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.

“Unconscionably excessive” prices for oil? Hell, yeah!

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

June 14, 2022

Today the White House announced that President Joe Biden will visit the Middle East next month. His first stop will be in Israel, and then he will go to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the man responsible for the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. MBS recently invested $2 billion in Jared Kushner’s new investment fund against the advice of the funds’ advisors.

In 2019, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in part because of the Khashoggi killing, but administration officials have been quietly visiting for months, in part to urge Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to help ease gas prices in the U.S. While the White House maintains that it is looking for a “reset” with the Saudis in order to promote peace talks between Israel and Palestine, end the war in Yemen, and address human rights violations, it acknowledges that oil production is on the table. 

Inflation is high in the U.S., as it is all over the world, because of demand, supply chain problems, the soaring costs of transportation as the world’s few carriers jack up prices, and so on. But that inflation is driven in large part by higher oil prices, which have driven up the price of gasoline and diesel in the U.S., which in turn makes everything more expensive. 

Since the first public hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol last week, much of the traffic on right-wing social media has been about gas prices, blaming them on President Biden. Republicans see gas prices and inflation as key issues both to distract from the hearings and to enable Republicans to take over control of Congress in the November midterm elections. 

In fact, according to a piece by E. Rosalie in the newsletter Hoaxlines, U.S. production of crude oil during Biden’s first year was actually higher than it was in Trump’s first year. To encourage production, Biden’s officials have issued more permits on federal lands than were issued in the Trump administration’s first three years, at a pace that approaches that of George W. Bush’s administration. Only 10% of all U.S. drilling takes place on federal land, but the Bureau of Land Management confirms that more than 9000 drilling permits on public land are currently approved. Not all would be productive if they were developed, and none of them could start producing immediately, but this undercuts the argument that gas prices are high because the Biden administration has choked off permits.  

Russia’s war on Ukraine has also driven up global oil prices, but the U.S. gets less than 2% of its oil from Russia. 

What appears to be driving U.S. gas prices is the pressure investors are putting on oil companies, whose officers answer to their investors. Limited production creates higher prices that are driving record profits. In a March 2022 survey of 141 U.S. oil producers asking them why they were holding back production, 59% said they were under investor pressure. Only 6% blamed “government regulations” for their lack of increased production. 

Oil companies are seeing huge profits and are using the money for stock buybacks to raise stock prices. BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, TotalEnergies, Eni, and Equinor will give between $38 and $41 billion to shareholders through buyback programs this year. As EOG Resources wrote to its shareholders: “2021 was a record-setting year for EOG. We earned record net income of $4.7 billion, generated a record $5.5 billion of free cash flow, which funded record cash return of $2.7 billion to shareholders. We doubled our regular dividend rate and paid two special dividends, paying out about 30% of cash from operations…. This period of high oil prices allows us to further bolster the balance sheet. To support our renewed $5 billion buyback authorization and prepare to take advantage of other countercyclical opportunities, we plan to build and carry a higher cash balance going forward….”

But congressional Republicans appear uninterested in adjusting the disjunction between supply and demand that is creating such high consumer prices. In May the House passed the Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act by a vote of 217 to 207 with only Democrats in the yes column and all Republicans and four Democrats voting no. The bill provided a vague warning that it is unlawful to charge “unconscionably excessive” prices for consumer fuel during presidentially declared energy emergencies, and it gave the Federal Trade Commission more power to punish price gouging. 

The Senate has not moved forward with the bill. Republicans there can kill it with the filibuster and will do so, despite the fact that a Morning Consult/Politico poll shows that 77% of registered voters—including 76% of Republicans—like such a measure. Only 13% of voters outright oppose such a law (10% have no opinion). 

Biden has sought to address the issue with the tools at his command. After trying to ease pressure by releasing oil from the strategic reserve, he has set out to reduce the nation’s demand for oil products by identifying the conversion to clean energy as a national security issue. On June 6 he vowed to “continue…pushing Congress to pass clean energy investments and tax cuts” but also authorized the use of the Defense Production Act to speed up the domestic production of solar panel parts, building insulation, heat pumps, and power grid infrastructure like transformers. He will also lower tariffs on solar technology coming to the U.S. from Southeast Asia for two years. These measures should ensure a reliable supply of solar panels while creating more jobs in the green energy sector, which currently employs more than 230,000 people in the solar industry alone.  

In addition to Biden’s measures to ease oil prices, lawmakers are trying to curb inflation by imposing the sorts of limits on carrier prices that they refuse to on oil prices. 

On Monday the House passed the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022 to hamper unfair business practices among shipping carriers. The measure passed the Senate in March. Although the bills were introduced by Democrats, the votes that passed them were bipartisan, reflecting, perhaps, that the nine shipping companies that dominate the world market are multinational rather than domestic. According to Representative John Garamendi (D-CA), shippers have raised prices on U.S. businesses and consumers by more than 1000% on goods coming from Asia, enabling them to make $190 billion in profits last year, a sevenfold increase in one year. This bill, he said, “will help crush inflation and protect American jobs.” Biden has praised the bill and promises to sign it. 

And tomorrow the Federal Reserve is expected to announce an interest rate hike of three quarters of a percentage point, its highest since 1994, to combat inflation. Higher interest rates will make it more expensive to borrow money, which should cool down the economy, although getting inflation down to the 2% the Fed prefers will likely slow consumer spending, dampen wage increases, and slow economic growth.

And of course, next month, Biden will visit the Saudis, who can increase oil supplies quickly if they believe it is in their best interest to do so. 

And finally, a heads up: tomorrow’s hearing of the January 6 committee has been postponed. The next hearing is now scheduled for Thursday at 1:00 pm.

If losers refuse to accept the legitimacy of elections, the system falls apart

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

September 13, 2021

As the coronavirus continues to burn across the United States, Republicans are maintaining their opposition to President Joe Biden’s new requirement that certain groups, including those who work at companies that employ more than 100 people, should either be vaccinated or be tested frequently for the virus. They insist that vaccination should be voluntary, but have no solution to the new spike in coronavirus infections and deaths.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is threatening to sue cities that impose vaccine requirements, saying such mandates will hurt the economy by threatening jobs. More than 11,215 Florida residents are currently hospitalized with Covid-19.

More than 243,000 children tested positive for the virus last week, the second highest number of pediatric cases since the pandemic started. About 2200 are currently hospitalized.

Democrats continue to develop the infrastructure measure they expect to pass through reconciliation, thus being able to steer the bill through the Senate without facing a filibuster (budget reconciliation bills can’t be filibustered). A recent poll conducted for CNN by the independent research firm SSRS found that 93% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents think it is important to the party’s identity to believe that the federal government should do more to help people.

The price tag on the new measure is currently around $3.5 trillion. As E. J. Dionne points out in the Washington Post, that number covers 10 years of spending, a period of time in which the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the value of production, is expected to be $288 trillion. So that $3.5 trillion makes up around just 1.2 percent of the economy. It’s a big number, but not a large percentage for an investment in childcare, elder care, education, and addressing climate change.

The Democrats propose to fund the bill not with deficit spending alone, as so many of our investments have been funded of late, but by cutting spending elsewhere and by raising revenue by restoring some of the taxes Republicans cut in 2017. The Democrats also propose raising taxes on individuals who make more than $400,000 a year, or couples who make more than $450,000 a year. There is a growing impulse to level the economic playing field in this country as growing inequality makes the news more frequently. As Dr. Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, told Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein, the wealth of the top 400 people in the U.S. has increased by $1.4 trillion since 2019.

While the moderate Democrats and the progressive wing of the party are sparking breathless news stories as they hash out their differences, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that Republicans refuse to participate in this process at all.

Perhaps the biggest breaking news today, although it, too, is a continuation of a longer theme, is that, in California’s recall election of Governor Gavin Newsom, the campaign website of challenger Republican Larry Elder, a right-wing talk show host, is already claiming he lost the election because of fraud. “Statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor,” the website says. “The primary analytical tool used was Benford’s Law and can be readily reproduced.”

But the election isn’t until tomorrow.

The theme that Democrats win elections only by cheating became popular in Republican circles after the 1993 Motor Voter Act, which made it easier for poor people to vote. Republicans said Democrats, who passed the measure, were simply packing elections with their own voters. There was not then, and there is not now, evidence of widespread fraud in American elections.

Former president Donald Trump harped on the idea that Democrats cheated in the 2016 election—he insisted he would have won the popular vote as well as the vote in the Electoral College if it hadn’t been for fraudulent Democratic votes—and that idea is, of course, at the heart of his complaint about Biden’s election in 2020. There is no evidence for these accusations; they are lies. And yet, that recent CNN/SSRS poll found that 59% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents think believing that Trump won the 2020 election is important to their identity as Republicans.

California has about half as many registered Republicans as it does registered Democrats, and Newsom won in 2018 by almost 24 percentage points, so if Newsom wins tomorrow’s election it will hardly be an upset. But Elder is already claiming fraud and refusing to say he will accept the results of the election—the same playbook Trump used in 2016 and 2020. Tonight, a pastor at a rally for Elder prayed: “We don’t even look at the polls because we are looking to you, Lord. Lord, we pray that you would take down the current government…. We ask this state will be set free, and you would start with Larry Elder.”

If losers in a democracy refuse to accept the legitimacy of elections, the system falls apart.

The growing radicalism of the Republican Party is putting pressure on Democrats to pass a voting rights act to counteract the vote-suppressing measures that Republican-dominated states are enacting. Today, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he hopes to bring a voting rights bill backed by West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin to the floor for a vote as early as next week.

September 11

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

September 11, 2021

On the twentieth anniversary of the day terrorists from the al-Qaeda network used four civilian airplanes as weapons against the United States, the weather was eerily similar to the bright, clear blue sky of what has come to be known as 9/11. George W. Bush, who was president on that horrific day, spoke in Pennsylvania at a memorial for the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 who, on September 11, 2001, stormed the cockpit and brought their airplane down in a field, killing everyone on board but denying the terrorists a fourth American trophy.  

Former president Bush said: “Twenty years ago, terrorists chose a random group of Americans, on a routine flight, to be collateral damage in a spectacular act of terror. The 33 passengers and 7 crew of Flight 93 could have been any group of citizens selected by fate. In a sense, they stood in for us all.” And, Bush continued, “The terrorists soon discovered that a random group of Americans is an exceptional group of people. Facing an impossible circumstance, they comforted their loved ones by phone, braced each other for action, and defeated the designs of evil.”

Recalling his experience that day, Bush talked of “the America I know.”

“On America’s day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another…. At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith…. At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees…. At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action.”

Today’s commemorations of that tragic day almost a generation ago seemed to celebrate exactly what Bush did: the selfless heroism and care for others shown by those like Welles Crowther, the man in the red bandana, who helped others out of danger before succumbing himself; the airplane passengers who called their loved ones to say goodbye; neighbors; firefighters; law enforcement officers; the men and women who volunteered for military service after the attack.

That day, and our memories of it, show American democracy at its best: ordinary Americans putting in the work, even at its dirtiest and most dangerous, to take care of each other.

It is this America we commemorate today.

But even in 2001, that America was under siege by those who distrusted the same democracy today’s events commemorated. Those people, concentrated in the Republican Party, worried that permitting all Americans to have a say in their government would lead to “socialism”: minorities and women would demand government programs paid for with tax dollars collected from hardworking people—usually, white men. They wanted to slash taxes and government regulations, giving individuals the “freedom” to do as they wished. 

In 1986, they had begun to talk about purifying the vote; when the Democrats in 1993 passed the so-called Motor Voter law permitting people to register to vote at certain government offices, they claimed that Democrats were buying votes. The next year, Republicans began to claim that Democrats won elections through fraud, and in 1998, the Florida legislature passed a voter ID law that led to a purge of as many as 100,000 voters from the system before the election of 2000, resulting in what the United States Commission on Civil Rights called “an extraordinarily high and inexcusable level of disenfranchisement,” particularly of African American voters. 

It was that election that put George W. Bush in the White House, despite his losing the popular vote to Democrat Al Gore by more than a half a million votes. 

Bush had run on the promise he would be “a uniter, not a divider,” but as soon as he took office, he advanced the worldview of those who distrusted democracy. He slashed government programs and in June pushed a $1.3 trillion cut through Congress. These measures increased the deficit without spurring the economy, and voters were beginning to sour on a presidency that had been precarious since its controversial beginnings.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, hours before the planes hit the Twin Towers, a New York Times editorial announced: “There is a whiff of panic in the air.”

And then the planes hit.

“In our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment,” Bush said. America had seemed to drift since the Cold War had ended twelve years before, but now the country was in a new death struggle, against an even more implacable foe. To defeat the nation’s enemies, America must defend free enterprise and Christianity at all costs. 

In the wake of the attacks, Bush’s popularity soared to 90 percent. He and his advisers saw that popularity as a mandate to change America, and the world, according to their own ideology. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” he announced.

Immediately, the administration focused on strengthening business. It shored up the airline industry and, at the advice of oil industry executives, deregulated the oil industry and increased drilling. By the end of the year, Congress had appropriated more than $350 billion for the military and homeland security, but that money would not go to established state and local organizations; it would go to new federal programs run by administration loyalists. Bush’s proposed $2.13 trillion 2003 budget increased military spending by $48 billion while slashing highway funding, environmental initiatives, job training, and other domestic spending. It would throw the budget $401 billion in the red. Republicans attacked any opposition as an attack on “the homeland.” 

The military response to the attacks also turned ideological quickly. As soon as he heard about the attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked his aides to see if there was enough evidence to “hit” Iraqi president Saddam Hussein as well as al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In fact, Saddam had not been involved in the attack on America: the al-Qaeda terrorists of 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. 

Rumsfeld was trying to fit the events of 911 into the worldview of the so-called neocons who had come together in 1997 to complain that President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy was “incoherent” and to demand that the U.S. take international preeminence in the wake of the Cold War. They demanded significantly increased defense spending and American-backed “regime change” in countries that did not have “political and economic freedom.” They wanted to see a world order “friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.”  

After 9/11, Bush launched rocket attacks on the Taliban government of Afghanistan that had provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda, successfully overthrowing it before the end of the year. But then the administration undertook to reorder the Middle East in America’s image. In 2002, it announced that the U.S. would no longer simply try to contain our enemies as President Harry S. Truman had planned, or to fund their opponents as President Ronald Reagan had done, but to strike nations suspected of planning attacks on the U.S. preemptively: the so-called Bush Doctrine. In 2003, after setting up a pro-American government in Afghanistan, the administration invaded Iraq.

By 2004, the administration was so deeply entrenched in its own ideology that a senior adviser to Bush told journalist Ron Suskind that people like him—Suskind—were in “the reality-based community”: they believed people could find solutions based on their observations and careful study of discernible reality. But, the aide continued, such a worldview was obsolete. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.… We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The 9/11 attacks enabled Republicans to tar those who questioned the administration’s economic or foreign policies as un-American: either socialists or traitors making the nation vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Surely, such people should not have a voice at the polls. Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression began to shut Democratic voices out of our government, aided by a series of Supreme Court decisions. In 2010, the court opened the floodgates of corporate money into our elections to sway voters; in 2013, it gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act; in 2021, it said that election laws that affected different groups of voters unevenly were not unconstitutional. 

And now we grapple with the logical extension of that argument as a former Republican president claims he won the 2020 election because, all evidence to the contrary, Democratic votes were fraudulent.

Today, former president Bush called out the similarities between today’s domestic terrorists who attacked our Capitol to overthrow our government on January 6 and the terrorists of 9/11. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home, “he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

In doing so, we can take guidance from the passengers on Flight 93, who demonstrated as profoundly as it is possible to do what confronting such an ideology means. While we cannot know for certain what happened on that plane on that fateful day, investigators believe that before the passengers of Flight 93 stormed the cockpit, throwing themselves between the terrorists and our government, and downed the plane, they all took a vote.