Who’s Afraid of the Big I?

Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 8.24.31 PM

Over the past two weeks we have examined the reasons why Donald Trump richly deserves to be impeached (Reading Mr. Mueller, May 2, 2019) and the appalling Republican rank-closing to protect him (A Plague Among Us, May 7, 2019) a die-in-place effort that makes the fanatical deadenders of Imperial Japan look like wishy-wishy dilettantes.

But the question of whether impeachment makes strategic sense for the Democratic Party is a very different one, as are the related matters of whether there is a reasonable chance of success, and the wisdom or folly—or necessity—of pursuing it regardless .

That is the thicket of thorns into which we will delve this week.

But be advised: unlike Hirohito’s suicidal loyalists, the GOP is less likely to use its swords for hara-kiri than to julienne American democracy into beef tartare.

DO I DARE TO EAT A PEACH?

People were talking about impeaching Donald Trump from the moment it became clear he was headed to the White House. If that seemed to some like a rush to judgment (“Give the guy a chance!”—remember that?), Trump wasted little time in proving his critics prescient and giving them good reason to follow through. The question was largely abstract while the special counsel carried out his work. But with the submission of the Mueller report, it’s unavoidably now on the front burner.

That is a problem for the Democratic Party not because there is any question that Trump has committed the kind of high crimes and misdemeanors that justify ejection from office—there ain’t—but because impeachment, being a political process and not a legal one, is debilitated by the same right wing monkeywrenching that has afflicted every other aspect of governance under this kakistocracy.

The two basic schools of thought are these:

1. THE BR’ER RABBIT SCHOOL: Impeachment plays right into Trump’s hands. There is absolutely zero chance of getting a conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate, and no reason to think that will change, so it’s all for naught…… indeed, worse than naught in that Trump will use that acquittal as (another) chance to declare his innocence and exoneration, while the GOP will use the whole process to animate its base and drive right wing voter turnout in 2020.

As evidence, proponents of this school point to how the impeachment of (but failure to convict) Bill Clinton in 1998 wound up helping the Democrats and damaging the Republicans. More on that, and whether it is in fact so, in a bit.

2. THE CONSTITUTIONAL PURIST SCHOOL: Trump’s actions demand impeachment regardless of whether the Senate will convict him. For the House to ignore the appalling array of high crimes and misdemeanors laid out in the Mueller report would be to shirk its constitutional duty, and set a terrifying precedent for future demagogues, proto-authoritarians, and simple crooks who might likewise find their way into the White House.

According to this line, impeachment is the strongest form of condemnation the House can impose, even if the Senate won’t convict, and in and of itself is damning. Censure is far too mild—pathetic even—in light of what Trump has done. The mere fact of an impeachment—not to mention the televised hearings, public airing of the granular details of Trump’s sins, and the Watergate-like parade of witnesses—will inflict tremendous damage on an executive who richly deserves it, and hurt him badly through much of the 2020 campaign. (More on that, and whether it is in fact so, in a bit as well.) But even if it won’t do that, we still have to impeach just on principle, for the long term good of the country.

So let’s take these schools of thought in turn.

AN IMPEACHMENT TRAP?

Advocates of school #1 see themselves as the pragmatists, and with some justification. Writing in the conservative but anti-Trump online magazine The Bulwark, David Priess sums the realpolitik position up quite well:

Democrats are confident that Trump is beatable in 2020. Why risk even the possibility of an electoral backlash for a Senate acquittal, when the better bet appears to be removing a vulnerable, unpopular president through a vigorous 2020 campaign?

The idea here is that Trump is so bad that we need to maximize our chances of beating him at the polls, no matter how much he deserves early removal and no matter how risky the precedent in not pursuing that. This school sees his electoral defeat—not abstract long term constitutional considerations—as the greater good that must take priority. As Eric Levitz put it in New York magazine:

…..the Democrats’ overriding civic obligation is to maximize the probability of their victory in 2020. All else being equal, it is more important to actually remove a would-be autocrat from office than to formally demonstrate one’s commitment to doing so.

To be fair, Levitz frames this in terms of “if” Democrats believe this about Trump’s criminality and the GOP’s intransigence, not as a call to arms per se. But he makes it clear that Republicans’ refusal to do jackshit about Trump’s self-evident unfitness for office leaves the Democrats with a stark mandate.

I’m sympathetic on a purely intellectual basis, but there are two problems that jump out at me.

The first is that this theory presumes that impeachment by the House without a conviction in the Senate will hurt Democratic chances in the election. But we don’t know that that is so; in fact, as we will shortly see, it might be quite the opposite. In any case, it’s not at all clear that pursuing impeachment and winning the next election are mutually exclusive choices that require a binary calculation.

We know that many Republicans think that impeachment is a winner for them, a chance to motivate their base and portray Democrats as radicals who just hate Trump blindly. Sometimes it feels like Trump himself is trying to goad us into it. (“Oh no! Don’t throw me into the briar patch!”) I’m not suggesting that is his sole reason for behaving like a cornered sewer rat, as that’s his nature regardless. But it may be a bonus in his mind.

Proof of the GOP belief that impeachment would actually help them is to be found in the fact that Republicans raise the specter of it as much or more than Democrats do. But that belief is not proof that they are correct in their assumptions.

The second problem is that this utilitarianism, even if correct, creates an immense moral hazard. It is Congress’s sworn duty to hold a criminal president accountable, and failure to do so would be an egregious act of negligence and a terrible portent for the future, no matter what the electoral impact. This is the crux of the argument from school #2, which we will get into in a moment.

That said, I think we ought to make a distinction between those who are simply chickenshit about impeachment and those who are merely being tactical—for now.

Nancy Pelosi has been very canny about the Big I, which she says she does not favor at this point, much to the consternation of the hardcore anti-Trump left within her own party. But her job is to be a savvy inside-the-Beltway tactician, and she is demonstrably freaking excellent at that. She is clearly playing the long game, and it suits us on the anti-Trump team to have her in that role.

Even though the GOP’s depiction of a mindlessly bloodthirsty Democratic Party and Trump-as-martyr is a hyperbolic and dishonest portrait, I don’t think they’re wrong about its tactical advantages—and Nancy knows that very well. She is cleverly denying them that terrain, and even though they’ll try to take it anyway, she’s making it harder for them to do so.

So speaking as someone who’s been wearing an ITMFA button for two years, let’s give her a break, OK fellow firebreathers? There are plenty of ferocious would-be Trumpslayers available to lead the pro-impeachment faction in the Democratic Party; let’s be grateful that we have such a smart and seasoned resource to fight a different kind of battle on another front. Indeed, I don’t know that the Speaker truly buys into the impeachment-will only-hurt-us mindset; I suspect she is merely keeping her powder dry until the big fat orange target is in her sights at point blank range.

THEIR BRAND IS CRISIS, STILL

In a recent New York Times op-ed, former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart offered a variation on the impeachment-is-Democratic-suicide school of thought, arguing that leaving Trump in office for the rest of his term would actually do the Republican Party much more harm by letting him continue to ruin their “brand.”

Much as I share Mr. Lockhart’s desire to see the GOP go the way of Radio Shack, I have two big problems with this argument as well that bear going into.

First, it blithely ignores the massive damage being done by Trump in mean time. In that regard it feels like something that could only have been written by a privileged member of the professional political class, one consumed with 202 area code gamesmanship, and not personally threatened by things like loss of health care, or clean water, or deportation to Guatemala. (The even broader matter of long-term damage to our democracy goes without saying.) Lockhart’s argument prizes partisanship over the public interest, treating the red-blue pachyderm/donkey competition like a sport, and not the existential national emergency it is.

Secondly, in my view, this argument vastly underestimates the resilience of reactionaryism. Yeah, the old white male demographic is dwindling in its political power, but to imagine that five and a half more years of Trump is going to destroy the Republican Party from within is the worst kind of naiveté. It is more likely to destroy American democracy as we know it but leave the Republican Party intact, cockroach-like, and indeed more far-right wing than ever, blaming Democrats, immigrants, women, and people of color for the mess that the country is in.

And plenty of people tuned to Fox will believe that and still pull the GOP lever.

ITMFA ALREADY ALREADY

So let’s move on to school of thought #2. A number of pundits have laid this out better than I can, so let’s hear from them.

Writing in The Atlantic, Lawfare editor-in-chief Ben Wittes describes Trump’s actions on obstruction—his repeated public appeals for witnesses to defy the special counsel and Congress, his talk of “rats” and exhortations to people like Cohen, Manafort, and Stone to “stay strong”—as “a grotesque abuse of power” that demands impeachment, irrespective of other political considerations:

The spectacle of the president of the United States publicly and repeatedly urging witnesses not to cooperate with federal law enforcement and entertaining the notion of using his Article II powers to relieve them of criminal jeopardy or consequences if they do not cooperate is one of the most singular abuses of the entire Trump presidency. Again, one has to ask of Congress what is unacceptable in a president’s interaction with an investigation if this conduct is tolerable? 

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg seconds his argument:

Whether or not this is politically wise, failing to impeach would be a grave abdication. If you want people to believe that the misdeeds enumerated in the Mueller report are serious, you have to act like it. To not even try to impeach Trump is to collaborate in the Trumpian fiction that he has done nothing impeachable.

But what of the fact that Mitch McConnell’s clown car of a GOP-controlled Senate is almost sure to acquit? Well, Goldberg’s fellow Times columnist Charles Blow makes a passionate case for impeachment as a worthwhile end in itself:

I say that there is no such thing as a failed impeachment. Impeachment exists separately from removal. Impeachment in the House is akin to an indictment, with the trial, which could convict and remove, taking place in the Senate. The Senate has never once voted to convict. So, an impeachment vote in the House has, to this point, been the strongest rebuke America is willing to give a president. I can think of no president who has earned this rebuke more than the current one. And, once a president is impeached, he is forever marked. It is a chastisement unto itself. It is the People’s House making a stand for its people.

But what if it costs us the election in 2020? The veteran reporter Elizabeth Drew, whose career includes covering Watergate, wrote in the Times:

Madison and Hamilton didn’t say anything about holding off on impeachment because it would be politically risky. It’s hard to imagine they’d put political convenience on the same footing as the security of the Constitution. And the Democrats who prefer to substitute the 2020 election for an impeachment fight don’t appear to have considered the implications if Mr. Trump were to win: Would that not condone his constitutional abuses and encourage his authoritarian instincts?

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson is even more succinct:

(Democrats’) focus has to be on their constitutional duty—and nowhere in the Constitution does it say “never mind about presidential obstruction of justice or abuse of power if there’s an election next year.”

It must also be asked if the received wisdom that pursuing impeachment will hurt the odds of unseating Trump at the polls in 2020 is even true.

Although David Priess laid out that position very well in The Bulwark (see above), he was not in fact endorsing it. For starters, he argues that the punishment meted out to Republicans for impeaching Clinton was less than is conventionally assumed, especially since they won the White House in the next presidential election. Robinson makes that same point, noting that “If impeachment was a mistake, it wasn’t a very costly one.”

Will Trump fans see him as a martyr and turn out to vote for him because of it? Of course.  But they’re going to do that regardless.

Priess even questions the presumption that, for all its venality, the Senate will never vote to convict. Unlikely as it seems right now, he argues that, in essence, fortune favors the bold, as “political actors make their own reality.”

Think about Barack Obama in 2008: A first-term senator just four years removed from the Illinois Senate not only defeated Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries but won the presidency. Think about Pete Buttigieg now: A 37 year old mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana has surged into the top tier of a crowded Democratic field. Think, of course, about Trump himself. Political reality is made by action, not by saying what can’t be done.

Likewise, it’s true that right now polls don’t show support for impeachment among a majority of Americans…..but neither did polls in early 1974. It was a different story by August, after months of televised hearings laying bare Nixon’s misdeeds. Priess again:

Public hearings are powerful tools to move public opinion. The majority of Americans haven’t read the nearly 500-page redacted Mueller report and haven’t seen the bulk of the revelations within it. Putting people in televised hearings to answer questions about what happened could create iconic moments, such as those that emerged during Watergate. It’s worth remembering that those hearings, which started under an overwhelming consensus that the Senate would never convict Richard Nixon, led to the president’s resignation.

SLOW WALKING TO THE GALLOWS

A variation on the aggressively pro-impeachment position is the idea of investigating Trump seven ways to Sunday without yet drawing up actual articles impeachment that might invite a bigger backlash. Hillary, who knows a thing or two about impeachment, wrote a widely read and very savvy op-ed about that very idea, and how to pursue right and proper investigations of Trump that might or might not lead to impeachment without sacrificing political capital in what looks like a rush to judgment. Very Clintonian—and more than a little ironic.

But as someone who was highly critical of the partisanship of the Republicans’ endless Benghazi investigations, I am loath to think about an investigation of Trump in those kind of tactical terms. Yes, we might be able to inflict maximum damage by trying to drag out these House investigations without bringing articles of impeachment until the matter is forced. But I would feel like a hypocrite suggesting that after repeatedly raking people like Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) over the coals for admitting—in a slip-of-the tongue—what was patently obvious: that the whole point of the Benghazi hearings was to inflict political damage on Hillary.

Is that a matter of our side foolishly playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules while our opponent operates under the ROE of a Panzer division rolling into Poland? Or is that the kind of adherence to principle that prevents us from becoming no better than them?

Frankly, I’m not sure.

What it comes down to is whether this “slowwalking” strategy, or Clinton’s measured approach, or whatever you want to call it, is really just a synonym for the timid belief that pursuing impeachment will hurt us, or whether it’s a version of Pelosi’s long game. If the latter, I am more open to it. The New York Times’ Carl Hulse writes:

For the moment, Democrats will try to finesse the matter. They will push for the evidence underlying the report and demand that Mr. Mueller and others central to his inquiry appear on Capitol Hill while stopping short of any impeachment discussion. That strategy has the advantage of keeping the inquiry and Mr. Trump’s conduct in the spotlight without getting into the charged impeachment talk. But Republicans will do whatever they can to portray Democrats as overreaching and maliciously harassing Mr. Trump out of political spite, riling up Republican voters in the process.

In other words, the GOP is going to cry “overreach!” regardless, so why employ half-measures? Again Eugene Robinson hits the nail even more directly on the head:

Here is the important thing: Trump will mount this attack no matter what Democrats do . And strictly as a matter of practical politics, the best defense against Trump has to be a powerful offense. I fail to see the benefit for Democrats, heading into the 2020 election, of being seen as such fraidy-cats that they shirk their constitutional duty.

Right on, as the kids say. (Well, they used to say it, around the time the Doors’ first album came out.) Who exactly are we afraid of pissing off anyway? The battle lines in American life are so hardened at the moment that there is little “undecided” middle to worry about losing. Witness the negligible movement in the polls even after the Mueller report dropped.

Let’s motivate our base. Let’s get them energized and out to the polls in November 2020. Likewise, maybe the way to win that small but crucial segment of “undecideds” is to bank on boldness and show the courage of our convictions rather than making namby pamby calculations about how it will play. Let’s embrace impeachment with both arms and shout, “Hell yeah we’re gonna impeach this miserable bastard. He deserves it and here’s why.” That might actually help, not hurt. (I’m sure someone like Nate Silver—or Kent Davison—could help us track that.)

Robinson yet again:

Does it “play into Trump’s hands” to speak of impeachment? I think it plays into the president’s hands to disappoint the Democratic base and come across as weak and frightened. Voters who saw the need to hold Trump accountable decided to give Democrats some power—and now expect them to use it.

PANIC IN THE STREETS OF LONDON—ER, I MEAN WASHINGTON

All that said, the events of the past few weeks have dramatically changed the context in which we consider the very idea of impeachment.

As noted in the last several posts in this blog, Bill Barr’s initial summary/non-summary on March 24 sure made it feel—to Republicans and Democrats alike—that the peril of Russiagate to the Trump presidency was over. Barr and his tangerine-hued boss and the rest of the GOP gangsterocracy obviously want us to think so. “Case closed,” as Mitch McConnell said firmly before the Senate the other day, adding: “Case closed.”

He said it twice, so I guess that’s that.

Oh, wait: we’re not all fucking simpletons.

Nevertheless this is the mantra the GOP intends to use, and it’s a powerful one, despite being a big fat lie, particularly if they’re willing to dissemble about the underlying truth. And—spoiler alert—they are.

But recent events have proven quite the opposite, in part because the actual facts that emerged from the report itself painted a portrait very much to the contrary, and in part because Trump has gone even more full bull goose loony than usual. If anything Trump’s behavior since the release of the Mueller report has become even more fuel to the impeachment fire, which is odd for a document that in his telling “completely and totally” exonerates him.

Gee, it’s almost as if that wasn’t true.

Trump has in effect declared all-out war on Congressional oversight. He has said his administration will fight every attempt to hold it to account, “ordered” Don McGahn not to testify before Congress or turn over his notes (NB: he can’t order a private citizen to do shit), instructed White House staffers to defy subpoenas, filed suit to stop Deutsche Bank from turning over banking records and the IRS and Treasury Department from releasing his tax returns as demanded by the House Ways and Means Committee, not to mention the usual batshit all caps tweets, rambling speeches to red-hatted mobs, and attendant propaganda campaign on Fox and the rest of the right wing alternative universe.

That behavior in itself militates for impeachment even as it impedes it…..in fact, precisely because it impedes it. In any reasonable country with a citizenry that is not comatose, such behavior alone would be sufficient to bring down the government. We ought to be out in the streets in outrage . But I guess a nous la liberté. We Americans tend to be happy puppets who love our strings.

But the bunker mentality madness described above makes it plain that the Trump administration is in a tailspin. The House is about to hold the Attorney General of the United States in contempt of Congress for only the second time in history, the Secretary of the Treasury is in danger of being arrested and thrown in Congress-jail for refusing to release the president’s tax returns, and Donald Trump Jr. has been subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee (and remember, that’s a Republican-controlled body, proving that at least one GOP senator not running for re-election in 2020, Richard Burr of North Carolina, has at least a modicum of integrity). On top of that, North Korea is testing missiles again, Iran announced that it’s resuming its quest for the atomic bomb, and we’re in a trade war with China that has the stock market making like Greg Louganis.

But topping them all last week was Trump’s worst nightmare: the New York Times’ blockbuster story by Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner about his taxes, which suggests that he is the worst businessman in modern American history. Fox & Friends, of course, were quick to announce that this was actually proof that Trump is the best businessman ever. (Also, that the Buffalo Bills meant to lose four Super Bowls, OJ wanted to go to prison, and Spike Lee was thrilled to lose to Driving Miss Daisy twice.)

Not that I think that Times story will sway even one guy in a red hat to reconsider his support for Donald. But I do think that, as the revelation of his darkest secret, it is the ultimate public humiliation that Trump fears above all things. (Craig and Buettner, along with David Barstow, also wrote the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning story of last October on the outrageous and long-running tax fraud engaged in by the entire Trump family.)

Trump appears to be in a dead panic, and rightly so. This week Speaker Pelosi memorably said that he is becoming “self-impeachable,” which is a lovely turn of phrase even if—or perhaps precisely because—it is poetic but vague. (Kind of like “collusion.”) What we can infer it to mean, of course, is that he is behaving in such an erratic, alarming, and blatantly unconstitutional way that he is forcing the issue of his removal from office, even if the GOP remains inexcusably unwilling to act on the matter.

Herein we see Nancy’s genius. By refusing to go to eleven right out of the gate, Pelosi has created room to maneuver and build toward the moment of impeachment, (rightly) seeming reasonable all along the way. If and when the time comes when even the most patient voices in the Democratic Party like Pelosi and Nadler say,” OK, America, there’s no avoiding it now,” the impact will be all the more powerful for her current cautiousness, and the careful cultivation of a (quite correct) image as a cool head who was reluctant to go that route but finally had no choice.

Because Donald played right into her hands.

TANNED, RESTED, AND READY: THE SEQUEL

Some of the approximately 2,457 Democratic presidential candidates have already overtly come out in favor of impeachment: the always brave Elizabeth Warren was first out of the gate, with Kamala Harris shortly behind her. Others are more squeamish about being subjected to this litmus test, preferring a Pelosian approach. But what’s appropriate for the Speaker of the House, in whose realm impeachment would occur, is not necessarily appropriate for the person who wants to be the party’s standard bearer and go toe to toe with the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief in the general election.

But it is worth noting how the entire responsibility for saving the republic is being laid at the door of the Democrats, because not a single sentient American that I know of believes that the Republicans will lift even a pinkie finger to do the right thing.

Of course, some on the right side of the aisle argue that there is no problem that needs addressing at all. The speciousness of that claim speaks for itself, in obscenities mostly. Even more contemptible are the cynics and opportunists in the GOP who know how bad Trump is but are willing to profit from it anyway, making them even more culpable than the dummies and the winguts because they are smart enough to know better, yet still do nothing. And of course, in their charade they risk beginning to believe their own bullshit, if only so they can sleep at night, until they are just as deep in the Kool-Aid as the rest.

But they might come to their senses, right?

Right?

Blow again:

Democrats are operating from the Richard Nixon impeachment playbook, only this isn’t the 1970s, before cable news, the internet and social media. They think it’s somehow possible to overwhelm the public with evidence, to turn Trump’s devout base against him, to pressure the president himself into submission.

On that point, let’s simply dispense with the fantasy that the calculus on Republican loyalty to Trump is ever going to change.

For three years, going all the way back to the campaign, we have been hearing that Trump would finally cross a line that would alienate sufficient numbers of GOP leaders or voters. But nothing he has done has yet constituted that line, including the most outrageous revelations of entanglements with foreign powers, national security nightmares, hush money payments to porn stars, tariffs that violate what was once sacrosanct conservative dogma, outrageous attacks on our NATO allies and shoulder-shrugging over state-sponsored murders by Middle Eastern theocracies, the surgical attachment of his lips to Vladimir Putin’s white Russian butt……and on and on.

Nothing.

The only thing that would plausibly do it is if Trump suddenly proposed a return to an Eisenhower era 90% tax rate on the rich.

Don’t hold your breath on that.

It’s worth remembering that Richard Nixon was not in fact impeached: he was forced to resign because of the imminent threat of impeachment….that is, when senior GOP leaders finally went to him and said, “It’s over, Dick.” That is never going to happen with Mitch McConnell, the living embodiment of the spinelessness, venality, and utter lack of integrity that distinguishes the Republican Party of 2019 from that of 1974.

Trump also benefits from a vastly different media environment. It’s become trite to observe that Nixon might well have survived if he’d had Fox News back in his day, but that doesn’t make it any less true. (Indeed, in her towering New Yorker piece on Fox, Jane Mayer observes that the creation of that kind of force field around a Republican president was a specific goal of Roger Ailes when he founded the network.) Needless to say, Trump also has the toxic bullhorn of Twitter, a medium tailor-made for the kind of low-information, nuance-free schoolyard insults that are his stock-in-trade.

Paul Krugman recently wrote about the moral self-destruction of American conservatism in an epic column called “The Great Republican Abdication,” a phrase taken from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book How Democracies Die:

The truth is that the GOP faced its decisive test in 2016, when almost everyone in the Republican establishment lined up behind a man fully known to be a would-be authoritarian who was unfit morally, temperamentally and intellectually for high office….The party’s willingness to back behavior it would have called treasonous if a Democrat did it is just more of the same.

That column was so scorching that Trump went nuts and tweeted all about it, sending it viral. So there, don’t say I never said he did anything good.

KILLING AN ELEPHANT

Ultimately, this Republican abdication is central to the whole discussion of impeachment and of how to deal with Trump full stop.

Eric Levitz’s aforementioned piece for New York magazine is called “If Impeaching Trump Is Pointless, Then Bipartisanship Is Worthless.” Setting aside electoral gamesmanship, his main point amounts to a radical proposal in which “commitment to small-r republican values requires prioritizing the GOP’s disempowerment over the preservation of institutional norms.”

If the Republican Party can’t be trusted to even consider putting its allegiance to lawfulness above its fealty to Donald Trump, then the GOP is a cancer on the body politic. And if our Constitution has brought us to the point where a non-democratically elected president can promise “Get Out of Jail Free” cards to anyone who violates laws he does not like—without facing any serious threat of removal from office—then our Constitution is obsolete and there is no cause for treating that document, or the established norms of our institutions, with reflexive reverence…..

That is a bold conclusion, but it’s getting increasingly hard to dispute.

The Republican Party is broken. You can’t have a functioning democracy when one of the two political parties refuses to act in good faith, and barring a sudden burst of integrity (ha ha just kidding), it’s hard to imagine the GOP returning to anything resembling principled participation in the American political process anytime soon. Two years ago Noam Chomsky called it “the most dangerous organization in human history,” which might seem like a stretch (and a real insult to the Nazis) until you think about the Republican stance on climate change.

So I must say that I am with Mr. Levitz in supporting a no-holds-barred campaign to destroy the Republican Party by any peaceful and principled means necessary and salt the ground from which it sprang.

But there are heavy moral risks associated with the endeavor Levitz proposes.

Obviously, one could employ that same “they’re so bad” logic to any foe, making this a very slippery slope. As soon as we decide that the other side is so bad that anything and everything is justified in order to defeat it, we will have entered a dark, dark place. What’s to stop the Republicans from concluding that the Democrats are such a threat to the American experiment that anything and everything is justified in order to eradicate them as a substantive political entity?

As it happens, the GOP decided that long ago. (I’ll peg it to 1994. Thanks Newt Gingrich!)

But not every demonization of the enemy is equally valid. Sometimes you really are fighting the devil, and when you are, the facts are there to support it. In this case, they’re in black & white running to over 448 pages.

Another way to look at is that the impeachment process itself has been rendered useless because the Republican Party is valuing its own chokehold on power over the Constitution that it claims to honor—a prospect that the Founders never imagined or planned for. As Jeffrey Toobin wrote this week in The New Yorker, “The Constitutional system is not built to resist Trump’s defiance of Congress”…….and I would add that he is only able to carry out that defiance because the Republican half of Congress is acting as his accomplice.

Which brings us back to Levitz’s original point. If the GOP is no longer a good faith partner willing to participate in a legitimate representative democracy, the Democrats’ path forward is a fait accompli. It’s not a matter of whether we are in a streetfight with a neo-autocratic white nationalist crime syndicate. That battle is already joined. The only question is how best to win it.

Krugman one more time:

First, anyone expecting bipartisanship in dealing with the aftermath of the Mueller report—in particular, anyone suggesting that Democrats should wait for GOP support before proceeding with investigations that might lead to impeachment—is being deluded. Trump is giving the Republican establishment what it wants, and it will stick with him no matter what.

Second, it’s later than you think for American democracy. Before 2016 you could have wondered whether Republicans would, in extremis, be willing to take a stand in defense of freedom and rule of law. At this point, however, they’ve already taken that test, and failed with flying colors.

The simple fact is that one of our two major parties—the one that likes to wrap itself in the flag—no longer believes in American values. And it’s very much up in the air whether America as we know it will survive.

To that end, next week we conclude this four-part opus with another interesting idea for removing Trump from office:

What are the odds we can just vote the motherfucker out?

 

 

A Plague Among Us

the-black-death-and-vampires-1068x534

Last week I offered a cursory summary of what strikes me as the bottom line in the Mueller report, to wit: we have a president who by any reasonable measure ought to be chucked out of office like yesterday’s fish.

If you don’t agree, you’re in the wrong blog.

The litany of Trump’s sins is too long and mind-numbing to repeat. (For newcomers, you can review it here, if you wish.) But the heart of the matter is that we are enduring the most corrupt, anti-democratic, and proto-authoritarian American presidency in modern times, and possibly ever.

Yet still—and this is the part that makes me feel like a stroke is coming on—the Republican Party stands by him.

That’s right: a party that wanted the drag out the guillotine when Barack Obama wore a khaki colored suit is now perfectly fine with a president hiding his tax returns, paying hush money to a porn star, wantonly profiting from the presidency, defying Congress, obstructing federal investigations, and playing footsie (at the very least) with the Kremlin and kowtowing to them at every turn. They are fine with a president who routinely orders his subordinates to lie to Congress and to create fake paper trails to cover their tracks, who sees the Department of Justice as his personal Cosa Nostra and pictures Roy Cohn as the perfect Attorney General. And I’m confining myself here to bipartisan outrages, leaving aside the numerous policy-based crimes against humanity—like caging babies or undermining our NATO allies or destroying the planet—that many on the right actually agree with.

It’s one thing for Trump and his inner circle to be shameless con men and criminals. It’s another for the entire GOP to go along as his enablers and protectors.

The steady parade of conservatives cravenly selling their souls to Trump has been underway for more than three years, but it is reaching a critical mass now that the special counsel’s report is complete and the country is faced with the question of how to respond. In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman writes:

(Republicans) aren’t arguing that Trump’s behavior was reprehensible but doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. Instead, their position is that Trump didn’t do a single thing wrong. Inviting a hostile foreign power to hack his opponent’s emails? He was kidding around! Accepting the help of that hostile power for his campaign? What any candidate would do! Seeking a multimillion-dollar deal in a hostile foreign country while running for president and lying about it to the public? Just a shrewd businessman! Firing the FBI director to shut down an investigation into his campaign, and admitting it on TV? His absolute right as president! Trying in multiple different ways to obstruct justice? He was just fighting back against a deep-state conspiracy!

I’ve never been a fan, but to his credit, Mitt Romney has been one of the few prominent Republicans even to say boo. Then again, he has yet to substantively opposing the administration in any significant way, so I’m not sure whether to be amazed that he spoke up at all, or disgusted by his dead-on impression of Jeff Flake.

At the other side of the spectrum there is Lindsey Graham, perhaps the most extreme and repulsive example of a former Trump critic turned servile bootlicker. In a WaPo piece bluntly titled “How Conservatives Rationalize Their Surrender to Trump,” Max Boot writes of the spectacle of watching Graham “spout pro-Trump conspiracy theories from his perch as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and berate FBI agents for expressing opposition to Trump in 2016—while conveniently forgetting that he himself called Trump a ‘kook,’ a ‘bigot,’ ‘crazy’ and ‘unfit for office.’”

This abdication of civic duty goes beyond simple partisanship. Trump’s actions are not trivial matters that can be ignored or recast as something benign, at least not without a massive deployment of epic hypocrisy and deceit…..a task at which, admittedly, the GOP excels.

Indeed, part of the explanation is that MAGA Nation is in such denial that its members refuse even to acknowledge that anything is amiss.

HOW THE OTHER SIDE (NOT HALF) THINKS

Here’s a brief survey of what they do believe:

In right wing world, the Mueller probe “totally and completely” exonerated Trump on both collusion and obstruction, even though it was a witchhunt conducted by a bunch of angry Democrats (led by an establishment Republican, true, but hey, those people also hate Trump!). They simultaneously cite the SCO report as proof of Trump’s lilywhite innocence while condemning it as part of an attempted coup d’etat. Ignoring its actual content, they insist it contains no evidence of the slightest wrongdoing.

And why didn’t the perpetrators such a nefarious plot just manufacture evidence? Because Trump is so squeaky clean that they couldn’t—that’s how awesome he is!

The right wing is also convinced to its dying breath that this will all eventually lead to the prosecution and imprisonment of the people who initiated the special counsel investigation in the first place and most loudly cheered it on—like Schiff, Schumer, and Swalwell—and who conducted it—like Mueller himself, and I guess Rosenstein (hence his fawning resignation letter)—and oh yes, also Hillary Clinton.

Seriously.

If you don’t believe me, dip into the right wing media for a while and you will hear this precise narrative being hammered home over and over again. I engage with ordinary, rank-and-file Trump supporters all the time; confronted with any kind of effort at serious debate, they reflexively chant, “No collusion, no obstruction!” Asked to defend Trump’s actions, they insist that the lack of a criminal indictment is all that matters, per Waldman. Indeed, many on the right seem to revel in Trump’s behavior precisely because of its norm-busting, rule-breaking nature, like malevolent toddlers. Pressed on whether they would be OK with a Democratic president doing the same things, they never respond. Instead—yawn—they go directly to the same old tired refrain that Obama was infinitely worse, rants about Hillary’s emails (STILL!), Uranium One, Susan Rice, Seth Rich, Benghazi, and zzzzzzzzz…..

Sorry, I dropped off there for a second.

(Sidenote, and a personal pet peeve. Almost de rigueur in every exchange, these folks habitually claim the Mueller probe cost the taxpayers $30 million—and lately Trump has been reflexively inflating it to $35M—ignoring the fact the seizure of Paul Manafort’s assets alone mean the probe actually turned a profit for the American taxpayer. I cite this petty point as just one example of the willful denial of objective reality, and to stress the utter irrationality and dishonesty of Trump’s defenders…. not to mention the hypocrisy after the millions spent—and never recouped—on Whitewater, Benghazi et al.)

Needless to say, there is no reasoning with the literal cult that the modern Republican Party has become. And by that I don’t mean there is no broaching the political divide in how the report should be interpreted (although there isn’t); I mean they stubbornly ignore the most basic facts in the report, which of course, almost none of them have read.

To that point, I’d like to thank the numerous Trump supporters who liked—and even shared—Employee of the Month, my post of April 19th slamming Bill Barr, apparently not realizing the title was sarcastic, and clearly not having read even the first sentence, which makes that plain. (Who says we can’t get along?) That comic misunderstanding is telling about the level of intellectual acuity on the American right, but also about the Rorschach test nature of our current political moment. Clearly, those Trump fans saw that title—illustrated with an official government portrait of the smiling AG—and took it at face value. They might even have taken the lead-in that introduced that post as endorsing their position: “The truth begins to come out….despite some people’s best efforts.”

But OK, fine. That’s the Fox-watching, “lock her up”-chanting, MAGA hat-wearing Trump base. But Republican Congressmembers are supposed to be different, right? They’re supposed to be dutiful, informed public servants charged with protecting the national welfare, and—when fundamental democratic principles are at risk—capable of looking beyond the fog of politics and making honest judgments that rise above petty partisanship.

That is precisely what makes their craven silence even more contemptible.

CURSE OF THE NOT-SO-STARVING CLASS

Much as we loathe them, most Republican lawmakers are not idiots. They may be cynical opportunists with the morals of a rattlesnake, but they are not idiots. With the exception of the true wingnuts (the Nuneses, Kings, Scalises, and other Tea Party alumni), even the most venal (the McConnells, Grahams, Jordans) know that the facts contained in the Mueller report and elsewhere represent a damning portrait of criminality, corruption, and threats to national security that all but insist on impeachment. But they refuse to admit it, much less act.

True, there has been some speculation that even the most cynical of these men, such as McConnell and Graham, have actually begun to believe the Fox News counternarrative. Maybe so, and maybe we’ll never know—and I’m not sure if that’s better or worse, in terms of their culpability or descent into delusion. But the net effect on their behavior is non-existent.

Graham, of course, is burdened with the words about unfit presidential behavior that issued from his facehole in 1998 when he acted as one of the prosecutors during Bill Clinton’s impeachment for high crimes far less than Trump’s. I quoted them last week, but they bear repeating, as rarely does life provide such a glowing example of utter hypocrisy:

The point I am trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic, if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role. Thank God you did that, because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.

But that was then and this is now.

In Graham’s telling, this is not blatant hypocrisy because, unlike Bill Clinton, Trump has done nothing wrong. That might as well be Lindsey’s epitaph. Per Max Boot, for this man—once the friend and ally of the late John McCain, but now among Trump’s most consistently red-faced defenders and golfing buddies—to make such as defense is the embodiment of how much the leaders of the Republican Party are willing to debase themselves. Waldman again:

This is the logical and perhaps inevitable endpoint of the decision they made in 2016. Republicans chose as their leader the single most loathsome figure in American public life, a man possessed of not a single human virtue. He would inevitably call them to descend to the moral void where he resides. And when they did—enthusiastically—they showed us not just who he is, but who they are as well.

When it comes to Trump’s skullduggery as outlined by the SCO, there is less than zero chance that the GOP will even acknowledge it, much less hold him to account the way Mssrs. Clinton or Nixon were. The Republican position is exemplified by Louisiana Senator John Kennedy, who in an appalling interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd last week, stubbornly stuck to the right wing mantra that the whole matter is “done,” there’s nothing left to discuss, and we should move on.

Wishful thinking, John. At least the originators of the phrase MoveOn acknowledged Clinton’s misdeeds and called for his censure, which is what they proposed “moving on” after. By contrast, today’s Republicans refuse to find any fault with Trump whatsoever, marching in lockstep, covering their ears and shouting “la la la la la” to drown out the Ring Cycle-long recitation of Trump’s sins.

Needless to say, the right wing’s impatience with lengthy investigations is a new phenomenon, post Benghazi. (Perhaps they are just plum tuckered out.) But I hasten to predict that video clips of these shameless clowns absurdly bleating, “Nothing to see here!” like Leslie Nielsen will not age well, and will leave an black black legacy.

Far from the end of the Russia scandal, as it briefly seemed on March 24 when we had nothing but Bill Barr’s lies to go on, the delivery of the SCO report now feels like only the beginning of a whole new and even more intense chapter. As it should be. Now armed with that report, the Democratic leadership looks poised to be like a dog with bone, which I mean as a compliment.

IT’S GOOD TO BE THE KING

Setting aside the folks for whom political debate begins and ends with the word “libtard,” the so-called serious defense of Donald Trump has been most aggressively put forward by Attorney General William Barr, and amounts to this:

By definition, the president can’t ever obstruct justice because he is the country’s chief law enforcement officer. He can shut down any investigation, even into his own actions, for any reason he wants…..for example, because his feelings are hurt. Also by definition, he can have no such thing as corrupt intent. The president can’t be indicted while in office, and therefore it’s not even permissible to investigate potential presidential misconduct. And if for some reason a president is accused of crimes despite all that, he would be within his rights to pardon himself.

In other words, the president is above the law.

And that is not a gross oversimplification of Barr’s position. It may be gross, but it’s not an oversimplification.

What it is, in fact, is the definition of a king.

In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick puts it in perspective:

(Barr) seemed to have explicitly adopted and accepted the Trumpist worldview that holds any attempt at oversight or investigation deemed by the president to be unjustified harassment is illegitimate….

This is an astonishing claim—that if the president feels that the investigation is unnecessary and is resulting in him being harassed or misrepresented in the media, then the president is justified in taking any action he sees fit to stop it.

Needless to say, this assertion is deeply disturbing, leapfrogging far past anything even Nixon dared. But as we’ve seen, some sixty million Americans seem perfectly fine with that sort of authoritarian philosophy….so long as the authority is wielded by a Republican administration. Those same people are furious—furious!—if anyone else, say, a Democratic administration, ever tried to do anything that could remotely be characterized (even dishonestly) as that imperial. That is beyond tribalism, my friends and into the realm of psychosis.

To that point, I will never understand why people like Bill Barr, Dick Cheney, and other conservatives are so enamored of the unitary executive. Why do these people crave being ruled by a monarch? Is it a pathological, masochistic need to be dominated? Must be something Freudian, deep seated in their need for a commanding father figure (mothers need not apply). But even so, is it so deeply ingrained that they even welcome a monarch as godawful, bumbling, and ignorant as Donald Trump?

Of course, their preference for autocracy may have a more prosaic motive, which has to do with seeking a system that favors the rich, dispenses with oversight, and provides cover to all manner of pillage and plunder. On that front, Barr has practical reasons for defending this particular despot manqué. Shall we get into his connections to Russia’s Alfa Bank, Och-Ziff, Deutsche Bank, and the Vector Group, which are variously tied up in everything from the Trump Tower Moscow to the pushback against the Magnitsky Act?

As the Never Trump GOP strategist Rick Wilson recently wrote, our current Attorney General may well be the most dangerous man in America right now. But I did relish watching Kamala reduce him to a blithering Ralph Kramden impression on national television last week.

WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE HAND INDICTING?

If you think that’s bad, let’s move on to how Barr’s royalist philosophy plays out in the specifics of the Mueller probe. Fair warning: it is the legal equivalent of a Zen koan so inscrutable that it would give even the Buddha a headache.

Try to follow this:

Barr argues that Robert Mueller ought to have come to a “binary” decision, either recommending indictment or not…..in other words, that the special counsel’s only duty was to decide whether to charge the president with a crime, and nothing more.

But at the same time he also insists that it is DOJ policy that a sitting president can never be charged with a crime, and to that end, as we saw above, shouldn’t ever even be investigated for one. Indeed, that was the gist of his 19-page audition tape for the AG job, in which he called the entire SCO probe fundamentally flawed and illegitimate.

As a result, in Barr’s view, the only conclusion to which Mueller should be allowed to come is to exonerate.

Got that?

That is a straightfaced display of diabolically circular logic that would make Orwell blanch. As with McConnell and Graham, we must ask if Barr really believes this bullshit or is just brazenly trying to buffalo us. (Last week I made the argument that it’s the former. Barr himself told Peter Baker of the New York Times in November 2017 that he thought there was more reason to investigate the Uranium One non-scandal than collusion with Russia. Yet people persisted in describing him as a respectable “institutionalist.”)

But does it really matter? For whatever reason lurks in his cold, dark heart, Barr has given us a reprehensible ouroboros of a legal theory (thank you, Rebecca Solnit) by which president can never be held to account criminally by anyone, for any reason. (Former DOJ spokesman Matt Miller has made this same point.) What an utterly dishonest, shameful tautology.

Goddamn, it is good to be king!

MAY I APPROACH THE BENCH?

That policy against indicting a sitting president is not law, by the by, only the prevailing opinion of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, and has never been tested. The question of whether it is ought to be is a separate one—one that many had hoped Mueller might take on.

But he didn’t…..and here’s where it gets even trickier.

Mueller declined to indict on the charge of obstruction because of the DOJ policy, but explicitly refused to exonerate either. One way to look at that is that Mueller would have exonerated Trump if the evidence supported that conclusion, as he makes clear in his report. But it didn’t and therefore he didn’t.

By extension, the only reason he didn’t induct Trump is because he accepts the idea that DOJ policy forbids it. Apparently two of the prosecutors on Mueller’s team privately told the Justice Department officials as much, and since then, hundreds of former federal prosecutors—veterans of both Republican and Democratic administrations—have concurred in writing, stating that, but for the office he holds, Donald Trump would certainly be indicted on that charge.

That seems to have made Barr irate, since his view was that Mueller’s only option was to be a rubber stamp on Trump’s innocence. So he went ahead and pronounced Trump clean as a whistle himself.

Apparently it also infuriated Emmet Flood, formerly the acting White House Counsel, who now holds the weird title of “Special Counsel to the President.” (I guess Trump was mad that the Democrats had their own Special Counsel, so he wanted one too. Also: a new Playstation.)

We learned this past week that Flood sent an angry letter to Mueller after his report was released, berating him for not exonerating Trump outright.

Man, are these guys greedy or what? Not satisfied that Bob Mueller chose not to indict Trump, Flood now has the huevos to howl in outrage that Mueller didn’t make a definitive exoneration. “Indict or don’t indict!”

Don’t tempt him, dude.

Of course, if the Robert Mueller had broken with policy and indicted Trump, you can be sure that the GOP would be screaming about the illegality of that. (It’s a coup d’etat!!!!) It is ironic, of course, that the most unprincipled and outright criminal administration in modern American history is so keen to hide behind and exploit the noble efforts of those who do believe in the rule of law. But I suppose that’s what criminals do.

(As an aside, the language in Flood’s letter sounded like it was dictated by Trump himself, not unlike his personal physician’s laughably over-the-top testament to Donald’s superhuman health, or a similar statement by then-White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson, or Sean Spicer’s sputtering claims about the biggest crowd at an inauguration ever, or Rod Rosenstein’s resignation letter. For a functional illiterate, Trump sure does have a lot of literary influence.)

Flood, we are told, is justifiably worried about the door that Mueller left wide open in his report: that Trump can absolutely be charged with obstruction once he leaves office, not to mention the slew of other criminal charges hanging over him, like tax, bank, and real estate fraud, and felony campaign finance violations for which his lawyer is now in prison and in which the SDNY has already named him as an unindicted co-conspirator—“Individual 1.”

Um, could we just fast forward to that post-presidency moment please? Because I’m not sure the country will survive the wait. Max Boot again:

(F)or the next 18 months, at a minimum, this nation is at the mercy of a criminal administration. I am in despair as I have never been before about the future of our experiment in self-rule. Before Mueller filed his report, it was possible to imagine the president being brought to justice. That fantasy is no longer tenable. Instead we are left with the dismaying likelihood that the president will now feel emboldened to commit ever greater transgressions to hold onto power—and thus delay a possible post-presidential indictment.

HE AM NOT A CROOK

Bill Barr’s dishonesty has been on prominent display in another way, which is in ignoring two other functions of the special counsel probe: its counterintelligence aspect, and the notion of it as a referral to Congress for impeachment.

Again, this is part of the insidious “binary” formulation that is all the rage for Hannity fans.

Barr continually makes comparisons to an ordinary prosecutor, ridiculing the idea that one would decline to prosecute but still make public derogatory information that he or she feels is in the national interest. (Even though that’s precisely what then-FBI Director Jim Comey did in July 2016 when he announced the end of the Bureau’s probe into Hillary’s emails, but thought he’d give her a public dressing down anyway, just for fun.)

But the Mueller probe was not a case in criminal court, or even a purely criminal investigation, no matter how much Barr wants to frame it that way. It was something much broader and more amorphous than that.

Mueller makes it clear in his report that he didn’t see his investigation in the same narrow terms Barr did, because he specifically refers to the possibility that Congress can and should take up the evidence he uncovered and draw its own conclusions on whether or not to pursue impeachment. But that of course is the last thing Trump and Barr want, which is why they are going out of their way to ridicule and discredit the very idea, precisely because it is right and proper and therefore very threatening to them.

By contrast, in 1998 the Starr report went straight to Congress and the American people, specifically framed as an impeachment referral. Since then, the rules have been changed so that Mueller didn’t have that option, and now we see why. It’s also no coincidence that under the new rules the job title was changed from “independent counsel” to “special counsel,” which is proving more than just a matter of semantics.

Trump, Barr, and their loyal lemmings all across MAGA Nation are fixated on the false claim that because criminal charges were not brought, Trump is vindicated, the show is over, and there is nothing more to discuss. But as we’ve seen, this is the height of mendacity given that the special counsel followed rules saying that criminal charges CAN’T be brought. Here’s Michelle Goldberg, writing in the Times:

The president’s manifest disloyalty to the country in trying to halt an investigation into a foreign attack on an American election is, to the right, of no account. Nor are the counterintelligence implications of Mueller’s findings, which aren’t part of the report. In the eyes of the president’s supporters, his campaign did not participate in the criminal conspiracy that helped elect him, so no more needs to be said.

Moreover, as we all know and have been told ad nauseam throughout this ordeal (cue up that Lindsey Graham clip again, will ya?), impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. A president need not be guilty of a prosecutable crime to be legitimately removed from office for the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Founders stipulated as cause, wholly unrelated to criminal conviction.

Which brings us back to where we started at the top of this piece, with a mountain of evidence of presidential misconduct, and a Republican Party that is making like Nero rosining up his bow while the Roman firetrucks race by.

WHAT IF THE COUNTRY WAS ON FIRE AND A THIRD OF IT DIDN’T CARE?

So what do we do when a third of the American people—either because they willfully deny it or hypocritically condone it—simply do not care about behavior that by any reasonable measure demands, at the very least, consideration of impeachment?

What do we do when they are willing to tolerate behavior that makes Nixon look like a piker: massive corruption, shameless attacks on a free press, undermining of the rule of law, and open consorting with our enemies for personal gain, not to mention brazen racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and general contempt for democracy and even the very concept of truth itself?

What do we do when some of them turn not just a blind eye to this behavior but actively applaud it, while far more minor transgressions by members the other party—and sometimes things that aren’t even offenses at all, or aren’t even true—rouse those same people to start fashioning nooses?

What do we do when they will defend the president in defiance in violation of anything even remotely resembling principle, simply because he’s their boy? What do we do when they are fine with a gangsterocracy?

I don’t know. But I do that it leads down a very very dark path.

It is as if there is a plague among us that has infected fully a third of our countrymen and shows no sign of abating, let alone being cured. I have often suggested that future historians will look back on this era as one of Salem-like mass hysteria, but it’s beginning to feel more like something even more flesh-eating. What will be left of our republic if it is allowed to fester and spread and is not addressed?

I realize this sounds hyperbolic and, more importantly, patronizing—the very thing we are repeatedly counseled against if we want to win in 2020. And patronizing it may be. But hyperbolic it is not.

Such a situation renders the fundamental mechanisms of representative democracy useless, particularly in terms of checks and balances. The Founders assumed that Congress would by definition be vested in preserving its own power and therefore would never turn so abjectly servile to the executive. But they never envisioned the rise of political parties, such that the division of power is not really among the three co-equal branches but between two hyperpartisan extra-constitutional political organizations. When one of those organizations abandons any pretense of commitment to democracy, we have a serious problem on our hands.

Racism, misogyny, wanton greed, powerlust, selfishness, and a willingness to victimize others for personal gain will ever be with us so long as humankind roams the earth. (Silver lining: perhaps that may not be much longer.) But how can we manage and minimize it , especially when a huge swath of the populace is totally fine with even the worst and most Machiavellian behavior, so long as it is employed for their chosen ends?

As many have noted, Donald Trump is the symptom, not the cause of our ills. Per Mr. Mencken, a malevolent ignoramus of this sort is the logical end result of the modern Republican Party’s slow slide into John Bircherism, beginning in 1964 (to be generous; really one can trace it to Tailgunner Joe circa 1950). Therefore, his removal, when it comes and by whatever manner, will not be the end of the struggle.

Let me quote—gasp!—AOC, despite her being, ya know, a girl, and brown, and young, and smart, and willing to speak her mind (quelle horreur!). On March 24, a day that will live in infamy (to coin a phrase), she tweeted:

He can stay, he can go. He can be impeached, or voted out in 2020. But removing Trump will not remove the infrastructure of an entire party that embraced him; the dark money that funded him; the online radicalization that drummed his army; nor the racism he amplified+reanimated.

Preach.

Next week in part three of this series we will discuss the Big Eye itself: impeachment. But even if we succeed in removing Trump from office by whatever means (including the ballot), what kind of smoking wreckage we will be left with when he is gone?

For as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez reminds us, the black plague that he represents and from which he sprang will still remain.

Reading Mr. Mueller

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 2.50.05 PM

It has now been two weeks since the redacted Mueller report hit the street, enough time for us to begin—but only begin—to digest its meticulously prepared, bone-rattling conclusions.

For some, the headline—seized upon and hammered relentlessly by Donald Trump and his lowlife band of criminals, would-be autocrats, and political enablers, led by the utterly shameless William Barr—was that no criminal charges were being brought. But that does not begin to be the whole story, not by a country mile, even though Trump would like us to believe that it is. Indeed, with his characteristic pathological dishonesty, he has crowed that the report goes way beyond even that, representing “complete and total” exoneration of all wrongdoing.

Well, it turns out America was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.

B.L.U.F.

So here’s the real bottom line, which fortunately has been well-reported in the legitimate media, and continues to gather steam with each passing day and further revelations:

The Mueller report laid out a damning portrait of a presidential campaign that eagerly accepted the help of a hostile foreign power in order to win the White House; that was well aware of Russian efforts to interfere on its behalf and welcomed those efforts; that enthusiastically entertained meetings with foreign nationals offering such assistance (“If it’s what you say I love it”), openly encouraged this attack on our electoral system (“Russia, if you’re listening…”), and then gleefully exploited and capitalized on the poisonous fruits thereof (the WikiLeaks dump of stolen DNC emails).

Among other things, Trump & Co. tried to set up a backchannel with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak that would circumvent the US intelligence community; to tap into WikiLeaks (via Roger Stone) regarding the Russian hacking of the DNC; strategized how best to use that dump against Hillary Clinton; and passed polling data in key battleground states to Konstantin Kilimnik, a known GRU operative.

Everybody over there in once-Russophobic Fox Nation cool with all that?

Writing in Salon, former federal prosecutor Kenneth F. McCallion summarizes the import of this very well:

Trump and his team were willing without hesitation to betray the core interests of the United States in maintaining the integrity of our democratic and electoral systems and to provide aid and comfort to the efforts of a foreign hostile power to attack America and to shake its democratic foundations to its core. This stark portrait of a presidential candidate and a campaign organization that was willing to seek a short-term political advantage at the risk of jeopardizing fundamental US interests by soliciting and utilizing data that they knew had been hacked and stolen by the Russians amounts to a fundamental betrayal of the US on a scale never before experienced by our country.”

Moreover, Team Trump vehemently denied over and over that it had ANY contacts with Russians whatsoever, only later to be shown to have had at least 140 contacts with Russian nationals, WikiLeaks, or their associates. That alone ought to have made any American citizen think twice about the honesty of this team and its claim of unquestioned loyalty to the United States….although per Rudy Giuliani, Republicans have recently decided that accepting the help of the Kremlin is totally fine, when their side does it.

But of course the public didn’t have the opportunity to think twice about that, because in September 2016 Mitch McConnell blocked the proposal to make that pertinent information public in a bipartisan manner.

The parade of guys in furry hats meeting with Team Trump was so long that Mueller spends 198 pages in Volume One of his report documenting it, as noted by Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In a key passage, Mueller writes: “The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” That, by any reasonable political definition, is collaboration with a hostile foreign power, passive or otherwise—a sin of omission that ought to be disqualifying for any presidential aspirant, to say the least.

The proof, for any doubter, is that the Trump campaign failed to inform ANYONE in the US law enforcement or intelligence communities that it had been contacted by foreign nationals offering this kind of illegal assistance. As Lucian Truscott IV writes: “To the contrary, the Trump campaign made continual use of the help the Russians provided to the campaign when Trump repeatedly and approvingly cited the release of the Democratic Party emails hacked by the Russians and released by WikiLeaks. He cited WikiLeaks and the hacked emails more than 160 times at rallies and in interviews in the closing weeks of the campaign.”

So we are not talking about a presidential campaign that was appalled by the actions of Vladimir Putin’s agents, regardless of its own cooperation with them or lack thereof.

Ben Wittes of Lawfare has always been one of the sharpest observers of the Trumpocalypse, and his reading diary of the special counsel’s report is an invaluable and enlightening resource. If Barr’s infamous, now-discredited four page “summary” of March 24 was the kindergarten-level Cliff Notes version of Mueller’s Moby-Dick—one that mysteriously left out any whales—Wittes’s diary is more like a PhD dissertation on the same. (He recently produced an condensed summary of his conclusions in the pages of the Atlantic.) Wittes sees the semantically imprecise question of “collusion” this way:

Trump personally ordered an attempt to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails; and people associated with the campaign pursued this believing they were dealing with Russian hackers. Trump also personally engaged in discussions about coordinating public-relations strategy around WikiLeaks releases of hacked emails. At least one person associated with the campaign was in touch directly with the Guccifer 2.0 persona—which is to say with Russian military intelligence. And Donald Trump Jr. was directly in touch with WikiLeaks—from whom he obtained a password to a hacked database. There are reasons none of these incidents amount to crimes—good reasons, in my view, in most cases, viable judgment calls in others. But the picture it all paints of the president’s conduct is anything but exonerating.

Call it Keystone Kollusion.

OH, DID I SAY “NO CONNECTIONS WITH RUSSIA”? I MEANT LOTS

The Mueller report also catalogued other clandestine connections between Trump and Russia that in any previous administration would, in and of themselves, been presidency-ending. Chief among these was the fact that Donald Trump had a multimillion dollar real estate deal in the works in Russia—a proposed Trump Tower Moscow—that came with a $50 million in-kind bribe he offered to Putin personally in the form of a penthouse apartment designed to lure other oligarch into the building.

Wow. Just fucking wow.

(We actually learned that through journalistic efforts before the special counsel report was released, but the SCO fleshed it out and confirmed it. Which I mention by way of credit-where-it’s-due to the Fourth Estate, which is much beleaguered these days.)

And just to remind you: like the claims that there had been no campaign coordination with the Russians, Trump howled with righteous outrage—both throughout the election and after he was in office—at the very suggestion that he had ANY business contacts with Russia. Now we know that that was perhaps the most bald-faced lie any politician ever tried to perpetrate on the American people.

As if all that is not enough, Trump’s lies about the Moscow venture created another historic scandal in the form of a counterintelligence nightmare: a presidential candidate (and then sitting president) vulnerable to Russian blackmail and other political pressure because the Kremlin held explosive information about him that he was hiding from the American people. That is the very definition of how extortion works, folks. In light of that, Trump’s bizarre, previously inexplicable pattern of pro-Russian statements and actions—even in defiance of his own intelligence chiefs and the US military and diplomatic communities—suddenly makes sense, and stands as stark evidence of just how much he was in Moscow’s thrall.

Lastly, and almost in passing, Robert Mueller and his team also painted an Armando Iannucci-worthy picture of a White House riven with incompetence, backstabbing, venality, megalomania, and palace intrigue that would make the Borgias blush. But none of those are really criminal or impeachable offenses, except against good sense, short of the argument that this administration is so appallingly inept that it is in breach of its duty to protect and defend the common welfare. Among his more headspinning conclusions, Mueller noted that some members of Trump’s team—including Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner—were, in effect, too stupid to know that what they were doing with the Russians was wantonly illegal. (Not that ignorance of the law is an excuse, only that their sheer idiocy might make it hard to win a conviction.)

All this in addition to other skullduggery that—as many on the hard left would remind us—arguably constitutes reason for removal even without entanglements with the Russians or efforts to cover up same, including (but not restricted to) tax, bank, and real estate fraud; pardon dangling; felony campaign finance violations in the form of hush money payments to a porn star and other mistresses; numerous and brazen conflicts of interest; nose-thumbing violations of the emoluments clause; and a jawdropping level of general corruption and wholesale abuse of presidential power.

All in all, kind of seems like a guy who should not be the President of the United States, no?

IN THIS AFTERNOON’S PERFORMANCE, THE PART OF JOHN MITCHELL WILL BE PLAYED BY BILL BARR

Unsurprisingly, Trump and Barr have done their best to obfuscate and pervert the actual content of the SCO report, for reasons that are now obvious. We can only wonder what the effect would have been had the report been dropped on Congress and the public—the way the Starr report was—without their despicable and profoundly deceitful muddying of the waters. But we are now—belatedly—experiencing a dawning understanding of how Trump, Barr, and the entire GOP have been trying to gaslight us.

Just this week we learned that Mueller himself was so unhappy with the way Barr’s initial four-pager mischaracterized the report that he twice complained in the three days after that statement was released, even taking the eyebrow-raising step of sending a personal letter to the DOJ expressing his frustration.

Yet when questioned by the House Judiciary Committee on April 19 about Mueller’s opinion of his four-pager, Barr professed ignorance. (I’m not a lawyer, but is the AG supposed to lie to Congress?) Testifying again yesterday, this time in front of the friendlier, Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr resorted to unconvincing semantics to try to explain away that borderline perjury, and in the weaseliest possible way. In a stunning display of arrogance and Orwellian sabotage of the rule of law, he again flatly lied in how he framed the content of Mueller’s letter, even though it had by then been published for the whole world to see.

The chutzpah on this guy!

The Attorney General was also questioned on the related issue of whether he is being pressured by Trump to initiate politically motivated criminal investigations. Kamala Harris, like the former prosecutor she is, took Barr apart and had him stammering like the guiltiest perp on “Law and Order” ever. He never did answer definitively yes or no.

Really? Bill Barr can’t remember if he had any conversations with the President of the United States about launching investigations to punish the president’s political enemies? My eight-year-old wouldn’t try to get away with a howler like that.

(Sitting next to Harris during Barr’s cringeworthy non-response, fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker had a look on his face that was admiring, but a comic strip thought bubble over his head reading, “I’m screwed.”)

Asked about Trump’s pathological dishonesty by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Barr replied, “I’m not in the business of determining when lies are told to the American people.” Which is too bad, because that business is booming. At the very end of the testimony, Blumenthal had zeroed in another crucial matter—the existence of a written record of Barr’s recent phone call from Mueller, which Barr, appallingly, bluntly refused to hand over—when Lindsey Graham leapt in and ended the day’s events, a clip that is not going to age well for Barr or Graham.

How else did Bill Barr disgrace himself in front of Congress yesterday? Let me count the ways:

  • He flatly lied about what Mueller was upset about, claiming it was only about the media and how the summary was being perceived. (Read the letter—Mueller explicitly complains about Barr’s summary itself, not just the public reaction, and does not mention the media at all. Republicans continue to parrot this lie, but it is simply not there in black & white, making this an especially egregious attempt at deception on their part.)
  • He argued that Trump can rightly stop former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying before Congress, a claim that is beyond Nixonian in its view of executive power. (But we already knew Barr felt that way about the unitary executive theory.)
  • He continued to characterize properly authorized FBI surveillance conducted under a FISA warrant as “spying,” playing to his boss’s tweetstorm fits of pique and Fox Nation fantasies.
  • He claimed that the Steele dossier might include Russian disinformation, which is risible given that this administration (and the Trump campaign before it) might as well be a subsidiary of TASS.
  • Also, I’m not sure, but did the ghost of Richard Nixon just appear on live TV and say when the president orders his lawyer to lie it’s not a crime, because the one who gave the order is the president?

I could go on. Can we just go ahead and impeach this motherfucker too?

There were only two silver linings to the Bill Barr Shit Show on Capitol Hill yesterday:

First, that what little was left of Barr’s much-vaunted credibility is now gone, and second, that he has backhandedly made Mueller’s testimony before Congress an inevitability. “If there was any chance DOJ could prevent Mueller from testifying it’s gone now,” said former prosecutor Joyce White Vance. “Congress is entitled to hear from Mueller directly to see if he agrees with Barr’s characterization of his concerns and his comments.”

Not surprisingly, Barr declined to appear before the far less hospitable House Judiciary Committee today, presumably because he will be busy watching the ashes of his reputation scattered into the Potomac. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has suggested that should Adam Schiff subpoena Barr and he still refuses to appear, the House ought to exercise its power to arrest him and march him over in chains. I am heading over to Stub Hub now to get my tickets.

So in case it wasn’t already painfully clear, despite all the assurances that Bill Barr is a man of integrity and an “institutionalist” whom no one could imagine being a bagman for the likes of Donald Trump, it turns out that Barr is exactly that: a true believer, a soulless autocrat in full support of an imperial presidency (right wing version only), not at all bothered by Trump’s outrages, and more than willing to chain himself and his legacy to this rapidly sinking Liberian-flagged garbage scow. He strikes me as yet another rich old white man who has come to internalize the Fox News worldview, irrespective of his credentials and alleged reputation, and gone all in on Donny. He is the missing link between today’s Trumpified GOP and the allegedly respectable “old school,” Bush-led GOP that gave birth to it and is now undeservedly mythologized by some. (On that count I am almost grateful for him as a living reminder of that.) “Trump with a brain,” Nicole Wallace called him, abnormal though that brain appears to be….which makes him much more dangerous than regular brand Donald Trump, and exponentially more dangerous when the two are in league, melding schoolyard bully demagoguery with faux legalistic smoke-and-mirrors gibberish spouted by a soporific evil grandpa.

In short, in the words of the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, he is a hack who “can no longer function credibly as attorney general.”

The oft-asked question, therefore, of why a man like Barr would come out of retirement to go to work in the Trump administration, in a job he’s already had no less, is self-answering: Because he is not a man of integrity or principle in the first place. At all.

Bring back Matt Whitaker.

OBSTRUCOLLUSION

Setting aside this shameful right wing campaign to distort and disguise the truth, when it comes to Russigate the only remaining question is the degree to which Trump and his underlings cooperated in Moscow’s effort to influence the 2016 election, as opposed to merely serving as its happy beneficiaries.

Mueller seems to have concluded that Trump was not an active collaborator, only the passive but very willing recipient of the Kremlin’s gift-giving, a distinction which the GOP is bizarrely trumpeting as some sort of vindication and badge of honor. But even by that definition Trump’s involvement is more active than it might seem, and to understand that, it’s helpful to look at the story through a different lens.

Some months ago Ben Wittes offered the pithy formulation that “the obstruction is the collusion.” (See also Rise of the Espiocracy in these pages, January 20, 2019.) By that he meant that, in trying to stymie the Russia investigation, Trump was continuing to do the very thing of which he was accused: acting as an agent of a hostile foreign power. In concealing the scope of Russia’s actions from US intelligence and law enforcement officials, he was both serving Moscow’s interests and giving it cover to continue those attacks in the future.

Can anyone seriously argue that he is not continuing to do precisely that even now, by refusing to cooperate with Congress in its right and proper oversight role as a co-equal branch, despite compelling evidence of this behavior by Russia? Faced with the legislative branch taking over the investigative lead, Trump is waging an unconscionable campaign of defiance toward Congressional authority that even Nixon wouldn’t have dared: refusing to comply with subpoenas, suing to stop the release of banking records, ordering the Treasury Department and IRS to hide his tax returns, attempting to block White House aides from testifying (foremost among them Don McGahn), and so forth. Despite his lawyers’ specious claims, all that is well within Congress’s legitimate purview, both in terms of Trump’s demonstrable benefit from Russia’s actions and his pattern of corruption in general. Meanwhile Trump still refuses even to acknowledge that Russia interfered in our election, let alone spend any of the money allocated to harden our cyber defenses and prevent it from happening again, since he privately figures to benefit from it in 2020.

(Wittes also make some keen observations about the missing counterintelligence side of the SCO inquiry, which is a subject for another day.)

And this obstruction is a pretty winning strategy.

In his reading diary of the SCO report, Wittes offers a very compelling case that Trump so successfully obstructed justice that he prevented the special counsel from being able to uncover the full story of his conspiracy with Russia in 2016……which is kind of the whole idea of obstruction, n’est-ce pas? Charlie Sykes summarized Wittes’s argument well in a piece last week called “Did Trump’s Attempts to Obstruct Actually Work?” in the new(ish) Never Trump online magazine The Bulwark, which is a fascinating publication for any progressives out there interested in a (usually) sensible conservative view on our ongoing national nightmare.

Now, I know this sounds like exactly what we often accuse the right wing of doing, over Benghazi, and pizzagate, and Solyndra, to name just a few: refusing to accept the available facts and clinging to the delusion that there are hidden secrets that would prove us correct if only the invisible hand would remove itself. It’s a fair and predictable allegation, and one we have to be prepared to rebut.

But rebut it we can, as not all conspiracy theories are created equal.

There is ample evidence that the whole story on Team Trump’s collaboration with Russia has not yet come out, particularly in the case of Paul Manafort, whose lies to the special counsel are explicitly mentioned in the Mueller report as having hindered the investigation. Likewise the Seychelles meeting between Erik Prince, emissaries of the UAE, and Putin ally Kirill Dmitriev. (Though Adam Schiff and the House Judiciary Committee made a criminal referral to the DOJ against Prince just this week, for perjury, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Maybe Betsy DeVos can get her brother to start some adult education programs in federal prison, or he can just recruit some more hired killers for his businesses there.)

The SCO was also denied all the facts on Carter Page, Don Jr. declined to testify, and most notoriously, the White House legal team successfully kept Donald Trump from turning on his perpetual perjury machine in a face to face interview.

In other words, because of the stonewalling, the destruction of documents, the number of Trump deputies who baldly lied to the special counsel, and witness tampering with some of those same people, not to mention the ticking clock and intense pressure (some might call it “harassment”) on the SCO from the White House, the GOP-controlled Senate, and the right wing media, we may not yet know the full story of conspiracy with Russia, and possibly never will.

So one man’s tinfoil hat is another man’s Occam’s razor. To each his or her own conclusions, but for me, I’ll leave it at this:

Imagine a bank robbery where you couldn’t prove the suspect had the loot, but he was a known gangster, was at the scene of the crime, and was now covered in bright blue paint where the dyepack exploded on him.

That is certainly the feeling one gets after reading the Mueller report.

LOW CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS

We have already discussed at length the difference between crimes that can be charged in a court of law with a reasonable certainty of obtaining a conviction, and what is morally wrong, poisonous to our democracy, and/or an eyepopping counterintelligence threat….that is to say, high crimes and misdemeanors. It is that latter half of that dichotomy with which we are now rightly concerned, no matter how much the perpetrators of those offenses would have us believe that this is settled science and there is nothing to see here, folks, let’s move along.

Trump need not have actively conspired with the Kremlin for his behavior to be outrageous and warrant ejection from office. For a reminder of that, let’s go to no less an authority than Senator Lindsey Graham, the former litigator who served as one of Bill Clinton’s prosecutors during his Senate impeachment trial in 1998, when he was accused of offenses far less than Trump is:

The point I am trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic, if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role. Thank God you did that, because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.

Get ready to hear those words on an endless loop for the next eighteen months, Lindsey.

So let me make a statement that may sound absurd in its sheer obviousness:

The actions described in the Mueller report constitute a grave scandal, unprecedented in American history, that ought to rock the nation to its core and trigger severe political and legal ramifications, to include the removal from office of the current President of the United States.

The reason I feel obliged to state that blindingly self-evident point is because, as you may have noticed, many Americans don’t see it that way.

But history sure will.

Where is the outcry from the Republican side of the aisle? Where are the conservatives who screamed bloody murder about 44’s alleged “imperial presidency” and “executive overreach”? Hell, the right wing was ready to march on the White House with torches and pitchforks when Obama wore a khaki-colored suit. (A recent supercut of Fox News attacks on Obama makes this hypocrisy crystal clear.)

Now all I hear from the right of center is crickets. And that is the subject we will delve into next week in the second installment of this series….

 

 

 

Nevertheless They Persist

Persisticon Image for TKN

In 2017, a group of feminists in Brooklyn formed Persisticon, a female-led activist group dedicated to getting Democratic women elected to public office.

With several members with backgrounds in comedy and music, Persisticon’s main efforts have centered on stand-up comedy events—featuring mostly women performers—to benefit EMILY’s List. Persisticon’s next event is Sunday May 5 in Brooklyn. (Full details at bottom.)

I sat down with some of Persisticon’s founders—Diana Kane, Theo Kogan, Leslie King, and Christina Clare—to talk about the group, its activities, and the current state of play in the USA. (Another founder, Lynn Harris, weighed in via email from overseas.)

ORIGIN STORY

THE KING’S NECKTIE: For folks who don’t know, how did Persisticon get started? What was the origin?

DIANA: Our origin story? (laughter) The idea behind Persisticon is to take the things that we‘re passionate about, that we love, and employ them to further equality in elected office. That’s the ultimate mission, and the idea is to do it through promoting female performers and bringing our community together.

THEO: When 45 won—I can’t say his name—I just felt so incredibly hopeless. And I thought, “OK, this is the time. I’m so upset and angry, I have to do something aside from signing every petition online.” So Diana and I were talking about it, and she said, “You have to meet my friend Lynn,” and I said, “You have to meet my friend Leslie,” (laughter) and it just snowballed from there.

LESLIE: And then Christina came along and helped us organize everything, to project manage, and make it all happen.

DIANA: Theo and I kept talking about wanting to do something that we could actually do, because we are not lawyers, and we cannot run down to the airport and save somebody’s life with our laptops. But what we’re good at is throwing parties, and creating a community, and having fun. It seemed to us that if there were more people in policy-making places who genuinely represented us and all the things that matter the most to us—like clean air, and water, and education, and racial justice—that’s where we could put our energy to have the greatest effect. Civic engagement doesn’t always have to look like marching in the streets.

TKN: And what are your events like?

CHRISTINA: In the past we’ve had comedians and musicians like Bridget Everett, Janeane Garofalo, Murray Hill, Aparna Nancherla, Michelle Buteau, Abbi Crutchfield, Jon Glaser, Tiger Bay & Fancy Feast, Jo Firestone, Negin Farsad, Kendra Cunningham, DJ Tikka Masala, DJ Swoon, Ashley Nicole Black, Tammy Faye Starlight, and of course Theo, who’s the lead singer of the Lunachicks and Theo & the Skyscrapers. And we also have people outside the entertainment industry, like Emily’s List CEO Emily Cain, Evelyn McDonnell, editor of the new book Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, and contributors Caryn Rose, and Jana Martin….

THEO: It’s a whole event. You come into the venue and there are vendors selling things, and photographers, and drinks with funny names, and you can drunk shop, which is always fun. And then the show itself is comedian after comedian after comedian, and maybe there’s a singer, maybe there’s an activist or writer who speaks…..it’s a huge array of different types of humans—mostly women—from all different backgrounds and skintones and points of view. And it’s really fun—I always leave crying and laughing. And we raise all this money to get women elected, and raise awareness, and bring people together in the community. Just getting people feeling hopeful is a huge part of it.

LESLIE: it’s a way of activating the community, and making people feel less alone, and finding ways for them to find a voice. People leave and they start doing things themselves, which is ultimately what we want to happen. So people feel they have a voice and can use their talents, whatever they are, to make a change.

DIANA: And the thing about Persisticon promoting female performers is that, in so many shows I’ve gone to in my life, the lineup has been 80-90% male. And I never really questioned it. And it just struck me at some point that this was so imbalanced, and there are so many spectacular performers out there who need a stage, and if you bring them together you get out of the area of being token. There’s a whole panoply of spectacular women performers, and we get to experience them.

CHRISTINA: We do have men on the lineup too. David Cross will be doing our next show….

TKN: Yeah, men can do comedy too, I heard….

CHRISTINA: (laughs) Yeah, men can do comedy….

DIANA: But are they funny? 

(laughter)

TKN: So what’s the next event?

DIANA: The next event is Persisticon III: There Is No Planet B, which has an environmental focus. Because we’re in between elections at the moment, we thought we’d concentrate on issues that need to be on the forefront of people’s minds going into that next election cycle. The world is burning down, and it’s just so clear—and it has been for some time—that whoever we’re voting for needs to be paying careful attention to that. And because it’s springtime, it seems like a good time to bring everybody’s awareness to that. That’s on May 5th at the Bell House in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.

TKN: And where does the money go?

DIANA: For these larger events, EMILY’s List is the organization that most strongly aligns with our values, which is to get pro-choice Democratic women into office. For some smaller events we’ve given to some smaller, more local organizations, but EMILY’s List has the structure to train candidates and support them throughout the entirety of the campaign process.

CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE

TKN: I’m loath to give “45” credit for anything—I don’t even want to give him the number 45—but the one thing I might backhandedly give him credit for is inspiring this kind of activism, as its target of course.

THEO: That was the thing I thought when “It” got elected: that it was gonna invigorate some art and people were gonna fight. I feel like we’ve been pummeled with shit by him and this whole situation, and I was just feeling like: (groans). Just rundown. And things like Persisticon just help me to believe, “Yeah—we’re gonna keep fighting.”

LYNN: But I will say this about this presidency—quoting one of my early mentors, Patricia Ireland: WE COULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT IT. Given that it happened, yes, thank GOD it sparked activism, not just complacency and doom. But I don’t think it’s a silver lining. I think it’s an imperative. And I do think we would have had record numbers of female candidates and a rise in activism and determination even without it. We just would have had a different fuel: not rage, but hope. Imagine where we’d be right now if we’d been spending this time building our democracy, not trying to save it from the fire!

TKN: Yeah, I do feel like there is some hopefulness in the country, despite it all, precisely because of this kind of activism. Is that a sense you get?

DIANA: I was telling somebody in Congressman Nadler’s office about Persisticon, and she was lovely, and the thing she said that most inspired me was that she’d heard of other things like Persisticon…..not precisely like us, but little pockets and bubbles all over the country. And that gave me hope. There are organizations that have sprung up like Indivisible, or Solidarity Sundays, or #GetOrganizedBK, that have really picked up the mantle. Everybody’s doing the thing that works for them—some people show up at Chuck Schumer’s office every single week. So I do think there is hope.

But it’s exhausting. We’re two years into this, and people are getting tired. So I also think that things like Persisticon are rejuvenating, because you come back together and remember that you’re not alone and there is still hope and things we can do.

I look at things like the fight for civil rights. We’re not getting beaten by policemen. We’re still in easy activism, in large part. There’s a long way to go. Our bodies aren’t on the line in the same way that the bodies of people in some communities are. I look at the beatings that John Lewis took and I think, “OK, this is exhausting and hard, but it’s not that.” There’s a long way to go.

TKN: I always think of that quote from Rev. William Barber II where he says, this is bad but this is not the worst thing we’ve ever faced. Not to minimize it, but just saying that if people made it through slavery, and the Depression, Jim Crow, we can make it through this and in fact use it to for positive change.

LESLIE: I think we’re in a very privileged position. We’re not living under that same sort of attack and oppression. So we have the duty to use our privilege to take action and try to activate change.

DIANA: One of the places where we do have power is that we are regular people in our community. There’s nothing special about us, there’s no massive history of activism or study in that area. So if we can do it, anybody can do it. It’s just taking the things that you’re passionate about and putting them to service. 

MISOGYNY (est. 50,000 B.C.E.)

TKN: I don’t wanna go back and relive 2016, but it seemed to me that misogyny was— if not the driving factor—certainly one of the driving factors in what happened. And I don’t feel like that’s changed.

DIANA: No. It’s funny, I work for myself. I own a boutique, and most of my customers are women, and even with all that exposure I feel like I was blind to a lot of it for a long, long time. It was really in the run-up to the 2016 election, like a solid year before, that I started to understand how deeply, deeply rooted misogyny is in this country, and in the world. It’s just shocking. It’s been a shock and an eye-opening experience, and it just continues to be revelatory. I lived in a privileged little bubble, and I didn’t realize how hateful the world has always been towards women, and continues to be.

LESLIE: Don’t you feel like Persisticon was born out that? After the election, all my women friends and I kind of held on to each other and kept talking about ways to support each other, and this felt like a way to do it on a much bigger scale. Bringing women together in a public space—performers, designers, activists—all in one room, celebrating women. And inviting men into that room as well, but women were the first ones to show up, which was powerful and exciting.

CHRISTINA: One of the amazing things about Persisticon is that, since 45 has been in office, I’ve wanted to be involved more politically, but I can’t stand hearing his voice, I can’t stand seeing him. The fact that we’re able to bring together these comedians who can talk about the issues and not talk specifically about him—that’s a beautiful space to be a part of. The idea that we can be politically active, but not talk about the people like him that are so enraging. I love the fact that Persisticon is not about 45, it’s about change. And I love being part of that.

DIANA: He’s the ultimate example of the misogyny that’s in this country, and beyond, for so long, that for me he’s sort of beside the point in a lot of ways. He just exemplifies the worst of it, but it’s so much bigger than him.

TKN: Right—he’s the symptom, not the cause. That was made clear recently with his hostility toward AOC, and the hostility of the whole right wing toward her, and other female politicians. I mean, where does that come from? Can you guys explain that to me?

DIANA: I wish. He hates women. They hate women. They hate anyone who’s different from them, and challenges them, or challenges the power structure, and they capitalize on it. I really think it’s that simple.

LESLIE: Just look at who he gathers together in a room when he makes any sort of “decision”: it’s all old white men. Consistently. If there is a woman, she’s in the background, or by the door, or getting coffee, or used as a token.

DIANA: I place my own awakening around those crazy incel guys, that shooting in Santa Barbara. People who just openly hate women, and come out with guns blazing. I just wasn’t prepared for that. I wasn’t ready for that in my bones, until some of those hashtags showed up. The #yesallwomen hasthag was incredibly powerful for me. Because a lot of women thought they were alone, and because that kind of behavior has been normalized in such a mass way, all these experiences that all these women have had forever were treated like, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”

I think #metoo, all of that, is deeply important. We set what’s normal. Our culture sets that. And if we don’t want that to be normal anymore, we need to lay that down. And I think that’s part of what this is too, and it speaks to the growing awareness of what 45 represents.

2020 VISION

TKN: Which raises the question of 2020. When I look at the presidential field, there are numerous strong female candidates. Do you think the Democratic Party is definitely going to—or needs to—nominate a woman?

THEO: No idea. I hope so.

LESLIE: I dunno. It’s so early….

DIANA: It’s too soon.

THEO: I’m hoping some of the “repeat” people will back down….not mentioning any names.

LESLIE: I think it’s definitely a time when we can have new voices, and I don’t know exactly who that is, but I think people are ready for a fresh voice.

LYNN: Personally, I think the number of white men who should be running for president this time around is zero. Especially the young ones. I like those fellas well enough, but it is NOT YOUR TURN, BRUH. Sit down for a minute and throw your resources behind a woman. Jeez.

LESLIE: There are certain people who are running that I would definitely rather not vote for, but whoever is our candidate is going to be better than what we have right now.

DIANA: Yeah, our strategy is to continue supporting all the women candidates that we possibly can. I think that was the turning point for me, really. When I realized that Congress was made up of 80% men, I was like, “Whaaaat???? How can that be? How can that be? What’s going on that we’re stifling those voices?”

But the 116th Congress is a spectacular thing—it really is. It’s remarkable and exciting and we feel like we helped contribute to that, and even if some of that contribuiton is just a backlash against what’s-his-face, we’ll just keep on going. Because there’s still so far to go. That’s part of why it’s called “Persisticon.” And in some way that’s super exciting. There’s so much room for improvement that anything you do is welcome. You don’t even have to try that hard—just showing up helps! Just the awareness of the problem is a huge step.

LESLIE: It has a ripple effect. People come to the shows, and then they talk to their friends, and that grows the conversation, and that’s ultimately what we want.

TKN: It does feel like it’s way bigger than just one horrible guy or one issue; it’s this consciousness that’s been raised.

THEO: It’s just so crazy, the dichotomy. All this is happening, this awakening, all these people are being called out in #MeToo, and then we have this horrible aggressor that’s still there. I dealt with so much, being in the music business, and the amount of sexism—all kinds of stories from that time. The music business allows a certain type of woman to succeed, and not the others ones that are maybe stronger and more “threatening,” and scary to them. We saw that a million times in the Lunachicks. We were like, “But we’re funny! And we’re good musicians!” And we went very far, but it was always there. And it’s still there. A lot of things have changed and there’s been progress, but it’s still there. Even just our right to choose…..a fetus is a person that can file a lawsuit? It’s insane. It’s completely horrifying, and unbelievable to me.

LESLIE: Yet not surprising at the same time.

PAGING AL GREEN

TKN: It seems clear that this movement—Third Wave Feminism or whatever you want to call it, I don’t want to put a label on it—is threatening to the patriarchy. That’s why they’re lashing out. But how do you keep the movement together? How do you keep it from fracturing?

DIANA: I think that’s kind of the wrong question. Because it’s not really about that. Every single person is living in their own body and has their own experiences that they’re drawing on to make their own choices, and that’s a powerful thing. But it also means we’re not seeing everything through the same lens all the time. And I think the attention spent on how much division is in the women’s movement feels like a distraction, and we should all be vigilant and keep our eyes on the prize.

Look: we’re a diverse group of people with lots of different priorities, but for the most part, we’re all headed in the same direction together. So that kind of thinking is just a red herring, a way to get us off our game.

It’s like looking at the Democratic presidential field, where some people want to tear each other apart. But there’s over 90% agreement among every candidate on all the issues, so any one of those Democrats is going to be a good answer. Any one of them. So that divisiveness feels like it’s been inseminated—and I use that word on purpose. It’s intentional, to get us fighting with each other. And it works.

TKN: Right. I’m thinking specifically of the Women’s March. The first one was so inspiring: Ferne and I were out of town in a hotel, and I have a picture of our daughter watching it live on a laptop, and she was mesmerized. She was six.

But of course—and I don’t think it was a coincidence—there was controversy around the second march, which I’m sure was spurred by people who were looking to split the resistance. So how do you stop that?

DIANA: It was a moment—a spectacular moment. But I think marching in general is not always the answer. The answer is finding ways to go forward and keep progressing.

LESLIE: I think things change even in activism. We’re not going to have a women’s march like we did the first time. Things evolve and change. People want to recreate that moment again, but it’s not possible. It has to change. We can’t hold on to the past. It has to keep moving forward.

We’re about results-driven activism rather than ego-driven activism. That’s where people get really hung up. It becomes more about being right than about the endgame. And people on the other side know that and they feed it, and that’s where things get stunted.

CHRISTINA: There are no easy answers to a lot of these issues, and we’re still struggling to figure out the best way to consolidate our fight, and seeing that we have to find ways to bring groups together. And that’s going to be a constant issue that we’re fighting against, to make sure we have a united front. And it’s exciting to be a part of that.

LYNN: No matter what, we ALL need to stay at the table. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.  

TKN: Well, it does feel like people are aware of that—of the deliberate attempt to split us, and the need for us to stay together and focused. Because there are always opponents who are going to want to attack the movement and break it apart, and those differences are pressure points they go for: racial differences, economic differences, political differences. But to take an almost absurdly extreme example, the only way we could beat Hitler was by making a deal with Stalin. So we can work with people who have different points of view, to say the least.

DIANA: In order to get where we want to go, we need all voices. So there’s no reason to stifle anyone, even if you don’t agree with them 100%. The truth is, like I was saying, you’re gonna agree with them like 90%! (laughter) So I do think that as much as possible you need to keep including all voices, even if they contradict yours.

LESLIE: And those conversations are also very important, because you’re gonna wrestle with different ideas and you may learn something. We all do, in some way. But if you squash anybody who doesn’t agree with you on every single point, then we’re done.

Many women and oppressed communities are finding that we are more alike than we are different. So with the women’s march, we’re realizing that we need all voices to make change. It’s not just about women, or the black community, or immigrants: we’re all connected.

DIANA: One of the things that I most admired about the organizers of the Women’s March—particularly early on, and I don’t know where they’re at now—was their willingness to listen and adjust and make the changes that are called for. In the beginning it was like, “Wow, you’re too white, you need to listen to other voices.” And they did. And I really admired that. The evolution of that organization—at least initially—was pretty fantastic.

LESLIE: It’s something all women are unlearning that was reinforced in us, deliberately. People keep pushing that narrative that women are bitchy and are gonna fight. So there are a lot of things that women are breaking free of. We can do things together, we can work together in so many ways: in our activism, in our personal lives, in our professional lives. There’s more than just one spot for one woman; there are many spots for many women.

DIANA: For me it comes down to women’s bodily autonomy. Period. If you don’t have control over your reproductive rights—and I hate that it has to be framed by abortion, because it’s that, but it’s also bigger than that—but If you don’t have control over your choice, your destiny, and your body, then we’re sunk. Everything else is adjacent to being able to choose whether or not to have a child. And to have some man dictating whether or not you can do that is absolutely not OK. That affects every single woman, no matter what color or where you are in your life. And that’s where women come together: protecting your rights to your body.

TKN: And that issue is in the hands of five Catholic men. Which is grim….but they’re up against this groundswell that Persisticon and other groups like it represent.

DIANA: The way our country is set up, childbearing and childrearing falls mostly on women, still. There are pockets, and in this room right now we are all lucky to have partners who are fantastic, but in general, women’s economic health takes such a huge hit—a massive hit—and it all comes down to how we equalize opportunity for women. And a lot of that is in bodily autonomy.

LESLIE: It is grim. And if you are a person of color, your body is thought of as “different,” as far as women’s health, mortality rates, and so forth. It’s a real crisis, to even recognize a person of color as a full human being.

MANSPLAINING FOR BEGINNERS

TKN: I want to thank you all again for speaking with me. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to add?

THEO: Can I flip the script and just ask, why do you think men hate women so much?

TKN: I wish I knew. But I don’t. I feel like you all felt: I was shocked by how much hatred came out in 2016. I feel stupid in a way. Here I am, over fifty years old, and suddenly I was like, “Wow—there’s a lot of misogyny in the world.”

People really hate women. Even women hate women! There are plenty of conservative women out there who are as misogynistic as any man. And I always say “misogyny” not sexism because it went so far beyond what I think of as garden variety chauvinism or sexism. It was hatred. And I’ve had this argument with a bazillion conservatives: the hatred toward Hillary was so out of proportion to anything she did. It was irrational in its extremity, and it stands for the hatred toward all women.

And it’s changed a little bit, but it hasn’t really changed. There’s a pushback now, and that’s the best thing that’s come out of this, as we were saying before. But the hatred hasn’t changed or gone away, and I don’t know how to make it go away, because I don’t know where it comes from in the first place.

So I don’t begin to know how to answer that question.  

LESLIE: One of the big changes is that now there are men asking “Why?” That’s a big first step. “Why is this happening and how am I contributing to it?” And they’re questioning the sort of community they live in, and the system they live in, and I think that is a huge step, that men are becoming part of the conversation and it’s not just women screaming from the sidelines.

The 45s of the world have this attitude toward women like, “Oh, they don’t know their place.” But I feel like men are recognizing that women don’t have to remember their “place” and stay in it.

DIANA: That whole glass ceiling thing is so apt. Even the guys on your side are only good up to a point. When you want true equality, when you actually want to run the company, they’re not so excited about that. And that’s been eye-opening too. I’m always like, “Wait—I thought you were one of the good ones! I thought we were in this together.” It’s startling.

(laughter)

TKN: It’s so ingrained. I’m conditioned, you’re conditioned, we’re all conditioned, and that doesn’t change overnight. Even if intellectually I understand it, sometimes I catch myself in a retrograde way of thinking. And sometimes I don’t catch myself. And it seems to me—you’d have to ask a sociologist, but it seems to me—that that takes a long time to change. A couple of generations at least. So let’s start.

LESLIE: If more people are asking why, and catching themselves in moments, that’s everyone. Really questioning the norms and asking, “How am I part of the problem?” That’s a huge step toward change. And that’s a big part of the battle, just having some self-awareness.

THEO: And can I say, for the next election, if the person you like isn’t the Democratic candidate, can you please just vote for whoever is running against 45, even if you don’t really like them? How about that?

****************

Poster by Johanna Goodman

https://www.persisticon.com/

PERSISTICON III

Sunday May 5, 2019

The Bell House

149 7th St, Brooklyn NY 11215

(between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in Gowanus)

Where COMEDY, ART and electing FEMINISTS collide. Laugh, listen and party and help raise cash for EMILY’s List: committed to electing progressive pro-choice women and equalizing the representation of all genders in government.

Click link below for tickets:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/persisticon-iii-there-is-no-planet-b-tickets-59198566506

Bar Opens 5:30pm, Doors 6:30pm, Show 7:00pm (over 21 only)

With emcee Ophira Eisenberg of NPR’s “Ask Me Another”

Featuring (list subject to change): Alex Borstein, Michelle Buteau, Bunny Buxom, Carolyn Castligia, Kerry Coddett, David Cross, Ana Fabrega, Aparna Nancherla, Model Majority, Amber Tamblyn, and special guest rabblerouser Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of Uprose, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization, dedicated to environmental and social justice.

*********

TEAM PERSISTICON

DIANA KANE ENGLISH is a retailer, designer, and activist. She is the owner of Diana Kane, a Brooklyn boutique highlighting the work of emerging and established independent, sustainable designers. She’s the creator of the viral FeministGold t-shirt and a passionate feminist, jewelry designer, and community organizer.

CHRISTINA CLARE is a comedy and social justice activist and founder of TheMicHub, an online comedy concierge and aggregator promoting inclusivity through a diverse comedy database. She has worked as a project manager in the translations industry for years and is passionate about music, comedy and all the restorative mediums that entertain, teach, and heal “by accident.”

MARTHA CORCORAN is the curator of The Art of Resistance, a feed that celebrates social justice art and creative resistance. She is a photo editor and researcher for book publishing, digital media, and documentary film, and has worked on projects for Hearst, Abrams, PBS, Barnes & Noble, Nat Geo, and Time Inc.

LYNN HARRIS is founder of GOLD Comedy, which aims to give girls/women/”others” the comedy skills to take over the world. She is an award-winning journalist, retired comedian, and former Tonya Harding lookalike (long story).

LESLIE KING is a Brooklyn-based designer and owner of the sustainable handbag company LK. She is also actively working with local and citywide groups committed to addressing and dismantling segregation in New York City public schools.

THEO KOGAN is best known as the singer of Lunachicks. She was a model, actress, and honorary drag queen, a DJ, party promoter and creator/CEO of Armour Beauty lip gloss. Theo grew up in Brooklyn and is currently a pro makeup artist and mom.

SASADI ODUNSI got her roots in protesting at a young age, speaking out to protect the land and mountains where she grew up in Colorado. Since then, she’s been an active supporter of many causes. She is a mother of four who has worn many hats, but mostly chases after kids and beads earrings these days when she’s not posting stories for Persisticon.

FERNE PEARLSTEIN is a prize-winning director/cinematographer who is one of a handful of women featured in Kodak’s “On Film” ad campaign. Her latest film, THE LAST LAUGH, about taboos in humor, features Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, and many others, and continues to screen around the world since its premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

ANDREW E. WAGNER is an Emmy Award-winning producer with over 25 years of experience developing and managing creative projects of every size and shape imaginable. He has a soft spot for people who want to make the world a better place.

*********

Previous King’s Necktie essays on feminism, sexism, and misogyny:

Bette and Joan and Mary and Offred (and Hillary) – May 23, 2017

Feminism in the Age of Monsters: A Conversation with Alix Kates Shulman (Part 1) February 8, 2018

A Spark Is Lit: A Conversation with Alix Kates Shulman (Part 2) – February 15, 2018

“Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court – August 13, 2018

Oh, How Our Standards Have Fallen – February 11, 2019

 

Employee of the Month

Screen Shot 2019-04-18 at 11.09.58 PM

Read anything good lately?

The events of March 24—that is, the release of Bill Barr’s four-page Cliff Notes version of the Special Counsel’s report—seemed to reset the entire calculus of politics in these United States. But a series of events since then began to call into question the credibility of Barr’s conclusions, giving rise to a growing sensation that a mass gaslighting was underway.

With the publication of the redacted version of the actual report, we now have confirmation of what many began to suspect: that Barr’s topline summary/non-summary (depending on how he felt like characterizing it on any given day), and the subsequent high-fiving by Trump, the GOP, and the rest of MAGA Nation, were not just premature, but the deliberate deployment of the reddest of red herrings. Bright fucking fire engine red.

It is now clear that, in an appalling display of dishonesty and deception, Trump, Barr & Co. consciously waged a disinformation campaign to try to convince the American people that the SCO’s report says things that it pointedly does not. (Whoda thunk?) And for a while they succeeded. The apotheosis of that campaign came today with Barr’s disgraceful press conference ahead of the overdue release of the public version of the report.

But now the emperor’s nudity is on display for all to see. (Yuck.)

As many predicted, the actual Mueller report—even the redacted version—contains a Mount Everest of damaging information about Donald Trump, information that by almost any measure rises to the level to high crimes and misdemeanors, even if it does not consist of prosecutable crimes under the narrow interpretation of the law and DOJ policy against indicting a sitting president. Because “The president didn’t commit a crime!” is all we ask of our head of state, right?

And God knows what’s in the unredacted version. Ironically, the expected outcry demanding it may not emerge, simply because what we’ve already been told is so sufficiently mind-blowing.

A lot of us worried that the details would be too nuanced to overcome the right wing’s false but meme-ready mantra of “No collusion, no obstruction!” And those details are indeed voluminous and complex. But happily, the sheer breadth and weight of the information is scale-tipping for any reasonable person. (Which admittedly, lets out everyone in the Republican Party.)

And so the political calculus has been rocked and reset again.

Welcome to the wilderness of mirrors that is Trumpian America.

THE PERSECUTION AND (CHARACTER) ASSASSINATION OF ROBERT S. MUELLER III AS PERFORMED BY THE IRONICALLY NAMED DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE UNDER THE DIRECTION OF WILLIAM BARR

Let us now briefly turn to Bill Barr.

As I wrote two weeks ago—among a chorus of others—Barr has proven to be the kind of Roy Cohn figure that Trump always wanted as his AG, and his shameful performance on television today was the final nail in the coffin of his reputation. It might as well have been an episode of “Hannity”; even Chris Wallace of Fox noted that he was behaving more like Trump’s defense lawyer than like the Attorney General of the United States. (Which many thought the media-obsessed Trump would take as a “bad review,” though I wonder if perhaps he was actually delighted by that.)

Many have pondered aloud why a man like Barr, who had already been Attorney General under Bush 41, and whose career and reputation were secure (cough cough—more on that in a bit), would want the job in the first place. Whatever the reason, it was assumed by almost everyone, even critics of Trump, that he would act honorably in the role. The presumption was that a man of such integrity and principle—an “institutionalist” as many former colleagues on both the right and left attested—would serve as a brake on his boss’s criminal-cum-autocratic instincts.

Yet since the moment he was confirmed, Bill Barr has done nothing of the sort. Very much the contrary. Instead, in two short months, he has volunteered over and over to be Trump’s human shield, and his sword as well.

So at the risk of wading into both vulgarity and misogyny, why did Bill Barr agree to be Trump’s bitch?

There was some speculation that, at 68, and having been out of public life for many years, Barr simply failed to appreciate how fast the news cycle moves these days, and the impact of the myriad new avenues of reporting in the Internet Age, such that you can’t get away with the bullshit you did in 1992.

But that’s not a reason why he would take the job: only an explanation of why he mistakenly thought he could behave so abominably in it.

The other explanation is that Barr is a Trump true believer after all, presumably drunk on Fox News, who wanted to lend his—ahem—credibility to defending the administration in its hour of need. His behavior certainly suggests that (and Nicole Wallace today reported that a reliable source close to Barr had confessed to her exactly that.)

In truth, that should have been apparent from the git-go, based on his unsolicited 19 page memo attacking the very existence of the Mueller probe, and arguing that a president literally cannot obstruct justice, by which he auditioned for the AG job, and his well-known belief in the unitary executive theory.

For that matter, as I also wrote two weeks ago, what reason was there ever to believe that Barr was a man of integrity? In reality, his history as a bag man was clear after his run in the first Bush administration, including enabling the Christmas Eve ’92 pardon of six high-ranking underlings implicated in the Iran/contra scandal, among them SecDef Caspar Weinberger. That was an abuse of power so blatant and egregious that the special prosecutor in that case, Lawrence Walsh, publicly assailed it as a coverup. Even the conservative pundit and former Nixon speechwriter William Safire dubbed Barr the Coverup-General.

That history is precisely why he got the job a second time. Barr is the go-to AG for a Republican POTUS who needs covering fire from a reasonable-seeming faux “statesman” who in truth doesn’t mind behaving like a mob consigliere. Which is exactly what Trump desperately, openly wanted.

So it was instructive this week to watch smart, admirable people like former US Attorneys Joyce Vance and Chuck Rosenberg, who, despite being Trump critics, were among those who nonetheless praised Barr at the time of his appointment, now shaking their heads and admitting that he is just a right wing hack after all. Even at the time of his appointment I didn’t buy it, simply because there was no reason to believe that Trump would EVER hire anyone of integrity. And it turns out he didn’t. (His streak is intact!)

Turns out, Barr is just Giuliani disguised as your grandpa.

(See also Barr’s recent ruling that asylum seekers must be held in custody while awaiting their hearings—a ruling designed to give Stephen Miller an orgasm—and his outrageous and deliberate use of the term “spying” to refer to judicially authorized surveillance by law enforcement, a comment designed to feed the tinfoil hat fantasies of neo-John Birchers.)

Barr stands as the missing link between Trump’s mouthbreathing GOP and the old school Bush family GOP, which has undeservedly benefited by comparison with the horrors of Team 45. But the fact is, the former grew out of the toxic seeds sowed by the latter, and the two are more alike than many “mainstream” conservatives care to admit. And Bill Barr, who served as Attorney General in both incarnations of Republican monstrosity, represents the undeniable connection between the two.

Now Bill Barr has permanently trashed his reputation and his legacy, destroying whatever illusory goodwill he once had. In that there is some poetic justice, as he never really deserved that reputation in the first place. He will go down in history as a shameless, unprincipled shill for Donald Trump, and rightly so. And as icing on the shitcake, his heretofore largely forgotten subservience to George H. W. Bush has now been resurrected and appended as an ugly prelude.

A FUNERAL FOR BILL BARR’S REPUTATION

So how exactly did Barr disgrace himself in the course of this particular goatfuck? Let me count the ways.

There was the aforementioned smoke-and-mirrors statement of March 24, when he not only deceptively spun Mueller’s conclusions on collusion, but also usurped the authority to decide the issue of obstruction (which Mueller pointedly had chosen to cede to Congress), and in so doing handed Trump an invaluable political weapon, not to mention freeing him from legal jeopardy. How far over the line were his actions? So far that members of Mueller’s famously tight-lipped team broke their silence or the first time, sending word via emissaries of their irritation at how their work was being mischaracterized for partisan purposes.

Then came the three week period of redaction which conveniently allowed Trump to go around using his bully pulpit (and I do mean bully) to pound his lie of “complete and total exoneration!” into America’s head. Then, in an unconscionable breach of legal protocol, he shared the contents of the SCO report with the White House ahead of time, allowing it to get a headstart on its counterattack. And finally, there was today’s press conference in which he spun the report like a dervish, all before delivering it to Congress—inexplicably—in a CD boxed set from Columbia House, yours for only $6.99 a month (allow six weeks for shipping).

In that presser, Barr used the legally meaningless words “no collusion” numerous times, sounding almost like his boss, and then launched into an absurd defense of Trump’s behavior, arguing that he didn’t obstruct justice, that he was just angry that he was being investigated at all, that his feelings were hurt, and that he was frustrated that the investigation was making it hard for him to do things like cage infants and praise neo-Nazis. (In real time, Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), tweeted in response, “No one is above the rule of law…unless you’re frustrated that is.”)

As my friend Tina said, Barr sounded like should have been wearing a MAGA hat. Frankly, a lot of the language read like it had been dictated by Trump himself, much like Donny Jr’s letter about his meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower.

Barr’s characterization of the Mueller investigation as “binary”—that is, either bringing indictments or not in each given matter—was also predictably dishonest and ignored the investigation’s counterintelligence aspect, not to mention the fact that Congress and the American people deserve to know much more than just whether or not their president is a felon.

Ironically, one of the few honest things he said bluntly contradicted Trump. On the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election Barr supported the unanimous conclusion of the US Intelligence Community that Moscow did in fact mount such an attack, rejecting Trump’s own disgusting refusal to acknowledge as much, let alone take any steps to stop Russian interference going forward. But just as telling, Barr pointedly refused to say anything about Trump’s silence and inaction on that count.

Once the (redacted) report finally was published, even more of Barr’s lies became clear.

He blatantly lied about Mueller’s consideration of the DOJ policy on indicting a sitting president in coming to his conclusion on obstruction (Mueller plainly states that he did consider that factor), and on leaving that decision to the AG (he did not: he left it to Congress).

Barr’s claims about how cooperative Trump had been with the special counsel were already laughable, of course, which was apparent to anyone who had watched our toddler-in-chief throw his tantrums over the past 23 months, and were further contradicted by the report itself, which detailed the number of people he had pressured to lie to investigators, derail the probe, or to stop it completely. Another zinger was the report’s observation that Trump actively tried to obstruct but was stymied because his deputies (notably, Don McGahn) refused to carry out his orders, like his directive to fire Mueller himself.

Barr claimed that the report says no Americans conspired with Russian assets, which is definitively at odds with what we know about the actions of Manafort, Stone, Prince, Gates, Page, Papadopolous, and others. In truth, the SCO report goes into stunning detail in painting a portrait of the Russian attack on our electoral system and the Trump team’s connections to it, witting and otherwise, and eagerness to benefit from same. (Meanwhile Mueller basically said DJTJ and Jared were too stupid to know they were colluding.)

Most notably, in order to try to make Trump look innocent on that count, Barr had famously cherrypicked a half-quote, out of context, to use as his lede in this four-page distraction of March 24th:

“….the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Now we could see what he left out, which was the crucial subordinate clause, which as George Conway predicted, begins with the word “Although”:

“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected that it would benefit electorally from the information stolen and released through Russian efforts….”

In other words, Team Trump was happy to have the help of the Russians and did not lift a finger to stop it, including refusing to notify the FBI, CIA, or other authorities of the help that was offered. Everybody OK with that?

Among the most damning parts of the report are Trump’s own words, foremost among them these from p290, which are likely to go on his tombstone:

According to notes written by (DOJ chief of staff Jody) 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.”

Ironically, it will likely not be the end, as he has miraculously survived—cockroach like—all manner of previous scandals that would have doomed any other president of either party. But the quote from Trump’s own mealy mouth tells us that even he knows that by all rights this should be the end.

In sum, we can now see for ourselves that Barr’s misrepresentation of Mueller’s findings rises way beyond mere spin and into the category of overt deception, abetted by abuse of his power in withholding the actual report for three weeks in an effort to let his preferred narrative set in stone. But should we be surprised that such deceit is the strategy of the Trump administration, or that Bill Barr eagerly carried it out?

So please stop telling me what a reputable jurist William Barr is.

CONFIRMATION NATION

Which bring us to the question: will any of this matter? In the twenty-five days since Barr issued his initial summary/non-summary of the Mueller report, polls have shown remarkably little change in how Americans view Trump, which is a measure of how entrenched the partisan divide has become, irrespective of the actual facts. Call us Confirmation Bias Nation.

Accordingly, the release of the SCO’s report (redacted or otherwise) is not likely to result in the deus ex machina that many of us on the left privately dreamed. Perhaps we never should have, as David Frum sagely warned way back in May 2017 (“A Special Prosecutor Is Not the Answer”). Barr’s reputation was already in tatters, so no one left of Mitt Romney was swayed by his “prebuttal” today. Conversely, all the evidence of wrongdoing in the redacted report meant precisely zip to Trump Nation, who would stand by their man even if were captured on video wearing a French maid’s outfit and shining Putin’s riding boots.

But I do think that, for any reasonable person, the sheer weight and volume of Trump’s sins, now confirmed by the SCO, ought to hurt him going forward into the 2020 election. (Wow, was it necessary to write that? That’s where we are these days.) And in the coming weeks, as we pore over the Mueller report with even more scrutiny, more and more explosive details will surely emerge.

Meanwhile the administration’s laughable attempts at damage control continue. While Kellyanne Conway told the press that this was “the best day” for Trump since November 8, 2016, Trump himself spent the morning busily sending out furious, vitriolic tweets again attacking Mueller and his team as “crooked cops” conducting a “witchhunt”…..you know, like you do when you’re totally happy and feel exonerated.

(Among his tweets, bizarrely, was a supercut of himself saying “No collusion,” which to my mind makes my point not his. Does he really think if he bludgeons us enough with the repetition of a lie it will make us believe it’s true? Apparently he does, and with some evidence to back him up, if one looks at the psychology of brainwashing and the credulity of his followers.)

So I say “laughable,” but their base does seem to lap it up.

On the other side of the aisle, the House of Representatives—led in this effort by genuinely reputable public servants like Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff—have made it clear that they will now be like a dog with a bone, and good on them for that. That kind of oversight is Congress’s job, particularly with a brazenly lawless, gangster president like this one.

And yes, impeachment is back on the table. I make no tactical assessment about whether that is a smart move going into 2020, gamesmanship wise, or what its prospects are for success. (Slim, I suspect.) I mean only that it is now all but impossible for Congress to ignore its duty to address the incredible smorgasbord of malfeasance that Bob Mueller has laid before them.

No matter what Billy Barr says.

 

 

Ghostwriter Wanted (Some Collusion Required)

All Work and No Play (Ghostwriter)

Recently The Daily Beast reported that Donald Trump is already excited about the idea of writing a “tell all” memoir:

[Trump] is planning on it being explosive and assumes (not without reason) that it will be a New York Times bestseller. And since the early days of his administration, he has conveyed his eagerness to get started on the project. “He sounded excited about it,” said one person who was present last year when the president made comments about writing a memoir. “He said it would sell better than even The Art of the Deal.

Another source, who is a friend of Trump’s, said the president has casually discussed how such a book could be used to dish dirt and settle scores with his foes in the media, the Democratic Party, non-loyal Republicans, law enforcement, and even individuals in his own administration. Trump, according to this person, noted that this memoir could help “correct” the “fake news” already published in popular books and newspapers, and give him the opportunity to spin a juicy yarn on his time at the heights of power.

********

Mick Mulvaney stared at me from behind his desk in the chief of staff’s office. The man exuded honesty, integrity, and principle in a way matched only by the likes of McConnell, Nunes, or Ross.

“Blood test go OK?” he asked.

I nodded. “And you’re sure my family is all right?”

“You bet. I checked their handcuffs and gags myself. And there’s Netflix and Amazon in the safehouse.”

“Thank you.”

He peered down his granny glasses at me as the quizzing began. “What great author do you see Trump most resembling?”

I thought for a beat.

“Shakespeare?”

Mulvaney scowled. I tried again.

“Faulkner?”

The scowl deepened. “Think harder. In human history, who’s the greatest author in the English language—or any language, for that matter?”

I racked my brain. Then it came to me.

“Donald Trump?”

Mulvaney’s scowl transformed into a broad grin.

“Circle gets the square. You’ve read his previous bestsellers, I presume.”

Naturellement.”

“Sorry?”

“Yes, I have.”

“What do you think the president’s greatest literary strength is?”

“I think he’s very good at creating fiction.”

“The president sees this book as a chance to set the record straight; to call out all the ‘fake news’ he’s been subjected to for the past three years.”

“Right.”

“Also he wants people to know he has really long fingers.” Mulvaney winked. There was a pause. “And everyone knows what that means.”

I forced a smile. There was another pause, until Mulvaney spoke, helpfully:

“It means he wants people to think he has a really big dick.”

“I think people are well aware that Mr. Trump is a really big dick.”

Has one, has one,” Mulvaney corrected.

I made a note and took advantage of the lull to ask a question of my own.

“Will there be much back and forth with Mr. Trump while I’m writing? Normally I’d interview the subject at—”

Mulvaney cut me off. “We need someone who can run with this without needing their hand held. Dig?”

“No problem. But I assume, when it’s done, Mr. Trump will at least read it over to approve it?”

Mulvaney furrowed his brow. “We’ll give him the manuscript, yes.”

That furrowed brow worried me. “Are you saying he doesn’t have the attention span to read his own book?”

Mulvaney was silent, furrowing some more. I narrowed my gaze.

“He can read, right?” I asked.

“We’ll get Bill Barr to do a four page summary and someone can read it to him.”

I decided to let it go. “Any books he particularly admires that I might want to read, as models?”

“Two Corinthians.”

I wrote that down.

“Any thoughts on titles?” he asked while I was writing, as I thought he would, and I had some ready to pitch.

“Sure thing. How about, Trump: Almighty God-Emperor and Savior of Democracy (Part I)?”

“Bit subtle, don’t you think?”

“How about No Collusion: How I won the Presidency Without Really Trying?”

“I like it, but a bit narrow. Think bigger.”

Mein Kampf?”

“Love that. Might be taken, though—we’ll do a copyright search.”

“Any topics you’d like me to avoid?”

“Just his refusal to release his tax returns, his multimillion dollar deals with Russia that he lied about to the American people, the $50 million bribe he offered Putin in the form of a penthouse apartment, the money laundering for Russian oligarchs, the real estate fraud, felony campaign finance violations, hush money for mistresses, anything having to do with abortions he might have paid for, the Trump Foundation, the Trump inauguration, his previous marriages, his temper, his early onset dementia—“

I stopped him. “I get it,” I said. “And I presume there will be an audiobook too?”

“For sure. The President will read it himself.”

My eyes must have gotten big, because Mulvaney’s got narrow. “He can read!” he barked, reading my mind.

“Of course.” A coughing fit came over me. Mulvaney looked rattled. He looked down, mumbling to himself, and I noticed for the first time that in his hand he had prayer beads. “If they’ll let him record it from Sing Sing,” he muttered.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, regaining his composure. “Anyway, we can always get Alec Baldwin to do it.”

I nodded. He seemed mollified. “Any other questions, or can we button this thing up?”

“Just one. Why don’t you just hire Tony Schwarz again?”

Mulvaney’s lip curled into a sneer. Actually, it may have done that around 1967 and been fixed that way ever since.

“That is a name we don’t mention around here. The man you’re talking about proved to be a shameless publicity hound and traitor to his country. Wouldn’t you agree?”

I hesitated.

“We’re also looking into that rumors he might be Jewish. Jared’s on the case.”

I was confused. “But isn’t Jared—”

Mick cut me off again. “It’s because of people like Schw—I mean, that author—that we’ve developed the GLAS protocol.”

“GLAS protocol?” I asked.

“Ghostwriter Loyalty Assurance System. It’s all in the fine print in the contract. A microscopic silicon chip will be inserted behind your ear, subcutaneously. Should you violate the terms of your contract at any time—say, by getting all uppity and mouthing off to the press—a small electrical shock will be applied remotely, as a reminder of your obligations. Should you continue to act out, the voltage can be increased accordingly. And should you prove completely uncontrollable, the chip is capable of releasing a nerve agent into your bloodstream that will induce a violent and painful death within 24 hours.”

“Is that legal?”

“Normally no. But as a great man once said, it’s not a crime when the president does it. Cool with that?”

“Actually, that’s not much worse than some of the deals I’ve signed in the past.”

“Anything else? I have to get over to the Oval Office and look at paint swatches for the re-education camps.”

“One last thing. Not to be crass, but…..about the pay?”

Mulvaney waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, there’s no money upfront. It’s an honor just to be asked to write this book, don’t you think?” He continued before I could answer. “But don’t worry: you’ll make a killing in profit-participation. It’s the same deal President Trump has always given his contractors. Ask anyone in Atlantic City.”

I frowned. He seemed to sense my anxiety.

“Hey, if you can’t trust Donald Trump, who can you trust?”

I threw up in my mouth a little.

Mulvaney opened a desk drawer. “So, if there’s nothing else, it’s just a matter of dotting i’s and crossing t’s…..”

He pulled out a fountain pen. I could see that it was filled with my own blood, which the White House medical staff had drawn earlier. He held out the pen and slid the contract across the desk, nodding for me to sign on the line which was dotted. “Just think,” he said, smiling, “you’ll always be remembered for your part in telling the Trump story.”

As I took the pen, I smelled sulfur.

********

Der Furor

It Was Tweets Killed The Beast! -final

Over the last few weeks, all the focus on the fallout of the still-under-wraps Mueller report has obscured the central and ongoing reality of the Trump administration: its fundamental sadism, greed, corruption, and inhumanity as it marches into history as far and away the worst presidency of modern times by any metric you care to apply. Untoward footsie with Russia (and the Saudis, and the Azerbaijanis, and the Israelis, zzzzz) is but one aspect of it, and—as many critics on the left have pointed out—the attention paid to that sucks the oxygen away from a raging forest fire of other sins.

We were reminded of that this week with the abrupt firing of Homeland Security Secretary Kirrstjjen Nielssenn (did I spell that right?), apparently ahead of the impending departure of a half dozen other senior DHS officials in a purge orchestrated by the reptilian Stephen Miller, with Trump’s eager endorsement, but without any sign of succession by competent replacements. “Decapitation,” one anonymous insider called this Sunday Night Massacre…..and this at the agency responsible for addressing what Trump claims is a “national emergency.”

No tears will be shed for Kirsten, of course—screw her and the broom she rode in on. But that purge, we’re told, in turn precedes Trump’s fuming desire to “get tougher” on the situation at the southern border, to halt all asylum seekers in defiance of federal law, and to ratchet up his xenophobic immigration policy full stop.

“Get tougher”? Are they kidding?

Let’s not concede them their preferred terms. Ain’t no “tougher” about it. What they’re talking about is better described as raising the already appalling level of institutional cruelty to an even more stomach-churning level, which is saying something. That would include an attempt—again, in defiance of the courts—to reinstate the unconscionable policy of “family separation,” a euphemism for ripping children away from their parents and caging them, as a deliberately brutal ploy to deter future asylum seekers. (Suck on that, Emma Lazarus!) It is a policy that some mental health professionals have described—and not metaphorically—as torture.

In this effort Trump, Miller, and rest of their odious crew seem motivated in equal measure by their own innate sadism and by a tactical desire to appeal to that same quality in their salivating base. There is no discernible plan or policy beyond that, at least not one rooted in anything resembling reality. Some have speculated that mere cruelty is itself the goal, with some vague, nihilistic notion of “disrupting” the entire body politic. If that is so, they have succeeded in spades. But how is that any kind of coherent objective?

Typically, Trump (falsely) blamed Obama for the policy of taking children from their parents, claimed he is the one who stopped it (the exact opposite of what really happened) even as he openly considers re-starting the policy, while at the same time taking credit for its (mythical) deterrent effect. All of which is reminiscent of his claim that he “ended” the birther lie that he himself fueled: another example of the malignant, self-spun reality of the malignant sociopath.

Just to be clear: the Trump administration and only the Trump administration has ever systematically employed family separation as a deliberate deterrent, effective or not (NB: it’s not), to stop immigration on America’s borders.

Small children have died of negligence in ICE custody. At least one infant was stillborn as a result of the policy of detaining even pregnant women and the lack of suitable medical care. Children already detained during the previous stint of the “family separation policy” have shown signs of PTSD and permanent neurological injury that will require years of psychiatric treatment. The Trump administration recently admitted that it estimates it will take two years just to identify all the thousands of separated children, let alone reunite them, which in some cases will prove impossible.

To co-opt the words of Fannie Mae Hamer, “Is this America?”

These days, I guess so.

These are correctly described as crimes against humanity; if we were watching them unfold in some Third World country we would all recognize the horror and decry the barbarism of the government administering it.

So why are the American people not out in the streets in outrage? Why am I sitting at my computer writing this instead of doing that? In terms of federal policy, what’s going on right now—let alone what will happen next when Trump gets “tougher”— ranks as one of the most shameful episodes in modern American history, recalling the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Will we remember this as a low point in modern American history? You bet your ass we will.

THE RAGEAHOLIC-IN-CHIEF

This week I had intended to publish a humorous piece about reports that Trump is anxious to write his post-presidency memoirs. (I’m anxious for the “post-presidency” part myself.) But leave it to Don to leech the pleasure out of even the briefest moment of levity.

The sixteen days since Barr released his eyebrow-raising summary of the Mueller report have seen surprisingly little change in the political landscape, especially given the apocalypse that was expected. In part this is because Mr. Barr continues to carry out what increasingly looks like a blatant coverup of the full contents of the report. (Or really any of them, except his own two cherrypicked sentence fragments.) His appearance before Congress today did little to change that impression.

Even Trump seems stunningly unchanged. Writing in the New Yorker in the first week after Barr weighed in, Susan Glasser noted:

What’s been remarkable, this week, is how much Trump triumphant has sounded like Trump at every other point in his Presidency: angry and victimized; undisciplined and often incoherent; predictable in his unpredictability; vain and insecure; prone to lies, exaggeration, and to undercutting even those who seek to serve him.

And that trend has only accelerated since then. You’d think that Trump would be luxuriating in the news that he won’t be indicted for conspiracy with a foreign power (at least not by the special counsel) and the opportunity to spin that news—dishonestly—as “compete and total exoneration.” And he did revel in it…..but only for a nanosecond before returning to the familar, seething persecution complex that seems to be his natural state, calling for criminal prosecution of the “treasonous” and “evil” people he blamed for the appointment of the special counsel in the first place. (And Devin Nunes came running, Igor-like, bleating, “Yes, master—you rang?”)

In so doing, Trump instantly reminded us all of why that special counsel was needed. In Bloomberg News, Jonathan Bernstein writes:

Trump and his allies immediately reminded everyone how little respect this president has for democratic norms and set themselves up for political damage if the Mueller report doesn’t live up to their spin. Instead of taking a win and building on it, Trump took all of one day to oversell it, increase the likelihood that more damaging information will be publicly released, and remind everyone that he’s still unfit for the office he holds.

Is anyone really surprised?

Clearly Trump believes that the Barr spin on the Mueller report is a useful weapon for him going forward, but he seems motivated just as much by sheer infantile rage and lust for vengeance.

In that sense, the entire special counsel probe actually served Trump’s interests by giving him a useful enemy to demonize and a massive distraction from the other crimes against democracy he was in the course of committing. Throughout his life Trump has always needed an enemy to fulminate against, which may in part be why he is so unhinged lately with the vanishing of the “deeply conflicted” Bob Mueller and his witchhunt, much as he was when he lost Hillary as a foil.

What a sad and pathetic individual this man is, this 72-year-old infant, consumed with rage 24/7. As a wise, Zen-like man once said, “If you’re angry, you’re wrong.”

That Zen-like man was Vladimir Putin.

Of course, regular readers of this blog might raise a brow and note my own, uh, anger issues. But I’m not, I’m not, I’m not!

That too I blame on Trump.

THE POLITICS OF GRIEVANCE

And thus Trump’s “politics of grievance,” in Glasser’s phrase, continue into the post-Barr report era, as our fearless leader predictably overstepped, declined to breath a sigh of relief and take the win and change the subject—the way most humans would—and instead plunged into an inexplicable string of rage-driven self-inflicted wounds, including yet another attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act, a frantic but empty threat to close the entire Mexican border, and now this attempt to revive a policy of kidnapping children so horrific that it even put off Republicans.

This is not the same thing as seizing the momentum to push one’s policy agenda. It’s more like squandering it with a series of spasmodic, ill-advised policy moves. But that’s what you get when Stephen Miller is your spirit animal.

Some have suggested that these things do help Trump, the best analogy being his continued attacks on John McCain. Most people think that slandering a revered American war hero, even after he’s dead, is a bad look on anyone. But Trump’s base thrills to it, which is the thing that our thirsty thirsty commander-in-chief craves the most. The same logic—we’re told—applies to Obamacare and the border.

Maybe. But I question whether that is in fact a winning strategy, and even if it is, whether Trump is able to think strategically in that way, or is merely lurching transactionally from one fistfight to the next, with any “strategic” considerations merely grafted on after the fact by outside observers invested in the idea of Trump as idiot savant. (Perhaps they’re only right about the first part of that sobriquet.)

In part this parade of disasters flows from the fact that the fruits of Trumpian incompetence and corruption continue to flower, and will never stop, even in the post-Mueller world. This week alone we saw further revelations about Kushner’s security clearance; what looks very much like a Chinese agent wandering around Mar-a-Lago; ongoing (and proper) Congressional oversight including a request for six years’ worth of Trump’s tax returns; a Congressional subpoena for the full, unredacted Mueller report; and more. Amid all that Trump is doubling down on red meat issues that only solidify his base—which would already follow him right off a cliff, and needs no incentive to get out and vote—at the risk of further alienating everyone else. And he can’t win in 2020 with just his base, assuming the Democrats can get out their own voters.

But once again, I don’t believe Trump is even think in those kind of practical terms.

I think he just like to hear his crowds cheer.

GUILT TRIP

Having begun this essay by stating how much the focus on Russiagate has distracted our attention from the other horrors perpetrated by the Trump and his administration, indulge me in a brief digression on that point, as it’s relevant and instructive. (I promise.)

Over the past two years, one of the things that made me most confident that there was as yet unearthed, direct evidence that Trump conspired with Russian assets beyond what we already know (which is substantial) was his daily, almost comical insistence that he didn’t. He used “NO COLLUSION!” the way other people use commas. That, as many noted, was not behavior typical of an innocent man.

In retrospect, I think there are three possible explanations.

One, as I wrote a few weeks ago (amid of chorus of many others), is that there was collusion however you want to define it, even if it didn’t rise to the level of a prosecutable felony….so much so that Trump was terrified of it coming out. He may remain thus. Note his characteristic 180 on his initial braggadocious claim that the public should see the full report.

Two, that he was—and remains—terrified that the Mueller investigation would uncover his impressive resume of other crimes over a lifetime of grift, which of course it did. Indeed, it lifted the lid off the whole Gowanus Canal/Superfund site sewer that is the Trump business empire, which the intrepid frogmen of the SDNY and others are currently exploring (in hazmat drysuits, I hope).

And three, that he is quite simply a rotten little child who doesn’t behave like a normal adult human being, which makes for a frustrating and unpredictable foe. As Steve’s illustration for this essay suggests, Trump’s tweets alone make the case for obstruction.

In New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan endorsed that theory:

Trump would happily obstruct justice even if he knew he was as innocent as the driven snow. It’s his core instinct. He’ll always act guilty—whether he’s guilty or not. He cannot see the process of an inquiry as a way for the entire system to examine and fix itself—let alone exonerate him. He instinctively recoils from any independent challenge to his control. Letting the law take its course would require a modicum of appreciation of a liberal society, and an understanding that the world doesn’t simply revolve around him. And he is clinically incapable of either.

And so if Trump is charged or accused of anything, he has the identical reflex. Always deny. Always lie. Always undermine. Never concede. Accuse your opponents of doing exactly what they accuse you of. Even if you’re innocent. This is the Roy Cohn playbook, and it’s damaging when even a real-estate developer deploys that kind of tactic, but in a president, charged with the faithful execution of the laws, it’s potentially fatal. But it will also mislead others, as it may have in this case. Most people tend to assume that someone who is acting incredibly guilty probably is a little guilty. But that misses the particular mind-set of this particular president.

We knew all this, though we’d rarely seen it so baldly on display as in the last two weeks.

This instinct is now playing out on multiple fronts, as the lack of empathy that puts Trump in a perennial state of rage in the first place is the same force that makes him turn it on the weakest and most vulnerable members of humanity.

As I’ve written in the past (Dear Huddled Masses: Go F—- Yourselves, June 21, 2018), when it comes to immigration, the entire rationale of “law and order” and “securing the border” is just a fig leaf for the real animating factor for Trump and his disciples, which is sheer racist nativism and hatred of immigrants, legal or otherwise. Not for nothing is immigration Trump’s signature issue, going all the way to back to his announcement of his candidacy nearly three years ago, anchored on the “Mexicans are rapists” theme. And need we mention Trump’s own familial hypocrisy on the topic, and Melania’s on chain migration, and Miller’s on asylum seeking?

As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg notes, “Trump is growing ever more lawless and autocratic.” We are seeing it before our eyes: with the madness at the border, with his administration’s open defiance of Congress, with the continuing, coy incitement violence among his supporters, and with hints that he may not yield power even if defeated in 2020. Nothing suggest that trend is going to get better; in fact, very much the contrary.

Meanwhile, Ms. Nielsen rides off into the sunset, where—as Goldberg and others such as Jeffrey Toobin noted—she ought rightly be remembered as a monster and pariah.

Couldn’t have happened to a nicer gal.

*********

Illustration: “It Was Tweets Killed the Beast!” by Steve Bernstein

 

Cover Me: Bill Barr’s Moment of Truth

Cover Me (redacted report)

If I ever have to stand trial, here are the conditions I would like.

After the police and the prosecutors have done their job and gathered the evidence and made their case, I’d like my lawyer—handpicked for his expertise in this area—to go through their brief and take a big fat black Sharpie to anything he finds objectionable.

I’d like it if he had total authority to do that and didn’t really have to explain or defend his decisions to anyone.

I’d like it if had a really impressive blue chip résumé and a lot of experience in covering up the kind of crimes in question.

I’d like it if the jury was not allowed to see the case against me until after my guy had blacked out all the incriminating evidence to his satisfaction—which is to say, to my satisfaction, except even better because he’s a lawyer and knows the nuances, which I don’t.

I’d like it if he had three or four weeks or so to do that, while I commanded a gargantuan public pulpit from which to proclaim that I had already been exonerated.

I’d like it if the large chunks of the press obediently reported and repeated my claims.

And finally, I’d like it if most people didn’t really think any of this was weird, and were unbothered that I was able to engineer it that way.

That sounds like a pretty good arrangement, doesn’t it?

THE CONSIGLIERE

Bill Barr is the Attorney General that Donald Trump always dreamed of.

In 21 months of public humiliating his previous AG, Jeff Sessions, Trump made it clear that what he wanted in that job was a Mafia-style consigliere, an attack dog who would protect and defend him and persecute his foes with the full force of the Department of Justice, in keeping with Trump’s vision of the entire DOJ as his personal Schutzstaffel.

It’s a perfect example—maybe the signature one—of Trump’s fundamental misunderstanding of the most basic principles of democracy and the rule of law.

(And yes, I’m using both Mafia and Nazi imagery in the same sentence. Let me know which is more egregious: the “hysterical” analogies or the mixed metaphor.)

Trump famously, and falsely, characterized Eric Holder as having served that “attack dog” role for Barack Obama. The guy he really wants in the job, of course, is Roy Cohn, and should Barr leave the gig at some point, I would not be surprised to open my web browser and read that Trump has proposed exhuming Cohn’s corpse and nominating his rotted bones for the position.

We’ve heard a lot—even from progressive pundits on MSNBC—about how Barr is an honorable public servant, with integrity and respect for the rule of law, an eminence grise from the days of the “old school GOP.” Yeah, that’s the old school GOP that gave us Iran/contra and secret sales of WMD to Saddam Hussein, which Barr actively covered up during his first tour as AG under Bush 41. Bush pardoned six underlings implicated in Iran/contra, including his Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, with Barr providing legal cover and help in shutting down an investigation by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. It was behavior so egregious that William Safire—the former Nixon speechwriter turned conservative columnist (!)—nicknamed him the “Coverup General,” and called him that in print.

So I am unmoved by the hosannas attesting to what a fine and honorable man Bill Barr is. It strikes me as a farce, and a measure of how low the sliding scale had slid when it comes to “public service.” On the contrary, he seems to be a veteran of exactly this kind of unethical bullshit, which is surely why he got the job with Trump in the first place. As Thom Hartmann wrote in reporting Barr’s ugly backstory for Salon, “History shows that when a Republican president is in serious legal trouble, Bill Barr is the go-to guy.”

It’s an open secret that Barr auditioned for an encore in the Trump administration with an unsolicited 19-page attack on the very legitimacy of the special counsel (almost five times the length of his summary/non-summary of Mueller’s report), which he sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and the head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel and even discussed personally with Trump (double !!). In it, he called the SCO’s whole obstruction inquiry “fatally misconceived,” in keeping with his well-known, expansive view of executive power (in a word: unfettered), including the eye-popping, anti-democratic belief that a President by definition cannot obstruct justice.

Neal Katyal, the former acting US Solicitor General who helped draft the current special counsel rules (and like the late Mr. Safire, another self-identified conservative), wrote that Barr’s unsolicited memo reflected “bizarre legal views,” and “should be understood for what it is, a badly argued attempt to put presidents above the law.”

In other words, Barr seems to have been hired specifically because he offered the implicit (if not explicit) promise that he would support an imperial presidency, ensure that Trump would never be charged with obstruction, and would bury the results of the Mueller probe.

Now he appears to be doing precisely that, in plain sight.

RETURN OF THE HANGING CHAD

For all the grief and ridicule the White House suffered for being unprepared to counter the Mueller report, it turns out that they actually had a pretty good strategy—one that didn’t hinge on rebutting it at all, but simply on blunting its impact by misdirection and misrepresentation. It may not be working quite as well as they hoped, but it’s still a classic of distraction, disinformation, and dishonesty.

First they succeeded in keeping the human perjury machine that is Donald Trump from being interviewed face to face by the special counsel.

Then they got Barr installed as AG—a man cloaked in the veneer of Gipper-era respectability, but with vast experience in covering up presidential crimes, and an avowed animus to the whole special counsel probe, especially its obstruction piece. This step was essential, since the outcry would have been deafening—even for a Teflon presidency like Trump’s—if an obviously unqualified bozo like Matt Whitaker was still in that job and doing the things Barr is doing. That fact was apparent to a number of observers during Barr’s confirmation hearings, but got little air time. (Behold the value of a news cycle tuned to the attention span of a goldfish, lurching from crisis to crisis in a permanent state of emergency cultivated by and beneficial to the crooks atop our kakistocracy.)

Barr’s opportunity to get the first (and thus far only) look at the final report then enabled him to cherrypick two sentence fragments—not even full sentences, and totally decontextualized—and spin them as exoneration for the president on one count, while blithely rendering a snap decision on specious grounds on the other count—in 48 short hours—one that the meticulous Mr. Mueller deemed so delicate and complex that he pointedly declined to render a judgment at all. (I know that Barr and Rosenstein supposedly had a couple of weeks’ advance notice that Mueller would not charge Trump with obstruction, giving them more than 48 hours to prepare their pre-judgment on his innocence, but that hardly makes it much better.)

Then the White House and its amen corner began pounding that narrative in the press and public while Barr and his people are busy redacting the report of anything embarrassing to Donald Trump.

And up next, they will release this heavily expurgated version, and act as if they have been totally transparent.

It’s a plan that is at once audacious in its bald-faced contempt for democracy and the rule of law, and yet sufficiently slick that they just might get away with it, especially with a base that—as we’ve already painfully established—would blithely excuse Trump even of cold blooded murder in the middle of Fifth Avenue.

The comparison has been drawn between this strategy and Florida in the 2000 election, where the GOP tenaciously staked out its position—“We won!”—and hammered it home in the press and the courts, while the Democrats dithered and (to their credit) worried about the rule of law and setting a dangerous precedent by refusing to challenge the vote count, and (to their detriment) basically failed to realize—butterknife-to-a-gunfight like—that we had entered a whole new era of authoritarian politics.

But today’s Democratic Party seems to have learned that lesson, as Jerry Nadler is having none of it, and apparently neither are the bulk of the American people.

BARR TAKES OFF FROM THE TOP OF THE KEY

To that end, I have no confidence that this bowdlerized report will reveal much of anything. Correctly, Rep. Nadler and other Democratic Congressional leaders are insisting on seeing the full, unredacted report from the special counsel, as they have both a right and a duty to do so as a co-equal branch of government charged with acting as a check on the executive.

It appears that this was Robert Mueller’s intent in declining to draw an conclusion on obstruction: to provide the pertinent information to Congress, which constitutionally is the appropriate body to act on it, given the DOJ policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

It’s doubtful that his intent was to turn it over to Bill Barr so that he could casually and unilaterally decide that Donald Trump should go scot free.

Former assistant US Attorney General and Duke law professor Walter Dellinger suggests that in declining to make a determination on obstruction—while explicitly saying he was not exonerating the president—the special counsel was attempting to follow the example of Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski:

Mueller’s office may have properly drafted a detailed and damning account of Trump’s obstruction of justice and simply cast it as a set of facts, a road map for the analysts who must decide what to do about it: members of Congress….What Mueller may not have anticipated (and perhaps could not have avoided) is that Barr would improperly declare the president’s guilt or innocence….

Congressional review is especially appropriate, because the worst offenses may not be criminal, and may demand something broader than a legalistic focus. It would be a grave offense for a presidential candidate secretly to be indebted to a foreign power and to lie about that relationship, for instance. But nothing in the criminal code forbids it. This is why we have the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Count Preet Bharara, the former US Attorney for the SDNY, as another who thinks Mueller was trying to tee up Congress with a no-look, behind-the-back pass, but didn’t anticipate Barr intercepting it and taking it the other way for a backboard-shattering tomahawk dunk. (Bill’s pretty nimble for a guy his size.) Here’s Preet, speaking to Crooked Media:

It didn’t much matter what the facts would show, and so in the absence of Bob Mueller making a determination about whether or not a crime was committed, Bill Barr right on cue sort of swoops in to say, “No crime here”….

Former US Attorney and deputy assistant Attorney General Harry Litman—now a law professor at UCLA—also agrees, emphasizing the egregiousness of Barr’s insertion of himself in the process:

I am unaware of a single instance in my years in the Justice Department in which a final prosecutorial decision was left to the attorney general without so much as a recommendation from the actual prosecutor. We need to know the answer. If, say, Mueller’s reason for refusing to exercise this judgment was that he believed the involvement of the president made the question a political one for Congress, Barr’s move would represent a rank overruling of a key conclusion of Mueller, as well as a power grab from Congress.

OBSTRUCTED VIEW

So what of Barr’s hamhanded conclusion that there was no obstruction of justice, despite all the evidence in plain view, not to mention anything additional the special counsel uncovered, to which he apparently alludes in his report?

I went to law school for exactly—let me count them—zero days, but even I know that there need not be an underlying crime for obstruction to take place. (Most obviously, because successful obstruction might prevent the underlying crime from being proven, or evidence of it even discovered.) Indeed, in their varying capacities as prosecutors and DOJ officials, all these jurists—Barr, Rosenstein, Giuliani—have overseen the prosecution of plenty of defendants for obstruction, irrespective of the crime they were covering up, or lack thereof, or lack of proof thereof.

I also didn’t get hired to teach constitutional law at Harvard (geez, you wear Crocs to one interview and they never let you forget it), but I do have common sense enough to know that the Framers didn’t intend to put the president above the law by making it impossible by definition for him or her to obstruct justice. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, they fought a whole war to free us from precisely that sort of governance.

Barr surely knows this too, yet miraculously promulgated the opposite view in his shameful summary of the Mueller report. (You know, the one he later backpedaled and said wasn’t a summary at all, just a quick Post-It note of its “principal conclusions.”) Somehow I doubt he would hew to that same standard were a Democratic president under this kind of investigation. Just a hunch.

And forgive me for noting that there are underlying crimes. Here’s Chairman Nadler himself, in a Washington Post op-ed:

Did the attorney general forget that the special counsel indicted 37 other people, including the president’s campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman and former national security adviser, for various crimes, including conspiracy against the United States? Did he lose track of his own prosecutors, who effectively named the president as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Southern District of New York?

Hence the GOP’s desire to keep the actual Mueller report hidden for as long and in as much detail as possible. If it really exonerated Trump, it would already be online in full, and in the bookstores, and in a special edition of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, and WorldNetDaily.

COVER AND CONCEALMENT

Since issuing his summary, Barr has been on the defensive, putting out a clarification (that may only have muddied matters more), announcing a timetable (albeit rather long) for the release of the Mueller report itself (albeit heavily expurgated), all of which suggests that he—and the White House—may have overestimated their ability to pull a fast one on the American people. As Dana Milbank notes in the Washington Post: “Suppose a special prosecutor in the Obama administration had filed a 400-page report about crimes possibly committed by President Barack Obama, and Obama appointees sat on the report while offering a ‘nothing to see here’ summary.”

(Trump himself has, with the utter predictability of a Swiss watch, flip flopped on his original bluff assertion that the public ought to see the whole report.)

It goes without saying that Congress MUST see the unredacted report, and the American people should see as much of it as possible within the bounds of legality and security considerations. I know it takes time to declassify material, and that there are other legal issues as well. My concern, of course, is that the redaction process is being abused; employed as a fig leaf for partisan interference and obfuscation of information that both Congress and the American public have a right to know. It wouldn’t be the first time. Chairman Nadler again:

The entire reason for appointing the special counsel was to protect the investigation from political influence. By offering us his version of events in lieu of the report, the attorney general, a recent political appointee, undermines the work and the integrity of his department. He also denies the public the transparency it deserves. We require the full report—the special counsel’s words, not the attorney general’s summary or a redacted version.

We require the report, first, because Congress, not the attorney general, has a duty under the Constitution to determine whether wrongdoing has occurred. The special counsel declined to make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” on the question of obstruction, but it is not the attorney general’s job to step in and substitute his judgment for the special counsel’s.

That responsibility falls to Congress — and specifically to the House Judiciary Committee—as it has in every similar investigation in modern history. The attorney general’s recent proposal to redact the special counsel’s report before we receive it is unprecedented. We require the evidence, not whatever remains after the report has been filtered by the president’s political appointee.

And we’re now being told that even some members of Mueller’s team— heretofore Sphinx-like—have broken their silence for the first time to complain that Barr is misrepresenting their findings and downplaying the amount of information therein that is damaging to Trump.

Hmmm.

The vote by the House Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Nadler, to subpoena the full, unredacted report with all its appendices and underlying data, is a step in the right direction. That Barr, the DOJ, the GOP, and the White House intend to fight it tells you all you need to know. Even more telling, every single Republican on that committee—all 17 of them—voted against issuing that subpoena….this after those very same Republicans joined in a unanimous 420-0 House vote the previous week to endorse the release of the full report. Was that just a charade?

Forget I asked.

The stink of coverup is growing, and the longer the AG and White House delay and demur, the more suspicious it gets. Dellinger again:

There was a time when it was thought that firing Mueller would lead to mass demonstrations nationwide. Prominent lawyers quietly discussed the necessity of being arrested for chaining themselves to the doors of the Justice Department if it came to that. Would that outcome really be so different from one in which the release of the report is indefinitely delayed or its contents excessively redacted? Both cases would prevent the public from finding out what the government discovered.

If Team Trump digs in—which is their usual MO, democracy be damned—and we are not allowed to see the full report, will we take to the streets? We’ve seen that sufficient pressure does work on the Trump administration, despite its general indifference to the democratic process and ability to function in a Bizarro World of alternative facts. (See: the border wall, Obamacare, even Barr’s recent defensiveness.)

Jennifer Rubin (yet another conservative):

The weeklong, premature victory lap by Trump and his vicious assault on Congress and the press were possible only because Barr made it seem as if Trump had gotten a clean bill of health. (Harvard law professor Lawrence) Tribe argues that, in his first letter, Barr was “exploiting legalistic formulas—like saying Mueller hadn’t been able to ‘establish’ conspiracy with Russia—to help Trump create the impression that no treacherous collusion took place and that there is no substantial evidence of Trump’s improper coordination with the Kremlin—much of it in plain view.”

When the entire report comes out, both Barr and Trump may appear to have misled the public. Mueller, we know, did not exonerate Trump of obstruction and his report will provide us with hundreds of pages explaining why and, further, enlighten us as to why Trump, for example, hid from voters his attempt to pursue a lucrative deal with Russia during the campaign and why so many in his campaign had so many contacts with Russians, contacts they tried to cover up.

Whatever the temporary political benefits to him and his boss, Barr has permanently stained his reputation and politicized the Justice Department. He adds his name to a long list of people who have tossed away their credibility to protect the most unfit president in history.

HISTORY HAS ITS EYE ON

All that said, I’m not expecting bombshells in the Mueller report, should we actually see it.

It seems clear that this was the GOP strategy from the start: to release an almost comically brief summary that appears to exonerate Trump; to let that narrative marinate in the public consciousness for almost a month while the DOJ scrubs the report of anything incriminating; to let progressives build up the release of the report as their next salvation; and then to dump a redacted report on us that obscures the full story, so its impact is blunted as the coup de grace to smack the Democrats down yet again.

So let’s not set ourselves up for another disappointment when we can clearly see that a thumb is being put on the scales.

While I do expect there to be damaging information in the full report, my concern is that the text will be pulverized to camouflage that fact. As I wrote last week, even under the best of circumstances the damning details are likely to be complex and nuanced, which is not exactly MAGA Nation’s strong suit. They are almost sure to lack the screaming impact of inaccurate headlines like “Mueller finds no collusion!” Even as pundits and legal experts parse the report, the right wing will dismiss their conclusions as grasping at straws. We can’t let them get away with that.

The optimistic view is that in laying out the whole story of Trump’s corruption and malfeasance, a moment of political epiphany will hit the American people, or at least its sentient segment. As many observers have written, if all the scandals of the previous three years came out all at once rather than bit by bit as they have, our collective head would explode.

So we don’t need bombshells. Even if the report contains nothing but a comprehensive summary of what we already know, the story for Trump will be extraordinarily damaging in the eyes of any objective observer.

I realize that lets out the entire GOP. But it does not exclude the cold eye of history.

Will we eventually view the preliminary Barr report as a red herring, and the ensuing Republican High Five Festival as woefully premature? Maybe. It sure would help settle the question if we could see the actual Mueller report itself before November 2020.

Bill Barr will soon reveal whether he deserves the respect of his former colleagues who have praised him on TV and will go into posterity as an honorable man, or prove that he never did and never was, and go down as a soulless hack and accessory to the biggest crime in American political history.

**********

Illustration courtesy Michael DeNola

Trump as OJ

Trump and OJ cropped

I was out of the country on vacation with my family, with limited Internet and no TV, when the Mueller report hit.

With apologies to Thomas Jefferson, what’d I miss?

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Bottom line up front, as they say:

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, the special counsel’s report—or more correctly, Bill Barr’s Cliff Notes version of it—has scrambled the political landscape, and represents a big win for Team Trump, at least insofar as the state of partisan play in the short term. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. At the same time, Trump and his minions are—characteristically—vastly misrepresenting what happened, and we can expect that they will continue to do so and only get worse, if they can get away with it.

How all this plays out going forward promises to be very complex, but we must grapple with that new paradigm.

In terms of sheer optics, Trump has been handed a huge victory, if only temporarily, of a magnitude that I suspect even he did not imagine possible, and which—true to form—he is exaggerating and distorting and using to further undermine the very rule of law that gave it to him. Nuance and detail and the actual facts have never mattered when it comes to Trump, and that has never been more true than right now.

How is it that, once again, some of the worst people in America—that is to say, Donald Trump and his inner circle—have been given a massive Christmas gift by the very same democratic institutions that they daily attack and seek to undermine, a gift that they will now use as a cudgel to further batter and enfeeble those institutions to their benefit?

For progressives, centrists, Bill Kristol-style conservatives, and everybody else who doesn’t think Rodrigo Duterte is a good role model, it was the third in a soul-crushing trifecta of awfulness, along with the 2016 election itself and the Kavanaugh confirmation. It wasn’t the worst case scenario for us Trump foes—total exoneration—but it was pretty close: partial exoneration on the central count (or at least a declination to prosecute) that left loads of unanswered questions jealously guarded by the GOP dragon (if the dragon was a bunch of fat old white guys in a dragon suit), allowing Trump to convincingly claim victory and control the narrative, at least for now. Trump was even spared the public scolding Hillary got from a self-righteous James Comey when he cleared her of wrongdoing in the email probe, yet felt compelled to break DOJ policy and hold a press conference slamming her anyway. And as a bonus, in that same span of a few days, the House—as expected—failed to override the veto on the border wall “emergency,” and Michael Avenatti got indicted by the SDNY for trying to extort Nike.

Wow.

All told, it was the best week Trump had in months, certainly since November 2016, and maybe since that night in Vegas with Stormy. Bob Mueller may have freed Trump of the danger of being indicted for conspiracy with Putin, but someone should look into whether Trump has a pact with Satan.

RETURN OF THE SLOW WHITE BRONCO

So that happened.

For those of us who put intense faith in the idea that the special counsel would uncover presidency-ending wrongdoing—too much faith, as many spoilsports correctly noted—it was a bitter pill. (And I include myself in that, er, indictment.) But as David Frum wrote in the Atlantic way back in May 2017 when Mueller was first appointed (and reiterated again this week):

It’s very possible that Trump himself broke no criminal law in accepting campaign help from Putin. This ultra-legalistic nation expects wrongdoing to take the form of prosecutable crimes—and justice to occur in a courtroom. But many wrongs are not crimes. And many things that are crimes are not prosecutable for one reason or another….

So there it is.

For me, the analogy that immediately leapt to mind was OJ.

Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, I’m not saying we saw a perversion of justice. On the contrary. Irrespective of Trump’s actual guilt or innocence, the justice system operated exactly properly in the Mueller probe—to a fault almost, in its rigor and meticulous adherence to the letter of the law. Even in the Brown/Goldman murders—and notwithstanding Simpson’s undeniable guilt—the system arguably worked in that the prosecution failed to make its case, as the defense successfully put the entire history of racism in the LAPD (and in LA, and the US at large) on trial.

So what I mean by this analogy is that in the same way that the Juice was the least deserving possible beneficiary of the justice system self-correcting for years of wrongly convicting black men, Trump too is the epically undeserving beneficiary of honorable people following the rule of law—a rule of law that Trump himself holds in utter contempt, constantly besieges, and would deny to everyone else.

But as my friend Jim Bernfield replied when I floated this metaphor at him, “True, but it still sucks to be Nicole.”

In the days and months to come, we cannot let Trump succeed in distorting Mueller’s conclusions, and we cannot bow to his crowing that he has been cleared of all wrongdoing. We need to fight for public release of the full SCO report, which may yet upend the landscape again. Whatever details emerge, however, they will likely be complex and lack the useful simplicity of screaming, sloppy headlines like “Mueller finds no collusion!”, which will make our task even more difficult. (Indeed, that may have been the very heart of the GOP strategy for handling the release of the report.) And we will have to do it all in a new political reality unlike the one to which we have grown accustomed since May 2017, which is to say, for almost the entire Trump presidency.

The good news is that, just one week in, we are already seeing the narrative shifting—at least in the reality-based world—as Democrats recover from their shock and we begin to understand just how little we really know, and how carefully that information has been cherrypicked and controlled and crafted by William Barr. The pushback is beginning, and while a fight is surely in the cards, I suspect the administration will be unable to keep the report under wraps forever. Yes, with each precious day their version of events hardens, but only within Fox Nation, where Trump’s lies set like Krazy Glue immediately on contact anyway.

For the rest of us, it remains to be seen how accurate Barr’s—and Trump’s—initial take on Mueller’s findings are, if the current interpretation will hold, or if we are actually witnessing a slow-motion coverup. Releasing the full report would go a long way toward settling that question, if Republicans really are so confident that it clears their boy. If they balk, it will really start to look fishy.

So having acknowledged all that like the grownups we aspire to be, let us now get into the weeds and look at the underlying truths in play, irrespective of spin. (Republicans: you can skip this part. I know that, ultimately, you will anyway.)

COLLUSION IS AS COLLUSION DOES

Regardless of party affiliation, we should of course all be glad to learn that the President of the United States did not obtain his position by colluding with a foreign power.

Except that’s not what the Mueller report said.

It said that the Special Counsel’s Office did not establish sufficient evidence to charge Trump or his team with the crime that is technically described as conspiracy to defraud the United States. (And even that was a truncated mid-sentence pull quote, the context of which we don’t yet know.) “Collusion,” as Trump’s amen corner loved to remind us, has no legal meaning, and therefore is not itself a crime, even as they claimed there was no collusion anyway.

That declination to prosecute is not the same thing as exoneration; it’s more like a “get out of jail free” card. From the very beginning Trump himself set the bar at this all-but-impossible height in a binary formulation—felony indictment or absolute exoneration. It was the savvy move of a veteran con man, and it worked.

Seen in that light, the idea that Trump may have conspired but can’t be nailed for it is actually even MORE maddening.

Now, before you accuse me of being a left wing deadender in eternal search of mythical proof of Trumpian guilt, let me clarify:

All I am pointing out is that Trump and his supporters are falsely claiming “complete and total exoneration” when in fact all that’s been concluded is that he won’t be prosecuted for this one specific crime. Writing in New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait neatly summarizes the paradox:

It is bizarre…..to spend two years insisting collusion is not a crime and then turn around and call the absence of crimes proof that there was no collusion. Of course Trump colluded with Russia. He literally went on camera and asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, promising that Russia would be rewarded by the American media, and Russia responded to this request by attempting a hack to steal Clinton’s emails that very day. Trump’s campaign aides repeatedly welcomed and sought out Russian assistance. His campaign manager passed on 75 pages of intricate polling data to a Russian operative during the campaign. And he did all this while secretly pursuing a lucrative business deal with Russia. To define this nexus of communication and shared mission as something other than “collusion” is to define the term in a way that nobody would have accepted before this scandal began.

In the Washington Post, Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger made a similar point:

(H)undreds of pages of legal filings and independent reporting since Mueller was appointed nearly two years ago have painted a striking portrayal of a presidential campaign that appeared untroubled by a foreign adversary’s attack on the US political system—and eager to accept the help. When Trump’s eldest son was offered dirt about Hillary Clinton that he was told was part of a Russian government effort to help his father, he responded, “I love it.” When longtime Trump friend Roger Stone was told a Russian national wanted to sell damaging information about Clinton, he took the meeting. When the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks published documents that the Democratic National Committee said had been stolen by Russian operatives, Trump’s campaign quickly used the information to its advantage. Rather than condemn the Kremlin, Trump famously asked Russia to steal more.

Needless to say, Trump’s repeated attempts to shut down the Russia inquiry—from firing Jim Comey in the first place for that very reason (as he told Lester Holt on national television), to attempting to fire Mueller himself, to railing against the investigation almost every day—also bespeak funny business.

For that matter, the collusion is ongoing. The US intelligence community has stated unequivocally that Russian interference in our elections is continuing and will only increase as 2020 approaches…..yet Trump and the GOP have lifted not a finger to stop it, as they know it benefits them. Indeed, they have actively refused to take the measures that freaked-out cyberwar experts have pleaded with them to put in place to hinder these foreign attacks, nor spent any of the money allocated to harden our defenses against hostile penetration and manipulation. These sins of omission cannot properly be described as anything other than collaboration with a foreign power by means of negligence, all in the interest of skewing elections and retaining power, not to mention a violation of Trump’s oath to protect and defend the Constitution. That is a flat-out treasonous outrage that goes far beyond hanky panky with Putin, WikiLeaks, and Cambridge Analytica. It is an act that ought to infuriate patriotic Americans of every ideological persuasion.

So who’s the one wallowing in delusions here? People like me, for calling attention to this shameless Republican disinformation campaign and the behavior it protects? Or Trump and the GOP for standing in front of a still-raging housefire and saying, “Nothing to see here, folks, move along.”

TINKER TAILOR GRIFTER SPY

So Trump, retaining his title of luckiest mofo on the planet, has managed to dodge one bullet. But he wants us to think he has dodged them all, when in fact a Gatling gun’s worth of further allegations still await.

“Collusion” was always only one small—albeit baroque—piece of the larger picture of Trumpian corruption…..a fact that, yes, we progressives should have kept front and center in the national conversation even as we put high hopes in the special counsel probe. But myriad other sins uncovered by the Mueller team (and others) are still in play: some criminal, many of which were passed off to other legal entities like the Southern District of New York; others not necessarily illegal but still potentially impeachable offenses; and still others indisputably alarming national security matters outside the legal realm altogether.

Here’s Michelle Goldberg writing in the New York Times, with her brow firmly arched:

The Mueller investigation is over, and the only people close to Donald Trump who have been criminally charged are his former campaign chairman, former deputy campaign chairman, former personal lawyer, former national security adviser, former campaign foreign policy adviser and Roger Stone, the president’s longtime friend and strategist.

For you may recall that there was a second part to the Mueller probe in addition to its criminal dimension, which is a counterintelligence investigation. That went completely unmentioned in Barr’s summary, perhaps because it is classified. But if so, that makes it more relevant than ever.

We already know that the past two years have uncovered dozens of contacts between Russian assets and members of Trump’s circle, to include immediate family members, despite their denials to high heaven that there were any contacts whatsoever. And why did Trump and his associates relentlessly lie through their bonded teeth about that? The answer—as provided by the special counsel, as well as other investigators (and, important to note, journalists)—is because he is in massive debt to Russian money (see Eric Trump, and Deutsche Bank)…..because he is likely complicit in extensive moneylaundering for Russian oligarchs who are by definition connected to the Kremlin….and, most gobsmacking of all amid his howling insistence that he had no business interests in Russia of any kind, because he was trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow well into the 2016 campaign, even going so far as to offer Putin himself a $50 million dollar bribe in the process. That lie—uncovered by the Mueller probe through its interrogation of Michael Cohen, in a case now referred to the SDNY—is one that left him stunningly vulnerable to Russian blackmail, which ought to be a world-rocking crisis all by itself. And we don’t even know what other counterintelligence implications the special counsel found because, obviously, we haven’t yet seen his report.

None of these counterintelligence matters are crimes per se, but they are very definitely scathing reflections on Trump and severe threats to national security. Which may be the understatement of the year. Frum again:

For all its many dark secrets, there have never been any real mysteries about the Trump-Russia story. The president of the United States was helped into his job by clandestine Russian attacks on the American political process. That core truth is surrounded by other disturbing probabilities, such as the likelihood that Putin even now is exerting leverage over Trump in some way.

So let me correct some sloppy and inaccurate reporting that I am seeing even in legitimate news outlets. The Mueller report did not absolve Trump on the question of his puzzling fealty to Moscow. His compromise by Russia is an indisputable fact that requires no action on his part, given that the target of blackmail is by definition passive. You don’t agree to be blackmailed: it just happens to you and you behave accordingly.

As a former intelligence officer, I can tell you that one only has to look at the trail of evidence to conclude that Trump is carrying water for the Kremlin, a pattern that requires no “collusion,” no “conspiracy,” not even any overt instructions by your tormentor. Trump simply knows that he must do Moscow’s bidding, and he has proven as much by doing it time and time again.

Why else did the Trump campaign—inexplicably at the time of the Republican convention—push through a 180 on the GOP platform on Ukraine to suit the Kremlin’s wishes? Why else has Trump consistently kowtowed to Putin, even publicly taking his word over that of the entire US intelligence community? Why else has he denigrated NATO, lifted sanctions on Moscow in defiance of even conservative wishes, abandoned Syria to the Russian sphere, handed over top secret intel to Lavrov and Kislyak on a silver platter, and on and on?

That the President of the United States is in thrall to a foreign power is far more damning than even electoral conspiracy. Indeed, as I and many others have written ad nauseam, it is a jawdropping scandal (or would be in any previous era). More to the point, it is a national security emergency that Congress is duty bound to address. That the current political climate precludes the obvious remedy—impeachment—should not prevent us from daily shouting from the rooftops to remind the American public of this absolutely shocking and unacceptable state of affairs.

And the front lines of that fight, now more than ever, is the 2020 election.

TEAM TRUMP’S SELECTIVE RESPECT FOR THE RULE OF LAW

As alluded to above, since the Mueller report dropped there has been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking accusing the left of playing into Donny’s hands by putting all its hopes on that probe. But it is not really a fair accusation.

Yes, like many many people, I found it an appealing “magic bullet” scenario that might eject this cretin from office before he can do any more damage, even as numerous smart observers have cautioned that proving conspiracy was always a long shot. But it was not a total pipe dream.

Like many many people, I found it completely plausible that Trump would collude with Russia because there ample circumstantial evidence to that end, because he was already in bed with Moscow on other matters even if it was under duress, and because the sheer number of lies that his circle had told about their contacts with Russians and Trump’s own frantic denials suggested a very guilty man. And I truly thought that the special counsel investigation would confirm it.

But it did not, at least not at the level of a prosecutable crime. Lots of people get away with crimes because their guilt can’t be proved, not even by the best prosecutors in the land. Or maybe Trump really didn’t conspire by the DOJ definition of the term. In any event, as a believer in the rule of law and a resident of the reality-based world, I accept that….unlike Trump and MAGA Nation, which habitually insist on calling defeat victory (see the government shutdown), or pretending something bad didn’t happen (like getting hoodwinked by North Korea), or just wasn’t a big deal (like Charlottesville).

Indeed, the hypocrisy of the current Republican gloating is neck deep. For twenty-some months Trump and his followers viciously decried the special counsel probe as “phony” and a “witchhunt.” Now they celebrate it as vindication? Needless to say, they can’t have it both ways.

According to Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, Trump himself used the term “witchhunt” 261 times, often in tweets rife with ALL CAPS. But if it was a witchhunt, why didn’t Mueller just make up evidence to implicate Trump? Could it be because his inquiry was in reality a perfectly legitimate, meticulously-run, utterly thorough investigation by top-drawer prosecutors of absolute integrity (unimpeachable, one might say) who followed the rule of law….something the right wing accepts only when it benefits them? Recall Trump’s depiction of the election itself, which was “rigged” until suddenly it wasn’t, and which even now he can’t shut up about, still bragging to the press and showing foreign dignitaries maps of the Electoral College. Keep that in mind as a model for how he will treat the Mueller report between now and November 2020. How can Trump now go on claiming there is a “deep state” conspiracy against him when the very people he savagely attacked STILL did their job honorably, even when it meant bringing no charges against him? I dunno, but he will, of course, and already is.

To that end, maybe the funniest thing I read this whole year was a news report last week that noted, “Trump aides cautioned him against triumphalism.” Talk about a thankless job. (After a brief and uncharacteristic interval of radio silence, Trump’s first tweet—“Complete and Total EXONERATION”—was actually the least annoying part, because it was exactly what we expected him to say no matter what.) Soon after, he wasted no time in calling for a banana republic-style purge and punishment of those he holds responsible for the appointment of a special counsel in the first place (Democratic leaders, principally), using words like “treasonous” and “evil,” which—apropos of the central point of this longwinded essay—speaks to his fundamental failure to understand the rule of law, and worse, his sheer contempt for it.

This reaction perfectly epitomizes the raging ball of anger and resentment that Trump seems to be 24/7, even when he wins. Genuine joy is not really in Trump’s emotional quiver, even in the best of times: only grim, sadistic, short-lived satisfaction before his anger locks onto a new target. Even his gloating is tinged more with bile than any sense of real gratification. (You know, like the kind non-sociopaths have.) Fury and lust for revenge—not relief that this particular threat has passed, or pleasure that he feels vindicated—seem to be the defining emotions in the White House since the submission of the SCO report, which really should not come as a surprise to anyone who has observed Trump for even a moment over his entire public life.

CAPTAIN QUEEG IN SEARCH OF HIS STRAWBERRIES

So where do we go from here?

To cop from Churchill, truly this is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning.

The actual Mueller report, we’re told, runs in excess of 300 pages. Bill Barr’s sketchy four-page summary is a laughably insufficient substitute, like a C-minus student’s flimsy book report on Great Expectations. (So to speak.) The fight to see the full report—even a redacted version—and all its underlying data is already telling in its intensity, and the longer Barr delays the more it reeks of coverup. After the House—in a stunning display of old-fashioned bipartisanship—voted 420-0 that the full report should be released to the public, Mitch McConnell has refused even to bring the measure to the Senate floor. So what are the Republicans afraid of? By hiding the report, they step on their own moment of glory by raising unsettling questions about what they don’t want the public to see and just how legitimate this quasi-“exoneration” really is. Trump’s own claim that he’s fine with the public seeing the full report is as worthless as his insistence to Chuck Schumer that he wouldn’t blame the Democrats for the shutdown.

Meanwhile, going forward toward November 3, 2020, Trump will continue to crow and raise the specter of the Mueller report to dismiss every other allegation and criticism as leftist fantasy. His base will love it. The other investigations—at least those conducted in public, like the Congressional ones, less so than those in the courts—will have to swim upstream against that, at least until the worm turns again. So be it.

What else? It’s hard to know. A giddy Trump, feeling both untouchable and furious, might overplay his hand, which he can usually be counted on to do. (A pardon for Manafort or Stone, perhaps? Or maybe going after Obamacare again, or the Special Olympics? Naw, that’s crazy!) Or he might run the table, win again in 2020, and successfully drag us further down the road to red-hatted, cult-of-personality authoritarianism. I wouldn’t rule out either scenario. Life has a way of turning around both victories and defeats in unexpected, O. Henry-like ways.

With Bob Mueller fading back into private life, Trump will be deprived of one of his favorite villains, but he’ll find a new one of course. It will be Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler for a while, then whomever becomes the Democratic frontrunner. Barring new bombshells, impeachment is probably off the menu, which might turn out be a blessing for Democrats, who will now be forced to campaign on the issues as they did to great success during the midterms, and a blow to Republicans who will be denied a favorite scare tactic. Or the details of the report might bring the prospect of Trump’s early dismissal roaring back to life, depending on how damning they are (and if we ever see them).

More liberal wishful thinking? Maybe. But declination to prosecute or not, I doubt it’s 300 pages of glowing praise for what a great guy Donald Trump is. Let’s see it and find out, shall we?

In short, the Mueller probe worked the way the rule of law is supposed to, even for people like Trump who are the undeserving beneficiaries of democratic mechanisms that they scorn. It’s already clear that he hasn’t learned that lesson…..but he’ll have plenty of opportunities in the dozens of other criminal investigations he still faces.

For let us not forget: even though he got the legal break that the Scottsboro Boys, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the Central Park Five, and countless other innocent African-American men deserved, OJ eventually did go to prison.

*********

Next week on The King’s Necktie, more of this discussion, including Bill Barr’s own obstruction on obstruction, and what the future may hold…..

 

On Losing Friends Over Politics

The-Most-Emotionally-Healthy-Way-To-Work-Through-Your-Breakup copy

Once upon a time, I used to enjoy debating politics with my conservative friends. I found it enjoyable, invigorating, and educational.

We don’t do that any more.

In some cases we remain polite, but now only talk in superficial and anodyne ways—about our kids, sports—and much less frequently than we used to. There are a couple of friends with whom, for years, I carried on a daily, running dialogue about current events. It turned heated and ugly in the summer of 2016 and we all backed off. Now all we do is exchange pleasantries every few months.

With other friends, we have ceased talking completely. I haven’t had any soap operatic “I’ll never speak to you again!” moments, but I haven’t had to, because both of us are disgusted with the other, and neither is up for a veneer of niceties.

I do occasionally argue with one old, archconservative friend (for arbitrary reasons that don’t bear going into), but even that is fraught. Every time we unaccountably get into it, it gets nasty quick, insults are exchanged, and we retreat to neutral corners for months.

Then there are friends with whom I never talked politics in the first place, and with whom I am now afraid to do so. I don’t know for sure how they feel, or how they voted in 2016, but I really don’t want to know, because we have long histories together, and I simply don’t want the peace—or my illusions— destroyed, even if that peace is a mutually agreed upon charade.

What doesn’t exist at all anymore in my world is vigorous, intelligent, civilized debate with right-of-center friends whose opinions I respect even if I don’t agree with them. Now I have that only with strangers, and even that is pretty rare if we’re going to keep the qualifiers “intelligent,” “civilized,” and “respect” in there. And I know I am not alone; I know that many people are dealing with a similar dilemma not just with friends but also within their families.

All of which has forced me to think about the balancing act between friendship and principle. Where is the line? How bad would things have to get in our cold civil war before I could no longer be (ahem) civil to old friends on the other side of the barricades, or them to me? Would it be petulant and self-righteous to throw away (in some cases) decades of friendship just because of partisan differences? Some of these people were like brothers and sisters to me at one time. Do I want to be so churlish and petty, so sanctimonious, as to cut them out of my life over a non-entity as ephemeral as Donald Effing Trump, no matter his accidental starring role in this revival of It Can’t Happen Here?

Or is it the opposite? Is it selfish and unprincipled to maintain a friendship with someone who is complicit in such a monstrous regime, to place those personal relationships ahead of serious moral disagreements about bedrock principles? What even constitutes a bedrock principle that rises to that level and demands that kind of decision?

Do gradations matter? Maybe it would be too hard to be friends with an ICE agent on the Mexican border, no matter how far you go back, but is merely voting for Trump a sufficient dealbreaker?

The questions are complicated and sometimes painful.

And of course, these folks have to answer the same questions about me.

YOUR RACIST FRIEND

Not long ago—like, less than three years—none of this was an issue. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals: there were stark differences and strong disagreements, but outside of the fanatical extremes, all players were within the realm of normal, reasonable politics, bound by our common loyalty to country and allegiance to the fundamental, communally agreed upon principles of American democracy. Ideological and policy differences rarely rose to the level of a moral quandary that caused people to stop speaking at parties.

No more.

You’ll forgive me if I don’t bother with a tedious recap of how one of our two major political parties lost its fucking mind.

But now that these differences have become so polarized and so extreme that they have turned into a kind of battle for the nation’s soul, making nice with the other side can feel less like civility and more like consorting with the enemy.

So where to draw the line?

Clearly there is a level of political turpitude that outweighs any personal connection.

I would not be friends with a Nazi, to take the most extreme example. Support for Trump does not (yet) rise to that level; much as I despise this administration, things would have to get a fair degree worse before I’d make that equivalence. But before any right-leaning folks who might read this leap up and accuse me of hyperbole and so-called Trump Derangement Syndrome, let’s just pause for a moment and take in the fact that we are even discussing the comparison at all.

That’s right: it is necessary for defenders of this president to mount a serious argument about why their hero is not in fact as bad as Adolf Hitler, because the comparison is raised frequently enough by thoughtful observers, and his tendency toward proto-fascist behavior is sufficiently apparent, that it demands addressing.

And it’s true: he hasn’t yet orchestrated the industrialized mass murder of twelve million men, women, and children. Don’t ever say I didn’t concede to Trump supporters when they’re right. (Although he has, arguably, built concentration camps along our southern border. So there’s still time.)

But let’s leave Nazis out of it. I wouldn’t be friends with a Klansman either, and Trump’s racism earns him an honorary Grand Wizardhood at the very least. (Central Park Five anyone?) Is that transferable to his supporters? We’re often told it’s not helpful to demonize the other side, by—say—calling them names, especially “racist,” since weirdly enough, even racists get offended when you call them racists. (Looking at you, Mark Meadows.) It’s one of the most incendiary allegations you can call someone in contemporary American life, even when there is ample evidence to justify it.

But if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably Pepe the Frog.

So short of the open display of swastika armbands and white hoods, how much support for Trump (if any) is tolerable before a friendship has to end?

Supporting him because the tax scam benefits you but opposing the family separation policy at the border? Is that OK, or not? I suppose it’s better than actively cheering the kidnapping of children from their parents, but in other ways it’s even more contemptible, as it bespeaks a unwillingness to break with the administration even over an unconscionably cruel and inhumane policy, so long as you are personally benefiting from other policies.

Obviously, the more tepid and qualified someone’s support for Trump the more readily I could see maintaining some kind of relationship. But even some people I long counted as menschen have defended to me ideas that are absolutely anathema. Is that cause for termination?

I don’t have the answer. If I did, this column would be a lot shorter.

A few conservatives I know have turned against Trump, or never supported him in the first place, so they’re not really germane to this discussion. I welcome them into the resistance with open arms and admire their integrity and courage. (Not quite ready to teach them the secret handshake, though.) Of course, the very term “conservative” is wildly inaccurate. The modern GOP is anything but conservative by the textbook definition; on the contrary, it is a radical reactionary insurgency. I’m using the word only as a convenient if imprecise shorthand for people right of center, which includes not just card-carrying Republicans, but lots of folks who obstinately refuse to identify that way but might as well go to the same tattoo parlor as Roger Stone.

The people I am talking about are more precisely described not as “conservatives” at all but as “Trump supporters,” and even that is fungible. Some voted for the man, with or without reservations, and some have had misgivings to a greater or lesser degree since. (Others have not.) A lot of them want to have their proverbial sheet cake and eat it too, professing dislike for Trump because it’s socially and intellectually uncomfortable to admit otherwise, but defend him at every turn—or at least make excuses—while relentlessly attacking the Democrats, the Mueller probe, the “myth” of Russiagate, etc. (And you won’t believe this, but a lot of them are still pretty incensed over Hillary Clinton.)

Fox Nation likes to talk about RINOs but the opposite, this breed I’ve just described, is just as common: ReTChTOIs, Republicans Too Chicken To Own It. These slippery right wingers are especially maddening as they won’t cop to their allegiance to the party,  claiming to be “neutral” and “independent,” but mysteriously never have a good thing to say about the Democrats, and never a discouraging word about Benito.

I can’t say I prefer full-throated MAGA types, but at least they are honest about who they are.

THE WEEK THAT WAS

So a brief reminder then of what our friends on the other side are OK with:

The past week saw Trump’s ill-advised engagement with North Korea end in abject failure—long ago predicted in these pages, not that it required a lot of clairvoyance—capped by the humiliating revelation that Pyongyang has begun rebuilding its Sohae missile site, reportedly ahead of a satellite launch.

We saw the New York Times display six canceled checks from Trump (five with his own seismograph-like psycho killer signature, the other with Don Jr.’s) reimbursing Michael Cohen for hush money payments he made to Trump’s porn star paramour Stormy Daniels, all written while Trump was in office.

We learned—via Jane Mayer’s towering New Yorker article about Fox—that Trump had, out of sheer vindictiveness (and presumably as a favor to Rupert Murdoch), personally intervened to order the DOJ to stop AT&T from buying Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, an act which the conservative columnist Bret Stephens argued was an impeachable offense in and of itself, one that ought to have outraged Republican free marketers more than anyone else.

We also learned that Trump—despite bald-faced public lies to the contrary—personally ordered Top Secret clearances given to his son-in-law and daughter over the objections of US intelligence professionals, a move so alarming that both White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House Counsel Don McGahn wrote memoranda for the record registering their opposition. (But her emails!)

Hot on the heels of that revelation, it was also reported that when Kushner traveled to the KSA last month he met with MbS behind closed doors, with no US government personnel present or briefed on what was discussed. The Saudis even provided Jared’s security, shutting the US State Department out entirely. No wonder this guy can’t get a clearance.

We learned that at the very same time in 2011 that Trump was demanding to see Barack Obama’s school transcripts— like a redneck at a polling place insisting on a literacy test—and suggesting that Barack wasn’t smart enough to get into Columbia and Harvard, he had his goons strongarming his own high school and college alma maters to deep six any evidence of his own grades and SAT scores. Wild guess: it’s not because he was so modest and they were too high.

This kind of hypocrisy has come to be so old hat in the Age of Drumpf that we usually don’t even bother to note it, but for some reason this really struck a chord with the public. Maybe it’s that Trump himself usually doesn’t even both to hide his hypocrisy—see golf—and this time he did, signaling that even he knew it was super fucked up.

Most memorable of all, this past week saw a sweat-soaked Trump give an unhinged, free association, Fidel-length rant at CPAC that the mainstream press, having apparently learned nothing from 2016, covered like business as usual with headlines on the order of “Trump Lashes out at Mueller in Lengthy Speech”…..not “Man with Nuclear Codes Is Dangerously Crazy.” As many noted, if your elderly uncle went on a two-hour tear like that, you’d call Bellevue. But, hey, this is just the leader of the free world. No biggie.

(To their credit, several observers noted this disconnect, including Amanda Marcotte and Bob Cesca, both writing in Salon. But the closest most pundits came to critical analysis of the speech was the widespread argument that Trump wasn’t so much crazy as crazy like a fox in playing to his base. As always, a lot of the professional political class gave him the benefit of the doubt as a demagogue genius, rather than seriously considering the ramifications of having someone who is potentially cuckoo-for-Cocoa Puffs in the Oval Office. This treatment of politics as mere gamesmanship is truly poisonous. As Cesca sagely pointed out, even if Trump was engaging in deliberate theater to keep his red meat-loving fans frothing at the collective mouth, it still raises disturbing questions about the judgment of the President of the United States.)

And it’s not just Trump and his early onset dementia displaying this kind of deeply worrying behavior. Also at CPAC, fake PhD but real neo-Nazi Sebastian Gorka compared AOC to Stalin and suggested she wants to take your hamburgers and pickup trucks. But believe it or not, he was outdone by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, responding to increased Congressional oversight and investigation into Trump with a statement accusing the Democratic Party of being “socialists” who want to “kill babies after they’re born.” (Quipped Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine: “As one does when one is innocent and facing an investigation that will definitely not uncover any crimes or wrongdoing.”)

And by Trump standards, this was not even a busy news week.

THE AGE OF HUMPTY DUMPTY

So how do we deal with people for whom none of that merits the batting of an eyelash, particularly when they are not red-hatted abstractions on TV but real, flesh-and-blood people in our own lives? And why is any of it germane, beyond the awkwardness of our own personal relationships?

Because someday we as a country are going to have to pick up the pieces. Are we going to be able to come back together after this period of epic divisiveness?

Now, you might say that, divisiveness-wise, our current moment is nothing compared to, say, the Civil War, but the truth is that we are still dealing with wounds of that war—indeed, those very wounds inform the struggle in which we are now engaged. (See Charlottesville.) We are still dealing with the legacy of slavery, the original sin of these United States, the cancer with which we as a country we born. Related but of more recent vintage, we are still dealing with the backlash to the New Deal—and the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s—which gave us the Reagan Revolution and the United States’ hard swing to the right over the past forty years.

And we will be dealing with the fallout from the con man from Queens for generations to come.

There are major questions about what the long term damage to the republic will look like when the proverbial dust settles, and whether the United States as we once knew it will re-emerge in recognizable form. In that context, asking whether personal friendships now in abeyance will eventually return in something resembling their old forms seems very trivial indeed, except that it is central to the whole issue of healing and reconciliation. Will we as Americans be able to come together to repair the damage, rebuild our democracy, and institute new protections and safeguards to strengthen and defend it going forward?

Naturally, a lot of it will depend on how things play out and just how raw and bitter the wounds wind up being, on both sides.

In the worst case scenario—Don and Kim fall out of love and humanity is incinerated in a global thermonuclear war—it won’t matter.

Short of that but still pretty goddam bad, if the GOP manages to bury the findings of the special counsel and deflect any meaningful Congressional or legal action to address Trump’s crimes and unfitness for office….if Trump manages to win in 2020 and the Republicans retake the House….if the Supreme Court acts as a right wing rubber stamp and gives this cretin something close to unfettered power….if we descend into an authoritarian police state where the administration is unchecked by a self-neutered legislative branch and protected by a toadying judiciary and no longer feels the need to pay even lip service to the rule of law…..if that happens it’s hard to imagine feeling very kindly to erstwhile friends who abetted that descent into dystopia. But our feelings won’t matter much, as we’ll all be in re-education camps watching endless loops of Hannity.

Hysteria? Alarmism? OK—if you say so. Even the reliably progressive Nick Kristof recently published a column praising the tensile strength of American democracy in resisting Trump and downplaying fears of incipient fascism. I hope he is right. I’ll happily look a fool if he is. That is far preferable to a future in which we look back bitterly on that column as hopelessly naïve.

If Kristof is proven correct and justice prevails, if Trump is fairly adjudicated for his crimes and held to account for his manifest betrayal of his oath of office, either by Congressional action or at the ballot box, maybe we will look back on this harrowing period of American history as a valuable test from which we emerged chastened and wiser and maybe even stronger.

But even in that happy scenario, how will we approach our fellow Americans who took Trump’s side and stood by him, and may even continue to defend him after he’s gone? As I wrote last week, even today there remain Nixon loyalists, McCarthy loyalists, Confederate loyalists—tiny pockets to be sure, but there they are. How will we proceed, having had these massive fissures in our nation exposed, revealing deeply disturbing proof of the kind of horrific things many of our fellow citizens believe, and would support, and the lengths to which they would go, and the depths of their contempt for democracy, all tendencies that are not likely to disappear even when Trump does?

Asking for a friend.