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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Impeachment Show As Comedy. Very Dark Comedy.

Rep Hakeem Jeffries presenting impeachment case

A very wise friend has counseled me that President Donald Trump will be defeated when he becomes a laughing stock for public debate, because the ultimate fear of a narcissist is to be made fun of. 

We may have reached that point in Wednesday’s impeachment trial, thanks to the very skillful use of video technology by Rep. Adam Schiff and his team. My takeaway goes something like this:

Schiff used Trump himself to make his case, with brief video clips of the President inviting Russia and then China to help him investigate his political rivals, and also bragging about his power to withhold evidence from Congress. 

Some of those videos were of the President as he prepared to board his helicopter, shouting at hapless reporters forced to resort to this demeaning manner of interacting with the President. After the second or third of these clips, the image of a very large man with a strange haircut and a somewhat-orange face, wearing a very large coat and a yard-long necktie and waving and shouting became, well, comical.

Where else would the Latin term “quid pro quo” wind up determining the fate of a president who possibly had to Google it before using it—over, and over, and over. “No quid pro quo” is the 2020 version of Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” of Nov. 17, 1973. For those of us who speak very little Latin, it is a welcome primer.

We were spared images of the same fellow hunched over his laptop sending out literally dozens of Tweets based on misinformation or lies from sources that most of us would reject as nut cases. Does he wear the same uniform when he tweets at 1 a.m.? Whose book will break that story?

But we did enjoy a very long narrative that resembled a routine from the old Abbott and Costello team of long-ago radio. That was the tag-team dialogue that went something like this:

Three Amigos: You must make an announcement of an investigation into the Bidens.

Zelensky aide: But we can’t make the announcement until we have a date for a White House meeting.

Three Amigos: You go first.

Zelensky aide: No, you go first.

Three Amigos: Please, be our guest, you go first. . . and so on.

Abbott and Costello play Alphonse and Gaston. After you. No, after you. Optional tap dancing. 

The image of these three white guys: Rick Perry, Gordon Sondland, and Kurt Volker—in sombreros, perhaps with a mariachi band, propositioning a suspicious team of Ukrainian diplomats is delicious in itself. A remembrance of Desi Arnaz here?

Somewhere in the realm of humor must be the very weirdness of the president’s public appearance in the midst of what he claims is a laughable attempt to impeach. He shows up at Davos, the annual gathering of the real ruling class of the modern world, plus political leaders and hangers-on. While the group is pretending to place real actions on climate change over quarterly dividends, President Trump is selling American coal and oil and debunking the world’s leading scientists as doomsayers. With a straight face! Now, that’s comedy, albeit of the dark side. 

Maybe Trump was just kidding at Davos; it’s an escape valve he often uses when caught in a particularly egregious insult or lie. The president was just kidding, his minions assure us. Well, if Trump has a sense of humor in any way, I’m the Prince of Sussex. 

I don’t know if Schiff has a sense of humor, but he seems to have a sense of irony. Plenty of that to go around (read Lindsay Graham). My favorite impeachment manager (after Schiff) was Rep. Zoe Lofgren, 72, who is a player in her third presidential impeachment. Lofgren comes across as your favorite older aunt who is also sharp as a whip. I saw her repress a smile in her address to senators, and I saw that twinkle in her eye as she perhaps recalled a time when members of the Congress could address each other civilly and with respect and not be called out for it by their president. 

And then there is Rudy Guiliani.  No, we won’t go there. 

Is it sacrilege to examine impeachment as a theme for a stage show? Perhaps, but if they can make a musical out of Les Miserables, think of what could be done with Trump, Guiliani, and the Three Amigos; with Volodymyr Zelensky as Jean Valjean?

If we can’t get justice from this show, at least we could have a few laughs.

Rules, Rules, Rules: Senate On Trial (Not Just Trump)

U.S. Senate chamber

Now that President Donald Trump’s Senate trial has begun there are some critical points to keep in mind. All analysis, up to now, is based on the very low probability that 14 Republicans would break party ranks to convict Trump on the two articles of impeachment (Abuse of Power & Obstruction of Congress).

It is not likely they will abandon Trump, despite two recent developments. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded Trump violated the law by withholding Congressionally approved assistance to Ukraine.  And Lev Parnas, an associate of the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, said that Trump approved and directed public tax dollars to influence the election by asking Ukraine to investigate his potential main rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Republican senators won’t break from him because these “facts” don’t matter in their upcoming primary elections. It doesn’t matter if they lose liberal independents, since they never had them, and in most states these independents don’t vote in the primaries. As long as they can keep their core Republican primary voters, who are 90 percent-plus behind Trump, these Republican senators will win the primary.

But then it gets more problematic, since winning their general elections could be severely jeopardized if the public perceives the trial as phony or not taken seriously by the Republicans. More important, the conservative independents, who are more Republican than Trumpers, could be swayed to vote for a Democrat who believes in the rule of law. That doesn’t mean those voters would necessarily opt for liberal candidates, for they could just sit on their hands and not vote. This is what makes the senate Republicans vulnerable in the general election, much more than their Democratic challengers.

For instance, there are 22 Republican senators up for reelection in 2020, while there are only 12 Democrats. Ballotpedia did an analysis of these races using the 2016 presidential election and ratings from three of the top organizations analyzing the races (Cook Political ReportSabato’s Crystal Ball, and Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales) and this analysis identified 12 Republican incumbents and 5 Democratic incumbents as potentially vulnerable. The Republicans have a greater exposure.

The Democrats do not need to win the Senate impeachment trial by convicting Trump, no matter how much evidence that he should be. If the Republicans refuse testimony or admission of documents, polls indicate that would alienate more voters than anything else. A poll taken by ABC News and The Washington Post on December 10, before the House voted for impeachment, showed 70 percent of Americans believe that administration officials should be able to testify. That attitude crossed party lines; 79% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans and 72% of independents agree that Trump should allow them to appear in a Senate trial.

The struggle to control the trial’s image will not be a high drama TV event. The senators do not speak! Their questions or motions are submitted on paper to the presiding officer, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who decides whether to bring them forward. If he refuses, he can be overruled by a simple majority of 51 senators. Almost all of the TV political pundits have made much of the 51-vote rule, which allows the Senate to create its own procedural rules for the trial. It gives narrow control of the trial to the Republicans, since there are 53 of them.

There is a slight wrinkle in that description because the Standing Rules of the Senate detail the rules of order of the United States Senate. Normally it takes a two-thirds vote to alter any of the 43 standing rules that were last adopted in 2000. These rules could serve as a possible hurdle for the Republicans, and they may seek to alter them to protect Trump.

It can be argued that all rules in the Senate trial will be procedural rules. However, there are standing rules, which normally supersede all procedural rules, such as lowering the threshold for appointing judges. There may be an opportunity for Democrats to use them to their advantage and for the Republicans to either accept their interpretation or vote to oppose it – in effect changing the standing rules.

There are two standing rules that could present such a situation, but these two examples would have to be vetted by a parliamentarian to determine if they would apply in the Senate Trial.

The first is the right of any senator to call a closed session as long as the motion is seconded. This could be done by the Democrats after the initial two presentations but before the House Managers give their final presentation (which is what is in the procedural rules). This would allow the Democrats to adjust the timing of their last word for a better TV time to allow the most public to witness it. They could use the closed session to determine which Republican Senators are wavering or what the Democrats best summary might be to persuade them when they return to the full open trial session.

The second, is the right of any senator to place a hold on a motion to prevent it from reaching a vote on the Senate floor. The Democrats could request such a hold if no testimony has been received. They would vote to lift the hold if testimony was allowed.

In the past, both Democratic and Republican Senate majority leaders had employed a “nuclear” option, by using just a majority vote to permanently alter the standing rules. Both actions had to do with eliminating the 60-vote rule for approving federal judicial appointments, including Supreme Court nominations.

This means that the Republicans probably could exercise that authority; with 51 votes they could do anything. But if they they use this nuclear option, it would appear to the public as excessive force in manipulating the senate trial to Trump’s advantage. That could be the straw that breaks the public’s back in seeing the Republican-run senate trial as a fair one.

Most dangerous to the Republican senators seeking reelection this November, is that this move could dampen the support of their traditional conservative constituents to get out and vote for their reelection. Interestingly, one of the few mentions of the two-thirds rule being needed to change the senate’s standing rules was brought up by Fred Lucas, a reporter from the conservative The Daily Signal, which is  funded entirely by The Heritage Foundation.

The conservative tradition is to respect the law and procedures. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejecting the request by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to have four White House officials testify during the impeachment trial is going to hurt the Republicans more than the Democrats. When the Republicans realize that problem, they will likely offer to repeat the process that was used in President Bill Clinton’s trial — having off site testimony videotaped and then selected portions shared with the full senate.

Having live testimony with cross examining would make for a huge TV audience, but given the character of those testifying, the spectacle would likely confuse rather than educate the public on Trump’s guilt. Plus, there is no telling what they will say. In the Clinton senate trial, all of those testifying had done so before, so it was known what they were going to say.

Democrats should propose having Chief Justice Roberts make the final decision on what portions of the videotaped testimony should be shared. Although the Republicans could overrule his decision, that action will be remembered by the public long after what was said in the testimony.

The bottom line for the Democrats, and the Republicans as well, is that their behavior will be judged as much as President Trump’s. Since he will not be  present, the actions of the House Prosecution Managers and the President’s Defense Team will receive the immediate attention of the public watching and the media personalities commentating afterwards.  

Cue the Script for Republicans Acting Badly

Image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay

One of the aspects of performance art is to induce foolish behavior by those viewing the performance, as by luring exasperated police officers to make fools of themselves in trying to arrest demonstrators. Keep this in mind as you watch the next acts of the impeachment drama.

The Senate impeachment trial is likely to be another dreary parade of focus-group-tested speechifying. The opening round, sparring between Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell, is an effort to get Senate Republicans acting badly or as one might say, acting McConnelly by rigging the trial. It’s a measure of Pelosi’s shrewdnesss that she has put the Senate Republicans in this spot, and so far they are eagerly playing their assigned bad-guy roles. She probably knows that McConnell is more than ready to suit up as a villain.

Of course, the real point of this play-acting is to influence the 2020 elections, particularly the chances for electing Republicans in Congress, by inducing them to speak whoppers and look like sycophants to Don Donald. Eventually, Pelosi herself will look foolish if she refuses too long in sending over the impeachment charges and allows House Democrats to behave in too naked a political fashion.

Politics now has become a dumb-show, where the point is not to resolve issues but to get others to prance on a stage to a script written by your opponents. The media lap this up, of course, but this can’t be what the Founders had in mind when creating a self-governing Republic.

Republicans’ Rigged Senate Trial? It Might Be Democrats’ Best Option

Image by kalhh from Pixabay

The Constitution says that the Senate “shall have the sole power to try all impeachments.” The immediate question before us is when? Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially said that she will hold up delivering the two articles of impeachment to the Senate until the Democrats know what the rules will be. Reality is that the rules will be what the Republicans want, no matter how long Pelosi hangs back. Hence the case for getting this charade over with, and soon.

In Bill Clinton’s presidential impeachment Senate trial, leaders of both parties met and hammered out an agreement on the rules, which the Senate passed unanimously even though the Republicans had two more Senators than they do now. It’s not the number of Republicans in the Senate that is shaping this trial, it’s the intensity of loyalty to Trump that is endangering any bipartisan path forward.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News he was “taking my cues”  from the White House and “There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position” in shaping the trial. Trump has tweeted that the effort to remove him from office is an “attempted coup.” That is a pretty strong cue that McConnell will not be reaching an agreement with the Democrats on the Senate’s trial procedures. 

If no agreement is reached, McConnell only needs 51 Senate Republicans to pass  a resolution governing the proceedings, as long as they do not alter the current established Senate rules, which were applied to the Clinton impeachment. Changing those Senate rules would take two-thirds, or 67 votes, to pass. 

Defining the difference between the two sets of rules is up to the trial’s Presiding Officer, which would be Chief Justice John Roberts. According to Adam White, a director at George Mason University’ Law School, Roberts “is very, very wary of the courts being seen as being brought into a political process” and will keep a low profile. But will he be pulled  into the spotlight given the probable intensity that the trial could ignite over any of his rulings? 

An example of how this conflict played out in the last impeachment was when a senator wanted the Senate doors open during their deliberations. The presiding officer then, Chief Justice Rehnquist, ruled that 67 votes would be needed given “consistent practice of the Senate for the last 130 years in impeachment trials.” The motion failed to get the 67- vote majority. The doors remained closed. What would happen if Chief Justice Roberts makes a ruling that a certain motion requires 67 votes and the Republicans strongly disagree? They could insist that only a majority vote is needed to overrule his decision, contending that their motion could be reasonably reconciled with the Senate rules. Would Roberts choose to simply defer to whatever 51 senators wish to do, even if it changes an established Senate rule?

The current Senate rules according to Hilary Hurd and Benjamin Wittes, in a LawFare blog this December, are weirdly detailed, even specifying speeches and specific times of day when things must be said and done, and yet they offer no rules of evidence or standards of proof, which matters could be defined solely by the Republicans. That leaves the Republicans controlling the trial’s content used to determine if Trump violated his oath of office. 

Although the word “trial” is used, this is not a criminal or civil trial. It is a political trial. There does not need to be a violation of a criminal code, only the belief by two-thirds of the Senate members that a president is guilty of the House’s charges. With Republican leaders repeating Trump’s “witch hunt” description of the House impeachment, there is no likely outcome that two-thirds of the Senate will remove Trump from office. 

So why have a trial that isn’t a real trial? Because the real jury is the public not the Senate. In fact, the Senate is not a jury so much as an active player in the trial. While the senators cannot speak and must sit and listen, any member can submit written requests to the Chief Justice, to ask questions of those testifying or to make motions to change procedures. More importantly, the majority of senators (51) can introduce new procedures at any time, as long as they do not change established rules.

Unlike common trials, this historical event will be televised, with the exception of the deliberations, assuring that this will be a “show” trial. Each party will have to calibrate their strategies based on how the public perceives their honesty and diligence in pursuing a just conclusion. The facts supporting or dismissing the two articles of impeachment will influence a far smaller portion of the public than the behavior of the parties. 

And the public has been watching. Throughout the weeks of congressional impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, 62% of adults in a December Washington Post-ABC News poll said they had closely or somewhat followed it.

McConnell seems to understand this dynamic, even if he did make a critical mistake telling Fox News that he was going to run the trial in accordance with Trump’s interests. That cost him credibility. He tried to salvage it in his reply to Senate Minority Leader Democrat Chuck Schumer’s request for live testimony from White House staff that Trump refused to allow to appear before the House Committees. Rather than just swatting Schumer down, McConnell left open the possibility of it occurring later.

McConnell has also opposed Republican suggestions that the Senate immediately dismiss any impeachment articles they receive. That would be a gift to the Democrats and would serve to amplify their characterization of the Senate Republicans as abandoning their responsibilities. The Senate has never declined to hold a trial in the 19 previous cases in which a federal officeholder was impeached, In similar fashion, Pelosi could overplay her hand by indefinitely withholding the delivery of the impeachment articles to the Senate. That would work to the Republicans benefit for the same underlying public perception — the Democrats would be shirking their duty. 

The stakes are high for both parties in how this trial is seen. According to the December Washington Post/ABC poll, the public is evenly divided. Those favoring impeaching Trump and removing him from office are at 49%; those opposed are at 46%. The numbers didn’t move from October’s poll, suggesting that the hearings had practically no influence. A short Senate trial would seem to have the same result.

Could a longer trial with testimony and additional evidence move the dial either way? I doubt it. Unless there is a strong testimony quoting Trump delivering a straightforward command to get information to influence the 2020 election, each side will rely on the same arguments that they have been making for the last three months. 

That poll also revealed a critical difference in the public view of Clinton versus Trump. It showed that only 33% believed Clinton should have been impeached and removed from office, with 64% believing he should not have been . That comparison is comparable to Clinton’s 70% approval rate at the time of his impeachment, with Trump’s steady low 40% approval rate. 

Trump is not popular. However, a lengthy trial without a damning quote from Trump, will allow him to play the victim, at which he is a master of portraying himself. The sympathy vote could turn out critical independent voters, who are less ideologically oriented than either Republicans or Democrats. Following a long trial, they might vote against the “mean” Democrats, thus hurting their chances for winning the Senate and retaining their majority in the House. 

So I end up in favor of letting the Republicans run a quick phony trial. They will satisfy their base, but not sway the independents, because they will be repeating the same boring and unconvincing points they have been making. That will deny Trump the victim role he desperately needs to play. And it will allow the Democrats to characterize the Republicans as being cravenly subservient to an ineffective leader who is more concerned with his political future than the country’s needs.

Impeaching Trump: Is That All There Is?


One nagging thought (well, one of several) persists as House Democrats move to draft articles of impeachment.

I know Pelosi, Nadler et al. have many good reasons to limit their case to the aid extortion Trump et al. tried to work on Ukraine. This scheme does comprise the most egregious high crimes, with the most serious potential consequences, known to have been undertaken by and at the behest of this president. The Dems want to sustain momentum, keep the public’s attention, and avoid distracting from the primary rounds that begin next month. Past scandals didn’t move the all-important public opinion meter, so better to concentrate on one that might. And since they haven’t a prayer of turning enough Republican senators to get a conviction, the best they can do is establish a record (as Schiff ably did).

But is it wise to put the whole case in this one basket? This scandal seems to have moved that meter only marginally. Trump’s earlier potential crimes and misdemeanors, if less serious, may be easier to understand. Together they establish a modus and motive that support the Ukrainegate case.

The witnesses taking the stand earlier, and committee chair Nadler himself, showed this when they recalled how candidate Trump publicly urged Russia to hack the Democratic National Committee’s emails. What hasn’t been recalled, and was too little noted at the time, was that the only change in the 2016 Republican platform that team Trump demanded was weakening its expression of support for Ukraine against Russian aggression.

Indulge in reverie for a moment and imagine how the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal would sit against a Ukrainegate bribery count. That’s only reverie, of course; even if it had time, this House wouldn’t want to follow the stained-blue-dress precedent and convene hearings on anything so petty and seamy. But it already has a record of multiple past instances of obstruction of justice, complete with convicted henchmen, in the form of the Mueller Report and James Comey’s congressional testimony. The fact that Mueller’s own appearance fell flat doesn’t gainsay the strength of the record his team established.

If you’re going to charge Trump’s latest obstruction of justice, why not charge his past obstructions? If you’re going to call him corrupt, why not include counts for taking foreign emoluments and for self-enrichment by steering federal business to his hotels and resorts?

Republicans would howl that the Democrats are getting desperate and flinging whatever they can find. But if the Dems limit their case the Rs will still call them desperate and holler that all three years of witchhunting could turn up is this so-called Ukrainian nothingburger.

The public, the real arbiter, deserves a refresher course in this president’s outrages. The sum is greater than one of its parts.

The Impeachment Of Donald J Trump: Our Story So Far

Image: Flickr

Congress’s first round of impeachment hearings wound up largely focused on whether President Trump had offered a quid pro quo for receiving a favor from Ukraine, i.e. Trump would release held-up military aid and other signs of US support only after Ukraine investigated a particular company that employed Joe Biden’s son and the former Vice President for his actions as well.

Aside from trying to determine if an actual bribe had occurred, the basis for impeachment comes down to whether Trump abused his presidential power by asking a Ukraine for a personal gift of campaign assistance or was he merely seeking out whether there was corruption in Ukraine before releasing military assistance to them. Let’s take a look at this critical question.

America’s founders feared foreign governments destabilizing our young democracy. They wrote into the constitution, “And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present… from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” 

The House of Representatives is trying to determine whether Trump was seeking a “present” from Ukraine. Specifically, the charge is that Trump was asking Ukraine’s new president to publicly announce that his country would begin investigating a company for corruption that employed Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. This would provide Trump an explosive issue that would damage his potential main opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Just this May 2019, Trump’s own polling showed Biden beating Trump in the election. That was followed up in September, when Trump’s reelection campaign, and the Republican National Committee, announced plans to spend $10 million on an ad targeting his potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden and the impeachment proceedings. In October, Trump targeted $1 million, out of an already-existing $8 million ad buy, toward anti-Biden spots in early voting states. A 30-second commercial, titled “Biden Corruption,” attacked the former vice president for pushing the removal of Ukraine’s former corrupt head prosecutor Shokin

Trump would have greatly benefited if he could have convinced Ukraine’s president to announce that he was investigating corruption in Burisma and by extension Hunter Biden, who served on its board. Joe Biden could also be investigated since he was Vice President during that time. No verdict would even be needed; just the investigation could be enough. And that was the message that was sent by his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, not a government employee, to the Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland. 

Testifying under oath before the Congress’s impeachment hearing, Sondland clearly identified Giuliani as Trump’s spokesman saying, “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States …” 

Sondland’s description of Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine as being motivated by personal interest and not national interest, was also the conclusion reached by the state department’s top Ukraine official, George P. Kent. He testified before Congress how Trump sought to manipulate American policy in Ukraine to meet his personal political goals, circumventing career diplomats and policy experts and inserting his personal lawyer Giuliani into the process.

President Trump himself was recorded on the July 25  call to the new Ukrainian President Zelensky asking him for a favor of looking into “Biden’s son … and …that [Joe] Biden stopped the prosecution…”  of Shokin. Investigating Hunter Biden or Joe Biden was never mentioned in any documents provided to the public prior to that call, from any government intelligence agency. Trump’s request was made immediately after Zelensky said his country was “ready to buy more Javelins [anti-tank missiles] from the United States for defense purposes.” Trump made the connection between providing military aid to Ukraine that Congress had already approved and asking Ukraine to conduct an investigation that no one had requested from the US government. That call lead the whistle blower to file a complaint that Trump had used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.” How else could it be interpreted?

Well, Trump and Congressional Republicans simply describe it as encouraging Ukraine to conduct those investigations to see if the Bidens had participated in Ukraine’s well-known culture of corruption. Republicans say Trump’s motive was to protect our foreign aid from contributing to a corrupt nation that could waste US tax dollars. 

Curiously, Trump and  Congressional Republicans’ argument ignores that Zelensky’s top prosecutor, Lutsenko, had told Bloomberg News in a report May 16 that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden. 

No one, to date, has testified that Trump directed any federal employee, (excluding Giuliani, who is not a government employee) to investigate either of the Bidens. However, Trump in public statements and via Twitter has repeatedly suggested that they need to be investigated. By going public with these suggestions, he avoided a paper trail and he can legitimately claim not to have ordered government employees to investigate the Bidens. However, if you work for the executive department and you repeatedly see and hear what Trump wants through the media or through his personal attorney Giuliani, it is likely that you would act accordingly. 

Joe Biden wanted to end corruption in Ukraine. Trump claims he wanted to end corruption in Ukraine. But Biden wanted to change prosecutors in order to pursue a more vigorous attack on corruption, as reflected in Zelensky’s overwhelming electoral victory. Trump wanted an investigation of Burisma for possible corruption, since it had been accused of corruption in the past. Three previous general prosecutors investigated Burisma and did not file any charges. Trump wanted Ukraine’s government to go back and look for some corruption. He also questioned the legitimacy of Hunter Biden being on the Burisma board, although no past Ukrainian prosecutor had found a reason to investigate him, including the two most recent reformist prosecutors. 

Trump did not need to get a conviction of either the Burisma or the Bidens. He just needed a public statement that an investigation had begun. Trump, through Giuliani, rejected the offer that Ukrainian’s general prosecutor make such a statement. Instead, Ambassador Sondland said they were told by Giuliani that Trump wanted Ukraine’s President to make that public statement. 

That would be the favor Trump wanted. Something to use in an anti-Biden media campaign. That is a request to have a foreign government sway our electoral process to benefit a particular candidate.

So, which narrative is to be believed? Hunter got a cushy job, Joe Biden got to be an anti-corruption champion. Neither benefited from US aid to Ukraine. No government official in Ukraine or the US has connected them to corruption in Ukraine. However, Trump’s claimed role as a fighter of corruption has focused solely on just the one company, Burisma, which employed Hunter Biden. Neither Trump nor Giuliani ever pursued investigating any other corrupt company in Ukraine.

Trump unambiguously asked Ukraine, both through public statements and through his personal attorney directing government employees, for an investigation that would have helped him win the 2020 presidential election. Republicans in Congress defend Trump by arguing that no Ukrainian investigation was begun on the Bidens, so Trump did not receive any benefit, i.e., no harm was done. However, Republican defenders of Trump have not shown any effort by Trump to stop corruption other than seeking to investigate the one company that employed his main opponent’s son. 

The president of the United States repeatedly asking Ukraine to investigate a single company, that had already been investigated by the highest prosecutors in Ukraine, was needlessly redundant and served only to benefit his personal political interests.  None of the three ambassadors familiar with Trump’s insistence on an investigation told Congress during their testimonies that it was critical to our national interests.

But will the public understand, and more importantly be concerned, that Trump’s “request” for a favor from Ukraine was an abuse of his presidential power by contorting a national policy of fighting corruption overseas in a way to serve his own political interests? If so, is it grounds for relieving him of his position as the leader of our nation? 

Although only the House of Representatives can decide, it is important for citizens to have thoughtful discussions on this impeachment question. Discuss this issue with friends and foe. And share this piece with your local congressional representative as well. 

Civic Heavyweights, Unite. You Are In Danger Of Losing Our Democracy.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

American democracy is in serious danger. It’s time for respected civic heavyweights get off the sidelines — that’s retired generals and admirals, former Cabinet officers, corporate executives, university presidents, ex-mayors, governors and members of Congress, religious leaders and even entertainment and sports figures — and band together to defend it.

Individually, some do speak out on this pressing issue or that. Among the most vocal, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey is often on TV talking geopolitics. Former Defense Secretary and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta regularly criticizes Trump administration policies. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich appeals for national unity.

Occasionally Bill Gates appears to talk about education and world poverty. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen says the U.S. has lost its place as the world’s moral leader. Former Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz have advocated action on climate change. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell opines sporadically. Actor Sacha Baron Cohen has just spoken out about the dangers of social media.

But there have to be hundreds, even thousands, of such leaders who are distressed about and/or disgusted with the increasingly hate-filled tribalization of the U.S. population and inability of the polarized political parties to solve any serious problem.

Most of them are fretting in private. Instead, they should join together and form a powerful organization to systematically criticize bad behavior and praise good; advocate sensible action on pressing issues; raise money to elect moderate candidates and defeat extremists in both parties; and help political reform groups working to combat corruption and polarization.

And, as the growing reform movement shows, there are hundreds of thousands of citizens already active and potentially ready to join them.

The threat to democracy ought to be obvious, but anyone in doubt should read “How Democracies Die” by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who’ve devoted their careers to studying examples from 1930s Germany, Italy and Spain to 1970s Chile, 1990s Russia and Peru and current-day Venezuela, Turkey and Hungary.

They trace a consistent pattern that begins with deep polarization (ideological groups ceasing to judge each other as mere rivals, but as menaces to the nation), followed by policy stagnation, popular discontent, and the rise of a demagogue who claims he alone can fix things.

His ascent to power (often by election) leads to a gradual or swift tearing down of democracy’s constitutional and informal guardrails, leading in turn to prosecution or violent suppression of opponents, complete domination of judicial and legislative branches of government and silencing of independent media and civic organizations.

Levitsky and Ziblatt make a convincing case that the process is underway in the U.S. now, with Donald Trump as the guardrail-busting demagogue. The book came out before his current declaration, through his lawyers, that a sitting president has absolute immunity from any legal proceeding, including being charged after shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Even a Supreme Court dominated by his appointees might not uphold this claim, but it underscores his authoritarian bent. 

Even if he’s not reelected, the underlying threats to democracy remain: deepening polarization, government’s inability to solve serious problems and public distrust of major institutions. Add to that public confusion about what is true: chronic income and wealth inequality, hostile foreign bots (and extremist domestic ones) spreading divisive disinformation; and the failure of schools to prepare young citizens for jobs in the AI future or to critically navigate social media.

The threat cries out for intervention by respected figures — acting together to maximize their influence and encouraging concerned citizens to join them in a movement to safeguard democracy. I once proposed this idea to one of the worthies I cited above. He said, “Ah, you guys in the media would pay no attention.” I think he’s dead wrong — if the movement were big enough, relentless and well-financed.

There’s a historical precedent for such a movement. It’s brilliantly described in Lynne Olson’s 2013 book, “Those Angry Days,” chronicling the late 1930s and early ’40s battle between isolationists and interventionists over whether to provide military aid to Winston Churchill’s beleaguered Britain as it waged a last-ditch struggle against Nazi Germany.

Actually, two groups led the interventionist cause. One was a citizens’ group organized by Kansas editor William Allen White (the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies), which enlisted governors, mayors, college presidents, newspaper editors, writers, businessmen, actors and prizefighter Gene Tunney to serve on its executive board.

The board, in turn, helped organize grassroots groups all over the country. “Our idea,” White wrote, “is to fill the radio and the newspapers and the Congressional mail with the voices of prominent citizens urging America to become the non-belligerent ally of France and England.”

When France fell, White’s group mushroomed to 700 chapters in 47 states. Members sponsored rallies, radio broadcasts and newspaper ads and shipped petitions with millions of signatures to Capitol Hill and the White House.

Franklin Roosevelt privately wanted to aid Britain, but was intimidated into inaction by an isolationist-dominated Congress, public reluctance to again get involved in European conflict, and propagandizing by Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee. U.S. military leaders also opposed giving scarce arms to Britain, fearing they would be captured by a victorious Hitler and ultimately used against an ill-prepared U.S.

The second group, based in New York’s exclusive Century Club, consisted of internationalist-minded bankers, lawyers including future Secretary of State Dean Acheson, journalists including columnists Joseph Alsop and Walter Lippmann and Time-Life publisher Henry Luce, and, ultimately, retired World War I commander Gen. John Pershing.

This group secretly wanted the U.S. to enter World War II directly, but argued tactically for aid to Britain. It, too, agitated with newspaper columns and stories and radio broadcasts — but its members also applied direct pressure in Washington, where they had close contacts in the Roosevelt administration, the military and Congress.

Ultimately, of course, Adolf Hitler and the heroic Churchill — capped by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor — decided the issue. But the two groups certainly shifted public and government opinion.

The future of American democracy is at stake again and democrats of all parties should not silently sit by.

A Senate Trial Could Force Key Trumpers to Testify


Last week, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified in the House impeachment investigation, that, “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.” He made it clear (with some documentary support) that Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo, Acting White House Chief of Staff and OMB Director Mulvaney, and Secretary of Energy Perry were among those “in the loop.” And they all played some role in advancing Trump’s Ukraine bribery scheme. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton also knew what was going on but had the good judgment to distance himself from “whatever drug deal [they’re] cooking up,” as he put it. At the heart of those efforts was Trump consigliere Rudy Giuliani, who Bolton warned was, “a hand grenade who is going to blow us all up.”

But at Trump’s demand, all those key players have refused to testify. Those who did testify (at personal and professional risk) did so in defiance of Trump’s orders (and, even then, were denied access to their emails, texts, and other documents held by the Trump administration). So why aren’t Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi pursuing in the courts subpoenas of these central fact witnesses and documents? The simple answer is that they don’t want to put impeachment on hold while Trump runs out the clock over many months, while the media and the public get bored and move on to a succession of other Trump outrages, absurdities and distractions, and the 2020 campaign ramps up. There is already plenty of evidence on the record and they want to move expeditiously while the narrative is fresh and clear.

Schiff has shown his skill and discipline as a prosecutor and I suspect he abandoned the courts in favor of a more expedient and likely effective approach. But do not abandon hope. Hear me out.

An impeachment trial in the Senate is not conducted by Senators. They are the jury. It is conducted by “House managers” for the prosecution and defense. The Presiding Officer, per the Constitution, would be Chief Justice Roberts. The Senate’s impeachment rules provide that the House managers can issue subpoenas to anyone, presumably including Pence, Pompeo, Mulvaney, Perry, Bolton, and Giuliani. The defense could object that the testimony is irrelevant or covered by privilege. Rule VII provides that a ruling on such questions will usually be made by the Presiding Officer. The Chief Justice would likely decide, in the first instance, claims of executive privilege or attorney-client privilege. He would also likely decide questions such as the crime/fraud exception and the co-conspirator exception to the hearsay rule, as well as questions of waiver of any privilege. Finally, he would rule on subpoenas for the production of documents.

Senate and Supreme Court precedent favors broad discovery. In Nixon’s impeachment, there was never a Senate trial. But at earlier stages in the process, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that he had to turn over Oval Office tapes (about the deepest penetration of presidential immunity imaginable short of actual presidential testimony). And his closest advisors testified: White House Counsel Dean, Attorney General Mitchell,
Chief of Staff Haldeman, Chief Domestic Policy Advisor Erlichman, FBI Director Gray, et al.

While a majority of the Senate could vote to overturn the Chief Justice’s ruling, only a handful of Republican senators would have to vote to uphold the Chief Justice’s ruling to sustain it. And it would be a tough vote to overturn a partisan Republican Chief Justice on matters of law and evidence. In any event, it would be out in the open, in the harsh glare of public opinion.

You might have spotted a flaw in this plan: Maybe Chief Justice John Roberts will prove himself, yet again, to be a Republican partisan and won’t compel the testimony and documents sought by House managers. That certainly wouldn’t be a good look for him – and he would have to own it. But if that is the case, he certainly wouldn’t have provided the fifth vote on the Supreme Court to compel that evidence. In any event, it won’t be hung up in the courts for months, largely out of public view.

Of course, Senate Republicans may adopt rules for a trial that would hobble it and cut it short. There are reports they might try to keep it as short as two weeks. The Clinton impeachment trial lasted more than five weeks. (That was quick compared with the 10 week impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson.) The rules were agreed upon by both parties and adopted by the Senate unanimously. I wouldn’t expect that from McConnell nor would I underestimate his guile and shamelessness.

Still, I think the odds are good we get more damning evidence from some of the key players before this thing is done. But don’t get your hopes up. There is no way (in my opinion) that 20 Republican Senators are going to vote to remove Trump from office. That party has become a cult, concerned only with power for its own sake. Expecting Democrats to reform the Republican Party through shame and sheer moral force is just setting them up to fail. Ultimately, the goal is to get at the truth – and show clearly the depths of corruption and abuse of power Republicans are willing to defend.

So far Pelosi and Schiff have played this perfectly. That is, they have played it straight and stayed focused and disciplined. I assume they know what they’re doing.

A Trump Coup Would Need Military Support. Not Likely After This Week


If President Donald J. Trump is convicted by the U.S. Senate or if he loses the 2020 election, many liberals and lefties worry he won’t leave office voluntarily. I am not overly concerned. In order to carry out such a coup, Trump would need the active cooperation of the military. And the leadership of the armed services regards the president as a harmful buffoon. Just consider the past few weeks.

Over the past weekend, Trump fired Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer. The termination resulted from the parties disagreeing over Trump’s pardon of Navy SEAL and Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, who had been convicted of violating military law. First, Trump pardoned Gallagher, 1st Lieutenant Clint Lorance, another soldier convicted of war crimes, and Major Mathew Golsteyn, who was awaiting trial for a war crime. The military brass made no secret of its unhappiness.

CBS News reported former Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey tweeting, “Absent evidence of innocence or injustice the wholesale pardon of US service members accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously. Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us. #Leadership.”

In response to Gallagher’s pardon, the Navy leadership went after the sailor’s “Trident Pin,” essentially wanting to boot him out of the SEALs, a special operations force. Trump interfered with military discipline again, ordering that Gallagher be reinstated. Navy Secretary Spencer refused to cave to the president’s orders and was fired.

This is the latest incident in an ongoing war between military leaders and the president.

Retired Marine Corps General John Kelly served first as Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security and then as his chief of staff. It didn’t go well. Kelly recalled telling Trump, “I said, whatever you do — and we were still in the process of trying to find someone to take my place — I said whatever you do, don’t hire a ‘yes man,’ someone who won’t tell you the truth — don’t do that. Because if you do, I believe you will be impeached,” according to CNN.

Retired Army Lt. General H.R. McMaster became Trump’s national security adviser. After McMaster left the Trump administration, he said some of his former colleagues were “a danger to the Constitution,” reported Politico.

From 2017-18, retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis filled the Secretary of Defense post for Trump. The Atlantic reported that Mattis told his friends that Trump was “of limited cognitive ability and of generally dubious character.”

If the U.S. military must choose sides between a rogue Trump and the rule of law, it’s clear the leaders of the armed forces will support the latter.

Satire: Trump Shoots Three on NYC Street; GOP Apologists Fire Right Back

Image: Flickr

A day after President Donald J. Trump randomly shot three people on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, leading Replications rallied to his defense. 

“They were terrorists,” Senator Lindsay Graham stated. “We have definite proof that they were all New Yorkers.” Asked if all New Yorkers were terrorists, Graham replied, “Where did 911 happen?”

“When the President shot three proven terrorists, he was not only acting in self-defense. He also foiled their plot to bomb the nearby Trump Tower,” Senator Ted Cruz said. “All three were wearing suicide vests. They deliberately exploded the vests as they were shot to destroy this evidence.”

“Trump courageously fulfilled a campaign promise. Hard-working Americans voted for him understanding that he would shoot people on Fifth Avenue,” Rep. Devin Nunes said. “Trump also demonstrated that he is not afraid to exercise his second amendment rights.”  

“Get over it,” Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney added. 

The President himself tweeted, “Three people in three shots. I was perfect. It was beautiful, incredible, amazing. I hope Vladimir will be impressed”

However, videos of the killings reveal that Trump fired at least 16 shots. “The video is fake news. As Groucho Marx said, ’Who are going to believe? Me or your own eyes?’” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said. “The President is the best marksman since Billy the Kid. The President could have single-handedly won the Vietnam war were he not hobbled by bone spurs.”

Despite the video and Trump’s tweet, Fox News reported that Trump was not even present during the shootings. “Look closely at the video and you will see that killer was Nancy Pelosi in drag,” Tucker Carlson said. “An LGBTQ ISIS cell in Seattle supplied Pelosi with makeup, firearms and an ill-fitting size 50 suit for her mission.”

An hour later Sean Hannity charged that Hunter Biden was the actual killer. “This all goes back to the Ukrainian plot to interfere with our 2016 election and frame Russia, to the DNC server Joe Biden gave to the Burisma Group, the FISA warrant, the Steele Dossier, the savage LGTBQ ISIS militia in Seattle, the Black Sox scandal of 1919, and Cain slaying Abel,” Hannity said. “This is bigger than Watergate. This is bigger than Pearl Harbor. Someone should investigate. Are you listening Attorney General Barr?”

Attorney General William Barr announced that he would immediately investigate reports that  the Third Armored Division of the LGBTQ ISIS Army had invaded West Seattle.

Barr added that he could neither investigate nor indict a sitting President. “The President cannot be distracted by fake news murder allegations. He needs to keep working on another tax cut for the rich that will make all hard-working Americans better off.”

Leading Democrat presidential candidates were quick to criticize Trumps’ actions. Bernie Sanders called the killings, “An inevitable consequence of capitalism,” while Elizabeth Warren issued an $80 billion plan to “deter and impede murder by billionaires through intensive counseling and meditation.” Warren said her plan would not increase taxes on the middle class but would be financed by confiscating Van Cleef & Arpels Vintage Alhambra Brooches and Patek Philippe Nautilus Ladies watches from women whose net worth exceeds $2,775,000.

The Biden campaign said they expected to release a statement within hours after the Vice President awakes from his nap.