The Equivalent of Sneering

Think of it as the administrative equivalent of sneering. Or think of it as male dominance thing. The lesser male members of the pack must be made to feel emasculated and become submissive to the sole alpha male. The lesser male members of the pack must whimper, dramatically, to show their shame to all. It’s a sexual thing. They will have no mates. Or just think of it as Donald Trump issuing pardons with a grin and sneer:

President Trump on Tuesday used his sweeping presidential pardon powers to forgive the crimes of a list of boldface names including disgraced politician Rod R. Blagojevich, convicted junk bond king Michael Milken and former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik.

Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of seven convicted white-collar criminals at the center of federal anti-corruption and tax fraud cases spanning decades, alongside four women whose cases were not as well known.

So, if people want to poke around in Trump’s taxes, looking for tax fraud of some kind, this was his message. He thinks that’s bullshit. Tax fraud is no big deal. That’s something that the “little people” will never understand. That was the sneering massage, but this was odd:

The action frees Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois, from the federal correctional facility in Colorado where he was serving out his 14-year sentence. He was convicted on corruption charges in 2011 for trying in 2008 to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat.

“He’ll be able to go back home with his family after serving eight years in jail,” Trump told reporters. “That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence in my opinion and in the opinion of many others.”

Who were the many others? He hinted at Fox News. But he was there to remind everyone that he has power and they don’t:

Tuesday’s clemency announcements came as Trump has been flexing his power in recent days after being acquitted by the Senate on two impeachment charges. The president has removed from their jobs witnesses who testified against him and publicly weighed in on criminal cases concerning his associates while also dismissing the idea that his actions have crossed ethical or legal lines.

That was the message, that now he can do any damned thing he wants, and he, not the courts, decides who is guilty or not:

The pardons and commutations focus on the type of corruption and lying charges his associates were convicted of as part of the Russia investigation, once again raising the question of whether he will pardon former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and longtime adviser and friend Roger Stone. Trump said he hadn’t thought about pardoning those three but made clear he wasn’t happy with the cases brought against them.

“I think Roger Stone has been treated unfairly. I think General Flynn has been treated very unfairly,” he told reporters. “I think a lot of people have been treated very unfairly.”

And he (almost) alone decides that:

The executive actions announced Tuesday fit a pattern of highly personal presidential justice that largely bypasses the traditional pardon process administered by the Justice Department. Most of the people who have received clemency under Trump have been well-connected offenders who had a line into the White House or currency with his political base.

Milken received a pardon with the White House providing a long list of advocates for the wealthy financier, including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, political donors Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Milken became a symbol of the culture of greed during the 1980s that was fictionalized in movies such as “Wall Street,” where Michael Douglas plays ruthless financier Gordon Gekko, who declares that “greed is good.”

Oliver Stone presented that as awful – Michael Douglas portrayed a moral monster in his movie. This crowd saw him as the one true hero in that movie. But then there’s real life:

Milken rose to prominence for his role in developing high-interest-bearing securities markets, known as junk bonds, before pleading guilty in 1990 to six felony counts, including securities fraud, mail fraud and aiding in the filing of a false tax return.

He did those things. That’s what winners do. That bothers the little people. That bothers Democrats. And they’re both hopeless. They’ll never get it. Bribes and tax fraud make the world go ’round:

Also on Trump’s pardon list were Kerik, who was convicted of tax fraud, and Edward DeBartolo Jr., the billionaire former owner of the San Francisco 49ers football team, who pleaded guilty two decades ago to charges related to his role in a corruption case against former Louisiana governor Edwin W. Edwards (D).

The president also pardoned David Safavian, a senior official in the George W. Bush administration who was convicted of obstructing a federal investigation as part of the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and two lesser-known business executives, technology executive Ariel Friedler and construction company executive Paul Pogue, who were convicted of computer and tax charges.

And now they don’t have a worry in the world, but they knew they never would:

Kerik is a frequent visitor to the president’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida and recently posted a picture at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, tagging the president and bragging of “Badassry” there. He declined to comment. Safavian now works at the Trump-aligned American Conservative Union Foundation’s justice center and attacks Trump critics through his Twitter account. Blagojevich’s wife lobbied for her husband’s release, including going on Fox News to make her case.

Blagojevich and Trump were well acquainted from when Blagojevich was a contestant on Trump’s show “The Apprentice” in 2010. Trump fired Blagojevich for shoddy work on a Florida theme park project, telling him, “Your Harry Potter facts were not accurate. Who did the research?”

They’re all brothers, but the strongest bond is with the city:

Kerik and Milken were prominent New Yorkers during Trump’s professional rise as a real estate magnate there…

Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, was listed as a supporter for both Milken and Kerik, who also received backing from disgraced Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was granted clemency by Trump last year. Kerik rode his prominence as Giuliani’s police chief during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to a nomination to be homeland security secretary in the Bush administration. But he soon ran into legal trouble, and his nomination was pulled.

Giuliani lost that one. His personal driver he had promoted to police commissioner had hit a wall. He would never run the entire Department of Homeland Security. He was going to jail, and George Bush let that happen, but Trump just made that up to Rudy. Trump made any record of Rudy’s guy doing bad things simply disappear. The old New York crowd takes care of each other.

And they ignore the losers in fly-over country:

The entire GOP delegation from Illinois lobbied against the Blagojevich commutation, officials said.

“We are disappointed by the president’s commutation of rod Blagojevich’s federal sentence. We believe he received an appropriate and fair sentence,” Reps. Darin LaHood, John Shimkus, Adam Kinzinger, Rodney Davis and Mike Bost said in a statement. “History will not judge Rod Blagojevich well.”

Trump made phone calls to the Illinois Republicans including LaHood last week to argue that the Blagojevich sentence was unjust, two administration officials said. But the lawmakers were not convinced.

But those are the “little people” who really don’t matter that much. That’s not who Trump listens to:

Trump acknowledged that in deciding whom to pardon, “a lot of times I really rely on the people that know them.”

The head of the Justice Department’s pardon office during the first two years of the Trump administration told the Washington Post that he quit last year because the White House had sidelined his office in favor of taking its cues from celebrities, political allies and Fox News…

“It’s a clemency process for the well-connected, and that’s it,” said Rachel Barlow, a New York University Law School professor and clemency expert. “Trump is wielding the power the way you would expect the leader of a banana republic who wants to reward his friends and cronies.”

But those are the only people he knows:

Blagojevich’s turn as a contestant on Trump’s NBC reality show came after he was indicted but before his convictions. Trump praised Blagojevich at the time for having “a lot of guts” to appear on the program.

And that’s good enough for Trump and a worry to everyone else:

During his Senate impeachment trial, Democrats repeatedly asserted that President Trump is “not above the law.” But since his acquittal two weeks ago, analysts say, the president has taken a series of steps aimed at showing that, essentially, he is the law.

On Tuesday, Trump granted clemency to a clutch of political allies, circumventing the usual Justice Department process. The pardons and commutations followed Trump’s moves to punish witnesses in his impeachment trial, publicly intervene in a pending legal case to urge leniency for a friend, attack a federal judge, accuse a juror of bias and threaten to sue his own government for investigating him.

Trump defended his actions, saying he has the right to shape the country’s legal systems as he sees fit.

“I’m allowed to be totally involved,” he told reporters as he left Washington on Tuesday for a trip to California, Nevada and Arizona. “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country. But I’ve chosen not to be involved.”

That’s a curious claim. He can override Congress and the courts and declare that this one thing is a crime and that other thing isn’t? And no one can question him? And he’s had this power all along, but being a nice guy he hasn’t used that power yet? This is trouble:

The president’s post-impeachment behavior has alarmed Attorney General William P. Barr, who has told people close to the president that he is willing to quit unless Trump stops publicly commenting on ongoing criminal matters, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. It also has appalled several legal experts and former officials, who have said his direct intervention in legal matters risks further politicizing law enforcement at a time of fraying confidence in the Justice Department.

More than 2,000 former Justice Department employees signed a public letter this week objecting to Trump’s public intervention in the case of his longtime friend Roger Stone, and urging Attorney General William P. Barr to resign. The head of the Federal Judges Association has called an emergency meeting to address growing concerns about political interference in the Stone case.

Barr denies those rumors about wanting to quit, but that hardly matters:

Trump’s comments about the Stone case have caused the most concern. Trump has singled out the judge in the case, Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Washington, for personal attacks, accusing her of bias and spreading a falsehood about her record. He has amplified Stone’s request for a new trial, accusing a member of the jury of being politically biased against him.

Though Barr has warned that the president’s unbridled commentary about ongoing criminal cases was making it “impossible for me to do my job,” Trump continued to express his views about legal matters Tuesday.

Trump told reporters that he partially agreed with Barr, acknowledging that his tweets do make the attorney general’s job more difficult. But he said he would continue tweeting nonetheless.

“Social media, for me, has been very important because it gives me a voice,” Trump said.

What? No one would listen to him, the president, so he has to tweet to keep from disappearing from public life? Who knew? Amy Berman Jackson, by the way, does not hate Trump. She’s thorough and honest. And she’s tired of this nonsense

Trump, of course, never gets tired:

Since his impeachment acquittal, Trump has tried to portray the prosecutions of his allies as the illegitimate product of an illegitimate investigation by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 race.

Prosecutions stemming from the Mueller investigation are “badly tainted,” Trump tweeted Tuesday, and “should be thrown out.”

“If I wasn’t President, I’d be suing everyone all over the place,” Trump wrote. “BUT MAYBE I STILL WILL. WITCH HUNT!”

After learning that federal judges would be holding an emergency discussion about his intervention in legal cases, Trump tweeted that they should instead discuss the alleged shortcomings of the Mueller probe.

Why? That’s over, but others can tweet. Steve Benen, one of the producers of the Rachel Maddow Show, sends one out, and gets a response from Julia Ioffe, a reporter for GQ Magazine, that goes like this:

Benen: For what it’s worth, my best guess: Trump is laying the groundwork for even more shocking pardons (Stone, Manafort, Flynn), and hoping to anesthetize the public into thinking pardon abuses are normal now.

Ioffe: What is the point of all these pardons? Is it to own the libs or to show that rule of law is not something the United States is really interested in pursuing anymore? Or that the President likes bad boys? Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t really get it.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog tries to help them both out:

When has Trump ever bothered to “lay the groundwork” for more outrageous conduct in the future? Trump just does things, and dares us to object, or to stop him. I think Ioffe is right about owning the libs – everything Republicans do is, at least in part, intended to own the libs.

And he cites this from the Daily Beast:

President Donald Trump on Tuesday granted clemency to 11 people, including several convicted felons who are either Fox News regulars or have been championed by the president’s favorite cable-news network…

Unsurprisingly, a key influence that led to Trump’s decision, particularly as it related to Blagojevich, was Fox News. The same could partly be said of the decision on Kerik, a frequent Fox News guest whose pardon was backed by several of the network’s stars; Milken, whose pardon was supported by Fox Business Network host and Trump loyalist Maria Bartiromo…

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Trump made the Fox News connection abundantly clear, telling reporters that he decided to commute the rest of Blagojevich’s sentence because he’d seen the ex-governor’s wife Patti Blagojevich pleading her husband’s case on Fox.

“I watched his wife on television,” Trump declared.

And that sets off Steve M:

Seriously, what is preventing him from pardoning all the people cited by Steve Benen, and doing it right now? Would there be angry editorials? Open letters of protest signed by retired Justice Department officials? Expressions of deep concern from Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski?

His poll numbers wouldn’t go down – he’s never been popular, but nothing makes his approval rating drop significantly, and it never declines for very long. He’d still be competitive in head-to-head polling with the top Democrats running against him, though he’d probably a few points behind – but he probably doesn’t need to win the popular vote to win the election. So why the hesitancy?

For that matter, why doesn’t he do even more shocking things? Why hasn’t he ordered critics poisoned? There’s nothing he could do that would diminish his standing in the eyes of his worshipful fans, and nothing that would lead to even a mild rebuke that could survive both houses of Congress. What’s restraining him?

Ah, that would be this:

Partly it’s his narrow focus – he doesn’t know history, so he lacks the imagination to see himself as a true dictator with unlimited power. The world of his imaginings is circumscribed by what he sees on his favorite news channel, where he’s treated like the rest of the audience, helpless exurb-dwellers made to fear and hate enemies who are said to have cheated their way to power (Democrats, Hollywood stars, George Soros).

Beyond that, I think he prefers to think of the world as a place with rules that he – to his own great delight – gets away with breaking. It’s as if he can’t imagine creating a new world with no rules other than his own decrees; it’s as if he’d rather cheat the system than destroy it.

So, all that’s left is this:

Somewhere there are young right-wing megalomaniacs who know precisely what they’d do with the power Trump has now. One of them will probably have his job in the near future. We have it bad now, but it could be even worse.

That not exactly cheery. So, what have the Democrats have to counter any of this?

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Only the Strongman Speaks

Sometimes the secondary effects are the primary effects. The little things are the big things. The Washington Post ran a long investigative piece on what everyone knew was sure to happen:

Two kindergartners in Utah told a Latino boy that President Trump would send him back to Mexico, and teenagers in Maine sneered “Ban Muslims” at a classmate wearing a hijab. In Tennessee, a group of middle-schoolers linked arms, imitating the president’s proposed border wall as they refused to let nonwhite students pass. In Ohio, another group of middle-schoolers surrounded a mixed-race sixth-grader and, as she confided to her mother, told the girl: “This is Trump country.”

Since Trump’s rise to the nation’s highest office, his inflammatory language – often condemned as racist and xenophobic – has seeped into schools across America. Many bullies now target other children differently than they used to, with kids as young as 6 mimicking the president’s insults and the cruel way he delivers them.

That seems rather nasty. But look at this from the Trump point of view. Why is this not a good thing? Don’t all parents want their special kid to grow up a winner, and a direct person who drops all that politically correct bullshit and sneers at whiney and pathetically weak snowflakes who can’t handle the truth? Things have changed. Tell the truth and make it hurt. Call a spade a spade. That’s better for everyone and Trump has shown how that’s done. But this item makes that sound like a bad thing:

Trump’s words, those chanted by his followers at campaign rallies and even his last name have been wielded by students and school staff members to harass children more than 300 times since the start of 2016, a Washington Post review of 28,000 news stories found. At least three-quarters of the attacks were directed at kids who are Hispanic, black or Muslim, according to the analysis. Students have also been victimized because they support the president – more than 45 times during the same period.

So the sneering goes both ways, but three-quarters of the attacks are just what one would expect:

“It’s gotten way worse since Trump got elected,” said Ashanty Bonilla, 17, a Mexican American high school junior in Idaho who faced so much ridicule from classmates last year that she transferred. “They hear it. They think it’s okay. The president says it. Why can’t they?”

Asked about Trump’s effect on student behavior, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham noted that first lady Melania Trump – whose “Be Best” campaign denounces online harassment – had encouraged kids worldwide to treat one another with respect.

Which one of those two are the kids supposed to listen to? That’s easy:

Just as the president has repeatedly targeted Latinos, so, too, have school bullies… In one of the most extreme cases of abuse, a 13-year-old in New Jersey told a Mexican American schoolmate – who was 12 – that “all Mexicans should go back behind the wall.” A day later, on June 19, 2019, the 13-year-old assaulted the boy and his mother, Beronica Ruiz, punching him and beating her unconscious, said the family’s attorney, Daniel Santiago. He wonders to what extent Trump’s repeated vilification of certain minorities played a role.

“When the president goes on TV and is saying things like Mexicans are rapists, Mexicans are criminals – these children don’t have the cognitive ability to say, ‘He’s just playing the role of a politician,'” Santiago argued. “The language that he’s using matters.”

Of course it does, and that language may matter when the opposing lawyer defends the kid who beat the other kid’s mother unconscious. Trump has said that his tweets lay out official federal policy. He has said and tweeted that “those people” are rapists and murderers and drug dealers, so there’s nothing wrong with the young attacker’s cognitive abilities. The kid got it right. He understood the president. Cut him some slack. After all, this can go both ways:

School staff members in at least 18 states, from Washington to West Virginia, have picked on students for wearing Trump gear or voicing support for him. Among teenagers, the confrontations have at times turned physical. A high school student in Northern California said that after she celebrated the 2016 election results on social media, a classmate accused her of hating Mexicans and attacked her, leaving the girl with a bloodied nose. Last February, a teenager at an Oklahoma high school was caught on video ripping a Trump sign out of a student’s hands and knocking a red MAGA cap off his head.

But the bulk of the Post item is not about this twenty-five percent. They’re not the Hispanic kid or the Muslim girl committing suicide. No one is telling them to go back to Africa. They’ll be fine. Trump will protect them. And this is just kids being kids.

But this isn’t. Max Boot, the conservative but former Republican sees this happening with adults too:

You would think the symbolism of a tycoon being chauffeured in an armored limousine would hardly be the most effective way to signal “I’m one of you.” But that’s precisely what President Trump did at the Daytona 500 on Sunday – and he was met with a rapturous reception from Republican-leaning NASCAR fans. I don’t begrudge Trump the use of taxpayer money for a political stunt as previous presidents have done. What I do mind is the reaction of his groupies. Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative student group Turning Point USA, revealed that Trump has “historic levels of support with real Americans at Daytona,” while Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) tweeted, “Nothing more American than @realDonaldTrump and NASCAR!!”

And some people don’t belong there:

Trumpism, like all populist movements, is based on the pernicious conceit that only the strongman speaks for the “real” people and that anyone who opposes him must be an outsider or elitist who isn’t in touch with the common folk. The corollary is that the supreme leader is justified in doing just about anything in the people’s name – even abusing his authority to punish those who don’t support him.

But there’s a problem with this populist real-Americans stuff that Boot can document:

A president with a 43.5 percent approval rating doesn’t speak for most Americans. In today’s America, Republicans represent more land area, but Democrats represent more people – having exceeded the Republican tally by 2.8 million votes in the 2016 presidential election and by more than 8.6 million votes in the 2018 House races.

The blue parts of the country are not only more populous but also more diverse and (no coincidence) more economically dynamic. The Brookings Institution calculated that the counties carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 account for nearly two-thirds of U.S. economic output. The gap between blue and red America is widening, with blue House districts showing an impressive increase in foreign-born workers, minorities, professional and digital jobs, productivity, and adults with bachelor’s degrees. Red districts are growing mainly in the percentage of basic manufacturing, agricultural and mining jobs, and in the over-65 population. As a result, Brookings found, “Democratic-voting districts have seen their GDP per seat grow by a third since 2008, from $35.7 billion to $48.5 billion a seat, whereas Republican districts saw their output slightly decline from $33.2 billion to $32.6 billion.”

And that has consequences:

The denizens of red America are aware that they are being left behind, and they’re not happy about it. Trump taps into that dissatisfaction, but it’s a crock to claim that the shrinking part of the country that he represents – white, rural and blue collar – is somehow more “real” than, say, the bustling city where he was born.

Rather than trying to help his constituents get ahead in a changing economy, Trump prefers to stoke their fury against the minorities, immigrants and “globalists” he blames for their woes.

And he’s damned good at that:

Trump jumps on slurs against his movement, such as Clinton saying in 2016 that half of his supporters are “deplorables.” Yet his supporters applaud when he denigrates blue America: He has said that New York City and New York state “are falling apart,” that San Francisco is “disgusting,” that California is a “disgrace to our country,” that Baltimore is a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” that Atlanta is in “horrible shape” and that Chicago is “embarrassing to us as a nation.” As Windsor Mann noted in the Los Angeles Times, “He hates every part of America that doesn’t love him, which is most of America.”

It’s like being back in junior high school. Hell, it’s actually the same thing now, and Boot adds this:

The red states aren’t being taken advantage of by the blue states but by the unscrupulous demagogue in the White House. As a proud resident of New York City, I’m fed up with the president’s vendetta against the most populous and productive parts of the country. We’re real Americans, too.

The strongman says no, you’re not, so Boot keeps saying things like this:

The French philosopher Montesquieu wrote in 1748: “The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.” We are seeing his warning vindicated. President Trump is increasingly acting as a tyrannical (and erratic) prince. And yet much of the public is so inured to his misconduct that his latest assaults on the rule of law are met with a collective shrug.

Public passivity is Trump’s secret weapon as he pursues his authoritarian agenda. “I have the right to do whatever I want,” he says, and the lack of pushback seems to confirm it.

But wait, there is new pushback:

A national association of federal judges has called an emergency meeting Tuesday to address growing concerns about the intervention of Justice Department officials and President Donald Trump in politically sensitive cases, the group’s president said Monday.

Philadelphia U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe, who heads the independent Federal Judges Association, said the group “could not wait” until its spring conference to weigh in on a deepening crisis that has enveloped the Justice Department and Attorney General William Barr.

“There are plenty of issues that we are concerned about,” Rufe told USA TODAY. “We’ll talk all of this through.”

That should be interesting:

Rufe, nominated to the bench by President George W. Bush, said the group of more than 1,000 federal jurists called for the meeting last week after Trump criticized prosecutors’ initial sentencing recommendation for his friend Roger Stone and the Department of Justice overruled them.

Trump also took a swipe at the federal judge who is set to preside at Stone’s sentencing hearing Thursday.

“Is this the judge that put Paul Manafort in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, something not even mobster Al Capone had to endure?” Trump tweeted last week, referring to U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson. “How did she treat Crooked Hillary Clinton? Just asking!”

Jackson jailed Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, prior to his convictions in two separate financial fraud cases after he sought to tamper with potential witnesses.

But so what? There are bigger issues:

Rufe said the judges’ association is “not inclined to get involved with an ongoing case,” but she voiced strong support for Jackson.

“I am not concerned with how a particular judge will rule,” Rufe said, praising Jackson’s reputation. “We are supportive of any federal judge who does what is required.”

The unusual concern voiced by the judges’ group comes in the wake of an equally unusual protest. More than 2,000 former Justice Department officials called on Barr to resign Sunday, claiming his handling of the Stone case “openly and repeatedly flouted” the principle of equal justice.

And he does that to help his boss. And that’s the first step on the road to a dark place. Donald Ayer, who served as United States Attorney and Principal Deputy Solicitor General in the Reagan administration and as Deputy Attorney General under George H. W. Bush says this:

When Donald trump chose Bill Barr to serve as attorney general in December 2018, even some moderates and liberals greeted the choice with optimism. One exuberant Democrat described him as “an excellent choice,” who could be counted on to “stand up for the department’s institutional prerogatives and push back on any improper attempt to inject politics into its work.”

At the end of his first year of service, Barr’s conduct has shown that such expectations were misplaced. Beginning in March with his public whitewashing of Robert Mueller’s report, which included powerful evidence of repeated obstruction of justice by the president, Barr has appeared to function much more as the president’s personal advocate than as an attorney general serving the people and government of the United States.

And it was, after all, one damned thing after another:

Among the most widely reported and disturbing events have been Barr’s statements that a judicially authorized FBI investigation amounted to “spying” on the Trump campaign, and his public rejection in December of the inspector general’s considered conclusion that the Russia probe was properly initiated and overseen in an unbiased manner. Also quite unsettling was Trump’s explicit mention of Barr and Rudy Giuliani in the same breath in his July 25 phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, as individuals the Ukrainian president should speak with regarding the phony investigation that Ukraine was expected to publicly announce.

Still more troubling has been Barr’s intrusion, apparently for political reasons, into the area of Justice Department action that most demands scrupulous integrity and strict separation from politics and other bias – invocation of the criminal sanction. When Barr initiated a second, largely redundant investigation of the FBI Russia probe in May, denominated it criminal, and made clear that he is personally involved in carrying it out, many eyebrows were raised.

Barr will be Trump’s wingman now:

The evenhanded conduct of the prosecutions of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn by experienced Department of Justice attorneys have been disrupted at the 11th hour by the attorney general’s efforts to soften the consequences for the president’s associates. More generally, it appears that Barr has recently identified a group of lawyers whom he trusts and put them in place to oversee and second-guess the work of the department’s career attorneys on a broader range of cases.

So people are quitting, for good reason:

Bad as they are, these examples are more symptoms than causes of Barr’s unfitness for office. The fundamental problem is that he does not believe in the central tenet of our system of government – that no person is above the law. In chilling terms, Barr’s own words make clear his long-held belief in the need for a virtually autocratic executive who is not constrained by countervailing powers within our government under the constitutional system of checks and balances.

Indeed, given our national faith and trust in a rule of law no one can subvert, it is not too strong to say that Bill Barr is un-American. And now, from his perch as attorney general, he is in the midst of a root-and-branch attack on the core principles that have guided our justice system…

And that is going well:

The Justice Department has been at the forefront of the president’s defiance of Congress’s traditional power of the purse as a check on executive-branch adventurism. On February 15, 2019, the day after Barr was confirmed, the president issued an emergency declaration to divert funds from other appropriations for use in building a border wall. Congress had several times considered and refused to appropriate the requested funds for this purpose, and the president had himself conceded that there was no actual emergency. But Barr’s DOJ has vigorously litigated the cases challenging this action, and thus has worked to undermine Congress’s express constitutional power to control the appropriation of funds.

But this is part of a broader effort:

Far from recognizing the sensitive “judicial nature” of the department’s work and the need to avoid even the appearance of improper influence and to show that no person is above the law, under Barr, the Department of Justice is actively engaged on many fronts in helping realize Trump’s stated goal of being able to do whatever he wants, free from interference from any branch of government.

Barr’s agenda was confirmed by his November speech to the Federalist Society on “the Constitution’s approach to executive power.” He argues that “over the past several decades, we have seen a steady encroachment on presidential authority by other branches of government,” and that those “encroachments” must end.

He purports to justify his position by offering a selective version of American history, discussing the Founders’ intentions with regard to presidential power, characterizing the role the presidency has supposedly played over time, and arguing that, in recent decades, the Founders’ vision has been undermined by actions of Congress and the courts.

But it’s all nonsense:

At the beginning of his speech, Barr derides “the grammar-school civics-class version” of our history – the one that generations of students have internalized. It is that the Founders, sensitive from experience to the danger that one part of government might develop tyrannical powers, adopted a complex structure of checks and balances. In that government, power was shared among the three branches through sometimes-countervailing delegations of authority, which made each branch dependent on the others. The numerous checks that the Constitution created to limit the president’s authority – the impeachment power, the House appropriation power, Congress’s power to override vetoes, the need for a congressional declaration of war, and the Senate power to advise and consent, for example – show that presidential tyranny was prominent among their concerns.

According to Barr, the Founders actually were not much concerned about an out-of-control president, as this “civics-class version” suggests. He reasons that history shows a rise in the relative power of Parliament against the King during the mid-18th century, and that by the time of our own Revolution, the evil perceived by the patriots was more “an overweening Parliament” than “monarchical tyranny.”

So, they all wanted the president to be king. Who knew? But this gets odder:

Perhaps the most outrageous and alarming ideas that Barr advances come in his attacks on the judiciary, which occupy fully a third of his speech. In his mind, it seems, the courts are the principal culprit in constraining the extraordinarily broad powers that the president is constitutionally entitled to exercise. His discussion ignores a pillar of our legal system since almost the very beginning – Chief Justice John Marshall’s magisterial pronouncement in the early days of our republic that “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”

Barr complains that the judiciary “has appointed itself the ultimate arbiter of separation-of-powers disputes between Congress and the executive,” saying that the Framers did not envision that it would play such a role. Barr yearns for a day when the president can bully everyone else in government, and leave them no ability to seek relief in court.

So now there is only one thing:

Bill Barr’s America is not a place that anyone, including Trump voters, should want to go. It is a banana republic where all are subject to the whims of a dictatorial president and his henchmen. To prevent that, we need a public uprising demanding that Bill Barr resign immediately, or failing that, that he be impeached.

But that won’t happen. The nation is still back in junior high school, with the taunts about who really belongs in the building, and in the community, and who should get the hell out and go back to somewhere or other. And what is said must be incredibly hurtful. There will be despair. There will be suicides. That’s what makes all of it so much fun.

And then we grow up. No, wait. We never do.

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Getting the Story Straight

Some Hollywood movies are useful. There’s Gaslight from 1944 – directed by George Cukor, with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, and an eighteen-year-old Angela Lansbury in her screen debut. Yes, she was young once, long ago, but her part is minor. This is the film where Ingrid Bergman thinks she’s going crazy. She’s the sweet young thing who impulsively marries a worldly older man, Charles Boyer, who manipulates her for various nefarious reasons that don’t really matter much. The movie is about his methods. She simply has to be confused – so things that weren’t there before are there now, and he says they were always there. Things disappear. He says they were never there and never even existed.

Ingrid Bergman is going mad but it all works out. Back then MGM didn’t make movies without happy endings. This thing is only useful because it gave us the term gaslighting:

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent is to sow seeds of doubt in the targets, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The term owes its origin to Gas Light, a 1938 play and 1944 film, and has been used in clinical and research literature.

That would be this:

Sociopaths and narcissists frequently use gaslighting tactics. Sociopaths consistently transgress social mores, break laws, and exploit others, but typically are also convincing liars, sometimes charming ones, who consistently deny wrongdoing. Thus, some who have been victimized by sociopaths may doubt their own perceptions. Some physically abusive spouses may gaslight their partners by flatly denying that they have been violent.

Don’t think of Donald Trump. Hard, isn’t it? That’s because of things like the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker reports here:

The U.S. intelligence community long ago produced evidence of Russia’s illegal interference in the 2016 presidential election to try to boost Donald Trump’s candidacy. Then the special counsel investigating the matter detailed myriad ways President Trump sought to stymie the probe. And then Robert S. Mueller III testified to Congress about Trump’s conduct – and warned of Russia’s continued interest in thwarting U.S. elections.

But it is Trump who is trying to have the last word.

Seven months after Mueller’s marathon testimony brought finality to the Russia investigation, Trump is actively seeking to rewrite the narrative that had been meticulously documented by federal law enforcement and intelligence officials, both for immediate political gain and for history.

And all he has to do is claim that everything that had been meticulously documented by federal law enforcement and intelligence officials is wrong, or never even happened. If he claims that over and over and over again, then that will make it so, at least to the people who matter:

Turbocharged by his acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial and confident that he has acquired the fealty of nearly every Republican in Congress, Trump is claiming vindication and exoneration not only over his conduct with Ukraine – for which the House voted to impeach him – but also from the other investigations that have dogged his presidency.

This includes lawsuits filed against Trump by the state of New York over his finances as well as alleged misuse of charity funds by his nonprofit foundation. Trump sought last week to turn the page on these probes, declaring on Twitter ahead of a White House meeting with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) that “New York must stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harassment.”

In short, nearly every Republican in Congress will shout out in unison that they believe every word he says, even if they don’t. If he claims he never was impeached, that that never happened, they’ll agree. Andrew Cuomo, however, may be a different matter. All of those lawsuits should be shut down? Who says so? Why? Trump hasn’t worked out the details of that yet. But he can make life miserable for every citizen of New York. Cuomo may have to give in.

But that’s a minor matter:

Since even before he was sworn in as president, Trump has viewed the FBI’s Russia investigation as a dark cloud over his administration that threatened to delegitimize his claim on the office. And more than three years in, Trump remains haunted by all things Russia, according to advisers and allies, and continues to nurse a profound and unabated sense of persecution.

As his reelection campaign intensifies, Trump is using the powers of his office to manipulate the facts and settle the score. Advisers say the president is determined to protect his associates ensnared in the expansive Russia investigation, punish the prosecutors and investigators he believes betrayed him, and convince the public that the probe was exactly as he sees it: an illegal witch hunt.

And he really does believe that:

“The whole Mueller investigation was a shakedown and a disgrace. It probably should be expunged,” Trump said in an interview last week with radio commentator Geraldo Rivera, a longtime friend.

Referring to Mueller, Trump added: “I don’t call him special counsel because special counsel is not an accurate term. It’s a special prosecutor, because what he and his 13 angry Democrats – all horrible, just horrible people – what they did to destroy the lives of people that you know, but to destroy the lives of many, Geraldo, should never be forgiven, should never be forgotten, and something has to be done about it.”

Geraldo Rivera used to be married to Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter. Geraldo Rivera knows literature. He could have mentioned Captain Ahab and the big white whale to Trump – don’t go there – but he didn’t. Never forgive. Never forget. Never let it go. Never let anything go. Trump is Ahab – “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

But this isn’t about a whale:

Central to this pursuit were Trump’s efforts this past week to lessen the government’s sentencing recommendation for longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone. Attorney General William P. Barr’s extraordinary intervention on the Stone case, as well as Trump’s own declaration of his right to meddle in criminal cases whenever he chooses, tested the nation’s rule of law and sent chills throughout the Justice Department, which has long shielded its independence from political influences.

The chill wasn’t that localized. He does not have that right:

More than 1,100 former federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials called on Attorney General William P. Barr on Sunday to step down after he intervened last week to lower the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation for President Trump’s longtime friend Roger J. Stone Jr.

They also urged current government employees to report any signs of unethical behavior at the Justice Department to the agency’s inspector general and to Congress.

“Each of us strongly condemns President Trump’s and Attorney General Barr’s interference in the fair administration of justice,” the former Justice Department lawyers, who came from across the political spectrum, wrote in an open letter on Sunday. Those actions, they said, “require Mr. Barr to resign.”

Barr cannot gaslight the nation at the president’s request. Barr has to resign. This isn’t complicated:

Mr. Trump has been relatively muted. He said on Twitter that he had not asked Mr. Barr to “do anything in a criminal case.” As president, he added, he had “the legal right to do so” but had “so far chosen not to!”

But lawyers across the Justice Department continue to worry about political interference from the president despite public pushback by Mr. Barr, long considered a close ally of Mr. Trump’s.

The letter’s signatories included Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general under President George Bush, and about 50 former U.S. attorneys. Protect Democracy, a nonprofit legal group, gathered the signatures from Justice Department alumni and said it would collect more.

But there’s nothing there! Nothing happened! No, the gaslighting got even more intense:

Last week alone, Trump called the Russia investigation “tainted,” “dirty,” “rotten,” “illegal,” “phony,” a “disgrace,” a “shakedown,” a “scam,” “a fixed hoax” and “the biggest political crime in American History, by far.”

He argued that the probe into Russian election interference was based on false pretenses, despite a recent report from the Justice Department’s inspector general stating the opposite even as it criticized the FBI’s surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide. And he claimed, again without evidence, that Mueller, a former FBI director regarded for his precision with facts, lied to Congress – which happens to be one of the charges Stone was convicted of by a jury last November.

Absent from the president’s many public comments about the Russia investigation, however, was a warning to Russia not to interfere in the next election, or even an acknowledgment that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to do so.

None of this was true. The facts and evidence say the opposite. Who are you going to believe? That’s the issue:

Frank Figliuzzi, a former senior FBI official who also worked for Mueller, said Trump’s efforts to spin a new history of the Russia investigation are cause for alarm.

“What Trump is doing is canceling what we all have proven, what the courts have proven, as in Roger Stone, as in Manafort, as in Flynn, in a form of jury nullification at a presidential level,” Figliuzzi said, referring to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“The president is doing it on steroids because of the power of his office,” Figliuzzi said. “People have to see the danger in that.”

And there’s this:

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University and a scholar of authoritarianism, said she sees darker motives in Trump’s actions.

“It’s all about manipulating information and recasting the narrative to be what you need it to be,” Ben-Ghiat said. “Even more than censoring, which is old-school, rulers like Trump – and Putin is the master at this – manipulate opinion by manipulating information.”

No, no, no – facts and evidence are all relative – facts and evidence are no more than what you say they are:

Trump’s defenders said the president is wise to try to seize control of the public narrative of the Russia investigation at the start of a campaign year, and they argued that his retelling will find a sympathetic audience.

“Winners write the history books. President Trump is aware of this and realizes that unless he defines the previous three years of witch hunts, then it will in fact be the people who unsuccessfully launched these witch hunts who will define the legacy,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser who co-hosts “War Room,” a pro-Trump radio show and podcast, with former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

It seems that not only do the winners write history. The winners create the facts and evidence that are the raw material of history. That’s what paranoia is all about:

In private discussions with advisers and friends, Trump has long groused angrily and obsessively about the Russia investigation. The president believes he and his campaign were unfairly targeted by what he bemoans as a “deep state” conspiracy – and he faults former FBI director James B. Comey and deputy director Andrew McCabe, among others.

Trump regularly complains that Comey and McCabe have avoided jail time for what he is convinced is wrongdoing, while Stone, Manafort, Flynn and other Trump associates have been prosecuted.

Wait. He may be the one who was gaslighted here, or else he needs to change what the world sees and knows and experienced into one big golden Trump Tower:

Ben-Ghiat, the New York University professor, credited Trump with his foresight and skill.

“While Trump is impulsive and there’s always the question of, is he a chess master or is he just moving blindly out of emotion, this strategy of manipulating information and creating a false narrative are the actions of someone who thinks long-term, who thinks about legacy,” Ben-Ghiat said. “He’s a builder. He thinks about the future. And this is a story about someone building an alternate history for the future.”

And, in this election year, just how are the Democrats supposed to deal with that? The New York Times reports that they’ll just talk about other things. He has his reality. They’ll talk about the reality that most everyone else sees:

House Democrats, recovering from their failed push to remove President Trump from office, are making a sharp pivot to talking about health care and economic issues, turning away from their investigations of the president as they focus on preserving their majority.

Top Democrats say that oversight of the president will continue. And they plan in particular to press Attorney General William P. Barr over what they say are Mr. Trump’s efforts to compromise the independence of the Justice Department. But for now, at least, they have shelved the idea of subpoenaing Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, who was a central figure in the president’s impeachment trial.

Trump wants to gaslight America. Russia is our friend, our true friend, and the American government, the Deep State, is our real enemy. And the Democratic response will be, okay, whatever, so let’s talk about health care and the economic issues. That’s not a concession. That’s a yawn and a pivot:

In a series of private meetings over the past week, and in written instructions she distributed to lawmakers Thursday before a recess this week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that the emphasis must shift.

“Health care, health care, health care,” the speaker said, describing the party’s message during a recent closed-door meeting, according to a person in the room who insisted on anonymity to reveal private conversations. She said they had to be laser-focused on getting re-elected: “When you make a decision to win, then you have to make every decision in favor of winning.”

And arguing with Trump is not winning:

The move is particularly striking given how aggressively Mr. Trump, emboldened by his acquittal by the Senate, has moved to take revenge on his perceived enemies and push the limits of his power. But just as they did before the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats appear to have decided that focusing on Mr. Trump’s near-daily stream of norm-shattering words and deeds only elevates him, while alienating the swing voters they need to maintain their hold on the House and have a chance at winning the Senate.

They can do what he cannot, let it go:

Given that the House has already taken the most powerful step a Congress can take to hold a chief executive accountable – impeachment – Democrats reason that there is little more they can do. Some say Mr. Trump brings enough attention to his conduct all on his own.

“His erratic, corrupt, unconstitutional behavior speaks for itself at this point,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in an interview Friday.

And that means they’ll speak of something else:

Ms. Pelosi has been urging her rank and file to emphasize the same three-pronged “For the People” agenda – creating jobs, cleaning up corruption in Washington and, above all, bringing down the high cost of health care – that won Democrats the majority in 2018. Democrats say the $4.8 trillion budget Mr. Trump released last week makes it easier to contrast his priorities with their own.

The budget would cut funding for Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps and federal student loans. In the “recess packet” Ms. Pelosi distributed to lawmakers before they went home, she offered a list of suggested events in their districts – like visits to a senior center, a food bank and an after-school program – that could serve to highlight the impact of the proposed cuts.

“What the president has put forth is a destructive and irrational budget that intentionally goes after working families and vulnerable Americans,” the document said.

His budget does eliminate the student loan program and start to phase out Medicare and Social Security, along with food stamps and the CDC and FDA and this and that. There are those who like their Medicare and Social Security, even some Republicans, but there’s the counterargument to that, that the Deep State has been out to ruin or at least embarrass everyone’s favorite president, and, as all historians agree, the best president there ever was or will be. Trump says such things, so this will be an odd showdown:

Ms. Pelosi also brought in Steven Rattner, an investment banker who advised President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, to brief Democrats privately about ways to target Mr. Trump’s economic record. Mr. Rattner showed a PowerPoint presentation, portions of which were shared with The New York Times by a person who attended, with statistics showing how income inequality has worsened under Mr. Trump, and how the economic gains during his tenure – largely in the stock market – have failed to benefit working people and the middle class.

Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, a freshman Democrat who represents a swing district in Pennsylvania, said that was what she would talk about when she was at home.

“We keep seeing more and more data about the recovery that the administration is touting, the great economy,” she said. “But what hits people who have a lot of stock holdings is not hitting the families in my district. Over half of them are underwater at the end of every month now, once they pay for health care and child care and housing.”

But it’s not that simple:

Mr. Trump has complicated Democrats’ push to change the subject by mounting a brash and highly public post-impeachment campaign of retribution, firing witnesses who testified against him and objecting to the Justice Department’s prosecution of his friend Roger J. Stone Jr. After senior officials there overruled career prosecutors to recommend Mr. Stone receive a lighter sentence, four prosecutors who worked on the case resigned. Mr. Trump then cheered the attorney general on Twitter.

“The impact of the prosecutors resigning en masse was huge,” Ms. Scanlon, who is also vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview Thursday, before lawmakers left Washington. “That doesn’t happen with career prosecutors and it signaled really serious misconduct. So we will have to look at that.”

Democrats have summoned Mr. Barr to testify before the Judiciary Committee on March 31. In a harshly worded letter sent to Mr. Barr on Wednesday, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the panel’s chairman, signaled that Democrats planned to question Mr. Barr about overruling prosecutors on Mr. Stone’s recommended sentence and Mr. Barr’s willingness to accept information about Ukraine from Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, among other matters.

Mr. Nadler told Mr. Barr in the letter that the panel had “grave questions about your leadership” at the Justice Department.

That’s one thing they won’t let go. But he probably won’t show up. Both he and Trump might say Barr doesn’t have to show up. All the other presidents were wrong. And the Constitution is dead wrong. They don’t answer to Congress. They’ll probably change the subject back to that sort of thing. That would be masterful gaslighting, unless it doesn’t work:

Before they left for recess, Democrats unveiled a $760 billion infrastructure plan that they have said is aimed at jump-starting bipartisan talks with the administration on how to fix the nation’s crumbling roads, rails and bridges. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said the plan would give Democrats something tangible to talk about in their home districts. But the chances of any election-year deal with Mr. Trump on the issue are vanishingly remote.

Mr. Garin said his surveys on impeachment showed that while most Americans were ambivalent about removing the president from office, a majority believe he engaged in wrongdoing, and committed the acts that formed the basis for the charges against him. Even so, Mr. Garin urged Democrats to follow the plan Ms. Pelosi had outlined for them.

“House Democrats need to talk about the same issues they’ve been talking about all along, which include the cost of health care and the need to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and about cleaning up government so that it works for the people and not for special interests,” he said.

But no one cares about that! President Trump has been treated unfairly! That’s what people care about! That’s the only thing people care about! But that’s not what all the polling shows. People are hurting.

So, who has been gaslighted here? Ingrid Bergman thought she was going crazy. Now the whole country may be thinking they are going crazy too. But don’t expect a happy ending this time.

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His Personal Grudge Squad

This has been going on for years:

The lineup of musicians who have asked Trump to stop playing their songs alone is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its own. Trump ends almost every rally with the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The band has repeatedly asked Trump to stop playing their music, but so far have had no success in getting him to do so.

Neil Young, who also asked the campaign to refrain from playing “Rockin’ in the Free World,” eventually relented, saying: “Once the music goes out, everybody can use it for anything.”

Michael Stipe of REM voiced his distaste for Trump a bit more directly after the band’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – which critics might think is a fitting choice for the administration – was used in 2015 at a campaign stop.

“Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you, you sad attention-grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign,” Stipe responded.

Many do see Trump as a sad attention-grabbing, power-hungry little man even if he’s quite large and becoming more spherical by the day, but that Stones song was his message:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need…

The message was that you might see him as crude and rude and an impulsive bully who knew nothing about most everything, and sexist and racist and angry about most everything all the time, and a cheat at business and taxes and golf, but that was fine. Maybe he was and is all those things, but that was what America needed and still needs – a mean and thoughtless obsessively vindictive bastard who simply lashes out at everything. That’s not what you wanted. That’s not what anyone wanted. But that’s what America needed and still needs. That was his message. He was singing that Stones song to America.

But that works both ways:

The Army will not investigate Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council staffer who testified in the president’s impeachment investigation, the service’s top civilian said Friday.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy made the announcement at an event just days after President Donald Trump said he imagined the military would “take a look at” whether Vindman should face disciplinary action for the “horrible things” he told House investigators about the president’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last July.

Vindman was ousted from his position on the NSC last week after the Senate acquitted Trump. Vindman’s lawyer said the move amounted to retribution.

Vindman’s lawyer would say that, but Trump wanted this guy disciplined, maybe court-martialed, maybe executed for treason. But you can’t always get what you want:

McCarthy on Friday downplayed Vindman’s return to the Army, saying he simply returned to the service a few months earlier than planned and would have a “bridging assignment” for a couple of months in the Army’s headquarters office in Washington.

“Then he will be heading to a senior service college this summer. There’s no investigation into him,” McCarthy said at a National Press Club luncheon.

Vindman will end up teaching geopolitics at the Army War College in Carlisle, near Gettysburg, or some such place. He is an expert on all things Russian and Ukrainian, unless he is hounded out of the Army:

On Tuesday, Trump told reporters “if you look at what happened, the military is going to certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that.”

“It turned out that what he reported was very different than what occurred,” Trump added. “And also when you look at the person he reports to, said horrible things, avoided the chain of command, leaked, and did a lot of bad things. And so we sent him on his way to a much different location, and the military can handle him anyway they want.”

There’s no record of that. Trump made that up. But expect Fox News and talk radio to hammer home how the Army closed ranks to protect one of their own, even if he was a communist and a traitor who should be taken out back and shot. What’s wrong with our Army now? Is it part of the Deep State now? Has it been taken over by communists and gays and Muslims and Mexicans and liberals who hate Jesus and thus hate America? Should it be purged and rebuilt? The Army cannot withstand an attack like that. They’ll let him go. Trump will win this one eventually.

But that doesn’t help now. The Washington Post reports this:

The Justice Department on Friday revealed that it would not charge former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, a longtime target of President Trump’s wrath, exacerbating the angry divide between Trump, his attorney general and federal law enforcement officials.

The development came just a day after Attorney General William P. Barr made a televised entreaty to Trump to stop tweeting about criminal cases – and just hours after Trump defied that request.

While three White House officials said Barr, one of Trump’s most loyal and effective Cabinet secretaries, was in no immediate danger of being fired, the attorney general’s relationship with the president is facing its gravest threat yet. Inside and outside the Justice Department, officials watched warily – some questioning whether Barr was truly at odds with Trump, others heartened by what seemed to be Barr defending the institution’s historical independence and all wondering what comes next.

Kevin Drum puts that this way:

There are two interpretations of Barr’s comments. Barr wants Trump to stop tweeting about criminal cases because it’s wrong. Barr wants Trump to stop tweeting about criminal cases because it would be better to pass along his corrupt wishes quietly…

I’m withholding judgment, even though “he’s lying” is the smart money bet for practically anything that any of Trump’s minions says. I suppose my guess is that Barr’s message is something in between: I’m not an idiot, Donald. I already know what you want. But your blabbing gives the game away, so just shut up and let me politicize the Justice Department on my own.

That sounds about right, given what the Post was reporting:

The eventful day began – as many in Washington do now – with a defiant Trump reacting on Twitter to something he saw on television. The president quoted from Barr’s interview Thursday with ABC News, during which the attorney general asserted that Trump had never asked him to do anything related to a criminal case.

“This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!” Trump added in his own voice.

His babbling did give the game away. He can have “his” justice department do what he wants in criminal matters. He said, over and over, that he would order his justice department to arrest Hillary Clinton and throw her in jail – to lock her up. Every legal scholar in the world said he didn’t have that right. He just said he does have that right, but so far he’s been being a nice guy about that sort of thing. But that could end:

Hours later, the department made a move that might be seen as exerting its independence, revealing that it would not charge McCabe with lying to investigators about a media disclosure years ago.

Officials familiar with the matter, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s interactions, said the president was not told about the McCabe decision in advance and was upset. White House lawyers, including White House counsel Pat Cipollone, moved to calm the president, these people said. One official said Trump “believes very strongly that action should be taken.”

But he really should just shut up:

Trump, who is spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago Club in South Florida, did not address Barr’s TV interview or the McCabe case in a speech before departing the White House. He and Barr spoke Friday afternoon, but the substance of their discussion was not immediately clear, a person familiar with the matter said. White House aides are counseling Trump not to discuss McCabe at all, according to those familiar with the matter.

And really, Barr is doing all he can to help Trump:

Democratic lawmakers and legal analysts, meanwhile, remained wary of what Barr was up to, and another development Friday indicated he was far from a complete break with the president.

According to people familiar with the matter, Barr has tasked outside prosecutors – in the deputy attorney general’s office and from the U.S. attorney’s office in St. Louis – to review the handling of the criminal case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and other sensitive national security and public corruption prosecutions in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington. Among the other cases are the investigation into Blackwater founder Erik Prince for potentially lying to Congress, along with other matters that have not yet been made public, a person familiar with the matter said…

That has fueled concerns among career prosecutors and others that the department’s political leadership is making a push to exert more control at a key point in sensitive, high-profile cases. Flynn was one of the early people to plead guilty in connection with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe, admitting he lied to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, though he has since tried to withdraw his plea and allege misconduct on behalf of prosecutors.

And now Barr has his team of inquisitors. It seems he has the squad question everyone who was investigating what Russia had been up to in 2016. Was this really about Russia? Were they really out to get Trump? Were they attempting to overthrow the government here? Was this a coup? Who were they really working for, George Soros? Why did they hate America? Just who the hell do they think they are?

Morale at the justice department is low at the moment, but Trump will have his revenge:

Trump has consistently sought to undermine Mueller’s probe and those involved in it – either by asking for investigations of the investigators or, in more extreme cases, that criminal charges be filed against them. That has been particularly true for McCabe and his former boss, James B. Comey.

“Of all of them, it’s Comey and McCabe that seem to really rile him up,” one person close to Trump and Barr said of the president.

Behind the scenes, Trump has raged over the lack of legal action against the pair, including last August – when officials announced that Comey would not face charges for his handling of memos he wrote while FBI director – and in January, when the Washington Post reported that a re-examination of corruption allegations related to Hillary Clinton had come up empty, according to people familiar with the discussions.

But you can’t always get what you want, and you can easily ruin everything:

Trump’s attacks made a prosecution of McCabe especially complicated. According to materials made public Friday in a Freedom of Information Act case related to the investigation, a federal judge in D.C. warned prosecutors in the case that the public was watching and that comments from the White House were detrimental.

“I just think it’s a banana republic when we go down that road and we have those type of statements being made that are conceivably, even if not, influencing the ultimate decision,” Judge Reggie B. Walton said. “I think there are a lot of people on the outside who perceive that there is undue, inappropriate pressure being brought to bear.”

He added later, “I think as a government and as a society we’re going to pay a price at some point for this.”

But didn’t Eisenhower, when he won the presidency in 1952, have his opponent, Adlai Stevenson, arrested for treason and executed? And when Stevenson ran against him again in 1956, didn’t Eisenhower, when he won again, have Stevenson arrested for treason and executed again? Didn’t that happen?

No, it didn’t, and Barr needed to clarify why:

Barr also said in the interview Thursday that Trump would be within his rights to ask for a criminal investigation in an area that didn’t affect his personal interest – such as in a terrorism case or fraud by a bank. But he said an attorney general would not listen to an order to investigate a political opponent.

“If he were to say go investigate somebody, and you sense it’s because they’re a political opponent, then an attorney general shouldn’t carry that out, wouldn’t carry that out,” Barr said.

After all, he doesn’t want every attorney in the justice department to quit:

The public rebuke of the president by a sitting member of his Cabinet arose from a crisis of confidence at the Justice Department, which had been accused this week of buckling to an angry tweet the president issued after he learned of prosecutors’ initial prison recommendation for his longtime friend Roger Stone.

A federal jury convicted Stone in November on charges of witness tampering and lying to Congress about his efforts to gather damaging information about Clinton, Trump’s 2016 presidential election opponent.

On Tuesday, Trump criticized as unduly harsh the initial sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years made by front-line prosecutors. Shortly thereafter, the Justice Department signaled that it would seek a more lenient sentence for Stone, a move that prompted the four career prosecutors to withdraw from the case – and one to resign from the government.

Barr has said the decision was made before Trump’s tweet on the matter.

There’s no way to verify that:

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) asserted Friday on Twitter that Barr had admitted intervening in a case “to cover up for the President.”

“He’s only upset that Trump’s tweets made the political nature of his intervention obvious,” Schiff wrote. “Barr fools no one. He’s a witting accomplice to Trump’s attack on the rule of law.”

Stone is scheduled to be sentenced next Thursday, though on Friday his defense attorneys demanded a new trial. The request came one day after Trump said on Twitter that the forewoman of the jury that convicted him “had significant bias”

Everyone sees Barr working like hell to make sure Stone gets off totally free here, while telling Trump to just shut the hell up, and Josh Marshall sees this:

No one believes this was anything more than Barr’s effort to be corrupt more effectively and with less press attention. The only question was whether it was all stage managed with Trump or whether it was actually Barr saying ‘Hey, I’m trying to run the DOJ to protect you and your friends and target your enemies. Tweeting all the time just make that harder to do.’

I’m inclined to think the whole thing was coordinated and is not just cynical but entirely stage produced. But really it doesn’t matter. Barr says he needs the President not to tweet so he can do his job. If he thinks his job is intervening to protect friends of the President who are facing lengthy prison terms for hiding evidence from prosecutors investigating the President then he shouldn’t be Attorney General – because only in Trumpland is that the job.

So this is fairly simple:

Everyone who wasn’t blinded by the DC prestige lawyer cocktail party circuit knew Bill Barr was sleazy going in. But on the job with Trump he has revealed himself as the worst kind of crook. It’s almost certain that Trump instructed Barr to cut Stone slack. We can reason that based on past experience. The trajectory is simple and well-known: a) I didn’t do it. b) I have every right to do it but I didn’t do it. c) I did it and it’s awesome that I did it. d) You should thank me for doing it.

But whether Trump instructed Barr is really beside the point. If I hire you to mow my lawn, every few weeks you will mow my loan. You’ll send me a bill and I’ll pay it. If I have to remind you each time the grass gets overgrown you’re not really doing the job. This is no different. Barr’s job is to protect the President and his associates from legal jeopardy and pursue Trump’s political foes. He’s doing that. Why would he need Trump to remind him in the case of Stone? He’s doing it on so many different fronts: Flynn, Ukraine, Durham, FISA, Horowitz. It’s his job! He’s doing it! Trump probably did tell him because he’s Trump and he has no self-discipline or impulse control. Barr may actually be a bit miffed to be reminded in public. Who knows? But it hardly matters.

These are both straight up crooks, made for each other.

And then there’s Sally Yates. She served as deputy attorney general from January 2015 to January 2017, when Trump had her fired (he never does that sort of thing himself) for being the one who first delivered the bad news about Flynn to the White House and then for telling the White House that Trump’s first Muslim ban was quite unconstitutional. That really pissed off Trump. A few months later the Supreme Court agreed with her on the Muslim ban, not that it mattered by then. She was long gone by then, but now she uses the pages of the Washington Post to get even, with her truth bomb:

The imperative of Justice Department independence from political influence has deep roots. After the Watergate scandal, Attorney General Griffin Bell sought to reestablish Justice’s independence and ensure that the department would be “recognized by all citizens as a neutral zone, in which neither favor nor pressure nor politics is permitted to influence the administration of the law.” The nation had lost faith in the Justice Department and the rule of law, so during the Carter administration Bell instituted strict limits on communications between the White House and Justice to prevent any “outside interference in reaching professional judgment on legal matters.”

Since Bell’s tenure, attorneys general in Democratic and Republican administrations alike have issued largely similar policies to adhere to the course Bell mapped for the department to live up to its promise of impartial justice. All have observed a “wall” between the White House and the Justice Department on criminal cases and investigations. While it is appropriate to communicate about administration policies and priorities, discussion with the White House about specific criminal cases has traditionally been off-limits. Presidents and department leaders from both parties have recognized that for case decisions to have legitimacy, they must be made without political influence – whether real or perceived. Implementation of these restrictions has not always been perfect, but the department’s independence has remained honored and unquestioned.

So that’s what we had, an agreed-upon way to manage these things based on hard lessons learned over many decades, and now we have this:

From virtually the moment he took office, President Trump has attempted to use the Justice Department as a cudgel against his enemies and as a shield for himself and his allies. He ran off Jeff Sessions after Sessions’ recusal in the Russia investigation rendered Sessions useless to protect him. The president has attempted to order up investigations of his perceived political enemies and enlist the department to protect his friends. With every blow, the wall of Justice Independence has wobbled a bit more. This week, it teetered on the verge of collapse.

The facts are well known: After federal prosecutors in the Roger Stone case filed the department’s sentencing memorandum, the president publicly attacked Justice’s position as “horrible and very unfair.” He called for prosecution of the “real crimes… on the other side,” a mantra that has become so commonplace from him that it goes largely without comment. The prosecutors were ordered by Justice Department leadership to significantly cut their recommendation; they refused, and all four resigned from the case, with one quitting his job entirely.

This is not how the department is supposed to operate. Back-and-forth between prosecutors and department leadership about a high-profile matter is not itself unusual. But for Justice leadership to order the reversal of a publicly filed sentencing recommendation in a politically sensitive case is unprecedented.

And it’s stupid:

As a close friend of the president who was convicted of lying and obstructing justice in the investigation of the president’s campaign, Roger Stone couldn’t be more intertwined with the president. Politicization of the department doesn’t hinge on whether the president’s wishes are articulated, though with Trump they frequently are. Regardless of whether the decision to reverse the prosecutors was made before the president tweeted, action in anticipation of the president’s reaction is as dangerous as action in response to it.

Moreover, the sentencing reversal wasn’t an isolated incident. It followed a disturbing trend that includes: a four-page memorandum distorting the findings of the Mueller investigation and gratuitously absolving the president of obstruction of justice; a public rejection of the Justice Department inspector general’s findings regarding the propriety of opening the Russia investigation; repeated echoing of the president’s politically charged rhetoric undermining law enforcement and the intelligence community; and the president’s personal lawyer being set up with a special avenue to funnel dirt to the department about the president’s political rival.

This is not how things are done, or, alternatively, this is how things are done now:

The president responded Friday, rejecting the long tradition of Justice Department independence. He insisted that he could direct criminal cases in the midst of protesting that he hasn’t, revealing yet again that he regards the department as his personal grudge squad.

No one wants that, but Trump does like that old Rolling Stones song. He thinks this is what we need, a strong hand, no questions asked. And he will get what he wants – unless the voters in the next election give him what he actually needs, to be gone.

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That Chill in the Air

“It was a dark and stormy night.” Sure, use bad weather as a metaphor. But the weather can be quite good when bad things happen. Still, Politico frames what is happening in Washington as kind of like a cold snap:

President Donald Trump’s post-impeachment acquittal behavior is casting a chill in Washington, with Attorney General William Barr emerging as a key ally in the president’s quest for vengeance against the law enforcement and national security establishment that initiated the Russia and Ukraine investigations.

In perhaps the most tumultuous day yet for the Justice Department under Trump, four top prosecutors withdrew on Tuesday from a case involving the president’s longtime friend Roger Stone after senior department officials overrode their sentencing recommendation – a backpedaling that DOJ veterans and legal experts suspect was influenced by Trump’s own displeasure with the prosecutors’ judgment.

And then everything went cold and it felt like all joy of any kind had left the world forever. No, that would be the Dementors of Azkaban dropping by. This was just the attorney general:

“With Bill Barr, on an amazing number of occasions you can be almost 100 percent certain that there’s something improper going on,” said Donald Ayer, the former deputy attorney general in the George H. W. Bush administration.

The president has only inflamed such suspicions, congratulating Barr on Wednesday for intervening in Stone’s case and teeing off hours later on the prosecutors, calling them “Mueller people” who treated Stone “very badly.”

The president said he had not spoken with Barr about the matter, but Ayer called the attorney general’s apparent intervention “really shocking,” because Barr “has now entered into the area of criminal sanction, which is the one area probably more than any other where it’s most important that the Justice Department’s conduct be above reproach and beyond suspicion.”

Yeah, well, that’s gone now:

Barr’s evident intervention in matters of personal interest to the president, particularly as they relate to former campaign advisers once at the center of Mueller’s Russia probe, has now put the reputation of an entire institution at risk, DOJ veterans said. It sent an alarming signal to hundreds of line attorneys inside the department, who may now fear that any work touching on the president’s allies will be subject to political interference, they said. And it could undo decades of post-Watergate work to separate the president from the justice system, in ways that could damage DOJ’s credibility with federal judges and with the public as a whole.

Things have changed. Prosecute the bad guys, but be careful. Don’t mess with the president’s friends. Do that and you’ll be out of work, or worse. And of course that changes how these people do their jobs, but it’s chilly everywhere:

The president’s campaign of retribution apparently doesn’t stop there: He also pulled former U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu’s nomination to serve in a senior Treasury Department post, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin confirmed during a hearing on Wednesday.

As the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Liu oversaw the prosecutions of Stone, Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, while the office’s case against former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe—who Trump has repeatedly lambasted—has languished without an indictment.

Mnuchin would not tell the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday why Liu’s nomination was withdrawn.

He just smiled. That should worry everyone:

“I’ve never seen anything this dramatic,” said Mary McCord, the former acting assistant attorney general for national security, who accused Barr and his deputy Jeffrey Rosen of being “willing to do the president’s bidding for political purposes in individual cases.”

The four attorneys who withdrew from the Stone case “should be seen as heroes in some respects,” said Channing Phillips, who served as the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia from October 2015 to September 2017. “It was obviously a courageous action on their part.”

“It’s a pretty dramatic thing to do,” said Edward McMahon, Jr., a veteran D.C. defense attorney who has dealt with the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office for decades. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

They’re stunned. The weather has changed:

Trump criticized the prosecutors in harsh terms in his off-the-cuff remarks on Wednesday, contrasting the high end of their recommended sentence for Stone to those doled out to “murderers and drug addicts.”

“They put him in for nine years,” Trump said. “It’s a disgrace.”

That argument angered even some Republicans, who said it amounted to a demand for favorable treatment for the president’s allies.

“There are literally tens of thousands of people in prison under such very harsh sentences,” said Charles Fried, the former solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan. “The question is: Do you get to be treated differently from this vast army of harshly punished persons because you are in fact a crony of the president? Well, I think the question answers itself.”

But does the president really care what Reagan’s former solicitor general thinks? That question also answers itself:

Trump declared on Tuesday that he had an “absolute right” to intervene in the Stone case, though he denied doing so. And his allies cautioned that the post-Watergate model of clear boundaries between the president and the Justice Department is just an accepted norm, not a legal imperative.

And now the norms have changed:

John Dowd, a former DOJ attorney who was Trump’s personal lawyer for a portion of the Mueller probe, said that “this idea that DOJ is independent of the president is nonsense.”

Dowd said it appeared to him that the prosecutors, “the same crowd wedded to the Mueller agenda,” had been “grossly insubordinate” in recommending a steep sentence for Stone despite senior DOJ officials’ reported objections, and that Barr was doing the right thing by “cleaning up” the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office.

“Trump wasn’t out of line,” Dowd added. “He is the chief law enforcement officer. He has the right to react, and [the sentencing recommendation] was horrible.”

He is the chief law enforcement officer, thus, he is the law. That’s the argument. Case closed. Or the case is still open at least a little bit:

Not even members of the conservative Federalist Society, whose co-chairman Leonard Leo has helped Trump stock the nation’s courts with conservative judges, seemed completely comfortable with the president’s conduct.

“I’m not super bothered in that it isn’t uncommon for senior members of DOJ to ‘interfere’ with individual prosecutions done by U.S. attorneys,” said one member of the Federalist Society who clerked for a conservative Supreme Court justice. But “from an optics perspective, sure, it is concerning,” this person acknowledged, adding that “it looks like Trump is getting involved in his friends'” cases.

The fact that Stone’s crime was related to election interference, which is what Trump was impeached over, only makes it look worse, this person said.

Ah, but it could be that what we have here is a failure to communicate:

Another Federalist Society member and former Trump administration official acknowledged that the prosecutors’ withdrawal had damaged the image of the Justice Department, but characterized the furor over the Stone case as the result of “a horrible lack of communication” between DOJ leadership and the prosecutors on the case.

But DOJ veterans disputed that.

“Under department policy, the sentencing recommendation would have been reached after consultation all the way up” through the attorney general, McCord said.

Former FBI general counsel Jim Baker echoed that assessment, noting that the “ethos of DOJ is to operate by consensus.”

Okay, that theory doesn’t work, and someone wants an explanation:

Ultimately, Stone’s fate will be left to Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who Trump has attacked with unfounded accusations of political bias. Jackson denied Stone’s motion for a new trial last week and Stone is set to be sentenced on February 20.

Baker said he expects Jackson to put the lawyers on the record about the sentencing confusion, “to find out why DOJ so dramatically changed its legal position and all of the lawyers resigned from the case,” he said.

But this can be explained:

Stone’s allies, meanwhile, are still hoping for a presidential pardon. “This entire investigation was a political hit job, and we believe the MAGA movement agrees: The president should pardon Roger Stone,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser who founded a committee on Wednesday aimed at encouraging a pardon for Stone.

Trump has not ruled it out. But a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed hope that the president opts against it.

“It’s not necessary. Because the guy committed serious crimes,” the official said, referring to Stone. “Donald Trump is impressed when people do a good job for him and don’t make themselves the story. Oh, and don’t break the law.”

It seems that Stone made a pardon impossible, because he made himself the story and, foolishly, he actually committed the specific crimes. He did a good job for Trump and blew it. He made it seem like he himself was actually interesting and important. He isn’t. Trump is. There can be no pardon for that. He will serve at least some time.

But there’s still a chill in the air. Just ask Chuck Rosenberg, the former US attorney, the former senior FBI official, and the former acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who remembers this:

The Justice Department that I know and love – and in which I worked for two decades in many roles – must always be two things to the public it serves: fair and perceived as fair. These are related but distinct concepts. Our work must be fair – that is, we must have fair outcomes as a matter of practice and principle. Anything less is unacceptable, which is one reason, for instance, we turned over exculpatory evidence (a constitutional obligation) and why we publicly fronted our mistakes when we made them.

But our work must also be perceived as fair. Fair outcomes are not worth much if the public does not perceive those outcomes as fair. One way, among many, we ensure that is to assiduously avoid politics in our work. When I was a career federal prosecutor in Virginia, my colleagues and I simply did not talk about politics. I did not know then, and I largely do not know now, how my colleagues (including the federal agents with whom we worked) voted or even if they voted. It simply did not matter to our work. Folks did not talk about it. It was irrelevant to our work. We knew that unwritten rule. Whatever our view, we kept it to ourselves, because it had no place in our world and because letting it seep in would corrode our work. We worked free of political interference or influence. Always.

And then that all changed, in the blink of an eye:

Following the routine filing by the career prosecutors – in line with the sentencing guidelines applicable to the Stone case – the president inexplicably tweeted that the sentence Stone faced was a “miscarriage” of justice, calling it a “horrible and very unfair situation.”

And then – and this is the part that is so disturbing – the prosecutors were ordered, either because of the president’s tweet or irrespective of it (and both scenarios are awful), to rescind their original recommendation and to ask the judge that Stone receive more lenient treatment at his sentencing. What the prosecutors were ordered to do was dangerous and unsettling and undermined everything they – and we – stood for as Justice Department professionals. They properly refused.

We all understand that the leadership at the top of the department is politically appointed, and we make peace with that (in addition to my work as a career federal prosecutor, I served in political positions under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the Justice Department and worked for thoughtful appointed leaders of both parties), but being asked by that leadership to allow politics to corrode our work is not remotely normal or permissible. And it is treacherous.

It’s the Big Chill – the suicide that changes everything like in that sad movie – but this is the death of something else:

The rule of law is a construct. It was made by people – and is nurtured and preserved by people. It can also be destroyed by people. And unlike the law of gravity, which works everywhere and all the time (at least on this planet), the rule of law is precious and fragile. As citizens and prosecutors, we either safeguard it or we surrender it. That’s the choice. What political leadership did here – mandating a favor for a friend of the president in line with the president’s publicly expressed desire in the case – significantly damages the rule of law and the perception of Justice Department fairness.

Principled resignations by career federal prosecutors highlighted this dangerous stunt. I am proud of them for that.

But I find it revolting that they were pushed into that corner (one resigned his job; three others resigned from the case) and saddened by their sacrifice. This is not normal and it is not right, and it is dangerous territory for the rule of law.

And, as the New York Times reports, this is dangerous right now:

For decades after Watergate, the White House treated the Justice Department with the softest of gloves, fearful that any appearance of political interference would resurrect the specter of Attorney General John Mitchell helping President Richard M. Nixon carry out a criminal conspiracy for political ends.

In 2001, William P. Barr, describing his first stint as attorney general, under President George Bush, spoke of the department’s protected status in the post-Watergate era. “You didn’t mess around with it, didn’t intervene, you didn’t interfere,” he recalled in an oral history.

Fast forward to 2020, and Mr. Barr is attorney general once more. But President Trump’s ground-shaking conduct has demolished those once-sacrosanct guardrails.

Everything changed all at once, like the weather can suddenly do, so it was time to adjust to that:

To career prosecutors around the country, the Stone case raised new fears of what is to come. Until now, according to conversations with more than a dozen career lawyers in some of the 93 U.S. attorney’s offices, they had watched other divisions in the Justice Department execute significant shifts in response to Mr. Trump while the work of prosecuting crimes was largely unaffected by the politics of the moment. Now career prosecutors said they worried they might face more pressure.

“In essence, the leadership of the Justice Department has commandeered the sentencing in a politically sensitive criminal matter, reversing the position uniformly accepted and promoted by the career prosecutors,” said David Laufman, a partner at Wiggin and Dana and a former chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control section.

The withdrawal of the prosecutors sent a clear signal, said Greg Brower, a former prosecutor who once headed the FBI’s congressional affairs office. “They all disagreed” with how top Justice Department officials intervened, he said.

“Beyond that,” Mr. Brower said, “they likely also believed there are ethical considerations that forced their decision.”

That was the principled response, but others just want to keep their jobs:

Prosecutors across the United States, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, said this week that they had already been wary of working on any case that might catch Mr. Trump’s attention and that the Stone episode only deepened their concern. They also said that they were worried that Mr. Barr might not support them in politically charged cases.

Many will now choose to ignore the facts of this case or that, and choose to ignore the law, to avoid this sort of public humiliation:

The president congratulated Mr. Barr on Wednesday “for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought” and said prosecutors “ought to apologize” to Mr. Stone.

And there’s a reason that all this happened:

Mr. Stone has become a particular focus in recent days, in part because of Tucker Carlson, the Fox host and longtime friend of Mr. Stone who has been talking frequently on his show about the case.

“Tucker Carlson has been willing to use his stature and prominence to advocate on behalf of his friend Roger Stone to argue substantively against the arbitrary and selective mistreatment that the Office of Special Counsel has directed against Mr. Stone,” said Sam Nunberg, one of Mr. Trump’s early political advisers.

The president made clear he agreed, and now the Justice Department has responded.

That’s odd. Tucker Carlson explained to Donald Trump what’s what and how the world really works, slowly and carefully, and Trump finally got it. That’s possible, but the Washington Post tag-team of Philip Rucker and Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey sees this:

President Trump is testing the rule of law one week after his acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial, seeking to bend the executive branch into an instrument for his personal and political vendetta against perceived enemies.

And Trump – simmering with rage, fixated on exacting revenge against those he feels betrayed him and insulated by a compliant Republican Party – is increasingly comfortable doing so to the point of feeling untouchable, according to the president’s advisers and allies.

In the span of 48 hours this week, the president has sought to protect his friends and punish his foes, even at the risk of compromising the Justice Department’s independence and integrity – a stance that his defenders see as entirely justified.

They have their sources. This is pure rage:

The president has openly encouraged his Justice Department to retaliate against a quartet of former FBI officials who long have been targets of his ire for their involvement in the Russia probe.

“Where’s [James] Comey?” Trump bellowed Wednesday in a stream-of-consciousness diatribe from the Oval Office. “What’s happening to [Andrew] McCabe? What’s happening to Lisa and – to Pete Strzok and Lisa Page? What’s happening with them? It was a whole setup, it was a disgrace for our country, and everyone knows it, too, everyone.”

For months now, Trump has been enraged that these FBI officials have not been charged with crimes. And he has vented at length privately in recent weeks that James A. Wolfe, a former aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, received a prison sentence of two months for lying to FBI agents about his contact with reporters during a federal leak investigation – a criticism the president repeatedly publicly on Wednesday.

And no one can calm him down:

Some of Trump’s top aides have counseled him against speaking out on legal matters, warning him that doing so could wrongly influence proceedings because officials at the Justice Department or elsewhere would then know they needed to please him or risk his wrath. Trump has often responded, “I have a right to say whatever I want,” according to a former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

“He knows exactly what he’s doing,” this official explained. “He knows that he has more power than anyone else in the government – and when he tweets, everyone has to listen to him.”

And that’s what’s so chilling:

A chorus of former U.S. attorneys and former Justice Department leaders condemned Trump for what they consider improper political pressure in a criminal prosecution.

“I’ve never seen so many prosecutors including those who aren’t political or those who haven’t been following this situation closely go to red alert so quickly,” said Joyce White Vance, a former U.S. attorney in the Obama administration. “The reason is this: If a president can meddle in a criminal case to help a friend, then there’s nothing that keeps him from meddling to harm someone he thinks is his enemy. That means that a president is fully above the law in the most dangerous kind of way. This is how democracies die.”

But there’s also another way that democracies die:

During an election year, few lawmakers are willing to offer even minor criticism of their own party’s president and risk alienating GOP base voters, veteran Republican operatives said.

“It’s one of those things where these lines have never been crossed in this way – that’s the way responsible administrations act,” said Brendan Buck, a longtime adviser to former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). “But you’ll end up seeing Republicans saying he has the authority to do it, even if they know it’s not necessarily within the bounds of what should be done.”

“It’s like bad weather. Nothing more, nothing less,” said one Republican congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly explain the thinking of top GOP lawmakers. “What do you expect? We’re in year four of this. It just happens.”

Sure, what you do about the weather? What can anyone do about the weather? But one should not confuse the metaphor with the thing. Something can be done about this. There is an election coming soon.

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The Scary People

Someone will run against Donald Trump and now New Hampshire is over. Bernie won. He’s not that scary, and Pete is cool, and Amy is pretty damned impressive. And it seems that Biden is toast. He just didn’t have the magic any longer, after all these years. He looked like a man running on empty, a fine fellow, a good man, but a man of the past, who often seemed to be wondering what was going on. What’s this latest fuss? Was it something he said?

He’ll hang on a bit, but the past, as good as it was at times, is past. And maybe Biden knows that. And that’s not so bad. Someone else will be handling the future, so let them. Offer encouragement and support and all the help you can, in that future, as you graciously step aside, now. Relax. Become an éminence grise like François Leclerc du Tremblay, the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu. Be the quiet old man who knows how things actually get done, who whispers what to do in the Cardinal’s ear and actually shapes events.

That might be cool. And what would Rudy do with his time now? But all of this is moonshine. Nevada is next, and then South Carolina, and then Super Tuesday, and so on. No one knows how this will work out, so all analysis of what just happened in New Hampshire, and what didn’t happen in Iowa, is now arcane and a bit pointless. Michael Bloomberg could be the one the Democrats put up against Trump, or Biden might wake up. Who knows? It’s still early. The search will continue, for someone who can laugh off Trump’s Tweets of Death™ and his nicknames and his sneers and his insults, and his threats of jail or of violence from “his” people, and his periodic well-rehearsed theatrical full-Mussolini rages, someone with the cool to turn that against Trump, as something actually comic in a way, and quite entertaining, but a bit pathetic, like a child throwing one more wearisome tantrum, again. No one has done that yet. No one since Obama at that big dinner long ago has actually laughed at Donald Trump, as a preposterous man. And he does hate that.

So, Democrats need someone proudly cool and calm and collected, to provide contrast to Trump, to smile, slyly, and raise one eyebrow, and say nothing. Let him continue. Let him make a fool of himself. He will. But that’s not going to happen. Trump is too dangerous, so Democrats have decided that they need someone with passion, and Bernie Sanders has that. And he’s scary as hell. He’s always called himself a democratic socialist, like the folks in Norway and Sweden and Germany. His economic thinking is basically Canadian, simple universal healthcare, as much free education as possible, and a place for everyone in the system.

But there’s that word “socialist” stuck in there. He wants to turn America into Venezuela! He says no, Sweden, or Canada, but the argument is already over. He wants Medicare for all. And that polls well even though that would be absurdly expensive. And then someone mentions Venezuela. We can’t have that. The man is a radical. Everyone’s income would be taxed at one hundred percent. That’s communism! And so Bernie Sanders is too scary to too many people, and that scares too many Democrats. He could stand up to Trump. He could smile in Trump’s face and show the world that Trump is a jerk, or worse – but Bernie is too scary. Trump is scary. Bernie is scarier.

Matthew Yglesias says that’s nonsense:

Bernie Sanders’s win in New Hampshire following his quasi-win in Iowa dashes the Democratic Party establishment’s big hope of the past four years – that he’d just fade away.

Alarm, clearly visible in a range of mainstream Democratic circles over the past several weeks, is now going to kick into overdrive.

But this frame of mind is fundamentally misguided. For all the agita around his all-or-nothing rhetoric, his behavior as a longtime member of Congress (and before that as a mayor) suggests a much more pragmatic approach to actual legislating than some of the wilder “political revolution” rhetoric would suggest.

On the vast majority of issues, a Sanders administration would deliver pretty much the same policy outcomes as any other Democrat.

So there’s only that damned word, but that word might not matter:

The specter of “socialism” hangs over the Sanders campaign, terrifying mainstream Democrats with the reality that when asked about it by pollsters, most Americans reject the idea. Given that Sanders himself tends to anchor his politics in Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, it seems as though everyone involved would be better off if he labeled himself a New Deal Democrat and let us revert to the normal pattern where Republicans call mainstream liberals “socialists” and liberals push back rather than accepting an unpopular label.

All that said, in current head-to-head polling matchups with Donald Trump, Sanders does well and is normally winning.

In short, people aren’t that knee-jerk stupid. They hear FDR and the New deal, and see Canada and Sweden, not Venezuela, and that’s always been the case with Sanders:

Skeptics worry whether that lead will hold up against the sure-to-come cavalcade of attack ads from Trump. It’s a reasonable concern.

But it’s worth underscoring that Sanders’s actual electoral track record in Vermont is strong. Winning elections in Vermont is not, per se, incredibly impressive. There are plenty of left-wing Democrats who win elections while underperforming simply because they run in such blue states (Elizabeth Warren fits that mold), as well as plenty of moderate Democrats who over-perform in tough races even while losing (former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill is a good example).

Sanders, however, over-performs in his easy races. He consistently runs ahead of Democratic presidential nominees in his home state, which suggests he knows how to overcome the “socialist” label, get people to vote for him despite some eccentricities, and even to peel off some Republican votes.

And he’s done just fine in the Senate too:

The policy area in which Sanders has had the most practical influence is veterans-related issues, as he chaired the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee for a two-year span, during which Congress enacted substantive reform to the veterans’ health system.

Given the objective constellation of political forces at the time, this required bipartisan support, so Sanders (working mainly with Republican Sen. John McCain) produced a bipartisan bill that, in exchange for a substantial boost in funding, made some concessions to conservatives in creating “private options” for veterans to seek care outside of the publicly run Department of Veterans Affairs.

It’s fine if you want to be annoyed that Sanders’s self-presentation as a revolutionary who will sweep all practical obstacles aside is at odds with his reality as an experienced legislator who does typical senator stuff in a typical way. But there’s no reason to be worried that Sanders is a deluded radical who doesn’t understand how the government works.

And there’s this:

It’s important to understand that on the vast majority of topics, the policy outputs of a Sanders administration just wouldn’t be that different from those of a Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg administration. Whether a new president promises continuity with Obama, or a break with neoliberalism, the constraints will realistically come from Congress, where the median member is all but certain to be more conservative than anyone in the Democratic field.

On foreign policy, by contrast, the president is less constrained, and Sanders’s real desire to challenge aspects of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus makes a difference. He’s much more critical of Israel than most people in national politics, he’s a leading critic of the alliance with Saudi Arabia, and he’s generally skeptical of America’s expansive military posture.

These ideas are coded as “extreme” in Washington, where there’s significant bipartisan investment in the status quo. But polls show that most voters question the narratives of American exceptionalism, favor a reduced global military footprint and less defense spending, and are skeptical of the merits of profligate arms sales.

That makes him normal, not a part of that defense industry world, so there’s nothing that’s really scary here:

A Sanders presidency should generate an emphasis on full employment, a tendency to shy away from launching wars, an executive branch that actually tries to enforce environmental protection and civil rights laws, and a situation in which bills that both progressives and moderates can agree on get to become law.

That’s a formula the vast majority of mainstream Democrats should be able to embrace.

Lots of moderate Democrats nonetheless find it annoying that Sanders and some of his followers are so committed to painting mainstream Democrats in such dark hues. And it is annoying!

But annoying people won’t stop being annoying if he loses the nomination. If anything, they will be more annoying than ever as some refuse to get enthusiastic about the prospect of beating Trump.

So think of it this way:

If Sanders wins, partisan Democrats who just want to beat Trump will magically stop finding Sanders super-fans annoying – the causes will be aligned, and the vast majority of people who want Trump out of the White House can collaborate in peace.

So yes, calm down:

Most likely, a Sanders presidency will simply mean that young progressive activists are less sullen and dyspeptic about the incremental policy gains that would result from any Democrat occupying the presidency. It’ll also mean a foreign policy that errs a bit more on the side of restraint compared with what you’d get from anyone else in the field, as well as an approach to monetary policy that errs a bit more on the side of full employment.

That’s a pretty good deal, and you don’t need to be a socialist to see it.

So, do not be afraid of Bernie. He’s really not that scary. But this guy is:

Four prosecutors abruptly withdrew on Tuesday from the case of President Trump’s longtime friend Roger J. Stone Jr. after senior Justice Department officials intervened to recommend a more lenient sentence for crimes he committed in a bid to protect the president.

In an extraordinary decision overruling career lawyers, the Justice Department recommended an unspecified term of incarceration for Mr. Stone instead of the prosecutors’ request of a punishment of seven to nine years. The move coincided with Mr. Trump’s declaration on Twitter early Tuesday that the government was treating Mr. Stone too harshly.

The development immediately prompted questions about whether the Justice Department was bending to White House pressure.

These four prosecutors know the law. Trump said, no, he knows the law. The attorney general said well, maybe he does. He declared the work of his four prosecutors, his employees, just worthless, because his boss said so. He wasn’t going to stick up for them. These four prosecutors quit the case and one of them resigned from the government:

The gulf between the prosecutors and their Justice Department superiors burst into public view the week before Mr. Stone was to be sentenced for trying to sabotage a congressional investigation that had posed a threat to the president.

The prosecutors – one of whom resigned from the department – were said to be furious over the reversal of their sentencing request, filed in federal court late Monday. The Stone case was one of the most high-profile criminal prosecutions arising from the nearly two-year investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.

The development added to the sense of turmoil in Washington that has followed Mr. Trump’s acquittal by the Senate six days ago on charges of abuse of power and obstructing Congress.

Of course it did:

With the impeachment case behind him, Mr. Trump fired an ambassador while his national security adviser dismissed an aide. Both had testified against the president in the impeachment hearings.

To some, the surprising reversal in the politically sensitive Stone case underscored questions about Attorney General William P. Barr’s willingness to protect the department’s independence from any political influence by Mr. Trump.

On the other hand, Trump was angry:

A friend of Mr. Trump for decades, Mr. Stone, 67, was convicted in November of obstructing an inquiry by the House Intelligence Committee into Russian interference in the 2016 election, lying to investigators under oath and trying to block the testimony of a witness who would have exposed his lies.

In a message on Twitter early Tuesday, Mr. Trump criticized the sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years as “horrible and very unfair.” As he did after the jury’s guilty verdict, he attacked federal law enforcement officials, saying “the real crimes were on the other side.”

“Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Mr. Trump added. He later denied to reporters that he tried to influence the case in any way, but described the Justice Department’s initial sentencing request as a disgrace.

But wait, there’s more:

The president assailed the prosecutors directly, asking on Twitter who were the lawyers “who cut and ran after being exposed for recommending a ridiculous 9 year prison sentence” for Mr. Stone, who he said “got caught up in an investigation that was illegal, the Mueller Scam.”

In yet another Twitter message, he attacked Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the Federal District Court in Washington, who is presiding over Mr. Stone’s case. He asked whether she had ordered solitary confinement for Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul J. Manafort. The president said Mr. Manafort suffered worse treatment than “even mobster Al Capone had to endure.”

This was a tantrum, but the child in this case runs the government, and Josh Marshall sees this:

I want to note a pattern, which seems critical. Famously, the day after Robert Mueller testified before Congress Trump was on the phone with President Zelensky of Ukraine, trying to bully him into opening those investigations. The plot had been going on for months – but Trump was largely in the background, letting his henchman speech for him. It was on July 25th when Trump grabbed the plot with both hands and communicated directly to Zelensky. He followed up by shutting down the military aid pipeline.

The day after he finally felt he was free and clear, that his allies had shut the investigations down, he was back at it and upping the ante. He learned that he absolutely could get away with it and he went right back to it.

In recent days we’ve seen a striking replay of the pattern. The moment Trump was acquitted he started firing most or all of the public officials who had obeyed congressional subpoenas. Today he mused that he might have the Pentagon further punish LTC Alexander Vindman. And now we have this direct, brazen interference in the Roger Stone case.

We keep hearing these risible claims from acquitting Republican Senators that, well, sure he must have learned his lesson. This impeachment was no fun. But each time he learns the obvious lesson. All the “adults in the room” who said he absolutely, positively couldn’t do that … well, they were wrong. Morally and practically. He did it and he was 100% fine.

And every Senator who called privately and said you absolutely can’t do that … well, they were wrong too. Because he did it and when they sat in judgment of him, they agreed it was fine. A perfect phone call.

He keeps doing anything he wants and getting away with it. The lesson is really clear.

And the New York Times’ Peter Baker adds detail to that:

As far as President Trump is concerned, banishing Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman from the White House and exiling him back to the Pentagon was not enough. If he had his way, the commander in chief made clear on Tuesday, the Defense Department would now take action against the colonel, too.

“That’s going to be up to the military,” Mr. Trump told reporters who asked whether Colonel Vindman should face disciplinary action after testifying in the House hearings that led to the president’s impeachment. “But if you look at what happened,” Mr. Trump added in threatening terms, “I mean they’re going to, certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that.”

That’s an implied direct order from the commander-in-chief. That’s not subtle, and this will escalate:

More axes are sure to fall. A senior Pentagon official appears in danger of losing her nomination to a top Defense Department post after questioning the president’s suspension of aid to Ukraine. Likewise, a prosecutor involved in Mr. Stone’s case has lost a nomination to a senior Treasury Department position. A key National Security Council official is said by colleagues to face dismissal. And the last of dozens of career officials being transferred out of the White House may be gone by the end of the week.

The war between Mr. Trump and what he calls the “deep state” has entered a new, more volatile phase as the president seeks to assert greater control over a government that he is convinced is not sufficiently loyal to him. With no need to worry about Congress now that he has been acquitted of two articles of impeachment, the president has shown a renewed willingness to act even if it prompts fresh complaints about violating traditional norms.

The dozens of career officials being transferred out of the White House are staffers at the National Security Council, subject matter and area experts. Such people will be shown the door. Trump doesn’t need that detail, or Presidential Daily Briefings. He has Fox and Friends each morning, and he can call Putin to find out what’s really going on in the world. But there is some resistance:

The president’s involvement in Mr. Stone’s case generated vigorous protests and calls for an investigation into whether he improperly sought to skew the prosecution in favor of a longtime associate and adviser…

The Justice Department rejected any link to the president’s tweets, while Mr. Trump insisted that he had nothing to do with the case. But the withdrawal of the four career prosecutors working on the case left the unmistakable impression that they thought something improper had happened.

“The American people must have confidence that justice in this country is dispensed impartially,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, wrote in a letter asking the department’s inspector general to investigate. “That confidence cannot be sustained if the president or his political appointees are permitted to interfere in prosecution and sentencing recommendations in order to protect their friends and associates.”

But this is what it is:

Mr. Trump has long suspected that people around him – both government officials and even some of his own political appointees – were secretly working against his interests. His impeachment for trying to coerce Ukraine to incriminate Democrats by withholding $391 million in security aid has only reinforced that view as he watched one official after another testify before the House.

Witnesses like Colonel Vindman testified under subpoena compelling them to talk, but Mr. Trump blamed them for his dilemma. In the Oval Office on Tuesday, Mr. Trump complained at length about Colonel Vindman, accusing him of misleading Congress about the president’s July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart. In fact, Colonel Vindman’s version of the call closely tracked the written record released by the White House, but he did testify that he thought it was inappropriate to ask a foreign country to tarnish the president’s domestic political opponents.

“We sent him on his way to a much different location, and the military can handle him any way they want,” Mr. Trump said. “General Milley has him now,” he added, referring to Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I congratulate General Milley. He can have him. And his brother, also. We’ll find out. We will find out. But he reported very inaccurate things.”

The second highest-grossing movie in America in 1954 was The Caine Mutiny – Humphrey Bogart as the unstable and periodically paranoid Captain Phillip Francis Queeg, brought in by the Navy to restore discipline on the Caine, a minesweeper in our Pacific war with Japan. The previous captain had been too loose and goofy.

Queeg was supposed to fix that but it turned out he was incredibly thin-skinned and saw conspiracies everywhere. When a crate of fresh strawberries go missing from the officers’ mess, Queeg is convinced that some sailor has made a duplicate key to the food locker and orders the crew strip-searched to find it. That’s the final straw. Queeg wasn’t that good at the actual Navy stuff anyway – so the officers, led by Fred MacMurray as Lieutenant Tom Keefer, relieve him of his command under Article 184 of Navy Regulations – mental incapacity.

The rest of the film is their court martial. Or it’s Trump’s presidency, an ongoing court martial from the start. But this isn’t a movie. Jennifer Rubin says it’s this:

This is an egregious perversion of the rule of law. The president, like a tin-pot dictator, now uses the Justice Department to shield his criminal cronies, putting his finger on the scale in a way no other president has done in the modern era.

As he did in spinning the Mueller report and refusing to consider seriously the criminal implications of the whistleblower’s report, Attorney General William P. Barr has refused to defy the president or defend the reputation of his department…

In the absence of a principled attorney general, the Justice Department has become an instrument to abuse power. What, if anything, might slow Trump down?

Ah, that might be Bernie Sanders. They say he’s scary. Donald Trump is scarier. Why not have an election about that?

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Telling Tall Tales

All of politics is telling tall tales. Conservatives, now, tell the angry and resentful that, if elected, they will make sure those who have ruined everything for everybody (everybody like them) will be punished. That might be “uppity niggers” – without using that term – or Muslims or Mexicans or gays. Long ago it was the Irish. At one point, when Henry Ford was distributing copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion nationwide, it was a secret cabal of wealthy Jewish bankers, somewhere in Switzerland perhaps, who controlled the world and were ruining everything, but the Rothschilds would be punished. That was a promise. The chant persists – “Jews will not replace us!” Donald Trump said those chanting that in Charlottesville were fine people, or some of them were. The general point was more important. It’s always someone else who was ruining everything. They would be identified, exposed, and punished. The candidate, if elected, would make them suffer. Hell, those bastards would die. So vote appropriately.

Of course that was nonsense. Public officials are limited in the amount of pain they can inflict on large groups of people, and special categories of just who had ruined everything, and exactly how they had ruined everything, were always a bit fluid. There are those damned Jewish bankers and George Soros, but there’s the heroic Netanyahu, if he can stay out of prison this time, and the heroic Israelis. On the other hand, Jewish-Americans are almost all liberal Democrats and big on tolerance of all sorts of people, and have been central in the news media and here in Hollywood. They don’t want to wipe out the Palestinians once and for all. What the hell is wrong will them? Some tall tales are more difficult to tell than others.

And it’s the same on the left. Liberals or progressive or just plain Democrats will say that, if elected, they will bring everyone together, because this is not a red country or a blue country but the United States of America. That’s a promise too, of “hope” and “change” and good will. Everyone will finally work together and get good things done, but that was the tallest of tall tales. Obama tried that. The world doesn’t work that way. But that really doesn’t matter. No one believes the tall tales. They just like to hear them. Those tall tales hint that the world is as they fear or hope it to be, respectively. They’re not truth. They offer emotional comfort.

And this continues once in office, as once again it was time for this:

President Trump released a $4.8 trillion budget proposal on Monday that includes a familiar list of deep cuts to student loan assistance, affordable housing efforts, food stamps and Medicaid, reflecting Mr. Trump’s election-year effort to continue shrinking the federal safety net.

The proposal, which is unlikely to be approved in its entirety by Congress, includes additional spending for the military, national defense and border enforcement, along with money for veterans, Mr. Trump’s Space Force initiative and an extension of the individual income tax cuts that were set to expire in 2025. Its biggest reduction is an annual 2 percent decrease in spending on discretionary domestic programs, like education and environmental protection.

This is not just unlikely to be approved in its entirety by Congress, it won’t be considered at all. Everyone knows this is simply messaging to the president’s base – “You know you’d love to see this, don’t you? Your government will do nothing for those liberal weenies and fools!”

And there will be nukes, lots of them, no matter what it costs:

Speaking to the nation’s governors at the White House on Monday, Mr. Trump said that his budget proposal would bolster the United States military and nuclear arsenal and bring the deficit close to zero in “not that long a period of time.”

However, Mr. Trump’s budget does not estimate wiping out the deficit until 2035 and gets there only through rosy assumptions about economic growth – an area where the administration’s past predictions have proved to be overconfident – and the continued ability of the government to borrow money at rock-bottom rates. It also projects adding $3.4 trillion to the national debt by 2024, at the end of a potential second Trump term.

Despite the hefty borrowing, Mr. Trump’s budget does not detail another round of tax cuts that his administration has suggested he will pursue if he wins re-election. Instead, it extends for 10 years the expiring cuts contained in the tax overhaul Mr. Trump signed in 2017, at an estimated revenue loss of about $1.4 trillion. The budget also assumes large amounts of new military spending, including $3.2 billion – a $459 million increase – to help develop a high-speed weapon capable of evading missile defense systems and $18 billion for the newly established Space Force.

“We’re going to have a very good budget with a very powerful military budget, because we have no choice,” he said, adding that he was aiming to reduce spending by rooting out “waste and fraud.”

No one expected that to happen, but here, intentions are everything:

The White House budget is largely a messaging document that reflects the administration’s spending priorities. While Monday’s proposal is similar to the president’s previous requests, it is a stark contrast with his leading Democratic rivals for the White House, who have proposed large tax increases on the rich and expansions of government efforts to provide health care, education, affordable housing and aid for the poor.

For instance, at a time when many Democratic candidates are proposing sweeping efforts to forgive student loan debt and make some or all public colleges tuition-free, Mr. Trump’s budget again recommends eliminating subsidized federal student loans and ending the public service loan program. The program is an incentive for teachers, police officers, government workers and other public servants that would cancel their remaining federal student loans after a decade of payments. Those proposals were in last year’s budget, but Congress did not adopt them.

There’s a message there. What “they” want they’re not going to get. And college is stupid anyway. That only ruins young people. They go in good people and come out four or five years later and they’re socialists and atheists and tolerate all sorts of things that Jesus said were wrong, somewhere or other. And anyway, education is for only the right sort of people:

The administration would drastically change the way states are allocated funding for programs that support disadvantaged K-12 students. The budget proposes consolidating 29 programs into a $19.4 billion block grant that would dispense funding to states, who would then determine how to use it. Among the programs that would be zeroed out to fund the grant are 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which funds after-school programs for low-income students; funding for programs in rural schools and magnet schools; and funding for homeless and migrant students.

We’re not paying that riff-raff, and no one should pay for someone else’s stupid medical problems:

It still makes major changes to health care programs, including several that would tend to lower federal spending on Medicaid, by reducing the share of medical bills the federal government will pay for the Obamacare expansion population and imposing new requirements on beneficiaries who wish to enroll. Altogether, it proposed combined cuts to spending in Medicaid and Affordable Care Act subsidies that equal a trillion dollars – cuts that would mean substantial program changes.

Democratic candidates, in contrast, have offered detailed plans, which typically cost trillions of dollars raised via new taxes on corporations and the rich, to expand health care coverage and reduce costs for American patients.

This will put them in their place, but there was some grumbling:

While Republicans have made relatively little noise about the ballooning federal deficit since Mr. Trump took office, some lawmakers suggested on Monday that the budget would not pass muster with fiscal conservatives.

“Presidents’ budgets are a reflection of administration priorities, but in the end, they are just a list of suggestions, as the power of the purse rests with Congress,” said Senator Michael B. Enzi, Republican of Wyoming and the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “Bipartisan consensus will be necessary to bring our debt and deficits under control. I hope to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to put our country on a more sustainable fiscal course.”

And there was this:

Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, sent out two statements that, while initially complimentary of Mr. Trump’s efforts to cut federal spending, voiced concern with cuts to both defense and agriculture programs. Mr. Cramer said he disagreed with a number of defense provisions, including “cuts to intelligence-gathering resources for our military.” He also said that cuts to certain farm programs “would save little but inflict severe pain in American agriculture.”

But those cuts to intelligence-gathering resources for our military are necessary. They contradicted what Putin had told trump about what was really going on in the world. That’s treason, or something, so they have to go, and there’s this:

The administration reserved some of its deepest cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency, which would face a 26 percent reduction in funding and the elimination of 50 programs that Mr. Trump deemed “wasteful” or duplicative. The budget would shrink the agency to funding levels it last saw during the 1990s and focus it on “core functions” like addressing lead exposure in water and revitalizing former toxic sites, while excluding efforts like beach cleanup. It does not mention climate change.

That’s because there is no such thing, right? At the National Review, Robert VerBruggen simply sighs:

The president’s new budget is out. I have not looked at it and probably won’t. It is an irrelevant document that mainly serves to give political journalists stuff to complain about. Oh my, look at the cuts to the safety net! Ha-ha, the economic-growth assumptions are really out there!

The fact of the matter is that the president does not set the country’s budget; spending and tax bills come from Congress. Congress is under no obligation to use the president’s suggestions as a blueprint, and the president has shown little willingness to veto spending deals that stray too far from what his budgets say he wants…

Ignore the purported budget plan. Pay attention to what the president and lawmakers are actually trying to enact.

Kevin Drum seconds that:

This is just a longer way of saying that the president’s budget is “dead on arrival,” a phrase that’s routinely used for every presidential budget proposal. And it’s true. So why do presidents bother with budgets in the first place?

Well, it’s been required by law since 1921, so there’s that. And perhaps back in 1921 the president’s budget was taken more seriously. But for at least the past few decades, the budget document has been nothing more than make-work for drones in the OMB and the various cabinet departments. Other than that, it does little except give the president a platform for make-believe growth forecasts and fantasy budget cuts.

Sure, but make-believe growth forecasts and fantasy budget cuts are the essence of politics. Those are the tall tales that no one really believes but feel so comforting, particularly if they outrage the other side.

But comforting tall tales can be dangers, as Michael Crowley notes here:

When an outbreak of the Ebola virus touched the United States’ shores in mid-2014, Donald J. Trump was still a private citizen. But he had strong opinions about how America should act.

Mr. Trump, who has spoken openly about his phobia of germs, closely followed the epidemic, and offered angry commentary about what he said was the Obama administration’s dangerous response. He demanded draconian measures like canceling flights, forcing quarantines and even denying the return of American medical workers who had contracted the disease in Africa.

“Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days – now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!” Mr. Trump tweeted on that July 31 after learning that one American medical worker would be evacuated to Atlanta from Liberia. “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back,” Mr. Trump wrote the next day, adding: “People that go to faraway places to help out are great – but must suffer the consequences!”

In nearly 50 tweets, as well as in appearances on Fox News and other networks, Mr. Trump supported flight bans and strict quarantines and branded President Barack Obama’s deployment of troops to West Africa to fight the disease as “morally unfair.”

That’s because Ebola wasn’t our problem. Why spend money our money on “those” people? That was morally unfair. But nothing is that simple:

Many health experts called Mr. Trump’s responses extreme, noting that the health workers would have most likely faced agonizing deaths had they not been evacuated to American hospitals. Former Obama administration officials said his commentary stoked alarmism in the news media and spread fear among the public.

Now Mr. Trump confronts another epidemic in the form of the coronavirus, this time at the head of the country’s health care and national security agencies. The illness has infected few people in the United States, but health officials fear it could soon spread more widely. And while Mr. Trump has so far kept his distance from the issue, public health experts worry that his extreme fear of germs, disdain for scientific and bureaucratic expertise and suspicion of foreigners could be a dangerous mix, should he wind up overseeing a severe outbreak at home.

“Having a head of state that is trusted, who is a credible message deliverer, consistent in communications and consistent with evidence, is absolutely necessary,” said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “There’s so much misinformation out there, so a central role is for a leader to be a go-to source for credible information.”

Perhaps so, but there’s always delegation:

At the end of January, Mr. Trump created a 12-member coronavirus task force, which will be managed by the National Security Council.

That’s it? That’s it. But there was this:

In many of his remarks he has made, Mr. Trump has praised President Xi Jinping of China, even though his government has been widely criticized for a clumsy and initially secretive response to the coronavirus, and made some questionable announcements.

“They’re working really hard, and I think they’re doing a very professional job,” Mr. Trump said on Friday.

Speaking to a meeting of the nation’s governors on Monday, he predicted that the virus will have run its course by spring and again referred to the Chinese president.

“The virus that we’re talking about having to do, a lot of people think that goes away in April, with the heat, as the heat comes in, typically that will go away in April,” Mr. Trump said. Referring to the United States, he added: “We’re in great shape, though. We have 12 cases, 11 cases, and many of them are in good shape now.”

“I had a long talk with President Xi two nights ago,” he added. “He feels very confident. He feels that again, as I mentioned, by April or during the month of April, the heat generally speaking kills this kind of virus. So that would be a good thing.”

Well, he’s the expert, first on hurricanes and now on this, or not:

Public health experts questioned the speculative nature of his comments. “I think there is a lot we still don’t know about this virus, and I’m not sure we can say definitively that it will dissipate with warmer weather,” said Dr. Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University.

“Relying on the fact that it’s going to warm up in April as reassurance that the virus will be controlled by then I think is arguable,” added Dr. James M. Hughes, a professor emeritus of medicine at Emory University.

That’s a diplomatic way of saying that the president don’t know Jack about any of this, but he is who he is:

Another factor is Mr. Trump’s lifelong obsession with personal hygiene. While he has shown little interest in health or science policy, he has often spoken of his extreme revulsion to germs.

In his 2004 book, “How to Get Rich,” the president declared himself “very much of a germaphobe,” and wrote that he was “waging a personal crusade to replace the mandatory and unsanitary handshake with the Japanese custom of bowing.”

As a result, Mr. Trump generally avoids the political tradition of shaking dozens of hands after his speeches and rallies, and frequently uses hand sanitizer. He is quick to banish aides who cough and sneeze in his presence.

Okay, fine, but that doesn’t explain this:

The Trump administration is eyeing steep cuts to global health funds in its 2021 budget proposal, slashing more than $3 billion in overall programs, including half of its annual funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the fight against the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

Lawmakers from the House and Senate appropriations committees pressed officials from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) at a briefing on Feb. 7 previewing the budget to explain why it made sense to scale back spending at a time when the world is facing the threat of a deadly virus in China that has spread in limited numbers to other countries around the world, according to congressional aides familiar with the matter.

They didn’t get much of an answer:

Senior administration officials said they were allocating new resources, including an additional $15 million for the USAID Global Health Security Program, to fight the coronavirus, as government officials worked around the clock to evacuate American citizens from the region of China hit by the deadly outbreak. The budget proposal also includes a request for $25 million for a so-called Emergency Reserve Fund which, according to a State Department spokesperson, “can be quickly deployed to respond to pandemic outbreaks.”

“The budget protects against infectious disease threats at home and abroad, by bolstering country capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks and to prevent epidemics from reaching our borders,” Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun told reporters at a briefing on Monday…

The administration’s budget also includes steep cuts to fighting some of the world’s deadliest diseases. It proposes a 58 percent cut to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, down to $658 million from $1.56 billion allocated in 2020.

“We’ve been down this road before,” said one Senate aide, noting that the White House has been trying unsuccessfully for three years to impose steep cuts in global health programs that Congress supports. “They don’t seem to learn anything.”

The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said officials from the State Department and USAID were asked at the briefing to explain how they could, on the one hand, say their budget “asserts moral leadership through global health and humanitarian assistance” when in reality it cuts funding for both. The response, the aide said, was “essentially silence. There was no substantive explanation, but everyone knows they are simply carrying out the orders of the White House.”

“We said, ‘Of all things to be doing in the midst of a global pandemic, you’re cutting funds for global health,'” the aide added. “Their response was: ‘We did what we could with the funds we were told we could spend.'”

And of course the base must be fed its comfort-food to keep them happy. Everyone out there in the world is out to get us. Everyone out there in the world will be punished for that. It’s time they felt some real pain. That was the message with this fantasy budget. Troll the Democrats and let everyone else know you’re on their side, the oppressed little guy. That oppressed little guy is going to slit some throats now, or at least dream of that. Tall tales help him dream.

David Brooks, however, saw something different in Trump’s state of the union address:

Trump has cleverly reframed the election. I can see why Nancy Pelosi ripped up his State of the Union speech. It was the most effective speech of the Trump presidency. In 2016, Trump ran a dark, fear-driven “American carnage” campaign. His 2016 convention speech was all about crime, violence and menace. The theme of this week’s speech was mostly upbeat “Morning in America.”

I don’t know if he can keep this tone, because unlike Ronald Reagan, he’s not an optimistic, generous person. But if he can, and he can keep his ideology anodyne, this message can resonate even with people who don’t like him.

Perhaps so, but Kevin Drum hears only a slight modification to the original tall tale:

This is nothing surprising. All along, Trump’s obvious strategy has been to declare victory and go home. That is, no matter what the reality is, simply claim over and over that things have turned around during his three years as president and America is now great again. The economy is the best it’s ever been. Our military is stronger than ever. We are respected again around the world. No one takes advantage of us on trade anymore. NATO is paying up. It’s okay to say “Merry Christmas” again…

Can Trump keep this up? Of course he can. That’s because nothing is changing. Trump’s theme is and always has been that things are terrible when he’s not in charge and great when he is in charge. We’re now just seeing the second half of this.

We’re now just hearing the second half of the original tall tale, which, as Drum notes, was nonsense:

The economy is about the same as it was during Obama’s final years. The military is also about the same. Most of our allies think we’ve gone nuts and are just holding their collective breath until we come to our senses and elect a normal person as president. We’ve made no significant progress on trade, and what progress we have made is all stuff we could have had immediately if Trump hadn’t blown up TPP on his third day in office. NATO started paying up when Obama was president. It was always okay to say Merry Christmas.

But there’s no comfort in that. That’s why there are tall tales. That’s why there’s politics, so of course everyone should feel comforted and comfortable now.

They don’t? That’s odd.

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