Throughout his epic, scandal-ridden career, Donald Trump has compiled an astonishing record of impunity, constantly staying one jump ahead of prosecutors, plaintiffs and creditors.
He is the only president to be impeached twice, and acquitted twice by the votes of Republican senators.
He spent almost three years under investigation for what looked like collusion with Russia, only to walk away scot-free.
His former lawyer, Michael Cohen, went to prison for paying hush money to an adult entertainer known as Stormy Daniels, but “Individual-1,” the man who ordered him to write the check, was never held accountable.
That record of escapes would make Houdini envious.
But Trump remains under the gun. He’s still in search of escape routes.
A House committee is examining his attempts to overturn last year’s presidential election, including his actions when a mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
A prosecutor in Georgia is investigating whether he violated state law against soliciting election fraud when he demanded that officials “find 11,780 votes” — the number he needed to undo Joe Biden’s victory in that state.
And prosecutors in New York are looking into allegations that Trump, or at least the closely held family business he runs, committed tax and bank fraud.
But don’t count him out.
“His life has been a series of lessons showing that with aggressive lawyering and a lot of chutzpah, you can achieve almost total immunity,” Norman Eisen, a counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during Trump’s first impeachment, told me.
The former president’s most visible battles are against the Democratic-led House of Representatives, which asked the Justice Department last week to prosecute his former aide Stephen K. Bannon after Bannon refused to comply with a subpoena.
Trump has ordered Bannon and other former associates to stonewall on the grounds that all of his conversations with them are protected by executive privilege.
That’s the legal doctrine that allows a president to protect internal White House deliberations from congressional snooping, a claim Trump asserted broadly when he was president.
In this case, the claim sounds far-fetched: How can a former president assert executive privilege, especially over conversations with someone like Bannon, who wasn’t a government official at the time?
But constitutional lawyers say Trump has several arguments he can make. He’ll probably try them all.
First, a former president does have the right to assert executive privilege. Trump can thank former President Nixon for that, fittingly enough. In 1977, Nixon tried to block the federal government from releasing his presidential papers; he lost, but in deciding the case, the Supreme Court declared that former presidents can assert the privilege under some circumstances.
As for Bannon, the Justice Department has long argued that executive privilege can protect a president’s meetings with nonemployees as long as the discussion covers official business. In January, Bannon reportedly urged Trump to block Congress from certifying Biden’s election, then told listeners of his Jan. 5 podcast: “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.”
“If the cases are argued on the merits, Trump and Bannon are unlikely to prevail,” Jonathan Shaub, a former Justice Department lawyer who now teaches at the University of Kentucky‘s law school, told me.
“Executive privilege doesn’t apply to acts taken in a personal or political capacity, and it doesn’t apply when there are concrete allegations of wrongdoing.”
But winning may not be the point.
“In the end, this is all about delay,” Shaub said.
Trump and his supporters know that if they can tie the House committee in knots until the 2022 congressional election, there’s a good chance Republicans will win control of the chamber and kill the investigation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) know that too. That’s a major reason they asked the Justice Department to prosecute Bannon for criminal contempt; it’s faster than a civil suit.
The next step is up to Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland, who has exasperated some Democrats by keeping his distance from the Trump investigations.
President Biden said last week that he thinks Garland should prosecute Bannon and others who reject congressional subpoenas. That was an improper, Trump-style act of presidential jawboning; Garland pushed back, saying he wanted to return the Justice Department to its apolitical norm.
But Biden was right on the merits; without the threat of prosecution, Bannon and others will continue to stonewall.
Meanwhile, Trump has made his defense almost entirely political, not only denouncing the House investigation but praising the mob that invaded the capital.
“The insurrection took place on Nov. 3, election day,” he said in a written statement last week. “Jan. 6 was the protest!”
He’s used the investigation to raise money for his political action committee, which has collected millions.
“The Left will never stop coming after me,” he wrote in an email to donors last week. “Please contribute ANY AMOUNT IMMEDIATELY to make a statement to the Left that you’ll ALWAYS stand with YOUR President.”
And there, no matter how the legal wrangles turn out, lies the answer to a persistent question about Trump: What makes him run?
Ego, surely, in part. A desire to take revenge on his adversaries too.
But two practical reasons, as well.
One is money. Political contributions may be the most reliable revenue stream the Trump family enterprise has at the moment.
The other, equally important, is to bolster his legal defense. As long as he’s running (or even sort of running), Trump can denounce every inquest and subpoena as just another part of a political vendetta. It’s a way to hold his troops together — and to make every prosecutor think twice.
He’s notching up another presidential first: He’s running for reelection to stay out of jail.
Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself
MEXICO CITY —
Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.
He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.
“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”
The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.
Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.
Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.
“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”
Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.
(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)
Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.
So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)
Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.
“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”
Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.
President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.
(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)
His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.
Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.
But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.
“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.
Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.
Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.
(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)
Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.
“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.
Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.
Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.
In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”
Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.
“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.
A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.
(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)
Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.
María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.
Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.
Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.
She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.
“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”
Original Post: latimes.com
Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe
On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.
The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.
López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.
López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.
Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.
He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.
He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.
He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.
In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”
The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.
Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.
López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.
José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
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