Prosecutorial Misconduct of the Highest Order

misconduct

How to react to a story like the one below? Here’s my suggestion. When the other side makes a breathtakingly stupid argument, it’s a pretty good sign that they have run out of anything bearing a family resemblance to a good argument. It’s a sign of desperation.

Jonathan Chait, NRA Says FBI Is Treating Trump As Unfairly As Al Capone

 NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch informs her audience that the FBI is trying to pull the same tricks on Trump that they used to entrap the beloved Prohibition-era Chicago gang leader:

They’re trying to Al Capone the president. I mean, you remember. Capone didn’t go down for murder. Elliot Ness didn’t put him in for murder. He went in for tax fraud. Prosecutors didn’t care how he went down as long as he went down.

You might wonder why Trump’s supporters believe his legal defense is aided by analogizing him to a murderous criminal. Perhaps the answer is that Capone had several qualities that recommend him to the Republican grassroots base. He was a business owner — or, in modern Republican lingo, a Job Creator. He was an avid Second Amendment enthusiast. And, most importantly, Capone, like Trump, was a victim of the deep state. …

Here she is relying on the well-known legal principle of Anglo-American jurisprudence. You can’t charge Al Capone with tax evasion, and you can’t charge Donald Trump with campaign finance violations. A person can only be charged with their worst crime. And now Trump is prepared to join Al Capone as one of history’s most sympathetic victims of prosecutorial misconduct.

Not a Black Swan Event

black swan

Jonathan Chait’s post of this afternoon, titled Trump Hires the Worst People, According to Trump, usefully reminds us that Trump’s awful decision to hire Omarosa—unfit on multiple levels to serve as a presidential adviser—was not, shall we say, a black swan event:

It is not the first time Trump has accused himself of hiring terrible people. He accused his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, of having lost a crucial Senate seat for his party, “leaking false information to the media,” and having “lost his mind.” All in all, a reprehensible person to pick as your chief political strategist.

After former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg told the New York Times that Trump mistreated Michael Cohen, Trump attacked Nunberg as a “drunk/drugged up loser.” Trump also insisted at the same time that Michael Cohen is “a fine person.”

Trump has since changed his mind on Cohen, too. He recently accused his former attorney of fabricating stories and having been involved in criminal activity in New York …

Trump’s current attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has called Cohen a “pathological liar.” Sounds like Trump picked a bad person to be his fixer, then.

Trump has likewise called his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, “very weak,” “disgraceful” and, most uncontroversially, “beleaguered.” (Which he is surely is, by Trump.) So Trump failed at his job of appointing a non-weak, non-disgraceful person for one of the most important jobs in government.

On top of this, Trump has repeatedly slammed his own appointments in private, according to numerous reports. He has dismissed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross as “past his prime,” called Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “ditsy,” subjected Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson to a lengthy tirade in which he called her a total failure at his highest domestic priority, and so on.

Thank you, Jonathan, because it’ important to remember that …

context matters

 

 

 

The Sins of Father Conroy

sinful

Ruth Marcus gives additional context to the defenestration of the House Chaplain:

Ryan admonished the priest after the Nov. 6 prayer, saying, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics,” Conroy told the New York Times.

He was warned. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Over the five months since Ryan’s warning, Conroy dared to continue to preach the teachings of Jesus on the House floor:

He prayed to God that lawmakers would help “the least among us.”

He prayed for them to follow the example of St. Nicholas, “who fed the hungry, brought hope to the imprisoned, gave comfort to the lost.”

He admonished lawmakers “to serve other people in their need” and “to pray for the unemployed and those who work but still struggle to make ends meet.”

After an immigration deal collapsed, he urged “those who possess power here in Washington be mindful of those whom they represent who possess little or no power.”

He prayed for lawmakers to be “free of all prejudice” and, after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, to “fulfill the hopes of those who long for peace and security for their children.”

One of my favorite liberal pundits has argued,

The House chaplain is not like a tenured faculty post at a university, which has some implicit protection for the right to give controversial political remarks. If you have a House chaplain — which I don’t even favor in the first place — you have no obligation to let them use the perch to push their own political values.

It’s important to separate substance from process. When you lose sight of that distinction, you wind up like Trump’s Republican allies, supporting anything their party does to advance their agenda. Ryan’s beliefs about taxes may be horrid, but he has no obligation to let the House chaplain deliver subtle rebukes to his ideology.

Makes perfect sense—from a secular point of view. And I’m sure that Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan’s patron said, would thoroughly approve of keeping religion out of Congress.

But from Father Ryan’s point of view, it wasn’t a matter of “ideology,” it was a matter of fundamental religious conviction.

The Lesson

The Lesson? If you don’t want Christianity to influence the prayers you hear, then for God’s sake don’t appoint a chaplain who is an actual Christian.

I’m sure it’s a mistake Paul Ryan will not make again.

I’m Afraid the Question Answers Itself

pair

Jonathan Chait asks, Why Does Trump Talk About Putin Like Putin’s His Boss?

Speaking of Putin, and expressing his fear that continued investigation into Russian election interference would upset relations between the two countries, Trump said, “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”

Consider how unusual a statement this is, especially coming from Trump. Trump is assuming that Putin is a sensitive soul who might be personally wounded by unflattering portrayals in the American media. He is further asserting that Putin’s emotional distress might cause him to lash out at the United States or harm its foreign-policy interests in some way. Trump is speaking to his country like a cowering mother warning her children not to upset their father.

Needless to say, this is the opposite of the imagery Trump uses to discuss almost everybody else. He is famously obsessed with dominance. …

The prevailing theory used to explain Trump’s Russophilia is that he gravitates toward figures who praise him and lashes out at those who criticize him. That would account for Trump’s general friendliness toward Putin, which is in keeping with his cozy relations with all sorts of erstwhile allies. It does not explain his very unusual submissiveness.

No, it does not. What explains his “unusual submissiveness” is that old Vladimir has him by the short and curlies.

Who Leaked the Transcripts?

leaky

And Does the End Justify the Means?

It’s axiomatic that if foreign heads of government cannot have private conversations with the President and others in our government—if they reasonably anticipate that their exact words will be printed in the press—then they will cease to have candid conversations. Either they will stop talking at all, or, if they do talk, they will only mouth the same bullshit they would serve up in a campaign rally.

This is terrible. The reasons are obvious, but David Frum’s analysis is still worth a read.

And, in addition to major injury to American interests, leaking the transcripts was a crime.

Who Done It? And Why?

We know they are the real transcripts because the White House did not claim otherwise, or ask the Washington Post not to publish. (That, per the WaPo’s reporter, on Morning Joe.)

So who leaked the transcripts? To begin with the obvious: you can’t leak the real transcripts unless you have the real transcripts. There are, then, essentially three possibilities.

Scenario Number One: It Was the “National Security Establishment”

One possibility—perhaps the most obvious one—is that someone in the State Department or the military was the leaker. David Frum lays out the case:

Senior national-security professionals regard Trump as something between (at best) a reckless incompetent doofus and (at worst) an outright Russian espionage asset. The fear that a Russian mole has burrowed into the Oval Office may justify, to some, the most extreme actions against that suspected mole.

The nature of this particular leak suggests just such a national-security establishment origin. It is a very elegantly designed leak. The two transcripts belong to calls whose substance was already widely reported in the media; they give away nothing new.

Better still from a national-security establishment point of view: both calls make the foreign leader look good at home. Enrique Peña Nieto will be helped, not hurt, by his dignified defense of Mexican national interests; Malcolm Turnbull is shown being simultaneously compassionate to deserving refugees but stern in his defense of Australian law and preexisting agreements with the United States.

Best of all, from that same national-security point of view, the transcripts reveal Trump as an arrant fool without actually compromising any important U.S. national interest. Speaking to the president of Mexico, Trump claims he won the state of New Hampshire because it is a “drug-infested den.” Trump won the state’s Republican primary, but lost New Hampshire in 2016, and that quote will not help him do better in 2020. The Turnbull transcript confirms the accuracy of early reports that Trump erupted in temper—and exposes Trump’s claims about the call as untrue. …

Scenario Number Two: It Was Trump’s Posse

We have it on good authority that pretty much everybody in the White House is leaking like a sieve. And some of those leaks—especially of late—seem to have come from members of Trump’s coterie who want to reveal just how bad things are getting, as a step toward protecting Trump from himself. For example, this afternoon Jonathan Chait—speaking in general terms, not specifically about the transcript leaks—had this to say:

During his very brief tenure as communications director, Anthony Scaramucci blurted out something very telling: “There are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president.” The conviction that Trump is dangerously unfit to hold office is indeed shared widely within his own administration. Leaked accounts consistently depict the president as unable to read briefing materials written at an adult level, easily angered, prone to manipulation through flattery, subject to change his mind frequently to agree with whomever he spoke with last, and consumed with the superficiality of cable television.

Scenario number two seems like a definite possibility.

Scenario Number Three: Trump

Today Morning Joe advanced another highly plausible theory: that the leak was engineered by Trump himself. And who on God’s green earth might he do such a thing, given that the transcripts make him look like an idiot?

Because

  • he’s so oblivious that he doesn’t know the transcripts make him look like an idiot, and because
  • he thinks, correctly, that his base will be pleased to see him being nasty to foreign leaders—and will not grasp that the transcripts make him look like an idiot, and because
  • the obvious damage to national security will allow him to claim, once again, that the press is the enemy of the people.

Now, this is truly a harebrained idea. But it’s the very sort of harebrained idea that an improvisational narcissist would come up with, in the misguided view that he’s cuter than Bambi.

And, By the Way, Does the End Justify the Means?

Under scenario three, obviously not.

Under scenarios one or two, well, as my philosophy professor used to say, if the end does not justify the means, then what does justify them?

 

La Nausée

pepto

From the Huffington Post :

FBI Director James Comey revealed on Wednesday that the idea of the FBI’s actions affecting the outcome of the 2016 election made him “mildly nauseous,” subsequently causing lookups for the word “nauseous” to spike.

Merriam-Webster reports that searches for the word spiked 4,793 percent after Comey used the word during his testimony at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

As Pepto Bismol sales explode today, Jonathan Chait enlarges on the consequences of Mr. Comey’s nauseating actions:

It is widely known that Trump — whose political profile over the decades has vacillated from liberal to moderate to populist, and supported and opposed abortion rights, higher taxes on the rich, and universal health care — does not care very much about political ideas. This explanation is true, but incomplete. The president also does not know very much about political ideas. And it is not merely the details of policy that he lacks. Trump has no context for processing ideas. He does not understand which kinds of ideas imply support for which kinds of policies, nor why political figures tend to believe what they do, nor why they agree or disagree with one another. He is capable of forming strongly held beliefs about people in politics, but he does so in entirely personal terms. Trump’s flamboyant, weird ignorance reveals a distinct pattern. He is not so much nonideological as sub-ideological.

It is common to attribute Trump’s protean identity as simple self-interest: He has aligned himself with whichever party seemed to benefit him at any given moment. And surely calculation plays a role. But it cannot explain all his puzzling statements about politics. Sometimes he expresses openness about unpopular policies his administration and party would never go for (like a higher tax on gasoline). Trump constantly relates questions about politics back to himself and his alleged deal-making genius not only because he’s a narcissist, but because the contest of political debate remains largely mysterious to him.

Many Americans share Trump’s lack of ideological sophistication. High-information voters tend to clump at the ends of the political spectrum. They may not have sophisticated beliefs, but their identification with one of the party coalitions is a tool they use to make sense of individual issues. Low-information voters tend to have a weak understanding of what the political parties stand for and how those positions relate to each other. These voters can be roughly categorized as “centrist” because they don’t line up neatly with one party platform or the other. But, rather than a consistently moderate outlook, they share a mishmash of extreme and frequently uninformed beliefs. Because they don’t understand the philosophical basis for disagreements, they assume the two parties ought to naturally cooperate, and tend to see partisan bickering as a failure and an indication of personal fault by politicians.

Trump thinks about politics like a low-information voter, which enabled him to speak their language naturally. His stated belief during the campaign that he could expertly craft a series of popular deals — “it’s going to be so easy” — appealed to low-information voters because it earnestly described the political world as they see it. …

Politics is a strange institution that forces committed professionals who have coherent philosophical beliefs to persuade voters who mostly do not. Barack Obama accomplished this in highbrow fashion. His characteristic political style was to incorporate the values of both left and right and try to technocratically synthesize the perspectives together. (“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”) Trump accomplishes it in lowbrow style, by literally not understanding the source of the disagreement.

la nausee

Goldman Sachs Has an Epiphany

v8

Goldman Has Grim Prognosis for Tax Reform Amid Obamacare Debate

 Investors counting on major U.S. tax reform in 2017 are going to be disappointed, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

The problem is that lawmakers and Donald Trump’s administration are going to be so caught up figuring out how to repeal Obamacare that coming up with a new corporate tax system will get pushed to the side, economists at the bank led by Alec Phillips wrote in a note Wednesday.

“This process is likely to take longer than expected, which is likely to delay the upcoming debate over tax reform,” they said. “The difficulty the Republican majority is having addressing a key political priority suggests that lawmakers might ultimately need to scale back their ambitions in other areas as well, such as tax reform.” …

A delay to tax reform has been cited as a risk by other banks as well, which have warned it could spell trouble for a stock market that has priced in Trump’s pledges for a “phenomenal tax plan,” as well as scaled-back regulation and a boost in fiscal spending. Goldman itself says that the prospects of tax cuts have played a huge role in the 10 percent rally the S&P 500 Index has seen since Nov. 8, but that the risks are continuing to rise.

Aardvark is fond of the term “priced in”—it’s something that we savvy financial types might say. But it appears that, while the market priced in big tax decreases, it didn’t price in the Republican’s inability to make coherent policy. It didn’t price in White House’s inability to find its ass with both hands. It didn’t price in the objection of the great unwashed to having their health care yanked away.

Jonathan Chait nicely explains the policy dilemmas, but ends of predicting that Ryan and company will just replicate the Bush 2001 tax cuts. Jennifer Rubin predicts abject failure.

Trump and arrogant lawmakers can swear up and down that protesters in their districts are paid phonies. What they cannot ignore are the legions of small businesses, importers, retailers and consumers who will surely conclude that they’ll be worse off than they are now with the border adjustment tax. It is the sort of issue (tax cuts for the rich! price hikes at Walmart!) that can set off a wave election.

Ryan might persist with the border tax adjustment gimmick, but it likely will mean the end of his tax reform effort. That would be some economic karma if a non-conservative, distortional tax grab knocked the legs out from under a GOP that has decided to discard its fiscally responsible free-market positions.

Aardvark confidently predicts a continuing clusterfuck.

Neighbor, How Stands the Union?

Yes, Dan’l Webster’s dead–or, at least, they buried him. But every time there’s a thunder storm around Marshfield, they say you can hear his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky. And they say that if you go to his grave and speak loud and clear, “Dan’l Webster–Dan’l Webster!” the ground’ll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake. And after a while you’ll hear a deep voice saying, “Neighbor, how stands the Union?” Then you better answer the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper sheathed, one and indivisible, or he’s liable to rear right out of the ground. At least, that’s what I was told when I was a youngster.

Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster

Writing today in The Russification of America, Roger Cohen asks a damn good question:

The Russian system under Putin is a false democracy based on a Potemkin village of props — political parties, media, judiciary — that are the fig leaf covering repression or elimination of opponents. Russia runs on lies. It’s alternative-fact central (you know, there are no Russian troops in Ukraine). But what happens when the United States begins to be infected with Russian disease?

Pence’s speech [at the Munich Security Conference] may not have been precisely a barefaced whopping lie, but it certainly showed barefaced whopping disdain for the intelligence of the audience (you know, nothing has changed with Trump, ha-ha.) By comparison, Lavrov was blunt. He announced the dawn of the “post-West world order.” That became a theme. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, announced the “post-Western global order.”

I wonder what that means — perhaps a world of lies, repression, unreason and violence. It advances as America offers only incoherence. To counter the drift, what is needed? A functioning American State Department would be a start.

But is this Russsification gaining much headway in America? The indispensable Jonathan Chait addresses this question in Donald Trump, Pseudoauthoritarian.

“Donald Trump is an authoritarian by instinct,” Chait writes. Chait knows that a good topic sentence needs to be followed by elaboration and illustrations of the main point; he has no shortage of material to prove his case.

That said, will Trump actually be able to “degrade or destroy American democracy”? Well, he has tried to hype or fabricate stories of violence by enemies “while downplaying or ignoring violence or threats from friendlier sources.”  He has “obsessively fabricated a narrative in which he is the incarnate … will of the people,” while calling the press the “enemy of the American people.”

But so far it’s all talk—and it appears to be backfiring. The press is standing up. The courts are standing up. Some of the Republicans are standing up. His tactic of intimidating large corporations has backfired.

Firms whose leaders make favorable statements about the president have seen their stock get hammered. A long list of prominent CEOs has openly criticized Trump. The reason for this is obvious. Trump’s supporters may have disproportionate power in the Electoral College, but his opponents have disproportionate power in the marketplace. Firms cater in their advertising to the young, who overwhelming oppose Trump, rather than to the old, who strongly support him.

If Trump has a plan to crush his adversaries, he has not yet revealed it. His authoritarian rage thus far is mostly impotent, the president as angry Fox-News-watching grandfather screaming threats at his television that he never carries out. The danger to the republic may come later, or never. In the first month of Trump’s presidency, the resistance has the upper hand.

Dunning, Kruger, Canute, and Confucius

canute

Though of mature years, Aardvark still relishes learning new information, new ideas, new concepts. This morning I am pleased to share with you, gentle reader, the news that Donald Trump is the poster child for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Many of you, I am sure, are fully knowledgeable on this topic. For many of you, Dunning and Kruger are as familiar as Freud and Jung.

But in case you, like Aardvark, are not among the cognoscenti, please read Jonathan Chait on how Donald Trump Thinks He’s Good at Being President.

Donald Trump’s disorienting, surreal press conference contained one moment of pristine clarity, when the president predicted, “Tomorrow, the headlines are going to be, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves.’” This prediction, while quite correct, raises the question of why Trump thought it was a good idea to hold a media event whose principal effect would be to produce headlines depicting him as rambling and unhinged. Reports from the administration have supplied the answer, which is quite simple: His boasts spring from a place of utter, self-delusional conviction. … …

Trump, as many have noted, is the world’s highest-profile case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is the phenomenon by which incompetent people are unable to gauge their own competence. Of course, Trump is not bereft of talent. He mastered the technique of using the media to raise his profile, flooding the news with arresting quotes and tidbits and scandal, turning the ordinary heir to a real-estate portfolio into America’s most famous rich person — a branding triumph that he leveraged into a lucrative licensing operation, some outright swindles, and, most crucially, a television show in which he played a brilliant executive.

All the evidence suggests Trump truly believes he is the character he plays on television. And now that he is surrounded by courtiers and the trappings of power, and constantly flattered by powerful people who are secretly terrified of his incompetence, he is convinced of it more deeply than he ever has been before.

The link in Chait’s post takes you to Donald Trump, the Dunning-Kruger President, where you may read all about it.

As was so often the case, Confucius captured the essence of the thing:

knowledge

Six Initial Thoughts on the Gorsuch Nomination

Few wait with baited breath for Aardvark’s initial comments, but what the hell, I’ll share them anyway.

  1. It could have been worse. (See this reaction by Obama’s solicitor general, Neal Katyal.)
  2. Someone who makes a point of not showing undue deference to the executive branch is not a bad guy to have at this point in history.
  3. Accordingly, this time around the better part of wisdom would be for Democrats to participate actively in the hearings, listen to get a sense of his character and views, and then decide whether it’s someone they can support. If fundamental problems arise out of the testimony, vote no. If not, abstain or vote yes.
  4. Progressives need to take a clear stand on the stolen seat issue. 2018 and 2020 are both election years. They should declare in advance that they will refuse to anyone Trump might nominate to fill any Supreme Court vacancy that occurs in those years. Not because they agree with the Republicans’ having deducted one year from Obama’s term of office, but because turnabout is fair play.
  5. If a vacancy does occur in one of those years, the Democrats filibuster, and the Republicans invoke the nuclear option, then so be it. The filibuster is on the way out anyway, and it should be on the way out as long as its going to be abused. Jonathan Chait says let the Republicans kill it, and I tend to agree.
  6. Finally, just for laughs, I hope someone of a scholarly bent will provide a detailed, reasoned catalog of legal issues on which Gorsuch and Garland would probably vote differently. That might make for a reasonably informed discussion. And God forbid that we should have an informed discussion on a matter such as this.

It’s a Snowy Day in Hell: Jonathan Chait is Wrong, Jennifer Rubin is Right

guts

A Delusional Goofball, Not a Koch Brothers/Paul Ryan Sock Puppet

Aardvark enjoys reading Jonathan Chait, benefits from his insight, and stands in awe of his erudition and progressive fervor. Occasionally, however, Atlas shrugs. Yesterday Chait advised us that The Fight for the Soul of the Reopublican Party Has Been Canceled. After a meandering discussion of Trump’s singular inaugural speech, the role of Andrew Jackson in American history, and other topics, Chait concluded, “Far from being at odds with the agenda of a party allied with entrenched wealth, that populist style [of McCarthy, Wallace, Palin, and Trump] is the best way to lend that agenda mass appeal. We should stop seeing Trumpism as a challenge to the GOP and instead understand it as the party’s natural historical evolution.”

But today Jennifer Rubin—she of the burning passion for Mitt Romney—lets us in on the secret that Trump isn’t opn the same page as Ryan. He’s not even in the same library. Rubin writes,

Ryan may be heartened by hearing, The President wants tax reform. That means nothing. One cannot tell if Congress and Trump are on the same page until Trump knows what he wants, and Ryan will never get a definitive answer until Trump either supports what Congress produces or declares it “stupid” or a “loser.” Trump wants crowds, “wins,” acclaim, respect and adulation; what legislative product he gets matters only insofar as it provides him with emotional sustenance. …

To state the obvious, Ryan’s agenda is not Trump’s agenda. The things that motivate Trump are the wall, massive voter fraud and other shiny objects that his low-information base delights in. Trump devotes time to the things that matter to him, and this week demonstrates amply that trivial, fictional and personal issues matter. If he waves his hand and tells Ryan, Whatever you guys have is good, that’s no sign of agreement, or even interest. Lawmakers should understand that they really have no idea where Trump is on the details that matter.

They will spend months working on issues as Trump heckles from the sidelines, never supporting them when the heat rises. The sooner lawmakers grasp this, the more intelligent choices they can make about prioritizing objectives.

Meanwhile, at the Washington Monthly, Nancy LeTourneau asks, Are Republicans Starting to Recognize Trump’s Mental Instability? Good question.

And Martrin Longman, channeling Aardvark—or, more likely, it’s the other way around—laments,

Whatever this is, it’s not sanity. This isn’t some crazy like a fox cunning aimed at distracting us while Trump steals our lunch. It’s out-and-out racist-drunk-at-the-end-of-the-bar insanity. In fact, Cliff Clavin look reliable in comparison.

The media is treating this with appropriate astonishment. They’re really not sugarcoating it except that they’re not willing, like me, to come out and call this man exactly what he is, which is critically, urgently, unfit for office.

He must go soon.

***

Aardvark has checked his WordPress stats and welcomes back his Russian readers. Are you suffering buyers’ remorse yet?