Alex Salmond has walked free from the High Court after being acquitted of charges of sexual assault – but he has made clear that this is far from the end of the matter. With a series of inquiries in the pipeline, what is going to come next?
In the first instance, very little is going to happen. Politics is essentially on hold while the country is in the grip of the coronavirus crisis – there are frankly far more important things to be dealing with right now.
But there is already much activity beneath the surface, with both opposition politicians and some within the SNP starting to pose questions. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she will answer many of them in due course.
What did we learn during the trial which could give an indication of the political fallout from the case?
To start at the end of the trial, what did Mr Salmond mean when he said outside court that there was “certain evidence I would have liked to have seen led in this trial” which had not come out?
This almost certainly refers to the limits placed on the questions which can be asked of complainers in sexual offences trials. Primarily this refers to questioning about their sexual history, but it can also extend to other matters.
There was much debate in pre-trial hearings – which could not be reported until after the trial itself – about what could be asked of the complainers.
The defence wanted to press some of the women about later developments, around the judicial review process where Mr Salmond challenged the government over its handling of internal complaints against him.
Lady Dorrian ruled that this would remove the focus of the trial to another matter – which took place a decade after some of the charges – and would distract the jury from the merits of the charges themselves.
The defence actually tried to challenge this decision with another judge, but were rebuffed by Lady Stacey in similar terms.
Why did the defence want to talk about the judicial review? Because they believed it was central to a politically-driven conspiracy against Mr Salmond.
There was little direct talk of this in the trial itself, Gordon Jackson’s assertions that “this stinks” in his closing speech aside. Mr Salmond said some allegations had been “deliberate fabrications for a political purpose”, but the jury were never told why this might have been the case.
To again look to the pre-trial hearings, here the defence were able to be much clearer. Mr Jackson said there had been “a great deal of egg on faces” in government over the “spectacular” collapse of its case in the judicial review.
He said that after this, people working within the current administration turned their attention “very directly” to the criminal probe and “sought to influence that process to discredit the former first minister”.
Text messages were read out saying Mr Salmond’s ire over the botched internal probe risked “bringing down Nicola on the way”.
Where might this evidence come out, then, if not in court?
MSP Alex Neil has called for a “judge led public inquiry” – post-coronavirus – to find out if there was a “criminal” conspiracy to “do in Alex Salmond”.
However, a series of inquiries are already waiting in the wings, having been set up in 2019 before being put on ice after criminal charges were brought.
A parliamentary inquiry is due to examine the role of Nicola Sturgeon and her advisors in the internal inquiry, which the government conceded had been unlawful shortly before Mr Salmond’s legal challenge was to be heard at the Court of Session.
Ms Sturgeon insisted at the time that the process was “completely robust” and had only fallen down in one “deeply regrettable” area in the case of Mr Salmond.
However, one of the complainers in the trial also hit out at the government process, saying it was “flawed” and that she didn’t want to be part of the internal inquiry because there was too much “risk” around it.
This is almost certainly set to be the focus of much of the parliamentary inquiry – along with the questions posed repeatedly at Holyrood back in 2019, about what Ms Sturgeon knew and when.
The first minister has also referred herself to a standards panel who will decide whether she broke the ministerial code during the government investigation of her predecessor.
Ms Sturgeon told MSPs she had face-to-face meetings with Mr Salmond and spoke to him on the phone while the probe was ongoing, but insisted that she “acted appropriately and in good faith” at all times.
Ms Sturgeon previously insisted that she first heard about complaints against Mr Salmond at a meeting at her house in Glasgow on 2 April, 2018. She has also said this meeting was party business, rather than that of the government – negating the need for official notes to be taken.
This meeting was facilitated by Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein. And while giving evidence under oath, Mr Aberdein said he had held an earlier meeting with Ms Sturgeon at her Holyrood office, on 29 March.
The question eliciting this revelation appeared to be specifically prompted by Mr Salmond, who called his QC across for consultation before it was asked. Clearly, the former first minister thinks this a significant point.
What actually happened at that meeting was not discussed in court, but the fact it was held sparks immediate questions. If it was in the first minister’s parliamentary office, was it government business? And why did we only hear about it via testimony in court?
And outside of government itself, there have also been questions asked about the role of the SNP.
Mr Salmond’s supporters were quick to comment on the verdict, with Kenny MacAskill calling for resignations – without specifying whose – and Joanna Cherry demanding an independent inquiry into the party’s internal complaints procedure.
One complainer, Woman H, said she had made a complaint to the SNP specifically so it would be on file for vetting purposes should Mr Salmond ever run for office again.
The court heard she had received a text message from a party official saying “we’ll sit on that and hope we never need to deploy it”.
Woman H was clear that this was at her request, but questions are sure to be asked about a process which saw a complaint of sexual assault effectively buried. What else might political parties be “sitting on”?
Mr Salmond quit the party at the point he launched his judicial review. Will he now seek to rejoin it? Or has the rift with the current leadership grown too stark?
Finally, while he has walked free from court acquitted on all counts, has Mr Salmond’s reputation come through the trial intact?
He will not mind that one verdict was “not proven” rather than not guilty – in practice, they mean the same thing, that he is innocent in the eyes of the law.
He is free to return to normal life and society – albeit a society currently in lockdown – and will presumably keep his arm in the political debate while presenting his TV show on Russian channel RT.
But the defence case readily admitted that he had not always behaved well. Mr Jackson said throughout that the “touchy-feely” Mr Salmond could certainly act inappropriately, and led witnesses who called him “extraordinarily pugnacious” and “extremely demanding”.
The QC said in his closing speech that the former first minister “could certainly have been a better man” – but that none of this made him a criminal, something the jury accepted.
Mr Salmond admitted to having a “sleepy cuddle” with one complainer, and what Mr Jackson called “a bit of how’s your father” with another – both members of his staff far younger than he, and neither of them his wife.
The defence also never really attempted to dispel the slightly raucous image of Bute House drawn by the prosecution, of exotic liquors being poured late at night after celebrity dinners and staff being invited to do paperwork in the bedroom.
To stress again, a jury has ruled that none of this was criminal conduct. But that does not mean nobody will question it. The SNP’s equalities convener has already called elements of it “deeply inappropriate“, although Mr Salmond is also sure to fight for his reputation in light of the verdict.
While the trial may be over, the political fallout is only just beginning. This is a difficult moment for all concerned – ultimately, very few people may come out of this affair well.
There once was a time at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when social distancing wasn’t a polarized along party lines. That’s changing
It’s Monday, March 30. More states announced stay-at-home orders, and the White House extended its social distancing guidelines to until at least May.
In today’s newsletter: The social-distancing culture war. Plus: Take a tour of these drive-in movie theaters.
« TODAY IN POLITICS »
Social distancing is a political act now.
There once was a time at the beginning of this pandemic when public health experts’ call for Americans to limit their public activity and practice rigorous social distancing hadn’t yet been swept up in the language of a culture war.
School closures came quickly across blue and red states, people of all parties quickly dispensed hand-washing advice, and “flatten the curve” seemed like a unifying rallying cry.
The consensus didn’t last long. President Trump, having apparently grown impatient with all the quarantines and lockdowns, began last week to call for a quick return to business as usual…[T]he comments set off a familiar sequence—a Democratic backlash, a pile-on in the press, and a rush in MAGA-world to defend the president. As the coronavirus now emerges as another front in the culture war, social distancing has come to be viewed in some quarters as a political act—a way to signal which side you’re on.”
The Bills family gets comfortable in the back of their truck, with temperatures in the low 30s, before the movie Onward starts at the Basin Drive In in Mount Pleasant, Utah. The outdoor theater opened early this year, despite frigid temperatures, because the COVID-19 outbreak had closed indoor theaters.
Since January, Timor-Leste’s politics has been shrouded in uncertainty following the collapse of its previous governing coalition after the failure to pass a budget amid coalition infighting. Though a new government looks set to take office soon, it will face a range of formidable challenges that will need addressing.
While Timor-Leste has made progress towards statebuilding in some areas since its full independence back in 2002 after a painful struggle against colonialism, it still faces significant political and economic challenges as one of the world’s poorest economies and a polity that that has seen eight governments come and go in less than two decades.
Those challenges have continued on over into 2020 as well. In January, the prior government that had been led by Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak collapsed after failing to pass a budget, leaving open the possibility of the formation of a new government. And over the past month or so, indications surfaced that a six-party coalition in Timor-Leste led by independence leader and former prime minister Xanana Gusmao has the necessary support to form a new government.
But even if a new government does take office soon – the country’s ninth in less than two decades – Timor-Leste faces some significant challenges ahead. Politically, managing a six-party coalition with a slim majority at just 34 out of 65 parliamentary seats will not be easy, especially given its fragility (currently, the Gusmao-led National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) holds 21 seats; KHUNTO and Democratic Party have five seats each; and three parties have just one seat each). Economically, beyond getting a budget passed, the new government will have to have to contend with short and long-term challenges which include falling energy prices amid a global coronavirus pandemic as well as advancing the Tasi Mane petroleum project, critical given that almost the entirety of government revenue still comes from hydrocarbons.
Of course, that does not mean that these issues are insurmountable. Indeed, for some, Gusmao’s return and the advent of a new government does offer a new opportunity to reset the country’s politics and make progress on the country’s challenges in a more sustainable manner amid what appears to be a more turbulent global outlook. But the key question for Timor-Leste, as ever, is less about whether it can form another government, but whether the country’s leaders can overcome their differences just enough to hold governing coalitions long enough to manage this mix of opportunities and challenges.
“One of the issues we’re struggling with is the demand increase,” said Ed Pesicka, CEO of the health-care logistics company Owens & Minor. “You know, used an anecdotal example of one hospital in New York that traditionally uses roughly [10,000] to 20,000 masks a week [and is] now using [200,000] to 300,000 masks a week. So you multiply that times the entire U.S., let alone the same demand outside of the U.S.”
Trump seized on that increase to make a point.
“How do you go from 10 to 20, to 300,000? Ten to 20,000 masks to 300,000?” he said. “Even though this is different, something is going on, and you ought to look into it as reporters. Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door? How do you go from 10,000 to 300,000? . . . Somebody should probably look into that, because I just don’t see, from a practical standpoint, how that’s possible to go from that to that.”
It’s not terribly complicated. An increase from 10,000 to 300,000 is a thirty-fold increase. Consider the sorts of shifts that might drive that increase: a virus that’s far more contagious than things like the seasonal flu, and a flood of patients pulling in health-care workers from throughout the hospital. The former shift means that protective equipment needs to be worn and changed more often. The latter means that more people need to wear it. That thirty-fold increase is the far end of the scale. Pesicka also talked about an increase from 20,000 to 200,000 — a jump only a third the size.
Later, after criticizing New York state for warehousing ventilators instead of distributing them immediately to hospitals, Trump revisited Pesicka’s comments, claiming that “the biggest man in the business is, like, shocked” at the increase — a sentiment that Pesicka did not express in his public comments.
Trump’s suggestion that the masks were being purloined quickly gained attention, prompting his campaign to go into damage-control mode. It focused on a statement from New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) from March 6.
“There have been thefts of medical equipment and masks from hospitals, believe it or not. Not just people taking a couple or three. I mean actual thefts of those products,” Cuomo said. He added that he has asked the state police to investigate marketplaces that are selling masks and “playing into this, exploiting anxiety.”
One campaign staffer also pointed to an article in which a doctor reported “thefts of respirator masks and other essential protective equipment in lobbies and other high-traffic areas.”
All of this distracts — intentionally — from Pesicka’s main point: the need for protective equipment is surging and straining the ability of manufacturers and distributors to provide it. For all of Trump’s touting of how much is being done, which continued during a lengthy interview on “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning, it’s nonetheless obvious that the resources were not on hand to meet the surging needs of hospitals across the country.
The Trump campaign has repeatedly cited Post reporting indicating that the national stockpile of medical supplies was not replenished after a surge in need in 2009, ignoring that three of the subsequent years were ones when Trump was president. Trump’s comments Sunday were probably driven in part by a Post report that an early-February request for $2 billion in funding to replenish the strategic stockpile was slashed to $500 million at the end of the month, a 75 percent cut.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that New York hospitals are losing 10 percent of their masks to theft. There’s no evidence that the scale of whatever losses are still occurring is that dramatic, but let’s just say it is. Does that change that there is a dire shortage of masks and a need for more? Does that reduce the number of masks that are needed? Should the federal government instead provide only the 10,000 or 20,000 that hospitals used to get?
Trump has repeatedly suggested that there is somehow something suspect about New York’s requests in particular. Perhaps he sincerely thinks there is, given the way in which some enrichment schemes in the city have historically worked. But his insistence to Fox News’s Sean Hannity that New York was requesting more ventilators than it needed last week — as well as his arguments on Fox on Monday that the state did not buy ventilators that were available when they were for sale in 2015 (and when the coronavirus at the center of the pandemic likely did not exist), that the state is not distributing ventilators (because it’s waiting to see where they’re needed) and that New York hospitals are allowing masks to be stolen by the thousands — all have a main focus: shifting blame away from himself and onto Cuomo and others.
This is a political strategy. It’s one that served him well in the 2016 general election campaign, focusing negative attention on Hillary Clinton and helping suppress enthusiasm for her candidacy. His victory that year can be attributed to people who didn’t like either major-party candidate, a group he won by double digits, including in the three states that gave him his electoral vote margin. Here, again, he is offering America another focus of its frustration.
For his base of support, it’s icing; most don’t need his redirection in order to stay loyal. For everyone else, though, it introduces a conversation about where points of failure exist that are not centered in the White House. His campaign officials respond to questions about Trump’s comments about the 300,000 masks as though they are incensed that the president’s claims should be treated with skepticism or were not obviously true. In reality, they and Trump are thrilled to have the conversation be one in which they can equate Cuomo’s narrow, old comments with Trump’s sweeping, new ones — and one in which masks being swiped from a hospital lobby in Boston is a reason that New York doesn’t have the masks it needs now.
Both on Sunday and in his interview Monday morning, Trump spoke about how the virus has affected a hospital in Queens, near where he grew up. It’s hard not to live in the area, as Trump did for most of his life, and not be affected by the obvious strains and fear that New Yorkers are experiencing.
For a president focused on winning reelection in seven months, though, it’s also hard to resist trying to figure out which opponent needs to be scapegoated to make yourself look better by comparison.
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