Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Paul Manafort's choice

For a while there, it seemed that Paul Manafort had a choice, despite having been convicted of felonies in his first trial -- and days away from his second trial, which would have had even more serious implications, both for him and for president Trump.   Manafort faced spending the rest of his life in jail, given his age.

The choice:   A plea deal to cooperate with the Mueller investigation versus a pardon from President Trump.   In the end, he went with Mueller.   Trump had given hints of a pardon, but could Manafort trust him to follow through?    Might it become politically unfeasible -- or even be evidence of obstruction of justice?    Might Trump simply decide it wouldn't serve Him well and renege?   Besides, he would still be vulnerable to state charges on his financial crimes.

Or -- and I haven't seen anyone else advance this idea -- the possibility that, with the mounting evidence, Trump might resign from office -- or Congress could begin impeachment proceedings.   Either would obviate a pardon.

Whatever combination of reasons, Manafort chose to go with a plea deal and full cooperation with the Mueller investigation.   His part of the bargain requires that he truthfully and completely answers any and all questions, that he testify under oath whenever needed, and that he forfeit large amounts (multi-millions of dollars) of his real estate holdings.

So what does Mueller get?   A trio of criminal law experts -- Noah Bookbinder, Barry Burke, and Norman Eisen -- summarized it in a New York Times op-ed on Tuesday.  As they point out, Manafort has already had some sessions with the Mueller team and has already told them enough that they considered it a deal worth doing.   Some pundits on TV have called what Manafort has to offer, "the keys to the kingdom."

For starters, he is the first member of the Trump campaign team who was in that infamous Trump Tower meeting with the Russians and who has now broken with Trump -- and who will now tell what that was all about and whether Trump knew about it in advance.

In addition, as head of the Trump campaign during several crucial months, including the Republican convention, he will know who ordered and who knew about changing the GOP platform to favor Ukraine interests.

But all that pales in comparison with Manafort's connections with Russia and Russian oligarchs and their connections with Vladimir Putin.  According to these authors, there were more than 80 contacts between members of the campaign and others associated with it and the Russians.   Manafort is a key in understanding all that.  In addition, he is a former business associate with Roger Stone, who seems to be in Manafort's cross-hairs as a possible link with the Russians, the campaign, and Wikileaks.   In short, if there was any collusion/conspiracy with the Russians, Manafort probably knows about it.

Another vulnerability for Trump -- if there was any dangling of a pardon as an inducement to keep quiet by the president or his lawyers, that would be another count of obstruction of justice.

The authors conclude:
"For the president, it is ominous.  Yet another person who was in Mr. Trump's immediate orbit has fallen to the rule of law.  Now that Mr. Manafort is helping the investigation and may testify in future criminal proceedings --- not to mention congressional ones -- Mr. Trump cannot be resting easy.

"But most important, for the American people, Friday's outcome is further proof that no one -- no matter how important or powerful -- is immune from justice.  Mr. Trump would do well to study the heights from which his former top aide has fallen, and the depth of his plunge."

*   *   *
Look at the body count of those who were once in the inner circle who have either been convicted or have pled guilty to felonies:    His one-time campaign chairman (Paul Manafort), his deputy campaign chairman/deputy transition team chairman (Rick Gates), his first National Security Adviser (Michael Flynn), his personal lawyer (Michael Cohen), a former campaign foreign policy adviser (George Papadopoulos), plus a few other minor players.

In all, the count of the indicted or guilty-plea includes:  four former Trump advisers, his personal lawyer, 26 Russian nationals, three Russian companies, one California man, and one London-based lawyer (who has already served his one-month jail time for lying to the investigators.

A witch-hunt, Mr. President?    You'd better get out they broomstick, because they're coming for you.


Monday, September 17, 2018

Whatever happened to the political wisdom: "It's the economy, stupid"?

Remember during the Bill Clinton campaign for president that his campaign strategist James Carville summed it all up with that pithy phrase:   "It's the economy, stupid."

I've been wondering about that, when we talk about the blue wave expected in November -- yet the economy is doing very well by most measures.   True, real wages for workers have barely increased, while the wealthy have raked in fortunes on top of their fortunes.

Still, by all other measures, the economy is somewhere between healthy and booming.  Unemployment is only 3.9%, the gross domestic product is soaring to new heights, and the stock market breaks new records week by week.

So, why are we so confident that the Democrats will take control of the House and possibly the Senate too?    Should we be this confident?   Or should we pay attention to James Carville's warning?

The first, short answer has been offered that Carville was referring to presidential year elections, not to midterms.   The president tends to get rewarded or blamed for the economy, more than congress.

Second, there's much being said and written -- at least in the liberal media -- that puts the blame squarely on the unpopularity of Donald J. Trump.    His approval ratings are dropping . . . fast.   And party leaders are attributing this to Trump's inflammatory moves on immigration, especially the separation of parents from their children, and on Trump's inexplicably favoring of Vladimir Putin over our close allies.

Oklahoma Republican Congressman Tom Cole told the New York Times that "This is very much a referendum on the president."   He added, however:  "If we had to fight this campaign on what we accomplished in Congress and on the economy, I think we'd almost certainly keep our majority."

The Times also quoted a leading Republican pollster, Glen Bolger, saying:  "People think the economy is doing well -- but that's not what they're voting on -- they're voting on the chaos of the guy in the White House."

It shows in what the Republican campaigns are focusing on.   Instead of being able to crow about the 3.9% unemployment, their campaign is a negative one of slamming Democrats.

With Paul Manafort's flipping to cooperate with the special counsel in a plea deal just announced, shouldn't we be even more confident that Trump will be dealing with even more negative media coverage?

Let's hope so.    I'm still reluctant to ignore James Carville.   I'd be more comfortable if a couple of those economic indicators start to reverse before November 6th.   I'm not wishing for anyone to suffer regarding jobs or wages -- but we're expecting the good numbers to start reversing soon -- so I'm just wishing for it to be noticeable before, rather than after, the election.

James Carville, himself, had a simpler explanation.   According to the Times:   "He [Trump] has made himself bigger than the economy.   Every conversation starts and ends with Trump."


Saturday, September 15, 2018

Breaking News: Manafort to cooperate.

It has been rumored for days that Paul Manafort was involved in negotiating some sort of plea deal with the Special Counsel's office.   What wasn't known until Friday afternoon was whether this would include a cooperation agreement.

The answer came:  Yes, the deal does require Manafort to cooperate and to answer any and all questions about any of his activities, as well as other things he knows, what others did or said, as well as all he knows about the Trump Tower meeting with Russians -- and all his connections with Russian oligarchs and whether there was any conspiracy between Russian and the Trump campaign.

This is huge !!!   We'll hear a lot of pundit and expert legal analysis of this.   But, assuming from what the early readings of the agreement seem to suggest:  Mueller now can get any information that Mueller has.    And if he does not fully cooperate, then he doesn't get the reduced sentence that's pending.

A cooperating plea deal also does not allow him to take the 5th amendment.  Some have even opined that it also makes a pardon impossible.   Perhaps not technically impossible;  but it would make Trump liable to charges of attempting to obstruct justice.    Besides, we can assume that Manafort has already told Mueller's team a lot of what he knows as part of negotiations about the plea deal.


Trump is "not all that different now, but the stakes are higher."

In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, former long-time Trump Organization vice president Barbara Res says that Trump is "not all that different now, [from when she worked for him] but the stakes are higher."

Res, who was in charge of construction for the Trump Organization, gives an example when Trump Tower was being built.   Trump ordered an architect to "get rid of the [expletive] Braille" on the elevator button pads.   "No blind people are going to live in Trump Tower.  Just do it," Res quotes Trump as having said.

Then she explains that Trump likely knew the architect would never remove the Braille.  It's required by law.    But ordering "an underling to do something that was impossible" was a win-win situation for him.   He could bash his workers for disobeying his orders and blame them if anything later went wrong.

She was also critical of the anonymous op-ed writer from the Trump staff.    She wrote:   "The self-aggrandizing Anonymous wants the world to know that there are adults in the room.   Really?   What the hell are they doing?"


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Why not invoke the 25th amendment?

The Republicans, of course, have their reasons for not invoking the 25th amendment to remove the president from office as unfit to carry out his duties.    Those reasons are political expediency.  Donald Trump's support among Republican voters is enough -- and his retribution against candidates who don't go along is so fierce -- that they will put our democracy at danger rather than act to protect it.

But there are two other reasons for not invoking the 25th amendment to the Constitution to remove Trump from the office for which he is so manifestly unfit.

1.  The first is a matter of numbers.  It is an even more difficult process than impeachment, which requires a simple majority in the House to vote to impeach;  then a two-thirds majority of the Senate to convict and remove the president from office.  It does not require the vice president and the cabinet to agree, and it requires only a simple majority of the House to initiate impeachment, followed by a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

In contrastthe 25th amendment route requires, initially, an initiative from the vice president and a majority of the cabinet.   If there is no objection from the president, then that's all it takes.  But, if the president files an objection, declaring that he is in fact fit, it then requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of congress.

2.  The other is a more nuanced matter.  Being declared unfit for the office implies that something has changed about the president.  He has become ill, or been injured in an accident -- something has happened that wasn't there when he was elected.   People who make this point also make the valid point that Donald Trump has always operated in this way.    Maybe he's worse now under all the stress -- but voters had a good idea of who he was and voted for him anyway. 

One can also make the argument that he has gotten much worse -- or at least he is much worse in office than was anticipated.   Any hope that he would listen to advisers, or that he would learn in office -- that fantasy has been proven to be fairy dust.  But, in some people's thinking anyway, it's a dubious claim that now he's unfit and the voters were wrong when they put him in office.

There's also the practical matter.   With the midterm election less than two months away, that's the focus now.   They're not going to impeach him or use the 25th amendment now.    But a sound defeat of Republicans, especially if the Democrats take control of both the House and Senate -- which now looks do-able -- then that is a loud and clear message that will shake up even the Republicans.


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Two ways of looking at anonymous op-ed

My first thought about the anonymous op-ed tell-all in the New York Times was relief that there are some adults surrounding the president who are actually mindful of the dangers he poses to the nation and who are trying to do something to contain his worst impulses.

Only later, after listening to other points of view, did I become concerned with what this actually amounts to -- unelected staff members undermining and disobeying the orders of the duly elected president.  In other words, undermining the authority of the people's choice, an anti-democracy act.

Ross Douthat, conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote a very thoughtful piece on Sunday that takes both these points of view into consideration and comes to a thoughtful synthesis.   He writes:

"One might say that insofar as the officials resisting Trump are trying to prevent his temperamental unfitness from leading to some mass-casuality disaster or moral infamy, they are doing the country a great service.   But insofar as they are just trying to prevent him implementing possibly-misguided populist ideas, they are being presumptuously antidemocratic and should resign instead.

"The trouble is that there is obviously a gray area between these two categories.  And it's in the nature of ideology to convince people that only their preferred policy ideas stand between the country and disaster."

Douthat continues:  "So, . . . the example of [Gen.] James Mattis slow-walking a fleeting presidential desire to [assassinate Syrian president Assad] . . . strikes me as the admirable sort of internal resistance.

"But then the example of Gary Cohn stealing a letter off Trump's desk to prevent him from dissolving the U.S.-South Korea trade compact seems closer to an example of the anti-democratic vice -- because after all, Trump campaigned on renegotiating trade deals, didn't he?   And yet I'm sure Cohn justified himself on more existential grounds, imagining the unraveling of the peninsular security arrangement and, eventually, a horrifying war. . ."

Douthat then proposes that those around Trump should sustain some combination of the two points of view when deciding whether to try to thwart an action of this president.   "Yes to prudent resistance to rash behavior, no to ideological resistance to populist policy."    And he acknowledges that this "would require constant self-scrutiny among the people trying to manage this presidency from within."

He concludes that "the most troubling thing about the anonymous op-ed -- apart from the dubious judgment that inspired its writing -- is that the author doesn't seem to recognize this issue, or acknowledge any distinction between protecting America from Trump's erratic personality . . .  and frustrating the agenda that won our president the White House."

*     *     *
And I would add that settling for this compromise, rather than some more dramatic action from the inside staff that would force the Republican majority to grapple with the problem of an unfit president, simply prolongs the dysfunction we face when Congress is ignoring its constitutional duty of oversight of the Executive branch of our government.   Is the answer mass resignations?   Would that be enough to evoke some Republican action?

Apparently everyone's deciding to leave it to the voters -- 57 days from today.   So get out and vote.    And get others to go too.   Our democracy depends on it.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

A few news briefs

1.  All the time being spent by pundits and politicos on trying to figure out which Trump staffer wrote the anonymous op-ed in the New York Times should instead be focused on the question:   "Is it true?"
     The answer is obviously Yes;  and, since the Republicans in Congress aren't going to do anything about it but shrug, it's up to everyone who cares about preserving our democracy to send the loudest possible message by voting on November 6th.   Give the Democrats control of both the House and the Senate.  And something will get done.

2.  India's Supreme Court has struck down its ban on gay sex, saying that the law was "irrational, and manifestly arbitrary."   Thus, the world's second most populous nation has removed the anachronistic law, which stems from the British Colonial era in India.   According to the New York Times, the leading religion in India, Hinduism, has historically been tolerant of same-sex unions.

3.  The shocking report from a grand jury investigation of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania over decades has led to action from law enforcement authorities in the states of New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico.   The actions range from subpoenas of records to active investigations.   This marks a change from the past, when the Catholic Church asserted its authority over priestly abuse as being an internal matter that would not be referred to secular law enforcement authorities.
     This also comes on the heels of the explosive letter to Pope Francis from a former Vatican official, Carlo Maria Vigano, accusing the pope of being part of the cover-up and calling on him to resign.   It remains to be seen whether this letter is based on facts or may reflect doctrinal disagreements between conservative elements in the Vatican and the more liberal Pope Francis.

4.  The United Nations Security Council has a system in which the chairmanship rotates on a monthly basis among the member-nations of the Council.   The United States will have the month of September, and President Trump is planning to use the opportunity to focus the Council on Iran and what the New York Times calls its "malign activities" in the Middle East.  European diplomats fear this will underline the lack of unity in the West and further undermine the multi-nation nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump pulled the U.S. out of.
     At this point, the only U.N. resolution on Iran currently in force is the nuclear deal, and there is apparently no plan that Trump will try to get a new resolution passed.   But, short of that, there will be plenty of opportunity for him to show his lack of understanding of the deal, as well as his total lack of diplomatic skills.   U.N. Ambassador Nicki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will have their "containment" work cut out for them.

5.  Former president Barack Obama has emerged from his reticence to criticize his successor and hit the campaign trail.   His speech was the kickoff of a two month campaign blitz to help Democrats take back control of Congress.   He was openly critical of President Trump, sometimes laceratingly so;   but he also said that this didn't start with Donald Trump.   "He is a symptom, not the cause.  He's just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years."