“This is as deadly serious as it gets”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

March 3, 2022

In the midst of all the news stories that have taken the headlines, the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol has continued its work. Today, in a lawsuit, it told a judge that the committee “has a good-faith basis for concluding that the President and members of his Campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States.”

The filing also said that a “review of the materials may reveal that the president and members of his campaign engaged in common law fraud in connection with their efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.” One of the emails it released to support the filing indicated that Trump legal advisor John Eastman knew those delaying the electoral count were breaking the law.

The January 6th committee is investigating the events of January 6, 2021, to see what changes in the law, if any, should be in place to make sure what happened on January 6 cannot happen again. It cannot charge anyone with a crime, although it can make a criminal referral to the Department of Justice, which the department will then consider. Today’s statement makes it seem likely that the committee will be making such a referral.

Former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal told MSNBC: “This is as deadly serious as it gets, seditious conspiracy.”

The filing was in a case over whether Eastman, the author of the memo outlining how then–vice president Mike Pence could use his role in the counting of electoral votes to overturn the election, can refuse to turn over about 11,000 pages of emails and documents to the committee. Eastman wants to withhold them, saying they are covered by attorney-client privilege. But he has not been able to establish that Trump was his client, and, further, attorney-client privilege cannot be invoked to cover a crime.

Also today, in a case concerning whether the Oath Keepers, who stormed the Capitol on January 6, engaged in seditious conspiracy, Joshua James of Alabama pleaded guilty. According to CBS News congressional correspondent Scott MacFarlane, who is following all the January 6 cases, James agreed that he tried to disrupt the peaceful transfer of presidential power and that Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes had a “plan” for accomplishing that disruption. In the plea deal, James said that “Rhodes instructed James &..conspirators to be prepared, if called upon, to report to the White House grounds to secure the perimeter & use lethal force if necessary against anyone who tried to remove President Trump.”

Meanwhile, the Russian attack on Ukraine continues to escalate. Today, United States ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield confirmed that Russia has used cluster munitions and vacuum bombs, which are prohibited under the Geneva Conventions establishing limits to deadly weapons, in Ukraine.

A million refugees have now crossed the border to get out of Ukraine. People are also fleeing Russia as its economy collapses and Russian president Vladimir Putin persists in turning the country into a global outcast. Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe wrote: “Friend after friend fleeing Russia. Five today alone. The best and the brightest, the journalists who were telling people the truth about their country—gone. Emigres, like the white Russians of a century ago. Putin is destroying two countries at once.” Russian authorities have started to crack down and refuse to let people leave.

In both the U.S. and Russia in the last several years, anti-democratic leaders have sought to impose their will on voters, and the similarities between those impulses make them unlikely to be independent of each other.

On July 27, 2016, even before the Republican National Committee changed the party’s platform to weaken the U.S. stance in favor of Ukraine in its struggle to fight off Russia’s 2014 invasion, U.S. News & World Report senior politics writer David Catanese noted that senior security officials were deeply concerned about then-candidate Trump’s ties to Russia.

July 27 was the day Trump referred at a news conference to his opponent and then–secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s emails that were not turned over for public disclosure from her private server and said: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing, I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” (We know now that Russian hackers did, in fact, begin to target her accounts on or around that day.)

Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta, who served under nine presidents, told Catanese that Trump was “a threat to national security,” not only because of his call for help from Russia, but because of his suggestion that he would abandon the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) if he were elected and, as Catanese put it, “his coziness toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

Former National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon also expressed concern over the hack of the Democratic National Committee by Russian operatives, and said that such an attack mirrored similar attacks in Estonia, Georgia, and, most prominently, Ukraine. He called on officials to confront Russian leaders publicly.

Cybersecurity expert Alan Silberberg told Catanese that Trump looked like an ally of Putin. “The Twitter trail, if you dig into it over the last year, the Russian media is mirroring him, putting out the same tweets at almost the same time,” Silberberg said.

“You get the sense that people think it’s a joke,” Panetta said. “The fact is what he has said has already represented a threat to our national security.”

Putin’s attempt to destroy democracy in Ukraine militarily has invited a reexamination of the cyberattacks, disinformation, division, attacks on opponents, and installation of puppet leaders he used to gain control of Ukraine before finally turning to bombs. This reexamination, in turn, has led journalists to note that those same techniques have poisoned politics in countries other than Ukraine.

Over the weekend, British investigative journalist Carol Cadwalladr warned that we are 8 years into “The first Great Information War,” a war sparked by Putin’s fury at the removal of his puppet Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 from the presidency of Ukraine. Putin set out to warp reality to confuse both Ukrainians & the world. The “meddling” we saw in the 2016 election was not an attempt to elect Trump simply so he would end the sanctions former president Barack Obama had imposed on Russia in 2014 after it invaded Ukraine. It was an attempt to destabilize democracy. “And it’s absolutely crucial that we now understand that Putin’s attack on Ukraine & the West was a JOINT attack on both,” she wrote.

Today in The Guardian, political and cultural observer Rebecca Solnit wrote a piece titled “It’s time to confront the Trump-Putin network.”

The Republican Party’s “normalization of violence”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

February 14, 2022

It appears there was a reason for the former president’s unhinged rant of yesterday suggesting that members of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign had spied on him and that “in a stronger period of time in our country, this crime would have been punishable by death.” 

Trump is likely unhappy because of a letter his accountants, the firm Mazars, sent to the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer on February 9. That letter came to light today when New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is investigating the finances of the Trump Organization, filed new court documents to explain why she wanted to question Trump and his adult children under oath. 

The Mazars letter told the Trump organization that Trump’s financial statements from years ending June 2011 through June 2020 could not be relied upon to be accurate, and that it should tell anyone relying on those documents—banks, for example—that they were not reliable. It went on to say there was now a “non-waivable conflict of interest” with the Trump Organization that meant that Mazars was “not able to provide new work product” for the organization. 

Lawyer George Conway interpreted the letter for non-lawyers. He tweeted:

“‘decision regarding the financial…statements’=they are false because you lied

‘totality of the circumstances’=the D.A. is serious 

‘non-waivable conflict of interest’=we are now on team D.A.

‘not able to provide new work product’=sorry we’re not going to jail for you”

That is, it appears that Mazars is now working with James’s office. Last month, James’s office alleged that there is “significant” evidence that the Trump Organization manipulated asset valuations to obtain loans and avoid taxes. Now Trump’s accountants appear to be working with her office and have said that Trump’s past ten years of financial statements “should not be relied upon.”

This will probably be a problem for the banks that have loaned money to Trump. Their officers have likely relied on the accuracy of the information Trump provided, and according to lawyer Tristan Snell, the lenders could now call in loans early or otherwise change the terms of their agreements.

The Trump Organization jumped on the statements in the Mazars letter that “we have not concluded that the various financial statements, as a whole, contain material discrepancies,” and that “Mazars performed its work in accordance with professional standards” to claim that it is exonerated from any wrongdoing. “This confirmation,” it wrote, “effectively renders the investigations by the DA and AG moot.” 

NBC legal analyst Glenn Kirschner tweeted: “Trump Org[anization] tries to spin it as a complete exoneration (& G[eorge] Orwell blushes).” Orwell was famous for identifying “doublespeak,” language that reverses the meaning of words.

But while the fear of what it means for him that his accountant has dropped him might have inspired Trump’s rants about executing Hillary, the same does not hold for Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), who on Sunday’s Fox & Friends broadcast agreed with Trump that Clinton’s aides had spied on him, and implied the punishment for such alleged espionage should be death. 

The normalization of violence as part of the mainstream Republican Party is cause for concern.

Will the Republican Party be openly on the side of overturning our democracy?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

February 7, 2022

It appears that the Republican National Committee’s censure of Representatives Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), along with its declaration that the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, was “legitimate political discourse,” has created a problem for Republican lawmakers as they try to position the party for the midterms and the 2024 election. Coming, as the statement did, just after former president Trump said that Pence had the power to “overturn the election” and that if reelected, Trump would pardon those who attacked the Capitol, it has put the Republican Party openly on the side of overturning our democracy.

Trump loyalists have been insisting that the rioters were “political prisoners,” and clearly the RNC was speaking for them. This wing of the party got a boost this evening when venture capitalist Peter Thiel, the libertarian whose wealth Forbes estimates to be about $2.6 billion, announced that he is stepping down from the board of Meta, the parent company of Facebook, to focus on electing Trump-aligned candidates in 2022. Thiel famously wrote in 2009 that he “no longer believe[s] that freedom and democracy are compatible,” and deplored “the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women” after 1920.

It also got a boost today when the Supreme Court halted a lower court’s order saying that a redistricting map in Alabama violated the Voting Rights Act by getting rid of a Black majority district. Alabama’s population is 27% Black, which should translate to 2 congressional seats, but by the practice of “packing and cracking”—that is, packing large numbers of Black voters into one district and spreading them thinly across all the others—only one district will likely have a shot at electing a Black representative. The vote for letting the new maps stand was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the liberals against the new right-wing majority, in control thanks to the three justices added by Trump.

But the backlash against the RNC’s statement suggests that most Americans see the deadly attack on our democracy for what it was, and Republican lawmakers are now trying to deflect from the RNC’s statement.

RNC chair Ronna McDaniel said that media quotes from the resolution are a “lie” and says the committee did not mean it to be taken as it has been. But other Republicans seemed to understand that the RNC has firmly dragged the Republican Party into Trump’s war on our democracy.

National Review called the statement “both morally repellent and politically self-destructive,” and worried that “it will be used against hundreds of elected Republicans who were not consulted in its drafting and do not endorse its sentiment.” If indeed the RNC simply misworded their statement, the editors said, “its wording is political malpractice of the highest order coming from people whose entire job is politics.”

Sunday, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who seems to entertain hopes for 2024, said on ABC’s This Week that “January 6 was a riot incited by Donald Trump in an effort to intimidate Mike Pence and Congress into doing exactly what he said in his own words—overturn the election.”

But others, like Senator Todd Young (R-IN), seem to be trying to split the baby. Young told Christiane Amanpour that those saying the attack was legitimate political discourse are “a fringe group,” although the RNC is quite literally the official machinery of the Republican Party. Young is up for reelection in 2022. He is also from Indiana, as is former vice president Mike Pence, who seems to be positioning himself to take over the party as Trump’s legal woes knock him out of the running for 2024.

On Friday, Pence told the Federalist Society that Trump was “wrong” to say that he, Pence, had the power to overturn the election. But he did not say that Biden won the election fairly. Then, on Sunday, Pence’s former chief of staff Marc Short seemed to try to let Trump off the hook for his pressure on Pence, telling Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that the former president “had many bad advisers who were basically snake oil salesmen giving him really random and novel ideas as to what the vice president could do.”

They seem to be trying to keep Trump’s voters while easing the former president himself offstage, hoping that voters will forget that the Republican leadership stood by Trump until he openly talked of overturning the election.

Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, seems unlikely to stand by as the country moves on, as the National Review editors indicated they were hoping. As he said in his closing at Trump’s first impeachment trial: “History will not be kind to Donald Trump. If you find that the House has proved its case, and still vote to acquit, your name will be tied to his with a cord of steel and for all of history.”

The other big news of the past day is that it turns out that Trump and his team mishandled presidential records, suggesting that we will never get the full story of what happened in that White House.

By law, presidential records and federal records belong to the U.S. government. An administration must preserve every piece of official business. Some of the documents that the Trump team delivered to the January 6 committee had been ripped up and taped back together, some were in pieces, and some, apparently, were shredded and destroyed. Legal commentator Asha Rangappa noted that Trump’s impeachments mean that such shredding could have amounted to an obstruction of justice.

Today we learned that the National Archives and Records Administration had to retrieve 15 boxes of material from Trump’s Florida residence Mar-a-Lago, including correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the letter that former president Barack Obama left for Trump (which would have brought a pretty penny if it were sold). Trump aides say they are trying to determine what other records need to be returned.

Former Republican Kurt Bardella noted, “If this had happened during a Democratic Administration while Republicans were in the majority, I guarantee you [the Oversight Committee] would be launching a massive investigation into this and writing subpoenas right now to any and every W[hite] H[ouse] official that was involved in this.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the story to raise money for her progressive organization, Onward Together. She linked to the story as she urged people to “Take a sip from your new mug as you read the news.” With the tweet was the picture of a mug with her image and the caption “But Her Emails.”

House January 6 committee member Jamie Raskin (D-MD) says that the committee is planning to hold public hearings in April or May. They have been slowed down by the reluctance of the Trump team to cooperate.

Judge to Trump “No one is above the law”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

January 19, 2022

Just before midnight last night, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that her office has “uncovered significant evidence indicating that the Trump Organization used fraudulent and misleading asset valuations on multiple properties to obtain economic benefits, including loans, insurance coverage, and tax deductions for years” and is taking legal action “to force Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., and Ivanka Trump to comply with our investigation.” She concluded: “No one is above the law.”

James is overseeing a civil case against the Trump organization and is cooperating with a criminal case overseen by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who recently took over from Cyrus Vance, Jr. When Eric Trump testified in the investigation overseen by James, in 2020, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in response to more than 500 questions.

This morning, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reported that the news of James’s insistence that he and his family testify has pushed former president Trump to decide to run for president in 2024. CNN’s Jim Sciutto pointed out Trump seems to think that so long as he is running for office, he can persuade people that investigations are all political. In addition, since the Department of Justice decided internally in 1973 that sitting presidents cannot be prosecuted, it is reasonable to assume he thinks that the White House would protect him from ongoing civil or criminal lawsuits.

Those lawsuits might well include some related to the events of January 6. Today the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol issued subpoenas to Nicholas J. Fuentes and Patrick Casey. The two men are leaders of the “America First” or “Groyper” movement, extremist white nationalists trying to inject their views into mainstream politics through trolling and provocation. Both spread lies about election fraud and were at the January 6 insurrection.

The committee’s letter to Fuentes notes that he urged his followers to “storm every state capitol until January 20, 2021, until President Trump is inaugurated for four more years,” and told supporters to show up at the homes of politicians to push their views. Fuentes received more than $250,000 in Bitcoin from a French computer programmer; Casey received $25,000 from the same donor. The FBI is interested in those donations.

This evening, the Supreme Court denied Trump’s request to block the National Archives and Records Administration from sending documents from the Trump administration concerning the January 6 insurrection to the January 6 committee. The vote was 8 to 1. Justice Clarence Thomas, whose wife, Ginni, supported the January 6 rallies, was the dissenting vote.

The Big Lie from the former president that he had won the 2020 election and been cheated of victory led to the January 6 insurrection; it has now led to a crisis in voting rights, as Republican-dominated state legislatures have rewritten their laws since the 2020 election to suppress Democratic votes and hand election counting over to partisan Republicans.

That, in turn, led the Democrats to try to establish a fair baseline for voting rights in the United States by passing the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. The new bill would end partisan gerrymandering, stop dark money in elections, establish early and mail-in voting systems, provide for online registration, and make sure votes are counted fairly. It would modernize and limit the protections for minority voting that Congress first established in 1965 and the Senate renewed unanimously as recently as 2006.

The bill became a lightning rod, as it illustrated the gulf today between Democrats, who want to use the federal government to regulate business, protect civil rights, provide a basic social safety net, and promote infrastructure, and Republicans, who want to stop those things and throw the weight of governance back to the states. If Republican-dominated state legislatures are permitted to keep the laws they have passed limiting voting, they will continue to pass discriminatory laws, including ones that limit women’s constitutional rights, stop the teaching of any material that legislators see as “divisive,” and so on.

Today, the voting rights bill was before the Senate, which is evenly divided between 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats. While the numbers of senators on each side are equal, the numbers of constituents are not: the Democrats and Independents represent 40.5 million more people in our nation of about 332 million than the Republicans do.

But the changing Senate rules have permitted Republicans to stop any legislation they dislike with a mechanism called the filibuster, which means that it takes 60 votes to bring any measure to a vote. This essentially requires a supermajority for any legislation to pass the Senate. But there is a loophole: financial bills and judicial appointments—the two things Republicans care about—have been exempted from the filibuster. That leaves Democrats fighting to find ways around Republican obstructionism to pass the measures they care about.

Today marked the showdown between these two visions. It was instructive first because it was an actual Senate debate, which we haven’t seen for years now as Republicans have simply dialed in filibusters. When debate began this morning, while few Republicans showed up, most Democrats were present.

It was instructive also because Democrats defended the right to vote in a democracy, while Republicans insisted that the Democrats were trying to get a leg up over the Republicans by grabbing power in the states (although the federal government protected voting rights in the states until 2013). Passionate speeches by Georgia Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, Angus King of Maine, Amy Klobuchar of Wisconsin, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and all their Democratic colleagues, sought to bring Republicans around to defending the right to vote.

It didn’t work. Tonight, Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act from advancing to a final passage by a vote of 49 to 51, with all Democrats except Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) voting yes (he voted no for procedural reasons). But when Schumer brought up a vote to change the filibuster to a talking filibuster for this bill, meaning that Republicans would actually have to debate it rather than just saying no to it, Democrats Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) joined the Republicans to kill the measure. In addition to stopping this law, they badly undercut Biden and the Democrats who have wasted months negotiating with them.

Voting rights journalist Ari Berman noted that the 48 senators who voted to reform the filibuster represent 182 million Americans, 55% of the United States population, while those 52 senators who upheld the filibuster represent 148 million Americans, 45% of the country.

After the vote, Republicans lined up on the Senate floor to shake Sinema’s hand, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) assured reporters that concerns about Black voting were misplaced because: “African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”

Independent Senator Angus King of Maine, who has struggled mightily for voting rights for many months and who was a reluctant but firm convert to the talking filibuster, fought hard today to rally support for voting rights and filibuster reform. He quoted President Abraham Lincoln’s warning to lawmakers during the Civil War that “we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves…. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.”

In light of the vote’s outcome, though, perhaps more to the point was something King said to David Rohde, published in the New Yorker today. In 1890, the Senate rejected a measure designed to protect the voting rights of Black men in the South, where southern legislatures had forced most of them from the polls. Southern Democrats and their northern allies killed the proposed law.

King told Rohde, “The result was seventy-five years of egregious voter suppression in the South. That was a mistake made by a few senators. I honestly feel that we may be at a similar moment.” He added, “I’m afraid we’re making a mistake that will harm the country for decades.”