Getting old is a bother. Health is always an issue. Pause. Catch your breath. But the world races on anyway. And five days later everything has gotten more absurd, in that Camus sort of way – none of it was ever going to make sense. Man’s search for external meaning is kind of stupid. Things just happen. Deal with them with decency and honor, and tell no lies, and accept no lies. And don’t rely on nonsense. But don’t expect meaning. Things just happen.
And things just keep getting more absurd. A few days pass and now it’s this nonsense:
In a series of legal maneuvers that have defied Congress, drawn rebukes from federal judges and tested the country’s foundational system of checks and balances, President Trump has made an expansive declaration of presidential immunity that would essentially place him beyond the reach of the law.
In courts and before Congress, Trump’s legal teams are simultaneously arguing two contradictory points: that the president can’t be investigated or indicted by prosecutors because Congress has the sole responsibility for holding presidents accountable, and that the House’s impeachment inquiry is an unconstitutional effort that the White House can ignore.
No one knew what to make of this – only Congress can investigate the president, and do what’s necessary with what they find, but that’s unconstitutional – all the president has to do is say that what they’re doing is unfair, and then they have to stop. This was a bit odd:
The broad legal effort escalated on Tuesday when the White House counsel sent a letter to House Democratic leaders dismissing Congress’s impeachment inquiry as “illegitimate” and stating that the entire executive branch would refuse to cooperate with it.
In his eight-page letter to Congress on Tuesday, White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone declared that “the President has a country to lead” and claimed that Congress’s attempts at oversight were overly partisan, lacked due process and ran afoul of constitutional principles.
Echoing Trump, Cipollone made several political points in his letter, accusing Democrats of trying to overturn the results of the 2016 election.
That’s the Washington Post’s account, but Kevin Drum has a better summary of that letter:
The House impeachment inquiry is not a real impeachment inquiry because no vote has been taken. But just in case you think you can get around this by taking a vote, forget it. The inquiry is also invalid because Democrats “have not established any procedures affording the President even the most basic protections demanded by due process under the Constitution and by fundamental fairness.”
The impeachment inquiry is nothing more than a “naked political strategy” to overturn the 2016 election. It’s totally invalid.
There’s no legitimate basis for the inquiry because President Trump’s call to the president of Ukraine was “completely appropriate” and everyone knows it.
Drum’s quick assessment:
Due process is for the impeachment trial, not the initial inquiry. The political motivation for impeachment is irrelevant. And the whole point of the inquiry is to establish whether Trump did anything wrong. The fact that Trump himself says he did nothing wrong is hardly conclusive evidence.
But this letter was plainly not written with legal arguments in mind. No lawyer would do anything but laugh at it. Rather, it’s aimed at Trump’s base and, especially, Fox News. It provides them with approved talking points going forward.
That’s what the Post reports:
Ilya Somin, a professor at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, joked in a Facebook post that the Trump administration’s legal reasoning made him wonder “whether the White House counsel was sick the day they taught law at law school.”
So this letter is about something else:
“What’s at stake is losing a position of power,” Somin said. “None of the rights the White House demands” are required by the Constitution.
But the problem is the Constitution:
Trump has long held an expansive view of executive power and has cited Article II of the Constitution, which defines the powers of the executive branch, as a catchall that gives him wide latitude.
“Article II allows me to do whatever I want,” Trump said in a June interview with ABC News.
Well, that was his experience:
The Justice Department has previously taken the position that sitting presidents cannot be criminally charged, a position that former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III said limited his options as he probed Trump’s conduct during a lengthy investigation.
So the two contradictory arguments continue:
Earlier this year, Trump’s private attorneys argued in court that the president is immune from criminal investigation – not just by federal prosecutors, but also local prosecutors. In two other cases seeking to block congressional investigations into his finances, Trump’s lawyers have argued that Congress should not investigate the president’s conduct, claiming that it is a job for prosecutors.
Judges in all three cases have rejected the president’s sweeping arguments as out of step with history and the Constitution.
But wait, there’s more:
“Wow,” Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell said in her courtroom Tuesday after a Justice Department lawyer argued that court rulings in 1974 allowing Congress to review materials from the Watergate grand jury should be viewed as invalid today.
The Justice Department said that the court should deny a House Judiciary Committee request for grand jury materials from Mueller’s investigation, despite the legal precedent set during the impeachment inquiry into President Richard M. Nixon.
“As I said, the department is taking extraordinary positions in this case,” Howell said.
Their argument was that United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974) was wrongly decided – the unanimous decision that “a claim of Presidential privilege as to materials subpoenaed for use in a criminal trial cannot override the needs of the judicial process” was stupid. Congress had no right to any evidence back then and it has no right to any evidence now. Judge Howell was stunned, and then she laughed.
But this was about Fox News:
Former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova turned to European history Tuesday night to describe the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Trump, calling their efforts “regicide,” the act of killing a king.
“What you’re seeing is regicide,” diGenova, a frequent Trump defender, told Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “This is regicide by another name, fake impeachment. The Democrats in the House want to destroy the president.”
But diGenova, a conspiracy theorist Trump wanted on his legal team during the Russia probe, wasn’t finished. In a lengthy interview on “The Ingraham Angle,” the lawyer, who was joined by Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, blasted the two anonymous whistleblowers as “suicide bombers” and accused Democrats of “sedition.”
So, Trump is The King. This is odd. And this was predictable. But the Washington Posts’ Philip Rucker and Robert Costa report that these people are now angry at their king:
President Trump’s decision to suddenly withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria has angered evangelical Christian leaders and Republican hawks – cleaving his political coalition at the very moment he is trying to fortify his standing to survive the intensifying impeachment inquiry in Congress.
Instead of enjoying uncontested GOP support as he plunges into a constitutional showdown with House Democrats and prepares for a bruising reelection campaign, Trump is now fighting on two fronts within his party.
The president simultaneously has been laboring to silence dissent over his conduct in pressing Ukraine to investigate a domestic political rival and over his Syria decision — a move critics blame for Wednesday’s Turkish offensive.
He did give Turkey permission to wipe out our Kurdish allies:
Turkey’s government launched a long-expected offensive into northeastern Syria on Wednesday, with airstrikes and shelling targeting Syrian Kurdish fighters who have played a central role in aiding the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State militant group.
The operation – with some ground forces crossing the border later – came just days after President Trump’s startling announcement that the United States would not stand in Turkey’s way, bringing sharp rebukes from even the president’s Republican allies.
The Turkish foray threatened to further fracture a war-shattered Syria as Ankara moved to create a “safe zone” after failing to agree on its size and nature during negotiations with the United States.
So they’ll do what they want anyway, and this will create real problems:
Turkey’s goal is to push back the Syrian Kurds – considered enemies by Turkey – from the border region. Turkey also claims the buffer region would be fit for the resettlement of millions of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey.
But aid agencies warned that the offensive could create a new humanitarian crisis, as well as a fresh wave of displaced people and refugees.
An even greater worry was the thousands of Islamic State prisoners and their families held by the Syrian Kurdish forces after the fall of the militant group’s self-declared caliphate. A security breakdown at the detention camps could open the way for the fighters and others to slip away.
In short, they want to send these millions of Syrian refugees back to where they belong and be rid of them, and if the Kurds have to go they have to go, and if that means ten thousand ISIS fighters are freed to do whatever they want and wherever they want, that’s not their problem because their problem is the Kurds:
Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists because of their links to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decade-long battle in southeastern Turkey for greater autonomy. Turkey has launched cross-border attacks on PKK bases in northern Iraq since the 1990s.
But these guys aren’t the PKK – there may be ten Kurdish factions. These guys are the Kurds who fight ISIS for us. They don’t want to carve up Turkey, not that any of that matters now. This is a mess and Rucker and Costa note that this is a mess for Trump:
While GOP lawmakers have been skittish about directly engaging the subject at the heart of the impeachment debate – the president’s conduct with his Ukrainian counterpart – many have felt free to loudly condemn Trump’s Syria decision, underscoring the fluidity within GOP ranks
Consider Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s most loyal defenders, whose Twitter feed has neatly illustrated this dynamic this week. In the span of 15 hours, he parroted Trump’s points by accusing House Democrats of “destroying” the Constitution with their impeachment proceedings and condemned the Trump administration for having “shamelessly abandoned” Kurdish allies. “This move ensures the reemergence of ISIS,” Graham added.
Or consider Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a member of her party’s leadership, who backed up the president last week by tweeting that the impeachment probe was “starting to seem like a political set up.” On Wednesday, she issued a scorching statement: “President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria is having sickening and predictable consequences.”
Yes, there’s the possibility of genocide. Russia is coordinating with Turkey on this. They have hundreds of thousands of troops in Syria, supporting Assad. A pincer movement of a Russian division heading up from the south would help the Turks – no more Kurds anywhere. And there’s that flood of new ISIS fighters. And the Kurds did trust us. Who will trust us now?
But who cares? The King said this:
President Trump defended his move to pull out of the Syrian conflict during a lengthy question-and-answer session with reporters at the White House on Wednesday. He argued that Americans had long tired of the “endless wars” overseas and that “eventually somebody was going to have to make the decision.”
So, none of this is our business, but the president was more specific than that:
President Trump said Wednesday that it would be “easy” for the United States to form new alliances if Syrian Kurds leave the fight against the Islamic State to fend off a Turkish attack, noting that “they didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us in Normandy” and were only interested in fighting for “their land.”
“With all of that being said, we like the Kurds,” he said in response to questions about Turkey’s incursion into Syria.
But then again, they didn’t land on the beaches of Normandy with us on June 6, 1944, so really, we owe them nothing at all. But then too, we’re not moral monsters:
In an earlier written statement, Trump urged Turkey to protect civilians and safeguard prisons where Islamic State fighters are being detained, saying the United States would hold its NATO ally responsible for the consequences of its decision to attack a key U.S. counterterrorism partner.
Calling the offensive “a bad idea,” he said in the statement that Turkey had promised to avert a humanitarian crisis and ensure its operation did not allow the Islamic State to regain strength.
In his impromptu news conference, Trump said he expected [Turkish President] Erdogan to conduct the offensive “in as humane a way as possible.”
“We’ll have to define that as we go along,” he said.
Erdogan will just have to guess at what Trump has in mind:
Earlier this week, Trump said he would “obliterate” the Turkish economy if Erdogan misbehaved, although he did not define what would constitute bad behavior. But he has largely dismissed the fight between Turkey and the Kurds as the result of “centuries” of hatred between them, indicating that the United States should not be involved.
That was a shrug – not his problem – not America’s problem – but not everyone agreed:
Behind the scenes, Defense Department and State Department officials have rushed to reassure other U.S. allies operating in Syria – principally France and Britain – that only a handful of U.S. troops were being moved and that the presence and mission of the total force of about 1,000 Americans in northern Syria would remain unchanged.
Trump may have to fire those Defense Department and State Department officials:
In written statements and his White House remarks, Trump linked his decision to withdraw U.S. forces to his goal of ending the insurgent wars that have dominated the U.S. military’s focus for two decades.
“The worst mistake the United States has ever made, in my opinion,” he said at the White House, “was going into” the Middle East. “We’re now acting as police,” he said, “doing jobs that other countries should be doing.”
This is America First! This is Not Our Problem! But then Fox News started running stories like this:
A member of U.S. Special Forces serving alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria told Fox News on Wednesday they were witnessing Turkish atrocities on the frontlines.
“I am ashamed for the first time in my career,” said the distraught soldier, who has been involved in the training of indigenous forces on multiple continents. The hardened service member is among the 1,000 or so U.S. troops who remain in Syria.
“Turkey is not doing what it agreed to. It’s horrible,” the military source on the ground said. “We met every single security agreement. The Kurds met every single agreement [with the Turks]. There was no threat to the Turks – none – from this side of the border.”
“This is insanity,” the concerned U.S. service member said.
Trump may have to call Rupert Murdoch and tell him that Fox News cannot run stories like this ever again, because this is damaging:
U.S. military officials told Fox News the president ordered the military not to get involved in the Turkish strikes, after the Kurds requested air support…
Troops on the ground in Syria and their commanders were “surprised” by Trump’s withdrawal decision Sunday night.
Of the president’s decision, the source said: “He doesn’t understand the problem. He doesn’t understand the repercussions of this. Erdogan is an Islamist, not a level-headed actor.”
“The Kurds are as close to Western thinking in the Middle East as anyone,” said the longtime member of Special Forces. “It’s a shame. We are just watching. It’s horrible.”
“This is not helping the ISIS fight,” the military source said…
“The Kurds are sticking by us,” the Special Forces source stressed to Fox News. “No other partner I have ever dealt with would stand by us.”
Fox News is committing regicide here, and with this second story:
President Trump “went off script” during his call on Sunday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, before he announced that the U.S. would withdraw all troops from northeast Syria ahead of a Turkish military operation in the region, a well-placed senior U.S. military source told Fox News on Wednesday.
During the phone call, Trump had talking points, according to the source: “Tell Erdogan to stay north of the border.”
“He went off script,” the source said…
What is likely to follow will look like “ethnic cleansing” by the Turks, according to the senior military source.
“I don’t know how many people will die. A lot of people will die,” the source said, adding they were “sick about it.”
This was absurd:
From a military perspective, an investment of 1,000 U.S. troops to keep stability in northern Syria was reasonable, the source maintained. “I can’t imagine where the anti-ISIS mission remains viable.”
While no decision has yet been made, the source said there are concerns about force protection and the inability of U.S. troops to continue their missions of partnering with the SDF to go after ISIS, meaning it could be all but certain the remaining 1,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawn.
And yes, this:
“I can’t see why you would leave U.S. forces there” now, according to the source, who also said no one would partner with the United States in the future.
“How do you get other partners? What would give them a reason to trust us?” the source said.
And then things got really strange:
In 2017, President Donald Trump reportedly pushed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to ask the Justice Department to drop its case against one of Rudy Giuliani’s clients.
According a Bloomberg report on Wednesday, Trump wanted the DOJ to terminate its criminal case against Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who was charged with evading U.S. sanctions against Iran.
At the time, Zarrab was represented by former U.S. General Attorney Michael Mukasey and Giuliani, a longtime friend of Trump’s (the President had not yet hired Giuliani to be his personal lawyer).
Tillerson reportedly rejected Trump’s request, and others in the meeting were “shocked,” per Bloomberg’s description.
Unnamed sources told Bloomberg that shortly after the meeting, Tillerson told then-Chief of Staff John Kelly about Trump’s request and how carrying it out would be illegal.
Zarrab had set up a money laundering scheme that allowed corporations and rich individuals to do any sort of business with Iran they wanted, in spite of all the international sanctions at the time – and Zarrab was a close friend of Erdogan – and Rudy was his lawyer – and Zarrab was about to go to prison forever, for setting up a way to keep our enemy, Iran, fat and happy. Trump wanted Rex to fix this. Erdogan was outraged and must have called Trump. Do something, damn it! A phone call from the State Department – drop all these charges – can’t tell you why because it’s secret – would do the trick. Tillerson would have none of that. Trump then fired him. Zarrab had to face the music. Erdogan is still pissed off about this.
What is going on here? William Saletan offers this timeline:
Turkey infiltrates the Trump campaign: On July 19, 2016, Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president. Six days later, a Turkish-Dutch businessman opened secret talks with Trump’s foreign policy adviser, Michael Flynn. The businessman’s goal, in collaboration with Turkish officials, was to build support in Washington for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish dissident living in Pennsylvania. On Aug. 9, Flynn signed a $600,000 contract to execute the lobbying operation. He was introduced to Turkish government ministers who supported it. For the rest of the presidential campaign, Flynn worked, in effect, as a Turkish agent.
Flynn spikes a plan to arm the Kurds: In December 2016, President Barack Obama decided to arm Kurdish forces – whom Erdogan regarded as enemies of Turkey – for an allied attack on the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa, Syria. Since Trump was the president-elect, Obama’s aides consulted Trump’s designated national security adviser, Flynn, about the plan. Flynn told them not to proceed. At this point, Flynn was no longer working for his Turkish clients, but they had paid him more than $500,000. A few days later, Flynn met for breakfast with Turkey’s foreign minister.
Flynn is exposed and Trump defends him: In February 2017, Flynn resigned for lying about secret talks with Russia. In March, he filed papers acknowledging his work as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkish interests. Instead of renouncing Flynn, Trump defended his talks with Russia, ignored his foreign-agent disclosure, and called him the victim of a “witch hunt.” When members of Congress condemned Flynn for hiding payments he had received from Turkey and Russia, Trump privately told Flynn to “stay strong.”
Trump congratulates Erdogan on rolling back democracy: On April 16, 2017, Erdogan won a referendum in Turkey to replace the country’s parliamentary system with broad executive powers. European leaders expressed concern, and election observers warned that Turkey was sinking deeper into authoritarianism. But Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him.
Trump accepts Turkish political violence in the United States: On May 16, 2017, Trump welcomed Erdogan to the White House. Afterward, as Erdogan watched from a car outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence, his bodyguards broke through an American police cordon and assaulted protesters. Video showed Erdogan conferring with his head of security just before the attack. Congress and the State Department denounced it, and a grand jury indicted 15 Turkish officers. But Trump said nothing. In private, he consoled Erdogan over the indictments, which were later dropped.
Trump presses the U.S. government to expel Gülen: On Oct. 17, 2018, Turkish officials asked the Trump administration to help them extract Gülen from the United States. The White House responded by ordering the FBI and the Justice Department to investigate grounds for extraditing him. The Justice Department told the White House that the grounds were insufficient and that no new evidence supported reopening the case. But that didn’t satisfy Trump. According to NBC News “Trump administration officials then asked for other options to legally remove” Gülen.
Trump sides with Erdogan against American generals: On Dec. 14, 2018, Erdogan spoke to Trump by phone about U.S. troops in Syria. Erdogan wanted them out of the way so he could attack the Kurds. American officials warned Trump that some U.S. troops should stay, since ISIS was still a guerilla force. But Erdogan made a counteroffer: In place of American troops and the advice Trump was getting from American generals, Turkey would take over. During the call, Trump shocked his advisers by accepting the offer. Defense Secretary James Mattis, dismayed by Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds, submitted his resignation. So did Brett McGurk, the American envoy to the coalition against ISIS. Trump responded by publicly deriding both men. On Dec. 23, Trump announced that he was accelerating Mattis’ departure. The president reported that he had just spoken with Erdogan and that Erdogan would be taking over the job of exterminating ISIS.
And now, Turkey, with Russia, has permission to wipe out our ally, because we’re leaving, and Trump will welcome Erdogan to the White House next month, with full honors. What? What does this all mean?
Who knows? Man’s search for external meaning is kind of stupid. But it might be time to impeach this guy.