“The Rule of Law”
What is the essence that sets America apart, the defining difference? The break with history that began the American experiment is embodied in our two founding documents, which together assert our rights as a people and codify the laws necessary to regulate and protect those rights: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We are, as a people, lifted up and held together by the rule of law.
For months we have been hearing that we’re on the verge of a constitutional crisis. The implication has been that, if such a crisis were to hit, we would be in grave danger and would need to act. But what is a constitutional crisis and what would set it apart so dramatically from the daily drama? Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes recently posed this question in an article for the Atlantic and ended by arguing that we might better think of ourselves as facing a constitutional infection or injury. The severity of the crisis, then, might depend on our chances of recovery or how quickly our nation might, effectively, die – that is, cease to be the nation of laws we have always been. Over the past week, did the infection get dramatically worse, or was it starting to get better? One could find arguments for either view.
On Monday the Southern District of New York FBI Field Office raided the offices, home and hotel room of Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and, more importantly, his “fixer” – the guy that makes his problems go away. He’s also been Trump’s main connection to money from Russia and the former Soviet-block countries. It’s really hard to get a judge to sign off on this kind of raid. They have to be convinced that the likelihood of criminality is so great and the risk of the suspect destroying evidence (if it were subpoenaed instead) so strong that a raid is the only prudent thing to do. The bar is higher still when the suspect is an attorney and even more so when the client is the president*. There are stringent guidelines, therefore, to ensure that the law is followed carefully – even going so far as to establish a “taint team” to review attorney-client communications and to withhold them from the prosecutor’s view if they contain material protected by attorney-client privilege. Note, though, that attorney-client privilege doesn’t exist if the client has involved the attorney in participation in a crime or fraud (the Crime-Fraud exception).
Trump freaked out, calling the raids “a disgrace” and “an attack on our country”. As always, Trump’s psychological projection was on full display, the real disgrace being a president* who attacks and undermines the rule of law – the very essence of our country. Cohen knows more about Trump’s shady dealings than anyone except Trump’s family, so the raids had opened a new and potentially lethal threat to Trump’s presidency. No wonder he went crazy.
The story continued to unfold dramatically over the week, with more twists and plot threads than a crime series. By the end of the week it was known not just that the case had been referred to the NY office by Mueller and that they were looking for evidence of money laundering and fraud and into the cases of Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, but also that the investigation had been going on for months, had Trump more worried than the Mueller investigation and that Cohen had routinely taped conversations with people in order to have leverage over them – and no one knew what tapes the FBI had or what they might contain. To make things even crazier, on Friday McClatchy was reporting that Mueller’s team (a separate investigation) had evidence that Cohen had been in Prague in the summer of 2016. Cohen has vehemently denied this; it would be a huge deal if true, since the Steele Dossier had intel saying that Cohen had met with Russians to plot against the Clinton campaign.By the end of the week both Cohen and Trump were arguing in court that they should be able to review the evidence before the FBI did. A hearing was scheduled for Monday.
The Cohen raid, then, both hinted at the depth of rot in Trump’s history and his alarm at it being exposed. As the week unfolded, it also caused Trump to increasingly speculate about firing Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General who oversees the Mueller case. Will the rule of law – the FBI investigation, the Department of Justice’s impartiality and Rosenstein’s independence – prevail and the infection abate? The fever is raging. Stay tuned.
Tweaking Trump even further, former FBI Director James Comey was back in the news, with release of his book, “A Higher Loyalty” scheduled for next week. In the book, Comey compares Trump to the mob bosses he once prosecuted. “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
Trump’s response was to put on his best 5th grade bully behavior, raging, name-calling and threatening. The Republican National Committee mounted a publicity campaign to smear Comey. While many people have serious concerns about Comey’s statement right before the 2016 election which may well have cost Clinton the election, there is no excuse for either Trump’s or the Republicans’ behavior in smearing Comey this way. The infection raged on.
A Wink and a Nod. And a Wag the Dog.
Sometimes tweets, no matter how unhinged, can seem like they’re just not enough. So:
- Trump also pardoned Scooter Libby, the former Dick Cheney aid whose sentence was commuted by George W Bush after he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Maybe Cohen and Manafort will get the hint.
- In response to a horrific Syrian chemical attack which killed at least 42 adults and children, Trump at the end of the week launched a bombing run on Syrian chemical sites, then the following day announced “Mission Accomplished!” As had happened last year, Assad’s chemical assault followed Trump’s public signaling that he would leave Syria alone (this year insisting that he wanted to withdraw troops immediately). And his bombing response was illegal and without any strategy. It clearly wasn’t about humanitarian intervention, as the U.S has admitted only 11 Syrian refugees this year. But it did look tough and changed the topic from the Cohen and Comey news.
The Fourteen-Year Apology Tour
- Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, went to Washington to get grilled by Senate and House committees. As he’s been doing forever, Zuckerberg apologized. But the hearings gave little evidence that Congress had the knowledge and determination to rein in Facebook’s bad practices, nor that Facebook would undertake such a change on their own. The upshot? Facebook is still a danger and is using your metadata in ways you can’t even imagine.
Ryan Runs. Away.
- After weeks of denying the rumor, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection. Once the poster boy for fiscal prudence (though it was always a fraud), Ryan instead oversaw the jamming through of an enormous and reckless tax bill that is transferring massive wealth to the rich and blowing a hole in the deficit. His departure, ostensibly about spending more time with his family, was a clear message to Republicans about the potential electoral disaster awaiting them in the House this year. It’s up to all of us to make their nightmare come true.
In Other News
- Trump asked aides to look into entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership, after having pulled out of the effort days after taking office. His condition, of course, was that he had to have a better deal than Obama had had. It’s unlikely that Trump ever understood what was in the treaty or that he understands now. He does, however, appear to understand being one-up on Obama.
- Speaking of one-upping Obama, in interviews Comey was asked about the infamous “Pee Tape” intel from the Steele Dossier. His answer was that he just didn’t know. Whether or not the tape exists, we’ve learned enough over the past year to know that: Trump will do just about anything to diss Obama; Trump routinely pays women for sex; Trump pays hush money and can therefore be blackmailed. Hard to believe Russia’s GRU wouldn’t have known all of that.
- Scott Pruitt’s scandals continued, but were less prominent on front pages, having been crowded off by all the other scandalous behavior of others. I did really enjoy the reporting, though, about Pruitt’s proposed redesign of the EPA “Challenge Coin” (a type of souvenir medallion), which involved him wanting to remove the EPA logo and make the design “more reflective of himself and the Trump Administration”. You can’t make this stuff up. And he’s still in office. Thanks, Republicans.
The infection continues and we stay on alert, wary of Trump firing Rosenstein or Mueller, fighting back against the continuing attacks on the institutions that uphold our rule of law: the courts, the FBI and other Departments and Agencies who are being run into the ground. Republicans, horrifically, are assaulting them all and so attacking the very rule of law that defines us as a nation. We must, each of us, fight back or lose this land that we love.
Your voice is critical in saving the rule of law. There’s never been a more important time to call or write your members of Congress. Our call scripts make it easy and even a few calls (three, in fact) raise an issue to their awareness. And if we don’t flip the House (and Senate!) blue, the rule of law surely will not survive another two years of assault. We need your help, big or small, to take them back. You can start right here.
– Tom Benthin
A reminder: a key resource for tracking all the abnormal events from the past week of the Trump presidency is Amy Siskind’s Weekly List: theweeklylist.org .
Before the disaster of the 2016 election we could follow the events that affected our lives by checking the news or seeing occasional posts on Facebook. Since then, with Trump’s erratic, aggressive and autocratic behavior and the Republicans’ unceasing attacks on our government and their efforts to transfer ever more money from working Americans to the rich, it has become much more difficult – and more important – to find our way through the weekly onslaught of news. To get ourselves grounded in the facts and to prepare for the week of action ahead, we provide this weekly summary of critical events to help us cut through the distractions and stay focused and informed as we fight to preserve our democracy.