The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

"Unprecedented, historic corruption"

The pardon power granted in Article II of the Constitution exists so that the President can save people from true miscarriages of justice. Well, originally, anyway. Now it exists to save President Trump's friends from their own misdeeds, as demonstrated once again last night:

President Trump has said he learned lessons from President Richard M. Nixon’s fall from grace, but in using the power of his office to keep his friend and adviser Roger J. Stone Jr. out of prison he has now crossed a line that even Mr. Nixon in the depths of Watergate dared not cross.

For months, some of Mr. Trump’s senior White House advisers warned him that it would be politically self-destructive if not ethically inappropriate to use his clemency power to help Mr. Stone, who was convicted of lying to protect the president. But in casting aside their counsel on Friday, Mr. Trump indulged his own sense of grievance over precedent and restraint to reward an ally for his silence.

Democrats immediately condemned the commutation of Mr. Stone’s 40-month prison term and vowed to investigate, just as Mr. Trump’s advisers had predicted they would. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling the move an act of “staggering corruption,” said she would pursue legislation to prevent the president from using his power to protect those convicted of a cover-up on his own behalf, although that would face serious constitutional hurdles and presumably would never be signed into law by Mr. Trump.

Utah US Senator Mitt Romney (R) condemned the action immediately:

So did just about everyone else except other Congressional Republicans:

The list goes on. All of them seem to agree with Max Boot: "the worst president ever keeps getting worse."

Let's recall what Roger Stone did: he acted as an interlocutor between the Trump 2016 Campaign and the Russian intelligence services to help get Trump elected, and then lied in court about this to protect his boss. (Fun fact: it's not illegal to work with an adversarial intelligence service openly. The crime here was providing foreign aid to an election campaign.) Some might call that pattern of behavior treason. Some certainly would if the perpetrator were a Democrat, or if the president were one. But not the modern Republican party.

As Roger Cohen wrote yesterday, we're going into "the most dangerous phase of Trump's rule," and we're still 115 days from the election.

NYC district attorney may obtain Trump financial records

The US Supreme Court handed down a pair of 7-2 decisions this morning about who can see the president's financial records, both written by Chief Justice John Roberts, and both dissented by Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

In the first, Trump v Vance, private citizen Donald Trump appealed a decision of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a district court order to Trump's accountants to hand over documents to a grand jury empaneled by New York City District Attorny Cyrus Vance, Jr. Citing precedents going back to Aaron Burr's treason trial in 1807, the Court affirmed the lower court order, holding: "Article II and the Supremacy Clause do not categorically preclude, or require a heightened standard for, the issuance of a state criminal subpoena to a sitting President." Trump appointees Kavanaugh and Gorsuch concurred, but said the lower court should "how to balance the State’s interests and the Article II interests." Thomas, dissenting, agrees "with the majority that the President does not have absolute immunity from the issuance of a grand jury subpoena," but "he may be entitled to relief against its enforcement" (emphasis in original). Alito, consistent with his expansive views on presidential authority, believes a state prosecutor has no authority even to investigate a sitting president for state crimes, even if the alleged conduct occurred before the person was president.

Just a few minutes later, the Court announced its decision in Trump v Mazars, vacating the DC District and Circuit Courts decisions granting the House of Representatives authority to subpoena the president's financial records from his accounting firm, holding "[t]he courts below did not take adequate account of the significant separation of powers concerns implicated by congressional subpoenas for the President’s information." Roberts distinguished this case from Vance and others, writing:

This case is different. Here the President’s information is sought not by prosecutors or private parties in connection with a particular judicial proceeding, but by committees of Congress that have set forth broad legislative objectives. Congress and the President—the two political branches established by the Constitution—have an ongoing relationship that the Framers intended to feature both rivalry and reciprocity.

When Congress seeks information “needed for intelligent legislative action,” it “unquestionably” remains “the duty of all citizens to cooperate.” Watkins, 354 U. S., at 187 (emphasis added). Congressional subpoenas for information from the President, however, implicate special concerns regarding the separation of powers. The courts below did not take adequate account of those concerns.

Again, Alito and Thomas dissented. Thomas would reverse the decision rather than vacate it, because he "would hold that Congress has no power to issue a legislative subpoena for private, nonofficial documents—whether they belong to the President or not. Congress may be able to obtain these documents as part of an investigation of the President, but to do so, it must proceed under the impeachment power." Given that the President stonewalled Congress during the impeachment earlier this year, and the Supreme Court essentially said that's Congress's problem, not ours, Thomas would essentially hold the president immune from any discovery process. Alito agrees with Thomas to some extent, but believes "legislative subpoenas for a President’s personal documents are inherently suspicious," and would require Congress to "provide a description of the type of legislation being considered," which they did, but apparently not to Alito's satisfaction.

The president's response was as measured and thoughtful as one might expect:

He has spent the last hour whining like a spoiled toddler narcissistic, demented old man about this.

Sadly, none of this information will come out before the election. Once he's out of office in January, however, expect that his businesses will not survive long in their present forms. I really can't wait to see what he's been hiding.

Everything go boom

Chicago had no official Independence Day fireworks display this year, because we didn't want to encourage a million people to converge on Grant Park. Instead, we appear to have had a record number of, ah, unofficial displays:

The 911 call center received 9,092 calls between June 28 and Sunday, approximately three times the number of calls received in the same time period last year, according to data provided by Mary May, an Office of Emergency Management and Communications spokesperson.

As of Sunday, the city had received a total of 19,925 fireworks-related calls this year, compared with 4,612 calls by the same date last year — a 332% increase.

Several Indiana fireworks stores faced shortages in supply leading up to July 4. Illinoisans looking to buy fireworks often travel to neighboring states such as Indiana, where sale and possession of consumer pyrotechnics are legal.

The Chicago Fire Department responded to 33 calls and made 26 transports due to fireworks-related injuries from Friday to Sunday of the July 4 weekend, Meritt said.

Let that not obscure the problem that Chicago also has way more illegal firearms these days. This weekend, people shot and killed 17 others, including a 7-year-old girl. And because of the 2nd Amendment fanatics in rural areas, we don't have the tools we need to clamp down on it.

Channeling Chavez

In a move reminiscent of the authoritarian dictators he adores, President Trump yesterday had protesters forcibly cleared from the streets in front of St John's Episcopal Church in Washington so he could pose for a photo-op holding a Bible:

Moments before President Donald Trump vowed to use military might to stop rioting, police backed by the National Guard stormed into a peaceful protest outside the White House and scattered a large group of people protesting unprovoked police violence against African Americans.

At the time, none of the protesters or nearby journalists knew the reason for clearing the street. But the purpose became clear as soon as Trump finished his speech in the Rose Garden.

Trump left the podium and walked through Lafayette Square with staff in tow, crossed H Street NW, where the protesters had been assembled, and came to a stop at St. John's Episcopal Church, a congregation known as the Church of the Presidents, which was damaged by fire during an uprising Sunday.

Outside the church, Trump posed for photos with a Bible. And then he walked back.

It was a show of force for demonstration purposes, and it injected danger into what had been a calm protest as those in the street fled mounted police to avoid being trampled, struck by projectiles or gassed. It also came as a surprise to the protesters, who were flanked by police after National Guard and federal agents acted as decoys by advancing from the front in full riot gear.

The Episcopal Bishop of Washington was incensed:

“I am outraged,” [Bishop Marianne] Budde said in a telephone interview a short time later, pausing between words to emphasize her anger as her voice slightly trembled.

“I ... was not given even a courtesy call, that they would be clearing [the area] with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop,” Budde said.

“Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence,” Budde [said] of the president. “We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.”

In a written statement, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, head of the Episcopal denomination, accused Trump of using “a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.”

“This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us,” Curry wrote.

Even Republicans disapproved:

“We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act,” said Brendan Buck, a longtime former Hill aide who is now a Republican operative. “The president used force against American citizens, not to protect property, but to soothe his own insecurities. We will all move on to the next outrage, but this was a true abuse of power and should not be forgotten.”

“It was just to win the news cycle,” one Trump adviser said. “I’m not sure that things are any better for us tomorrow.”

But Trump’s campaign team viewed the visit as a success. By late Monday, campaign officials were already tweeting a black-and-white photo of him walking to the church with a coterie of aides in his wake. Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s top spokesman, posted the picture without a caption.

As the president drives his poll own numbers down to bedrock with this crap, he will become more deranged and violent. He thrives on chaos, and doesn't care who gets hurt as long as he "wins." It's going to be a very long 22 weeks until election day.

Shutting down

In 45 minutes, the entire CTA system will shut down to make it harder for wandering bands of hordes (my mom's expression) from continuing to cause havoc:

Starting at 6:30 p.m., CTA will suspend service on all CTA bus routes and rail lines at the request of public safety officials. Service is expected to resume tomorrow morning. CTA will provide service updates via transitchicago.com.

Earlier, the mayor and county officials claimed they had good evidence that much of the criminal behavior last night came from organized groups taking advantage of the protests:

Speaking at a Sunday afternoon press conference with other officials, Lightfoot didn’t say whether the groups are out-of-state left-wing anti-fascist organizations generally known as Antifa, right-wing agitators, local street gangs or something else. She said she’s asked three federal agencies—the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Attorney’s office—for help, with a focus on AFT’s bomb and arson unit.

“There is no doubt. This was an organized effort last night,” she said. “There were clearly efforts to subvert the peaceful process and make it into something violent.”

“There’s no question that both the people who were fighting and brought the weapons that was absolutely organized and choreographed,” she added. “It seems also clear that the fires that were set both of the vehicles and buildings that that was organized and that was opportunistic, as well as the looting.”

There were similar reports from other cities; the mayor of St Paul at one point claimed that all of the arrests in his city were of people from out of state; he later walked back the claim.

More distressing to me are reports that police in some places have targeted journalists. With weather getting warmer, and the coronavirus still keeping people cooped up inside, I believe (as does James Fallows) that this year could turn out worse than 1968.

Chicago in 2020 is not Berlin in 1924

A peaceful protest in downtown Chicago that began at 2pm yesterday devolved into violence by 8pm, leading to Mayor Lori Lightfoot imposing a 9pm to 6am curfew city-wide:

“I want to express my disappointment and, really, my total disgust at the number of others who came to today’s protests armed for all-out battle.”

Lightfoot singled out “the people who came armed with weapons,’’ calling them “criminals.“

“We can have zero tolerance for people who came prepared for a fight and tried to initiate and provoke our police department.’’

She ruled out calling in the National Guard.

The city lifted bridges and blocked access to downtown, shutting Metra and downtown CTA stations around 8:30. I live about 10 km away from the protests, but I have friends and family in the Loop and South Loop. One sent this photo of police blocking the Congress Parkway:

(Movie fans may recognize the section of grass along the river, top-center in the photo, as the location of the Abegnation housing complex in the movie Divergent.)

Looters smashed windows at Macy's on State Street and Nieman-Marcus on Michigan Avenue. In the South Loop, a friend reported on Facebook:

Will have to see in the daylight but I'm hearing the entire South loop is destroyed. Every business windows smashed and looted broken glass everywhere. From Ida B Wells down to Cermak from Michigan down to Canal. Can verify all the stores on my block are destroyed.

The local CBS affiliate had this:

So, it's scary—but in many ways, it looks a lot better than it would have looked in the 1960s or 1920s. This isn't societal collapse. The Chicago Police remained professional and disciplined throughout. (Other police departments in the US, maybe not so much.) They know what's at stake, and they also know that the "protesters" instigating the violence and attacking them are trying to provoke a disproportionate response.

One of my friends summed up the complexity:

It is entirely possible to support the protesters and stand with them and to be angry and devastated by the murder of George Floyd and by every other similar murder as well as the systemic racism that allows it, and also to be angry and sad about the destruction and looting. Vandalism and looting may be what Dr. King called derivative crimes. Uncontested and deplorable derivative crimes. The people doing these things are criminals.

Yet it is also possible to have anger at the people destroying and looting and also have empathy and compassion for the people doing the destroying and looting and understanding the underlying root causes of their actions.

George Takei Tweeted:

He also pointed out that the Hong Kong protests worked in part because peaceful protesters called out and filmed the agitators infiltrating their events. We should do the same.

Then there's The Onion from 2017. I'll just leave it there.

Massive security failure in Washington

A total failure to imagine a likely risk scenario has lost the State of Washington possibly hundreds of millions of dollars to thieves who defrauded the state unemployment agency:

Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine says the names of potentially thousands of Washingtonians, many who remain employed, were used to make fake unemployment claims and defraud the state of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The state was hit especially hard in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, as state and federal benefits ramped up to handle the sharp and staggering number of claims. 

Commissioner LeVine says she will make sure victim’s rights are protected, and those where benefits were paid out to the criminals won’t be liable for any sort of repayment.

“I will say this again because it’s really important. We did not have a data breach,” said Levine. “And the information was not stolen from us. It was the utilization of stolen information on our site.”

The identity information most likely came from multiple earlier data breaches, including from credit-reporting agencies. Washington State simply didn't authenticate applications properly before disbursing money: 

“These are very sophisticated criminals who have pretty robust collections of information on people, and they are activating and monetizing that information,” [LeVine] said.

No, these are, in fact, really dumb criminals who exploited the eagerness of LeVine's department getting money to claimants before employers returned validation letters. And the fact that LeVine and her department's security folks couldn't see this possibility ahead of time means they may not have the skills to do their jobs in the Internet era.

Evening round-up

Long day, with meetings until 8:45pm and the current sprint ending tomorrow at work, so I'll read most of these after the spring review:

Finally, Sheffield, U.K., wildlife photographer Simon Dell built a Hobbiton for the local field mice. It's as adorable as it sounds.

Mostly tangential news

Today I'll try to avoid the most depressing stories:

  • The North Shore Channel Trail bridge just north of Lincoln Avenue opened this week, completing an 11 km continuous path from Lincoln Square to Evanston.
  • Experts warn that herd immunity (a) is an economic concept, not a health concept and (b) shouldn't apply to humans because we're not herd animals.
  • Wisconsin remains in total chaos today after the state supreme court terminated Governor Tony Evans' stay-at-home order, approximately two weeks before a predictable, massive uptick in Covid-19 cases.
  • Delta Airlines has decided to retire its fleet of 18 B777 airplanes years ahead of schedule due to an unexpected drop in demand for air travel.
  • The pro-contagion, rabid right-wingers flashing placards saying "Be Like Sweden" clearly have no comprehension of Sweden's efforts to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
  • US retail sales declined 16.4% in April, pushing the total decline since February to nearly 25%, the worst decline in history.
  • Wired has a portrait of Marcus Hutchins, the hacker who stopped the WannaCry virus from killing us all and then went to jail for his previous activities designing and spreading malware.
  • Andrew Sullivan tells the story of Samuel Pepys, "the very first pandemic blogger."

Finally, Vanity Fair has reprinted its 1931 cover article on Al Capone, which seems somehow timely.

Happy birthday, DuSable Bridge!

The bascule bridge over the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue turned 100 today. The Chicago Tribune has photos.

Also:

And the New York Times interviewed science-fiction author John Scalzi, whose The Last Emperox came out two weeks ago.