Making Sense of the Mueller Investigation
Are you wondering what’s going on with the Mueller investigation? Is your head spinning from trying to keep the cast of sketchy characters and list of indictments straight? You are not alone! We here at STAND CNJ have so many questions. At a recent gathering of STAND members and friends, we had the opportunity to ask those questions and get some answers from our guest speaker, a federal law enforcement officer who shared her knowledge of legal statutes and her thoughts on information available to the public about the Trump-Russia investigation. (Our guest speaker wishes to remain anonymous — so let’s call her SG. She emphasized that she does not have any inside information about the Special Counsel’s work. However, her professional expertise gives her unique insights into news stories about Mueller’s investigation and related cases.)
What is the big picture?
With new revelations coming out daily, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Based on what is publicly known so far, what is the big picture? What the heck is going on?! According to SG, the outlines of a possible quid pro quo agreement between Putin and Trump are visible in reporting from the last year: from Putin – a Moscow Trump Tower worth hundreds of millions of dollars and the U.S. presidency; from Trump -sanctions relief for Russian businesses and oligarchs. And the quid pro quo looks to be ongoing. “You’ll notice Trump Tower [in Moscow] hasn’t happened yet. Well, yeah, sanctions haven’t been lifted yet,” said SG. (Though perhaps progress in sanctions relief has begun to happen. Recently, the Trump administration rather inexplicably removed sanctions from Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska‘s companies!)
Additionally, the public moves of the Special Counsel’s investigation suggest to SG that Mueller is aiming to destroy “the whole hydra” of organized crime. “I think he wants to take down the entire Russian mob,” said SG, or at least make Americans so aware of it’s dangerous influence that the public forces Congress to impose harsh sanctions, stopping the flow of money to Russian oligarchs (who are closely connected to the Russian mafia). This is the goal of legislation like the Magnitsky Act — sanctioned Russians and Russian companies, and those doing business with sanctioned people and companies, are no longer able to access the U.S. banking system. Locked out of U.S. banks, powerful oligarchs and mobsters can no longer use their money to fund lavish American lifestyles, influence elected officials, or increase their wealth and power.
So why all these ‘process’ crimes?
So, if that’s the big picture, why hasn’t a quid pro quo arrangement been part of Mueller’s indictments thus far? Why does he keep indicting people for crimes like witness tampering or lying to Congress? SG answered this question with a well-known mantra of federal law enforcement: ‘We got Al Capone on tax evasion.” Crimes such as conspiracy or money laundering are hard to prove in court. On the other hand, tax fraud, campaign finance violations, false statements, identity theft, witness tampering and other crimes centered on documents (as opposed to witness testimony) are easy to prove. “That’s why you see Mueller charging these crimes, because it gets people terrified that they’re going to jail because its so easy to prove,” says SG. “Any good defense attorney is gonna look at this [Mueller’s charges] and say, ‘you’re gonna be convicted, so you need to cooperate and get the best deal possible.” Cooperation leads to more information about what really happened, and makes it possible to indict those leading the criminal activity.
Crimes like lying to the FBI may not be attention-grabbing “until you dig in to the fact that they’re a cover-up of a crime,” SG pointed out. “When Fox News blares out ‘process crime, no big deal’, we have to hammer away at the fact that its a cover-up.” And obstructing justice through a cover-up is considered by prosecutors to be a serious crime in its own right, by threatening the rule of law. The ‘process crime’ excuse is no excuse at all.
With so much covering-up going on with Trump and his associates, it’s no wonder that Mueller has pursued so many indictments for cover-up-related crimes. It’s easier for prosecutors to get a conviction on the cover-up than for the original crime, according to SG. This is especially true when an investigation and surveillance has been going on for awhile. In situations like this, “we can see the cover-up happening in real time” and gather plenty of evidence to convict, she explained.
We also need to remember that indictments for false statements, witness tampering, and the like point to something larger and more pernicious, e.g, the quid pro quo between Putin and Trump mentioned above, or foreign influence in American elections.
How does this all end?
So many outrageous scandals have come to light for this presidency, yet there have been little to no consequences for Trump or Russia. Sometimes it feels like this will never end! But SG sees three possible paths to removing Trump from office (in addition to voting him out in 2020, of course).
First, don’t forget about the New York State Attorney General’s lawsuit against the Trump Foundation. The state AG could indict Trump as part of this case (states are not bound by the federal Department of Justice guideline that sitting presidents cannot be indicted) and begin the process to seize his assets. Given what we know of Trump’s character, SG thinks its possible that Trump could willingly resign the presidency if he could somehow save his assets from being seized.
Then, of course, there’s the scenario we’re all hoping for: Mueller gets to the bottom of what is going on, he releases his report to the public, and, if the evidence is damning, public outcry moves Congress to remove Trump from office. But what if we never see a Mueller report? What if Trump fires Mueller before the investigation is finished?
SG’s thoughts on those scenarios are encouraging. Even without Mueller or a Mueller report, she still believes it would be possible to fully investigate what happened with Trump and Russia, and remove the president from office if necessary. How? By starting with the many indictments Mueller has already won from a grand jury. Each one is a ‘speaking indictment’, with far more detail than what is necessary or typical. “He’s giving his ‘report’ through the indictments,” SG believes. No matter what happens with the Special Counsel investigation or report, the information in those indictments is now available as a starting point for congressional investigations. Now that Democrats control the House of Representatives (elections matter!), Congress can finally start doing its job. They can hold public hearings and subpoena witnesses based on the information in Mueller’s indictments. They can even appoint Mueller himself to a special oversight position to continue his work, this time with the guarantee that the findings will be made public. And ‘public’ is key. It is vital that Congress allow open testimony from key witnesses and issue public reports, as public outrage is the only thing likely to move congressional Republicans. “If you don’t get the outrage going, you don’t get the impeachment going,” said SG.
We know what you’re thinking right now. ‘So this ends with a President Pence?’ Not necessarily, according to SG, who thinks that “Pence is nebulously involved in all this stuff.” He was inexplicably picked as vice-president by Paul Manafort, after all. Pence then went on to lead the transition team. His claim that he knew nothing about now-disgraced National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s foreign lobbying work has always been sketchy, given that Rep. Elijah Cummings had sent Pence a letter about Flynn’s work before Trump had even taken office. Most ominously, according to SG, there is no indication that Pence has been interviewed by Mueller. Does that mean that Pence is an inside source for Mueller? Or could he actually be a target? “I’d be worried if I was Pence,” SG said.
No matter which path we end up on, SG is sure of one thing: “Article One of impeachment can be witness tampering, because we saw it right in public,” when the President threatened Michael Cohen’s father-in-law via tweet. This led Cohen to seek a postponement of his congressional testimony. SG sees this as “textbook. It meets every element of witness tampering. We have seen President Trump commit 2 felonies. And every time he tweets it out, it’s another count!”
As Rachel Maddow likes to say, watch this space….
Neena Singh, STAND leader, speaking at rally for voter turnout for CD7
A group of women and grassroots activists held a rally today to push voter turnout among women in New Jersey’s 7th district on behalf of Democrat Tom Malinowski, who is seeking to unseat Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton).
Lance, a five-term incumbent, has been under fire after getting caught on tape saying he that he tended not to believe allegations leveled by Christine Blasey Ford against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, days before Blasey Ford testified before the U.S. Senate.
“Women are the driving force behind the midterm elections and drive Leonard Lance right out of Congress we will,” said Elizabeth Meyer, the founder of Women’s March New Jersey. “Lance, who has masqueraded as moderate, yet marches in lock step with Trump, has failed to protect women from the Republican agenda intent on chiseling away our rights. His support of Brett Kavanaugh and his disregard for Dr. Blasey Ford were the match in the powder barrel. Women in CD7 are fired up and working tirelessly to usher new leadership into our district. Leonard Lance, you have 19 days to pack your bags.”
Margaret Illis of NJ 7 Forward accused Lance of failing to stand up to the Republican-controlled Congress on issues like health care, reproductive rights and equal pay.
“The blue wave is coming to the 7th congressional district, and it is female,” said Illis.
Neena Singh of STAND Central New Jersey, Lillian Duggan of Westfield 20/20, Nedia Morsey of Make the Road Action, Deanna Mottola Jaborska of New Jersey Citizen Action, and Montgomery Township Committeewoman Sadaf Jaffer also addressed the rally
Protecting Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights
- This past Sunday, STAND CNJ gathered for a timely discussion of women’s reproductive rights and reproductive health, moderated by Heather Howard of Princeton University’s Center for Health and Wellness. Our four panelists were: Elizabeth Coulter, from the Office of Women’s Health at the state Department of Health; Jean LoCicero, deputy legal director, ACLU-NJ; Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director, NJ Citizen Action; and Casey Olesko, from Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Several issues at the federal level are threatening women’s access to reproductive health, and, thankfully, New Jersey is positioned to help maintain access if those threats become reality, according to panelists. However, budget issues could still pose a problem at the state level, and New Jersey needs to confront some serious racial disparities in women’s reproductive health.
Threats at the federal level
At the forefront of everyone’s mind was the impending vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Because he would be replacing retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, a reliable fifth vote for protecting access to abortion, “we have serious concerns about what he’ll do if he’s on the Supreme Court,” said Jean LoCicero, deputy legal director of ACLU-NJ. When asked whether he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, Kavanaugh has given vague answers. (What is known for sure, however, is that he was nominated by a president who pledged to only appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court, and who chose candidates from a list pre-approved by Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, a man and organization known for its opposition to abortion rights.) In a previous ruling, and in an email reviewed by senators, Kavanaugh’s record suggests that he will not rule in favor of access to abortion rights should the issue come before the Supreme Court. America could soon find itself with a 5-4 Supreme Court majority directly contradicting the 7 out of 10 Americans who believe abortion should remain legal. This would have a “profound impact on women and their families,” warned LoCicero. Women’s autonomy, health and financial futures are on the line.
Though some states, like New Jersey, have no restrictions on abortion, and would weather the loss of Roe v. Wade without negative consequences, that is far from true for the country as a whole. State level abortion restrictions are already very real in many states, according to LoCicero. More than 300 laws restricting access are already on the books across the US. Five or six states have restricted access so much that there is only 1 abortion clinic in the entire state, and 27 cities are in ‘abortion deserts‘, areas that are located 100 miles or more from the nearest clinic. Additionally, 6 states have already passed ‘trigger laws‘ that will immediately go into effect and ban or restrict abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. As LoCicero said, “the trends are not good.” The next Supreme Court justice will have life-altering consequences on women’s access to the reproductive health care they need.
Two other major issues threaten women’s health care access at the federal level: a proposed change to Title X that would enact an anti-abortion gag rule on women’s health clinics, and possible forthcoming attacks on the ACA, Medicare and Medicaid.
New Title X gag rule
Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed strict new rules for Title X family planning funding. The new rules would not only deny federal funding to any clinic that provides abortion, but would also bar clinics receiving Title X funding from even discussing abortion or referring patients to other providers who offer abortion services. Women’s health advocates, like Casey Olesko of New Jersey’s Planned Parenthood Action Fund, object to this new anti-abortion gag rule. Olesko worries that New Jersey’s Planned Parenthood clinics might have to close some clinics due to funding cuts caused by the gag rule. Gov. Phil Murphy and state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal are also concerned. Grewal joined a coalition of 11 state attorneys general opposing the new rule; Gov. Murphy hopes to provide some state funding to offset gag-rule related funding losses. However, Elizabeth Coulter, from the state Department of Health’s Office of Women’s Health, warns that state funds cannot make up for all of these losses. Because of New Jersey’s dire budget problems, there is not enough money to do so.
The public comment period for the new gag rule has now passed, but not before Planned Parenthood and other women’s health advocates led a campaign encouraging people to submit public comments in opposition to the proposed rule. Says Olesko, “we generated an historic number of comments across the country,” more than 6,000 in New Jersey alone and some 200,000 nationwide. The Department of Health and Human Services is currently reviewing and responding to each comment, causing a delay in the gag rule’s implementation. However, the rule is expected to eventually go into effect, though the exact timing is not clear.
Attacks on the ACA, Medicaid, and Medicare
Despite being the law for eight years, the ACA is still vulnerable to attacks from the right, says Howard. Dena Mottola Jaborska, of NJ Citizen Action, agrees. On Sunday, Jaborska reviewed the ways the Trump administration has attempted to sabotage the law’s success in the last two years (e.g. shortening the enrollment period, repealing the individual mandate, allowing ‘junk insurance’ plans that don’t meet the ACA’s minimum coverage requirements), and warned of threats that may be forthcoming: A legal challenge to Obamacare filed by Republican governors and state attorneys general is slowly working its way through the courts, and could soon end up before the Supreme Court. Additionally, if Republicans hang onto control of Congress after November’s mid-term elections, they are likely to attempt another repeal of the ACA.
Safety net programs like Medicaid and Medicare are vulnerable as well. As a result of the Republican tax cut bill passed in December 2017, the US is grappling with a deficit ballooning by trillions of dollars. The GOP is expected to respond by proposing cuts and caps to programs like Medicaid and Medicare, which will reduce access to care for millions of Americans. Republicans are even attempting “tax reform 2.0” this week, hoping to pass even more irresponsible tax cuts that will only make our deficit problems worse, granting more cover to politicians on the right to propose cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and other important social safety net programs. “We have to save these programs,” says Jaborska. “We can’t let these short-sighted cuts harm these programs.” “These programs aren’t the problem,” agrees Howard. “You [Congress] created the problem!”
How can New Jersey weather this storm?
Despite all these federal-level threats, New Jersey is well-positioned to deal with them. Since taking office in January, Gov. Murphy has taken several key steps that will help us weather the storm. He began his administration by restoring funding to family planning clinics, which suffered for eight years after former Gov. Chris Christie had pulled funding. In May, Gov. Murphy signed into law 2 bills that will help to shore up the state’s insurance market in the face of the administration’s sabotage efforts. He has also expanded Medicaid again, making it possible for more pregnant women to be covered. As the implementation of the anti-abortion gag rule nears, Murphy is “interested in protecting women’s access to care, making sure care continues, no matter what” happens at the federal level, says Coulter, from the NJ Department of Health. Though New Jersey does not have the funds to make up for all Title X funding losses, as mentioned above, the state hopes to minimize the damage.
However, there are other issues negatively affecting women’s health in New Jersey, according to Sunday’s panelists. LoCicero is concerned that New Jersey’s schools sometimes do not provide the comprehensive sex education that is mandated by the state. Abstinence-only education occasionally slips through the cracks when teachers invite guest speakers from groups offering programs about “sexual risk avoidance”, the new term for abstinence-only education. Our teens can end up with very little useful information about birth control.
Access to birth control is also becoming an issue at religious hospitals in New Jersey, adds LoCicero and Coulter. Citing religious affiliation, many of these hospitals refuse to provide women with the full range of reproductive health care and contraception that is available, a situation known as “religious refusals”. The problem grows when non-religious and religious hospitals consolidate. Religious hospitals will not perform abortions, of course, but they also refuse to perform tubal ligations or give women IUDs or implants immediately after giving birth. This can lead to child-spacing of less than 18 months, which increases the risk of maternal and infant mortality and morbidity. Coulter’s work at the Department of Health has found that there is some level of correlation between higher mortality/morbidity rates and religious hospitals in the area.
New Jersey’s maternal and infant mortality rates in general are of major concern. Our state is leading in many areas, “but unfortunately we are not leading in infant and maternal measures,” says Howard. Maternal mortality rates are high compared to other states in the US, perhaps a result of New Jersey’s very high C-section rate, explained Coulter. (C-sections increase the risk of life-threatening conditions such as hemorrhages and embolisms). In New Jersey, 36 out of every 100,000 pregnancies or births end in a mother’s death, compared to a national average of 20 out of 100,000. Additionally, there are “astounding” racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality. Black mothers die nearly four times as often as white mothers (46.5 vs. 12.8 of 100,000 for black and white mothers, respectively). The maternal mortality rate for Hispanic mothers is three times as high as white mothers’. While New Jersey’s infant mortality rates have been declining overall to below the national average, our state has one of the largest racial disparities in infant mortality in the country: 3 per 1000 live births for white babies compared to 9.7 for black babies. Researchers at the Department of Health are working hard to understand and reduce these disparities. Lack of education, “care deserts”, and the effects of institutional racism all contribute to the problems, says Coulter. Care providers have also been shown to have implicit bias that affects how seriously they consider the medical complaints of patients of color. The Legislative Black Caucus is currently working on legislation that would address these startling disparities and lead to reductions.
What can you do?
Sunday’s panelists recommended several actions you can take regarding the various issues affecting women’s health at the federal and state level.
- Check out Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s monthly Activist Nights. For more information, email email@example.com
- Contact Senator Booker (202-224-3224) and Senator Menendez (202-224-4744) to voice your opposition to the second round of irresponsible tax cuts just passed by the House GOP. (Nervous about calling your representatives? No problem! Call after hours and leave a brief voicemail!)
- Contact your local school district and confirm that they offer comprehensive, evidence-based sex education. You can do this even if you don’t have children in the schools, LoCicero emphasizes.
- Call your state legislators and tell them you are deeply concerned about New Jersey’s racial disparities in infant and maternal mortality rates, recommends Coulter. (Not sure who your state legislators are? Find out here.)
- Vote, vote, vote on November 6th! Get everyone you know to vote! As Jaborska says: Healthcare is on the ballot everywhere this year
If you missed this event, and would like to watch the FB Livestream recording, you can find it at https://www.facebook.com/standcnj/videos/288143898683620/