Heather Digby Parton

Republicans know they face a sweeping defeat in two weeks. But their latest pseudo-scandal may have 2022 in mind

One of the many nerve-wracking questions Americans facing with the 2020 presidential election is whether all the bizarre conspiracy theories that have sprung up in the last few years will outlast the Trump administration. Are we in for a prolonged period of this level of lunacy in our politics?

Maybe. There are a bunch of QAnon-curious Republican candidates who apparently believe that the Democratic Party is led by satanic, flesh-eating pedophiles and that John F. Kennedy Jr. (who isn't actually dead) will be reappearing any day now to help Donald Trump save the children and put the country back on the right track. Let's just say it's not beyond the realm of possibility that there will be a Q Caucus in the next congress.

Philip Bump of the Washington Post reported on Tuesday that a recent Yahoo/YouGov poll showed that while a minority of GOP voters say they believe in QAnon, 50% of Republicans (fifty percent! That's half of them!) claim to believe that high-level Democrats are involved in child sex-trafficking rings, and more than 50% believe that Donald Trump is working behind the scenes to dismantle them. This idea goes back to 2016 and Pizzagate, so it's possible that many of these Republicans don't even know they're spouting QAnon conspiracy theories. But what's the difference? Clearly tens of millions of Republicans have, as Joe Biden said on the stump the other day, "gone 'round the bend."

This really shouldn't surprise us. Facebook has been the vehicle for spreading this and many other ridiculous conspiracy theories about COVID and antifa and Black Lives Matter and much else during the Trump years. These viral lies are not confined to weird corners of the internet or Alex Jones and Infowars anymore.

I can't hazard a guess as to what happens if the supposed savior of the children is defeated and has to leave the White House. Will the conspiracy theory just die out, as the rest of the country averts its eyes from the people who were big believers and try to forget that they lost their faculties during the Trump years? That's probably the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario involves QAnon adherents deciding they need to take matters into their own hands.

The fever may break once the chaos agent is out of the White House. As Bump pointed out in that Washington Post article, part of the reason some people gravitate to these elaborate conspiracies is because they need to feel that someone, somewhere, is pulling the strings because otherwise everything feels out of control. Perversely, if Trump loses, these people may actually calm down. Even if they don't, what's left of the GOP establishment is likely to distance itself as much as possible from the kookier conspiracists. It's bad for business.

But that doesn't mean that they're going to give up conspiracy theories and pseudo-scandal-mongering altogether. It is, after all, one of their favorite political weapons. Many of us recall (or have read about) the endless Whitewater investigations into the Southern-gothic arcana of Arkansas politics, when Republican congressmen shot watermelons in their backyards and the Beltway media trekked across the country, reporting back as if they were on the first manned mission to Mars. It went on for years, cost a lot of money and destroyed quite a few Arkansans, but never found any wrongdoing by Bill and Hillary Clinton.

And let's not forget the more recent Benghazi crusade, which current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced was conducted entirely for partisan political purposes and which led to the equally vacuous "Clinton email scandal." There are many more where that came from, which often telegraphed openly as partisan attacks, but which the media gobbles up like baby birds being fed worms by their mother.

The Hunter Biden "scandal" has all the hallmarks of one of those patented GOP mudslinging operations. It's not as wild as a pedophile ring in a pizza parlor, but it's got lots of hurtful personal slander and ugly calumny to keep the folks entertained. That it has a Russia-Ukraine element makes it especially fun for those who want payback for Donald Trump being exposed as the most useful of idiots in the past four years.

The "scandal" itself is actually nothing more than an example of the very common (and admittedly skeevy) business practice of hiring the family members of important people for the purpose of obtaining favors, gaining access or simply being viewed in a favorable light. Hunter Biden clearly made a mistake in joining the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, while his father was vice president. The apparent conflict of interest was obvious to literally everyone. But Republican charges that Joe Biden granted a favor to Burisma by having the Ukrainian government fire a prosecutor that was investigating the company are flat-out provably false. It's true that Biden (along with virtually the entire Western alliance) pressured the Kyiv government to fire Viktor Shokin, the prosecutor in question. But one of the reasons was because Shokin wasn't investigating Burisma. There was no favor done on Hunter Biden's behalf. If anything, it was the opposite.

Republicans know this. Everyone knows this. This "scandal" has been dismissed by the new Ukrainian government, the U.S. intelligence services, and the Senate Intelligence Committee. It is 100% phony. And yet it's likely to continue for years if Joe Biden becomes the next president, because the Republican Party and the entire right-wing media sphere will make sure of it.

Salon's Roger Sollenberger reported on the latest twist in the phony scandal — the "discovery" of Hunter Biden's laptop, with dubious provenance, by Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon. Reporting in the right-wing press is filled with the sort of salacious gossip they love to peddle to keep the story dribbling out and hopefully entice the mainstream press to run with the story. (Indeed, you can feel an anxious desire to go there, among supposedly respectable reporters.)

Does the laptop really belong to Hunter Biden? Are the emails real? Did he arrange for his boss at Burisma to meet his father? Who knows? But it doesn't matter because nothing will change the fact that Joe Biden's actions were the opposite of what Republicans are pretending to investigate him for, and they know it. They are once again knowingly misleading the public.

If the Democrats manage to gain a majority in the Senate and hold on to the House, the GOP will be deprived of its ability to run this new crusade through Congress with multiple investigations, as they did with Benghazi. But unless something unusual happens, such as Rudy Giuliani being indicted as a foreign agent (which is not outside the realm of possibility), Republicans will keep this one going by whatever means they can fine and hope that a big backlash, along the lines of the Tea Party wave of 2010, carries them back into the majority in the 2022 midterms. If that happens, get ready for the circus to come to town.

If Joe Biden is elected president two weeks from now, the QAnon insanity could end up as just another hallucinogenic flashback of the increasingly surreal Trump era. Hunter Biden and Burisma, unfortunately, will be with us for a while.

Nixon's authoritarianism led us to Trump — and we must finally address the root of the problem

After Richard Nixon resigned from office in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the Congress set out to create numerous reforms designed to rein in future presidents. After all, Nixon had set forth a view of the presidency that was downright un-American: "If the president does it it's not illegal," essentially saying that no law can apply to the executive branch.

The legal system had worked, up to a point. Twenty-two members of the Nixon administration were convicted of crimes pertaining to Watergate. Most of them did time in prison, including the White House chief of staff and the attorney general. Nixon himself was guilty of numerous crimes but was never tried for any of them because he was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. But much of what Nixon did wasn't illegal. It was unethical, immoral and totally disrespectful of any and all norms of decent leadership. It turns out that those kinds of transgressions are even harder to check than rank criminality.

There were committee investigations, such as the Church Committee in the Senate and the Pike Committee in the House which delved deeply into the intelligence community's abuses, resulting in the permanent select committees on intelligence in each chamber. Later reforms required the president to inform congressional leaders of both parties prior to major covert actions, and for leaders of the CIA to regularly brief the committees.

Unfortunately, those reforms were of limited utility. The Iran-Contra scandal and the pardons that followed mocked the idea of intelligence oversight. The CIA black sites and torture program program during the George W. Bush administration pretty much destroyed the illusion that Congress had any control over the intelligence services. Throughout this period, the War Powers Act, which was enacted over Nixon's veto in the first place, has been a joke. As for campaign finance and ethics reforms, well, those were nice ideas. The Supreme Court took care of the first with the Citizens United ruling, and the second turns out to be almost entirely dependent on a sense of shame — a thing that turns out to be easily discarded.

And yet, for all of that, no one has come close to abusing the power of the presidency as Donald Trump has done. He didn't do it on his own. Yes, his personal inclination has been to treat the government as his private fiefdom, demanding loyalty oaths, conducting purges and using the office for his personal profit. But people such as Attorney General Bill Barr and others in right-wing legal circles who were politically baptized by Nixon's downfall have used Trump's authoritarian instincts to institute the "imperial presidency" that Nixon once espoused.

When Trump says "I have an Article II that says I can do anything I want," he didn't get that idea from reading the Constitution. He has obviously never done that, and wouldn't understand it anyway. He has been told this by people who believe very strongly in unaccountable presidential power: "If the president does it, it's not illegal." Barr's covering for Trump's obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe, the White House refusal to cooperate with Congress, the assertion of novel rationales that render oversight null and void and the Department of Justice claiming that personal cases against Trump come under the rubric of presidential immunity, among many other instances are not just exercises in Trumpian corruption. They are assertions of executive power way beyond anything that Nixon, Reagan or Bush ever thought of.

That's not Trump. It's a Republican power grab, and it's just one of many we've seen coming from the right in recent years. This authoritarian strain of thought has been with us at least since the Nixon era and it's metastasizing.

I wrote the other day that should the Democrats win the presidency and the Senate they must take the necessary step of expanding the Supreme Court. There has also been considerable discussion about getting rid of the Senate filibuster and granting statehood to Washington, D.C. These ideas and others are starting to make people nervous.

The Washington Post published an essay by Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore this past weekend in which she argues against one of the ideas percolating on the left: that a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" is needed to examine what happened during the Trump administration. This idea stems from the suspicion that the law will not adequately deal with a corrupt former president and his accomplices. I suspect that many people believe that our system is so damaged at this point that Congress will be unable to properly handle the task of unraveling this disaster and putting it right. So something like a truth and reconciliation commission comes into play since that would make it possible for the truth to come out, even if no legal penalties for the abuses that took place are likely or possible. At least we would know.

Lepore doesn't think the situation is grave enough for that. Trump can be dealt with by journalists and historians; Congress will carry on with passing legislation. But as you can see, we've been dealing with this for more than 40 years and it's just getting worse and worse.

Donald Trump has turned 40% of the country into his private cult. The Republican Party has become radical, corrupt and power-mad and America is now seen as a rogue superpower around the world, unpredictable and dangerous. We're being tested by foreign adversaries and we don't seem to be able to respond. The nation's economic situation is dire and nearly a quarter of a million people have died in the last eight months because our system is so broken. The racial injustice at the heart of our society has become too much to bear.

Journalism and history, in Lepore's view, are going to keep us tethered to the truth? There is an entire right-wing information ecosystem based on lies and fantasy. We live in an age where tens of millions of people live in an alternate reality, believing that the Democratic Party is run by a Satanic pedophile cult and that John F. Kennedy Jr. is coming back from the dead to help Donald Trump save the children.

We are in very big trouble.

Our immediate survival depends upon electing new leadership — that much is true. Our democracy is under stress but it may not yet be so damaged that we can't make that happen. But whether it's a truth and reconciliation commission or a "presidential crimes commission" made up of independent prosecutors, as Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., has suggested, or some other mechanism by which we document what has happened and attempt to hold people accountable, we need something. Otherwise I'm afraid we'll just let it all slide out into the ether as if nothing happened at all. Until it happens again.

For more than 40 years the U.S. has been heading down this path, sometimes pushed back by various institutions that were designed in the wake of Watergate to keep it from going too far. But those institutions have been failing for a while and I don't think we can survive another onslaught, especially if someone smarter than Donald Trump comes along and picks up the the tools that Bill Barr and others have provided them. The Democrats must do their duty and deal with this now.

McConnell is betting Democrats don't have the will to fight fire with fire. Biden should prove them wrong

The first day of questioning in the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court confirmation hearings was one for the books. The ritual of strong ideological jurists pretending to have never given a thought to the issues of the day is not unprecedented, but the context for it this time around should be unheard of. We are only three weeks away from a national referendum on the president and his party which, in any functioning democracy, would require that decisions about lifetime appointments be postponed until that referendum is decided.

But we don't live in a functioning democracy at the moment, so we are unable to stop a power-mad Republican party from ramming through this appointment despite the fact that the president himself has said publicly that he wants the seat filled in order to ensure a majority will rule in his favor when election disputes go before the court. He and his party have already put such a plan in motion by foreshadowing their intention to contest any outcome not in their favor.

That is the context in which our latest Supreme Court justice will be confirmed on a party line vote. The legitimacy of the appointment and the authority of the court will forever be corrupted by such a raw partisan power play. Any person of real integrity, particularly one who will be serving in a position for which personal honor and superior judgment are paramount job requirements, would refuse to be seated under such tainted circumstances.

Coney Barrett is clearly not such a person, and her answers on the first day of questioning make it clear that she is as unconcerned with her reputation as the Republicans who plan to install her no matter the cost to the stability of our institutions are with their own.

She is obviously a right wing extremist. But she also refused to say that the president is unable to single-handedly delay an election and she won't commit to recusal on cases about the election even though the conflict of interest and appearance of bias is so obvious a child could see it. She couldn't even say that a president must commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

Sadly, the appointment cannot be stopped. And it is the second time in the last four years that Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his accomplices have seized a seat on the court without any regard as to whether the majority of the country sees it as legitimate. It's as if they prefer that the people who don't vote for them see that they are impotent to stop them. That's a demonstration of pure power. And they have made the bet that the other side does not have the will to fight back.

But they may have finally gone too far. It's not just the court. The entire GOP establishment collaborating with Donald Trump for the past four years on myriad assaults on our democracy has raised awareness that the Republican establishment is no longer a political faction but has instead devolved into an elevated version of an organized crime family. Their cynical use of Trump for their own purposes without regard to the carnage and destruction he has brought upon this nation (including tens of thousands of preventable deaths) has exposed their so-called ideology as nothing more than a mercenary will to power.

Democrats, belatedly recognizing this fact, have started thinking seriously about how to save the country. It's almost too late, but if they manage to win despite the GOP's concerted efforts to derail a free and fair election, they have the chance to restore our democratic system.

The possibilities range from eliminating the filibuster — an easy and imperative move if they plan to ever enact vital legislation — to pushing efforts toward D.C. statehood and admission of Puerto Rico (should their people choose it). But in the wake of this unprecedented power grab on the Supreme Court, the talk has necessarily turned to expanding the court so that it will properly reflect the country for which it makes momentous decisions.

Needless to say this has the media wringing its hands, mostly because Democratic nominee Joe Biden won't say whether he would back such a move. He is wisely refusing to submit to their harangues, knowing full well that they are itching to turn this issue into another "Hillary's emails." And of course the Republicans are shrieking like rabid howler monkeys at the mere idea that Democrats might finally realize they can use their constitutional powers to rebalance the scales.

Considering what they have done, the Republicans do not have a leg to stand on. Their abuse of the "advise and consent" role in the nomination process makes any protestations about fairness laughable. Moreover, the number on the court has changed many times in the past. The Constitution does not designate a specific number on the court, which some of those "originalists" should consider may have been on purpose, as one of those "checks and balances" we used to be taught were so important.

It hasn't been done recently, but that's because we haven't had one of the political parties go completely rogue and start abusing the system to place extremists throughout the federal judiciary in quite a while.

Back in 2013, then-Congressman Tom Cotton introduced a bill in the House called the "Stop Court-Packing Act" which would have eliminated three seats on the D.C. Court of Appeals. That seems like a strange title, but it gives away the game. He was trying to stop President Obama from being able to fill those three empty seats. Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, agreed, writing a piece in the National Review called "Don't let the Democrats pack the DC Circuit." Keep in mind that these were legitimate vacancies.

As it happens, McConnell kept those and many other seats open so that a Republicans could fill them, so they needn't have worried. And he's very proud of it:

After McConnell refused to even hold a hearing for President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland to fill Justice Antonin Scalia's seat, Republicans announced that they were prepared to block all of Hillary Clinton's nominees if she were to win the 2016 presidential election. They said the court could run with eight justices going forward (something that they are now insisting would be completely unacceptable). And, as it happens, Republican governors all over the country have been trying to expand their Supreme Courts.

Biden has said that he's "not a fan" of the idea of expanding the Supreme Court, which is not surprising. Very few Democrats want to do it. It's going to be a bloody battle with a sanctimonious GOP suddenly rediscovering the necessity for norms and a media desperate to prove they are "fair and balanced" after four years of Trump. But if Democrats win and then don't do what's necessary to rebalance the judiciary and repudiate what these rogue Republicans have done, average Americans will pay a very steep price for their ineffectuality.

'Donald J. Trump defeats COVID': The absurd Soviet-style propaganda campaign around his illness

Four years ago, almost to the day, Donald Trump was on the campaign trail mocking Hillary Clinton's bout of pneumonia and insisting that contracting such an illness rendered her too weak and unfit to be the president. The campaign ran what was called by some the nastiest political ad ever, called "Dangerous." It depicted Clinton as a doddering invalid who was so incapacitated she couldn't handle foreign policy and national security.

It's not news that Donald Trump is a crude and cruel piece of work, of course. But it's worth recalling that ugly incident because it provided a window into his twisted psyche and the way he views his "brand" as being a virile strongman with superior genes. One aspect of that brand is that he isn't one of those losers who gets sick.

Perhaps the best way to understand exactly how Trump wants people to view him is to read the ludicrous letter he dictated to his New York physician, Dr. Jacob Bornstein, during the 2016 campaign, in which he described himself as potentially "the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency," whose "physical strength and stamina are extraordinary."

Various reports have trickled out since we found out that Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, revealing that at first he was in denial about having been exposed to the virus, so much so that he flew around the country, further exposing hundreds of his supporters and donors to it. When he finally realized that he was sick, Trump reportedly got scared, asking his staff if he was "going to go out like Stan Chera," an old friend of his from the New York real estate world who died of the disease last spring.

But just as Trump has admittedly "downplayed" the pandemic from the very beginning — spreading more disinformation than any other source, according to a recent study — he is now attempting to "downplay" his own illness by staging one amateurish propaganda stunt after another. It would be downright amusing if the stakes weren't so high, and if so many other people's lives weren't hanging in the balance.

Although we can't state this as a scientific certainty, it certainly appears that the gathering in the White House Rose Garden to announce the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett on Sept. 26 was a "super-spreader" event. There's a long list of people who were in attendance and have since tested positive, and since it can take up to 14 days to show symptoms, there could still be more. Trump's reckless visit to his golf club fundraiser in New Jersey to meet with donors from all over the country last week, after he knew that his aide Hope Hicks was sick, could well have been another super-spreader event: More than 200 people were there.

It remains unclear whether Trump had been tested before his debate with Joe Biden last Tuesday. He and his entourage showed up too late to be tested, refused to wear masks and were on the "honor system" when they all claimed they had tested negative that day. The timeline strongly suggests that Trump had already been infected, and the White House is not being forthcoming about his testing history. So far, Biden has tested negative three times. But until two weeks have passed, I don't think anyone can feel reassured that Trump's toxic aerosols didn't make their way across the stage during his 90-minute primal scream session.

The Washington Post reports that even though the White House is clearly the site of a major COVID cluster, officials there didn't bother to issue instructions to the staff until Sunday night — and even then, all they said was that staffers should stay home and call their health care provider if they feel sick. By all accounts, people are still working at the White House without masks and the CDC hasn't started any official contact tracing. According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump told people who had tested positive to keep it quiet and even his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, was kept in the dark as the virus ran unchecked through the White House. Stepien has since tested positive and is quarantining at home.

So it's a chaotic mess in TrumpWorld, as usual. But what isn't so usual is the way the medical professionals are handling this. It's clear that Trump has been much sicker than anyone let on at first. He required supplementary oxygen at least twice, needing oxygen and has been given cocktail of experimental therapeutic drugs. All this is clearly threatening to his self-defined brand as the "healthiest individual ever elected."

Presenting that image is so important to Trump that he has apparently convinced Dr. Sean Conley, the White House physician (and a Navy officer), to throw his integrity away in press conferences that are such obvious cover-ups he's tripping over his own tongue. When questioned over his inconsistent reports about the status of the president's health, Conley replied, "I didn't want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction," which is such an absurd statement you almost feel sorry for him. (Unless he really believes he could make Trump sicker by telling the truth.)

Meanwhile, Trump is staging videos from the hospital, having pictures taken of him signing blank pieces of paper and giving the impression that he's working in different rooms around the clock — when the metadata makes clear that the photos were taken within minutes of each other. On Saturday night, his daughter posted this preposterous tweet:

This propaganda is reaching Soviet levels of absurdity, except that instead of the party and the bureaucracy going to extreme lengths to hide the ill health of their leader, this time it's the leader himself running the cover-up. And because it's Trump, it's an outrageous exercise in narcissism.

In his video on Saturday, he said:

This was something that happened, and it's happened to millions of people all over the world, and I'm fighting for them. Not just in the U.S., I'm fighting for them all over the world.

His fans are actually saying he led us into this battle against the virus by modeling the reckless and irresponsible behavior we should all be following:

They're already commemorating the great victory:

Apparently, Donald Trump has Made America Great Again by getting COVID-19.

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President Trump repeatedly says that he's accomplished more than any president in history. I've never heard anyone ask him to lay out specifically what he means by that. He can try to take credit for signing big tax cuts for the wealthy, but that was passed by the Republican Congress with little input from him. It's true that his executive branch agencies have overturned many environmental rules and other regulations, but he hasn't been involved and clearly doesn't know the details.

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The deep malevolence that drives Trump's behavior has now been laid bare

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How Trump's fatuous and bloated ego could finish him off

You'd have to have been in a coma since last Thursday not to have heard about Jeffrey Goldberg's big article for The Atlantic in which a number of anonymous former Trump administration figures reveal that the president has expressed total disdain for military service. The political world has talked of little else for the past five days, and all this chatter took place over a holiday weekend, when a lot of people who usually pay little attention to the news undoubtedly heard about it.

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