The Final Putsch
As we enter the traditional post-Labor Day stretch of the presidential election, Trump and the Republicans have ramped up the assault on our democracy, on our country, to unprecedented levels. Trump has enlisted almost every arm of the federal government in his bid to be re-elected and avoid the inevitable legal accountability he should face. The President openly attempts to subvert the upcoming election and talks of ignoring the results should he not win, even by use of force. His Republican colleagues actively spout Trump propaganda and assist in rampant voter suppression. They ignore the 1,000 deaths per day and the economic calamity facing so many families and small business because of the pandemic as well as the hundreds of thousands of continental US climate refugees simply because the people primarily affected will not provide Trump and the the GOP with additional congressmen, Senators, and electoral votes. The Federalist Society hacks appointed to the courts are now providing tortured legal rationales for the suppression of voting rights that we haven’t seen since the Jim Crow era. And it will only get worse as we draw closer to election day.
In most national polls Trump remains in the low 40s and that is also true of his position in most battleground states. In addition, his favorability rating remains underwater. In contrast, Biden polls in the higher 40s and often over or close to 50% in both national and battleground polls and his favorability is positive by about the same amount that Trump’s is negative. For Trump, the path to victory is probably not through winning any new voters but only by reducing the size of the electorate and suppressing the Biden vote. He and his cohorts are desperately working hard to accomplish that. And if that doesn’t work, they are apparently ready to maintain power by any means necessary.
Frighteningly, with polls showing a Biden victory increasingly likely, Trump and his most loyal sycophants are once again raising the specter of invoking the Insurrection Act if it looks like Trump can not steal the election at the ballot box. Trump’s strategy has seemingly changed over the last few weeks. He attacked mail-in voting initially as part of an effort to suppress Democratic votes, while hoping Republicans would continue to vote in person. That would allow Trump to “declare” himself the “winner” on election night and challenge subsequent mail-in votes as fraudulent.
That plan presented a problem for down-ballot Republicans in certain states like Florida who relied on mail-in and absentee votes from Republicans. Accordingly, Trump tweaked his strategy. He still attacks mail-in voting but he has also started telling voters to vote twice, once by mail and once in person. The USPS, having already sabotaged the mails under new Postmaster General DeJoy, is now sending out bogus information about mail-in voting to every household and PO Box in the nation, despite the fact that the federal government has no role in these state-run elections. It appears that Trump’s new strategy is to make the election as dysfunctional and chaotic as possible for all voters, especially those in swing states. Everyone knows that Trump will lose the popular vote by a massive margin so his clearest path to victory is to create as much chaos in the swing Electoral College states so that he can contest the results.
Creating such chaos will include the deployment an army of GOP poll watchers which the party has used in the past to intimidate minority voters. They may be assisted by law enforcement that Trump has also declared he will order to be used as poll watchers in certain areas, presumably predominantly Democratic. In addition, Trump may also call out his vigilante supporters in a similar effort as he did in 2016. He will then, amidst all the chaos, “declare” himself the “winner”, and any protests that challenge that “declaration” will be treated as an insurrection or coup.
Trump and a number of his key supporters have already declared that the only way he will lose is if the election is “rigged”. By definition, then, anyone who claims that Trump has not won the election is involved in an insurrection. And Trump made that explicit the other day when he said, “We’ll put them [protests against his declaration of victory] down very quickly if they do that. We have the right to do that. We have the power to do that, if we want. Look, it’s called insurrection. We just send in, and we do it very easy”. Trump’s choice of the word insurrection followed by minutes the words from his most trusted advisor and convicted felon, Roger Stone, the man who coordinated with Russia on Trump’s behalf in 2016 and is only out of jail because of the unprecedented and potentially illegal intervention of Attorney General Bill Barr. According to Media Matters, Stone was “urging Donald Trump to consider several draconian measures to stay in power, including having federal authorities seize ballots in Nevada, having FBI agents and Republican state officials ‘physically’ block voting under the pretext of preventing voter fraud, using martial law or the Insurrection Act to carry out widespread arrests, and nationalizing state police forces”.
Michael Caputo, former Kremlin advisor, Roger Stone confidant, and current Trump official at HHS, put in that position by Trump to make sure CDC data was manipulated to align with the President’s propaganda on the pandemic, went even further. In a remarkable rant, Caputo accused CDC scientists of “sedition”, acting as a “resistance unit” within the government. More importantly, he again warns of insurrection, declaring, “And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin. The drills that you’ve seen are nothing. If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get”. Far-right talk show host Mark Levin also recommends that Trump invoke the Insurrection Act, stating, “[S]hould our president be reelected, God willing, that he will dust off the Insurrection Act that was first passed by the Jeffersonian Republicans and used by Jefferson and used by so many presidents since Jefferson. And he will have to use it to put down the enemy”.
Trump’s fanbase is perhaps even more committed to violence in order to keep Trump in office. Former CIA officer Michael Scheurer has written, “loyal Americans know their domestic enemies, as well as their locations, in detail, and will be able to act swiftly to eliminate them and the threat they pose”, adding “The only thing I would be upset about if it came to war is that not enough Democrats would get killed”.
Of course, this is not the first time people in Trump’s orbit have mused about invoking the Insurrection Act to send federal troops into the states. Back in June, at the height of the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, there was also discussion about using the law, with his Secretary of Defense promising to “dominate the battle space” of American cities. Instead, Trump and Barr simply dispatched federal law enforcement to a variety of primarily Democratic cities with little or no legal justification at all where they engaged in extra-judicial kidnappings of protestors. Similarly, Trump used federal troops to clear peaceful protestors in Washington DC in order to get his photo-op with an upside down bible in front of a church.
Now Trump is praising what appears to be an extra-judicial killing of a suspect accused of killing a far-right protestor in Portland in what the suspect claimed was self defense. According to eyewitnesses, police in unmarked cars converged on the suspect as he was walking toward his car with his phone in one hand. Without warning or identifying themselves or even trying to make an arrest, the Marshals began firing on the suspect who never tried to evade them or appeared to reach for any weapon. Trump, however, declared, “the US Marshals killed him. And I’ll tell you something — that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution”. According to the President, this kind of summary execution where police are judge, jury, and executioner is now “the way it has to be”. Of course, that’s the way it has been for unarmed young black men forever in this country.
This kind of rhetoric has only further emboldened right-wing paramilitaries who have invaded state capitols armed to the teeth in order to intimidate legislators, protected businesses operating illegally from being closed down by the state, and set up illegal roadblocks in a search for antifa or Black Lives Matter supporters. (Incredibly, there is some thought that these roadblocks were set up because these armed citizens thought police reporting mentioning BLM referred to Black Live Matter and not the actual reference to the Bureau of Land Management.) These paramilitary groups have already responded to Trump’s calls to “liberate” states from health restrictions related to the pandemic and they will respond again when Trump asks them to poll watch or claims that the election is being stolen from him.
If you think this is all too far-fetched, you might want to look at what has already happened to people Trump has defined as “enemies”, namely immigrants and the press. The Trump administration separated undocumented children from their parents, some as young as four months old, and threw them in cages that resembled concentration camps. Even today, thousands of undocumented children are still being illegally deported, some probably to their deaths, in violation of anti-trafficking laws. Dozens of undocumented immigrants have died in CBP/ICE custody while numerous others have been sexually assaulted and abused. Undocumented women have had their menstrual cycles monitored, been shackled while pregnant, and even forced to give birth standing up. Now we learn that one Mengele-like doctor at a concentration camp-like ICE detention facility is performing hysterectomies on virtually every female patient he sees and is known as the “uterus collector”.
Trump has labeled the press “the enemy of the people” numerous times throughout his presidency. The result has been pipe bombs sent to media outlets, Trump supporters assaulting members of the media, and selectively excluding out-of-favor media outlets from government briefings. During the protests this summer, both federal and local law enforcement have specifically targeted members of the media with assault and arrest. In Detroit and Louisville, local police fired on individuals who had clearly identified themselves as media. In Minneapolis, police arrested a CNN crew while they were on the air and just this week LA police brutally arrested a well-know local reporter even as she identified herself as press. In Portland, the media actually got a temporary restraining order to prevent federal law enforcement from attacking them with “mace, tear gas, flash bangs and other weapons”. That court order was virtually ignored. In addition, the administration has created lists of journalists who needed to be detained and interrogated as they crossed the southern border as well as maintaining intelligence dossiers on reporters whose coverage the administration did not like.
Trump has enlisted the entire federal government apparatus to support his re-election effort. Barr’s DOJ is the President’s personal protector, having covered for him with Mueller, Flynn, and Stone. In the Flynn case, the court-appointed advisor brought in to look at the rationale for the DOJ dropping the case has described the decision as an attempt to “to place this Court’s imprimatur on a corrupt, politically motivated favor for the president’s friend and ally”. Similarly, a longtime DOJ lawyer who was working on the Durham investigation looking into the origins of the Russia investigation has resigned, reportedly citing pressure from Barr to produce report he could use before the November election. Barr has, without evidence, cited Antifa as a major source of violence, but downplayed the actual violence coming from right-wing extremists. And now the Attorney General is criminally investigating John Bolton’s book, a further attack on freedom of the press.
Separately, a prosecutor on the President’s commission on law enforcement has also resigned, stating, “At the very beginning of this process, President Trump said the Commission would ‘have [the recommendations] soon because most of them know many of the answers before they begin.’ It is now patently obvious that he was correct ― that this process had no intention of engaging in a thoughtful and open analysis, but was intent on providing cover for a predetermined agenda that ignores the lessons of the past, furthering failed tough-on-crime policies that led to our current mass incarceration crisis and fueling divisions between our communities and our police officers”.
DHS, currently run by a man that the courts have found to be illegally holding that position, has been twisting intelligence for political reasons. According to a whistleblower, the agency has, like Barr, purposely downplayed the threat of violence from right-wing extremists and overplayed the threat from Antifa “to ensure [the assessments] matched up with the public comments by President Trump”. In addition, agency employees were told to “cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran”. Finally, intelligence reports were also changed to ensure that Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras would be presented as safe destinations for deportations. Similarly, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has stopped doing in-person briefings to Congress, instead providing written reports only. The change will make it much harder to get detailed information about possible attempts to interfere in the election, including efforts by Russia to help Trump that ODNI has already acknowledged.
The State Department has been sharing documents regarding the Bidens and Ukraine to Republican Senator Johnson’s committee but has refused to provide similar documents to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. State also refused to provide documents that the House was seeking as part of the impeachment effort. Johnson’s committee has been working with a Ukrainian that Trump’s own Treasury Department has identified as a Russian agent. And now Johnson is openly admitting that his investigation is a purely political effort, describing it as a tit-for-tat response to Trump’s impeachment. The Treasury Department has refused what was clearly a lawful request from the House Ways and Means Committee to provide Trump’s tax returns. But Treasury had no problem providing financial information about Hunter Biden to the Senate committees headed by GOP Senators Johnson and Grassley. Even the Interior Department has been co-opted into the Trump campaign as well, basically putting out a campaign video on his behalf. Similarly, the new head of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) is attempting to turn the various news outlets under his control into pro-Trump propaganda outlets. That attempt seemed to become reality when the Voice of America put out a glowing profile of Mike Pence on the same day Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his VP selection.
HHS officials have apparently interfered with the CDC’s weekly reports on the pandemic, reserving the right to change the agency’s communications with health professionals, presumably to make those communications better align with Trump’s messaging. One of the reports involved is the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, what Politico describes as “the main vehicle for the agency to inform doctors, researchers and the general public about how Covid-19 is spreading and who is at risk”. Under pressure from Trump, the FDA authorized the emergency use of blood plasma to treat COVID-19, despite NIH reporting that there was currently no data that demonstrated the efficacy and safety of the treatment. Finally, the Trump administration’s continual violations of the Hatch Act are almost becoming too numerous to count.
The partisan hacks appointed by the Republican Senate and GOP state legislators now dominating the courts are also doing their part for Trump. In Texas, the notoriously bad Fifth Circuit upheld the Texas law that restricted no-excuse absentee ballots to voters over 65 years of age. That law seemed to clearly violate the 26th Amendment which states that “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age”. The Texas State Supreme Court has also just ruled that the Green party candidates must be put on the ballot, requiring the state to reprint and send out absentee ballots in just four days in order to meet the legally mandated September 19th deadline for getting those ballots out. The state will also have to send new ballots to voters who have already received absentee ballots. Remember all those years over the last decade when courts refused to redraw illegally gerrymandered districts because it would create too much chaos for the states’ electoral system to make such a change close to an election. Apparently, that principle no longer applies.
In Florida, the 11th Circuit court upheld the state’s felon poll tax in a 5-4 opinion with four of the majority appointed by Trump, two of whom should have recused themselves from the case under the judicial code of ethics because they had also participated in the case when it was before the Florida Supreme Court . The 11th Circuit also decided to bypass the usual procedure of having a three judge panel hear the case first before it is appealed to the full court in order to strike down a lower court ruling allowing the felons to vote. The decision is an absolute travesty, with legal analyst Mark Joseph Stern calling it “one of the most dishonest, misleading, and despicable voting rights opinions I have ever read. It is shockingly bad—an affront of the very notion that Americans have a right to vote”.
As the dissenters pointed out, “[T]he overwhelming majority of felons who have not paid their LFOs in full, but who are otherwise eligible to vote, are genuinely unable to pay the required amount, and thus, under Florida’s pay-to-vote system, will be barred from voting solely because they lack sufficient funds…[M]any felons do not know, and some have no way to find out, the amount of LFOs included in a judgment…Even if a felon knows that he owes LFOs, ‘[d]etermining the amount that has been paid on an LFO presents an even greater difficulty’ and ‘is often impossible’…In many cases, ‘probably most,’ felons cannot pay their outstanding balance without being required to pay additional fees that were not included in their sentence…In the 18 months since Amendment 4 was adopted by Florida voters, Florida has not completed screening even a single registrant for unpaid LFOs, and it has processed 0 out of 85,000 pending registrations of felons…It is likely that if the State’s pay-to-vote system remains in place, some citizens who are eligible to vote, based on the Constitution or even on the state’s own view of the law, will choose not to risk prosecution and thus will not vote…In other words, the district court found that it is likely that the lack of clarity about LFO obligations will likely deter eligible felons from voting, out of fear that they will be prosecuted if they vote and then later find out that they were not in fact eligible”. None of this mattered to the conservative majority that was determined to engage in Jim Crow-style voter suppression.
If all this somehow reminds you of an autocratic banana republic, well, that’s because that’s what this country is already well on its way to becoming. The President has already used federal troops against peaceful protestors. Unidentified federal officers in unmarked vehicles are already kidnapping people off the streets. The administration is committing human rights violations on American soil. The entire apparatus of the federal government has become the vehicle for the President’s political ambitions even as hundreds die daily from Covid and millions are out of work. The President is telling us the election will be rigged; he is purposely sabotaging the vote; and his most trusted advisers are recommending that he suspend the vote or invoke the Insurrection Act if it appears he has lost which, right now, appears quite likely.
Too many Democrats and far too many in the press still seem to be treating this election as something resembling normal with just an extra heavy dose of voter suppression and changes in procedure due to the pandemic. I used to feel that way myself. But it seems clear that this election will be like no other. It will be the most dangerous election of my lifetime and a do-or-die election for our democracy. VOTE! And then make sure it counts.