The Year Justice Caught Up With Trumpworld

In 2018, impunity came to an end.

Ever since the 2016 election, it’s been common for some people to refer to whatever year we’re in as a synonym for dystopian weirdness. (Last year, for example, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted “Peak 2017” about a headline saying, “US ambassador denies own comments, then denies denial.”) The world has felt continuously off-kilter, like a TV drama whose writers developed a sudden fondness for psilocybin. Last month astronomers at Harvard wrote that a strange oblong space object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” and it barely made a ripple in the news. There was simply too much else going on.

Amid this ceaseless barrage, things many of us have taken for granted have been called into question, including the endurance of liberal democracy, the political salience of truth and the assumption that it would be a big scandal if a president were caught directing illegal payoffs to a pornographic film actress. Often it feels like in American politics, none of the old rules still apply.

.. But in 2018, they did. (At least some of them.) Alien probes aside, this was a year in which things started to make sense again. The Democratic landslide in the midterms proved that the laws of political gravity haven’t been suspended; Trump’s incompetence, venality and boorishness had electoral consequences. Further, it was a year of justice and accountability for at least some of those who foisted this administration on the country. An awful menagerie of lowlifes was swept into power by Trump’s victory two years ago. In 2018, at least some of them started to fall back out again.

.. At the beginning of 2018,

  • Michael Cohen was still Trump’s loyal personal lawyer.
  • Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sleeping in his own bed at night.
  • Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy, had not yet made a plea deal with Robert Mueller, the special counsel.
  • Mueller’s investigation hadn’t yet sent anyone to prison.
  • The Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about work he’d done with Gates for the former Ukrainian president, became the first, in May.
  • He was followed by Richard Pinedo, seller of fake IDs and fraudulent bank accounts,
  • and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.

When this year began,

  • Scott Pruitt was still indulging in spectacular corruption as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Omarosa Manigault Newman had just been fired from her senior administration job and had not yet revealed her stash of secret recordings.
  • Rob Porter, who has been accused of abuse by two ex-wives, was still White House staff secretary.
  • David Sorensen, accused of abuse by one ex-wife, was still a White House speechwriter.

At the start of 2018, the

  • casino mogul Steve Wynn was the Republican National Committee’s national finance chairman. He resigned after The Wall Street Journal reported that he’d been accused of committing multiple acts of sexual harassment and assault. (Wynn denied assaulting anyone.)
  • Elliott Broidy, owner of a private security company, was an R.N.C. deputy national finance chairman. He resigned after The Journal reported that he’d paid hush money to a former Playboy model who said she’d had an abortion after he got her pregnant.
  • (Cohen was also a deputy chairman; he resigned in June.)

As this year began,

  • Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign head and chief White House strategist, whose sympathy for white nationalists did so much damage in so little time, was still running Breitbart News. He’d not yet burned his bridges to Trumpworld with his comments in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” which was published in January. Since then, Bannon has lost considerable pull. He most recently made headlines after he was scheduled to speak at a conference on sex robots; a backlash to his invitation led to the conference being postponed.

In January,

  • McClatchy reported that the F.B.I. was investigating whether Russia funneled money through the National Rifle Association to aid the Trump campaign. Throughout the year, as evidence of sketchy connections between the N.R.A. and Russia kept emerging, many on the right poo-pooed it. (“This attempt to turn the N.R.A. into another cog in the Russian conspiracy is laughable, but the mainstream media apparently still find it deeply compelling,” wrote Breitbart editor Joel Pollak in March.)
  • On Thursday, Maria Butina, a Russian who’d nurtured ties to N.R.A. leadership and to Trumpworld, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. The plea described how, after arranging a junket to Moscow for a “Gun Rights Organization,” she wrote a message to her handler that was translated as, “We should allow them to express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”

Pruitt unveils controversial ‘transparency’ rule limiting what research

Apr 24, 2018 – Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt listens to President … Scott Pruitt moved Tuesday to limit what science can be used in writing … The proposed rule would only allow the EPA to consider studies where the …

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-favor-transparency-but-say-epa-plan-will-limit-it/

E.P.A. Aide Questioned Deleting Sensitive Meeting Details. Then She Was Fired.

Last summer one of his senior schedulers, Madeline G. Morris, was fired by Mr. Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff, Kevin Chmielewski, who said he let her go because she was questioning the practice of retroactively deleting meetings from the calendar. Mr. Chmielewski has emerged as a harsh critic of Mr. Pruitt after a bitter falling out that led to his departure from the agency as well.

.. Madeline G. Morris, was fired by Mr. Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff, Kevin Chmielewski, who said he let her go because she was questioning the practice of retroactively deleting meetings from the calendar.

..  One case involved the deletion of several of Mr. Pruitt’s meetings during a spring 2017 trip to Rome, including one with a controversial cardinal then under investigation for sexual assault.

.. The E.P.A. acknowledged in a series of legal memos last year that it did in fact direct an agency scheduler — although it did not name the person — to revise Mr. Pruitt’s daily calendar retroactively. The agency said it was doing so to remove errors that had been left in the electronic record after various events were canceled or happened differently than expected.

.. Ryan Jackson, Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff, dismissed Mr. Chmielewski’s criticism as a fabrication by a disgruntled former employee. “Whatever he’s telling you about altering calendars is not correct,”

.. Ms. Morris was called last July by two agency lawyers, who told her that the changes she was making to Mr. Pruitt’s schedule might be illegal, according to a person familiar with the conversation. The following month, Ms. Morris noticed that a number of changes had been made to the record of a trip Mr. Pruitt had taken to Italy. Ms. Morris questioned the legality of the changes to Mr. Chmielewski and Mr. Jackson, and a few days later was fired, he said.

.. In another potential violation of federal law, the E.P.A. continued to pay Ms. Morris for six weeks after she was fired from the agency.

.. In July 2017, according to Mr. Chmielewski, Ms. Morris was instructed by him and Mr. Jackson to retroactively delete some meetings Mr. Pruitt held with lobbyists and replace them with staff meetings in the calendar, which was maintained in Microsoft Outlook. He and other people familiar with the calendar also said Ms. Morris was asked not to enter some of Mr. Pruitt’s meetings on the official calendar.

.. Mr. Chmielewski cited an August 2017 meeting with billionaire Denver-based businessman Philip Anschutz, a prominent donor to Republican Senate candidates and owner of an energy company regulated by the agency. Mr. Pruitt’s calendar for that day, which was publicly released, does not include the meeting.

.. including a special tour of the necropolis below St. Peter’s Basilica — as well as one meeting with Cardinal George Pell, a prominent Vatican leader who was then being investigated on allegations of sexual abuse.

Senate confirms a former coal lobbyist as Scott Pruitt’s second-in-command at EPA

If embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt were to leave office, the reins of the agency could fall to a former Senate aide and coal mining lobbyist who was confirmed 53 to 45 Thursday afternoon to become second-in-command at the EPA.

Andrew Wheeler worked at the EPA more than two decades ago and later served as an adviser to Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), a high-profile critic of climate science who famously brought a snowball to the Senate floor as a prop. For the past nine years, Wheeler has been a lobbyist for a variety of companies, including Appalachian coal mining firm Murray Energy.

.. Wheeler, who works for the lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels, received $370,000 in fees last year from Murray Energy

.. Murray asked Perry to increase payments to coal and nuclear plants supplying electricity to the Midwest and Appalachia. Perry tried to implement such a plan, but independent electricity regulators rejected it.

 .. “It is critically important that the public understand Wheeler’s career as a lobbyist for some of the worst actors in the energy industry,” Keith Gaby, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an email this week. “Andrew Wheeler running EPA would go far beyond having an administrator overly influenced by lobbyists — the head of EPA would be an energy industry lobbyist.”
.. “The mission of the EPA is to protect human health and the environment, but Andrew Wheeler has dedicated his career to weakening environmental protections, serving as a lobbyist for numerous fossil fuel clients, including one of our country’s biggest polluters, Murray Energy
.. Karpinski pointed to a measure Inhofe co-sponsored known as the Clear Skies Act, which would have undermined the landmark Clean Air Act. Inhofe was a vocal critic of climate-change science, which he said was “the greatest hoax” ever foisted on U.S. citizens.

.. Wheeler spent four years as a career employee at the EPA under President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton before moving to the Hill.

.. Wheeler wrote a post on his personal Facebook account the day before Super Tuesday pleading with those considering voting for Trump to reconsider. In his six-point critique, Wheeler questioned Trump’s character, business acumen and viability as a general-election candidate. Trump was a “bully,” Wheeler wrote in the since-deleted Facebook post obtained by The Post. He said that Trump “hasn’t been that successful” in business and “has more baggage then all of the other Republican candidates combined.”

.. Wheeler added that Trump “has demonstrated through the debates and interviews that he doesn’t understand how the government works.”

.. But Wheeler has changed his tune.

“I was just looking at the debates and what I saw on the news, and I hadn’t focused on what he was saying,”

.. when I started looking into what he was saying and what his campaign and what his candidacy was about, I was fully on board.”

.. Three Democrats voted for Wheeler, all from coal states. They included Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.).

.. “Andrew Wheeler is Big Oil’s backup plan in case Scott Pruitt’s corruption finally finishes him,”

What If President Donald Trump Tries to Fire Robert Mueller?

Mr. Mueller was appointed not by Mr. Trump, but by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from involvement in any investigation related to the 2016 presidential race. That means Mr. Trump couldn’t fire Mr. Mueller himself, but would have to order Mr. Rosenstein to do so.

Mr. Rosenstein has expressed support for Mr. Mueller, and his associates expect him to resign rather than carry out such an order. If that happens, Mr. Trump could turn to the next Justice Department official in line, acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio, and then to Solicitor General Noel Francisco.

It isn’t known if either would heed an order to fire Mr. Mueller. If they refuse, Mr. Trump would have to go down the hierarchy at the Justice Department until he found an official willing to do so. In such a situation, the president could face a number of DOJ resignations—and the political fallout that would entail.

Something like this happened on Oct. 20, 1973, when President Richard Nixon ordered Justice Department officials to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned, as did his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. Solicitor General Robert Bork finally did as Mr. Nixon asked. That episode became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

.. Some legal experts have asked whether Mr. Trump might replace Mr. Sessions or Mr. Rosenstein with another official and order that person to fire Mr. Mueller.

Attorneys general and their deputies must be confirmed by the Senate. Someone who is temporarily “acting” in that position, without Senate confirmation, must come from an existing Justice Department job or a Senate-confirmed post elsewhere in the administration.

.. Mr. Trump could, in theory, install someone like Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general, as acting attorney general. Then, he could order Mr. Pruitt to fire Mr. Mueller. The political blowback from such a move, however, would likely be considerable.

Would Justice Department officials appoint another special counsel to replace Mr. Mueller?

Harsh public reaction to the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973 forced Mr. Nixon to allow DOJ officials to appoint a replacement. Leon Jaworski took that job and steadily pursued the investigation until the president was forced to resign.

.. There is no reason to think the Trump administration would appoint a new special counsel if Mr. Mueller were dismissed.

.. Prominent lawmakers of both parties, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), have expressed support for Mr. Mueller. Mr. Grassley’s committee holds confirmation hearings for Justice Department officials, so his views are especially important.

The Iowa senator has suggested he wouldn’t move to approve a replacement if Mr. Trump fires Mr. Sessions, and on Tuesday he told Fox Business that “it would be suicide for the president to want to talk about firing Mueller.”

.. In addition, even if Mr. Trump fires Mr. Mueller, he can’t fire the grand jury the special counsel is working with or the judge overseeing it. A judge could appoint another prosecutor to continue working with the grand jury.

The ‘Good Old Days’ of the Trump Presidency

you can’t have it both ways. You can argue that all of the chaos is part of Trump’s strategy. But you can’t cherry-pick the chaos you like and claim the media is making up the rest.

.. I’ve talked to people in the White House. I’ve talked to congressmen and senators off the record. And I’ve talked to far more people who’ve talked to such people. They all say that things behind the scenes in Trump World are nuttier than Mr. Peanut’s stool sample.

.. Just this week, the president’s body man was ejected from the White House on a freezing cold day, and he wasn’t even allowed to get his coat (presumably, he knows stuff — because he was instantly hired by the Trump reelection campaign).

Trump fired his secretary of State over Twitter.

Roll back the clock another week or two, and you have the sudden resignation of Hope Hicks and the revelation that Rob Porter couldn’t get a security clearance because of credible allegations that he was an abusive husband.

I can’t remember the last time Trump humiliated his attorney general, but it feels like we’re due. There was also some stuff about executing drug dealers and calling Chuck Todd a son of a b****. Oh, and there was that stuff about how trade wars are good.

..  Trump loves controversy but hates confrontation. That’s why he wants to force Sessions to quit

  • That’s why he fired James Comey while the FBI director was giving a speech in California, and it’s why he wanted to
  • fire Rex Tillerson while the secretary of State was in Africa.
  • .. when Democrats are in the room, Trump tells them he’d go for comprehensive immigration reform and preens about how he’d like to “take the guns first, go through due process second.”

.. Recently, people close to Mr. Trump say that he has begun to feel more confident that he understands the job of president. He is relying more on his own instincts, putting a premium on his personal chemistry with people and their willingness to acknowledge that his positions are ultimately administration policy, rather than on their résumé or qualifications for the job.

My friend and chicken-wing consultant Steve Hayes argues that Pompeo is in fact “the real Trump whisperer.” He reports:

“I’ve seen a dozen times when Pompeo has talked the president out of one of his crazy ideas,” says a senior administration official involved in the national security debates.

Let that sink in. It’s not quite as reassuring as it sounds. If Haberman is right, then even if Pompeo had success in the past constraining Trump, he might not be able to going forward, given how Trump is more inclined to let his freak flag fly.

.. One of the great divides on the right these days is over the question of whether the policy wins of the Trump administration occurred because of Trump or despite him.

With the possible exception of Ted Cruz, I don’t think any other Republican would have

  • moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem,
  • opened ANWR to drilling, or
  • pulled out of the Paris climate accords and
  • TPP (though I think the TPP move was a mistake).

Most of Trump’s policy successes, however, have been accomplished thanks to party and movement regulars in the administration and in Congress

  • Judicial appointments have been outsourced to the Federalist Society and Mitch McConnell, thank God.
  • Tax reform was Paul Ryan’s baby.

I am generally baffled when people say, “He’s gotten so much accomplished.” From where I sit, so much has been accomplished despite him.

He also gets “credit” for the fire sale of conservative credibility on countless conservative positions and arguments

.. The GOP’s tax-cut message did not have the salience Republicans hoped

.. Trump is increasingly toxic in normally Republican-friendly suburbs. His rallies may energize the GOP base — but they energize Democrats more.

.. Many of his preferred policies and most of his antics divide Republicans, while they unite Democrats.

.. Let’s also assume Mueller doesn’t find evidence of “collusion” that directly implicates Trump but that he does find enough to land Jared, Don Jr., and Michael Cohen in the dock. Paul Manafort is already looking at spending more than two centuries in jail.

What happens when

  • Democrats get subpoena power? What happens when
  • they start drafting articles of impeachment? What happens if
  • Mueller reveals that Trump isn’t really as rich as he claims and that
  • his business is mostly a Potemkin village of money-laundering condo sales? What happens
  • if Stormy Daniels — or the retinue of super-classy ladies reportedly looking to follow her lead — releases embarrassing pictures of the president?

How do you think unconstrained Hulk Trump reacts? Heck, how do you think the beleaguered skeleton crew at the White House behaves? Everyone is gonna lawyer up

Normal administrations are crippled by zealous investigatory committees; is it so crazy to think that Donald Trump might not show restraint?

Might he be tempted to give the Democrats the store to hold off investigations, impeachment, whatever? Everyone defends the Jerry Falwell Jr. caucus on the grounds that they have a “transactional” relationship with Trump. Well, what if other transactional opportunities take precedence?

..  in the next couple of years, a tsunami of tell-all books and more-in-sorrow-than-anger reputation-rehabilitating memoirs will probably come out.

.. “character is destiny.” And I’ve never been more confident that that destiny is coming, and it won’t be pretty.

 

The Trump Administration’s Undrained Swamp

Many executive officials seem okay with spending public money on personal expenses, but how would they react if Hillary Clinton were doing it?

.. But if ever there were a crew less suited to drain the swamp in Washington, the Trump team would have to be it.

.. Remember Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price? You may not, since his tenure was less than nine months long. But in that time, according to Politico, he ran up $400,000 in private-plane trips and $500,000 for military flights to Asia, Africa, and Europe.

.. There were also questions raised about his private investment in a company that stood to benefit from his public action.

.. Steven Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton jetted off to Kentucky last August on a government plane to (depending upon whom you believe): do Treasury business or view the solar eclipse.

.. The couple also apparently requested a military plane for their honeymoon trip to Europe.

.. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin also took his wife to Europe for a ten-day trip.

.. Environment Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, reports the Washington Post, is also being investigated for “at least four noncommercial and military flights

..  I find it hard to think of an EPA emergency that would require Scott Pruitt to fly on a military jet

.. the complicated web of loans and investments and connections Jared Kushner brought with him to the swamp

.. one of the reasons his security clearance was downgraded this week involved accepting loans from a private equity billionaire named Joshua Harris.