the other side

Because I want to be informed, even when it is scary, I listened to the first day of Trump’s defense in the impeachment trial.

It was puzzling.

A lot of what the president’s team spoke about wasn’t related to the case. It seemed that they were bringing up a lot of different issues in order to distract from the evidence that the House managers had presented over the three days of their presentation.

There were also a number of instances in which the defense would quote a certain person’s testimony and say, because that person didn’t know a certain piece of information, then it must not be true, failing to note that another witness or piece of evidence did provide that information. They also complained about there not being proof of such-and-such, which would be either proven or disproven if the administration hadn’t blocked all document requests and subpoenas for testimony.

It’s also confusing when the president’s lawyers try to draw parallels between this impeachment investigation and prior ones that had had a justice department investigation prior to Congressional proceedings. Other things are just strange, such as the defense saying that Congressional committees need a vote in the House before issuing subpoenas and/or document requests. Congressional committees routinely issue document and testimony requests in their oversight investigations.

If I, a citizen with no legal training, can notice these things, how can the senators, many of whom are lawyers or who have staff with legal expertise, fail to notice these problems?

I don’t know if the president’s team will make more sense in the next two days of the trial or not, but their first day is not at all convincing.
*****
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awesome

I have been watching major chunks of the impeachment proceedings against Donald John Trump, as he is officially referred to in the impeachment and trial.

The House managers, members of the House of Representatives who act a prosecutors, have been impressive in presenting their case, as well as pointing out which documents and testimony they have subpoenaed, but not received, which relates to the second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress. (The first article is abuse of power, which, in this trial, is related to solicitation of Ukraine for help in the president’s election bid.)

The House managers take turns presenting evidence in a very methodical way, using video clips, emails, phone records, etc. to make their case. They are all well-prepared and well-spoken, but one is especially awesome – Representative Adam Schiff of California.

Rep. Schiff was a federal prosecutor and has comprehensive knowledge of the law. He chairs the Senate Intelligence committee, which did most of the fact-finding in the case, and was named lead House manager. As such, he has acted as the “closer” for the presentations, speaking with conviction and, at times, passion about the United States, our laws, and our futures. I found the closing of the second day of testimony to be especially powerful.

There was some talk, although not from him, that Adam Schiff might run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. I’m glad that he didn’t, because he is exactly where our country needs him the most right now, speaking up for the Constitution and laws and against corruption.

The case that he and the other House managers have made is so compelling that I am frightened when I hear that some Republican members of Congress are dismissing them totally and that the president will engage in even more corrupt behavior, knowing he will not have to suffer the consequences for his actions.

I am terrified for both the short-term and the long-term consequences for our democracy if a president is allowed to be so openly corrupt and is not removed from office. With Rep. Schiff, I believe, “Right matters and the truth matters.”
*****
Usually when I post on Saturdays, I follow Linda’s Stream of Consciousness prompt. This week’s involved writing about the last unsolicited business call we received, but, between caller id, do not call registry, and new spam blocking, I don’t receive those kinds of calls anymore. Instead, you are subjected to more non-stream-of-consciousness posting on the ongoing impeachment trial of Donald John Trump. I’m sure that is more painful than unsolicited business calls.

But, please visit Linda here, and join the fun for Stream of Consciousness Saturday and/or Just Jot It January.

trepidation

As I am starting to write this, it is about 8 AM EST, which is the same time zone as Washington, DC and I am watching the morning news. The lead story is the impeachment trial, which will begin at 1 PM. The reason it needs to start in the afternoon is that Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over the Senate trial while still presiding over the Supreme Court for its sessions that are held in the morning.

Beyond that, there are many unknowns.

Last evening, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell finally released his proposal for the ground rules of the trial. Although he has been saying they would be like the last presidential impeachment trial, which was President Clinton’s in 1999, they differ in significant ways.

Perhaps what I find most shocking is that the evidence from the House impeachment investigation is not going to be automatically entered into the record. In the Clinton trial, there were hundreds of pages just from the Starr report, plus underlying evidence, that were entered into the record. I hope that there will be an amendment for evidence inclusion while the rules are debated. Even though Republicans have the majority, they should all vote for evidence! How can there be a trial without evidence?

Sen. McConnell has said that he is coordinating with the White House whose strategy appears to be to argue that the House didn’t have legal and Constitutional grounds for impeachment. Even so, I think evidence is important to make that argument. I myself am curious about how they can argue no laws were broken when withholding Congressionally approved aid is illegal according to the Government Accountability Office (first article) and Roger Stone was recently convicted of obstruction of Congress (second article).

Another strange thing about McConnell’s rules is that the timeline is so condensed. Each side has 24 hours – but only two days – for opening arguments. [Update: McConnell extended this to three days, just as the trial began.] Given that the proceedings can’t start until 1 PM and there will need to be some breaks for participants to attend to personal needs, the trial could go into the early morning hours. This is a punishingly long day, especially for Chief Justice Roberts, who needs to be at the Supreme Court for morning session. It also makes it nearly impossible for the public to watch the entire trial, although some media specialists have pointed out the trial will be ongoing during television prime time. This could lead to the legal teams timing their strongest arguments to coincide with when more voters would be available to watch.

When the rules for the Clinton impeachment were passed, the vote was 100-0. The senators had worked together to come up with the rules. This time, McConnell has drafted the rules himself with no input from Democrats. Given that the Republicans hold 53 seats, McConnell’s rules could pass without amendment. This would fly in the face not only of fairness but also of public sentiment. Support for impeachment and removal from office is about 50%. Support for a fair trial with witnesses is even higher, about 70%. By contrast, only a third of Americans wanted Clinton removed from office. While additional witnesses were not initially allowed, there was a vote for additional witnesses during the trial; they gave written testimony.

In the current trial, unless there is a surprise in the rules vote today, the vote on additional witnesses can’t take place until both sides have presented opening arguments and the senators have had 16 hours of questions. Witnesses are especially important in this trial because the White House has blocked testimony and documents from the House investigation. There has been a lot of circular reasoning from the Republicans on the impeachment and trial.  They are saying that the Democrats haven’t proven their case but the House’s requests for documents and witnesses have been blocked, so how could they prove the case, especially if they won’t accept the evidence that the House was able to obtain, including from some witnesses who honored House subpoenas, even when the White House told them not to?

This is mind-boggling. It’s one thing for the White House to argue that the behavior doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. It’s quite another to not allow the House to make their case based on facts from evidence, testimony, and the Constitution and laws.

Given that all senators took an oath to “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws,” they should vote no on anything that restricts evidence.

I won’t hold my breath…

[Note: this is a synopsis of what I am seeing on the news, with a bit of my reaction. It is certainly at the top of my mind today, but I am also including it because there are people who get news from blogs rather than more traditional media who might be interested, as well as people outside the US who might not have as much access to this information.]
*****
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and so it begins…

Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signed the articles of impeachment and named seven impeachment managers, House members who will act as prosecutors in the Senate trial. The managers ceremoniously walked the articles through the Capitol to the Senate Chamber, starting a 24-hour clock in which the trial must begin.

Much is being made of the way Speaker Pelosi signed the bill, using a different pen for each letter. That is often done when signing historic legislation, so that people who are important to that piece of legislation have a memento of it. I remember the ceremony when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in this fashion; one of the pens went to the head of the Catholic hospitals who had publicly advocated for passage of the bill.

Some have questioned the solemnity of the procession through the Capitol building, but this is part of the Congressional tradition, seen most recently after the impeachment of President Clinton. Among the House managers, who will act as prosecutors in the trial, are Representatives Adam Schiff and Zoe Lofgren. Rep. Schiff is a former prosecutor who is chair of the House Intelligence committee, which is conducting an ongoing investigation of the Ukraine situation at the heart of the impeachment articles. This is the third impeachment on which Judiciary committee member Rep. Lofgren has worked. As a law student, she assisted the Judiciary committee in drafting the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. She was a member of the Judiciary committee during the Clinton impeachment.

Speaker Pelosi has been criticized for not sending the articles to the Senate immediately after the House passed them in December, but, at that point, Congress was getting ready to adjourn for a long holiday break. During the break, more evidence in the case became public and even more has come to light in recent days. This is important particularly if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocks new evidence at the trial. It has also given the public a chance to see more of the evidence, which puts pressure on senators to actually consider the evidence instead of voting only by party.

Today, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will swear in each senator to “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.” Some senators, most notably Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, have stated publicly that they are not impartial. Other senators have made a point of not reading the depositions and testimony gathered by the House. There is a question of whether or not there will be new evidence accepted or if there will be subpoenas for additional witnesses to testify. The House investigation was impeded by the White House and the rest of the executive branch, which refused requests for documents and testimony, even when it had been subpoenaed. A few officials chose to honor the subpoenas on their own and gave valuable testimony to the House investigation. Some documents were released through Freedom of Information requests from non-governmental organizations. The way the president and his staff have treated legitimate requests from Congress seems to me to prove the second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress.

I hope that, now that the time has come, each senator will treat their oath seriously. If they do not, I hope that they will either not run for re-election or will be defeated if they do. The public deserves a full and fair trial. If the president is not removed from office, “we the people” need to know the extent of the evidence against the president and his team, including the vice-president, in order to inform our voting decisions in November.

The senators should also soberly consider the impact of their decisions in this case on the country’s future. The president has publicly called on foreign powers to interfere in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. Evidence already available supports this. A vote against the first article of impeachment means that the senator believes that an attack on our national sovereignty is not a “high crime or misdemeanor” – or is only a high crime or misdemeanor if the president is not a member of their party. A vote against the second article of impeachment means that it is okay with that senator for a president to defy all requests for documents and testimony, making constitutionally mandated oversight of the executive branch by the Congress impossible. It means that there is no longer a system of checks and balances among the three branches of government and that the president can get away with any action, however illegal, immoral, or unethical it may be – again, presumably, if the president is a member of your party.

That kind of political expediency may save a Congressperson’s seat for now, but will most likely be judged harshly by history.
*****
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Review: Just Mercy

Knowing that a film is portraying real people and the situations they face immediately increases its impact for me. Just Mercy is based on a book by lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, who, after graduating from Harvard Law School moved to Alabama to offer legal defense to those who could not afford representation and to those wrongly convicted.

One of his early cases involved Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, movingly portrayed by Jamie Foxx, who was on death row for a murder that he did not commit. Having just arrived in Alabama, Bryan Stevenson, played earnestly by Michael B. Jordan, delves into the case and finds ample evidence that shows Johnny D could not have murdered the 18-year-old young woman. It also quickly becomes apparent that race was a huge factor in McMillian’s conviction. The victim was white and McMillian is black.

It also quickly becomes apparent that Attorney Stevenson, who is also black, will encounter racial obstacles in his professional life and harassment by law enforcement officers and the legal establishment, but he continues to do all he can to seek justice for his clients, their families, and their community.

I have long been opposed to the death penalty. I remember writing an essay against it when I was still in grammar school. While my opposition centered around the moral belief that killing a person is wrong and the Constitutional grounds that the death penalty constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” this film illustrates some of the other reasons to oppose the death penalty, such as systemic racism in the legal system, incompetent defense attorneys, and lack of recognition and treatment of mental illness.  There is also the horrible possibility of executing an innocent person.

One of the most moving things about the film for me was the support that the men on death row gave one another. Even though they couldn’t often see each other because the walls between them were solid, they would shout to each other to exchange information and offer words of comfort. They would use the bars at the front of the cell and a metal cup to let another man know they are thinking about him.

The film is rated PG-13 and would be too emotionally difficult for children. There are sequences that I found emotionally difficult, especially the one execution that is shown. While the execution itself is not shown on screen, the lead-up to it is heartbreaking.

I always stay to watch the credits of films. Even if you usually do not, you will want to stay through the first part of the credits which gives updates on the people that we meet during the film. It is a final reminder that we are dealing with the lives of real people, what happened to them, and the implications of those events that continue into our present and future as a country.

A note from Joanne:  This is the fifth(!) film I have seen this month. I have never been to a theater so many times in a two week-period. Those of you who are new to Top of JC’s Mind should know that this is not usually a movie review blog. You just happened to catch me at a time when movies are swirling in my mind.
*****
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socialism?

In the film adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I think of that quote every time I hear someone accuse Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, or any other member of Congress of being a socialist.

Merriam-Webster defines socialism as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” The second definition is a) “a system of society or group living in which there is no private property” b) “a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.”

No member of the United States Congress is calling for the abolition of private property or for government ownership of businesses. Capitalism continues, although with more legislation to ensure that workers are paid adequate wages, have safe work conditions, and are protected from discrimination or abuse.

Most proposals also call for higher taxes on the very wealthy. The top marginal tax rate in the United States was 70% or higher from 1936-1980. To be clear, the US income tax is a graduated tax. The first bracket of taxes is at a low rate; as income increases, the percentage of tax also increases. If someone is being paid millions of dollars a year, they still pay a low rate on the first bracket amount, paying a higher amount on each bracket. Only the amount of income above the starting level of the highest bracket is charged at the top marginal rate. For reference, the top marginal tax rate is currently 37% for income over $510,300/individual or $612,350/married couple.

None of the health care reform proposals is calling for “socialized medicine.” This system, which is currently used in the United Kingdom, is one in which the medical providers work directly for the government. All the proposals of the Democratic presidential candidates are either a combination of public and private health insurance or single-payer systems. Medical care providers continue to work for private practices, hospitals, etc. as they do now. In the single-payer system, the government acts as the insurer. This is the system in place in Canada. The current Medicare system is a form of single-payer, although many recipients also have a private supplemental plan. The “Medicare-for-all” proposals also expand Medicare to include dental, vision, and hearing care, while cutting premiums and co-pays to at or near zero.

What confuses things more is that a few members of Congress consider themselves “democratic socialists.” What they favor is what is generally called “social democracy” in Europe. Many European countries have a social-democratic party and use some of these principles in their governments. The Nordic countries are structured with a lot of social democracy principles. They have strong social safety nets and much lower levels of income inequality than the US, and their citizens rank among the happiest in the world. Yet, the vast majority of their workers still work for private companies.

So, the next time you hear “socialist” being thrown about as an epithet or a scare tactic, ask yourself if the speaker is using the word accurately. Chances are high that they are not.
*****
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Blowout by Rachel Maddow

One of the most impressive parts of Rachel Maddow’s book Blowout is the end. No, not the index, but the twenty pages of “Notes on Sources.” I had often found myself thinking as I read the text, “How could she possibly know this level of detail?” but I know that Rachel Maddow and her staff are very dedicated to research and accuracy, so I didn’t doubt the veracity of the stories she was relating. I was pleased to see the “Notes on Sources” because she lists the books, papers, interviews, news stories, videos, magazines, etc. that she had used to find the facts, giving readers a chance to learn more and showing that she and her staff had, indeed, been diligent in their research.

The full title of the book is Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth. That industry is, of course, the oil and gas industry.

Because of my many years in the anti-fracking and climate justice movements, I was familiar with the broad outlines of much of the oil and gas industry story. I appreciated the abundance of details on topics such as Oklahoma, the depths to which it rises or falls on fossil fuel dollars, earthquakes and induced seismicity, and the rise of Oklahoma City, including its entance into the world of big-league sports. I knew that Russia used its fossil fuel exports as a cudgel and that Putin and his oligarchs ran roughshod over whomever stood in their way, but hadn’t realized all the factors involved, including the immensity of the impact of US sanctions that stopped Rex Tillerson’s ExxonMobil from assisting Russian Arctic drilling and spearheaded Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

I was less familiar with the expressions of the “resource curse” in other parts of the world, such as Equatorial Guinea. These stories illustrate how the proceeds of the oil and gas industry flow to the already powerful leaders of government and industry and not to the general populations of the countries, who often remain mired in poverty and ecological devastation.

While I brought a considerable amount of personal background/geekery to my reading, the book is equally as enjoyable and informative for those who know little of the industry. Maddow’s writing is clear and compelling. Much of the book reads like literature, with compelling, recurring characters, rich details, and unexpected plot twists. That the stories are all true heightens their impact.

That we are continuing to deal with the repercussions of the events in this book makes reading it that much more important.
*****
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