It has been a busy week. First the good news.
For the third time I was an Election Judge (poll worker, but sworn in as a judge in this state because of the decision-making that may be needed). Once again it was a very long day with no respite, but worth it. At our location, everyone, Republican, Democrat or Unaffiliated, was uniformly cheerful, friendly, and appreciative of their role to play in our democracy. It was refreshing in the current era to see the best parts of our republic.
In my state, Maryland, one of the “bluest” in the country, we re-elected a Republican Governor for the first time in decades. At the same time, the Democrat controlled state legislature gained more seats for the Democrats and voters re-elected our Democrat Senator and Representatives. I consider that a positive sign as well. In the first year of the Governor’s term, he tried to push legislation through that did not have the support of the representatives. At the same time, some of the legislation the Democrats wanted was turned back by the Governor. The same old story? In this case, no. Both the Governor and the legislative leaders realized that nothing would be accomplished if they didn’t — wait for it — compromise on the issues. That does not mean it was all unicorns and rainbows, there were some knock down, drag out battles over certain issues. On the whole, however, both parties recognized that compromise was necessary in order to accomplish meaningful results. Consequently, most of those involved, including an unheard of for this state second term for a Republican Governor, returned to office. (To put it in perspective, he is only the second Republican Governor in Maryland since Spiro Agnew — Richard Nixon’s first Vice president. The last two term Republican Governor was Theodore McKeldin first elected in 1951.)
I was looking forward to writing an entirely positive piece in this space and was feeling better about the state of affairs in our country after the election. After all, the House would now have oversight over the excesses of the Executive Branch for the first time in two years.
It lasted less than twenty-four hours. Then came the bad news. In duplicate.
Wednesday night another mass shooting of innocent victims occurred. This time in Thousand Oaks California, considered the third most safe city in the country, according to FBI statistics. Mostly students out for a break in the routine and a little dancing were gunned down. Another needless tragedy that is becoming increasingly too common. According to the Gun Violence Archive, this was the 307th mass shooting in the U.S. in 2018. (They define a mass shooting as four or more people shot in one incident — not necessarily all deaths.) Another in a long line of sad days for too many families and for all of us as citizens. Perhaps the new Congress will finally address common sense gun laws that are supported by a majority in the country across all party lines.
Earlier that day the president gave what can only be described as a bizarre press conference that was either an attempt at showing that he would not change his habits and methods despite a significant defeat at the polls or a deliberate attempt to be bizarre in an effort to change the news cycle away from the success the Democrats had at the polls.
More significantly, he fired (yes, fired, when the president asks for a resignation it is not a voluntary action to resign) Attorney General Jeff Sessions Wednesday afternoon. It was not so surprising that he did so, as he had been saying he would for well over a year, but it was unsettling that he did so less than twenty-four hours after the polls closed. To some extent, it is what it is. I was no fan of Mr. Sessions, but I did respect that he stood up to the president over the ongoing Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by the president. Mr. Sessions did the right thing to recuse himself in accordance with the ethics of the situation and the rules of the Department of Justice (DOJ). Mr. Trump never got over the fact that someone in his administration did the right thing. He constantly asked where was “his Roy Cohn” — an Attorney General that should defend him personally and shield him from investigations, rather than work for the American people in upholding the principles of the Constitution. (You may remember that Roy Cohn was Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer and mentor. Mr. Cohn started his public career as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Chief Counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. Mr. Cohn is the person responsible for teaching Mr. Trump to always “hit back twice as hard” against any accusations and “deny, deny, deny” — never apologize or admit to a mistake.)
The real bad news was not necessarily in the departure of Mr. Sessions. The shocker was the person Mr. Trump named as his successor. Mr. Trump’s intent to stop the Mueller investigation is reflected in his choice.
In a move that many Republican and Democrat Constitutional scholars consider against the law, Mr. Trump got his Roy Cohn by appointing Matthew Whitaker as the Acting Attorney General. Mr. Whitaker is not a Senate confirmed official, which is the basis for many scholars and experts to consider his appointment to be illegal. The normal sequence of events would be for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to become the Acting Attorney General. Conceivably, Mr. Trump could have appointed another Senate confirmed official as the Acting AG but he did not do that. Why, you ask? I do not know what goes on in Mr. Trump’s mind, but I can guess.
This is a bit down in the weeds, which I think Mr. Trump believes most people don’t care about, but this turn of events is serious and with long-lasting impact. I will attempt to explain why, as succinctly as possible.
Mr. Rosenstein has been the supervisory official for the Mueller investigation. Mr. Trump has been at odds with him for nearly two years about that investigation. He wants to put someone into the DOJ as Acting AG in order to have someone in place to over rule Mr. Rosenstein and to inhibit, if not derail or eliminate, the Mueller probe before it indicts one of his family (the odds are high that Mr. Donald Trump Jr. is in Mr. Mueller’s sights) or comes back with a report saying that the Trump Campaign did conspire with the Russians to influence the election and then Mr. Trump obstructed justice in an attempt to cover it up and/or protect his family and business interests.
Legal scholars not only think Mr. Whitaker is an invalid appointee, but they also mostly agree that should he stay in the position, he must recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation because of his extensive public remarks stating that he does not believe anything happened between the Trump Campaign and the Russians. Oh, and that there was not obstruction of justice. Unfortunately, before being briefed on the investigation or before talking to the ethics attorneys in the DOJ, Mr. Whitaker has expressed that he will not recuse himself. Of course not. Mr. Trump would not have appointed him if he did. Preposterously, today Mr. Trump claimed to reporters that he did not know Mr. Whitaker, even though Mr. Whitaker often accompanied or replaced Mr. Sessions in many meetings with the president. Reportedly, since the president did not like Mr. Sessions, Mr. Whitaker often spoke to the president in his stead. My view is that some kind of quid pro quo was reached between Mr. Trump and Mr. Whitaker. The former would appoint him Acting AG with some kind of follow on appointment in the future and the latter would make sure Mr. Mueller and his investigation was severely inhibited or ended. Such an arrangement of course would be illegal and further the case for obstruction of justice.
They are birds of a feather, however. Mr. Trump is well-known for his scams, such as Trump University that took in millions of our fellow Americans money based on promises never delivered. It was forced to close down and Mr. Trump paid a hefty fine. Mr. Whitaker was on the Board of Directors of a firm that the Federal Trade Commission labeled a “scam,” shut down and fined millions of dollars. Additionally Mr. Whitaker sent threatening emails to some who complained that they were scammed. So, they have that in common.
Mr. Whitaker has been especially clear in his remarks regarding the Mueller investigation and the circumstances surrounding the president. He is right in line with the president that there is nothing there and that it is politically motivated. In fact, he has opined that the “real” investigation should be of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Here is what will happen, in my view.
- Mr. Whitaker will severely limit funding for the Mueller investigation which will curtail further work without having to actually dismiss him and effectively end the investigation.
- Mr. Whitaker further will limit Mr. Mueller’s work by prohibiting a subpoena of the president to force him to answer questions and will limit any other new avenues of investigation. (The Acting AG overseeing the investigation must approve all significant elements of the Mueller probe.)
- Mr. Whitaker will appoint a new Special Counsel to investigate Mrs. Clinton and the DNC in an effort to distract from the Mueller investigation and to give the president a new “caravan” to attack in an effort to distract the American public.
All of this will happen quickly, so that the new Democrat majority in the House has no chance to stop it before taking over in January 2019. Mr. Trump must be feeling trapped between the rock (Mr. Mueller) and a hard place (the incoming Democrats in the House). He will act out in any way possible to protect himself, his family and his business interests. He probably feels that with Mr. Whitaker as the Acting AG, he can dictate which actions the DOJ should take and how Mr. Whitaker can act to protect him. This is dangerous new territory for our country. Firing Mr. Mueller directly will cause a political firestorm that may backfire on Mr. Trump. Instead there will be delays, obfuscation and a slow strangling of the Mueller probe. The real question is how senior officials in the DOJ, starting with Mr. Rosenstein will react to this affront to our Constitution. Do they resign in mass? Do they soldier on doing the best that they can under stifling circumstances?
What about the Republicans in the Senate? Will they find a spine and stand up to the president at last? Are there any Republicans left in the Senate or have they all become Trumpists? I see little hope as Senators such as Lindsay Graham (Trumpist — SC) have gone from saying that firing Mr. Sessions would not be tolerated to supporting Mr. Trump’s action to remove him.
“If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay. Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency, unless Mueller did something wrong.” — Lindsay Graham in July 2017
“What I’ve been saying for months is every president deserves an attorney general they have confidence in and they can work with.” — Lindsay Graham in November 2018
I am not picking on Senator Graham as his remarks reflect the change in almost every Republican in Washington today. They changed from executing their oversight role to a becoming a rubber stamp of all things Trumpian, even as it defies what they say they’ve stood for their entire lives.
So for a few hours Tuesday night, I felt good about the future of our country. I still feel good about it in the long run. A few short hours later I realized that in the short run, we have a crazy ride ahead of us that will threaten the very fiber of our country. I think we will survive based on the goodwill I experienced Tuesday, but it is not going to be easy or pretty.
Hang on for a crazy trip over the next two years. It’s gonna be wild, baby!