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Productive Ways to Hold Trump Accountable

On Friday, Jonathan Rauch published a god-awful argument for pardoning Trump. Today, Quinta Jurecic published a much better argument that a Truth Commission would be the ideal way to hold Trump accountable, but because that probably won’t work, we need to pursue other alternatives, including prosecution.

I’ve already laid out one reason why I think we need to prosecute Trump for his role in the insurrection: because if we don’t, it’ll hamper the ability to hold dangerous people accountable. Another reason is that so many defendants are excusing their actions because the then-President ordered them to storm the Capitol (indeed, that’s one reason, according to a new WaPo report, why DOJ might not charge some of the insurrectionists), the government must make it clear that order was illegal.

Still, I think there are solutions to the problem that both Rauch and Jurecic want to resolve: how to find accountability without derailing President Biden’s Administration.

Jurecic acknowledges that Republican resistance to accountability measures will exacerbate current political divisions.

[A] post-Trump investigation pursued along partisan lines could be doomed from the start. This is the irony: The exact conditions that led to and sustained the Trump era—white grievance, a polluted media ecosystem, and political polarization—are the same conditions that will likely prevent a truth commission from succeeding.

[snip]

In the short run, any of these measures could risk making the country’s social and political divisions worse.

Rauch argues that prosecutions will derail the Biden Administration.

If we want Biden’s presidency to succeed, accountability to be restored and democracy to be strengthened, then a pardon would likely do more good than harm.

Consider, first, Biden’s presidency.

Biden has made clear in every way he can that he does not want or intend to be President Not Trump. He has his own agenda and has been impressively disciplined about not being defined by opposition to Trump. He knows Trump will try to monopolize the news and public discourse for the next four years, and he needs Trump instead to lose the oxygen of constant public attention.

Legal proceedings against Trump, or even the shadow of legal proceedings, would only keep Trump in the headlines.

Rauch also argues (fancifully, for precisely the reasons Jurecic gives that a Truth Commission would be undermined by polarization) that a non-criminal counterintelligence investigation will succeed in a way criminal investigations won’t.

It is important, then, that Trump’s presidency be subjected to a full-scale, post hoc counterintelligence scrub. There should be a public element, modeled on the 9/11 commission, and also a nonpublic, classified element. Both elements could be complicated and hindered by the criminal investigation of Trump. The criminal and counterterrorism investigations would need to be continually deconflicted; Congress would be asked to back away from inquiries and witnesses that step on prosecutors’ toes; Trump himself could plead the Fifth Amendment—an avenue not open to him were he to accept a pardon.

Ignoring for the moment the necessity of including Trump in an investigation into January 6, I agree that, to the extent possible, there needs to be some kind of accounting of what happened during the Trump Administration without turning it into partisan warfare.

Here are some ways to contribute to doing that.

Drain the swamp

Investigations into Trump for things that either are already (Russia or Ukraine) or can be (the election) turned into a tribal issue will absolutely exacerbate political division.

But there are some topics where former Trump supporters can quickly be shown how he hurt them.

For example, an inquiry into Trump’s trade war, especially into the harm done to farmers, will provide a way to show that Trump really devastated a lot of the rural voters who, for tribal reasons, nevertheless support him.

Or Trump’s grifting. In the wake of the Steve Bannon pardon, a number of Trump supporters were furious that Bannon was pardoned for cheating them, even while rioters or other more favored pardon candidates were not. Bannon’s not the only Trump grifter whose corruption demonstrably hurt Trump voters. There’s Brad Parscale’s grifting. There’s Jared Kushner’s favoritism in COVID contracting, which made the country less safe. There’s PPP abuse by big corporations at the expense of small businesses. None of this has to be explicitly about Trump; it can instead be an effort to crack down on corruption generally which by its very nature will affect Trump’s flunkies.

Have Trump dead-enders approve charges

With the exception of some egregious US Attorneys, Biden has asked the remaining US Attorneys to stay on for the moment. That defers any political blowback in the case of John Durham (who in addition to being CT US Attorney is also investigating the Russian investigation) and David Weiss (who is investigating Hunter Biden).

But it also allows people who are nominally Trump appointees to preside over at least the charging of existing investigations targeting Trump or his flunkies. The one place this is known to be true is in Southern District of New York (where Rudy is being investigated). It might be true in DC US Attorney’s office (though Billy Barr shut a lot of investigations, including into Roger Stone and Erik Prince, down). There’s Texas, where Ken Paxton is under investigation.There were hints of investigations into Jared in Eastern District of New York and, possibly, New Jersey.

If Trump US Attorneys aren’t replaced before they charge Trump or his allies, then the act of prosecution will be one approved by a Trump appointee.

Give Republicans what they think they want

Because they’re gullible, Republicans believe that the record of the Russian investigation shows corruption. What is in fact the case is that a cherry-picked and selectively-redacted set of records from the Russian investigation can be gaslit to claim corruption.

But since they’ve been clambering for Trump to declassify it all (even while both John Ratcliffe and Andrew McCabe have suggested that might not show what Republicans expect), it gives Biden’s Administration a way to declassify more. For example, there’s at least one Flynn-Kislyak transcript (from December 22, 2016) that Trump’s Administration chose not to release, one with closer Trump involvement then the others. There are materials on Alex Jones’ interactions with Guccifer 2.0. There are Peter Strzok notes showing him exhibiting no ill-will to Mike Flynn. There are records regarding Paul Manafort’s interactions with Konstantin Kilimnik on April 2016. That’s just the tip of an iceberg of very damning Russian-related records that Trump chose not to release, but which GOP demands for more can be used to justify.

Fully empower Inspectors General

One particularly absurd part of Rauch’s piece is his claim that we know all of Trump’s criminal exposure.

If he committed crimes that we don’t already know about, they are probably not of a new kind or magnitude.

As for what we do know about, it seems clear that he committed criminal obstruction of justice, for example by ordering his White House counsel to falsify federal records. But his obstruction was a process crime, already aired, of limited concern to the public and hard to get a conviction on as a stand-alone charge. There might be more to the Ukraine scandal than we know, but that matter, too, has been aired extensively, may not have been a legal violation and was appropriately (if disappointingly) handled by impeachment. Trump might have committed some form of sedition when he summoned his supporters to the streets to overturn the election, but he would have a colorable First Amendment defense, and sedition is a complicated and controversial charge that would open a legal can of worms. The real problem with Trump is not that we do not know his misdeeds but that we know so much about them, and yet he remained in office for a full term.

One piece of evidence Rauch is mistaken is his certainty that Trump’s only exposure in the Russian investigation is regarding obstruction, when (just as one example) there’s an ongoing investigation into an Assange pardon that appears to be closer to a quid pro quo; or the closed investigation into a potential bribe from Egypt. Democrats were denied a slew of documents pertaining to the Ukraine scandal, especially from the State Department. Democrats were similarly denied records on Trump’s abuse of clearance and non-official records.

One way to deal with the outstanding questions from the Trump Administration is simply to fully staff and empower the Inspectors General who have been undermined for four years. If, for example, State’s IG were to refer charges against Mike Pompeo or DOD’s IG were to refer charges pertaining to Kash Patel’s tenure, it wouldn’t be Democrats targeting them for investigation, it would be independent Inspectors General.

DOJ must be a key part of this. DOJ’s IG has already said it is investigating BJ Pak’s forced resignation. Democrats should insist this is expanded to review all of Barr’s politicized firings of US Attorneys.

As part of an effort to make sure Inspectors General do the work they should have done in real time, Biden should support the end of the OPR/IG split in DOJ, which means that the decisions of lawyers at DOJ (including those pertaining to the Ukraine scandal) are only reviewed by inspectors directly reporting to the Attorney General.

Respect FOIA

Joe Biden might not want to focus on Trump. But the press will continue to do so.

And if Biden orders agencies to treat FOIA like it is supposed to be treated, rather than forcing the press to sue if they want anything particularly interest, the press will do a lot of the accountability that courts otherwise might (and might provide reason for prosecutions). The press already has FOIAs in that have been undermined by improper exemption claims. For example, Jason Leopold has an existing FOIA into Bill Barr’s interference into the Roger Stone and Mike Flynn prosecutions. American Oversight has a FOIA into why Paul Manafort was sprung from jail when more vulnerable prisoners were not. FOIA into Trump’s separation policies have been key at reuniting families.

If such FOIAs obtained more visibility than they currently do, it would provide the visibility into some of the issues that people would love criminal investigations into.

One of the biggest scandals of the Trump Administration is how he undermined normal institutions of good governance, especially Inspectors General. If those institutions are restored and empowered, it will likely do a surprising amount of the accountability work that is so badly needed.

Triage and Impeachment: Prioritize a Legitimate Criminal Investigation into the Wider Plot over Impeachment

I want to talk about triage in the wake of the terrorist attack on Wednesday as it affects consideration of how to hold Trump accountable for his role in it.

First, some dates:

If Mike Pence were to invoke the 25th Amendment (with the approval of a bunch of Trump’s cabinet members), it could go into effect immediately for at least four days. Trump can challenge his determination, but if the same cabinet members hold with Pence, then Trump’s disqualification remains in place for 21 more days, enough to get through Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Both the House and Senate are not in session, and can’t deviate from the existing schedule without unanimous consent, meaning Mo Brooks in the House or Josh Hawley in the Senate could single-handedly prevent any business.

Because of that, impeachment in the House can’t be started until tomorrow. Right now, Pelosi is using the threat of impeachment as leverage to try to get Pence to act (or Trump to resign, though he won’t). If that doesn’t work, then the House seems prepared to move on a single article of impeachment tied to Trump’s attempts to cheat and his incitement of the insurrection. Pelosi won’t move forward on it until she’s sure it has the votes to succeed.

Even assuming a majority of the House votes to impeach Trump, that will have no impact on his authority to pardon co-conspirators, and he’ll surely attempt to pardon himself, one way or another. Because of Wednesday’s events, he will be doing that without the assistance of Pat Cipollone, which means he’s much more likely to make his plight worse.

Impeaching this week would, however, force Republicans to cast votes before it is clear how the post-insurrection politics will work out (indeed, while Trump still has the power of the Presidency). Significantly, a number of incoming members are angry that Kevin McCarthy advised them to support the insurrection. The vote may be as much an attempt to undo complicity with Wednesday’s actions as it is anything else. Done right, impeachment may exacerbate the fractures in the GOP; done wrong, it could have the opposite effect.

If the House does impeach, then the Senate will not — barring a change of heart from Hawley and everyone else who was still willing to be part of this insurrection — take up the impeachment until January 19 (the parliamentarian has already ruled on this point). That means, the trial for impeachment either happens in Joe Biden’s first week in office, or the House holds off on sending the article of impeachment over to the Senate until Chuck Schumer deems it a worthwhile time. He can also opt to have a committee consider it, calling witnesses and accruing evidence, which will provide the Senate (where there are more Republicans aiming to distance from Trump) a way to further elaborate Trump’s role in the terrorism.

Meanwhile, by losing all access to social media except Parler and with Amazon’s decision yesterday to stop hosting Parler (which will mean it’ll stay down at least a week, until January 17), Trump’s primary mouthpieces have been shut down. There’s reason to believe that the more sophisticated insurrectionists have moved onto more secure platforms like chat rooms and Signal. While that’ll pose some challenges for law enforcement trying to prevent follow-on attacks on January 17, 19, or 20, being on such less accessible platforms will limit their ability to mobilize the kinds of masses that came out on Wednesday. Trump has lost one of the most important weapons he can wield without demanding clearly criminal behavior from others. That said, the urgency of preventing those sophisticated plotters — and a good chunk of these people have military training — from engaging in more targeted strikes needs to be a priority.

But Trump is still President, with his hand on the nuclear codes, and in charge of the chain of command that goes through a bunch of Devin Nunes flunkies at DOD. Nancy Pelosi called Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley and come away with assurances that Trump won’t be able to deploy nukes.

Preventing an Unhinged President From Using the Nuclear Codes: This morning, I spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike. The situation of this unhinged President could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy.

Nevertheless that still leaves Trump in charge of the vast federal bureaucracy, which has been emptied out and the filled back up with people who could pass Johnny McEntee’s loyalty oaths to Trump.

Because this is where we’re at, I have argued that there needs to be a higher priority on getting at least Biden’s operational nominees, along with Merrick Garland, confirmed over impeaching Trump — yet — in the Senate.

We have not yet heard why DOD and DHS and the FBI — on top of the Capitol Police — failed to prevent the terrorist attack on Wednesday (I’ll have more to say about this later). It will take a year to sort out all the conflicting claims. But as we attempt, via reporting, via oversight in Congress (including impeachment), and via a criminal investigation to figure that out, those same people who failed to prevent the attack remain in place. Indeed, most of these entities have offered little to no explanation for why they failed, which is a bad sign.

Because of that, I think Biden needs to prioritize getting at least Garland and Lisa Monaco confirmed as Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General at DOJ, along with a new Acting US Attorney for DC, as soon as possible. I have two specific concerns. First, while FBI has generally been good at policing white supremacists in recent months, they failed miserably here, when it mattered most. One effect of retaliating against anyone who investigated Trump for his “collusion” with Russia has been to install people who were either Trump loyalists or really skilled at avoiding any slight to Trump. Indeed, one of the most charitable possible excuses for FBI’s delayed response is that after years of badgering, otherwise reasonable people were loathe to get involved in something that Trump defined as an election issue.

I have more specific concerns about the DC US Attorney’s office. Michael Sherwin, who has been less awful as Acting US Attorney than Timothy Shea, originally said on the record all options in the investigation that will be led out of his office were on the table, including incitement by Trump. But then someone said off the record that Trump was not a focus of the investigation. I suspect that person is Ken Kohl, who as Acting First Assistant US Attorney is in charge of the investigation and has been cited in other announcements about the investigation.

Ken Kohl at least oversaw, if not participated in, the alteration of documents to help Trump get elected. I’ve been told he’s got a long history of being both corrupt and less than competent. The decisions he will oversee in upcoming weeks could have the effect of giving people the opportunity to destroy evidence that lays out a much broader conspiracy, all while rolling out showy charges against people who were so stupid they took selfies of themselves committing crimes. We want this investigation to go beyond a slew of trespassing charges to incorporate the actual plotting that made this attack possible. It’s not clear Kohl will do that.

Even assuming that people currently in DOJ are willing to collect evidence implicating Trump, short of having a confirmed Attorney General overseeing such decisions, we’re back in the same situation Andrew McCabe was in on May 10, 2017, an Acting official trying to decide what to do in the immediate aftermath of a Trump crime. Trump’s backers have exploited the fact that McCabe made the right choices albeit in urgent conditions, and they’ve done so with the willing participation of some of the people — notably, FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich — who are currently in charge of this investigation.

I’m happy to entertain a range of possible courses going forward, so long as all of them involve holding Trump accountable to the utmost degree possible. I assume Nancy Pelosi, whatever else she’ll be doing, will also be counting the votes to understand precisely what is possible, given the schedule.

But I also know that I’d far rather have Trump and those he directly conspired with criminally charged than have an impeachment delay the thorough fumigation of a government riddled with people who may have had a role in this plot. And that’s not going to happen if the investigation is scoped in such a way in the days ahead to rule out his involvement.

Update: Here’s a much-cited interview with Michael Sherwin. He adopts all the right language (pointedly disavowing labels of sedition or coup, saying he’s just looking at crimes) and repeats his statement that if there’s evidence Trump is involved he’ll be investigated.

On Thursday you were quoted saying the conduct of “all actors” would be examined, which was interpreted to mean President Trump might face charges. Is that what you meant — the man who gave the speech at the start of the day could be looking at charges?

Look, I meant what I said before. In any criminal investigation, I don’t care if it’s a drug trafficking conspiracy case, a human trafficking case or the Capitol — all persons will be looked at, OK? If the evidence is there, great. If it’s not, you move on. But we follow the evidence. If the evidence leads to any actor that may have had a role in this and if that evidence meets the four corners of a federal charge or a local charge, we’re going to pursue it.

Update: This story describes how a senior McConnell aide called Bill Barr’s Chief of Staff who called David Bowdich who then deployed three quick reaction teams in response.

The senior McConnell adviser reached a former law firm colleague who had just left the Justice Department: Will Levi, who had served as Attorney General William P. Barr’s chief of staff.

They needed help — now, he told Levi.

From his home, Levi immediately called FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich, who was in the command center in the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

Capitol police had lost control of the building, Levi told Bowdich.

The FBI official had been hearing radio traffic of aggressive protesters pushing through the perimeter, but Levi said it had gone even further: The mob had already crashed the gates and lives were at risk.

Capitol police had said previously they didn’t need help, but Bowdich decided he couldn’t wait for a formal invitation.

He dispatched the first of three tactical teams, including one from the Washington field office to secure the safety of U.S. senators and provide whatever aid they could. He instructed two more SWAT teams to follow, including one that raced from Baltimore.

These teams typically gather at a staging area off-site to coordinate and plan, and then rush together to the area where they are needed. Bowdich told their commander there was no time.

“Get their asses over there. Go now,” he said to the first team’s commander. “We don’t have time to huddle.”

Not explained: why Bowdich was watching protestors get through the perimeter without deploying teams on his own. Again, I’m not saying he was complicit. I’m saying he has spent the last four years by letting Trump’s claims about politicization direct the Bureau, and can see how that habit might have led to a delayed response here.

Why Merrick Garland Is a Better Attorney General Pick Than You Think

Politico reports that, Joe Biden will pick Merrick Garland to be Attorney General. As I was discussing this morning, it was fairly clear that Biden was delaying this decision until after the Georgia race, which made it clear that Garland was likely going to be his choice if Dems took both seats. Pending Biden’s decisions on other positions, this pick is better than you think.

First, Garland’s resignation from the DC Circuit opens up a judgeship that Biden can fill right away, with confidence his judge will be confirmed. He is likely to pick someone far more liberal than Garland. The candidate will almost certainly be a person of color, probably a Black woman. And she’s likely to be in her 40s. In short, Garland’s resignation allows Biden to start counteracting the damage Trump has done to courts right away, and in the second most important court in the country. Biden will start his Administration with an important judicial appointment that will likely have an impact for decades.

The other positions that matter are Deputy Attorney General — who is the person who runs DOJ on a day-to-day basis — and the Assistant Attorneys General, especially at the Criminal Division and Civil Rights Division. Reporting has said that Biden will emphasize diversity in these roles, and he’s likely to pick people to Garland’s left (because most candidates will be to his left). If that is right, then it means the people running DOJ day-to-day will be more liberal Democrats, with someone who is viewed as a well-respected, fairly non-partisan person leading the department.

In general, that will give Republicans confidence that Biden is not simply replacing a hyper-partisan Barr with someone as partisan as Barr was, even while ensuring that the people who do much of the work will be solid liberals.

I also think this makes it more likely that DOJ could investigate and prosecute Trump. As AG, Garland would only have oversight over a select set of decisions in such an investigation. For example, he would likely have to approve subpoenaing Trump Organization to figure out if Trump got a bribe via an Egyptian bank during 2016 (though such a subpoena would be easier to do after Trump is out of office and if New York State charges other corruption crimes). The most important step Garland would have to approve would be any charges of Trump (or presumably those close to him).

But Garland would not be involved in the day-to-day investigation. He would sign off on any major steps against Trump, but prosecutors well below Garland’s level will conduct the investigation (including investigations already in process that implicate Trump).

That’s honestly how Democrats should prefer any prosecution of Trump, that they be sufficiently well-predicated and substantiated enough to get Garland’s blessing. And if any hypothetical prosecution of Trump does have his blessing, it’ll be more likely to be viewed as a legitimate prosecution, not payback.

My biggest concern about this appointment is criminal justice reform (something that would be pursued in the Criminal and Civil Rights Divisions). One item of note, however: Garland has been recusing on death penalty cases in recent weeks, obviously in anticipation that he might get this appointment. One reason he would do so is an expectation that Biden might change policy significantly in this regard. At the very least, it suggests it is something that has come up in conversations between the two.

Garland is not my first choice: Doug Jones would have been. But there are advantages this appointment gives Biden that Jones does not.

Update: And here are those other positions.

Biden is expected to announce Garland’s appointment on Thursday, along with other senior leaders of the department, including former homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco as deputy attorney general and former Justice Department civil rights chief Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general. He will also name an assistant attorney general for civil rights, Kristen Clarke, the founder of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group.

Gupta and Clarke are precisely the kinds of people who will attend to civil rights issues. It will genuinely be exciting to have the two of them working on these issues, as both are superb (as someone noted on Twitter, Clarke’s pinned tweet right now is about her lawsuit against the Proud Boys for damaging a Black church in DC).

In addition to being Obama’s Homeland Security Assistant, Lisa Monaco was also a top lawyer at DOJ, including at FBI. I think she’ll bring real weight at FBI, without needing to swap out Chris Wray. Ironically, she is the one person in Obama’s orbit who had a direct role in Mike Flynn’s efforts to undermine Russian sanctions (which she largely imposed), because Tom Bossert consulted with her on how the Russians were responding to the sanctions and then reported back to his bosses, including Flynn, minutes before Flynn called Kislyak.

Today Is Robert Mueller’s Merrick Garland Day

As I laid out last week, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Last month, Mitch McConnell started bitching about how long the Robert Mueller investigation has been going on.

What I think about the Mueller investigation is, they ought to wrap it up. It’s gone on seemingly forever and I don’t know how much more they think they can find out.

In response, I started tracking a different kind of forever: how long Mitch McConnell kept open Antonin Scalia’s SCOTUS seat to place Neil Gorsuch, rather than Merick Garland, in it.

Scalia passed away on February 13, 2016.

Gorsuch was sworn in on April 10, 2017.

By my math, Mitch McConnell kept that seat open for 422 days.

Robert Mueller was appointed on May 17, 2017.

By my math, 422 days after May 17, 2017 is July 13, 2018. (Do check my math on this–it has been decades since I have done anything resembling real math.)

In other words, today is Robert Mueller’s Merrick Garland day, the first day on which he has been working as long as Mitch McConnell kept a Supreme Court seat open to make sure a conservative ideologue rather than a centrist judge would occupy that lifetime appointed seat.

Mitch? We haven’t gotten close to forever yet.

Trump Should Get No FBI Director Pick

Yesterday, Mike Lee trolled Democrats by suggesting that Merrick Garland, who has a lifetime seat on the DC Circuit, should vacate that and lead the FBI. In a piece explaining how utterly moronic the many Democrats who took his bait are, Dave Weigel explains this is “Why Liberals Lose” — not just because they never press for advantage effectively, but because they so often fall prey when Republicans do.

We live in a golden age of political stupidity, but I’m not being hyperbolic when I say this: The idea of pulling Judge Merrick Garland off the D.C. Circuit federal appeals court and into the FBI is one of the silliest ideas I’ve seen anyone in Washington fall for. It’s like Wile E. Coyote putting down a nest made of dynamite and writing “NOT A TRAP” on a whiteboard next to it. It’s also an incredibly telling chapter in the book that’s been written since the Republican National Convention — the story of how Republicans who are uncomfortable with the Trump presidency gritting their teeth as they use it to lock in control of the courts.

You should definitely read all of Weigel’s piece, which is spot on.

But there are other aspects that the success of Lee’s ploy explain about Why Liberals Lose. First and foremost, it shows how mindlessly Democrats adopt the playing field that Republicans deal them.

I mean, even as Democrats have been pushing for months to use the Russian scandal to impeach Trump, and even at the moment where that actually seems feasible (down the road), most Democrats simply accepted the necessity of replacing Jim Comey and have shifted instead to fighting the worst names being floated, people like Trey Gowdy (an initial trial balloon) and Alice Fisher and Michael Garcia, who’re reportedly being formally considered.

Why are Democrats even accepting that Trump should get to replace Comey?

According to CNBC’s count from mid-April, Trump had filled just 24 of the 554 Senate confirmed positions in government.

Sure, Trump has filled a handful more in the interim month, but Trump is otherwise not in a rush to staff the government. Yet he has immediately turned to replacing Comey.

There is nothing more illegitimate than for Trump to be able to give someone a ten year term as FBI Director because he fired Jim Comey.

Trump is no longer hiding the fact that he fired Comey to try to undercut the Russian investigation. And the timeline is clear: the dinner to which Trump called Comey to twice demand his loyalty took place on January 27.

As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him.

Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not “reliable” in the conventional political sense.

[snip]

By Mr. Comey’s account, his answer to Mr. Trump’s initial question apparently did not satisfy the president, the associates said. Later in the dinner, Mr. Trump again said to Mr. Comey that he needed his loyalty.

Mr. Comey again replied that he would give him “honesty” and did not pledge his loyalty, according to the account of the conversation.

That means it took place the same day of Sally Yates’ second conversation with Don McGahn about FBI’s investigation into Mike Flynn (and by association, I always point out, Jared Kushner).

It was always a pipe dream for Democrats to think they could stave off Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation, in part because you really do need a full panel at SCOTUS.

But for the moment, the FBI will continue to run the same way the rest of government is running: with the acting officials who’re filling in until Trump gets around to filling the spot. Moreover, Andrew McCabe, the Acting FBI Director, is a Comey loyalist who will ensure his initiatives will continue for whatever portion of Comey’s remaining 6 years he gets to serve.

This is important not just for the Russian investigation — it’s important to the future of our democracy. Alice Fisher, for example, would be an even more insanely pro-corporate FBI Director than Comey (former Board Member of HSBC, remember) or Mueller.

Democrats should be out there, loudly and in unison, decrying how inappropriate it would be for Trump to get to replace Comey when everyone watching knows the firing was one of the most corrupt things a President has done in a century.

Instead, they’re falling prey to Mike Lee’s obvious ploys.

DC Circuit Sends CIA’s Glomar Claims Back to the Drawing Board

The DC Circuit just remanded the ACLU’s drone targeted killing lawsuit (the one I talked about here) to the District Court.

The decision is based on a theory Merrick Garland used in the hearing (which Wells Bennett analyzed here). Whether or not the CIA had admitted to the agency being involved in drones, it had admitted to having an interest in them. Which makes any claim that it cannot reveal it has documents ridiculous.

And there is still more. In 2009, then-Director of the CIA Leon Panetta delivered remarks at the Pacific Council on International Policy. In answer to a question about “remote drone strikes” in the tribal regions of Pakistan, Director Panetta stated:

[O]bviously because these are covert and secret operations I can’t go into particulars. I think it does suffice to say that these operations have been very effective because they have been very precise in terms of the targeting and it involved a minimum of collateral damage. . . . I can assure you that in terms of that particular area, it is very precise and it is very limited in terms of collateral damage and, very frankly, it’s the only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.8

It is hard to see how the CIA Director could have made his Agency’s knowledge of — and therefore “interest” in — drone strikes any clearer. And given these statements by the Director, the President, and the President’s counterterrorism advisor, the Agency’s declaration that “no authorized CIA or Executive Branch official has disclosed whether or not the CIA . . . has an interest in drone strikes,” Cole Decl. ¶ 43; see CIA Br. 43, is at this point neither logical nor plausible.

It is true, of course, that neither the President nor any other official has specifically stated that the CIA has documents relating to drone strikes, as compared to an interest in such strikes. At this stage of this case, however, those are not distinct issues. The only reason the Agency has given for refusing to disclose whether it has documents is that such disclosure would reveal whether it has an interest in drone strikes; it does not contend that it has a reason for refusing to confirm or deny the existence of documents that is independent from its reason for refusing to confirm or deny its interest in that subject. And more to the point, as it is now clear that the Agency does have an interest in drone strikes, it beggars belief that it does not also have documents relating to the subject.

But again, there is more. In the above-quoted excerpt from the CIA Director’s Pacific Council remarks, the Director spoke directly about the precision of targeted drone strikes, the level of collateral damage they cause, and their usefulness in comparison to other weapons and tactics. Given those statements, it is implausible that the CIA does not possess a single document on the subject of drone strikes. Read more

The SCOTUS Merrygoround: Is Ginsburg Shuffle Coming?

The UPI has an article up with the startling headline “Ruth Bader Ginsburg stepping down in 2015”. The article, which is really more of a pondering question, is bylined today by Michael Kirkland and paints the scenario of a Ruth Bader Ginsburg retirement in 2015 so that Obama has sufficient time left in his second term to appoint and confirm a successor.

Although referenced rather obliquely in his article, Kirkland’s basis is premised entirely on the thoughts and predictions of SCOTUS, AND SCOTUSblog, longtime pro Tom Goldstein in a SCOTUSblog post he did last Tuesday, February 14th. Goldstein may be only one voice thinking out loud, but he carries the bona fides to warrant serious consideration here.

Goldstein points to the confluence of Ginsburg’s age, health, and personal career tracking with that of Justice Louis Brandeis. And the thought that Ginsburg will want to see that her replacement is chosen by a Democratic President. Goldstein’s thought process, originally laid out in the comprehensive February 14th entry at SCOTUSblog, is worth reading. Assuming Obama is reelected, which is still a pretty decent bet at this point (certainly capable of changing though), it is hard to find fault with Goldstein’s logic; in fact, it is rather compelling. I also agree with Tom that none of the current conservative bloc, including swing man Tony Kennedy, are going anywhere anytime soon.

Where I do differ from Goldstein, however, is in his prediction for what would transpire upon the theorized Ginsburg tactical retirement:

Assuming that President Obama is re-elected and that Justice Ginsburg does retire at some point in the next Administration, who will be the next nominee? One thing is certain: it will be a woman. It is inconceivable that a Democratic administration with any reasonable choice would cause the gender balance of the Supreme Court to revert to seven men and two women. Relatedly, appointing three women in a row to the Court is excellent politics.

President Obama will also have a strong desire to pick an ethnically or racially diverse nominee. It would be disappointing for the nation’s first African-American President to make two white appointments, leaving the Court with seven white members. A more diverse Court is a better legacy. Given that the President already appointed the first Latina Justice, most likely is an African-American or Asian-American nominee. That said, I think race and ethnicity are plus factors, rather than an imperative like gender.

I am not sure I buy Goldstein’s certainty of yet another female Supreme Court nominee from Barack Obama. I am just not convinced Obama appoints a third woman in a row, color or not. It sure makes it easier that it would be to fill a “female seat”, Ginsburg’s, I guess, and Obama clearly wanted to see three women justices on the court. But he crossed said threshold, and knowing one of them may not be there so long into the future likely played into the strength of his desire to appoint a second woman after Sonia Sotomayor. Such is quite a different thing from having an abiding determination to insure there are always three women on the Supreme bench.

Further, it really restricts the pool of potential nominees and plays into a plethora of counter Read more