Saturday, December 8, 2018

Impeachment? Not so fast

A version of this was published in the Sky Hi News Dec. 11-12, 2018

Immediately last Friday after Michael Cohen’s sentencing memo was filed, President Trump crowed he was cleared and the opposition media claimed there were grounds for impeachment because the President was in effect an unindicted co-conspirator of a crime, which was closer to reality. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s court filings regarding Paul Manafort were either redacted or sealed, revealing little.

Often cited are precedents set by both the impeachment of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.   Neither Nixon nor Clinton was found guilty or was removed from office by Congressional votes. A simple majority in the House can vote to impeach,  but  two-thirds of the Senate must  agree to find him guilty and remove him from office.

 Impeachment is not so much a matter of law  as it is a political action. Voters’ opinions can  give members of Congress political backbones: Clinton’s public  job approval ratings polled  during the impeachment/trial remained over 70% and 66% were against removing him from office over the issue of lying and coverup of sexual misconduct.   Nixon, after release of the tapes, dropped from winning the prior election to  a 31%  job approval with 43% opposing removal from office.  During Nixon’s threatened impeachment, Democrats , the opposition party, controlled both House and Senate with significant majorities. Republican Nixon  resigned before the House could vote  to impeach because tapes were made public that confirmed his guilt. Like Nixon, Clinton's  opposition party, Republicans,  controlled both the Senate and the House though the vote even in the GOP controlled Senate fell short of the two thirds needed and he was acquitted. In Donald Trump's case, the House will be in the hands of Democrats ; the Senate's majority party is Trump's.

The current  public mood  should give the GOP shudders. It is similar to Nixon’s. The key public voter question is whether the actions of the President as charged by Congress  justifies his removal from office , which is the end result of a Senate conviction.  Trump’s  current job approval is around 40% with 42% opposed to his removal from office per a June 2018 poll.  This is  before we know much of what  Special Counsel Robert Mueller has found.

 That Democrats gained a decisive majority in the House of Representatives in  November means they have the simple majority  of votes  needed to impeach Trump  without any GOP help  At this moment it is a debatable intra party question of whether impeachment is an effective political strategy, distracting from promoting their public policy  agenda.  GOP control of the Senate would block removal of the president  at this time in any case. 

So far, public knowledge of facts implicating Trump is thin. Recently filed  court documents do indicate  business financial gain could have been his motivation to commit crimes of conspiracy/collusion and obstruction of justice.  The closest to fingering Donald Trump himself came  last week in the Michael Cohen case filings in which Cohen claimed he was instructed by the President  to break campaign finance  laws.  That  the President intended  to pay for silence of women with whom he had affairs was to protect family peace, not campaign purposes as Cohen claims, could be a reasonable  defense.   Whether the public would think lying and coverup of sexual misdeeds  alone justifies  removing  him from office is  very questionable.    It makes sense to wait for Mueller’s report and findings of Democratic dominated House  committees.
Footnotes: On Friday, December 7, 2018  the Southern District of New York's sentencing memo regarding Michael Cohen repeated the charge that Cohen committed a crime by arranging a method to pay off two women who knew of Trump's immoral and unfaithful conduct  for the principal purpose  that they would remain silent during the campaign. Significantly, the SDNY filing said that Cohen committed the crime under the direction of the president.  This could be very damning for the president, though he cannot be indicted for doing it. Any punishment would have to be through the impeachment process. Trump claimed immediately he was "totally cleared". .  The SDNY filings regarding Cohen said that he had been helpful, but not fully. The Mueller fillings said Coehn had been helpful on  the Russian conncection and that Cohen's jail term could be served at the same time as the judge ruled in the SDNY case.
Both the Clinton impeachment case and the Michael Cohen/Trump charges involved lying and covering up sexual misconduct.  Some Republicans voted not to convict Clinton, and all Democrats stood by their man.  Later public opinion polls showed 57% the public did not want Clinton to lose his job over the issue and they considered the impeachment harmful to the country (Gallup via Wikipedia summary)
The Mueller filings regarding Manafort pointed to lies  to the Special Counsel about his coordination with the White  House in 2018 and lies about his contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik, his associate, who had ties with Russian military intelligence, the DNC hackers.

Also see the prior blog posting 12/3/2018. The tangled web of Trump-Russian deceit.

If sexual misconduct, lying and coverup did not reach the "time does not fit the crime" in the Cllinton case , i.e. the offense was not the reason for the Senate to convict because it was not serious enough and the administration's ability to conduct business (high job approval rating), then the "high crimes" needed to be something worse.  Worse could be  treason, bribery and a serious high crime...definition is up to the House to say what it is. What would be "high" enough to warrant a Senate conviction?  Look for  proof beyond reasonable doubt of treason  (collusion, conspire) to work against US, bribery..a tit for tat like: Russia will help Trump win if he gets sanctions against Russians lifted; money lauundering, emoluments clause violations, tax evasion, and whatever else the House defines.   Another nagging problem is can a President be impeached for what he did before he took office?  The other problem: the DOJ has its own rules that a sitting president cannot be indicted for a crime, but nothing in the Constitution forbids this. If the offenses took place before the President was sworn in, he could be indicted after he left office and prosecuted, though. 

Monday, December 3, 2018

The tangled web of Russian-Trump deceit

A version of this was published in the Sky Hi News, December 5, 2018

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave...when first we practice to deceive.” per Walter Scott

So what if Donald Trump lied about his Trump Tower Moscow  negotiations while he was running for the presidency. He had claimed many times  that he had “nothing to do with Russia. I never did”.  Last week after his personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty  to lying to Congress about Trump's financial interests in Russia,  Trump changed his tune to” it was no crime and there was no deal. “ There will be many who take Trump  at his word  and leave it at that.  So long as he was not lying under oath to law enforcement , he has a point. However, he has lied to voters during and after the 2016 campaign, and American foreign policy was shaped to be in sync with Russia in ways that would be harmful the US allies and the Atlantic alliance. He created a web of wilful liars under oath and in public  to support  the myth of his lack of conflict of  financial interests in Russia since Trump’s puzzling  “bromance”  with Russia and Putin  had raised many eye brows.

Donald Trump had often advocated weakening NATO throughout 2015-2016 and even in his presidency.  NATO expansion to former Soviet satellites was  a thorn in the side of Russian national interests.  Trump’s fuming about NATO members not contributing enough was his public rationale but the weakening of NATO served both Putin’s national security designs and Trump’s continuing strategy to butter up Putin. Trump also advocated a softer policy toward Russia's grab of the Crimea and loosening sanctions imposed to punish Russia as far back as 2015. Why such a departure from traditional US foreign policy? Did Trump have undisclosed financial ties with Russia? Trump had vigorously denied that.   Did the Russians have something more  on him than just an alleged  carnal Moscow night ? Did the Russians see a Trump’s presidency as an unwitting asset to their national interests, motivating their interference in the 2016 campaign?

We do not have to wait for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to present his final report to learn about the web of  deceit or to get an understanding of what could have motivated Trump's Russia romance. Mueller's court filing documents regarding  Cohen, Paul Manafort, and Mike Flynn, and others contain much information. Mueller's indictments documents  also exposed in detail  methods Russia used in their attempt to tilt the 2016 election to Donald Trump.

The timing of the negotiations to build and finance the Moscow Trump Tower, as disclosed in the Cohen related court documents, coincided with Donald Trump’s  pronouncements as he was campaigning for president with  words and policies that favored Russia. Trump did have business interests in Russia  well into his status as presumptive GOP nominee.  and the Cohen guilty plea court filings  exposed Trump  as lying  to the American people about it. Special Counsel Robert Mueller signed off on the documents charging Cohen  with  lying to Congress for falsely claiming the Trump Tower deal was dead in January 2016 when  emails showed Cohen and Trump were actually  in communication with one another and  Cohen was still pursuing the deal  with Kremlin official Dmitri Peskov until  June 14, 2016 when Trump was already his party's presumed nominee.

  Key to the Moscow tower deal was getting financing from a certain Russian bank. The bank , other banks, and oligarchs were sanctioned by the U.S Congress to punish Russia for grabbing  Crimea  and  the sanctions needed to be lifted if the project was to be funded.  The deal was called off on June 14,  2016.  In the transition period Trump’s National Security adviser Mike Flynn was in secret communication with Russian ambassador  about the sanctions.  Flynn pleaded guilty to charges he lied to the FBI about it  and he  flipped to become  a witness for Mueller's probe. Sentencing is this month .

 In March 2016, Paul Manafort joined the campaign as a “volunteer” and in June rose to campaign chair. Manafort’s prior gig as  political consultant was the former pro Russian leader of Ukraine who opposed closer ties to the West.  During Manfort's campaign activities, Trump's polcies favoring Russia became more focused and specific. Manafort was charged by Special Counsel Robert Mueller .faced trial in August 2018, and was found guilty of  bank and tax fraud . In September  he  pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the US and attempts to tamper with witnesses.  He violated his plea deal to be Mueller's  witness  in the Russian investigation and is now facing sentencing. He already sits in the blog posted dated July 31, 2018: Did Manafort's participation in the Trump campaign shape Donald Trump's views on foreign policy?

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The president who would be king

A version of this was published in the Sky Hi News  November 27-28,2018

If there was one reason  the Mayflower was the first of many similar  boatloads full of settlers who sailed across the Atlantic, it  was to escape the tyranny of a government and especially the English King. President Trump has never understood why he cannot rule by decree and executive orders like the  kings and dictators he so admires  and why the judiciary, Congress and law enforcement cannot be put to use  to advance and protect his power and agenda. He tweeted and verbalized an assertion last week that “the judiciary is the greatest threat to our country”, insinuating his edicts were necessary to protect the US from threats to national security.
 He has attacked one  of the key foundations of  American democracy, an independent judiciary.  After a record attempt by the Republican controlled Senate to fast track,  to change the rules so fewer votes were needed to confirm  judges’ appointments,  and to pack the courts with conservative think tank recommended nominees,  including two vacancies on the Supreme Court, it was just not enough for him.  His view of the courts appears to be  all judges should be loyal to him and his  particular  view of executive authority.  That  is the ultimate expression of his desire to make this country ruled by him, not by the rule of law. The threat of an independent judiciary is  not a threat to the country. It is a threat to the power of the wannabe king himself.
Trump has seen some of his executive orders struck down by a judiciary that is sworn  to protect the Constitution. Particularly obnoxious to him is the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The infamous Muslim ban was rejected by that court on the basis that it was discriminatory against practitioners of a religion.  After some revisions, it was retitled and changed to ban and permit enhanced extreme vetting of   those who came from specific countries that  may harbor terrorists.  Thrown into the list were a few non Muslim countries. It was a sleight of hand that finally enabled the executive order  to be approved by the Supreme Court on a 5 to 4 decision in June, 2018.
  Trump’s campaign  in the 2018 midterms centered around  hyping  fear and loathing of immigrants of color. To cater to  his nationalist  core followers, he devised a  strategy to  stop“caravans” of migrants seeking asylum in the US . The caravan travellers, equal to  the same number of students of two large high schools , were  comprised of mostly women  and children migrants he called “thugs” and disease ridden. The fear of these migrants was raised to near hysteria by his favored media outlets just before the midterm elections.  US military intelligence had reported the caravans did not  threaten national security, but nonetheless Trump  rushed more US troops to the border than we have in Afghanistan. A week before the midterms he announced a plan for an executive order that would rewrite the 14th Amendment to end birthright citizenship. That has not yet been  court tested.  He followed that strategy  up with an  executive order forbidding those who reached US soil illegally  to qualify for asylum only if they got in line and went through a legal checkpoint. The U.S. Judge  in the Ninth  Circuit ruled November 19 that federal law clearly states that migrants can seek asylum anywhere on U.S. soil  and … “he  (Trump) may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden” . Trump called foul and said  that Judge was an Obama appointee. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts responded in defense of an independent judiciary: "What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

An independent judiciary is fundamental to a democracy and to the Constitution's ability to keep abuse of power to protect us from a one person rule..This posting is a focus on one issue, but the issue is one of the three checks and balances pillars written into the Constitution to restrict the power of the federal government...and especially the executive branch and the legislative branch from abusing their powers. . Therefore it is fundamental to democracy. When wannabe tyrants want to grab total control of the reins of government, they wreck an independent judiciary. The most recent example of that is in Turkey where voters approved his consolidation of three branches of government into one and permitted him to appoint all judges without any constraints. What is disturbing is that it was done with their people's permission, which shows how fragile democracy is. It is an idea but is only as good as the people who support it. From Hitler to Putin to Erdogan, all used fear and hatred of ethnic groups (Jews) (terrorists) , or a government and economy in chaos (Putin) . With control of all the levers of government in one hand, any opposition cannot gather enough strength to cause a reversion to democracy peacefully without violence, putsch, war, or revolution.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Thank the Pilgrims who began America’s quest for religious freedom

A version of this was publlished in the Sky Hi News, 11/20-21/2018
The Pilgrims got the ball rolling but it was only the beginning. They saw freedom of religion freedom from a government run religion that persecuted them. It was not freedom for others...but after the colonies provided a rocky start of hanging heretics and hunting witches, the Constitution gave all of us freedom of religion. Application of that First Amendment is still a work in progress.
This Thanksgiving we should give our thanks to the Pilgrims who have become an icon of what made the New World so unique in the civilizations that preceded them.. They left England and the old world to seek freedom to practice their own religion, free from a government backed state religion that oppressed them.  It was a beginning.  There was a rocky road ahead to laws guaranteeing religious freedom for everyone, not just one group.
 Some colonies adopted laws with limited forms of freedom of religion while others established state sponsored religions, hung heretics, and launched witch hunts.  Pennsylvania and Virginia   had enacted their own laws effectively protecting freedom of religion. The Constitution authors adopted those concepts in the First Amendment, ““Congress shalll make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." Congress  later passed  civil rights and hate crimes legislation that protected religious practitioners and punished those who interfered with their practice.

So, disconcerting in 2018 is that many seem to have forgotten the lessons leaned from experience, traditions, and history. So heartening in the 2018 midterms is that many more Americans rejected an Oval Office leadership condoning and even promoting hate and fear of “others”, including Donald Trump's attempted immigration ban of anyone who was a Muslim, .
In 2016 this country had given the reins of power to Donald Trump whose soaring oratory appealed to the worst of human nature. He set the example. It was alright to be uncivil, no longer to be politically correct, to denigrate and disrespect’ others”, especially people of color and women, and to express such feelings publicly. His inflammatory words have continued in rallies and tweets to this day.
 While protected by the Constitution, words of hate have deadly consequences. That was brought home shortly before the 2018 midterms by the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre. While Donald Trump did not target his hateful words toward the Jewish community, he tolerated and promoted intolerance. Our President opined about the neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville in 2017 that there some were “fine people” among them. The tiki torch bearing marchers shouted anti-Semitic slogans in German while raising arms in the Nazi salute.  
 An atmosphere of permissive hatred does not confine itself to specific targets.  It is infectious and even if originally unintended, it can spread to harm other targets, including religious ones. In 2017, the year after the election of Trump, the FBI reported a 37% spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes over 2016, and the Anti-Defamation League found the number of anti-Semitic incidents, mostly vandalism, was nearly 60 percent higher in 2017 than 2016, the largest single-year increase on record.
 Alt- right conspiracy theorists and Trump friendly media inspired the Pittsburgh synagogue killer. The shooter posted on his social media that a Jewish immigration group was bringing in immigrants to kill “his people”. Reviving references to the international Jewish conspiracy theories, other alt right proponents claimed a wealthy liberal Jewish-American-immigrant philanthropist, George Soros, was funding the “caravans” of central Americans storming our southern border. Numerous fact checkers found that false. Others before had claimed Soros paid “mobs” of women protesting the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Fact checkers: Soros paid none of the demonstrators. Last week In Baltimore, attendees of the performance of Fiddler on the Roof, the musical about Russian persecution of Jews, were still on edge from the mass killing in Pittsburgh. They panicked when a man in the audience shouted, “Heil Hitler, Heil Trump”, fearing it signaled another anti-Semitic mass murder attack. Fortunately, no one was hurt running to the exits. The man apologized later, said he was trying to compare Trump to Hitler but said it the wrong way, and he had been drinking before the performance and claimed protection of free speech. Note: The Supreme Court ruled many years ago shouting fire in a crowded theater is not protected speech. (Schenck v United States: Oliver Wendell Holmes crowded theater reference)
Recent rulings by the Supreme Court  concerning  freedom or religion set no precedents that altered the underlining intent of the First Amendment or related laws.
The “muslim ban”, halting practitioners of one of the world’s greatest religions from entering the US simply because of their religious affiliation, was rejected by the courts, requiring a total rewrite of rules to comply by those facing extreme vetting to enter the US, now based on selected countries that harbor terrorists and not all had a Muslim majority . It was even retitled as a "travel ban"

The Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a cakemaker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because it violated his religious beliefs...however, the ruling set no precedent because it based it on the specific  hostility of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
Kim Clark, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to a gay couple because of her religious beliefs, spent jail time over it in 2015 and was defeated in her attempt to be re-elected in 2018.

A number of Evangelical Christian ministers have recently proclaimed that the US is a "Christian nation".  It is not a state one per the Constitution, nor is the Evangelical brand of Christianity (full disclosure..I am a Mainstream  Protestant Christian) even the majority of the population.  Per a recent Pew Research study, Evangelicals are 25% of the population.

Evangelicals have had an impact, though, in exemptions of  employers providing ACA coverage of reproductive rights based on religious beliefs, first in the Obama administration and more so   under the Trump administration. The battle yet to be fought is over further proposed  restrictions on  birth control  insurance accessibility coverage.
Roe v Wade will also face challenges in the very conservative tilt in the Supreme Court    As a public policy regardless of religious affiliation, 71% of Americans polled oppose overturning Roe v Wade,
and 72% support birth control as basic health issue
The backlash to religious restrictions on reproductive rights was palapable in 2018. The womens' marches and demonstrations against  confirmation of pro life anti birth control Justice Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the doubling of the women gender gap to 19% of the voters were certainly contributors to the Democrats turning the House blue.

Right wing attempts to get around the separation of church and state issue in the funding of education have not gotten far. Once again Colorado was the focus when the Douglas County School Board thought issuing vouchers to students to attend any school of their choice, including a faith based school, was rebuffed by the Colorado Supreme Court.   Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump's secretary of education has long been a supporter of tax payer money funding faith based schools through vouchers , and has set about issuing executive orders to chip away at the regulations forbidding public funds for religious schools.

 Following US right wing efforts to alter the protection of freedom of religion,   in Europe and South America forces desiring to persecute and discriminate against  religious  minorities are raising their ugly heads. In Brazil, a fascist government was just elected, vowing to turn that country comprised of centuries of immigrants and native population, into a Christian nation.  In Europe a long list of countries electing very right wing, anti- Muslim immigrant governments are being elected to political leadership.