The DOJ just called Trump’s bluff

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

August 11, 2022

Since Monday’s search of former president Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property by the FBI, Trump, Trump supporters, and right-wing media have all been accusing the government of executing a political vendetta and speculating that FBI agents might have planted evidence on the property. 

This afternoon, Attorney General Merrick Garland gave a brief press conference in which he announced that the unjustified attacks on the Department of Justice (DOJ) have led it to file a motion to unseal the search warrant the FBI used and a redacted version of the receipt for the things removed from the premises. He also confirmed that copies of the warrant and the property receipt were left with Trump, as regulations require. Had Trump wanted to release them, he could have…and he still can, at any time.

Contrary to right-wing reports, Trump’s lawyer was at Mar-a-Lago during the search, which a federal court authorized after finding probable cause. Garland said that he personally approved the decision to seek a search warrant, and he also pointed out that the Department of Justice did not publicize the search; the former president did. Because of the public interest in the matter—and to clear up confusion over it—the department is asking a judge to unseal the documents.

Garland also defended FBI agents against attacks on them, saying, “The men and women of the FBI and the Justice Department are dedicated, patriotic public servants. Every day they protect the American people from violent crime, terrorism, and other threats to their safety while safeguarding our civil rights. They do so at great personal sacrifice and risk to themselves.” 

Garland explained the principle at stake. “Faithful adherence to the rule of law is the bedrock principle of the Justice Department and of our democracy. Upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly, without fear or favor. Under my watch that is precisely what the Justice Department is doing. All Americans are entitled to the evenhanded application of the law, to due process of the law, and to the presumption of innocence.” 

He also reminded people that “the Department of Justice will speak through its court filings and its work.”

The DOJ motion to unseal the search warrant tells us a bit more. It was signed by U.S. Attorney Juan Gonzalez and by Jay Bratt, the chief of the department’s counterintelligence section. The motion also throws the ball into Trump’s court, saying “the former President should have an opportunity to respond to this Motion and lodge objections….” This boxes Trump in. He and his supporters have been demanding the documents be released, although  the DOJ cannot release them and Trump can. This motion means that the DOJ has made a strong case to get permission to release them…unless Trump objects. Essentially, the DOJ just called his bluff. 

At the New York Times, Katie Benner reported that already “Trump allies are discussing the possibility of challenging the Justice Department’s motion to unseal the Mar-a-Lago search warrant. They have contacted outside lawyers about helping them.” 

This should play out quickly: a judge this afternoon told the DOJ to discuss with Trump’s lawyer whether Trump objects to unsealing the documents and to let the judge know by 3:00 tomorrow afternoon. Tonight, Trump said he would not oppose the document’s release, but he didn’t release them himself, so we’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Another right-wing talking point about the search fell apart today as well. Fox News Channel personalities have argued that the Justice Department should simply have issued a subpoena for the material. “Get a subpoena, he will give it back,” Jesse Watters said. “It’s not like Trump won’t cooperate.” But in fact it turns out the DOJ did deliver a subpoena two months ago, and the former president did not comply.

For all the loud protests of Trump supporters over the search, other Republicans—even ones who were previously Team Trump—seem to be backing away. Today, Fox News Channel contributor and former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush Ari Fleischer tweeted: “One thing I can’t wrap my arms around: If Trump had classified documents, why didn’t he give them back? Maybe he thought they were declassified. Maybe he thought it was government overreach. But if, for whatever reason, you have a classified document at home, you give it back.” 

For his part, Trump tried to suggest his own retention of documents was not nearly as bad as that of former president Barack Obama, who, Trump alleged, took “33 Million pages of documents…to Chicago.” He is referring to the materials for the Obama presidential library, which have been moved from the National Archives and Records Administration with its permission and cooperation.

Tonight, Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey, Perry Stein, and Shane Harris at the Washington Post broke the story that the FBI agents at Mar-a-Lago were looking for documents relating to nuclear weapons, underscoring that the search was imperative. We don’t know any more than that, and heaven knows that’s bad enough. 

But what springs to mind for me is the plan pushed by Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and fundraiser and campaign advisor Tom Barrack, to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. In 2019, whistleblowers from the National Security Council worried that their efforts might have broken the law and that the effort to make the transfer was ongoing. The plan was to enable Saudi leaders to build nuclear power plants, a plan that would have yielded billions of dollars to the investors but would have allowed Saudi Arabia to build nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Zachary Cohen, Jamie Gangel, Sara Murray, and Pamela Brown of CNN report that the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol has interviewed the former secretary of transportation in the Trump administration, Elaine Chao, and is in discussions with former education secretary Betsy DeVos and former national security advisor Robert O’Brien. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo met with the committee on Tuesday. At least nine Cabinet-level officials either have talked to the committee or are negotiating the terms of interviews. One of the topics has been the attempt to remove Trump through the 25th Amendment after the events of January 6. 

The lies about the FBI and the January 6th attack on the Capitol came together today and took a life. Ricky Walter Shiffer, who appears to have been at the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, shot into the FBI field office in Cincinnati with a nail gun this morning while brandishing an AR-15-style weapon. After the attack, he took refuge in a cornfield, where law enforcement officers killed him this afternoon.

GasLit Nation: Trump illegally took classified documents. DOJ says “Enough!”

August 10, 2022

GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR

The road to Mar-a-Lago has always been riddled with crime – and now, finally, the FBI has decided to take it. Eighteen months after Trump illegally took classified material from the White House, spurring urgent demands for their return from the National Archives, the DOJ decided it was time to retrieve them, and noted correctly that Trump would not surrender the materials voluntarily.

“They even broke into my safe!”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

August 8, 2022

It’s been quite a day.

It began with Axios sharing photos of what purported to be White House toilets with torn up paper in them. The notes on that paper appear to have former president Trump’s distinctive handwriting on them. Axios got them from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who has previously reported that Trump used to get rid of documents by flushing them. (By law, all presidential records must be retained.)

I am skeptical of these photos, myself—they seem a bit too perfect—but I do find the timing significant. If the photos are real, someone has had them for a long time but now feels that it is worth sharing them. If they are fake, they nonetheless demonstrate that Trump is a significantly diminished figure.

Next came news from the 2016 Trump campaign. Trump’s 2016 campaign chair, Paul Manafort, has written a book, and to sell it, he gave a long interview to Mattathias Schwartz of Insider. In the interview, Manafort admitted what the Senate Intelligence Committee said in their report about Russian interference in the 2016 election: he gave internal polling data from the Trump campaign to Konstantin Kilimnik, who, according to the Senate report, was a Russian intelligence agent. Manafort had previously denied this story.

Manafort told Schwartz that he was not trying to swing the election but hoped to convince pro-Russian oligarchs to do business deals with him by showing that he had access to Trump and that Trump could beat Democratic presidential candidate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Manafort says he didn’t know Kilimnick worked for Russian intelligence. Reached for the story, Kilimnick says he is a victim of people’s dislike of Russia.

Then, Trump’s presidency. In the New Yorker today, Susan B. Glasser and Peter Baker revealed that Trump and the generals of the United States Army were fundamentally at odds about how they viewed the United States. Trump wanted the generals to be loyal to him, as he believed “the German generals in World War II” were loyal to Adolf Hitler. (In fact, they tried repeatedly to assassinate him.) Trump tried to pack the military with loyalists; military leaders insisted that the military must not be taken over by a single leader.

After June 1, 2020, when Trump had nonviolent protesters cleared from Lafayette Square with tear gas and batons, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley drafted a resignation letter in which he told Trump, “It is my belief that you were doing great and irreparable harm to my country” with his actions over the past weeks.

Milley explained that our Constitution means that “[a]ll men and women are created equal, no matter who you are, whether you are white or Black, Asian, Indian, no matter the color of your skin, no matter if you’re gay, straight or something in between. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, or choose not to believe. None of that matters. It doesn’t matter what country you came from, what your last name is—what matters is we’re Americans. We’re all Americans.”

But Trump, he said, was siding with “tyrannies and dictatorships,” “fascism,” “Nazism,” and “extremism” and “ruining the international order” that the Greatest Generation defended in World War II.

While Milley did not, in the end, resign, he did take a public stand against Trump’s use of the military against Americans.

The January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was also in the news today: CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that two years of text messages to and from conspiracy theorist and January 5 rally speaker Alex Jones have been sent to the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. Jones’s lawyer had inadvertently sent the messages to opposing counsel during his recent trial.

And then, although the Department of Justice (DOJ) didn’t tip off anyone about this, even after it had begun, Trump tonight released a statement saying that the FBI was raiding Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Florida, property. “They even broke into my safe!” he complained. He called it “an attack by Radical Left Democrats” and said it was a sign that America has become a third-world country. But Trump himself appointed the current director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, after firing former director James Comey for investigating the ties of his 2016 campaign to Russia. Wray is hardly a “Left Democrat”; he served in the George W. Bush administration and is a member of the Federalist Society.

Legal analyst Joyce White Vance reminded people on Twitter: “We don’t know yet what crimes the FBI had sufficient evidence of to convince a federal judge there was probable cause to search Trump’s residence, but the execution of a search warrant isn’t a raid. It’s a judicially overseen process.” It appears that the search was about Trump’s removal of classified documents from the White House. (I told you: no one with any brains at all ever messes with archivists.)

As legal analyst Asha Rangappa noted, “a search warrant has to demonstrate probable cause that evidence of a crime will be found in the places and things searched.” And legal analyst Renato Mariotti adds that the Department of Justice doesn’t usually prosecute cases unless the material was deliberately transferred to a third party, and that it is unlikely DOJ would have obtained a search warrant if it did not expect to pursue a case.

Tonight, chief White House correspondent for CNN Kaitlan Collins reported that in early June, investigators had gone to Mar-a-Lago to learn more about the materials Trump had taken when he left the White House. They asked to see where the documents were stored, and Trump’s lawyers took them to a basement room. The search warrant executed today included a safe in Trump’s office, and journalist Laura Rozen reported that agents suspected that Trump had taken and was holding other classified documents after he returned many of them.

Political commentators noted that the law disqualifies from “holding any office under the United States” anyone who “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies or destroys…any record, proceeding, map, book, paper, document, or other thing, filed or deposited with any clerk of officer of any court of the United States, or in any public office, or with any judicial or public officer of the United States.”

Tonight, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is expressing outrage, the Fox News Channel is talking about Hunter Biden, and Trump’s base is calling for war, but Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is silent. For his part, Trump is fundraising off the executed search warrant.

One final story from today illustrates a central principle of democracy: the principle of accountability.

Today, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood sentenced the men who stalked and murdered Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020 as he was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. She sentenced Travis McMichael and his father Greg McMichael to an additional life sentence in prison on federal hate crime charges. Unlike the other two, their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan did not bring a gun to the scene, a fact the judge noted when she sentenced him to 35 years. They will serve their sentences in state prison, although they asked for federal custody, saying they feared for their lives in state prison.

Accountability is not only about justice; it’s about deterrence.

On this day in 1974, President Richard Nixon announced that he would resign the office of the presidency the next day at noon. He did not admit wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal, although the House Judiciary Committee had voted to impeach him, the full House was sure to follow, and Republican senators warned him the Senate would vote to convict.

He never did admit wrongdoing, and he was never held accountable. Instead, the next president, Gerald R. Ford, pardoned him. And here we are, 48 years later, with a president and his followers outraged that he, like everyone else, must abide by the law.

GasLit Nation: The leaked DOJ memo and Joe Manchin’s role in destroying the planet

July 20, 2022

GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR

This week we take on shady internal affairs (the enormous number of people in the Trump crime cult circle who died violent or mysterious deaths) and burning external affairs (the horrors of climate change and Joe Manchin’s role in destroying the planet). But before we get to that, we examine yet more confirmation of what we already knew – that Merrick Garland is a mafia state enabler. We discuss the leaked DOJ memo that Rachel Maddow discussed on her show Monday night, Bill Barr’s influence over the DOJ, and shadow mentor Jamie Gorelick, who is still molding both Garland and the January 6 committee.

Charlottesville began a wave of violent populism that mutated into authoritarianism

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

August 11, 2021

Four years ago today, racists, antisemites, white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and other alt-right groups met in Charlottesville, Virginia, to “Unite the Right.” The man who organized the rally, Jason Kessler, claimed he wanted to bring people together to protest the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a local park. But the rioters turned immediately to chants that had been used by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s: “you will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil.” They gave Nazi salutes and carried Nazi insignia, and many brought battle gear and went looking for fights. By the end of August 12, they had killed counterprotester Heather Heyer and had injured 19 others. After the governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency, the rioters went home. 

The Unite the Right rally drew a clear political line in America. Then-president Donald Trump refused to condemn the rioters, telling a reporter that there were “very fine people, on both sides.” 

In contrast, former vice president Joe Biden watched the events at Charlottesville and concluded that the soul of the nation was at stake. He decided to run for president and to defeat the man he believed threatened our democracy. Biden was especially concerned with Trump’s praise for the “very fine people” aligned with the rioters. “With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” Biden said, “and in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”  

Four years later, it is much easier to see the larger context of the Charlottesville riot. The political threat of those gangs who tried to unite in Charlottesville in 2017 recalls how fascism came to America in the 1930s: not as an elite ideology, but as a unification of street brawlers to undermine the nation’s democratic government. 

In 2018, historian Joseph Fronczak explored the arrival of fascism in the U.S. In an article in the leading journal of the historical profession, the Journal of American History, Fronczak explained how men interested in overturning Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency in 1934 admired and then imitated the violent right-wing gangs that helped overturn European governments and install right-wing dictators. 

The United States had always had radical street mobs, from anti-Catholic gangs in the 1830s to Ku Klux Klan chapters in the 1860s to anti-union thugs in the 1880s. In the 1930s, though, those eager to get rid of FDR brought those street fighters together as a political force to overthrow the federal government. 

While they failed to do so in an attempted 1934 coup, Fronczak explains, street fighters learned about the contours of fascism once their power as a violent street force was established. He argues that in the U.S., fascism grew out of political violence, not the other way around. Mobs whose members dressed in similar shirts, waved similar flags, and made similar salutes pieced together racist, antisemitic, and nationalistic ideas and became the popular arm of right-wing leaders. In America, the hallmark of budding fascism was populist street violence, rather than an elite philosophy of government.

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville had the hallmarks of such a populist movement. Leaders brought together different gangs, dressed similarly and carrying the emblem of tiki torches, to organize and attack the government. Rather than rejecting the rioters, then-President Trump encouraged them. 

From that point on, Trump seemed eager to ride a wave of violent populism into authoritarianism. He stoked populist anger over state shutdowns during coronavirus, telling supporters to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” His encouragement fed the attacks on the Michigan state house in 2020.  And then, after he repeatedly told his supporters the 2020 presidential election had been stolen, violent gangs attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, in an attempt to overturn the government and install him as president for another term.

While that attempted coup was unsuccessful, the empowerment of violent gangs as central political actors is stronger than ever. Since January 6, angry mobs have driven election officials out of office in fear for their safety. In increasingly angry protests, they have threatened school board members over transgender rights and over teaching Critical Race Theory, a legal theory from the 1970s that is not, in fact, in the general K–12 curriculum. 

Now, as the coronavirus rages again, they are showing exactly how this process works as they threaten local officials who are following the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to require masks. Although a Morning Consult poll shows that 69% of Americans want a return to mask mandates, vocal mobs who oppose masking are dominating public spaces and forcing officials to give in to their demands. 

In Franklin, Tennessee, yesterday, antimask mobs threatened doctors and nurses asking the local school board to reinstate a mask mandate in the schools. “We will find you,” they shouted at a man leaving the meeting. “We know who you are.”