By Robert A. Vella
On Monday night at the Democratic National Convention, former First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a momentously powerful speech in rebuke of President Donald Trump‘s callous disregard for the American people, his glaring unfitness for office, and the existential dangers he poses to democracy and civil society. Her speech was so honest, so pure in emotion, and so reflective of the public mood after nearly four years of constant turmoil, that it was widely hailed across the nation and across the ideological spectrum.
We knew that Trump watched it. We also knew that he would react quickly to it. But, his reaction yesterday was not what we expected. Instead of retaliating against Mrs. Obama with a torrent of hostility and slander as he usually does, Trump vigorously tried to defend himself against the criticism. That reaction is atypical for him and for the strongman image he portrays which always seeks the offensive and never the defensive. Obviously, Michelle’s speech had a profound effect; and, as we shall see in this post, three big developments which occurred the very next day prove it.
First, Trump quite uncharacteristically expressed some tentative support for democracy to reporters who were inquiring about the evolving crisis in Belarus (see: Trump says will talk to Russia about Belarus, protests seem peaceful). This is rather significant because Trump’s buddy Vladimir Putin is backing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who rigged the recent election there to stay in power. For Trump to buck the Russian strongman in any way, who interfered in the U.S. 2016 election and is interfering in the 2020 election on his behalf, must be seen within the context of political desperation. In other words, Trump probably didn’t want to get involved in the Belarus situation at all, but felt compelled to say something to alleviate growing fears at home that he is an autocrat and would-be dictator.
Second, the long-awaited final report from the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian interference in the 2016 election was released yesterday. The bipartisan report led by former Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-VA), which withstood numerous attacks from the Trump administration, went far beyond Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation in establishing collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. The documented details not only do more than corroborate the Mueller findings, it also undermines efforts by Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI, who heads the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee) and Attorney General William Barr (who is overseeing the DOJ investigations under John Durham) to discredit the investigative work done by Mueller and the FBI. Additionally, the report lends support to my critique of Mueller as being too timid and as failing to protect the nation from a criminal conspiracy intended to defraud it (see the end of this post). Specifically, here are the main points from the Senate report:
- Convicted felon Paul Manfort had frequent contact and shared information with Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik while he was Trump’s 2016 campaign manager.
- Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner met with at least five Russians, two of whom have been identified as Russian intelligence officers, during the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting which was intended as cooperation to get Donald Trump elected president.
- Convicted felon Roger Stone had regular contact with WikiLeaks regarding hacked Democratic Party emails known by both parties as being supplied by Russia.
- Donald Trump had constant contact with Stone concerning the emails and he lied about it to the Muller investigation (i.e. perjury), to Congress, and to the American people.
Third, Trump’s Postmaster General and loyal campaign donor Louis DeJoy announced yesterday that he is suspending changes to the U.S. Postal Service until after the November election in response to intense condemnation accusing him of illegally obstructing mail deliveries to suppress voting by mail which Trump opposes on illegitimate grounds. In reaction, Democrats are justifiably skeptical of DeJoy’s announcement and intend to continue legal and political actions against him to ensure that he complies and reverses the damage already done to the USPS.
The scenes in Belarus play awkwardly for President Trump, an admirer of autocrats and skeptic of people-power uprisings such as those seen during the Arab Spring. The president is also mired in a domestic battle over the integrity of the upcoming November election, which he contends (with no evidence) is vulnerable to fraud thanks to many voters opting to vote by mail rather than risk polling stations in the middle of a global pandemic. His opponents, meanwhile, are up in arms against the Trump-appointed postmaster general. They fear the administration’s recent policies will impair, perhaps deliberately, the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to efficiently deliver and receive ballots.
“The last thing Trump wants to do is praise ordinary citizens mobilizing against an illiberal despot about a rigged election,” quipped PostEverything’s Daniel W. Drezner.
Senate Intelligence Committee report
A Republican-controlled Senate panel that has spent three years investigating Russia’s 2016 election interference and possible ties to the Trump campaign released its final, sprawling report on Tuesday, drawing to a close one of the highest-profile congressional inquiries in recent memory.
The Intelligence Committee’s nearly 1,000-page report was expected to substantially confirm the findings of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, putting a bipartisan Senate imprimatur on a set of conclusions that President Trump and his allies — including some Republican senators and Attorney General William P. Barr — are trying to pick apart.
The report is the product of one of the few congressional investigations in recent memory that retained bipartisan support throughout. Lawmakers and committee aides interviewed more than 200 witnesses and reviewed hundreds of thousands of documents, including intelligence reports, internal F.B.I. notes and correspondence among members of the Trump campaign. The committee convened blockbuster hearings in 2017 and 2018, but much of its work took place in a secure office suite out of public view.
Portions of the report containing classified or other sensitive information were blacked out.
The Intelligence Committee released four previous volumes on its findings over the past year. The first focused on election security and Russia’s attempts to test American election infrastructure, and included policy recommendations to blunt future attacks. The second provided a detailed picture of Russia’s use of social media to sow political divisions in the United States.
Lawmakers then produced a study of the response by the Obama administration and Congress in the highly partisan run-up to the 2016 election. Most recently, they found that a 2017 intelligence community assessment, assigning blame to Russia and outlining its goals to undercut American democracy, had been untainted by politics and was fundamentally sound despite attacks on it by Mr. Trump’s allies.
Much of the Intelligence Committee investigation was overseen by Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, but he temporarily stepped aside as the chairman of the panel in May because of a federal investigation into a rush of stock sales he made before the coronavirus pandemic began rattling the United States. As they watched a similar House investigation over Russian interference splinter under partisan bickering and Mr. Trump attacked Mr. Mueller, Mr. Burr and Mr. Warner worked steadily to ensure they could come to an authoritative bipartisan conclusion. Mr. Burr voted to endorse the final conclusions.
Trump’s former campaign chairman was singled out for some of the harshest criticism by the committee, which cast the high-flying political consultant as “a grave counterintelligence threat.”
For the first time, the committee unequivocally identified Manafort business associate Konstantin Kilimnik as “a Russian intelligence officer.” The committee’s assessment of Kilimnik went further than an investigation of Russian election interference prepared by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.
Before joining the Trump campaign in March 2016, Manafort “directly and indirectly” communicated with Kilimnik, according to the Senate report, and “on numerous occasions, Manafort sought to secretly share internal campaign information” with the Russian operative.
[Roger] Stone, the self-described political dirty-trickster, gets his share of attention in the Senate report, but it is not likely to please Trump, his longtime friend.
The Senate report found that Trump spoke with Stone about back-channel efforts to communicate with the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks about the release of emails stolen by Russian hackers that were damaging to Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
Trump told Mueller’s team, in written responses to investigators’ questions, that he did not recall discussing WikiLeaks with Stone.
“Despite Trump’s recollection, the committee assesses that Trump did, in fact, speak with Stone about WikiLeaks and with members of his campaign about Stone’s access (to the group) on multiple occasions,” the report said.
Senate officials concluded that in a meeting June 9, 2016, (page 332) with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower, “it was the intent of the campaign participants in the meeting, particularly Donald Trump Jr., to receive derogatory information that would be of benefit to the campaign from a source known … to have connections to the Russian government.”
A Senate Intelligence Committee report detailing how Russia’s 2016 election interference was encouraged by President Donald Trump and his campaign raises the stakes for the current campaign at a time when Trump is openly amplifying Russian disinformation.
The newly released findings and recommendations add to US intelligence officials’ warnings that Russia continues to target the 2020 election, specifically Trump’s 2020 opponent Joe Biden.
Russian intelligence operatives were closer to top Trump campaign efforts than was previously known in 2016, the report states. The committee also documented continued disinformation from Russia-linked people well past the 2016 election –findings so alarming that the bipartisan Senate committee called for several changes to protect national security in 2020.
“Campaigns should recognize that campaign staff are attractive targets for foreign intelligence services,” the committee said.
“The threat is ongoing,” Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who chaired much of the committee’s investigation, said in a statement Tuesday. “My hope is that this report and the Committee’s work will provide the American people with more insight into the threats facing our nation and the steps necessary to stop them.”
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced Tuesday that he was suspending “longstanding operational initiatives” at the United States Postal Service, amid fears that the changes could delay election mail this fall in the middle of the pandemic.
In his statement, DeJoy asserted that “mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are” and that “overtime has, and will continue to be, approved as needed.” DeJoy’s statement does not address whether changes that have already been made — like removed equipment or changes in operational practices — would be rolled back.
Nearly 7 in 10 Americans say the US response to the coronavirus outbreak makes them feel embarrassed, according to a new CNN Poll conducted by SSRS, as 62% of the public says President Donald Trump could be doing more to fight the outbreak.
The new poll finds disapproval of Trump’s handling of the outbreak at a new high, 58%, as the share who say the worst of the pandemic is yet to come has risen to 55% after dropping through the spring. And as the virus has spread from the nation’s cities throughout its countryside, the number who know someone who’s been diagnosed with the virus has jumped dramatically to 67%, up from 40% in early June.
And Americans are angry. About 8 in 10 say they are at least somewhat angry about the way things are going in the country today, including an astonishing 51% who say they are very angry. CNN has asked this question in polling periodically since 2008, and the previous high for the share who said they were “very angry” was 35%, reached in 2008 and 2016.
My critique of Mueller (written about a year ago)
While I do appreciate the difficult position Mueller was in, not just recently in his congressional testimony but also in his role as Special Counsel, he does deserve some criticism. Let me explain.
The parallels to Watergate have been well covered, and rightly so. However, there is one huge difference today compared with 45 years ago – that is, the viability of impeachment. Back then, when Nixon’s crimes were publicly exposed, Republicans could no longer politically support him; and, that’s why he resigned. Now, after Trump’s egregiously worse crimes were at least partially exposed, Republicans saw more political risk to themselves if they didn’t continue to politically support him; and, that’s why he’s still in office. This difference relates to the much more intense cultural polarization in America today. Trump supporters see him as some sort of ideological messiah, a champion for all their angers and fears. Nixon, even at the height of his popularity, never was seen so loftily. The typical Republican of the 1970s was much more level-headed, objective, and duty-bound than the rabid version of the 2010s.
For this reason, the responsibility of holding Trump accountable fell squarely on Mueller regardless of how unfair such a position might be. I always believed that he understood this, and his testimony before Congress has confirmed my suspicions. If Mueller had accepted that responsibility to first and foremost uphold the U.S. Constitution, uphold the rule of law, and uphold the nation’s democratic principles, then he would’ve pursued his investigation and prosecutions much more vigorously and without apprehension. He would not have bypassed attention on Trump and Trump’s family. He would not have skirted around the very serious Russia collusion problem, and he would not have acquiesced to the DOJ’s arbitrary internal policy prohibiting the criminal prosecution of a sitting U.S. president. Such a heavy burden of responsibility would be unbearable for most people, and we now know that it was too much for Mueller to bear. Therefore, he is no “hero” in my view – just a relatively honorable official whose shoes were too big for him to fill.