Why I Believe Joe Biden Did Not Commit Sexual Assault

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Image courtesy of hsb wikimedia.org.

This post began as an exploration of presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s positions on the issues. I imagined myself chatting with him while he was  endeavoring to campaign from his basement.

But the charges of sexual assault against him by a former staffer, Tara Reade, are getting a good deal of media attention.

Biden was slow to respond, allowing former staffers to speak on his behalf. But Friday morning, he issued a statement, which you can read here.

He speaks of his pride in the role he played in developing the Violence Against Women Act, and then he says:

“In the 26 years since the law passed, the culture and perceptions have changed but we’re not done yet. It’s on us, and it’s on me as someone who wants to lead this country.

“I recognize my responsibility to be a voice, an advocate, and a leader for the change in culture that has begun but is nowhere near finished. So I want to address allegations by a former staffer that I engaged in misconduct 27 years ago.

“They aren’t true. This never happened.

“While the details of these allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault are complicated, two things are not complicated.

“One is that women deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and when they step forward they should be heard, not silenced.

“The second is that their stories should be subject to appropriate inquiry and scrutiny.

“Responsible news organizations should examine and evaluate the full and growing record of inconsistencies in her story, which has changed repeatedly in both small and big ways.”

He goes into detail about inconsistencies that I’ll cover shortly, and then he concludes:

“We have a lot of work to do. From confronting online harassment, abuse, and stalking, to ending the rape kit backlog, to addressing the deadly combination of guns and domestic violence.

“We need to protect and empower the most marginalized communities, including immigrant and indigenous women, trans women, and women of color.

“We need to make putting an end to gender-based violence in both the United States and around the world a top priority.

“I started my work over 25 years ago with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. As president, I’m committed to finishing the job.”

I emphatically agree that all women who claim to have been sexually assaulted deserve a fair and respectful hearing and the presumption that they are telling the truth.

And then their stories must be fully vetted by impartial observers. I am questioning whether that is happening in this case.

Former Vice President Biden wasn’t my first choice as the Democratic nominee. I do worry about his age and health—but not about his mental acuity. I’ve watched him any number of times lately, and he seems totally with it and highly informed and sensible.

At a CNN Town Hall shortly before this abrupt end to the primaries, he was actually terrific on substance, performance, and connection with questioners.

Nor do I worry that he’s a sexual predator. I hadn’t thought I’d have to address the sexual assault charge against him in this post, but it seems to be gathering steam, and I see it as a dangerous, misguided attempt by the press to pursue a story without due diligence.

Keep in mind that Joe Biden was fully vetted by President Obama’s team before he was chosen to be Obama’s Vice President. He served as Vice President for 8 years without a whiff of scandal.

It seems inconceivable to me that the Republicans would not have found any “dirt” on Biden if such an issue had existed.

We do know that eight women, including Reade, complained last year that Biden had inappropriately kissed, hugged, or touched them.

According to The New York Times, he “acknowledged the women’s complaints about his conduct, saying his intentions were benign and promising to be “more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.”

Biden is widely regarded for his warmth, toward both men and women. He has been a hugger, a touchy-feely kind of guy. At one time, that behavior was fully acceptable. It no longer is, and he understands that.

In his current statement, he says he will “continue to learn from women, to listen to women, to support women, and yes, to make sure women’s voices are heard.”

It’s worth noting that Tara Reade’s original 1993 complaint did not include sexual assault: she made that charge in March of this year and filed a police report in April.

I have seen Ari Melber and Chris Hayes of MSNBC, and New York Magazine writer Rebecca Traister all say the fact that an old friend (who says she’s voting for Biden) validated that Reade told her the story contemporaneously makes them take it very seriously.

In fact, it wasn’t contemporaneously, which means close enough in time so that memories are fresh. It was several years later. And Reade called the friend to apparently refresh her memory.

In addition, none of those I heard seems to have considered that a friend could be repeating a lie without realizing it.

But former prosecutor Michael J. Stern does explore this possibility in his compelling article in USA Today.

“The problem with statements from friends is that the information they recount is only as good as the information given to them.”

I am linking to Stern’s article and other sources that have persuaded me that Tara Reade is not telling the truth.

For those who don’t have the time to read through them, I’m quoting what I think are the most significant points.

First, Stern’s orientation: as a former sex crimes prosecutor, he writes:

“When women make allegations of sexual assault, my default response is to believe them. But as the news media have investigated Reade’s allegations, I’ve become increasingly skeptical.”

His reasons include the following:

She has changed any number of details in her story a number of times, with “implausible explanations.”

Aside from the highly questionable one about changing what she says Biden did to her,  she lied about losing her job.

She originally told The Union, a California newspaper, in 2019 that she refused Biden’s request to serve drinks at an event, and then “felt pushed out and left Biden’s employ,” according to The Union.

But she told The New York Times last month that she faced retaliation after filing a sexual harassment complaint with the Senate’s personnel office, and Biden’s chief of staff fired her.

To Stern, the disparity between those two assertions “raises questions about Reade’s credibility and account of events.”

The three former Biden staffers whom she claimed to have told about the assault emphatically denied she did so.

“And they did not offer the standard, noncommittal ‘I don’t remember any such complaints,”‘ Stern writes. “The denials were firm.” One said: “‘She did not come to me. If she had, I would have remembered.'” Another’s comment was similar.

The third said:

“‘I never once witnessed, or heard of, or received any reports of inappropriate conduct (by Biden),  period.’ If Reade had made such a complaint to her, she added, it ‘would have left a searing impression on me as a woman professional, and as a manager.'”

Although Reade provided a copy of her 1993 Senate employment records, she has no copy of the complaint she claims she filed against Biden when she left, or was fired, from her job in Biden’s office.

Nor could The New York Times  find such a document. Biden has said he’ll ask The National Archives, where such documents reside, to do a search.

She couldn’t recall the date, time, or location of the alleged assault.

To Stern,

“Reade’s amnesia about specifics makes it impossible for Biden to go through records and prove he could not have committed the assault, because he was somewhere else at the time.”

–She says she told her mother (now deceased) and her brother.

But when her brother was interviewed by The Washington Post, he didn’t mention the sexual assault–the most important part of her charge–but texted that detail to The Post several days later.

Stern finds that time gap questionable.

Similarly, her mother was, according to her, the anonymous caller to The Larry King Live show in 1993. That call was reported as new evidence last week.

The caller said her daughter had been working for a prominent Senator, “could not get through with her problems at all,” and chose not to go to the press “out of respect for him.”

Writes Stern:

“Given that the call was anonymous, Reade’s mother should have felt comfortable relaying the worst version of events. When trying to obtain someone’s assistance, people typically do not downplay the seriousness of an incident. They exaggerate it.

“That Reade’s mother said nothing about her daughter being sexually assaulted would lead many reasonable people to conclude that sexual assault was not the problem that prompted the call to King.”

–Multiple times, in 2017, she praised Biden for his work combating sexual assault. She also tweeted: “My old boss speaks truth. Listen.”

Stern writes:

“It is bizarre that Reade would publicly laud Biden for combatting the very thing she would later accuse him of doing to her.”

–Also in 2017, Reade was condemning Vladimir Putin’s efforts to harm American democracy by interfering in the 2016 election.

But in 2018, she referred to Putin as a “genius” whose athleticism is “intoxicating to American women.”

She wrote:

President Putin has an alluring combination of strength with gentleness. His sensuous image projects his love for life, the embodiment of grace while facing adversity.”

By 2019 she had expressed the belief that Russian interference in the 2016 election was hype.

More recently, she has claimed that her expressions of admiration for Putin, made in opinion pieces, were taken out of context for a novel she’s writing, and she doesn’t support Putin.

Stern provides other compelling examples as well. His examination is well worth reading.

–Also illuminating is the information provided by Lynn Hummer, founder of a California horse sanctuary where Reade was a volunteer from 2014-2016.

According to an article in Medium, Hummer claims that Reade “stole from her nonprofit, lied, and created stories to obtain sympathy and money.”

Hummer said:

“Look, this isn’t about protecting women. This isn’t about the #metoo movement. This isn’t about Joe Biden. This is about truth. Tara Reade stole from me. She lied to me. She stole from my organization. She manipulated me and she duped me…And I have documentation, images and emails to prove it.”

Biden, to his credit, has said he’s not going to question Reade’s motives, though he doesn’t understand why she’s making the charge.

I think one of the reasons it’s so problematic for Biden and his supporters to speak openly about this issue is that to respond honestly, they would be casting aspersions on Tara Reade’s integrity and mental stability.

In this #metoo era, that is difficult to do. We are not talking here about all the women who succeeded, at last, in getting justice from Harvey Weinstein.

As Stern concludes:

“We can support the #MeToo movement and not support allegations of sexual assault that do not ring true. If these two positions cannot coexist, the movement is no more than a hit squad. That’s not how I see the #MeToo movement. It’s too important, for too many victims of sexual assault and their allies, to be no more than that.”

Chris Hayes, whose original reportage was so roundly condemned on Twitter that it morphed into a #FireChrisHayes movement (which I condemn), discussed the three groups of attacks he received.

The first and second groups he could accept:  people who supported Biden and people who said “I don’t care; I’m voting for him anyway.”

But the third group–people who attacked Reade and cited other things about her, such as her strange fascination with Putin–he claimed, was doing just what the #metoo movement was designed to counter.

Hayes’s comments gave me pause because in citing Stern and Hummer, I am falling into that third group.

But how can we arrive at the truth if we simply focus on a single incident that inevitably comes down to a “he said; she said” dispute?

To me, hearing independent complaints from Hummer, the horse rescue woman, that Reade had manipulated and stolen money from her, is relevant to character.

Her comments about Putin, I feel, are an indication of instability. Can an unstable person still be a victim of abuse? No doubt, but all these are pieces in a puzzle.

When that puzzle threatens the integrity of a man whose otherwise worst charge was that he inappropriately hugged women who didn’t want to be hugged, I think all the pieces should be considered.

Experts in sexual abuse nearly uniformly say there is always a pattern–not a single instance.

I greatly worry that the press will make this into a “Hillary’s email” issue–though the topic is much more visceral, especially for women, who will be the deciding voters in the November election.

There are already calls for the University of Delaware to release his papers–despite his saying they have no personnel information and contain private conversations with President Obama and foreign leaders.

There are valid reasons that politicians uniformly keep their papers closed to the public until after they’ve left the political scene.

Nevertheless, this demand is made on today’s New York Times editorial page, which offers the following:

“Any inventory should be strictly limited to information about Ms. Reade and conducted by an unbiased, apolitical panel, put together by the D.N.C. [Democratic National Committee] and chose to foster as much trust in its findings as possible.”

All such demands seem to me ludicrous in these hyper-partisan times, and particularly unfair because the existing President has gotten away with hiding his income tax returns and a slew of other documents.

Why on earth should Biden do what to my knowledge no other candidate has done–and certainly not this most duplicitous and evasive opponent?

So I am deeply concerned that this drumbeat may seriously weaken the candidacy of a good man, and lead to Donald Trump’s reelection–he who has been charged by at least 12 women of sexual assault, including one who states that he raped her, and was elected despite having been shown on tape describing his modus operandi for sexual assault.

Press sources are saying this story of Biden’s alleged sexual assault of Reade now has “legs”–it’s not going away.

Of course the press has to follow this story to its conclusion. But they must look more closely at Reade’s contradictions, as Michael Stern has. And anyone who interviews Reade must ask her, politely, to explain her changed stories.

Many prosecutors and sexual assault victims on Twitter have agreed with Stern’s conclusions.

In important ways, I feel that Joe Biden is the ideal person to lead us now: his recent experience in the White House involved combating epidemics, resolving serious economic crises, and expanding health care—all critical to our near-term societal needs.

In addition, his obvious compassion is critically important for our hurt nation. And his willingness to work across the aisle suggests that if any bipartisan efforts are possible, he’ll be in a good position to take advantage of them.

I’ll leave my chat with him on the issues for another time–when I hope this story will fold its legs and–at the very least–give a closer look at all the charges against President Trump, whose behavior actually deserves scrutiny.

There were mea culpas after the damage was done from members of the media for obsessing over Hillary’s emails in 2016 while letting Donald Trump off the hook. That must not happen again. 

Annie

Continue reading “Why I Believe Joe Biden Did Not Commit Sexual Assault”

My Watching the Impeachment Hearing Blues…

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If this is the “Deep State” that President Trump has been warning us about, I’d say we need more of ‘em!

After viewing much of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, I’m left feeling proud, sad, and frightened. 

The proud part is easy. 

Of the 12 witnesses who testified—all Trump administration appointees—10 were career foreign service officials. I think The New York TimesMark Leibovich described them well:

“They are, in a sense,  the permanent beating, bipartisan heart of the government of the United States.They are deeply credentialed,  polyglot, workaholic, and respectful before Congress.

“They are graduates of Harvard and West Point, and veterans of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They take meticulous notes, are on key phone calls and give ‘readouts.’”

And so, when they uniformly and without rancor gave their pieces of the story concerning what President Trump has actually publicly acknowledged, they were believable.

They were also so very measured—even when attacked, as they were by some of the Republican committee members—so careful with their words, and so highly professional that they made this American proud of her country and hopeful that they will help lead us out of our current divisive, dangerous lawlessness.

Not one of them was there to attack the President; they saw their role solely as fact witnesses. But the facts they detailed showed overwhelmingly that President Trump had tried multiple times via multiple people to use Ukraine for his own political purposes. The fact that he was stopped does not make him innocent.

And the witnesses explained why these actions were dangerous not only to Ukraine’s national security, but to America’s as well.

They also made the case for why we should all care about Ukraine’s fate. It is a strong American ally and a bulwark against Russian aggression. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it gained its independence in 1991.

Ukraine is currently engaged in a hot war against the Russians, who occupied Crimea in 2014 and want to subsume the entire country. More than 14,000 Ukrainians have died in that war.

Further Russian expansion will jeopardize peace in Europe and inevitably involve the US. Like it or not, we live in an interdependent world.

Ukraine’s new, democratically elected president, Vlodymyr Zelensky, won overwhelmingly after promising to try to end the war and rid Ukraine of the corruption that has been rampant there for so long. 

Zelensky immediately began making symbolically important changes. Independence Day, on August 24, had in the past been celebrated by what The New Yorker described as “the traditional Soviet-style military parade of soldiers and tanks and missile launchers, which he called ‘pompous and expensive.’” 

This year, in a tribute to the “second revolution” in 2013 in which snipers killed more than 100 protesters, Zelensky organized a “March of Dignity” in which over 1000 children lined the way to the site where the demonstrators had been killed.

“The children, dressed in white, clutched yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags and bouquets of daisies.”

The marchers were “schoolteachers, doctors, social workers, and athletes.”

But Zelensky knows symbols aren’t enough. He is dependent on the US, and specifically, its President. He needs the weaponry that Congress overwhelmingly approved on a bipartisan basis but was mysteriously held up until Congress began its investigations. 

And he has been seeking a meeting with President Trump in the White House to demonstrate to both the Ukrainian people and Russia’s Putin that he has a reliable ally in the US.

Thus, the importance of the President’s words “I would like you to do us a favor, though…” in the phone call transcript that the President has described as “perfect” and his Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, publicly told the press that yeah, sure, it was a “quid pro quo,” but “get over it.”

In the hearings, piece by piece, the witnesses’ testimonies demonstrated that the President had no interest in Ukraine, its value as an ally, its status as a young democracy looking toward the US as its model, or its importance to US security. 

Rather, he sought to use the promise of aid and a visit to the White House as leverage to get Ukraine to open an investigation into alleged and debunked corruption by Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who’d been on the board of a Ukrainian company, Burisma.

(Let me state here that I believe Hunter Biden’s involvement in a Ukrainian company was not smart and looks terrible, although there’s been no indication of wrongdoing.)

The other favor was to validate the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered with our 2016 election.

Importantly, American intelligence officials have recently informed Senators and their aides “that Russia has engaged in a yearlong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election,” reported The New York Times.

Once again, the President is promoting a conspiracy theory that accepts Putin’s word against the findings of US intelligence. 

As Zelensky seeks to fight corruption in his own country, the President and his allies have sought to pull him into corruption in our country.

And the President might have succeeded were it not for the whistle blower whose report began the Congressional proceedings. The irony is extraordinary—as well as heartbreaking.

My sadness arose from the hyperpartisan, often brutal, nature of the opposition.

Here’s a sampling of those who testified and what they said.

Marie Yovanovitch spent 33 years in the Foreign Service and was widely respected by both Americans and Ukrainians. But she made a crucial career-ending error: with her legitimate anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, she apparently stood in the way of the plans that the President, Rudy Giuliani, and others had for getting what they wanted from Ukraine’s president. 

She was recalled as ambassador, suddenly, amid what she called “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives” and even though her boss told her she’d done nothing wrong.

As a result of her treatment, she said, “Bad actors” and not only in Ukraine, will “see how easy it is to use fiction and innuendo to manipulate our system. The only interests that will be served are those of our strategic adversaries, like Russia.” (All emphases mine.)

No one has questioned the right of the President to recall an ambassador, but many wonder why he did so, in these circumstances, and why he and others have vilified her and sought to destroy her reputation.

In her opening statement to the House committee, she said it was crucial for our embassy in Kiev (now also spelled Kyiv) “to understand and act upon the difference between those who sought to serve their people and those who sought to serve only themselves. 

Still a State Department employee, she was the first to defy the orders not to cooperate and accepted the subpoena to testify. Others soon followed.

As a result of her bravery, former US ambassador Swanee Hunt wrote for CNN,

“In a dismaying but no-longer unusual parallel, she faced the kind of bullying at home that she was fighting abroad.”

Yovanovitch acknowledges fearing for her personal safety based on threats she’s received.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whose father brought him and his brothers to the US from Ukraine when he was 3 years old, has a purple heart and other medals for his combat service in Iraq and carries shrapnel in his body from his injuries there. 

As Director for European Affairs for the US National Security Council (NSC), Vindman felt it was his “duty” to report his concerns about the call between the President and President Zelensky, which he found improper (he used the word “shocked” in response to questions) to John Eisenberg, the NSC’s legal adviser.

“It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a US citizen and political opponent.

“It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play. This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan [US Congressional] support, undermine US national security, and advance Russia’s strategic objectives in the region.”

Vindman has been subjected to vile attacks on his patriotism, character, motivations, and judgment—accused of dual loyalties and even espionage. In his testimony, he addressed his father, who was worried about the risks his son was taking in speaking out publicly. 

“Dad, my sitting here today..is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.” 

When asked if he is a “Never Trumper,” he said “I’m a ‘never partisan.’” He concluded his appearance by saying:

“This is America…here, right matters.” 

Yet according to Reuters,  the Army is prepared to protect him and his family, possibly by moving them to an Army base, if necessary.

The final witness on Thursday was Fiona Hill. Like Vindman, Hill is a proud immigrant (from England, where she was the daughter of a coal miner). Like him, she stressed how grateful she is to be a US citizen and to have been able to serve this country she loves. 

After graduating from college in Scotland, Hill received a PhD in Russian history from Harvard. She coauthored a book titled Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, published in 2013, which has been called the most useful book about Putin for policymakers.

She’s worked in the Brookings Institution, as the senior expert on Russia and Asia at an internal think tank for US intelligence agencies, and—since 2017, as the senior director for European and Russian affairs at the NSC—first as a deputy to H.R. McMaster, and then to John Bolton.

In other words, her expertise and nonpartisanship are unassailable.  She even said she understood that President Trump had been offended by some things written about him in the Ukrainian press prior to his election. But she pulled no punches. Here’s her opening statement:

“Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did.

“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.”

“President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a super pac. They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives.

“When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.” 

She reaffirmed the warning about Russian intervention in our elections that Robert Mueller had delivered during his testimony to Congress, in July, adding her own warning about those whom another The New Yorker  article called “the useful idiots inside the United States who, deliberately or not, serve to further Russia’s goals.” 

“Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”

Her words evoked self-righteous indignation from some Republican committee members who had been doing just that, including Devin Nunes, the ranking member, who stated that falsity in his opening remarks.

Others then rushed to affirm how concerned they’ve been about Russian intervention (though not enough to tell their President that he should stop denying what the entire intelligence community had found indisputable).

The most incriminating part of her testimony came when she responded to the Republican staff counsel’s questioning about her dispute with Gordon Sondland, who’d been appointed ambassador to the European Union after donating $1 million to the Trump inaugural committee.

She said she had become “testy” with Sondland because he wasn’t coordinating with the other agencies involved.

While other witnesses had said there were two channels operating in Ukraine—one traditional, the other “irregular,” led by Rudy Giuliani (who has ongoing financial interests in Ukraine that are barely being discussed) and designed to get Ukraine to do President Trump’s bidding—Sondland had said there was only one channel: he reported to President Trump and worked with the others who were following the President’s orders.

He had added that Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo, and Chief of Staff Mulvaney were all involved. 

After watching Sondland’s testimony, Hill said that Sondland “was absolutely right because he was being involved in a domestic political errand and we were being involved in national-security foreign policy, and those two things had just diverged.”

She added:

“And I did say to him, ‘Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is also going to blow up.’ And here we are.”

 

And here’s why I’m frightened…

Just one day after Robert Mueller’s unfortunately lackluster Congressional testimony, which was far more condemnatory to Trump than the public understood—in part due to the phony spin that Attorney General Barr had put on the findings—the President had that “Do us a favor, though” phone call.

We now have incontrovertible evidence that President Trump withheld both a sought-after White House meeting and much-needed security aid that Congress had approved in order to get the President of Ukraine to open an investigation into Joe Biden and the alleged Ukrainian—not Russian—involvement in our 2016 election.

In other words, this President feels he’s above the law. Yet Republican legislators continue to follow him, to lie for him, to fail miserably in upholding the oaths they took when they were sworn into office.

And what will public reaction be to all this? Who cares about Ukraine? Who cares about foreign intervention in our elections? Who cares that the President of the United States invariably sides with Russia and Putin against US interests?

A recent poll showed independents becoming less supportive of impeachment and more approving of the President. Why?

Have we reached such a hyperpartisan state that Americans don’t care that our President is not only corrupt, but is willing to enlist foreign countries to ensure his reelection—our national security and the US Constitution be damned?

Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, wrote that he hadn’t initially been in favor of impeachment.

But the hearings convinced him that President Trump must be impeached and removed from office because “his highest crime isn’t what he tried to do to, or with, Ukraine. It’s that he’s attempting to turn the United States into Ukraine.” 

He cited several “themes” to illustrate his premise. For more specifics on the comparisons, his column is here.

*”The criminalization of political differences.” (“Lock her up!”)

*”The use of political office as a shield against criminal prosecution and as a vehicle for personal and familial enrichment”

*”The netherworldization of political life, in which conspiracy theories abound, off-stage figures yield outsized influence, and channels of formal authority are disconnected from the real centers of power; [and] the person who is both the principal consumer and purveyor of those falsehoods is the president of the United States…even now, this should astound us.”

*”Covert Russian interference, usually facilitated by local actors.”

Stephens concluded:

“It’s to the immense credit of ordinary Ukrainians that, in fighting Russian aggression in the field and fighting for better governance in Kyiv, they have shown themselves worthy of the world’s support. 

“And it’s to the enduring shame of the Republican Party that they have been willing to debase our political standards to the old Ukrainian level just when Ukrainians are trying to rise to our former level.”

“The only way to stop this is to make every effort to remove Trump from office. It shouldn’t have to wait a year.”

Are we up to this effort? Or are we seeing the end of democracy and the rule of law in the United States of America?

Annie

“They’re Doing It As We Sit Here…”

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Senator Mark Warner(left), Vice Chair and Senator Richard Burr, Chair, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

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It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we were visiting friends. But all four of us spent last Wednesday indoors, in front of the TV. We were watching Special Counselor Robert Mueller testify, first before the House Judiciary Committee, and then before the House Intelligence Committee.

We knew our vigil wasn’t accomplishing anything in the larger scheme of things, but we are all political junkies with deep concerns about the fate of American democracy, so we felt compelled to watch and listen.

And while many have faulted Mueller for his halting, weary performance and his insistence on sticking to the “four corners of his report,” much emerged from those hearings.

Most important, Mueller was quite emphatic that our democracy is under attack. When asked by Republican Congressman Will Hurd if he thought the Russian involvement was a single episode, he did not equivocate.

“No. It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.” 

What’s more, Mueller said:

“Many more countries have developed the capabilities the Russians have done.”

We’ll get back to the implications of that statement shortly.

Here are what I felt were the most significant of Mueller’s responses:

*His report DID NOT exonerate the President.

*The finding of lack of complicity with the Russians by the President and his associates was based on insufficient evidence to reach that conclusion (and not the absence of evidence)

*The investigation into that matter was impeded—not only by those who were convicted of lying, but also by others who told “outright lies” or were “not telling the full truth.”

*Those individuals included President Trump.

When Florida Rep. Val Demings asked if the President’s written responses to Mueller’s questions about, among other matters, the Trump Tower Moscow plans, given under oath, were “inadequate and incomplete and weren’t always being truthful,” Mueller responded: “Generally.”

Many questions Trump did not answer, and when Demings asked if some of his other responses conflicted with other information the investigation had revealed, Mueller said, “Yes.”

*Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois read public comments that Trump had made about WikiLeaks— including “I love WikiLeaks” and “This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove”—and asked Mueller if any of these quotes disturbed him.

Mueller answered:
“Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays, giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity.”

*In a significant exchange that seemed to go beyond the “four corners of the report,” House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff questioned the Special Prosecutor:

Schiff: You believe knowingly accepting foreign assistance in a campaign to be unethical?
Mueller: And a crime…under certain circumstances.

Schiff: And it undermines our democratic institutions and is unpatriotic?
Mueller: True.

Schiff: And wrong?
Mueller: True.

Schiff: And we should hold our elected officials to a higher standard than the mere avoidance of criminality?
Mueller: Absolutely.

Schiff then asked if the need to act in an ethical manner is not only a moral one but also necessary so that it doesn’t expose the individual to compromise—which can be of a foreign nature.
Mueller: Yes.

Schiff: Blackmail?
Mueller: Also true.

Then Schiff noted the President’s denials. He’d said he hadn’t done business with the Russians. He also said if he had been doing business with Russia, “That’s not a crime. Why should I miss out on all those opportunities?”

Schiff concluded:

“We are all left to wonder whether the President is representing us or his own interests.”

I won’t go through the morning session with the House Judiciary Committee concerning potential obstruction of justice, other than to note that it yielded Mueller’s important statement that Trump could, indeed, be indicted after leaving office. 

(As I mentioned in my previous post, more than 1000 former prosecutors, who worked for both Democratic and Republican presidents, signed a statement that anyone other than the President [who couldn’t be charged due to a Justice Department precedent] would certainly have been indicted based on the findings in the Mueller Report.)

Somehow, all that possible criminality—and it seems fairly evident there was a good deal of it—does not get to me on the same visceral level as the President’s apparent indifference to/encouragement of the Russians’ disruptions of our elections.

Further evidence of the Russians’ impact came the next day, when the Senate Intelligence Committee released a bipartisan report, the first of several, stating that the Russians targeted the election systems in all 50 states in 2016 and actually probed the election systems of 21 states.

The report noted the Russians’ “unprecedented level of activity against state election infrastructure.” Though they found no evidence that any votes were changed, they observed that “Russian cyber actors were in a position to delete or change voter data” in Illinois’ voter registration database.

The report recommends that US intelligence agencies place a high priority in quickly identifying cyberattacks, and the Department of Homeland Security should develop clear channels of communication between the federal government and the states. Old outdated machines must be replaced, and paper ballots are important for backup of every vote cast.

In a statement, Committee Chair Richard Burr of North Carolina spoke of improvements that have been made “to bridge gaps in information sharing and shore up vulnerabilities” but said “There is still much work that remains to be done, however.”

Vice Chair Mark Warner of Virginia said,

“I hope the bipartisan findings and recommendations outlined in this report will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that the threat remains urgent, and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it.”

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to refuse to bring bipartisan legislation that has already passed the House to the Senate floor for a vote.

I’d like to return for a moment to Mueller’s comment that many other countries are now also pursuing ways to disrupt our elections.

One commenter noted that McConnell’s plans to keep the Republicans in control of the White House and Senate by stonewalling election system improvement funding may backfire. Iran and China, he suggested, may have other ideas about the best ways to disrupt our elections.

And I am deeply concerned that Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, who emphatically warned about the Russian involvement in testimony before Congress, and has been a target of Trump’s wrath for some time, has now “resigned.”

Trump has appointed John Ratcliffe, a Republican Congressman who strongly supports him, to replace Coats. (Senator Burr, the Intelligence Committee Chair and a Republican, has already said this nominee is unqualified.)

We know the President recently jokingly castigated Putin for his interference when they met. There is no reason to believe he will change his attitude and acknowledge and act upon this threat to our national security.

We Americans all have many important issues on our minds—pocketbook and healthcare matters, climate change and a host of others. We each have our priorities. But this is a huge issue for our democracy that I believe we must find time to act upon.

Our involvement in these matters—contacting our elected officials to urge them to fund cybersecurity measures on the state and county levels—is critically important.

Tomorrow begins the next round of debates among the Democratic candidates for President in 2020. I will be looking for those who are concerned and knowledgeable about these issues and are thinking about ways to protect our elections.

These candidates have a difficult balancing act—to show they’re tough enough to take on Trump in the general election—while not destroying one another in the primaries.

But true leadership requires strength, knowledge, character, and the ability to effectively communicate one’s vision for America.

Surely thoughtful approaches to preserving our democracy in the election in which each of them seeks to be the Democrats’ standard bearer should be a major aspect of the leadership they demonstrate to us now–when we sorely need it.

Do you agree with me about the importance of protecting our elections from cyberattacks? Polls generally say that most Americans don’t really care about this issue that much.  I hope those polls are wrong.

Annie

I’ll Be Watching Mueller’s Congressional Testimony…I Hope You Will Be Too

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This Wednesday, July 24, beginning at 8:30 am ET, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will testify—reluctantly—before two committees of the House of Representatives. I believe it is extremely important that as many people as possible watch his testimony and listen to his responses to questions.

I am deeply saddened for our country that The Mueller Report, its findings, and the man himself have become such partisan issues. According to every reputable intelligence source we have, it is indisputable that the Russians interfered with our 2016 elections.

This is cyberwarfare–and more–and it is as serious an attack as any that could have occurred. Its intentions were to disrupt our democracy and make us distrust our government and its institutions. I believe the Russians were successful beyond Vladimir Putin’s wildest dreams.

An easily digestible exploration of The Mueller Report is available in a multi-issue podcast from Lawfare, a national security blog produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution.

Lawfare calls The Mueller Report “one of the most important and consequential documents of our time,” but adds: “most people aren’t reading it.” That’s why they’ve put together the podcast, which they hope will be widely shared.

I have just listened to the first episode, “Active Measures,” and it is a fascinating examination of the report, with added interviews and just a sufficient amount of drama to hold the listener’s interest. I strongly recommend it to you all.

I will not spend much time now mentioning my dismay that Republican officials—elected and unelected—and the Republican party, which has long been deeply concerned about national security, have sought to distort the findings, malign Mueller—a lifelong Republican with an impeccable career of service—and repeat President Trump’s oft-stated meme that this is “fake news” and there was no collusion, no obstruction of justice.

The fact that Attorney General Bill Barr misrepresented the findings at the outset, thereby planting seeds of doubt in the minds of many, is another huge disappointment. But at least we will finally hear what Mueller himself has concluded—in his own words.

My intention had been to read every one of the 448 pages of The Mueller Report. However, like most Americans and—more importantly and regrettably—most members of Congress, I didn’t get around to it.

But my husband did—every page, every reference—and though he’s not an attorney, he’s a careful reader and a thoughtful and skeptical individual. So I am grateful to him for providing me with his findings and insights.

I hope you’ll find the information that follows a helpful “primer” for viewing Mueller’s testimony. And if you don’t watch or listen, I hope you’ll think very carefully about the implications of the findings for our democracy.

VOLUME 1: THE RUSSIAN ATTACK.

The primary question: Were there willing accomplices, and if so, is that provable?

What follows is background information to give context to those of you who may not have followed these developments as closely as we have.

The “Internet Research Agency”

The Russian attempts to “mess with” our democracy began with the work of the Russian-based “Internet Research Agency” (IRA) in 2014.

At that point, the intent was to gain a toehold in the US, learn about what Americans were thinking and where our divisions lay, and begin gaining online followers through social media–specifically Facebook and Twitter, with seemingly innocuous efforts appealing to cat lovers and the like.

In 2015, even before Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy, the efforts began to discredit her with phony stories, including with regard to her role as Secretary of State, delivered through bots whose origins, unknown to observers, were in Russia.

It wasn’t until 2016, when Donald Trump declared his candidacy and demonstrated strong sympathy for Russia, that the IRA’s campaign focused its considerable Internet presence of fake sites on building him up and continuing to tear Clinton down.

Based on their reconnaissance, the IRA sought to sow dissension in the US by, for example, creating fake pro-Muslim and anti-Muslim groups and staging competing rallies, in the hope of fomenting violence.

(And as we are clearly seeing today, they had rich raw material to work with: they didn’t have to create dissensions–they simply had to exacerbate already existing ones.)

When Facebook began taking down the fake sites in 2017, they had reached hundreds of millions of people and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers.

Triggers for the 2017 FBI Investigation

A series of events and media reports led to the FBI’s 2017 investigation of the Republican Party’s presidential campaign because they generated speculation about a possible conspiracy to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy to become President of the United States. They included:

*US, European Union, and Canadian sanctions against Russia for its military annexation of Crimea and an attempt to move eastern Ukraine closer to the Russian Federation.

*Multiple contacts with Russia by individuals close to then-candidate Trump.

*The deteriorating relationship between the US and Russia.

*Putin’s animus toward former Secretary of State Clinton, including his belief that she sought to undermine the Russian regime.

*Trump’s past financial history [which he often denied] with Russian financial people to maintain credit for the Trump Organization (theory: that this would make him vulnerable to blackmail)

*Wikileaks’ pseudo-journalistic public exposure of the Democratic National Committee’s internal communications.

*The FBI’s receipt of information of Russian involvement in US politics sufficiently serious to generate a counter-intelligence investigation into what role—if any—the Trump campaign played with Russia’s interference into the 2016 election.

Then, after the election, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation due to his own contacts with members of the Russian government.

President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, expressing anger that Comey refused to publicly say that Trump was not a subject of the investigation.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, an outside party who would carry on the investigation.

After the 2-1/2 year investigation, Mueller reported he could not find a conspiracy between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.

He noted, however, that people lied or claimed executive privilege to avoid questioning, making it difficult to get all the relevant facts.

Our questions: If Trump, et al, had nothing to hide (‘no collusion!”), why did they feel the need to lie repeatedly, attempt to interfere with the Special Counsel, and refuse to cooperate (while claiming that they were cooperating)?

And why are they still trying to prevent Congress from performing its Constitutionally guaranteed oversight function?

A major stumbling block was the refusal of the President to sit down for a face-to-face deposition with the Special Counsel. The President was allowed a “take-home exam,” making a comprehensive testimony with follow-up questions impossible.

As noted above, it now seems evident that by 2016, Putin thought that Trump could be nominated for US President. Putin saw Trump as sympathetic to Russia’s interests and able to blunt US interference with Russia’s plans for Eastern Europe. (Why Trump was, and continues to be, so sympathetic has been the subject of much speculation.)

In contrast, Putin viewed Clinton as a major disrupter who probably wouldn’t accede to Russia’s desire to have the US lift sanctions levied because of Crimea. The Russians began their campaign of disruption by hacking into the DNC computers and establishing a vast presence of Internet trolls planting phony stories about Clinton and the Democrats.

It may be that certain persons who were investigated for possible unlawful Russian contact were, in fact, either willing or unwitting conduits of Russian messaging (eg, Flynn, Stone, Manafort, Papadapoulos, Assange), but this information has not been proven.

It does seem that most of the activity and efforts to communicate flowed from Russia to the US.

It is difficult to say how successful Russia was in tipping the election in Trump’s favor. Polls were within the margin of error for Clinton. Without Russian involvement, Trump may have lost any advantage he received from Comey’s last-minute reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s emails (an investigation that was again closed before the election, but in the words of Trump’s campaign aide Kellyanne Conway, “The damage is done.”)

Mueller’s reference to the difficulty in nailing down  information due to lying and claims of executive privilege is significant.

There were also unanswered avenues for inquiry, such as Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s meeting with Russian ambassador Kislyak and Sergei Gorkov (VEB Bank, a major Russian-owned bank). Were these diplomatic or business—or diplomatic for business?

VOLUME TWO: INTERFERENCE WITH RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Mueller did, indeed, specify areas involving the President that could be within the legal framework of “obstructive act,” ”nexus [connection] to a pending or contemplated official proceeding,” and “intent.”

If the House of Representatives decides to open an impeachment inquiry, some or all of the following will probably become the basis for that action.

*Pressuring FBI Director Comey to end the probe of Michael Flynn.

*Firing Comey, deemed obstruction because Trump understood that the continuing investigation would give rise to personal and political concerns, ie, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen pursuing the Trump Tower deal until June 16, 2016, after Trump had stated that he’d had no business with Russia after he’d been sworn in.

*Attempting to fire Special Counsel Mueller for alleged conflicts. Trump asked White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller through Rosenstein. McGahn, fearing a Saturday night massacre akin to Watergate, refused.

*Seeking to curtail the Special Counsel investigation. The President asked Corey Lewandowski to call upon Jeff Sessions to end the investigation to prevent scrutiny of the president. Lewandowski didn’t do it.

*Seeking to keep emails about the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting from the public. (Since he didn’t attempt to keep the emails from the Special Counsel, this point didn’t fit all the criteria for obstruction)

*Asking Sessions repeatedly to “unrecuse” himself so that he could shield the President from the investigation.

*Ordering McGahn to deny that the President tried to fire the Special Counsel. McGahn refused.

*Acting toward Manafort in a manner suggesting he was dangling a pardon to keep Manafort from cooperating with the Special Counsel.

*Reacting to Michael Cohen in a way that would discourage Cohen from cooperating with the government.

*Expressing skepticism publicly about Russian involvement with the emails while he and his staff were actually trying to get more information about Wikileaks’ releases.

MUELLER’S CONCLUSION:

(The Special Counsel was operating under “longstanding” Department of Justice [DOJ] policy that prevents charging a sitting President with a federal crime.)

“BECAUSE WE DETERMINED NOT TO MAKE A TRADITIONAL PROSECUTORIAL JUDGMENT, WE DID NOT DRAW ULTIMATE CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE PRESIDENT’S CONDUCT. THE EVIDENCE WE OBTAINED ABOUT THE PRESIDENT’S ACTIONS AND INTENT PRESENTS DIFFICULT ISSUES THAT WOULD NEED TO BE RESOLVED IF WE WERE MAKING A TRADITIONAL PROSECUTORIAL JUDGMENT.

AT THE SAME TIME, IF WE HAD CONFIDENCE AFTER A THOROUGH INVESTIGATION OF THE FACTS THAT THE PRESIDENT CLEARLY DID NOT COMMIT OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE, WE WOULD SO STATE.

BASED ON THE FACTS AND THE APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS, WE ARE UNABLE TO REACH THAT JUDGMENT. ACCORDINGLY, WHILE THIS REPORT DOES NOT CONCLUDE THAT THE PRESIDENT COMMITTED A CRIME, IT ALSO DOES NOT EXONERATE HIM.”

On May 6, 2019, more than 400 former federal prosecutors who had served under both Democratic and Republican administrations [updated: now more than 1000] made a public statement saying the following:

“Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting president, result in multiple felony changes for obstruction of justice. “

You can read the entire statement here.

A few additional thoughts:

The President was saved from putting himself into even greater jeopardy by aides (McGahn, Lewandowski, and probably Hope Hicks) who advised him against certain actions and/or did not follow through on his requests that they implement illegal acts.

We think—as do others—that separating the two parts of the report weakened the Special Counsel’s effort. The items of obstruction were proof to us that the President felt that the investigation could lead to something so damaging that it was worth the effort to interfere and discredit and/or fire Mueller.

These actions strongly suggest that he either knew or at least recognized that Putin was doing plenty to tilt the election in his favor.

As far as we know, the impetus for the Russian contacts came from Russian sources. However, by soft-pedaling Russia’s activities—most recently laughing with Putin about the findings at their last meeting—he certainly seems complicit in Russia’s efforts.

At best, he appears to be responsible for serious dereliction of duty in denying the implications of Russia’s cyberattack, refusing to denounce Putin, and failing to marshal all efforts to prevent a repeat in 2020.

One final, related note:

Richard Clarke, a White House counterterrorism advisor to four presidents, who tried to warn the Bush administration about the imminence of an attack just before 9/11, has written a new book about cyber threats. He points out that there are more than 4000 counties in the US running their own elections. They need help. But, he said in an NPR interview:

:...Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican majority leader, is standing in the way of a bill that has passed the House to give hundreds of millions of dollars’ assistance to the counties and to the states so that we can improve their cybersecurity. Right now, it’s impossible to have all of these counties and all these state governments even know when they’re under attack. Many of them say they’ve never been attacked. Well, they have no capability of knowing.” 

Why is McConnell refusing to allow this bill to come to a vote in the Senate?

The public and the media must press McConnell to give us an answer.

Where are the patriots? Who is protecting us from foreign cyberattacks and other interventions in our elections? How will we know if the results of the 2020 election are valid? And what would the lack of certainty mean for our democracy?

Annie