Skip to content

The Bureaucrat as Hero

civilservants

If impeachment ever does succeed in bringing down Donald Trump, the real hero will be that most maligned of all government figures–the career federal civil servant. The impeachment effort was going nowhere until the now-famous and still anonymous “whistleblower”, who is apparently a career CIA intelligence officer, decided to stand up for the law and the constitution.

Before the whistleblower memo forced it to act, the Democratic establishment was wringing its hands in fear of political blowback for proceeding with impeachment despite the ample justification already in plain view. That’s exactly where we would still be today had not a career civil servant thrust the stinking evidence under their collective noses.

Let’s also add Robert Mueller to the parade of the pusillanimous. Two years of work, and his investigation did little more than flesh out what had already been uncovered by investigative journalists even though he had subpoena power and they didn’t. Despite his vaunted–and as it turned out, overblown–reputation for relentless integrity, he never ventured into the heart of the matter, i.e., the counter-intelligence aspects of Trump and his campaign or the financial ties of TrumpWorld. He never put Trump or any of his family members under oath, or presented them with subpoenas for documents. He then presented his findings in a report couched in impenetrable language and failed to draw clear conclusions in terms the public could understand, allowing William Barr to present a false version which then stuck. When offered a chance to correct the record in a public Congressional hearing, Mueller again punted.

If the whistleblower had not come forward, we would still be hopelessly mired in a morass where Trump officials openly defy the law and thumb their noses at subpoenas to testify and provide documentation while they run out the electoral clock. Now at least there is a chance to get the American public to pay attention.

It was the whistleblower’s report that made possible a growing parade of courageous civil servants who have risked their careers to corroborate the allegations and to add detail and context. So let’s give a salute to career foreign service officers like Marie Yovanovich, Bill Taylor, Mike McKinley, and George Kent who ignored orders from the White House to shut them up. Let’s thank NSC professionals like Fiona Hill, and  Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman who was in on the infamous Trump call to Ukranian President Zelinskyy and has testified to omissions in the memorandum of the call. And let’s recognize the integrity of Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson who followed the law and protected the whistleblower and thereby kept all of this from disappearing into the cesspool of the Trump White House. Let’s hope they keep coming.

And while we’re at it, let’s give some props to all the career civil servants across the federal government who are trying to do what they can to protect the mission of their agencies in the face of wanton destruction being carried out by Trump appointees. These are not the “deep state”. They are people who take their obligations to the law and to the American people seriously. And they are trying their best to hold things together until Trump is gone along with the legion of grifters he installed to eviscerate and corrupt the federal government.

Now we’ll have to see if the American people care about these things as well, or if we as a nation have become so manipulated by disinformation that we can’t distinguish between truth and lies and so cynical that we don’t even bother to try.

Defenders of the Faith: TrumpWorld at Prayer

Barr at NotreDame

If you’re a connoisseur of irony and hypocrisy, there is no juicier amuse-bouche than the sight of the lapdog Attorney General of our mendacious libertine president lamenting the “licentiousness” and absence of “moral discipline” of a secular society that has forsaken the bosom of Holy Mother Church. On October 11, William Barr took a break from trying to hustle up fabricated dirt on Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton to preach to the Law School of Notre Dame University on how the attacks of “secularist forces” on religion in general, and Christianity in particular, and Roman Catholicism in special particular, are responsible for all of our society’s ills. (Yes, Notre Dame is a Catholic university, and no, there was no mention of the Church’s own little moral crisis. Presumably, the secularists are to blame for all that as well.)

[I was unable to find a full transcript of the speech online, but you can watch the entire spectacle here. The quoted language is my own transcript from the video.]

There’s more going on here than just spiritual uplift. Barr was making a statement about the priorities of the US Department of Justice, which clearly include aligning the federal government with the ongoing campaign to dismantle the barrier between church and state and establish the idea that America is a Christian nation.

This is serious business. If you are concerned about things like gay rights, keeping religion out of public education, abortion rights and the rights of women in general, or the rights of non-Christians, it behooves you to pay attention, because this Attorney General and this administration want to put severe limits on all of those things. The vehicle they are using to do that is “religious freedom.”

And it’s no coincidence that the administration is making a concerted effort to secure its base among religious conservatives at a moment when impeachment is underway. It wasn’t just Barr at the tent revival last week. Trump was delivering the same message at the Value Voters Summit, where he said, “On every front, the ultraleft is waging war on the values shared by everyone in this room…They are trying to silence and punish the speech of Christians and religious believers of all faiths. You know it better than anyone. They are trying to use the courts to rewrite the laws, undermine democracy and force through an agenda they can’t pass at the ballot box.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech on similar lines at an evangelical event in Tennessee, and even dedicated the home page of the State Department’s home page to an explicitly Christian message.

Barr’s speech can be read as a manifesto for the quasi-establishment of the Christian religion and a Christian version of sharia. The world is full of religions of all kinds, but his only reference to a non-Christian religion is when he repeatedly evokes “Judeo-Christian” moral values or standards, which is an essentially meaningless phrase, perhaps thrown in to avoid offending Jews. His reasoning is tendentious nonsense and ridiculous to anyone with a passing knowledge of history. Reduced to its essence, his argument is:

  • Free government requires a population with “moral discipline”, and only religious (i.e., Christian) people are capable of living by moral values.
  • Religion (i.e., Christianity) in the US is besieged by unnamed “forces of secularism”, whose success is responsible for an array of social ills such as illegitimacy, depression, mental illness, “angry and alienated young men”, and “senseless violence”.
  • In response, the “secularists” have promoted the state as the “alleviator of bad consequences”, displacing Christianity with a pseudo-religion of secularism.
  • This, in turn, further empowers the breakdown of “traditional moral values”, while “militant secularists” use the law to impose secular values on people of faith and suppress their voice in public discourse.

What is most disturbing is that the country’s chief law enforcement officer doesn’t want to enforce the country’s laws, but rather is trying to nullify them in selected arenas. His Justice Department is not interested, for example, in voter suppression or manipulation which demonstrably is a serious problem, but it is extremely interested in an imaginary “war on religion”. Barr began his sermon by declaring that he has set up a task force within Justice to “keep an eye out for cases or events around the country where states are misapplying the establishment clause in a way that discriminates against people of faith,” or cases where states impinge on “free exercise of religion”.

Barr invokes a mythical (and highly debatable***) origin story, claiming that the Founding Fathers believed “that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government,” and that “the founding generations were Christians and they believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system. corresponds to the true nature of man.” The challenge of our century, Barr asserts, is “precisely what the founding fathers foresaw would be the supreme test of a free society…The central question is whether we the people could handle freedom. The question is whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.”

Where does this “moral discipline and virtue” come from? According to Barr, it “must rest on authority independent of men’s will. It must flow from the transcendent supreme being.” Free government is “only suitable and sustainable for a religious people, a people that recognized that there was a transcendent moral order.” And not just any religion.

“In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct. They reflect the rules that are best for man. Not in the bye and bye, but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and the best operation of human society. By the same token, violations of these rules have bad real world consequences.”

According to Barr:

“The law is being used as a battering ram to break down traditional moral values and to establish moral relativism as the new orthodoxy…through legislation, or more frequently, through judicial interpretation. The forces of secularism are continually seeking to eliminate laws that reflect traditional moral norms. [Such as legalization of abortion and euthanasia.] More recently we have seen the law used aggressively to force religious people and entities to subscribe to practices and policies that are antithetical to their faith. The problem is not that religion is being forced on others. The problem is that irreligion, secular values, are being forced on people of faith…Militant secularists…are not content to leave religious people alone to practice their faith. Instead, they seem to take delight in telling people to violate their conscience.”

As evidence, he cites efforts by the Obama administration “to force religious employers including Catholic religious orders to violate their sincerely held religious views by funding contraceptives and abortifacient coverage in their health plans” and a California effort “to require prolife pregnancy centers to provide notices of abortion rights.”

For Barr, the schools are “ground zero for these attacks on religion,” and “for the government to interfere in [teaching religion to our children] is a monstrous invasion of religious freedom. Yet this is where the battle is being joined. And I see that it is being waged on three fronts.”

  • “The first front relates to the content of public school curriculums. Many states are adopting curriculums that are incompatible with traditional Judeo-Christian principles according to which parents are trying to raise their children. And they often do this without any opt-out provision for religious families. For example, New Jersey recently passed a law requiring public schools to adopt an LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional Judeo-Christian teaching.”
  • “The second axis of attack in the realm of education are state policies designed to starve religious schools of generally available funds, encouraging students to choose secular options rather than religious schools.” [Barr cites a Montana ruling that bars state funds from being used for scholarships to religious schools and notes that the Justice Department is challenging the rule before the Supreme Court.]
  • “The third kind of assault on religious freedom in education is the recent effort to use state laws to force religious schools to adhere to secular orthodoxy. For example, right here in Indiana a teacher sued the Catholic archbishop of Indianapolis for directing the Catholic schools within his diocese that they could not employ teachers in same-sex marriages because the example of those same-sex marriages would undermine the school’s teaching on the Catholic view of marriage and the complementarity [sic] of the sexes. This lawsuit clearly infringes on the first amendment rights of the archdiocese…The Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest in the state court hearing these claims, and we hope that the state court will soon dismiss this case.”

Barr continues: “If these measure are successful, those with religious convictions will become still more marginalized…We cannot sit back and just hope that the pendulum is going to swing back towards sanity. As Catholics, we are committed to Judeo-Christian values that have made this country great.”

Barr concludes:

“We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor. The times are hostile to this. Public agencies, including public schools, are becoming secularized, and increasingly actively promoting moral relativism. If ever there was a need for a resurgence in Catholic education, and more generally in religiously-affiliated schools, it is today. I think we should do all we can to promote and support authentic Catholic education at all levels. Finally, as lawyers, we should be particularly active in the struggle that is being waged against religion in the legal plane. We must be vigilant to resist efforts by the forces of secularization to drive religious viewpoints from the public square and to impinge upon the exercise of our faith. I can assure you that as long as I am Attorney General, the Department of Justice will be at the forefront of this effort, ready to fight for the most cherished of all our liberties, the freedom to live according to our faith.”

Barr is arguing here that government should intervene to preserve the dominance of a specific religion in the public life of this country. He isn’t arguing for the protection of religion in general, which would include Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Wicca, Santeria, etc. No, he’s arguing for the primacy of Christianity, which is the very definition of the “establishment of religion” which the US constitution expressly forbids.

Consider his phrase “Public agencies, including public schools, are becoming secularized…” The implication here is that public agencies and schools should NOT be secular, but should be made to conform to one religious viewpoint. Under our constitution, public agencies are supposed to be secular precisely because they are public.

And here is the Attorney General of the United States, speaking in that capacity, saying that “we should do all we can to promote and support authentic Catholic education at all levels.” That, in itself, is outrageous.

Let’s be clear on what this is all about. Reactionary conservatives have found in “religious exceptions” a way to circumvent policies that they don’t like, such as women’s access to contraception and abortion, same-sex marriage and legal protections for LBGTQ people, prohibition of overtly religious content in public education, immigration of non-white and non-Christian people, etc. Private Catholic and evangelical religious schools want access to public tax dollars. Accordingly, they have weaponized religion as a political force, which overwhelmingly supports Republican candidates who extol a mythical American past where white Christians were in complete control. The same people who stoke fears of an Islamic sharia, are busy trying to erect a, perhaps milder, Christian version of that in America, where secular law would be subordinate to (Christian) religious doctrine.

Of course, the religious right is Trump’s most solid base, despite the obvious fact that Trump is certainly the most religiously-impious president of modern times. Even if Trump should be removed by impeachment or election, this battle will be with us for decades. The federal courts are being stacked with unremovable conservative judges sympathetic to the “religious exception” theory, and the Supreme Court now has four justices–Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh who seem willing and eager to poke holes in the “establishment clause”.

Freedom to worship as you please is very much alive and well in America, despite Barr’s laughable jeremiad. What is really threatened today, is the principle of separation of church and state.

_________________________________

***“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. … But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding….” -Thomas Jefferson

“The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”– John Adams

Were the Founding Fathers all observant Christians? Well, not exactly. Most of them were nominally adherents of some Protestant denomination, but their degree of Christian orthodoxy varied widely. A few like Samuel Adams, John Jay, and Patrick Henry were orthodox believers in their own particular Protestant churches. A substantial number of others were Deists, who argued that human experience and rationality—rather than religious dogma and mystery—determine the validity of human beliefs. These included George Washington (who refused to take communion during his adult life), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allan, and James Monroe. Thomas Paine was among the non-Christian Deists, and he refused to use Judeo-Christian terminology.

In any case, the question is irrelevant. There is no reference to “God” or “the Almighty” or any euphemism for a higher power or of Christianity in the Constitution or the Federalist Papers. Article VI of the Constitution states: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” And the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (See here.)

The Hunter Biden Issue–Not Exactly the One You Think

HunterBiden

I have no wish to lend any support or credence to the Trump-Barr-Giuliani effort to manufacture a scandal where none exists. (See here.) But there is something else in the Hunter Biden story that I find troubling. Here’s my question: How did a man with such apparently undistinguished talents and so many obvious personal problems wind up on all those corporate boards (like Burisma’s) at all?

Well, you might say, the answer is obvious–he is Joe Biden’s son. Indeed. But isn’t there something wrong with that? Isn’t this a form of corruption that has become so pervasive in America’s elite that we don’t even remark on it? We don’t really have a name for it, so let me propose one: nepotism-by-proxy. The quid for an unstated potential future quo.

This is much more subtle than ordinary nepotism, like installing Ivanka and Jared in senior White House jobs. It’s more like a influence savings account for a rainy day. Give the senator’s less-favored kid a nice job, and if you need a favor in the future you might not even have to mention it, because Dad will remember. It all seems nice and clean, because the senator never asked for it–it was just volunteered. That’s one way logrolling works in America’s upper class.

Let me stipulate right now that it’s probably very unfair to single out the Bidens when this sort of thing happens all the time. It’s just that we know quite a lot about this particular case, which–as it turns out–could have far-reaching consequences.

Let’s consider Hunter Biden’s career path. (Note: I’m relying here mainly on an extensive and largely sympathetic profile in The New Yorker by Adam Entous.)

  • 1992 Hunter graduates Georgetown University with a degree in history.
  • Starts a year of Catholic volunteer work in Portland, Oregon. Meets first wife Kathleen. She becomes pregnant, and they marry in July 1993.
  • Hunter applies to Yale Law School, but is not accepted. Starts Georgetown Law School instead. After a year, transfers to Yale Law School and graduates in 1996.
  • Takes job with MBNA America (a bank holding company based in Wilmington, Delaware and also one of Joe Biden’s largest campaign contributors) with a six-figure salary plus signing bonus.
  • By 1998, Hunter is an executive VP at MBNA, but doesn’t enjoy the corporate culture. Uses father’s campaign contact William Oldaker, a DC lawyer, to seek a job with the Clinton Administration through Commerce Secretary William Daley (who had worked on Biden’s 1987 presidential campaign). Offered a job as policy director for the “Internet economy.” Moves to DC.
  • In late 2000, leaves to join lobbying firm The National Group co-founded by Oldaker who had helped him get the Commerce Department job. Works on “earmarking”–lobbying members of congress to insert language into legislation directing funds to projects that benefit the lobbyist’s clients. One client, the president of St. Joseph’s University, told Entous that Hunter was “like his dad: great personally, very engaging, very curious about things and hardworking,..[with] a very strong last name that really paid off in terms of our lobbying efforts.” Reportedly, he didn’t work on anything that involved his father and they didn’t discuss Hunter’s lobbying with each other.
  • By this time, Hunter was showing problems with alcohol and drugs, which by 2003 were affecting his marital life.
  • In 2006, despite personal financial problems he buys a $1.6 million house in DC, taking out a mortgage for 110% [sic] of the purchase price with no down payment.
  • Also in 2006 Hunter and uncle Jimmy Biden enter into a $21 million deal to buy Paradigm, a hedge fund said to manage assets worth $1.5 billion. The deal falls apart and Hunter and Jimmy lose a reported $1.3 million. To pay legal bills, Hunter obtains a million dollar note against his house [presumably the same one he just took the mortgage on] from Washington First Bank, founded by Oldaker. Just before his father announces his run for president, Hunter and Jimmy are sued by another former partner in the deal.
  • In January 2007 Hunter goes to Iowa to help his father’s campaign, which doesn’t go well. Biden drops out of the race and later is chosen by Obama as his running mate.
  • Hunter winds down his lobbying business and resigns his seat on the Amtrak board, to which Senator Harry Reid had appointed him.
  • In September 2008, Hunter launches a “boutique” consulting firm Seneca Global Advisors, and after the election in June 2009 he co-founds another private equity company, Rosemont Seneca Partners, with Christopher Heinz (John Kerry’s stepson and heir to the Heinz food fortune) and Devon Archer (a former Abercrombie and Fitch model who had worked with Citibank in Asia and knew Heinz at Yale).
  • In 2012, Hunter and Archer discuss setting up a new equity fund with Jonathan Li, chief of a Chinese equity fund, Bohai Capital. In June 2013, Li, Archer and others sign an MOU establishing BHR Partners. Hunter becomes an unpaid board member, but delays becoming an equity partner until after Joe Biden leaves office. During a December 13 visit by Joe Biden to Beijing, Hunter arranges a public handshake encounter with Li. This later raises concerns in the Obama White House because of a possible appearance of impropriety.
  • Archer travels to Ukraine to pitch a real estate fund and meets Mykola Zlochevsky, co-founder of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma and former ecology minister under the deposed pro-Russian president Yanukovitch. The new government, with the encouragement of the Obama Administration, was investigating whether Zlochevsky had used his position to benefit Burisma. In early 2014, Zlochevsky begins setting up a new board to clean up Burisma’s image and recruits former Polish president Kwasniewski as a member, who then convinces Archer to join as well.
  • Hunter recommends to Archer the law firm Boies, Schiller, Flexner (where he is “of counsel”) to improve Burisma’s “corporate governance”. They bring the investigative firm Nardello & Co. to look into corruption at Burisma, and Hunter joins the Burisma board in April 2014. At this point, Joe Biden is a major player in US policy towards Ukraine. According to the New Yorker piece, Hunter says that his father “discussed Burisma with him just once: “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do.’ ””
  • Also during this period, Hunter continues to have relapses in his efforts to lay off alcohol and drugs and engages is a number of rehabilitation programs. In 2013 he fails a Navy reserve drug test, which results in his discharge in February 2014.

What follows is a sad tale of personal decline, family tragedy, and perhaps eventual redemption, which to me seems of no legitimate public concern.

There’s a lot here that smells, shall we say, a little fishy. I think it’s a fair judgement that Hunter was presented with things of value mostly or entirely because he was Joe Biden’s son: amazing mortgage loans, cushy jobs, partnerships in equity funds to which he brought neither experience or money, seats on corporate boards, and eventually business deals in places like China and Ukraine. Clearly, there were people in the Obama administration who were concerned about how all this looked. Joe Biden seemed to have a few qualms as well, but he apparently never raised any objections to any of it.

But is there a scandal here? I would have to say: No, not really.

Certainly not by the standards set by the Trump adminstration, where semi-overt corruption has become the norm. Trump never divested himself from his businesses, and his claim that he has no involvement because they are being run by Donaldito and Eric is laughable and transparently false. As the New York Times points out, the two sons continue to pursue business deals around the world which directly benefit them and Trump himself. Ivanka never divested her companies either, despite her official position in the White House, and she has gained business licenses in China, Japan, and other countries that seem, well, not unconnected to her position as First Daughter to the president. Never mind the numerous instances of foreign and domestic influence seekers spending money at Trump properties, sometimes for services not even used. Or Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, etc., etc.

The great difference is that TrumpWorld really doesn’t care about the optics. They just do it, take the money, and dare anyone to do anything about it. And so far the Trumps have gotten away with it scot-free.

By Washington bigwig standards, Joe Biden is not a particularly rich man, and the rise in his net worth since leaving office has come mostly from writing and speeches. (Elizabeth Warren and her husband reportedly have a higher net worth.) There has been no evidence whatever that Joe Biden benefited financially from Hunter’s business activities or that as Senator or Vice-President he delivered political favors to Hunter’s benefactors. He does seem to have kept himself at arms length from Hunter’s business. Indeed, his lack of curiosity about that might have contributed to the problem he now faces.

So maybe the nice breaks that fell Hunter’s way were just the way the world works: good things come to the rich and powerful and to their offspring. I don’t know how you would stop that, but maybe there is a way to address a part of this endemic corruption. A recent op-ed in the New York Times argues that we need to strengthen American disclosure rules:

Joe Biden and Elaine Chao have to report when someone sends them a $500 campaign donation, or when they make a $5,000 investment in a stock. But when their family members strike lucrative deals with a foreign government or oligarch, the reporting requirements are vague. The personal financial disclosure rules for American public officials should be expanded to include details concerning all their immediate family members (and not just their spouses, as the law currently states), and any dealings with foreign governments. To the public, closing a loophole this glaring seems anodyne, a no-brainer. But lawmakers set the system up this way for a reason; they will not stop the foreign cash influence game voluntarily. That’s why we need a Washington Corrupt Practices Act, one that clearly shuts down foreign influence and self-enrichment for some of America’s most powerful families on both sides of the aisle.

An Administration Openly Defying the Law It is Supposed to Enforce

Image1

Today, according to the Washington Post, Donald Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, declared that five current or former State officials would not show up for scheduled depositions before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week. The depositions were part of the impeachment inquiry precipitated by Trump’s July 25 phone call to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, in which Trump–according to the official White House memcon–demanded as “a favor” that Ukraine provide material to discredit the origins of the Russian election meddling investigation and to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. Yesterday, it was revealed that Pompeo, who previously had denied knowledge of the call, was actually present when the conversation took place.

This is just the latest in a series of outrageous refusals by the Trump White House to comply with lawful demands by House committees for testimony or documents that they are manifestly entitled to have. The administration instead has either flatly refused to turn over requested documents, or instructed current or former employees not to appear before the committees, or in the few instances when they did show up, as with Corey Lewandowski or Hope Hicks, instructed them to say nothing–which is exactly what they did. Perhaps the most egregious defiance was the refusal by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to deliver Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee, as the law plainly requires him to do when requested.

Meanwhile, Trump has his personal lawyer (well maybe–the exact relationship isn’t totally clear) and, more ominously, his Attorney General scurrying around the world looking for something that would provide any shred of credibility for an alternative cover story that would delegitimize the Russia investigation, which Trump oddly insists totally exonerates him.  Meanwhile his actions continue to make him look like a passive patsy, if not a witting agent, of Vladimir Putin.

Trump has run the White House just as he did the Trump Organization, and indeed he has made the US government an extension of the latter. Just as he operated his businesses in closely held secrecy and skirted the edge of legality (often crossing that line), he has tried to run his presidency in the same way, hidden from public scrutiny. He staffed his government, as he did with his businesses, with people whose primary qualification was loyalty to him and made clear that he expected them to regard the agencies they were put in charge of as organizations to be gutted, looted, and turned to serving his and his supporters’ private agendas.

It is nothing short of amazing that to this day the American public knows next to nothing about the financial entanglements of Trump’s business enterprises (which he never divested) even though the press has turned up plenty of leads that point in the direction of suspicious sources of financing. Unlike previous presidents, we have no idea how rich he actually is, or where his money comes from, or who he owes money to, or whether he paid taxes and if he did, how much. The Mueller investigation inexplicably never went there. Now the House Ways and Means Committee has received “credible allegations” from a whistleblower (presumably at the IRS) of “‘evidence of possible misconduct’ — specifically, potential ‘inappropriate efforts to influence’ the mandatory audit program” with regard to Trump’s tax returns. Still nada from Treasury or the IRS.

Now Trump has gotten caught red-handed trying to extort a foreign government for his personal benefit. His response is to do what he has always done, which is to deny what is plainly in view, whine that he’s being persecuted for political reasons, make up counter-accusations, and assemble a platoon of expensive lawyers to intimidate his accusers and fight compliance with the judicial authorities, which in this case is the US Congress.

The difference is that this time, he sits in the White House, and his chief lawyer is the Attorney General of the United States, the man who heads law enforcement for the US Government. And the president is openly hinting at “civil war” if impeachment moves forward.

We, as a country, have no template for dealing with this situation. Watergate is the closest analogy, but this time the issues and what’s at stake are far more serious. (It’s worth observing that Nixon’s AG, John Mitchell, wound up going to prison.) The outcome ultimately depends on what Senate Republicans fear more: the wrath of Trump and his rabid rabble, or a majority of Americans who are simply fed up with this shit.

Why the Ukraine Scandal is Really about Russia

memcon

Suddenly, the country of Ukraine has been thrust into the seething molten center of US domestic politics with the revelation that Trump phoned Ukrainian President Zelenskyy on July 25 to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. What we need to keep sight of is that all of this (at least as far as it concerns Trump) ultimately is really about links to Russia, both past and present. Ukraine was just unlucky enough to be caught in the middle.

As the released memcon of Trump’s Mafia-style call to Zelenskyy (read it here) makes clear, his very first “ask” before releasing US money approved by Congress and the Pentagon to help arm Ukraine’s beleaguered military involved the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike.

[Trump]: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.

Huh? Well, Crowdstrike is the company that exposed the Russian intrusions into the Democratic Party computers in 2016 which Trump has repeatedly sought to deny. According to the Washington Post, “CrowdStrike has been a subject of allegations that rippled through conservative news sources, onto social media, into the criminal trial of longtime Trump friend Roger Stone and, finally, in July,” into this phone call. The Post reports that “the month before the Ukraine call, Trump voiced dark suspicions about CrowdStrike in a call with Fox News commentator Sean Hannity. That same day, Breitbart News had published a story, based on documents that had emerged in Stone’s trial on charges of lying, obstruction and witness tampering, about how the FBI relied on information from CrowdStrike in its probe of the DNC hack. ‘Take a look at Ukraine,’ Trump said to Hannity in a conversation that was broadcast on his show. ‘How come the FBI didn’t take the server from the DNC? Just think about that one, Sean.’ People familiar with the president’s thinking said he has come to suspect the DNC server hacked by Russian intelligence agents in 2016 may have been hidden in Ukraine.”

In other words, this looks like yet another attempt by Trump to discredit the conclusion of the US intelligence community and the Mueller investigation that Russia interfered to get him elected.

Let’s pause at this point to consider Ukraine’s situation vis-a-vis Russia and the Trump administration. In 2014, massive protests resulted in the removal of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who then fled to Moscow. In response, Russia seized and annexed Crimea, which had been Ukrainian territory, and sent arms and troops to help pro-Russian rebels occupy a large area of eastern Ukraine, which remains effectively in Russian control and where a low-grade shooting war continues today. These actions led the Obama administration to impose severe sanctions on both the Russian government and selected individuals, which Moscow has labored mightily to have removed. (Remember that Mike Flynn reportedly all but promised Russian officials to lift the sanctions right after the 2016 election, while Obama was still president.) Ukraine depends heavily on financial and military support from the EU and the US to resist Russian aggression and to avoid being reduced again to a satellite of its vastly larger and more powerful neighbor. The US Congress and government in general has supported maintaining the sanctions and aid to Ukraine, but Trump himself has been oddly deferential to Putin and has never directly condemned Russian territorial aggression against Ukraine.

Ukraine is clearly vulnerable to this kind of pressure. In May 2018, with the delivery of US Javelin anti-tank missiles in the balance, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor froze investigations into Paul Manafort’s activities in the country.

All this leaves new President Zelenskyy in a highly compromised position. He is threatened by Putin’s Russia and therefore desperately needs military, diplomatic, and economic support from the US, whose president however consistently supports Putin’s positions even though the rest of the US government may not. So what is he supposed to do when Trump calls and demands a “favor”? Especially right after Trump has put a hold on delivering military aid already approved by Congress?

That’s the very definition of being between a rock and a hard place: On one side is a predatory Putin. One the other is Trump whose support he needs, but who often seems suspiciously like an admirer or even agent of Putin, and who clearly got help from him to get elected.

Then there is Ukraine as a nexus of Russian contacts with the Trump campaign as detailed in the Mueller Report, mostly though not exclusively through Paul Manafort, Trump’s erstwhile campaign manager. Manafort helped make Yanukovych president of Ukraine, to whom he was introduced by Rinat Akhmetov, a Ukrainian steel oligarch who was based in eastern Ukraine (now largely under Russian control). According to the Washington Post, Manafort’s firm also lobbied for Yanukovych in Washington and other Western capitals, but never bothered to register as a foreign agent. Manafort continued to work in Ukraine after he began working for the Trump campaign. In August 2016, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine published a “black ledger” of secret cash payments showing that Yanukovych’s party had paid Manafort $12.7 million between 2007 and 2012, a revelation that led to him leaving the Trump campaign. According to the New York Times, the illicit payments first came to light when they were published by Serhiy Leshchenko, then a member of the Ukrainian parliament.

Leshchenko’s name appears in the whistleblower complaint (read the entire published redacted version here) .

Beginning in late March 2019, a series of articles appeared in an online publication called The Hill. In these articles, several Ukrainian officials — most notably, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko — made a series of allegations against other Ukrainian officials and current and former U.S. officials. Mr. Lutsenko and his colleagues alleged, inter alia, that they possessed evidence that Ukrainian officials — namely, Head of the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine Artem Sytnyk and Member of Parliament Serhiy Leshchenko — had “interfered” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, allegedly in collaboration with the DNC and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

Here is the basic kernel of the alternative narrative that Rudy Giuliani has been working tirelessly to construct: That the REAL foreign interference in the 2016 election was by the Clinton campaign, which somehow engineered the leak of the “black ledger” on Manafort to hurt the Trump campaign. The Biden allegations, which have been pretty thoroughly debunked, were the icing on the cake.

The whistleblower (who appears well versed in Ukrainian politics) includes a footnote about Yuriy Lutsenko, the man who was shopping this story around DC.

Mr. Sytnyk and Mr. Leshchenko are two of Mr. Lutsenko’s main domestic rivals. Mr. Lutsenko has no legal training and has been widely criticized in Ukraine for politicizing criminal probes and using his tenure as Prosecutor General to protect corrupt Ukrainian officials. He has publicly feuded with Mr. Sytnyk, who heads Ukraine’s only competent anticorruption body, and with Mr. Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist who has repeatedly criticized Mr. Lutsenko’s record. In December 2018, a Ukrainian court upheld a complaint by a Member of Parliament, Mr. Boryslav Rozenblat, who alleged that Mr. Sytnyk and Mr. Leshchenko had “interfered” in the 2016 U.S. election by publicizing a document detailing corrupt payments made by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych before his ouster in 2014. Mr. Rozenblat had originally filed the motion in late 2017 after attempting to flee Ukraine amid an investigation into his taking of a large bribe. On 16 July 2019, Mr. Leshchenko publicly stated that a Ukrainian court had overturned the lower court’s decision.

Lutsenko appears to be who Trump was referring to in his phone call to Zelenskyy when he said: “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair.”

Giuliani has been pursuing this narrative widely. According to the Miami Herald, he has two Soviet-born Florida businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, as legal clients. Parnas and Fruman reportedly helped introduce Giuliani in Ukrainian political and financial circles, and they are telling the same story to anyone who will listen. They appear to be referred to–though not by name–in the whistleblower complaint, and have made major donations to Trump and other Republican campaigns. The Herald observes that “Parnas’ and Fruman’s newfound political prominence, including major donations to GOP candidates, belies a history of financial troubles.”

There is no question that Ukraine–like Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union–is rife with corruption, and it would take a panel of experts in Ukrainian politics to parse the corrupt deals and score-settling that is the background of this story. But it is clear that Paul Manafort was in the thick of it. So far, no one has produced any persuasive evidence that Joe Biden or his son engaged in anything nefarious, but in TrumpWorld that doesn’t matter. Trump is still trying to litigate the 2016 election and desperately wants an alternative narrative to use against the “Russia hoax”, and his followers will accept anything, regardless of how flimsy.

Of Edward Snowden and Reality Winner

snowdenwinner

The whistleblower/traitor (take your pick) Edward Snowden is again much in the news with the publication of his autobiography/apologia Permanent Record this week. As you may recall, Snowden is a former CIA contractor employee who in May 2013 fled first to Hong Kong and then to Moscow where he sought and received asylum after copying and releasing to journalists thousands of highly classified NSA documents. These documents included evidence that NSA was indeed doing mass surveillance of Americans by collecting metadata on telephone calls, contrary to what NSA’s Director, James Clapper, had told congress. For an excellent overview of both the book and the controversy, see Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker article here.

Snowden’s book gives his version of why he did what he did and how he ended up in what appears to be fairly comfortable exile in Moscow. He presents himself as a patriotic citizen who was so disturbed by secret US government spying on Americans that he was compelled to expose the truth. But as Lepore points out, he didn’t just stumble on the evidence, but rather he spent months actively looking for it. “Snowden has claimed that he alerted more than ten officials at the N.S.A. about his discovery and expressed his alarm. He has provided no support for this claim. The N.S.A. says he reported his concerns to no one… The classified documents Snowden released to the press contained a good deal more than evidence of the surveillance of American citizens; they included, for instance, a 2006 memo detailing the N.S.A.’s monitoring of the telephone conversations of thirty-five unnamed world leaders, which led the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to charge the Obama Administration with tapping her phone, causing a diplomatic uproar.”

Snowden doesn’t remark on the obvious irony of a self-proclaimed champion of civil liberties seeking the protection of a country that has for centuries operated the world’s most pervasive and oppressive domestic surveillance apparatus. Well, any port in a storm, right?

It’s worth contrasting Snowden’s situation with that of Reality Winner, the ironically-named former Air Force linguist and intel specialist, who after her military discharge also went to work for an NSA contractor in Georgia. While working there, she came across an NSA report about a Russian attempt to access American election infrastructure through a private software company. According to the report, Russian intelligence sent phishing emails to the company that provides election support to eight states. obtained log-in credentials, and sent emails infected with malware to over 100 election officials, days before the election. On May 9, 2017, the day when Trump fired James Comey, Winner anonymously mailed a physical printout of the document to The Intercept, which then provided NSA with a photocopy to verify its validity and, after making a few redactions, published it. You can read the published version here

Based on metadata contained in the scanned copy of the report that The Intercept provided to NSA, the FBI was quickly able to narrow down who had printed it out, and arrested Winner within days–before Intercept had even published the report. She quickly confessed (though later sought to have the confession suppressed on the grounds that she had not been Mirandized), and was jailed without bond for a year. Eventually, she plead guilty to one felony count of “unauthorized transmission of national defense information”, and on August 23, 2018 she was sentenced to 5 years and 3 months in federal prison, reportedly the longest sentence ever imposed for leaking classified information to the media.

So was Winner’s act of leaking ONE document (unlike Snowden or Chelsea Manning, who both released thousands of classified documents) really a crime that endangered national security or a courageous attempt to alert the US public to an unprecedented foreign attack on America’s electoral system? At the time when she leaked the NSA report, Americans were becoming aware of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to benefit Donald Trump, but it was not yet generally known that specific US electoral databases, including electronic voter registration rolls, had been penetrated and compromised. It was not until May 8, 2018–nearly a year after The Intercept published the leaked NSA report, and 3 months before Winner’s sentencing–that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) published an unclassified report which stated that at least 18 state election systems had been targeted by Russian cyber attacks. The SSCI report also stated: “In at least six states, the Russian-affiliated cyber actors went beyond scanning and conducted malicious access attempts on voting-related websites. In a small number of states, Russian-affiliated cyber actors were able to gain access to restricted elements of election infrastructure. In a small number of states, these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data.” The Mueller Report (section entitled “Intrusions Targeting Administration of US Elections”), released in March 2019, contains much of the same information that was in the NSA report published by The Intercept.

Incredibly, however, the details of such intrusions known to the FBI and the US Intelligence Community apparently still have not been made available to local and state officials responsible for voter registration rolls and other electoral databases. In May 2019, the New York Times reported that “At a news conference in Tallahassee, [Florida governor Ron] DeSantis, a Republican, said that officials from the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security had asked him to sign a nondisclosure agreement pledging not to identify the two counties that fell victim to a “spearphishing” attempt by Russian hackers.” Both DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio have expressed frustration and dismay that more information has not been forthcoming.

The NSA report leaked by Winner pointed to VR Systems, based in Tallahassee, as a private contractor that was targeted by Russian cyber attackers. According to the Miami Herald, VR Systems is the vendor that handles registration software for most of Florida’s 67 counties, as well as systems in a number of other states. (CNN had reported back in October 2016 that “Federal investigators believe Russian hackers were behind cyberattacks on a contractor for Florida’s election system that may have exposed the personal data of Florida voters”, but did not name the company.) Throughout, everyone officially involved has insisted that there is no evidence that the Russian intrusions changed the voting results.

But how confident can we be about that? The New York Times reported that there were large numbers of suspicious irregularities in North Carolina voter databases in the 2016 election that prevented people from voting, particularly in Durham County where the database used software from VR Systems. The Times article noted, “Beyond VR Systems, hackers breached at least two other providers of critical election services well ahead of the 2016 voting, said current and former intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information is classified. The officials would not disclose the names of the companies.” In any case, it has become clear that voter registration databases are the Achilles heel of the US electoral system, whether for foreign-based tampering or domestic partisan voter repression.

So does Reality Winner really deserve to spend another 5 years in prison? Did her action really endanger US national security, or did she actually perform a noble service to the American public? Does her punishment seem appropriate, when the Trump Administration and the Republican Senate leadership refuse to make any meaningful or systematic effort to secure the integrity of US elections? Who is the real criminal here?

Edward Snowden seems a more complicated call. Ultimately it comes down to what you think about the legitimate limits of surveillance by US intelligence and law enforcement of US citizens and residents in the Internet Age. Should we really be so concerned about NSA harvesting of phone call metadata (i.e., who called who when and for how long) if they’re not actually listening to the content without a warrant.  After all, we willingly hand over vast amounts of far more intimate data to private companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, etc. who can do literally anything they want with it with virtually no legal restraints. Shouldn’t that concern us more? The collaboration of companies like Facebook with Cambridge Analytica may well have done more to put Donald Trump in the White House than the Russians. As Jill Lepore observes, “Google, Facebook, and Amazon know far, far more about most Americans than the N.S.A. does.”

There are legitimate reasons for classifying information and for imposing penalties for disclosing information that could harm the interests of the country. If you work in that world, you certainly understand the rules as well as what could happen if you break them. That said, classification is often over- and misused. Reality Winner accepted her punishment, even though it seems grossly disproportionate.  But Edward Snowden wants to get off as some kind of libertarian folk hero. He doesn’t fit the mold of a spy, but I am bothered by the indiscriminate magnitude of the information that he stole and disseminated. And whether he recognizes it or not, he is now a Russian asset–a living symbol of the hypocrisy of American claims of freedom who had to flee to Mother Russia for protection. Certainly not nearly as big an asset as Trump, but significant all the same. Let him stay there until Putin or someone else decides he’s no longer useful.

 

 

 

 

Mueller Fails Bigly Again

MuellerHearing

This could have been Robert Mueller’s day to be a patriotic hero, but he chose to stay a timid bureaucrat, following the rules laid down by William Barr and refusing to answer about anything that wasn’t in his report. And sometimes not even that.

Mueller is now a private citizen. He surely has some opinions about the import of the material he put in his report, which he should know better than anyone else.  There is no reason why he could not have connected the dots in this hearing in ways that he might have been constrained against doing while in his role as special prosecutor. But he resisted all questions about that. At the end of the HPSCI hearing, he was given an opportunity to share anything he thought the American people should know, but he said he couldn’t think of anything.

When Mueller was appointed, he was lionized as a fearless and impartial seeker after truth, a giant who Trump needed to fear. What we saw today was something else: a halting, often bumbling, past-his-prime, bureaucratic lifer, who accepted the quite outrageous limits Barr imposed on his testimony and refused time after time to acknowledge the implications of his own discoveries. He essentially admitted that he let Trump bully him into not issuing a subpoena because it would take too long to fight the court battles. He thereby enabled the strategy that the Trump administration is now using to refuse to comply with scores of congressional subpoenas. If, as some believe, that the Report was intended as a road map for impeachment, Mueller was unwilling even to utter the word when asked if that was he meant about leaving presidential accountability to other parts of the government.

Democrats mistakenly bet the farm on the Mueller investigation, and when that proved to be a disappointment, hoped that these hearings would be the blockbuster movie that would animate and make real to the public the dry facts contained in the book that few people had actually read. That didn’t happen.

Mueller made a terrible witness with his endless refusals to answer questions. He came across as evasive, tired, and just old. He refused multiple times to answer the central question that his report left hanging, i.e., did he think there was enough evidence to indict Trump for obstruction, disregarding the OLC opinion about charging a sitting president.

As a media event, which this was meant to be,  it was pretty much a bust. The Democrats had a few small moments and got Mueller to admit some of the most obvious things, e.g., that the Russian attack on the election was real and that the investigation wasn’t a witch hunt. But the answers he did give were couched in such carefully legalistic terms that they likely did not register with a public that wants simple clean answers. To a public raised on reality TV, the aggressive Republican attacks on the investigation and their introduction of fantastic alternative theories of Democrat malfeasance (like the real collusion was between the Clinton campaign and Russia), were probably much more compelling television. The Democrats wanted to move the needle of public opinion. If the needle moved at all, it may have been in the opposite direction.

So Robert Mueller is not our messiah. Nobody is going to save us. Impeachment is probably less likely after today. And Trump’s re-election chances probably just went up.