Posts Tagged ‘Reince Preibus’

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it for yourself. pt 5

June 26, 2019

The President’s Efforts to Curtail the Special Counsel Investigation

We may never know why Mr. Trump ordered Mueller to be fired, then changed his mind. Did he give the order in a fit of temper and either reconsider or lose interest once he’d calmed down a bit? Was he eventually persuaded that his concerns about conflicts of interest were so flimsy they would only embarrass him if he kept pushing them? Does he in fact have so little attention span that he simply forgot, as some books have suggested? Or did he decide that derailing Mueller’s investigation would work better than sacking him? Perhaps an impeachment inquiry or criminal prosecution after he leaves office will reveal more, if Mr. Trump is compelled to testify under oath. What we do know, however, is that the efforts to shut down the investigation were not limited to trying to get rid of the chief investigator.

Two days after McGahn refused to order Rosenstein to fire Mueller, Mr. Trump ordered Corey Lewandowski to take a message to Jeff Sessions ordering him to unrecuse himself and take charge of the investigation. The idea was not to simply shut it down, but rather to forbid the FBI from actually investigating any crimes; instead they were to only look at what the Russians had done and how to prevent them from doing it again, without considering whether Trump or anyone else had committed any crimes. This was unusual since Lewandowski had no government position and hence had no real reason to be carrying instructions or memos between the White House and the Department of Justice, aside from the fact that he was known for being utterly loyal to Mr. Trump and hence perhaps more likely to do as he was told. Trump dictated a letter to Sessions stating that Sessions was to announce that since the President was being treated very unfairly, he had decided to unrecuse himself; furthermore, unless Sessions made this statement as dictated and restricted the investigation as instructed, he would be fired. Lewandowski decided that, given the sensitive nature of this message, he should hand it to Sessions in person; but after several unsuccessful attempts to arrange a meeting where he could do so, he decided to give the memo to Rick Dearborn, a senior White House official who had a dinner appointment with Sessions. Lewandowski says that while he thought Trump had tasked him with delivering this message because of his loyalty, Dearborn would be able to do it better because he actually did work for the government and had a long relationship with Sessions. However, when Dearborn saw the message he was to deliver, he became extremely uncomfortable and did not deliver it; although he said he had “handled the situation” he in fact refused to deliver the message and instead threw it away. At this same time Mr. Trump, not knowing the speech he intended Sessions to deliver had not been passed to him, called an impromptu news conference to talk about how “unfair” it was for Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia probe, and to state that Sessions might not be allowed to continue as Attorney General. Trump followed this up by demanding that Reince Priebus, his Chief of Staff at the time, fire Sessions. Ostensibly this was because Sessions had falsely denied discussing campaign-related matters with the Russian ambassador, but those around him believed the real reason was what Trump had been saying for months: his anger over Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation. Priebus resisted, and when Trump insisted Priebus lied and said he’d get Sessions to resign even though he had no such intention. Eventually he was able to convince Trump that if they fired Sessions the second and third ranking people at DOJ, Rosenstein and Rachel Brand, would also resign, and that he would be unable to get anyone confirmed by the Senate to replace them.

The testimony given under oath to Mueller paints a picture of chaos and dread. Hope Hicks said she wanted to “throw herself” between Trump and the press during his July 19 interview lambasting Sessions, but he loved it and loved the coverage it got afterwards. Priebus and McGahn discussed resigning rather than go along with the plan to fire Sessions. Sessions wrote out another letter of resignation and carried it with him whenever he went to the White House after these events. Again, the only thing that prevented a major Constitutional breakdown, with possibly the entire leadership of the Department of Justice resigning , was the refusal of Trump’s underlings to obey orders they thought were “all wrong.” At times they lied and stalled until his temper cooled down, other times they kept trying to talk him out of whatever self-destructive, government-destructive action he was demanding. The whole time he seems to have been loving the press coverage his attacks on Sessions were getting, and his major concern was to time his actions so as to avoid bad coverage during the Sunday news programs.

In considering whether Trump’s efforts to have Lewandowski deliver an ultimatum that he either rein in the Mueller investigation or be fired, the Special Counsel considered the following elements:

  1. Obstructive act: Would these actions naturally obstruct the investigation and any grand jury proceedings that might flow from the inquiry? Undoubtedly; Mueller writes that “Taken together, the President’s directives indicate that Sessions was being instructed to tell the Special Counsel to end the existing investigation into the President and his campaign…” so the entire point of the President’s actions was to obstruct the investigation.
  2. Nexus to an official proceeding: It was public knowledge that there was already a grand jury investigation of the Trump campaign by this time. We don’t know too much about that because this part of the report is redacted.
  3. Intent: Mueller writes: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s effort to have Sessions limit the scope of the Special Counsel’s investigation to future election interference was intended to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the President’s and his campaign’s conduct.” Or to put it bluntly: Trump was trying to cover up his own past misdeeds and those of his employees. In particular, Mueller notes that Trump sought to use Lewandowski, someone outside the government who was known to be extremely loyal, to communicate with Sessions, rather than simply talk to him directly or use normal government channels, suggesting that Trump was trying to hide his message to Sessions and to avoid any official record of having communicated with him at all. And it might have worked, if Lewandowski had managed to deliver the message himself instead of passing it to Dearborn to deliver. Dearborn was so freaked out when he read the message he was supposed to pass on that “he recalled not wanting to ask where it came from or think further about doing anything with it,” and instead lied about delivering it and instead trashed it.

Legal experts agree that the fact that Trump failed to obstruct justice because his staff refused to cooperate (or in the case of Lewandoski bungled the job) does not make it any less a crime, just as we routinely throw terrorists in jail for planning bombing attacks on this nation even when they end up talking to an FBI informant instead.

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 4

June 26, 2019

The President’s Efforts to Remove the Special Counsel

Of all the consequences of firing Director Comey, the worst from Trump’s perspective was the appointment of a Special Counsel to lead the investigation into Russian subversion of our electoral process. This was, of course, inevitable, given the gravity of the question of the integrity of our elections, the lack of trust most Americans had that the President would address the problem in an honest and impartial manner, the deep concerns of most of the nation’s law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies, and the fact that almost everyone else was either a potential suspect or a witness at this point. This was totally predictable and unavoidable in the view of anyone with any political sense or understanding of how American government works, but it caught Mr. Trump completely by surprise. The report states: “According to notes written by Hunt, when Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, the President slumped back in his chair and said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.’” Given that Clinton survived a Special Prosecutor with far more sweeping powers and far less neutrality than Mueller had, this seems rather melodramatic. He then became angry at Attorney General Sessions for not protecting him. I have to confess, I have to agree to a point, given that Sessions apparently recommended firing Comey and the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to take over the investigation after that was as predictable as a third Sharknado movie.   Several witnesses report that Trump was in a rage, and he demanded Sessions resign. Sessions agreed, wrote out his resignation letter and handed it to Trump. Trump decided let Sessions stay as AG, but refused to return the letter until other advisors pressured him over several days to do so.

All of this seems understandable given Mr. Trump’s well-known temper and political ignorance, and by itself not very significant. His later efforts to hit back at the Special Counsel before he even began his work, however, were more questionable. Trump began pushing for Special Counsel Mueller to be removed, alleging conflicts of interest. His own advisors told him his claims were, in Bannon’s words, “ridiculous and petty” and Department of Justice ethics officials examined the question and found no cause for concern. Despite this, Trump pressured White House Counsel McGahn to push Deputy AG Rosenstein to fire Mueller over these alleged conflicts. McGahn pushed back, telling Trump that firing Comey wasn’t even his “biggest exposure” compared to his “other contacts” and his efforts to end the Flynn investigation. The report goes on to describe increased pressure from Trump to fire Mueller, and apparent efforts by various advisors and staff to derail these efforts by leaking them to the press, refusing to cooperate and so on. McGahn even prepared to resign rather than participate in firing Mueller, though ultimately he was talked out of resigning by Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. In the end McGahn did not resign, and Trump did not ask him the next day whether he had instructed Rosenstein to fire Mueller as Trump had wanted.

The Special Counsel considered these facts to be relevant to determining whether this behavior constitutes obstruction of justice:

  1. Obstructive Act: The report considers whether firing Mueller would have naturally delayed, chilled or otherwise impeded any further investigation. After all, firing Mueller would probably have meant he was replaced, but even so the investigation could have been crippled. Therefore, the proposed firing could have obstructed the investigation. It is also crucial to consider whether Trump actually ordered Mueller fired, or merely suggested the DOJ investigate these alleged conflicts of interest. Ultimately, the report rejects Trump’s denials that he ordered McGahn to order Rosenstein to fire Mueller; not only did it find McGahn a more credible witness than Trump with no motive to lie, but his other actions supported his story, other witnesses corroborate parts of it, and DOJ was already well aware of the allegations Trump was making and had concluded they were baseless. So Mueller’s office found Trump’s claim that he was merely making a suggestion that they look at these supposed conflicts to be unbelievable, while McGahn’s claim that Trump told him “Mueller has to go” likely true.[1] Thus we have an attempt to perform an act that would be likely to impede further investigation; this attempt was not carried out only because McGahn refused to do as ordered, and Mr. Trump was either persuaded to drop the matter or otherwise lost interest in it, as he lost interest in firing Sessions.
  2. Nexus to an official proceeding: By this time Mr. Trump knew he was under investigation; he had been warned by McGahn of his legal exposure, the Special Counsel’s office had informed the White House that they’d be interviewing witnesses to Trump’s interference in Comey’s investigation, and Trump himself tweeted that he was under investigation. Therefore, he knew there was an official investigation which could be crippled or completely derailed by firing the Special Counsel, yet he sought to do so anyway.
  3. Intent: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s attempts to remove the Special Counsel were linked… to reports that the President was being investigated for potential obstruction of justice.” From his immediate “I’m fucked” to his pushing previously refuted allegations against Mueller and finally to his ordering Mueller be fired, it is clear that he was primarily concerned with protecting himself; and his later denials of having ordered McGahn to fire the Special Counsel suggest he knew the order could be seen as improper.

Once again, the report cites the existence of all three essential ingredients of an obstruction of justice: the act itself, the investigation to be obstructed, and the intent to do so. Mr. Trump had the desire to end the investigation and discussed “knocking out Mueller” by alleging conflicts of interest which his own people described as “silly” and “not real.” The only reason he did not “knock out Mueller” was that his own staff and advisors, realizing the enormity of his proposed actions (McGahn described it as “crazy shit”) refused to cooperate. Attempted obstruction of justice, like attempted murder, is still prosecutable; whether this act does indeed rise to the level of criminality is something that can only be determined, says Mueller, by an impeachment hearing before Congress, where all evidence can be presented and the President can offer his defense against the charges.

[1] Of course too, McGahn answered questions under oath and in person; Trump has refused to do so.

Words Matter: a discussion of violent political rhetoric 2008-2016

April 23, 2016

Words Matter: or, One Reason We’re Where We Are

 

Because I’ll tell you what, you’re gonna have a rough July at that convention.”

—-Donald Trump

 

I was struck by the surprise and outrage from Reince Priebus and others over the nasty tone of the Republican primary campaign. Specifically, I was struck by the fact that they professed to be surprised. The latest outrage has been the threats of violence from Donald Trump and his supporters. Trump has darkly warned of riots, in the tone of one whose “warnings” are in fact a promise, if he is denied the Republican nomination. As he is repeatedly outmaneuvered by the Machiavellian delegate-hunting strategies of Ted Cruz, Trump’s supporters have taken to making death threats against delegates and party officials whom they suspect are siding against The Donald. Repeatedly, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination tells us that the system is rigged, that he is being robbed, and that his followers will rise up to oppose this oppression with force.

All of this is nothing new to us who are not card-carrying Tea Party Republicans. In fact, this rhetoric has been so common from conservatives ever since they crashed the world economy and lost the 2008 Presidential election that we’ve almost become used to it. It has come from self-styled “heroes” and “patriots” like the Michigan Hutaree militia, which plotted to assassinate Obama in 2009. In 2014 it came from Cliven Bundy, the tax-dodger who proclaimed that he didn’t even recognize the United States as existing, who raised a private army to point guns at federal officers doing their duty, and who was put on a white horse carrying an American flag while FOX News called him a hero. It has come from two of Budy’s followers, who shot and killed three people in Las Vegas. But it has also come from elected Republican officials. It came from Sharon Engle, an elected Nevada state representative who was running against Harry Reid for the Senate, and said quite seriously that she and her supporters might have to turn to “Second Amendment” remedies and kill Reid if he defeated her in the election. It came in 2009 from state governments of Georgia, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Idaho, Louisiana and Alaska, who threatened armed rebellion against the federal government if Obama and Congress enacted any policies they disapproved of. It came from Michelle Bachmann, a U.S. Senator and once a frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President, who said in 2009 that she wanted her supporters to be “armed and dangerous.” It came and still comes from Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck and other leading voices of the conservative movement. Anyone who disagrees with a conservative in any way can expect death threats, accusations of treason, and even the promise of eternal damnation.

I am not saying that Reince Priebus, Ted Cruz and the other Republicans are hypocrites for expressing their surprise at the rhetoric of the Trump wing of their party. I think they are genuinely surprised that this rhetoric, which they have freely thrown at others since losing in 2008, is now being turned against them. I think their sense of moral outrage is genuine too. The problem, I think, is that they always knew that they weren’t serious. Conservatives have been using threats of violence to convey a more-or-less pretended sense of outrage and anger.   Think about when Palin was tied to an ad showing Democrats in a sniper’s crosshairs. When one of those targeted, Gabrielle Gifford, was shot, Palin quickly explained that no, the ad didn’t show a rifle scope at all; but of course, it did. Instead, the point was that Palin thought she could make an implied death threat and that everyone would know that it was, essentially, a joke. The fact that the people targeted would not see it as a joke was part of what makes it even funnier to the ones making the threat. It’s the adult equivalent of kids back in the days before Caller I.D. making a prank phone call to threaten some stranger with the murder of her children, terrifying the poor woman and then hanging up and laughing. The person making the threat feels powerful and superior and even feels very clever because he or she knows the person being threatened can’t tell if the threat is real. When actually caught, the person making the threat can just say, “Hey, it was all a joke, no harm done” and hope to get away with it, and then feel extra smart because the other person was too stupid to know it is a joke.

I say “joke” and not “metaphor” for a reason. Using violent language as a metaphor for decisive action is nothing new; but we all know when we hear it that it is merely imagery. We speak of “crushing the competition” or of “getting murdered in the primaries,” but we know nothing is getting crushed and no one was threatened. The point of much of the violent political rhetoric we hear today is to sound at least a little bit dangerous, and to enjoy the feeling of strength that comes from making the implied threat. And furthermore, there seems to be a fair amount of enjoyment not only in engendering fear, but in knowing that the target was deceived because you never really meant it.

The problem is that words matter. When Bachman, Palin, Limbaugh, Malkin, Beck, Bundy, Hannity and others threaten civil war and political assassination, it goes into the “just making a point” part of their tightly compartmentalized brains. They know they don’t mean it, so in their minds it doesn’t matter how their words sound or what they actually, literally mean. But their hearers don’t necessarily know they are joking, or that the joke is on them, the supporters. They believe that their government has been taken over, literally, by a Muslim-Kenyan-atheist-Marxist-radical Afrocentrist Christian. And they believe that they have a God-given duty to disobey and resist this phony political system, even if the leaders chosen actually were elected by the will of the majority of American citizens, because the majority chose wrong.

But what happens when conservative voters as a group, carefully educated to believe that anyone who opposes them is un-American, un-Christian and in league with terrorists and thugs, realizes that the people who told them the truth about the world are themselves not living up to those words? For eight years, conservatives have insisted that the nation was being destroyed, even while it slowly crawled back out of the hole conservatives dug for it (except in places like Kansas and Louisiana, where conservative policies made the bad situation worse). And furthermore, they have been told that “liberals” (or in normal language, moderates) were not merely mistaken, but were deliberately trying to destroy the nation, that a vast conspiracy of scientists and historians and teachers and mainline pastors and progressive priests and immigrants and others were quite consciously trying to ruin the USA out of some sort of self-loathing. And then The Donald comes along, and says exactly what the conservative grassroots have been hearing for eight years; and the Republican establishment turns on him. The Republican establishment is, after all, part of The Establishment. Naturally, those dyed-in-the-wool anti-establishment conservatives will turn that same rhetoric of political violence against their opponents.

Lying for short-term political gain is as old as politics itself. Jane Goodall even observed chimpanzees using deceit, so lying predates language. Greater human social intelligence allows us to consider the downside of such tactics. A classic example is the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. The moral of the story is that if you lie, when the day comes that you tell the truth no one will believe you. The Republican problem is similar but opposite: people believe their lies too much. This too is a common problem in politics; leaders demonize the other side when it suits them to rally their followers, and then those followers judge the leaders to be traitors when they make a necessary bargain with the “bad guys.” Conservative Republicans have demonized almost everyone, it seems: scientists as a class, religious institutions that advocate for the poor and oppressed, even if they cite the words of Jesus, Muslims, the Occupy Wall Street movement is inherently violent, and so on. The last one is especially egregious, since a self-professed conservative journalist with the Breitbart web site boasts that he himself tried to provoke a peaceful protest to riot, and when it failed to riot on its own, himself posing as a protestor committed the only act of violence at its rally. The list of imagined persecutions and concocted conspiracies alleged by conservatives is too lengthy to be catalogued. But in fact, under the First Amendment, religious differences and political debate are permanent parts of our society. Any political leader must work out an accommodation with people who have a wide range of religious, economic and political beliefs. A politician may win an election by telling voters those others are devils, but in the end he or she must either make deals with those devils, or overthrow the Constitution and impose some sort of Christian Dominionist dictatorship. And worse, arguing against scientists as a class, and science as an institution, is arguing not against the man-made laws of the Constitution, but against reality and the very laws of Creation itself. Eventually, reality wins. So a successful leader must eventually make peace with science, with education, with historical truths, as well as with people with different religions and different politics and even, to some extent, different morals. But if that leader became a leader by promising to crush, or at least ignore and reject all those people, then that leader will eventually have to betray his or her followers and thus become one of The Enemy. And that is what has happened to the Republican Party. Donald Trump has simply taken them at their word, judged the establishment Republicans by their own standards, and his supporters are pronouncing sentence.

Bibliography

Alterman, Eric. “Think Again: Crashing Occupy Wall Street;” Center for American Progress Oct. 13, 2011 (https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/general/news/2011/10/13/10438/think-again-crashing-occupy-wall-street/)

Avlon, John. “Wingnuts Excerpt—The Hatriots: Armed and Dangerous.” The Daily Beast March 30, 2010 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/03/30/wingnuts-excerptmdashthe-hatriots-armed-and-dangerous.html)

Frick, Ali. “Bachman: ‘I Want People to be Armed and Dangerous on this Issue’ of Cap and Trade.” ThinkProgress March23, 2009 (http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2009/03/23/36990/bachmann-armed-and-dangerous/)
Matt McLaughhlin, Dianna Parker, Justiin Berrier and Brooke Obie, “Beck Attacks Social Justice,” Media Matters March 12, 2010) (http://mediamatters.org/research/2010/03/12/beck-attacks-social-justice/161591)
Mandvi, Aasif. “Weathering Fights: What’s Science Really Up To?” The Daily Show, (http://www.cc.com/video-clips/x1h7ku/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-weathering-fights—science–what-s-it-up-to-) 10/26/2011
Sneed, Tierney. “GOPers Face Wave of Threats from Trump Fans Incensed by Delegate Counts.” Talking Points Memo.com April 13, 2016 (http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/death-threats-trump-supporters)
Stein, Sam. “Sharon Engle Floated ‘Second Amendment Remedies’ as ‘Cure’ for ‘Harry Reid Problem’.” June 16, 2010 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/16/sharron-angle-floated-2nd_n_614003.html)

P.S. This article also argues, from another angle, one of my foundational points:  that conservative rhetoric today is largely a joke that no one who is part of the conservative-industrial complex really believes.  It came out about two days after the first version of this article did, so it seems to be a case of parallel evolution.

Nick Gillespie, “Donald Trump’s Fatal Error was to Take Conservatism Seriously.” The Daily Beast April 25, 2016 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/04/25/donald-trump-s-fatal-error-was-to-take-conservatism-seriously.html)