Jul 13, 2020

Roger Stone gets set free.

Roger Stone gets set free.

Plus, an important COVID-19 update.

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Today’s read: 13 minutes.

The Roger Stone commutation, some important reader feedback, a wild weekend of news and a COVID-19 update. Also, I answer a question about executive orders.

Roger Stone, the Trump ally and political advisor, was commuted of his prison sentence on Friday night. Photo: WikiCommons

Reader feedback.

Over the weekend, I heard from a number of Catholic and religious readers who took issue with “My take” on the Supreme Court’s birth control ruling, which I covered Thursday. Most emails addressed my writing about the fact that the science on whether birth control has an abortifacient effect is inconclusive, and that “If they [birth control products] don’t have this effect, then many of the religious objections the Little Sisters of the Poor are standing behind evaporate. And not just evaporate, but implode.”

Amanda from Dallas, Texas, wrote in to say she didn't think the Catholic viewpoint was properly represented in Thursday's issue of Tangle. "We don’t use contraceptives even if they’re not abortifacients. We believe that interfering with the procreative aspect of sex is inherently sinful. It’s not as easily dismissed as 'the pill probably doesn’t cause abortions.'"

Jessalyn from Hutto, Texas also wrote in. She described herself as an Eastern Orthodox Christian philosopher who works in bioethics, and had this to say:

“The Catholic church opposes all contraception, even the use of condoms and coitus interruptus, neither of which can even possibly have an abortive effect. The Little Sisters of the Poor would have opposed a mandate to cover condoms as much as they do the pill, IUDs, etc. I worry that you accidentally misrepresented their view by saying that their religious objections evaporate if we can show that contraception is not abortive and that contraception would actually be in line with their religious values because it reduces the number of abortions.”

This is all good criticism. In attempting to concisely sum up the pro-life stance, I mistakenly broad-brushed the Catholic position and was wrong to imply that the Little Sisters of the Poor were solely opposed to birth control or products like Plan B because of the possibility they have an abortifacient effect. Thanks for the feedback, and remember: you can reach me anytime by simply replying to newsletters. I love sharing viewpoints from readers, especially when they run contrary to my own.

Quick hits.

  1. The White House is trying to smoke out leakers with a coordinated campaign. Chief of Staff Mark Meadows is reportedly feeding different information to different staff members to see what shows up in the press and figure out who leaks the administration’s plans. News of Meadows’ plot, naturally, leaked to the press.
  2. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he plans to call former special counsel Robert S. Mueller to testify before the panel about his investigation into Donald Trump and the 2016 election. The news is part of the Republicans’ efforts to suss out whether Mueller’s investigation overstepped its bounds or treated the president unfairly. The New York Times said it is “part of an election-year bid by Senate Republicans to discredit the inquiry,” while Democrats hope Mueller’s testimony is damaging to Trump.
  3. President Trump has quietly had a major few days on immigration. Trump hosted Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the White House and despite a rocky relationship the two spent hours heaping praise on each other. “I'm here to express to the people of the United States that their President has behaved with us with kindness and respect,” Obrador said. “You have treated us just as what we are: a country and a dignified people; a free, democratic, and sovereign people." Campaign officials told Axios they plan to use the remarks to pitch Trump to Hispanic voters. It comes just days after Trump claimed he was preparing an executive order on DACA that may give recipients citizenship, an idea the White House shot down just hours later.
  4. The top writer on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s primetime show resigned after CNN uncovered his anonymous online persona, where he’s spent the last several years making bigoted remarks on the internet. The writer, Blake Neff, is someone Carlson has credited in part for his show’s success. Carlson has faced a slew of advertiser departures over complaints about his show’s content, and the revelations of Neff’s online posts only added to speculation that Carlson’s nationalist populism was rooted in a racist view of American minorities. Fox News condemned the remarks and said Carlson would address them on his show tonight.
  5. The death of U.S. Army specialist Vanessa Guillen is setting off a #MeToo moment in the U.S. military. Guillen went missing in April, and on July 2nd the Army revealed that she had been killed and dismembered by a fellow soldier named Aaron Robinson. Robinson killed himself when approached by police last month. The horrific nature of the crime has set off a reckoning inside every military branch about the treatment of women, a reckoning now being led by the military’s most prominent women.

What D.C. is talking about.

The Roger Stone commutation. On Friday night, President Trump commuted the sentence of his political advisor and longtime friend Roger Stone. The Associated Press described it as Trump “intervening in extraordinary fashion in a criminal case that was central to the Russia investigation and that concerned the president’s own conduct.”

Stone, 67, was set to serve a 40-month sentence in prison for lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing an investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election. A commutation is different from a full pardon. A pardon would erase Stone’s status as a felon and is often associated with some level of responsibility taken for the crime. Pardons are typically given out after a sentence has been served. Stone’s commutation is coming before he even enters prison.

Leading up to the announcement, Stone had been appealing directly to the president to intervene and help. He was using social media and television to make his case before the judge overseeing his trial, Amy Berman Jackson, muzzled him for inflammatory social media posts. Leading up to Stone’s sentencing, Trump repeatedly inserted himself into the case with public comments, frustrating Attorney General William Barr to the point that he told a reporter the president was “making it impossible” for him to do his job and reportedly threatened to resign.

Now, this chapter of the saga is over, and Stone, a larger-than-life political character with his own Netflix documentary, a man who has long embraced his reputation as a dirty trickster, is walking away a free man.

What the right is saying.

There’s quite a bit of division over this, even in Trump’s closest circle. Attorney General Barr reportedly told Trump not to commute Stone’s sentence, as did several Republicans who consulted with the president. Even Trump’s new Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told him not to commute Stone’s sentence. But Stone is a hero to many in Trump’s base, and this was seen as a middle finger to the “establishment” over the Russia investigation that is widely considered a case of federal overreach by the president and Trump’s staunchest supporters.

Former prosecutors and Fox News contributors Brett Tolman and Arthur Rizer said Trump “made the right call,” noting this was an “old story,” one where “an underlying investigation that results in no directly relevant criminal charges” then “spawns a mess of felony charges for obstructing an investigation that went nowhere.” Tolman and Rizer also made a similar accusation the president has made: that Stone faced a biased jury.

That’s because the jury forewoman in the case, Tomeka Hart, had a history of anti-Trump posts on social media, something she failed to disclose in her questionnaire before the trial. Even the initial prosecutorial suggestion of 7 to 9 years in prison for Stone reeked of political overreach, especially considering Stone is an elderly defendant who was going to prison during a global pandemic. That is why Attorney General Barr (who did not support the commutation) suggested reducing the sentence to a little more than three years, and it’s part of what prompted Trump to step in.

Others were less convinced. The National Review editors said the commutation was fully within Trump’s power and continued a long pattern of presidents “pardoning or commuting the sentences of associates caught up in special-counsel probes,” but that typically those associates aren’t as “sleazy” as Stone.

“Trump’s handling of the matter is indefensible,” the editors wrote. “It is another indication of his perverse, highly personalized view of the criminal justice system — and another reminder of the loathsome characters he’s surrounded himself with his entire adult life.”

The Washington Examiner editors were sympathetic to the argument that Stone faced a biased jury, saying his original sentence was “an excessive amount of time for an elderly, nonviolent, first-time offender.” It noted, though, that that’s why the Department of Justice stepped in and reduced his sentence. “The DOJ did not, however, argue against the actual charges against Stone. And why would they? He was and still is obviously guilty.”

Ultimately, the Examiner called it “troubling behavior that would deserve condemnation no matter who was president… Stone’s pardon is particularly frustrating given Trump’s pledge to be better” than past presidents, the editors said. “But alas, this is Trump’s swamp now.”

What the left is saying.

There’s no division here: the left uniformly condemned the commutation, saying it adds to the long list of Trump’s often successful attempts at bending the justice system to his whims. The commutation even drew out Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the investigation into Trump, who wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post defending the treatment of Stone. It was a surprising move by Mueller, a Republican and the former FBI director, who has largely avoided the press.

“He [Stone] lied about the identity of his intermediary to WikiLeaks,” Mueller wrote. “He lied about the existence of written communications with his intermediary. He lied by denying he had communicated with the Trump campaign about the timing of WikiLeaks’ releases. He in fact updated senior campaign officials repeatedly about WikiLeaks. And he tampered with a witness, imploring him to stonewall Congress…

When a subject lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of the government’s efforts to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.”

Jeffrey Toobin wrote in The New Yorker that the “only trace of shame in Trump’s announcement was that he delivered it on a Friday night—supposedly when the public is least attentive.” Toobin went down the long list of political allies Trump has granted clemency to, noting that Harvard professor Jack Goldsmith counted 36 total pardons and commutations, 31 of which were given to someone with a personal or political connection to Trump.

“But Trump had not, until now, used pardons and commutations to reward defendants who possessed incriminating information against him,” Toobin wrote. “The Stone commutation isn’t just a gift to an old friend—it is a reward to Stone for keeping his mouth shut during the Mueller investigation.”

Matt Ford took a different angle in The New Republic, excoriating the Trump administration for its imbalance in how it views criminals. Ford said Trump could justify intervention in this case if he showed the same zeal in opposing lengthy sentences for other defendants, but instead “the White House spent the last few weeks threatening protesters with ten-year prison sentences for vandalizing statues,” he said. “The Trump administration believes in prison abolition for its henchmen and mass incarceration for everyone else.”

My take.

There were some unconvincing arguments mounted by both sides in this episode. Toobin, speaking on CNN, made the absurd claim that “This is simply not done by American presidents. They do not pardon or commute sentences of people who are close to them or about to go to prison. It just does not happen until this president.” Of course it does. As Toobin well knows, there is a long and sordid history of presidents granting clemency for their friends and political allies, including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — the last two Democratic presidents.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board also embarrassed itself. Usually home to well-reasoned and thoughtful commentary, this opening line is the best they could muster in defense of Trump: “Say this for President Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone’s 40-month prison sentence late Friday: At least he did it during an election campaign so voters can add this to the ledger of character issues they take into the voting booth. Like everything else about this Presidency, its scandals, real and imagined, are public.”

Really? We’re supposed to be grateful the president is rewarding his allies for lying to Congress publicly, as opposed to privately?

For all the hand-wringing, pearl-clutching and Democrats who got out over their skis in the Russia investigation, I think it’s worth revisiting exactly what Roger Stone did. He is, as many have described him, an arrogant braggart. He’s a self-described dirty political trickster who lied repeatedly and embellished his connections and importance on Trump’s campaign, ultimately shot himself in the foot, and ran into a judge and jury who were not amused by his games.

But Stone’s crimes were not imagined embellishment. He lied, under oath, that he had no contact with Guccifer 2.0 (the hacker who is widely known to be responsible for hacking Democrats’ emails) or Julian Assange, who then helped disseminate those emails. Regardless of your feelings on Trump, Wikileaks or the Russia investigation, it’s undeniable that Stone tried to help hackers leak the emails of public officials in the most damning way, and at the best possible time, to help Trump.

Then, he tried to get conservative radio talk show host Randy Credico, in whom he had confided about his role, not to tell Congress what had happened. He was properly charged and convicted of obstructing Congress’s investigation, lying to investigators under oath and tampering with a witness.

Was his first sentence of nine years in jail excessive? Yes. The judge in the case and Attorney General Barr ultimately agreed on that, and you’ll seldom find me advocating for me people in prison. But the commutation and its implications are simple: Trump and Stone are friends, allies and political partners. Stone lied on Trump’s behalf, muddied the waters in an important investigation and stared down prison time without worry — because he knew he’d be rescued. And Trump followed through.

As others have noted, this is enough for consternation and condemnation on its own. But let’s pause for a moment and remember: this is a president who led chants of “lock her up” and called for Hillary to go to jail over mishandling classified emails. His supporters say Hunter Biden should be imprisoned for private consulting work he did while his dad was vice president. Trump and his allies insist President Obama should do jail time for “spying” on Trump’s campaign, and that statue vandals should get 10 years in jail. They also contend that flag burners should lose their citizenship or serve a year in jail, and that FBI agents committed treason (a crime punishable by death) for exchanging anti-Trump text messages and not being forthcoming with a witness who was lying to them.

Shoot, The Washington Post made a whole list of all the people Trump has said should be in jail for comparatively minor or imagined offenses — and that was two years ago, in 2018.

But now we have a real crime, a real conviction, a real criminal, a career swamp creature who revels in his reputation for dirty politics, and how does the self-proclaimed law and order president treat him? He defends him to the end. It’s indefensible and absurd, even if it isn’t totally unprecedented, and the hypocrisy of it all knows no limits.

COVID-19 update.

COVID-19 continues to be the biggest story in the U.S., but it’s not something I want to make the focus of every newsletter. As a middle ground, I often include coronavirus update sections like this.

COVID-19 cases soared to 68,000 on Friday, setting another single-day record for new cases and shattering the previous record of 59,886. The worst of the outbreak is in Florida, where there were 15,300 new cases yesterday, which would be fourth-highest in the world if Florida were a country (after the U.S., Brazil, and India). On June 24th, the U.S. broke a single-day record that stood for two months when we recorded 37,014 new cases. We nearly doubled that on Friday. Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Financial Times he hasn’t seen Trump in person in two months, though he continues to brief the Vice President and the coronavirus task force publicly.

Along with rising hospitalizations, reopening plans being stalled or reversed and new mask mandates being implemented across the country, the virus is also having huge political impacts. A new CBS poll shows Donald Trump now struggling in the Sun Belt, something that was unthinkable a few months ago. He’s losing in Florida, tied in Arizona and Biden is within striking distance in Texas.

On Saturday, President Trump wore a mask for the first time publicly when he visited the Walter Reed military hospital. “When you’re in a hospital, especially ... I think it’s a great thing to wear a mask,” Trump told reporters. It’s the first time he’s publicly done so, despite months of urging from medical experts and political aides. Trump’s allies took to social media to compliment the president on how good he looked in the mask, which many viewed as an attempt to give him positive reinforcement for the gesture:

Your questions, answered.

If you want a question answered in the newsletter, submitting one is easy: just reply to this email and write in. I’ll add it to my list and get to it as soon as I can.

Q: President Trump seems to regularly issue executive orders, like the creation of a National Garden of American Heroes, and has appointed many new judges, but there seems to be less legislative success in this administration. How does he compare with other recent presidents in the use of executive orders?

— Janey, Rochester, Minnesota

Tangle: First, I want to make sure everyone is on a level playing field here by explaining what an executive order is. EOs, as they’re frequently called, are written directives from the president to the rest of the executive branch on how they should act or what they should do. An executive order can have the same impact as a federal law, but it’s far less reliable and stable. EOs are frequently struck down by the courts, reversed by successive presidents or overridden by Congress, which can pass laws to push back on an executive order.

When it comes to Trump and executive orders, it’s not your imagination. Compared to recent presidents, Trump is outpacing just about everyone. According to the Federal Registrar, which tracks executive orders, President Trump has issued 170 executive orders. Across two terms each, Barack Obama issued 276, George W. Bush issued 291, and Bill Clinton issued 364. At this rate, Trump is on pace for a minimum of 340 executive orders, and based on the last year he may far exceed that.

Trump signed 55 EOs in his first year in office, which was more than Obama, Bush or Clinton ever signed in a single year. Clinton had the second most in 1996 when he signed 49 EOs. Already this year, Trump has issued 33 executive orders, which puts him on pace to issue more than the 55 he signed in his first year in office.

The irony, of course, is that Trump lambasted Obama for executive action. “Why Is @BarackObama constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs of authority?” he tweeted in 2012. In a 2016 campaign event in South Carolina, he said “The country wasn’t based on executive orders… Right now, Obama goes around signing executive orders. He can’t even get along with the Democrats, and he goes around signing all these executive orders. It’s a basic disaster. You can’t do it.”

Of course, Trump realized the same thing most presidents do when he got into office: EOs can be very useful. Executive orders are often derided by the press and media analysts because they seldom accomplish long-lasting goals. More often than not, they are symbolic or overstated in their importance and value. But politically, they can be really valuable.

As the Associated Press recently pointed out, presidents love to run against Congress — which has been unpopular amongst Americans for some time. Trump is planning to ramp up his pace on executive orders, and he’s already contrasting himself to Congress by saying he’s in D.C. working while they’re at home (Congress is currently on recess). That’s a popular campaign tool for presidents. In 2014, during midterm elections, Obama chided Republicans in the same way Trump is going after Democrats now. “It is lonely, me just doing stuff,” Obama said. “I’d love if the Republicans did stuff, too.”

But it goes beyond that. For instance, one of Trump’s most recent executive orders was — allegedly — an order to ensure every protester involved in damaging monuments would go to jail for ten years. Actually, the order was written to urge federal officials to “make the fullest use of existing law, which authorizes a penalty of up to 10 years in prison for the ‘willful injury’ of federal property,” as the AP reported.

In other words: Trump didn’t actually change any laws or guarantee those sentences for destructive protesters, he was just giving written instructions to federal prosecutors to maximize penalties against those vandals. This is the kind of commonplace executive order that Trump and other presidents use to make a rather small issue (recommending full prosecution for vandalism of federal monuments) appear much bigger (Trump sold it as him defending monuments and changing the law to maximize penalties) than it actually is.

Similarly, the executive order you referenced for a National Garden of American Heroes is far from a done deal. If Trump loses the election, there is almost zero chance the garden happens. Even if he wins, he will need Congress to allocate the money, which — during a global pandemic and massive unemployment — is something that won’t be seen as politically palatable. In other words: the odds of the garden actually happening are pretty much a toss-up (if not unlikely), yet Trump has already sold the prospect of it as a win to his base. And that’s the power of EOs.

Ultimately, Trump is using executive orders more than presidents in recent memory, but historically he’s not close to the all-time leaders. Franklin Roosevelt issued 3,728, Woodrow Wilson issued 1,803 and Calvin Coolidge issued 1,203.

A story that matters.

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi is drawing a “red line” on the next coronavirus stimulus bill, telling Republicans they must include an extension of the $600 direct payment in unemployment benefits to pass the bill. Pelosi made the comments during an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, and such a stipulation could set up an epic showdown in Congress. Republicans have criticized the $600 payment, noting a recent CBO report that said 5 out of 6 unemployment recipients are making more money by not working than they were by working. But Pelosi seems committed to extending the benefit, which is set to expire at the end of July, and says Democrats are willing to negotiate in other places in order to ensure the bill passes. Click.


  • 11. The number of Republican congressional nominees who have supported or defended parts of the QAnon conspiracy movement.
  • 500,000. The number of Hong Kong residents who voted in primary elections held by pro-democracy opposition groups over the weekend.
  • 5.7. Donald Trump’s score among voters on a scale from 1 (very liberal) to 7 (very conservative).
  • 2.8. Joe Biden’s score among voters on a scale from 1 (very liberal) to 7 (very conservative).
  • 20%. The percent of Americans with a positive view of socialism.
  • 35%. The percent of Americans with a positive view of capitalism.
  • $23 million. The size of an ad buy placed by a pro-Trump Super-PAC in Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin for the end of this summer.

Tangle’s future.

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Have a nice day.

Last March, an Argentinian man was in Portugal when the coronavirus hit. Juan Manuel Ballestero was thousands of miles from home and all incoming international flights to Argentina had just been canceled. Longing to be with his 90-year-old father and the rest of his family, the 47-year-old man, who had been sailing since he was a toddler, decided to take a different route home. He boarded a 29-foot boat and solo sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, spending 85 days at sea before landing in Argentina this week. Ballestero lived off of rice, fruit and canned tuna on the trip, and even got rejected when he attempted to stop for fuel and food because of COVID-19. Friends urged Ballestero not to make the trip, but he ignored them — and for 50 of the 85 days nobody heard from him. “I didn’t want to stay like a coward on an island where there were no cases,” Mr. Ballestero said. “I wanted to do everything possible to return home. The most important thing for me was to be with my family.” Click.

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