OPEN LETTER #3 TO PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP: A JOB FOR JEFF SESSIONS

Dear President-elect Trump,

Sometimes your lack of impulse control works for you. For example, on Friday night, you lashed out at the Broadway hit, Hamilton. With the stroke of a few tweets, you dominated the weekend news cycle. The fun ended Sunday morning, when Vice-President-elect Mike Pence told CBS’s John Dickerson that Hamilton was “a great show.”

Pence “wasn’t offended” by a 90-second post-performance comment on behalf of the cast and producers. Your tweets had demanded an apology from them, but it turned out that you now owe one — for misstating the facts and challenging First Amendment principles.

You achieved a larger objective. Your twitter tantrum diverted popular attention from: your thumbs-up group photo after meeting with business partners developing a Trump-branded luxury apartment complex in India; white nationalists convening in Washington to celebrate your election; and your selection of National Security Adviser-designate Mike Flynn, who called Islam a “cancer” and a “political ideology hiding behind religion.” He’s also a board member of ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “far and away the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America.”

Master Distracter

Your Hamilton tweets also moved the spotlight away from your attorney general-designate. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s Republican Senate put Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court and made William Rehnquist chief justice. But even at the height of the Reagan revolution, Alabama’s then-U.S. attorney Sessions became only the second nominee in 48 years to be rejected for a federal judgeship. Now he’ll be your attorney general.

In a normal world, Sessions’ earlier defeat would doom your nominee. But you’re normalizing the abnormal. When Steve Bannon is the baseline for comparison, even Jeff Sessions looks good. He shouldn’t.

Sessions on the Merits

The junior senator from Alabama is one of its most conservative members. He opposes: any path to legalizing undocumented immigrants, gay marriage, abortion, and the legalization of marijuana. He voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. His portfolio is a distressing compilation of what you seem to mean by “Make America Great Again.”

Sessions is far out of step with most Americans. (Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory — 1.5 million ballots and growing — proves that you are, too.) But resigned to his confirmation, I propose a bipartisan assignment for him: restore the integrity of the FBI. It will require a public investigation into events culminating in your election.

Roll the Tape

In October, polls showed you losing so badly that you were likely to cost Republicans the Senate. Three months earlier, FBI Director James Comey had announced that no reasonable prosecutor would bring criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. But in an unprecedented press conference, he’d opined about her recklessness anyway. That kept your “Crooked Hillary” rally theme alive. Even so, as summer turned to fall, the email-gate story was losing its legs.

On October 25, your key surrogate, Rudy Giuliani appeared on Fox & Friends. When a host asked whether you had anything other than “some more inspiring rallies” planned for the remaining 14 days of the campaign, Giuliani chuckled.

“Yes,” he grinned.

“What?” a co-host asked.

“You’ll see,” Giuliani answered in a full-throated laugh. “We’ve got a couple of surprises left. I call them surprises in the way we’re going to campaign, to get our message out there. Maybe in a little bit of a different way. You’ll see, and I think it’ll be enormously effective.”

Giuliani then discussed how “all of these revelations about Hillary Clinton, finally, are beginning to have an impact.”

 

On Oct. 26, Giuliani appeared with Fox reporter Martha MacCallum. As the interview ended, he interrupted her to volunteer, “And I think he’s [Trump] got a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next few days.”

MacCallum tried to conclude the interview, but Giuliani kept pushing: “I mean, I’m talking about some pretty big surprises.”

Finally, MacCallum took the bait.

“I heard you saying that this morning,” she said. “What do you mean?”

“You’ll see,” Giuliani laughed.

Friday, October 28

Only days after Giuliani’s teasers, Comey violated Justice Department guidelines with a letter informing Congress that the Bureau was reviewing additional evidence relating to the Clinton email investigation. Conservative radio talk show host Lars Larson interviewed Giuliani.

“There’s a kind of revolution going on inside the FBI about the original [July] conclusion being completely unjustified and almost a slap in the face of the FBI’s integrity,” Giuliani said. “I know that from former agents. I know that even from a few active agents who, obviously, don’t want to identify themselves.”

Later, Giuliani backpedaled.

“I don’t know anything about leaks from the FBI or the Justice Department,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I haven’t talked to anybody in the FBI or Justice Department.”

When Blitzer confronted Giuliani with the Lars Larson interview, Giuliani responded, “Well, the information I’ve been getting is from former FBI agents. If I did say that, that was wrong.”

In 48 hours, Giuliani had gone from “I know that even from a few active agents who, obviously don’t want to identify themselves” to “the information I’ve been getting is from former FBI agents.”

But Giuliani’s distinction didn’t help the Bureau. Whether the leaks came directly from active agents, or whether active agents leaked to retired agents who then went to Giuliani, they originated within the FBI. In addition to professional responsibilities of confidentiality under the ABA Standards on Prosecutorial Investigations, agents sign employment agreements that have sharp non-disclosure teeth. Certain FBI personnel working on the Clinton investigation also signed a “Case Briefing Acknowledgement,” agreeing that “due to the nature and sensitivity of this investigation, compliance with these restrictions may be subject to verification by polygraph examination.”

Lie detectors!

Wednesday, November 2 

Less than a week before Election Day, another FBI leak produced a new bombshell. Bret Baier of Fox News cited “two separate sources with intimate knowledge of the FBI investigations” for what turned out to be a bogus report. He said that the Clinton investigations would likely to lead to an indictment. You milked that one. As rally crowds responded with “Lock her up” even more loudly than before, some members of your mob added, “Execute her!”

By Thursday, Baier admitted that he’d spoken “inartfully” about the false FBI report. By Friday, he was in full retreat: “That just wasn’t inartful, it was a mistake and for that I’m sorry.”

When MSNBC’s Brian Williams grilled your campaign manager Kellyanne Conway on whether you would stop using the earlier false report in your stump speech, she smiled and said, “Well, the damage is done to Hillary Clinton…”

Sunday, November 6

Then Comey sent another letter confirming that his earlier missive had been a false alarm. But by then, early voters had cast 40 million ballots — almost 30 million of which came after his October 30 letter. Meanwhile, you’d spent the week telling crowds that Clinton’s problems were “bigger than Watergate” and that criminal investigations into her dealings would continue for years into her presidency.

When confronted with Comey’s latest exoneration of Clinton, Kellyanne Conway kept her smile as she told MSNBC, “We have not made this a centerpiece of our messaging… This has not been front and center of our campaign.”

Sessions could put Rudy Giuliani under oath and ask him to name his FBI sources — active or retired. After all, if this had happened to you, hearings in the Republican Congress would already be underway. Now they’ll never happen. To “Make America Great Again,” start with the FBI, if you dare.

OPEN LETTER #1 TO PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP

Dear Mr. President-elect,

Congratulations.

This is the first in a series of open letters that you’re not likely to read. The ultimate goal is simple: accountability. As you speak and act, these letters will try to set the factual record straight in our post-factual world that you now dominate. Your words and deeds will determine the scope and duration of this exercise.

The Responsibility of Attorneys and the Press

I didn’t vote for you, but this isn’t a partisan crusade. Lawyers across the political spectrum are concerned about what you might do as President. We listened with concern to your campaign rhetoric. Repeatedly, you professed disrespect for the rule of law. (Along the way, I wrote about your transgressions here, here, herehere, and here.)

Now we watch and wait for any sign of disquieting conduct matching the words that helped propel you into office. When you err, we will speak. You may say that such vigilance is un-American. It’s not. Holding elected officials accountable to the law and the truth is the essence of democracy.

You’ll start with functional control over two branches of government. Senate confirmation of your Supreme Court nominee will deliver the third. So it becomes the task of those outside your orbit to identify and spotlight your missteps. More than at any time in our nation’s history, attorneys and the press have a special responsibility to remain on high alert.

Open letters like this one will arrive whenever the circumstances require it. Two have already arisen: the false claim that you have a mandate and your early post-election tweets.

The Illusory Mandate

Contrary to the narrative that you and your supporters are pushing, Republicans do not have a mandate to pursue whatever the Trump agenda turns out to be. You benefitted from a disquieting confluence of events and circumstances. And even at that, you lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by the widest margin of any elected President in history.

Start with the FBI. As voters were casting more than 46 million early ballots, FBI Director James Comey’s profound misstep on October 28 compounded his July 5 press conference error in handling the Clinton email investigation. Stated simply, he pushed votes your way.

Four days later, the Bureau used a twitter account that had been dormant for more than a year to release documents relating to the Clinton Foundation. On November 2, Fox News’ Bret Baier aired a false report from FBI sources that there would likely be indictments involving the Clinton Foundation. Two days after that, Baier apologized for that “mistake” and retracted his story.

But as your campaign manager Kellyanne Conway acknowledged to MSNBC’s Brian Williams shortly after Baier’s retraction, “The damage has been done to Hillary Clinton.”

Responding to a post-election report that Clinton thought the FBI’s unprecedented actions had affected the election, Conway did a slick about-face on November 13: “I just can’t believe it’s always somebody else’s fault. Sometimes you just have to take a look in the mirror and reflect on what went wrong.”

The Russian Vote

Likewise, you alone benefitted from Russian hackers and Wikileaks. They put their thumbs on the Trump side of the election scale. The fact that the Russian parliament burst into applause when Vladimir Putin announced your victory should not please you. It should cause you and all American citizens grave concern.

Yet even with all of that help, as well as Republican-sponsored state voter suppression laws in North Carolina, Wisconsin and elsewhere, your opponent beat you by more than 2.5 million votes.

About That Republican Congress

Some voters split their tickets. They were heeding the call of leading Republicans in Congress and elsewhere who shunned you. Outraged at your behavior, concerned about your lack of knowledge and intellectual depth, and fearful of your erratic temperament, they made the case that a Republican Senate was essential to check President Hillary Clinton. Unwittingly, they have now empowered you beyond their wildest fears.

From the standpoint of popular support, you begin your first term from a position of unprecedented weakness. Ironically, you entered politics with a frivolous “birther” claim that questioned the legitimacy of your predecessor’s right to the Oval Office. Yet real shadows hover over yours.

Dubious Tweets

A second circumstance that already requires voices of accountability to speak involves your post-election tweets. Less than 48 hours after your subdued acceptance speech, you responded to nationwide street protests with a two-pronged attack against the dissenters and the media.

“Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”

No facts supported your claims. As always, your response to any hint of criticism was to find a scapegoat or a distraction. We’ll be watching for that tendency, too. When you fail to fulfill your most unrealistic campaign promises, the anger of those who voted for you will intensify. In Ohio, when the steel mills don’t fire up again in Youngstown and your border wall doesn’t solve the opioid epidemic in Columbus, will you follow your lifelong impulse to blame someone else?

Continuing Attacks on the Press

On Sunday morning, November 13, you renewed your pre-election attack on The New York Times:

“Wow, the @nytimes is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the ‘Trump phenomena’.”

That wasn’t true, either. The Times reported a post-election surge in new subscriptions — four times the pre-election rate.

A few hours later, you went after the Times again: “The @nytimes states today that DJT believes “more countries should acquire nuclear weapons.” How dishonest are they. I never said this!”

But you did say it. When Mike Pence denied in his vice-presidential debate that you’d taken such a position, nonpartisan Politifact rated his statement as “Mostly false” and listed all of the instances that you’d said what the Times reported — the first of which was in March 2016 to reporters for The New York Times.

On April 3, 2016, you had this exchange with Fox News’ Chris Wallace:

Trump: “It’s not like, gee whiz, nobody has them. So, North Korea has nukes. Japan has a problem with that. I mean, they have a big problem with that. Maybe they would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea.”

Wallace: “With nukes?”

Trump: “Including with nukes, yes, including with nukes.”

Most people are too busy with life’s daily demands to scrutinize your torrent of sometimes conflicting words. But many of us will make the time necessary to stand guard against your demonstrated capacity to take advantage of the post-factual world in which we live. No President possesses a mandate to lie without getting caught.

TRUMP’S THREATS

Here’s the most important line from Melania Trump’s October 17 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper:

“Sometimes I say I have two boys at home — I have my young son and I have my husband.”

One of them is running for President of the United States. He loves winning. And he loves to blame anyone else — everyone else — when he isn’t.

Two months ago, polls following Trump’s verbal war with a gold star family showed him losing the election badly. As I wrote at the time, his response was to complain that the election system was rigged. But as his poll numbers rebounded in September, Trump’s cries of “rigging” became more subdued.

After Trump’s disastrous first debate and the revelation of his own vile behavior toward women, his poll numbers plummeted again. And so, once again, Trump rails against a system that, he claims, must be rigged against him. Otherwise he’d be winning.

He pursued a similar strategy when it looked like might not have enough delegates to win the Republican nomination. (Remember when he said there would be riots if he didn’t get it?) When a process makes him the winner, he embraces it; when he fears failure, he denounces it.

This time, Trump has merged his baseless election-rigging rhetoric with his ongoing assault on freedom of the press. For Trump, scorched earth apparently includes destroying two essential pillars of American democracy: a free press and public confidence in the election process itself.

recent Politco poll suggests that Trump’s message is getting through: 41 percent of voters think that the November election could be “stolen” from him.

The Relentless Assault On The Press

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has threatened to sue journalists and the media more than a dozen times. Here’s a small sample:

— On April 27, 2016, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Cay Johnston later tweeted, Trump personally called and threatened to sue him “if he doesn’t like what I report” in discussing Johnston’s book about Trump.

— On May 18, 2016, Trump told reporters for The Washington Post: “I will be bringing more libel suits…maybe against you folks.”

— On July 20, 2016, The New Yorker reported that Trump had threatened to sue his former ghostwriter Tony Schwartz for supposedly “defamatory statements” Schwartz had made to Jane Mayer about the book he “co-wrote” with Trump, The Art of the Deal.

— When The New York Times reported on women claiming that they had been victims of Trump’s sexual assaults, he threatened to sue.

Responsible Lawyers

Why hasn’t Trump followed through? After all, he’s not reluctant to litigate. In June, USA Today reported that Trump and his businesses have been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits.

And Trump has plenty of advisers with JDs — including Kellyanne Conway (George Washington University, ’92), who replaced Paul Manafort (Georgetown ’74) as campaign manager, senior adviser Boris Epshteyn (Georgetown ’07), and ubiquitous surrogate Kayleigh McEnany (Harvard ’16), among others. So what’s holding him back?

In mid-September, Trump tweeted, “My lawyers want to sue the failing @nytimes so badly for irresponsible intent. I said no (for now), but they are watching. Really disgusting.”

As Trump himself might say in response to that tweet, “I don’t think so.”

A more plausible reason is the restraining influence of Trump’s outside attorneys. Although Trump and his surrogates with law degrees can say whatever they want, litigators marching into a courtroom cannot. A trial attorney’s professional responsibilities transcend the whims of a client. Trump may think that he’s beyond the rules applying to everyone else. But his attorneys know they are bound by court requirements governing all lawyers’ conduct. And they risk serious sanctions for violating them.

A Lawyer’s Duty

One of Trump’s outside attorneys, Marc Kasowitz, signed the recent demand letters to the Times about Trump’s tax returns and sex scandals. Attorneys can send letters threatening lots of things. But when a controversy moves into a courtroom, it’s a whole new ball game.

Kasowitz is an accomplished and respected trial lawyer. Appropriately, he represents clients zealously – and Donald Trump is no exception. Even so, when it comes to lawsuits, even the best attorneys face two immutable constraints: the facts and the law. Most states have rules embodying the principles of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11. It provides that by signing a court filing, an attorney certifies that “after reasonable inquiry” that there is factual and legal support for the assertions it contains.

For Trump’s latest threats against the Times, those obstacles are so great that noted attorney Theodore Boutrous, Jr. called Kasowitz’s demand letter a “stunt.” Boutrous suggests that Trump’s real aim is to chill aggressive reporting into his activities.

Rules? What Rules?

The legal restrictions governing the attorneys who would file a Trump lawsuit also explain his February outburst:

“I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money… We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”

At one level, such bombast reveals Trump’s ignorance. Libel is a state-law tort constrained by First Amendment principles. A president’s views don’t figure in its application. At another level, Trump’s comments reveal a deeper danger.

Conservative law Professor Ilya Somin of the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University notes, “There are very few serious constitutional thinkers who believe public figures should be able to use libel as indiscriminately as Trump seems to think they should. He poses a serious threat to the press and the First Amendment.”

Baseless Conspiracy Theories

In his latest assault on the press, Trump asserts that the media is part of a larger conspiracy to rig the election. It extends, Trump claims, to rampant voter fraud that could rob him of victory. Vice presidential candidate Mike Pence tried to explain away Trump’s incendiary stance as referring only what he claims to be media bias.

But in his tweets, Trump himself set Pence and everyone else straight about his meaning:

“The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary – but also at many polling places – SAD.”

And: “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!”

The evidence refutes Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud. As I noted previously, Professor Justin Levitt at Loyola Law School – Los Angeles tracked all claims of alleged voter ID fraud and found a grand total of 31 credible allegations – out of more than one billion ballots cast. But facts have never mattered to a Republican presidential campaign that has become the worst reality TV show ever.

As Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall following the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman approached him.

“Well, Doctor, what have we got,” she asked, “a republic or a monarchy?”

“A republic,” Franklin answered, “if you can keep it.”

On November 8, we’ll find out.