Missing Secret Service text messages are a conspiracy you can believe in

It looks like the U.S. Secret Service (USSS), which protects the president, vice president and certain other high-ranking officials, is missing a whole lot of text messages that occurred on or around January 6, 2021. The messages appear to have been lost this January, curiously starting two days after the January 6 Select Committee in the House asked the USSS to preserve the records.

There are so many conspiracy theories out there that so far I haven’t subscribed to any of them until this scandal made the news. As an ex 32-year of federal employee, I went “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!”

Instantly, I knew this didn’t pass the sniff test. While it’s possible these missing texts were an example of grand incompetence within the USSS and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), that’s actually the kind of conspiracy theory I couldn’t embrace. But someone or someones deliberately trying to bury these record, well, that certainly passes the sniff test. It’s not just inherently suspicious, you’re kind of crazy to think it wouldn’t be — at least, if you spent any time working in the federal government, you’d know just how mind-blowing it is that this actually happened.

Or maybe we’re just being lied to, which is quite plausible, but not something you would expect from the USSS whose safety mission requires trust. If you are a federal employee, however, it is made painfully clear that anything you do on official channels is a public record. Whether the records deserve to be retained indefinitely is a matter of law.

I doubt there is a federal employee anywhere who has spent more than a year in government and touched a work-related computing device that hasn’t been reminded about the need to preserve records. In my agencies it was a once a year reminder, mostly for people who got actual U.S. mail. These were typically digitized and placed in locked metal filing cabinets, and tagged with a records number which was placed in an official log. Official responses went in there too.

The stuff on our official electronic devices was magically archived somewhere. It was so important there were procedures to keep backup copies offsite. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was tasked to collect these official records, and there were hosts of agency employees who made sure it happened as seamlessly as possible.

I don’t know NARA’s record retention policy. Some records are more important than others. Freedom of Information Act requests, for example, are very important. Emails sent among my employees were not typically, unless they became political somehow because they spanned agency boundaries and needed to be seen or concurred on by our senior executives. Annually I was asked to flag these emails. I can’t recall ever flagging one because I was far enough down on the government’s totem pole that I didn’t interact with these figures. The closest I came was an occasional meeting with our associate director, who was on the Senior Executive Service.

Curiously, I retired eight years ago this Monday, on August 1, 2014. Before retiring I had to search for documents like this. I didn’t find any, but I did find some documents associated with the Privacy Act that I kept under lock and key in my office. They got shredded and that was good. They contained confidential information about my employees that was no one else’s business and they were in paper. Their digital equivalents were in various vaulted electronic archives.

Although I’ve been retired for eight years, I’m betting that if needed all my emails from the ten years I worked at the U.S. Geological Survey are stored in a government cloud somewhere. I’m also confident that they would be of interest to no one, so I don’t expect they’ll ever be searched. Anyone reading them would be baffled by all the low level conversations and acronyms anyhow. Perhaps NARA will allow the USGS to officially purge them at some point. More likely, these records will outlive me. As long as the U.S. government is an institution, they’ll likely be around in an electronic government archive somewhere.

Unlike the Secret Service, I didn’t warrant a government phone, so I didn’t have one so there were no text messages to backup. But I can’t see a Secret Service agent not having one of these devices. How often agents actually use the texting feature I don’t know. Most of the time I imagine they are busy watching people, but I’m sure they used them from time to time. On January 6, 2021 no doubt if an agent in the White House or Capitol had any free time, he was texting or calling someone. We already know some agents guarding Mike Pence were calling home sending potential last goodbyes – that’s how scared they were that day.

Also, these devices worked on commercial cellular networks. The texts are almost certainly stored electronically by these networks, or at least thrown into an archive, and likely encrypted. Minimally, there should be a record of the phone numbers texted. I’m sure this would be part of any government contract for official cell phones. Before a contract would be let, I am sure this would be in the contract. In other words, it would be crazy if these text records were not available in one of these cellular provider’s archives. Likely the only way they wouldn’t be is if they were deliberately purged.

The USSS says its agents were required to back these up locally before they turned in their devices in January and February and before being issued their new devices. No one was checking they did this successfully, however. This would be a nice thing to do, but in no way would it be the only way to recover these texts. This would be some ultimate form of digital insurance, to ensure the text messages were preserved if all other backups were unavailable.

I’m sure DHS has a whole team that ensures records compliance. There is no way this team or any team at the USSS could be so incompetent and ignorant of the law as to not have these records somewhere.

It’s not just text. The acting secretary and acting deputy secretary for DHS also lost their phone records in the days leading up to the insurrection.

So, yes, I’m convinced there is a conspiracy at work. The game’s afoot, so call Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. And likely if these records can be retrieved, they’ll be damning. I can’t see someone not being held responsible for this. If accidental, it would be a mind-blowing display of gross incompetence that should go all the way up to the government’s chief information officer, whose duty it is to make sure these things are done.

But that’s completely implausible. There’s some crime going on, it’s not just the cover up. I hope forensic data scientists can retrieve these records. If they can’t, that’s pretty much all the evidence we need that there’s crucial information about the insurrection that experts managed to digitally erase somehow, from likely multiple archives.

It has the potential to be a scandal as big as the insurrection itself, if not worse.

Trump is pretty much insane … and unelectable

It was quite a weekend for our ex-“president”. At a rally in Texas he said lots of memorable things, at least if you are trying to sound insane and deranged.

Perhaps the most remarkable was that the Vice President can select the next president. That’s right: all that presidential campaigning is pretty much irrelevant because apparently actual votes no longer count. When Congress meets to certify the votes in the Electoral College, apparently the Vice President can decide which of these electoral votes to recognize because by law they must preside over the session.

This is great news if you are a wannabee dictator but not such great news if you take this seriously and look to January 2025. Then presumably still vice president Kamala Harris could declare that she will recognize Electoral College votes from only those states that voted for Joe Biden. What? This might not add up to 270 Electoral Votes? No matter, according to Trump the Veep makes the call.

This was one theory advanced by John Eastman, a former Justice Department official that mentioned the idea but disavowed it when pressed. His second was the idea that the Vice President could decide that certain states electoral college votes were in dispute, so they couldn’t be counted, so the result would be determined by the House, where each state gets one vote. With the majority of states being red (because there are a lot of rural states) guess who wins? That’s too nuanced for Donald Trump though.

When the United States was founded, the powers of the president worried the founding fathers. They looked for the most benign word possible to express their intent and picked president, because a president by definition merely presides over an institution. They wanted it clear that the real constitutional authority rested in Congress, which makes law. The job of the president was to ensure that Congress’s laws were faithfully executed. It’s right there in the president’s oath of office. The mere idea that the nation’s second presider, the Vice President, could decide who the main presider of the country would be would have been seen as preposterous. But Trump says with a straight face that this is what the law says.

Oh, and then there was that other stuff he said at the rally: that when he becomes president again he will pardon all those involved in January 6. So much for trying to faithfully execute the laws of the United States! All those laws about interfering with the process of government and seditious conspiracy don’t matter and are trumped by his “get out of jail free” pardon power, a power he used liberally to pardon his numerous cronies. It’s not hard to get away with it when a partisan Senate will refuse to convict any Republican president.

Trump went on to admit he pressured Mike Pence to overturn the election, which is an admission that he tried to instigate a coup. He wanted the military to seize voting machines in states where he didn’t like the vote. He was obviously caught on tape pressuring the Georgia Secretary of State to find votes he didn’t have that would let him carry the state, which may lead to a criminal indictment in that state by the Fulton County district attorney. His henchman Rudy Giuliani coordinated sets of alternative electoral certifications from states he clearly lost, all in the hopes that Mike Pence might recognize them. He was looking to declare a national emergency to assert powers he didn’t have. And he might have gotten away with it if Vice President Pence had not showed he was a true patriot by simply doing what the law required of him: preside over watching as electoral votes were counted in Congress.

It will surprise no one when Trump announces he is running for president again in 2024. Whether he could “win” the vote though depends entirely on how willing the states are to corrupt the election process. Trump hasn’t won more adherents since he lost to Joe Biden by nine million real votes and 74 electoral votes. Smart Republicans realize they can improve their odds of winning dramatically by nominating someone like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis instead.

Right now they are just afraid to come out publicly for the idea. The Trump brand has lost its luster. Republicans want someone crazier than Trump, but craftier too. Trump is damaged goods and not loony enough for the base anymore.

I for one am hoping that Trump does run again. It’s the best way to reelect Joe Biden. A strong majority of the country simply loathes Donald Trump.

1/6 could have been a lot worse

A year has come and gone since a violent gang of insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. At the time I remember trying to keep my wife calm by projecting false confidence that it would soon get under control.

It did, but not before a lot of damage to the building, injuries, defacements and the deaths of at least five people. A year later, more than seven hundred people have been charged with crimes from the event, most of them misdemeanors. It’s only in the last week or so that we’ve seen charges of seditious conspiracy against a number of leaders of the so-called “Oath Keepers”.

We were lucky. We were not lucky in preparing the necessary law enforcement for the event, which I warned about on January 3, 2021. It was entirely foreseeable. But we were lucky in that it wasn’t a whole lot worse.

Obviously, it was very bad. The last ones to breach the Capitol were the British army during the War of 1812. This time it was our own citizens. It was very bad for those who died or were injured. Many of those injured incurred permanent disabilities, mostly PTSD. A few of them took their own lives. It was brutal and crazy but with one exception no guns were used, at least by the insurrectionists. Their most lethal weapons were apparently bear spray and flag staffs. The gallows they placed on the Capitol’s frontage was symbolic; it wasn’t tall enough to actually hang anyone or sturdy enough to finish the job.

The insurrectionists’ intentions though were clear enough: they wanted to overturn the results of the presidential election. They succeeded in postponing the process to the wee hours of January 7.

The Oath Keepers though were likely not the only group with firearms on standby. You have to have a firearms permit from the city to bring guns into the District of Columbia. The Oath Keepers kept a cache of firearms in their hotel in Arlington waiting for the moment to bring them in. They weren’t ready, at least at the insurrection’s start, to break the law so flagrantly. The result was a violent melee in and around the Capitol fought mostly with bear spray, flag staffs, Billy clubs and fists.

Imagine the scene if these insurrectionists had come with guns, which would likely have been the more lethal, semiautomatic types. Imagine the casualties on both sides. Members of Congress likely would have been among them, with dozens, if not hundreds, killed. There would likely have been many more of the insurrectionists dead and wounded.

Most likely the insurrectionists would not have succeeded and most likely most of them would be dead. That’s because the National Mission Force was on standby. With shoot to kill orders and armed with all the technology and training needed, they would have brought the situation under control with stunning and quick lethality.

If you have to have an insurrection, as bad as it was, what transpired was about the best possible outcome. Casualties were mostly property and not people. Firearms were almost not used. There was no particular moment that could be used to recruit others to try again. The insurrectionists showed stunning stupidity by streaming a lot of it and leaving electronic footprints all over the place that could be used to charge them. They came off very badly as seemingly unwashed, untrained hotheads who didn’t know what they were doing.

This doesn’t excuse the botched preparations to fully protect the Capitol or our former president’s obvious incitement of a riot, sedition and his foot dragging to get the situation under control. I do hope that eventually he is brought up on relevant charges because it’s clear to anyone with a brain, on both sides of the aisle, that Trump was instrumental in the whole thing. It was entirely preventable. He just had to civilly accept the result that he lost, and wouldn’t.

It’s unlikely that the Capitol will ever be breached again by insurrectionists, or anyone. That’s not to say civil war is impossible or attempts to overthrow the government can’t happen. But it’s likely to happen through corruption of the system, which has been underway for a long time now.

Save the republic?

It all feels so inevitable because this is a play we’ve been watching unfold for decades. Republicans have known that long that demographics are against them. For conservatives, it’s largely always been that way because they stacked the deck so that if they lose, it won’t be very often.

Assembling this country we call the United States involved enormous compromise, mostly by Northerners to bring in the Southern states. Since the constitution was ratified, southern states have been granted disproportionate federal influence. Slaves counted as three fifths of a person for electoral voting purposes, despite having no legal rights. This allowed Southern states to mostly control the Electoral College and the presidency for our first hundred years.

In fact, the Fugitive Act in the 19th century resembled Texas’s latest anti-abortion law in that it allowed private individuals to recapture slaves in the North and bring them back to the South, usually for a nice bounty from slaveholders. To elect Abraham Lincoln, it effectively took the Southern states to secede. Some of our most progressive constitutional amendments, including the 13th, 14th and 15th were possible only because Southern states were temporarily not part of government.

So the November 2020 election should not have been much of a surprise, nor the insurrection that occurred on January 6. We’ve been leading up to it for decades, but Donald Trump became the perfect poster child for the movement. It amounts to a refusal to follow the law and constitution when it gets too inconvenient.

It’s getting too inconvenient for Southern states. Joe Biden decisively defeated Donald Trump, despite extreme gerrymandering, despite extreme voter suppression and flipped a number of reliably red states like Georgia. Our republic just barely held it together on Inauguration Day. Lately, Republicans have refused to govern. Just yesterday they refused to a person to extend our debt limit, a limit they happily agreed to ignore for a few years when Donald Trump was president because they wanted those sweet tax cuts. Red states are trying hard to find more creative ways to ensure the 2020 election never happens again. In some states they’ve given the legislature permission to appoint different electors if they don’t like the way their citizens voted.

Some of their crazies are angling for a new civil war and are praying for a nice right-wing dictator to do away with our constitutional democracy, which is clearly hanging by a thread. In short, they seem to want to end our republic. They can’t abide with the idea of majority rule unless they are in the majority.

It’s all quite naked and dispiriting. Increasingly, I ask myself if there’s a way we could just have a nice, civil divorce. But I can’t see something like a gentleman’s agreement along the lines of Czechoslovakia splitting into the Czech and Slovak Republics. Southern states aren’t that civilized. Their idea of a civil divorce would be if they get everything, like all the nukes and armed forces. They would leave Blue states bankrupt. And that’s the best scenario.

It’s like trying to negotiate with a terrorist. That’s increasingly what these Southern states resemble. They believe in Barry Goldwater’s maxim that extremism in the defense of “liberty” is not a vice. Only their idea of liberty does not extend to non-whites, and increasingly not to women, at least over their reproductive rights.

The irony in all this is that if Democrats had sufficient backbone they probably could solve a lot of this problem, or at least put it in abeyance. Consider what could happen if two Democratic senators put the filibuster in abeyance just to pass a civil rights bill that ensured equal access to the vote to all citizens and impartially drawn congressional districts. But that of course would allow all voters to be equally enfranchised, something Senators Sinema and Machin don’t seem to want to do. At best they are naive. At worst they are acting as Republicans.

I do know I am tired of it and scared for our future. I have a feeling that ten years from now our nation will resemble nothing like what it resembles now, and it’s plenty bad now. It’s going to get much, much worse. I can feel it. So if there was a way to do a quickie divorce on states like Texas, Alabama and Mississippi, I’d be all for it. The “leaders” in these states are incorrigible,

Trump’s predictable denouement

What’s been going on this week, much like what happened last Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, was not too hard to predict. Trump is melting, much like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

What’s strange is that Trump isn’t the first president to suffer this, it’s just that his case is more severe. In the last days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, Nixon was reportedly frequently drunk, talking to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and at one point was down on his knees with Henry Kissinger praying. Neither were devout, by the way.

Both Nixon and Trump knew they were in over their heads, but reacted in somewhat different ways. In Trump’s case, he has never had to confront his obviously extreme case of malignant narcissism. It’s new to him and he’s taking it very badly. Moreover, the crutches he has depended on to maintain his psyche have been taken away from him: no more Twitter.

So, like with Nixon, Trump is going down hard. He’s unlikely to hit the booze because he’s a teetotaler, but he is reportedly raging and wholly unfocused on his job. The military is ignoring him and it seems to be taking orders from Vice President Pence. Trump has made no plans for a farewell address, which seems out of character for him. It’s hard for me to believe he won’t, but we’ll see.

Mostly, like Nixon, Trump is feeling very much alone with most of his staffers deserting him. He’s being abandoned both metaphorically and literally. And according to reports he trusts no one, not even Pence to pardon him if he were to resign early. This is not too hard to understand since he had never really trusted anyone; he’s always trusted only to his own instincts. And now those have proven catastrophically and undeniably wrong. His cognitive dissonance right now must be off the charts.

In fact, Trump has plenty of company. The 30,000 or so of his supporters that stormed the Capitol last week show there are plenty of people who share his ideas and delusions. Time is proving just how dangerous the attack on the Capitol was, and just how lucky we were that it didn’t turn out a lot worse. The one thing the attackers had going against them was that they weren’t very well organized. There is so much voluminous evidence of their crimes though that it’s only a matter of time before most of them are tracked down and prosecuted.

There is plenty of concern that more attacks are in the offing. But at least at the Capitol it seems unlikely. The National Guard has pretty much occupied the Capitol. Unlike on January 6th, there’s virtually no way a crowd is going to be able to get anywhere near the Capitol. The whole national mall is being shut down as a security precaution. The Joint Chiefs have made it clear that Biden will be inaugurated and they’ll have at least 20,000 troops, plus Capitol and D.C. police to make sure it happens. Any insurrectionist stupid enough to try to confront them is likely to find themselves with a bullet through their head.

It remains to be seen what if any threats happen in and around state capitals. Most states have sufficient National Guard troops to handle anything that comes up. Hopefully most governors will have learned from January 6 and deploy them heavily as a precaution.

As for Trump, his psychological crisis may be a blessing. Not only is he being largely ignored by staff, he seems to be too unfocused to take steps a more rational president in his predicament would take. I suspect he blames his own supporters for failing him on January 6th, thus it is looking less likely that he will try to pardon them en masse. Based on reporting, he does seem to understand that trying to pardon himself is at best a legally dubious proposition. Since he thinks mostly only about himself, in his confused state he may forget or simply decide to issue no more pardons. Here’s hoping.

So, it’s good for our nation if Trump spends his last days sulking, lost and feeling impotent. It’s good if his exit from the presidency looks small and ignoble. I still expect he will slink out of the White House, likely the night before or in the early hours of the 20th. For a showman, I suspect this is one exit he will want done discreetly and away from the cameras.

Where will he go? Mar-a-Lago, if I were to guess, at least in the short term. Scotland won’t have him. If he ultimately flees to Russia it would be fine by me if he stayed there. That would be a punishment as deserving as any we could give him here in a court of law. The less we see and hear of Donald J. Trump after his term expires, the better it will be for our nation. We need to put Trump in the rear-view mirror permanently.

Wednesday’s inflection point

As I predicted on Sunday, Wednesday was a day of bedlam at the U.S. Capitol. Thousands of pro-Trump protestors, egged on by Trump at an earlier rally outside the White House, occupied and defaced the Capitol for several hours.

Little was done to stop them, and even less was done to prepare for this predictable event. It was (for the moment at least) the acme of Trumpism. It was also an attempted coup, thankfully one that was badly organized and brought under control within a few hours. It was clearly a coup because it was an attempt to alter the results of the presidential election. Our mighty democracy proved very fragile on Wednesday.

Parts of the Capitol were ransacked and items pilfered. At last count, five people are dead but so far not a whole lot of people have been charged with crimes. It was arguably the first time since the War of 1812 that the Capitol was attacked, this time not by British troops but by all American insurrectionists.

(In 1954, Puerto Rican separatists managed to open fire in the House of Representatives, wounding five members of Congress. But that was not a coup as they were not trying to topple the government. It was also quickly put down. Wednesday’s events were clearly the most brazenly seditious acts since the Civil War.)

Time will tell though if Trumpism dies with this coup attempt. Trump’s social media was abruptly cut off, perhaps the cruelest thing that anyone has ever done to him. Talk of using the 25th Amendment to quickly remove Trump from office is going on even inside the White House.

The coup attempt seemed to take the wind out of those in Congress protesting Biden’s election. Only the electoral votes of two states were challenged (curiously, not Georgia’s) and early Thursday Biden’s election was certified. Yesterday Trump came as close as he has come to conceding the election, saying there will be an orderly transition. I wouldn’t bet on this as a lot of what’s left of his government is resigning instead. My other earlier bet, that Trump would flee to a foreign country, now looks a lot more likely. In the meantime, I would not be surprised if he fled the White House, probably for Mar-a-Lago, never coming back.

The ultimate outcome of this coup attempt will hopefully be to kill Trumpism, but I doubt that will happen. It probably will leave Trumpists chastened, at least for a while. One thing it has caused: the government has slipped into Democratic hands. With two Democratic wins in the Georgia Senate runoff, Democrats will control the Senate. So over four years, Trumpism caused Republicans to go from united Republican government to united Democratic government. You would think that would be a karmic shock to what’s left of the party.

On another level, what happened Wednesday was entirely predictable and was the result of demographic changes long underway that are coming to a head, just given a focus through Trump. That’s why I was not surprised when my prediction posted on Sunday came true. That it actually unfolded the way it did though may ultimately secure a better long-term outcome than if it had been beaten back. Maybe Trumpists will be satisfied with the illusion of a short-term victory in a skirmish, then go back into their conspiratorial holes. Maybe having actually lived out part of their fantasies, that will be enough.

I do suffer from what is likely to be the fantasy that those who perpetrated this crime will be held fully accountable. It would not be hard to identify and locate almost all of these lawbreakers. Aside from the many photos taken on the scene, most brought their cellphones with them. As a DailyKos poster noted, a cell tower data dump could quickly identify who were actually there. Assuming Trump is not quickly 25th Amendment-ed, what’s left of his wits though is likely to issue a blanked pardon keeping all those accountable (including presumably himself) from having justice served. Arguably all these prosecutions would stoke the flame of Trumpists, encouraging guerilla-like actions.

While a lot of this is due to the future coming too fast for Trumpists, we may have a new president that can meet the moment. The coup attempt on the Capitol may make Republicans in their diminished role more prone to compromise. It may mean that some of their craziest members, like Josh Hawley (captured raising his fist to the insurrectionists during the coup attempt) get unseated. It does mean that government can function again, albeit modestly, for a while. There is an endless list of changes that need immediate action. For a while we may get some space for these changes to happen.

My gut though tells me this is hardly over. With Trump sidelined, there will be less animus driving these people forward. But there are a massive amount of loose-cannon Trumpists out there. A likely long national struggle lies ahead.