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Sensemaker: A government of laws

Sensemaker: A government of laws

What just happened

Long stories short

  • ‘Islamic State Beatle’ Aine Davis was arrested in the UK after being deported from Turkey.
  • The UK has doubled the number of long-range rocket launchers they will send to Ukraine, according to defence secretary Ben Wallace. 
  • A stolen £48 million painting by one of Brazil’s most celebrated artists was found stashed under a bed in Rio.

A government of laws

No one died. No one’s been arrested. There hasn’t even been a whiff of tear gas. Even so, 8/8 is already being spoken of along with 9/11 and January 6 as a landmark in the life of the American republic. 

Monday’s raid on Mar-a-Lago was either the fateful weaponisation of the machinery of US justice for political purposes, or long overdue confirmation that America’s “is a government of laws, and not of men,” in John Adams’ formulation – and that no one is above those laws.

It’s hard to hold both views at once, but that doesn’t mean both are equally valid. The raid was carried out on orders from an FBI chief appointed by Trump, by agents with a search warrant issued by a judge who is not a political appointee, with no advance warning given to the White House. 

The raid was announced on Monday morning with a 45-minute warning for Trump’s Secret Service detail. Agents searched the ex-president’s private Florida quarters including his office and safe and took away ten boxes of papers, some thought to be top secret. 

Even if nothing else had muscled into Trump’s diary this week, the search would have

  • committed the Department of Justice to a process of investigation and disclosure leading ultimately to a decision to put up or shut up in its pursuit of Trump for allegedly mishandling secret papers; and
  • concentrated Trump’s mind on whether to seize the moment and declare a third run for the White House, or take the Feds seriously and huddle with his lawyers.

It turns out he was already huddling with his lawyers. 

Trump pleads the fifth. Yesterday he surprised New York state’s attorney general, Letitia James, by declining to answer any of her questions at a deposition she’d been seeking for three years. The James investigation has nothing to do with Mar-a-Lago but is one of at least six probes into Trump’s business and political record. The others include

  • A broad DoJ investigation of Trump’s handling of presidential documents, of which the Mar-a-Lago search is a part.
  • The DoJ’s criminal investigation of the January 6 insurrection – the biggest in the department’s history.
  • Ongoing congressional hearings into January 6.
  • The House Ways and Means Committee’s pursuit of Trump’s tax returns, which a federal appeals judge ruled this week must be handed over.
  • A criminal investigation into alleged election fraud in Georgia, where Trump is accused of pressuring the secretary of state to overturn the 2020 election result.

The list excludes criminal proceedings against Trump’s business manager, Allen Weisselberg, in which pre-trial hearings start this week. Whether Weisselberg ever testifies against his employer (he hasn’t yet) is a key known unknown in any assessment of whether Trump will be hobbled by the law, but there are others:

What’s in the Mar-a-Lago search warrant? The warrant will contain details of what the FBI expected to find, including whether it was looking for materials relating to January 6. Trump has seen it and could release it but has chosen not to.

What’s in the affidavit behind the search warrant? The affidavit will be even more detailed than the warrant, because it has to show probable cause to believe a crime has been committed.

What’s in the receipt the FBI left behind? Agents had to itemise what they took. If their haul turns out to be inconsequential and the search more about process than anything voters would recognise as criminality, the political dividend for Trump could be enormous.

What was the thrust of Letitia James’ questioning? Trump has previously said mobsters plead the fifth. Yesterday he issued a statement saying he had no choice. This may be because Weisselberg has admitted he once overvalued a Trump apartment by $200 million – the kind of massaging that James is seeking to depict as part of a pattern of illegality for the purposes of raising loans and lowering taxes.

The politics. There are three scenarios to consider:

  • Trump is barred by law from running again. This is not going to happen. As the former federal prosecutor James Zirin writes in The Hill, article II of the US constitution makes clear that “indictment and even conviction of a felony is no ground for disqualification of someone running for president”.
  • Trump brings forward his next run for the White House. This is entirely plausible. He and allies are claiming American democracy is under attack, and raising money on that basis.
  • The real electoral dividend from Trump’s showdown with the law accrues to Democrats. This, too, is plausible. In the end, being pursued at all times by state and federal law enforcement is a bad look in the political centre where national elections are still won.


Oligarchs’ yachts
As Western capitals grow increasingly worried about Turkey’s deepening economic ties with Moscow, its waters have become a safe haven for superyachts linked to Russia’s oligarchs. Ukrainian journalists tracked down more than 10 yachts linked to Russian tycoons along Turkey’s Aegean coast, including two vessels linked to former Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich, one with ties to steel billionaire Aleksandr Abramov and another linked to former KGB agent Vladimir Strzhalkovskiy. The US and its allies have seized more than a dozen superyachts worth billions as part of sweeping financial sanctions imposed on Kremlin-linked oligarchs after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. But Turkey has not adopted EU and US sanctions on Moscow – and Erdogan raised eyebrows last week after a four-hour meeting with Putin in Sochi.


Dark mutter
Fresh glimpses of deep space are casting doubt on prevailing theories of cosmology, and in particular on the idea of dark matter. Kai Noeske, a physicist at the European Space Observation Centre in Darmstadt, took one look at a far-off group of galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet when new images arrived last month from the James Webb telescope and professed himself stumped. “We do not know what we do not know,” he told Deutsche Welle, “[but] one of those things could be dark matter.” Or could not. Dark matter is supposed to account for 85 per cent of all matter in the universe and to explain the speed at which galaxies spin. But it has never been seen and Stephan’s Quintet doesn’t seem to be spinning as expected. New theories on a postcard, please.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Langya virus
A new virus has been identified in eastern China that was likely to have been transmitted to humans after first infecting animals, less than three years after the Covid outbreak. The novel Langya henipavirus (LayV), first detected in late 2018, has infected 35 people so far in the Shandong and Henan provinces, according to peer-reviewed research published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Scientists do not know if the virus can transmit between people, but they said shrews and some domestic animals are likely reservoirs of the disease. No fatalities have been reported so far – the most common symptoms have been fever, fatigue, loss of appetite and a cough, while some reported impaired liver and kidney function. Francois Balloux, a biology professor at University College London, says the Langya virus doesn’t look like a repeat of Covid-19, but serves as a reminder of the “looming threat” of possible zoonotic spillovers.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

The UK dries up 
Today is day one of four that an amber weather warning for extreme heat is in place across most of England and Wales. An official drought is expected to be announced by the UK’s Environment Agency as soon as tomorrow, as European Commission researchers warn the continent could be facing its worst drought since the 16th century. The combination of hot weather and dry conditions has led the UK’s National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) to warn of “unprecedented fire risk conditions”. This isn’t just about a few sunburnt faces come Monday morning – drought significantly impacts economic output, increases deaths among vulnerable populations and hampers infrastructure. A 2021 Nature study found that if action isn’t taken to mitigate the effects of climate change, annual drought losses across the EU and UK are projected to rise to more than €65 billion per year, compared with €9 billion currently. Turning off the hosepipes isn’t going to be enough. 


Racist Covid fines
New research suggests that institutional racism within the police partly explains the uneven distribution of fixed penalty notices (FPNs) within ethnic groups during the initial Covid lockdowns in 2020. Researchers from the University of Liverpool interviewed 32 police officers from forces across the north of England and found officers explicitly believed that people from minority backgrounds were more likely to violate Covid restrictions. In the words of one participant: “Without trying to sound like the racist white cop, there are a lot more breaches… committed by Asian males.” National figures for England and Wales show minority ethnic people were 1.6 times more likely to be hit with FPNs than white people, despite no evidence of ethnic minority groups breaching the rules more than other groups. Last year, MPs said all 85,000 Covid fines issued should be reviewed, describing the system as muddled, discriminatory and unfair.

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 Asha Mior, Nina Kuryata, Jessica Winch and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

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