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Friday Talking Points -- As The Clown Car Empties

[ Posted Friday, October 11th, 2019 – 17:22 UTC ]

The amusing thing about a circus clown car is, of course, that just when you think that itty-bitty car couldn't possibly vomit forth any more clowns... a few more climb out. That's what this week's news of the arrest of two "clients" of Rudy Giuliani (Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman) as they were attempting to flee the country certainly felt like.

As for the label "clowns," it is not actually one we can claim original credit for. Now, we know it's way too soon for our annual awards, but if we had a "Best Prediction Of 2019" award to hand out, we'd have to give it to Ukrainian business tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, described as "a figure close to [Ukrainian] President Volodymyr Zelensky." Back in May, Kolomoisky was interviewed on Ukrainian television, where he talked about the two clients of Rudy Giuliani who just got arrested fleeing the country. And he absolutely nailed it:


"They wanted to have a meeting with Zelensky and show Giuliani that they had organized everything," Kolomoisky said. "A big scandal may break out, and not only in Ukraine, but in the United States. That is, it may turn out to be a clear conspiracy against Biden."

That was back in May, mind you. At an unspecified date, Kolomoisky also went into much more scathing detail about the two to a Ukrainian news outlet:

"Look, there is Giuliani, and there [are] two clowns, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were milking the bull here. They are Giuliani's clients," Kolomoisky told the Ukrainska Pravda website. "They came here and told us that they would organize a meeting with Zelensky. They allegedly struck a deal with [Prosecutor-general Yuriy] Lutsenko about the fate of this criminal case -- Burisma, Biden, meddling in the U.S. election and so on."

So, to review, the two "clowns" who seem to be at the absolute epicenter of the quid pro quo with Ukraine were just arrested attempting to flee the country -- after having lunch with Rudy hours before, at Trump's Washington hotel (you just can't make this stuff up!). They were arrested for funnelling foreign (Russian) money to American politicians (Republicans, of course), which is illegal. They face severe penalties for doing so. And they most likely were central to the whole Burisma/Biden/Ukraine quid pro quo scheme. Ordinarily, when facing prosecution, guilty people seek to cut a deal if they have knowledge of even-more-serious crimes. So what do you think their next step is going to be?

In other legal bad news for President Trump, at least two federal judges essentially laughed his legal reasoning out of court this week. One judge threw out a lawsuit Trump had brought against New York prosecutors getting copies of his tax returns, while two appeals court judges ruled that the House committee who subpoenaed Trump's financial and business records had every right to legally demand this information, again denying Trump's argument to the contrary. Both of these decisions will likely be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, hopefully on a very fast track. Yet another federal judge seems to be indicating that House Democrats will be able to get grand jury material from the Mueller probe. All around, a pretty tough legal week for Team Trump.

The New York ruling was the most scathing, as the judge took 75 pages to explain how very wrong Trump's legal reasoning was. What was truly stunning, though, was how critical the judge was of something which has become almost axiomatic -- "sitting presidents cannot be indicted" -- but which in reality is nothing more than an opinion issued long ago by the Justice Department which has never actually be challenged in any court:

In a 75-page ruling on Monday, Judge Victor Marrero, also issued a sharp rejection of longstanding Department of Justice opinions that say a president cannot be indicted or criminally prosecuted while in office, calling their conclusions "not warranted" or backed up by the authority of the courts.

Marrero said Trump's claim of "absolute immunity" from criminal proceedings is counter to the intent of the framers of the Constitution, who rejected an executive with the limitless power of a monarch. Marrero described the president's argument as "repugnant to the nation's governmental structure and constitutional values."

. . .

"The notion of... presidential immunity from judicial process that the President here invokes, unqualified and boundless in its reach described above, cuts against the grain of these Constitutional precedents," wrote Marrero, an appointee of President Bill Clinton in 1999.

. . .

"The court is not persuaded that it should accord weight and legal force the president ascribes to the D.O.J. memos," Marrero wrote.

He noted that the argument a sitting president cannot be indicted often relies entirely on these memos, which don't carry the force of law or legal precedent.

"[T]he theory has gained a certain degree of axiomatic acceptance... as though their conclusion were inscribed on constitutional tablets so-etched by the Supreme Court," he said.

Rather, Marrero said a better balance might be struck between protecting legitimate presidential interests and ensuring justice can be served -- either to the president or potential accomplices who would otherwise be shielded from prosecution. He also noted that the D.O.J. memos only speak to federal prosecution -- not state or local.

Marrero's comments on the D.O.J. memos -- which have been a feature of Trump's legal arguments against investigations into him, his company and his associates -- are some of the first made by a federal judge. And he notes that the memos based on hypothetical circumstances and "hyperbolic horrors" conjured by D.O.J. lawyers.

"In fact, not every criminal proceeding to which a President may be subjected would raise the grim specters the D.O.J. memos portray as incapacitation of the president," he argues."

Meanwhile -- and you really can't make this stuff up -- Trump is apparently considering bringing that legal heavyweight [...pause for laughter...] Trey Gowdy on board his personal legal team, mostly so he can rant and rave on television while refraining from outright admitting criminal activity (as Rudy can't seem to help himself from doing). Trey Gowdy. No, really!

Here's how Yahoo News reported the reaction from "Giuliani associate" Victoria Toensing to this news:

"He's not on the team. Trey Gowdy is not on the team. Who told you Trey Gowdy? Not to my knowledge, not to Rudy's knowledge, not Joe's knowledge," said Toensing, who had not heard of the move at the time of her interview with Yahoo News on Wednesday morning. "I have to check that with Rudy because that would be a joke, because we all don't think much of him," she said of Gowdy, adding, "Are you kidding?... Trey is a joke among us."

Got that? Even the clowns are laughing at this move. Just when you think that clown car has got to be empty, another one climbs out into the spotlight.

But while the clowns continue to emerge, at least one person is heading for the exits:

Michael McKinley, a career diplomat and senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has resigned his position amid rising dissatisfaction and plummeting morale inside the State Department over what is seen as Pompeo's failure to support personnel ensnared in the Ukraine controversy.

Now that the impeachment inquiry has gained steam, the news media is uncovering new shocking stories on an almost daily basis. Here are just a few from the past week:

At least four national security officials were so alarmed by the Trump administration's attempts to pressure Ukraine for political purposes that they raised concerns with a White House lawyer both before and immediately after President Trump's July 25 call with that country's president, according to U.S. officials and other people familiar with the matter.

The nature and timing of the previously undisclosed discussions with National Security Council legal adviser John Eisenberg indicate that officials were delivering warnings through official White House channels earlier than previously understood -- including before the call that precipitated a whistleblower complaint and the impeachment inquiry of the president.

At the time, the officials were unnerved by the removal in May of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, by subsequent efforts by Trump's lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani to promote Ukraine-related conspiracies, as well as by signals in meetings at the White House that Trump wanted the new government in Kiev to deliver material that might be politically damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

More details of the withheld aid emerged as well:

Political appointees in the White House budget office intervened to freeze aid to Ukraine despite some career staffers raising concerns that the move was improper, people briefed on the matter said.

Acknowledging some of the concerns, White House budget aides eventually disclosed to other government officials that the money was being frozen outside of the normal "apportionment" process. But they didn't give officials at the State Department or other agencies a reason the money was being withheld, or who had initially made the decision to freeze it, after substantive discussions about whether the move was legal.

And Energy Secretary Rick Perry took a turn on the hot seat, after it was revealed that he was pushing for one of his buddies to be appointed to the board of a Ukrainian gas company -- which is, incidentally, the same thing Hunter Biden did that's got Rudy and Trump in such a tizzy:

Among other changes, Perry pushed for Ukraine's state-owned natural gas company Naftogaz to expand its board to include Americans, two people familiar with the matter said. Two longtime energy executives based in Perry's home state of Texas were among those under consideration for that role, one source familiar with the administration's dealings with the company said.

Then there was the news that then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was also caught up in Trump and Giuliani trying get some favors through Trump's peripatetic foreign policy:

Trump urged Tillerson in an Oval Office meeting to try to craft a diplomatic "deal" to stop the U.S. case against Reza Zarrab on corruption charges in exchange for concessions from Turkey. The request shocked the then-secretary of state, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations involving the president.

At the time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was personally lobbying Trump to get the charges dropped.

Trump, in turn, repeatedly raised the topic with Tillerson -- including directly in the Oval Office meeting, according to people with knowledge of the episode.

The president was joined in the Oval Office by two of Zarrab's attorneys, Giuliani and Michael Mukasey, a former attorney general under President George W. Bush who proposed swapping the trader for an American pastor in Turkish custody, according to two people familiar with the meeting.

"The president says, 'Guys, give Rex your pitch,' " according to one of the people.

Tillerson was so unsettled by the extraordinary request to intervene in an ongoing criminal investigation that he complained to then-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly that he believed it was inappropriate, according to a former administration official. Kelly told him to disregard it, the official said.

Other developments include 17 former members of the Watergate special prosecutor team who signed a public letter baldly stating that we have already heard enough to impeach Trump any old time now:

We, former members of the Watergate special prosecutor force, believe there exists compelling prima facie evidence that President Trump has committed impeachable offenses. This evidence can be accepted as sufficient for impeachment, unless disproved by any contrary evidence that the president may choose to offer.

Andrew Card, President George W. Bush's White House chief of staff, agrees that the House is right to move forward: "I do think that an impeachment inquiry is warranted. Clearly lines have been crossed."

And 90 former national security officials -- including some who served under Donald Trump -- signed a letter supporting both the whistleblower and the whistleblower process.

Meanwhile, a poll showing a majority of Americans not only want Trump impeached but also removed from office (convicted in the Senate, in other words) was released from Fox News. Trump lit into them in his own version of "Et tu, Brute?" (although he likely wouldn't understand that reference).

But all of that (and it's a lot to take in) wasn't even the worst "Trump phone call to foreign leaders" news this week. The one that caused a revolt among Republicans was a call to the leader of Turkey, where Trump just laid down and did Turkey's bidding:

Donald Trump got "rolled" by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a National Security Council source with direct knowledge of the discussions told Newsweek.

In a scheduled phone call on Sunday afternoon between President Trump and President Erdogan, Trump said he would withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria. The phone call was scheduled after Turkey announced it was planning to invade Syria, and hours after Erdogan reinforced his army units at the Syrian-Turkish border and issued his strongest threat to launch a military incursion, according to the National Security Council official to whom Newsweek spoke on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. withdrawal plays into the hands of the Islamic State group, Damascus and Moscow, and the announcement left Trump's own Defense Department "completely stunned," said Pentagon officials. Turkey, like the United States, wants regime change in Syria. Russia and Iran support the Assad regime.

"President Trump was definitely out-negotiated and only endorsed the troop withdraw to make it look like we are getting something -- but we are not getting something," the National Security Council source told Newsweek. "The U.S. national security has entered a state of increased danger for decades to come because the president has no spine and that's the bottom line."

This was a bridge too far for many Republicans, but we're saving their reactions for the talking points.

We know this introduction is already far too long, but there are two stories we have to close on which deserve a lot more attention than they have so far gotten. The first is the fact that there may have been an earlier quid pro quo with Ukraine. After all, the timing does look rather suspicious, in retrospect:

Democrats pursuing an impeachment inquiry of President Trump want to take a fresh look at whether the sale of anti-tank missiles to Kyiv last year was in any way connected to Ukraine's decision to halt investigations into Trump's campaign chairman.

The renewed interest in the circumstances surrounding the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles -- long coveted by Ukraine as a way to fend off Russian aggression in the east -- has been spurred by revelations about the Trump administration's dealings with the newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky. It raises the prospect that the president, or his aides, may have been pressuring the Ukrainian government in exchange for political favors far earlier than previously known.

. . .

Trump's July 25 phone call with Zelensky -- in which he urged him to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and issues surrounding the 2016 election, all while withholding military assistance aid to Kiev -- and the concurrent pressure placed on Zelensky by U.S. diplomats has led some Democrats to view the Javelin sale in a new light.

The U.S. completed its shipment of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine in May 2018, finalizing a sale that was pushed by lawmakers in both parties and reluctantly approved by Trump in November 2017. In April 2018, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered Ukraine's top anti-corruption prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko -- who'd been tasked with investigating corruption that occurred under former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych -- to stop cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller.

Mueller, at that point, was investigating former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's work for Yanukovych in Ukraine and his ties to Russia.

The second one is unrelated to foreign policy, and is really breaking news since the book hasn't even hit the shelves yet. Hopefully, the authors' book tour will help shine a light on this situation, because it deserves as much media attention as possible:

For the first time in a century, the nation's richest billionaires are paying a lower tax rate than working-class Americans, according to an analysis in a forthcoming book.

The wealthiest 400 families paid an average effective tax rate of 23% last year -- the second year of President Donald Trump's new tax law -- while the bottom half of all American households paid an average rate of 24.2%, according to the study.

The superwealthy paid a lower rate than any other income group, according to an analysis in the new book "The Triumph of Injustice," by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California at Berkeley. Saez and Zucman both have collaborated with Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on their proposals for taxing wealth.

The tax rate for America's wealthiest in 1950 was 70%. In 1970, the "richest Americans paid, all taxes included, more than 50% of their income in taxes -- twice as much as working-class individuals," the authors wrote in the book. "In 2018, following the Trump tax reform, and for the first time in the last hundred years, billionaires have paid less than steel workers, schoolteachers and retirees."

In other words, it's even worse than you may have imagined. The system is indeed rigged, and Trump and the Republicans are the ones who have rigged it for the wealthiest among us. We fully expect these facts to immediately become part of the stump speeches of both Warren and Sanders.

 

Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week

Elizabeth Warren has had a pretty impressive week all around. She briefly bested Joe Biden in the Real Clear Politics polling averages, and from all accounts she turned in a pretty good performance at an L.G.B.T. town hall last night, including a brilliant answer to a hypothetical person telling her that their faith teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman: "Well, I'm going to assume it's a guy who said that, and I'm going to say: 'Then just marry one woman. I'm cool with that -- assuming you can find one.' "

But instead we're going to give the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award this week to Jane Fonda, who just got herself arrested on the Capitol steps for launching a climate change protest. Fonda said she was inspired by Greta Thunberg and that she'll be protesting in the same place for the next 14 Fridays.

From a HuffPost report:

"We have to be sure that the crisis that is climate change remains front and center like a ticking time bomb," Fonda told the outlet. "We don't have very much time, and it's really urgent."

The Academy Award winner and lifelong activist was apparently inspired by Swedish youth climate activist Greta Thunberg. At 16, Thunberg has already become a major force in raising public awareness about the dangers of climate change and delivered a powerful speech to world leaders at the United Nations climate summit last month.

Thunberg's words informed Fonda's decision to move to Washington for four months and spend every Friday attending "Fire Drill Friday," which ABC News reports is "a weekly event featuring scientists, celebrities and activists addressing the various facets and impacts of climate change."

Fonda is 81 years old, which only goes to prove that standing up for climate change is important for all ages to do. For doing so in such a notable fashion, Jane Fonda is this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

[Congratulate Jane Fonda on her own contact page, to let her know you appreciate her efforts.]

 

Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week

Once again, we find that no Democrat seriously disappointed us all week long. There was an awkward moment or two during the L.G.B.T. town hall from Joe Biden (who started talking about "gay bathhouses" and "round-the-clock sex"), but it's only really cringeworthy if you take these quotes out of context, since Biden finished up with: "Come on, man. Gay couples are more likely to stay together longer than heterosexual couples" -- the point he was really trying to make. We just don't find that that rises to the level of even a (Dis-)Honorable Mention, when you read his full remarks.

As always when we put the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award back on the shelf until next week, feel free to make your own nominations down in the comments, in case we missed someone obvious.

 

Friday Talking Points

Volume 546 (10/11/19)

This was a week consumed by not only Donald Trump but by Republican reactions to his brand-new Turkey/Syrian Kurd policy. The blowback was swift and severe, even reaching to one of the bedrocks of Trump's base, evangelicals. Pat Robertson stated this week that Trump "is in great danger of losing the mandate of Heaven" for abandoning the Kurds, which is a pretty brutal thing for him to say about Trump.

Trump tried to counter this opposition with one of the most self-glorifying tweets he's ever written (which, for him, is saying a lot):

As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I've done before!).

Twitter, of course, had a field day over the "great and unmatched wisdom" of Trump.

But the condemnation was indeed notable from Republicans, who up until this point have shied away from such directly confrontational tactics against Trump. Many Republicans are still trying to dodge the question of whether sitting U.S. presidents should be allowed to solicit dirt on their political opponents from foreign governments, as this "profile in waffling" from Cory Gardner shows. But on the Syrian question, they all (well, except for staunch isolationist Rand Paul) overcame their fear of Trump to denounce him in the strongest possible terms. Below are the seven most notable denunciations from the past week (culled from a number of separate media reports).

 

1
   Lindsey's not a happy camper

First up, we have Senator Lindsey Graham, who pulled his head out of Trump's hindquarters to criticize his Dear Leader's decision. As icing on the cake, after saying the following to (of all people) the Fox And Friends morning show, Graham later succinctly tweeted: "Ensures ISIS comeback. Forces Kurds to align with Assad and Iran. Destroys Turkey's relationship with U.S. Congress. Will be a stain on America's honor for abandoning the Kurds." Ouch.

This impulsive decision by the president has undone all the gains we've made -- thrown the region into further chaos. Iran is licking their chops. And if I'm an ISIS fighter, I've got a second lease on life. So to those who think ISIS has been defeated, you will soon see.

And to Turkey: You've destroyed the relationship -- what little you had -- with the U.S. Congress, and I will do everything I can to sanction Turkey's military and their economy if they step one foot into Syria. I hope I'm making myself clear how shortsighted and irresponsible this decision is, in my view.

 

2
   If he's lost Fox And Friends...

Astonishingly, one of the Fox And Friends hosts, Brian Kilmeade, largely agreed with Graham's criticism:

The reason why our casualties were so low is because the Kurds did all the fighting. Now we're saying, "OK, Turks, go wipe them out or force them out." What kind of message is that to the next ally that wants to side with us? ... Again, we're abandoning our most loyal allies. Who did all our fighting? All we did is arm them, and they did all the work. And now we say, "Good luck. Good luck surviving."

 

3
   McCain calls Republicans "feckless, unpatriotic cowards"

Meghan McCain then spoke up on The View, although it's doubtful Trump saw it when it aired.

I'm going a little bit rogue. But I've been so mad this morning and so upset about this news that we are abandoning our Kurdish allies in the Middle East. These are allies of ours that American soldiers are still continuing to fight alongside. All we did was arm them, and they fought for America.

Right now we're just saying we're just going to leave them and abandon them, and to everyone in the White House and every Republican who was mad President Obama pulled out of Iraq: you feckless, unpatriotic cowards. I cannot believe this is where we're at diplomatic-wise, and I cannot -- what message is this sending to our allies and to our American troops who have fought and died for this, and I cannot believe I'm waking up in the morning seeing this kind of news.

 

4
   Mitt chimes in

Mitt Romney joined the dogpile on Twitter:

The President's decision to abandon our Kurd allies in the face of an assault by Turkey is a betrayal. It says that America is an unreliable ally; it facilitates ISIS resurgence; and it presages another humanitarian disaster.

 

5
   Marco Rubio predicts regional war

Marco Rubio wasn't happy, either, and also vented both on Twitter and in interviews.

It would confirm #Iran's view of this administration & embolden then to escalate hostile attacks which in turn could trigger much broader & more dangerous regional war.

[The Syrian Kurds] actually fought on the ground. They had people dying. To just abandon them like that so the Turks can come in and slaughter them is not just immoral, it taints our reputation all over the world. It's a terrible mistake. We'll have to think of what options there are. I'm sure the Senate will, potentially, take some vote to disagree with that decision.

 

6
   Liz Cheney also calls on Senate to act

Not to be outdone by the McCain offspring, Liz Cheney joined in the fray:

President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria is having sickening and predictable consequences. [Congress] must and will act to limit the catastrophic impact of this decision.

 

7
   Envoy who quit has the final word

Brett McGurk used to be the American envoy to the global coalition fighting the Islamic State (before he resigned in disgust last year), and he blasted Trump for (among other things) having "a complete lack of understanding of anything happening on the ground."

Trump made a similarly impulsive decision when I was managing the policy. Trump tonight after one call with a foreign leader provided a gift to Russia, Iran, and ISIS.

Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm's way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.

There's a similar defect at the core of US foreign policies across the board: maximalist objectives for a minimalist president combined with no process to assess facts, develop options, or prepare contingencies. Our personnel are left exposed at the slightest moment of friction.

-- Chris Weigant

 

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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground