Trump Pick to Head ATF In Trouble
Quote of the Day
Biden Weighs New Wall Street Tax
Biden Allies May Unleash Super PAC
Effort to Shield Trump’s Call Part of Broader Effort
Trump Is Using His Scorched Earth Playbook
• The Historian's Perspective
• Whistleblower Complaint Sent to Congress
• Senate Republicans Express Disdain for Impeachment Articles
• Is This 1974 or 1998?
• Warren Leads Nationally
• Warren Leads in California
• Progressive Candidates Announce Progress
Donald Trump yesterday released what he claims is an unredacted transcript (actually a summary) of his July call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. We don't know if it has been redacted (more below), but we should all hope it hasn't been, because it is bad enough. If Trump left out the really bad stuff, heaven help us all.
In the transcript, Trump asks Zelensky to work with AG William Barr to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, and Zelensky agrees. If a foreign national donates anything of value to a political campaign—and that includes intangibles like information—that is a violation of federal election law. That isn't (only) our opinion. It is also the opinion of Prof. Rick Hasen of the UC Irvine Law School, one of the country's top experts on election law. Asking any foreign national to provide valuable information violates another federal law that prohibits soliciting anything of value from a foreign national. In addition, Trump's asking and Zelensky's agreeing is undoubtedly also a conspiracy to violate federal election law. Thus in the call, Trump clearly violated at least two different laws. While it is up to the House to determine what an impeachable offense is, this certainly seems like a better candidate than lying under oath about a consensual sexual relationship with an adult woman.
Here are Trump's own words, in what is probably the key quote from the transcript:
There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it...It sounds horrible to me.
The quid pro quo (if you do this, you get the $400 million in military aid, otherwise forget it) isn't spelled out in painstaking detail. It doesn't have to be. When a mobster tells someone who owes the mobster some money "Nice house you have here. It would be a pity if something happened to it," he doesn't have to spell out the details to make this extortion. People have gone to prison for saying only this much. Zelensky knew exactly what Trump meant, since he and everyone else knows exactly what Trump's leverage over Ukraine is. Nothing else had to be said to make the point. During his hearings, Trump's former fixer Michael Cohen, who is currently a resident of the federal penal system, said that Trump never directly asks for things. He always talks precisely like a mobster to preserve some plausible deniability. For what it is worth, actress Mia Farrow, who claims to have known a few mobsters as a result of her once being married to Frank Sinatra, said: "Actually, the Mafia bosses I had occasion to meet were much smarter than Trump."
There is a very good reason why soliciting help from foreign governments or accepting emoluments from foreign leaders. is illegal. If they do "favors" for you, then they own you and will be able to coerce you into doing "favors" for them (in part by arguing that "you owe us," and in part through blackmail, by threatening to leak details of the original "favor" to the press). The favors they want may be contrary to the interests of the U.S. Just as an example, if Saudi Arabia did "favors" for Trump, like buying up all the rooms in his D.C. hotel for an elaborate party to celebrate U.S.-Saudi relations, then the "favor" they might ask in return might be asking him to send U.S. troops to fight alongside the Saudis in Yemen. Sending U.S. troops into battle is a momentous decision the president might have to make sometime, but it should be made exclusively on the basis of what is best for the U.S., without repayment of favors as a part of the decision-making process.
House Democrats understand very well that a quid pro quo is not required to make solicitation of something of value from a foreign national a federal felony. A statement released yesterday afternoon by four House chairs makes that clear. The statement read:
Let's be clear: no quid pro quo is required to betray our country. Trump asked a foreign government to interfere in our elections—that is betrayal enough. The corruption exists whether or not Trump threatened—explicitly or implicitly—that a lack of cooperation could result in withholding military aid.
The four chairs were Adam Schiff (D-CA, Intelligence), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY, Judiciary), Elijah Cummings (D-MD, Oversight), and Eliot Engel (D-NY, Foreign Relations). Undoubtedly, they are speaking for a wide swath of their caucus, however. The current tally of House members who support the impeachment inquiry stands at...217. With Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) added to that total, that means that if all of the "I support an inquiry" folks make the relatively small leap to "I support impeachment," then the magic number needed to adopt articles of impeachment will be reached.
Meanwhile, while Barr was not a party to the call, it doesn't look so good for him, either. It is very likely that he knew what Trump was going to ask Zelensky and had agreed to be a part of the arrangement. If Trump hadn't told Barr anything about this in advance, and then told him after the call, Trump would have been running the (small) risk that Barr, a lawyer, would have said: "Sorry, but I am not going to commit conspiracy for you," which would have made Trump look foolish. So Barr was very likely prepared to commit conspiracy. For all we know now, he may have contacted Zelensky after the call and actually conspired with him, explaining exactly what he wanted Zelensky to do.
Trump met Zelensky at the United Nations in New York yesterday. What they talked about is not public, but no doubt the call came up. Since Zelensky speaks fluent English, there was no translator present and hence no need for Trump to confiscate the translator's notes. If Trump wants Zelensky to keep his mouth shut, he will have to pay him the standard fee of $150,000 himself, since Cohen is currently unavailable for his usual work. (V)
At this point, it is worth a sidebar to talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts of the document that was released yesterday. To start, while it is being called a "transcript" by anyone and everyone, it is not actually a verbatim account of what was said. It is actually labeled "memorandum," and is more like detailed notes that were taken by folks listening in on the conversation. That means that while the gist of what Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky said is probably there, there could be things that did not actually find their way into the memorandum.
Also noteworthy is that the transcript contains three ellipses (...). While ellipses sometimes indicate a pause, they are essentially never used in that way in these sorts of documents. No, the ellipses likely mean that material was removed, despite the claim that the release is "unredacted." Increasing the odds that this is the case is the fact that all three ellipses occur when Trump was speaking and discussing a sensitive subject.
All of these points are made in a series of tweets from Bradley Simpson, a history professor at the University of Connecticut who specializes in U.S. foreign relations, and who regularly reads these sorts of documents as part of his research. It is really worth reading the whole series of tweets, which can be found here. In addition to the various explanatory points summarized above, Simpson also makes two other important observations. The first is that transcripts like these do not exist in a vacuum; they are part of a veritable avalanche of related documents (analysis, reports, summations, notes, comments) created by federal staffers both before and after the call. One implication of this is that the whistleblower's complaint (see below) may very well reveal things that are not present in the transcript.
The second important observation that Simpson makes is that every single historical document, be it a presidential phone transcript, a letter home from the warfront, a diary entry from a midwife, an oral history from a slave, or a funeral elegy in honor of the dead, is imprecise and incomplete, and the historian is left to fill in the gaps by paying careful attention to clues within the document.
At this point, our resident historian will step in with a non-Trump-related example. Although (Z) does not work with documents from government archives as Simpson does, he also deals with this same problem on a near-daily basis. Further, he has a lecture on this very subject in which, to help students understand, he points out that there is a single word in the Los Angeles Times' very first story about the 1965 Watts Riots that would cause 99 of 100 professional historians to instantly dismiss the piece as hopelessly compromised. If you care to play along at home, here's the story:
The damning word, which comes in the very last sentence, is "brutality." Actually, it's not the word itself that is the problem, it's the fact that it's in quotations, which is the written equivalent of eye-rolling. When we further consider that reporters in the 1960s did not hurl themselves into the middle of urban riots, and that deadlines dictated that they have their information early in the evening, so as to meet their (usually) 9 p.m. deadline, then it becomes abundantly clear that the reporter is just repeating what he learned from the LAPD, very probably from a media relations official whose specific job it was to spin the news in a manner favorable to the police.
Hopefully that example is instructive. In any event, as a fellow who has read a great many of these documents, Simpson says (and Z agrees) that it is overwhelmingly clear that something very unsavory went on during the Trump-Zelensky conversation. He writes: "Trump mentioning Giuliani repeatedly in the call is a enormous tell. Normally President will refer to Secretary of State, Ambassador, or cabinet officials as his point person on a policy issue. Trump mentions his personal lawyer, and Zelensky will have known exactly what this means." And Simpson, making his point in a manner eerily similar to (Z)'s lecture, concludes: "The few paragraphs referring to Barr, Giuliani, Biden, etc. are, from a historian's perspective, very, very clear in their meaning. Take 100 historians, and 99 will see this document in the same way, even if we interpret it with great caution. This is very, very damning."
So, there you have it. From a professional historian's perspective, there's more than enough here to convict. Probably from a lawyer's perspective, too. But whether the voting public sees it that way? Well, that's the $250 million—er, let's bump that up to $391 million—question. (Z & V)
The transcript was the big news of the day on Wednesday. However, the whistleblower complaint was not too far behind, and it's entirely possible that today, the complaint will be king.
Early in the day on Wednesday, the House voted on a resolution demanding that the administration release the complaint to Congress. The vote was...421 to 0 (with two members voting 'present'). That is the sort of tally that should give Trump nightmares. Not long thereafter, the White House bowed to reality, and sent a document over to the Hill.
Apparently, it's a fairly substantial parcel of paperwork, as some members claimed to be reading the complaint late into the day. Some of them definitely finished, though, and did not like what they had read one bit. Democrats were predictably vocal about the matter. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said he's "even more worried" after seeing the complaint. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, described it as "deeply disturbing." More worrisome for Trump, however, is that some Republicans said very similar things. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) conceded that, "There's obviously lots that's very troubling there." Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who is also on the House Intelligence Committee, said that she's not in favor of impeachment, but that she believes strongly that the whistleblower complaint should be made public. And remember, we don't know if the document sent to the Hill was redacted to remove the most damaging parts. Only testimony from its author (see below) is likely to resolve that question.
It appears that Stefanik is going to get her wish. Late Wednesday night, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), who is yet another member of the House Intelligence Committee, announced that the complaint has been "declassified with minimal redactions" and that it will likely be released to the public this morning. So, today should be another big news day. And it's certainly possible—in fact, it has been widely speculated—that there may be an entire new dimension to the story that nobody knows about. Maybe this was not Trump's first quid pro quo proposition to a foreign leader, for example.
If all of this were not enough to give the White House headaches, the whistleblower has apparently decided that he would like to yield his anonymity and testify before the House. The complicating factor is that he or she is insisting on having assistance from counsel, and those counselors would have to be given security clearances. If that is the case, then we will see if the White House tries to say "no." That would almost be more damning than just letting the individual spill whatever beans they have to spill, especially given that the complaint is supposedly going to be made public today. (Z)
We noted this item yesterday in our much longer overview of Tuesday's impeachment-related developments, but it's worth a more careful examination. As soon as the dominos began to fall, Republican senators wasted no time in communicating their opposition to articles of impeachment that have not yet been written, on charges they can only speculate about. In other words, they were basically daring the House to go ahead and impeach Donald Trump. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said: "If you want to impeach him, stop talking. Do it. Do it. Go to Amazon, buy a spine, and do it." That is possible, as Amazon does sell spines and customers give them 4½ stars. No senator suggested that the Democrats go buy balls from Amazon, even though the site offers a much wider choice for that product.
Many senators also had comments that did not involve shopping. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said: "You can't tell me they're talking about impeachment when the president is cooperating with them 100 percent to release these things." (Note to Sen. Grassley: The Democrats are not thinking about impeaching Trump for failure to release some information. They are concerned about his soliciting election help from a foreign government.) Sen. John Thune (R-SD) warned that the Democrats are embarking on a perilous journey. (Note to Sen. Thune: They know this.) Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) called the proposed impeachment a partisan exercise and said it is hard to predict how events will unfold. (Note to Sen. Paul: The first part is arguable but the second part is spot on.)
Despite all the comments from these and other senators, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) can't just announce there won't be a trial. He is required to hold a trial, which would be presided over by Chief Justice John Roberts. However, McConnell has broad power to set the rules and the schedule. For example, McConnell could block any witness or evidence that he doesn't like. The full Senate could overrule him, but that would take four Republicans to break with the party line. He could also set the schedule with day 1 for the House managers to present their case, day 2 for the defense to rebut the evidence, and day 3 for voting. In other words, if McConnell wants to run a kangaroo court, there is not a lot Roberts can do to stop him.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi knows all this and has known that politics ain't beanbag since she was a wee babe (her father was a congressman and later mayor of Baltimore). Her game plan is undoubtedly based on having extensive public hearings in the House, preferably including the whistleblower (see above). Not many people are going to read the various documents that are and will be released, but if the whistleblower ends up testifying on television, and states that Trump offered a quid pro quo of dirt on Biden in exchange for military aid, it could change a lot of people's minds. If polls started showing that a majority of the country wanted Trump out of the White House, Republican senators would quickly change their tune. So in reality, the next phase of the House of Representatives v. the White House is not about the law or even about the facts, but about shaping public opinion.
On that point, it is worth noting that while the GOP members of the House remain largely in lock-step with Trump (Tuesday's demand for the whistleblower complaint notwithstanding), their opinion is not particularly instructive, as many of them represent deep-red districts, and have no choice but to put fealty to Trump above all else. Their opinion is also not particularly important, since articles of impeachment can be adopted with nary a Republican vote in the House. In the Senate, by contrast, most GOP members do not have fanatically red constituencies, and so they have to proceed with a bit more caution, so as to protect their own necks. Thus far, as noted above, many of them have said what is necessary to remain on Trump's good side. However, quite a few GOP senators have been notably tight-lipped this week; that includes McConnell, who isn't even cluing his own caucus in on his thoughts about the whole matter. The point here is that in the chamber that matters, the President's support may just prove to be far less rock-solid than he thinks it is. For what it's worth, George Conway—who is in the loop with many folks on the Hill, but who also loathes Trump with a passion, so weight his opinion accordingly—is predicting that many Republican senators will express no opinion on impeachment whatsoever, right up until the moment they vote "guilty." And keep in mind that privately, many senators see Vice President Mike Pence as a much stronger ally than the mercurial Trump, and would actually prefer him in the White House, although they dare not say this in public.
In the end, this whole story is moving with shocking rapidity. Who could have imagined, 2 weeks ago, that Trump would be so much closer to impeachment, and that the issue would not be tax returns, or obstruction of Robert Mueller, or misappropriation of funds, or emoluments violations, but instead would come out of left field in the form of Ukraine and its newly elected president? One can scarcely imagine where we'll be two weeks from today. Could it be that Harold Wilson got it wrong? Actually, in politics 24 hours is sometimes a long time. (V & Z)
Politico asks the (rhetorical) question: "Is this 1974 or 1998?" Impeachment was a hot topic in both years. In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. Before the full House could vote on them, then-senator Barry Goldwater told Nixon that the votes were there in the Senate for his conviction, so he had to choose between being impeached and convicted or else resigning. Tricky Dick, of course, chose resignation. In 1998, the House formally impeached Bill Clinton for lying under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky in a civil lawsuit brought by Paula Jones.
The gist of the Politico piece is that impeachment is fundamentally a political act, not a legal one, and the key question is: "Whose side are you on?" In 1974, the country was not on Nixon's side because he was already well known for being a slimy and untrustworthy creature. In 1998, the country was on Clinton's side, because although he had a reputation as a womanizer, people fundamentally liked him. If Politico is right and that is the key question, Trump could be in trouble because the majority of Americans don't like him.
So Pelosi's job is to convince, say, 50 million Americans that their dislike for the impeachment process is less important than their dislike for Trump. That is a tall order, but if she can focus on just the extortion case, something people can understand, and make it clear to everyone that asking a foreign government to interfere in an election is disgusting, she might be able to pull it off. But remember, as Rand Paul pointed out, it is hard to predict how events will unfold. In 1998, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich thought that impeaching Clinton was a jolly good idea. He probably changed his mind on Nov. 3, 1998, when the Democrats picked up five seats in the House even though the president's party normally gets whacked pretty badly in the sixth year of an administration. Will Pelosi come to regret her giving the green light on proceeding? We're with Paul on this one: Only time will tell. (V)
A new national poll from Quinnipiac University has Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) technically in the lead over Joe Biden by 2 points, though that is well within the margin of error. Still, in the August Q poll, Biden led the Massachusetts senator by 13 points. That's a 15-point change in a month, way outside the margin of error. So Warren went from being trounced to being tied in a month. That's the right direction for her and the wrong direction for him. These things have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. As people start to think of Warren as rising and Biden as falling, more people are going to jump ship to her and the trend will continue. Here are the numbers:
While it is too early for Donald Trump to call up his new buddy Ze (that's Volodymyr Zelensky's nickname) and ask him to see if Warren has any Ukrainian ancestors in addition to the Native American ones, he perhaps jumped the gun on the Biden dirt-fishing expedition. If Trump had patiently waited until at least Iowa voted, he might have discovered he was barking up the wrong tree. But now, he might be a dead dog. (V)
The jackpot for Democratic candidates is the California primary, in which more delegates will be awarded than in any other. A new UC Berkeley/LA Times poll puts Elizabeth Warren on top in the Golden State.
As with the national poll (above), Warren is clearly rising, up 11 points since June. Also, her lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) continues to grow. We could hit the tipping point in the not-too-distant future, in which progressive voters see her rather than him as the wagon they want to hitch themselves to. If that happens, her lead over Biden in the big blue and liberal states could really spike, leading to a shakeout of the minor candidates and a two-person race: Biden and Warren. (V)
Both progressive Democrats running for president had announcements yesterday. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is surging in the polls (see above) and who took in $19 million in Q2, announced that she is planning to spend an eight-digit sum on advertising in the four early caucus and primary states. For the mathematically challenged, an eight-digit sum is in the range $10 million to $99.999 million. In her case, it will surely be closer to $10 million rather than $100 million, but that is still a lot of money, especially in small states where advertising is cheap. Her strategy is clear: Flood the airwaves, drown out all the competition, win Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, and come in second in South Carolina. If she can do that, she will have so much momentum that she could pick up the lion's share of the delegates on Super Tuesday (March 3, 2020).
Bernie Sanders also had an important announcement yesterday, as well. He said that 85 union members in Iowa had endorsed him. Sanders needs to do well with union members to do well in the Midwest. CNN is reporting that the Senator is also preparing to hit the early states harder, but he is currently shooting his first television ads. He is clearly worried about Warren, who is now leading among millennials, Sanders' base.
The two announcements aren't really equal, though. If Sanders had gotten the endorsement of 85 union locals, rather than 85 individual members, that would be a lot more impressive, especially viewed against the background of Warren's planning to put $10M into the early states. Still, Sanders has a lot of money, so he could yet have a massive advertising campaign as well. If there's any inventory left after Warren makes her ad buys, that is. (V)
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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