President Trump’s commutation of the prison sentence of his longtime confidante Roger Stone is wholly unsurprising. Indeed, given Trump’s repeated teasing of the matter over the life of the case against Stone, it would have been something of a surprise had he not intervened so that his felonious friend was spared time behind bars.
But the predictable nature of Trump’s action should not obscure its rank corruption. In fact, the predictability makes the commutation all the more corrupt, the capstone of an all-but-open attempt on the president’s part to obstruct justice in a self-protective fashion over a protracted period of time. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s actually not. Trump publicly encouraged Stone not to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation, he publicly dangled clemency as a reward for silence, and he has now delivered. The act is predictable precisely because the corrupt action is so naked.
In a normal world, this pattern of conduct would constitute an almost prototypical impeachable offense. But this is not a normal world. Congress is unlikely to bestir itself to do anything about what Trump has done—just as it has previously done nothing about the obstruction allegations detailed in the Mueller report. Indeed, in the midst of a presidential campaign, a second impeachment would surely be ill advised. The only remedy for this behavior, at least while Trump remains in office, has to lie in accountability in the context of Trump’s campaign for reelection.
That is why it is so important to understand the history that led to the Stone commutation, just how corrupt it is, and why the predictability of the president’s action actually inflames public outrage—not inures the public to what Trump has done here.
Roger Stone isn’t just Trump’s confidante or friend. According to newly unsealed material in the Mueller report, he’s also a person who had the power to reveal to investigators that Trump likely lied to Mueller—and to whom Trump publicly dangled rewards if Stone refused to provide Mueller with that information. Now, it seems, the president is making good on that promise.
When the report first became public in April 2019, it described how Stone reached out to WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign and represented himself to the Trump campaign as having inside information on upcoming releases of information damaging to Hillary Clinton. But a significant portion of the material on Stone was redacted because of ongoing criminal proceedings against him. Recently, however, following the guilty verdict against Stone, a court unsealed that hidden material thanks to litigation by BuzzFeed News and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The newly unredacted information—some but not all of which was revealed over the course of Stone’s trial, but some of which was not previously public—is highly revealing of Stone’s relationship with the president.
During the 2016 campaign, Mueller writes, Stone “made several attempts to contact WikiLeaks founder Assange, boasted of his access to Assange, and was in regular contact with Campaign officials about the releases that Assange made and was believed to be planning.” He spoke repeatedly about his connections to Assange, witnesses told Mueller, and his ability to find out what new releases of information WikiLeaks was planning. Crucially, the unredacted information includes testimony from multiple witnesses who described Stone’s conversations about upcoming WikiLeaks releases with high-level campaign officials—including Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort—and even Trump himself.
According to Manafort, Trump personally told the chairman that he should keep in touch with Stone about WikiLeaks. Another campaign official, Rick Gates, recalled an incident during the campaign in which Trump spoke by phone with Stone and then told Gates that, as Mueller paraphrases, “more releases of damaging information would be coming.” Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen told Mueller about overhearing a phone call in which Stone told Trump that “he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and in a couple of days WikiLeaks would release information.” Then, Mueller writes, once WikiLeaks began dumping material damaging to Clinton in July 2016, Trump “said to Cohen something to the effect of, ‘I guess Roger was right.’”
So Trump clearly knew about and encouraged Stone’s outreach to WikiLeaks, the unredacted report shows. Yet in written answers the president provided to Mueller’s office in the course of the special counsel’s investigation, Trump insisted that he did not recall “the specifics of any call [he] had” with Stone during the campaign or any discussions with Stone of WikiLeaks. And shortly after he submitted those answers, the unredacted report states, Trump began tweeting publicly in support of Stone—calling him “brave” and congratulating his “guts” for refusing to testify.
Trump’s tweets were always suspicious, to say the least. And his answers to Mueller seemed less than entirely credible even when the redacted report was first released. But the newly revealed text makes clear Mueller’s suspicions that Trump lied in his written answers—and then pushed Stone not to testify in order to prevent Mueller from discovering that lie. As Mueller put it dryly: “[T]he President’s conduct could also be viewed as reflecting his awareness that Stone could provide evidence that would run counter to the President’s denials and would link the President to Stone’s efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks.” The special counsel also writes that Trump’s tweets to Stone—along with his tweets criticizing Cohen, who was by then cooperating with investigators—“support the inference that the President intended to communicate a message that witnesses could be rewarded for refusing to provide testimony adverse to the President and disparaged if they chose to cooperate.”
Stone did, indeed, refuse to provide testimony adverse to Trump. And while his precise relationship to WikiLeaks and Assange was never fully explained, he stood trial for lies to Congress denying his efforts to contact WikiLeaks, and for intimidating another witness who could have contradicted those lies. As the judge in Stone’s case put it: “He was prosecuted for covering up for the President.”
Now, with Trump’s commutation, Stone has received the precise reward Trump dangled at the time his possible testimony was at issue.
“Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency,” the White House said Friday evening. In the White House’s telling, Stone was targeted by out-of-control Mueller prosecutors for mere “process” crimes when their “collusion delusion” fell apart. He was subject to needless humiliation in his arrest, and he did not get a fair trial. “[P]articularly in light of the egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial, the President has determined to commute his sentence. Roger Stone has already suffered greatly. He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”
Indeed he is. But the story may not be over.
“Time to put Roger Stone in the grand jury to find out what he knows about Trump but would not tell. Commutation can’t stop that,” tweeted Andrew Weissman, one of Mueller’s top prosecutors, following the president’s action.
That’s most unlikely while the Justice Department remains in the hands of Attorney General William Barr. But it’s far from unthinkable should Trump leave office in January. What’s more, the commutation means that the story Mueller tells about potential obstruction vis-a-vis Stone did not end with the activity described by the Mueller report. It is a continuing pattern of conduct up until the present day. That potentially makes it easier for a future Justice Department to revive at least one of the obstruction questions that Barr squelched when he closed the cases Mueller intentionally did not resolve. In addition to all the facts reported by Mueller, including facts that have been redacted until recently, Trump has now consummated the deal he dangled before Stone.
That’s something the Justice Department may want to examine anew—someday.
Former Mueller team member Assistant US Attorney Aaron Zelensky testifies to Congress about AG Bill Barr’s corrupt abuse of the criminal justice system. Barr and his lackey US Attorney Tim Shea direct the prosecutors on Roger Stone’s case to go easy on Stone because of Stone’s relationship with Donald Trump. Zelensky and the other Stone prosecutors resign from the case rather than take part in Barr and Shea’s unethical scheme.
Acquitted of impeachment charges, Trump goes after those who defied him.
- John Bolton,
- Joe Manchin,
- Adam Schiff,
- Hunter Biden,
- Doug Jones,
- Gordon Sondland,
- Alexander Vindman,
- Yevgeny Vindman,
- Mitt Romney,
- Nancy Pelosi,
- Chuck Schumer,
- Jerry Nadler,
- Debbie Dingell,
- New York air travelers,
- federal prosecutors,
- the F.B.I.
It’s been a mere week since Senate Republicans acquitted President Trump in his impeachment trial — assuring him once and for all that he needn’t fret about congressional accountability — but he has already made significant progress on his enemies list.
Members of Congress, administration officials, law enforcement officials, residents of blue states — anyone who has ever displeased Mr. Trump is a potential target. Heads may not wind up on literal pikes, but the president is already neck-deep into his reprisal tour.
The president’s targets can be sorted into multiple different categories, some better equipped than others to endure his wrath. Democratic senators such as Mr. Jones of Alabama and Mr. Manchin of West Virginia, both of whom have drawn Trumpian ire for their votes to convict the president, understand that politics is a blood sport. Ditto House members like Ms. Dingell, whom Mr. Trump randomly attacked again over the weekend, and Mr. Schiff, who was the point person on impeachment. These professionals know how to brush off — or brush back — the taunts.
After a particularly childish screed, in which Mr. Trump called Mr. Manchin “Joe Munchkin,” the West Virginia lawmaker returned fire Monday on CNN: “I guess he’s confused on that, because I am a little bigger than him. He’s got me about 30 pounds on weight. But I am a little taller than him.”
And the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, can certainly hold her own against a presidential tantrum.
Mr. Romney, the lone Republican to vote to convict Mr. Trump of abuse of power, is more exposed. It’s not just the president mocking him and denigrating his religious faith. The White House also blasted out nasty talking points for surrogates to disseminate. Title: “Romney (Once Again) Ditches Principles to Seek Far Left’s Adulation.”
That said, Mr. Romney is a former presidential combatant. He knows how to take a punch. He also isn’t up for re-election until 2024, plenty of time for all this to pass. In the meantime, he’ll enjoy some brand burnishing in non-Trump circles for having followed his conscience.
Mr. Trump is also grumpy with Mr. Bolton, the former national security adviser who, The Times reported, wrote in his forthcoming memoir that the president told him that there was a link between Ukraine aid and the announcement of investigations of Joe Biden and his son. In addition to calling Mr. Bolton a liar, Mr. Trump has sought to block the release of his book, and there is talk of stripping him of his security clearance.
But Mr. Bolton, too, is nobody’s victim. He is a seasoned Washington knife-fighter who played his own coy game with impeachment investigators.
It’s also hard to feel too sorry for Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union whom Mr. Trump fired last week. Mr. Sondland essentially bought his diplomatic post with fat donations to Mr. Trump’s inauguration. He changed his testimony mid-impeachment, rendering him a less than exemplary witness. He is, above all, a cautionary tale for those willing to sell their souls for power and prestige.
Far more troubling is the assault on not-so-political public servants, such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key impeachment witness. On Friday, Colonel Vindman was ousted from his post on the National Security Council.
Creepier still, the president also fired Colonel Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, a lawyer at the National Security Council who was not an impeachment witness. Such gratuitous score-settling carries a whiff of the Cosa Nostra, in which talking to the feds results in one’s family being targeted — in part to send a message to other potential rats.
Mr. Trump is making perfectly clear the high cost of questioning his questionable behavior or cooperating with Congress.
Also this week, federal prosecutors are back in the president’s cross hairs. On Monday, prosecutors recommended sentencing Roger Stone, Mr. Trump’s longtime political fixer who was convicted in November on charges stemming from Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian influence, to seven to nine years behind bars. This did not sit well with the president, who was up in the wee hours on Tuesday tweeting his displeasure. “Disgraceful!” he erupted shortly before 1 a.m. Not quite an hour later, he elaborated: “This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”
By Tuesday afternoon, the Justice Department had dutifully announced it would revisit the “grossly disproportionate” sentencing recommendation. All four prosecutors handling the case promptly withdrew.
Far from denying Operation Vengeance, the White House has been justifying it. In the run-up to the president’s acquittal address last Thursday, the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, assured Fox News viewers that he would be talking about “just how horribly he was treated and, you know, that maybe people should pay for that.”
Mr. Trump is now hard at work making that happen. And who’s to stop him?
Over his nearly three years in office, lawyers representing President Trump have made numerous legal arguments that, taken as a whole, would give the president sweeping immunity—even if he were to commit murder.
An extensive review of correspondence, court documents, legal opinions and public statements from lawyers representing Mr. Trump shows the president’s attorneys have consistently pushed to put him beyond the reach of any other institution in federal, state or local government—immune to civil lawsuits, judicial orders, criminal investigations or congressional probes.
Those arguments have become even more aggressive as Mr. Trump faces numerous legal threats, including a possible impeachment in Congress, a New York state prosecutor who has subpoenaed his tax records as part of a criminal probe and a welter of civil lawsuits.
One lawyer for the president recently went so far as to suggest that Mr. Trump could shoot someone on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and not be investigated by local authorities, echoing a statement the president made during his 2016 campaign in which he said he wouldn’t lose any voters over such an action.
“This administration has articulated a view of presidential power in which the president is above the law,” said Erica Newland, who served in the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel during both the Obama and Trump administrations.
Some positions that lawyers representing Mr. Trump, the White House or the Department of Justice have argued since January 2017 in court or in other legal documents:
- Mr. Trump is immune from criminal investigation while he remains in office, even if he were to shoot someone on the streets of Manhattan.
- Federal courts don’t have the authority to transmit grand jury material concerning presidential wrongdoing to Congress to consider impeachment.
- Close aides of the president are entitled to total immunity from testifying if subpoenaed by Congress.
- Administration officials don’t have to cooperate with an impeachment inquiry conducted by Congress even if subpoenaed.
- Many government ethics rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest, nepotism or self-dealing do not apply to Mr. Trump or other White House employees.
- Mr. Trump shouldn’t have to obey state or federal laws that could require the production of his tax returns, and he is immune from a subpoena from state prosecutors for those returns.
“If he can’t be held accountable via executive-branch law enforcement and he can’t be held accountable via congressional impeachment, then we really do have a king,” said Ms. Newland, now counsel at the bipartisan legal advocacy group Protect Democracy.
Lawyers representing the president either in his personal or institutional capacity have argued that
- law enforcement can’t investigate the president at all; that
- he can shut down investigations into himself or his associates; and that
- obstruction-of-justice laws don’t apply to the president.
At the same time, since Democrats took over Congress in January, Mr. Trump’s government and personal lawyers have fought numerous legal battles over congressional oversight—arguing that close aides don’t have to testify even if subpoenaed, that all congressional investigations must serve a “legislative purpose,” that cabinet secretaries can disobey subpoenas and that a congressional impeachment inquiry is invalid.
Further, they have argued that federal courts don’t have the authority to transmit any evidence of presidential wrongdoing obtained by a grand jury to Congress for possible consideration of impeachment. In some instances, Trump administration attorneys have contended that some executive decisions are unreviewable by the courts, or that courts have no right to issue orders stopping the president from taking official actions.
Some of the claims contradict each other: Mr. Trump’s personal attorneys have argued he can be held accountable only by Congress, while his White House lawyers fought efforts to hold him accountable in Congress.
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The White House, the Justice Department and an attorney representing Mr. Trump personally didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
To some extent, these positions reflect what all lawyers do: take aggressive, maximalist legal positions in the best interests of the client, and see if a court agrees. Lawyers for previous presidents—Democrats and Republicans—are no strangers to making similarly aggressive claims about powers, authority and immunities to defend the president personally or the long-term power and authority of the office.
But scholars who study the history of presidential power say what is different about the Trump administration is its unwillingness to acknowledge the legitimacy and interests of other institutions.
“Mr. Trump has taken the position that the [Constitution’s] Article II powers of the president give him absolute authority. What makes his case different is that he is not even recognizing the legitimacy of countervailing powers” such as Congress, said Mark Rozell, a dean at George Mason University who has studied presidential authority. “He is deeming them as politically motivated and not legitimate in their inquiries and therefore to be obstructed at every turn.”
The issue gets even more complicated in investigations like impeachment because overlapping legal teams are defending the president in both his capacity as an individual and his capacity as the president.
Government lawyers represent the presidency as an institution and are supposed to advance arguments to preserve the institutional powers of the president—but aren’t supposed to defend the president’s personal interests.
The Justice Department, the White House counsel and his personal legal team are all defending the president on a cornucopia of different lawsuits around the country.
John Yoo, a former Bush administration official known for his advocacy of expansive presidential power, said many of the most extreme legal positions taken by the Trump lawyers have come from his personal attorneys trying to defend him by invoking the powers of the presidency. He said that most of the positions the Justice Department, White House counsel and other government lawyers have taken are in line with previous practices.
“When it comes to where he’s making the arguments on behalf of the office of the presidency, in his official capacity, I think he’s gone just as far as other presidents have,” Mr. Yoo said. “In the areas where the president has been defending himself as an individual rather than the office, he has made arguments that have gone beyond what past presidents have set out.”
Mr. Yoo added: “I think that Trump has been under unprecedented assault—constitutionally, legally—from his critics too. I can see why his lawyers are bringing out these arguments which are usually reserved for times of real crisis.”
Mr. Trump isn’t the first to provoke a legal showdown over his powers and immunities. But rarely did the attorneys representing other presidents deny that other institutions also had legitimate interests.
Richard Nixon sparked a major legal battle over his refusal to turn over tapes of Oval Office conversations to prosecutors and Congress. But he also offered numerous compromises, such as turning over transcripts, because he and his attorneys recognized that Congress and prosecutors had legitimate interests in access to the materials as part of their inquiries.
During a yearslong independent counsel investigation and later impeachment, President Bill Clinton also fought numerous legal battles over his privileges and immunities, but frequently argued before courts that they needed to balance the interests of the presidency against the needs of Congress or law enforcement. Mr. Clinton, for instance, agreed to testify before a grand jury in exchange for independent prosecutor Ken Starr dropping a subpoena.
President George W. Bush fought back against a Democratic-led congressional investigation to keep his top aides from testifying about the firing of federal prosecutors for what critics said were political reasons, but offered a compromise by allowing voluntary interviews and turning over documents to Congress.
Few of those legal positions have ever been blessed by courts.
Last week, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney William Consovoy argued before a New York federal appeals court in the tax case that Mr. Trump couldn’t be investigated for any crime while in office. The judge asked if that included shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. “Nothing could be done?” he asked.
“That’s correct,” Mr. Consovoy said. That case is pending.
In another instance earlier this month, Justice Department lawyers argued that a court couldn’t give Congress evidence that was gathered by special counsel Robert Mueller if it was obtained using a grand jury—going so far as to say that a federal judge was wrong in 1974 to give Congress materials from the grand jury investigating the Watergate break-in.
“Wow, OK,” U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell said in response to that argument. “The department is taking extraordinary positions in this case.”
She ruled against the Justice Department last week, writing that her decision was motivated in part by the White House’s refusal to cooperate with congressional investigators.
The White House announced Monday it would appeal.
Former head of the Office of Legal Counsel Walter Dellinger tells Lawrence that there is already enough evidence to find that “the president obstructed justice in the worst of high crimes and misdemeanors.” Mimi Rocah also joins.
Three (provisional) reasons not to put the president on trial.
You could argue that the month of January has very modestly raised the odds that Donald Trump will not finish his term as president.
First, the government shutdown has demonstrated that Trump’s own incompetence suffices to cost him support in the polls and in the Senate — an indication that a larger crumbling of his political firewall might be possible.
Second, the indictment of Roger Stone, based on his lies to Congress about outreach to WikiLeaks, keeps open the possibility of future revelations of conspiracy implicating Trump himself.
Finally, there has been a burst of media interest in impeachment — an Atlantic cover story by Yoni Appelbaum prodding Democrats to take the plunge, and a more cautious essay by my colleague David Leonhardt putting the option on the table.
I’m open to these arguments; indeed, I have to be, since I’m on the record urging this president’s removal from office using the unusual remedy of the 25th Amendment. But there are several difficulties with the current briefs for impeachment, which suffice for now to keep a Pence presidency out of reach.
The first is the gulf between the democracy-subverting powers that the briefs ascribe to Trump and the actual extent of his influence. In Appelbaum’s essay, the president is charged with nothing less than having “trampled” on “the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.” But many of his examples feature Trump failing to actually trample anything. He “did his best” to enact a Muslim travel ban (the actual ban was limited and upheld by the Supreme Court), he has “called for” the firing of political enemies (with little discernible result), he has made “efforts” to impede the Mueller investigation (which continues apace), and so on down the list of outrages that exist primarily on his Twitter feed.
Much of the case for “trampling,” then, is a case against Trump’s rhetoric. And one can acknowledge that rhetoric’s evils while doubting that the ranting of a president so hemmed in, unpopular and weak is meaningfully threatening the Constitution.
..Especially because of the second problem with the case for impeachment, which might be summed up in a line from a poem that Trump often quoted in 2016: You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.Meaning, in this case, that little about his rhetorical excess, his penchant for lies and insults or the seaminess of his courtiers was hidden from voters on the campaign trail in 2016, in an election that by the Constitution’s standards Trump legitimately won.
The electorate’s foreknowledge of a politician’s sleaziness doesn’t preclude impeachment. But it means that there is, at least, a quantum of sleaze that the president’s supporters voted to accept. And the closer we get to a new election — including another primary campaign — the stronger the case for asking voters to retract that endorsement, instead of pre-empting their judgment from on high... Appelbaum, for instance, analogizes Trump’s race-baiting to Andrew Johnson’s efforts to impede Reconstruction in the late-1860s South. But when he was impeached, Johnson was literally using his veto to abet the possible restoration of white supremacy. Whereas Trump is conspicuously losing a fight over some modest border fencing, and his last race-inflected policy move was … a criminal justice reform supported by many African-Americans. The president may be a bigot, but the policy stakes do not remotely resemble 1868.
Then there are the geopolitical risks of Trump’s alleged Russian loyalties. After the Stone arrest, Appelbaum’s Atlantic colleague David Frum deemed these too severe to wait even for Robert Mueller’s verdict: “But now — now! — the country is in danger.”
But in the absence of Mueller-stamped evidence, what we have to prove that peril is Trump’s actual foreign policy, which is erratic but frequently quite unfriendly to Moscow — with the administration’s effort to subvert the Russian-aligned Maduro regime in Venezuela just this week’s example.
Which makes it entirely reasonable to wait to see whether Mueller vindicates the various uncorroborated scoops about a conspiracy hatched in Prague or the Ecuadorean Embassy, rather than trying to impeach Trump for, say, his private griping about NATO.
At the end of my invoke-the-25th-Amendment column I wrote, “There will be time to return again to world-weariness and cynicism as this agony drags on.” That was month four of this presidency; as we approach month 25 I suppose I have become that world-weary cynic.