Tuesday, June 4, 2024



Drawing by Lin Rui for Renmin Ribao/The People's Daily, 

When Trump starts ranting about rigged trials and the "weaponized" Justice Department, everybody needs to understand that he knows what he's talking about, and he's lying, rather than just bullshitting.

I mean, he knows because he's worked at doing it, during his time as president. "Lawfare" as they call it (because it's warfare continued by other means, as Clausewitz didn't say) is the one government-related thing he devoted the most of his time and energy to when he was in the White House, at first defensively, to save himself from being held to account for his earlier crimes and protect his illegal business activities from government interference, then aggressively, to punish the law enforcement figures who had menaced him, and eventually try to cripple his main political rival and establish himself as presidentissimo-for-life; and while the defensive use was remarkably successful, when you think about it, the aggressive use really wasn't.

He found that it's really hard, in the US, to pervert the justice system into an army for vanquishing your enemies. He was able to stop Comey and McCabe and Strzok etc. from investigating him, by firing them, but when he tried to sic the IRS on them, along with John O. Brennan, Hillary Clinton, and Jeff Bezos, his chief of staff, John Kelly, refused to cooperate, according to Kelly's sworn statement, and most important, when Comey and McCabe really were subjected to an intrusive IRS audit (I guess when Mick Mulvaney or Mark Meadows was chief of staff), the agency was unable to punish them, because neither man had done anything wrong.

And McCabe even got his stolen pension back when he sued. (Settlements of Lisa Page's and Peter Strzok's suits against the Justice Department are expected to be announced by the end of this month.)

Similarly, when Trump finally found "his Roy Cohn" in the person of Attorney General William Barr, Barr was able to protect him from the consequences of the Mueller investigation by issuing his own bogus summary of the report a month before the report itself was published, but when Trump wanted the investigators hunted down and disgraced for conspiring to bring him down, in two investigations, one by the inspector general Michael Horowitz and one by the infamous special counsel John Durham, but they hadn't actually conspired to bring Trump down, and Durham was unable to charge them with anything.

The same goes for Trump's and his confederates' efforts to nab Joe Biden in some kind of criminal behavior, going back to August 2016 in Kiyiv, I think, when the "black ledger" of the Ukrainian Party of Regions turned up, with its records of millions of dollars in off-the-books payments to the Republican operative Paul Manafort, former campaign manager of the disgraced pro-Russian Ukrainian ex-president Viktor Yanukovych, now campaign manager of presidential candidate Donald Trump, implicating Manafort in some very bad behavior involving undeclared income and money laundering, and forcing him to resign from the Trump campaign. This, at any rate, seems to be when Rudolph Giuliani, who had business interests of his own in Ukraine, first got the idea of an anti-Trump conspiracy:

Rudy Giuliani has cited the revelations as evidence that certain Ukrainians, supported by the Obama administration at the time, were colluding with Hillary Clinton’s campaign to reveal information tainting Manafort and, by association, Trump, in order to influence the election. Giuliani in May 2019 accused Leshchenko personally on Fox News of colluding with Democrats.

One of Giuliani's Ukrainian contacts was with a consulting firm called Tri Global Strategic Ventures, and its New York–based founder, Vitaly Pruss, another of whose clients was Mykola Zlochevsky of the energy firm Burisma, which in 2014 had taken Vice President Biden's son Hunter and his associate Devon Archer onto its board of directors. Pruss helped arrange Giuliani's trip to Ukraine and Armenia in October 2017, and it may have been on that visit (his firm Giuliani Security & Safety was getting a piece of some action in Kharkiv, whose mayor was trying to set up a New York–style Office of Emergency Management) that Giuliani and his own (mostly pro-Russian or just purely corrupt) Ukrainians began assembling the conspiracy theory placing Biden at the center, involving the black ledger, Hillary Clinton's state department emails purloined by the CrowdStrike firm and somehow hidden in Ukraine (although CrowdStrike, the US firm that had discovered the Russian theft of the Democratic National Committee emails, has no connection to Ukraine or to Secretary Clinton), Biden demanding the firing of Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin to save his son's job from Shokin's investigations (although the well-known problem with Shokin was his refusal to investigate anybody, which suggested he was probably taking bribes from people like Zlochensky, and if anybody was endangering Hunter's job it would have been Joe Biden making trouble for Shokin, because it was Shokin who was protecting Hunter's boss), US ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was thought to be not sufficiently worshipful of Trump and was duly fired herself, and Biden's as yet unannounced run for the presidency. In other words, and I don't think this has been stressed enough, it was incoherent and insane, based on a psychotic confusion between different emails, different prosecutors, different candidacies, and different forms of corruption.

You wonder, knowing what we know now about what Trump thought he was referring to, what President Zelenskyy, who couldn't have known almost any of it, thought was going on as he was listening to this.

Anyway Zelenskyy declined to open an investigation into Hunter Biden, or pretend to open one (which seemed to be all Trump was really asking for), Alexander Vindman informed Congress about the phone call and was subsequently driven out of his job (of course), along with his twin brother Eugene, by Trump, which was certainly illegal retaliation, and Trump faced his first impeachment (for what I'd call extortion, conditioning the congressionally mandated shipment of US missiles to Ukraine on Zelenskyy's cooperation with Trump's demand for campaign assistance), but Giuliani's craziness refused to die.

Instead, he kept cherishing it through the Trump and Biden presidencies, with the help of collaborators like literary fabricator John Solomon, until the arrival of a nearly real thing, something that probably began as a genuine copy of the hard disk of a computer that Hunter Biden owned, featuring some real documentation of the Burisma company and its relations to Hunter Biden, and some upsetting and often very prurient imagery of Hunter Biden and his spiral out of control following the tragic death of his brother Beau, and we don't know what else, because what Giuliani has to sell (the actual laptop, assuming there is one, is with the FBI, and they're not telling) is so corrupted (possibly by Russian hands).

"Investigating" Hunter Biden has become a whole cottage industry, with new "evidence" endlessly surfacing, and trotted out for the entertainment of the House Oversight Committee (James Comer, chair), but it never adds up to anything anybody can understand as a story, other than the story of what an utter fuckup Comer is, and the "special prosecutor" appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, David Weiss, is reduced to a single case, almost as humiliatingly inconsequential as Bill Clinton's long-ago blow job (Hunter decided he needed a gun at some point, and bought one, making a probable falsehood on the federal form where you say you're not a drug user—discarding the gun, I think in a dumpster, 11 days later); that's pretty much all there is (he's also on the hook for paying his taxes pretty late back in those days in California). Pretty scary for Hunter, because apparently the crime, such as it is (you'd think 2nd-Amendment–maddened Republicans would be embarrassed to make such a case) might call for a whole lot of prison time, but still not effective as "lawfare" dealing a deathblow to Biden's campaign.

I think that's pretty reassuring. We may understand that there's too much prosecutorial abuse in our system at the lower level where it chiefly affects poor people, cops planting evidence and the like, and that certainly demands reform, but "what you see in banana republics", as the Republican talking points put it, or Putin-style political tyranny, where a leader targets somebody prominent enough to be a personal opponent with a cooked-up criminal case,   really isn't likely. The system is too transparent for that to work. The prosecutors of a politician have to have some respectable evidence of a crime and be ready to convince a jury, not just in the US but in any more or less liberal democracy (think of recent examples in Italy, France, and South Korea).

And that's why Trump and the Republicans haven't been able to do it, it seems to me. Calling out criminality doesn't work if you don't have a crime to call out.

And we do, is the other thing. We have lots of crimes to talk about. Let's do that.

(I also have a semi-secret feeling, which is maybe going to sound cynical, that Hunter ought to testify, if he thinks he can stand it. The way I read the story so far, there's an element, Beau's death, that never gets the emphasis it deserves. Beau was so extremely good, as lawyer, veteran, politician, and Hunter so bad, except for his talent for making money—he was bankrolling Beau's career by paying off Beau's student loans. In 2017, out of government service for the first time in his adult life (he was always the poorest senator), Joe had a chance to make a ton of money in his own right, in book advances and speaker fees, and he cleaned up, bought a beach house, paid his brother's debts, etc. Who, at that point, was Hunter? What was he without the brother whose goodness he enabled but couldn't emulate when the father no longer needed the one thing he was good at? I really need to hear him talking about this—and worry at the same time that it's more than a little cringe.) 

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