If one half of the people is bent on proving how wicked a man is and the other half is determined to show how good he is, neither half will think very much about the nation.
– Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics (1913)
This week’s featured post is my attempt to forget the campaign for a moment and worry about the nation: “What’s up with ObamaCare (other than premiums)?“. Next week’s Sift will come out the day before Election Day, so I’ll have my quadrennial viewer’s guide, where I combine Nate Silver’s state-by-state analysis with a list of poll-closing times, and tell you what to look for when.
This week everybody was talking about Hillary’s emails again
When it broke Friday that the FBI was looking at a new batch of emails related to Hillary Clinton, I (like most people I know) had a moment of panic: Would this be the stroke of fate that inflicts President Trump on the world?
Then I went through a period of regretting the bad timing, but feeling like it was nobody’s fault. We actually knew nothing about these new emails, so it was a pure Rorschach Test: If it was already an article of faith to you that Hillary has done something horrible and the smoking gun must be somewhere, then the fact that it hadn’t been found anywhere else meant this must be it. But for everybody else, these were just more emails, probably no different from all the previous ones.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that early on in the investigation of Clinton’s email server, Comey decided this was a unique case that required a degree of public disclosure well outside the FBI’s usual practice. You could already see that in his July announcement and the testimony before Congress that followed it. Ordinary practice would be some terse announcement that the FBI had found no evidence that would warrant a prosecution, maybe illuminated by some discussion of the importance of intent in comparable cases.
Instead, he launched into a legally irrelevant criticism of Clinton’s “carelessness” in handling classified information. That would be an appropriate comment to make if he were a government inspector general or a congressional committee, not an FBI director. The FBI investigates crimes, not carelessness, and the role of the FBI director does not include being a moral authority.
The letter he wrote Friday to the chairs of congressional committees (all Republicans, since they are the majority) was the kind of thing the FBI doesn’t do at any time, much less when it’s likely to affect an election in a week and a half. It was basically an announcement that he might at some future time have new information. Totally vacuous in itself, it served only to create doubt that can’t possibly be resolved by Election Day.
The Justice Department has policies about this, for very good reasons. In its crime-investigating role, we allow law enforcement officials to violate people’s privacy in all sorts of ways. One of their corresponding responsibilities is to be circumspect in how they use that information.
So anyway, now we’re in exactly the kind of hell those policies are supposed to avoid: Relying on anonymous leaks to assess what, if anything, this new information might be or mean, and whether or not it should change how we vote. The NYT has a good summary of what we know and don’t know.
As far as Clinton’s email server in general, I haven’t changed the opinion I wrote in June. A more up-to-date version of a similar point of view is here.
To me, the nightmare scenario is that this vague letter tips the election to Trump, and then a month from now Comey reports to us again and says, “Oh, never mind, it turns out these emails were all duplicates of ones we already had.”
In the unlikely event that these emails reveal some previously unsuspected crime of President-elect Clinton, she could be impeached. But if Comey’s interference elects Trump, there’s no recourse.
The only way the email story could get any worse for Clinton would be if some kind of actual wrongdoing were unearthed at some point.
The Clinton-related emails released by WikiLeaks are a different story entirely, but I’m sure they blend together in the public mind. These are mostly from the account of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, and have nothing to do with the State Department. They are not subject to a legitimate investigation, but were hacked, probably by the Russian government.
These releases also have no smoking guns, but produce a constant dribble of negative headlines. People in their private emails say stuff that would look bad if they said it in public, and worse if it’s quoted out of context. That’s not news.
The latest batch inspired a lot of headlines suggesting that Bill Clinton profited personally from the Clinton Foundation, but (as so often happens) when you look at the supporting evidence it doesn’t really say that. A Clinton insider, Douglas Band, who worked in Hillary’s State Department, used his Clinton contacts to build a consulting business after he left the State Department. He encouraged his corporate clients both to give to the Clinton Foundation and to invite Bill Clinton to give paid speeches. Chelsea Clinton didn’t like possible implications of the way he was mixing business and his Foundation ties, so she started an internal audit. Band defended himself by arguing that Bill’s conflicts of interest were worse than his. (He sounds like Trump trying to excuse his sexual assaults: Don’t look at me, look at Bill.) That’s what leaked.
What we’re left with is the already-known fact that many corporations both gave money to the Foundation and paid Bill or Hillary to give speeches. None of this is odd: Corporations give money to charitable foundations, ex-presidents and ex-secretaries-of-state give a lot of paid speeches, and the Clintons’ fees seem to be in line with what people of their fame typically ask. No money has gone from the Foundation to the Clintons, and so far no one has come up with unwarranted government favors the companies might have been paying for. I’ve covered all this in detail before; in short, it’s “pay-for-play” scandal without either pay or play.
In all the responsible reporting, what is considered newsworthy is the possibility that some other bit of evidence might come out that will make these dots line up in a sinister pattern. We keep getting teased with that speculation, but the reality of it continues not to arrive.
Before this campaign, my opinion of WikiLeaks was somewhere between ambivalent and positive. I thought the mass release of State Department cables could be dangerous to some people who deserved better, but it also made public a lot of stuff that the public ought to know.
But in its anti-Clinton campaign, WikiLeaks has gone far beyond its original role as a force for transparency. It could have released whatever Russia gave it in one big dump, letting the rest of us sort through it the way people sorted through the State Department cables. That would be transparent: We got stuff, we passed it on.
Instead, by dribbling stuff out bit by bit as Election Day approaches, and using its twitter feed to frame its revelations as salaciously as possible, WikiLeaks has become just another partisan player, and Julian Assange just another foreigner trying to manipulate our election.
Buzzfeed has an article from a former WikiLeaks insider, about Assange’s “score” to settle with Hillary Clinton.
Most of what WikiLeaks has released is more gossip than whistle-blowing: Did you hear what so-and-so said about you? But Bernie Sanders isn’t taking the bait:
Trust me, if they went into our emails — I suppose which may happen, who knows — I’m sure there would be statements that would be less than flattering about, you know, the Clinton staff. That’s what happens in campaigns.
One sign that Republicans had given up on a Trump victory, at least until the FBI announcement: They were already talking about impeaching President Clinton.
and the acquittal in the Bundy trial
I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the verdict in the Bundy trial in Oregon: Not guilty all around, with the jury unable to make a decision on one charge of theft of government property. The L.A. Times attributes the verdict to the prosecutors’ overconfidence, while acknowledging the verdict’s overall absurdity.
“My client was arrested in a government truck, and he was acquitted of taking that truck,” said defense attorney Matthew Schindler, who still sounded in disbelief Friday morning.
The defense cast the Malheur occupation as a legitimate protest, but to my mind a protest turns into something else as soon as you start waving guns around. The Bundy brothers themselves will be sent to Nevada to face charges over the 2014 armed standoff at their father’s ranch. Presumably those prosecutors will not be so confident now, so we’ll have a test of the overconfidence theory.
Does anybody doubt what will happen next? Anti-government yahoos around the country will be emboldened to do even more outrageous things. We might as well have posted “Welcome Armed Occupiers” signs outside of every government workplace in the country.
About the Bundy’s theory that federal ownership of so much land in the western states is illegitimate: Once you get west of the Ogallala aquifer, the vast majority of land wouldn’t have supported American-style settlers, or much of anything beyond the economy the Native Americans already had, without massive federal spending on dams, roads, and railroad subsidies. To this day, most residents of the mountain states are not paying anywhere near the true cost of the water they use. (See the classic book Cadillac Desert.)
Native American claims are in a different category, but if any white people want to claim that federal lands in the West should belong to them, or to their state, I think they need to explain how the investment of the out-of-state taxpayers is going to be repaid.
At Vox, German Lopez said what I’ve been thinking:
It is impossible to ignore race here. This was a group of armed white people, mostly men, taking over a facility. Just imagine: What would happen if a group of armed black men, protesting police brutality, tried to take over a police facility and hold it hostage for more than a month? Would they even come out alive and get to trial? Would a jury find them and their cause relatable, making it easier to send them back home with no prison time?
Lots of people made a comparison to the Native American protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
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The next time someone asks about your dream job, consider the prospect of replacing Philip Galanes as host of The New York Times‘ “Table for Three” series. His job is to invite interesting people to lunch in twos, talk to them, and publish the conversation.
In the latest edition of the series, he takes historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow to the Gotham Lounge of Manhattan’s Peninsula Hotel, and asks them about how the 2016 election compares with other elections in US history. The NYT picks up the check, no doubt.
As Dire Straits put it: “That ain’t workin’. That’s the way you do it.”
Racist incidents are up in Britain after Brexit. Here’s some advice on how to interrupt them.
In general, people who create confrontations have some kind of drama in mind; they are like directors of a play. Sometimes you can screw that up without becoming part of the confrontation yourself: Stand in the wrong place, ask one of the participants for directions, etc. If you have an accomplice, you can stage your own competing play: have a screaming break-up scene.
CNN discusses the plague of fake news sites whose purpose is to get you agitated enough to share the link on social media. Some are partisan disinformation sites, but a bunch are subtle news parody sites, like Newslo or Business Standard News, whose stories sound credible because they’re just one or two steps beyond what’s actually happening. (You’d think people would notice the BS logo and take a step back, but apparently not.)
When these first started cropping up, I thought they were clever — like The Onion but a little more of an inside joke. But now, two or three times a day I feel obligated to inform some outraged Facebook friend that s/he has been punked. Usually I’m the 10th commenter after 9 other people have taken it seriously. I think some real damage is starting to happen.
When you share something, you’re lending your credibility to it; friends are more likely to be taken in by something if they know you believe it. That gives you some responsibility to check things out before you spread them.
Here’s a tip: Real news stories happen in a real world that lots of people see. So a real news story almost never appears on just one site. (That’s doubly true if the story involves some famous person, and the site is one you’ve never heard of.) Before you share some outrageous claim, boil it down to a few words and do a Google search. If the thing really happened, you should see a bunch of similar articles about it.
Take the Illinois senate race off the board. Mark Kirk just finished himself off.
At one level you have the dozen-or-so women who have accused Trump of some form of sexual assault (similar to the general description he gave Billy Bush on the famous tape). At another level entirely, there are a host of instances that aren’t remotely criminal, but reinforce the picture of him as a self-absorbed asshole.
This one, for example. It’s 2009, and the 16-year-old son of John Travolta and Kelly Preston has just died. That launches Trump into reminiscing on the Trump University blog about the time he put the moves on Preston and she turned him down, in spite of the fact that “my track record on this subject has always been outstanding”. Because that’s what you do when somebody loses her child.
Voter suppression is usually one of those phrases that only someone’s enemies use. Nobody ever comes out and says they’re trying to suppress the vote.
Except the Trump people. I guess this is a new example of telling it like it is.
Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans. Trump’s invocation at the debate of Clinton’s WikiLeaks e-mails and support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership was designed to turn off Sanders supporters. The parade of women who say they were sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton and harassed or threatened by Hillary is meant to undermine her appeal to young women. And her 1996 suggestion that some African American males are “super predators” is the basis of a below-the-radar effort to discourage infrequent black voters from showing up at the polls—particularly in Florida.
Here’s one of those stories that cuts across sports, business, media trends, and cultural change: TV ratings are down for both pro football in the US and the pro soccer in the UK. (It’s harder to get a clear sense of how college football’s ratings are doing, because its broadcasting is more decentralized than the pros, with individual conferences having their own networks in addition to national-network coverage.) Everybody has a theory about what this means, but none of them are compelling yet.
Here’s the conclusion I draw from Megyn Kelly’s confrontational interview with Newt Gingrich: If you’re a woman on the Right, you can be appreciated for carrying the men’s water. But as soon as you want to turn the conversation to something that you find important, you’re just a woman.
and let’s close with something nostalgic
I spent the late 70s and early 80s in Chicago, about the time Steve Goodman was writing “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request“. Like most Cub fans of that era, my best baseball memory is a loss: I was in Wrigley Field’s right field bleachers the day the Phillies beat us 23-22 in 10 innings.