Monday, April 22, 2019


The President ‘s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.

- The Mueller Report

This week's featured posts are "Yes, Obstruction" and "Is Impeachment the Right Answer?".

This week everybody was talking about the Mueller Report

I discussed that in the featured posts. Here I'll talk about the issues surrounding the report.

First, reading the report makes it clear that Attorney General Barr has been misrepresenting the it, both in his four-page summary and in the press conference [video, transcript] he held just before releasing his redacted version of the Report. The benefit of the doubt I granted him four weeks ago was undeserved.

Barr began his summary of the report (that reporters and the country still had not seen) with an actual partial-sentence quote, that the

investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

But the full sentence is a little less favorable to Trump:

Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

Imagine if the AG had selected the other part of this sentence to emphasize: "the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts".

A bit later, the Report explains what "did not establish" means:

while the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.

But Barr pretended "did not establish" meant that the opposite was established, and he spun "evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges" into "no evidence".

But thanks to the Special Counsel’s thorough investigation, we now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign – or the knowing assistance of any other Americans for that matter.

He repeated some version of Trump's "no collusion" mantra four times, in spite of the fact that Mueller rejected that term.

All along (there are numerous examples given in the Report itself), Trump has been complaining that Barr's predecessor, Jeff Sessions, did not "protect" him. In other words, he expected the attorney general to be his lawyer, not the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. Barr has clearly taken this to heart; his performance would have been appropriate for the President's personal lawyer.

The basic structure of the press conference was bizarre. Typically, when the Justice Department holds a press conference to announce the release of a report, reporters have gotten advance copies of the report "under embargo", meaning that they can't talk about it until the release time. That makes meaningful questions possible. This time, no one could see the report until more than an hour later, so questions could only be shots in the dark.

Also, Justice Department press conferences typically center on the people who did the work. But Bob Mueller was nowhere to be found.

Stephen Colbert summed up what Barr was doing with this analogy: "Officer, before I open the trunk of this car, I’d like to first give a short speech about what you’re about to smell."

Former FBI counter-intelligence agent Asha Rangappa explains the Russian disinformation tactic of "reflexive control", and how it relates to Trump's manipulation of the legally meaningless word collusion.

“collusion” is now the same as “conspiracy,” and without proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the latter, the former doesn’t exist.

He warns that we're being similarly manipulated now by the word spying, which Trump often says and Barr used in his congressional testimony.

One winner from the Mueller Report: the news media. A lot of those stories that Trump called "fake news" turn out to be true. (Biggest example: Trump asked Don McGahn to fire Mueller. At the time, Trump characterized the newspaper report as "A typical New York Times fake story.") Those anonymous sources quoted by the New York Times and Washington Post usually turned out to be real people who said the same thing under oath.

Trump, on the other hand, has been a font of fake news. His "total and complete exoneration" was just the latest. And conspiracy theories that got a lot of play on Fox News (like the claim that murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich was the actual source of the WikiLeaks material) were debunked by Mueller.

What Ross Douthat sees in the Mueller Report is "the same general portrait" as Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury:

Donald Trump as an amoral incompetent surrounded by grifters, misfits and his own overpromoted children, who is saved from self-destruction by advisers who sometimes decline to follow orders, and saved from high crimes in part by incompetence and weakness.

If you look at the report, be sure to check out Appendix C, which consists of Trump's written answers to questions posed by the investigation. The word that best describes this testimony is slippery. Trump offers little information beyond what he knows is available to the Special Counsel from other sources, and makes no claims specific enough to be contradicted by other witnesses. In general, he just doesn't remember.

If he's not being slippery, the other possibility is senile dementia. I'd like to ask Mike Pence if he has read Appendix C, and if it made him consider invoking the 25th Amendment.

This is how a 30-year career at the Justice Department ends for Rod Rosenstein, who stood behind Barr unblinking and expressionless. Three weeks ago I wrote:

If Rod Rosenstein really does agree with Barr’s conclusion, I’d like to hear him say so himself, rather than let Barr put words in his mouth.

Thursday, Rosenstein looked like somebody whose daughter is being held in an undisclosed location pending his good behavior. Once again, Barr made claims in his name, but Rosenstein never spoke. Twitter noticed.

Barr's redactions also drew some humorous comment.

and this musical spoof from Jimmy Fallon.

I'm glad we got this settled:

President Donald Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Sanders pushed back Friday against allegations that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report exposed a culture of lying at the White House.

Sanders says there is no culture of lying at the White House, and why would she lie about that?

She's under fire because the Mueller Report exposed this blatant lying, which she had to own up to under oath:

In the afternoon of May 10, 2017, deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders spoke to the President about his decision to fire Corney and then spoke to reporters in a televised press conference. Sanders told reporters that the President, the Department of Justice, and bipartisan members of Congress had lost confidence in Corney, " [a]nd most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director. Accordingly, the President accepted the recommendation of his Deputy Attorney General to remove James Corney from his position." In response to questions from reporters , Sanders said that Rosenstein decided "on his own" to review Corney's performance and that Rosenstein decided "on his own" to come to the President on Monday, May 8 to express his concerns about Corney. When a reporter indicated that the "vast majority" of FBI agents supported Corney, Sanders said , "Look, we've heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things." Following the press conference, Sanders spoke to the President, who told her she did a good job and did not point out any inaccuracies in her comments. Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from "countless members of the FBI" was a "slip of the tongue." She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Corney was a comment she made "in the heat of the moment" that was not founded on anything.

Typically, White House press secretaries correct their honest "slips of the tongue". (WWCJD?) But that's too high a standard for this White House.

Mitt Romney was the first major Republican to criticize Trump after reading the Mueller Report, tweeting:

I am sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the President. I am also appalled that, among other things, fellow citizens working in a campaign for president welcomed help from Russia — including information that had been illegally obtained; that none of them acted to inform American law enforcement; and that the campaign chairman was actively promoting Russian interests in Ukraine.

Republican leaders fall into three basic groups:

  • gung-ho Trumpers (Mike Huckabee, for example, or Jim Jordan) who shout down any criticism of him, no matter how justified.
  • cowards (too numerous to name) or corrupt bargainers (Mitch McConnell) who recognize the damage Trump is doing to America, but avert their eyes and keep their heads down in hopes of surviving into the post-Trump era.
  • hand-wringers who want credit for their high moral principles, even though they are unwilling to take any action on them. (Susan Collins)

Mitt is hand-wringing here. That's better than keeping his head down or actively collaborating, so it marks progress of a sort. I wish more Republicans would speak out like this, even if they don't intend to do anything either. But I can't get too excited about it. If Mitt starts demanding change and either calls for impeachment or supports a primary challenge to Trump, let me know.

and the Sri Lanka Easter bombings

Suicide attacks killed nearly 300 people in Sri Lanka yesterday. Three Christian churches and three major hotels were bombed. An Islamic terrorist group is suspected, and the government has arrested 24 people.

and Notre Dame

The iconic Paris cathedral burned last Monday. The spire fell, but the two towers, with their famous stained glass rose windows, survived.

Tragedies typically bring people together in a sense of loss and grief. So I found it bizarre how many folks tried to make this event divisive. When art, architecture, and historic relics are lost, we are all the poorer for it. OK, maybe there have been other losses that should have evoked a similar response, but didn't. Maybe rich donors ponied up quickly for this, when they have no money for other worthy projects. I don't care. Losses like this are emotional, and emotions can't be weighed and measured like that.

I also have no patience with the folks who want to see some special providence in the fact that the disaster wasn't worse, or that some particular object was saved. It would have taken only a smidgen of godly power to site somebody with a fire extinguisher in the right place when the whole thing started, but God seems not to work that way. The fact that shit happens, but that humanity survives somehow nonetheless, neither raises nor lowers the odds on the existence of a higher power.

I'm reminded of this exchange on Game of Thrones.

Jon Snow: What kind of God would do something like that?

Melisandre: The one we've got.

and you also might be interested in ...

Everybody else is running for president, so why not my congressman, Seth Moulton? I just moved to this district in the fall, though, so I can't claim to have any special insight. Moulton is the 19th Democratic candidate. Joe Biden, the current front-runner in most polls, is expected to become the 20th on Wednesday.

Noah Smith explains in two graphs why you shouldn't read too much into polls about specific issues: A poll that phrases the issue differently might get a different result, and a large number of people might reject the inevitable consequence of something they support.

For example: whites who think we spend too little on "assistance to the poor" change their minds when you call it "welfare".

And Americans favor eliminating "health insurance premiums", but not eliminating "private health insurance companies".

While we're talking about redactions ...

Two examples of how religion is favored in America, and those who consider themselves non-religious are discriminated against.

Friday, an appeals court ruled that the House chaplain doesn't have to allow atheist guest chaplains to deliver the invocation. The judge wrote:

House counsel represented to this court that the House interprets its rules to require ‘a religious invocation'.

Atheists, by definition, can't be religious. (Of course, this interpretation will go out the window the next time it's convenient to claim that atheism is just another religion.)

Second: Lawsuits that try to enforce the wall between church and state sometimes leave the names of the plaintiffs out of the public record for their own safety. A law that just passed the Missouri House will make this illegal, but just for church-and-state suits. In other words, if you represent a Christian majority that is imposing its will on the public square, you have the right to know exactly who is challenging you, in case you want to threaten or intimidate them. Other defendants in other suits don't have that right, because they're not the Christian majority.

and let's close with something incongruous

Sesame Street invades HBO. First WestWorld, and then Game of Thrones.

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