’s 30-day notice that he was firing Steve A. Linick as inspector general of the State Department bothers me for a different reason than the obvious. Of course, Trump’s continuing purge of inspectors general is not okay. Neither is Republican senators’ willingness to go along with it.

But I am also curious about something else. The media is reporting that Linick was looking into whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan have been using staffers to conduct their personal business. But that story is actually not new: there have been similar complaints about the Pompeos since 2018.

So why was Linick on the chopping block now? It is just a further purge? After all, he is the fourth inspector general to be fired lately. Or was there something else going on? Pompeo’s aggressive Christian stance at State, combined with his affinity for propaganda outlets like Breitbart, has always made me nervous about how he is approaching foreign affairs, so it is entirely likely I’m overly suspicious. But the Pompeo story is something I’ll be watching in the future.

From the past…

Today is the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing school segregation. The decision was made under a Republican Chief Justice, Earl Warren, who had previously been the governor of California, and the decision was unanimous. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” the court said.

It handed down the decision in the midst of the Army-McCarthy hearings, which ran from April to June. In these televised proceedings, Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, also a Republican, but part of a small faction that hated America’s active post-World War Two government, tried to prove that the government that had pulled the nation out of the Depression and mobilized it for war was welcoming communism into America. Communism had spread even into the military, McCarthy charged. Seeing the senator bluster and bully on television, rather than hearing his frightening charges tidied up in newspapers, turned Americans against him. His star fell after the hearings, and he died of complications from alcoholism two years later.

But school desegregation gave his warnings and his bullying style a new lease on life. Brown v. Board enabled opponents of the postwar government to tie racism to their hatred of government regulation of business and provision of a basic social safety net. They insisted the Supreme Court’s decision proved that the activist government Americans had embraced in the 1930s and 1940s was designed simply to redistribute wealth from hardworking white taxpayers to lazy African Americans. Government officials and programs, paid for with taxes, offered black Americans benefits like good schools and the military protection necessary to attend them. This argument would attract southern Democrats to the Republican Party, and by 1970, the party would abandon the cause of civil rights in favor of an anti-communism that was shot through with racism.

All these decades later, the formulation embraced by opponents of Brown v. Board has landed us in a spot where any government activism, even requirements that people wear masks during a deadly pandemic, is greeted with fury by a part of the population that sees any government action that helps ordinary Americans as socialism, and usually links that to race.

And from the present…

I have walked by this shed wall of lobster buoys my whole life and never paid much attention to it. A new eye and a new angle turned it into something else altogether.

Happy Sunday, Everyone. Let’s buckle up for a busy week.


[Photo by Buddy Poland]

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