A Plague Among Us

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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.

2 thoughts on “A Plague Among Us

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