Manhattan Contrarian Guide To Campaign Finance Law

As a sophisticated observer of the political scene and reader of the Manhattan Contrarian, you undoubtedly know why we have strict and intricate campaign finance laws:  They are "to get money out of politics."  Or something like that.

Or are they really about protecting incumbents and putting roadblocks in the way of challengers?  Or, even worse, are they about giving partisan prosecutors some tools to take down inconvenient Republicans while Democrats get a pass?  I'll let you be the judge.

First, the basics of how this works.  Much of which, by the way, you can blame on the recently-departed John McCain, via the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign finance law of 2002.  One of his many mistakes in life -- but then, we all make mistakes.  The central provision of this campaign finance law is that contributions to "campaigns" for federal office are limited in amount, essentially to $2700 per election cycle for an individual or $5400 for a couple.  Obviously, for such a restriction to work, it must then be illegal for a "campaign" to pay "campaign expenses" from a source other than the funds contributed in accordance with the limits.  Equally obviously, since you have raised "campaign funds" for your "campaign" in accordance with strict limits and representations, it must be illegal to use the "campaign funds" for other than "campaign purposes."  And, to make this all work seamlessly, all "campaign expenses" over $200 must be reported and accurately described to the bureaucrats at the Federal Election Commission.  Needless to say, any violation of these rules is a crime.

So let's see how these rules get applied in a few recent examples:

Trump/Cohen . . .

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The Difference Justice Gorsuch Has Made

Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court on April 7 last year, and on April 9 I welcomed him with a post titled "A Few Places Where Justice Gorsuch Can Make A Difference."   That post took note of the remarkable fact that, while the "conservative" justices on the Supreme Court often disagreed with each other in high-profile cases, that was never the case for the "liberals."  In any case viewed as politically important to achievement of some policy outcome favored by the progressive movement, the "liberal" justices could always be counted on to vote as a unified bloc.  From that post:

The overriding philosophy of the "liberal" bloc has been discussed many times on this blog, and there is nothing complicated about it.  The basic concept is that the government consists of neutral, apolitical experts whose job it is to move us all towards greater and then perfect justice and fairness through the magic of more and more laws, rules and regulations.  The neutral experts must be given full authority and discretion to rule over the people in order to complete this project.  Obviously the government [and not the people] must run the country, because otherwise there would be chaos!  Or, even worse, unfairness!

Once you observe this unified voting for more bureaucratic power over the people enough times, you might even get the impression that perhaps these justices care little about upholding the Constitution, and mostly care about making sure that "our side" wins and the other side gets suppressed.

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"Russia": Bona Fide Basis For Investigation Or Preposterous Cover Story?

It was just over a year ago -- May 25, 2017 to be precise -- that I first offered the hypothesis that the "Trump/Russia collusion" narrative was nothing more than a "preposterous . . . cover story to excuse blatantly illegal government spying on [the] Trump campaign."  That post commented on a May 23, 2017 New York Times piece that reported on Congressional testimony the same day of ex-CIA Director John Brennan, in which Brennan described supposedly "mounting concern" in the intelligence community about Russian efforts to "interfere" in the 2016 elections.  According to Brennan's testimony, as reported in the Times, that "mounting concern" led the intelligence agencies to form a group to investigate the "interference" in "late July" 2016:

In late July, officials established a group of N.S.A., C.I.A. and F.B.I. officials to investigate the election interference. The information was tightly held, and the F.B.I. took the lead on investigating potential collusion, Mr. Brennan said.    

Now I admit that from the first time I heard it I thought that this "Russia collusion" story was preposterous.  However, my initial judgment was based only on the incoherent nature of the narrative itself, and not on any particular details of it that had been shown to be false.  For example, I did not understand what "collusion" with Russia might consist of, or how it might have helped Trump win the election.  I also thought that, to justify an investigation involving the NSA, CIA and FBI, they should offer at least one or more examples of what the supposed "collusion" consisted of.  Moreover, I did not understand why it was plausible that a candidate like Trump would undertake a substantial risk by "colluding" with Russia for little or no benefit.

All those thoughts remain equally applicable today.  However, by today, much time has passed, and many more details have come out.  So let's consider some of the new information, and see which of the two hypotheses they support:  bona fide basis for investigation, or preposterous cover story?

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A Few Comments On The Latest Revelations Of FBI Corruption

Apologies to all for not being on the job when yesterday's big New York Times compilation of the latest FBI leaks dropped on the world. . . .

In the intervening day since the latest FBI revelations, a few thousand commentators have already thrown in their thoughts on the situation.  Rather than repeat what many others have already said, I will just offer a few observations.

First, I told you so.  On the question of FBI, and Obama administration, surveillance of the Trump campaign, sadly things are playing out just as I predicted over a year ago (April 7, 2017), in a post titled "Reasonable Inferences About The Weird Obsession With Russia."  The gist of that post was that you would be very unlikely to go wrong by inferring, even from what was known then, that high-ranking officials in the Obama administration had succumbed to the overwhelming temptation to use the tools of state surveillance to advantage their political friends and disadvantage their enemies.

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U.S. Regains The Ability To Identify Real National Security Threats

Maybe Donald Trump is just not your type of guy, and certainly not the guy you would want to be President; but keep in mind who was the alternative.  Before these things fade into the memory hole, bring back to mind a few of the wildly incompetent policies of the previous administration.  Looking around today for a candidate as the policy of the previous administration that could be the very most wildly incompetent of all, with a very real potential to put the security of the country in serious jeopardy, my leading contender is the decision to declare "climate change" to be a top-priority national security risk.

Do you remember Obama doing that?  It wasn't that long ago.  In his second inaugural address in January 2013, Obama declared that “no challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”  Then, over the next couple of years, he ramped up the claimed "challenge" of climate change from mere "greatest threat to future generations" to an "immediate threat to national security."  Think about that for a minute -- how would it even work?  Suppose the temperature goes up a few degrees over the next few decades.  Does it mean that we don't have an army any more?  Does it mean that our weapons won't work?  Nevertheless, in a National Security Strategy document in February 2015, the Obama administration declared climate change to be “an urgent and growing threat to our national security,”  Then in May 2015, Obama gave a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut.  Excerpt:

I am here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security, and, make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country.  And so we need to act, and we need to act now.

Supposedly, something like sea level, or maybe wildfires, or maybe floods -- all completely speculative -- would somehow make the country harder to defend.  Meanwhile, when Obama talked about "acting now," what he meant was restricting production fossil fuels in the United States.  What did he think was the fuel that powers the planes and ships and missiles, let alone powering the economy that provides all the logistical support to keep the military functioning?  As far as I could tell, he had no idea.  In the name of "national security" he would hobble and ultimately shut down our own oil and coal and gas industries, leaving us to go begging for the necessary fuel to -- where?  OPEC?  Russia?  Venezuela?  You really need to be delusional not to be able to distinguish the real national security threat here from the imaginary one.

As you probably know, in a new National Security Strategy document released yesterday President Trump reversed this ridiculous policy of President Obama.  The new document does not contain any section explicitly dealing with "climate," but it does have a section titled "Embrace Energy Dominance."  Key quote:

Access to domestic sources of clean, affordable, and reliable energy underpins a prosperous, secure, and powerful America for decades to come.  Unleashing these abundant energy resources—coal, natural gas, petroleum, renewables, and nuclear—stimulates the economy and builds a foundation for future growth. Our Nation must take advantage of our wealth in domestic resources and energy efficiency to promote competitiveness across our industries. . . .  Climate policies will continue to shape the global energy system. U.S. leadership is indispensable to countering an anti-growth energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy secu- rity interests. Given future global energy demand, much of the developing world will require fossil fuels, as well as other forms of energy, to power their economies and lift their people out of poverty.  The United States will continue to advance an approach that balances energy security, economic development, and environmental protection.  

Bullet dodged, at least for the moment.

Now, perhaps on reading this, you remain skeptical that hobbling U.S. fossil fuel energy production could jeopardize national security by making the U.S. dependent on the likes of OPEC or Russia for fuel needed to run the military or the economy.  If so, I would urge you to pay attention to what has just been occurring in the UK.  The UK is thought to have substantial natural gas-bearing shale formations (full extent unknown due to lack of exploration) that could be tapped to supply fuel for the country.  However, during the whole time of the shale gas revolution in the United States, the process of horizontal drilling and "fracking" for gas has been essentially shut down by regulators over concerns of environmentalists.  The first exploratory well after the moratorium finally got going just this August.  From the Financial Times, August 17:

Drilling has started on the first UK shale well for six years even as debate intensifies among geologists over how much gas is available for fracking. Cuadrilla, the company leading the push to bring US-style shale gas production to the UK, said on Thursday it had begun drilling a vertical well expected to reach 3.5km beneath its site near Blackpool, Lancashire. . . .   Fracking has been on hold in the UK since 2011 when two small earth tremors were blamed on exploratory operations by Cuadrilla at another site near Blackpool. Cuadrilla was given the go-ahead by the government last year to resume drilling, reflecting ministers’ hopes of replicating the shale revolution that has cut US gas prices and bolstered American energy security.

Lacking a home-grown, land-based gas supply from fracking, the UK has been relying on gas from the aging North Sea fields, as well as gas that comes from the Middle East and also Norway via pipelines across Europe.  Both of those sources then suddenly experienced supply disruptions in the past couple of weeks.  From the Telegraph, December 13:

Around 40pc of the UK’s domestic [natural gas] supplies have been wiped out until the new year due to the emergency shutdown of the North Sea’s Forties pipeline, operated by Ineos. Supply from Europe has also been constrained by the explosion at a hub in Austria and technical problems in the Norwegian North Sea.    

Time to crank up the vast reserves of solar panels?  No, dummy, those don't work in the winter.  Wind turbines also have zero ability to step up in an emergency.  The first result of the supply disruptions was a huge spike in natural gas prices in the UK:

[R]ocketing demand in Europe [has driven] the price for gas delivered to the UK to more than $10 per million British thermal units.

For comparison, a representative recent spot price in the U.S. was $2.84 per million BTUs.  But you've got to get your energy somewhere.  So who will sell you gas at a gouging price when you are desperate?  The answer, of course, is Russia:

Britain has emerged as the unlikely first recipient of gas from a sanctioned Russian project after fears of a winter supply crisis drove prices close to five year highs. . . .  Now a deal has been struck to bring the debut cargo from Yamal to the Isle of Grain import terminal via a specially built ice-breaking tanker by the end of the month.

The Telegraph includes this picture of a smiling Vladimir Putin:


It's really hard to believe how dumb these people are to have put themselves in this position.  But then, when they make their decisions, they do it against the backdrop of the U.S. military shield, let alone of the frack-happy U.S. as an alternative emergency supplier when Russia puts on the squeeze.  But if we had shut down our fracking over concerns about "climate change," we would have been dependent on OPEC and Russia like Europe and the UK are now.  Who would have been our emergency supplier when those guys decided to put on the squeeze?  And, rest assured, Hillary, following in Obama's footsteps, would have enthusiastically put the country in this position.  


How To Spin The Most Extreme Corruption To Make It Seem OK

The recently departed Bill O'Reilly would often call his TV show the "no spin zone."  It was a good effort on his part, but I would say that almost everything that comes out of a human being's mouth is spin of one sort or another.  That's particularly true in matters that relate to a person justifying his own conduct.  Even the biggest crooks in the world always have a narrative going on in their heads to excuse what they are doing as being perfectly OK. 

As an extreme example of this phenomenon, consider the lead headline in yesterday's New York Times:  "Russia-Trump Tie Was Big Concern Of Ex-C.I.A. Chief."  In the on-line version the headline is "Ex-C.I.A. Chief Reveals Mounting Concern Over Trump Campaign and Russia."

Nice try.  Here's my alternative headline for the same article:  "Ex C.I.A. Chief Brennan Offers Preposterous 'Russia' Cover Story To Excuse Blatantly Illegal Government Spying On Trump Campaign."  My alternative headline is just the other "spin."  

The gist of the article is that Brennan supposedly initiated use of CIA and FBI resources to snoop on the Trump campaign because of what he says was "concern" about contacts between that campaign and Russia.  Excerpts:

 John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. director, described on Tuesday a nerve-fraying few months last year as American authorities realized that the presidential election was under attack and feared that Donald J. Trump’s campaign might be aiding that fight. . . .  “I know what the Russians try to do,” Mr. Brennan said. “They try to suborn individuals and try to get individuals, including U.S. individuals, to act on their behalf, wittingly or unwittingly.” . . .  [I]ntelligence agencies are unanimous in their belief that Russia directly interfered in the election. . . .    

One thing I've learned from 40 years in the litigation business is this:  there's no definitively disproving what a person says about what is going on in his own head.  "I think," "I believe," "I concluded," "I was concerned," and so forth are all ultimately non-disprovable.  On the other hand, we are entitled to apply our common sense to the situation to see if such justifications are credible.

Let me start with this:  The citizens of the United States have given truly awesome powers to federal government law enforcement and intelligence agencies for one and only one reason, which is to keep the people safe.  For that purpose, and that purpose alone, we have acquiesced in the creation of the CIA, the NSA and the FBI, with their enormous and frightening investigatory and surveillance powers.  The single biggest corruption in which these agencies can engage is the use of their powers to interfere in the election process, and thus to disadvantage one side of the political divide in favor of the other.  The use of the investigative and surveillance powers of the CIA/NSA/FBI by government officials as a weapon against political adversaries is a far, far, far worse corruption than, say, merely taking a bribe, no matter how large;  and is a far, far, far worse corruption that merely embezzling millions, or even billions, of dollars from the government's coffers.  Misuse of the investigatory and surveillance powers against political adversaries goes to the very integrity of the democratic process, and indeed to the right to control the investigatory agencies themselves.

And therefore, if the officials of any of those agencies have used any of their powers to investigate or surveil the campaign of a political adversary, they had better have a damned, damned, damned solid basis for it.  And by a damned, damned, damned solid basis, I do not mean self-serving assertions of mere "suspicion" or "concern."  Anybody can assert "suspicion" and/or "concern" at any time they feel like it, for little or even no reason.  It's the ultimate non-falsifiable baloney.  If these enormously powerful agencies are going to engage in activities at this level of irresistible temptation of extreme corruption, they'd better have extremely specific facts indicating an extremely specific crime being committed.  This is no trivial matter.  If the CIA and the FBI and the NSA can invoke their frightening powers on the basis of a mere claim some kind of vague "suspicion" or "concern," and thereby launch an investigation of the political adversaries in the midst of a presidential campaign, then nothing about our political system is safe.  They can always claim "suspicion" or "concern."  If those are the criteria, you can be one hundred percent certain -- as certain as the night follows the day -- that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies will always be misusing their powers to interfere in every political contest of any consequence in this country at all times.  The temptation is just too strong.  It's the very definition of evil.

And let's be clear about one more thing:  this is a completely partisan issue.  The employees of the federal government in the Washington area -- and that includes the principal staffs of the CIA, FBI and NSA -- consist of ninety plus percent partisan Democrats.  If they can get away with using their investigatory and surveillance powers on the basis of self-serving statements of "suspicion" and/or "concern" to investigate and surveil politicians in political campaigns, then those powers will always be used to advantage the Democrats and disadvantage the Republicans.  That applies irrespective of which party may happen to be "in power" in the presidency or Congress at some moment in time.

So what did Brennan offer in the way of the "damned, damned, damned solid basis" to justify his conduct?  In a word, nothing.  Here's a longer Brennan quote, this time from Byron York in the Washington Examiner:

"I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign," Brennan testified. "I know what the Russians try to do. They try to suborn individuals and they try to get individuals, including U.S. persons, to act on their behalf, either wittingly or unwittingly. And I was worried by a number of the contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons. . . .  

Brennan claims to have learned that there were "contacts and interactions" between members of the Trump campaign and Russian representatives, and, supposedly, he "know[s] what [they] try to do."  So?  His statement is just another way of saying that he had and has nothing whatsoever in the way of specific facts as to actual wrongdoing.  There is absolutely nothing illegal about members of the Trump campaign having "contacts" or "interactions" with representatives of Russia.  Without doubt, representatives of the Trump campaign had "contacts and interactions" with representatives of at least 30 or 40 of the important countries in the world.  That's an important part of the job of a campaign, to be ready to run the foreign policy of the United States in the event that their candidate wins.  For that matter, representatives of the Clinton campaign, with one hundred percent certainty, did the same.  Go further:  suppose that members of the Trump campaign actually "colluded" with representatives of Russia to figure out ways to try to defeat Hillary.  That is not illegal, let alone criminal!  Kudos to (otherwise partisan Democrat) Alan Dershowitz for making this obvious point in multiple forums over the past several days, for example here.  Is he the only Democrat left in America for whom civil liberties and the integrity of our democracy are more important than momentary partisan advantage?

So which is the worse problem:  (1) that Russia may have been "colluding" with one of the campaigns to disadvantage the other, or (2) that the CIA, FBI and NSA were working to help one campaign against the other, including by using their investigatory and surveillance powers?  It's not even close.  Russia has no ability to launch criminal probes in the United States.  Russia has no ability to threaten prosecution in the United States.  Russia has no ability to sweep up emails and financial records in secret in the United States and use them to prosecute political adversaries.  Russia has little to no ability to utter "leaks" to a friendly press to advance its political objectives.

But nevertheless the Trump/Russia story rolls on every day in the New York Times, Washington Post, et al.