Did Trump Engage in Bribery? And Why No Bribery Article of Impeachment?

I contributed to this Vox round-up of “legal experts” on the bribery charges in the House report. Six out of seven of us “legal experts” agree Trump’s conduct was bribery. And the seventh, Keith Whittington, offered some wise reasons to be more caution, but still finds it “an abuse of power.” I explain why the House Dems wisely didn’t cite a bribery felony in the articles, but then did in its report. (On the day the call summary was released, I explained here why the call itself — “I would like you to do us a favor though.” — made a probable case of bribery.)

The House Judiciary presents a solid case that Trump’s conduct constituted bribery. I would add this observation: Many people were puzzled by why the first article of impeachment was titled “Abuse of Power,” and not “Bribery,” did not cite the federal bribery statute, and did not allege bribery explicitly, even as the article deliberately laid out each element of federal bribery. I’ll offer my explanation why this was wise as a matter of constitutional law and governance.

The committee report spends six pages (p. 120-126) going step by step through the bribery statute: an exchange of a “thing of value” for “an official act” for “corrupt” purposes. As the “thing of value,” The report wisely highlights that Trump was seeking merely “announcement” of an investigation into the Bidens, because it shows Trump was not sincerely interested in a real investigation, and an announcement would usually be counterproductive for starting a background investigation under the radar, to prevent tipping off witnesses to start coordinating their stories.

A mere announcement benefited Trump’s campaign, and that’s one piece of evidence among many of “corrupt” intent. And the report offers a thorough explanation for why the arms and an official White House visit are official acts. The report rebuts the Trump defenders’ argument that an official White House visit is not an “official act” under Supreme Court precedent.

So why not spell out this felony in the article of impeachment? The House Judiciary Committee was making a crucial point now and as a clear precedent for future federal officials: high crimes and misdemeanors do not require a statutory felony. They are more fundamentally about the officer’s abuse of power. This argument notably can cut the other way. If a president cheated on his or her taxes many years before taking office, that would be a felony but probably not a “high crime or misdemeanor” in these terms of “abuse of power.” He or she may have used his office to cover up these crimes, but that abuse would be the impeachment trigger, not the past crime.

The report quotes the conclusion from our historical study (with Andrew Kent and Ethan Leib) of “faithful execution”: The Constitution’s “faithful” language imposes a duty on Presidents “to exercise their power only when it is motivated in the public interest rather than in their private self-interest.” There are many ways for presidents to self-deal and betray the public interest without committing a felony. The Judiciary Committee wisely made this point in the articles and in its reports, while also bolstering its case with a thorough explanation of several felonies including bribery, too.

A Deal Between Devils: Racism, Corruption, and the “Authentic Appeal of the Flagrant Lying Demagogues

Our era is a case study of how racism leads to authoritarianism.
Racism is the easiest quid pro quo between crook-demagogues and a racist base: The crook offers a racist agenda in return for carte-blanche for any crimes, election rigging & corruption. The deal between devils.
I know this may sound obvious. But this deal between devils helps us understand this week, when so many Republicans in Congress were so shameless in making statements that both they and their constituents know to be false. I’ve been thinking about this paper by Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, Oliver
Hahl, and Minjae Kim all week:

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Here’s their huge question:
Why would a constituency of voters find a candidate “authentic” even though they know he is a “lying demagogue” (tells lies and appeals to bias/private prejudices)?
And here’s their big answer:
For voters who want to dramatically change norms and upend the establishment political system, lying is a feature, not a bug.
(1) “Common-knowledge” lies are flagrant violations of norms; and
(2) when a system is suffering from a “crisis of legitimacy” for a constituency, that constituency is motivated to see a flagrant violator as its authentic champion.
The constituency who sees a system as illegitimate wants a leader who will blow up those illegitimate norms. That constituency will see a leader who shares their values and also flagrantly lies as a more authentic norms-shredder.
The more willing that leader is to lie about basic facts for the cause, the more sincere that leader is willing to fight for their anti-establishment cause. Lying about basic facts signals a deeper commitment to the bigger agenda: blowing up an illegitimate system: Draining swamps. Building walls. #MAGA.
A racist base more than just tolerates lying. They reward it. The lies are signals of the leader’s commitment to overturning an “illegitimate” system (and fighting that system’s elites). As some leaders are rewarded for lying (Trump), others learn to follow.

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Shocked by just how far Lindsey Graham, Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan, John Ratcliffe, Elise Stefanik, Sen. John Kennedy, etc., would go to flagrantly lie?
They’ve learned not only that there is no cost to lying… They see huge rewards with their racist base. It’s a signal they authentically fight their fight.
Historical notes:
Highly recommended reading: Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, on the Nazis and Stalinist Soviets.
Some authoritarian regimes are more racist than others. The Italian Fascists were not as murderously racist as the Nazis, but racism played a signficant role in Mussolini’s rise and consolidation of power. Throughout the 1920s, Mussolini made racist claims about the global threat from non-whites to whites, and he dehumanized Slavs, Slovenes, and Croats. Before the outbreak of war, Mussolini endorsed the “Manifesto on Race,” which stated: “It is time that Italians proclaim themselves to be openly racist.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat shows that anti-Semitism did not play a major role in Mussolini’s rise. Only after the Axis pact with Hitler did Mussolini openly champion anti-Semitism.

In 1919, Mussolini asserted that 80% of the Soviet leaders were Jews, and absurdly that Jewish bankers in London and New York City supported the rise of the Soviets. (See the flagrantly absurd lie as signal of authentic championing?) But these claims met with backlash among other Fascists, and Mussolini backed off. 

 

Racism played a significant role in Japanese imperialism, authoritarianism, and the build-up to World War II.

More reading:

Mark Neocleous, Fascism (1997), Aaron Gillette. Racial Theories in Fascist Italy (2002).

Barr doesn’t just believe in extreme executive power. He desperately depends upon it.

My new piece in Slate:

…Barr warned, a “wrong-headed and atavistic” focus on legislative and judicial oversight has “smothered” the president’s traditional and proper authority. It is telling—and perhaps most significant—that Barr was particularly worried about subpoenas and oversight…

…When Barr argues for a maximalist, unaccountable unitary executive, he is not simply articulating a matter of theory or principle—he is defending himself from an investigation into his own work, especially his direct involvement in the Ukraine bribery-and-extortion plot.

In the July 25 call records with President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump mentioned Barr five times, usually in tandem with Rudy Giuliani, as a key player in the president’s apparent bribery and extortion conspiracy. One particularly chilling passage: “Well, [Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch is] going to go through some things. I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it.”

Barr’s own potential criminal jeopardy deepens with each day of new testimony. The criticisms of his handling of the Mueller report—that the attorney general was acting as the president’s personal lawyer—were prelude, and mild compared to the allegations now. The powers and protections he claims for Trump, in the name of skewed history and partisan analysis, are the powers and protections he needs to justify his own actions.

To attack the speech as a speech is to grant Barr the terms he would prefer. Barr’s words and theories are intellectually dishonest and inappropriate for any federal official, but the problem isn’t merely that his political self-expression is disagreeable. It’s that his remarks are the defensive tactics of an unindicted co-conspirator desperate for attention and clinging to power.

And so, as a politician in a political struggle, he sought to rally a gathering of his allies around their shared partisan mythology, or victimology. He is a criminal suspect, Trump’s fixer and enforcer, cloaking himself as both savior and martyr. Even though he probably sincerely believes in this Manichean culture war, he seems to have chosen the time, place, and vituperative manner to provoke an attack from “the Resistance” and “secularists” on his religio-political ideas. He is not only trying to distract. He also setting a trap to shift the debate from his alleged criminal involvement to his culture war terms.

But this trap can be flipped against him by emphasizing the speech’s legal content: His extreme-executive attack on congressional subpoenas clearly lines up with his conflict of interest as a likely criminal subject of those investigations…

More here.

Additional evidence of Barr’s involvement in the Whistleblower report here and here.

 

 

 

Sondland Implicates Pence in Felony Conspiracy.

Slate’s Trumpcast… “Impeachers: Endgame”

My @realTrumpcast conversation Impeachment Endgame (a strategy that must include state subpoenas and *indictments*) with the awesome IronWoman Captain Marvel Virginia Heffernan was fun and cathartic.
(I did say on the recording after her kind words, “Thanks! The feeling is so mutual,” but they edited it out!)
There were shout-outs to the Nationals! And we also call out Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance and NY AG Tish James for not doing their jobs.  More links to come…
Podcast link is here.

The President’s Lawyers Are Making a Dangerous Argument for Presidential Immunity (But it’s different from the argument everyone thinks they’re making)

My piece in the Atlantic:

For those following along on many major news sites on Wednesday, President Donald Trump’s lawyer William Consovoy apparently told federal judges that if a president shot people on Fifth Avenue, not only could he not be indicted, but he could not even be investigated.

This was not, in fact, what happened: Consovoy immediately apologized for creating this impression for the judges, clarifying that state officials might investigate, but could not subpoena, a sitting president. Consovoy was raising a valid concern about a “proliferation” of partisan state prosecutions burdening a president. While his argument for total immunity from state process went too far, he was making an important argument for federal jurisdiction to review state subpoenas of a president, which should be sufficient to prevent abuses.

But it was earlier in Consovoy’s answers—overlooked by the media and the judges themselves—that his arguments backed into a more practical and immediate danger…

[Further down in the piece…]

This brings us to my surprise when I realized that Consovoy and his lawyers quoted a blog post I had written on this question in their brief, on page 7: “All you need is one prosecutor, one trial judge, the barest amount of probable cause, and a supportive local constituency, and you can shut down a presidency.” Trump’s lawyers actually cut off the end of that sentence without providing the required ellipsis. My sentence ended, “You can shut down a presidency with a criminal trial or two or two dozen.” They misleadingly left out my distinction between indictment and trial. But even so, I was wrong 18 months ago when I also suggested a sitting president “generally” could not be indicted absent a clear and present danger. It seemed like the Department of Justice was functioning under pressure. I was naive. A year ago, I retracted after more research on statutes of limitations.

 

The President’s Removal Powers and Faithful Execution

The DOJ has asked SCOTUS to give the president unprecedented powers to fire independent agency heads (like the heads of the Fed, the CFPB, the Federal Trade Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission…).
But in the New York Times, Ethan Leib & I argue that the Constitution’s presidential duty of faithful execution empowers Congress to guard against presidential bad faith….