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.

The US is now a joke to the rest of the world

Thanks, Obama!

No, really. The countries that don't pity us are laughing their asses off. This video from a Chinese satire program sums it up nicely:

Josh Marshall is outraged—at the Trump Administration:

[The video] is certainly self-serving from the Chinese perspective. But big picture, good lord, pretty much completely guilty as charged. China initially bobbled the outbreak, had a major crisis. They mobilized. They shared information with the world. They mounted a massive, historic containment effort, built whole hospitals in a matter of days. The US hung back and did a mix of ignoring it or talking down to the Chinese. Look how they wear masks! Haha. Masks don’t work. Whether poo-pooing or derision the big message was that this didn’t have anything to do with us. Or it was a hoax. Until we had our own catastrophic outbreak and then suddenly you didn’t tell us! You hid the truth from us! You will pay the price! Also please send us masks! We really need masks! Please!

On COVID19 we are not only suffering horribly. We are also a joke. “We” is doing a lot of work here. “We” is really our national government, the Trump administration. But for the moment it’s the only national government we have and it’s calling the shots. As the closing puts it “Gosh!! Just listen to yourself.” Perhaps most tellingly, with perhaps the greatest longterm repercussions, the Trump administration has failed so badly, so accurately modeled the behavior of five year olds that we’ve gone a decent way toward discrediting the model of civic democracy and the rule of law we should be supporting at home and around the world. We’ve done about as good a job as one could imagine telling the story that maybe the authoritarians just handle things better.

It’s embarrassing. We’re an embarrassment.

I know it won't make anyone change his or her mind about why (or even whether) Russia interfered in our 2016 election, but this outcome is glorious for Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinpeng, and every other authoritarian and totalitarian out there.

Elections matter.

Russia is winning the 2020 election

Don Von Drehle argues that Vladimir Putin succeeds by weakening the West, regardless of the short-term consequences to Russia:

It’s ironic that Americans of all political stripes have contributed to Putin’s success — by failing to understand what he wants and why he wants it. His goals are not the goals of the former Soviet Union (though he has described the collapse of the U.S.S.R. as a “disaster”). During the Cold War, the Kremlin pursued the spread of communist ideology. Putin is nonideological, according to former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, now of Stanford University and a Post contributing columnist. “I see him as impulsive, emotional, opportunistic. Putin sees himself as the last great nationalist, anti-globalist leader.”

A unified United States, pursuing a bipartisan, pro-democracy foreign policy is Putin’s biggest fear. So, he has taken the risk of creating an operation specifically to sow discord through social media. Putin’s computer hackers look for any internal divisions and tensions that tend to erode American unity or discredit American leadership. Though he clearly favored Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, Putin doesn’t generally favor one point of view over another; he supports whichever candidates are most divisive and amplifies whatever arguments are most bitter. Whoever is freaking out on Facebook or Twitter is a potential ally in his cause. At the State of the Union address, he no doubt enjoyed both the snubbed handshake and the ripped speech.

At the same time, Putin went to work on other vulnerable pieces of the Western alliance. By enabling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s brutal tactics, he helped to send millions of refugees fleeing to Europe. When xenophobic nationalist movements flared up in reaction, the Russians poured on the gas via social media. Russia’s unseen hand wasn’t the only factor in the European backlash. But now the European Union may be coming apart.

These efforts would have been toxic even if Clinton had made a better case to voters around the Great Lakes and won the election in 2016. But the fact that Putin’s hackers went all-in for Trump, who won the electoral college with just 46 percent of the vote, turned a Russian win into a rout. The election itself became a cause of further division. Russia’s role became a new wedge issue, the doubt that keeps on festering.

I've no doubt the US and Western Europe will survive Putin's passive-aggression. Ultimately, the fundamentals are on our side. But remember, Putin's goal isn't to win, exactly; it's for us to lose. And in that respect he's succeeding.

Voting underway...

Voting in the UK general election started at 1am Chicago time (7am GMT) last night and goes until 4pm Chicago time (10pm GMT) this afternoon. Because we have regular readers in the UK, the Daily Parker will observe UK law and precedent against reporting or commenting on the election while the polls are open.

Instead, I'd like to call attention to an article in yesterday's Times outlining the problems with the FBI's wiretap on Carter Page. While the inspector general found that the investigation started from genuine criminal suspicion rather than politics, he also unearthed many abuses of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) rules in the investigation's early stages:

The Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, and his team uncovered a staggeringly dysfunctional and error-ridden process in how the F.B.I. went about obtaining and renewing court permission under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

To give just three examples:

First, when agents initially sought permission for the wiretap, F.B.I. officials scoured information from confidential informants and selectively presented portions that supported their suspicions that Mr. Page might be a conduit between Russia and the Trump campaign’s onetime chairman, Paul Manafort.

But officials did not disclose information that undercut that allegation — such as the fact that Mr. Page had told an informant in August 2016 that he “never met” or “said one word” to Mr. Manafort, who had never returned Mr. Page’s emails. Even if the investigators did not necessarily believe Mr. Page, the court should have been told what he had said.

Second, as the initial court order was nearing its expiration and law-enforcement officials prepared to ask the surveillance court to renew it, the F.B.I. had uncovered information that cast doubt on some of its original assertions. But law enforcement officials never reported that new information to the court.

Finally, the report stressed Mr. Page’s long history of meeting with Russian intelligence officials. But he had also said that he had a relationship with the C.I.A., and it turns out that he had for years told the agency about those meetings — including one that was cited in the wiretap application as a reason to be suspicious of him.

On the other hand, the FBI had credible suspicions that a hostile foreign power had begun to intervene in our election.

On the third hand, civil libertarians (and The Daily Parker) have criticized FISA for years, both in law and application, because it makes abuses like these far too easy.

We'll be back after 4pm with the latest news from Britain.

Sick day reading

I hate taking sick days, I really do. Fortunately, the Internet never takes one:

I'm now going to try to do a couple of hours of work, but really, I just want to go back to sleep.

Pile-up on the Link Highway

I was busy today, and apparently so was everyone else:

I'm sure there was other news today. But this is what I have open in my browser for reading later on.

The Fifth Risk

"You'll never guess where I am," he said archly.

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm here to see the last team on my list play a home game. More on that tomorrow, as I probably won't blog about it after the game tonight.

I'm killing time and not wandering the streets of a city I don't really like in 33°C heat. Downtown St Louis has very little life that I can see. As I walked from the train to the hotel, I kept thinking it was Saturday afternoon, explaining why no one was around. Nope; no one was around because the city ripped itself apart after World War II and flung all its people into the suburbs.

On the train from Chicago I read all but the last two pages of Michael Lewis's most recent book, The Fifth Risk. The book examines what happens when the people in charge of the largest organization in the world have no idea how it works, starting with the 2016 election and going through last summer. To do that, Lewis explains what that organization actually does, from predicting the weather to making sure we don't all die of smallpox.

From the lack of any transition planning to an all-out effort to obscure the missions of vital government departments for profit, Lewis describes details of the Trump Administration's fleecing of American taxpayers that have probably eluded most people. By putting AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers in control of the National Weather Service, for example, Trump gave the keys to petabytes of data collected at taxpayer expense and available for free to everyone on earth to the guy who wants you to pay for it. Along the way, Lewis introduces us to people like DJ Patil, the United States' first Chief Data Scientist and the guy who found and put online for everyone those petabytes of weather data:

"The NOAA webpage used to have a link to weather forecasts," [Patil] said. "It was highly, highly popular. I saw it had been buried. And I asked: Now, why would they bury that?" Then he realized: the man Trump nominated to run NOAA thought that people who wanted a weather forecast should pay him for it. There was a rift in American life that was now coursing through American government. It wasn't between Democrats and Republicans. It was between the people who were in it for the mission, and the people who were in it for the money. (190-191)

I recommend this book almost as much as I recommend not coming to St Louis when it's this hot. Go buy it.

Loose lips sink ships

Remember back in May 2017, barely a couple of months in office, when the president bragged to the Russian Foreign Secretary about some intelligence we'd developed on ISIS in Syria? That disclosure resulted in a dangerous and expensive mission to exfiltrate one of our highest-level assets within the Russian government:

The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence, concerning ISIS in Syria, had been provided by Israel.

The disclosure to the Russians by the President, though not about the Russian spy specifically, prompted intelligence officials to renew earlier discussions about the potential risk of exposure, according to the source directly involved in the matter.

At the time, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo told other senior Trump administration officials that too much information was coming out regarding the covert source, known as an asset. An extraction, or "exfiltration" as such an operation is referred to by intelligence officials, is an extraordinary remedy when US intelligence believes an asset is in immediate danger.

Weeks after the decision to extract the spy, in July 2017, Trump met privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg and took the unusual step of confiscating the interpreter's notes. Afterward, intelligence officials again expressed concern that the President may have improperly discussed classified intelligence with Russia, according to an intelligence source with knowledge of the intelligence community's response to the Trump-Putin meeting.

Knowledge of the Russian covert source's existence was highly restricted within the US government and intelligence agencies. According to one source, there was "no equal alternative" inside the Russian government, providing both insight and information on Putin.

So is he a Russian asset or just a useful idiot? What difference does that make, anyway?

Second look at the federal electors story

In the articles I linked earlier today, one noted at 10th Circuit decision about so-called "faithless electors:"

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the Colorado secretary of state violated the Constitution in 2016 when he removed an elector and nullified his vote because the elector refused to cast his ballot for Democrat Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote.

The Electoral College system is established in the Constitution. When voters cast a ballot for president, they are actually choosing members of the Electoral College, called electors, who are pledged to that presidential candidate. The electors then choose the president.

Electors almost always vote for the popular vote winner, and some states have laws requiring them to do so.

But the split decision by a three-judge panel on the Denver appeals court said the Constitution allows electors to cast their votes at their own discretion. "The state does not possess countervailing authority to remove an elector and to cancel his vote in response to the exercise of that Constitutional right," the ruling said.

Colorado's current secretary of state, Jena Griswold, decried the ruling Tuesday in Colorado but did not immediately say if she would appeal.

"This court decision takes power from Colorado voters and sets a dangerous precedent," she said. "Our nation stands on the principle of one person, one vote."

Except that the Constitution doesn't. Instead, it says that the states choose their electors, and the electors vote for president. The entire point of that system is to remove the people from the equation entirely. To have the people choose the president would require a Constitutional amendment, which will never happen, for the simple reason that the states who would lose their disproportionate power in selecting the president would have to vote for the amendment.

What we can say, however, is that the American Left hates the Electoral College right now. This has more to do with the rightward shift of small states than any actual policy differences, of course. But twice in the last 20 years, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral vote. In both cases the popular winner was a Democrat, and the electoral winner a hard-right Republican.

Unfortunately, the system is working as designed. It's supposed to give disproportionate power to smaller, more-agricultural states. In one of history's ironies, New Jersey proposed having each state get one vote in Congress. Today, New Jersey is 100% urban, according to the Census Bureau, and Wyoming has the most power per person in the country. (Let me tell you how happy I am that a bunch of old, white ranchers has almost 8 times my voting power per person in the Senate and about double my power in the Electoral College.)

I also found it interesting that the dissenting judge in the case would have held that the electors simply had no standing to sue, because the court could grant them no relief. I'm glad the other two let the case go forward. And I'm interested to see if it makes a difference in 2020.

Law professor explains how Mueller proved a conspiracy

Fordham Law School professor Jed Handelsman Shugerman says Attorney General Robert Barr got it exactly backwards:

The Mueller report, holding itself to the higher standard, concluded that it did not find proof beyond a reasonable doubt of criminal conspiracy with Russia. It also offered an explanation: Lies by individuals associated with the Trump campaign “materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.” Witnesses deleted emails and used applications with encryption or deletion functions, which also thwarted fact-finding. Part II of the report on obstruction explains why Part I may have fallen short of such a high burden.

Mr. Barr had the analysis backward in his summary letter. The failure to prove an underlying crime does not mean there was no obstruction. The obstruction meant that it became impossible to know whether there was a conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt — and it impeded the Russian investigation. Mr. Barr then used that doubt to question whether there was the corrupt intent required by obstruction statutes. To the contrary, the preponderance of conspiracy evidence confirms the corrupt intent.

This conduct by President Trump, his son and his campaign manager and deputy campaign manager are probably civil violations of coordination for enforcement by the F.E.C. Presidents should not be impeached for civil election violations, but one should still be able to conclude that Mr. Mueller established coordination with the Russian government as a factual matter. And it may have been so egregious that it was a “high misdemeanor,” and the obstruction was not faithful execution of the law, especially in light of new historical evidence of its meaning.

Meanwhile, the machinery of congressional investigation churns along...