No collusion. Yes obstruction

I finally finished reading Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election (at least the portions that were not redacted). This is a summary of the principal conclusions I reached from reading it: no collusion, yes obstruction. Allow me to elaborate.

I speculated before the release of the Mueller report that Mueller had a “smoking gun” that would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Donald Trump conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. It turns out that I was wrong about that. I was surprised to discover that Mueller uncovered no concrete evidence that Trump actively and directly conspired with any Russian agents to that end. In fact, there is little information in Volume I (the part about Russian interference) that was not already part of the public record from investigative reporting, indictments, and guilty pleas. Therefore, I accept Mueller’s contention that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

I used the term “no collusion” in the title only as a sarcastic reference to the countless times Trump said or tweeted “no collusion.” The truth is that Trump clearly colluded with Russia when he said on live TV, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” But collusion is not a legal construct, so Mueller explicitly reported that he did not look at the evidence through a collusion lens. He looked for evidence that Trump conspired with Russia to defraud the United States. Unlike collusion, conspiracy is a crime but Mueller could not find evidence that all the elements of conspiracy as defined by federal law were met by Trump as relates to Russia’s interference in the election. So one of my principal conclusions is actually that there was no conspiracy. For all you Trump supporters to whom I said “mark my words,” now is the time for you to tell me “I told you so.”

But Mueller’s report also has a Volume II and it tells a different story. Volume II focuses on obstruction of justice and, contrary to Trump’s assertion, it does not exonerate him. It implicates Trump on at least four counts of obstruction. I’m not referring to obstruction in the vernacular; I’m talking about obstruction of justice as defined by federal law. The report cites almost a dozen incidents that seemed obstructive on their face. It sets out all of the elements that the law requires for the crime of obstruction then it carefully analyzes them against the facts. The report is fair to Trump because it calls out the cases which meet some but lack all of the elements required for a conviction of obstruction of justice. Nonetheless, the report still shows that all of the elements required for a conviction exist in at least five of the incidents.

Graphical analysis of fourteen counts of obstruction of justice from Mueller Report
Analysis of fourteen counts of obstruction of justice

This raises the question of how there can be obstruction of justice if there was no underlying crime of conspiracy. The law does not identify an underlying crime as one of the legal elements required for obstruction and there is a good reason for it. When agents begin an investigation, they don’t know if what they’re investigating is criminal. Sometimes even the target does not know. If the target of an investigation could legally obstruct it when there’s no underlying crime, that would give incentive for a target to obstruct when there is an underlying crime. After all, if they could obstruct the investigation well enough, they could prevent a conviction for their underlying crime, thereby resulting in justice being done for neither their underlying crime nor obstruction. That’s why it’s a crime to obstruct justice whether an underlying crime has been committed or not.

This raises another question of why the Special Counsel did not indict Trump since the report clearly lays out sufficient evidence of obstruction of justice to get a conviction. There’s no need for conjecture about this question—Mueller explicitly tells us that his reason is to show fairness to the president. The Department of Justice (DoJ) has a longstanding policy that prohibits prosecuting the sitting president. However, an indictment is an accusation that the defendant committed a crime. In normal circumstances, the trial is the defendant’s opportunity to publicly present evidence that refutes the accusation. But this is not a normal circumstance because the DoJ will not prosecute a president while he is in office, so he would not have the opportunity to publicly defend himself against accusation of a crime. Therefore, it would not be fair to Trump for the Special Counsel to implicate him while he is president. The only remedy the U.S. Constitution gives to determine if a sitting president is guilty of a crime, and for the president to defend himself against the accusation, is impeachment. Since impeachment is the purview of congress, not the DoJ, Mueller simply reported the facts and law related to obstruction with the intention that the House of Representatives use the information to decide whether or not to impeach Trump.

Although Mueller did not explicitly state as much, over 500 former federal prosecutors have signed on to a letter which states that, if Trump was not the sitting president, he would have been found guilty of obstruction of justice from the evidence laid out in Mueller’s report, saying:

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 charges for obstruction of justice.

Mernitz, David W., et al. “Statement By Former Federal Prosecutors”. May 6, 2019. Medium.com.

They add that “these are not matters of close professional judgment…to look at these facts and say that a prosecutor could not probably sustain a conviction for obstruction of justice — the standard set out in Principles of Federal Prosecution — runs counter to logic and our experience.” I’m not a lawyer but I’ve read Mueller’s report, which is written in large part in layman’s terms, and it’s pretty clear to me. I agree with the 500 prosecutors referenced above that Trump is guilty of obstruction of justice.

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Bring the troops home

News alert: I agree with a decision President Donald Trump made! I have opposed almost every thing he has said and every action he has taken as president, so I think it’s important to recognize when I agree with him. Let me qualify it by saying that I think Trump made the decision precipitously and is executing on it in a reckless and foolish manner. But I agree with the bottom line that American troops should be vacating Syria and Afghanistan completely and in the near future.

I’m one of the few people who agree with Trump. The U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, Brett McGurk, resigned in protest over Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. Even the most stalwart of Trump supporters, Lindsey Graham, gave the president the harshest of criticism by invoking his nemesis Barack Obama, saying to Trump that “I believe you are on course to make the same mistake President Obama made in Iraq.” Surprisingly, Democrats are also criticizing Trump’s dovish decision, with the Speaker of the House-to-be Nancy Pelosi calling it a “Christmas gift to Vladimir Putin.”

Granted, it was a knee-jerk decision based on a phone call with President Erdoğan of Turkey rather than in consultation with Trump’s national security team but it was the right decision. Granted, he should have carefully planned the withdrawal with the Pentagon and in coordination with our coalition partners before tweeting that “it’s time to bring our young people home” from Syria and considering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But as a principle, I think the withdrawal of American troops from the greater Middle East is long overdue.

I understand the arguments against doing so and even agree with them to some degree. Yes, there are still thousands of ISIS fighters in Syria but I agree with Trump’s assessment that “on Syria, we were originally…

It would be naive to think that ISIS could be completely eradicated, no matter how long American troops stayed in Syria. Proponents of our presence in Syria would say that we should wait until the conditions are more favorable for a withdrawal but they neither say what those conditions would look like nor offer objective benchmarks that would identify when the conditions have been met. And while they might be able to tinker around the edges to provide some temporary help in isolated situations, it’s also naive to think our troops could have any significant positive impact on the clusterfuck of overall conditions in Syria long term.

The situation in Afghanistan is much the same in terms of the outcomes we could expect. We have been there for seventeen years now and the security situation has been relatively stagnant for well over a decade. Russia got bogged down in Afghanistan for twenty years before they were smart enough to withdraw. Let’s not waste more years there than Russia did because we’re too proud to admit we did not win a war. We have not been able to eradicate the Taliban in seventeen years and we wouldn’t be able to do it in seventy years. As in Syria, staying in Afghanistan any longer would not have any significant positive impact on the overall conditions there either.

So mark my words—President Trump is right to order our troops to withdraw from the greater Middle East. He should listen to his own national security team for advice on how to do it rather than succumbing to the whims of other autocrats. But one way or the other, he should bring the troops home.

It’s spawning season for the common Politicianus localis here. The species is parasitic in the adult form as it attaches itself inextricably to its food source (the American dollar) and becomes very difficult to eradicate. But it’s a real pest during spawning season in Irvine because you can see the larvae sprouting out of the lawns by the thousands, making the street side very unsightly. The larval form is about 2′ x 3′ but completely flat, typically displaying colorful red, white, & blue lettering. Fortunately, most larvae do not survive to become fully fledged politicians and they will be gone from the lawns by the end of November.

The conservative Resistance

While it’s true that congressional Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan consistently provide political cover to president Donald Trump, don’t assume that conservative Americans are a monolith of support for him. When you see criticism of Trump on social media, you’ll also see his supporters leaping to the conclusion that the critics could not possibly be conservative. They refute the criticism by calling the critics “Dumbocrats” or “libtards” rather than responding to the substance of the criticism.

But there are plenty of conservative icons who strongly oppose Trump. And when you see someone you’ve never heard of complaining about the president, they might very well be conservative too—they might even be Republican. Before you dismiss my point as “fake news” simply because I’m progressive, research how the following notable conservative minds feel about Trump:

I came up with this long list of conservatives and Republicans who are part of the Resistance off the top of my head. A little investigation will uncover plenty more widely known people on the Right who criticize Trump. And for every famous conservative on this list, there are millions of everyday American conservatives who are appalled by the actions of president Trump. So before you pop off at his critics assuming that they are hating on Trump only because Hillary Clinton lost the election, stop and consider the possibility that they are very much like you ideologically (other than not being in the thrall of Trump).

My “ ” pet peeve

It irritates me when I hear a layperson say a particular phrase. But it really gets on my nerve when someone who speaks for a living says it. A professional should know better than to use this spoken phrase but I still hear it all…the…time. The phrase that peeves me to hear is “quote unquote.”

To be clear, I have no problem with people quoting others. It’s the spoken construction of the quote that bothers me. When someone speaks the words “quote unquote” followed by the quotation, it’s confusing and makes the speaker sound dimwitted.

The spoken words “quote” and “unquote” should be used the same way quotation marks are used in writing. When you write a quotation, you write the open quote character followed by the quotation and then end with the close quote character. That way, the reader knows the words between the quotation marks are a direct quote.

But you would never write the open quote character followed immediately by the close quote character then write the quotation. If you did, it would look like the way I intentionally titled this blog as an example of what not to do. The way I titled this blog is confusing and makes me appear to be dimwitted. Instead, you would write the open quote character followed immediately by the quotation then write the close quote character at the end of the quote. It would look like this: My “pet peeve.”

Speaking a quotation should work the same way. Say “quote” in place of the written open quote character, state the quotation, then say “unquote” in place of the close quote character. For example, the correct way to speak the title of this blog would be “my quote pet peeve unquote.”

Of course, you don’t always have to say “unquote.” If it’s clear from the context of the quotation where it ends or if you stop speaking at the end of the quotation, you can drop the word “unquote” from the end of the quotation. But you should always precede a spoken quotation with just the one word “quote.” That’s all it takes to make me unpeeved.

Economies in mirror appear larger than they are

During the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump promised Americans that, as their president, he would usher in “tremendous” economic expansion of as much as six percent. While that growth rate has not materialized, the USA’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an annual rate of 4.1% in the second quarter of 2018. That’s respectable growth, so president Trump boasted that “we have accomplished an economic turnaround of historic proportions.” That’s true if you look back only the year and a half that Trump has occupied the Oval Office. However, if your historical perspective is longer, the proportion of the GDP’s growth is not so large after all (click chart below to view full size).

Quarterly GDP change higher than 4 percent
Highlighted quarters had greater than four percent GDP growth (annualized)

Other than Q2 2018, the GDP has grown less than three percent each quarter since Trump’s inauguration. In comparison:

  • There were four quarters during president Barack Obama’s term in which the growth rate exceeded 4.1%—once even surpassing five percent. And Obama had to start his term with the economy mired in the Great Recession that president Bush handed off to him.
  • The GDP growth was larger yet during president Bill Clinton’s administration. Trump’s best quarter so far would have been only the thirteenth best quarter during Clinton’s term, when eight quarters were larger than five percent and one even reached 7.5%. Now that’s HUGE by historic proportions!

It’s also important to understand that the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports quarterly results on an annualized basis. That means the growth rate it reports for each quarter is the amount the GDP would grow if the rate in the given quarter were to be sustained for an entire fiscal year. So the 4.1% annual growth rate Trump is touting is much larger than the actual rate the GDP has grown for any full year he has been POTUS.

Yes, growth was strong in Q2 2018. But the GDP only grew 2.2% (annualized) in the first quarter of this year. Therefore, for the GDP to achieve an actual growth rate of 4.1% for the full fiscal year 2018, the quarterly growth will have to average over five percent (annualized) in both of the remaining quarters of fiscal year 2018. It would be nice for the economy to grow that fast this year but, with the growing headwinds of an escalating trade war, it will be a very tall order.

So Americans should be pleased to see the strong growth the GDP underwent last quarter. But they need to keep in mind that it’s only a snapshot of a single quarter. In retrospect, the growth of the GDP appears larger than it was.