Unnatural Russian confidence in Trump victory quickly turned to fear of impeachment

Behind Trump, Pence.
Behind Trump, Pence.

The Russian government — which laid plans for a Trump presidency when almost no one else seriously considered the possibility – started worrying about impeachment the minute he was elected.

That’s one of the findings in a report produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Russian influence campaign on social media in the 2016 election.

The report tracked the Russian-government Internet Research Agency’s social media campaign and found a sudden shift after Trump’s surprise victory:

“There were extremely immediate posts that attempted to pre-empt calls for impeachment,” the report found. In the one example provided, this was achieved “by framing Vice President Mike Pence as an even worse option.”

According to the report, a post by the fake Facebook group LGBT United on November 10th read (sic): “In case anyone forgot, Mike Pence in the White House would mean disaster for queer people!! I heavily disagree with his policies regarding church and state and his lgbtq policy. I see alot of leftist calling for impeachment or assassination on trump but truely Trump is worlds better than Pence when talking about equal rights for all…”

The concern that Pence would be worse than Trump on LGBTQ issues is, in fact, quite legitimate — but not coming from pro-Trump Russian hacker trolls.

The report, released on Monday, was produced by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company based in Austin, Tex., with researchers from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and Canfield Research LLC.

Criminal complaints from special counsel Robert Mueller and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia have previously documented that the Russian social media campaign continued well after the election.

The Washington Post on Tuesday described the report’s conclusions that Russian operatives also turned their sites on special counsel Robert Mueller, using fake accounts on Facebook, and Twitter calling him corrupt proclaiming that allegations of Russian interference were conspiracy theories.

See the White House Watch Impeachment Watch archive.

Not ready for impeachment proceedings? Then set up a select committee.

John Dean before the Senate Watergate Committee, May 1973.
John Dean before the Senate Watergate Committee, May 1973.

House Democrats who aren’t politically ready to begin impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump quite yet — but worry that none of the various oversight committees have the means or the clout to build the strongest public case – have a third alternative.

They could follow the Watergate model, and establish a select committee.

The Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, better known as the Senate Watergate Committee, was established in 1973, by S. Res. 60 (here’s the full text, in case anyone wants to use it as a model.)

As the Senate website explains:

The resolution empowered four Democrats and three Republicans to subpoena witnesses and materials, provided them with a $500,000 budget, and required them to submit a final report by February 28, 1974. The resolution granted the committee the power to investigate the break-in and any subsequent cover-up of criminal activity, as well as “all other illegal, improper, or unethical conduct occurring during the Presidential campaign of 1972, including political espionage and campaign finance practices.”

It was a different, less poisonous time, of course. The vote in the Senate was unanimous (with 23 abstentions), something quite inconceivable today when the parties can’t agree on basic facts and the stink of the House Select Committee of Benghazi still persists.

But the precedent is a mighty one. The Watergate Committee, headed by North Carolina Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin, famously held two weeks of riveting, televised hearings in May 1973, whose educational value to the public can not be overstated. The fact-finding continued, dovetailing with criminal and special counsel investigations, and it was fully a year later that the House Judiciary Committee began its impeachment proceedings.

Just one month after the 2016 election, prompted by the first news reports on the CIA’s analysis of Russian interference with the 2016 election, four powerful senators called for a select committee. Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and Democrats Chuck Schumer and Jack Reed issued a joint statement that the appropriate response to the new information was beyond any one existing committee’s ability. “Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress, to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyberattacks,” they wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly rejected the suggestion, saying the Senate Intelligence Committee could handle it. But McCain continued to argue for a select committee as long as he lived. Former vice president Joe Biden cheered him on in a tweet.

Talking to MSNBC in May 2017, McCain said, “we have to, in my view, have this select committee. There are different committees in the House and the Senate, different jurisdictions, … but I think it has reached the size and scope … that it requires a select committee.”

All that said, shifting the investigation of any — not to mention all – impeachable offenses to a select committee would be a major change of plans for the Democrats, and in particular for the committee leaders who have already announced their oversight plans.

The New York Times Magazine on Sunday describes a key meeting in September between Majority-leader-to-be Nancy Pelosi and three investigative committee chairmen-in-waiting: Maryland’s Elijah Cummings, of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, New York’s Jerrold Nadler, of the Judiciary Committee, and California’s Adam Schiff, of the Intelligence Committee. “At that September meeting and at multiple gatherings of members and their staffs over the subsequent weeks and months, an initial strategy — and a division of labor — began to take shape,” Jason Zengerle reported.

But those committee chairman’s to-do lists also include a number of terrifically important investigations with major policy implications that are not directly related to a possible impeachment inquiry.

And could any of them alone gather an audience and meet the need for public education like the Watergate Committee did?

Politico’s article today on the likelihood and timing of impeachment proceedings says Pelosi’s goal is: “Give Mueller space and time to finish his work before considering impeachment proceedings while satisfying the Democrats’ burning desire to aggressively investigate Trump in the meantime.”

A select committee could do that.

It could also satisfy the needs of those who are more eager.

“It becomes harder and harder to make the case that this president hasn’t committed impeachable offenses. However, that information still has to get out to the American people,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, one of 58 Democrats who voted to begin impeachment proceedings last year, told Politico. “You really stand to lose something if you try to move impeachment before you have everything on the table,” she said. “We don’t have everything on the table yet.”

In related impeachment news

Liberal and progressive lawyers continue to debate over methods and timing.

Bob Bauer and Quinta Jurecic, who last week argued that Trump’s evident criminal violations of campaign finance law constitute an impeachable offense, this week respond to pushback from those who say it’s not quite enough. They say lowering the bar would be a bad precedent:

Whether Congress treats the prosecution and investigation in question as material fit for examination in an impeachment inquiry will determine how, in the future, the norms governing initiation of the impeachment process are construed.

Robert Kuttner, writing in the American Prospect, argues for a slow but determined approach. “[W]e need to let the process unfold with all deliberate speed. Public opinion is not there yet, but it will come. Conversely, given the grossly impeachable offenses of President Trump, it would be a dereliction of constitutional duty not to eventually impeach him.”

Democratic activist James Carroll writes in USA Today that there’s no need to wait for Mueller. “We don’t need proof of Russia collusion to hold Trump accountable for refusing to call Russia to account for its cyberattacks during the 2016 election and since then and his role in the illegal payment of hush money to two women in order to influence the 2016 election,” Carroll writes. He calls for “a thorough House impeachment inquiry (eventually including Mueller’s findings), which will play nonstop for months on national television.”

Michael Conway, a counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment proceedings, writes that Trump’s hush money payments “sabotaged an informed electorate” and are “part of a background mosaic of lawlessness by Trump” – but that more needs to emerge to make the case for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

“Russian collusion, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the false testimony of Trump associates (proven and possibly yet to be proven) to FBI agents and congressional committees, Trump’s dangling of pardons and his public lies will be at the heart of any impeachment inquiry. The criminal campaign finance violations will simply corroborate the corrupt intent behind it all,” he writes.

Meanwhile, two New York Times graphics editors neatly make an overwhelming case that Trump is guilty of multiple violations of the Constitution through his acceptance of payments from foreign and domestic governments. Some word editor, presumably, added an entirely unnecessary question mark to the headline.

See the White House Watch Impeachment Watch archive.

Senate delivers a blow to the Imperial Presidency

Only a president as stubborn and heedless as Donald Trump could have committed himself so implacably to such an unpopular and inexplicable war — with such an unsavory and murderous ally — as to stir an otherwise submissive Senate to actively assert war powers it has blithely ceded to the executive branch for at least 17 years, if not all the way back to the Vietnam War.

But that’s exactly what Trump did by refusing to disengage from the calamitous Saudi-led bombing campaign laying waste to Yemen – even after the Saudis used American intelligence and bombs to target civilians; even after more than 85,000 Yemeni children died of starvation; even after the United Nations labeled it “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time;” and even after the war’s architect, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was determined by U.S. intelligence officials to have ordered the ambush execution of a U.S.-based journalist.

And the Senate responded on Thursday with a resounding, bipartisan, 56-41 vote to demand an end to U.S. military support to the Saudi war in Yemen.

Other presidents might have not have pushed things this far, if not for moral reasons then for political ones. “I think even a normal Republican president would have given up by now,” said Mark Weisbrot, the president of Just Foreign Policy.

And it’s not as if Trump has strongly held principles about such things. Weisbrot speculated that perhaps Trump was letting his ultra-hawkish national security adviser John Bolton make the call.

Regardless, the Senate has woken from a long slumber during which its Constitutional role as the only branch entitled to declare war withered and the imperial presidency grew out of control, with the commander-in-chief asserting broad unilateral powers to engage in hostilities even when there was nothing remotely like an immediate threat to the American people.

Suddenly, on Thursday, the Senate was standing tall. “The bipartisan character of the vote transformed the Senate’s decision into a fundamental ratification of the enduring significance of the War Powers Resolution,” Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman wrote me in an email.

It was the Senate’s very first invocation of the resolution since it was passed in 1973 — over the veto of Richard Nixon — to check the president’s power to commit U.S. forces to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress.

“It was a very big deal,” said Andrea J. Prasow, deputy Washington director for Human Right Watch.

“It’s a precedent that anybody who likes war doesn’t want,” said Weisbrot.

It also changes the media narrative significantly – and maybe permanently.

“Reporters and editors couldn’t get the idea that Congress actually has the power under the Constitution — reaffirmed by the War Powers Resolution — to decide whether the U.S. military can participate in a war,” Weisbrot said. “The political culture surrounding the imperial presidency is so strong.”

And although some pundits are saying the vote was more about rebuking the Saudis for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi than it was about Yemen and reasserting war powers, the fact is that both houses of Congress were already well on their way to taking action against the war before Khashoggi was killed – and even before a spate of particularly brutal bombings targeting civilians, including a devastating attack on a school bus in early August, killing 40 children.

As I wrote in September, it was more than a year ago that the House overwhelmingly passed (336 to 30) a resolution stating that Congress had not authorized U.S. military assistance in Yemen. And the Senate resolution that passed on Thursday almost passed in March.

Nothing more will happen during this Congress. Ackerman called out House Speaker Paul Ryan for using an amendment to the omnibus Farm Bill to suspend the War Powers Resolution’s mandate that explicitly prevents congressional leaders from blocking a floor vote.

With support from top House Democrats, the resolution is sure to come up – and win passage – in the House during the next congressional session.

Ackerman worries that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will follow Ryan’s lead and illegally refuse to allow the House bill onto the Senate floor. Weisbrot argued that if McConnell had a way to block a vote, he would have done so before Thursday’s session.

And the ACLU has expressed strong concerns that the language of the resolution is too vague to have much practical effect even if both chambers pass it – and override a veto.

So what’s next for a newly assertive Congress?

“This one’s not over yet, so everyone I know is focusing on this, because this is the most people dying,” Weisbrot said. But, he noted, “it’ll have effects on other wars, because it’s establishing a number or precedents.”

Prasow of Human Rights Watch said she hopes Congress starts demanding more information about where the military is involved overseas. “What I would love to see the new Congress take up is secrecy with respect to U.S. use of force,” she said.

But Mariah Zeisberg, a political science professor at the University of Michigan and author of War Powers The Politics of Constitutional Authority, was less impressed by the Senate’s apparent turnaround.

“The challenge is politically significant because Saudi conduct in the war in Yemen is significant and because Khashoggi’s murder is significant,” she said. “But I don’t see this as a resurgent Congress reasserting its war powers.”

The problem, she explained, is that the War Powers Resolution is too deferential to the presidency. “That the resolution must be approved by the president to become law tells us that this is not a constitutional challenge so much as a political one,” she said.

“That certain legislators want to portray any questioning whatsoever of the presidency as a challenge of constitutional proportions tells us more about degraded norms in Congress than it does about the Constitution.”

When Congress creates, authorizes and funds an agency, should a president be able to sabotage it from within?

The 226-page list of positions subject to presidential appointment.
Donald Trump has appointed manifestly unqualified hacks to gut agencies whose missions they oppose – bringing new urgency to efforts to reform the political-appointment process.

The fact is that congressional legislation creates these agencies, authorizes them to engage in certain activities and programs, and funds them. So it should be more of an issue when the president tries to destroy them from within.

University of Texas public policy professor Don Kettl tells me that even when previous Republican presidents expressed hostility for a particular agency, their appointments were not nearly as radical as Trump’s. “There’s usually been a grudging respect for the mission of the departments,” he said. “I just don’t recall any time in the past where there’s been such an intent to appoint people interested in doing the bureaucracy in.”

The problem, as with so many other instances in which Trump’s excesses have gone unchecked, is Congress.

“Congress has abdicated its responsibilities in very real ways,” says Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that tries to make government work better.

One problem, he says, is that there are entirely too many political appointees. According to the government’s official “Plum Book,” there are more than 1,200 positions appointed by the president that require Senate confirmation – and about 2,000 more that he can simply install on his own.

“I’m quite confident that you could quite easily get rid of more than half — and I would argue more than two thirds — of the Senate confirmed ones and you would be just fine,” Stier says.

It makes sense that a president should be able to install enough people to put his policy stamp on an agency. “But then there’s the entourage,” Stier says – the senior advisers, senior counsels, special counsels, chiefs of staff, deputy chiefs of staff. “They’re just free radicals that interfere with an effectively run organization.”

And Congress has also failed to properly exercise its authorization and appropriation powers. Stier argues that Congress should regularly review and update what the agencies are authorized to do, and should provide budgets that reflect those authorizations — on time and for more than a single year.

“Congress has a ton of power if it uses it, and uses it right,” Stier says.

The poster child in Trump’s agency sabotage is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by Congress in 2010 to protect ordinary Americans from defective financial practices.

As the Washington Post reported last week, in gripping detail, Trump has filled the upper echelons of the CFPB with people who oppose its very existence, undermine its mission, and torment the people who work there.

And as I reported yesterday, employee confidence in senior leadership there dropped precipitously in the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ratings produced by Stier’s group.

Ketl says that although it’s hard to entirely unwind an agency, “there are people scattered throughout the Trump team who have discovered that there are certain levers of power they can use that allow them to go a surprising way down the road of Trump’s goal of disabling some of these agencies.”

“It turns out that if you can put the right people in the right places, you can pull the bricks out bit by bit and cause a substantial amount of destabilization,” he says.

Trump appointed Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney to also be acting director of the CFPB last November – invoking the controversial Federal Vacancies Reform Act to install an outsider who had called the bureau a “sick, sad” joke, instead of allowing the deputy director to run things on a temporary basis.

It wasn’t until last week that Senate Republicans confirmed another White House official and Trump loyalist, Kathy Kraninger, to be CFPB’s director.

The Senate, of course, could have rejected Kraninger because of her startling lack of any relevant experience – that’s the easiest and most straightforward way Congress can block the appointment of people bent on sabotage.

But Mulvaney wouldn’t have been in charge for more than a year if Congress had made the federal vacancy-filling rules more precise, and had more explicitly mandated that senior career professionals be left in charge until the president’s nominee is confirmed.

Going forward, Congress could also establish formal qualifications and performance plans for political appointees. “There has never been a real appreciation for what the leadership responsibilities are when the political appointees come in,” Stier says. In fact, political appointees “typically don’t see their job as the health of the organization they’re responsible for… they see their job as policy creation and, when forced to, crisis management.”

The performance plans should be supplemented by real-time performance information, Stier says. “You need transparency around performance.”

And while there’s probably not a lot of room for progress while the Senate is controlled by Trump’s party, there’s still one thing the House can do.

“You can hold lots of embarrassing hearings” and call attention to congressional mandates that are being ignored or violated, Kettl says. “That’s the sort of thing you can do and there’s every indication that the Democrats in the House will do.”