Yesterday President Biden wrapped up his European trip by meeting with Vladimir Putin. It was a very different spectacle than the one in 2018 in Helsinki when the former guy humiliated himself and our country by rolling over for the Russian president.
The New York Times: A tale of two summits: Trump at Helsinki, and Biden at Geneva.
Helsinki, Finland, was where President Donald J. Trump had his own first face-to-face meeting with the Russian president, and the moment was highly anticipated, given the investigations then taking place into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its reported ties to Mr. Trump’s campaign.
The meeting offered the American president a ripe opportunity to denounce the Kremlin on a public stage. He did not.
Instead, standing by Mr. Putin’s side, Mr. Trump dismissed the conclusions by U.S. intelligence agencies about Russian meddling and said, in essence, that he believed the Russian president’s denials as much as he believed his own intelligence advisers.
“They said they think it’s Russia,” Mr. Trump said. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.” For good measure, he said, “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Trump met alone with Russian president for 2 hours, and we still don’t know what happened between the two men. In contrast, Biden was open about his meeting with Putin.
“Where we have differences,” he said just moments into the news conference, “I wanted President Putin to understand why I say what I say, and why I do what I do, and how we’ll respond to specific kinds of actions that harm America’s interests.”
Mr. Biden said, “I told President Putin my agenda is not against Russia or anyone else. It’s for the American people.”
And he declared: “I also told him that no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have in our view. That’s just part of the DNA of our country.”
To that end, he cited the jailing of the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, and the detentions of two Americans in Russia.
Mr. Biden also offered a warning on cyberattacks.
“I pointed out to him: We have significant cyber-capabilities — and he knows it,” the president said.
Edward Luce at The Financial Times: Biden politely reads riot act to Putin.
Summitry, contrary to a former British prime minister, is nothing like tennis. The outcome is rarely “game, set and match”. By the wide-eyed standards of Joe Biden’s last four predecessors, all of whom held ill-fated summits with Vladimir Putin, Biden went into this one with low expectations.
There were no illusions about his meeting of minds with the Russian leader, let alone souls. The modesty of Biden’s goal — to stabilise relations with America’s chief military adversary — conveyed a realism that eluded earlier presidents.
All of which is far less exciting for the world media. Biden did not praise Putin’s ability to restore Russian freedom and prosperity, as Bill Clinton did in 2000 shortly after Putin was elected president. Nor did he get a sense of Putin’s soul, as George W Bush claimed in 2001, and trust what he saw. He did not aim for an ambitious “reset” of US-Russia relations, as Barack Obama fatefully did in 2009. Most notoriously Biden’s tone was a million miles from the one-man admiration society Donald Trump brought to Helsinki when he met Putin alone in 2018.
After more than two decades in power, this Russian bear was unlikely to change its habits. Biden’s aim is to coax and cajole Putin into a moderately less dangerous stance. That goal is more difficult than it sounds. At home, Biden faces derision from Republican and some foreign policy specialists for even meeting Putin. The act of sharing a stage with America’s president is seen as an unearned reward for an adversary who sponsors regular cyber attacks on the US, not to mention waging information warfare on western democracy.
Read the rest at FT.
Max Boot at The Washington Post: Opinion: Biden wiped the smirk off Putin’s face.
Biden established an easy rapport with his fellow democratic leaders at meetings with the Group of Seven, the European Union and NATO. “I think it’s great to have the U.S. president part of the club and very willing to cooperate,” French President Emmanuel Macron said. As a congenial insider, Biden was able to accomplish far more than a testy outsider such as Donald Trump ever could. Biden got fellow leaders to agree on a 15 percent global corporate minimum tax, on sending 1 billion doses of covid-19 vaccines to the developing world (not enough, but a start), on speaking out about the challenge posed by China, and on settling a long-festering European-American trade dispute over aircraft subsidies….
The meetings with allies were, in some sense, merely a prelude for meeting with one of the United States’ most effective foes — Vladimir Putin. One cannot imagine a starker contrast between Biden and his predecessor than in their handling of the Russian strongman. At Helsinki in July 2018, then-President Trump simpered and cowered. In a low point of a presidency with more low points than Death Valley, Trump accepted at face value Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denials of complicity in the 2016 election attack. Putin emerged from that meeting smirking like the cat that swallowed the canary.
As the historian Michael Beschloss noted, there was no such grin on Putin’s lips when he did his solo press conference after meeting with Biden on Wednesday. While Putin engaged in his usual dishonesty and whataboutism — he compared his jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny with the prosecution of the Capitol rioters — his manner was subdued and far from triumphant. He attacked the United States but was careful not to insult Biden personally. He even compared the current president favorably to his predecessor: “President Biden is an experienced statesman. He is very different from President Trump.” (Ouch. That’s got to sting for Putin’s biggest fanboy in the United States.)
In his own remarks, Biden struck all the right notes. He made clear that he raised human-rights concerns with Putin. “How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights?” he asked. It is almost unimaginable — had we not just witnessed the Trump presidency. Biden said he told Putin that, if Navalny dies in a Russian prison, the consequences would be “devastating for Russia.” He said he also raised Russia’s complicity in cyberattacks, its interference with humanitarian aid in Syria, and its invasion of Ukraine (he expressed support for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”), while holding out the hope of cooperation on the Iranian nuclear program, stability in Afghanistan, nuclear arms control and other issues.
Now that he’s back home, Biden will sign a bill to create a new national holiday. The Washington Post: Congress votes overwhelmingly to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The day commemorates the end of slavery in Texas in 1865.
Revelations just keep on coming about Trump’s crazy efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The New York Times and CNN have obtained emails that show how the White House tried to get the Justice Department to investigate insane claims about election conspiracy theories, including a baseless theory about Italian satellites changing votes.
Katie Benner at The New York Times: Trump Pressed Official to Wield Justice Dept. to Back Election Claims.
An hour before President Donald J. Trump announced in December that William P. Barr would step down as attorney general, the president began pressuring Mr. Barr’s eventual replacement to have the Justice Department take up his false claims of election fraud.
Mr. Trump sent an email via his assistant to Jeffrey A. Rosen, the incoming acting attorney general, that contained documents purporting to show evidence of election fraud in northern Michigan — the same claims that a federal judge had thrown out a week earlier in a lawsuit filed by one of Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers.
Another email from Mr. Trump to Mr. Rosen followed two weeks later, again via the president’s assistant, that included a draft of a brief that Mr. Trump wanted the Justice Department to file to the Supreme Court. It argued, among other things, that state officials had used the pandemic to weaken election security and pave the way for widespread election fraud.
The draft echoed claims in a lawsuit in Texas by the Trump-allied state attorney general that the justices had thrown out, and a lawyer who had helped on that effort later tried with increasing urgency to track down Mr. Rosen at the Justice Department, saying he had been dispatched by Mr. Trump to speak with him.
The emails, turned over by the Justice Department to investigators on the House Oversight Committee and obtained by The New York Times, show how Mr. Trump pressured Mr. Rosen to put the power of the Justice Department behind lawsuits that had already failed to try to prove his false claims that extensive voter fraud had affected the election results….
The documents dovetail with emails around the same time from Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, asking Mr. Rosen to examine unfounded conspiracy theories about the election, including one that claimed people associated with an Italian defense contractor were able to use satellite technology to tamper with U.S. voting equipment from Europe.
Benner reports much more insanity in this article. Here’s just a bit more:
Much of the correspondence also occurred during a tense week within the Justice Department, when Mr. Rosen and his top deputies realized that one of their peers had plotted with Mr. Trump to first oust Mr. Rosen and then to try to use federal law enforcement to force Georgia to overturn its election results. Mr. Trump nearly replaced Mr. Rosen with that colleague, Jeffrey Clark, then the acting head of the civil division.
Mr. Rosen made clear to his top deputy in one message that he would have nothing to do with the Italy conspiracy theory, arrange a meeting between the F.B.I. and one of the proponents of the conspiracy, Brad Johnson, or speak about it with Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer.
“I learned that Johnson is working with Rudy Giuliani, who regarded my comments as an ‘insult,’” Mr. Rosen wrote in the email. “Asked if I would reconsider, I flatly refused, said I would not be giving any special treatment to Giuliani or any of his ‘witnesses’, and reaffirmed yet again that I will not talk to Giuliani about any of this.”
The emails also provide new detail into how Mark Meadows, then-White House chief of staff, directed Rosen to have then-Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark — who reportedly urged Trump to make him acting attorney general instead of Rosen — investigate voter fraud issues in Georgia before the US attorney there resigned in January.
Amid the pressure, Rosen said he refused to speak to Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani about his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
When Meadows sought to have Rosen arrange an FBI meeting with a Giuliani ally pushing a conspiracy theory that Italy was using military technology and satellites to somehow change votes to Joe Biden, Rosen said he would not help Giuliani.
“I flatly refused, said I would not be giving any special treatment to Giuliani or any of his ‘witnesses,’ and re-affirmed yet again that I will not talk to Giuliani about any of this,” Rosen wrote to Donoghue.\The new emails provide additional detail to reports earlier this month from CNN, The New York Times and others on Meadows’ emails to Rosen after the election, which revealed how the top White House aide had urged the Justice Department to take action for Trump’s benefit. The emails included a list of complaints about voting procedures in New Mexico, alleged “anomalies” in a Georgia county and the claims about Italian satellites.
The emails also show how Trump directed allies toward Rosen, who had been named acting attorney general following Barr’s December 2020 resignation after Barr had publicly said there had not been widespread fraud in the election.
Kurt Olsen, a private attorney, reached out to John Moran at the Justice Department on December 29 requesting a meeting with Rosen, promising he could meet at the Justice Department with an hour’s notice. He attached a draft complaint modeled after the Texas Supreme Court lawsuit unsuccessfully challenging the election results in four states, and wrote in a follow-up email that Trump directed him to meet with Rosen to discuss the US bringing a similar action.
“The President of the United States has seen this complaint, and he directed me last night to brief AG Rosen in person today to discuss bringing this action,” Olsen wrote. “I have been instructed to report back to the President this afternoon after the meeting.”
The same day, Trump’s White House assistant also forwarded the draft complaint to Rosen and Donoghue to review, saying it had also been shared with Meadows and White House counsel Pat Cipollone.
By the end of the year, it was clear Rosen and Donoghue had tired of the pressure campaign from the White House.
At least it’s good to know there was pushback from some Trump appointees.
The insanity continues in Arizona and elsewhere. Will Sommer at The Daily Beast: Republicans Now Want to ‘Audit’ Election Results in States That Trump Won.
In the wake of the Arizona audit’s success at grabbing publicity across right-wing media, Republican lawmakers in states that Trump won are demanding Arizona-style audits or other election inspections of their own.
The Republican hunt for voter-fraud evidence even in states that voted for Trump reveals how far inside the party the idea has spread that the election was stolen.
Focusing on fraud claims allows Republican officials to raise money and attention from devoted Trump supporters, according to former Republican National Committee communications director Doug Heye. It also helps lawmakers align themselves with Trump’s claims of widespread fraud, ingratiating themselves with the energized Trump grassroots as they try to claim more power in the party.“
This is about two things, and these are symbiotic,” Heye said. “The continued fealty for all things Trump, and placating the base or the portion of the base that still can’t accept a clear loss.” [….]
The prospect of audits that could somehow dispute Biden’s electoral college win have become articles of faith for Trump supporters unable to get over the former president’s defeat, as Republican-held legislatures across the country use a sense that the election was stolen to push voting restrictions across the country. Some Republican voters have also become fixated on a “domino theory” about the election, which holds that if Arizona’s audit finds fraud in their election, other states that voted for Biden will fall like dominos.
In other news, today the Biden administration released a “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.” You can read the White House statement at that link.
The New York Times: Biden Administration Forms Blueprint to Combat Domestic Extremism.
The Biden administration is aiming to bolster information sharing with technology companies, potentially expand hiring of intelligence analysts and improve screening of government employees for ties to domestic terrorism as part of a much-anticipated plan expected to be released on Tuesday detailing how the federal government should combat extremism.
President Biden ordered the review of how federal agencies addressed domestic extremism soon after coming into office, part of an effort to more aggressively acknowledge a national security threat that has grown since the Capitol riot on Jan. 6.
The 32-page plan synthesizes steps that have been recommended by national security officials — including bolstering relationships with social media companies and improving information sharing among law enforcement agencies — into one blueprint on how to more effectively identify extremists in the country after years of heightened focus on foreign terrorists.
“We cannot ignore this threat or wish it away,” Mr. Biden wrote in the strategy document. “Preventing domestic terrorism and reducing the factors that fuel it demand a multifaceted response across the federal government and beyond.”
The new strategy was widely expected to detail a position on whether the government should establish a domestic terrorism law that prosecutors could use to investigate and charge homegrown extremists instead of relying on assault, murder and hate crime charges. The strategy instead indicates that the administration is focused for now on bolstering methods of combating extremism already used by the government, despite Mr. Biden calling for such a law during the presidential campaign.
The White House has published its first ever national strategy for countering domestic terrorism five months after a violent mob stormed the US Capitol in Washington.
The framework released on Tuesday by the national security council describes the threat as now more serious than potential attacks from overseas but emphasises the need to protect civil liberties.
Anticipating Republican objections that Joe Biden could use counterterrorism tools to persecute supporters of Donald Trump, the strategy is also careful to state that domestic terrorism must be tackled in an “ideologically neutral” manner.
It cites examples such as “an anti-authority extremist” ambushing, shooting and killing five police officers in Dallas In 2016; a lone gunman (and leftwing activist) wounding four people at a congressional baseball practice in 2017; and an “unprecedented attack” on Congress on 6 January.
“They come across the political spectrum,” a senior administration said on a media conference call. “We acknowledge the shooting at the congressional baseball, the attack on police officers in Dallas, just as we acknowledge the attack in Charlottesville and the attack on the Capitol on January 6.
“So it’s not motivating politics or ideology that matters for us or, more importantly for the strategy and its implementation. It’s when political grievances become acts of violence and we remain laser focused on that.”
Of course Biden is in Europe right now, and he will meet with Vladimir Putin soon. David Rothkopf at The Daily Beast: Here’s What Biden’s Team Expects From His Meeting With Putin.
The political world and the media have zeroed in on President Joe Biden’s meeting this week with Vladimir Putin as the most important diplomatic event in which this young administration has participated. But the truth is that the heaviest diplomatic lifting with regard to the US-Russia relationship, and American national security, will have already taken place before the meeting in Geneva begins—or it will come in its wake.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that Biden would be arriving at the Geneva meeting “with the wind at his back.” What he meant by that, according to a senior official traveling with the president, is that “in many respects, the most important part of the president’s message to Putin will have been made in the days before the meeting.” The official cited the achievements associated with Biden’s meetings with the U.K. leadership, G7 leaders, his NATO counterparts and top officials from the EU.
Trump not only distinguished himself from all previous American presidents by publicly bending the knee before his political sponsor Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, on Twitter and whenever he had the chance, the only coherent part of Trump foreign policy was that he effectively rejected three-quarters of a century of U.S. history by seeking to dismantle the international order America had tried to build since World War II. He attacked our allies. He condemned NATO. He disparaged the EU. And whenever he was given a chance, he rewarded Putin despite his invasion of Ukraine, his murder of his opponents (including on foreign soil), his freelancing in Syria, his efforts to erode the west’s relationship with Turkey and more.
Biden has been one of those who helped build the international system Trump attacked. He has been committed to undoing the damage Trump did. Just in the last week, Biden announced an effort to revitalize the Atlantic Charter, mended ties within the G7, made an unprecedented pledge of 500 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine as part of the G7’s commitment to provide 1 billion doses to needy nations worldwide, and re-engaged with our allies on terms more consistent with the pro-democracy, anti-autocracy message of our past.
Read the rest at The Daily Beast.
That’s it for me. What’s on your mind today?
I don’t know why I keep reading articles about the lab-leak theory. It’s not that I necessarily believe it’s true. I certainly don’t believe that a virus was created or modified in the Wuhan lab and then released into the population. I do think it’s possible that a researcher picked up a virus in the field and somehow carelessly infected someone on the outside. I still think the most likely scenario is the cross species (animal-to-human) route, because that clearly happens. I guess I’m just interested in why the argument has arisen in the media and won’t go away.
Anyway, there’s an interesting article on the subject at The Atlantic this morning: Don’t Fall for These Lab-Leak Traps. Recent coverage of the pandemic’s origins has ensnared readers in semantic quibbles, side points, and distractions, by Daniel Engber. I won’t try to summarize the piece because it’s so long, but here’s a bit of what Engber writes about what he calls “the mad scientist trap.”
The lab-leak theory isn’t singular; rather, it’s a catchall for a continuum of possible scenarios, ranging from the mundane to the diabolical. At one end, a researcher from the Wuhan Institute of Virology might have gone out to sample bat guano, become infected with a novel pathogen while in the field, and then seeded it back home in a crowded city. Or maybe researchers brought a specimen of a wild-bat virus back into the lab without becoming infected, only to set it free via someone’s clothes or through a leaky sewage pipe.
The microbiologists Michael Imperiale and David Relman, both former members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, told me several weeks ago that lab-leak scenarios of this rather more innocent variety—involving the collection and accidental release of a naturally occuring pathogen—were the most probable of all the non-natural possibilities. Yet the most prominent opinionating on this topic has clustered at the other end of the continuum, at first around the dark-side theory of a bioweapon gone awry, and then around the idea that a harmless virus had been deliberately transformed into SARS-CoV-2 (and released by accident) after a reckless series of tabletop experiments.
That’s another pitfall in this debate: a tendency to focus only on the most disturbing and improbable versions of the lab-leak hypothesis, and to downplay the rest. The mad-scientist trap sprays a mist across the facts by presuming scientific motivations; it posits that researchers could have caused the pandemic only if they’d been trying to create infectious pathogens.
Efforts to enhance a virus in a lab, usually described as “gain of function” studies, have engendered hyperbolic speculation….
The problem is, depending on how one chooses to define gain-of-function research, it could well include most virological research, some forms of vaccine development, and a healthy portion of biology writ large. Anytime a scientist tries to probe or tweak the function of a gene, she could be working in this vein. In that sense, yes, the National Institutes of Health is a “huge gain-of-function bureaucracy.” So what?
One might assume that the single-minded fear of gain-of-function research is peculiar to conservatives—sitting, as it does, at the shadowy convergence of Big Government and Critical Frankenstein Studies. But the urge to blame scientific hubris for scientific problems, as opposed to farcical incompetence, seems to have long-standing, bipartisan support.
This trap was last sprung seven years ago. In March 2014, a CDC lab accidently shipped the highly virulent H5N1 bird flu to a poultry lab at the Department of Agriculture. Then in June, another CDC lab sent off samples of the bacteria that cause anthrax without properly inactivating them—and 75 government employees were potentially exposed. A few weeks after that, scientists at NIH stumbled across six vials of smallpox in a forgotten cardboard box. Regulators had every reason to believe that accidental laboratory leaks of naturally occurring pathogens were more common (and more likely) than genetic-engineering studies gone awry. But when confronted with all this evidence that scientists were slipping on banana peels, the government looked at other risks instead: It announced a pause on gain-of-function research.
We’re in the process of defaulting to the same idea—that better biosafety might be achieved, and the next pandemic headed off, if we prevent or slow the development of genetically engineered bananas. That might only help ensure that no one thinks too hard about the odds of slapstick-fueled catastrophe. We may yet find, with more investigation, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and other places like it around the world, is positively strewn with banana peels. If that’s the case, our first and most important goal should be to clean them up. In the meantime, don’t be fooled by false antonyms. The opposite of nature isn’t hubris, and if SARS-CoV-2 turns out not to have a “natural” origin, that doesn’t have to mean someone made it in a lab.
Sorry for the long excerpt, but I do think it’s a useful article. Read more at the link if you’re interested.
The New York Times has an article on this morning’s eclipse: Highlights From the ‘Ring of Fire’ Solar Eclipse at Sunrise.
Just after sunrise over the eastern half of North America, the sun was almost completely blotted out by the moon for a few dawn hours in an annular solar eclipse.
During such an eclipse, the black silhouette of the moon — too far from Earth to completely cover the sun — will be surrounded by a thin ring of our home star’s surface, or photosphere. Many know this as a “ring of fire,” but few will get to experience the full effect.
The eclipse started after sunrise north of Lake Superior and began crossing remote regions of Canada, on its way into Greenland and the Arctic Ocean before going over the North Pole. Its course then heads south before ending in parts of the Russian Far East.
Still, some lucky souls got to experience this cosmic geometry, and a few were even intrepid and well organized enough to book airplane flights into the zone of maximum darkness. Many more of us got to experience a partial solar eclipse if we woke up early to clear enough skies….
It was dark and windy as the visitors spread out across the 86th floor observation deck 1,050 feet above midtown, adjusting camera lenses and perfecting positions as they waited for the sun to appear.
When the sky began to lighten and clouds turned shades of fuchsia pink, attendees of the event, who had paid $114.81 each to be there, could be overheard begging the skyline to clear up so there would be a better view….
Finally, the sun rose and the eclipse was visible — if a little hazily — through the cloud cover.
“You could hear the entire audience react at the first viewing of the sun,” said Jean-Yves Ghazi, president of the Empire State Building Observatory. “Everybody was gasping and it was absolutely magical.”
Read more at the link.
From Stephen Collinson at CNN on Biden’s first foreign trip: Why Biden’s foreign trip is so unique and so important.
No US President has ever left the nation’s shores with democratic values under attack as broadly and systemically at home as they are abroad. This extraordinary reality will complicate his mission to purge the trauma of the Donald Trump era and convince both foes and friends that the US is reclaiming its global leadership role for good.
Biden meets British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday before the G7 summit, makes a hop to NATO in Brussels, then has a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva that will evoke the most tense days of the Cold War.
“We’re going to make it clear that the United States is back and democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges,” Biden told US troops at an air base in eastern England on WednesdaFor Biden, democracy is not just some abstract concept from civics class that Americans experience only when they enter the voting booth every few years.
It is a system, a way of life and a set of rules and norms that made the United States the strongest and richest country in history. The free, prosperous nations the US rebuilt and protected after World War II faced down communist tyranny in the form of the Soviet Union and underwrote 70 years of peace. This web of open, like-minded countries is also the key to America’s global power. If democracy ebbs abroad, so does US influence.
The rise of a new superpower, China, determined to overhaul US riches and power is becoming a grave threat to democracy, and offers potential autocrats an alternative power template of one-party rule.
Russia — the adversary that Biden will confront at the end of his Europe trip — meddled in the last two US elections to help Trump, who often seemed to advance its foreign interests over America’s.
But the most extraordinary feature of Biden’s trip is that he’s not an American President going out to confront tyranny abroad — that’s happened before. He’s huddling with US allies at a moment when the greatest threat to democracy comes from within the United States.
The world looked on, horrified, at the insurrection against the US Capitol orchestrated by Trump in January. Since then, the ex-President has poisoned millions of Americans against democracy with his false electoral-fraud claims. Republican state lawmakers are quickly passing bills that make it harder for all but their own supporters to vote and make it easier to steal elections. The principle that voters have the right to pick their own leaders is under threat.
I don’t see how U.S. democracy can be saved unless Trump and his enablers are investigated and prosecuted. It’s also vitally important to investigate the insurrection that Trump incited on January 6, 2021. There are endless avenues of corruption to deal with from Trump’s four years in office, but here’s the latest to hit the news (actually is old news…).
Adam Klasfeld at Law and Crime: ‘Point of No Return’: Don McGahn Told Congress How Close Trump Came to ‘Inflection Point,’ Another ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’
In a fit of pique over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, former President Donald Trump almost reached an “inflection point” and “point of no return” that would have set in motion a Richard Nixon-style “Saturday Night Massacre,” ex-White House Counsel Don McGahn recently told Congress behind closed doors.
The just-released transcript of McGahn’s closed door testimony before the House Judiciary Committee contains a series of new answers and elaborations on details that were publicized in the Mueller Report.
Releasing the June 4th transcript on Wednesday, Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said: “Mr. McGahn provided the Committee with substantial new information—including firsthand accounts of President Trump’s increasingly out of control behavior, and insight into concerns that the former President’s conduct could expose both Trump and McGahn to criminal liability.”
“Mr. McGahn also confirmed that President Trump lied when he denied the accuracy of the Mueller report, and admitted that he was the source for a Washington Post report that confirmed Trump’s direction to McGahn to remove the Special Counsel,” Nadler wrote in a statement.
In the transcript, McGahn explains his reluctance to convey a message from Trump pressuring then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to not allow the special counsel to serve because of alleged conflicts—a request that McGahn considered an “inflection point.”
“‘Inflection point,’ with that I meant a point of no return,” McGahn testified. “If the Acting Attorney General received what he thought was a direction from the counsel to the President to remove a special counsel, he would either have to remove the special counsel or resign. We are still talking about the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ decades and decades later.”
Have a great Thursday Sky Dancers!!
The Trump books just keep on coming. This week and next week we’re getting two very significant releases. A new book by Tim Weiner came out today. Weiner is a historian of both the FBI and CIA. His latest is The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia, and Political Warfare 1945–2020. The Washington Post published an op-ed by Weiner yesterday: The unanswered question of our time: Is Trump an agent of Russia?
The FBI faced a national security nightmare three years ago: It suspected that the new president of the United States was, in some unknown way, in the sway of Russia.
Was an agent of a foreign power in the White House? Should they investigate Donald Trump? “I can’t tell you how ominous and stressful those days were,” Peter Strzok, then the No. 2 man in FBI counterintelligence, told me. “Similar to the Cuban missile crisis, in a domestic counterintelligence sense.”
But the Cuban missile crisis lasted only 13 days — and it had a happy ending. This crisis has no end in sight. Despite the investigation by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, despite the work of congressional intelligence committees and inspectors general — and despite impeachment — we still don’t know why the president kowtows to Vladimir Putin, broadcasts Russian disinformation, bends foreign policy to suit the Kremlin and brushes off reports of Russians bounty-hunting American soldiers. We still don’t know whether Putin has something on him. And we need to know the answers — urgently. Knowing could be devastating. Not knowing is far worse. Not knowing is a threat to a functioning democracy.
The FBI’s counterintelligence agents wondered: Why did Trump invite the Russian ambassador and the Russian foreign minister into the Oval Office on the day after he keelhauled FBI Director James B. Comey — and brag about it? “I just fired the head of the FBI,” Trump told them in confidence. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Like the rest of America, the FBI learned about that conversation only from a Russian government readout. But then Trump went on television and said he had fired Comey over the FBI’s probe into ties between Team Trump and Team Putin during and after the 2016 election.
Unfortunately the counterintelligence investigation seems to have been short-circuited by the firing of Andrew McCabe and the failure of Robert Mueller to seriously investigate Trump’s connections to Russia. Here’s Weiner’s chilling conclusion:
There’s a classic story about an American agent of influence that predates the Cold War — and might presage the strange case of Donald Trump, if these questions about his relationship with Russia go dormant. Samuel Dickstein was a member of Congress from Manhattan, elected in 1922, and chairman of the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee in the 1930s. He walked into the Soviet Embassy in 1937 and offered the ambassador his services for $25,000 a year — three times his congressional salary. In exchange, he sold fake passports to Soviet spies. And he held headline-grabbing public hearings investigating Joseph Stalin’s enemies in the United States. Dickstein served 11 terms in Congress. His file lay locked up in the KGB archives for 60 years. Today, if you go down to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to the intersection of Pitt and Grand streets, you’ll be standing in Samuel Dickstein Plaza. He got away with it.
A related opinion piece from today’s Washington Post by Josh Rogin: Secret CIA assessment: Putin ‘probably directing’ influence operation to denigrate Biden.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top aides are “probably directing” a Russian foreign influence operation to interfere in the 2020 presidential election against former vice president Joe Biden, which involves a prominent Ukrainian lawmaker connected to President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, a top-secret CIA assessment concluded, according to two sources who reviewed it.
On Aug. 31, the CIA published an assessment of Russian efforts to interfere in the November election in an internal, highly classified report called the CIA Worldwide Intelligence Review, the sources said. CIA analysts compiled the assessment with input from the National Security Agency and the FBI, based on several dozen pieces of information gleaned from public, unclassified and classified intelligence sources. The assessment includes details of the CIA’s analysis of the activities of Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach to disseminate disparaging information about Biden inside the United States through lobbyists, Congress, the media and contacts with figures close to the president.
“We assess that President Vladimir Putin and the senior most Russian officials are aware of and probably directing Russia’s influence operations aimed at denigrating the former U.S. Vice President, supporting the U.S. president and fueling public discord ahead of the U.S. election in November,” the first line of the document says, according to the sources.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Treasury Department have identified Derkach as a Russian agent, but it has not been publicly reported that the CIA, NSA and FBI believed Putin may be personally directing the campaign. Derkach has denied working on behalf of Moscow.
The CIA assessment described Derkach’s efforts in detail and said that his activities have included working through lobbyists, members of Congress and U.S. media organizations to disseminate and amplify his anti-Biden information. Though it refers to Derkach’s interactions with a “prominent” person connected to the Trump campaign, the analysis does not identify the person. Giuliani, who has been working with Derkach publicly for several months, is not named in the assessment.
Read the rest at the WaPo.
Another book that is getting much more attention than Weiner’s is Andrew Weissmann’s inside account of the Mueller investigation, Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation. The book will be released next Tuesday.
George Packer interviewed Weissmann at The Atlantic: The Inside Story of the Mueller Probe’s Mistakes.
Andrew Weissmann was one of Robert Mueller’s top deputies in the special counsel’s investigation of the 2016 election, and he’s about to publish the first insider account, called Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation. The title comes from an adapted quote by the philosopher John Locke that’s inscribed on the façade of the Justice Department building in Washington, D.C.: “Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.”
Weissmann offers a damning indictment of a “lawless” president and his knowing accomplices—Attorney General William Barr (portrayed as a cynical liar), congressional Republicans, criminal flunkies, Fox News. Donald Trump, he writes, is “like an animal, clawing at the world with no concept of right and wrong.” But in telling the story of the investigation and its fallout, Weissmann reserves his most painful words for the Special Counsel’s Office itself. Where Law Ends portrays a group of talented, dedicated professionals beset with internal divisions and led by a man whose code of integrity allowed their target to defy them and escape accountability.
“There’s no question I was frustrated at the time,” Weissmann told me in a recent interview. “There was more that could be done that we didn’t do.” He pointed out that the special counsel’s report never arrived at the clear legal conclusions expected from an internal Justice Department document. At the same time, it lacked the explanatory power of last month’s bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report on the 2016 election. “Even with 1,000 pages, it was better,” Weissmann said of the Senate report. “It made judgments and calls, instead of saying, ‘You could say this and you could say that.’”
The Mueller inquiry was the greatest potential check on Trump’s abuse of power. The press gives the president fits, but almost half the country chooses not to believe the news. Congress will protect Trump as long as his party controls at least one chamber. Local prosecutors and civil plaintiffs are severely limited in pursuing justice against a sitting president. Public opinion is immovably split and powerless until the next election. Only the Special Counsel’s Office—burrowing into the criminal matter of Russian interference in the 2016 election, a possible conspiracy with the Trump campaign, and the president’s subsequent attempts to block an investigation—offered the prospect of accountability for Trump. Mueller couldn’t try the president in court, let alone send him to prison, but he could fully expose Trump’s wrongdoing for a future prosecutor, using the enforceable power of a grand jury subpoena. The whole constitutional superstructure of checks and balances rested on Mueller and his team. As their work dragged on through 2017 and 2018, with flurries of indictments and plea deals but otherwise in utter silence, many Americans invested the inquiry with the outsized expectation that it would somehow bring Trump down.
Read the rest at the Atlantic link.
Charlie Savage at The New York Times: Mueller’s Team Should Have Done More to Investigate Trump-Russia Links, Top Aide Says.
The team led by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, failed to do everything it could to determine what happened in the 2016 election, shying away from steps like subpoenaing President Trump and scrutinizing his finances out of fear he would fire them, one of Mr. Mueller’s top lieutenants argued in the first insider account of the inquiry.
“Had we used all available tools to uncover the truth, undeterred by the onslaught of the president’s unique powers to undermine our efforts?” wrote the former prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, in a new book, adding, “I know the hard answer to that simple question: We could have done more.”
The team took elaborate steps to protect its files of evidence from the risk that the Justice Department might destroy them if Mr. Trump fired them and worked to keep reporters and the public from learning what they were up to, Mr. Weissmann wrote in “Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation,” which Random House will publish next week.
While he speaks reverently of Mr. Mueller, he also says his boss’s diffidence made him ill-suited for aspects of shepherding the politically charged investigation. He saw Mr. Mueller and his deputy, Aaron M. Zebley, as overly cautious.
Mr. Weissmann also defended against accusations by the president and his allies that he and other investigators were politically biased “angry Democrats”; Mr. Weissmann said his personal views had no bearing on the crimes that Russian operatives and Trump aides committed.
And he elevates particular details — for example, emphasizing that the same business account that sent hush payments to an adult film star who alleged an extramarital affair with Mr. Trump had also received “payments linked to a Russian oligarch.” The president has denied the affair; his former lawyer Michael D. Cohen controlled the account. Mr. Mueller transferred the Cohen matter to prosecutors in New York.
More Reads, links only:
The Washington Post: Mueller prosecutor says special counsel ‘could have done more’ to hold Trump accountable.
Book review by Jennifer Szalai at The New York Times: A Prosecutor’s Backstage Tour of the Mueller Investigation.
The American Independent: Trump says coronavirus ‘affects virtually nobody’ as death toll reaches 200,000.
The New York Times: Trump Could Be Investigated for Tax Fraud, D.A. Says for First Time.
Jane Mayer at The New Yorker: A Young Kennedy, in Kushnerland, Turned Whistle-Blower.
Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats spoke out about Trump in Bob Woodward’s new book Rage; now he’s authored an op-ed in The Washington Post about the 2020 election: What’s at Stake in This Election? The American Democratic Experiment.
We hear often that the November election is the most consequential in our lifetime. But the importance of the election is not just which candidate or which party wins. Voters also face the question of whether the American democratic experiment, one of the boldest political innovations in human history, will survive.
Our democracy’s enemies, foreign and domestic, want us to concede in advance that our voting systems are faulty or fraudulent; that sinister conspiracies have distorted the political will of the people; that our public discourse has been perverted by the news media and social networks riddled with prejudice, lies and ill will; that judicial institutions, law enforcement and even national security have been twisted, misused and misdirected to create anxiety and conflict, not justice and social peace.
If those are the results of this tumultuous election year, we are lost, no matter which candidate wins. No American, and certainly no American leader, should want such an outcome. Total destruction and sowing salt in the earth of American democracy is a catastrophe well beyond simple defeat and a poison for generations. An electoral victory on these terms would be no victory at all. The judgment of history, reflecting on the death of enlightened democracy, would be harsh.
The most urgent task American leaders face is to ensure that the election’s results are accepted as legitimate. Electoral legitimacy is the essential linchpin of our entire political culture. We should see the challenge clearly in advance and take immediate action to respond.
Coats argues that Congress should form a bipartisan commission to protect voting and ensure that Americans will see the results of the election as legitimate. Unfortunately, there’s almost no chance that Congressional Republicans would go along with such a project. They clearly support Trump’s goal of a “rigged” election.
At Vanity Fair, Chris Smith reports on Joe Biden’s preparations for dealing with election interference by Trump and his personal attorney Bill Barr: “We’re Not Going To Let Donald Trump Steal This Election”: Democrats Are Strategizing For All-Out Warfare.
Donald Trump, true to form, is stoking chaos, trying to undermine faith in the accuracy of November’s election. He has floated stationing armed guards at the 2020 polls and maintained a steady stream of lies about “rigged” mail-in ballots. Joe Biden’s counteroffensive is shaping up to be equally in character: It relies on his trust in rational process and in projecting calm. It’s a strategy that makes a great deal of sense—and also feels quaint considering Trump’s evil genius for asymmetrical warfare.
Biden has solicited the help of two former solicitors general, one former attorney general, and a small army of attorneys, building up its own law firm to beat back Trump’s attempts at voter suppression both before and after Election Day. Those lawyers are assisting in the legal battles already playing out in courts across the country that will shape the rules about whose votes get counted—in the words of Democratic strategist Brian Fallon, the “mini Bush v. Gores.” The lawyers and the vast voter-protection program being rolled out by the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee are designed to do two things: ensure that all legitimate votes are counted, and bolster Democratic turnout by raising confidence that their votes will be counted. Biden’s second tactic is more subtle, and riskier: By not engaging directly and loudly with Trump’s claims of rampant fraud, Team Biden believes it will reduce the potency of the president’s frenetic disinformation.
We’ll see. We all remember how the Supreme Court installed George W. Bush in 2000.
When Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor and a cofounder of the Transition Integrity Project, brought together dozens of party veterans, pollsters, and media players to simulate outcomes, only one scenario—a Biden landslide—led to a fairly orderly transfer of power. The rest devolved into a constitutional crisis mixed with street violence. “The Democratic elites, God bless them, have had a lot of faith, historically, in institutions and the law,” Brooks says. “But our exercises underscored the tremendous advantage the first mover has in a disputed election, and the tremendous structural advantage of incumbency….The president can have Bill Barr initiate a politically motivated investigation. And I think we can expect all kinds of efforts, legal and extralegal, to stop the counting and to challenge mail-in ballots.”
The Biden campaign and the DNC certainly see all the potential for Trumpian mischief—and Ron Klain, one of Biden’s longtime senior advisers, was a senior adviser to Gore in 2000. So the campaign has constructed “the largest election-protection program in presidential campaign history,” a Biden strategist says. Biden allies have met with major media executives, urging them to be cautious in calling states on election night when millions of mail-in ballots will have yet to be processed. Another hopeful sign is that the Biden campaign is leaning on the expertise of Stacey Abrams and Lauren Groh-Wargo, who managed Abrams’s 2018 run for Georgia governor and now runs Fair Fight, the group Abrams founded to push for, well, fairness in elections.
Read the whole thing at Vanity Fair.
Meanwhile, Bill Barr has come out as a full-on fascist. He seems to be working overtime to out-Trump Trump. Remember how Barr helped clear Lafayette Square so that Trump could have a photo-op with a bible? The Washington Post reveals more details about that episode: Federal officials stockpiled munitions, sought ‘heat ray’ device before clearing Lafayette Square, whistleblower says.
Hours before law enforcement forcibly cleared protesters from Lafayette Square in early June amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd, federal officials began to stockpile ammunition and sces that could emit deafening sounds and make anyone within range feel like their skin is on fire, according to an Army National Guard major who was there.
D.C. National Guard Maj. Adam D. DeMarco told lawmakers that defense officials were searching for crowd control technology deemed too unpredictable to use in war zones and had authorized the transfer of about 7,000 rounds of ammunition to the D.C. Armory as protests against police use of force and racial injustice roiled Washington.
In sworn testimony, shared this week with The Washington Post, DeMarco provided his account as part of an ongoing investigation into law enforcement and military officers’ use of force against D.C. protesters….
DeMarco’s account contradicts the administration’s claims that protesters were violent, tear gas was never used and demonstrators were given ample warning to disperse — a legal requirement before police move to clear a crowd. His testimony also offers a glimpse into the equipment and weaponry federal forces had — and others that they sought — during the early days of protests that have continued for more than 100 days in the nation’s capital.
DeMarco, who provided his account as a whistleblower, was the senior-most D.C. National Guard officer on the ground that day and served as a liaison between the National Guard and U.S. Park Police.
[Emphasis added.] Recall that Barr was seen inspecting the protests before officers attacked the crowd. Now Barr wants to charge protesters with trying to overthrow the government and actually suggested criminally charging the mayor of Seattle. The New York Times: Barr Told Prosecutors to Consider Sedition Charges for Protest Violence.
Attorney General William P. Barr told federal prosecutors in a call last week that they should consider charging rioters and others who had committed violent crimes at protests in recent months with sedition, according to two people familiar with the call.
The highly unusual suggestion to charge people with insurrection against lawful authority alarmed some on the call, which included U.S. attorneys around the country, said the people, who described Mr. Barr’s comments on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
The attorney general has also asked prosecutors in the Justice Department’s civil rights division to explore whether they could bring criminal charges against Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle for allowing some residents to establish a police-free protest zone near the city’s downtown for weeks this summer, according to two people briefed on those discussions. Late Wednesday, a department spokesman said that Mr. Barr did not direct the civil rights division to explore this idea….
During a speech on Wednesday night, Mr. Barr noted that the Supreme Court had determined that the executive branch had “virtually unchecked discretion” in deciding whether to prosecute cases. He did not mention Ms. Durkan or the sedition statute.
“The power to execute and enforce the law is an executive function altogether,” Mr. Barr said in remarks at an event in suburban Washington celebrating the Constitution. “That means discretion is invested in the executive to determine when to exercise the prosecutorial power.”
More stories on Bill Barr’s latest crazy rantings:
Steve Benen at MSNBC: AG Bill Barr’s election deceptions go from bad to worse.
The Washington Post: Barr accuses Justice Department of headhunting and meddling with politics.
A couple more related stories:
Neal Kaytal and Joshua Geltzer at The New York Times: This Is How Bad It’s Gotten at the Justice Department.
In his time as the head of the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr has alienated many federal prosecutors. The latest appears to be Nora Dannehy, a longtime prosecutor who has resigned from the department, where she was part of a team looking into the Russia investigation.
We don’t know for sure exactly what happened; she isn’t talking, nor is Mr. Barr. But The Hartford Courant, which broke the story, reported that Ms. Dannehy’s colleagues said that she departed because of Mr. Barr’s politicization — in particular, because Mr. Barr is evidently eager to break drastically with past practice and issue an incomplete report intended to help President Trump in his re-election efforts.
Her resignation looks like part of an extremely troubling pattern. Earlier this year, highly respected prosecutors in the Michael Flynn and Roger Stone cases dramatically resigned or withdrew. One of them testified to Congress that the Justice Department under Mr. Barr was treating Mr. Stone “differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president.” The Justice Department inspector general has opened an investigation.
When civil servants resign, skeptics often ask what difference one person really can make by leaving. The answer is simple: a lot. Ms. Dannehy’s departure isn’t just likely a major assertion of integrity by her; it’s also a big problem for Mr. Barr — and therefore for Mr. Trump.
Head over to the NYT to read the rest.
Julia Davis at The Daily Beast: Russian Media Is Rooting for Civil War in America: ‘The Worse, the Better.’
State-controlled media’s slant is a telling indicator of the Kremlin’s leanings. To imagine the relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his massive media apparatus, one may reference the coziness between Sean Hannity and Trump—and magnify that intensity tenfold, with directives flowing only from the top down. Obsessed with retaining his dominance and fully realizing the power of propaganda, Putin leaves nothing to chance….
Russian lawmakers, state media experts and pundits on tightly-choreographed TV shows openly reveal that the Kremlin is still rooting for Trump. But Moscow has a growing concern that this time around, their preferred candidate might lose. Appearing on a state TV show The Right To Know, Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-funded propaganda networks RT and Sputnik, said about Trump’s chances of re-election: “I think Trump will lose, but then I think there will be a major blow-up from the standpoint of accepting or not accepting the outcome of the election. They’ll be battling over that for a long time, who knows how it might end.”
Having openly wished for Trump to drive the United States into civil war, Russian state media figures are now relishing that idea with renewed enthusiasm. They believe it would destabilize America to such an extent as to undermine its very sovereignty, thereby untying the Kremlin’s hands to wreak even more havoc upon the Western world. Appearing on Russia’s state TV show The Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, analyst Dmitry Drobnitsky explained his belief that U.S. elections “can be considered America’s internal affairs only up to the point when an actual civil war starts there.” The idea of a coup d’état seems all but inevitable, Drobnitsky argued: “The loser in this election would be an idiot to accept the outcome.”
Russian state media repeatedly echoed Trump, who is doing the Kremlin’s bidding by attacking the legitimacy of the 2020 elections, falsely suggesting that mail-in voting is completely fraudulent, and that Democrats are rigging the process to falsify the outcome. There is no doubt that the Kremlin would align with Trump in case of a contested election, as the groundwork for accusing the Democrats of fraud has been laid in advance.
Russian state media analysts also make no secret as to the Kremlin’s preferred candidate. Writing for the newspaper Kommersant, Dmitry Kosyrev, political columnist for state media outlet RIA Novosti, pondered: “Is Trump ours?” This popular refrain can be interpreted in one of several ways: to signify Russia’s hold over the American president, to express that Trump’s position is in perfect alignment with that of the Kremlin—meaning, “he is on our side”—or to signal Russia’s preference: “He is the one we choose.”
Things are getting really scary. Unbelievably, this year’s election will likely be much worse than 2016. I don’t know what more to say. I guess we just have to take it one day at a time, and hope that Biden and the Democrats have the guts to stand up for democracy.
Take care, Sky Dancers!