Monday, February 10, 2020

Trump's firings of Vindman and Sondland represent federal crimes, says legal expert, but GOP seems unconcerned about lawlessness in the White House

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman

President Donald Trump committed a federal crime last week when he fired two government officials who testified in the U.S. House impeachment proceeding, according to a law professor and former chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration. In fact, Richard W. Painter, who is on the law faculty at the University of Minnesota, suggested Trump should face another round of impeachment for his most recent transgressions.

Trump last Friday fired National Security Council staffer Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, both of whom provided damaging testimony about Trump's efforts to strong arm Ukraine officials into launching an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

The firings, wrote Richard W. Painter in a Sunday Tweet, violate 18 U.S. Code 1513 (Retaliating against a witness, victim, or informant). Does Trump have any clue -- or does he care -- that he committed a felony. The tone of Painter's Tweet suggests the answer is no:

Hello ⁦@realDonaldTrump:

Retaliation against witnesses is a felony.

Is this a serious matter? Absolutely, says Painter in a separate Tweet:

So, you blew the whistle on others’ bad conduct. Then you were fired or not promoted based on your “poor job performance.” My advice: Sue the bastards. And if the person who retaliated against you was @realDonaldTrump, the House should impeach him for it, again! We’ve had enough.

This appears to be the key provision of Sec. 1513:

(e) Whoever knowingly, with the intent to retaliate, takes any action harmful to any person, including interference with the lawful employment or livelihood of any person, for providing to a law enforcement officer any truthful information relating to the commission or possible commission of any Federal offense, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.

The Washington Post's Max Boot addressed the Sec. 1513 issue in a Saturday column titled "Trump’s ‘Friday night massacre’ is just the beginning. I fear what’s to come." Boot writes that Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have admitted the firings were acts of retaliation:

Trump’s campaign of revenge kicked off at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, where Trump rejected the advice of Post columnist Arthur Brooks — echoing the Sermon on the Mount — to love your enemies. “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you,” Trump said, and then proceeded to question the religious faith of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). That was just a warmup for his deranged performance in the White House East Room: He denounced the impeachment process as “evil” and “corrupt” and called Pelosi and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) “vicious” and “horrible” people.

Trump proceeded on Friday to fire Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council staffer who had testified about Trump’s attempts to blackmail Ukraine into helping his reelection campaign. The Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient was escorted off the White House grounds along with his twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, whose only sin is to be related to one of the “human scum” Never Trumpers, as Trump labeled the witnesses against him. Trump also fired his own inaugural committee donor, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who had testified that there was a quid pro quo linking U.S. military aid to Ukraine to an investigation of a company that employed former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter and that “everyone was in the loop.”

In case there was any doubt what the president was up to, Donald Trump Jr. explained on Twitter: “Allow me a moment to thank… Adam Schiff. Were it not for his crack investigation skills, @realDonald Trump might have had a tougher time unearthing who all needed to be fired. Thanks, Adam!” The president himself himself tweeted Saturday that he fired “Lt. Col.” Vindman — note the scare quotes — for being “very insubordinate” by complying with a House subpoena to testify. Thanks, Trumps, for confessing to an apparent violation of 18 U.S. Code § 1513, the federal law protecting witnesses from retaliation — not that the president will ever be prosecuted.

Are any Republicans -- other than Mitt Romney -- concerned about lawlessness roiling the White House? Boot sees no sign of it:

There was, predictably, no public pushback to these decisions from within the administration, because Trump is now surrounded by political invertebrates. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acquiesced to Sondland’s firing just as he acquiesced in the far more offensive campaign waged by Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani to recall career Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who retired in late January. If national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien made any effort to protect a war hero from a draft-dodger president, there is no indication of it. Republican senators such as Marco Rubio of Florida simply cheered Trump on.

What happened Friday was the political equivalent of one of those mob-movie montages where the don’s enemies are gunned down to the accompaniment of an operatic score. And the Don in the White House isn’t done yet. He reportedly is interested in firing Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, who brought to Congress a whistleblower’s complaint. The whistleblower required a security detail because he or she has been smeared by the president and his minions. Sen. Rand Paul (R.-Ky.) read the name of the person alleged to be the whistleblower by many on the right on the floor of the Senate this week. What possible purpose can this serve save to bring retribution down upon that person?

Trump is also said to be plotting to punish Romney and Schiff. “He has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our Country!” Trump tweeted about the House Intelligence Committee chairman. Such venomous talk led to a death threat against Schiff.

Our country is in peril, writes Boot, and a frightening number of Americans don't recognize it or don't care:

Trump is unchastened, unchained and unhinged. I fear for the future of our democracy with such a vindictive bully wielding the awesome powers of the presidency with less and less restraint. He is making an example of all those who have exposed his misconduct in the past to ensure that he can get away with even greater wrongdoing in the future.

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