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Archive for September 6th, 2020

US continues to circle the drain — and getting closer

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Earlier this week, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo warned that American democracy is ending. He pointed to political violence on the streets, the pandemic, unemployment, racial polarization, and natural disasters, all of which are destabilizing the country, and noted that Republicans appear to have abandoned democracy in favor of a cult-like support for Donald Trump. They are wedded to a narrative based in lies, as the president dismantles our non-partisan civil service and replaces it with a gang of cronies loyal only to him.

He is right to be worried.

Just the past few days have demonstrated that key aspects of democracy are under attack.

Democracy depends on the rule of law. Today, we learned that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who rose to become a Cabinet official thanks to his prolific fundraising for the Republican Party, apparently managed to raise as much money as he did because he pressured employees at his business, New Breed Logistics, to make campaign contributions that he later reimbursed through bonuses. Such a scheme is illegal. A spokesman said that Dejoy “believes that he has always followed campaign fundraising laws and regulations,” but records show that many of DeJoy’s employees only contributed money to political campaigns when they worked for him.

Democracy depends on equality before the law. But Black and brown people seem to receive summary justice at the hands of certain law enforcement officers, rather than being accorded the right to a trial before a jury of their peers. In a democracy, voters elect representatives who make laws that express the will of the community. “Law enforcement officers” stop people who are breaking those laws, and deliver them to our court system, where they can tell their side of the story and either be convicted of breaking the law, or acquitted. When police can kill people without that process, justice becomes arbitrary, depending on who holds power.

Democracy depends on reality-based policy. Increasingly it is clear that the Trump administration is more concerned about creating a narrative to hold power than it is in facts. Today, Trump tweeted that “Our Economy and Jobs are doing really well,” when we are in a recession (defined as two quarters of negative growth) and unemployment remains at 8.4%.

This weekend, the drive to create a narrative led to a new low as the government launched an attempt to control how we understand our history. On Friday, the administration instructed federal agencies to end training on “critical race theory,” which is a scary-sounding term for the idea that, over time, our laws have discriminated against Black and brown people, and that we should work to get rid of that discriminatory pattern.

Today, Trump tweeted that the U.S. Department of Education will investigate whether California schools are using curriculum based on the 1619 Project from the New York Times, which argues that American history should center on the date of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Chesapeake shores. Anyone using such curriculum, he said, would lose funding. Government interference in teaching our history echoes the techniques of dictatorships. It is unprecedented in America.

Democracy depends on free and fair suffrage. The White House is trying to undermine our trust in the electoral system by claiming that mail-in ballots can be manipulated and will usher in fraud. While Trump has been arguing this for a while, last week Attorney General William Barr, a Trump loyalist, also chimed in, offering a false story that the Justice Department had indicted a Texas man for filling out 1700 absentee ballots. In fact, in 2017, one man was convicted of forging one woman’s signature on a mail-in ballot in a Dallas City Council race. Because mail-in ballots have security barcodes and require signatures to be matched to a registration form, the rate of ballot fraud is vanishingly small: there have been 491 prosecutions in all U.S. nationwide elections from 2000 to 2012, when billions of ballots were cast.

Interestingly, an intelligence briefing from the Department of Homeland Security released Friday says that Russia is spreading false statements identical to those Trump and Barr are spreading. The bulletin says that Russian actors “are likely to promote allegations of corruption, system failure, and foreign malign interference to sow distrust in Democratic institutions and election outcomes.” They are spreading these claims through state-controlled media, fake websites, and social media trolls.

At the same time, we know that the Republicans are launching attempts to suppress Democratic votes. Last Wednesday, we learned that Georgia has likely removed 200,000 voters from the rolls for no reason. In December 2019, the Georgia Secretary of State said officials had removed 313,243 names from the rolls in an act of routine maintenance because they were inactive and the voters had moved, but nonpartisan experts found that 63.3% of those voters had not, in fact, moved. They were purged from the rolls in error.

And, in what was perhaps an accident, in South Carolina, voters’ sample ballots did not include Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, although they did include the candidates for the Green, Alliance, and Libertarian parties. When The Post and Courier newspaper called their attention to the oversight, the State Election Commission, which is a Republican-majority body appointed by a staunch Trump supporter, updated the ballots.

Democracy depends on the legitimacy of (at least) two political parties. Opposition parties enable voters unhappy with whichever group of leaders is in power to articulate their positions without undermining the government itself. They also watch leaders carefully, forcing them to combat corruption within their ranks.

This administration has sought to delegitimize Democrats as “socialists” and “radicals” who are not legitimate political players. Just today, Trump tweeted: “The Democrats, together with the corrupt Fake News Media, have launched a massive Disinformation Campaign the likes of which has never been seen before.”

For its part, the Republican Party has essentially become the Trump Party, not only in ideology and loyalty but in finances. Yesterday we learned that Trump and the Republican National Committee have spent close to $60 million from campaign contributors on Trump’s legal bills. Matthew Sanderson, a campaign finance lawyer for Republican presidential candidates, told the New York Times, “Vindicating President Trump’s personal interests is now so intertwined with the interests of the Republican Party they are one and the same — and that includes the legal fights the party is paying for now.”

The administration has refused to answer to Democrats in Congress, ignoring subpoenas with the argument that Congress has no power to investigate the executive branch, despite precedent for such oversight going all the way back to George Washington’s administration. Just last week, a federal appeals court said that Congress has no power to enforce a subpoena because there is no law that gives it the authority to do so. This essentially voids a subpoena the House issued last year to former White House counsel Don McGahn, demanding he testify about his dealings with Trump over the investigation into the ties of the Trump campaign to Russia. (The decision will likely be challenged.)

On September 4, U.S. Postal Service police officers refused Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) entry to one USPS facility in Opa-Locka, Florida and another in Miami. Although she followed the procedures she had followed in the past, this time the local officials told her that the national USPS leadership had told them to bar her entry. “Ensuring only authorized parties enter nonpublic areas of USPS facilities is part of a Postal Police officer’s normal duties, said Postal Inspector Eric Manuel. Wasserman Schultz is a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

And finally, democracy depends on the peaceful transition of power. Trump has repeatedly suggested that he will not leave office because the Democrats are going to cheat.

So . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

6 September 2020 at 9:13 pm

‘Who’s Putting These Ideas into His Head?’

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Anne Applebaum interviews Peter Strzok in the Atlantic:

Fate offered Peter Strzok a place in history that he never sought. The son of an Army officer, Strzok also served in the United States military before joining the FBI’s counterintelligence operation in 1996. He excelled at his job: In 2001, he was part of the team that tracked and arrested a network of Russian “illegals” who had been living in the U.S. for many years under deep cover. But those were not the cases that brought him into the limelight. Notoriety came later, when Strzok, as the bureau’s chief of counterespionage, led investigations first into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and then into Russian interference in the 2016 American election campaign.

Strzok has always argued that he, James Comey, and the rest of the FBI tried, from the beginning, to treat both of these cases apolitically: They were focused on following the law. But after the Department of Justice released some private texts in which he was critical of President Donald Trump, he was accused not just of bias, but of seeking to deliberately discredit the president. Strzok, who also worked on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team in its early months, became a hate figure for everyone who sought to distract the public from the facts about Russia’s intervention and the Trump team’s eager embrace of it. “I have devoted my adult life to defending the United States, our Constitution, our government and all our citizens,” Strzok writes in the introduction to Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump. “I never would have imagined—could not have imagined—that the president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, would single me out with repeated attacks of treason, accusing me of plotting a coup against our government.”

As I read Strzok’s book, I found myself unexpectedly angry, because his narrative exposes an extraordinary failure: Despite multiple investigations by the FBI, Congress, and Mueller’s team, Americans have still never learned the full story about the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia or Trump’s own decades-long financial ties with Russia. Four years have passed since the investigation began. Many people have been convicted of crimes. Nevertheless, portions of reports produced by Mueller, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and others remain redacted. Investigations are allegedly ongoing. Details remain secret. Meanwhile, valuable FBI time and money were spent investigating which email server Hillary Clinton used—a question that, as it turned out, had no implications for U.S. security whatsoever.

Strzok himself was not exactly reassuring: He does not believe that Trump’s true relationship with Russia was ever revealed, and he now worries that it won’t ever be. It’s not clear that anyone ever followed up on the leads he had, or completed the counterintelligence investigation he began. He doesn’t say this himself, but after speaking with him I began to wonder if this is the real reason the Department of Justice broke with precedent in his case by not just firing a well-respected FBI agent but publicly discrediting him too: Strzok was getting too close to the truth.

This is the first interview he has given since he left the FBI. It has been edited for length and clarity.


Anne Applebaum: Peter, your book is called Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump. That title implies that you do believe Trump has a compromised relationship with Russia. What is your evidence for that claim?

Peter Strzok: In counterintelligence, when we say somebody is “compromised,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a Manchurian candidate or a spy who has been wittingly recruited. I don’t think that Trump, when he meets with Putin, receives a task list for the next quarter. But I do think the president is compromised, that he is unable to put the interests of our nation first, that he acts from hidden motives, because there is leverage over him, held specifically by the Russians but potentially others as well. For example, when he is on the campaign trail saying I have no financial relationships with Russia, while at the very same time, his lawyer Michael Cohen is in Moscow negotiating a deal for a Trump Tower, there are people who know that. Vladimir Putin knows that. As it happened, the FBI knew it. But nobody in the American public knew it. So the moment that he says it, everybody who knows about that lie has leverage over him.

But that one incident is part of a pervasive pattern of conduct. Look at Trump’s failure to disclose his taxes, look at the story of his telephone call with the president of Ukraine. Time and time again, Trump is fighting tooth and nail to avoid things becoming public. If you’re a foreign intelligence service and you are able to use all of your tools to collect information—to intercept emails, intercept phone calls, recruit people or place people in the president’s orbit who can supply information—you are going to find out about the things that Trump is trying so hard to conceal because they would be damaging to him. That gives you coercive leverage. And that begins to explain why he has time and time again done these inexplicable things that have no positive outcome for U.S. national interests.

Applebaum: For example?Strzok: Like, for example, why did he not take stronger action against the Russians for placing bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan? Why has he, for no apparent reason, moved 11,000 American troops out of Germany? Or here’s an obscure one: Why did he parrot Russian propaganda and call Montenegro a “very aggressive” nation when that country had just joined NATO? Everybody knows damn well that Donald Trump couldn’t find Montenegro on a map. Who’s putting these ideas in his head?

Applebaum: Or why doesn’t he speak out against the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, or why hasn’t he spoken up for the democracy movement in Belarus? Do you think that there are other ways in which Trump is beholden to foreign powers?

Strzok: It seems clear to me from public reporting that there are more.

Applebaum: And why haven’t they been investigated or even addressed by any official sources? The FBI? The Department of Justice? Congress?

Strzok: . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

6 September 2020 at 8:12 pm

Trump Has Emergency Powers We Aren’t Allowed to Know About

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From last April, blogged here with an eye to November. Elizabeth Goitein and Andrew Boyle work at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and wrote in the NY Times:

The past few weeks have given Americans a crash course in the powers that federal, state and local governments wield during emergencies. We’ve seen businesses closed down, citizens quarantined and travel restricted. When President Trump declared emergencies on March 13 under both the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act, he boasted, “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.”

The president is right. Some of the most potent emergency powers at his disposal are likely ones we can’t know about, because they are not contained in any publicly available laws. Instead, they are set forth in classified documents known as “presidential emergency action documents.”

These documents consist of draft proclamations, executive orders and proposals for legislation that can be quickly deployed to assert broad presidential authority in a range of worst-case scenarios. They are one of the government’s best-kept secrets. No presidential emergency action document has ever been released or even leaked. And it appears that none has ever been invoked.

Given the real possibility that these documents could make their first appearance in the coronavirus crisis, Congress should insist on having full access to them to ensure that they are consistent with the Constitution and basic principles of democracy.

Presidential emergency action documents emerged during the Eisenhower administration as a set of plans to provide for continuity of government after a Soviet nuclear attack. Over time, they were expanded to include proposed responses to other types of emergencies. As described in one declassified government memorandum, they are designed “to implement extraordinary presidential authority in response to extraordinary situations.”

Other government documents have revealed some of the actions that older presidential emergency action documents — those issued up through the 1970s — purported to authorize. These include suspension of habeas corpus by the president (not by Congress, as assigned in the Constitution), detention of United States citizens who are suspected of being “subversives,” warrantless searches and seizures and the imposition of martial law.

Some of these actions would seem unconstitutional, at least in the absence of authorization by Congress. Past presidential emergency action documents, however, have tested the line of how far presidents’ constitutional authority may stretch in an emergency.

For example, a Department of Justice memorandum from the Lyndon B. Johnson administration discusses a presidential emergency action document that would impose censorship on news sent abroad. The memo notes that while no “express statutory authority” exists for such a measure, “it can be argued that these actions would be legal in the aftermath of a devastating nuclear attack based on the president’s constitutional powers to preserve the national security.” It then recommends that the president seek ratifying legislation from Congress after issuing the orders.

Much less is known about the contents of more recent presidential emergency action documents — but we do know they exist. They undergo periodic revision to take into account  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

6 September 2020 at 3:19 pm

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