Handle With Care

These past few years have given me a new appreciation for the fragility of our freedoms.

Ron DeSantis

Of course I am quoting the statement above ironically. What DeSantis has been doing in Florida these past few years is what’s been giving me a new appreciation for the fragility of our freedoms.

This week’s featured post is “Neglected policy issues I: Life expectancy“.

This week everybody was talking about the debt ceiling

Saturday, President Biden and Speaker McCarthy announced an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, which Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen expects to be breached next Monday.

I haven’t read the bill’s 99-page text, so I’m relying on summaries of what the deal entails. In general, I agree with Josh Marshall:

Something like this set of concessions was more or less baked in the moment Republicans won control of the House.

In other words, Biden seems to have negotiated the kind of deal you would ordinarily expect between a president and speaker from different parties. It doesn’t look like McCarthy exacted any special ransom for threatening global economic catastrophe.

Assuming this agreement can be turned into law without further concessions, this has to be counted as a win for Biden.

BTW, this should be a moment of cognitive dissonance for Fox News watchers who hoped for more out of this deal. “You mean the guy with dementia bamboozled our guy?”

and the prospect of another Trump indictment

Numerous sources say that Special Counsel Jack Smith has wrapped up his investigation of the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, and that an indictment is coming soon, i.e. sometime in June. A major reason to think so is that the grand jury hasn’t met since May 5, suggesting that Smith has all the testimony he needs and is writing an indictment.

If that’s true, it suggests that the Mar-a-Lago indictment will be separate from the January 6 indictment, if such an indictment is coming at all.

A major scoop from the WaPo indicates that the case for obstruction is very strong. Their report has Trump’s people moving boxes of documents the day before his lawyers (falsely) told a DoJ prosecutor and the FBI that the 35 documents they were turning over (in response to a subpoena) constituted the entire stash. It looks like Trump kept secrets from his lawyers so that they could make false statements to the government without intentionally lying.

Additionally, WaPo says Trump kept classified documents in his office and sometimes showed them to visitors.

The most explosive and most speculative line of investigation concerns Trump’s business relationships with foreign countries, including a lucrative contract from the new Saudi golf tour (LIV) to play tournaments at Trump’s courses (including one this weekend). Did the Saudis pay him to get, say, information on Iran’s missile programs? That would be espionage.

But as I keep saying, it’s a mistake to invest too much energy in speculation. If an indictment really is coming soon, we’ll be able to read it and see what’s in it for ourselves.

The conventional wisdom says that an indictment won’t matter politically, because nothing matters to Trump’s supporters. Reporters are constantly talking to various Trump voters, who keep telling them that another indictment or two won’t change their mind about him.

But I wonder if that’s true. Right now, a Mar-a-Lago or Georgia or January 6 indictment is just an idea. But when those indictments drop, they will tell stories. And stories are more powerful than mere ideas. Right now, his cultists can say, “I don’t care if Trump had some classified documents. Biden and Pence had them too. So what?” But it would be much more difficult to say, “I don’t care if Trump showed classified documents to the Saudis in exchange for golf money” (if that’s what the indictment says).

If the cult does start to turn, it won’t happen via former supporters speaking out against him. Instead, they will just go silent. People you would expect to defend him will instead change the subject.

Another indication an indictment might be coming is that Trump’s lawyers sent a letter to Attorney General Garland requesting a meeting. I don’t put much stock in this sign, because the letter clearly wasn’t serious. It was written for public distribution and not to persuade Garland to do anything.

No president of the United States has ever, in the history of our country, been baselessly investigated in such outrageous and unlawful fashion.

That’s political rhetoric more likely to anger Garland than to make him sympathize. What’s the point of meeting with Trump’s lawyers to hear more nonsense like that?

The Oath Keepers convicted in November of seditious conspiracy related to January 6 were sentenced this week. Leader Stewart Rhodes got 18 years. Other conspirators got lesser sentences that were still substantial.

Again, the significance of the three seditious conspiracy trials (all resulting in convictions) is that juries have been convinced that January 6 was not just a mob that got out of control. Somebody intended the mob to do what it did. One of those somebodies was Stewart Rhodes, but it’s very unlikely he was at the top of the chain.

and Ron DeSantis’ glitchy campaign launch

After a technical delay of around 20 minutes, Ron DeSantis officially announced his candidacy during a live Twitter interview with Elon Musk. DeSantis supporters made a big deal about the 300K viewers, which nearly crashed Twitter’s diminished infrastructure. But 3 million watched Trump’s CNN town hall a few weeks ago, and 400K watched AOC play a video game over Twitch in 2020.

DeSantis said a lot of false and/or misleading stuff. For example, when challenged on Florida schools removing books from their classrooms and libraries because of his Don’t Say Gay and STOP Woke Acts, he deflected onto the left, saying that liberals were banning To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, DeSantis is doing a much worse version of what he accuses the media of doing: calling something a ban that is really a much less serious restriction.

I can’t say whether this is a complete view of the topic, but if you google “ban on To Kill a Mockingbird” and look for liberal examples, what comes up is a Washington school district deciding to stop requiring the book for ninth graders, which makes perfect sense. If you assume a required-reading list has a limited number of spaces for novels about the Jim Crow era, it makes sense to shift to one by a Black author with a Black central character. But TKaMB remains available in school libraries and can be assigned by teachers who make that choice.

Just a coincidence, I’m sure:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) signed a bill regarding spaceflight on Thursday just one day after he announced his presidential run in a glitch-filled interview with Elon Musk on Twitter Spaces. … Florida is a known launching point for [Musk-owned] SpaceX aircrafts, and the new law could potentially shield Musk and other space flight companies from being sued for accidents that injure or kill crew members. …

Last month, SpaceX’s privately owned spaceport in South Texas launched the most powerful rocket ever built before the spacecraft exploded over the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion reportedly hurled chunks of concrete and metal thousands of feet away into sensitive habitat, and sparked a 3.5-acre fire on state park lands near the launch site.

Or maybe, coupled with his war against Disney, it tells us about DeSantis’ theory of government: Use government power to reward your friends and punish your enemies. If Musk turns against DeSantis, this favor from the State of Florida could be revoked, the way DeSantis has tried to revoke Disney’s special taxing district.

Along the same lines: NBC reports that Florida state employees are soliciting DeSantis campaign contributions from lobbyists.

NBC News spoke with 10 Republican lobbyists in Florida, all of whom said they couldn’t remember being solicited for donations so overtly by administration officials — especially at a time when the governor still has to act on the state budget.

That process that involves DeSantis using his line-item veto pen to slash funding for projects that the same lobbyists whom they are asking for political cash have a professional stake in. Most of the lobbyists said they felt pressure to give to the governor’s campaign.

“What the f— am I supposed to do?” one lobbyist said. “I have a lot of business in front of the DeSantis administration.”

and Ken Paxton’s impeachment

Apparently there are limits, even for MAGA politicians. Saturday the Texas House impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton “on articles including bribery and abuse of public trust”. Trump and Ted Cruz support him, but the vote was 121-23.

Paxton will be suspended from office while the Texas Senate hears his case.

and you also might be interested in …

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a run-off election yesterday, netting himself a third term in office. In the run-up to the election, there was some hope that an Erdogan defeat might mark a global turning away from autocratic rulers. But it was not to be.

President Biden announced a national strategy for combating antisemitism. Rep. Lauren Boebert complained that Biden will “go after conservatives”.

Conservatives get closer and closer to just admitting that they’re bad guys. A few weeks ago, Senator Tommy Tuberville took offense at Biden wanting to get White nationalists out of the military. “They call them [White nationalists]. I call them Americans.” In a later interview he dug in deeper. “I look at a white nationalist as a Trump Republican. That’s what we’re called all the time. A MAGA Person.”

If he thinks that characterization is unjust, i.e., if sees any difference between a Trump Republican and an actual White nationalist, Tuberville didn’t explain what it was.

Of course, sometimes liberals also own the negative labels people throw at them. The Satanic Temple is running the Samuel Alito’s Mom’s Satanic Abortion Clinic out of New Mexico, providing telehealth abortion services nationwide, particularly to states where abortion is illegal. As the Temple says:

The Satanic Temple, on behalf of its members, objects to government interference with abortion access and contests that laws that impede our faith in bodily autonomy and our ability to perform our Religious Abortion Ritual violate the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

TST Health’s first telehealth clinic will provide medication for safe abortions through the mail for members and for those who wish to perform TST’s Abortion Ritual. The goal of this first clinic is to allow our members to have access to safe and legal abortions, no matter where they live or what their financial situation may be.

One of the manifest hypocrisies of conservative legal activism is pushing a notion of “religious freedom” that really only applies to Christians, and in practice grants them special rights. TST is the most out-there group pushing for equality of religious freedom: If Christians have all these rights, explain to us why Satanists don’t.

Target has removed some Pride-month merchandise from its stores and moved other items to less prominent locations in response to objections and threats from conservatives

As Target explained in a statement, some customers had knocked down Pride displays at stores while others outraged by Pride-themed merchandise angrily approached workers as well as posted threatening videos on social media. Target has been celebrating Pride month for a decade, but as the company noted, “Since introducing this year’s collection, we’ve experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and wellbeing while at work.”

Targets in several states subsequently received bomb threats appearing to come from Pride supporters angry about the pullback, but these appear to be hoaxes that originated overseas.

What’s not a hoax is the violence-themed rhetoric right-wing pundits have been directing at Target. 2024 presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy said that Target had “put a target on its back”. Charlie Kirk said “the only thing they understand is force. Pain is a teacher”. No doubt if they were challenged, each would deny promoting literal violence, but they have to know that some portion of their audience will take it that way.

If you’re wondering what’s supposed to be so terrible about Target’s pride display, the Heritage Foundation produced this video tour of Target’s Pride section to outrage you. Strangely, though, I’m not outraged — at least not at Target.

Heritage’s claim is that Target is pushing LGBTQ messages at young consumers, who presumably go in as blank slates without any opinions or intentions or identities of their own. It’s a weird point of view for a group that ordinarily is so pro-capitalist. Obviously, Target puts stuff out there because the corporation expects to sell it, and not because Target has some sinister agenda about “grooming” children to be gay or trans.

If you think the products have some negative effect on society — I don’t in this case — well, that’s capitalism, isn’t it? Exxon sells fossil fuels and Colt sells AR-15s. Those products have negative effects on society, but I suspect the corporations sell them to make money rather than because of some pact with Satan.

Case in point: a teen-sized sweatshirt that says “Not a Phase”. The narrator interprets this as Target “grooming” kids into believing they won’t grow out of their “gender confusion”. This woman clearly has no memory of being a teen-ager and (whatever you happened to be into) being fed up with condescending adults. The shirt expresses a timeless teen attitude, and I see why Target expects to sell a lot of them.

Back when Parkland-massacre-survivor David Hogg was starting his gun-control activism, Fox News host Laura Ingraham mocked him for being rejected by four colleges, because she’s classy that way. This week he graduated from Harvard.

Hey @IngrahamAngle you can send my graduation present to: http://Marchforourlives.com/donate

The Supreme Court took power away from the EPA this week by reading the Clean Water Act narrowly. The immediate result is that some wetlands will lose protection, but the precedent may have larger implications. The case deserves more attention than I’ve been able to give it.

Tina Turner died Wednesday at the age of 83.

and let’s close with something natural

The Nature Conservancy has an annual photo contest. This is one of the winners in the “Plants and Fungi” category. These are Dragon Blood Trees. The story behind the tree’s name isn’t all I was hoping for: apparently it has red sap.

Neglected political issues I: Life expectancy

A number of decades ago, I attended an Arlo Guthrie concert. A presidential primary campaign cycle was heating up — probably 1980, but I’m not sure. Guthrie, in his wise-fool persona, claimed to be anxious about the state of the nation because “All these people on TV, they’re telling me we need leadership and we’re just not getting it.” Then he described how on some recent evening, just before going to bed, he had brushed his teeth and then looked in the mirror and asked himself: “Arlo, did you need leadership today?”

That line was funny — and continues to be funny years later — because it captures the disconnect between political rhetoric and our actual lives. Guthrie’s joke is on us, and how easily manipulated we are. In the heat of a campaign, it’s easy to become either excited or enraged over some “issue” that (when you boil it down) really has no effect on either yourself or anyone you know or care about, and may be little more than a phrase or an image.

And so, during his campaign launch Wednesday, Ron DeSantis talked about the “the woke mind virus”, “woke ideology”, and “critical race theory”. The Republican he hopes to catch up to, Donald Trump, spends most of his speeches talking about his persecution by the Deep State. He offers to replace President Biden’s “weakness” with his own “strength”. Kevin McCarthy and Republicans in Congress have been focused on America’s “spending problem”, an issue whose lack of substance I examined a few weeks ago.

Any of those “issues” might take the place of Guthrie’s “leadership”. I can imagine myself staring into my own bathroom mirror and asking, “Doug, did you need protection from the woke mind virus today?”

Meanwhile, President Biden has been spending his time trying to avoid crashing into the debt ceiling, a looming disaster that is real enough, but is also entirely manufactured. Rather than solve our problems, politicians have created a new one to wrestle with.

Isn’t it wonderful that the external world isn’t presenting any challenges that require our collective action?

Well, except for climate change. Biden seems to know about that problem, but it was all he could do this week to avoid rolling back the anti-climate-change parts of the Inflation Reduction Act. Despite governing a state that will soon start vanishing under rising oceans, DeSantis seemed oblivious, saying “I’ve always rejected the politicization of the weather.” Trump still occasionally refers to climate change as a hoax.

Biden and other Democrats occasionally talk about gun violence, domestic terrorism, and the threats to American democracy. But there is little pending legislation of any consequence on any of those issues, other than efforts at the state level to roll back gun restrictions, increase gerrymandering, and take control of its elections away from one of our largest cities.

And then there are the problems that neither party is talking about. In the coming months I plan to call attention to a few, starting with: declining life expectancy in the United States. It would be bad enough if our political system were simply oblivious to the problem. But in fact political action is causing a lot of it.

Talk about a matter of life and death.

Declining life expectancy. In the United States, like most of the world, life expectancy had gone up and up for centuries, until the last few years. Here’s a graph of US life expectancy from 1860 to 2020.

Except for brief glitches during the Civil War and the World War I/Spanish flu era, life expectancy at birth goes inexorably upward, almost exactly doubling from 39.41 in 1860 to 78.94 in 2015. Not even World War II could bring it down (probably because the health advantages of ending the Depression overcame the casualties of war). Until recently, Americans had come to think of increasing lifespans as an inevitable dividend of scientific progress. Of course our generation would live longer than our parents’ generation, and our children would live longer yet.

Different sources produce slightly different numbers, but just about everybody sees a leveling-off in the mid-2010s, followed by a sharp drop in the last few years to levels not seen since 1996. Nearly three decades of progress have vanished.

Now, there’s an obvious reason for this: the Covid pandemic, which has killed 1.1 million Americans since it started in 2020 (and is not done, even if we’ve stopped paying attention to it). Largely because of mismanagement by the Trump administration and misinformation from the larger MAGA movement (which encouraged lax attitudes, snake-oil cures, and vaccine resistance), we took a bigger hit than most comparable countries. The US has had 3,480 Covid deaths per million people, while Canada has had 1,364, Norway 986, and Australia 801. Even some of the countries hit earlier and harder than the US have fared better in the long run: Italy has had 3,159 deaths per million and Spain 2,595. One likely reason: 86% of Spaniards and 81% of Italians have been vaccinated, compared to 69% of Americans.

But OK then: If Covid is the problem, it should go away as Covid recedes. And that’s happening in the rest of the world. But not here.

The headline from this graph is that life expectancy in comparable countries bounced back in 2021, almost regaining its 2019 level, while life expectancy in the US dropped further. But there’s also a long-term story here: In 1980, US life expectancy was lower than the comparable-country average by less than a year. By 2021, though, the gap had grown to more than six years. Even pre-Covid, there was a 3.8 year gap.

Where did that come from?

Bad habits or bad government? The simple explanations for our long-term life expectancy gap focus on our bad habits: We’re too fat, we’re out of shape, we take drugs, and we kill ourselves and each other at a high rate. It’s easy to tell the life-expectancy story as a crisis of individual moral gumption: If Americans would just eat better, get off the couch, get clean from drug abuse, and deal with our depression and anger problems, we’d live longer.

And all that is true as far as it goes. But if you look at those “moral” problems, each one has a political component.

Guns. Most obviously, our high suicide and murder rates are related to our gun policies. People get depressed and angry in other countries too. But depressed or angry Americans are more likely to have ready access to guns. In 2020, researchers at Stanford published a study on the relationship between guns and suicides:

The researchers found that people who owned handguns had rates of suicide that were nearly four times higher than people living in the same neighborhood who did not own handguns. The elevated risk was driven by higher rates of suicide by firearm. Handgun owners did not have higher rates of suicide by other methods or higher rates of death generally.

The researchers themselves wrote:

Suicide attempts are often impulsive acts, driven by transient life crises. Most attempts are not fatal, and most people who attempt suicide do not go on to die in a future suicide. Whether a suicide attempt is fatal depends heavily on the lethality of the method used — and firearms are extremely lethal. These facts focus attention on firearm access as a risk factor for suicide especially in the United States, which has a higher prevalence of civilian-owned firearms than any other country and one of the highest rates of suicide by firearm.

In general, gun deaths are higher in states with more guns.

Food policy. Obesity is a major factor in Americans’ poor health, and is the one most likely to be seen as a moral issue. (“Just stop stuffing your face, fatso.”) But while we can all imagine ways that we could improve our discipline regarding diet and exercise, it’s also true that it’s hard to live a healthy lifestyle in the United States.

Nationally, our food policy tilts towards putting high-fructose corn syrup in just about everything. Our giant factory farms make meat and dairy cheaper here than in many other countries, but also less healthy. Particularly in our poorer neighborhoods, fast food is easier to find than fresh vegetables. The food industry spends billions every year trying to persuade us to eat fat- and sugar-laden foods.

Compared to cities in other countries, American cities encourage travel by car and discourage walking.

In short, there are reasons we’re fat. And not all of them are lack of willpower.

The place this really becomes clear is when you look at children. Even if you think obese adults lack willpower, do you really hold children responsible for their food-and-exercise choices?

Healthcare. Some politicians like to claim that American healthcare is “the best in the world”. And that may be true if you’re rich or have excellent health insurance, live near a top medical center, and need the kind of major medical interventions American medicine specializes in.

But overall, our public health is terrible compared to other rich countries, all of whom spend less per capita on healthcare than we do. For example,

Among 11 developed countries, the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate, a relative undersupply of maternity care providers, and is the only country not to guarantee access to provider home visits or paid parental leave in the postpartum period, a recent report from The Commonwealth Fund concluded. Compared with any other wealthy nation, the United States also spends the highest percentage of its gross domestic product on health care.

Maternal deaths have been increasing in the United States since 2000, and although 700 pregnancy-related deaths occur each year, two-thirds of these deaths are considered to be preventable.

The statistical term for preventable deaths is “amenable mortality”. In 2019 — pre-Covid, in other words — amenable mortality in the US was responsible for 177 deaths for every 100K people, compared to a 38-country average of 126. Japan and Switzerland had 83, and Canada 116.

The difference is our reliance on the private sector. In the US health-insurance business, the way to make money is to insure only healthy people. Much of the administrative effort in our health-insurance companies is devoted to shifting costs onto someone else, rather than improving health overall.

And of course, the private health-insurance industry has no interest in the poor at all. If poor and lower-working-class Americans aren’t on Medicaid, they’re probably uninsured. Uninsured people fear our expensive healthcare system, and are likely to hope problems go away on their own rather than get them checked out. Those decisions end up killing a lot of people.

One conservative policy designed to limit healthcare spending is to give people more “skin in the game“. In other words, to increase copayments so that people (especially the poor) have more incentive to ignore problems and hope they go away on their own.

Red states and blue states. The policies I’ve been talking about — limiting gun access, subsidizing healthy food choices (or penalizing unhealthy ones), promoting public health, lowering medical copayments, pushing for walkable cities, and making it easier to get health insurance — are classic liberal policies that conservatives ridicule as examples of the “nanny state”. Blue states are more likely to take these actions than red states.

And guess what? Blue states have higher life expectancy than red states. Paul Krugman tweeted the following chart comparing Biden’s margin over Trump in 2020 to each state’s change in life expectancy over the previous 30 years:

He comments:

Life expectancy is hugely unequal across U.S. regions, with major coastal cities not looking much worse than Europe but the South and the eastern heartland doing far worse.

But wasn’t it always thus? No. Geographic health disparities have surged in recent decades. According to the U.S. mortality database, as recently as 1990, Ohio had slightly higher life expectancy than New York. Since then, New York’s life expectancy has risen rapidly, nearly converging with that of other rich countries, while Ohio’s has hardly risen at all and is now four years less than New York’s.

Summing up. Life expectancy ought to be a major political issue. Americans aren’t living as long as citizens of other rich countries, but that isn’t due to some unforeseeable act of God. We’re doing it to ourselves through our political choices.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I got a late start this morning, so everything is likely to show up later in the day than usual.

The big news this week is the debt-ceiling deal, but it’s still too soon to say whether Congress will pass it without major changes, or at all. The weekly summary will discuss what we know and the deal’s prospects.

There’s also another Trump indictment looming. The special counsel’s investigation of the Mar-a-Lago classified documents seems to be winding up, and the possible charges are looking more serious than originally expected. Meanwhile, the leader of the Oath Keepers got sentenced to 18 years in prison for the seditious conspiracy he participated in on January 6. The open question is whether Jack Smith can trace that conspiracy all the way up to Trump.

Ron DeSantis is officially a presidential candidate now. He announced his candidacy on Twitter in an interview with Elon Musk. It’s a curious choice and the event was embarrassingly glitchy. Those two seem to me to deserve each other.

Ken Paxton got impeached. Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan got re-elected. Tina Turner died, and a bunch of other things happened that I’ll cover in the weekly summary. I hope to get that out by 1 EDT.

But the featured post isn’t about any of that. One of the head-shaking facets of our political system — which the DeSantis announcement and the debt-ceiling deal bring into focus — is that many of our most serious problems, the ones that have the biggest impact on Americans’ lives, aren’t being discussed at all.

This week’s featured post is the first of what I hope will be a series on these neglected issues. It will focus on the decline in Americans’ life expectancy over the last few years, and the decades-long trend of American life expectancy falling behind that of comparable countries. We often tell this story in terms of individual moral failure — bad diet, lack of exercise, etc. — but each of the major factors is rooted in political decisions that could be reversed, if we had the political will to do so.

I’ll try to get that out by 10.

Free to Dominate, Free to Control

Roosevelt’s four freedoms were the building blocks of a humane society — a social democratic aspiration for egalitarians then and now. These Republican freedoms are also building blocks not of a humane society but of a rigid and hierarchical one, in which you can either dominate or be dominated.

– Jamelle Bouie, “The Four Freedoms, according to Republicans

This week’s featured posts are “Summing Up at the End of the Trump/Russia Investigations” and “How I Evaluate Sources“.

But if you only read one essay this week, it should be the Jamelle Bouie column quoted above. He looks at the agenda that is passing in red-state legislatures and synthesizes four Republican “freedoms”:

  • Freedom to control, manifested in state control of women’s uteruses,
  • Freedom to exploit, represented by the rollback of child labor laws,
  • Freedom to censor, exemplified by book banning and preventing schools and universities from teaching about systemic racism and other forms of oppression,
  • Freedom to menace, demonstrated by laws allowing guns to be carried anywhere, openly or under concealment, and used whenever the bearer feels threatened.

More about this below.

This week everybody was talking about the debt ceiling

It’s hard to know what to say. In some sense, it’s the most important thing happening. But whatever negotiations are or aren’t happening between President Biden and Speaker McCarthy are behind closed doors, so we don’t really know anything.

It’s also hard to guess what the negotiating positions would mean, even if we knew them. Democrats are worrying that Biden will give away the store and get nothing back other than a promise not to blow up the world economy until next spring.

Americans of either party should worry about whether McCarthy can make a deal at all. Maybe anything he agrees to will be framed by Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz as a RINO sell-out, and lead to McCarthy losing his speakership rather than to a deal.

And finally, does Biden have a Plan B? Could he circumvent the debt ceiling via the 14th Amendment? Or by citing the contradiction between the debt-ceiling and that appropriation bills Congress has passed? Or by minting a platinum coin or selling consol bonds?

There are reasons to worry that this partisan Supreme Court will nix those options, independent of what the laws actually say. (Though I don’t see any grounds for objecting to consol bonds or less radical high-interest bonds that would sell above par.)

But all the Plan Bs sound gimmicky, and like an expansion of executive power. Biden will be in better political shape to invoke one if he can argue that he has been driven to his last resort; he did in fact did offer deep concessions that Republicans did not accept, and came to the conclusion that no deal with McCarthy was possible.

So if Biden offers concessions, is he giving away the store or setting up a deft counter-move? There’s no way to know.

and the red states’ continued decline into oppression and authoritarianism

Thursday morning, The New York Times greeted me with these headlines:

Just another day in red America. Remember when the GOP was supposed to be about Freedom? Each of those three bills is Big Government telling people how to live their lives.

Other headlines I saw this week:

  • School librarians face a new penalty in the banned-book wars: Prison. “One example is an Arkansas measure that says school and public librarians, as well as teachers, can be imprisoned for up to six years or fined $10,000 if they distribute obscene or harmful texts. It takes effect Aug. 1.” The terms obscene and harmful are, of course, undefined. So a prudent librarian will steer clear of any book that any judge might object to — or if the librarian wants to avoid a court case altogether, avoiding any book that any parent might object to.
  • School Can Force Trans Girl to Dress as Boy for Graduation, Judge Rules. “A federal judge ruled late Friday evening that the Harrison County [Mississippi] School District can prohibit a 17-year-old transgender girl from attending her graduation Saturday unless she dresses in attire designated for boys” Tim Miller‘s summary: “The government preventing parents from seeing their child graduate unless they wear state mandated pants.”
  • The Short Life of Baby Milo. Deborah Dorbert knew for three months that the fetus she was carrying had no chance to live, because it lacked essential organs. But Florida’s abortion ban forced her to complete the doomed pregnancy. Her son was born and lived 99 minutes.
  • The staggering fine print of Texas and Florida’s new anti-trans bills. “Chriss laid out a scenario in which [the new Florida law] would apply: A family is living in California, which doesn’t have a ban on gender-affirming care. A parent contesting custody of their child could take them on vacation to Disney World in Orlando, go to the nearby Orange County courthouse, and ask the judge to take emergency jurisdiction over the custody case because the other parent is planning to help the child get puberty blockers.”

The outrageous attacks on personal freedom and parental rights are coming so fast that I’m sure I missed a few.

but here’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you

Namely, how I assess unfamiliar sources.

and you also might be interested in …

Wednesday, House Republicans refused to vote on a motion to remove George Santos from Congress.

Dahlia Lithwick asks an important question: What if reporters covered the Supreme Court the way they cover every other branch of government?

Her point, in short, is that reporters on the Supreme Court beat act as if they are covering the Law itself, not a public institution made up of nine immensely powerful human beings.

[T]he longstanding tradition of covering the cases rather than the Justices meant that, with few exceptions, there have not been a lot of folks in the SCOTUS press corps on the Clarence/Ginni Thomas beat; almost nobody on the Dobbs leak beat; and, aside from routinely reporting the fact of plummeting polling numbers, few court insiders on the “legitimacy beat.” With the notable exception of Politico’s Josh Gerstein, who co-reported the Dobbs leak last year, virtually all of the scoops about Clarence Thomas’ ethical breaches, Leonard Leo’s golden spigot, the rich donor to Supreme Court Historical Society pipeline, Ginni Thomas’ election disruption efforts and the catastrophic leak investigation all came from enterprising investigative reporters, political reporters and “outsiders” at Politico, Pro Publica, and the New York Times.

… But it’s not just that we mostly settle for covering the cases. We further let the cases set the agenda for what we consider “justice.” If the nine Justices decide to revisit affirmative action, and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and federal preemption around labor disputes, we’ll then devote a year to debating both sides of these legal issues—regardless of the fact that they were supposed to be long settled. As long as the court thought it was a good time to breathe life into the Major Questions Doctrine or the Independent State Legislature Theory, we have considered the questions of that theory seriously, despite its manifest unseriousness. And once the Supreme Court started to invent its own facts—as it did in the Coach Kennedy case last term, the affirmative action cases this term, and of course 303 Creative, the refusal of service to same sex couples case, also this term—it began to matter urgently that the press would still routinely be covering “cases” as usual, even though these cases included wholly imaginary “facts”—or, as in 303 Creative, no facts at all. Repeating manufactured narratives with which the court will eventually manufacture legal doctrine serves the Court’s interest. The problem is that it does not serve the interests of the public, and that’s who journalists are supposed to be writing for.

The headline from Noelle Dunphy’s $10 million lawsuit against Rudy Giuliani was her accusation that he boasted about selling pardons for $2 million each.

[Giuliani] also asked Ms. Dunphy if she knew anyone in need of a pardon, telling her that he was selling pardons for $2 million, which he and President Trump would split. He told Ms. Dunphy that she could refer individuals seeking pardons to him, so long as they did not go through “the normal channels” of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, because correspondence going to that office would be subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

But when you read the 70-page complaint, that is far from the worst of it. (Even if she can support that claim, he could counter that he was just talking big to impress her.) The complaint makes sickening reading. It paints Dunphy as a vulnerable woman coming out of an abusive relationship. Giuliani lures her by promising a huge salary ($1 million per year) and that he will represent her against her abuser. He then starts his own abusive sexual relationship with her, comes up with excuses to “defer” the vast majority of her pay, strings her along without a formal employment agreement for two years, and then fires her without paying the salary or fulfilling any of his other promises.

She claims to have recorded many of their conversations (including one where he gives her permission to record their conversations), and that (because her job including managing his email) she has his email files, including emails from long before her employment.

And if you’re wondering how Giuliani’s judgment could be that bad, Dunphy has a ready explanation: He was drunk almost the entire time he employed her.

If any of that is true, Giuliani should just find the $10 million and not let this go to court.

Giuliani faces another lawsuit, a defamation suit filed by two Georgia poll workers whom Giuliani baselessly accused of election fraud. Friday, the judge ordered Giuliani to provide a detailed accounting of his net worth, which is never a good sign.

My Pillow founder Mike Lindell isn’t just delusional about the 2020 election, he also doesn’t pay his bets. (I looked for a word that packs the same punch as “welsher” without demeaning any ethnic group, but I didn’t find one.) In 2021, Lindell was claiming he had computer data proving that the Chinese had interfered in the 2020 election, and he seemed to back up his claim by offering a $5 million Prove-Mike-Wrong challenge. But now that he has lost that challenge, he won’t pay up.

Cyber-detective Robert Zeidman quickly did prove Mike wrong.

Coming to this conclusion this apparently wasn’t all that hard. Some of the data, Zeidman recently told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, looked like someone had simply typed random numbers; another data set had been created just days before the contest, not before the 2020 election, which was pretty obvious given that creation dates on the files had not been altered.

Lindell is not a computer expert himself, so one likely explanation is that he was conned by fraudsters who sold him the “proof” he wanted to believe existed. Marks often get emotionally invested in the con they’ve fallen for, and typically are the last people to grasp what has happened. Successful businessmen like Lindell can be perfect targets for conmen, because they really, really don’t want to believe they are suckers.

The rules of his contest stipulated binding arbitration on claims, and the arbitration panel selected by a Lindell company ruled in Zeidman’s favor in April. But Lindell is still refusing to pay, so this week Zeidman took his case to federal court.

Zeidman may have to get in line to collect, though, because Lindell is also being sued by Dominion Voting Systems for his lies about their role in the 2020 election. One reason Fox News had to settle with Dominion for $787 million was that Tucker Carlson gave Lindell an uncritical platform to spew his baseless allegations.

David Roberts links to AP’s “2024 Republican hopefuls rush to defend Marine who put NYC subway rider in fatal chokehold” and then comments:

I wonder how much evidence will have to accumulate before “objective” reporters are allowed to take note of the *pattern* of rapidly rising support for vigilante violence on the right. And then they could go a step further and connect the rising support for vigilante violence with the relentless push to get more guns into circulation. And then they could go eve[n] further and connect the support for vigilante violence & the push for more guns with the declining demographics that make winning via democratic means increasingly difficult.

The Washington Post asked people attending a gun show why they wanted guns. Nearly all the answers contained the word protection.

[O]ver and over, people told me they needed their guns to keep themselves safe. Safe from what? Most couldn’t answer; they simply had a feeling that the world had become a more dangerous place. … Republican leaders, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, have resisted calls for increased gun regulation after shooting deaths, arguing that the root problem is mental illness. But the paranoia that fuels gun-buying has come to seem like a mental health issue in its own right.

The New Yorker visits the Gathering of Thought Criminals, a New York salon for those who “simply feel persecuted for holding unpopular opinions”. Apparently, if you profess ideas that most people deem objectionable, and they dare to object, then you’ve been “cancelled” and are entitled to sympathy.

Meanwhile, Florida parents who want their child to receive gender-affirming care can now have that child taken away. Is there a salon for them somewhere?

Jim Brown died Thursday night at the age of 87. He was arguably the greatest running back in NFL history. In 2010, NFL Network ranked him #2 on a list of the greatest NFL players ever, behind only Jerry Rice. (At that time, Tom Brady had only three of his seven Super Bowl wins, and was ranked #21.)

Brown also had social significance as a key member of the second generation of Black athletes in the national spotlight. The first generation, led by Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, had mostly kept their heads down, avoided making waves, and let their performance do the talking. The second generation, led by Brown, Bill Russell, and (a few years later) Muhammad Ali, could be more outspoken, and were frequently portrayed in the media as troublemakers.

Today, the NFL is a quarterback’s league and runners only rarely make headlines. But in Brown’s era, the NFL was a runner’s league, and he was the best anyone had ever seen. Here are some highlights. (Copyright issues aren’t letting me embed the video.)

and let’s close with something from down under

Normally, I pick a closing to be amusing and not at all political. This one does involve a political issue, but I’m hoping it’s amusing enough to get by. Australia, the video claims, has all kinds of deadly dangers. But at least it doesn’t have AR-15s.

How I evaluate sources

I want to keep challenging my biases by reading posts I disagree with.
But I also don’t want to waste my time on nonsense or propaganda.

This week, one of my social-media friends posted a link from a blog I’d never heard of. This particular article claimed Russia is winning its war against Ukraine, and criticized a Western leader for claiming that Russia would lose a war against all of NATO. These observations seemed unlikely to me, but I try not to write blogs off just because I disagree with them. (That’s a good way to trap yourself in an ideological silo.) So I asked myself: What is this blog? Is it a reliable source?

These questions come up all the time, and by now I have a fairly standard technique for answering them. After I finished my assessment — I eventually decided it wasn’t a reliable source — I realized I’d never described the technique to Sift readers. Arguably, the technique is more valuable than the conclusions I draw with it.

The first step is obvious: Read the article in question. If, in addition to the parts I initially disagreed with, it references long-debunked claims and conspiracy theories without acknowledging the arguments that have been made against them, I feel comfortable trashing the article without wasting any more of my time. For example, if you say that voting machines stole the 2020 election from Trump, you need to explain all the states where hand recounts came to the same totals, within the usual error bands of recounts. If you have a believable explanation of that — I can’t imagine what it could be right now, but never mind — I might pay attention.

But suppose the article isn’t that obviously bad. This particular one wasn’t: Its assessment of the Ukraine War was attributed to Polish generals I didn’t recognize. So maybe the author is plugged in to sources I don’t know about, and maybe those sources know something.

So the next step is to look at the front page of the blog or news source. A Japanese proverb says: “When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.” The other articles the source is promoting are the “friends” of the article I’m evaluating. If a bunch of them are obviously nonsense, it’s not a big leap to assume the article I’m assessing is nonsense too.

The day I was looking at it, this blog was still just barely making the cut. (Today it might not. It’s full of glowing assessments of the Durham report, buying into the idea that the whole Trump/Russia thing was a hoax. More about that topic in today’s other featured post.) It had a bunch of other articles about Ukraine being in trouble, which could be legit if the article I was assessing was legit.

The final step is to look back in time. In general, well-constructed propaganda can look pretty good in the moment, but it usually doesn’t age well. The same is true of delusional points of view. In the moment, people can convince themselves of all kinds of things and be pretty persuasive about it.

The Iraq invasion is a good example. Back in 2002-2003, it was far from obvious what a stupid idea this was. Maybe Saddam did have weapons of mass destruction. Maybe the Bush administration really did know things we didn’t. Maybe Iraq was eager for democracy, and even if not, Saddam was such an awful ruler that getting rid of him would create a lot of room for improvement. When Saddam’s army collapsed so quickly, a lot of people wondered why we hadn’t invaded a long time ago. Sure, some contemporary observers saw the folly from the beginning, but a lot didn’t, and not all of them were stupid or crazy.

With twenty years of hindsight, though, hardly anybody defends the invasion any more. Time tends to clear the fog that blinds us to contemporary events.

A simpler and more recent example: A lot of pundits predicted last year (after the Dobbs decision) that voters would forget about abortion by the time the fall elections rolled around. At the time, that claim was hard to assess, but now we can clearly see that it was wrong.

So anyway, if today’s front page is hard to assess, look back six months or a year. That might be easier.

But when you do that, be careful. Because simply finding something the source got wrong isn’t discrediting in itself. We all get stuff wrong, so you will find an excuse to write the source off, if that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re trying to make an honest assessment, though, the process is a little more complicated. Finding a mistake is just the first step.

The point isn’t just to find things the source got wrong, but to see how they responded as events went some other way. What I hope to find is a reaction like Paul Krugman’s: In 2021, Krugman was wrong about the risks of inflation, and then he was slow to recognize how big a problem inflation was becoming. (If you’re looking for an excuse to write Paul off, there it is.) But that mistake bothered him as much as it bothered anyone else. He has written several columns since trying to figure out what led him astray.

In early 2021 there was an intense debate among economists about the likely consequences of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion package enacted by a new Democratic president and a (barely) Democratic Congress. Some warned that the package would be dangerously inflationary; others were fairly relaxed. I was Team Relaxed. As it turned out, of course, that was a very bad call.

But what, exactly, did I get wrong?

The Ukraine War itself is a good topic to examine, because at the beginning, just about everybody expected Ukraine’s defenses to collapse in a few weeks. A credible military blog might have made that mistake, but then they should have spent the summer reevaluating. It’s possible that by now they might have come back around to the idea that Ukraine will lose (or not). But if they’ve been holding steady on the Ukraine-is-about-to-collapse narrative all year, they’re not credible.

So Krugman is the gold standard, but I’ll give a silver medal to anybody whose mistake made them realize they don’t understand the subject they got wrong, and who subsequently shifted their attention elsewhere. Or maybe they reevaluated and downgraded the sources they got their wrong opinion from.

So, for example, picture a Republican who took Trump’s claims of election fraud seriously at first, but then stopped repeating them when no supporting evidence emerged. They may not ever have acknowledged their mistake in so many words, but they’ve taken steps not to keep doing it, i.e., not just blindly repeating whatever Trump says any more. I’m not going to write that source off forever. On the other hand, if they’re still pushing that stolen-election nonsense today, they’re not worth my time.

So anyway, when I looked back on the past record of the blog in question, I found claims that Trump was framed in both his impeachments, the FBI framed Michael Flynn, the Russians didn’t interfere in the 2016 election, Covid was exaggerated by the Deep State, Dominion voting machines stole the 2020 election from Trump, it was Seth Rich (and not the Russians) who leaked the Clinton campaign emails, Russia has been winning the Ukraine War from the very beginning, and many others.

In short, it was down-the-line pro-Russia pro-Trump stuff, with no acknowledgment that any of those claims hadn’t panned out. So I’m not taking the new claims seriously either.

So that’s the technique: Read the article, then look at the front page, then look back until you find a mistake and see how they handled it.

Summing Up at the End of the Trump/Russia Investigations

The two questions I had at the beginning remain unanswered.

Around the time Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, and Robert Mueller was being appointed special counsel, I formulated the two simple questions I hoped Mueller would answer:

Through all the investigations that followed, including the two-volume Mueller Report, the five-volume report of the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, and the just-released 300-page report of the Durham investigation of the investigators, those two questions remain unanswered: Why all the connections? Why all the lies?

Those questions continue to be the lens through which I view this topic and assess the various reports, which otherwise might drown a reader in disorganized and distracting details.

Obstruction. Mueller and the Senate at least helped us understand why they couldn’t provide answers: Trump obstructed their investigations. Volume 2 of the Mueller report examined ten acts that might be charged as obstruction of justice, and concluded that the predicates for an indictment of Trump existed in seven of them. Mueller’s report is dense and legalistic, but a more readable narration of the obstruction is in Andrew Weissman’s book Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller investigation.

Based on those reports, here’s how I describe what happened: Russia interfered in the 2016 election in two ways, by attempting to influence voters directly via fake posts and fake news articles distributed through social media, and by hacking DNC and Clinton campaign emails, which were given to WikiLeaks to release any time the news cycle was trending in Clinton’s favor (like after Trump’s grab-them-by-the-pussy tape went viral). The social media campaign may have been targeted via internal Trump campaign polling data, which showed the best areas and demographic groups to try to influence.

Both Mueller and the Senate made clear that this Russian interference really happened, and that the Trump campaign knew about it and welcomed it. Neither presented proof that the Trump campaign conspired directly in the crimes the Russians carried out. So no one in the campaign could be charged with planning the DNC hack or directing the Russian social media campaign. But neither report “exonerated” Trump, as he has so often claimed.

The Trump campaign was linked to the two Russian efforts through two men:

Both Manafort and Stone were convicted of crimes not directly related to Russia, and were offered plea deals to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. Stone refused outright, while Manafort appeared to agree, but then lied to investigators. After losing the 2020 election but before leaving office, Trump rewarded both men’s loyalty by pardoning them.

Nothing suspicious about that. Nothing at all.

Distraction. The main thrust of the Durham investigation was that the FBI should not have tried so hard to answer my two questions. Durham pursued every manner of conspiracy theory about the FBI’s alleged bias against Trump, and came up with virtually nothing, beyond some leaked straw that Trump and Fox News could regularly spin into political and ratings gold: For years, Trump’s followers were encouraged and entertained by reports that Durham was blowing the lid off “the crime of the century“, and hints that James Comey, Hillary Clinton, and other high-ranking officials from the Obama administration would go to jail.

In fact, Durham came up with very little. An FBI lawyer pleaded guilty to altering an email to support a request to wiretap a former Trump campaign aide. (Something I wonder: If you did an in-depth investigation of any FBI investigation, would you find similar fudging?) For this crime-of-the-century he was sentenced to probation. Durham took two other cases to trial with little evidence — he charged Steele dossier source Igor Danchenko and Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussman with lying to the FBI — and was rebuffed when unanimous juries quickly found both defendants not guilty.

Despite the not-guilty verdicts, Durham’s report repeats his discredited assertions, excusing his failure to produce compelling evidence by attacking the jurors:

[J]uries can bring strongly held views to the courtroom in criminal trials involving political subject matters, and those views can, in turn, affect the likelihood of obtaining a conviction, separate and apart from the strength of the actual evidence and despite a court’s best efforts to empanel a fair and impartial jury.

This is a truly incredible statement, given the unanimous not-guilty verdicts. If a jury simply refused to convict, we might imagine one or two holdouts whose anti-Trump bias made them impossible to convince. But every juror in two trials brought “strongly held [anti-Trump] views to the courtroom”? Really?

Nonetheless, it’s important not to get lost in the weeds of the Durham investigation, because distraction was its entire reason to exist. Why did Trump’s people lie about their connections to Russia? Durham has nothing to say about that question, beyond arguing that it should never have been asked in the first place.

Speculation. In the absence of definitive evidence, we are left to speculate. The most obvious answers to my two questions are:

  • Trump officials had so many contacts with Russia because they were participating in an illegal conspiracy.
  • They lied about those contacts to cover up that conspiracy.

Due to Trump’s obstruction (and Durham’s complete lack of interest in the questions) those speculations can’t be supported or refuted by clear evidence. But it’s worth noting that these are the only credible answers ever proposed. Despite voluminous comments intended to obstruct, obfuscate, distract, and intimidate, Trump and his people have never offered an alternative explanation.

The Monday Morning Teaser

So here we are, watching closed doors while Biden and McCarthy negotiate behind those doors over how much ransom Biden will pay to avoid a global economic catastrophe. It’s the kind of news situation I hate: I obviously have to cover it, but I don’t actually know anything I can tell you.

So there’s that. There’s another round of authoritarian legislation being passed in red states. House Republicans are protecting George Santos, who is under indictment. Rudy Giuliani had a bad week. It looks like Georgia’s Trump indictment will drop in August. Ukraine will get F-16s.

But the featured posts aren’t about any of that. John Durham’s long-awaited report trying to discredit the Trump/Russia investigations came out, marking the end of one of the biggest wastes of time and money in Department of Justice history. It’s hard to know exactly what to say about the Durham investigation, because its whole point was to distract us from the reality of the Trump/Russia scandal. So doing an involved critique of Durham’s report is just taking the bait.

Instead, I went back to the original questions I wanted the Mueller investigation to answer, and notice that they’re still unanswered: Why did the 2016 Trump campaign have so many contacts with Russians? And why, when Trump’s people were asked about their Russian connections, did almost all of them lie? After all this time, we can speculate, but we still don’t know. That post “Summing Up at the End of the Trump/Russia Investigations”, is more-or-less done and should post soon.

The second featured post isn’t really about the news at all. It’s a meta post about a topic that keeps coming up for me, and probably comes up for you too: how to evaluate the sources you run across on social media.

As you might expect, I run into this question fairly often, and have developed a standard technique for answering it, which I’ve never shared in so many words. “How I evaluate sources” should post before 10 EDT.

The weekly summary has the debt ceiling and all that other stuff to cover. I’ll try to get it out by noon.

No Time for Truth

We don’t have enough time to fact-check every lie he told.

Jake Tapper, hosting the wrap-up of Trump’s CNN town hall

This week’s featured posts are “Why the Carroll verdict might matter” and “Normalizing Trump normalizes political violence“.

This week everybody was talking about the border

Title 42 was always a pretext. At a time when Trump was denying the seriousness of the Covid epidemic, his administration invoked a public-health law from 1944 as an excuse to stop migrants from legally seeking asylum in the United States.

At the same time, our system for processing asylum seekers is swamped, and Congress has refused to fix it. So the Biden administration, believing it had no better option, continued the policy until Thursday night, when the government’s declaration of a Covid emergency officially lapsed.

Ending the policy resulted in a surge of people crossing the border from Mexico, though apparently not quite as large a surge as had been expected. Resources to deal with migrants have been strained, particularly in border communities like El Paso, but also in Northern cities like New York or Chicago, where migrants often end up while they wait for their asylum cases to be adjudicated.

and George Santos

George Santos leaped into the headlines after being elected to Congress in 2022, because his entire biography was almost comically false. Now he’s been indicted for a variety of crimes. One charge is that he created a false campaign PAC and got people to donate to it, then used the money for personal purposes. Another is that he falsely claimed unemployment payments while making a six-figure salary.

The indictment had the same comical quality as most Santos news. Reading it, you have to wonder why he thought he could get away with any of this.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy is refusing to ask Santos to resign from Congress, because he represents a swing district in New York that could easily go for a Democrat in a special election.

If you’re not following North Carolina Rep. Jeff Jackson, you should be. He blogs and posts a video on Twitter every week, describing what’s going on in Congress in a very down-to-Earth way. Here’s what he says about the Santos situation:

Normally, if one of your co-workers gets arrested for a bunch of felonies related to their job, they don’t get to just come back to the office the next day. But he did, and it was really weird.

and the Carroll verdict

A jury in New York federal court found Donald Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation. It awarded his accuser E. Jean Carroll, $5 million in damages. I discuss the implications of that verdict in one of the featured posts.

Trump’s attempt to spin the verdict focused on two things: The jury did not rule that Carroll had proved Trump raped her, and “you can’t get a fair trial” in New York City.

As he did with Russian collusion in the Mueller report, Trump is claiming vindication when in reality there just wasn’t enough evidence to condemn him. The jury did not say Trump hadn’t raped Carroll, just that she hadn’t proved it. The sexual assault was enough to invoke the damage claim, so I imagine there was not a big effort to reach unanimity on the rape claim.

The verdict makes a certain amount of sense when you consider the evidence presented. On the Access Hollywood tape, Trump confessed to a pattern of sexual assault — grabbing women “by the pussy” — but didn’t confess to rape. And the two witnesses who described being attacked by Trump told about attacks that were interrupted. So the rape claim was a purer he-said/she-said case, while sexual assault had more support.

Still, as I talk about in the featured post, being guilty of sexual assault is nothing to brag about.

Trump is appealing to federal appellate court. (The case was already in the federal court system, because the two parties were from different states.) But an appeal is not an automatic do-over. He’ll have to convince the appellate court that the original judge’s rulings were illegal in some way.

and CNN’s Trump town hall

The day after being found liable for sexual assault and defamation, Trump appeared on CNN with an audience of New Hampshire voters who had been pre-selected to be favorable to him. I discuss that in one of the featured posts.

For the most part, Republicans haven’t been willing to go after Trump, despite all the material lying around in plain sight. But Liz Cheney narrates this anti-Trump ad.

and you also might be interested in …

The Ukrainian spring offensive may be starting, as Ukrainian forces gain territory around Bakhmut. But so far it’s slow going.

The House Oversight Committee released a 65-page memo about its investigations of the Biden family, which so far have been a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

The House GOP accused Joe Biden and his family on Wednesday of engaging in business with foreign entities—but were unable to provide any actual evidence linking the president to any wrongdoing.

House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer released a 65-page memo detailing a sprawling investigation into Biden and some of his relatives, particularly his son Hunter Biden. Nowhere in the massive document was there a specific allegation of a crime committed by Biden or any of his relatives. During a press conference explaining the investigation, Comer was asked if he had evidence directly linking Biden to corruption. The Kentucky Republican hemmed and hawed but ultimately admitted he didn’t.

[As a commenter pointed out below, I have confused two cases: Daniel Penny is the guy who killed Jordan Neely in New York. Daniel Perry is the guy in Texas who killed a protester during a Black Lives Matter protest. Both cases are discussed in Jamelle Bouie’s NYT column Tuesday.]

Conservatives are defending Daniel Penny (the guy who killed homeless man Jordan Neely on the New York subway) as a “Good Samaritan”. (Examples: Ron DeSantis, National Police Association.)

It’s one more example of making the Bible say whatever you want. Anyone who knows and respects the Bible ought to respond similarly to David Roberts:

No way to exaggerate how fucked up and dystopian it is that the reactionaries are transmuting the parable of the Good Samaritan from “he helps the person having problems” to “he kills the person having problems but who’s making everyone else uncomfortable.”

Penny has been charged with manslaughter. Here’s the background on the story.

At this point there’s no way to quantify what race might have had to do with this incident and people’s reactions to it. (Neely was Black, Penny is White.) But if anybody is wondering what “Black Lives Matter” is supposed to mean, this is it: OK, Neely was creating an incident on the subway, though he had not actually attacked anybody. There’s an argument to be made for someone stepping in to restrain Neely until some authority takes charge of the situation. But restraining Neely with a chokehold until he dies is only a “solution” if Neely’s life doesn’t matter.

Maybe Neely being Black had nothing to do with why his life didn’t matter. Maybe it was because his behavior was outside normal subway behavior, or some other reason. But if Neely’s life did matter to Perry, he’d have handled the situation differently.

Turkey had an election yesterday. President Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003, has been accused of instituting one-man rule. But it looks like Turkey is not so far gone towards autocracy that he can’t be voted out.

The upshot seems to be that no one got a majority of the vote, so Erdogan will face a runoff later this month.

A sidebar to the Turkish election is Twitter giving in to the Erdogan government’s demands to censor opposition tweets.

In response to legal process and to ensure Twitter remains available to the people of Turkey, we have taken action to restrict access to some content in Turkey today.

Elon Musk defended the decision by making a lesser-evil argument:

The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales answered that question:

What Wikipedia did: we stood strong for our principles and fought to the Supreme Court of Turkey and won. This is what it means to treat freedom of expression as a principle rather than a slogan.

And Matt Binder points out:

Twitter used to routinely challenge Turkey’s takedown requests. Erdogan actually had Twitter banned in Turkey in 2014 for refusing to comply. (the courts later ended the ban.) but that was on the “censorship” version of Twitter, not this new “free speech” one

I’ll add this: An authoritarian government can always use its power to manipulate lesser-evil thinking. No matter what it wants you to do, it can make something worse happen if you refuse.

And maybe it’s just a coincidence that another Musk company, SpaceX, has a business relationship with Erdogan’s government.

Are you conservative? Do you think America has gotten too “woke” to be livable? Good news: Russia wants you!

In general, Grist is a good source for environmental news. Here’s an interesting article about green steel, i.e., steel produced without fossil fuels.

Relating to the normalization issues discussed above: Joe Biden should not debate unless and until a more legitimate challenger emerges. Currently, only RFK Jr. and Marianne Williamson have announced their candidacy. RFK Jr., in particular, is someone who should not be normalized. He is an endless font of anti-vax misinformation, from his vaccines-cause-autism days to more recent lies about Covid vaccines. He shamelessly repeats stuff that has been authoritatively debunked, and keeps misquoting scientists after they’ve asked him to stop. Watch SkepChick’s RFK Jr. takedown.

In general, sitting presidents running for re-election don’t participate in debates. There’s an argument for Biden breaking that tradition in order to challenge the perception that age has addled him. And I could see that if it meant sharing a stage with candidates of stature, like say, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, California Governor Gavin Newsom, or maybe Elizabeth Warren. But he shouldn’t give a platform to RFK Jr at all, and I don’t see what he gains by debating Williamson.

From the MAGA translation of the New Testament:

and let’s close with something adorable

An animal rescue shelter found Nibi when she was a week old. She’s never seen another beaver, but she seems to know how to build dams.

Normalizing Trump normalizes political violence

In search of ratings, CNN is enabling the next Trump coup.

Wednesday, CNN aired a townhall meeting in which an audience of New Hampshire Trump supporters got to address questions to their hero/demigod. The outcome was easily predictable: Trump spewed one lie after another, while he ignored and insulted the “nasty” woman the network had assigned to moderate. Meanwhile, the crowd cheered.

Disinformation. In the post-event discussion, Jake Tapper summed up:

We don’t have enough time to fact-check every lie he told.

In a nutshell, that’s why fact-checking fails against a determined liar who is not shamed by having his lies exposed: Outrageous falsehoods can be entertaining, but reasserting the truth is boring. If he just keeps going, who’s going to stick around to hear you correct it all? And even if some do, the bell can’t be unrung; the people who heard the lie can’t unhear it. (For what it’s worth, you can read fact-checks of the evening here, here, and here.)

So the net result of the evening was to promote disinformation. People who watched are probably less well informed now than before they tuned in. When it scheduled the town hall, CNN had to know that would happen.

The justification given by CNN boss Chris Licht was that the broadcast “made a lot of news”, which he described as “our job”. “America was served very well.”

I’ll let The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols answer that one:

To be clear, I am not taking issue with CNN offering Trump time on the network. Trump is far and away the front-runner for the GOP nomination. Neither CNN nor any other network can refuse to cover him; as I’ve said, it would be a disservice to let him spread his toxic slurry out of the public eye. But “covering” Trump does not mean packing an audience with supporters and then setting the resolutely misogynist Trump against a young female reporter in a situation that practically could have been designed by the Trump campaign itself.

January 6. But I want to focus on something else about the event: Trump doubled down on his endorsement of the violence on January 6.

It started right away, when moderator Kaitlin Collins asked if (should he become president again) he intended to pardon those convicted of crimes committed during the January 6 riot. Trump admitted that he might not pardon all of them, because “a couple of them, probably, they got out of control”. But most of them did “nothing”, and are “living in Hell” now.

They’re policemen, and they’re firemen, and they’re soldiers, and they’re carpenters and electricians and they’re great people. Many of them are just great people.

The rioters were prosecuted for specific crimes (including assaulting policemen), and a jury of their peers unanimously found them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But that doesn’t matter because

In Washington, D.C., you cannot get a fair trial, you cannot. Just like in New York City, you can’t get a fair trial either.

He doesn’t explain why that is, but apparently he believes you can just write off any verdict from a DC or NYC jury. Maybe those people don’t count as Americans, or even as people. He doesn’t say.

Collins zeroed in on the Proud Boys, who were just convicted (again: unanimously, beyond a reasonable doubt, by a jury) of seditious conspiracy. Think about what that means: Seditious conspiracy is one step short of treason. They didn’t just throw a tantrum because their candidate lost the election; they actively conspired against the United States of America. But Trump might be OK with that.

I don’t know. I’ll have to look at their case.

He described January 6 as a “beautiful day” and said that his supporters “had love in their hearts”. When Collins pointed out his supporters injured 140 police officers, Trump offered no sympathy, but instead focused on one of the rioters, Ashli Babbitt, who was killed while trying to break down the only remaining door protecting members of Congress from the violent mob.

There was no reason to shoot her at blank range. Cold, blank range, they shot her. And she was a good person. She was a patriot.

She was shot by a “thug”, i.e. Lt. Michael Byrd, a Black police officer with 28 years of experience, who has been hounded by Trump’s supporters ever since.

For Byrd, who is Black, the incident turned his life upside down. He has been in hiding for months after he received a flood of death threats and racist attacks that started when his name leaked onto right-wing websites.

Months later, Byrd was interviewed by Lester Holt and had the audacity to defend his actions. Trump characterized this as “he went on television to brag about the fact that he killed her.” (You can watch the interview and judge for yourself.)

In short, Trump paints a picture of January 6 in which the rioters are the heroes and the police are the villains.

But what about his own vice president, Mike Pence? The mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence”, and his Secret Service protectors, fearing for their lives, made good-bye calls to loved ones. But Trump knows better:

I don’t think he was in any danger.

And he owes Pence no apology

because he did something wrong. He should have put the votes back to the state legislatures and I think we would have had a different outcome. I really do.

Pence deserved to be threatened, in other words, because he refused to play his part in the overthrow of American democracy.

How democracy survived Trump’s first term. In other reporting this week, Rolling Stone revealed some of Trump’s plans for his second administration: He wants to bring back Michael Flynn, who advocated declaring martial law to hang onto power. Also Jeffrey Clark, who pushed for the Justice Department to lie to the State of Georgia about “various irregularities in the 2020 election” to justify the legislature replacing the legitimate members of the Electoral College with Trump supporters.

Both efforts were blocked by people within the government who were still loyal to the Constitution.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Trump’s attempt to hang on to the presidency after losing the election by 7 million votes: Plots to overturn the election didn’t end because Trump decided he wouldn’t go that far. They ended when people inside his administration refused to participate.

We still have no idea how far Trump himself was willing to go to stay in power.

What we do know is that he wants his second administration to pick up where the first one left off. His first administration began with appointees who were typical conservative Republicans, like Jeff Sessions and John Kelly. They saw the world through right-wing lenses, but they were loyal to America as they understood it.

As the term went on, more and more of those people were kicked out in favor of people who were loyal to Trump first and America a distant second. Trump’s coup attempt failed because he hadn’t completed his purge of American loyalists.

What becomes clear as you listen to Trump is that he understands that mistake now. So his second term will begin with the appointment of true Trumpists to all major positions. When it comes time to throttle democracy again, no one will say no to him.

What are we normalizing? CNN’s critics talk about the problem of “normalizing” Trump, i.e. of treating him as we would any other front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination.

Different people use that term for different reasons, because Trump is abnormal in all sorts of ways. No impeached president, much less the only president to be impeached twice, has ever been nominated again. No candidate for the presidency has ever brushed off a jury verdict holding him liable for sexual assault. It’s been a century since a candidate ran for the presidency while under indictment or in prison. No major American politician of any sort has kept up such a steady stream of lies. No presidential candidate since George Wallace has been so blatantly racist.

Those — and many others — are plausible reasons to refuse to give Trump a platform, much less construct such a favorable platform as CNN offered Trump. But they all pale before the most serious reason to treat him differently: He’s running to finish his coup.

The debate about whether to end democracy cannot be treated as a normal democratic issue. We can’t have a “reasonable” discussion about whether an attempt to overturn an election by violence is or isn’t legitimate.

Trump has very recently threatened to unleash political violence again. He warned of “death and destruction” if he were indicted, and mocked pleas for his supporters to stay peaceful.


Does anyone doubt that he will incite violence again, if he thinks it will help him regain the White House in 2024?

That’s the kind of “issue” that should never be normalized. No candidate of any party should be given a platform to make promises to past violent supporters, and to offer implicit concessions to people who do violence for him in the future.

That needs to be a red line. Wednesday, CNN crossed it.

Why the Carroll verdict might matter

Immediately after a jury in a New York federal court found that Donald Trump had sexually assaulted and then defamed E. Jean Carroll, two reactions popped up everywhere:

  • The verdict constitutes personal vindication for Carroll and vicarious vindication for any woman who has ever felt powerless after being mistreated by a man. While there’s still a long way to go, men — even powerful men — no longer have complete impunity.
  • Politically, it will mean nothing. Members of Trump’s personality cult will double- and triple-down on his “witch hunt” and “persecution by the Deep State” narratives.

That first response seems obviously true to me. But I want to call the second into question. Politically, this might matter, even to people deep inside the right-wing echo chamber. But you’ll only see the effects if you know where to look.

A jury verdict is different. First, let’s talk about why the verdict should matter: As of now, the conclusion that Trump sexually assaulted Carroll and then aggressively lied about it “with actual malice” isn’t just an accusation liberals toss around on Facebook or discuss on left-leaning MSNBC shows. It’s not coming from a blue-state prosecutor looking for votes. It’s the verdict of a jury.

Think about what that means: If you sit nine ordinary people down, impress on them that they have a serious job to do, and then make them consider the evidence in detail, they will unanimously conclude that Carroll’s accusations against Trump are true.

That’s something that never happens on social media or within the information bubbles of either side. In those settings, you can’t make people listen to anything they don’t want to hear. You can’t put together a detailed argument without being pulled down the what-about-Hunter-Biden or it’s-all-a-witch-hunt rabbit holes. If someone answers an accusation with a biting-but-vacuous remark, a Trump-favoring host can end the discussion there, as if there were no conceivable counter-response.

But that’s not how things work in court. In court, the jury had to focus on this case, rather than something Bill Clinton did or didn’t get away with. Both sides had a chance to produce evidence and arguments at whatever length they felt necessary. Jurors had to evaluate witnesses as individual people — not with a general brush-off like “women lie all the time”, but here are Carroll, the two friends she told about the attack, and two other women who say Trump attacked them in similar ways. Listen to their voices, look them in the eye — is this particular woman lying to you right now?

The jury — all six men and three women of them — decided those women were telling the truth, and that Trump (who could have testified in person but didn’t, and was present only through a taped deposition) was lying.

That’s hard to brush off. It should matter. But will it?

Digging in deeper. People who think it won’t point to two reactions: First, Trump’s rivals for the 2024 Republican nomination aren’t jumping on it. Asa Hutchinson said “The jury verdict should be treated with seriousness and is another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump.” But he was the exception. Mike Pence (who styles himself as a defender of Christian moral values) characterized Trump’s sexual assault as “just one more story focusing on my former running mate that I know is a great fascination to members of the national media, but I just don’t think is where the American people are focused.”

In other words: Sure, Trump violently attacked a woman — probably several women — and then lied about it, but shit happens. No big deal. Do you know what eggs cost these days?

And second, consider Trump’s indictment in Manhattan for falsifying business records, which caused his most ardent supporters to dig in deeper. Trump voters from Sarah Longwell’s focus groups said things like this:

When I convened a group of GOP voters the day after Trump’s indictment, their assessment was nearly unanimous: “It’s a complete distraction and it’s a waste of time.” “It’s being blown out of proportion.” “Just ridiculous and a terrible direction for us to go.”

We asked one group whether they had donated to Trump before the indictment. Only three out of nine had, but after the indictment, all nine said they would. None said another indictment or arrest would change their minds. And none thought Trump should drop out.

“As far as a mug shot goes, he’s going to market the hell out of that,” said Chris, a two-time Trump voter from Illinois, imagining a future arrest. “Every one of us is going to buy one of those shirts.” Most hands went up when I asked who would buy one.

How conservatives change their minds. I know what Democrats and Lincoln-Project Republicans would like to see: former Trump voters being confronted by the Carroll verdict and announcing that it has changed their minds. “I used to believe X about Trump, but now that I’ve heard this I have to believe Y.”

Almost no one is saying that, so commentators think the verdict makes no difference.

But that’s not how conservatives change their minds. On the Right, humility is a sign of weakness. (Jesus must have been misquoted about the meek.) So you never admit you were wrong and you never apologize.

And yet, conservative opinions do change occasionally. Sometimes they even reverse.

Think about George W. Bush. In the early days of the Iraq invasion, conservatives were ready to put him on Mount Rushmore. But by 2010 they were complaining that he had never really been a conservative at all. Or Ronald Reagan. For decades after he left office, Reagan was the defining Republican, and his core principles — including an expansive view of American power and free trade — were the core principles of the party. Now, “globalism” and “free trade” are dirty words, and Reagan hardly ever comes up as an example to emulate.

And yet, there was never a come-to-Jesus moment when conservatives repented their previous views and pledged to go a different way. Instead, a conservative sea change happens like this: People who used to be zealots for a particular view go silent for a while. And when they start talking again, they have the opposite view, which they put forward as if they had always believed it.

Segregation. That’s what happened with Jim Crow. From the 1950s through the 1970s, White Evangelicals were staunch opponents of civil rights. Jerry Falwell, for example, responded to the Supreme Court’s decision to integrate public schools like this:

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. … The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.

In the 1960s, he railed against Martin Luther King:

In a 1964 sermon, “Ministers and Marchers,” Falwell attacked King as a Communist subversive. After questioning “the sincerity and intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations,” Falwell declared, “It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.”

The true origin of the Religious Right as a political force was not Roe v Wade, as they will tell you now, but the government’s denial of tax-exempt status to the segregated religious schools that had sprung up to offer White parents an all-White option for their children’s education.

Today, however, you will hear none of that from the vast majority of Evangelical preachers. Falwell’s pro-segregation sermons have vanished from his online archives. MLK is revered as an advocate of color-blindness. No one talks about segregated academies any more.

But you will search in vain to find a turning point. There never was a Jeremiah who called out White Evangelical segregationism and convinced the movement to change its ways. Do you know when the Southern Baptist Convention repented for its support of slavery? Not 1866, but 1995, long after all the slave-owners and slave-traders were dead.

Where to look. So if you’re expecting the scales to fall from right-wing eyes, for MAGA followers to suddenly start looking at the evidence and say, “Hey, I was wrong about Trump”, you’re expecting something that never happens. That’s not how conservatives change their minds.

What could happen, though, is that people who have been loud Trump supporters might start talking about other things. Maybe people who have been traveling the country to attend Trump rallies (as if they were Grateful Dead concerts) will realize they have other things to do. Without much fanfare, their Trump flags might come down. (Not because anyone changed their minds about him, of course, but because they got some other flag that they need to find a place for.) And then, some months hence, they will never have been Trump supporters — just as they were never George W. Bush supporters, their fathers never yelled obscenities at Black children integrating the schools, their grandfathers never participated in lynchings, and their more distant ancestors never owned slaves.

“I always knew there was something off about that guy,” they will tell you.

I’m not guaranteeing that such things are happening, but they could be. It is true that Trump’s crowds are shrinking (and have been for a while). Despite all the hoopla, ratings on his CNN town hall were high (3.3 million viewers), but not off the charts. (Joe Biden’s CNN town hall in 2020 had 3.4 million.)

So if you’re wondering about whether your MAGA cousin is reevaluating Trump, don’t ask him. Just listen for the silence.