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November 27, 2019

CAFE Brief with Elie Honig

Dear Reader:

Back when I worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, Preet used to send out office-wide emails from time to time, often closing with his signature reminder that, when you serve the public as a prosecutor, “Every Day is Thanksgiving.”  (And, no — he didn’t limit himself to sending this reminder on Thanksgiving itself; it could come at any time for introspection and reflection which, if you know Preet, could be any time at all).

To those of us working on the line, Preet’s reminder would be met with — sorry, boss — a few eyerolls at the lovable corniness of the sentiment, but also overwhelmingly with genuine appreciation.  As with any job, we could sometimes get lost in the day-to-day crush of business. So it was important to be reminded that we were damn lucky to get to work for the United States Department of Justice, in the Southern District of New York, as part of our Constitutional system of due process and checks and balances. 

That system is now being put to its most serious test in a generation. Trump has challenged and disregarded both hard laws and soft norms like no other President in modern history, causing Congress to roll out one of its most serious and rarely-used weapons: impeachment.  By all appearances, the most likely outcome is that the House impeaches Trump and the Senate acquits him, with minimal if any partisan cross-over.  Only two House Democrats voted against the impeachment procedural resolution, no Republicans voted for it, and there is no indication that any Republican in either house of Congress will flip against Trump.  

But before anyone pops the cork and toasts that outcome, or despairs over it, remember how dizzyingly quickly things change.  One year ago, Robert Mueller had racked up an impressive series of indictments of inner-circle Trump officials and advisers, and appeared to be approaching a takedown of Trump himself.  Five months ago, it seemed Mueller’s investigation and the House’s followup had fizzled and Trump would skate without consequence. Four months ago, Trump told Ukrainian President Zelensky, “I would like you to do us a favor though.”  Two months ago, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry focused on Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.  In less than a year, we’ve gone from “Trump’s going down” to “Trump’s gonna skate” to “Trump’s getting impeached” to “This is really bad but Trump’s gonna beat the rap.”

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Given that head-spinning sequence of events, my first piece of advice is that it ain’t over yet.  Think of how much has changed in just a matter of days. Three weeks ago, almost nobody had ever heard of Bill Taylor, Fiona Hill, Alex Vindman, Marie Yovanovitch and David Holmes.  Now they’re household names whose testimony has established a compelling case that Trump abused the power of the Presidency for his own personal and political gain.

And my second suggestion is to focus not on the outcome but the process.  Without question, our Constitutional system is going through a real test right now.  But, thus far, the system has held. Courts — the Judicial Branch — have rebuked and rejected Trump’s lawlessness repeatedly, including recent rulings confirming that prosecutors can investigate a sitting President, that Congress can obtain Trump’s tax returns, that Congress is entitled to Robert Mueller’s grand jury materials over Executive Branch objection, and, just this week, that Don McGahn cannot defy a Congressional subpoena on White House orders.  Meanwhile, the Legislative Branch — Congress — has set in motion one of its gravest Constitutional powers: impeachment.  It’s like an episode of Schoolhouse Rock playing out in real life, with checks and balances flying back and forth among the Branches.

This is how our system is supposed to work.  There’s never a guarantee that everybody will love the end result; in fact, it’s almost certain that a large percentage of the country will hate it.  And Trump defenders seem to be breaking new ground on unabashed denial of facts and espousal of wild conspiracy theories to justify Trump’s actions.  But the system is working as it was designed, and it will hold. 

So, this Thanksgiving, as the dinner table conversation inevitably turns to politics and heats up — we’ve all got that one uncle — remember to be thankful for the basics.  Our system of laws is not perfect, but it is also the greatest that has ever been devised. The system will hold. It is stronger than Trump or any damage he can inflict. We are lucky for that. 

Have a Happy Thanksgiving,


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