Sunday, March 24, 2019

Mueller Report: No collusion, but also no exoneration on obstruction of justice.

On Friday at 5:00 pm, Special Counsel Robert Mueller gave his report to Attorney General William Barr.     Less than 48 hours later, Barr made his report to Congress and released the four-page letter to the public.

In short, there are two main findings, two important clarifications, and an important question.   First, Mueller reported that his investigation "did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."

It's important to note that this does not call into question the findings of our intelligence agencies that Russia did interfere in the election.   The Mueller report concludes that Russia did interfere;  but it also says that it "did not establish" that the Trump campaign helped them do it.  "Did not establish that they did" is not quite as conclusive as saying there is proof that they didn't.   It also does not deny that the Trump campaign benefited from Russia's help.

The second finding, as reported by Mueller and so stated in Barr's letter, is that, on the question of obstruction of justice by the president, the Special Counsel "did not draw a conclusion -- one way or another -- as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction. . . .  while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

Of course, Trump being Trump, his first public statement not only, rightly, claimed "no collusion;"   but he also loudly proclaimed that there was "complete exoneration" on the question of obstruction.    That is demonstrably not true.

However, although Mueller left the question open regarding Trump and obstruction, Attorney General Barr's letter states that he and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein have concluded that the evidence is not sufficient, under federal prosecution principles, to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

They were influenced in this decision, in part, by the fact that there was no finding of an underlying crime.   Now it is still a crime to obstruct an investigation, even if there is no crime;   but they also considered whether there was "corrupt intent" on the part of the president when he made the suspect verbal statements.

This is a judgment call, and others might have decided it differently.  It will likely be widely discussed, because it will raise questions about the impartiality of Trump's recently appointed Attorney General Barr.   Why did Barr feel he had to decide, with no additional evidence, rather than simply reporting Mueller's lack of a decision?   Is it because, as was already suspected, that Barr was chosen by Trump as his Attorney General because of his stated opinion that a president cannot obstruct justice, given that he is in charge of the Justice Department and therefore all federal prosecutions?

That will remain a cloud over this result, as Democrats are already calling on Congress to demand that Barr, and perhaps Rosenstein and Mueller, be called to testify as to this process.

As to clarifications, the first clarification I want to highlight is that, as Americans, we can feel proud that our system worked.    Despite all the threats and obvious attempts by Trump to demean Mueller and the investigation, and despite his attempts to end the investigation -- the fact is that Mueller was able to complete his investigation.

The second clarification is this:  Even though Mueller has concluded his core task concerning any conspiracy with Russia, investigations into Trump and his associates will continue in other jurisdictions, such as the Southern District of New York and others federal offices, as well as state courts.

As many legal experts have been saying for some time, the Mueller investigation was far from Trump's biggest legal worry.   The SDNY is far more of a threat to him.   Already he is an unnamed co-conspirator (Individual 1) in the Michael Cohen charge of a campaign finance violation.  There are other cases and potential cases against him involving the Trump Foundation, as well as bank fraud and other financial crimes.

The question I want to raise about "no collusion with Russia" is still the unanswered question all along:    Why, if there was no collusion with Russia, did so many of Trump's associates lie about their contact with Russians?     The latest count is that there were 102 contacts between Trump officials and Russia-linked operatives, all of which were initially denied.  The list includes:   Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn, Donald Trump, Jr., Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, Michael Cohen, George Papadopoulos, and many others.    In addition, several spokespersons for the Trump administration repeatedly, falsely reported that there were no contacts by Trump team members and Russia.

The question is:    If there was nothing improper, why did they all lie about it?

That question still needs to be answered.


Sunday, March 17, 2019

Letter to Muslims from Mayor Pete Buttigieg

At 37 and openly gay, Pete Buttigieg is certainly a long shot in the crowded field of people vying to be the Democratic nominee for president.    But he's attracting notice . .  . and donors.   He was a surprise hit at the first town hall, primarily because of his candid and informed answers to questions;  and he's already met the threshold of 65,000 individual donors to qualify for the first Democratic presidential debate.

Buttigieg, the son of two professors at the University of Notre Dame, began collecting honors while still in high school, being a national winner of the JFK Profiles in Courage essay contest.  Ironically, his subject was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, now one of his fellow candidates in the presidential race.

Buttigieg graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and was chosen as a Rhodes Scholar to study at Oxford for two years, where he won first class honors in philosophy, politics, and economics.   An officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves, he has served a tour of duty in Afghanistan.   At age 29, he was elected to his first term as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, easily winning a second term with 80% of the vote.   He chose not to seek a third term in order to run for president.

His popularity as mayor is well deserved, from fixing potholes to spearheading major redevelopment projects to revitalize the city, while also making it more livable with bike and pedestrian trails  He's also known for fostering a climate of inclusiveness and acceptance of all groups within his city.  A New York Times op-ed praised Buttigieg's mayoral success and speculated that he might eventually be elected as our "first gay president."

In 2015 he publicly acknowledged that he is gay, and two years later he announced his engagement to a man he had been dating for two years.   They married in a ceremony in a South Bend Episcopal church in 2018.

Since announcing his run just a few weeks ago, the Washington Post reports that: "he has become, if not exactly well-known, a subject of interest for many Democratic voters, buoyed by a breakout performance at a CNN town hall on March 10.

And, by the way, his name is pronounced "boot-edge-edge."   Remember it.  You'll be hearing more from him.

As a popular mayor in a state carried by Donald Trump in 2016 (Indiana) and where Mike Pence was its most recent governor, Buttigieg knows how to reach out to Republican voters who, he says, have too often been ignored by Democrats in the past.

The Washington Post article says many Democrats "praised the way he went after Vice President Pence, a vocal religious conservative, describing him on CNN as 'the cheerleader of the porn star presidency'," given the way his job seems to be standing in the background at photo-ops, gazing with fake, rapt adoration for the commander-in-chief.   And then he asked whether Pence had stopped believing in the Bible when he started believing in Trump.

Buttigieg comes across as straight-forward, unpretentious, authentic.  "I'm not skilled enough or energetic enough to craft a persona.  I just have to be who I am and hope people like it," he says.   "I think people in our party tie themselves up in pretzels trying to be more electable."

According to the Post, "he fields questions differently from most other candidates, leaning on numbers and context and maintaining a noteworthy willingness to answer 'yes' or 'no'."  And then he tells you why.   His policy positions fall well within the progressive wing of the party, although his approach is also very practical.  He supports the Green New Deal as a "good start" in tackling the climate crisis;  he supports single payer health insurance but wants insurance companies to be involved;  he opposes Trump's handling of immigration.

But perhaps nothing quite shows the measure of this young man as much as the open letter he wrote to the Muslim community of South Bend after the New Zealand massacre, which I quote in part:

*     *     *
"Dear members of the Islamic Society of Michana.   Good evening and peace be with you.

". . .  I was shocked by this morning's news of events in New Zealand.  I know that this act of terror was intended to put fear in our hearts, and that the fear was designed to travel around the world.   We are a long way from the place where this happened, but I know that on this Jummah Friday, many in our community, especially people of Muslim faith, are wondering if they are safe or even if they belong.

"As you gather this evening, I write to tell you that this city is absolutely committed to your safety and well-being.  I want you to know that this entire City has its arms around you, in love and peace, and that we support you as you practice your faith here in this community, our community, this home we share. . .

"I write not only to console you and to reassure you, but to ask something of you.  I wish to tell you not only that you are loved but also that you are needed.   This City very much needs you at a time like this, because you help to demonstrate the values and desires that we all have in common.  In your community involvement . . . in your very presence -- when . . . you bring your stories and traditions to the tapestry of this City and country, you are not only exercising a right, you are also bearing a gift. . . .

"[Y]ou have an equal claim on the blessings of life in this community, and a great deal to contribute. . . .   We are thankful to count you among us."

*     *     *

He may be the youngest in the race (Beto is a decade older than Pete);  but this man has the maturity and empathy that we cry out for in this troubled time.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Outrageous inequality in sentencing

This is based on reporting by HuffPost's Sam Levine.

Paul Manafort was sentenced this week in the first of two trials he underwent for various financial crimes involving millions of dollars he failed to pay in taxes.   In other words, the usual "white collar crime" does actually have consequences for the American people.

Every dollar he failed to pay means other Americans have to make up for with the taxes they pay.

Manafort's crimes?   false income tax returns, unreported income in foreign bank accounts, and bank fraud.   Typical "white collar" crimes -- except for the amount (millions) and the decades over which he defrauded our government, and the fact that he lived a lavish life style of ostrich skin jackets, alligator leather shoes, and multiple mansions.

Now, this was only the first of two trials.   Manafort pled guilt and made a plea agreement to cooperate with prosecutors in the second trial.   He was thrown into jail for witness tampering and non-cooperation -- although we don't know at this point whether he eventually did tell everything he knew as Donald Trump's campaign chairman -- probably not, since Trump is speaking about him very sympathetically and hinting at giving him a pardon.

So what sentence did Manafort get from this first trial?     Less than four years, when they subtract the time he's already spent in jail.   Federal guidelines recommended in this trial would have been a minimum of 19 and 1/2 years.     The judge said a lighter sentence was warranted, in part, because Manafort has "lived an otherwise blameless life."

That is patently outrageous.   Manafort has not lived an otherwise blameless life.   He has spent his life scheming and manipulating and cheating and living off ill-gotten gains from foreign dictators -- facilitating and profiting from their robbing their own people and violating human rights.   Let's hope the judge in the other case is a bit more realistic and gives him the maximum 10 years recommended in that case.

Now, for comparison, consider the case of Crystal Mason, who is incarcerated in a federal prison in Texas.   She was sentenced to five years for tax fraud and had already served three of those years.   (The amount was not mentioned in Levine's article, but I'm sure it was not the multi-millions Manafort avoided.)

Mason was at home on supervised release, a form of probation, when the 2016 presidential election was held.   Her mother encouraged her to vote;   and, not knowing that as a felon she was no longer eligible, Crystal did vote using a provisional ballot.

Her illegal voting (ignorance of the law is not an excuse) constituted a violation of her supervised release, which sent her back to federal prison with an added 10 months to her federal time.    In addition to that, the "voting fraud" constituted a state crime in Texas, for which she was sentenced to serve another five years in state prison.

 Compare the two crimes, the motives, and the sentences.   Manafort may very well get a pardon from Trump.   Crystal Martin, an African-American woman in Texas without the means to hire a "million-dollar lawyer" will likely serve her time. -- a total of almost 12 years.

Yes, there is shameful inequality in our criminal justice system.    This is only one example -- an especially outrageous one.   It represents both racial and socioeconomic inequalities.   It also is political.   Republicans are desperate to find actual cases of "voter fraud" to back up their empty claims that we need stricter voting laws because voter fraud is rampant.

Memo to Republicans:    The system currently in place worked.    She apparently was not on the voter rolls as an eligible voter, and they let her vote with a provisional ballot.  When it was checked into, everyone discovered she was ineligible.    Her vote didn't count.    So five years for that simple mistake she made from being uninformed?

So this is the best they can do?    A woman, ignorant of the law, simply went to vote.   And got a 10 months federal sentence and a five year state sentence.

Yes, outrageous.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Future plans for ShrinkRap

Friends and readers:

I can't quite turn loose of ShrinkRap, but I also do not want to feel the daily commitment to posting something on a regular basis.    I don't know how to make this work for anyone who wants to read the blog, but for the time being I will post something intermittently -- on no schedule -- as I feel moved to write about something.

So feel free to check whenever you like, and I'll feel free to post whenever I like.

This may not work;  the only alternative for me at this point is to just shut it down completely -- which I'm not quite ready to do.   It's hard to give up a 12 year habit.


Friday, February 15, 2019

ShrinkRap absence due to computer hacking

Apologies to regular readers of ShrinkRap for my unannounced, sudden disappearance more than a week ago.   Believe me, it was not voluntary.

I suddenly found myself in the middle of a computer hacking and an attempted scam to get my ID information.    Immediately shutting down everything, changing passwords, bank account, credit cards and then having to do dozens of things to compensate for that -- plus taking my computer in to have it "scrubbed" of viruses and malware and a new operating system installed -- has been worry-inducing and time-consuming.

Now that I've got the problems solved, I'm going to take some time to reconsider --again -- whether I want to keep writing this blog.    The blog had nothing to do with the hacking.  I can assure you that there's no way your own computers or phones could be contaminated simply by clicking on to read the blog.  It was my personal computer that was hacked, not the blog service.

When you read ShrinkRap, you're not connected to my computer at all.  You read the blog from the Google service where I post the blog for people to read.

So if you want to check back, say around the first of March, I'll try to make a decision and post it.    Even now, however, I cannot stop myself from commenting on the latest Trumpism, so below is a quick comment.


Trump is his own worst enemy

Consider Donald Trump's current predicament.

He lost out badly in what was supposed to be a negotiating with House Democrats over money for his wall vs another government shutdown, for which he would have again been held responsible.  He wound up signing an appropriations bill --  without the money for a wall that he could have gotten months ago, if he had accepted a compromise deal back then.

In the end, his final ask was for $5.6 billionthe final bill, which he has signed, gives him $1.375 billion -- less than 1/4 -- and it specifies none is to be used to build a concrete wall.   It's for border security and specifies various , non-wall expenditures.

It's a major defeat for Trump.   He tried to save face by then saying that he would declare a national emergency, which would allow him to use other money already appropriated for other things.

But now he's undercut himself even on that.   Nevermind that there is no demonstrable emergency, given that the number of illegal border crossings is at a four decade low.   How can you call that an emergency?  --  even stipulating that the courts tend to defer to presidents when it comes to claims of emergency.

So what does Trump do with that?    He states on Friday that he "didn't need to declare a national emergency" for the wall but merely wanted to speed up the process to please his base.    The ACLU, the California AG, and Congressional Democrats are all going to fight this in court;   and everyone is predicting that the opening line of argument will be:   "I didn't need to declare a national emergency. . . "

He sure knows how to build a case that will stand up in court, doesn't he?   We don't need to worry any longer about this.    Trump never expected to win this case;  he's just playing politics with his loyal, but dwindling, base.


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Trump re-election under water by 19%

This was written prior to Trump's State of the Union Speech on Tuesday night.  I'll comment later on that speech and on Stacie Abrams' Democratic response.

Of course it's way too early to talk about poll standings for the 2020 presidential election.   I'm paying no attention to the current standings of the large number of Democrats declared to be running, or talking about running.   The biggest factor, at this point, is mostly name recognition and overall favorable impression;   but with no comparison with the large number that one may know nothing about yet.

But there is one measure that has some validity at this point -- how people feel about giving President Trump another term.

In a Monmouth University Poll conducted by telephone in late January with 735 registered voters, they found that 37% said Trump should be re-elected, while 58% would like someone new.  That's an under water difference of 19 points, with a +/- 3.6% margin of error.

Among Republicans, 79% wanted him re-elected, while 94% of Democrats prefer someone else.   Independent voters by 55% want a change, while 39% support Trump.  When broken down into subgroups, the margin of error rises to about 5.5%.

But the overall 37-58% split is nearly identical to a similar poll taken last November.

Trump doesn't seem to realize that he cannot win without expanding his base of support;   his political appeals seem primarily intended to excite the base that already supports him.

Time and again, we hear from insiders that, once Trump fixates on a particular belief, it is almost impossible to get him to change, no matter what facts or arguments are put before him.

Here's a suggestion.   Don't waste the effort then.   Let him go on in his delusions of glory.   This is a man who just last week proclaimed that he has accomplished more in his two years as president than almost any other president -- maybe, even, he said, the most of all.