Trump's legal strategy and McConnell's power grab: Slow walk the documents – and fast-track the judges

News & Politics

Despite the best efforts of Attorney General William Barr to cover up for Donald Trump, it appears that the various corruption scandals of the Trump administration are not, as Republicans clearly hoped, going away any time soon. Last month, the recently appointed Barr did what Trump clearly hired him to do, and released what he claimed was a summary of the findings of special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who has been investigating Trump's campaign's ties to a criminal conspiracy by Russian agents to manipulate the 2016 election. Even though Barr admitted that Mueller "does not exonerate" Trump, it's clear that the overall purpose of this alleged summary is to strongly imply that Trump was cleared of all wrongdoing.

But now there are hopeful signs that the cover-up isn't working as intended. Late Wednesday, news consumers were hit with double-barreled headlines. First, House Democrats formally requested copies of 6 years of Trump's tax returns, which Trump has been famously unwilling to release. Secondly, the New York Times reported that members of Mueller's team, all of whom had been famously button-lipped with reporters until now, are angry at Barr, believing he underplayed how serious their findings were.

So, despite Trump and his propagandists publicly gloating last week, it appears he hasn't wriggled out of the possibility of legal accountability yet. While there's no telling how this will play out, congressional Republicans have good reason to believe time might be running out for their ability to treat Trump like a grimacing orange rubber stamp for their far right agenda. It's a short 20 months to the election, after all, and their time could run even shorter if Democrats move forward with an impeachment process that consumes even more of their attention.

The Republican strategy for the next year and a half is quickly becoming clear. One, do everything they can to slow down the release of any information pertaining to Trump's corruption and possible crimes. Two, fast track the right wing agenda by moving even faster to install Trump nominees into powerful positions, with the main priority being to pack the federal courts with right wing hacks at a dizzying rate.

Republicans are in a race against time, but they are very good at manipulating bureaucracy to make sure that they put off Trump's day of reckoning and accumulate as much power as possible before that day comes.

On Wednesday, with only two Republican senators dissenting, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell all but did away with the practice of debate over both district-level federal judges and lower level executive nominees, reducing debate time from 30 hours to a paltry two, which — considering all the throat-clearing and grandstanding in Congress — functionally means no serious debate at all.

Clearly, McConnell feels every hour counts in his race with time to install as many right wing hacks into lifetime appointments before the election — or even sooner, if Trump's scandals finally catch up with him.

The sheer scope of the power grab is even more startling in light of how effective McConnell has already been at filling the judiciary with Trump's hack brigades. Both Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way have released sobering reports chronicling how successful Trump and McConnell have been in the takeover of the federal judiciary, a takeover that will not only outlast Trump's presidency but could also provide a judicial bulwark to shield Trump from legal accountability for any possible crimes.

One in five judges in the federal circuit courts now is a Trump appointee, and with McConnell's conveyor belt strategy, the bench will get even more flush with Trumpian nightmares.

"The conservative policy objective today is doing away with accessible health care, weakening clean air and clean water, giving more power to large corporations, weakening rights for women and LGBTQ Americans, curtailing voting rights and denying worker protections," Daniel Goldberg of Alliance for Justice said in a press call on Wednesday.

Noting that this agenda is "extremely unpopular with most Americans," he argued that Republicans have decided therefore to dispense with the process of democratic governance altogether, but "to achieve their objectives through the courts".

As an example, he pointed to the battle over the Affordable Care Act. Unable to repeal it through legislative means, Trump has turned to the court systems, leaning on conservative judges to sign off on a challenge to overturn the law, despite the almost hilarious incoherence of the legal arguments against it.

In addition, Goldberg added that Trump, by filling the court with right wing ideologues who are loyal GOP soldiers, wishes to "protect himself from legal jeopardy."

Having those judges in place will matter a lot when it comes to enacting the GOP strategy to cover up Trump's corruption and possible crimes: Hide all the damning documents and use a series of intricate legal maneuvers to slow down their release, ideally until after the election. Already, Trump has indicated he has no intention of letting the IRS comply with the order to turn over his tax returns. That he doesn't have a legal right to do so that hardly matters, as the idea is to force Democrats to sue and to use a bunch of court filings and motions to draw out the legal process as long as possible, ideally until after the election.

Similarly, while the official story from Barr's office is that they aren't releasing the Mueller report yet because it needs extensive review to redact classified or private information, it's not paranoid to believe that Barr is interested in keeping  lid on this for as long as possible while also redacting as many damaging details as he can try to legally get away with. And it's also not unlikely that he'll drastically over-redact and force another court battle with Democrats that can be drawn out until after the election.

And having appointed one in five judges — and with McConnell fast-tracking even more — Trump might just be able to make this slow-walk-the-documents strategy work.

What can be done is hard to say. Republicans control the Senate, so there's little to no hope of changing McConnell's strategy, especially as he is notoriously indifferent to political pressure from activists or even his own constituents. But Democrats do control the House of Representatives, and as such, have significant powers to fight and fight hard to get documents Trump wishes to hide. But to be ready for that fight, they must understand that Trump will do everything in his power to fight them; they must resolve not to be browbeaten into backing off one tiny bit.

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