By Heather Cox Richardson, historian
It began last night, while I was writing last night’s letter, when shortly after midnight we learned that Alexei Navalny, outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin’s government, has apparently been poisoned. He collapsed in pain on an airplane after drinking tea at Russia’s Tomsk airport. The plane made an emergency landing, meeting medics who raced Navalny to the hospital, where he is gravely ill. The poisoning is a chilling reminder of Putin’s tactics just days after the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election established that the Trump campaign invited his influence into our affairs.
Then, today, federal prosecutors in New York acting for a grand jury indicted Steve Bannon, Brian Kolfage, and two others for fraud and money laundering in connection with an online crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $25 million to build a wall on the U.S. southern border with Mexico. The men told donors to “We the People Build the Wall” that “100% of the funds raised… will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose,” and that “we’re a volunteer organization.” In fact, they allegedly pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars, routing the money through a shell company and false invoices.
The indictment quotes text messages between the men indicating they were quite deliberately running a scam. The messages highlight how the Republican system of fundraising from small donors, pioneered by direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie in the 1960s to fund Movement Conservatives rejected by traditional Republicans, now is used to funnel money from unsuspecting marks into the pockets of people who stoke rightwing outrage.
Bannon’s arrest means that two of Trump’s 2016 campaign chairs—Paul Manafort and Bannon– have now been indicted and arrested on charges of fraud. The third, Corey Lewandowski, was also arrested on a misdemeanor battery charge against a reporter, but while video proved the reporter’s account was accurate, the charge was dropped. The campaign’s deputy chairman, Rick Gates, an associate of Manafort, was also charged with financial crimes and conspiracy, and was sentenced to 45 days in jail after agreeing to cooperate with investigators.
Trump immediately tried to distance himself from Bannon, saying he hadn’t “been dealing with him for a very long period of time.” Bannon was the chief executive of Trump’s 2016 campaign, replacing Manafort, and upon entering the White House, Trump named Bannon to a newly created position as “chief strategist” on a level with the chief of staff. So influential in the early administration was Bannon that Trump gave him a full seat on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council, while pushing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence down to occasional attendees. Bannon left the White House after the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally highlighted the dangers of having an open white nationalist in the White House. Then-White House chief of staff John Kelly asked Bannon to leave. But at least for a while, Trump continued to call Bannon when Kelly was not around.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany issued a statement saying Trump “has not been involved with Steve Bannon since the campaign and the early part of the Administration, and he does not know the people involved with this project.” In fact, supporters of the project include Donald Trump, Jr., his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, and anti-immigrant activist Kris Kobach. Last year, Kobach said Trump had given the effort his blessing, and there is a testimonial from Trump Jr. on their website. Trump Org spokeswoman Amanda Miller said Trump Jr. had given one speech at one of their events, and they used his words as a testimonial without his permission.
Bannon pleaded not guilty and was released on a $5 million bail bond secured with $1.75 million in cash. “This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall,” he told reporters as he left the federal courthouse.
The arrests set off a tweet storm from the president. Trump also called into the show of Fox News channel personality Sean Hannity tonight, claiming again that mail-in voting will create a fraudulent election and emphasizing—in unfortunate words about sending law enforcement to polling places—that he plans to deploy all the means he can to challenge the 2020 vote.
Today a federal judge rejected the argument of Trump’s lawyers that the subpoena of Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. for eight years of Trump’s tax returns is “wildly overbroad.” Judge Victor Marrero upheld the subpoena. Trump’s lawyers immediately indicated they would appeal the decision.
Meanwhile, Trump has asked the Supreme Court to overturn a ruling last year by a federal appeals court that he may not block his critics on Twitter. The lower court said that since Trump uses the account for official announcements, he violates the First Amendment whenever he blocks someone and silences them. Today his lawyers argued that his account is his personal property and that he does not have to tolerate opposing views on it. Blocking critics would enable Trump to control what his followers see on his account, preventing visible pushback to his tweets. In effect, he could dominate the discourse in a public space.
Trump certainly has critics.
Deborah L Hughes, the director of the Susan B. Anthony museum, today rejected Trump’s pardon for Ms. Anthony, saying the pardon validated a legal process Anthony called an outrage.
Then, shortly before the Democratic National Convention kicked off tonight, more than 70 senior national security officials from the Republican Party released a letter announcing that they are supporting Biden in 2020. Their letter lists ten reasons Trump has “failed our country.” Donald Trump, they write, “is dangerously unfit to serve another term.”
Tonight was the night that former Vice President Joe Biden gave his acceptance speech in response to the Democratic Party’s nomination of him as their presidential candidate.
Tonight was Biden’s, as military families and former service people testified to his support for them, 13-year-old Brayden Harrington explained how Biden helped him deal with his own stutter (huge props for this young man taking on this assignment and executing it so well), Biden’s former rivals for the nomination talked of Biden’s kindness and decency, and, above all, Biden’s family emphasized again and again that for Biden, family and faith is everything. The picture was of a fundamentally decent and moral man, a striking contrast to his Republican rival.
The Democratic National Committee has pulled off an astonishing accomplishment with this, the nation’s first virtual political convention. It was tightly choreographed, inclusive, passionate, and fun, drawing in viewers with its variety and quick pace. It demonstrated professionalism, talent, and skill even without taking into account its content.
But the content was key. Rather than weakening the event, the lack of audience created an intimacy between speakers and viewers that lent a shining new authenticity to the voices the convention highlighted.
Biden is always a better speaker than people who know him for his gaffes expect, and tonight he hit it out of the park. On FNC, Chris Wallace noted that the Trump campaign’s attempt to convince voters Biden is mentally impaired backfired badly as he delivered “an enormously effective speech.”
Rather than simply outline his plan for his presidency, Biden also gave an impassioned plea for the nation, tying his love for it to his own life and values. He treated voters not as tools to be manipulated, but as people who can be trusted to choose their own future.
“America is at an inflection point,” he said. “A time of real peril, but of extraordinary possibilities. We can choose the path of becoming angrier, less hopeful, and more divided. A path of shadow and suspicion. Or we can choose a different path, and together, take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite. A path of hope and light. This is a life-changing election that will determine America’s future for a very long time. Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot. Who we are as a nation. What we stand for. And most importantly, who we want to be. That’s all on the ballot. And the choice could not be clearer.”