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Lock them up: The danger of political prosecutions in a second Trump term



President Trump lifts his fist toward the crowd after speaking on the first day of the Republican National Convention, August 24, 2020. | Chris Carlson/Getty Images

Trump hasn’t managed to prosecute his enemies yet. What if he has four more years to try?

President Donald Trump wants his enemies locked up — he says so all the time.

He told Hillary Clinton that once he won, she’d be “in jail.” He wants foreign countries to investigate the Bidens. He said that John Kerry “should be prosecuted.” He wants Adam Schiff “questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason.” John Bolton, he says, should be “in jail, money seized.” James Comey should face “years in jail.” The list goes on. This isn’t just empty political rhetoric — Trump says similar things to officials in private, and grows angry when his demands aren’t carried out.

And so far, they haven’t been carried out. Yet the Justice Department under Attorney General Bill Barr has already become increasingly responsive to Trump’s preferences in criminal cases involving Trump’s friends. So the question is whether, if Trump wins in November, his talk of investigations and prosecutions will become more than just talk.

I spoke to more than a dozen former Justice Department officials about Trump’s increasingly tight grip on an agency that has long prided itself on independence when it comes to criminal matters.

“There’s the fear of the attorney general intervening in cases to benefit president’s allies,” said former US Attorney Barbara McQuade. “And you can also use that power to harm the president’s enemies.”

Already, since Barr took over, he has acted in unusual ways to try to help Trump and his friends, from pre-spinning special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings to intervening in Roger Stone’s sentencing and trying to throw out Michael Flynn’s prosecution.

 Chip Somodevilla-Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Attorney General William Barr takes the oath before he testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on July 28.

“In sensitive cases, there’s been a systematic disregard of procedures and norms of behavior, many of which were put in place after Watergate,” says Donald Ayer, who was deputy attorney general under George H.W. Bush (and was succeeded by Barr back then). “These things have been rent asunder by Bill Barr.”

Still, of all the people Trump has so often said he wants prosecuted, none have actually been charged with anything. (Instead, it’s Trump’s associates who keep getting charged, most recently Steve Bannon.) All this can be viewed as encouraging — that the Justice Department, despite so much political pressure coming from the top, maintains standards and won’t bring bogus charges to please the president.

Yet it’s too simple to say the department has fully ignored Trump. Andrew McCabe reportedly came quite close to indictment. News broke of another probe focusing on Comey earlier this year. Top Justice officials set up special processes to review allegations from conservatives about the Clintons and the Bidens. And Barr has given other prosecutors he trusts special, politically charged assignments — most notably, John Durham’s investigation of the handling of the Russia probe, an ongoing matter Barr often discusses publicly.

Despite all that Barr has done, there remain lines he hasn’t crossed. And this is increasingly trying Trump’s patience. “Bill Barr can go down as the greatest attorney general in the history of our country,” the president said in a recent Fox Business interview. “Or he can go down as just an average guy. We’ll see what happens.”

When Trump took office, there was a dam, preventing the president’s corrupt or political pressures from crashing through and flooding the Justice Department. Since then, that dam has sprung a great many leaks. And there’s a real question of whether it would burst entirely in a second Trump term, with the president no longer needing to constrain himself for reelection.

Barr brought big changes

For Trump’s first two years as president, the Justice Department maintained its independence to a great extent under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and earned Trump’s fury as a result.

Sessions’s biggest mistake in Trump’s eyes was that he recused himself from involvement in the Russia investigation — standard operating procedure in criminal cases to protect against conflict of interest — and put Rod Rosenstein in charge instead.

“There was a really powerful norm in the Justice Department that you never wanted to be perceived as a political arm for the president personally,” says Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent who is now a senior lecturer at Yale. “And there was a sense that if you violate it, there’s going to be criticism and pushback and consequences.”

Sessions was a staunch Trump supporter, but he felt he simply had to recuse — because he couldn’t effectively lead the Justice Department if he didn’t. He was constrained by the department’s norms.

Barr had no such qualms. He had been attorney general before, and he took the job again in part because he thought the department needed a firmer hand at the top. Again and again, he’s proven unafraid of criticism that he’s acting politically to help the president or his friends.

Barely a month after Barr was sworn in, he released his misleading spin on special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings a month before the report itself. His Justice Department decided Trump’s request that Ukraine’s president investigate the Bidens wasn’t worth investigating, and other federal investigations into Trumpworld appear to have fizzled out. Barr personally instructed prosecutors to weaken their sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, and he is trying to have the case against Michael Flynn dismissed entirely. He instituted a new rule requiring his personal approval for any investigations into presidential candidates or campaigns. And he’s attempted to place loyalists into key US attorney posts, such as the Southern District of New York and the District of Columbia.

Yet even through all this, the Justice Department has not become a well-oiled machine that does President Trump’s bidding immediately at all times — far from it. Rather, the change has been more subtle and insidious.

“I think the message has come through loud and clear that if you do anything to cross the president and the attorney general, your career will be put at risk,” says Matt Miller, who directed the Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs under Eric Holder.

Aaron Zelinsky, a prosecutor who had worked on Mueller’s team, made that explicit in congressional testimony this June. The newly installed acting US attorney for the District of Columbia, Tim Shea (a close Barr associate), wanted to lighten prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone. Zelinsky testified that a supervisor agreed this was “unethical and wrong,” but told him to go along, because “this case was ‘not the hill worth dying on’” and that we could “‘lose our jobs’ if we did not toe the line.”

All this is worrying enough — but, of course, Trump wants more. Much more.

Averting their eyes

To assess just how likely it is that Trump could turn the Justice Department against his enemies in his second term, we have to understand why it largely hasn’t happened so far.

Up to this point, Justice officials have usually dealt with Trump’s demands for prosecutions by either blatantly ignoring them or assigning a US attorney to review the matter.

Ignoring Trump is easiest when his demands are completely absurd. Take his demand to have Rep. Adam Schiff investigated for treason because Schiff paraphrased Trump’s comments during his call with the Ukrainian president during a congressional hearing. This bears not even the faintest resemblance to treason. Accordingly, there’s no indication that the Justice Department has taken any action.

Trump can sometimes become fixated on a legally dubious demand. According to John Bolton’s book The Room Where It Happened, Trump became “obsessed” with the idea of prosecuting former Secretary of State John Kerry under the Logan Act (an obscure law banning private citizens from conducting US foreign policy) because Kerry had contacts with Iran’s foreign minister. Trump would mention this idea “in meeting after meeting in the Oval” to Barr “or anybody listening,” Bolton writes. Trump’s tweets about it have continued this year, and now he says he wants Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) investigated for it too.

The law was last used in 1852; some legal experts now view it as a “dead letter” and question its constitutionality. But the idea of a modern Logan Act investigation is not entirely far-fetched. While investigators under the Obama administration were probing Michael Flynn’s links to Russia, they researched whether the act would apply to Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. The Logan Act was never the focus of their investigation, and they never came close to bringing charges under it. Still, there is recent precedent to look at it. As far as we know, Barr’s Justice Department has not done so.

There are reasons to doubt whether “just ignore the president” is a sound long-term strategy. A second-term Trump might get tired of taking no for an answer. If he really wants action, he could outright order the Justice Department to open some investigation and fire anyone who refuses to carry out that order. He may eventually find someone sycophantic enough to do it.

For the Logan Act, recall also that it was during the Obama administration that investigators explored using the law regarding Flynn. Is it so implausible that in a second term, Trump could find his own appointees who are willing to push the envelope further, against Kerry or other Democrats? That he could order them to do so?

Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University argued that the president has broad authority over the Justice Department, but that he should not use those powers for ill. “The Justice Department is certainly under the control of the president. It is part of the executive branch, so it is certainly legal for the president to dictate to the Justice Department how it should operate or what its priorities should be,” says Adler.

But, he continues, “We have long placed a value on the Justice Department being able to make judgments and prosecutorial decisions based on traditional legal criteria and with an eye toward attempting to do equal justice.”

The president may have other ideas. Take the example of James Comey. The fired FBI director had written memos chronicling his interactions with President Trump. Inspector General Michael Horowitz criticized him for having the unclassified contents of one memo leaked to a reporter, but that wasn’t a criminal matter. There were, however, very small amounts of retroactively classified information in some other memos that Horowitz dinged Comey for improperly handling. This was very thin gruel for a potential prosecution, and indeed, the Justice Department quickly determined not to charge Comey.

 Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Former FBI Director James Comey is surrounded by reporters after testifying to the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees on December 7, 2018.

Trump wasn’t willing to let things lie there. The Washington Post reported that after he learned of the decision not to prosecute Comey, he “complained so loudly and swore so frequently in the Oval Office that some of his aides discussed it for days.” A few months later, in December 2019, Trump accused Comey of “unlawful conduct” and suggested he could face “years in jail.”

Finally, in January 2020, the New York Times reported that Comey was again facing investigative scrutiny related to “a years-old leak of classified information about a Russian intelligence document.” The current state of this investigation, including whether it’s in response to a presidential demand, is unknown. But it is quite clear that the president has not forgotten his desire to see Comey prosecuted.

Handpicked investigators

Another way the Justice Department has lately responded to political demands for investigations — coming from the president or his allies in Congress — is by assigning someone to do the job.

Jeff Sessions started this trend in late 2017 when he announced that John Huber, the US attorney for Utah, would review the handling of an investigation into the Clinton Foundation and other Clinton-related matters.

This special effort aimed at Trump’s 2016 opponent worried some. But in practice, it was clearly not the “Get Hoffa” squad (which Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy assembled to take down union leader Jimmy Hoffa however they could). The Washington Post reported this January that Huber’s review had “effectively ended” and that officials “said they never expected the effort to produce much of anything.” In retrospect, this particular special assignment seems mainly aimed at quieting conservatives’ complaints, rather than locking up Clinton.

Yet the practice of special assignments has continued under Barr. Barr tasked US Attorney for Connecticut John Durham with investigating the origins of the Russia investigation. He got John Bash, US attorney for the Western District of Texas, to look into Obama officials’ use of “unmasking.” And Scott Brady, US attorney for Pittsburgh, got the job of looking into information Rudy Giuliani collected about the Bidens and Ukraine.

This is a process that, if approached in bad faith, can be very open to abuse. Are these US attorneys being chosen because of their professionalism, or because Barr knows they’re politically simpatico?

To take an example involving one of the president’s friends, Barr asked Jeff Jensen, US attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, to review the case against Michael Flynn, more than two years after Flynn had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. And indeed, the Justice Department soon moved to have Flynn’s case withdrawn, claiming that Jensen has found new information meriting that move. (The judge overseeing the case, Emmet Sullivan, sounds deeply skeptical of these assertions, and hasn’t allowed Flynn’s case to be thrown out just yet, and the matter is tied up in court.)

The larger point is that Jensen could not have been unaware of what Trump was hoping he’d come up with — a reason to get Flynn off the hook. He delivered.

By contrast, look what happened with Huber, the US attorney who didn’t find any new Clinton-related information justifying action. President Trump publicly attacked him for this supposed failure, tweeting that Huber “did absolutely NOTHING. He was a garbage disposal unit for important documents & then, tap, tap, tap, just drag it along & run out of time.”

This, too, sent an unmistakable message to prosecutors who score such high-profile assignments — the president can and will attack them if they don’t deliver what he wants.

Casting clouds

One check against utterly baseless charges, though, is that they almost surely couldn’t hold up in court. Bringing a very high-profile case means you’ll be embarrassed in a very high-profile way if it falls apart. And already, as CNN’s Katelyn Polantz and Kara Scannell have argued, judges have begun showing more skepticism to the Trump Justice Department’s representations in these matters.

“You can see it already in the way that courts are reacting to the Justice Department’s positions,” says Mary McCord, who served as the acting assistant attorney general for national security in the late Obama and early Trump administrations. “That built-in credibility and trust that the department had with judges is eroding. They’re not just willing to accept at face value that their representations are fully accurate and correct and not the product of political pressure.”

All this is why Rangappa is skeptical that outright prosecutions of Trump’s enemies is “where the danger lies.” Trump’s Justice Department “can’t make up evidence and go after somebody in a court of law, because the defense lawyers would tear that apart and it would get exposed,” she says.

But there’s another danger, which to some extent has already manifested. Even if an investigation ends in no charges, its mere existence — if it leaks — can hang over someone, make them afraid, and have a political impact.

Trump understands this dynamic perfectly well. The email investigation loomed over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and then the Russia investigation loomed over President Trump. Indeed, Trump told James Comey that it was a “cloud” hanging over his presidency, and asked the then-FBI director “what he could do to lift the cloud,” per Comey’s memos.

 Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
President Trump speaking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on during a meeting in New York on September 25, 2019.

More recently, Trump held up military aid to Ukraine in an effort to get that country to investigate the energy company Burisma and the Bidens (a move that, once it was discovered, led to Trump’s impeachment). But Trump didn’t just want an investigation. He was insistent that Ukraine’s president publicly announce that investigation, according to his aides’ testimony. That is: He wanted to put a cloud over Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, with the ominous phrase “under investigation.”

“Politically, I think it is to their benefit to not actually bring charges,” Rangappa says. “What’s good for them is to have an ongoing perception of criminality and a sense that these criminals are still at large, that it’s the Democrats who are doing it.”

The most prominent example of this so far is in Barr’s highly unusual handling of the Durham investigation. Shortly after Mueller finished his work, Barr assigned Durham to examine whether there was misconduct around the opening of the Russia probe. At some point in the following months, Durham’s probe became a criminal investigation, and its scope widened.

We have no idea what Durham found; his sole charge so far is of an FBI lawyer whose misconduct (altering an email) was revealed last year by the inspector general. Durham’s investigation is ongoing. That’s why it’s so odd that Barr has repeatedly made public comments, often to Fox hosts, always with the gist that he thinks the Russia investigation was deeply corrupt and riddled with malfeasance.

“No contemporary attorney general has, like Barr in the Durham investigation, offered such extended, opinionated, factually unsupported and damning public commentary, naming names and drawing conclusions, about an ongoing investigation that is at least in part a criminal investigation,” Jack Goldsmith and Nathaniel Sobel recently wrote while reviewing what we know of the Durham probe.

‘In my time, when something was before the grand jury or otherwise was a pending investigation, you didn’t talk about it,” says Stuart Gerson, who was a Justice Department appointee under George H.W. Bush and served as acting attorney general in the early Clinton administration. “And if there was no indictment, you didn’t say a word about it ever again.”

But if the point is just to cast a cloud over someone — or to help the president politically — rather than win in a court of law, you might take a different approach.

Gray areas

Actually bringing charges, of course, is more difficult. It is hard to imagine US federal prosecutors in the modern day being so far gone that they’d fabricate charges against a political enemy of the president out of whole cloth. “We are not yet in a banana republic where the Department of Justice will fabricate evidence and have a show trial and bring people into a soccer stadium, thank God,” says Rangappa.

Instead, they need something to work with. Conservative activists, media outlets, and politicians have gotten very adept at coming up with possible somethings — at generating unproven scandals that they then demand be investigated.

For instance, anything involving money, which the political system is awash in, can generate cries of scandal — such as with the Clinton Foundation, or Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. It’s not illegal to raise money for charity or to be paid a lot to sit on the board of a foreign company, but in both cases, conservatives alleged quid pro quos that do not seem to have really existed: Uranium One for Clinton, and the firing of Ukraine’s prosecutor general for Biden.

Furthermore, the law can be a malleable thing. Famously overbroad classification laws could likely imperil many government employees if they were actually enforced to the letter. Questioning can produce false statements charges.

Of course, if an enemy of Trump’s truly did break the law, and there’s evidence to prove it, they may merit prosecution. The problem is that Trump and Barr’s behavior has created deep doubt about whether any such assessment at DOJ would in fact be fair — or would instead be aimed at pleasing the president.

“It’s critically important that what the Justice Department does has legitimacy,” says Matt Axelrod, who worked for 13 years as a Miami federal prosecutor and then at Main Justice, under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. “The whole foundation of convicting people of crimes and putting them in jail has to be based on the law. Basing it on politics would be abhorrent to the rule of law.”

But the law can be a malleable thing, and in politics especially, there are often gray areas.

Imagine, for instance, a situation where there really might be some underlying violation — but it just isn’t the sort of matter the federal government would usually bring charges about, Perhaps the offense isn’t that serious, the law is rarely enforced, or there are weaknesses in the evidence.

If a person implicated in something like this is an enemy of Donald Trump, prosecutors may have an extra incentive to pursue a case when they ordinarily wouldn’t.

That’s what some argue happened to Andrew McCabe, the former deputy FBI director. “It was one extended crazy nightmare where they apparently came very close, from what we understand, to getting an indictment,” says Michael Bromwich, McCabe’s lawyer and a former inspector general.

Trump came into office distrusting McCabe because of reports that a Clinton ally, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA), helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for McCabe’s wife when she ran for state Senate. This distrust deepened when the Russia investigation intensified, with Trump viewing McCabe as a Comey ally. He accused McCabe of using his FBI position for political reasons, to help Hillary Clinton (accusations that internal investigators found to be baseless).

However, McCabe also became embroiled in a leak investigation, the gist of which is that when he felt his reputation was being unfairly maligned, he leaked an anecdote intended to make him look good. The anecdote portrayed McCabe as standing up for an investigation into the Clinton Foundation despite pressure from Obama Justice Department higher-ups. This disclosure of internal deliberations about an investigation into a 2016 presidential candidate came shortly before that election. And when investigators asked him about it months later, McCabe initially claimed ignorance. The inspector general concluded McCabe lacked candor, and he was fired.

Trump’s grudge against McCabe had nothing to do with the leak, which didn’t involve him at all (and, if anything, hurt Clinton). But he continued to publicly attack and taunt McCabe, including after McCabe’s firing. And, as this was going on, the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia began investigating whether McCabe made false statements to internal investigators. By September 2019, Justice officials rejected his lawyers’ appeals, signaling his indictment was imminent.

All this set off alarm bells for Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes. “Criminal dispositions on false statements matters in internal investigations are exceptionally rare,” he wrote. “Absent some gross aggravating factor, I struggle to think of any other examples. Workplace false statements are normally handled through internal disciplinary means, not criminal charges.” Wittes wrote that his point was “not to suggest that McCabe did nothing wrong,” but instead to argue that criminal prosecution of such a matter was highly unusual.

“It was very clear to us that they were straining to make a case against him where there was no case to be made, and that he was being singled out for exceptionally harsh, politically motivated treatment,” Bromwich told me. “We had heard for a long time that there was tremendous political pressure being put on that office.”

The New York Times’s Katie Benner and Adam Goldman reported that the two main prosecutors on the case “came to believe that they could not get a jury to convict” McCabe and “were worried about the appearance of a vindictive prosecution” — and so one quit the case and the other left government entirely. Two other prosecutors pushed forward, and reconvened a grand jury.

But then nothing happened — the expected indictment didn’t materialize. Rumors circulated that the grand jury voted against the indictment (which would be extremely unusual), but that has never been officially confirmed. Another possibility is that prosecutors foresaw defeat and backed down. Finally, after radio silence for several months, and pressure from a judge overseeing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit about the matter, Justice officials told McCabe’s team this February that he would not be charged after all.

As far as we know, McCabe came the closest of any of Trump’s targets to actually being indicted. He escaped it, but it wasn’t guaranteed to turn out that way. And without the judge pressuring prosecutors to come to a decision, the cloud could still be hanging over McCabe. Or a different grand jury or prosecutorial team could have produced a different outcome. (Barr replaced the US attorney overseeing it with his loyalist Tim Shea while this drama was winding down.)

 Alex Brandon/AP
Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe (second from left), Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testify during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on June 7, 2017.

Another key takeaway is that there was a gray area here. McCabe was not the perfect victim — he really was behind an inappropriate (although not criminal and not partisan) disclosure to the press shortly before the election. Trump’s enemies will not always be saints, but they will deserve equal justice under the law, rather than unfair treatment because of their political views. But good lawyers can take advantage of gray areas and ambiguities to advance their client’s case, as Barr has done so often for Trump.

Bad incentives

To tie a lot of this together, Trump and Barr have so degraded the norm against political interference in criminal cases that a serious incentive problem now exists in the Justice Department and will grow dramatically worse if Trump wins a second term.

Career officials will face what Zelinsky described — pressure to either go with the tide on politically controversial cases or risk jeopardizing their jobs. And those hoping to advance their careers in the department would be keenly aware of these pressures.

“People of a right-of-center orientation may in some cases be basically rolling the dice,” Ayer, the former deputy attorney general, told me. “They may know that what they are being asked to do is really not right, but they also know that to prosper, they’ve got to please the authority figure they answer to, who for some of them is Bill Barr.”

Though Trump has achieved little legislatively, if Republicans hold on to the Senate, he will be able to keep the judge-confirmation factory working. And for an ambitious Republican lawyer, Ayer said, “The ultimate brass ring is a judgeship.”

Particularly ambitious GOP lawyers are probably well aware that prosecuting Trump’s enemies would thrill the president and make them heroes in conservative media. The trick, of course, would be to build a case that would hold up in court.

Then there are Trump’s incentives if he wins this fall. It’s worth remembering that everything we’ve seen so far has been from a Trump who’s restrained by reelection calculations.

Recall that the day after the 2018 midterms, he finally fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The day after Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony, he asked Ukraine’s president for a favor during a phone call. Perhaps the fear of a historically unprecedented second impeachment would constrain him somewhat, but he’s already learned that as long as he can maintain the support of 34 senators, he can’t be removed.

A Trump reelection would make him even more powerful within the Republican Party. In theory, he’ll be a lame duck — but so long as he remains widely popular among Republican voters, success in the GOP will continue to depend on maintaining Trump’s favor and defending him. Overall, there’s little evidence to suggest he’ll be chastened, and much to suggest that he’ll go even further.

It’s not just Trump

While most of the former DOJ officials I interviewed were deeply troubled by what’s happened to the department, most professed optimism that if Trump were defeated, these trends could quickly be reversed.

Yet the most pessimistic person I interviewed was Matt Miller, the former public affairs chief under Holder. “I actually think the damage is done, whether he gets reelected or not,” Miller said.

As Miller diagnosed matters, the problem wasn’t just that Trump wanted to politicize the administration of justice and that Barr was willing to help him. The even more worrying trend was that much of the Republican Party — from members of Congress to conservative media commentators to the voters who were part of his base — was either defending Trump or egging him on to go further.

I spoke to Miller shortly after the congressional hearing at which Aaron Zelinsky testified about Barr’s interference in Roger Stone’s sentencing — and what he saw from the Republican side troubled him. Whistleblowers had made accusations of misconduct, he said, and they “were treated as combatants, as instruments of the Democratic Party that were there to get Donald Trump and Bill Barr.”

Things weren’t always this way. Back in May 2017, when Trump fired Comey, there was widespread hesitancy among the congressional GOP to defend the firing. But gradually, Trump fought back against the Mueller probe, constructing his alternative narrative that the real crimes were on the “other side.”

Republican politicians have realized that they wouldn’t be struck down if they defended potentially corrupt behavior by Trump. Indeed, for many of them, quite the opposite happens. Those who most vocally defend Trump from accusations of scandal become stars in the party — and would often be rewarded with top jobs from Trump himself, like Chief of Staff Mark Meadows or Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.

 Jessica Koscielniak/Getty Images
President Trump speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention on August 24.

Lately, the Republican base has increasingly cheered on Trump’s efforts to interfere with the Justice Department, with Fox News commentators urging Trump to give clemency to Roger Stone and hyping the possibility that some former Obama officials will be indicted in the Durham investigation. They are, it’s quite clear, catering to their audience — voters who believe Trump’s conspiracy theories and claims of Democratic crimes, and who want him to move harder against them.

The next Democratic president, Miller predicted, would genuinely try to restore norms of the Justice Department’s independence, because the party truly believes in those norms. But Republicans have learned that they no longer do — and that lesson will be applied in future Republican presidencies.

“The post-Watergate norm that the department should operate independently of the White House when it comes to criminal matters, and without consideration to politics, has completely broken down in the Republican Party,” Miller said. “And I just don’t know why anyone thinks it would just snap back.”

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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year



(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.


Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.


Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.


Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.


Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.


Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.


Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.


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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained



Open Sourced logo

Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year



From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.


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