The fallout from the story of Trump calling soldiers “suckers” and “losers” continues. Yesterday, Trump told reporters that military leaders don’t like him because they want to funnel work to defense contractors. “The top people in the Pentagon… want to do nothing but fight wars so all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy,” he said. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows tried to spin this as Trump’s attempt to protect soldiers from “the military industrial complex,” a phrase Republican President Dwight Eisenhower used to warn against funneling tax dollars into military contracts. Trump then retweeted posts comparing himself to Eisenhower.
In fact, Trump has made military build-up and selling US weapons abroad key to his foreign policy. His Defense Secretary, Mark T. Esper, is a former top lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon, and last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared an emergency to push through $8.1 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after lawmakers of both parties objected to the sale.
Trump’s about-face from boasting how he has built up the military to saying he opposes military build-up seems most likely to be simply another angle of attack against a story that is not dying. Yesterday, in The Atlantic, conservative columnist David Frum published a story titled “Everyone Knows It’s True.” Frum noted that while the First Lady, Cabinet secretaries, and Fox News Channel personalities have all insisted the story is false, the people who worked closely with Trump on military matters have remained resolutely silent.
Frum wrote, “Where are the senior officers of the United States armed forces, serving and retired—the men and women who worked most closely on military affairs with President Trump? Has any one of them stepped forward to say, ‘That’s not the man I know’? How many wounded warriors have stepped forward to attest to Trump’s care and concern for them? How many Gold Star families have stepped forward on Trump’s behalf? How many service families? The silence is resounding.”
Today, Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen released his new book. It, too, spoke of a disconnect between Trump’s public words and his private attitudes. “The cosmic joke was that Trump convinced a vast swath of working-class white folks in the Midwest that he cared about their well-being,” Cohen wrote. “The truth was that he couldn’t care less.” “Everyone other than the ruling class on earth was like an ant, to his way of thinking, their lives meaningless and always subject to the whims of the true rulers of the world,” he said.
Trump’s apparent tendency to treat women as subject to the whims of others was in the news today as his attempt to get rid of E. Jean Carroll’s defamation lawsuit is threatening the rule of law. In 2019, Trump denied he had raped Carroll, a journalist, more than 20 years ago, saying he had never met her and suggesting she was making up the story for publicity to sell a forthcoming book “or carry out a political agenda.” In November 2019, she sued him in New York for defamation.
Trump tried to stall Carroll’s lawsuit, arguing that a president was immune from civil lawsuits in state court, but in August, a federal judge rejected his bid and allowed the case to proceed. Carroll’s lawyers have asked for a DNA sample to match against material on clothing she was wearing when she says he assaulted her.
Today, lawyers from the Department of Justice asked to take over the case, arguing that Trump was acting in his official capacity as president when he denied knowing Carroll and thus should be defended by the DOJ, which is funded by taxpayer dollars. CNN legal analyst Elie Honig called this “a wild stretch by DOJ…. I can’t remotely conceive how DOJ can argue with a straight face that it is somehow within the official duties of the President to deny a claim that he committed sexual assault years before he took office.” He continued: “This is very much consistent with Barr’s well-established pattern of distorting fact and law to protect Trump and his allies.”
According to University of Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck, the argument that Trump was acting “within the scope of his employment” when he defamed E. Jean Carroll is an attempt to get the suit dismissed altogether, because the government itself cannot be sued for defamation. Slate’s legal writer Mark Joseph Stern called the move “shocking and profoundly disgusting… and appalling and irredeemable debasement of the Justice Department, a direct threat to the very legitimacy of an agency that is responsible for enforcing federal law.”
The corruption of the DOJ was in the news in another way today, too, as White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told Fox News Channel personality Maria Bartiromo that he has seen “additional” documents from John Durham’s investigation that spell “trouble” for former FBI officials who began the inquiry into the ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. Attorney General William Barr appointed Durham to investigate the FBI after the agency’s independent inspector general reported that the Russia investigation was begun legitimately (the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee agreed). “Additional documents that I’ve been able to review say that a number of the players, the Peter Strzoks, the Andy McCabes, the James Comeys, and even others in the administration previously are in real trouble because of their willingness to participate in an unlawful act and I use the word unlawful at best, it broke all kinds of protocols and at worst people should go to jail as I mentioned previously,” Meadows said.
But observers were quick to note that the White House chief of staff should not have seen any documents in a pending DOJ criminal investigation. Meadows might be making up the story that he has seen such documents. He has been in the news before for a loose relationship with facts: he represented that he earned a four-year college degree when, in fact, he earned a degree equivalent to two years at a community college. Or his comments might mean the DOJ is coordinating with the White House. Neither is good news.
Three drafts of a report from the Department of Homeland Security reviewed by Politico today give some insight into the upcoming election. They warn that Russia is trying to spread disinformation in the US, saying that “Moscow’s primary aim is to weaken the United States through discord, division, and distraction in hopes of making America less able to challenge Russia’s strategic objectives. Some influence activity might spill over into the physical world and motivate domestic actors to violence.” The report predicts foreign cyberattacks on the 2020 election, focusing on the personal information of voters, municipal and state networks, and state election officials. It notes that “Russia already is using online influence operations in an attempt to sway US voter perceptions” and to drive down minority participation in the election.
Even more striking, though, under “terrorism,” the first draft of the report says “Lone offenders and small cells of individuals motivated by a diverse array of social, ideological, and personal factors will pose the primary terrorist threat to the United States. Among these groups, we assess that white supremacist extremists—who increasingly are networking with likeminded persons abroad—will post the most persistent and lethal threat” throughout 2021. They will use “simple tactics—such as vehicle ramming, small arms, edged weapons, arson, and rudimentary improvised explosive devices” to encourage violence within the United States.” The report warns that they might well target campaign activities and election events.
According to the first draft report, white supremacists are more dangerous than foreign terrorist groups, which are “constrained.” The next two drafts watered down the words “white supremacist extremists,” calling them “domestic violent extremists.” But all three drafts note that white supremacists have killed 39 of the 48 people judged to have died from terrorism in the US between 2018 and 2019.
None of the three reports refers to any threat from “Antifa,” the loose group of anti-fascist activists the Trump administration often describes as the instigators of recent unrest. Instead, two of the drafts say that rightwing extremists are trying to escalate lawful protests into violence.
The documents were leaked to Ben Wittes, the editor in chief of the national security website Lawfare, a leak that suggests someone at DHS is concerned about the administration’s apparent encouragement of rightwing extremists. (The citation for the first draft of the report is in tonight’s notes. It’s worth reading.)
Finally, on Rachel Maddow’s television show tonight, former Trump fixer Michael Cohen confirmed something that many of us have suspected all along. “Trump never thought he was going to win this election, he actually did not want to win this election,” Cohen said. “This was a branding deal. That’s all that the presidential campaign started out as, this was a branding opportunity in order to expand worldwide.”