Well, If That’s Your Best Defense, Then That’s Your Best Defense

three monkeys

Jonathan Chait, Gordon Sondland’s Ukraine Alibi: I was the Dumbest Diplomat Ever

To prove that he is not a knave, Sondland argues that he is a fool. It’s early for the cocktail hour, so you might want to save Chait’s humorous observations for a point in time when the sun is under the yardarm. On the other hand, it’s always five o’clock somewhere.

But, as I said before, the main issue is not Sondland’s knavish and/or foolish character. The main point, to me, is that Gordon Sondland, million dollar Trump donor, has decided that this is a really good time to jump off the Trump Train.

Axios cherry picks to select the tastiest cherries from Ambassador Sondland’s statement this morning, and serves up this tasty and nutritious dessert:

“Let me be clear: Mr. Giuliani does not work for me or my Mission and I do not know what official or unofficial role, if any, he has with the State Department. … Please know that I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters. However, given the President’s explicit direction, as well as the importance we attached to arranging a White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, we agreed to do as President Trump directed.”

“[B]ased on the President’s direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties … or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President’s concerns.”

“I did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President’s 2020 reelection campaign.”

“On September 9, 2019, Acting Charge de Affairs/Ambassador William Taylor raised concerns about the possibility that Ukrainians could perceive a linkage between U.S. security assistance and the President’s 2020 reelection campaign. Taking the issue seriously, and given the many versions of speculation that had been circulating about the security aid, I called President Trump directly.”

“I asked the President: ‘What do you want from Ukraine? The President responded, ‘Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.’ The President repeated: ‘no quid pro quo’ multiple times. This was a very short call.”

“Let me state clearly: Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong. Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong.”

“I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings. In my opinion, security aid to Ukraine was in our vital national interest and should not have been delayed for any reason

On the Unconstitutionality of Impeachment

presidential oath

Jonathan Chait, In Deranged, Quasi-legal Rant, Trump Calls Impeachment Unconstitutional:

The letter charges that Schiff “chose to concoct a false version of the call and to read his made-up transcript,” a “fact” that, it proceeds to assert, proves Trump did nothing wrong. The “fact” is also one of those bizarre implanted memories from the Fox News fever swamp. Schiff, in a hearing, paraphrased Trump’s call to Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelensky, saying, “In not so many words, this is the essence of what the president communicates,” before going on to summarize Trump’s meaning. Trump and his allies have pretended this paraphrase, which Schiff openly billed as a paraphrase, was an attempt to concoct a falsified transcript of the call. It is unnerving to see this unhinged fantasy not only making its way into a formal White House legal document, but playing a central role in its argument.

The letter also cites, by way of defending Trump, two additional pieces of evidence to establish his innocence. It notes that the Department of Justice reviewed the call and did not find a campaign finance violation — as if a campaign finance violation is the only, or even primary problem with extorting a foreign leader for dirt on domestic rivals, and as if Trump’s attorney general is a remotely credible figure. Even more comically, it notes that Zelensky has publicly stated, in Trump’s presence no less, that he was not pressured on the call — as if the leader of a country dependent on American support for its very existence, who has already been extorted, is in a position to undercut its president.

The presence of these vapid talking points in a putative legal document is tribute to the dearth of support for its shocking central claim: that the House has no right to impeach Trump. It calls the proceedings “illegal,” and one of Congress’ “unconstitutional efforts to overturn the democratic process.” There is no remotely plausible constitutional theory to support this claim. The Constitution gives the House absolute right to conduct impeachment hearings in a manner determined by the House.

The letter complains that the House fails to grant Trump sufficient control over the impeachment agenda. Though there’s a reason for that — the trial takes place in the Senate, not the House — Trump could in theory try to negotiate for more Republican input into the process. In a briefing with reporters, a senior administration official was asked what changes Trump would need to cooperate. “A full halt” was the answer. That is, Trump will cooperate with an impeachment probe if Democrats stop the impeachment probe.

The Words on the Page

Screen Shot 2019-09-30 at 11.11.11 AM

David Frum, A Realist’s Guide to Impeachment: Trump should face the consequences of his misdeeds, but the road ahead is perilous.

Jeff Greenfield, 5 Ways Impeachment Could Play Out

Greg Sargent. Trump is cornered, and his ‘civil war’ threat stinks of panic

Jonathan Chait, Lindsey Graham Rests Entire Trump Defense on Word He Doesn’t Understand

The words on the paper that Trump released as an accurate account of his conversation with the president of Ukraine demonstrate a gross misuse of office.

The logical counter to the claim made in the previous sentence is to assert, “No, the words on the paper don’t show any such thing”—or, at the very least, to assert “The words on the paper are ambiguous, and there is a plausible implication that is different from your claim.”

It is Monday morning, Trump’s spokesbots have had a few days to think about their response, and their response is to run headlong away from the words on the paper Trump released. There is preliminary polling evidence that twenty percent of Republicans support the impeachment inquiry. Meanwhile, Trump is tweeting about inciting a civil war and arresting his accusers for treason.

In the piece cited above, Frum writes, “Nobody should have any illusions: Bringing anything like justice to President Trump will be neither easy nor safe. The exposure of Trump’s Ukraine extortion scheme forced impeachment on the country. It could not be ignored, and devices like censure are inadequate. But the days ahead are dark.” That seems a fair prognostication.

I think the four posts cited above are worth the reading, but please read for yourselves. I won’t discuss the substance of them. Instead, I want to set out some reflections on the first and second of Frum’s six suggestions, namely, “Keep the story simple” and “Be political, not legal.”

How to Defend Your Guy from Impeachment

There are four ways you can go.

One: he didn’t do it. In other words, you are drawing the wrong inference from the documents and testimony.

Two: he did it, but it was OK.

Three: he did it, and it wasn’t OK, but it wasn’t impeachable.

Four: stick your fingers in your ears and go “la la la la la.”

Defending Your Guy Against Impeachment—Some Examples

The Andrew Johnson impeachment illustrates argument two. He did violate the Tenure of Office Act, but the statute was unconstitutional. A rough analogy might be an article of impeachment based on Trump’s bogus “national emergency” declaration. It was illegal and wrong, but there’s enough legal confusion surrounding the issue to give Trump’s defenders a lot of wiggle room. So it would be a bad idea to include such a charge in the final articles of impeachment

The Clinton impeachment illustrates argument three. Yes, he lied under oath about sex, and yes, there might be some legitimate legal consequences that should flow from his perjury, but impeachment is not warranted. A rough analogy might be an article of impeachment based on Trump’s payment of hush money, just before the election, to a couple of well upholstered women of easy virtue. A lot of people would jump up and down charging the Democrats with hypocrisy for a sex-related allegation. So it would be a bad idea to. include such a charge.

As of this morning, it seems that some of Trump’s spokesbots are giving argument three a whirl, along the lines of, “there was nothing in the phone call that was impeachable.” But they’re coupling this argument with a manful refusal to face what was actually said in the call, as proved by the “transcript.” That would be the very same “transcript” Trump ordered released, in the delusion expectation that it would prove his innocence.

The Nixon near-impeachment illustrates the first argument. For quite a while, his defenders just tried to cover up the facts. But it didn’t work. And it never works—as long as there is an investigative body that is competent and determined.

OK, How Many Bad Acts Should be Charged in the Articles of Impeachment?

Good question. But it’s premature, so I won’t offer an answer. I will instead offer a blueprint on how to find the answer.

The key is to include only charges that can only be “refuted” by

  • denying the proven facts, or by
  • defending the indefensible.

The Ukraine scandal meets this test. Many others do not. Example: the charge of collusion with Russia in 2016 is factually complicated and murky. Example: the bogus “national emergency” to fund the Mexican wall is unconstitutional and contrary to our system of government. But the relevant statutory law is complicated, giving the Trump side the opportunity to make us all lose our way in the weeds. So leave it out.

The second key is to avoid accusing Trump of specific statutory crimes, and keep the focus on the overall concept of abuse of office. Impeachable offenses need not be statutory crimes, and statutory crimes need not be impeachable offenses.

What’s Left, Other Than Ukrainegate?

Three come to mind.

One, there is talk about how Trump may have actually said he was unconcerned about Russian electoral interference during his 2017 meeting with the Russian ambassador. If proved, I think that would fill the bill.

Two, if it can be proved by irrefutable evidence, misusing office for pecuniary gain would qualify.

Three, obstruction of Congress during the course of the impeachment inquiry would probably be on the list. (Prior numerous acts of obstruction should be impeachable in principle, but probably do not qualify for inclusion because of the legal quibbles that each obstructive act would engender. Keep it simple, stupid. Obstruction of the impeachment inquiry itself is a different breed of cat.)

So, How Many Articles Should There Be?

As many as meet the stringent tests I have laid out. If they fill the bill, put ‘em in. If not, leave ‘em out.

**

Greetings to today’s reader. The U.S. leads, followed in second place by Kenya, but with Canada in strong contention to overtake Kenya. Mauritius is in solid fourth place. Go Mauritius! Also in the running so far: Japan, Taiwan, the U.K., and Russia. HELLO VLADIMIR!

The Mad King’s Adviser

mad king

Jonathan Chait, John Bolton Era Ends With No Casualties Except Bolton’s Dignity

A key dynamic about the Trump presidency is that, in keeping with the prestige television era in which it is situated, there are no good guys, just different levels of villainy, often leavened by dark comedy. Trump has pronounced instincts on foreign policy that drive him away from shooting wars and into trade wars. On the whole, however, he is sub-ideological. He initially hesitated to hire Bolton on account of his thick mustache. Later, he impulsively decided to hire him, despite the facial hair, “because he was impressed by his many appearances on Fox News.”…

Bolton was an advocate of consistently bad ideas that were often set in opposition to other bad ideas. Trump has maintained an elaborate pretense that North Korea is giving up its nuclear weapons program, touting his own negotiating genius in securing imaginary concessions while appearing to view the fawning letters he receives from Kim Jong-un as important concessions. This fantasy is less dangerous than Bolton’s barely concealed desire to launch a military strike against North Korea.

The wedge between them drove Bolton into increasingly obvious isolation. On a recent diplomatic visit, Trump and his more favored advisers met with North Korea’s leaders while Bolton was sent literally to Outer Mongolia.

The inevitable humiliating conclusion was finally reached when Trump fired Bolton via tweet, the most inglorious of exits. Like the vast majority of Trump staffers, Bolton came into the administration believing he could manipulate the Mad King, but surrendered his dignity in the process. The serial debasement of some of the most odious members of the Republican governing class is one of the few bright spots of the Trump presidency. Bolton’s tenure ended in the best possible way. Nothing was destroyed except his own stature.

Bonkers

bonkers

Highly recommended this morning is Jonathan Chait’s book review of a new book entitled American Carnage, a detailed behind-the-scenes look over the last ten years, detailing how Republican leaders dropped their pretense at supporting balanced budgets and constitutional government, and adopted a pure strategy of white racism in support of the plutocratic agenda.

And now this, this morning. The plutocrats have sown the wind and they have reaped the whirlwind.

BIARRITZ, France — President Trump asserted on Saturday that he has the authority to make good on his threat to force all American businesses to leave China, citing a national security law that has been used mainly to target terrorists, drug traffickers and pariah states like Iran, Syria and North Korea.

As he arrived in France for the annual meeting of the Group of 7 powers, Mr. Trump posted a message on Twitter citing the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977 — a law meant to enable a president to isolate criminal regimes but not intended to be used to cut off economic ties with a major trading partner because of a disagreement over tariffs.

“For all of the Fake News Reporters that don’t have a clue as to what the law is relative to Presidential powers, China, etc., try looking at the Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977,” Mr. Trump wrote. “Case closed!”

Hugh Jim Bissel Responds to China

HJB Responds

About an hour ago, Jonathan Chait hit the nail on the head: Trump Is Melting Down Because China Won’t Give In on Trade:

President Trump is in the midst of a public meltdown that is humiliating, scary, and banana republic–y even by Trumpy standards. The reason is that Trump started a trade war and China refuses to back down, having announced this morning that it is imposing retaliatory tariffs on $75 billion worth of U.S. goods.

Trump has picked fights with lots of countries. Usually they either placate him or try to give him a face-saving way of de-escalating (e.g., Mexico, which is never going to pay for the wall but doesn’t talk about the fact that it’s never going to pay for the wall anymore). Sometimes they get Trump to fold by stroking his ego (the North Koreans have carried out the most over-the-top version of this tactic).

China is playing it differently. Trump is pressuring China with tariff threats, on the theory that China, which is more export-dependent than the U.S., has more to lose from a trade war. China, apparently, calculates that it is Trump who has more to lose from a trade war, since he is facing reelection next year and Chinese president Xi Jinping is facing reelection … never. What’s more, China has little incentive to cough up permanent concessions in its trade relations with the U.S., given that there’s a better-than-even chance Trump will lose and it can just wait for the next president.

And, may I add, with respect to that “better-than-even-chance,” China is damn well trying to load the dice.

Bigly.

And One More Thing

I really don’t think the Business Roundtable and the United States Chamber of Commerce will take well to being “hereby ordered.”

The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

darkest

Came across these two articles late this afternoon. Cumulative, but, IMHO, worth a look, nevertheless.

Jonathan Chait, Why Trump Spent his Summer Vacation Sending Racist Tweets:

The best explanations for Trump’s actions are often the stupidest ones. Trump has decided the answer to “how I spent my summer vacation” will be sending racist tweets, primarily because that was the thing that he felt like doing at those moments, contradicting the pleas of most of his fellow Republicans.

Yet these impulsive thumb-rants amount to some of the most important and revealing communications of Trump’s presidency. For one thing, they convey the beliefs that have undergirded his career. As Victor Blackwell points out, Trump reserves terms like “infest” and “infestation” — which most people use only to describe diseases or vermin — exclusively for nonwhites. As much hate as he might generate for a target like, say, the mainstream media or transnational institutions, he would never describe the New York Times as an infestation.

Ed Kilgore, Trump’s Hate Offensive Could Turn Off White Working-Class Women

Yeah, not to mention royally pissing off more than half of the voters who showed up last time. Not to mention making every single African-American hopping-up-and-down mad.

Kilgore writes, “If Trump were being purely strategic, he’d tone down the hate-rage and the racism while continuing to pound away at the vulnerable points of the progressive agenda. But that may not be in his DNA. And it’s possible the joy he takes in turning Americans against each other could be his undoing.”

Shhh!!! It’s a Secret!!! Nobody Tell Him!!!

Yes, it probably is in his DNA. But sometimes, faced with mortal danger arising from behaviors deep within their DNA, people manage to wake up and smell the coffee, curb their compulsions, and save themselves from destruction.

Sometimes they save themselves before it is too late.

And sometimes they don’t.

Trump doesn’t face just the indignity of defeat in 2020, he faces the likelihood of indictment and jail.

So, please, nobody tell him that his racist rants are leading to his own destruction. Encourage him, instead, to give witness to his inner asshole at every opportunity.

This thing is bad, and it’s getting worse, and it probably needs to get worse before it gets better. Sometimes it has to get very dark, before the dawn breaks.