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As Bad As It Is, It Could be Worse

America seems a pretty prosperous and placid place when you read the latest news from Venezuela or most of the countries in this troubled world, but there’s still plenty of desultory domestic news to argue about.
The economy continues to chug along, although interest rates are historically low and the national debt is unprecedentedly high and no one knows how we’ll deal with the inevitable downturn, and the income inequality is such that the Democrats are waging successful class warfare about it. For now President Donald Trump seems safe from impeachment proceedings, but there are still plenty of scandals and constitutional showdowns and unsettling issues he has to deal with.
When special counsel Robert Mueller ended his investigation of the “Russia thing” without bringing any charges against Trump, and a four-age summarization of the 400-plus page report written by Trump’s Attorney General stressed that, Trump claimed not only vindication but also victimization by a “deep state” conspiracy of federal officials who attempted a treasonous coup d’tat and should presumably be hanged. The redacted 400-plus pages of Mueller’s report have proved somewhat more embarrassing to Trump, however, and although he still claims the report completely exonerates him — which the 400-plus pages plainly state on several occasions that it does not — and with his characteristic presidential eloquence Trump now calls the exonerating document “total bullshit.”
Attorney General William Barr is scheduled to testify before Congress today about the matter, and the Democrats are expected to ask some tough questions about the rather smiley-faced summation of the Mueller report that he issued. The report confirms the unanimous conclusions of the intelligence community that the Russian government meddled in the past election on Trump’s behalf, which Trump continues to deny and has done nothing about. The report documented numerous contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government, and the investigation has won indictments and guilty pleas and convictions against Trump’s campaign manager and national security advisor and personal lawyer for lying about it, so we can’t blame the damned Democrats if they ask about any of that. All in all, it should be a hard day on the job for Barr and the rest of the Trump administration.
The report explicitly states that it does not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice, and makes clear to even a lay reader that the only reason the investigation didn’t charge Trump with that crime is because Justice Department policy forbids indictment of a sitting President, and because Trump’s underlings disobeyed his orders in fear of the law. The report leaves it up to the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to decide if it constitutes the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that are constitutionally impeachable offenses, and there are a lot but probably not quite enough Democrats who find that offer tempting. Former White House counsel Don McGahn is featured prominently in the report, describing several instances when he defied Trump on orders he considered illegal, and McGahn is scheduled for upcoming testimony before Congress, and Trump is already accusing him of perjury, so that should prove interesting.
Meanwhile, all those blacked-out redactions have to do with criminal cases where the special counsel found evidence of criminal actions that it considered outside its jurisdiction, and those investigations are ongoing. We anxiously await to learn what that’s all about, and we can well understand why the damn Democrats literally can’t wait to find out, as they’re already subpoenaing everything they can about Trump’s still wholly owned businesses and surpassed tax returns and campaign and transition team and inaugural committee and administration. It’s all going to wind up in the courts, and Trump is counting on his two Supreme Court appointees to bail him out in the court of last resort, but that remains to be seen. There’s always a chance that Trump’s appointees are the principled conservative constitutionalists he said they were, and they’ve disappointed Trump on a few rulings.
Our guess is that the damned Democrats’ investigations will turn up something damned embarrassing to Trump, and that Trump and his die-hard supporters won’t be the least bit embarrassed about any of it. Our hope is that at least we don’t wind up fighting it out on the streets the way they’re doing down in Venezuela.

— Bud Norman

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The News on a Cold and Snowy Kansas Night

Kansas was cold and snowy on Tuesday, not to mention the ongoing official national state of emergency, so we hunkered down at home and read up on the latest news. None of it, alas, was the least bit warming.
We read all the way to the end of a very lengthy New York Times account of President Donald Trump’s long efforts to thwart the various investigations in his businesses and campaign and transition team and inaugural committee and administration, and found it all too believable. There’s bound to be something in such a long story that will eventually will require a correction, but the general gist of it, that Trump doesn’t like anybody asking questions he’d rather not answer, and is willing to resort to ruthless and arguably constitutional methods to stop it, by now seems undeniably true.
Over at The Washington Post there was a story that speculated Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats will be the next defenestrated administration official, and we hated to hear that. Coats was a longtime Senator from Indiana who served on the Senate’s intelligence committee, a former ambassador to Germany, and is widely considered one of the last of the wise old foreign policy hands who tried to restrain the Trump’s worst gut instincts. He’s joined with the rest of the intelligence community in publicly disagreeing with Trump’s dubious claims about North Korea and Iran and the Islamic State and the threat at America’s southern border, and Trump clearly does not like his advisors disagreeing with him, so the Post’s speculation seemed plausible enough.
None of which was quite so depressing as the damned weather, or a certain sense that there’s nothing to be done about any of it.
What the Trump critics call “obstruction of justice” the Trump apologists call “fighting back,” and even if that Times story had run as long as the history books that will eventually be written it wouldn’t have changed anybody’s mind. Trump fans don’t want answers to those pesky questions anymore than Trump does, and they also share the president’s preference for his set of facts about North Korea and Iran and the Islamic State and the threat at America’s southern border. Trump’s critics and more noisome administration officials seem to have more factual facts on their side, but lately that doesn’t seem to make much difference.
On the other hand the stock markets were slightly up, and local forecasts call for above-freezing highs temperatures in the coming days, and the sports pages had reports from baseball’s spring training. Spring always eventually arrives, and although that usually brings tornados and other severe weather to this part of our great country we’re always happy to see it.
The truth always eventually arrives, too, and we expect that despite the best efforts of Trump and his apologists we will someday read the results of all those various pesky investigations in lengthy news stories and even longer history books. Our guess is it will be the equivalent of a Kansas tornado on the great plains of American history, but that’s what it takes to get the lazy hazy crazy days of summer around here, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

— Bud Norman

No Thanks for the Memo-ries

The potential public release of a four-page memo penned by California Rep. Devin Nunes about the possible abuse of American surveillance laws by the Federal Bureau of Investigation dominated the news on Thursday, and if it is released as expected this morning we’re sure it will dominate at least another 24 hour news cycle. The memo will have to be pretty darned good to justify all the fuss, however, and we don’t expect it will be.
It’s complicated enough to fill all those column inches and broadcast hours with explanations, and it’s merely a subplot in the “Russia thing” that still hasn’t been explained after nearly two years of the best media efforts, but a lot of things that are hard to explain aren’t worth the effort. This one’s worth following, though, as it is a telling subplot of that “Russia thing,” which does matter, and illustrates just how awful almost everyone involved can be.
In case you’ve lately been too happily busy to be following the subplot, Nunes is a proudly partisan Republican who wound up in charge of the House committee charged with investigating the “Russia thing.” He quickly established a reputation as a staunch defender of President Donald Trump against all the various “Russia thing” suspicions, and was so zealous about that he wound up resigning his chairmanship after an embarrassing impromptu news conference where he announced he was taking some unreleased exculpatory evidence to the White House and it turned out he’d obtained the evidence from the White House and it wasn’t very exculpatory. Despite his self-proclaimed recusal from the matter he penned a four-page memo which reportedly outlines the reasons he believed the whole “Russia thing” was cooked up by some FBI agents who used a phony-baloney Democrat-bought “dossier” to get a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts to spy on the Trump presidential campaign in the most scandalous case of political espionage since President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign had those inept burglars try to bug the Democratic National Party headquarters in the Watergate building.
Meanwhile all the Trump apologists on Fox News and talk radio and the comments sections of the far right internet sites and in Congress have been insisting the real “Russia thing” is actually a Russian-aided plot by the “deep state” and the “fake news” and assorted other “globalists” loathe to make America great again, so they’ve been clamoring for a while to have the memo publicly released. They’ve finally got an authentic government document to corroborate their conspiracy theories, and “release the memo” has become a popular “hashtag” with both Russian “‘bots” and actual people, and after his overshadowed State of the Union address Trump was caught on a “hot mic” telling a congressman that there was a “100 percent” chance the memo was about to be released.
Neither Trump nor his apologists seem to realize how complicated it all is, though, and we don’t expect the long-awaited four pages will be worth the risk they’re taking. It’s an authentic government document, to be sure, but so is the unreleased memo written by the Democrats on the House’s investigative that reportedly outlines all the more plausible reasons they think Trump’s campaign cooperated with Russian efforts to affect the American presidential election, and by now no one puts much stock in anything just because it’s an authentic government document. Nunes is entitled to his opinions, but the public is entitled to regard it as nothing more than the opinions of a proudly partisan politician.
To whatever extent Nunes’ opinions are informed by the classified information he’s seen as the deposed chairman of a House investigative committee, it gives credence to the objections of the FBI and other intelligence-gathering agencies that the release will reveal sources and methods that are better left classified. That includes the Trump-appointed leaders of those bureaus and agencies, so that abandonment of longstanding Republican principles further complicates the matter, even if the Democrats opposed to release of the memo stand credibly accused of the same hypocrisy.
The accusation that FISA laws have been is also tricky for the Republicans, whose resolute anti-terrorist stand got the laws passed over the objections of those bleeding-heart Democrats and addle-brained libertarian types of Republicans  who warned the law could be too easily abused by rogue government actors for all sorts of mischief. Nunes was one of the most outspoken Republicans who supported the laws, which now requires a lot of explaining.
The more reasonable sorts of Republicans assured the public that the FISA laws were carefully written enough to require a very high standard of proof to win a warrant to surveil an American citizen, and that a highly compelling case must be made that the national security was at stake, and so far as well can tell those assurances have proved true. Nunes’ four-page memo reportedly asserts that the FISA courts handed out wiretaps on all sorts of sinless Trump campaign officials on the basis of a phony-baloney Democratic-funded dossier by some shady foreigner, but the next 24 hours of news will explain how it’s more complicated than that.
By all accounts it takes more than a four-page memo of partisan opinions to obtain a FISA warrant, what’s already been reported in the “fake news” and subsequently acknowledged by Trump would probably suffice, the rest of what the feds had to get their disputed surveillance warrants would surely reveal all sorts of sources and methods better left classified. To whatever extent the FISA courts used that phony-baloney dossier from some foreigner only demonstrates the carefully vetted and Republican-confirmed jurists gave credence to the findings of a respected former British intelligence agent.
Maybe those four pages will be so jam-packed with juicy details that it convincingly explains the whole “Russia thing” as a plot by the Democrats and the “deep state,” and we’ll be obliged to give it a fair reading. If it turns out to be just another piece of an obstruction of justice case, though, we won’t be surprised.

— Bud Norman

J’Accuse

At this point we might as well divulge our suspicion that the Internal Revenue Service’s illegal harassment of the president’s political foes was ordered by the president himself. Proving such a portentous claim is difficult when a key figure in the scandal is pleading the Fifth Amendment and essential documents are missing, but that only makes it all the more suspicious, and after so many presidential lies and scandals we no longer feel obliged to make a presumption of innocence.
The explanations offered for the missing e-mails that might have proved our suspicions is dubious at best. We are to believe that two years of essential correspondence were lost to a computer crash, and that the hard drive was then destroyed for recycling purposes, which is an alibi that would not past master with the IRS if any audited company of individual taxpayer were desperate enough to offer it. It seems strange, too, that the computer crash not only deprived congressional investigators of the e-mails sent by Lois Lerner, the aforementioned Fifth-Amendment-pleading key figure in the case, but six other important players, one of whom was a frequent visitor to the White House during the time the harassment was taking place. That the crash occurred just 10 days after the IRS had received a letter from a congressman¬†who was inquiring about reports of harassed “tea party” organizations and other conservative groups seems stranger yet.
It seems very much like criminal obstruction of justice at worst and a damning confession of bureaucratic incompetence at best, and in either case it is the sort of thing no agency would do unless there was something even worse that they didn’t want known. There is now no doubt that the president’s political foes who applied for tax-exempt status were subjected to a punitive degree of scrutiny at far higher rates than their more administration-friendly counterparts, which has been acknowledged and apologized for by the agency, so all the is left to be hidden is the identity of those responsible. After initially expressing his outrage at the scandal, and claiming that he’d only become aware of it by reading media reports, the president has since referred to the matter as a “phony scandal” and insisted there wasn’t a “smidgen of corruption” involved, but if he’s reading the same media reports we are it might have also occurred to him that the only person worth protecting by such risky and impeachable means is the president. His apparent disinterest in the matter of the missing e-mails that might have put such suspicions to rest, and the disinterest of his thoroughly politicized Justice Department, also seems strange.
A patriotic respect for the office of the president leaves on uneasy harboring such grave suspicions, but the same respect requires that we hold the occupants of the office to the highest standards and give due consideration to such well-grounded suspicions. The current occupant’s long history of disregard for the law, even the ones he lobbied for and signed, along with his outspoken disdain for those who dare disagree with him, as well as a long-established style of political combat learned from Saul Alinsky’s no-holds-barred “Rules for Radicals,” make those nagging suspicions all the more plausible. Forgive our skepticism, which the president would surely deride as the “cynicism” that prevents the public from embracing his leadership, but we just wouldn’t put it past the guy to sic the IRS on those “tea party” groups and pro-Israel organizations that he so clearly reviled.
At this point in the Watergate scandal, which ended with President Richard Nixon resigning rather than face the charge that he had unsuccessfully “endeavored” to use the IRS against his political foes, much of the media were already screaming “Guilty.” We’ll hold off on that, and eagerly await the slow trickle of damning revelations that are sure to come over the summer, but we will admit to being darned suspicious. Maybe we’re wrong, but we’d interested to hear the president make the case why we are. Perhaps the exculpatory evidence was in those e-mails that went mysteriously missing, but if so a sweet irony will prevent him from the proof.

— Bud Norman