“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
— Maya Angelou
Following Tuesday’s national embarrassment, a disgusting display of attempted bullying, there is a lot to think about. Probably, Donald J. Trump acted the role of the out of control drunk at the end of the bar because he knew he could not win a debate. He does not have control of the facts, has barely put together a complete sentence in his entire term, and knows that former Vice President Joe Biden has plenty of experience in such a format. Mr. Trump was probably not concerned about criticism for telling more lies — he has already accumulated over 20,000 documented lies since his inauguration — but he was concerned about losing. The answer was to blow it all up, burn the place down, and attempt to look “strong” in an attempt to make Mr. Biden look weak. He failed in every respect and in the process broke the rules of democracy and decorum and deprived the American public of the chance to assess both candidates, their policies, and their fitness for the job.
With all of the outrageous statements and shenanigans, two stand out above all and should alert every one of us to the clear and present danger to our country that exists in the persona of Mr. Trump. We need to look no further than his two statements near the end of the debate. When given the opportunity to clearly and forcefully condemn the antics, tactics and goals of white supremacists, he demurred. (“The Proud Boys: stand back and stand by.”) Indeed by all accounts by those that follow such things, the white supremacist groups took his answer as a call to arms. (Several incorporated the words into their new logos and one leader tweeted out “Standing by sir!”) Even on Wednesday as Mr. Trump claimed he did not know, then or now (really? c’mon man!), who the Proud Boys were, he still passed up the opportunity to publicly condemn white supremacists.
The second issue was his continued declarations that if he lost the election it was only because it was rigged against him. In other words, he will accept no other result than his own victory and explicitly said that he didn’t know if he would allow for a peaceful transition of power should he lose. Tuesday night he said that he is “urging his supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” If Mr. Trump sees “thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.” When asked about what he meant by that he said “it means you have a fraudulent election.” When asked specifically if he would warn his supporters against “civil unrest” and tell them to keep calm if the vote counting goes on longer than Election Day, he refused.
So let’s put this all together and then see what he, and unfortunately Attorney General William Barr have been saying over the last few weeks.
First, on Tuesday night Mr. Trump gave a green light to white supremacists and other supporters to use violence if the election goes for Mr. Biden. Additionally, he told his supporters to engage in voter intimidation by going to polling places to keep people from voting or to claim voter fraud if they are not allowed into the polls (in most states poll watchers have to be certified and there are rules about their behavior).
Please do not say that Mr. Trump did not really mean what he said or that his words are being overly exaggerated. He knew exactly what he was doing. More importantly, the folks on the receiving end of his message know what he meant and will act on it, regardless of what “he meant to say.” He encourages vigilantes and is a major league fearmonger. There are people that believe him. So get real. The threat to a fair and open election is staring us in the face.
As I have written in this space before, autocrats tell you exactly what they are going to try and do before they do it. Mr. Trump is no exception.
Here is the playbook as I see it.
Mr. Trump’s goal is to make things look so bad that he can claim, as he already has, that he alone can fix it. As the pandemic continues to spread, the economy is ready to take another hit (today alone 35,000 airline employees are set to be laid off), schools are mostly still remote, demonstrations continue across the land, and golly, no one can even rely on the Postal Service anymore. All of this and more creates a sense of crisis.
In a crisis, people want action. By demonstrating that he is not afraid to break the rules — be it holding a political convention on the White House lawn or not abiding by debate rules — he is attempting to demonstrate that he is willing to do anything. Anything. Rules, norms, laws do not apply in a crisis and he is not afraid to throw all of them out the window to achieve “results.” Without a bit of shame as to the illogical nature of his argument, he now tends to claim that things are so bad now (remember, he has been the president for the last four years and precipitated many of these crises himself), he needs a second term to restore order. He argues that Democrats are the real problem and that they want anarchy. “Law and Order” is required to bring back the America you love (read: white male Christian dominated society). Contempt for the law is part of the message. It is necessary to get things done. Straight textbook Autocracy 101.
He knows he is losing, so now he needs to bring it all home by suppressing the vote for Mr. Biden, and claiming that the election was a fraud.
In recent weeks he has railed against any and all mail-in ballots as being rigged. He continually claims that all vote counting must stop on Election Night. The Attorney General went on CNN and claimed that foreign entities were going to counterfeit absentee ballots and other cheaters were going to pay people for their votes, buy up blocks of blank ballots and fill in Mr. Biden’s name. Indeed he even implied that postal workers might do that.
And on and on. The point? They are trying to lay the ground work for a legal challenge to the election results when Mr. Trump loses. I suspect that they will have people try to forge ballots and pay for ballots and send in lots of crudely duplicated ballots in order to prove their point. They are telling us what they are going to do. Add to that some nut cases or groups of nut cases (I’m looking at you white supremacists) that hear that a county election office threw out some ballots (does not have to actually happen, just put it out over social media and they will come) and they storm the building to confiscate the “illegal” ballots.
The number of scenarios are vast. We already know that Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr have no bottom for shameful and immoral behavior. The only goal is to retain power. Mr. Trump cannot stand the thought of losing — especially since he may end up going to jail in the not too distant future. Mr. Barr is on some bizarre crusade to shape American society in the way that he thinks it should function and Mr. Trump is his blunt instrument to achieve his ends.
All of it sets up the conditions for a legal (yes legal) attempt to steal the election. I am not a Constitutional law expert and I am not an attorney. My understanding is it can work as follows:
- Claim that the results in certain swing states (enough to give Mr. Trump a win) are suspect because of all the “illegal” ballots that were submitted by mail and because of improprieties at voting places. Remember that Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr have already encouraged voters in North Carolina and Pennsylvania to vote twice. Those two men know that is illegal, but if enough people try it, it really gums up the works and they can also claim that legitimate voters were turned away at the polls.
- Go to the courts to invalidate the election results in enough precincts to change the state’s electoral outcome. If that doesn’t work, go to state legislatures and claim that the Electors voted into the Electoral College from that state were illegitimately determined. Under the law, state legislatures determine the Electors and certify their validity to the Congress. Many states have laws that the legislature must certify Electors as voted on by the people, but not all. Additionally, the laws are often vague and some experts believe that the courts could decide in favor of legislatures over those voted on by the people. Reports from Pennsylvania already reveal that members of the Trump Campaign have talked to the leaders of the the Republican controlled legislature to do just that.
- If the courts do not rule as to which slates of Electors are the legitimate ones, or the states decide to send the competing slates to the Congress, the Electors seated in the College are determined by a vote in the Congress. The House and the Senate both vote. Although new Representatives and Senators will be seated by then, Vice President Pence will still be the tie breaker in the Senate.
- Should the House and the Senate vote to seat different slates of Electors, then the vote goes back to the House, but with different rules. In this vote, each state votes as a block. One state, one vote. Thus South Dakota has as much power to decide the president as does New York. Even though the Democrats have a large majority in the House, when decided on a state by state basis, currently 26 have Republican majorities (or only one Representative from that state) and 22 have Democrats. The other two are split.
- Meanwhile a parallel effort will go in in the courts. If it makes it to the Supreme Court the result could go either way. However, Mr. Trump specifically mentions Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as the ninth justice he “needs” in order to “win” in the Court. In her pre-hearing submission to the Senate answering a host of questions, she indicated that she would not recuse herself from any 2020 election cases that may come to the court.
Many people compare all of this to the 2000 election and the “hanging chads” in Florida. Historically, it is closer to the election of 1876 where Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote and came up one Electoral College vote shy of winning that over Republican Rutherford Hayes. The electoral slates of three Southern states were in dispute and the decision came to the Congress. After deliberation and the formation of a bipartisan commission comprised of Representatives and Senators, and the departure of the lone tie-breaking independent on the commission, replaced by a Republican, the disputed Electoral College votes were awarded to Mr. Hayes to give him a one vote Electoral College win. In exchange for giving up their candidate, the Democrats secured the end of Reconstruction in the South. It was a shameful and dirty chapter in the history of our country.
I am concerned that we may face another Constitutional crisis in this election. Barring an overwhelming landslide in favor of Mr. Biden, I think that we may be in for a long final three months of the year full of unrest and probable violence.
Mr. Trump makes it abundantly clear that he has no qualms about ignoring the Constitution and bringing the full weight of the Federal Government to preserve his power. One pundit likened it to the old saying that “if I’m going down I’m taking all of you with me.” In his Attorney General he has an accomplice that will help him bend the law if not outright ignore it in the name of allegedly preserving the safety and security of our city streets.
Meanwhile we have a Republican Senate that has lost its backbone, its allegiance to the Constitution and its voice. The president might Tweet about me!
We must all vote. We must all be vigilant. We must all be vociferous in our opposition to such a blatant attack on our Constitution.
I take solace in the fact that there are still good upstanding Americans in our midst. For the scenario to unfold as I’ve sketched it here, an awful lot of people would have to go along with what is clearly a power grab by a budding autocrat and his cronies. I have faith that enough people along the way will stand up to the bully and refuse to compromise or cooperate.
God Bless America.
Last Friday, Attorney General William Barr announced that the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller was complete. Yesterday, Mr. Barr put out a summary of the Mueller Report that some likened to a book report because it was very short on content and long on unanswered questions. There was some good news for our country in his summary.
According to Mr. Barr, Mr. Mueller did not find evidence of any conspiracy or criminal cooperation between the Trump Campaign or the President of the United States and the Russian Federation or any others associated with that country to rig the election. Very good news, indeed.
Let that sink in for a minute as you contemplate what it would mean had Mr. Mueller found that the president did conspire with a foreign adversary to win the election. We as a country would be in a very difficult place today had the result of the investigation been different. At the same time, think what a low bar that is. Never in the roughly 240 years of our national existence has there been any need to investigate such a matter. It was inconceivable. Yet, today, celebrations ensue that the president did not sell his soul to the Russians. At least politically. But let’s take a big sigh of relief that it is a positive outcome.
Also good news is that Mr. Mueller was able to finish his investigation without undue interference. Or at least it appears that way, with one known exception that I will address below. I have faith in Mr. Mueller and his thoroughness (read Mr. Barr’s letter to see just how thorough). In my estimation, he is a man of integrity who carried out his mission as he saw it and did not seem to be distracted by the circus atmosphere the president created. (Mr. Trump owes him an apology. Instead last night he continued to attack him and the investigation in his public statements and on Twitter. Shameful.) From the Attorney General’s letter, it also seems that Mr. Mueller took a very narrow view of his assignment and focused primarily on Russian interference. As we have already seen, other crimes or unsavory activities were farmed out to the presiding jurisdictions for action. It remains to be seen what else may arise from other federal and state district attorneys but there are no new indictments, announced or sealed, pending from Mr. Mueller directly.
There are many, many caveats and unanswered questions that hang over the whole report. First and foremost is the fact that no one has seen it outside of a few people in the Department of Justice (DOJ). Neither we as citizens nor our representatives in the House and Senate have seen it. We do not really know what it says — only what Mr. Barr says it says. By releasing his letter as he did, he gave Mr. Trump and his supporters a very big political win. Everything that comes after, no matter how damning it may or may not be, will be considered “sour grapes” or otherwise discounted. I happen to believe that there will be considerable evidence of wrong doing within the Trump Organization and the Trump Campaign that we will find to be unacceptable behavior from a presidential candidate but may not rise to the level of criminality or a provable conspiracy. Why all the lying about Russia? By lots of folks at different times and in different places including countless Russia lies by Mr. Trump himself? My own opinion is that the lying was covering up financial relationships and business deals between members of the Trump family and organization and various nefarious Russian oligarchs and entities. Again, perhaps not criminal (although such a great volume of lying to the people of the United States should have some consequence), but at best inappropriate and unseemly. We just do not know and will not know until the report is available to all.
Remember that despite Mr. Trump’s claim that he was “totally exonerated” by Mr. Mueller he was not. Concerning possible obstruction of justice, Mr. Mueller did not make a decision. Mr. Barr’s letter quoted directly from the Mueller Report to say that regarding obstruction, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” I will be one of several million Americans that will want to know how that non-decision came about. It is curious that a seasoned, respected, courageous prosecutor would collect a very thorough number of facts and then take a pass on recommending whether or not it reached the level of criminality. What gives? The context of Mr. Mueller’s remarks in this regard will be very important. This is where we don’t know if there was undue influence on the investigation. Was he told not to make a decision? Why did Mr. Barr make a decision that there was no obstruction of justice if the investigator did not say so? Attorney General Barr wrote a long legal dissertation about the investigation even before he was nominated to the position (some critics opine that it was his try-out and audition for the office in that he caught the president’s attention with it). In it he stated his belief that a sitting president could not obstruct justice while carrying out the prescribed duties of the office. (Such as firing the FBI director.) Some in Congress and elsewhere are worried that the “fix was in.” In their view, Mr. Barr was hired to protect Mr. Trump from liability in just such a case. Without the supporting documentation, we cannot know what transpired. Unfortunately, Mr. Barr muddied the waters of an investigation that was meant to clear things up. If we knew the context of Mr. Mueller’s “pros and cons” regarding obstruction, we may even find that his intent was to outline the road map for Congressional inquiries and possible action. Mr. Barr seems to have tried to short-circuit that possibility. In my view that was a political decision made in the president’s favor rather than a legal one that should have been left to Mr. Mueller.
Lost in the Tweets and punditry is the fact the report apparently concludes that the Russians did meddle in the election with the intent of helping Mr. Trump — or at least with the desired impact of helping to defeat Secretary Hillary Clinton in the general election. This should be a major focus of those purporting to want to serve our country. How did they do so? What recommendations are there for stopping or at least limiting future interference? If the president accepts the results of the conspiracy investigation why does he still refuse to acknowledge that the Russians did interfere even as every knowledgeable person in the intelligence agencies and the Congress say that they did? This should be the basis of serious action on the part of the administration and the Congress to protect the 2020 election. Will that happen in the midst of the political brouhaha that is occurring daily?
Pressure will be brought to stop further oversight by the House committees looking into the actions of the president and his aides as well as on the District Attorneys looking into possible illegal activities undertaken by the Trump Organization and Kushner, Inc. Those investigations should continue. Despite claims by Mr. Trump and his supporters, Mr. Mueller’s report does not seem to touch on those activities. If they were illegal or unethical, the public should know. If they are not, then it would seem that the Trump family would want that information to be forthcoming as well.
There is an awful lot that we do not know about the Mueller Report. Right now, no one outside of the DOJ even knows how many pages it is or the depth of the supporting documentation. With 19 lawyers, 40 FBI agents, 2,800 subpoenas, 500 search warrants, 500 witnesses and other investigative work behind the report, it should be substantial and detailed. But we don’t know what we don’t know and there is no clear indication from the DOJ as to when or how much of the report will be made available.
Finally, while I do not really see the parallels between Mr. Trump and President Richard Nixon, I will merely point out that the Watergate scandal and investigation lasted a very long time. The original break-in occurred in June 1972. In October 1972 the FBI began to uncover the extent of the nefarious campaign efforts. In May 1973 the Senate Watergate Committee began its hearings and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox was sworn in to investigate. In May 1974 the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings (whether or not to do it). In July 1974 on a bipartisan vote the House committee approved three articles of impeachment (the first was for obstruction of justice, the second was for misuse of power and not fulfilling his oath as president, and the third was for failure to comply with subpoenas). In August 1974 the president resigned. He was never impeached.
My purpose in relating this bit of info is not to advocate for impeachment but merely to say that the completion of the Mueller Report is only the beginning of the search for the truth about what did or did not happen. It takes a long time.
Unfortunately, I think that the way Mr. Barr released selected excerpts from the full report will only serve to harden the positions of those that support Mr. Trump as president and those that think he has conducted himself improperly in the White House. Nothing has been fully settled except — thankfully — the president and his aides did not directly conspire with the Russians to throw the 2016 election.
It seems to me that a lot is still on the table and that this is only the beginning of more to come. I fear that given Mr. Trump’s proclivity to lean towards autocracy, that the idea that he was “exonerated” and the victim of a “witch hunt” will only embolden him and reinforce his worst instincts.
I hope that I am wrong.