Category Archives: Rule of Law

The State Grand Jury is hurting my feelings

Everybody I know is getting called before the State Grand Jury. The latest:

University of South Carolina Harris Pastides was one of the people who testified this week to the State Grand Jury in a secret session.

“He was called as a fact witness,” university spokesman Wes Hickman told The State newspaper Thursday morning in answer to a query.

Pastides is one of an unknown number of people who have testified in an ongoing public corruption probe involving the public relations firm of Richard A. Quinn….

Pam Lackey, Trey Walker. Now Harris? Who hasn’t been called? Next thing you know, John Monk’s going to write that Lizard Man was sighted entering the Grand Jury room.

Future witness?

Future witness?

I’ll tell you who hasn’t been called: Me! What am I? Chopped liver?

Of course, I don’t know anything about the subject of the investigation beyond what I read in the papers. I’d have nothing to tell. You might as well call anybody at random off the street. But I’m not entirely sure, given this growing list of luminaries, that knowing anything about the matter at hand is a prerequisite.

Any of y’all been called? I wouldn’t be surprised. When and where will it all end, Mr. Natural?

Cindi gets the Wilson-Quinn memo issue just right

Cindi got it exactly right in this column:

Here’s an excerpt from the column:

So Mr. Wilson was not asking for advice from a target of the investigation, which would have been a resign or be removed from office sort of infraction. And worse.Wilson cropped

What he was doing — what no prosecutor should do — was consulting his political adviser about a criminal case. Mr. Wilson points out that he was not asking how to prosecute a case. He says his concern was to get through the exchange with “a cordial relationship” with Mr. Pascoe intact; and indeed, Mr. Quinn suggested removing some snark and making the letter more diplomatic. (In the end, Mr. Wilson called Mr. Pascoe rather than sending a letter.)

But the underlying topic was still a criminal matter.

Pretend that Mr. Wilson’s consultant had been named John Smith or Jane Jones or anything other than Richard Quinn. Pretend that his political consultant had never met Richard Quinn or Rick Quinn or Jim Merrill. Pretend that Alan Wilson was the only South Carolinian his political consultant had ever heard of. It still would have been inappropriate for Mr. Wilson to consult him. It simply is not acceptable for a prosecutor to seek political advice about anything involving his job as a prosecutor….

The point here is that the memo was sent at a time when there was little or no reason to suspect that Quinn would at some time be a central figure in the investigation. So all that stuff from the Democrats about how Wilson should resign or be fired is off-base.

But it is improper for a prosecutor to seek political advice on how he’s dealing with a criminal investigation. The fact that all elected AGs most likely do it is no excuse.

So, if and when Wilson faces re-election to his post, and voters are tallying the pros and cons as to whether to vote for him, this should go in the “con” column. And that’s about it.

Joel Lourie: Time to invoke the 25th

Joel Lourie has retired from politics, but today he could not restrain himself. He sent this out as an email:

JLourieUnder the 25th amendment, if the President becomes unable to discharge the duties of the office or becomes incapacitated, he can be replaced by the vice-president. Regardless of what I may think of the vice-president’s politics, he strikes me as an honorable man and a stark contrast to Trump.

Time to invoke the 25th…

I don’t know if the 25th is the way to go or not, although some have made strong arguments in favor of it. What do y’all think?

Oh, by way of disclosure: Joel’s business is an ADCO client…

About what happened in Charlottesville…

Lee

Y’all, I’ve had quite a few thoughts about this, but they’re all pretty involved and would take me time to develop and I haven’t had the time. But for now, I’ll do what I should have done Saturday — put up a sort of Open Thread devoted to what happened at Charlottesville, so y’all can get a conversation rolling.

Some possible avenues of exploration:

  1. Trump’s statement — As I’ve said many times before, I don’t think the president’s job description should, normally speaking, include issuing statements in reaction to every traumatic thing that happens across the country. But if he’s going to say something, it should be something that, for starters, doesn’t make matters worse. Trump utterly failed to meet that standard. And it wasn’t just his usual complete lack of thoughtfulness or hamhandedness with the English language. We know why he responded the way he did: He does not share the fundamental values of most Americans. He actually values the rock-solid backing of white supremacists, and doesn’t want to say anything that erodes that support.
  2. How do we prevent such violence without violating the 1st Amendment? If the ACLU stood up for the “right” of Illinois Nazis to march through Skokie, surely it would sue to uphold that right with this latter-day group of racist yahoos. And who’s to say the ACLU would be wrong? Personally, I think they were wrong in the Skokie days — sure, the Hitler fan club had the right to say what it wanted, but letting them do it in Skokie is too much of an offense against human dignity to allow it. This case seems fuzzier. Again, yes, they have free speech rights. But they went out of their way to express themselves in a place guaranteed to create as much tension, and likely violence, as possible. Should that be allowed? Does the free-speech clause guarantee freedom of venue? Such as, say, a crowded theater?
  3. If there would to be such a rally in Columbia, would you attend? I mean to protest, or for any other reason. Would you see yourself as having an obligation to show up in public to register your disapproval, or would you dismiss it by staying away and not giving the Brownshirt types the attention they crave? I can see arguments both ways.
  4. What about that Robert E. Lee statue? I hesitate to mention this because I don’t want to dignify the supposed “issue” that motivated the demonstration. But I mention it only to say that I have no position on the “issue.” What the University of Virginia chooses to display or to take down is none of my business, and I think Charlottesville homeboy Thomas Jefferson would back me on that. I feel like we have enough going on here in South Carolina and don’t need to weigh in on what they do up there. I would argue that any of those white supremacists who were not from Virginia lack such standing as well…

Anyway, that’s for starters. Happy conversing…

The Cotton Pigue Mentality lives!

Actually, this is NOT The Cotton Pigue mentality. It's The Bog Trotters Band. I just needed a Bluegrass picture that was old-timey.

Actually, this is NOT the legendary Cotton Pigue Mentality. It’s The Bog Trotters Band, back in 1937. I just needed a Bluegrass picture that was old-timey.

This is a way, way inside joke, but I thought I’d share it as an illustration of how things don’t change much.

Back in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when I was working at The Jackson (TN) Sun, a judge in a nearby county had a case before him that seemed designed to reinforce every right-winger’s nightmare stereotype of the Welfare Queen. A poor black woman had a houseful of kids, and a couple of her daughters had several of their own. All told, there were about 20 people in the household, if I remember correctly — all women and children.

I forget why they were before him. What I recall is that this old white guy (he was not much older than I am now, but back then he seemed ancient) decided to lecture these women and tell them they needed to stop having children out of wedlock. The judge’s name was “Cotton” Pigue.

It caused a bit of a sensation in West Tennessee when that was reported, and as you might imagine, while some had a “You tell ’em!” reaction, others were quite critical of the judge having overstepped the bounds of his job description.

We were discussing it in the tiny editorial office of the paper, as I recall, when a woman said something disparaging about how certain people needed to get over this “Cotton Pigue mentality.”

My good friend Richard Crowson, the paper’s editorial cartoonist and the best bluegrass picker I’ve ever known, got excited: That was the perfect name for a Bluegrass band! The Cotton Pigue Mentality! I don’t think he actually ever named any of the groups he played in that, but it was a memorable inspiration.

Anyway, after not having been heard from in years — no albums, no tours — it seems the Mentality has made a comeback. In Tennessee, appropriately enough:

Judge to inmates: Get sterilized and I’ll shave off jail time

A judge in central Tennessee is hoping to help repeat offenders “make something of themselves” by offering them a highly original and probably unconstitutional deal: reduced jail time in exchange for sterilization operations.

Under a standing order issued by General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield, inmates in White County, Tenn., can receive 30 days credit toward their jail time if they volunteer for vasectomies or contraceptive implants, as NewsChannel 5 reported Thursday.

The order came down quietly in May, and already dozens of inmates have sought to take advantage of it. Thirty-two women have received implants of the hormone device Nexplanon, and 38 men have signed up to receive vasectomies, according to NewsChannel 5….

The Cotton Pigue Mentality lives! I can’t wait for to hear them when they come to town — just for old times’ sake…

The real "Cotton" Pigue.

The real “Cotton” Pigue.

A New Hope: SCOTUS to consider fixing gerrymandering

800px-The_Gerry-Mander_Edit

This morning, I was in the middle of reading an E.J. Dionne column tracing the history of the breakdown in civility in our politics — headlined “The destruction of political norms started decades ago. Here’s how it happened” — when I received news of something that could actually reverse the evil process he was writing about:

 

The bulletin said:

Supreme Court to hear potentially landmark case on partisan gerrymandering

The Supreme Court declared Monday that it will consider whether gerrymandered election maps favoring one political party over another violate the Constitution, a potentially fundamental change in the way American elections are conducted.

The justices regularly are called to invalidate state electoral maps that have been illegally drawn to reduce the influence of racial minorities by depressing the impact of their votes.

But the Supreme Court has never found a plan unconstitutional because of partisan gerrymandering. If it does, it would have a revolutionary impact on the reapportionment that comes after the 2020 election and could come at the expense of Republicans, who control the process in the majority of states….

A revolutionary impact, indeed.

A lot of us realize that the perpetual contest between the parties started getting nasty in the 1990s. (Actually, it got bad here and there even before that, but the cancer metastasized in the ’90s — and got much worse each decade after.)

And a huge reason for that is that the parties — particularly the GOP, as the story above notes — got much, much better at drawing people who might vote for the opposite party out of “their” districts.

Consequently, general elections came to mean nothing, and primaries became contests to see which candidate could be more extreme. That poisoned the partisan atmosphere to the point that even races for non-district offices, such U.S. Senate and president, became distorted as well.

And as I’ve said so many times, to the extent there’s a universal cure what what ails us politically, doing away with partisan gerrymandering is it. No single thing could do more to restore our republic.

So I’m pretty pumped about this. You?

Thoughts on the Comey hearing?

Comey, right after he said of Trump's excuses for firing him, "Those were lies, plain and simple..."

Comey, right after he said of Trump’s excuses for firing him, “Those were lies, plain and simple…”

Well, the public part is over, and the senators will move on to the SCIF for the good stuff behind closed doors.

My initial impression: Comey came across as a completely credible witness, and in terms of integrity, honesty and respect for the rule of law, Donald Trump’s polar opposite.

You? Thoughts?

My favorite bit may have been when Comey quoted my ancestor Henry II, as a way of saying he thought Trump’s stating aloud about what he wanted (for the Flynn investigation to be dropped) being tantamount to an order. Although I’m not sure who, in the analogy, was Becket.

Anyway, y’all get started, and I’ll join in later…

Now, the senators and Comey move on to the classified portion of the hearing, in the SCIF...

Now, the senators and Comey move on to the classified portion of the hearing, in the SCIF…

Comey and Trump: What a strange series of encounters

testimony

Have you read James Comey’s prepared remarks for the start of tomorrow’s hearing? (You can read them over at the NYT site.)

Basically, the statement consists of Comey’s bare-bones account of his uncomfortable interactions with Donald Trump in the months leading up to his firing.

Some bits and pieces:

  • He notes that he decided from the start that he would keep detailed notes on these encounters, starting with writing them on a laptop in his car outside Trump Tower immediately after their first meeting.comey mug
  • That was NOT anything he had felt compelled to do working for Barack Obama.
  • In his years working for Obama, he had only met with the president alone twice — the second time just for the president to say goodbye before leaving office — and never spoken with him alone on the phone. But “I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months – three in person and six on the phone.” And each one he tells about seems to have made him quite uncomfortable.
  • Even as Comey tried to sidestep the question, Trump asked him repeatedly for his fealty at a private dinner on Jan. 27: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” As Comey relates, “I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.”
  • When, on Valentine’s Day, Trump asked Comey to back off Mike Flynn, saying “He is a good guy and has been through a lot,” Comey again tried to get through the conversation without compromising himself or his investigation: “I replied only that ‘he is a good guy.’ (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would ‘let this go.'”
  • In a conversation on April 11 that sounds like something from “The Sopranos,” Trump appears to make another appeal for loyalty, saying “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” Comey, with typical understatement, simply notes: “I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.'”

Comey is sparing in his observations, but is clearly disconcerted by these conversations with a boss who has no understanding whatsoever of boundaries or propriety. It’s like reading the account of a very careful, methodical professional who feels trapped in bizarre situations with some volatile, outlandish creature who cannot be expected to act according to the normal patterns of civilized human behavior, like Jabba the Hutt or Baron Harkonnen.

When the account ends with “That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,” one imagines a huge sigh of relief.

Comey doesn’t make value judgments, except for dryly indicating that he had never felt the need to keep a record of his conversations with a president before. But the whole account sounds like a man holding himself back from saying, “WTF?”

This is how far we are (or should be) toward impeachment

Jennifer Rubin’s on a roll lately. This morning I Tweeted this out:

If you don’t read anything more of her piece, read these two grafs:

We now have a situation in which multiple, highly respected GOP officials — Coats, Pompeo and perhaps Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — will have a remarkably consistent story showing a frantic and persistent president pestering them to derail an ongoing FBI investigation.

In the case of President Richard Nixon, a recording of a single directive for the CIA to squash the FBI investigation of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters was dubbed a smoking gun….

Yeah. Assuming these stories remain consistent, we don’t just have a smoking gun — we have a whole battery of them.

Of course, Trump utterly lacks the sense of honor and grasp of reality that led Nixon to resign.

Speaking of grasp on reality, another good piece from a Post writer who generally gets put in the “conservative” camp (although as always when it comes to describing intelligent people, that’s an oversimplification):

This column does a couple of things. First, it tells of Kathleen’s conversations with a friend who, like pretty much the whole Trump base (which keeps him at about 39 percent approval, and WAY higher among Republicans, which is why impeachment will take longer than it should), is blind to how unhinged their guy is — or almost blind: The friend thinks Trump would be fine if he’d just stop Tweeting.

Yet, as Kathleen points out, the Tweets are our window into the real Trump:

So, yes, on one hand, Trump must stop tweeting. On the other, how else would we know how truly demented the man is? Luckily, it’s not too late to save the country, yet. But if Jack is worried about the president’s tweeting, it may be time for congressional Republicans to acknowledge what has long been obvious, declare the man incompetent and deliberate accordingly….

Interesting thing (to someone who cares about the little decisions involved in editing): On the Post iPad app, the headline leading from the main page to the Parker piece was “If Trump stops tweeting, how will we know how demented he really is?” — as you can see below. Then when you got to the column itself, the hed said far less: “If Trump stops tweeting, how will we know who he really is?” When I went to Tweet it, the app offered me the hed that said less. I changed it to the one that stated the case….

demented

Gerrymandering, South Carolina-style

SC 6th Congressional District

Yesterday, we discussed this Supreme Court ruling:

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature relied on racial gerrymandering when drawing the state’s congressional districts, a decision that could make it easier to challenge other state redistricting plans.

The decision continued a trend at the court, where justices have found that racial considerations improperly tainted redistricting decisions by GOP-led legislatures in Virginia, Alabama and North Carolina. Some cases involved congressional districts, others legislative districts.

The states contended that their efforts were partisan moves to protect their majorities, which the Supreme Court in the past has allowed, rather than attempts to diminish the impact of minority voters, which are forbidden….

The states argued that way because, bizarrely, our courts decided long ago that it was OK to stack districts to elect members of this or that party, or to protect incumbents — which to me has always seemed an abdication of the judiciary’s responsibility to check the power of the legislative branch. If lawmakers can perpetuate their personal holds on their districts, how is that unlike inherited titles, or the “rotten boroughs” that Britain did away with in 1832? But that’s just me.

I’d like to see the court take a good look at South Carolina next, if it gets the opportunity.

It should start with the 6th Congressional District, which is where GOP strategy in drawing congressional lines begins. Since 1990, our lawmakers have packed as many black voters into it as possible, so as to make our other six districts whiter and more likely — in practice now, virtually certain — to elect Republicans.

The trick, of course, will be proving a racial intent, since race and partisan leaning are so closely related. I don’t think our Republican representatives would care whether their constituents were black, white or green, as long as they voted for Republicans. But as we know, even if you drew the lines purely by voting patterns and didn’t have racial data available, if you draw a reliable GOP district, it’s going to very white.

The fact that it ends up that way can’t really be disputed — although the 5th and 7th districts “look like South Carolina” being 66.7% and 65.4% white respectively, they don’t look much like districts that include part of, or border on, the Pee Dee. And the other four GOP districts are whiter, with the whitest being the 3rd, at 76.9%.

I gleaned these figures from Wikipedia:

  • 1st — 74.8% white
  • 2nd — 69.5% white
  • 3rd — 76.9% white
  • 4th — 76.2% White
  • 5th — 66.7% White
  • 6th — 57.0% Black (40.8% White)
  • 7th — 65.4% White

At a glance, the 6th doesn’t look all that gerrymandered, until you focus on that crazy indentation that excludes the white suburbs of Charleston. And then you notice how, all along the coast, the rest of the southern border of the district goes almost, but not quite, to the beach — thereby drawing out the affluent white beaches while retaining the poor, black parts of those counties on the inland side of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Then there’s the weird little projection into Columbia at the top — which looks even more bizarre when you see what it fits into: an odd hook-like structure on the 2nd District map (below) that gives all of Columbia’s white suburbs to Joe Wilson.

Thus, Jim Clyburn is free to be the sort of Democrat that closely allies himself with Nancy Pelosi and know he’ll never lose his seat while he still wants it. And Joe Wilson, a Republican of an earlier time, is safe as long as he hangs on tight to the ears of whatever wild ideological beast is rampaging through his party at a given moment (yelling “You Lie!” helped with that, as inconsistent as it was with his personality).

It doesn’t really matter whom Republicans nominate in the 6th District, or whom Democrats find to put up in the 2nd. There are no choices to be made here.

And that’s very, very bad for our Republic.

You can see the same thing repeated again and again if you study state legislative districts. But this is the one that’s easiest to see.

SC 2nd Congressional District

E.J. Dionne is right: Let’s get this over with…

I wholeheartedly agree with what E.J. Dionne had to say last night. Excerpts:

Trump has caused a catastrophe. Let’s end it quickly.

There is really only one issue in American politics at this moment: Will we accelerate our way to the end of the Trump story, or will our government remain mired in scandal, misdirection and paralysis for many more months — or even years?E.J. Dionne

There is a large irony in the politics behind this question. The Democrats’ narrow interest lies in having President Trump hang around as close to the 2018 midterm elections as possible. Yet they are urging steps that could get this resolved sooner rather than later. Republicans would likely be better off if Trump were pushed off the stage. Yet up to now, they have been dragging their feet.

The reports that Trump asked then-FBI Director James B. Comey to drop his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn may finally be concentrating Republican minds….

Nothing could be worse than slow-walking the Trump inquiries. The evidence is already overwhelming that he is temperamentally and intellectually incapable of doing the job he holds. He is indifferent to acquiring the knowledge the presidency demands and apparently of the belief that he can improvise hour to hour. He will violate norms whenever it suits him and cross ethical lines whenever he feels like it.

He also lies a lot, and has been perfectly happy to burn the credibility of anyone who works for him. White House statements are about as believable as those issued regularly by the Kremlin….

My worry is that to do it right — whether we follow the impeachment route or Ross Douthat’s suggestion of using the 25th Amendment (which has a lot of appeal to me, if doable) — may take time. Not only to dot all the legal i’s, but for a miracle to happen — for Trump’s base, which thus far has been immune to evidence, finally sees the light. Otherwise, we’re just in for more horrific turmoil and division.

But that said, we probably can’t wait for that unlikely eventuality. E.J.’s right. ‘Twere best done quickly

Rep. Rick Quinn indicted in growing corruption probe

The latest shoe has dropped:

Longtime Republican lawmaker Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, was indicted Tuesday on two counts of misconduct in office.Rick Quinn

One charge, common law misconduct, involves $4.5 million in questionable money accepted by Quinn “from lobbyists’ principals,” money he accepted but failed to report “to the appropriate supervisory office,” the indictment says.

That charge, which alleges illegal activity by Quinn from 1999 to April 15 of this year, carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine at the judge’s discretion.

The other charge, for statutory misconduct in office, carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $1,000 maximum fine. It alleges that from April 2010 through April 15 2017, Quinn as a public official committed criminal acts “in order to obtain a personal profit and benefit.”…

Well, given the way this investigation has appeared to be swirling around the Quinns lately, it’s hardly surprising that Rick — who represents my former district (I was later drawn into the one now held by Micah Caskey) — would be a target. So this has nowhere near the shock value of the charges against Sen. John Courson.

Shock or not, it’s never pleasing to read of such developments. As our president would say, “Sad!”

In terms of the overall investigation, the interesting thing about this is that it crosses a line — this is the first time one of the Quinns has been charged with anything.

Will a crowd now join the governor in heading for the exits, getting as far away from the Quinns as possible?

Trump bluntly says he fired Comey for worst of reasons

holt

 

What’s next? Will he start running around crying, “Take me away! I’m guilty!”?

How else are we supposed to read this:

President Trump on Thursday said he was thinking of “this Russia thing with Trump” when he decided to fire FBI Director James B. Comey, who had been leading the counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Recounting his decision to dismiss Comey, Trump told NBC News, “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”

Trump’s account flatly contradicts the White House’s initial account of how the president arrived at his decision, undercutting public denials by his aides that the move was influenced in any way by his growing fury with the ongoing Russia probe….

So, after days of his desperate defenders trying their best to push the unbelievable cover story that a) he fired Comey on Rod Rosenstein’s recommendation, and b) it was over the Hillary emails investigation (and not over the Russians thing — heavens, no!), Trump is now shouting for all to hear, a) It was all my idea!, and b) It was about the probe of the Russians and my campaign!

And as usual, he doesn’t seem bright enough to realize those are bad things.

What we’re seeing here is another illustration of what Trump predicted about his supporters. Remember when he said he could kill somebody on 5th Avenue, and they would still support him?

Well, while his overall approval ratings are in a deep hole, among Republicans it’s — wait for it — 84 percent! The Washington Post calls that “the one little number that — so far — is all the protection Donald Trump needs.”

What is with these people?

Mister, we could use a man like Howard Baker again…

Hawaii judge on why travel order is a Muslim Ban

Here’s a nice excerpt from the “sometime scathing” (according to The Guardian) order by federal district judge Derrick Watson in Honolulu striking down Donald Trump’s second attempt to bar travel from certain Muslim countries.

Basically, he’s calling “bull” on the alleged motives for the ban:

The Government appropriately cautions that, in determining purpose, courts should not look into the ‘veiled psyche’ and ‘secret motives’ of government decision-makers and may not undertake a ‘judicial psychoanalysis of a drafter’s heart of hearts’.

Judge Derrick Kahala Watson

Judge Derrick Kahala Watson

The Government need not fear. The remarkable facts at issue here require no such impermissible inquiry.

For instance, there is nothing ‘veiled’ about this press release: ‘Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’

Nor is there anything ‘secret’ about the Executive’s motive specific to the issuance of the Executive Order:

Rudolph Giuliani explained on television how the Executive Order came to be. He said: “When [Mr. Trump] first announced it, he said, ‘Muslim ban.’ He called me up. He said, ‘Put a commission together. Show me the right way to do it legally.’”

You MUST read David Frum’s brilliant piece in The Atlantic

David Frum on Tavis Smiley's show earlier this week.

David Frum on Tavis Smiley’s show earlier this week.

The other night, as I turned off the Apple TV and paused just before turning off the tube altogether, I saw that Tavis Smiley was interviewing David Frum — former speechwriter for George W. Bush and current senior editor for The Atlantic.

So I stopped myself from turning it off, because Frum usually has smart, interesting things to say.

He immediately said something rather outlandish. He suggested it was highly possible that Donald Trump’s main goal in being president of the United States is to become the richest man in the world. And that as long as his tax returns are not disclosed, he’s likely to achieve it.

I was about to scoff, but paused. That would be a ridiculous goal to me, or to Barack Obama, or to George W. Bush (despite what Bud and others seem to believe about Republicans.) The sheer petty, two-bit cupidity of it is laughable, particularly since in our history, no one who was thus motivated has ever sought such a position, much less attained it.

But I then reflected that lots of people actually are that motivated by money, as Doug keeps insisting to me that everyone is. And if there’s anyone on the planet who might be that acquisitive, it’s Donald J. Trump.

Well, fine. I don’t care if he does become the richest man in the world. Were it in my power, I would write him a check for the full amount he wants if only he’d walk away and stop doing what he’s doing to our country.

I don’t know, but suspect, that Frum would do the same. Because the problem for him, and for me, is the startlingly insidious ways that Trump is undermining our republic, its institutions — particularly the effectiveness of our vaunted checks and balances — and its standing in the world as a beacon of how self-government can work. Whatever Trump’s goal is — money, popularity, power for power’s sake — the really horrible thing is what he’s doing to get there.

During the interview with Smiley, Frum alluded to a piece he’d written in The Atlantic. I finally read it tonight. It is without a doubt the most brilliant, incisive, on-point, and chilling thing I’ve read since this nightmare began.

The title is “How to Build an Autocracy.”

Orwell’s 1984 has been enjoying a surge of popularity in recent weeks, especially it seems since Kellyanne Conway’s remark about “alternative facts.”

Well, the first 878 words of this essay is a bit of speculative fiction imagining the world four years from now, when Trump has just easily won re-election. It’s scarier than 1984 because it’s not a theoretical projection of just how horrible things might get in a place like Stalin’s Russia. It’s chilling because everything it describes, in explaining how Trump becomes a power that can’t be challenged, is completely, immediately believable. It wouldn’t have been before the past year, but it is now. We’re seeing it happen.

The other several thousand words of the piece elaborates on how we get from here to there, and it’s amazing. Frum doesn’t generalize. He explains in detail why it’s highly likely that the checks and balances we rely on — from official ones like Congress to unofficial ones like the press — are being quite effectively neutralized. He sets out beautifully, for instance, how Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are motivated to look the other way because they need Trump more than he needs them. It explains so much.

As for the media, well, Trump is redefining the nature of truth itself, or at least the way Americans regard it. An example of how that works:

One story, still supremely disturbing, exemplifies the falsifying method. During November and December, the slow-moving California vote count gradually pushed Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump in the national popular vote further and further: past 1 million, past 1.5 million, past 2 million, past 2.5 million. Trump’s share of the vote would ultimately clock in below Richard Nixon’s in 1960, Al Gore’s in 2000, John Kerry’s in 2004, Gerald Ford’s in 1976, and Mitt Romney’s in 2012—and barely ahead of Michael Dukakis’s in 1988.

This outcome evidently gnawed at the president-elect. On November 27, Trump tweeted that he had in fact “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He followed up that astonishing, and unsubstantiated, statement with an escalating series of tweets and retweets.

It’s hard to do justice to the breathtaking audacity of such a claim. If true, it would be so serious as to demand a criminal investigation at a minimum, presumably spanning many states. But of course the claim was not true. Trump had not a smidgen of evidence beyond his own bruised feelings and internet flotsam from flagrantly unreliable sources. Yet once the president-elect lent his prestige to the crazy claim, it became fact for many people. A survey by YouGov found that by December 1, 43 percent of Republicans accepted the claim that millions of people had voted illegally in 2016.

If you sow enough cynicism, you don’t have to murder journalists or imprison opponents. There are subtler ways of achieving autocracy, which have been employed in recent years in places like Hungary, and we Americans are just beginning to learn about them.

He sort of leaves open the idea that Trump is a fascist, and moves beyond it, to tell us that our notions and labels and expectations are behind the times:

Whatever else happens, Americans are not going to assemble in parade-ground formations, any more than they will crank a gramophone or dance the turkey trot. In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilize young men in matching shirts to command the streets? If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is. Demagogues need no longer stand erect for hours orating into a radio microphone. Tweet lies from a smartphone instead….

But I’m not going to be able to do justice to this piece with excerpts. You need to go read it yourself. If you care, you have to.

I’ll just close with a neat thing Frum did today on Twitter. He set out some of the main points of his essay with a series of 21 Tweets. Here they are:

2) Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous president because he harbors so many guilty secrets (or maybe 1 big guilty secret).

3) In order to protect himself, Trump must attack American norms and institutions – otherwise he faces fathomless legal risk

4) In turn, in order to protect their legally vulnerable leader, Republicans in Congress must join the attack on norms & institutions

5) Otherwise, they put at risk party hopes for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake US government in ways not very popular with voters

6) American institutions are built to withstand an attack from the president alone. But …

7) … they are not so well-built as to withstand an attack from a conscienceless president enabled by a hyper-partisan Congress

8) The peculiar grim irony in this case is that somewhere near the center of Trump’s story is the murky secret of Trump’s Russia connection

9) Meaning that Trump is rendering his party also complicit in what could well prove …

10) … the biggest espionage scandal since the Rosenberg group stole the secret of the atomic bomb.

11) And possibly even bigger. We won’t know if we don’t look

12) Despite patriotic statements from individual GOPers, as of now it seems that Speaker Ryan & Leader McConnell agree: no looking.

13) So many in DC serenely promise that “checks and balances” will save us. But right now: there is no check and no balance.

14) Only brave individuals in national security roles sharing truth with news organizations.

15) But those individuals can be found & silenced. What then? We take it too much for granted that the president must lose this struggle

16) The “oh he’s normal now” relief of so many to Trump’s Feb 28 speech revealed how ready DC is to succumb to dealmaking as usual.

17) As DC goes numb, citizen apathy accumulates …

18) GOP members of Congress decide they have more to fear from enforcing law against the president than from ignoring law with the president

19) And those of us who care disappear down rabbit holes debating whether Sessions’ false testimony amounts to perjury or not

20) Meanwhile job market strong, stock market is up, immigration enforcement is popular.

21) I’m not counseling despair here. I don’t feel despair. Only: nobody else will save the country if you don’t act yourself. END.

Illustration by Jeffry Smith in The Atlantic.

Illustration by Jeffry Smith in The Atlantic.

Announcing Caskey & Imgrund, LLC

Everyone wish Bryan joy upon the announcement of his new enterprise:

Caskey & Imgrund

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Bryan, I want to congratulate you on your new business and I’m sure you’ll do very well and good luck to you. Especially since your interests don’t conflict with mine. Thank you.

Oh, and next time (and please tell all your lawyer friends this), please send a Word file instead of a PDF, so I can copy and paste the info rather than having to post a picture of it…

People, can you just chill a bit over court nominations, please?

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So Trump nominated someone last night for the Supreme Court, and it looks like he had good advice and listened to it for a change: I’ve seen no indications at all that this Gorsuch guy is anything other than a qualified jurist. Which means that, in a rational world — barring currently unknown problems coming to light — his confirmation should be routine. Which would be welcome; we have enough turmoil in our public life at the moment.

But then, I read this main story (there were many sidebars) about the nomination in The Washington Post:

President Trump nominated Colorado federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court on Tuesday, opting in the most important decision of his young presidency for a highly credentialed favorite of the conservative legal establishment to fill the opening created last year by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia….

WHAT?The most important decision?” In what way, in what sense, in what universe completely lacking in any sense of proportion?

To keep it simple, let’s just consider three things this “young presidency” has done that are much more far-reaching in likely effect:

  1. Pulling out of TPP. This has disengaged America from the Pacific Rim, and invited the accelerated rise of China, in a way that is likely to have staggering consequences in this century both for us and for the billions of others affected — economically, strategically, culturally and almost any other “-ly” you care to name.
  2. Sticking a finger in the eye of every Muslim on the planet. Never mind the momentary unjust treatment of 90,000 or so individuals from Muslim countries, or the unconscionably inhumane “no” to refugees. This has indelibly engraved in a billion or so people’s minds that America regards them and their faith as the enemy, the one impression that our last two presidents have gone out of their way to avoid giving, even as they prosecuted the War on Terror.
  3. Naming Gen. Mattis as defense secretary. Just as Gorsuch’s appears to be, this was one of Trump’s rare good calls. Deciding upon such a qualified leader for our military at a time when the world is so unsettled and there are so many places where things can go really wrong really quickly was of the utmost importance. But it was also an historic precedent, since we had avoided naming recent generals to that post for my entire life. (By contrast, presidents have named LOTS of Supreme Court justices who have come and gone in my life, and none of them held immediate sway over the immense power of the U.S. military.)

Speaking of Mattis — despite the semi-Constitutional issue his nomination raised, an issue worthy of respectful consideration, but not one that should have been an obstacle in light of his qualifications, and of the nation’s desperate need of some qualified people at this point in our history — all but one senator had the good sense to confirm him.

And if our nation had good sense, something similar would happen with Gorsuch. Will it?

No, of course not. As another piece in the Post, by the venerable Dan Balz, noted:

The coming fight over his Supreme Court nominee will be fiercer than before.

Yes, it will. Else we would all be shocked. (I, for one, would be pleasantly surprised.) And what is likely to happen will be an utter waste of energy in a time when political capital needs to be saved for so many other more important battles.

My attitude toward Gorsuch is exactly the same as it was toward President Obama’s pick for this seat, Merrick Garland. They were both qualified for the job. They had already been vetted; they had already proved themselves. They had the requisite knowledge and experience, and reputations for probity and good judgment. There were detectable differences in judicial philosophy — differences that in a calm, proportional world would matter only to legal scholars. But both were qualified for the job — far more qualified than most people elected to Congress, for instance.

Whether one or the other was confirmed is not the Ultimate Issue. It’s not Armageddon.

Here’s the way I see it: The vast, vast majority of times the Court decides cases with wisdom and with ultimate respect for the law and for our civilization. Most decisions are unanimous — which seems remarkable to this layman, since the court deals mainly in matters lower courts were unable to settle conclusively. This has been the case over the decades, no matter whether the majority of the court is labeled “liberal” or “conservative.” Controversy exists only in a minority of cases, and most of those are at least decided intelligently, even if not the way you or I would prefer.

This has been true my entire lifetime.

To me, this testifies to presidents and senators having done a phenomenal job of picking good, qualified justices. The political branches have a much better record in this than in any other area I can think of.

Am I unhappy with some of the decisions? You bet. My opposition to Roe v. Wade is well documented here. I object not only to its legalization of abortion, but to the devastating effect that decision has had on our national politics — specifically, to exacerbating the very problem that I’m on about in this post.

(Considered logically, I am if anything even more opposed to the absurd precedent upon which Roe is based — the Griswold decision, which magically “discovered” an absolute right to privacy hiding in the shadows of the Constitution, a right that had somehow gone unnoticed in the nation’s previous 189 years.)

Today, in part because of Roe, we have vast numbers of people — thousands, if not millions of Americans will vote for a president based largely if not entirely on the basis of what sort of justices he or she is likely to name — “liberal” or “conservative.” Which is insane, given the far more immediate and far-ranging powers of the presidency. A president has the power, at every morning of every day, to make decisions that could lead to the destruction of all human life on this planet — and yet people will actually let their vote be decided on a narrow range of factors involved in a decision the president might make once, or maybe twice, in a four- or eight-year period.

It’s ridiculous. It’s far out of rational proportion.

Of course, since I’ve described the devastating effect of that one decision on our nation’s politics, you might say judicial nominations should be treated as seriously as they are. But no. That decision was an aberration. The number of bad decisions made by presidents in the same period of time since, say, Plessy v. Ferguson or Dred Scott is far, far vaster. Which argues that we ought to devote more of our attention and political energy on the 99.999 percent of what a president does, and less on this one.

Maybe Dan Balz and other experienced observers are wrong — just as they were wrong about Trump’s electoral chances.

Maybe the enormity of what Trump is doing in virtually every other area within his authority will shock our political players into having a sense of proportion. Maybe they’ll save their powder for the big battles that must be fought, some of which (who knows?) might even be won by the forces of reason. Maybe this confirmation will be as routine as it should be, as most of them should be.

But I doubt it. There is a vast infrastructure of political advocacy out there that exists purely for fights such as this one. And both political parties are closely wedded to those interest groups, and fearful of not doing their bidding with utmost zeal.

We’ll see…

Dylann Roof found guilty

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… which in a way isn’t news, since it was a foregone conclusion. But it’s a tribute to the fact that we still live under a system of laws and not of men — innocent until proven guilty, etc. — which is reassuring in this post-election world in which so much that our Founders bequeathed us seems threatened.

Of the seven news outlets I just glanced at, five led with it, including both British outlets I looked at:

  1. The State — Dylann Roof found guilty
  2. NPR — Jury Finds Dylann Roof Guilty In S.C. Church Shooting
  3. BBC — Supremacist guilty of US church killings
  4. The Washington Post — Dylann Roof found guilty of all charges in Charleston church massacre
  5. The Guardian — Dylann Roof found guilty in Charleston church shooting

Only The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times led with other things. The Journal, true to its calling went with an item about the dollar hitting new heights, while the Times touted the latest in its series about the Russians tampering with our election.

In other South Carolina news, Steve Benjamin — of all people — had a meeting with Donald Trump. He says he thinks it went well. Sure — that’s what people say just before Trump gives them the Mitt Romney treatment…

A post in which you can talk about Gen. Mattis

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Bryan Caskey complains via email, “We gonna talk foreign policy and military stuff on your blog about Mattis, or what?”

Alright, alright, already! Here’s a post about that. And here’s a story about Mattis.

Frankly, I don’t have a strong opinion on this nomination, but here are some thoughts:

  • With a complete ignoramus as commander in chief, it’s more important than ever that there be competent Cabinet members, who can keep the ship of state on some kind of rational course, at least when the White House leaves them alone to do so. This is particularly true on the national security team. And Trump’s decision to make Gen. Michael “Lock Her Up!” Flynn his national security adviser already has us in the hole on that score.
  • Mattis would seem to fit that bill. He’s a guy whose resume demonstrates that he would fully understand the missions of the Defense Department and act accordingly.
  • Then there’s the problem that Congress would have to grant an exemption that it has not granted until it did so for George C. Marshall. The law they’d have to waive arises from concerns about maintaining civilian control of the military. As y’all know, I’m not one of these post-Vietnam liberals who hyperventilate at the sight of a military uniform, fearing a real-life “Seven Days in May.” The Constitution sets the president as commander in chief, and that would seem sufficient. Well, it would under normal circumstances. Having a SecDef who is a recent general and is able to think rings around the president on military matters and foreign affairs could be a cause of concern on the fussy point of civilian control — but I personally would sleep better if I knew Mattis was calling the shots rather than the president-elect.
  • Mattis is far less trusting of Iran than President Obama. I think that is probably a healthy thing, but as Bryan would say, and this post is after all for Bryan, your mileage may vary.
  • I think it’s a very good thing that he has differed in the past from Trump on the idea of our allies getting a “free ride” on the back of U.S. power. He argued with a similar comment from President Obama once.
  • My guys John McCain and Lindsey Graham are on board, which makes me like him better. Graham finds him “an outstanding choice,” and McCain says “He is without a doubt of one of finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader who inspires a rare and special admiration of his troops.”

Your thoughts?

Another of the many basic things Trump has never thought about

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Trump voters wanted an outsider, but I doubt that they, or I, or anyone yet fully grasps just how out-of-the-loop this guy is.

I think I have a pretty good idea, based on the last year and a half. I’ve long known enough to see that — if you see the same things — you’d have to be stark, raving mad to want to put this guy anywhere near the Oval Office. But look what’s happened.

So, each day will bring us face-to-face with yet another thing that demonstrate that Donald Trump has never spent a moment of his garish life thinking about things that are second nature to people who — regardless of party or philosophy — possess the most basic qualifications to be president.

Sometimes it’s something small — but telling — such as this:

Now here’s a place where my own gut feelings are the same as those of our president-elect. The idea of someone showing such hatred and contempt toward the flag that our bravest Americans have given their lives to defend, and to raise over such places as, say, Iwo Jima — a flag that symbolizes the noble ideas upon which our nation was founded — is profoundly offensive, even obscene. I have utter contempt for anyone who would even consider such a thing.

But I wouldn’t use the power of the state to punish someone for it, certainly not to the extent of loss of citizenship, or a year of imprisonment. You might have me going for a moment on something such as writing the protester a ticket, but ultimately I’d even have to reject that. Why? Because of those very ideas that the flag stands for. If burning the flag causes a person to be burned or causes some other harm, then you have a crime. But if the expression itself is punishable, then it doesn’t matter whether the flag is burned because it doesn’t stand for anything.

(This is related to my opposition to “hate crimes,” one of the few areas where I agree with libertarians. Punish the crime — the assault, the murder, the arson, whatever the criminal did — not the political ideas behind it, however offensive.)

People who have their being in the realm of political expression have usually thought this through. And true, even people who have thought about it may disagree with my conclusion, wrong as they may be. Still others cynically manipulate the feelings of millions of well-meaning voters who haven’t thought the issue through themselves.

But I don’t think that’s the case with Trump. I think he’s just never really wrestled with this or thousands of other questions that bear upon civic life, so he goes with his gut, which as I admitted above is much the same as my own on this question. He engages it on the level of the loudmouth at the end of the bar: I’ll tell ya ONE damn’ thing… 

In a time not at all long ago — remember, Twitter didn’t exist before 2006 — we wouldn’t know this as readily as we do now. Sure, a political leader might go rogue during a speech, or get tripped up on an unexpected question during a press conference. But normally, the smart people surrounding a president would take something the president wanted to say and massage and process and shape it before handing it to a press secretary to drop into the daily briefing.

Now, the president-elect — or Joe Blow down the street — can have a gut feeling and without even fully processing the thought himself, immediately share it with the entire planet. As this president-elect does, often.

That’s a separate problem, of course, from the basic cluelessness of this president-elect. Not only does he not know a lot that he should, he has the impulse and the means to share that lack of knowledge and reflection with the world, instantly.

Quite a few people in public life haven’t figured out social media. They don’t understand something that editors know from long experience — that you have to be very careful about what you publish. (And yes, posting a random thought on Twitter does constitute publication.) Our governor, soon to be our U.N. ambassador, had a terrible time learning that, although to her credit she hasn’t done anything notably foolish on Facebook in a while.

As Aaron Blake writes on The Fix, it might be nice to think we could ignore these outbursts:

For the second time in two weekends, President-elect Donald Trump stirred controversy, bigly, using only his thumbs.

With a trio of tweets Sunday alleging millions of fraudulent votes and “serious” fraud in three states, Trump effectively hijacked the news cycle for the next 24 hours with baseless conspiracy theories. A week prior, it was Trump’s tweets demanding an apology from the cast of “Hamilton” for disrespecting Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience the previous night.

It can all feel pretty small and sideshow-y at times. Some have a prescription: The media should resist the urge to cover Trump’s tweets as big news. Others even say we should ignore them altogether….

But we can’t. In the months and years to some — assuming no one gets control of him, and I doubt anyone will — we must treat them as seriously as if the president strode into the White House Press Room and made a formal announcement.

This is what we’ve come to. Our window into the mind of the most powerful man in the world will to a great extent be these spasmodic eruptions onto a tiny keyboard.

We might as well brace ourselves…