Anyone else follow Heather Cox Richardson?

Either on FB or via email. I really like her. This is today’s post:

January 18, 2020 (Saturday)

Today the impeachment managers for the House of Representatives released their trial memorandum for Trump’s impeachment, getting underway Tuesday. Written in simple language, it begins, “President Donald J. Trump used his official powers to pressure a foreign government to interfere in a United States election for his personal political gain, and then attempted to cover up his scheme by obstructing Congress’s investigation into his misconduct.”

The managers explain: “The Constitution provides a remedy when the President commits such serious abuses of his office: impeachment and removal,” and points out that “the Senate must use that remedy now to safeguard the 2020 U.S. election, protect our constitutional form of government, and eliminate the threat that the President poses to America’s national security.” It lays out where we now stand: “The House adopted two Articles of Impeachment against President Trump: the first for abuse of power, and the second for obstruction of Congress. The evidence overwhelmingly establishes that he is guilty of both. The only remaining question is whether the members of the Senate will accept and carry out the responsibility placed on them by the Framers of our Constitution and their constitutional Oaths.”

In 111 pages, the document lays out, in detail, with quotations and notes, the timeline of the Ukraine Scandal, making a clear case that Trump has abused the power of the presidency and obstructed Congress.

Trump answered. His lawyers, Jay Sekulow and Pat Cipollone, slightly cleaned up the same hysterical defenses Trump has been making since the Ukraine Scandal first broke. In just 5 and a half pages, with no footnotes or evidence, Trump argues that the Democrats are attacking “the right of the American people to freely choose their President.” He claims impeachment “is a brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election and interfere with the 2020 election.” He calls the articles of impeachment “constitutionally invalid on their face,” “an affront to the Constitution of the United States, our democratic institutions, and the American people.” The president, he says, “did absolutely nothing wrong.”

So there it is. On the one hand, we have a reasoned argument, based in fact, that can be challenged as we try to get to a shared agreement on what happened. On the other hand, we have our president telling us to accept what he says as true, despite the fact that he has provided no factual evidence and, indeed, much of what he has said is demonstrably false.

In the 1600s, European settlers to North America came from a land dominated by kings and aristocrats. Those men ruled because society was organized around the idea that God had made them to rule, and that the little people, who survived as best they could, had no choice but to be loyal to them. But changes in technology, religion, and the world economy were challenging the belief that society should be organized according to a traditional order, theoretically established by God.

Thinkers began to argue for the power of learning, scientific experiments, and argument to try to discover how the world worked. This “Enlightenment” led to new theories about government. In 1690, political philosopher John Locke argued that humans had an innate ability to learn based on their experience of the world, so all knowledge came from trying out new ideas and facts. As men learned, they would be better able to understand the natural laws that underpinned the real world. If a man’s understanding could change, though, that meant traditional patterns of society did not necessarily reflect natural law. One man was not necessarily better than another by virtue of his birth. Government, then, should not rest on birth or wealth or religion—all of which were arbitrary—but rather on the consent of the governed.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he quoted Locke almost exactly. Rather than establishing a new monarchy or even an aristocracy, Jefferson and his colleagues began America’s founding document with a startling new proposition: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They added another proposition: “To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The Founders’ vision was badly limited. They enslaved native peoples and African captives and their African American neighbors, and they never imagined women could be equal to men. But the idea that all men are created equal, and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, made the United States of America a shockingly radical step in human governance.

In 1787, the Founders created our Constitution, the body of laws on which our government rests. In it, they tried to bring the Declaration of Independence to life, basing their system on the idea that everyone is equal before the law. And, knowing from personal experience that politicians crave power, they tried to prevent the rise of an autocrat—especially an autocrat who was getting help from a foreign government—by separating power into three different branches. They believed that men (for, of course, they could not imagine women in Congress) would so jealously guard their own power that they would impeach a president who tried to become a king.

But once the government was up and running, what did it mean in practice to say that it depended upon the consent of the governed? It meant that leaders could not simply declare they were in charge. They had to appeal to voters with reasoned arguments, based in facts. For sure, politicians always spun the facts as best they could, but their opponents made their own arguments. It was up to voters to figure out which leader made the most sense
Under no circumstances could a leader tell the voters what he was doing in office was none of their business.

It was PRECISELY their business.

Until the rise of talk radio in 1987 and the establishment of the Fox News Channel in 1996, we honored the Enlightenment values on which our government was founded: politicians had to attract voters with fact-based arguments or be voted out of office. But talk radio and FNC pushed a fictional narrative that captivated viewers who felt dispossessed after 1954, as women and people of color began to approach having an equal voice in society. That narrative—of a heroic white man under siege by a government that wants to give his hard-earned money to black and brown people and grasping women—has led us back to where we started in 1776: a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism.

Today, the House managers laid out a fact-based argument that honors our heritage. In contrast, Trump’s statement rejects not only facts but also the need to make a fact-based argument. He rejects the need to be accountable to the American people. He rejects the idea that no one is above the law. He evidently does not believe in American democracy: the great American experiment that says human beings can govern themselves.

What will happen in the Senate trial is unclear. How much it will matter is also unclear. More information is dropping daily that links Trump, members of his administration, and congress people to the Ukraine Scandal. In addition, the Supreme Court will decide in the spring whether Trump’s financial information must go to the House. He is also clearly deteriorating mentally. This administration will continue to surprise us.

But in the most crucial way, what happens in the Senate is important. Do our Senators believe in American democracy or are they willing to rubber stamp an authoritarian? Make no mistake: this is not about partisanship. Reasonable people can—and should—disagree about important policy decisions in our country. That’s how we learn new things and gain a better view of how the world really works.

But if we abandon our Enlightenment principles, we will, after almost 250 years, have abandoned the American experiment altogether.

Didn’t read the whole thing, though I plan to. Just wanted to jump on and say this whole thing sounds like this:

[impeachers]: Here’s what’s been done.
[defenders]: Nuh uh, you’re a poopy head!

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The article asks the wrong question. The right question is “Are they willing to rubber stamp an authoritarian FROM THEIR OWN PARTY”. And both parties* have been more than tolerant of an executive expanding the reach of the presidency, provided it’s “their” guy that’s doing it.

  • Not to be confused with a general “BothSides” argument. The R’s gave up all common sense and corrupted the essence of their party by embracing Trump’s narcissistic and deranged candidacy/presidency. But when it comes to supporting heavy handed executives then, yeah, both sides.
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I do follow her! At your recommendation. She’s become indispensable daily reading for me. She’s obviously biased, but gives a very nice easily digestible and concise summary of what’s going on.

Last night’s post:

January 23, 2020 (Thursday)

“If right doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant the Framers were.

It doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is.

It doesn’t matter how well written the oath of impartiality is.

If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost.

If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost.

The Framers couldn’t protect us from ourselves if right and truth don’t matter.

And you know that what he did was not right. That’s what they do in the old country, that Col. Vindman’s father came from. Or the old country that my great-grandfather came from. Or the old countries that your ancestors came from, or maybe you came from. But, here, right is supposed to matter. It’s what’s made us the greatest nation on earth.

No Constitution can protect us if right doesn’t matter anymore.

And you know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country. You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump. He’ll do it now. He’s done it before. He’ll do it for the next several months. He’ll do it in the election if he’s allowed to. This is why, if you find him guilty, you must find that he should be removed.

Because right matters. Right matters. And the truth matters.

Otherwise we are lost.”

So ended Impeachment manager Adam Schiff’s closing argument today in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Within minutes, #RightMatters was trending on Twitter.

Schiff (D-CA) leads a group of Democratic House managers who are shining in this moment as they weave televised testimony before the House, available documents, and public television interviews into a coherent narrative despite the Senate’s current refusal to admit testimony or documents.

Yesterday, New York’s Hakeem Jeffries’s (D-NY) encapsulation of “why we are here” was a masterful synopsis of the case against Donald Trump; today, it fell to Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) to weave the recently released messages between Lev Parnas and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani into a timeline that utterly debunked the idea that any American involved in the Ukraine Scandal cared about corruption, showing that Trump’s concern over the Bidens was that Joe Biden was the frontrunner for the 2020 election. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) took the lead today as he explained the legal basis for impeachment, and while his speaking style was more subdued and mechanical than Schiff’s, he was clear and convincing. Taken together, the Democrats’ case has been overwhelming. Even Andrew Napolitano, the Fox News Channel senior judicial analyst, said the evidence was “ample and uncontradicted.”

But all I could think of was Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning book To Kill A Mockingbird, and lawyer Atticus Finch’s masterful defense of the moral, kind, hardworking African American man Tom Robinson, whom everyone in Macomb knew had not committed the rape poor white girl Mayella Ewell had accused him of. Atticus proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mayella’s own no-good father Bob had raped her, and that she had flirted with Tom out of a desperate need for affection, then accused Tom to save herself from her father’s violent wrath. Atticus hammered the facts home, proving that Tom, with his withered arm, could not possibly have assaulted Mayella, and that she and Bob were lying. But in the end, nothing mattered but power. Not facts, not truth, not right. An all-white jury, wedded to white supremacy, pretended to believe the white Bob Ewell, and convicted Tom of the crime.

Tonight, as if on cue, CBS reported that a confidante of the president told CBS News that GOP senators were warned “vote against the president & your head will be on a pike.” Republican senators, who have previously suggested they would entertain the idea of witnesses—a proxy for the idea they might actually listen to evidence—began to coalesce around the idea that they cannot subpoena witnesses because Trump is threatening to invoke executive privilege, the right of the president to keep certain communications private. (For all the chatter about executive privilege, he has not invoked it yet; his people have simply said they would not answer certain questions in case it might intrude on his future invocation of the privilege.) That, they say, would drag out the trial unnecessarily. And so, it looks as if the hope that a few of the Republican senators would break ranks will not play out.

The jury convicted Tom Robinson.

This letter is late tonight because I couldn’t imagine what I could say in it. “Schiff and Co are off the charts brilliant,” I wrote to a colleague, “and it doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does matter,” the answer came back. “Not necessarily to whether Trump will be convicted but to the social, cultural, and political meaning of this public ritual and to the ripples and waves it makes in the river of history.”

Another friend made the point in a more round-about way: “Have you been to the African American History and Culture Museum in DC?” she asked. “It is designed to be experienced in a particular way. You go down, down, down in an elevator, through time, to 1465 or something. Earlier than I expected, definitely 15th century. Three floors of history: Europe and Africa colliding into America. Trade. Capitalism. New World. Opportunity. Slavery.

Three floors. It would take days to see it properly. So many artifacts. Even an amazing story about a Tuskegee airman. You end with video and still images of American from 9-11 through Obama. I found that part really emotional. Then you eat. Big cafeteria, with regional food. I had the kind of food that my grandmother cooked. She was raised eating soul food, and that is what she always cooked. Fried chicken. Corn bread. Collard greens. But she was a better cook than a cafeteria. Banana pudding with vanilla wafers. In a glass bowl.

After you eat, you keep going up. Three floors above the entry level. Floor 2 is the research center floor, and the escalators generally direct you past that. Floor 3 is all about building and maintaining community. Education. Churches. Publications. Clubs and civil groups. Civil rights organizing. The top floor is sublime, in a way. All about expressions of the spirit. Culture. Athletes. Dance. Theater. TV. Movies. And MUSIC. Popular American music. Poetry and literature. Pure joy and expression and life.”

And then she made her point: “White people who believe in justice and democracy may have to learn resilience and patience.”


No matter what happens, Schiff nailed it. “Right matters. And the truth matters. Otherwise we are lost.”

Last night’s (or rather this morning’s post:

Some days, it’s hard to write these letters because there are so many stories out there it’s difficult to wrestle them into a clear narrative. Last night was like that—you’ll note I posted at 4:00 am. And some days are easy because it all falls into place. Today is one of those days.

It started with Trump attacking House Impeachment manager Adam Schiff on Twitter, saying that “Shifty Adam Schiff is a CORRUPT POLITICIAN, and probably a very sick man. He has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our Country!” Interviewed on NBC News’s Meet the Press , Schiff responded that he thought Trump’s words were intended to be a threat. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Schiff’s interpretation was “ridiculous” although she admitted she hadn’t talked to Trump about the tweet.

But the spat showed that Trump is angry and anxious, lashing out, while GOP leaders continued to cover for him. You will recall that GOP Senators expressed outrage the other day over Schiff quoting an official close to that White House who said that key senators had been warned “Vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.” Despite their outrage over that quotation, they did not object to this language from the president against a leading Democrat.

Not a good dynamic.

Trump’s anger might have been prompted by a new Fox News poll (and btw, this is a reputable polling team, despite the name) that says 50% of Americans think the Senate should vote to convict and remove President Trump from office.

But that story paled alongside the bombshell that dropped tonight. The New York Times dropped the story that John Bolton’s forthcoming book will say that Trump told Bolton, at the time Trump’s National Security advisor, that he wanted to continue to hold up military assistance to Ukraine until officials there announced investigations into the Bidens.

This is the direct evidence of a deliberate exchange of aid for investigations, concocted by Trump himself, that GOP senators have said did not exist.

Bolton’s book allegedly also says that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo knew that Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s claims about U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch were unfounded and that Giuliani wanted her out because she was making life difficult for his clients as she fought corruption.

But it’s worse than that. Bolton’s lawyer also released his letter to the White House concerning the manuscript. Bolton’s lawyer transmitted the manuscript to the White House on December 30 for review to make sure it did not reveal any classified information (this is standard procedure) and emphasized that they expected the manuscript would only go through normal channels, and not be shared with anyone who would not normally see a manuscript being vetted for classified information. But it is impossible to believe that Trump and his people did not see the manuscript and what it contained.

So it appears that, when the president’s lawyers have argued to the Senate there is no evidence of a quid pro quo and the House’s whole case was second-hand, they knew full well that a primary witness was available—no, eager—to prove first-hand evidence. This is the testimony the White House has been blocking. So they have been lying to the Senate. At the Washington Post , Jennifer Rubin wonders if senators will be offended that the president’s lawyers lied to their faces.

But who else was involved? Bolton’s lawyer gave the White House thirty working days to respond. That time period would’ve ended on February 13, meaning the White House could squelch the manuscript that long. Is this why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been so eager to get the trial over quickly? To get a vote before Bolton’s story became public? Clearly, if the material in the book exonerated Trump, the White House would’ve cleared it quickly rather than sitting on it for so long.

In the letter from Bolton’s lawyer, there’s an Interesting reference to a nondisclosure agreement, which says something about the conflict at hand between Trump and the American people. Apparently Trump made senior officials sign a nondisclosure agreement before working in the White House. These agreements forbade them from disclosing any confidential information about their work not only while in office but after they left the White House. The one that Ruth Marcus, of the Washington Post , saw last year imposed a penalty of $10 million for every violation (this was likely reduced in final versions). But legal experts say these are unenforceable because White House officials don’t work for Trump; they work for us.

And therein lies a fascinating question. Who leaked the details of the manuscript to the New York Times ? Bolton’s people insist the leak came from the White House; but Bolton stands to gain more from the leak than anyone else. The leak released the information the nation needs right now (so gets him media time) and it undercuts the growing anger that he was trying to save the material in his book to sell copies of it when it comes out in March (and the link to it went live on Amazon tonight).

Regardless of who leaked the information, though, the timing literally couldn’t be worse for Trump’s defense team. New York lawyer Jim McCarrick, whom I follow on Twitter, pointed out that it came out just after the defense has committed to their theory that Trump did nothing wrong and there was no quid pro quo, but before they finish their case. So it demolished their argument just after they locked into it. A litigator’s nightmare.

And here is a final note that I hesitate to write because it’s just so awful. The White House learned about the contents of John Bolton’s book on December 30. Bolton is a hawk for war with Iran. On January 3, 2020, the United States attacked and killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, nearly sparking a war with Iran. Horrific to think that there might be a connection.

Immediately the House impeachment managers noted that Bolton’s new information meant the Senate simply must call him as a witness, and tonight, at least, GOP senators were wavering on admitting witnesses. (Remember, McConnell’s resolution means that even if they subpoena witnesses, those witnesses will be deposed in private and their testimony might never be public. Many people thought this provision was designed precisely to silence Bolton.) We’ll see.

Even the Fox News Channel felt obliged to note this bombshell news, although host Steve Hilton assured viewers he had “read the full report”—I have no clue to what he is referring—and that it did not change anything of substance, but “you can be sure that the impeachment fanatics on establishment state TV will be obsessed with this tomorrow.”

The administration is clearly under stress and doubling down on gaslighting. Yesterday, Pompeo claimed that NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly lied to him twice and lambasted her and the media for their bad faith; today emails show that she did not lie, that Pompeo’s press aide knew that she would ask him the questions he did. So he, not she, was lying. Shortly after the emails came out, Trump retweeted a tweet from a right-wing commentator asking why NPR even exists.

But the implications of the destruction of our government might well soon become terrifyingly clear. I actually wrote about the new coronavirus the day it was announced because it hit a number of issues that, as a historian, I thought were important. But I deleted the paragraph, afraid that readers who are already on edge would become unnecessarily worried (I did leave it in the notes for that day as a record for future scholars). For the purposes of this political record, though, we should note that the GOP project of dismantling the government means that we have not had anyone in charge of leading the U.S. response to a pandemic since May 2018, when Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer from the National Security Council was pushed out during a shake up by then-National Security Advisor John Bolton, who broke up the team designed to focus on global health security.

Strap in, folks. All signs suggest this is going to be quite a week.


January 31, 2020 (Friday)

Today, as we suspected after Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander’s vote last night not to allow witnesses despite—or because of—the fact that it was so clear Trump was guilty, the Senate voted 49-51 not to hear witnesses or admit documents in the impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump. This is the first impeachment trial in American history (the Senate also holds impeachment trials of federal judges) that does not have witnesses or documents.

Republican Senators scrambled to justify their votes. As I wrote last night, Alexander said that the Democrats had proven the charges against the president but those actions were not impeachable. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) said that Alexander spoke for him, as well as for other senators. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said that the whole process was so bad she was just giving up and voting for it to be over. And tonight, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) went further. He said that the charges against Trump were both proven and impeachable, but “just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a president from office.”


What’s going on? It appears that Republican Senators are admitting Trump is guilty at the same time they are running away not just from conviction, but also from hearing witnesses and seeing key documents. What does this even mean?

It appears that Republican Senators and Representatives have decided their only course in the 2020 election is to hug Trump as tightly as they can. This will assure them the votes of Trump loyalists, even as it signals they are tossing aside the idea of appealing to moderates, so expect Republican campaigns to be vicious appeals to the Trump base by attacking everyone else.

Rumors suggest that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was facing a revolt and had to quell it to get to this point. That rumor, taken with the comments from congressmen like Mark Meadows that senators who did not stick with Trump would face retaliation, suggests that McConnell simply told senators to stick with Trump or they would get no money for their reelection campaigns. So they have made Trump the standard bearer for their party; he owns them now. Only two Republicans voted for witnesses in the impeachment trial: Susan Collins (R-ME), who appears to have had McConnell’s permission, and Mitt Romney (R-UT). As soon as news of his vote got out, the leaders of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, announced he would not be welcome in their midst. And so it begins.

At the same time, Republicans know that most Americans wanted witnesses in the impeachment trial, at the very least, and do not believe the trial was fair, something we feel quite strongly about. So they are trying to justify their votes as best they can.

How good do they feel about where they are? Lindsey Graham did an interview tonight on the Fox News Channel in which he called impeachment “partisan bullshit” (sorry) that was going to blow up in the Democrats’ face. It would maybe have been more convincing if he had not appeared to be drunk.

Because, as House impeachment manager Adam Schiff repeatedly warned them, more and more information would continue to drop. And today it did, rather relentlessly. The day started with another leak from the manuscript by former National Security Advisor John Bolton. According to a story by Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt in the New York Times, in early May, more than two months before the infamous July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump asked Zelensky to announce an investigation into the Bidens in exchange for receiving US military aid, Trump told Bolton to call Zelensky and tell him to meet with Trump’s sometime lawyer Rudy Giuliani to talk over the proposed investigations. While Trump immediately denied this exchange, Bolton’s story matches with other witnesses’ accounts.

Worse, though, Bolton apparently alleges that the conversation included acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, already deeply linked into the Ukraine Scandal, Giuliani, and… the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, who is leading the president’s defense team in the impeachment trial. Ouch. Cipollone should have disclosed that he was, at the very least, a material witness to the events at hand, especially since Schiff and the other impeachment managers had written him a letter before the trial started warning him that “You may be a material witness to the charges against President Trump, even though you are also his advocate.”

But the revelations weren’t over. Lev Parnas’s lawyer Joseph A. Bondy published on Twitter a letter he wrote to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, outlining what Parnas would say if he were called to testify. Remember, Parnas, who is under indictment for campaign finance violations (he gave Russian money to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, among others) is an unreliable witness, but he also has little incentive to lie. Still, take all this with a grain—or rather a half teaspoon—of salt.

Bondy says that Parnas will lay out the entire scheme—as it’s written in the letter it reads much as we would expect based on what we already know—but, according to Bondy, Parnas is willing to testify that the Ukraine scheme involved not just Trump, but also Vice President Mike Pence, the GOP Super PAC America First, Former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Bill Barr, Senator Lindsey Graham, Congressman Devin Nunes, Nunes’s staffer Derek Harvey, journalist John Solomon (he was the one who printed articles attacking US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch in The Hill), attorneys Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing, and Giuliani. Bondy’s letter claims that Parnas has records and documents to prove his testimony is accurate.

In response to all this, tonight John Solomon, the reporter Parnas named, appeared on Laura Ingraham’s show on the Fox News Channel to accuse John Bolton of taking money from oligarchs in Ukraine. (There is no evidence at all that this is true.)

What has happened in the Senate is a travesty. But the Republicans are clearly aware that they have made a devil’s bargain that is going to weigh heavier as time passes. Remember, the Ukraine Scandal broke only four months ago. There are nine more months until the election for more revelations to drop, and Americans are already mad and vowing that they will not be counted out in 2020. In the short term, the Republicans have won. But even they appear to be worried about the longer term.

A couple of other loose ends to tie up tonight. Remember how I said that Trump can pay legal bills with campaign money, and that that’s why I thought he filed for reelection on Inauguration Day, the first president ever to do so? We learned today that Trump’s reelection campaign spent $1.4 million on legal fees in the fourth quarter of 2019 alone. The fees the campaign paid add up to roughly $12.4 million since Trump took office.

And today we learned that former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch has retired from the foreign service after 33 years. She has served America well at crucial postings, including, of course, Ukraine, as it transitioned away from Russia and toward Europe, the transition the Trump team worked to reverse. She is leaving the service at just 61 years old, and while she has certainly earned a respite from the chaos into which the Ukraine Scandal has thrown her, the loss of such an accomplished and principled diplomat significantly weakens America.

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February 3, 2020

As I write tonight, Twitter is consumed by the fact that there are no results from the Iowa Democratic caucuses since, apparently, the app the organizers were using to tabulate results is not working. The Iowa Democratic Party has said it “found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results. …The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the result." It is suggesting they’ll have numbers by tomorrow.

This is shocking. Not that the caucus has turned into a technological quagmire, but that this focus on what is, in the scheme of things, a small event in the upcoming election (sorry, Iowa) has crowded off the stage the fact that the country is still, right now, in the midst of a profound political crisis.

The impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump is not over.

Today the House impeachment managers and the president’s defense gave their closing arguments. The defense hammered the same themes it has hit all along, arguing that the House did not go about the impeachment properly and that the impulse for the impeachment was based in the desire to overturn the 2016 election (although if Trump were removed from office, his vice president, Michael Pence would take the office, and there is, of course, the other logical answer to this: the Democratic victories in the 2018 election suggest that voters wanted Trump reined in). The only answer, they said, was to leave the question of Trump’s future in the hands of voters in 2020.

Still, the honors of the day went to chief House manager Adam Schiff, who gave a passionate 25-minute speech in which he laid out the dangers of an unchecked President Trump. Schiff went for broke in a speech that will be remembered as one of the great speeches in American history because, like them, Schiff’s speech appealed to our nation’s fundamental principles and charged senators to uphold them. “Can we be confident that he will not continue to try to cheat in [this] very election? Can we be confident that Americans and not foreign powers will get to decide, and that the president will shun any further foreign interference in our Democratic affairs?” Schiff asked. “The short, plain, sad, incontestable answer is no, you can’t. You can’t trust this president to do the right thing. Not for one minute, not for one election, not for the sake of our country. You just can’t. He will not change and you know it.” He begged the Republicans to say “enough.”

Republicans are in a hard spot, since a number of them have admitted they know he’s guilty, but are trying to argue his conduct is not an impeachable offense. Some that are willing to admit that he tried to cheat in the 2020 election, like Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Joni Ernst (R-IA), took refuge today in the argument that surely his impeachment and the subsequent trial will have chastened him, and he will not do anything like it again.


This is delusional. It’s not that Trump will not stop; it’s that he cannot stop. He must constantly up the ante because that is how he convinces himself he is powerful. By letting him off the hook, Republicans have given him license to keep pushing. Even while the trial was going on, he tweeted “I hope Republicans & the American people realize that the totally partisan Impeachment Hoax is exacty [sic] that, a Hoax. Read the Transcripts, listen to what the President & Foreign Minister of Ukraine said (“No Pressure”). Nothing will ever satisfy the Do Nothing, Radical Left Dems!” and “Where’s the Whistleblower? Where’s the second Whistleblower? Where’s the Informer? Why did Corrupt politician Schiff MAKE UP my conversation with the Ukrainian President??? Why didn’t the House do its job? And sooo much more!”

And he is, indeed, upping the ante. Just today, Vanity Fair reporter Jabin Botsford said he had talked to Republicans in Washington who said that Trump is planning revenge against those who crossed him in the impeachment trial, with congressmen Adam Schiff, Jerrold Nadler, Mitt Romney, and former National Security advisor John Bolton, whose forthcoming book ties Trump directly to the Ukraine Scandal, at the top of the list. “It’s payback time,” one Republican said. “He has an enemies list that is growing by the day.” According to these sources, Trump wants Bolton to be criminally investigated.

His supporters seem more and more not to care. Today fallout from the Super Bowl showed the divorce between the reality of Trump himself and the image his followers believe. For years, we heard how Trump and his supporters were offended by the disrespect that protesters like African American football player Colin Kaepernick showed for our nation by taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against people of color. Today video emerged of Trump at Mar-a-Lago during the Super Bowl national anthem, fidgeting, pretending to be conducting the music, and then jumping for his chair while his wife Melania and the other guests stand with their hands over their hearts. The video was shared to Instagram by, as the Miami Herald put it, “a real estate agent for a Russian-American firm who frequents Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties and events.”

On Twitter, Trump congratulated the Kansas City Chiefs, who beat the San Francisco 49ers 20-31 last night to win the Super Bowl, “on a great game, and a fantastic comeback, under immense pressure. You represented the Great State of Kansas and, in fact, the entire USA, so very well. Our Country is PROUD OF YOU.” The Kansas City Chiefs are, of course, from Missouri.

The reason this error matters is because of the instant attempt of Trump supporters to argue that his error was, in fact, right. Truthfully, this kind of slip is incredibly easy to make. We all do it, sometimes because we misspeak, sometimes because we’re just idiots. (I once thought Joseph Stalin, who I read was born in Georgia, was from the American South.) But when we make mistakes like that, we ‘fess up, and correct our errors to bring them into line with reality. In this case, someone in the White House corrected the Tweet quickly, but Matt Schlapp, the chair of the American Conservative Union, tried to turn Trump’s error into its own reality. He tweeted: “Dear East coast establishment: Kansas City, Kansas is in Kansas.” There is a Kansas City, Kansas, of course, but it not where the Chiefs are based. The attempt to fall in line behind Trump over something as stupid and obviously wrong as this is not a good indication of his followers’ increasingly tenuous relationship to the truth.

And now a word about Iowa. Iowa is roughly 90% white, and is old and rural. The US is only 65% white, and the Democratic party is only 60% white. Iowa is not representative of much of anything in the upcoming election, so the idea that it is a bellwether (which, by the way, is named for the castrated male sheep that led the rest of the flock and thus wore a bell) for the rest of the Democratic election season is misleading. Further, the snafu (which is a term from WWII, and means “Situation Normal, All F***ed Up”) in the tallies for the caucuses, while unfortunate, does not necessarily mean much.

Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale called the caucus mess “the sloppiest train wreck in history. It would be natural for people to doubt the fairness of the process.” This is a deliberate attempt to undermine faith in the democratic process. The caucuses are run by parties, not by states, and they are not overseen by state machinery. Nor are the votes at the Iowa caucus taken by machines; they are tallied on paper. So the mess here seems likely to be an honest error, rather than some nefarious scheme. Now, that being said, there is zero excuse for our unprotected election machinery. We need paper ballots and records to trust our voting systems. But we need that in general, not because the Democratic Party in Iowa has made a hash of its technology.

Tomorrow the impeachment trial is quiet before Trump addresses the nation in the State of the Union address. There is lots of talk about how he will be unhinged and taking a victory lap; personally, I suspect he will be exceedingly well behaved as, among other things, he offers up some key benefits for wavering evangelical voters. We’ll see.

February 4, 2020 (Tuesday)

If I were trying to define where America is in 2020, I would use tonight’s State of the Union address. I am not going to talk about the pieces of it: plenty of pundits are tearing apart Trump’s economic statistics even as I write. But the speech, taken as a moment, illustrated the Trump presidency with chilling accuracy.

The speech was fictional, made for television.

Trump began by touting the successes of his administration, but it was all lies. I mean, it was gobsmacking lies. He talked, for example, of how he had turned the economy around from the devastation of his predecessor President Barack Obama, when, in fact, he inherited a growing economy from Obama that has, under him, slowed. And he talked of how the Republicans are determined to protect healthcare and coverage for preexisting conditions, even while they are literally in court right now to destroy those things. It was like Opposite Day.

Within that framework, Trump quite openly promised giveaways to crucial constituencies he needs for reelection. To evangelicals he offered anti-abortion legislation and the ability to use tax dollars for religious schools. To African Americans he touted all the gains for which he believed they should honor him: jobs, education, and so on. To wage laborers, he promised that his tariffs had brought thousands of jobs back to America. To women, he claimed to have provided parental leave. To all Americans, he promised he was protecting health care, social security, and Medicare. It was a piecemeal menu of why each constituency should support this president. It was also largely fictional.

The overall speech was a compellingly crafted narrative, with Trump as the all-powerful fictional hero. Traditionally, the State of the Union is a tad dull, to be honest. It’s supposed to tell Americans what has changed over the past twelve months. (Actually, historians love it because cabinet officers used to write their own sections, so it’s a terrific short synopsis of finances, foreign affairs and so on, but it ain’t exactly compelling reading in general.) But tonight, Trump used it as a campaign rally. He presented a portrait of a nation that had been on the verge of catastrophe before he swept in to save it. It was a theme that ties into American mythology: the cowboy who saves the villagers from destruction.

Trump did not stop with the general myth, though. He went on to play the game show host turned autocratic ruler. In the course of the speech, he developed the theme that he, the president, could raise hurting individuals up to glory. He promoted an older African American veteran to General. He awarded a scholarship to a child who had previously been unable to get one. He had Melania award the Medal of Freedom to talk show host Rush Limbaugh, a man ill with cancer (who obligingly pretended to be surprised and overwhelmed, although he had done interviews before the speech in which he indicated he was aware of what was about to happen). He reunited a military family. Contrived though all these scenarios were, they made him the catalyst for improving the lives of individuals in ways to which we all can relate. It was reality TV: false, scripted, and effective.

More than that, it was designed to demonstrate Trump’s power and, as communications scholar Michael Socolow pointed out on Twitter, it mirrored the performances of Hitler, who worked similar transformations on individuals during speeches to demonstrate that he had an almost magical power to change lives.

And then there were the attacks on the “other;” undocumented individuals, for example, who, in Trumps telling, became vicious criminals (although studies overwhelmingly show that immigrants commit crimes far more rarely than native born Americans). There were also more subtle clues for who belongs in America: Trump offered the Medal of Freedom to hate-monger Rush Limbaugh, who has gone out of his way to attack “feminazis,” people of color, and “socialists.”

Rather than being a review of the past year and a preview of the next year’s policies, the 2020 State of the Union was almost a religious speech, with the good guys, who were pure good, lining up against the bad guys, who were pure evil. And the leader of the good guys—Trump-- had done everything right, and could raise up his suffering supporters to bliss, simply with a wave of his hand. It will play well to True Believers.

It was, of course, complete fiction. But it was an interesting fiction, I thought. Trump repeatedly claimed to be doing the opposite of what the GOP really is doing, in an attempt to attract voters. That is, even he knows that the American people want something different than he is delivering, but rather than adjust his policies he is simply lying.

Nonetheless, Republican congress people, who surely knew what they were hearing was completely divorced from reality, continually jumped to their feet to applaud it. I found their slavish toadying more chilling even than the president’s speech. It is Trump’s party now, to do with as he wishes.

For their part, Democrats tried to demonstrate their disapproval while still showing respect for the House chamber. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) mimicked a wall falling down as Trump boasted of his border wall (a section of which blew over last week), and Democratic women, dressed in white to honor suffragists, called out “HR 3!”—the bill the House has passed in honor of the late Representative Elijah Cummings for lower drug prices, a bill that sits unaddressed on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk—while Trump vowed to lower drug prices. Most on point, though, was Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who, as Trump went on, simply sat quietly reading the Constitution.

But as Trump finished, the final word went to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who pointedly and obviously tore up Trump’s speech for the cameras. Ever since, media has been on fire over her demonstration, which we have to think was precisely her intention. Her action stole all of Trump’s thunder, which will defang his speech as well as infuriate him. As a long-time observer of political leaders, I am in awe of her ability to read and dominate a situation, even situations in which she appears to have a losing hand.

After the State of the Union and The Great Tearing, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivered the Democratic response, while Representative Veronica Escobar (D-TX) delivered a separate response in Spanish. Both focused on Democratic policies to make American’s lives better. Whitmer’s speech, anyway (I did not watch Escobar’s) was lucid and calm. It played as a dramatic contrast to Trump’s, offering a fact-based, undramatic American future. It was a powerful contrast that might offer respite to voters who are just… tired.

I will speak another day to the Iowa caucuses (and I apologize to those who thought my dismissal of them yesterday was ageist—I was simply noting demographics and the changing Democratic make up, but I did put it more frivolously than it warranted), and to the fact that tomorrow’s impeachment vote will likely liberate Trump. I will write about his apparent desire to jail John Bolton, and about how the caucus and primary systems have evolved.

But tonight, America’s main story is that the president is in a full-out fight for his political survival, and to win the next election he is peddling a fictional narrative in which he is the autocratic hero who can lift us all to a better life. His narrative sounds dangerously like that of a dictator… and Republican leaders seem to be on board with that.

But the rest of us are not. And in a wastebasket in the House of Representatives, there’s a torn-up speech to prove it.

February 7, 2020 (Friday)

Today Trump began to retaliate against those who testified unflatteringly about his behavior in the Ukraine Scandal. First up was Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was dismissed from his post on the National Security Council, where he was an expert on Russia and Ukraine. Vindman was on the infamous July 25 call and alerted the chief lawyer to the NSC, John Eisenberg, to its problematic content immediately afterward. He testified before the House Intelligence Committee under subpoena, telling it that Eisenberg told him not to talk about the call, and that Eisenberg put the transcript of the call onto a high security server, where national security secrets are held. Vindman also told investigators that the readout that Trump provided the public did not contain key parts of the conversation: Trump had explicitly mentioned both Burisma and the Bidens.

Trump also ordered the ouster of Vindman’s twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny (Eugene) Vindman, an Army officer on the NSC staff. Later in the day, he also recalled Gordon Sondland, a hotel chain founder whom Trump had appointed Ambassador to the European Union after Sondland donated a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee. Sondland had enthusiastically advanced Trump’s goal of getting Ukraine leaders to announce an investigation into the Bidens from his post at the E.U. (Ukraine is not in the E.U.). But he, too, looped Trump into the scheme in testimony before the House. Trump loyalists apparently asked Sondland to resign as soon as the Senate impeachment trial was over, but Sondland refused, saying they must fire him amid what was clearly a purge of those who had testified. So they did.

These moves are within Trump’s rights. The Vindmans are both Army officers; they are simply being reassigned. And ambassadors serve at the will of the president. But these firings—including of Vindman’s brother, who had nothing to do with congressional testimony—look like the sort of revenge a dictator would take on those willing to question him. While some people close to the White House at first tried to suggest that Alexander Vindman’s firing was part of general cuts at NSC, the fact that he was escorted off the White House grounds proved it was personal. Don Jr, also helpfully tweeted his thanks to Democratic impeachment leader Adam Schiff for making it easier to figure out whom to fire.

Three things strike me about these retaliations. First of all, they are a clear warning to others that crossing Trump will bring retribution. You are loyal to Trump—not to America—or you are in trouble. New York Republican Representative Lee Zeldin tweeted that “Vindman should not be inside the National Security Council any longer. It’s not about retaliation. It’s because he cannot be trusted, he disagrees with the President’s policies, & his term there is coming to an end regardless.” Foreign policy specialist Kate Brannen responded: “Name the policy with which he disagrees.” Vindman was advancing U.S. policies precisely, as was U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, and special envoy William Taylor, who replaced her, and Russia specialist Fiona Hill. It was the president and his people who were pursuing their own private goals. Had Vindman broken his oath to America and looked the other way when Trump broke the law, he and his brother would still be at the NSC.

The purging of all but Trump loyalists from key positions also means that we are losing our experts, especially experts on Russia. We have lost Yovanovitch and Taylor, Hill and now Lt. Col. Vindman, all people with decades of experience in dealing with Russia. They are being replaced on the NSC by people like Kashyap Patel, a former staffer for Devin Nunes (R-CA), who communicated with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and insisted that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that attacked us in 2016. This is a lie, remember; it’s Russian propaganda, denied by our intelligence services and the Republican Senate’s own investigation.

Even more troubling to me is the immediate effort to assassinate Vindman’s character. His words to his father, an immigrant from the USSR, telling him not to worry about his son’s testimony against the president because in America it is fine to tell the truth, played very well to viewers. “This is America,” Vindman told his father. “Here, right matters.” Retaliating against him, especially when he was due to leave the NSC soon anyway, was petty, at best, and it will disgust reasonable Americans. Trump is desperate to win reelection (not least because the Department of Justice currently maintains that a sitting president cannot be indicted). So, immediately, Trump surrogates began to flood the media with attacks on Vindman. Trollbots started tweeting about “Alexander Vindman” and their vile commentary started trending on Twitter.

This instant assault on Vindman encapsulates the Republican plan to stay in power: flood voters with disinformation. Vindman is a decorated soldier who got an impressive education, has dedicated his life to this country, has been wounded in its service, and testified in response to a congressional subpoena… all things we should honor. But by flooding media with other information-- he was about to leave anyway; he was disloyal; the NSC was downsizing—they can shift the narrative around the president’s behavior, turning what is pettiness at best into something fuzzy enough that it’s hard for a voter who is not paying extremely close attention to make a clear judgment about it.

This, we know, is exactly what the Trump campaign and Russian operatives did in the 2016 election. They flooded social media, especially, with subtle information that shifted people’s understanding of the candidates and blurred the narrative.

Because media outlets, Facebook especially, has collected so much personal information on each of us, they could help the Trump campaign “micro-target” voters. People often make the mistake of thinking that advertising to us is the product that the media sells, but it’s actually the opposite. WE are the product. By learning how we behave, an entity like Facebook or the Fox News Channel or CBS (which pioneered the system back in the 1930s) can divide us into packages that they can sell to an advertiser with certainty that a certain number of us will buy a certain product. It worked thirty years ago for canned soup and appliances. Today’s algorithms are far more sophisticated—remember all those games to see which dog you are most like and which is your favorite Beatle?-- and now that same system is being used for political advertising. Then operatives and bots amplify the message until we are all overwhelmed, and arguing with each other whether or not it’s really true that a candidate was a deadbeat dad, or yelled at an employee. The narrative blurs, and we stop caring.

Control the narrative and you control the nation.

The most effective disinformation is that which makes us believe that no one is telling the truth and that nothing matters. But it does. In America, right now, we are being asked to choose between two versions of government. On the one hand we have those who think that a few, wealthy, well-connected individuals—mostly white men—should govern the rest of us, and that their wisdom and abilities are so strong that challenging them means you are unAmerican. On the other hand, we have those who believe that we should all be equal before the law, and that society moves forward most efficiently when we all have a voice in hashing out national policies based on fact-based argument and adherence to democratic principles.

When disinformation starts to make the candidates and their policies blur, keep Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s distinction in mind: “This is America. Here, right matters.”

February 16, 2020 (Sunday)

One of the stories I did not cover yesterday was that on Friday, the White House sent to Congress a memo explaining the rationale behind the killing of Iran military leader Qassem Soleimani last month. When it happened, if you recall, Trump and White House officials insisted the killing was imperative, and that the president did not have time to inform Congress, as required by law, because the threat from Soleimani was imminent.

The memo says nothing of the kind. It asserts that the assassination was “in response to an escalating series of attacks in preceding months” by Iran and the Iraqi militias it backed.

In early January, the administration had sent Congress a formal notification of the strike, as required by law, but the entire document was classified and lawmakers who saw it said it had no information about an imminent attack. Congresspeople described subsequent briefings as insulting and demeaning.

The new memo justifies the attack by relying on Article II of the United States Constitution and the 2002 Authorization of Military Force against Iraq. Proponents of the theory of the unitary executive, the theory I wrote about the other day that puts all of the authority for the executive branch of government into the president, make Article II do a LOT of work. It is the article that establishes the office of the president and gives that president certain powers, but they see it as giving him power to do anything he wants. As Trump said: “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” This is a wildly radical interpretation of the scope of that article.

The other justification for the Soleimani strike in the White House document was the 2002 Authorization of Military Force against Iraq. That AUMF said “the President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to… defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” Although Soleimani was Iranian, the White House reads this AUMF as reaching beyond Iraq itself to “militias, terrorist groups, or other armed groups in Iraq.” Soleimani was believed to be supporting Iranian-backed Iraqi militias.

Congress disagrees that the 2002 AUMF gives Trump such broad powers. “To suggest that 18 years later this authorization could justify killing an Iranian official stretches the law far beyond anything Congress ever intended,” New York Democratic Representative Eliot Engel said. In a bipartisan vote, for the third time, the Senate has just passed a resolution blocking the president from taking military action against Iran without congressional approval. The House is expected to pass it, but the president is expected to veto it, and neither house has the votes necessary to override his veto.

Today more than 1100 former Justice Department lawyers, Republicans and Democrats both, called for Attorney General William Barr to resign after he intervened in the sentencing memo in the case of Roger Stone, apparently at the urging of the president. More stories have surfaced since, suggesting that Barr tried to intervene in the indictment of state-owned Turkish bank Halkbank, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pressed Trump to avoid charges and Turkish lobbyists spent millions with the Trump administration to try to stave off indictment. Geoffrey Berman, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, went forward with a criminal prosecution despite the pressure. Today, career employees wrote to call for Barr’s resignation because they objected to his politicizing the Department of Justice. They also called for current department employees to act as whistleblowers for similar wrongdoing moving forward.

We also learned over the past few days that the moderate Senators exonerating the president in his impeachment trial have recently received grants for their states. On February 12, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) publicly thanked the U.S. Department of Transportation and our secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, who is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) wife, for allocating $20 million to the Port of Alaska to help it modernize. On February 13, Senator Susan Collins announced that Maine had been awarded more than $9.5 million to preserve and modernize affordable housing units for low income people and folks with disabilities.

So where are we, in just these three stories? We have a president and his top officials who insisted, on the record, repeatedly, that they had taken extraordinary military action against an imminent threat. The immediacy of that threat was how they justified neglecting to inform Congress, as required by law. Now, they have quietly admitted there was no such imminent threat, but insist the president has the right to do whatever he wants.

We have more than a thousand legal officials demanding the Attorney General resign for politicizing the Justice Department and jeopardizing the rule of law.

And we have two key Senate votes against convicting the president in his impeachment trial thanking the administration for large grants to their states.

If you heard about these stories anywhere else, what would you think was happening to the government of that country?

Yesterday’s had a really good summary of the history of the presidential nomination process:

February 19, 2020

The big news today in Washington was that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, the venue that dumped emails from Democratic officials hacked by Russian intelligence before the 2016 election, claims that the Trump administration offered him a pardon if he would say that Russia was not involved in leaking the stolen emails in 2016.

In London, where Assange is fighting extradition to the United States, Assange’s lawyer says that Assange will prove that former California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher visited Assange when he was holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2017 to make the offer. The White House has categorically denied this story, although Rohrabacher’s visit to Assange, and his subsequent assertion that the Russians had nothing to do with hacking Democrats, is public record. So, too, is Rohrabacher’s meeting with Trump for 45 minutes before he went to see Assange.

All I can say on this is… maybe. That is, this story is entirely in keeping with what we know of Assange, Trump, and Rohrabacher. It fits the relevant timelines. But does Assange have proof? Maybe.

Assange is a terribly problematic witness, a man who has proven in his seven years holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy that he is all about protecting Julian Assange, and who is now facing 175 years in prison if he is extradited to America and convicted of espionage. Under those circumstances, who wouldn’t try virtually anything?

Still, on June 15, 2016, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), now House Minority Leader, was caught on tape saying: “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” (McCarthy later took Russian money himself, from Lev Parnas.) The obvious way to figure out what really happened is for the House to subpoena Rohrabacher and the other two people allegedly present when Rohrabacher allegedly made the offer: Charles Johnson, a conservative activist, and Jennifer Robinson, a lawyer for Wikileaks. We shall see.

That’s really the big news, as Trump tours the West, so if that’s enough for you today, you can call it quits here with a clear conscience.

But (isn’t it always “but…” with me?) I have wanted to write about the presidential nomination process for ages, and there has never been a good time, as news kept intervening. Tonight seems tailor-made for such a post as the Democratic candidates debate in Nevada, trying to work their way toward a nomination. So here goes:

There are two important pieces to remember before you even think about nomination procedures. First of all, it is states, not the national government, that control voting. That means that each state has its own procedure, even though the parties are national. And second, our political parties are not affiliated with the government. That seems totally weird, I know, but while anyone can declare their allegiance to one party or another, the leadership of those parties is not part of the government. The parties can organize themselves however they wish, so long as they don’t run afoul of federal laws. (There is a totally byzantine procedure for reworking their bylaws, which they do frequently, and which I will spare you.)

In the nineteenth century, presidential candidates were chosen by party leaders, who were far less concerned with electability than they were with malleability: would the candidate do what party leaders wanted? Men (women could not vote) voted by party alone, and you could not “split the ticket.” You literally received a ticket from a party boss, printed by your party with all the party’s candidates for all offices on it, and color coded in case you could not read, and you put that ticket into a box, usually at a place like a saloon. So who was going to be at the head of the ticket wasn’t something leaders took lightly, but pleasing the voters was less important than making sure the presidential candidate was a straight party man.

Often, those candidates were chosen by a group of party regulars, a “caucus,” arguing until they could come up with a candidate they could all live with. Some state parties still use this system, although it is now open to regular voters. Caucuses are overseen by the parties, and now allot delegates to each party’s national convention. These days, Iowa holds the first caucuses in the country.

But by the end of the century, voters, and insurgents in the party leadership, were pressuring party elders to listen more closely to the voters. Leaders in a number of states began to let voters have a say in who would lead the party—not the final word, but a say—through primary elections overseen by the local government. These elections determine how many delegates each candidate will get at the party’s national convention. Today, New Hampshire has the country’s first primary of the election season.

The idea was to listen to the voice of the people, but the reality was that party leaders still controlled who was nominated to be president. This became painfully obvious in 1968, when the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey for president despite the fact he had not run in a single primary. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August was a horror show, with protestors demonstrating and police spraying them with mace and tear gas.

After the convention, the Democrats put together a commission to figure out a better nominating system. The McGovern-Fraser Commission required all delegate selection to be open and required representation for minorities. More states promptly adopted primaries. Voter participation in primaries skyrocketed, and in 1972, the party nominated South Dakota Senator George McGovern (who had a PhD in American history-- just saying) for the presidency. McGovern went down to a spectacular defeat in 1972, winning only Massachusetts and Washington D. C.—he lost even his home state, which is virtually unheard of. Then, in 1976, Democrats nominated the wild card Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, who won after the debacle of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in 1974, but who lost to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980. Democrats worried that their enthusiastic primary voters were nominating unelectable candidates.

So between August 1981 and February 1982, a 70-person team of Democrats tried to balance the fervor of primary voters with the political experience of party leaders. They added unpledged delegate slots for members of Congress and state party chairs. These are the “superdelegates” you hear about, and while the commission first wanted them to make up 30% of the party’s delegates to the convention, they finally settled on 14%. That number wiggled upward until by 2008 it was 20%; after 2016 it has been revised downward to 16%.

Recently, Republicans have joined the carping that the Democratic nomination is “rigged” because of the superdelegates, but while Republicans don’t really use superdelegates (there are unpledged delegates with different rules in the Republican Party, though), they have their own way for leaders to put a finger on the scales. The first major test for the Republican Party is on Super Tuesday, early in March, when more than a dozen states hold primaries or caucuses. Those states are overwhelmingly southern and conservative, and that early in the season, most voters will not know much about the candidates, so they will vote primarily by name recognition. Unlike the Democrats, many of the Republican delegates are allotted by a modified winner-take-all system, so with Super Tuesday Republican leaders can stop insurgent candidates. They can rest assured that candidates with name recognition will emerge strong… or they could assume that until 2016, when they expected Jeb Bush to lead the pack even though he hadn’t yet campaigned. Unfortunately, there was someone else running that year with greater name recognition than Bush.

This year, a number of Republican state committees have decided not to hold primaries or caucuses but simply to endorse Trump. That is not unheard of: it is a waste of money to hold primaries or caucuses when the party has a strong incumbent. But if an incumbent is weak, the party usually permits challengers, as it did in 1976 when Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the nomination. Some Republicans are unhappy that state parties are not permitting challengers to Trump.

It is no wonder people get confused. And this is just the basics. It does seem a crazy way to pick our nation’s leader, doesn’t it? But I hope this makes it all a little clearer.

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October 7, 2020 (Wednesday)

Recent polls suggest that Trump’s debate performance last week (was it only last week?!) and his attempt to look strong after coronavirus spread through the White House have not helped him politically. Most polls have him behind Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by double digits. An article in Politico today was subtitled: “The new surveys fall into two buckets: those that are bad for the president, and those that are horrible.”

Trump’s plan for the election was to present himself as a strong leader who had overcome the pandemic—which he maintains was inflicted on us by China—and who would rebuild the economy that the Democrats had sabotaged with their insistence on shutting down the country when coronavirus hit. To that end, Trump and his people have acted as if the danger is over, refusing to wear masks or social distance, gathering in crowds, and insisting on reopening schools.

This plan has exploded as the president himself, along with his wife and many of his top advisers, have come down with the coronavirus. They appear to have spread it not only through the White House, but also to people who attended an event for Gold Star families the day after the Rose Garden event celebrating Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, and then to people who attended fundraisers for Trump during the week. The circle of those infected by the White House widens every day.

So Trump is trying hard to prove that he is back from the illness better than ever, that he is “cured” of coronavirus in record time. He released a video today claiming he is fine, and has been tweeting at a breakneck pace, trying to resurrect the old stories that, in the past, provided distractions from bad news. He is desperate to move attention from the pandemic, which has now killed more than 210,000 Americans. Even Hillary Clinton’s emails reappeared last night, despite the definitive conclusion of the State Department last October that Clinton had not deliberately mishandled classified information.

Republicans, though, see the writing on the wall, and those up for reelection are distancing themselves from the president to try to hold onto their seats. Today, the New England Journal of Medicine called for voters to turn out of office “our current political leaders [who] have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent…. We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.” And this morning, on the Fox News Channel, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina, who ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, explained that she was voting for Biden, since Trump has “damaged” the Republican Party.

Senate Republicans now seem concerned enough about Trump’s reelection that they are laser-focused on getting Barrett onto the Supreme Court. Indeed, they are so focused that they are refusing to quarantine even though many have been exposed to coronavirus. They are determined to have all the votes they need to get her through the Senate before the election. It seems a number of senators are going so far as to refuse to be tested so they will not have to miss the vote.

Trump does have the Department of Justice on his side, although right now Attorney General William Barr is one of those quarantining after exposure to coronavirus. On Friday, an official in the Public Integrity Section of the DOJ in Washington, D.C., changed the long-standing policy of the department against interfering in elections. Since at least 1980, the DOJ has barred prosecutors from announcing any investigations or making arrests or raids before an election out of fear of affecting the outcome. Now, though, if a U.S. Attorney’s office suspects election fraud, especially cases involving United States Postal service workers or military employees, it can make an investigation public before the polls close. Because voter fraud through mail-in ballots involving the USPS and military voting have been key elements of Trump’s charge that the election will be tainted, observers are concerned that this new rule is designed to make it easier for Trump to contest the results of the election.

Tonight was the vice presidential debate, and it transpired about as anyone would have expected. With the poll numbers as they are, the burden was on Vice President Mike Pence to try to move undecided voters into Trump’s camp, while Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris simply had to make sure to avoid any major gaffes. But she is a good enough debater that she had a loftier goal, too: to make people who didn’t know her well connect with her as a person. Surprisingly, the moderator, Susan Page, the Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today, seemed unprepared for Pence to bully as Trump had. Pence talked far past his time, interrupted, and refused to answer questions, so the debate went off the rails quickly while Page tried to stop him only by saying “Thank you, Mr. Vice President,” an admonition he simply blew through.

Pence did not make up the ground he needed to if his goal was to help move voters into the Trump camp. He looked tired and weak and wooden, and one of his eyes was bloodshot. His answers were smooth, but they were Trump talking points and debunked conspiracy theories that we have all heard a thousand times. He turned away from questions of substance, quite explicitly refusing to answer them and turning back to a previous question. So, for example, he said the Trump administration had a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, but when asked what it was, talked instead about the Supreme Court.

The only truly notable moment in his answers was notable indeed: he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he and Trump lose the election.

Pence needed to turn Trump’s numbers, and he did not. His repetition of debunked claims—I mean, he was really just lying—while talking over his opponent and the moderator, played terribly with women. Trump needs to make up ground there and, if anything, Pence lost it. What he did do, of course, was to play to Trump’s base, just as Trump did last week.

Harris (CA) did what she set out to do. She provided detailed, clear accounts of Biden-Harris policies—her explanation of the principles of foreign affairs was terrific: simple, clear, and a dig at Trump—and she connected with viewers who did not know her well by speaking personally about her mother, her talks with Biden, and about what people’s lives are actually like under this administration. Her masterful handling of Pence’s badgering also personalized her for the vast numbers of us who have dealt with That Guy in meetings, especially since, as a Black woman, she had to counter his gaslighting without coming across as “angry.”

Harris’s extraordinary historical significance as a Black woman on a debate stage vying to become America’s next vice president was not lost on anyone. America’s Black and Brown observers noted her significance to their own representation in government, and also noted how perfectly she was using facial expressions they had grown up with from older women to demonstrate that someone was out of line.

Women rated Harris’s performance higher than men did, but still about 60% of observers in a CNN poll gave Harris the win. Positive impressions of Harris also rose from about 56% to 63%. Pence’s favorability of 41% stayed the same. So, Harris nailed what she needed to: she solidified her ticket’s lead.

Still, the biggest winner of the debate was a large fly that landed on Pence’s head and roosted in his hair for two minutes without any reaction from the candidate. The hilarity that ensued on social media—you can just imagine the commentary—quickly overrode the few memorable words of the debate, leaving us with memorable impressions alone. Before the event was over, the fly had several Twitter accounts and the Biden campaign had snapped up the “” domain name.

They redirected it to a website designed to help people register to vote.