Good Friday Morning! There’s a lot to get to this week between military skirmishes in Israel, the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and more information on the Cohen/Stormy Daniels saga. I’ll get to that and more below, I’m testing out a new quick hits feature where I’ll cover more topics at less depth, but I’ll still have some more in-depth analysis. I have a full column coming out on the situation in Israel involving Gaza and Hamas, that should go live sometime this afternoon on the Conservative Institute, so keep an eye out there. Links to follow!
New this week at the Conservative Institute
The United States is finally free of former President Barack Obama’s “prized” Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal earlier this week.
And that decision deserves only one reaction: applause.
The latest debate sweeping the American intellectual class is whether or not something exists called the “Intellectual Dark Web.”
In a recent long-form essay in the New York Times, Bari Weiss traces a phenomenon in which well-known public intellectuals, speakers, writers, and comedians have been forced from prominent institutions of culture, driven out by some opinion or words they spoke that offended the mass sensibilities of modern progressive culture.
Avenatti’s SAR reports and the leakers going to jail
Last week, you may recall I was highly skeptical of how Stormy Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti got access to SAR banking records on former Trump attorney Michael Cohen. As I said then:
The million dollar question is how did Avenatti get SAR information to start blaring across TV and his website? If a bank employee did it, they would face legal penalties, no question. Avenatti shouldn’t fall under the SAR designations here, but his decision to blast SAR information across all media comes across as highly unethical. Caroline Court, a federal defense lawyer, thinks similarly along these lines and dug up the California Rules for Professional Conduct for lawyers:
SAR, or Suspicious Activity Reports, are highly confidential and regulated banking reports sent to the US government (FINCEN). The government uses SAR to track transactions it deems “suspicious,” and may build legal cases around such operations if the need arises. SAR reports are highly confidential, even the existence or non-existence of a SAR is secret. We finally learned how Avenatti got access to those reports through journalist Ronan Farrow, who recently came to fame by breaking the Harvey Weinstein story and starting the #MeToo movement.
Farrow filed a story with New Yorker Magazine entitled, “Missing Files Motivated the Leak of Michael Cohen’s Financial Records.” In that story, Farrow reveals that he has a source at the bank in question which claims the following:
That source, a law-enforcement official, is speaking publicly for the first time, to The New Yorker, to explain the motivation: the official had grown alarmed after being unable to find two important reports on Cohen’s financial activity in a government database. The official, worried that the information was being withheld from law enforcement, released the remaining documents.
In a nutshell, the official in question claims that they sent the SAR records out to the public, which is against the law, because they were “worried” the information went missing in the FinCEN database. If true, this would be a bombshell allegation because removing information from FinCEN is incredibly complicated.
Farrow interviewed several legal experts who cast doubts on that happening and suggested that what more likely happened was that the SAR records were effectively classified. While that’s unusual, it’s not impossible and would prevent people without access from seeing the SAR records.
Records pertaining to the financial activities of President Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen are not missing from a government database; rather Treasury Department officials have taken the highly unusual step of restricting access to them even from certain law enforcement agencies, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
I know this is all very convoluted, so what does this mean?
For starters, it means that source who leaked the SAR information faces severe fines or jail time for leaking restricted suspicious activity reports. Ronan Farrow never reveals his source, for a good reason, but with the Treasury Department OIG already investigating the matter, it’s likely only a matter of time before punishment gets handed out.
Second, it underlines the point I made last week about the questionable ethics around Michael Avenatti’s decision to air SAR data around like it was nothing. If he advised this source to reveal SAR records or break the law, it raises serious ethical concerns on his part.
Finally, none of the above clears Michael Cohen from any wrongdoing on his part. I have no idea what investigators plan to do with him. All I know is that Michael Avenatti and Stormy Daniels are causing far more headaches than they’re worth.
Donald Trump, the Press, and the MS-13 Comments
Without question one of the dumbest media created controversies was the one created yesterday after multiple media members claimed that Trump called “undocumented immigrants” “animals” during a public Q&A. Charles C. W. Cooke summarized the blowup best:
Peruse Twitter or Facebook right now, and you’ll see this line everywhere — and not solely in the feeds of left-leaning journalists or from admitted critics of the president. Collectively, this is the line that the “down-the-middle” press has elected to sell. In the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson complains that, “calling immigrants ‘animals,’ Trump evokes an ugly history of dehumanization.” USA Today reports that “Trump ramps up rhetoric on undocumented immigrants: ‘These aren’t people. These are animals.’” The Huffington Post gripes that “Trump Refers To Immigrants As ‘Animals.’ Again.”
The comment in question happened at a White House roundtable discussion on the subject of immigration and so-called “sanctuary cities.” Complaining at the roundtable about confusion between different levels of law enforcement, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims brought up the violent gang Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13.
“There could be an MS-13 member I know about — if they don’t have a certain threshold, I cannot tell [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] about it,” Mims said.
Speaking immediately after Mims, Trump said, “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”
But several major media outlets stripped the context from Trump’s comments, publishing stories and posting tweets that strongly suggested he had said undocumented immigrants at large “aren’t people,” but “animals.” In some cases, outlets that placed the comments in context in stories removed the context in tweets.
Some in the media doubled down on the nonsense, saying that MS-13 members didn’t deserve to be called animals because that is “dehumanizing.”
That’s technically correct, calling someone an animal is dehumanizing. But this comes from the same people who play that same game with regards to abortion. They’ll call a baby a fetus to strip all forms of humanity to him or her to make killing easier.
On a more serious note, I don’t see what Trump said as dehumanizing. MS-13 gangs dehumanize themselves through their actions. Their motto is “rape, control, kill.” They’ve been known to rape and murder women, then dismember the bodies. They’re a gruesome gang that engages in the complete inhumane treatment of other humans. To call them animals is to acknowledge what they’ve allowed themselves to become via murderous depravity.
What Trump said was harsh, but not morally out of bounds.
I was right on Mueller not indicting Trump
One of the big stories on the Russia probe front this week was Rudy Guiliani telling reporters that Mueller can’t charge Trump:
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has informed President Donald Trump’s attorneys that they have concluded that they cannot indict a sitting president, according to the President’s lawyer.
All they get to do is write a report,” Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN. “They can’t indict. At least they acknowledged that to us after some battling, they acknowledged that to us.”
I wrote a column for the Conservative Institute back in January of this year saying that Mueller’s team didn’t have the legal authority to indict Trump. And that appears to be the exact argument Mueller is alluding to in this story. What I wrote in January was:
What Mueller will create in the end is a report detailing why he chose to prosecute some individuals or not. That statement will then be given to DAG Rosenstein for review and submittal to Congress, should the DOJ deem that necessary.
His opinion is unlikely to recommend prosecution of the president because the precedent within the DOJ is that presidents are immune from prosecution while in office.
The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) is the section of the DOJ responsible for the opinions surrounding indicting a sitting president. They’ve issued two memos on this front, first in 1973 and again in 2000.
Both times, the OLC found presidents have temporary immunity from criminal prosecution because of their unique status in the constitution.
The short version of all the legal analysis is that the OLC holds that the president is immune while in office from indictments and criminal prosecutions outside of impeachment. They reached this finding in 1973 and reaffirmed it in 2000.
These opinions are essential because they’re a part of the official governing policies of the DOJ, which further means Robert Mueller is subject to them.
Official DOJ policy says that it is unconstitutional for Mueller to pursue prosecution of a sitting president. These opinions aren’t binding, of course, and Mueller could request the DOJ to revisit the memos.
However, it appears highly unlikely the DOJ would switch direction all of a sudden and go against official policy developed under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Mueller knows all of this, of course, and knows this policy will guide his final product. Assuming for the sake of argument, let’s say Mueller has direct evidence Trump has obstructed justice and perjured himself, what then?
What he’s likely to do is put all this evidence in a final report, detailing what Trump did and didn’t do, and why Mueller can’t prosecute. He would create the paper trail necessary for Congress to engage in impeachment proceedings.
I have no reason to doubt any of that analysis now, and in fact, I believe that Mueller is pushing for an interview for the express purpose of creating an “obstruction of justice” paper trail for Congress. In April, I called this the “Lose-Lose” proposition for Trump regarding an interview.
Trump’s legal is working on arguing that Mueller can’t compel the President to sit for an interview. I don’t think that argument is as likely to fly in court. But it’s worth a shot, and at a minimum, it gives them some negotiating leverage over Mueller’s team. The two things to keep watching are whether or not there’s an interview and what ends up in the final report.
North Korea backs out of the summit
I didn’t find much surprising about North Korea backing out of a summit. They don’t want denuclearization as an end goal, so it makes sense for them to back out.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if the summit happens and North Korea shows up. If Trump is serious about offering access to the world economy, as he’s suggested, then they’ll have to listen. Eli Lake summarized what the Trump administration is aiming for in a recent article:
What Pompeo, Trump and National Security Adviser John Bolton are now saying is that Kim actually wants to modernize his society — or to borrow Trump’s phrase, bring his country “into the real world.” That really is new. So it’s worth calling Kim’s bluff and testing that commitment.
In order to do that, Trump needs two agreements from Kim: a nuclear one and an agreement on human rights. After all, real economic development requires a baseline of political freedom — the two go hand in hand. If foreign corporations are going to invest in the country, their shareholders will need to have confidence that their workers won’t be disappeared, that the courts are at least fair, if not independent.
There is some precedent for this. In 1975, the U.S., Europe and the Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Accords. It was primarily a security agreement that acknowledged Soviet sway over Eastern Europe, but it also included a third basket that explicitly committed Moscow to uphold the basic human rights of its citizens.
Ultimately, I don’t have a ton of faith this type of diplomacy will work. It’s almost a repeat playbook of the Iran Deal, where we offer financial access for denuclearization. The Iran Deal failed on denuclearization and only helped Iran rearm and send out aid to its preferred terrorist organizations (Hezbollah and Hamas).
The Cold War word for this type of foreign policy is detente. And I don’t see a solid track record for the Trump administration to follow.
Links of the week
Michael Avenatti’s Company Fired Pregnant Woman For Being Pregnant, Court Docs Show – Peter Hasson, Joe Simonson, and Kevin Daley, The Daily Caller
The Radical Self-Reliance of Black Homeschooling: Some black parents see teaching their own children as a way of protecting them from the racial disparities of the American education system. – Melinda D. Anderson, The Atlantic
Gaza’s Miseries Have Palestinian Authors – Bret Stephens, The New York Times
Why Trump’s Assault on Democracy Doesn’t Bother the Radical Left – Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine
The Fall of the German Empire – Ross Douthat, The New York Times
Israel defends itself against Palestinian attackers from Gaza – The New York Post
Of Course America’s Too Big to Govern – David French, National Review
Assault Weapons,’ Explained: How a scary name for an arbitrary group of firearms distorts the gun control debate – Jacob Sullum, Reason Magazine
Canada’s plan for managing the return of ISIS fighters revealed in documents – Stewart Bell, Global News.ca
‘One Has This Feeling of Having Contributed to Something That’s Gone Very Wrong’: A conversation with VR pioneer Jaron Lanier on Silicon Valley’s politics, being quoted by Mark Zuckerberg, and what went wrong with the internet. – Noah Kulwin, New York Magazine
Satire piece of the week
Calvinist Declares Only The Elect Can Hear ‘Yanny’ – The Babylon Bee
EL PASO, TX—After the internet became deeply divided over an audio clip that sounds as though it says either “Yanny” or “Laurel” depending on the listener, one Calvinist commentator came forward to declare that only the elect can hear “Yanny” in the clip, and that those who can only hear “Laurel” are vessels of wrath, set aside for destruction.
“God has chosen from eternity past those whom He would regenerate to have the ears to hear ‘Yanny’ in this clip,” the amateur Calvinist theologian, Mark Lynel, wrote on his Facebook page. “The rest are reprobates, consigned to destruction for their willful rejection of the obvious meaning of the clip.” Lynel went on to state that the Lord has “made plainly obvious” the nature and character of the clip, but that because of man’s sin, he suppresses the true interpretation through his unrighteousness.
Thanks for reading!