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Sensemaker: Trump’s noose tightens

Sensemaker: Trump’s noose tightens

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Ukrainian forces hit a key bridge over the Dnipro river near Kherson (more below).
  • The US Fed chairman announced a three-quarter point rate rise but hinted future increases would be smaller.
  • Germany beat France 2-1 to face England in Sunday’s final of the women’s Euros.

Trump’s noose tightens

Four days are a long time in Trump World. On Monday we noted there was a way to go before Merrick Garland, the US attorney general, indicted Trump for his role in the January 6 insurrection. Since then…

  • Garland has said he intends to hold “everyone – anyone” accountable who was criminally responsible for the attack on Congress; 
  • and the Washington Post has reported that federal investigators have been a) asking close aides to former Vice President Mike Pence specifically about Trump’s actions before the attack and b) studying the contents of former senior Trump aides’ phones with the same questions in mind.

These are incremental but significant developments. They reflect a switch in focus by the biggest investigation in the history of the US justice department from the January 6 foot soldiers (nearly 900 of whom have been criminally charged) to their ringleader-in-chief. Garland had said nothing so specific until this week, and his lieutenants had been concentrating more on Trump’s entourage than the man himself. 

And there’s more. 

Georgia. A separate criminal investigation into alleged election fraud by Trump in Georgia hit a bump this week when a judge said prosecutors couldn’t pursue a Trump-supporting “fake elector” for political reasons. But the Georgia case is further advanced than any federal one and it rests on something close to a silver bullet – phone recordings of Trump begging the local Secretary of State to “find 11,780 votes” to overturn the statewide election. 

Timing. Trump could make it harder for Garland to bring a case against him by declaring a third run for the presidency. A rule introduced by former Attorney General Bill Barr to prevent DoJ investigations influencing elections as they did in 2016 would require formal approval from Garland for any prosecution of Trump if he were a presidential candidate. The rule wouldn’t prevent such a prosecution, but it increases the pressure on Garland to make up his mind.

That pressure is already intense. 18 months ago it looked more likely Trump would face trial for financial crimes in New York than political ones in Washington. Now “the evidence [against Trump] is so powerful it can’t be overlooked,” says Professor Bennett Gershman of Pace Law School.

“The only reason Garland might not indict is if he thinks it would be worse for the country in terms of the risk of civil unrest. That’s the calculation he’s making. The evidence itself is overwhelming.”

Gershman sees three pillars to the case for a criminal indictment of Trump for election fraud, obstruction of Congress or both:

  • He knew his own claims of a stolen election were bogus because all his legal efforts to prove them failed.
  • He urged the crowd on 6 January to interrupt the Senate’s electoral vote count, which a federal judge has already concluded “more likely than not” constituted a felony.
  • He simultaneously pursued a plan to send “fake electors” to Washington to upend that count even if the mob could not. 

It’s the fake elector scheme that appears to have done most to stiffen Garland’s resolve. The (delusional) idea proposed by Trump’s lawyers was to draw up alternative slates of Republican electors to replace Democrats in states where Trump wrongly claimed to have won. Claiming an obscure 1960 Hawaiian case as precedent, the new electors would be sent to Washington to reverse Biden’s victory. But emails seen by the NYT appear to show Trump and his lawyers knew their electors were fake because they used the word. The plan was to give Pence a pretext to stop the count, but he refused to go along with it.

To note:

  • There is no First Amendment (ie free speech) defence for incitement to violence in the US, as a landmark 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Brandenburg v Ohio made clear.
  • Trump would be the first-ever former US president to face a criminal indictment.
  • He gave a wildly provocative speech in Washington last weekend, offering among other things a fever dream of quick Chinese-style trials and executions for drug dealers, but unlike most cable channels Fox News declined to cover it live.


Meta’s first loss
Five months ago Facebook’s owner reported its first-ever fall in user numbers. Now its earnings are falling too. They’re still beyond most companies’ wildest imaginings, but quarterly earnings for April-June were down 1 per cent year on year at $28.82 billion. The company blamed falling revenues from ads that command on average 14 per cent less than a year ago. One analyst tells the BBC Facebook has “now become a low-to-no-growth company”, but Mark Zuckerberg isn’t giving up. He also owns Instagram and has tweaked its algorithms to make it more like TikTok and less like a personal photo album. Kylie Jenner (360 million followers) doesn’t approve, but usage has ticked up.


The fight for Kherson
Ukrainian and Russian sources confirm that long-range, accurate HIMARS artillery supplied by the US have put Kherson’s Antonivskyi bridge in southern Ukraine beyond use, at least for now. NBC says it’s a morale boost for Ukraine but not the decisive breakthrough its forces need if they are to make good on their promise to retake Kherson by September. Professor Lawrence Freedman has a long piece worth reading on substack about signs the war is going Ukraine’s way but also about Kyiv’s need to “get a move on” – to retake significant territory before next winter and prove to allies that their money and materiel is making a difference on the ground. The stakes for Ukraine are existential, but they’re high for Russia too: Freedman says 85 per cent of its total military capability is now committed to the war.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Disabled parking badges
The AA is warning disabled drivers in the UK that their blue badges may not be recognised while travelling in Europe this summer. These permits were accepted across the EU prior to Brexit  – but more than two years later, 11 countries still have yet to come to a decision on whether they will continue to recognise the badges. This includes popular travel destinations such as France, Spain, and Italy. This is “simply unacceptable”, says the head of road policy for the AA, who says drivers could incur fines or even have their vehicles towed if they try to use the badges in these countries. In light of this, the AA recommends that disabled drivers try to make use of drop-off and collection zones where possible instead. As of March 2021, 2.35 million people in England hold blue badges.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Manchin’s climate moment
The chances of a big American climate bill have improved with a change of heart from the most powerful senator in the country, Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He wrecked the US plan to come to Cop26 last year with a $500 billion clean energy package by voting against it, and seemed determined to wreck its revival by saying he’d oppose a new version earlier this month. But quiet talks with other senior Democrats have yielded a deal that may yet depend on separate approval of a gas pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia. It will also require the support of the Democrats’ other climate obstacle, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. But the new bill, which earmarks $369 billion for clean energy and climate change mitigation, is also being pitched as bearing down on inflation by limiting federal spending on prescription drugs. It’s not clear how that helps people who need those drugs, but pork was never simple. 


MBS in Paris
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman will be welcomed by French president Emmanuel Macron for a working dinner at the Elysée palace tonight, as the de facto ruler of an oil-rich country enjoys a change in tone from world leaders facing an energy crisis. Four years ago MBS was an international pariah following the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, strangled and dismembered, in a killing that US intelligence concluded was approved by MBS (Riyadh blamed rogue operatives). But now, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine destabilises energy markets, the sands are shifting: MBS got a fist bump from Biden earlier this month and a private tour of the Acropolis in Greece on the first leg of his European trip. Another crack in the dam for a “rules-based” global order. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what you think. Send an email to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch and Asha Mior.

Photographs Getty Images

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