On A.G. Barr’s Advice, Re: the Special Counsel’s Principal Conclusions

As I suspect is true of most that read these pages, I have read Attorney General William Barr’s advice to Congress regarding Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Elections.” Assuming that the Attorney General is reporting accurately (which I think can be assumed, if for no other reason than large parts or all of the Report will, in some way or other, ultimately be made public), Mr. Mueller’s Report provides:

  1. A reaffirmation that the Russian Government sought to influence the 2016 election through (1) “disinformation and social media operations … designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election” and (2) “computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election … including [through] Wikileaks.”

 

  1. That the Special Counsel’s investigation “did not establish” that the Trump Campaign “conspired or coordinated” – expressly or tacitly – “with the Russian government in its interference activities.” (Given this finding, it is understandable that no indictments have been issued against Messrs. Donald Trump, Jr., or Jared Kushner.)

 

  1. That the Special Counsel elected not to make a traditional prosecutorial decision regarding any obstruction of justice by President Trump, instead listing incriminating and exonerating evidence related to the suitability of such charges. Mr. Barr did note the Special Counsel’s statement, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Mr. Barr stated that given Mr. Mueller’s failure to reach a conclusion regarding obstruction of justice charges against Mr. Trump, it was for Mr. Barr himself, as Attorney General, to decide whether there was sufficient evidence to establish that the President had obstructed justice, and further indicated that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (no fan of Mr. Trump) concluded that the grounds to proceed were insufficient.

 

(Given the seemingly oddly circumspect approach that the Special Counsel took to addressing the obstruction of justice issues – and in admittedly the type of pure speculation that I generally try to avoid in these notes — one might wonder whether the final weeks’ delay in the issuance of the Special Counsel report following Mr. Barr’s confirmation as Attorney General arose from a decision to significantly recast the Report’s obstruction of justice sections; Mr. Mueller is obviously acutely aware that Mr. Barr, in his lengthy memo that constituted a de facto application for the A.G. position, had challenged the premise that a President, absent evidence of illegal collusion, could be found guilty of obstruction of justice, due to an allegedly “improper motive,” for performing what Mr. Barr called “facially-lawful” acts. It would be interesting to see copies of Report drafts existing before Mr. Barr was nominated.)

Since I am no fan of President Trump, in the last weeks I have wondered whether I would feel a bit despondent if Mr. Mueller’s team failed to uncover sufficiently incriminating evidence to indict Mr. Trump (even if such indictment wasn’t sought, due to Department of Justice guidelines) and his family members; but I don’t. If we have learned anything during the Trump presidency, it’s that having honesty in government, having procedures that don’t predetermine a result, is what matters. The strength, rigor, and fairness of our processes is what separates us from Russia, China, and much of the rest of the world – allies and adversaries alike. Despite the unwarranted and despicable personal attacks on the Special Counsel by Mr. Trump and his cohort, Mr. Mueller demonstrated why he is widely acclaimed for his integrity, competence, courage, and thoroughness. No one can credibly claim that the Mueller Team was biased for or against the President. It was never a “Witch Hunt.” The system worked.

I would suggest that there are at least two benefits arising from this result that should encourage even the President’s harshest critics. First, the entire process – to employ what has admittedly become an overused phrase – moved the goalposts regarding the public’s understanding of Russian meddling in our elections. Two years ago, the President scoffed at the notion of Russian meddling, concerned that it would undermine the legitimacy of his presidency. As the threat of an election-related criminal prosecution seemingly loomed against himself and his family, he became less focused on defending the sanctity of his victory and more focused on disclaiming any relationship with Russian actors. At this point, the fact that the Russians meddled in the 2016 election on Mr. Trump’s behalf is seemingly accepted (albeit grudgingly in some quarters) across the political spectrum. Perhaps now, on the eve of the next election, Republicans if not Mr. Trump himself will collaborate more enthusiastically with Democrats to shore up our electoral processes. The President clearly isn’t going anywhere during the next two years; the key is to do what we can to limit the extent to which our people are manipulated by malign foreign actors in the next election.

Second, although a number of Democrats and liberal pundits are now undoubtedly licking their wounds, I suspect that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is to some extent relieved by the outcome. Absent “smoking gun” evidence demonstrating that Mr. Trump had consciously colluded with Russia or sought to obstruct justice, there has never been a chance that the President’s opponents would muster 20 Senate Republican votes (even assuming all Senate Democrats stayed in line) to remove him from office; any attempt at impeachment would have yet further roiled the country and very likely resulted in an embarrassing defeat and attendant backlash much closer to the 2020 election – a result that would have significantly enhanced Mr. Trump’s reelection prospects.

That said, I would like to see the entire Mueller Report; I would wager that most other Americans would as well; but although there will undoubtedly be sections that Democrats will pounce upon to demonstrate untoward behavior by the President and his associates, I hope that liberals don’t expend undue energy on pointless quibbling. Aside from using the fruits of the Special Counsel investigation to gather Republican support to enact measures and controls to better guard against foreign meddling in the next election, it’s time to move on.

On Bernie Sanders

I know, I know: What possesses me to devote a post to Sen. Sanders at this point? BETO IS RUNNING! However, since I need some time to compose myself — to quiet my beating heart about the promise of a six-year U.S. representative and failed Texas Senatorial candidate – it seems likely that I’ll address Mr. O’Rourke’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination in the coming weeks. In the meantime …

This note is different from those I’ve done on former Amb. Nikki Haley and MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar. As with President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, virtually everyone in America knows VT Sen. Bernie Sanders, what he looks and sounds like, and what he stands for.

Even so, the basics. Of the measures that I indicated a while back that I consider to be of paramount importance in selecting the Democrat that can defeat Mr. Trump, the Senator fares well in some, not in others. He will be able to hold the stage against the President; facing the President, his advanced age won’t be a drawback; he has a core base that if not as large as the President’s, is as dedicated; he’s not an identity candidate, but will undoubtedly receive the full support of identity-focused Democrats in a race against Mr. Trump; he has significant seasoning in Washington’s ways; he’s endearing in a curmudgeonly way; and even those that question his philosophies recognize his authentic dedication to helping our economically desperate people. On the other hand, he is susceptible to Republicans’ stirring voters’ fears about socialism; many of his ideas appear impractical to centrists, the voting segment that I submit will decide the election; and I’ve not seen him demonstrate any marked expertise in foreign affairs (while Mr. Trump, by dint of four years in office, will be able to credibly claim some expertise). Mr. Sanders is what he is.

What I find most intriguing about Sen. Sanders’ candidacy is the effect that it may have on the prospects of other Democratic candidacies. I find it striking that he received $6 million in donations within 24 hours after he announced his candidacy (as in 2016, through contributions averaging about $25). That remarkable (at least to me) outpouring seems clear evidence that his supporters are ready to march for him again, notwithstanding the plethora of other progressive candidates in the Democratic field; it means not only that he can compete widely against a field generally less well financed than he is [save, perhaps, Mr. Biden (if he decides to run), Ms. Harris, and Mr. O’Rourke], but that he still has supporters everywhere. One might reasonably surmise that Mr. Sanders may significantly dent the support that each of the other progressives (including the currently most notable – CA Sen. Kamala Harris and MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren) might otherwise receive in their regions, and that such a split of the progressive vote in a significant number of early primaries could pave the way for a moderate to secure the nomination – if only one (Mr. Biden, Ms. Klobuchar, or other) pulls ahead in the nominating process’ center lane relatively quickly.

Since I believe that Democrats need to nominate a moderate in order to beat Mr. Trump, I accordingly consider Sen. Sanders’ entrance into the race a positive. I will, however, also venture this: if I knew now that a progressive was going to win the Democratic nomination, I might well prefer Mr. Sanders, since I currently think that among the progressive candidates, he has the best chance to beat Mr. Trump in Wisconsin, which serves as my gauge for the swing states. Of one thing we can be sure: he will liven up the Democratic primary and debate process ;).

On … The Really Big One

I recently came across a reference to the New Yorker article to which I’ve provided a link below. Since many of us (including me) are perhaps only aware at the headline level of the seismic challenges our nation faces, this piece provides a disturbing description of the dangers our people seemingly face in a different part of the west coast than that which preoccupies conventional wisdom.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one

On the Milwaukee Bucks

Those that read these pages have undoubtedly gleaned that my sports interests center upon the Green Bay Packers and the NFL, the Milwaukee Brewers and Major League Baseball, and the Wisconsin Badgers and college basketball. My interest in the NBA has been dormant for decades; I last followed the league to any extent in the era when Magic, Bird and Michael ruled the court. (I have heard that since those years, there have been a number of players who were actually not bad, including a couple named James and Curry.)

Even so, I was quite taken aback to see a piece in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago that flatly declared: “[I]t’s time to acknowledge the [Milwaukee] Bucks for what they are: the best team in the league this season.” The team clearly has a raft of fine players, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, apparently a very pleasant young man whose name I wouldn’t dare attempt to pronounce (and of whose spelling I am confident only because I Googled it). Subject to better memories than mine, I don’t think any sane sports fan in the last 40+ years would have considered the Milwaukee Bucks the best team in the NBA – not since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (in his early years, Lew Alcindor) and Oscar Robertson.

We have an avid Bucks fan in our extended family. He recently wrote me, indicating that if I watch the Bucks, I’ll be taken with Mr. Antetokounmpo, and adding: “Seems like the Milwaukee sports teams are taking the torch for Wisconsin at the moment.” Given the Brewers’ past season and the Bucks’ current run, one can’t disagree. I’m thrilled for him and all true Bucks fans. Perhaps it’s again time to jump on a bandwagon 😉 .

On Political Fear and Loathing

“When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks … one’s speech disclose[s] the bent of one’s mind.” Sirach 27:4-6

I didn’t watch Michael Cohen’s full testimony on Wednesday before the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee, but did see Reps. Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows and other Committee Republicans harangue and stage grandstanding attacks upon Mr. Cohen’s credibility. Although these are far from unique reactions, it did strike me real time (1) that the Republicans were abandoning their constitutional duty to ascertain the facts and (2) that they knew – they knew – that Mr. Cohen was substantially telling the truth. The only motive that I could conjure up for their behavior at the time was that they were trying to provide any remaining naïve Trump supporters with a rationalization for keeping the wool pulled down over their eyes. Mine was a fatuous thought. The lack of any meaningful political fallout for President Trump in the days since the hearing shows that Mr. Trump’s most diehard supporters already recognized and accepted the flawed nature of his character, something the Congressional Republicans almost certainly understood. It took me a little while to realize that they were motivated by baser emotions: fear and loathing.

I would suggest that Republicans’ abject defense of the President has little to do with substantive policy considerations, since if Mr. Trump left the presidency, he would be replaced by Vice President Mike Pence, who has been an obsequious supporter of the president’s agenda and would probably exert a stronger hand in confronting Russian aggression. (I’m confident that even the President’s most avid supporters recognize that Vladimir Putin is a bad guy.) Their unwillingness to seek truth seems manifestly driven by fear of retribution from Mr. Trump’s core supporters … combined with an aberrant desire not to let the Democrats win, even if they’re right – as they are – in demonstrating Mr. Trump a scoundrel unworthy of the presidency.

In the summer of 2018, a friend sent me an email string which had been forwarded to him entitled, “This is why you can’t vote democratic.” It was – there is no kinder description for it – an unhinged rant primarily focused on former Sec. Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey, primarily addressing Uranium One and Benghazi. Although no one would consider Ms. Clinton a saint and it is undisputed even by Mr. Comey that he made serious missteps prior to the 2016 Presidential election, this email completely ignored the fact that Republicans used their congressional investigatory powers ad nauseam on Uranium One and Benghazi without uncovering evidence of wrongdoing, and that Mr. Trump himself initially privately acknowledged that Mr. Comey’s public missteps regarding the FBI’s investigation of Ms. Clinton’s lost emails were probably the deciding factor in the election. This note demonstrated no indication of any desire to understand or accept facts; it was purely a manifestation of hatred of Democrats. Although the Committee Republicans were perhaps a bit smoother during the Cohen hearing, the emotions they feel are clearly the same. We are a long way from Republican TN Sen. Howard Baker’s effort to discover the truth in the Watergate scandal: “What did [Republican President Richard Nixon] know, and when did he know it?”

Democrats love grabbing the moral high ground – with Mr. Trump in the White House, admittedly easy ground to command – but recent accounts make them appear no better. Since January, a House of Representatives procedural maneuver known as the “Motion to Recommit” has, due to the aid of the votes of some moderate Democrats, allowed the Republicans to make small dents in certain progressive initiatives, thereby stirring the anger of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and young progressives, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has reportedly “suggested” to these moderate Democrats that should their behavior continue, she will alert her chain of progressive activists of their failure to stand with the Democratic majority on these votes. I would submit that by this posturing, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is seeking to sow political fear among the moderates – and by doing so, is no better for it than Mr. Trump. As for unrestrained vilification of the opposition, over the weekend, former Vice President Joe Biden was lambasted by the left after suggesting that Mr. Pence is a “decent guy”; Progressives have loudly rejected any notion that Mr. Pence can be “decent” due to his staunch Evangelical stance against LBGT rights. Think what you will of the fawning way he has conducted the Vice Presidency or his position on gender rights or other issues, Mr. Pence apparently is a decent man on a personal level, motivated by what he sees as moral principles; South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay person to seek the presidency, has called Mr. Pence “a super-nice guy,” although Mr. Buttigieg obviously vehemently disagrees with Mr. Pence on virtually all issues. There is as great a need on the left to disparage all aspects of all political opponents – to see only malevolence in the other side — as there is on the right.

Not only should Republicans be aware that there will be life after Mr. Trump; Democrats should be as well. Those of us that see neither party as the font of all virtue or the source of all depravity are concerned that neither side recognizes that formulating constructive policy requires trust of and well-intended engagement with the other.

Joint Declaration Disputing President Trump’s Emergency Declaration

An event seemingly meriting a second post in one day.

Although most who read these pages are probably already aware of this, today 58 former national security officials published a “Joint Declaration” disputing President Trump’s claim of a national emergency that justifies the diversion of federal funds to add further wall at our southern border. From a quick review of this Joint Declaration, it would appear that about a quarter of the signatories provided at least part of their national service to Republican Administrations, including three that served in the Trump Administration (although to be fair, two of the three were holdovers from the Obama Administration).

The Joint Declaration’s introduction provides in part:

“On February 15, 2019, the President declared a “national emergency” for the purpose of diverting appropriated funds from previously designated uses to build a wall along the southern border. We are aware of no emergency that remotely justifies such a step. The President’s actions are at odds with the overwhelming evidence in the public record, including the administration’s own data and estimates. We have lived and worked through national emergencies, and we support the President’s power to mobilize the Executive Branch to respond quickly in genuine national emergencies. But under no plausible assessment of the evidence is there a national emergency today that entitles the President to tap into funds appropriated for other purposes to build a wall at the southern border.”

A link to the Joint Declaration appears below.

http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2019/images/02/25/2019-2-21.final.national.emergency.decl.pdf

I understand that a House Resolution terminating the National Emergency declared by the President will be passed by the House on Tuesday and sent to the Senate. Although there is no indication that if the Senate passes the measure it will survive a certain presidential veto, the most revealing part of this process will be ascertaining which and how many Republican Senators are willing to confront Mr. Trump, given indications that many have significant misgivings about what they reportedly consider an unwarranted presidential usurpation of Congressional power.  This Joint Declaration will seemingly add to those misgivings.  I will be watching Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.

 

On Amy Klobuchar: Part II

If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there 😉

In Part I of this note, I offered that subject to events that could alter the national mood, MN Senator Amy Klobuchar has the best chance of the currently-announced Democratic presidential candidates to defeat President Trump in the fall of 2020. Those outside the Upper Midwest think of Minnesota as a deep blue state, but it is actually “two states,” consisting of the Twin Cities on the one hand and most of the rest of the state on the other – the latter made up of conservative, rural towns. Sec. Clinton’s narrow Minnesota victory in 2016 primarily resulted from overwhelming Twin Cities support. What might show that Sen. Klobuchar would be a challenging opponent for President Trump in 2020 is that she won every Minnesota congressional district in her 2018 Senate race. Perhaps in contrast to the coastal candidates, against the President Sen. Klobuchar would certainly hold Minnesota, have excellent prospects to hold or reclaim Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa (a state which the Democrats will otherwise probably write off) and seemingly have a favorable opportunity to hold or reclaim New Hampshire, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina.

I have previously suggested that presidential elections are about matchups; I would venture that nominating contests are frequently about lanes. It would seem that Sen. Klobuchar currently has the center lane in this race all to herself. If she is fortunate enough to keep the center lane to herself (an entry by Mr. Biden would significantly adversely affect her prospects) and campaigns ably, she would – subject to the hurdles described below – seemingly have a path to the nomination. Lanes matter.

In the 1976 Democratic Presidential nominating contest, there was initially a cluster of liberal candidates that entered the race in the party’s left lane. AL Gov. George Wallace claimed the right lane (indeed, Mr. Wallace was the first modern politician to tap into what is now the Trump base). Virtually alone in the center lane was former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. There has perhaps not been a modern campaign to a nomination run as brilliantly as Mr. Carter’s, but to succeed, he needed good fortune as well as shrewd planning. An unknown Born-Again Christian with a navy and farming background, Mr. Carter recognized that he had to sneak up on the field, and focused on winning the Iowa caucuses – which, up to that time, had been of no national interest. Mr. Carter “camped out” in Iowa for a year, talking to Iowans in fields and coffee shops, sharing his faith and his farming and service background … and won. The media loves novelty, and he rode it. Mr. Carter understood that he had to carry southern states to win the nomination; he narrowly defeated Mr. Wallace in the early Florida primary, cementing his image as a winner. He secured the nomination by taking the entire centrist vote in primary after primary while the liberals, to their frustration, kept splitting the (overall larger) liberal vote.

There is, however, a daunting reality for Ms. Klobuchar underpinning this rosy Carter scenario: Mr. Carter won early when he had to. Had he not won the Iowa caucuses and gained momentum, his candidacy would have floundered. Even with the Iowa surprise, had he not beaten Mr. Wallace in Florida – showing that he could win (as he did, in November) a region that the party had lost to Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 – he would have been finished.

Those with even longer memories – and political junkies – will recall what is perhaps the classic accounting of an American presidential campaign: Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960. Mr. White described in detail the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary contest between MA Sen. John F. Kennedy and MN Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey. Mr. Kennedy, on the strength of a strong Catholic vote, narrowly defeated Mr. Humphrey. Mr. Humphrey publicly claimed a moral victory by winning a strong minority against the much-better-financed Mr. Kennedy. Mr. White wrote: “But the reading of politics by hard men across the nation could only be otherwise. If Humphrey could not carry Wisconsin, a neighbor state so similar in culture and sociology to his own, then he could carry nothing in the Midwest. Thus, in hard politics, he could not deliver his base; therefore, he had been eliminated.”

I would suggest that to maintain a viable candidacy, Ms. Klobuchar must win the Iowa caucuses. If she loses, her candidacy would seemingly be ended out of the gate. Even if she wins in Iowa, I would offer that since the premise of her candidacy is that she can win in the Midwest, she … needs to win in the Midwest. She will need to win (or score impressive results with commensurate delegate counts) in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and stage a surprise or two on the coasts (perhaps more conservative New Hampshire, where a victory over Ms. Warren would be impressive; Washington or Oregon, where Ms. Harris’ glitz may not sit well with grounded liberals) or in states that Democrats hope to claim where her Midwest background could appeal (Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina). Even then, while such victories might have impressed the 1960s “hard men” that Mr. White referred to, under the current rules, the delegate totals that candidates like Ms. Harris can claim by winning their own state primaries present Ms. Klobuchar with a formidable challenge.

The persistent stream of stories since Sen. Klobuchar announced her candidacy, describing her abrasive treatment of her staff – coming at such an early stage in the campaign – seemingly underscores the importance to her of the early caucus and primary contests. Ms. Klobuchar’s “Minnesota Nice” image is one of her core strengths, and one or more of her opponents apparently sees that chipping away at that part of her appeal now may be the best way to cripple her candidacy. Again citing the observation of Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional Mr. Dooley [which I recognize that I could use 100 times in the next two years, but pledge to restrain myself ;)] : “… [P]olitics ain’t bean-bag.” More to come …