Be Happy for Democracy
Good news about Hunter Biden's trial, Rep. Dean Phillips' primary challenge and the odds of Donald Trump being sentenced to a soup kitchen
I’m in no danger of fully channeling Bobby McFerrin, especially the “Don’t Worry” part of the song. I’ll be extremely worried about democracy until a good result on November 5, 2024 and somewhat worried for years thereafter. But as anyone who read my last column knows, I’m in a “Be Happy” mood about the way things are going right now in our politics. That could change as soon as the next court ruling, but let’s frolic a little before the summer’s over.
No one noticed, but last week brought good news for democracy across five fronts. A series of developments in the cases of Donald Trump, Hunter Biden and Clarence Thomas gave cause for hope, even optimism. They improved the chances that the Trial of the Century will occur before the election; set the stage for the Department of Justice to bolster its reputation for fairness; made it likely that Trump will not have enough money to run an effective general election campaign, especially with abortion now a top-tier issue; and strengthened efforts to impose a code of ethics on the Supreme Court. Finally, an obscure Minnesota congressman named Dean Phillips set the stage for a little more heathy democracy inside the Democratic Party.
In the Trump conspiracy case, Judge Tanya S. Chutkan showed she is not messing around. I’m less interested in the legal wrangling over the protective order, where both the prosecution and defense could claim procedural victories, than in what she said at the end of the hearing. Both the Times and the Post missed her money line from August 11th, but Kyle Cheney of Politico did not, citing what Judge Chutkan told Trump lawyer John Lauro during a hearing:
The more a party makes inflammatory statements about this case which could taint the jury pool, the greater the urgency will be that we proceed to trial quickly.
Trump’s lawyers have been saying the judge is setting a “contempt trap” for their client, by which they mean she is luring Trump into saying something sensitive about the case that would give her an excuse to hold Trump in contempt, which can lead to jail time. They actually want this to happen because it would bolster their argument that Judge Chutkan is prejudiced against their client.
But Chutkan is up to something different here — something both judicious and brilliant. She’s saying that if Trump keeps acting like Trump — say, attacking Mike Pence (a witness) or insisting that he cannot receive a fair trial (“tainting the jury pool”) — she will schedule the trial closer to the January 2, 2024 trial date sought by the prosecution than the date years from now (after they slowly read all 11 million pages of discovery documents) offered by the defense.
The problem for Trump’s lawyers is that it is unlikely he will shut up because “witch hunt” is the only message he has in his presidential campaign. Having turned the Republican Party into his own pity party, he can’t change now.
It’s still unresolved whether the trial will be televised. One solution receiving surprisingly little attention so far: audio only. That way we get the democratic transparency without the circus and with a lower risk of Trumpsters doxxing or assaulting witnesses and jurors. It might even pass muster with Chief Justice John Roberts, who as chair of the Judicial Conference makes the call. He has recently allowed audio of oral arguments in the Supreme Court and should do so in this case, too.
The second big win this week for pro-democracy forces was in the Hunter Biden case, which now looks as if it’s headed for trial. White House aides are protective of the president’s tender feelings about his only living son and thought they had dodged a bullet with the plea agreement that has now collapsed. “On balance, I’m sure that this did not land well at the White House,” David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s chief strategist, told the Washington Post:
There are elements of it that complicate things for the Republicans as well, but it’s fair to say that nobody on Team Biden is eager for Hunter’s case to be extending into the election year.
I’m not on Team Biden (at least not formally) but count me as eager not only for the case to be extended into next year, but for a trial, a conviction on the perjury and gun licensing charges, and for sentencing. It would be a just result — Hunter Biden has already pleaded guilty — and nothing would do more to take the wind out of the sails of the GOP’s argument that the Biden DOJ and the criminal justice system in general are stacked against Trump. At the same time, the intense focus of a trial would reinforce that after a five-year probe there is zero evidence that the president was involved in his son’s shady shenanigans.
It’s true that as vice-president, Biden showed poor judgment when he hopped on the phone on many occasions to exchange pleasantries with Hunter’s business partners. While he has done this kind of thing with literally thousands of people over the years, he had to know Hunter was trying to convert his father’s gregariousness into cash.
But none of this will be part of the trial, which will have its embarrassing moments (Hunter’s lawyers will likely make a Second Amendment claim at odds with the administration’s position on guns) but will mostly serve to remind voters that the DOJ is independent and legit and acting within it’s authority to prosecute Trump. That’s good for democracy.
Republicans on the Hill are upset that Attorney General Merrick Garland last week bumped the Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney, David Weiss, up to special counsel for this case. They realize that an actual trial will undercut their pathetic efforts to claim that the contents of Hunter’s laptop reveal anything incriminating about dad. It would also highlight the yawning chasm between lying on a gun application form and trying to overthrow the government.
Hunter’s sentence should be community service. Better to see him in a soup kitchen for a few weeks than attending a state dinner, a genuine Joe boo-boo.
Come to think of it, five-day-a-week community service in a soup kitchen for several years might be an appropriate sentence for Trump. I know how satisfying it would be to see the Orange Monster in an orange jumpsuit, but he’s not being tried for treason, sedition or even incitement. (And in the Mar-a-Lago case, the punishment for illegally holding classified documents has in the past been fines and community service). I’d rather see him ladling soup than yakking on the phone at a country club prison surrounded by Secret Service agents who protect him from other inmates.
If Joe Manchin and Cornell West can be confronted with humiliating polls that keep them out of the race, I’m more optimistic than ever that Trump can be defeated in the 2024 general election. Why? Because while the GOP nomination is well in hand, he needs to spend more than a billion dollars next fall to convince independents to give him another look.
A year out, we’re learning anew this week that Trump is already spending more on legal bills than he’s taking in from dopey donors, and tens of millions more will be required for the four criminal trials and several civil suits (I’ve lost count) that he faces. The dwindling amounts he raises after each indictment aren’t anywhere near enough to keep pace. The Times reports that he must now dip into his personal fortune, but the story didn’t mention that the glut of unrented office space has sent his net worth — always, by reliable estimates, under $1 billion — plummeting.
Trump has never before spent a dime of his own on his campaigns and convincing him to liquidate something to replenish his coffers (and when he may already have needed to do so for legal expenses) will be a very tough sell. He’ll avoid another bankruptcy with loans, but using borrowed money for politics is legally tricky. More likely, Trump will wax nostalgic for 2016 when he spent less than Hillary Clinton and made history. This would be in keeping with the underdog tone of his road show but won’t do much to underwrite the persuasion campaign he would need — sans spoilers Joe Manchin and Cornell West — to return to the White House.
The new politics of abortion could make that an especially steep climb. After last week’s astonishing loss of a summer ballot initiative in Ohio, we’re learning that Republican efforts to con voters may not work even in red states. Amid the dog days of August, voters stormed to the polls to reject a referendum that would have made it much harder to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution. Now Democrats are pushing 2024 ballot initiatives on abortion in Florida and Arizona. If abortion, Bidenomics, climate and democracy (A,B,C,D) mobilize Democrats and independents there and elsewhere, we could be looking at the 55 percent Democratic blowout that Simon Rosenberg and others argue we need to put the disastrous Trump era firmly in the rearview mirror.
As I’ve written, I think Democrats would be better off nominating someone other than Biden to achieve this blowout — someone who represents the future. Now Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) has come forward to say he may enter Democratic primaries as a placeholder for a “moderate midwestern governor” to be the nominee. The list of such governors includes Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, though only Whitmer, Pritzker and Shapiro are getting buzz right now. If Phillips knocks off Biden in a couple of early primaries and drives him from the race, which I think is quite possible, we could see a healthy Democratic primary process and a much stronger Democratic candidate in November.
There was yet more good news in the outrageous case of Clarence Thomas, whom we learn from Pro Publica was in hock to a lot more people than billionaire Harlan Crow. All told, Thomas received undisclosed gifts from four billionaires and several mere multimillionaires (including Anthony Welters, the health care magnate who lent him the money he needed to buy the $267,000 RV he claimed he scrimped and saved for). Thomas went on 38 freebie deluxe vacations, took 28 rides on private jets (including eight by helicopter) and received a dozen VIP tickets to major professional and college sports events.
Over the weekend, I heard from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who is doing great work on this issue, that Thomas and possibly Samuel Alito could be in trouble with the Judicial Conference, which — in addition to deciding on matters like cameras in the courtroom — supervises the guidelines for judicial conduct. Around September 15th, we’ll learn the contents of the amended disclosure forms filed by Thomas and Alito. If the Judicial Conference finds they have violated a “willfulness” standard in intending to mislead the public on their private adherence to rules for judges, their cases could be referred to the Justice Department for investigation and possible prosecution. Neither will be impeached — at least not by this Republican-controlled House — but Roberts will come under renewed and perhaps even bipartisan pressure for ethics reform, which is desperately needed to shore up the credibility of the Supreme Court and thus the entire judicial system.
If we tally these cases, the overall result ain’t bad for a summer’s work. Add Fanni Willis’ forthcoming Georgia indictment of Trump, Rudy Giuliani and many others with the help of heaps of new evidence and we might be humming Bobby McFerrin well into the fall — maybe fall of 2024, too.