Posts

DOJ Has at Least One Card Left to Play: Congress’ Instinct for Self-Preservation

Last night, Trump and DOJ submitted their competing plans for a Special Master to Judge Aileen Cannon. As I laid out, Trump’s plan is a transparent effort to stall the entire investigation for at least three months, and after that to bottle up documents he stole — those with classified markings and those without — at NARA, where he’ll launch new legal fights in DC to prevent further access.

Judge Cannon has ordered Trump to weigh in on the government’s motion for a partial stay of her order, asking her to permit the investigative team access to any documents marked as classified, by 10AM on Monday. Trump will object for the same insane logic he gave in his Special Master proposal: That if he can get a private citizen Special Master to override the government’s classification determination, then he can declare the documents — even Agency documents that would be government, not Presidential Records — part of his own records at NARA.

Because Trump didn’t share his choices until after close of business day on Friday, both sides also have to inform her what they think of the other’s Special Master suggestions — Barbara Jones (who was Special Master for the review of both Rudy Giuliani’s and Michael Cohen’s devices) and retired George W. Bush appellate judge Thomas Griffith for the government, and retired EDNY and FISC judge Raymond Dearie and GOP partisan lawyer Paul Huck Jr for Trump — on Monday.

Then, if Cannon has not relented on the investigative side for documents marked as classified by Thursday, DOJ will ask for a stay of that part of her decision from the 11th Circuit, pending the rest of their appeal (the scope of which remains unknown and may depend on her other decisions this week).

Cannon’s decision on whether to permit investigators to access the documents marked as classified may provide the government leverage over the Special Master choice, which could create new bases for appeal. None of the choices for Special Master are known to be cleared, much less at the TS/SCI levels that would be needed to review the documents Trump stole, though Dearie, who was on FISC as recently as 2019, surely would be easily cleared as such.

That doesn’t matter for the government’s preferred approach. The Special Master won’t get any known classified document under their approach.

They would, however, under Trump’s approach (which more closely matches Cannon’s current order). And so DOJ will have to agree to give clearance to whatever person ends up as Special Master under the Trump plan.

The same Supreme Court precedent that undergirds all these arguments about classification authority, Navy v. Egan, is specifically a ruling about the Executive’s authority to grant or deny clearances. The government could deny any of the proposed Special Masters clearance — and might well do so, to deny Huck access. Likewise, the government might well deny Trump’s lawyers (at least Evan Corcoran, who is likely either a witness or subject of the obstruction side of the investigation) clearance for such a review as well.

So if Cannon doesn’t grant the government’s motion for a stay, then she effectively gives the government several more levers over her control of the Special Master process.

She probably doesn’t give a damn.

There are two other developments we might expect this week, though.

First, last Wednesday, DOJ asked and Chief Judge Beryl Howell granted permission to unseal the parts of the search warrant affidavit mentioning the same two grand jury subpoenas that she unsealed for mention in DOJ’s response to Trump’s Special Master motion. (I’m looking for the person I owe a hat-tip to this for.) Since receiving that permission, DOJ has not yet gone back to Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart to request further unsealing of the affidavit; there’s not even the tell-tale sealed filings in the docket that ended up being prior such requests.

If and when DOJ does ask for further unsealing, it might reveal more information about Trump’s actions — and, importantly for the question of who can be cleared for the Special Master review, Evan Corcoran’s. There are several entirely redacted paragraphs that likely tell what happened in response to the May 11 subpoena. There’s also a likely detailed discussion of the probable cause that Trump — and others — obstructed the investigation, some of which could be unsealed with mention of the surveillance video.

The government response before Cannon didn’t address the evidence of obstruction (or the June 24 subpoena) in much detail. Simply unsealing references of that subpoena in the affidavit might provide more damning information about Trump’s efforts to hide classified documents from DOJ.

More importantly, on Tuesday, the House returns from August recess. It’ll be the first time since the search that both houses of Congress are in town. And in their Motion for a Stay, the government noted (and Judge Cannon did not object) that it did not understand Cannon’s order to prohibit a briefing to “Congressional leaders with intelligence oversight responsibilities.”

5 The government also does not understand the Court’s Order to bar DOJ, FBI, and ODNI from briefing Congressional leaders with intelligence oversight responsibilities regarding the classified records that were recovered. The government similarly does not understand the Order to restrict senior DOJ and FBI officials, who have supervisory responsibilities regarding the criminal investigation, from reviewing those records in preparation for such a briefing.

This seems to telegraph that DOJ plans to brief the Gang of Eight — which includes Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, Kevin McCarthy, Mike Turner, Chuck Schumer, Mark Warner, Mitch McConnell, and Marco Rubio — about what documents Trump stole, possibly this week. Turner and to a lesser degree Rubio have been demanding such a briefing.

And at a minimum, after such a briefing you’d see everyone run to the press and express their opinions about the gravity of Trump’s actions. Because neither DOJ nor Aileen Cannon can prevent these members of Congress from sharing details about these briefings (especially if they’re not classified), you should be unsurprised everyone to provide details of what Trump stole.

That might devolve into a matter of partisan bickering. But two things might moderate such bickering. First, Marco Rubio is on the ballot in November, and Val Demings has already criticized his knee-jerk defense of Trump.

Just as importantly, Mitch McConnell, who badly would like to prevent Democrats from expanding their majority in the Senate and just as badly would like the MAGA Republicans to go away, really doesn’t want to spend the next two months dodging questions about Trump’s crimes.

If not for Trump’s demand for a Special Master, DOJ likely would have put its head down and mentioned nothing of this investigation until after the election. But by demanding one — and by making such unreasonable requests — Trump has ensured that the investigation into his suspected violations of the Espionage Act and obstruction will dominate the news for at least a few more weeks.

Even if DOJ doesn’t brief the Gang of Eight, even if that doesn’t lead to damning new details and recriminations from being made public, the public nature of the Special Master fight will suck all the oxygen out of the next few weeks of campaign season, at least, just as it contributed to Joe Biden enjoying one of the most positive mid-term Augusts for any President in the last half-century.

But if new specifics about Trump’s negligence and efforts to obstruct the investigation are made public, then November’s election will be precisely what Republicans are trying to avoid it being: not just a response to the Dobbs ruling overturning protection for abortion access, but a referendum on the way Republicans have sacrificed American security in their fealty to Donald Trump.

Something Stinks about Kentucky but It’s a Complex Stink

[NB: check the byline, thanks. /~Rayne]

There are a bunch of people running around hair on fire right now bitching loudly and often about Biden fail.

Unfortunately much of this is a bunch of reflexive self sabotage by people who aren’t slowing down to take a fucking breath and think things through.

Take a moment and inhale deeply, then exhale. Take a second to relax before the questions after this jump.

~ ~ ~

What would you trade for 30-40 federal judgeships nominated by Biden and approved by the Senate before the end of this congressional term?

Would you trade one judgeship?

Now imagine if all of the 30-40 vacancies are filled with judges who have solid cred with Democratic Party values (read: pro-choice, pro-voters rights, pro-human rights).

Would you trade one future judgeship nominating an anti-abortion judge in a state which leans GOP for these vacancies?

That’s the deal Biden is reported to have made with Mitch McConnell over a single federal judgeship picked by the Federalist Society earmarked for the next (not currently open) seat in Kentucky.

~ ~ ~

Here’s where it gets all fucked up:

There’s no obvious open pre-emptive communications from the White House about this deal and what’s on the table. I imagine Biden didn’t want to piss off McConnell or the rest of the GOP in order to pull off this deal so the White House went mum. There’s no open seat so why get people rattled about this one seat while everyone is still extremely anxious over SCOTUS’ bullshit Dobbs decision overturning Roe.

The media is doing is usual bullshit; Gannett-owned Courier-Journal in Kentucky is the originating source for this story, and it’s solidly locked behind a paywall as most local Gannett papers tend to do. I can’t tell exactly what the sourcing was for this reporting because I can’t read it. For all I know the source was The Federalist Society itself, intent on fucking with Biden’s approval rating. Or McConnell who so far has done plenty to trash Biden’s approval with wall-to-wall obstruction holding all 50 GOP senators by the short hairs. Or perhaps even Rand Paul being his usual prickish self. Nobody running around yelling right now can offer any more details about sourcing.

Now G/O Media outlet Jezebel is running around trashing Biden based on Courier-Journal’s reporting:

Biden’s latest, deeply hypocritical move comes after he claimed to be fiercely defending women’s right to abortion now that states have been given the green light to ban it outright.

It’s as if they didn’t read the sourcing of their own fucking reporting, like this bit right here:

The federal courts are extremely important right now. The Republican Party’s (read: Mitch McConnell’s) entire strategy for the past few years has been to pack them with conservatives who will shut down any lawsuit attempting to defend abortion rights. Biden is under a lot of pressure to fill the current court vacancies he has with judges who are friendly to reproductive rights. And instead, he is making deals with McConnell to allow more anti-abortion judges into the fray.

The link is to a piece in Bloomberg Law, which reports,

Progressives want the White House and Senate Democrats to move faster. The usual summer congressional slowdown and November midterm campaigning leaves limited time for committee and floor action before a lame-duck session to end the year.

Senate Democrats, who have confirmed 16 circuit nominees in the first year and a half of Joe Biden’s presidency, are aiming to nearly double the tally in the next six months.

But filling all available vacancies is unlikely without changes to how the majority manages vetting, said John Collins, a George Washington University professor who tracks judicial nominations. “I just don’t think there’s enough time,” Collins said.

The hazard for Biden is that a Republican-controlled Senate would confirm few, if any, of his appellate nominees during the final two years of his first term. The 13 circuit courts are the last word on virtually all federal appeals.

Progressives wanted more federal judgeships faster.

Senate Dems want to confirm 32 before the end of the year.

If the Democrats can streamline vetting, there are at least 40 vacancies to be filled — not a one of them in Kentucky.

McConnell wants one future judgeship vacancy in his state in order to facilitate rapid approval.

But that’s not what Jezebel wanted to tell you. Oh no — it’s easier to fall back on the tried-and-true the “Biden’s Busted” variant of “Dems in Disarray” crap because the media in general has conditioned its audience not to question this. You the reader are meant to be braindead and go with it because you’ll have to pay to validate the reporting of one story to get to the bottom of this and you the audience may not know where and how to look for the number of federal judgeship vacancies.

Like here.

Just look at all the pretty red state vacancies!

~ ~ ~

Now the caveat: because the White House hasn’t issued formal communications about this alleged deal, it’s just that, an allegation — pure vaporware. We do not know with a degree of certainty who agreed to what in order to accomplish their aims.

Until we see something formal directly from a party to the agreement, this should be treated as speculation.

And it’s speculation Jezebel fell for, hook, line, and sinker.

(Side note: Probably doesn’t hurt to recall G/O Media is the successor to Gawker. Gawker’s Gizmodo outlet  fell for bullshit about Facebook being biased against conservatives just in time to get played before the 2016 election really heated up and Gawker went bankrupt thanks to Peter Thiel.)

~ ~ ~

There are a LOT of “Biden/Dem Fail” stories out there right now kicking around social media. Do NOT take them at face value. Dig in, looking for sourcing and attribution, business model if any involved; always ask, “Cui bono?

For crying out loud we all know the right-wing continues to follow Bannon’s playbook, “flooding the zone with shit”; they’re desperate to push both the House January 6 Committee hearings and the anger of childbearing people off the front page and out of social media.

That’s not to say the Democrats at various levels of the party ecosphere aren’t screwing up. Communications are a massive problem; they’re not bringing their A-game even though they know the right-wing ecosphere is well organized, well funded, and willing to be extremely nasty. Yet Dems top to bottom, elected to grassroots are still bringing butter knives to AR-15 gunfights instead of embracing the Chicago Way.

(As much as I respect Michelle Obama and her ethic, “We go high,” it doesn’t work with Nazis and Nazi enablers. Punch Nazis literally and figuratively. Concede no ground.)

Most — not all, thank you Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, for example — are making huge mistakes with fundraising right now off the back of the Dobbs decision. Stop it. Just stop.

Make instead an ask for action, tell Democratic voters what they can do first in order to beat back the fascist GOP’s attacks. Make money an ask at the end, not first.

And for dogs’ sake, get the fundamentals right, like copy editing and proofreading. Nothing makes any ask look more like a phishing attempt than half-assed communications.

But elected and appointed Dems, and Democratic Party officials with the DNC or state parties aren’t the only ones fucking up.

We are when we swallow bullshit without questioning it first, without pushing back whether there’s any merit to the bullshit or not, when we share the bullshit like stenographers without making a truth sandwich first a la George Lakoff, and when we don’t do our bit to be the left-wing media ecosphere we don’t otherwise have because we don’t buy big corporate media machines like the right-wing does. Share good, accurate news, rinse, repeat. Focus on driving constructive action.

Stop letting the right-wing kick our asses. Pull up your big people panties and fight back like you mean it. Make sure you’re aiming at your opposition not your own team.

Easy Cases: Why Austin Sarat’s Argument That Trump Should Not Be Prosecuted Is Wrong

Randolph Moss, serving as Assistant Attorney General for OLC in 2000, famously wrote the following:

Our view remains that a sitting President is constitutionally immune from indictment and criminal prosecution.

Less famously, however, the first 11 pages of that more famous memo rely on this earlier OLC memo from Moss:

We conclude that the Constitution permits a former President to be criminally prosecuted for the same offenses for which he was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate while in office.

Even less famous are words Moss released last Tuesday, now presiding as a judge over a January 6 prosecution, ruling that obstruction, 18 USC 1512(c)(2), clearly applies to the official Congressional proceeding to certify the vote count on January 6, 2021.

Hard cases may make bad law. But easy cases ought not.

For these reasons, the Court rejects Defendants’ contention that the joint session of Congress convened to certify the electoral vote is not a “proceeding before the Congress.”

Those legal documents are all useful background to my response to this Austin Sarat op-ed, opining that DOJ should not prosecute Trump for his actions related to January 6.

I worry that going forward with even a well-grounded prosecution of Trump would almost certainly turn him into a martyr, fuel a furious attack on the Biden Justice Department for using prosecution as a political weapon, spur violent outbursts, and plunge this country ever closer to the abyss which it seems to be fast approaching.

“An investigation and potential indictment and trial of Mr. Trump,” Eric Posner warns, “would give the circus of the Trumpian presidency a central place in American politics for the next several years, sucking the air out of the Biden administration and feeding into Mr. Trump’s politically potent claims to martyrdom. Mr. Trump will portray the prosecution as revenge by the ‘deep state’ and corrupt Democrats.”

This difficult judgment does not mean that Attorney General Garland should do nothing.

He can serve justice by building on the work of the House committee and helping to fully develop the facts of what Trump did in the lead up to and on January 6. Garland should present those facts clearly, logically, and with irrefutable documentation. And he should do what McConnell and Graham suggested in February by citing chapter and verse the numerous federal criminal laws that Trump violated.

First, some background.

Unless you went to Amherst College, you may never have heard of Sarat. He created a Law and Society program there and has served as a Dean. I’ve had conversations a number of prominent and not-so prominent lawyers who graduated from Amherst during Sarat’s tenure — some you’ve heard of!! — who have spoken of the great influence the professor has had on their career. And while I’m not a lawyer, like many of those lawyers, I first learned to read a legal document from Sarat.

Over thirty years ago in a class on how the state regulates sexuality, Sarat assigned me to read Griswold v Connecticut and Roe v Wade alongside Tolstoy and Kiss of the Spider Woman, the latter of which I taught on my own right and included in my dissertation years later. Sarat taught me critical skills you may benefit from at this site.

My complaint with Sarat’s argument is that he violates the rule he taught me so many years ago: He didn’t read the relevant legal documents before writing this op-ed. The sources he links in his op-ed are:

  • Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks’ MSNBC appearance addressing the issue
  • A column on a June 2021 Rachel Maddow appearance in which she suggested the House could send a criminal referral to DOJ
  • An article about a bunch of people responding to Liz Cheney’s invocation of obstruction (the same statute Moss ruled on), which itself betrays that those people quoted in the article missed how obstruction was already being used in DOJ’s prosecution
  • Lawrence Tribe’s column that is riddled with factual errors that make it clear Tribe is unfamiliar with the public record
  • Mitch McConnell’s speech, justifying why he was voting against impeaching Trump, noting that he could be criminally prosecuted
  • Lindsey Graham’s comments making the same argument: that Trump should not be impeached but could be prosecuted
  • A report on DC District Attorney Karl Racine’s comments that Trump could be charged with a misdemeanor
  • A BoGlo op-ed that calls for prosecution but envisions Trump’s vulnerability with regards to January 6 to pertain to incitement
  • A NY Mag piece that includes obstruction among the possible laws Trump may have broken, but claims that DOJ, “seems to be pursuing misdemeanor trespass cases at the Capitol more aggressively than potential felony charges for Trump,” which misunderstands how DOJ appears to be using misdemeanor arrests (and indeed, how those witnesses would be necessary to any Trump prosecution)
  • A Ryan Cooper piece that states as fact that Garland’s DOJ, “is enabling Republican lawlessness through its pathetic unwillingness to prosecute Trump and all his cronies for their crimes against democracy;” Cooper makes no mention of the Tom Barrack prosecution, and while he invokes Rudy Giuliani he doesn’t mention the decision — seemingly made in Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco’s first days — to seize Rudy Giuliani’s phones and spend 8 months getting a privilege review on the contents of Rudy’s phones right through April 2021
  • A law review article on prosecutorial discretion
  • Robert Jackson’s seminal text about the role of a Federal prosecutor
  • The Bordenkircher precedent on plea negotiations that upholds prosecutorial discretion
  • The quip, “hard cases make bad law”
  • An Eric Posner op-ed published before Trump attempted a coup

Some of these things — the Bordenkircher opinion, McConnell and Graham’s comments suggesting Trump could be prosecuted, and Robert Jackson — are important primary sources. But most of the rest are secondary sources, and many of them — notably Tribe and Cooper — are demonstrably wrong on the facts because they didn’t consult available primary sources.

And as a result of consulting erroneous sources like Tribe, Sarat misunderstands the case before him.

For example, many of Sarat’s sources imagine that Trump’s biggest criminal exposure is in incitement and not the same obstruction charge with which well over 200 insurrectionists have already been charged and to which at least a dozen people have already pled guilty (most of them even before Moss and his colleagues upheld the application in recent weeks). Nine pled guilty to obstruction as part of cooperation agreements and several of those cooperators interacted with Roger Stone in the days and hours leading up to the assault on the Capitol.

Many of Sarat’s sources assume that DOJ couldn’t get to Trump except for the work the January 6 Committee is doing.

In spite of Garland’s repeated claims that his DOJ would pursue the January 6 investigation wherever the evidence leads — including at an appearance where he discussed that famous Moss memo that relies so heavily on that less famous Moss memo — Sarat suggests that Garland would have to launch an investigation, one entirely separate from the investigation already in progress, anew. “Based on what we now know, there appears to be ample reason for Attorney General Merrick Garland to launch a criminal probe of Trump.” That is, Sarat treats the question before him as whether Merrick Garland should take to a podium and announce, “we are investigating the former President,” and not whether DOJ should continue the investigation(s) that it already has in progress, working to prosecute organizer-inciters like Alex Jones’ side-kick Owen Shroyer (who helped lure mobsters to the Capitol) and flipping low-level conspirators to build the case against more senior conspirators, conspirators whose ties to Trump associates like Jones and Stone have already been raised in court documents.

The question is not whether DOJ should open an investigation into Donald Trump. The question is whether, if and when DOJ accumulates enough evidence — surely helped by Select Committee efforts but in no way relying entirely on them — to show probable cause that Trump conspired with others to prevent Congress from certifying the vote on January 6, 2021, to charge him like DOJ has already charged hundreds of others.

And that question is significantly a question about equity.

The question is whether, if Paul Hodgkins has to serve eight months in prison for occupying the Senate while waving a Donald Trump flag around (Hodgkins is already three months into that sentence), Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Jacob Chansley has to serve 41 months in prison (Chansley has been in jail since January 9, 2021) for occupying the Senate dais, in defiance of orders from a cop, with a spear and a blowhorn and leaving a message for Mike Pence reading, “It’s Only A Matter of Time. Justice Is Coming!,” Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Kevin Fairlamb has to serve 41 months in prison (Fairlamb has been in jail since January 22, 2021) for punching one of the cops protecting the Capitol “with the purpose of influencing, affecting, and retaliating against the conduct of government by stopping or delaying the Congressional proceeding by intimidation or coercion,” Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Gina Bisignano faces 41 months for traveling to DC boasting, “The insurrection begins,” marching to the Capitol while narrating her actions — “we are marching to the Capitol to put some pressure on Mike Pence” and “I’m going to break into the Capitol” — and then helping to break a window to get into the Capitol, Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Matthew Greene faces 41 months in prison for — months after Trump instructed the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” — joining the Proud Boys in an orchestrated assault on the Capitol in hopes, “that his actions and those of his co-conspirators would cause legislators and the Vice President to act differently during the course of the certification of the Electoral College Vote than they would have otherwise,” Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well. Greene has been in jail since April 21, 2021.

The question is whether, if Jon Schaffer faces 41 months for, after learning “that Vice President Pence planned to go forward with the Electoral College vote certification,” forcibly storming the Capitol armed with bear spray, Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Josiah Colt faces 51 months because, after he, “learned that the Vice President had not intervened to stop the certification of the Electoral College vote,” he stormed the Capitol, broke into the Senate, and then occupied Pence’s chair, Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Graydon Young faces 63 months because he barged into the Capitol as part of a stack of kitted out militia members with the purpose of “intimidating and coercing government personnel who were participating in or supporting” the vote certification, Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well.

At this point, there’s no way to avoid the things Sarat would like to avoid by merely talking about Trump’s crimes rather than prosecuting them, to say nothing of the way that would violate DOJ rules prohibiting doing so. That’s true, in large part, because Trump is claiming martyrdom for those who did his dirty work. Between right wing lawyers swooping in to push defendants to renege on their guilty pleas, continued efforts by defendants’ co-conspirators to claim they were all set up by the Deep State, and schemes to profit off continued propaganda in support of Trump, every one of these cases involves some of the things that Sarat fears would occur if Trump, too, were prosecuted. Trump has a press conference scheduled for January 6 that will undoubtedly do some of the things Sarat would like to stave off. That din will only get louder as trials start in February. The claims of martyrdom are already baked into this investigation, and so would be better addressed by a direct debunking rather than a belated attempt at avoidance, not least because white terrorists have a history of undermining prosecutions by claiming martyrdom.

But there’s another reason, besides equity, that demands that DOJ prosecute Trump if prosecutors can collect the evidence to do so.

All five of the opinions (Dabney Friedrich, Amit Mehta, Tim Kelly, James Boasberg, plus Moss) upholding the application of obstruction to the vote certification have some discussion of what separates “corrupt” efforts to obstruct the vote count from political lobbying or civil disobedience. The discussion entails whether corruption requires an attempt to corrupt someone else, or whether it only involves corruptness in one’s own actions. A number of these opinions take an easy route, stating simply that the defendants in question are alleged to have broken the law in other ways in their efforts to obstruct the vote count, which gets past corruptness in one’s own actions, so a further analysis of whether legal actions might amount to obstruction is unnecessary as applied to those defendants. That’s an intransitive understanding of the corrupt purpose necessary to obstruction.

All stop short of where James Pearce, the prosecutor guiding this adoption of 1512(c)(2), went in responding to a question from Trump appointee Carl Nichols; Pearce stated that one way an unnamed person just like Trump might act corruptly would be by asking someone else to violate their duty: If that person, “calls Vice President Pence to seek to have him adjudge the certification in a particular way … knowing it is not an available argument [and is] asking the vice president to do something the individual knows is wrongful … one of the definitions of ‘corruptly’ is trying to get someone to violate a legal duty.” That’s a transitive kind of corruption, an attempt to get someone else to violate their oath. Even some of the confessed obstructors listed here (most notably, the first Proud Boy to plead guilty) were knowingly doing that.

But there’s a third option. In his opinion on the application of 1512(c)(2), somewhat uniquely among the five opinions upholding the application thus far, former OLC head Judge Moss ruled that if the use of illegal activity to interrupt the vote count weren’t enough to distinguish between normal protests and obstruction, then the court could turn to whether the defendants (whom, in this case, you’ve likely never heard of) were attempting to obtain an improper benefit for themselves … or someone else.

To the extent any additional guardrail is necessary, other recognized definitions of the term “corruptly” both fit the context of the obstruction of a congressional proceeding and provide additional guidance. In his separate opinion in Aguilar, for example, Justice Scalia quoted with approval the jury instruction given by the district court in that case: “An act is done corruptly if it’s done voluntarily and intentionally to bring about an unlawful result or a lawful result by some unlawful method, with a hope or expectation of . . . [a] benefit to oneself or a benefit to another person.” 515 U.S. at 616–17 (Scalia, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Because the Aguilar majority ruled on other grounds, it did not opine on the meaning of “corruptly.” Id. at 598–603. But there is no reason to doubt Justice Scalia’s observation that formulations of this type are “longstanding and well-accepted,” id. at 616, and, indeed, the D.C. Circuit cited to a similar definition—“a person acts ‘corruptly’ when taking action ‘with the intent to obtain an improper advantage for [one]self or someone else, inconsistent with official duty and the rights of others’”—in United States v. Pasha, 797 F.3d 1122, 1132 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quotation marks omitted) (quoting United States v. North, 910 F.2d 843, 882 (D.C. Cir. 1990), opinion withdrawn and superseded in other part on reh’g, 920 F.2d 940 (D.C. Cir. 1990)). In the garden-variety disruption or parading case, in contrast, the government need not prove that the defendant sought unlawfully to obtain a benefit for himself or another person in the proceeding itself. But, because the Court is persuaded that Defendants’ vagueness argument fails even without this refinement, and because the Court has yet to hear from the parties on the proper jury instructions, the Court will leave for another day the question whether this formulation—or a slightly different formulation—will best guide the jury.

This language likely came out of some ill-advised claims from the defense attorneys in question, who claimed there would be no injustice that could result from obstructing the certification of Joe Biden’s vote. The claim was ridiculous. It suggested that nullifying the votes of 81 million people and depriving Biden of his legal victory would create no victims.

But the comment brought the briefing before Moss to where it didn’t go (except to a limited degree before Kelly) in the other challenges.

The obstruction of the vote count on January 6, 2021 was corrupt because people put on body armor, broke into the locked Capitol, and beat up cops in an attempt to obstruct the certification of Biden’s victory — the intransitive corruption of the people who broke other laws to carry it out. It was corrupt because those who carried it out sought to intimidate people like Mike Pence to do what he otherwise refused to. But it was corrupt because the entire goal, shared by all the people charged with obstruction, was to declare Trump the victor in an election he didn’t win.

DOJ should not back off prosecuting Trump along with all those others charged in the same crime, some of whom (I believe DOJ will ultimately be able to prove) are co-conspirators with Trump in a large networked conspiracy, for the crime of trying to obstruct the certification of Joe Biden’s win. Judges, defense attorneys, and defendants themselves — including many of the trespassers — keep insisting that Donald Trump was the key participant in the crime they’re all pleading guilty to.

His improper advantage was undoubtedly the goal.

“What every prosecutor is practically required to do is to select the cases for prosecution and to select those in which the offense is the most flagrant, the public harm the greatest, and the proof the most certain,” Jackson told America’s US Attorneys in the famous speech Sarat cited. Those watching the DOJ investigation rather than just the Select Committee or some often ill-informed TV lawyers have raised real questions about whether DOJ has honored that advice, because so many hapless Trump dupes are being prosecuted for their role in attempting to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power (as I have laid out, there appear to be investigative reasons why DOJ has prosecuted the misdemeanants they have). But about one thing, Jackson had no doubt: “In the enforcement of laws that protect our national integrity and existence, we should prosecute any and every act of violation.”

As noted above, DOJ has thus far accused 275 people of obstructing the certification of Joe Biden’s victory (a good number of those have been permitted to plead down to a misdemeanor). DOJ has already decided that it will treat obstruction of the vote certification as a crime that endangers our national integrity. Charging Trump with obstruction would amount to holding the guy who stood to benefit to the same standard as those whose corrupt actions attempted to steal for him an improper advantage.

The question is not, as so many commentators who discovered the obstruction application only when Liz Cheney called their attention to it, whether to open an investigation into Trump. 700 people have already been charged in the investigation that might one day charge Trump. The question is whether to hold Trump to the same standard as the hundreds who have gone before him.

Prosecuting Trump may be the only way to confirm that Chansley and Bisignano and Colt and Young aren’t martyrs to Trump’s losing cause.

Other Posts

Because new readers are coming to this site via this post, I wanted to include some other overview posts about January 6 that may be helpful:

A Taxonomy of the [Visible] January 6 “Crime Scene” Investigation: This post explains what I understand the DOJ investigation to have accomplished in a year.

The Pied Piper of Insurrection, and Other Challenges in Charging the January 6 Organizer-Inciters: The 700 arrests thus far have been relatively easy, because everyone arrested was — at a minimum — trespassing on January 6. The next step of the investigation — arresting the organizer-inciters who themselves implemented Trump’s plans — is where DOJ will have to have more evidence of conspiracy or other corrupt mens rea supporting obstruction. This post looks at several of them.

Ten Things TV Lawyers Can Do Rather than Whinging about Merrick Garland: I can’t promise you DOJ will prosecute Trump or even Rudy Giuliani and Alex Jones. I can promise that if they were to charge Trump, it wouldn’t be before midterms. Complex investigations of very powerful people simply don’t work that fast. For that reason, among others, those spending their time whinging about Merrick Garland’s purported inaction would be better served finding some other way to save democracy. This post provides ten ways to do that.

Impeaching Donald John Trump — Again [UPDATE-3]

[NB: Check the byline. Updates will be posted at the bottom. /~Rayne]

The House is now voting on H.R. 24 to impeach Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors.

At 4:24 p.m. ET the vote stands at 228 Yea, 194 Nay, with 11 Not Voting or as-yet uncast votes.

There was a report that no GOP House member from North Carolina was present, which may boost the NV number higher than expected.

~ ~ ~

UPDATE-1 — 4:36 PM ET   — 

House members are being asked if they have voted and if any of them wants to vote. There’s no change.

H.R. 24 passes, 231 Yeas (including 10 GOP votes) to 197 Nays with 5 Not Voting.

Donald John Trump has been impeached a second time during his term, this time for High Crimes and Misdemeanors.

~ ~ ~

UPDATE-2 — 4:50 PM ET —

In comments below I said I’d like to know how many phone calls there were from the White House to GOP reps over the last 24 hours.

Rep. Jason Crow told MSNBC, “I had a lot of conversations with my Republican colleagues. … A couple of them broke down in tears … saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.”

Sure sounds like the White House may have extorted Nays from GOP representatives considering the level of fear Crow shared.

In other words, even as the House was preparing to vote to impeach Trump for High Crimes and Misdemeanors, he may well have been committing more crimes.

House whip Steny Hoyer committed to sending H.R. 24 immediately to the Senate for action. What happens next is on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been making noises which sound supportive of conviction — but this is McConnell, who has so far done nothing during the last four years to the benefit of the country and in defense of the Constitution, sucking up instead to Trump or the corporate donor class.

Who will McConnell suck up to with this resolution? Will he ignore the clear and present danger Trump poses to national security every moment he remains in power between now and noon ET on January 20?

~ ~ ~

UPDATE-3 — 2:25 AM ET 14-JAN-2021 —

The final vote count was 232-197, with the following GOP representatives voting for impeachment:

Adam Kinzinger (IL)
Liz Cheney (WY)
John Katko (NY)
Fred Upton (MI)
Jaime Herrera Beutler (WA)
Dan Newhouse (WA)
Peter Meijer (MI)
Anthony Gonzalez (OH)
Tom Rice (SC)
David Valadao (CA)

Nice that two were from my state, Michigan, and one of the two a freshman; still, Michigan had five Trump-y GOP representatives who voted No.

These members did not vote:

Kay Granger (TX)
Andy Harris (MD)
Greg Murphy (NC)
Daniel Webster (FL)

All four are GOP representatives.

This past weekend Senate Majority Leader toyed around with GOP donors — or perhaps with Trump — indicating he had left Team Trump’s camp.

McConnell spoke to major Republican donors last weekend to assess their thinking about Trump and was told that they believed Trump had clearly crossed a line, the strategist said. McConnell told them he was finished with Trump, according to the consultant.

After the impeachment vote McConnell issued this statement saying the earliest he can start a trial is next week.

It’s not like there’s a clear and present danger to national security in the White House which has encouraged the assassination of the Vice President and members of Congress including the next couple of people in the line of presidential succession.

I wonder what McConnell received in exchange for refusing to move to an emergency session to take up the trial.

I’d also like to know what the big GOP donors think of McConnell’s foot dragging. The number of corporate PACs which have said they won’t donate to seditionist members of Congress has grown and includes Fortune 100 companies; how do they feel about McConnell leaving national security hanging as it is for another week?

House Speaker Pelosi named the impeachment managers Tuesday; the nine House members are a good lineup of attorneys including litigators, public defenders, and prosecutors:

Jamie Raskin (MD), lead
Diana DeGette (CO)
David Cicilline (RI)
Joaquin Castro (TX)
Eric Swalwell (CA)
Ted Lieu (CA)
Stacey Plaskett (VI)
Joe Neguse (CO)
Madeleine Dean (PA)

Let’s hope they make a tight and impactful case for conviction though Trump did a pretty good job all by himself, caught entirely on camera a little after noon on January 6, exhorting the rioters to show strength and march on the Capitol Building.

It’s a pity the seditionist caucus can’t be tried at the same time. Every member of Congress who aided and abetted this insurrection should be expelled; their districts and states deserve better representation from people who take their oath of office seriously, including protecting the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic.

Why I Agreed to Stop Calling Liz Cheney “BabyDick”

I made a vow on Twitter one of these days that I would no longer refer to Liz Cheney as “BabyDick” if she voted for impeachment.

She is going to vote for impeachment — the second Republican House member to announce their vote.

So I’m on my last legs using the term that invokes her protection of her own father for torture. But this seems like an obviously smart strategic position, as I laid out in this thread;

  • Dems need to realize the GOP wants to be purged of Trumpism
  • After Trump lost, Mitch McConnell thought he could make demands as the senior elected GOP
  • That didn’t happen
  • Then Trump lost the GA vote
  • Then Trump almost got Mitch killed
  • That gives Dems an opportunity to demand the purge of insurrectionists like Mo Brooks, Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs, Boebert, Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Tommy Tuberville
  • That means institutional Republicans — like “BabyDick” and McConnell — actually have an incentive to use impeachment to cleanse their party

It’s a small ask for the GOP, because they’d like to get their corporatist party back, thank you.

Liz “BabyDick” Cheney and I will never be friends. But she will have served a key leadership role in this troubled time in providing another path for the Republican party by voting to impeach an authoritarian.

May she help others feel safe in rejecting this scourge.

Who Will Be Forced to Walk the Plank on November 4th?

Who will Trump force to walk the plank after the election?
(h/t Stacey Harvey for the image, [CC Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) ]

Win or lose, Donald Trump will be looking for vengeance once the election is over. Either he will lose, and want to punish those he deems responsible, or he will win and want to punish the folks he’s had to put up with despite their failures to do what he wanted. One way or another, Trump will want to make certain people pay and pay dearly after the voting is over.

It might be to get rid of people who have angered him by not being sufficiently publicly loyal and submissive.

It might be to get rid of people who angered him by not being sufficiently good at making Trump look good before the election.

It might be to get rid of people who angered him by making him look bad, indecisive, or (gasp!) wrong.

It might be to get rid of people who stood up to him in private and made him back down on something, even if that backing down was only done in private.

It might be to get rid of people who stood up to him in public, and he had to simply take it at the time because Trump would have paid a price if he got rid of them when it happened.

Put me down for Trump demanding that the following people be forced to walk the plank:

  • Doctors Tony Fauci at NAIAD, Stephen Hahn at FDA, and Robert Redfield at CDC, along with HHS Secretary Alex Azar for not keeping these disloyal doctors in line;
  • Bill Barr for failing to deliver any indictments and convictions of any Bidens or Clintons, John Durham for dragging his feet on his reports that would have made that happen, Christopher Wray for being the FBI director and generally annoying, whoever approved letting Andrew Weissmann reveal that Manafort was breaking the gag order in his case by communicating with Sean Hannity, and a host of other US Attorneys who didn’t behave according to Trump’s rules;
  • General Mark Milley for publicly apologizing for taking part in the infamous Bible-waving photo op created by driving protesters out of Lafayette Park with chemical agents, various generals and admirals who refused to back Trump’s call to deploy US troops to American cities he didn’t like, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper for not keeping these military folks in line;
  • Dr. Sean Conley, for not being more deceptive with the press around Trump’s COVID-19 status;
  • Mark Meadows for undermining Conley’s initial “he’s doing great” press remarks, as well as for more generally not keeping the WH functioning smoothly (as if that were possible, given his boss);
  • Mike Pompeo for failing to get Ukraine to do Trump’s bidding, as well as for not keeping folks like Fiona Hill in line.

But I must admit this is an incomplete list. Who else do you think might be on Trump’s Naughty List? Add your own thoughts in the comments.

Note: I also left off the list a bunch of folks like Mitch McConnell, Andrew Cuomo, Savannah Guthrie, and Cy Vance that Trump would demand walk the plank, but who remain outside his ability to make that happen. I also didn’t include Ivanka, Jared, Don Jr, or Eric, as he can’t fire his family. Though of course, he could disinherit them . . . for whatever that’s worth.

Mitch McConnell Just Helped Trump Take Kentucky’s Cops and Teachers Hostage

“I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

There’s been a lot written about Mitch McConnell’s motives for refusing to give aid to states and localities whose budgets have been decimated by coronavirus response in the last round of COVID relief.

John Harwood described it as an anti-government effort, generally, though notes it could backfire among white working class voters.

Wealthy Republican donors disdain government as an unwelcome source of taxes and business regulations. They can purchase private alternatives to broad-based public services in realms such as education, health care and transportation.
Republicans in Congress see unionized government workers as hostile soldiers fighting against their reelection. Responsibility for financing the services those workers provide falls to governors and state legislators, not them.

The GOP infused those sentiments into the 2017 tax law that remains Trump’s principal legislative achievement. It limited deductions for state and local levies from federal tax bills — which both punished taxpayers in blue states that provide more services and made it harder for those states to finance those services.

The wild card in this constellation of forces is the party’s increasing dependence on working-class white voters. Republicans have long capitalized on their suspicion that many government programs benefit others, not them. Trump placed appeals to their racial resentments at the center of his 2016 campaign.

Axis of Evil expert David Frum described how, by forcing states into bankruptcy, Republicans hope to exercise power even after Trump has been defeated.

Republican plans for state bankruptcy sedulously protect state taxpayers. The Bush-Gingrich op-ed of 2011 was explicit on this point. A federal law of state bankruptcy “must explicitly forbid any federal judge from mandating a tax hike,” they wrote. You might wonder: Why? If a Republican Senate majority leader from Kentucky is willing to squeeze Illinois state pensioners, why would he care about shielding Illinois state taxpayers? The answer is found in the third of the three facts of American fiscal federalism.

United States senators from smaller, poorer red states do not only represent their states. Often, they do not even primarily represent their states. They represent, more often, the richest people in bigger, richer blue States who find it more economical to invest in less expensive small-state races. The biggest contributor to Mitch McConnell’s 2020 campaign and leadership committee is a PAC headquartered in Englewood, New Jersey. The second is a conduit for funds from real-estate investors. The third is the tobacco company Altria. The fourth is the parcel delivery service UPS. The fifth is the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical corporation. The sixth is the home health-care company, LHC Group. The seventh is the Blackstone hedge fund. And so on and on.

A federal bankruptcy process for state finances could thus enable wealthy individuals and interest groups in rich states to leverage their clout in the anti-majoritarian federal system to reverse political defeats in the more majoritarian political systems of big, rich states like California, New York, and Illinois.

[snip]

But McConnell seems to be following the rule “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” He’s realistic enough to recognize that the pandemic probably means the end not only of the Trump presidency, but of his own majority leadership. He’s got until January to refashion the federal government in ways that will constrain his successors. That’s what the state-bankruptcy plan is all about.

Andrew Cuomo recognized the same dynamic. Amid a rant noting that, as governor, he serves people of all (or no) party, he described the hypocrisy of bailing out airlines and small businesses but not cops and other first responders.

I understand that, but state and local government funds police and fire and teachers and schools. How do you not fund police and fire and teachers and schools in the midst of this crisis? Yes, airlines are important. Yes, small businesses are important. So police and fire and healthcare workers who are the front line workers, and when you don’t fund the state, then the state can’t fund those services. It makes no sense to me. Also, it makes no sense that the entire nation is dependent on what the governors do to reopen. We’ve established that. It’s up to this governor, it’s up to this governor, it’s up to this governor, but then you’re not going to fund the state government. You think I’m going to do it alone? How do you think this is going to work? And then to suggest we’re concerned about the economy, states should declare bankruptcy. That’s how you’re going to bring this national economy back? By states declaring bankruptcy? You want to see that market fall through the cellar?

Let New York state declare bankruptcy. Let Michigan declare bankruptcy. Let Illinois declare bankruptcy. Let’s California declare bankruptcy. You will see a collapse of this national economy. So just dumb. Vicious is saying, when Senator McConnell said, this is a blue state bailout, what he’s saying is if you look at the states that have coronavirus problems, they tend to be democratic states. New York, California, Michigan, Illinois. They are democratic states. So if you fund states that are suffering from the coronavirus, the democratic states, don’t help New York state because it is a democratic state. How ugly a thought. I mean, just think of what he’s saying. People died. 15,000 people died in New York, but they were predominantly Democrats. So why should we help them? I mean, for crying out loud, if there was ever a time for you to put aside your pettiness and your partisanship and this political lens that you see the world through Democrat and Republican and we help Republicans, but we don’t have Democrats. That’s not who we are.

It’s just not who we are as a people. I mean, if there’s ever a time for humanity and decency, now is the time. And if there was ever a time to stop your political, obsessive political bias and anger, which is what it’s morphing to, just a political anger, now is the time and you want to politically divide this nation now, with all that’s going on? How irresponsible and how reckless/ I’m the governor of all New Yorkers. Democrat, Republican, independent. I don’t even care what your political party is. I represent you, and we are all there to support each other. This is not the time or the place or the situation to start your divisive politics. It is just not.

Cuomo also noted that McConnell’s own state, Kentucky, is a net aid recipient, not New York.

Let’s talk about fairness, Mitch. NYS puts $116 billion more into the federal pot than we take out. Kentucky TAKES $148 billion more from the federal pot than they put in. But we don’t deserve help now because the 15,000 people who died here were predominately democrats?

David Sirota is the only one I saw who observed that McConnell’s own state of Kentucky would be one of the hardest hit states.

In a half-assed play to avoid looking like he’s deliberately enriching his elite financiers and starving the peasants, McConnell cast himself as a principled opponent of “blue state bailouts” — a seemingly shrewd anti-coastal framing for his own potentially difficult reelection campaign.

In reality, though, McConnell’s opposition to pension aid is even worse than a pathetic Gerald Ford impression. It is him giving the big middle finger to hundreds of thousands of his own constituents whose Republican-leaning state is now facing one of America’s worst pension crises after McConnell’s Wall Street courtiers strip-mined Kentucky’s public retirement system.

That’s right: for all the talk of pension shortfalls in blue states like Illinois and California, the bright red state of Kentucky has one of the most underfunded pension systems in the country. The gap between promised benefits and current resources has been estimated to be between $40 billion and $60 billion. One of the state’s pension funds is less than 15 percent funded.

Those shortfalls are not the product of Kentucky’s public-sector workers being greedy or lavishly remunerated — Kentucky teachers, for example, are paid 23 percent less than other workers with similar educational credentials, and they do not receive Social Security benefits.

No — the shortfalls are the result of 1) state lawmakers repeatedly refusing to make annual contributions to the system, 2) investment losses from the 2007 financial crisis and now the COVID downturn, and 3) especially risky hedge fund investments that generated big fees for politically connected Wall Street firms, but especially big losses for the state’s portfolio. (Executives from some of those specific firms are among McConnell’s biggest collective donors, and those firms could be enriched by other parts of McConnell’s federal stimulus bill.

The pension emergency in Kentucky has become so dire that teachers staged mass protests last year, resulting in national headlines and a PBS Frontline special, and a court case that ultimately overturned the Republican legislature’s proposed pension cuts, which the GOP literally attached to a sewer bill.

There’s another aspect of all this, however: leverage. Mitch McConnell says he won’t dole out aid for states and localities until the Senate comes back into session. That’ll give him the opportunity to resume packing the courts.

In addition (as I predicted), part of this is an effort to retain leverage with which to force states to reopen.

BUT FIRST … SENATE AND HOUSE DEMOCRATS have been pushing hard in negotiations for $150 billion in funds for state and local governments to pair with the hundreds of billions the administration wants in small business lending. But THE WHITE HOUSE and TRUMP ADMINISTRATION have been holding out because, in part, they believe if Congress keeps cutting checks for state and local governments, they will be disincentivized to open up their economies.

Trump tried and tried and tried to say he got to decide how to reopen the economy. And then the first state that tried — his ally Brian Kemp — made him look bad by ignoring the White House’s own guidelines.

To regain any control over this, short of Billy Barr making good on his suggestions that DOJ might start litigation, Trump needs something to withhold to force governors, of both parties, to take actions they otherwise wouldn’t.

Aid to keep states and localities running is one of the few things Trump has. Want to pay your cops? Okay, then, “but I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

And here’s where Mitch’s actions become really perverse. Kentucky’s own governor, Andy Beshear, is one of the red states with a Democratic governor. Under his leadership, Kentucky has a lower level of infections than any neighboring state but West Virginia (which is even more rural). Kentucky is a member of the Midwestern pact that, along with a bunch of Democratic governors that Republicans would like to damage ahead of the elections, also includes Mike DeWine, one of the three most proactive Republican governors. Of those states, Beshear might be most susceptible to pressure from nutjobs.

That is, among the governors that Mitch is helping Trump to blackmail — to withhold aid from until they give Trump a favor — is Mitch’s own state. Like all other governors, Beshear will need to make some devastating budgetary decisions, decisions that will hurt public workers in Kentucky, and those decisions will start immediately, affecting Beshear’s ability to serve the people of Kentucky.

This is an ugly, vicious ploy. But it’s also one that Mitch’s opponent, Amy McGrath, really ought to be able to use against him in November.

Mark Meadows and the Potemkin Shut-Downs: Welcome to the April’s Fool White House

I know the White House has been running on Trump’s fumes for so long we’ve forgotten that Chiefs of Staff can exercise real power.

I’d like to suggest two things we’ve seen in the last week may reflect the hand of Mark Meadows.

The first is Monday’s campaign video played in the middle of Trump’s briefing, something Trump said Dan Scavino made inside the White House — a violation of the Hatch Act.

In a mash up of clips and audio that amounted to campaign ad, Trump lashed out at critics and returned to his favorite past time of going after reporters. The video began with a white screen saying “the media minimized the risk from the start.” At one point, it showed news clips of different governors giving kind remarks about the president’s response to the pandemic.

[snip]

When a reporter pressed him about the video resembling a campaign ad, Trump said it was done in the office. “We’re getting fake news and I’d like to have it corrected,” he declared.

The president also claimed that White House Director of Social Media Dan Scavino created the video, prompting reporters to question the fact that he had government employees put together what was essentially a campaign advertisement.

There’s nothing that suggests Meadows determined the content of it, but several of the decisions made in the almost two weeks since Meadows has been in place involve merging the White House and the campaign — most notably, the replacement of Stephanie Grisham with his campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

But I also suspect Meadows is behind a far more important strategy on shut-downs, in which Trump allies carry out a Potemkin shut-down, only to reopen quickly, probably in the context of graft as payoff. For this one, there’s explicit evidence in the Bloomberg coverage of his first week: Meadows convinced a number of hold-outs to enact stay-at-home orders.

Meadows has also gotten involved in the administration’s coronavirus response, calling Republican governors who have held out against issuing stay-at-home orders in their states to ask them to implement the policies immediately, according to two people familiar with the calls. The president has said such decisions are up to state leaders and has not publicly criticized those who decline, who are all Republicans.

[snip]

Meadows has also tried to persuade a group of holdout Republican governors that they should issue shelter-in-place orders to help curb the coronavirus outbreak. It isn’t clear if the new chief of staff has Trump’s blessing for the calls. The president has publicly said it is up to governors and local leaders to decide whether stay-at-home orders are appropriate and has declined to criticize the holdouts, all of whom are his political allies.

The governor of one of the holdout states, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, tweeted Wednesday that she’d spoken with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is a top medical adviser to the president. “Thankfully, he AGREES that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t the answer in our state,” Noem wrote.

The tweet, according to one person familiar with the matter, was read by some as a signal to Meadows.

The week that Meadows started, a bunch of Trump flunkies issued stay-at-home orders: Arizona’s Doug Ducey (which was issued before Meadows officially started on April 1 and which extends through April 30), Florida’s Ron DeSantis (issued on April 1 and effective through April 30), Georgia’s Brian Kemp (which he has already extended through April 30), Mississippi’s Tate Reeves (imposed April 1, effective April 3, effective through April 20), Missouri’s Mike Parsons (imposed April 3, effective April 6, effective through April 24), South Carolina’s Governor Henry McMaster (imposed April 6, effective April 7, effective until rescinded). On March 31, Texas’ Governor Gregg Abbott issued an order that has been taken as a stay at home order which stops short of that; it remains in effect through April 30.

At least some of these governors, given the timing and the Bloomberg report, were cajoled by incoming Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to do so.

Last Thursday, days after his stay-at-home order, Ron DeSantis started talking about reopening schools in May (to be clear: this shut-down is having the greatest impact on children, especially those who don’t have WiFi at home and rely on schools for other services, like hot lunches). Yesterday, Gregg Abbott told Hannity most states don’t need to wait until May 1 to reopen (even though his own order goes through May 1). And of course, Mississippi and Missouri’s shutdowns don’t even last that long (indeed, they were never long enough to do any good).

So it seems likely that the same governors whom Meadows convinced to impose stay-at-home orders will shortly rescind them, giving Trump the story that he wants, that some of the nation’s biggest states have come through the COVID crisis. In Texas and Florida, in particular, a governor’s recision of a stay-at-home order might supersede those in badly affected cities (and both states are artificially limiting the number of official positive cases, in Texas by not testing likely cases in Houston, and in Florida by playing games with snowbirds.

I also suspect that one reason Mitch McConnell is refusing to negotiate with Nancy Pelosi over the other things she’d like to include in the next COVID relief package — which would include, among other things, $150 billion for state and local governments. McConnell wants to deal with such aid in a fourth aid bill and simply expand the funds available for the Paycheck Protection Program relief for small businesses, which is predictably already running out of money. The obvious reason to do that would be to withhold something that Trump can use as leverage over states and cities to do what he wants, rather than to give funds to them now without strings attached.

Trump believes, the Constitution notwithstanding, that he has either the authority or power to make states reopen. And given that Meadows was involved in getting a handful of states to impose what will amount to shut-downs that don’t appear to be good faith efforts to achieve the goal of shut-downs (though Kemp may have realized he has a bigger problem on his hands than he originally claimed), my suspicion is that those shut-downs were part of a plan to achieve some kind of leverage over reopening the economy.

The Republican Party Is No Longer the Party of Personal Responsibility

In a cynical speech that, if we’re lucky, will be an effort to deescalate militarily by imposing more sanctions on Iran (which is not a good thing but far better than the alternative), Trump just pre-blamed Barack Obama for the failures most experts predict and have correctly predicted will come from Trump’s Iran policy. He suggests, falsely, that the current escalation is the result of Obama’s peace deal, rather than the demonstrable result of his suspension of it.

Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013, and they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash. Instead of saying “thank you” to the United States, they chanted “death to America.” In fact, they chanted “death to America” the day the agreement was signed.

Then, Iran went on a terror spree, funded by the money from the deal, and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration. The regime also greatly tightened the reins on their own country, even recently killing 1,500 people at the many protests that are taking place all throughout Iran.

The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout. Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its support for terrorism. The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China to recognize this reality.

I’ll leave it to others to unpack how dishonest this claim, both with respect to what JCPOA did and what has led to the increase in tension since Trump reversed our commitment to it.

But it exists in a larger context in which the Trump’s supporters are both refusing to take responsibility for their own actions, including but not limited to their support for Trump, but also doing so by pre-blaming Democrats.

This has been going on for the entirety of the Trump Administration (indeed, arguably it has been going on for at least 15 years). But with respect to Iran, it has consisted of:

  • Blaming Obama’s successful peace deal for the effects of Trump’s own rejection of it
  • Claiming Trump couldn’t brief Democrats on the Soleimani assassination because otherwise they would leak
  • Suggesting that Democrats’ past impeachment of Trump will have a future effect on his ability to respond to the crisis he created with the assassination

Let me be clear: I don’t think Trump assassinated Soleimani to distract from impeachment. I think he assassinated Soleimani because he’s a narcissist who responds to slights by lashing out, and his top advisors Mark Esper and Mike Pompeo are committed to Raytheon, Rapture, and a dangerously escalatory Iran policy, and so in this case did not rein in the natural result of arming someone with Trump’s narcissism, which is to use force where diplomacy would be more effective.

But here we are, with a dead Iranian general and fewer allies in the Middle East and few adults running policy, which may well be a recipe for disastrous things to come.

Trump (and his supporters’) refusal to take responsibility for their own actions is particularly toxic in this context because his policies and incompetent implementation of them are highly likely to fail, and the only way Trump can sustain support while presiding over obvious and foreseeable failures is to blame some other entity, which in this case includes Democrats and Iranians. And the only way for him to continue failing policies even while it’s clear they are failing is to pretend they’re not the cause of the failure.

Trump’s excuses for not briefing the Gang of Eight are particularly worrisome. It’s bad enough he didn’t do so, both for Constitutional and practical reasons. Even Richard Burr or Mitch McConnell might have advised Trump to take a more moderate approach. And had Trump briefed Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, or Chuck Schumer, any one of them might have said something to make it clear that if he did this and it blew up in his face, they would make it clear to the public that he had made the decision against their advice. Our system of briefing the Gang of Eight on covert operations is a terrible way to vet military and intelligence operations (not least because you don’t get in those positions unless you’re a hawk). But in this instance, it might have made Trump worry about being shamed if he ignored the advice. It also would have offered Trump the ability — one George Bush used aggressively to survive his scandalous embrace of torture and illegal wiretapping — to claim there was bipartisan awareness of the actions, which might make it more likely to craft a bipartisan response if things do start to go south.

But Trump doesn’t like the humiliation of hearing advice he doesn’t like, and so he didn’t brief  the Gang of Eight beforehand.

He owns this decision, and all its consequences, because he chose to make the decision without following the norm that would allow him to share the blame.

But that raises the stakes for him to find scapegoats. It’s a feedback loop, where his refusal to listen to competent advice increases the likelihood of stupid decision and his defensiveness about admitting all that, thereby raising the stakes on having scapegoats still further.

And that, in turn, raises the aggressiveness he needs to direct at his scapegoats. Democrats (and Iranians and NATO) must not be wrong. They must be disloyal or traitors or Jew-ridden socialist countries or terrorists. Indeed, that’s likely one of the reasons why Trump so readily adopts inflammatory slurs with no basis in fact: because he has to dehumanize his scapegoats, to make sure no one thinks too much about what function that scapegoating plays.

It’s all a recipe for increasing violence.

And at the core, on the Soleimani assassination, the case that Trump is responsible is not just obvious — best embodied by his refusal to brief the Gang of Eight even while telegraphing his attack to his cronies at Mar-a-Lago — but a root cause of why he wants to build his scapegoats in from the start.

Mick Mulvaney Confesses OMB and DOD Are Withholding Evidence of a Crime from Congress

Amid the tsunami of alarming news Mick Mulvaney made at today’s press conference (Trump is holding the G-7 at Doral next year, he likely will invite Putin, Trump did engage in a quid pro quo with Volodymyr Zelensky on his July 25 call), one of the more important admissions got missed.

Mick Mulvaney admitted that the White House would have been breaking the law by withholding Ukrainian security funds because it did not have a “really really good reason not to do it.”

By the way, there was a report that we were worried that the money, that if we didn’t pay out the money it would be illegal. It would be unlawful. That is one of those things that has a little shred of truth in it, that makes it look a lot worse than it really is. We were concerned about — over at OMB, about an impoundment. And I know I’ve just put half you folks to bed, but there’s a, the Budget Control Act, Impound — the Budget Control Impoundment Act of 1974 says that if Congress appropriates money you have to spend it. At least, that’s how it’s interpreted by some folks. And we knew that that money either had to go out the door by the end of September, or we had to have a really really good reason not to do it. And that was the legality of the issue.

He’s referring, presumably, to a WSJ report that OMB — the agency Mulvaney is still officially in charge of — put a political appointee in charge of withholding duly appropriated security funds for Ukraine so that President Trump could extort concessions from Ukraine.

The White House gave a politically appointed official the authority to keep aid to Ukraine on hold after career budget staff members questioned the legality of delaying the funds, according to people familiar with the matter, a shift that House Democrats are probing in their impeachment inquiry.

President Trump’s order to freeze nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine in mid-July is at the center of House Democratic efforts to investigate allegations that Mr. Trump used U.S. foreign policy powers to benefit himself politically.

[snip]

The president has the authority to delay the release of money in certain instances, according to the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan research agency, including if there has been an unexpected change in circumstances for the program. But without being provided explanation or justification about why the administration was delaying the aid, some career officials at the Office of Management and Budget became worried they didn’t have the legal authority to hold up the funds, according to the people familiar.

While career civil servants put an initial hold on the aid, Michael Duffey, associate director of national security programs in OMB, was given the authority for continuing to keep the aid on hold after the career staff began raising their concerns to political officials at OMB, according to the people familiar with the matter. Mr. Duffey also began overseeing the process for approving and releasing funds, called apportionment, for other foreign aid and defense accounts, according to a public document indicating the change.

As noted by Mulvaney today, a law passed in the wake of Richard Nixon playing games with appropriations requires that if you withhold duly appropriated funds, you explain to Congress why you’re doing so, a decision that Congress then gets to veto simply by refusing to approve of the decision. The law makes it clear that the President can’t simply ignore the will of Congress on appropriations.

And yet, that’s what Trump did for the entirety of the summer.

Worse, in his press conference today, Mulvaney admitted that Trump didn’t have a “really really good reason not to” release the funds. Rather, he had a really bad reason: he was trying to extort a quid pro quo.

And that’s why the decision — reported in ho hum fashion on Tuesday as if it were just another case of the Administration refusing Congressional subpoenas — that OMB and DOD would not respond to subpoenas is actually really important.

The subpoena to those agencies lays out some of the evidence that Trump withheld the funds after DOD cleared them. Then it lays out the evidence that Trump was defying bipartisan Congressional will in doing so.

As you are aware, the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 authorizes the President to withhold the obligation of funds only “(1) to provide for contingencies; (2) to achieve savings made possible by or through changes in requirements or greater efficiency of operations; or (3) as specifically provided by law.” The President is required to submit a special message to Congress with information about the proposed deferral of funds.

On August 30, 2019, Chairman Adam Smith and Ranking Member Mac Thornberry of the House Committee on Armed Services wrote a letter to Mr. Mulvaney requesting information why military assistance to Ukraine was being withheld and when it would be released. They wrote: “This funding is critical to the accomplishment of U.S. national security objectives in Europe.”

On September 3, 2019, a bipartisan group of Senators–including Rob Portman, Jeanne Shaheen, Dick Durbin, Richard Blumenthal, and Ron Johnson–wore a letter requesting that OMB release the military assistance to Ukraine that the Trump Administration was withholding:

The funds designated for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative are vital to the viability of the Ukrainian military. It has helped Ukraine develop the independent military capabilities and skills necessary to fend off the Kremlin’s continued onslaughts within its territory. In fact, Ukraine continues to fight daily on its eastern border against Russia-backed separatists in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, and over 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have lost their lives in this war. U.S.-funded security assistance has already helped turn the tide in this conflict, and it is necessary to ensure the protection of the sovereign territory of this young country, going forward.

On September 5, 2019, Chairman Eliot L. Engel and Ranking Member Michael McCaul of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs wrote a letter to OMB urging the Trump Administration to lift its hold on security funds to support Ukraine, writing: “These funds, which were appropriated by Congress as Foreign Military Financing and as part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and signed into law by the President, are essential to advancing U.S. national security interests.”

On September 9, 2019, the Committees on Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight wrote to the White House requesting documents related to “the actual or potential suspension of security assistance to Ukraine.” The White House never responded to this request. However, two days later, on September 11, 2019, the White House released its hold on the military assistance to Ukraine.

On September 24, 2019, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated that, although he was “very actively involved in advocating the aid,” he “was not given an explanation” about why it was being withheld, even though he talked to the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State. He stated: “I have no idea what precipitated the delay.”

The enclosed subpoena demands documents that are necessary for the Committees to examine the sequences of these events and the reasons behind the White House’s decision to withhold critical military assistance to Ukraine that was appropriated by Congress to counter Russian aggression.

That’s the subpoena that Mulvaney’s agency and DOD (the latter, after initially saying it would cooperate) are defying. It’s a subpoena that goes to the zenith of Congress’ authority, whether it is issued within or outside of an impeachment inquiry. But within an impeachment inquiry, it illustrates that on one issue of fact at the core of the investigation, there is bipartisan agreement that the White House was in the wrong.

And today, Mulvaney admitted that the White House did not have a very very good reason to withhold those funds, even while confirming that Trump was withholding the funds, in part, to extort a quid pro quo.

Even if the White House had a very very good reason, the law obliges the White House to explain to Congress why it blew off Congress’ power of the purse. The White House didn’t do it in real time — not even to Mitch McConnell. And the White House is refusing to do it now.

Update: Jack Goldsmith did a review of this issue in Lawfare today, but before the Mulvaney comments.

Update: Lisa Murkowski complained about this issue to Tim Mak today.