Tag: Trump

The Importance of Intent: A Quick Note on the Barr Letter about the Mueller Report

Friday afternoon we learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had delivered his final report to Attorney General William Barr. Yesterday, the public got to see Barr’s interpretation of the report, marking the official end of the Special Counsel’s 24 month review.

To recap, Mueller was appointed to review three issues — whether Russia interfered with the 2016 election, if anyone in the Trump campaign acted in coordination with that attempt to interfere with the election, and if the President obstructed justice with regard to either of the first two points.

The answer to the first question is clearly “yes”. As Mueller made clear in the major indictments out of his office, the Russians intentionally disrupted the 2016 campaign by stoking anti-Clinton and pro-Trump sentiment on social media. Russian actors also hacked into the DNC servers and worked to disseminate the results to the broader public in order to weaken Clinton.

The answer to the second question is “no” but has to be qualified. Because the coordination was to be specifically about the attempts to influence the election (as opposed to other avenues of coordination), there was insufficient evidence that the Trump campaign intended for the Russians to engage in election meddling. This is not to suggest that the campaign was morally upright: they seemed eager to take advantage of whatever the Russians had learned through their independent initiatives. As many commentators have noted, the Trump campaign never once contacted authorities to express concern about Russian outreach. But crimes of omission are notoriously difficult to address. One has to demonstrate a willful negligence, being fully aware of the harm that would result. That’s not to say that the Trump campaign/administration wasn’t attempting to coordinate. The efforts at backchannels and shifting stories about Trump Tower Moscow (or New York) suggest a willingness to take advantage of a Russian relationship, but not in ways that violate the law even if they violate operational norms.

Which brings us to obstruction. We all heard the president make his quip about Russia and the 30,000 e-mails. We also heard the interview with Lester Holt and the reference to “the Russia thing.” Why don’t those rise to the level of prosecution?

Barr’s letter quotes Mueller that the evidence on obstruction neither accuses the president nor exonerates him. I would suggest that this also is due to the challenge of intent. To prove obstruction in court, one would have to demonstrate that the president acted in particular ways that he knew would disrupt the ongoing investigation into the election interference.

Here is where I think Mueller ran into a wall. First, since 2016 Trump has been unwilling to accept the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered. Furthermore, the president’s twitter feed provides a shotgun effort to minimize anyone involved in the investigation with false claims of Deep State actors and insurance policies and illegal investigations (which he has repeated in the last 24 hours while claiming he trusts the results.) The big problem in demonstrating intent is that Trump has a long record (well established by journalists like Daniel Dale) of saying whatever he needs to say at the moment.

It appears that the guiding principle of the president is to protect his legitimacy and denounce his critics. But his comments, as we have seen, do not hold to measures of logical consistency. They are purely tactical statements based on his need to maintain image. So one day he can say that he fired Comey because of the Clinton investigation and the next day he can say it was because of Russia and the next he can say it’s because the FBI had lost confidence. It becomes impossible to draw a straight line between any one of these comments and subsequent actions.

This is all remarkably depressing because it worked. The president’s willingness to say whatever he needs to say without the shame he should feel for lying to the press and the public winds up undermining any legal attempt to hold him accountable for the messages he shares.

As Michael Cohen testified to the Oversight Committee, this “flexibility” makes the demonstration of intent challenging, if not impossible. If he didn’t mean what he said on any given occasion, there is no intent to obstruct.

Dear Democrats: We Really Need to Up Our Game

We’re halfway through 2017 and just over five months into the Trump presidency. I was recently looking back over some previous posts and saw this paragraph in my review of Michael Wear’s book right after the inauguration:

At some point, I’ll find enough perspective to write a reflection on the 2016 presidential election. For now, I’m just struggling with the uncertainty on a new administration where every day brings new questions and puzzles. It’s really hard for a policy wonk like me to figure out what’s likely to happen in the coming months. So many things are up in the air: health care, international trade, the Middle East, market stability, transparent government. And it’s only day three.

Five months later, I’m no closer to certainty about what’s going on. But I may be getting a little closer in thinking about what we Democrats might do going forward. Spoiler: it’s not what we seem to be doing at the moment.

During the presidential debates, I found myself thinking of Mohammed Ali’s “Rope a Dope” strategy from his fight with George Foreman. Ali let Foreman come at him and exposed Foreman’s weaknesses. After Foreman became fatigued, the fight was Ali’s. In the debates, it seemed as if Clinton would give Trump openings he couldn’t pass up. He’d make an outrageous remark about Taxes or Miss Universe and that would become the storyline raising doubts about Trump’s qualifications for the office.

Since the election, it has become clear to me that the Rope-a-Dope strategy went both ways. The more Trump stepped into (and seemingly embraced) the openings Clinton left for him, the more Clinton’s campaign became an anti-Trump campaign. It didn’t shore up support for HRC, didn’t encourage turnout, and didn’t present a positive policy agenda that would solidify wary Republicans who were put off by Trump.


Democrats are still being suckered by this strategy. We move from outrage to outrage based on the latest news cycle. We have to have something more that what SNL skewered as the “this is not normal” response. We have to raise our game.


Here are a few ideas that I’ve been pondering for Democrats to consider:

We need to focus more on policy solutions: While the Congressional Republicans established themselves as “the party of no” over the last eight years, simply saying no to Republicans isn’t a strategy. It is not enough to stop their proposals. We must spend our time laying out the alternatives. For example, if we want to address health insurance premium costs, we need to speak to issues of how we might do that (increased subsidies, enhanced mandates, incentivizing states who experiment on increased care) and not simply talk of the damage that the Senate bill will do (it’s a lot). Every party figure interviewed should discuss specific solutions as much as possible.

We need to speak to issues of morality: There have been a host of pieces lately about the Democrat’s supposed “religion problem” (see here, here, here, and here). In light of the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, it’s tempting to focus energies on young, urban, educated, secular voters. But that’s a mistake that cedes the high ground to others.There are real questions of Imago Dei (believing that all are created in God’s image) and they need to be addressed as such. Concern over criminal justice reform should be grounded in compassion for suspects, victims, and law enforcement. Protecting the legality of Roe v. Wade can be done by speaking to issues of family wellbeing and autonomy without name-calling toward pro-life groups. Issues of inequality can be couched in terms of long-term societal impact on children and not simply in terms of “the greed of the 1%”.

We need to be careful with statistical arguments: We have to know what the actual data says and respond accordingly. To not do so supports the “everyone has their own facts” claim. There is nothing wrong with saying that the Senate bill does not allow Medicaid expenditures to keep up with either inflation or increased enrollment. To call it “a cut” allows Republicans to make the narrowly correct argument that there is no cut. To point out that the crime rate is falling requires us to also acknowledge the impact a small number of cities are having on an increased murder rate.  Similarly, saying that the crime rate for immigrants is lower than that for citizens needs to show that we recognize that any crime (immigrant or citizen) is something of concern.

We need to let the “the Russia-Trump-thing” run its course: MSNBC recently rebroadcast a 2013 special they had done on “All The President’s Men”. Narrated by Robert Redford, it told the Watergate story through movie clips, news reports, and interviews. It was very good but reminded me how slowly the investigations moved in 1973-74. Today we have social media and diversified broadcast channels but the actual investigation is not likely to move a lot faster than it did 40 years ago. We have to stop talking about Impeachment and looking for Smoking Guns. Even after Alexander Butterfield testified about the Watergate Tapes, it took months of court wrangling before Nixon felt pressure.  The Russia investigation makes for entertaining parlor chat but won’t come to anything until Mueller finishes. We have to stop looking like we’re hoping for a breakthrough. It would be a constitutional crisis that should sadden everyone regardless of party affiliation. To celebrate too soon (or at all) simply feeds the “witch-hunt” narrative.

We need to pay attention to demographics but carefully: While it is true that Jon Ossoff came close to winning a highly Republican district in the recent special election, it was always unlikely that he would do so: it was a heavily Republican district. Every election is not a national referendum and all districts are not the same. Furthermore,  demographics change slowly and there is variance within demographic groups. One of the challenges to November’s election forecasting was that many people were looking at Clinton’s popularity among certain demographic groups and assuming that because those groups were growing, she had an undeniable advantage. But those groups didn’t vote in accordance with their population percentage and some of them voted for Trump. Shifting demographics are important, as Robert Jones has pointed out, but that also created a pro-Trump backlash. In part, “Make America Great Again”, was a nostalgic call for a time before these demographic shifts. (It’s worth noting that while the Alt-right shares those concerns it didn’t make Trump supporters sympathetic with Richard Spencer.)

We need to be proactive not reactive: When something flies across the twitter feed, we need to resist the temptation to react. There are legitimate issues to address. Far better to work on issues of harrassment in general than to worry about Mika Brezynski. We can work toward an improved refugee vetting process and not simply react to the latest decision on the Muslim Ban. We can work toward adequate protections of religious freedom for all while also supporting non-discrimination of LGBT populations instead of freaking out about the Missouri Lutheran Church decision. These are legitimate initiatives that Democrats need to be thinking about, not because they represent interest groups whose votes we want but because these are issues we need to address.

We need to articulate a positive future: Last weekend I led a book group discussion of Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer prize winning book Evicted (my review is here). As my wife pointed out, it’s one of the most depressing books we’ve read in a long time. I told the group that the argument is similar to what Robert Putnam raises in Our Kids. There are very real issues confronting our society. Many of these were intentional policy decisions. Others are the unintended consequences of benign neglect. In any case, we are confronted with the reality that we need to find a better life for the children imbedded in all the statistics. Putnam (and others) argues that all these children are “our kids” and we will be concerned for their future either now and when they are adults. We need to articulate a future where their life chances aren’t completely determined by where and how they were born.


There are likely more ideas you could add to these seven. I encourage you to add them in the comments section.

For me, I’m going to try to put these ideas into practice in my local conversations and on my social media feeds. If more of us do this instead of reacting to the outrage-du-jour, maybe we’ll have some better conversations as we look toward November of 2018.