Tuesday, January 15, 2019

From our Friends down under at Justinian...

Trump - Russia's man in Washington ... Unhinged, disordered, unfit ... More villains to walk the plank ... Buying elections and the gerrymander ... Conservative SCOTUS could make things worse ... Unqualified federal judges ... William Barr the new/old Matthew Whitaker ... Roger Fitch files from Washington 
"[H]is chief legacy is to have cast a serially bankrupt carnival barker in the role of a man who might plausibly become the leader of the free world" - New Yorker on the TV producer who cast Donald Trump in The Apprentice 
Almost daily, Americans receive fresh evidence of their president's disordered and dishonest mind, his disregard for law, his instinctive, compulsive mendacity.  
In a recent pleading, beleaguered lawyers at the Department of Justice felt obliged to claim President Trump's damaging tweets should be ignored because he doesn't know what he's talking about. Certainly no competent lawyer would find them advisable: some may amount to witness-tampering
Most of the criminal investigations threatening Trump and his circle - about 17 - involve Russians, and over 100 contacts between Trump's campaign and transition team and Russian-linked officials have thus far been reported.  
The president's vast array of legal and ethical problems involving corruption and malfeasance meanwhile grows exponentially. Finally, he's getting the attention he craves: everything bearing his name is under investigation, and some property could qualify for asset forfeiture under RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act .
Perhaps, like Al Capone, Trump could end up in jail for tax evasion.  The Trump Organisation CFO Allen Weisselberg has received immunity and is cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The Trump Foundation has surrendered, following an adverse court ruling allowing the NY AG's fraud case to go forward.    
Venality permeates Trump's businesses, foundation, family and cabinet, but the president carries on, as re-election may be his best hope of avoiding eventual indictment, more hereand here. Yet, even as the administration openly serves the material interests of Trump and his corporate friends, trouble is brewing.
With the new Democrat house, he faces a real risk of a (messy) impeachment. 
Trump has now lost two-thirds of his original senior White House staff, and cabinet firings and resignations, such as that of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, have damaged his government. Zinke was subject to 18 federal investigations, two more than the infamous EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, forced out earlier last year; both men helped themselves while pursuing environmentally-disastrous deregulation.
Besides cabinet members who departed "under ethics clouds", the president has disposed of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who called him "a f**king moron" (Trump responded with "dumb as a rock"); parted company with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who reportedly said, "He's an idiot" and called him "unhinged"; and finally, ousted the last level-headed member of cabinet, Defence Secretary James Mattis. 
Al Capone: tax evasion may also catch Trump
Mattis credited Trump with "the understanding of a fifth or sixth grader", but he was being kind.
The Defsec's departure seemed the final straw for congress and America's allies, but as John Bellinger notes, even Republican national security boffins predicted Trump would be the most reckless president in American history.  
And dangerous: the Atlantic has a long read on the alarming arsenal of dictatorial powers Donald Trump has at hand, thanks to "national emergency" provisions passed by complacent congresses over the years. 
Two notable villains remain in cabinet: hapless Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, possibly next for the plank, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, perhaps the greediest member of Trump's crooked crew. 
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There's a preliminary report, more here, on the chaotic 2018 US elections. 
At $5 billion plus, this congressional cycle was the costliest in history. The predicted consequences of Citizens United, the 2010 supreme court case that tore away restraints on corporate interference in election funding, were apparent: an unparalleled outside intervention in American democracy that saw "independent" (non-party) spending rise from $200 million in 2010 to nearly $1.5 billion in 2016.
Divided governments were elected in badly-gerrymandered states, with legislatures remaining Republican while Democrats took over state offices such as governor and attorney general. The legislatures in four Republican-controlled states responded by going "full-on authoritarian". 
The latest dirty tricks against incoming Democrat office-holders are bringing the Republicans' preferred business model - cheating - to renewed public scrutiny, in a way diffident Democrats never did. 
Even so, one of the states, North Carolina, could become a functioning democracy again. There's hope that the NC Republicans' state district gerrymanders, concocted after the 2010 federal census, will be knocked out in time for the 2020 election and before a new federal census: in 2018, a  50 percent vote for NC Democrats resulted in just 23 percent of the US house seats. More here on NC. 
In Washington, the house Democrats' first priority is a bill to comprehensively renovate election law, but with new certiorari grants, the deeply-conservative supreme court could undermine gerrymander reforms and make things worse.  
There was one bright spot in the latest elections: the American discovery of preference voting. A Maine Republican lost his house seat under the state's new "ranked choice" voting, the first such victory in a federal election.
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O'Connor (left): compliant, loyalist judge
Unqualified judges continue to receive important federal judicial appointments, e.g, to US Courts of Appeal. Some are scorned by the ABA, as they have tried few cases and can't write intelligible opinions.  
A few party loyalists already on the federal bench are contributing to Republican mischief, e.g, in Texas, where District Judge Reed O'Connor, appointed by G.W. Bush, accepted an "off-the-wall argument" that Obamacare is unconstitutional, simply because the mandate requiring people to have health insurance was repealed. More here.   
The decision is widely seen as partisan judicial activism: the judge is a favourite of Republicans who forum-shop for desired but politically-controversial rulings. 
O'Connor previously issued a number of orders against Obama initiatives and, in one startling decision, found that the 40-year old Indian Child Welfare Act, favouring adoptions by Native-Americans of their own kin, discriminated against non-indigenous Americans.  
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Barr: a lot of time in the top paddock
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was also let go by Trump, in much the way the one-time reality TV star disposed of "losers" on The Apprentice
Replacing the AG offers Mr Trump another chance to hobble DoJ's investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 elections, newly confirmed in two reports commissioned by a bipartisan US senate.
Trump's choice for acting AG, Matthew Whitaker, has long opposed the Mueller investigation he would be overseeing. The DoJ Office of Legal Counsel attempted to justifyhis appointment, but there was an ethics review. Whitaker then rejected his own department's finding that he should recuse himself from involvement in the Mueller investigation based on previous prejudicial remarks.
Now there's a nominee for permanent AG, bad as the old one, and it's sad news for Guantanameros: William Barr was AG for Bush père when the notorious internment camp was first set up.  Barr's anti-Mueller views are well known; last year he sent an unsolicited memo to DOJ arguing for presidential immunity from many criminal laws, including obstruction of justice