Secret Agent Man

One year after Trump took office, it is still unclear whether the president of the United States is an agent of a foreign power. Just step back and think about that for a moment.

– James Risen “Is Donald Trump a Traitor?
The Intercept (2-16-2018)

NO SIFT NEXT WEEK. The next new articles will appear on March 5. (In the meantime, I’ll be speaking at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Lakewood Ranch, Florida on Sunday, February 25.)

This week’s featured post is “Alaska as a Red-to-Blue(ish) Model“.

This week everybody was talking about yet another school shooting

The basics: a timeline of how it happened, who the 17 victims were, a profile of the shooter, a story on the students becoming gun-control activists.

One conclusion that I hope people are drawing from this: If it can happen in Parkland, it can happen anywhere in America. The National Council for Home Safety and Security, a home security industry trade association, had picked Parkland as the safest city in Florida, because only seven violent crimes were reported there in 2017. The Atlantic describes Stoneman Douglas High School as “a mostly white school in a mostly upper-middle-class area.”

This isn’t some den of hopeless poverty and drugs that Middle America can just write off. (So of course Jeff Sessions responded to the shooting by talking about “gang-infested neighborhoods“. At least Trump hasn’t used this massacre to explain why we need a border wall … yet.) No matter where you live, the kids at Stoneman Douglas can’t be looked at as an “other” whose safety has nothing to do with the safety of your kids.

The NYT argues that the problem really is guns. The number of guns is the main variable that separates the United States from other developed nations where mass shootings are rare.

Numerous people have called for banning the AR-15 from civilian use. The tricky thing here is getting the definition right: The AR-15 is one of a class of military-style weapons, and if it were banned some other assault rifle would replace it. Banning all assault rifles has been done before, but there’s a legitimate complaint that “assault rifle” is not really a class of weapons — it’s more of a surface description that doesn’t really address the heart of the problem. Vox reported:

It’s quite easy to turn a military-style gun into something that Congress wouldn’t consider an “assault weapon” under its various definitions.

The key issue isn’t whether a weapon looks like something the military would use. It’s how many bullets it’s able to spray out in a short time, how long it can be fired without reloading, and how easy it is to reload over and over without providing a time-window for potential victims to rush the shooter. Those are the features to regulate.

I’m hoping that the energy of the Parkland students merges with the energy of the #MeToo movement and gets guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. Domestic abuse is a predictor of public violence. Such a movement would also push the buttons of many right-wingers: “You mean my stupid girl friend can get my guns taken away?”

Thinking about the NRA, I’m reminded of a George Orwell quote: “Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.”

When the tide finally turns on them, it will turn fast. If I were running against an NRA-backed candidate in 2018, I’d focus on the complete resignation implicit in their position: Mass shootings are going to keep happening, and we’re not even going to try to do anything about them.

Liberals can also fall prey to fake news. One pseudo-fact that zoomed around social media (and even got on reputable news shows; I heard Chris Hayes repeat it, and he’s usually pretty careful) is that Parkland was the 18th school shooting already this year.

The WaPo debunks this number. It isn’t totally made up, like Pizzagate and some of the other anti-Clinton or pro-Trump stories that circulated before the election, but it has been spun out of recognition. The figure originated with a gun-control group, Everytown for Gun Safety, which defines a school shooting as “any time a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds.”

So the 18 figure mostly counts events that bear no resemblance to Parkland or to any other event that pops into your mind when you think “school shooting”: a gun that went off accidentally during a college  criminal-justice training, hurting no one; a guy who committed suicide while parked outside a school that had been closed for seven months.

Ultimately, spreading this kind of stuff does more harm than good. When it comes to mass shootings, the truth is shocking enough. In the long run, fake news makes the real news less believable.

Just five of Everytown’s 18 school shootings listed for 2018 happened during school hours and resulted in any physical injury.

“Just five”. Think about that. After you’ve gotten outraged about 18, five shootings merits a “just”.

and the Mueller investigation

Two major developments this week: Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for interfering in the 2016 election, and Rick Gates, who had previously been indicted for numerous crimes with Paul Manafort, has accepted a plea deal, presumably in exchange for testimony.

If you’re looking for a framework to fit these events into, look at James Risen’s “Is Donald Trump a Traitor?“, Part I of which was published by The Intercept on Friday. Risen breaks the investigation into four “tracks”:

  • Did Russia try to help Trump and hurt Clinton?
  • Was anyone from the Trump campaign knowingly working with the Russians?
  • Did Trump obstruct justice by interfering with the investigation?
  • Are Republicans in Congress conspiring to obstruct justice by undermining the investigation?

The indictment of the Russians all but settles the first question. (Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said “the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain”.) It also provides a fascinating window into how Russian influence operations work. For example, the Russians used a variety of techniques (including spending money on Facebook ads) to build up a few fake social-media identities like @March_For_Trump, which could then contact legitimate pro-Trump organizations seeking “help” in organizing rallies. Part of that “help” would be purchasing the necessary supplies, using money the Russian fake organization would wire to them. From the outside, the result would look like the legitimate organizations did everything themselves.

One Russian social-media identity, @Ten_GOP, claimed to represent the Tennessee Republican Party (which complained to Twitter about it, but couldn’t get Twitter to close the account for 11 months). It acquired 136,000 followers, and was frequently quoted by conservative media as a legitimate grass-roots conservative voice.

The indictment notes that Trump campaign officials sometimes cooperated with this Russian operation “unwittingly”, but does not make any conspiracy accusations against them. It also does not clear the Trump campaign, which may have conspired in other parts of the operation, like the hacking and release of Democratic emails.

That Gates plea is bad news for Paul Manafort, and might be bad news for other Trump campaign people. But the biggest threat to Trump is if Manafort himself now has to cop a plea. This is what an anonymous White House source was talking about when he called Mueller’s strategy “a classic Gambino-style roll-up“. If Manafort flips, then we might get a clearer picture of the second track.

As interesting as the Russian indictment is in itself, it has also had a significant effect on the national conversation, which was trending in that direction anyway. For a long time, The Intercept was a haven for left-wingers skeptical of the Russian investigation. Now it’s talking about treason.

More and more people are making that point: The Russian interference operation was a direct attack on America, and our president seems not to care. Worse, he provides public cover for Russia whenever new information comes out. He says there’s “no collusion”, but the collusion seems to be happening right in front of our eyes. Max Boot writes:

The most benign explanation is that he is putting his vanity — he can’t have anything taint his glorious victory — above his obligation to “protect and defend the Constitution.” The more sinister hypothesis is that he has something to hide and, having benefited from Russia’s assistance once, hopes for more aid in 2018 and 2020. Either way, we are at war without a commander in chief.

but I decided to write about Alaska

The politics of Alaska has been changing, turning a very conservative state government into a much more moderate one, with a Democrat as Speaker of the House and voters passing several liberal referenda. How that happened doesn’t follow either the establishment-Democrat or progressive-revolution model, and has something to teach Bernie and Hillary people alike.

and you also might be interested in …

Only during the Trump administration could I almost forget to mention a new sex scandal about the president. The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow tells the story of former Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal, who had a nine-month affair with Trump while he was married to Melania. Just before the 2016 election, her story was suppressed by The National Enquirer’s publisher American Media Inc., which paid McDougal $150K for the exclusive rights to her story and then didn’t publish it. Farrow claims that

Purchasing a story in order to bury it is a practice that many in the tabloid industry call “catch and kill.” … Six former A.M.I. employees told me that [A.M.I.’s CEO David] Pecker routinely makes catch-and-kill arrangements like the one reached with McDougal. “We had stories and we bought them knowing full well they were never going to run,” Jerry George, a former A.M.I. senior editor who worked at the company for more than twenty-five years, told me. George said that Pecker protected Trump. “Pecker really considered him a friend,” George told me. “We never printed a word about Trump without his approval.”

Also of note is a contemporaneous hand-written note that Farrow had obtained and McDougal identified as being in her own handwriting. (Presumably, that much corroboration didn’t violate her agreement with A.M.I.) It says that Trump offered her money after the first time they had sex, and that when McDougal turned it down Trump said, “You are special.”

These details make the most salacious part of the Steele dossier more credible. As Jonathan Chait points out:

So, we know Trump habitually pays for sex, and we also know he is willing to pay to keep embarrassing secrets from going public. That is to say, these secrets could be leveraged against him.

Vanity Fair’s Maya Kosoff makes the same point:

While some of the seedier allegations in Christopher Steele’s Trump-Russia dossier have not been verified, the central thesis of the dossier seems increasingly likely: that Trump’s long history of alleged affairs make him uniquely susceptible to blackmail.

A game I often play with some new Trump scandal is “What if this had happened to Obama?” Imagine if two playmate-type young women had told about their affairs with Obama, and how Obama allies had paid them six-figure sums to stay quiet. Far and away, that would have been the biggest scandal of his entire two terms. But with Trump, it almost gets lost.

A black reporter from Britain’s Channel 4 went out to interview Alt-right leader Richard Spencer. It’s an illuminating exchange, particularly the part where Spencer tells the reporter that he can never be British. “I’m living in the place of my birth,” the reporter says, “just like you.”

The NYT follows up on the four U.S. soldiers who were killed in Niger last October. What were they doing there and what went wrong?

You know who believes that climate change is a big deal? Trump’s Director of National Intelligence. But I suspect there’s a Director of National Stupidity somewhere on Trump’s org chart, and he has more influence.

The smart house of the future has two downsides: First it may not always work properly, with Sorcerer’s Apprentice-type results. And second, it may be smart enough to be disloyal to you. Gizmodo tries an experiment: Its reporter (Kashmir) fills her home with smart gadgets, and then has someone (Surya) monitor her router to see what the house is saying about her. (Basically, Surya says, he had the same information her ISP would have.)

Getting a smart home means that everyone who lives or comes inside it is part of your personal panopticon, something which may not be obvious to them because they don’t expect everyday objects to have spying abilities. One of the gadgets—the Eight Sleep Tracker—seemed aware of this, and as a privacy-protective gesture, required the email address of the person I sleep with to request his permission to show me sleep reports from his side of the bed. But it’s weird to tell a gadget who you are having sex with as a way to protect privacy, especially when that gadget is monitoring the noise levels in your bedroom.

Surya didn’t try to break the encryption on data the devices were reporting, but Hulu didn’t even bother, so he knew not just when Kashmir was watching TV, but what. He also could tell when she got up and went to bed, when her children woke up, and even when she brushed her teeth (with her smart toothbrush).

and let’s close with something I had never imagined

One idea that popped up in the smart-home article I discussed above is the internet-enabled sex toy. At first this sounded like a joke to me, but it turns out such things actually exist — and stay in contact with their manufacturers, who may be collecting all kinds of fascinating information about their customers.

Whether this idea fascinates or horrifies you, you can check it out here.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • L  On February 19, 2018 at 12:25 pm

    Regarding wireless sex toys, one security researcher has already pried into them a little bit, and found that they were relatively easy to find on the street, and could have been controlled by whomever.

    (Link not safe for work)

  • Anonymous  On February 19, 2018 at 1:32 pm

    The 18 school shootings number isn’t “Fake news.” It’s a valid statistic that’s being quoted wrong. That’s sloppy reporting.

    Fake news is stuff that somebody just made up. Like some town in Alabama had more votes cast in the special election for the senate than the total population of the town – except that there isn’t any town in Alabama with that name.

  • MAHA  On February 19, 2018 at 2:09 pm

    Enjoy your trip to the warm state of FL, Doug. I wish I was there : /

    Deborah McP

  • Ryan  On February 19, 2018 at 2:39 pm

    Wow, “illuminating exchange” indeed, I had been under the impression Richard Spencer was more mainstream, but he was very forthright about some brutal and naively ludicrous ideas in that interview

  • Jeff R.  On February 19, 2018 at 7:08 pm

    I thought this was “newsworthy:”
    It appears Ms. Wolkoff, a friend of Melania Trump, benefited quite handsomely from the Inauguration. I wonder how this news would be received under your “what if the Obamas did it” test.

  • Bruce  On February 20, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    Doug, here is some ammo for the assault rifle debate. Use as you will. The AR-15 (the choice for school slaughter) is a US military assault rifle M-16 with the 3 round burst option removed. The class features of assault rifles are: 1) quickly detachable high capacity magazines, typically holding 30 rounds (or more) 2) they fire intermediate power ammo designed to be highly lethal to humans with a single shot out to 300-500 yards (as opposed to full power ammo lethal to 800-1000+ yards). Because they use intermediate power ammo, they have low recoil and are very easy to fire rapidly and accurately. 3) They are semi-auto, as opposed to bolt action. In single fire mode, one pull of the trigger fires one round and auto loads another round. The weapon is ready to fire. 4) With a small amount of practice, say 1 hour at a range, with the civilian AR-15 (technically not an assault rifle) you could easily fire 90 rounds in under 2 minutes. With more practice you could do it in under 1 minute. That’s a lot of dead people when done at close range like a concert or a school. What many people are proposing is that assault rifles and their kissing cousins (ie. assault rifle with the the burst option disabled) be made very difficult or impossible to buy. No one in their right mind is proposing confiscating existing guns from their legal owners.

  • tabbyrenelle  On February 20, 2018 at 12:31 pm

    wow!!! just cut to the chase and admit TRUMP is going to hell already. Daaang you wrote a long ass to and fro.

  • Guest  On February 27, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    Thanks for this enjoyable entry, Doug. In defense of the left-wingers who were skeptical of the Russia angle, including Greenwald himself, at the time there wasn’t much (any?) hard evidence that the Russians were deeply involved in the election. Against that lack of evidence, it seemed just as likely that a lone whistleblower a la Seth Rich rather than Putin-directed hackers got into DNC email servers. At the same time there actually was evidence for the DNC/Clinton staff interfering with the democratic process against Bernie. Taken together, it felt like the conservative democrats were trying to build up a Russia interference case at the expense of any attention to the DNC/Clinton interference in the primaries. Does that make sense?

    Of course, now we know that both Russia and the DNC were involved in anti-democratic activities leading up to 2016. With mounting evidence against Russia, the Intercept has rightly shifted to putting treason allegations on the table as you note. But what’s good for the goose doesn’t appear good for the gander here, as “neo-liberal” democrat types haven’t likewise shifted their “DNC/Clinton did nothing wrong!” stance in the face of evidence to the contrary. It’s even been denied in these very comment sections. Does it seem better to hitch our wagon to the folks who withhold judgement until hard evidence has been produced and who can then change their stance accordingly?

    • weeklysift  On March 1, 2018 at 6:15 am

      I’m still not seeing the case that makes the DNC comparable to the Russians. I read the emails as they came out, and they all looked to me like people who wanted to help Clinton, but felt powerless to do so. I have not seen evidence of any anti-Bernie operation that the DNC actually carried out.

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