DREW ANGERERGETTY IMAGES
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, courtesy of Politico, back to when we had an actual president who was up to the actual job.
But according to a previously unrevealed White House playbook, the government should’ve begun a federal-wide effort to procure that personal protective equipment at least two months ago.
“Is there sufficient personal protective equipment for healthcare workers who are providing medical care?” the playbook instructs its readers, as one early decision that officials should address when facing a potential pandemic. “If YES: What are the triggers to signal exhaustion of supplies? Are additional supplies available? If NO: Should the Strategic National Stockpile release PPE to states?”
The strategies are among hundreds of tactics and key policy decisions laid out in a 69-page National Security Council playbook on fighting pandemics, which POLITICO is detailing for the first time. Other recommendations include that the government move swiftly to fully detect potential outbreaks, secure supplemental funding and consider invoking the Defense Production Act — all steps in which the Trump administration lagged behind the timeline laid out in the playbook.
Sounds like a handy thing to have lying around during a pandemic, no?
The Trump administration was briefed on the playbook’s existence in 2017, said four former officials, but two cautioned that it never went through a full, National Security Council-led interagency process to be approved as Trump administration strategy. Tom Bossert, who was then Trump’s homeland security adviser, expressed enthusiasm about its potential as part of the administration’s broader strategy to fight pandemics, two former officials said. Bossert declined to comment on any particular document, but told POLITICO that “I engaged actively with my outgoing counterpart and took seriously their transition materials and recommendations on pandemic preparedness.”
And good for you. Of course, the administration*, filled with All The Best People, ignored this document—which was drafted decades ago, in 2016.
An NSC official confirmed the existence of the playbook but dismissed its value. “We are aware of the document, although it’s quite dated and has been superseded by strategic and operational biodefense policies published since,” the official said. “The plan we are executing now is a better fit, more detailed, and applies the relevant lessons learned from the playbook and the most recent Ebola epidemic in the [Democratic Republic of the Congo] to COVID-19.”
The evidence supporting this contention is, of course, everywhere. And I do mean everywhere.
But under the Trump administration, “it just sat as a document that people worked on that was thrown onto a shelf,” said one former U.S. official, who served in both the Obama and Trump administrations. “It’s hard to tell how much senior leaders at agencies were even aware that this existed” or thought it was just another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy.
When this all settles down, we are going to need a truth commission to sort out all the bungling and temporizing and malfeasance that has been such a big part of this administration*’s response to the pandemic. And then maybe another one to sort out how we elected these characters in the first place.
“The truth still exists,” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said on Thursday. “The truth still matters.” She spoke at the sentencing hearing for Roger Stone, career ratfucker and longtime confidante of one Donald Trump. Stone had already been convicted on charges of lying to Congress and witness tampering related to his attempted coverup of his ratfucking activities on Trump’s behalf in 2016. “Roger Stone’s insistence that it doesn’t,” Jackson continued, still referring to the truth, “his belligerence, his pride in his own lies are a threat to our most fundamental institutions, to the foundations of our democracy. If it goes unpunished, it will not be a victory for one party or another. Everyone loses.”
It’s unclear from the court reporting what tone Jackson adopted for that first part. Was she assured? Confident? Defiant? Hopeful, even? Because the argument that the truth still exists and that it still matters in the Year of Our Lord 2020 is no done deal. The jury is very much out. We have strayed very far from our school days, when the world was split into truth and fiction and things like “checks and balances” were almost self-evident. The war on the concept of truth waged for three years now by Donald Trump, American president is beginning to pay real dividends. The president does not subscribe to the concept of objective reality, where there are observable features of the world around us and facts we can consequently all agree on. He believes the truth is whatever you can get enough people to believe, and you’re never guilty if you never admit it. In a polarized political environment and a balkanized media ecosystem, he might just be right.
One thing Jackson gets right is that all this is a threat to democracy. We cannot function as a society—we cannot make rules and policies around how we live, we cannot forge a way forward together—if we cannot agree on basic facts about the world around us. The Enlightenment gave us the tools to discover and verify and spread the truth regardless of what powerful people thought of it, but we have lost our grip on those tools and allowed ourselves to slide back into a tribalist dark age. In this environment, where the powerful say what’s real and their followers believe them, those in power can avoid the kind of accountability for their actions that undergirds a democratic republic. Without checks on their power, they can easily grow it. You need not serve your constituents if they will believe you’re serving them simply because you tell them you are.
And it’s here where Jackson’s statement surely moved towards hope or defiance. If Stone’s villainous lying goes unpunished, she said, “it will not be a victory for one party or another.” Really? Because it seems like one party is winning. The president has declared all negative information about him to be “fake,” and all positive information to be “real.” This is the only basis on which he evaluates information. It’s the attitude of a toddler—perhaps even your three-year-old can more easily process shame and disappointment—but this man has a very good chance of being re-elected to the most powerful office in the world. His Republican Party will very likely retain control of the Senate and all its antidemocratic capabilities. They now believe they have a shot to regain the House of Representatives. Along the way these three years, they’ve stuffed the courts full of judges who will entrench their minority rule for decades.
The president’s attitude towards information—is it good for me, or is it bad for me?—made yet another appearance this week in the matter concerning the United States Director of National Intelligence. We’ve got a new acting director, you see, and it’s a former internet pest whom Trump first saw fit to make ambassador to Germany, and who now will serve as (part-time!) acting head of our intelligence community. Richard Grenell surely got the gig because he will massage the information that comes across his desk until it is sufficiently palatable for The Boss. His predecessor, who also served in an “acting” capacity because the Constitution’s mandate that the Senate advise and consent on major appointments doesn’t matter if you just ignore it, lost the job because he did not adhere to the essential Trumpian mantra: Real News is whatever’s good for Trump.
At least, that’s what The New York Times reported Thursday and what NBC News backed up Friday. Joseph Maguire, the ex-acting chief, made the grave mistake of observing protocol by having his subordinates brief congressional leaders on the evidence that Russia is once again interfering in our elections heading into 2020, and that they once again want Trump to win. This is an exceedingly believable notion, considering Trump has a habit of siding with the Russians on any issue that comes up. He’s fought sanctions against them and slowed their implementation. He opened the door for them to seize control of northern Syria. All this culminated in his extortion of Ukraine, with which Russia is currently at war via proxy forces. Trump has torn up notes of his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the White House has failed to report their phone calls, leaving the American public to learn of them when the Russians make it public.
But none of this is of interest to the public, in the president’s calculus, including the fact that a geopolitical adversary is set to attack our democracy again this year. The Director of National Intelligence had no business telling the people’s representatives in Congress about it. And why? It “angered Mr. Trump,” the Times reported, “who complained that Democrats would use it against him.” It is entirely irrelevant to him whether the 2020 elections will be free and fair, and whether Americans will be allowed to choose their own leaders without interference. What matters is that he wins, at any cost. This, of course, reflects the larger Republican attitude towards elections, where the ends always justify the means. Voter suppression, voter purges, closing polling stations in Certain Neighborhoods, extreme gerrymandering, foreign interference—anything goes if it keeps you in power. And if you lose, you can just strip the office you lost of it’s powers before a Democrat can get in there and, uh, do the job the public elected them to do.
It’s really no wonder, then, that Trump would rise to control a party that long ago chose to slide towards authoritarianism rather than appeal to any slice of the public outside The Base of white ultraconservative Evangelicals and those who’ve made common cause. But the efficiency with which the president has used weaponized falsehood to erode the pillars of a democratic republic is staggering. The principles of consensus and persuasion that define democratic politics are beginning to falter. The president and his movement do not use words to persuade, but as a rhetorical bludgeon to beat down The Enemies. What they are offering is force.
On The Apprentice, producers would often find themselves scrambling to put an episode together after Trump inexplicably fired someone who’d performed well, because he hadn’t been paying attention before the boardroom. They’d have to reverse-engineer the episode until Trump’s conclusion made sense. Now, one of America’s two major political parties, a large swathe of its media outlets, and increasingly, the actual federal government are all devoted to the same task. Except now, they’re reverse-engineering reality itself to meet the president’s preferences. This will have consequences from a governing standpoint, of course: if you make policy in defiance of the real world, it will eventually catch up to you. But perhaps the more immediate concern is that it may finish off our ability to govern ourselves, to compare our leaders’ words and actions to what we can see and verify around us and hold them to account on that basis. The threat is that we will once again slide into darkness, where all that matters is power and force.
HuffPost – Politics
President Donald Trump has officially granted the Department of Defense the legal authority to abolish the collective bargaining rights of its civilian labor unions representing some 750,000 workers.
Gutting the unions would provide “maximum flexibility,” Trump wrote in a memo published Thursday in the Federal Register, which was first reported by Government Executive.
Trump signed the memo three weeks ago, invoking “national security” to justify granting the Defense Department an exemption from the law giving all federal workers the right to unionize.
“When new missions emerge or existing ones evolve, the Department of Defense requires maximum flexibility to respond to threats to carry out its mission of protecting the American people,” Trump wrote in the memo. “Where collective bargaining is incompatible with these organizations’ missions, the Department of Defense should not be forced to sacrifice its national security mission.”
The 1978 Civil Service Reform Act contains a provision that allows a president to exclude agencies from engaging in collective bargaining with workers via written order in some circumstances, including “an emergency situation.”
Trump’s assault on unions contradicts his frequent claims to his base of supporting voters that he is a champion of the working class. A 2017 White House memo encouraged “eliminating employee unions” as part of a wide-ranging effort to weaken organized labor. Trump’s budget for fiscal 2021 would require federal workers to pay more for a cut in retirement benefits.
It’s not yet clear what Defense Secretary Mark Esper will do.
Labor leaders, workers and politicians have railed against the declaration.
“Denying … Defense Department workers the collective bargaining rights guaranteed to them by law since 1962 would be a travesty — and doing it under the guise of ‘national security’ would be a disgrace,” Everett Kelley, national secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees, said at a legislative conference earlier this month, according to The Washington Post. “This administration will not stop until it takes away all workers’ rights to form and join a union — and we will not stop doing everything we can to prevent that from happening.”
HuffPost – Sports
The president’s official schedule shows him spending two and a half hours Sunday evening at a “Super Bowl LIV watch party” at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach. Tickets sold for $75 each, but were only available to members of the club — the initiation fee for which reportedly runs about $450,000, with annual dues costing several thousands of dollars more.
“Well, obviously there are no TVs in the White House, so what alternative did he have?” quipped Robert Weissman, president of the liberal group Public Citizen. “He could have saved money by chartering a plane and flying club members to watch the game at the White House.”
In response to a query, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham defended Trump’s trip and attacked HuffPost: “The premise of your story is ridiculous and false, and just more left-wing media bias on display. The president never stops working, and that includes when he is at the Winter White House.”
Her phrase “Winter White House” refers to Mar-a-Lago, the for-profit resort in Palm Beach that is several miles east of the golf course and that doubled its initiation fee from $100,000 to $200,000 after Trump was elected in 2016. Trump frequently mingles with guests at social events there.
On Saturday, for example, Trump appeared at a dinner at Mar-a-Lago arranged by the “trumpettes,” a group of his female supporters. The dinner did not appear on the president’s publicly released schedule, and in any case was a campaign event, not an “official” one.
When a pool reporter asked the White House on Saturday what work Trump did over the weekend, the reply was that he had calls and “meetings with staff.” The president did not attend a rally on Saturday for Venezuelan leader Juan Guaido, whom the United States and other governments have recognized as the legitimate president of that country. That rally began while Trump was still at his golf course, and attending it could have made him late for the start of the Trumpettes’ dinner.
Trump promised during his presidential campaign that he would separate himself from his businesses if he won. However, he reneged on that vow, as well as on his promise to release his tax returns.
On his most recent financial disclosure form, which was filed last May, Trump claimed he had received $12,325,355 in income from the West Palm Beach golf course over the previous year. It’s unclear how accurate that is, given Trump’s tendency to file widely varying figures to different government authorities.
He told the U.S. Office of Government Ethics in his 2018 financial disclosure, for example, that his Scotland golf courses are worth more than $50 million each, even as he told authorities in the United Kingdom that they had a combined net debt of $65 million.
In any event, money spent at Trump hotels and golf courses flows directly to the president, as he is the sole beneficiary of a trust that now owns his family business. U.S. taxpayers have been the source of at least a few million dollars that have gone to the Trump Organization in the form of hotel rooms, meals and other expenses for Secret Service agents and other government employees who have stayed on-site with Trump in Florida, New Jersey, Scotland and Ireland.
“When Donald Trump announced that he would break decades of precedent and hold onto his business, many were afraid it was to find ways to keep making money on the side of his work as president,” said Jordan Libowitz with the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Turns out the presidency is more like a thing he does on the side to help make money for his business.”
This weekend’s trip to Mar-a-Lago was Trump’s 28th to the property since becoming president. Saturday’s and Sunday’s golf outings at the West Palm Beach club brings his total to 79 days there since taking office and 244 total golf days at properties that he owns.
Taxpayers’ total tab for his golf hobby, meanwhile, climbed to $130.4 million.
That figure and the $3.4 million for each Mar-a-Lago trip are based on a HuffPost analysis that included the costs of Air Force transportation, Coast Guard patrols, Secret Service security and other expenses, as detailed in a January 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office of Trump’s first four visits to Mar-a-Lago in early 2017.
Trump frequently criticized former President Barack Obama for golfing too much and promised during his campaign that he would be too busy to take any vacations at all, let alone play golf. Instead, he is on pace to play more than twice as much golf as Obama did ― at a cost three times that of Obama’s, because he insists on playing so many rounds at his courses in Florida and New Jersey, which require expensive flights on Air Force One. Obama mostly played golf at military bases within a short drive of the White House.
“Trump is and always has been a con man. In 2016, he said that, unlike Obama, he’d never golf and he’d never take personal trips outside the White House,” said former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), who is challenging Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination. “In addition, Trump is using taxpayer money to personally enrich himself because virtually all of his travel is to Trump properties. That is the swamp Trump pledged to drain. Trump is the swamp.”
Yahoo – Business
Here’s how we’ll pay for Trump’s trillion-dollar deficits
Who will pay for America’s trillion-dollar deficits?
Taxes are going up. Maybe not soon, but the mushrooming national debt will eventually leave Washington no choice but to hike taxes. And the longer we wait, the more it will hurt.
The Congressional Budget Office recently forecast annual federal deficits of more than $1 trillion for 2020, and each of the next 10 years. By 2030, CBO says, the deficit will hit $1.7 trillion. Economists generally think a fiscal deficit of around 3% of GDP is healthy and manageable. U.S. deficits over the next decade will average 4.8% of GDP.
Annual deficits spiked during the Great Recession, when tax receipts plunged and stimulus spending soared. The $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009, at the nadir of the recession, was the worst on record.
Deficits fell sharply as the economy recovered, however, and hit a post-recession low of $442 billion in 2015. Then they ticked up again, mostly because of runaway health spending on Medicare and Medicaid. Then came the Trump tax cuts, which went into effect in 2018.
Those tax cuts pushed corporate tax revenue to the lowest levels ever as a portion of federal revenue. Tax revenue from individuals has gone up slightly, because of economic growth. But it would have gone up more without the Trump tax cuts, or with cuts limited to middle- and lower-income workers, say. The twin effect of depressed federal revenue and health care costs growing faster than the economy are driving those trillion-dollar deficits.
This isn’t a crisis today, even though some economists thought it would be by now. But widening deficits at this level aren’t sustainable, either, because they’ll crowd out private investment and depress productivity. Growing interest payments on all that debt will leave less and less for highways, airports and everything else taxpayers expect after mandatory health and retirement spending.
Will Americans tolerate the sharp cuts in social programs and defense that are one way to close this gaping budget gap? Eh, maybe, a little, possibly. But tax hikes will be part of the prescription too, and the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project recently published a comprehensive list of the soundest options. Here are five types of tax hikes that would reduce Washington’s indebtedness:
A new inheritance tax. The average tax rate on income is 15.8%. On inherited wealth, it’s just 2.1%. The estate tax is meant to limit the growth of family dynasties and an American aristocracy, but it’s so weak and riddled with loopholes that it barely raises any revenue at all any more. A new inheritance tax would tax wealth received by an heir as normal income. There’d be an exemption threshold, so those subject to the tax would probably be paying at the top rate of 37%. At an exemption threshold of $2.5 million, this tax would raise $34 billion per year, according to the Tax Policy Center. At a lower threshold of $1 million, it would raise $92 billion. That’s a start.
A wealth tax. Policymakers and politicians have gotten interested in wealth taxes because the richest families in America earn most of their money from investing, rather than working. And there are several ways to defer and sharply reduce taxation on investments, which leaves the wealthy paying lower tax rates than ordinary working stiffs. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both favor a wealth tax to fund programs such as free college and government-paid health care.
The Hamilton Project proposes four types of wealth taxes that vary by the type of assets taxed and the exact method of taxation. Starting thresholds range from $8.25 million in net worth to $25 million. But each tax would raise a hefty $300 billion per year or so, and each would cut the estate tax provision that eliminates capital gains taxes on profitable investments passed on to heirs. There’s one crucial catch: Some experts think a wealth tax could be unconstitutional, which basically guarantees a legal challenge.
A value-added tax. This is the mother of all taxes, the quickest way to raise vast sums if ever needed. All developed nations except the United States have a VAT, which is a tax levied at various levels of production for goods and services. Prices typically rise and consumers end up paying much of the tax, but businesses adjust, which helps make this an efficient tax. There would need to be provisions protecting low-income consumers, small businesses and other vulnerable parties. But many other nations have devised proven protections. A 10% VAT would raise around $1 trillion per year and “provide an enormous pool of resources to address social and economic problems,” according to the Hamilton Project report. Some of that money could be spent on economic stimulus programs, to assure rising prices don’t cause a recession.
A financial transaction tax. Sanders and Warren like this tax, too, which would put a fee of 10 basis points, or 0.1%, on trades of stocks, bonds and derivatives. There are concerns about unintended consequences, such as higher costs on ETFs and mutual funds held by mom and pop investors, and a new incentive to move money offshore. So the Hamilton Project recommends a 4-year phase-in period, with the tax starting at 2 basis points and regulators monitoring markets closely for negative repercussions. They could make changes if problems crop up. Hong Kong, France, Italy and the United Kingdom impose similar taxes, with no obvious drawbacks. It could raise $60 billion per year once fully implemented.
Higher corporate taxes. The trick here is to capture more revenue from the corporate sector without driving corporate money overseas or wrecking incentives to do business in the United States. One approach would be to work with other developed countries to establish provisions that make tax rates comparable among nations and prevent the kind of profit shifting corporations have practiced during the last 20 years, to take advantage of low rates in places like Ireland and Luxembourg. Raising the corporate tax rate might work, from the new level of 21% set by the Trump tax cuts to 25%, say, or 28%. But that would have to be paired with other tax incentives for things like new investment and research and development, to assure businesses stayed put in the United States. A well-designed set of corporate tax reforms could raise $110 billion per year, while boosting economic growth by stimulating investment. Makes you wonder what they’re waiting for in Washington.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.”
Reuters – Business News
U.S. farm bankruptcies hit an eight-year high: court data
P.J Huffstutter January 30, 2020
A small rural farm is seen in a field of snow near Nevada, Iowa, U.S., January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo
CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. farm bankruptcy rates jumped 20% in 2019 – to an eight-year high – as financial woes in the U.S. agricultural economy continued in spite of massive federal bail-out funding, according to federal court data.
According to data released this week by the United States Courts, family farmers filed 595 Chapter 12 bankruptcies in 2019, up from 498 filings a year earlier. The data also shows that such filings – known as “family farmer” bankruptcies – have steadily increased every year for the past five years.
Farmers across the nation also have retired or sold their farms because of the financial strains, changing the face of Midwestern towns and concentrating the business in fewer hands.
“I just had a farmer contact me last week, telling me he can’t get financing for his inputs this year and he doesn’t know what to do,” said Charles E. Covey, a bankruptcy attorney based in Peoria, Illinois.
Chapter 12 is a part of the federal bankruptcy code that is designed for family farmers and fishermen to restructure their debts. It was created during the 1980s farm crisis as a simple court procedure to let family farmers keep operating while working out a plan to repay lenders.
The increase in cases had been somewhat expected, bankruptcy experts and agricultural economists said, as farmers face trade battles, ever-mounting farm debt, prolonged low commodity prices, volatile weather patterns and a fatal pig disease that has decimated China’s herd.
Even billions of dollars spent over the past two years in government agricultural assistance has not stemmed the bleeding.
Nearly one-third of projected U.S. net farm income in 2019 came from government aid and taxpayer-subsidized commodity insurance payments, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The court data indicates those supports did help prevent a more serious economic fallout, said John Newton, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Some of the biggest bankruptcy rate increases were seen in regions, such as apple growers in the Pacific Northwest, that did not receive much or any of the latest round of trade aid from the Trump administration.
The bankruptcy data “signals that things have not turned around,” said John Newton, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We still have supply and demand uncertainty. If we see prolonged low prices, I wouldn’t expect this trend to slow down.”
Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter; Editing by Dan Grebler
“I have to say this,” Mr. Inhofe told reporters Friday morning in the Capitol. “Schiff is very, very effective.”
Mr. Schiff, a California Democrat who steered the impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump and is the lead prosecutor in his Senate trial, has long been a hero to the left and a villain to the right. But never has he aroused as much passion as he has during his closing arguments in the president’s impeachment trial.
First, there was Thursday’s declaration that “you know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country,” and then on Friday, he invoked a news report that Republican senators had been warned that their heads would be “on a pike” if they voted against Mr. Trump.
On Friday morning, the phrase #RightMatters — from the last line of Mr. Schiff’s Thursday speech — was trending as a hashtag on Twitter. The Daily Beast declared that the remarks “will go down in history.” Ryan Knight, a progressive activist, called it “a closing statement for the ages.” Video of the speech quickly went viral. Liberals lavished him with praise.
“I am in tears,” wrote Debra Messing, the “Will & Grace” actress and outspoken Trump critic. “Thank you Chairman Schiff for fighting for our country.”
Republicans had precisely the opposite reaction. Many view Mr. Schiff, 59, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, as a slick and self-righteous political operator intent on undoing the results of the 2016 election — or preventing Mr. Trump from winning in 2020. In the Senate, Republicans took particular umbrage at his declaration that they could not trust the president.
“I don’t trust Adam Schiff,” Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, shot back.
On Fox News, Mr. Schiff was filleted. “Amateur Thespian Schiff Tries Out Some New Lines,” TV monitors broadcasting the network declared Thursday, as the host Tucker Carlson mocked the congressman, calling him a “wild-eyed conspiracy nut.”
And if Mr. Schiff had made any inroads with Republicans in the Senate chamber, he may have undercut them on Friday with his “head on a pike” remark, drawn from an anonymously sourced CBS News report. Mr. Schiff used it to liken Mr. Trump to a monarch, but the implication was that Republicans were terrified of crossing him.
“The whole room was visibly upset on our side,” said Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, “and it’s sad, it’s insulting and demeaning to everyone to say that we somehow live in fear and that the president has threatened all of us to put our head on the pike.”
A Stanford- and Harvard-educated lawyer, Mr. Schiff is drawing on skills he honed as a young federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. He first drew national attention in 1990 by winning the conviction of an F.B.I. agent who became romantically entangled with a Russian spy, and was accused of selling government secrets in exchange for promises of gold and cash.
Prosecutors said Mr. Schiff took a risk in his bald declaration Thursday night that the president could not be trusted because Republicans in the chamber, almost all of whom support Mr. Trump, would see the criticism as implicitly directed at them.
“When you make an argument like that, you better be sure that your entire audience is with you,” said James G. McGovern, a criminal defense lawyer at Hogan Lovells in New York and a former prosecutor.
Multiple Republicans said afterward that they had not at all been moved by Mr. Schiff. “It seems to me their case is weaker today than it was yesterday,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Senate Republican.
But Anne Milgram, a former attorney general of New Jersey and now a law professor at New York University, described Mr. Schiff’s sharp criticism of Mr. Trump as a “wise calculation,” because unlike a regular jury trial, Mr. Schiff does not need a unanimous verdict. The argument was aimed, she said, at the four or so moderate Republicans whose votes Democrats will need to call witnesses at the trial.
Regardless of the risk, it was clear on both sides of the aisle — and to experienced prosecutors who watched — that after a long day of complicated and sometimes monotonous testimony, Mr. Schiff’s oratory broke through. Mr. Schiff apparently thought so himself. He posted the last eight minutes, the most dramatic part of his speech, on Twitter Thursday night, and by Friday evening it had been viewed 5.9 million times.
“Sometimes when Schiff steps to the mic I think he’s a little scripted,” Ms. Milgram said. “I did not feel that last night. I thought it was the most authentic I have seen him. He sort of crossed into another level.”
Mr. Schiff opened by carefully leading the Senate through the House’s case that the president abused his office by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, weaving in bits and pieces of testimony and commentary along the way. He then turned to his Senate audience and stated what he believes to be the obvious: Mr. Trump is guilty.
“Do we really have any doubt about the facts here?” Mr. Schiff asked. “Does anybody really question whether the president is capable of what he’s charged with? No one is really making the argument Donald Trump would never do such a thing, because of course we know that he would, and of course we know that he did.
In the Capitol, Mr. Schiff is ordinarily serious, composed and in control. But as he moved toward his closing comments, he grew visibly emotional as he recalled the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the White House national security aide and Ukrainian immigrant who testified in impeachment hearings before Congress and helped Democrats build their case.
Colonel Vindman, who fled the former Soviet Union with his family when he was 3, testified that he felt deeply uncomfortable with a telephone call Mr. Trump had on July 25 with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, when Mr. Trump asked the Ukrainian leader to “do us a favor” and investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Mr. Schiff recalled how Colonel Vindman told lawmakers that unlike in the former Soviet Union, “right matters” in the United States.
“Well, let me tell you something,” Mr. Schiff went on, his forefinger jabbing the air for emphasis. “If right doesn’t matter, if right doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were. Doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is.” If “right doesn’t matter,” he concluded, “we’re lost.”
Michael D. Shear and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.
Trump on Trial is a continuing series of articles offering reporting, analysis and impressions of the Senate impeachment proceedings.
London is a retired partner for the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and the author of The Client Decides; he was a principal lawyer for Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Chief Justice Reads Impeachment Rules to Senate
The Constitution is, in many respects, vague. And no part of our founding charter has more gaps than the impeachment clauses.
At the time of drafting of the Constitution, the colonists were still recovering from a bitter eight-year war for independence, in which their adversary was the armed forces of the British King George III — the tyrannical monarch who had stripped them of their right to self-government. So while the Founders understood the need for an executive department of any effective government, they were wary of recreating anything close to a monarchy. The result was a compromise, a tripartite state consisting of a legislature, an executive and a judiciary.
One of the checks in this balance was to give the legislature the power to remove any member of the executive branch, including the President, by impeachment.
But the Founders chose not to provide many details regarding the impeachment process. All they told us in Article I was that (i) the House “shall have the sole power of Impeachment,” and the Senate “the sole power to try all Impeachments,” (ii) “When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside” and (iii) it takes a two-thirds vote to convict, and the punishment is limited to removal from office.
That’s it. The Article says nothing about witnesses, hearings or any other procedural aspects in either house. Indeed, it is only when we reach Article II that we learn the standard for impeachment and conviction is “Treason, Bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Now, facing the third-ever presidential impeachment trial in history, we grapple with procedural issues left unspecified by the Founders, but that are potentially of great significance on the issue of this President’s guilt.
But wait a minute. While McConnell is not mentioned in the Constitution, Chief Justice John Roberts is. Indeed, it is the Chief Justice of the United States who shall “preside” over the trial, not the Majority Leader. So why isn’t it up to Roberts to decide whether witnesses shall appear?
Absent anything in the Constitution to the contrary, it seems obvious that the witness dispute should be resolved by the ruling of the constitutionally appointed “Presiding Officer” of the trial. This is especially true if we were to abide by the conservative element of our judiciary that insists on the strict construction of the words of any constitutional or statutory provision.
Why isn’t “let presiding officer decide” the guiding principle here? Because the Senate, without a shred of constitutional authority, has adopted a set of rules that would effectively strip the presiding officer of much of his power to “preside” over the trial.
Are those Senate rules constitutional? I keep a pocket copy of the Constitution in my backpack. I have reread it a dozen times. I see nothing in there giving McConnell, or a majority herd of senatorial sheep, the power to limit the Chief Justice’s constitutional power — and duty — to “preside” over this trial.
Is there a remedy for this illicit power grab? Yes. The remedy is for the Chief Justice of the United States to exercise his sworn duty and “preside” over the trial unencumbered by unconstitutional Senate rules. If he deems it relevant to call witnesses, he has the power and the duty to do so, whatever McConnell thinks.
But even assuming the Senate did get, from some unknown source, the right to make impeachment rules that fill in the blanks left by the Founders, whence comes the assertion that the Senate can overrule the presiding officer on any issue? The claimed source is the Senate’s impeachment Rule VII, which provides, “The Presiding Officer on the trial may rule on all questions of evidence, including, but not limited to, questions of relevancy, materiality, and redundancy of evidence and incidental questions…” But later in the rule the Senators granted themselves the right, by majority vote, to overrule the Presiding Officer with respect to those rulings.
What the Constitution giveth, the Senate taketh away.
Rule VII is also the basis of numerous media articles that erroneously state that every ruling by the Chief Justice is subject to being overturned by the will of the Majority Leader, or the majority, and therefore the appointment of the Chief Justice is “ceremonial.” Really? I would not be surprised if you do not find the word “ceremonial” in your copy of the Constitution, because I cannot find it in my copy either.
1. The Senate lacks authority to adopt any rule placing any limit whatsoever on the Chief Justice’s power to preside over this trial. In his capacity as presiding officer, Justice Roberts has unlimited authority to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents, and if the occasion arises, he should so rule.
2. Even if one were to assume Senate Rule VII passed constitutional muster, the rule is quite limited, and arguably would not prevent the Chief Justice from issuing a subpoena requiring the attendance of a witness or the production of documents. The ability to overturn a ruling on relevance is not a grant of total authority to overrule every act of the presiding officer.
Will our “institutionalist” Chief Justice rise to the occasion and do the right thing here?
This crime against democracy is compounded by the eagerness of Republicans to use impeachment as a fundraising opportunity and method to energize base voters. The theory seems to be: If you are going to betray the constitutional order, you might as well profit from it.
In the impeachment trial, all the dismal signs point to acquittal at any cost. And it is not the first time the president has skated. Despite compelling evidence of wrongdoing and obstruction of justice in the Mueller report, Trump largely escaped accountability (even as many of his smarmy advisers did not escape jail). The appearance of vindication in this case immediately preceded the president’s decision to squeeze an embattled foreign power for his political benefit. Give Trump an inch, and he’ll take Ukraine.
How has the president largely avoided the consequences of his corruption? By employing the methods of his mentor Roy Cohn. Admit nothing. Stonewall investigators. Defy subpoenas. Viciously attack opponents. Flood the zone with exculpatory lies. Feel no shame. Show no mercy. Claim anything short of prison to be complete exoneration.
In terms that would have gladdened the heart of Richard Nixon in his day, the coverup is working. Senate Republicans seem determined to cover up for Trump’s coverup. What is essentially state-run media — Fox News and conservative talk radio — have created a narrative of establishment persecution that covers up for the Senate’s coverup of the Trump coverup. The president is protected by layer upon layer of obfuscation, misdirection and deception. Gradually at first, but now in a sudden rush, the norms of truthfulness, public service and ethical behavior have given way. And the message has been sent to Trump and future iterations of Trump: Corruption has no consequence.
This is a danger to the country because success breeds replication. Politicians who never dreamed of being anarchic and transgressive now conduct their public business like the Marx Brothers on a caffeine high. Consider Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) responding to a perfectly appropriate question by CNN’s Manu Raju by saying, “You’re a liberal hack.” It is nothing new for a senator to show his or her temper. But McSally then posted her petulance on Twitter and began raising money on the basis of it. It is human to lose your cool; taking pride in it is to lose one’s marbles. But this is normal political behavior in the age of Trump.
There is further danger in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s likely acquittal by the Senate. The president never views a near-miss as an opportunity for reflection and reformation. He sees it as permission to indulge his every urge. And his most consistent urge has been to seek unfair advantage in the upcoming presidential election. The months between Senate acquittal and the November vote will be fertile ground for further cheating.
And the election itself presents the greatest danger. Trump avoided accountability after the Mueller probe. He is likely to avoid accountability for the Ukraine squeeze. That leaves one last source of accountability — the election in November. This will be a test, not of the Republican Party, but of the republic.
Every presidential election is important. This one will have an added dimension. It will be more than a referendum on the president. It will be a referendum on the moral and ethical standards we apply to our political life. Will corruption, cruelty and coverups be excused and encouraged? Or will the boundaries of integrity, honesty and public spirit be redrawn.
Congress — with the large exception of the House majority — has largely failed to defend the democratic virtues essential to self-government. American voters had better do better.