Political Animal

Clemency: A Minefield of Quid Pro Quos for Trump to Exploit

From early on in his presidency, Trump’s approach to both domestic politics and foreign policy has been described as “transactional.” The Ukraine extortion scheme highlighted how that works. It’s all about quid pro quos.

What we saw was that not only did the president withhold a White House meeting and military aid in an attempt to get Zelensky to announce investigations into his political rivals, it appears as though he engaged in a quid pro quo with Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, where Javelin anti-tank missiles were traded for dropping investigations into Paul Manafort. Once that deal was done, Trump attempted another quid pro quo with Poroshenko: support for the Ukrainian president’s re-election in exchange for the announcement of an investigation into the Bidens. Trump also solicited lies from corrupt Ukrainians in exchange for getting rid of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

The picture all of that paints is that the president’s strategy for getting what he wants (i.e., support for himself or attacks on his enemies), is centered on offering to do something for anyone who’s willing to give it to him. Keep that in mind as the possibility of pardons for Trump associates like Stone and Manafort are discussed. If they happen, they are quid pro quos too. The message is: keep quiet and I’ll get you off the hook.

That is what is alarming about Trump’s latest fascination with clemency. Apparently, the news this week about his pardons was just the beginning.

The White House is moving to take more direct control over pardons and commutations, with President Trump aiming to limit the role of the Justice Department in the clemency process as he weighs a flurry of additional pardon announcements, according to people familiar with the matter.

Trump, who granted clemency Tuesday to a group of 11 people that included several political allies and supporters, has assembled a team of advisers to recommend and vet candidates for pardons, according to several people with knowledge of the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The assembled team of advisors will be led by Jared Kushner. He is obviously one of the only people Trump trusts because he has basically been put in charge of everything. Also playing a major role in this advisory group is former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

In addition to her role on the president’s defense team during the Senate impeachment trial, Bondi gained national attention over a potential quid pro quo with Trump. While serving as Florida’s attorney general back in 2013, a Bondi spokesperson announced that she was reviewing the possibility of joining New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s lawsuit against Trump University. Three days later, a committee that acted as Bondi’s fundraising arm for her re-election campaign received a check for $25,000 from the Trump Foundation. Bondi never said another word about joining Schneiderman’s lawsuit. Six months later, Trump hosted a fundraiser for Bondi at Mar-a-Lago.

Of course, Bondi says that her decision on the Trump University lawsuit had nothing to do with the fundraiser or the $25,000 donation. But because the latter came from Trump’s Foundation, it violated tax laws. In 2018, the foundation dissolved after an investigation by the New York attorney general uncovered a “shocking pattern of illegality.” Eventually, Trump was forced to pay $2 million to eight charities as part of a settlement over the foundation’s misuse of funds.

Was Pam Bondi involved in a quid pro quo with Donald Trump? We have no way of knowing for sure, but the evidence certainly points in that direction. She, along with Kushner, will now be heading up the team that decides who is considered for a grant of clemency from the president, with no review from what used to be an independent DOJ. That presents a veritable minefield of potential quid pro quos for Trump to exploit.

The idea of this being a nation of laws, not men, is about to take another flush down the drain.

Could Overseas Voters Be the Democrats’ Secret Weapon in 2020?

Ahead of the 2020 election, everyone wants to know one thing: What will make the difference between Donald Trump winning or losing a second term? Polling suggests that health care, the economy, and immigration are the issues voters care most about. And for many Americans, the erratic and destructive nature of Trump’s presidency itself is a galvanizing force. But there’s another factor that has barely made headlines—the potentially potent influence of the overseas vote.

In 2016, for instance, there were roughly three million Americans living abroad who were eligible to vote, according to data from the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP). Yet in the presidential election, only seven percent of these voters actually cast a ballot.

It’s not clear what states those citizens are registered in, but while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million votes, she lost by thin margins in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. In other words, the 2.7 million voters abroad who sat out the last presidential election had the power to make a difference.

This year, those voters may not be as hands-off. Experts cite a number of factors that explain the historically low participation rate of overseas voters—like complicated registration systems and a lack of government outreach—but the 2020 election could be different for the simple fact that the reality of a Donald Trump presidency will inspire more Americans abroad to vote. In the leadup to the election, the Democrats have an organized effort to mobilize Democratic voters living in other countries, whereas the GOP doesn’t have a comparable organization.

Democrats Abroad is the party’s official arm abroad. Every four years, it holds a “global primary” and sends delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Significantly, the group is virtually the only voter turnout drive focused on targeting liberal Americans living outside the United States. Its goal in 2020: to get a million overseas voters to cast a ballot.

That’s not an idea that comes from nowhere. Overseas voters have helped decide an election before. In 2000, both George W. Bush’s and Al Gore’s campaigns hinged their victories on a small number of absentee ballots in Florida that were mailed from outside the U.S.

As the New York Times reported in 2001, when Bush’s unofficial lead was around 300 votes at the start of the 18-day recount, the two camps relied heavily on overseas absentee ballots. Bush’s campaign tried to validate the highest number of ballots possible in counties he had already won while seeking to disqualify overseas ballots in counties Gore was leading in.

It seems to have worked. The Times found that when faced with intense pressure from the GOP, Florida officials “accepted hundreds of overseas absentee ballots that failed to comply with state laws.” The analysis of 2,490 votes found that Florida accepted 680 questionable votes—either from ballots without postmarks or postmarked after Election Day; ballots mailed from U.S. cities and states; or even ballots from voters who voted twice. Bush ultimately won the Florida contest by 537 votes.

Tight races like Florida’s send a message to Democrats Abroad, said Julia Bryan, the group’s global chair. The Sunshine State has a 0.5 percent margin for electoral victory, so races can be decided by an incredibly small number of ballots. In 2020, Bryan said the organization wants to “make sure Florida is blue” and help Democrats win tight-margin races in Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. “We are the margin of victory for these tight races in states like Florida,” she said.

But there is one problem—there’s no reliable, authoritative data for overseas voters, making the work of mobilization all the more difficult. The World Bank estimates around two million Americans live abroad; a State Department report from 2015 places that number at nine million. FVAP data falls in between—at about 5.7 million. There are also discrepancies when it comes to how many ballots are cast: FVAP—which bases its data on statistical modeling—estimates 200,000 ballots cast in the 2016 election, but data from the Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) is higher, at 380,000.

“That’s the big challenge: there’s no one national, one central database or collection of overseas Americans that is freely shared,” FVAP Director David Beirne told me. “That’s just the nature of the beast.”

For a long time, many observers assumed overseas voters—especially those deployed in the military—leaned Republican, said Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, a reader in migration and politics at the Brussels School of International Studies of the University of Kent. More recent numbers, however, may suggest a more Democratic tilt. In North Carolina, a state with a substantial military population, 44 percent of overseas absentee ballot requests were from registered Democrats in 2016, while only 21 percent came from registered Republicans.

At just seven percent, the overseas voting rate in 2016 was minimal. Even then, it had risen two percent from 2012, when only five percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. FVAP estimates the 2014 voting rate at an even lower number—just four percent. Bryan and Klekowski von Koppenfels suspect that turnout will increase again in 2020, which will likely benefit Democrats. “We’re living in countries where we expect to have health care for all,” Bryan said. “This is just normal to us, it’s everyday life. Even the Republicans I know in Prague would never want their health care taken away.”

All in all, there are millions of Americans abroad who could potentially be a deciding factor in ousting Donald Trump. They may just be the Democratic Party’s secret weapon in 2020.

The issue of the overseas voters first gained traction on Capitol Hill in the 1960s, when a group of American expatriates in London and Paris fought for their re-enfranchisement. Congress ultimately granted overseas citizens the right to vote absentee in 1975, after members of the military stationed outside the U.S. had been granted the same right some years earlier. Then, in 1986, lawmakers unified both sets of laws into the Uniformed And Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

The legislation was overwhelmingly bipartisan. Michael Hanmer, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said a reason for this is the legislation’s focus on military voters. “It’s next to impossible to find public officials who are going to do things that might disenfranchise members of the military,” Hanmer said.

Today, overseas registrations and ballot requests are completed yearly through an online form and allow citizens to vote in the state where they last resided, regardless of whether they plan to return. Thirty-eight states also allow for citizens who have never lived in the U.S. to vote based on their parents’ last residence.

Beyond Democrats Abroad, there are non-partisan organizations that are trying to ensure Americans living overseas are exercising their constitutional right to the franchise, such as the U.S. Vote Foundation and American Citizens Abroad.

Still, there is only one group really engaged in the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics overseas. This summer, DA will send 21 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee as members of the 51st state. In 2016, one of its delegates was Larry Sanders, who lives in the U.K. and cast his ballot for his brother, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Senator himself has participated in virtual town halls for DA, as have nine of the other candidates. But Sanders appears to be popular abroad. Among the nearly 35,000 overseas Democrats who cast their ballots in the 2016 primary, 69 percent sided with Sanders while 31 percent voted for Hillary Clinton.

Bryan has said one of the best ways to ensure Democrats overseas vote is to first get them to join her organization as members. (The group’s membership rate doubled after the 2016 election, she said.) One of these voters is Rebecca Alvarado. A graduate student at the University of Heidelberg, Alvarado was born in Germany to American parents. She’s eligible to vote in her father’s home state of Colorado, which she’s been doing since 2012.

Alvarado attended her first Democrats Abroad meeting in early February. Attendance, she said, had more than doubled from the previous one, which the organizers chalked up to the Iowa caucus fiasco earlier that week. “I finally felt like I can get involved and do something,” she said, “because up until now it’s just been me and a ballot box, or not even a ballot box, me and the post box.”

Notably, the GOP doesn’t have an official arm dedicated to supporting overseas voters—or increasing voter turnout. Republicans Abroad, an organization similar to DA, ceased operations in 2013, and was replaced by Republicans Overseas, which mainly works to raise awareness of the tax situation Americans find themselves in abroad, said Solomon Yue, the organization’s vice-chair and CEO. Voter outreach for the GOP is handled country-by-country.

The Democrats, however, are taking a different approach. Bryan said her team is working to activate constituencies across the world through digital targeting. For many Democrats, getting rid of Trump is a priority. It may take a global effort to make it happen.

The Trump Administration Is About to Put More Refugees In Harm’s Way

The Trump administration is once again trying to deport large swaths of people—including those who came to the U.S. as refugees—who risk persecution upon arriving in their nations of origin. The U.S. and Laos reached an agreement in late 2019 for the small southeast Asian nation to receive an increased number of deportees from the U.S., according to the Southeast Asian Deportation Defense Network, a coalition group of advocacy organizations.

There remains no official memorandum of understanding governing these deportations, as there are with Cambodia and Vietnam, but “this verbal agreement makes those with final orders for deportation potentially more vulnerable to removal,” the group said. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum also publicized this agreement after writing a letter of opposition to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Laos has long refused any agreement of this sort, arguing, as Cambodia once did, that it should not be forced to resettle people who came to the U.S. fleeing the Vietnam War as children and have no memory or knowledge of the country. Still, Laos has accepted 219 deportees since 1998 due to the U.S. pressure; only five were deported in 2019 after the White House sanctioned the nation over the matter in late 2018.

The U.S.-Laos relationship has a blood-stained history. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. fought a secret anti-Communist war there, recruiting thousands of ethnic minority Hmong to take part in this effort. The U.S.-allied Royal Lao government ruled Laos until the Communist Pathet Lao seized power in 1975, soon after executing members of the Royal Lao family. Since then, the ruling regime has persecuted the Hmong and targeted political opponents of all ethnicities—raising fears that deportees’ safety could be jeopardy.

An I.C.E. spokesperson told me in early February that 38 “Laos nationals”—a term that includes those who have not been to the country since childhood—with Final Orders of Removal are currently in detention. There are currently 4,716 non-detained people with such orders, 4,086 of whom have criminal convictions. It’s not clear how many of them are Hmong and how many came to escape the Vietnam War. (I.C.E. does not track deportees’ ethnicity or former refugee status.)

Those who came to the U.S. as refugees lived in the country legally, many obtaining green cards. But the U.S. has sought to deport those convicted of an aggravated felony, or any “crime of violence” (a vague standard that has enabled the overturning of some deportations) or theft or burglary, crimes that invalidate one’s green card. Immigration law also allows for the compounding of two misdemeanors—such as petty theft and personal marijuana possession—into an aggravated felony that would strip one of one’s green card, thereby subjecting a person to deportation.

Since 1975, the U.S. has accepted roughly 150,000 Hmong and 40,000 Lao refugees. Advocates and scholars argue that the U.S. insufficiently resettled these refugees, leaving them ill-prepared for immediate work, unaccultured to the United States, and suffering psychosocial trauma. As a consequence, many Laotian refugees slipped into cycles of poverty, which, in turn, contributed to their children’s drift toward criminality. Hmong and Laotian communities—along with Cambodians—experience more poverty than other Asian-American groups. In 2016, for instance, 37.8 percent of Hmong and 18.5 percent of Lao in the U.S. were living in poverty, according to the Obama administration. The American poverty rate hovers around 11 percent.

Nevertheless, the U.S. has for years detained Lao and Hmong people without green cards and with final orders of removal, seeking their deportation. But because Laos does not have an official deportation agreement with the U.S., immigration officials have been required under the law to release these people within 90 days, often under Department of Homeland Security “orders of supervision.” A new understanding with Laos would allow the U.S. to pursue the deportation of 4,716 non-detained Laos nationals.

Chanida Phaengdara Potter, executive director of the SEAD Project, a Southeast Asian-American community development organization, told me the move “will only further criminalize and impoverish fellow community members by separating them from their families and sending them to an unfamiliar country where their livelihoods will be challenged again. They have human rights that are being denied by this administration and we should be appalled.”

The Trump administration has pursued similar policies in both Cambodia and Vietnam, ratcheting up the rate of deportations to both countries through sanctions and other means of pressure. Those deported are also mainly refugees with little or no knowledge of the country to which they are sent; many do not speak Khmer, Cambodia’s language, or Vietnamese.

This is the case in Laos as well: The U.S. government is even funding a “reintegration program” to assist those deported to Laos who do not speak Lao or have family connections, indicating that former refugees with no ties to Laos will be sent there.

But it’s far from clear that the Laos government will receive them warmly. Because of the CIA’s activities there in the 1960s and the ruling regime’s fierce repression of political opponents, Laos still targets both the Hmong and people of other ethnicities with anti-communist ties—potentially including those deported from the U.S.

“For their privacy and safety, deportees have to stay under the radar,” a Lao-American advocate told me, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution to those they know in Laos. “Enforced disappearances and imprisonment of specific groups, whether they are marginalized ethnic minorities or tied to the former Lao Royal government, are based on their history and connection to this country’s past.”

The source added: “There are real fears about survival in today’s Laos.”

The Nevada Debate Was Entertaining and Revealing

John Podhoretz of the New York Post thought Wednesday’s Democratic caucus debate in Nevada was the best debate in human history. It’s a sign of something that I’m inclined to agree with him, even if it’s probably for different reasons.

I think Podhoretz just enjoyed watching the Democrats fight, especially because they were landing haymakers against each other. For him, it’s the guilty pleasure of an anti-Trump conservative. I agree that the entertainment value was sky high, but the worth I got out of it was more cathartic.

It really exposed my feelings about these candidates, all of whom displease or disappoint me to a degree I hadn’t fully understood until I saw how much I enjoyed watching them be pummeled.

But it was deeper than that. As much as I enjoyed watching Michael Bloomberg get carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey or Sanders take incoming over the behavior of his supporters and staff, and as satisfying as it was for Buttigieg and Klobuchar to drop their Mr. and Mrs. Nice act and let their raw ambition shine, what I really enjoyed was seeing the candidates let their emotions and values drive their performance.

Like most everyone else, I’ve grown tired of watching Sanders deliver the same old lines in debate after debate, but having Bloomberg beside him as the personification of everything he loathes really brought out a fresh passion in him and let us see how deeply he believes in what he’s saying. Bloomberg’s presence did much the same thing for Warren, who unleashed every bit of bottled-up outrage she had in her reservoir. And she spared no one on the stage. Podhoretz compared her performance to Machine Gun Kelly, and that’s pretty accurate. However, her aim was excellent.

She brought immediate energy to the stage, which rubbed off on Joe Biden. He appeared fully awake for this debate for the first time and was much more assertive and confident in making a case for himself. Having Bloomberg as a foil seemed to finally give him the focus to explain his candidacy’s rationale with convincing passion.

The constant bloodletting on the stage was ill-suited for Buttigieg, who has been making progress by sounding nice and reasonable compared to his opponents. But he evidently blames Klobuchar’s surge in New Hampshire for denying him a victory there and he went after her without mercy. At one point, she turned to him and asked, “Are you mocking me here, Pete?” He most certainly was, and it was more revealing than another night of the scripted platitudes he usually provides.

Klobuchar was thrown badly off-script, and the result was that people got a much clearer picture of what she’s like in real life. Her temper flared as she struggled to explain why she couldn’t name the president of Mexico, which isn’t surprising given what her staff has said about her insecurities.

Ms. Klobuchar’s exasperation often appeared connected to two factors: an abiding fear of being embarrassed in front of colleagues or in the press and the conviction that she works harder than her staff.

Having her intelligence and base of knowledge mocked on national television caused her to drop her mask, and it basically killed the credibility of her scripted closing argument about more uniting the Democrats than dividing them.

A lot of the commentariat was somewhere between disconcerted and horrified by the overall incivility of the debate, but I thought it was tremendously revealing. More than any debate I can remember watching, we got to see behind all the posturing and strategizing that usually makes debates nothing more than performative art. It takes a monumental amount of ambition and self-conceit to think you should be president and it’s a good thing to see people drop the nice act and bring out the knives in an effort to win.  But it was more than just seeing the candidates act like they really care about their campaigns. When they let their emotions rule them for a change, they gave us a better picture of the kind of issues and values that drive them.

Telling politicians to “just be yourself” is rarely the best advice, and several of the candidates on the stage Wednesday night did themselves no favors. But the voters got more than they bargained for, and they’re better equipped to make a decision on whom they want to support.

Isn’t that best outcome from a presidential debate?