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Back to Square One

This week the number of new Covid-19 infections spiked up to even higher levels than before the shutdown. Other governments have avoided this scenario, but ours has no plan for dealing with it.


What if we have a crisis? In one of the less-noticed parts of John Bolton’s new book, Chief of Staff John Kelly complains that he is frustrated to the point of quitting. “What if we have a real crisis like 9/11,” Kelly asks Bolton, “with the way he makes decisions?”

As Bolton — like so many other former Trump insiders before him — demonstrates with numerous examples, “the way he makes decisions” is to start from a place of complete ignorance. (Prior to his ill-fated Helsinki meeting with Putin, he asked aides whether Finland was part of Russia. He also seemed not to know that the United Kingdom has nuclear weapons.) Then he ignores the briefings that come from the intelligence community or other government experts, and doesn’t ask for any studies or position papers from people the government employs to do research like that. Instead, he spends hours each day talking to friends on the phone and listening to the pundits on Fox News. If he hears something he likes, maybe that becomes government policy immediately, or maybe it turns into a line he uses at rallies. If the rally-goers cheer, then that’s what the world’s greatest superpower will do.

If you think there ought to be a more rigorous process than that, you must be part of the Deep State.

This is how we got the border wall project. No one who studies border security for a living ever concluded that a wall between the US and Mexico was the most efficient way to accomplish some desirable goal. But Trump’s 2016 campaign advisers decided he needed a “mnemonic device” to get him to focus on immigration. Any realistic plan to deal with unwanted border-crossings is full of the kind of legal, diplomatic, environmental, and other details Trump hates, but “Build a Wall” was simple enough to hold in his head, and the crowds loved it — especially when he added the fantasy that Mexico would pay for it.

Those cheering crowds are why some adviser’s mnemonic device is turning into a physical wall that takes years to build, costs billions of dollars, and doesn’t solve any identifiable problems. We just lucked out that Trump wasn’t still holding rallies when the inject-yourself-with-bleach idea got into his head.

Own-goal crises. The reason Bolton and Kelly were having a what-if conversation rather than recalling an actual disaster is that until that point the United States had been having an extraordinary run of good luck. You may remember these last three-plus years as a high-wire state of constant national anxiety, but in fact the real world was unusually tame. Barack Obama had handed Trump a country in pretty good shape, particularly compared to the one Obama had received from George W. Bush. All the major economic trends were in the right direction, Obama’s light-footprint strategy to defeat the ISIS caliphate was working, and so on. Obama did leave behind a number of worrisome long-term challenges, like climate change, the ascension of China, nuclear proliferation, the decades-long decline of America’s middle class, and so on. But no one really expected Trump to make progress on any of that, and on any given day all those problems have been pretty easy to ignore.

Instead, what made the pre-Covid Trump years feel so tense were the crises Trump created himself: He ratcheted up his “fire and fury” rhetoric against North Korea to the point that war seemed inevitable, and then arranged a marvelous reality-show resolution when he “fell in love” with Kim Jong Un, a performance so compelling that Trump wanted a Nobel Peace Prize for it. Of course, nothing was actually accomplished by the whole up-and-down cycle (other than some great propaganda for the Kim regime), but didn’t it look grand on TV?

The low points in his approval rating were similarly self-inflicted: when he described the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville as “fine people” or sided with Putin against the US intelligence agencies or couldn’t let go of a spat with a military widow. His China trade war spooked the markets and slowed the economy, but that was also something he brought on himself, so he could create good news whenever he wanted by tweeting about “progress” in the negotiations or delaying some tariff he had threatened to impose unilaterally.

Since those were all holes he dug himself, he could just stop digging, divert the public’s attention elsewhere, and wait for it all to blow over. Easy-peasy.

And then there was the ever-rising budget deficit, which would have been framed as an existential crisis for Obama, but became acceptable once a Republican was in the White House.

Before Covid, Trump only had to face two truly external problems: impeachment and his complete botch of the federal response to the Puerto Rican hurricane. Impeachment was never a big worry for two reasons: First, no matter how guilty he was, the Republican Senate was never going to convict him. (In the end, they decided that the House’s evidence wasn’t good enough to remove a president chosen by 46% of the people, and that if there was better evidence, they didn’t want to see it.) And second, the underlying offense (the extortion of Ukraine) didn’t really matter to Trump’s base. As for the Puerto Rican hurricane, well, that mainly affected Spanish-speaking people of color that the Trump base also didn’t care about. (Yeah, thousands of them are dead, but it’s not like they were ever “real Americans”, right?)

The virus is real. But Covid is different. There’s a real virus out there killing people. It can’t be intimidated by tweets or derogatory nicknames like “Wuhan virus” or “kung flu”. Even though it has been killing people of color at a rate disproportionate to their numbers, it kills white people too. And now it’s even spreading in red states (Texas) or purple states (Florida) that Trump needs to carry if he wants to be re-elected.

Trump has no plan to defeat the virus, but that’s par for the course. He doesn’t have a plan to deal with any of America’s problems. For example, he’s still promising a “FAR BETTER AND MUCH LESS EXPENSIVE ALTERNATIVE” to ObamaCare, and to “ALWAYS PROTECT PEOPLE WITH PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS,ALWAYS!!!” But in the five years since he came down the escalator, he has not produced so much as a back-of-the-envelope sketch of a program to deliver on such promises. I’m sure the words in those capitalized phrases sound good to him and his fans, but as soon as the sound waves fade out the air is empty again.

Like his bromance with the North Korean dictator, Trump’s coronavirus briefings also made good TV for a while, but eventually they became embarrassing and he got bored with them. So he applied his usual crisis-control tactic: He congratulated himself for defeating the virus, which is “dying out“; flattered or browbeat Republican governors to reopen their states too early; stopped talking about the whole crisis, even as additional thousands of Americans continued to die each week; tried to divert our attention elsewhere; and waited for it all to blow over.

But here’s the thing: Reality doesn’t blow over. Covid-19 isn’t a PR flap or a misstep he can back away from, it’s a pandemic. For a short time, he may be able to get large segments of the public to “ignore that pile of dead bodies over in the corner” (as Bill Gates put it), but people keep dying even when everyone’s looking the other way, and eventually we start to notice again.

Comparisons. Covid-19 started out in China in December, and from there spread around the world, taking different courses in different countries. Some small countries with good leadership and a strong public spirit — New Zealand, Iceland, and South Korea pop to mind — reacted quickly, got the epidemic under control, and continue to hold it in check through a combination of testing, contact tracing, quarantine, and public cooperation in preventive measures like mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing.

A number of EU countries, beginning with Italy, had really bad outbreaks, but then shut down just about all activities other than food distribution and medical care, using their national wealth and strong social-welfare systems to keep individual and family budgets above water. After a month or two of extreme sacrifice, the number of new infections began to collapse, to the point that they can now make use of the tactics that the fast-reacting countries used.

And then there’s the United States, where Covid-19 became the kind of crisis Kelly had been worrying about. Here’s how our daily reported new infections compared with the EU and South Korea as of Saturday.

South Korea’s infections stayed down. The EU’s went up and came down. But in the United States infections went up, started to creep down a little, and then shot back up.

What did we do wrong? A lot of things. Thursday The New York Times presented an illuminating series of graphics describing about how the virus spread in the US.

At every crucial moment, American officials were weeks or months behind the reality of the outbreak. Those delays likely cost tens of thousands of lives.

A short list of early failings:

  • The CDC’s initial set of test kits were faulty, and tests were not imported to fill the gap, resulting in what the NYT described as “the lost month“. This was both a CDC failure and a White House failure, because it’s the role of the White House to keep tabs on the workings of the government and intervene when something important is falling through the cracks in the system.
  • As a result, the initial spread of the virus was grossly underestimated. The NYT article suggests that in mid-February, when the US had 15 known cases (that Trump said “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero“) there were actually around 2,000 cases spread across ten major cities.
  • Unlike other countries, the US did not use its lead time to build its stockpile of masks and gowns for medical personnel, as detailed by HHS whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright.
  • The federal government did not prepare the public for the sacrifices that would eventually be asked of it. Instead, officials from President Trump on down consistently reassured the public that the virus was “totally under control” and “the risk is low”.
  • Trump began politicizing the virus response early, charging on March 9 that “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

By mid-March, states began to respond, with Republican Governor Mike DeWine shutting down schools in Ohio, Democrat Andrew Cuomo closing businesses in New York, and local health officials in six San Francisco Bay counties issuing a shelter-in-place order. A national campaign to “flatten the curve” began. Even Trump got on board for a month or so, rewriting history to claim: “I’ve always known this is a real, this is a pandemic. I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

Undermining the national will. The number of new cases reached an initial peak of 33,000-a-day in early-to-mid April and then began to slope downward. But unlike Europe, the United States lacked the national will to finish the job.

That failure came from the top. As soon as it was clear a peak had been reached, Trump began pressuring states to relax restrictions and reopen their economies without waiting to achieve the milestones listed in his administration’s own guidelines.

Trump encouraged armed demonstrators to intimidate state governments. When protesters with rifles came to the Michigan statehouse carrying signs saying “Tyrants get the rope”, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”. He also encouraged “liberators” in Virginia and Minnesota. Without once calling for the protesters to disarm, he tweeted:

The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.

Michigan more-or-less held firm, but Republican governors in red states knew they could not survive a Trump tweet storm and could benefit from White House photo ops. Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona began to open their economies without achieving the statistical milestones laid out by the CDC. When the Republican members of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court invalidated the Governor Ever’s stay-at-home order and plunged the state’s gradual-reopening plan into chaos, Trump was jubilant.

The Great State of Wisconsin, home to Tom Tiffany’s big Congressional Victory on Tuesday, was just given another win. Its Democrat Governor was forced by the courts to let the State Open. The people want to get on with their lives. The place is bustling!

Meanwhile, he was campaigning against wearing masks, which nearly all public health officials recommend when people are unable to maintain social distance. He mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask in public, and for “cowering in the basement” rather than holding face-to-face events. Trump refused to wear a mask while touring a mask factory in Arizona, even as “Live and Let Die” played on the sound system.

Long after it had become clear that the reopenings were premature and cases were spiking, Trump pushed to hold dangerous large-crowd events in Tulsa and Phoenix. (Fortunately for the nation, the crowd in Tulsa was not nearly so large as he had expected.) In Tulsa, he discounted the rising case numbers, arguing (falsely) that they just reflect increased testing, and offering a 10-year-old with “sniffles” as an example of a case. He said he had asked his administration to “slow down the testing”, and later contradicted aides who tried to downplay that suggestion as a joke. “I don’t kid,” he told reporters.

This anti-social leadership has had its effect: Around the country outraged people, many sporting MAGA hats or Trump shirts, are refusing to abide by rules that mandate mask-wearing or social distancing. Michelle Goldberg summarizes:

This is what American exceptionalism looks like under Donald Trump. It’s not just that the United States has the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths of any country in the world. Republican political dysfunction has made a coherent campaign to fight the pandemic impossible.

The viral resurgence. New infections have been rising sharply in precisely the southern and western states that have reopened quickly, refuting the theory (which Trump had long promoted) that the pandemic would fade in warm weather. Nationally, cases had flattened out at less than 20,000 per day in late May and early June. But they have been above 38,000 each of the last five days.

On the state level, the best measure for comparison is the 7-day-weighted-average of new cases per day per 100K people. Here are the most seriously affected states:

Arizona 44

Florida 30

South Carolina 25

Mississippi 23

Arkansas 20

Louisiana 20

Nevada 19

Texas 19

California also has an large number of cases, due partially to its size. Its daily-new-case-per-100K number is 12. New York, which was the center of the epidemic in April, is down to 3.

And as for Trump’s attempt to discount those numbers, 10-year-olds with “sniffles” don’t show up in the ICU. Hospitals are reportedly close to capacity in Arizona, Florida, and Texas, and perhaps other states getting less national attention.

The Washington Post assesses what went wrong in Arizona:

At critical junctures, blunders by top officials undermined faith in the data purportedly driving decision-making, according to experts monitoring Arizona’s response. And when forbearance was most required, as the state began to reopen despite continued community transmission, an abrupt and uniform approach — without transparent benchmarks or latitude for stricken areas to hold back — led large parts of the public to believe the pandemic was over.

And now, Arizona is facing more per capita cases than recorded by any country in Europe or even by hard-hit Brazil. Among states with at least 20 people hospitalized for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, no state has seen its rate of hospitalizations increase more rapidly since Memorial Day.

And Republican governors or not, Texas, Florida, and Arizona have all had to retreat on their reopening timetables.

Deaths haven’t turned back up yet, but they will. The one saving grace is that nationally, deaths are still declining. For weeks I’ve been commenting on the mystery of how the death rate could continue downward while the new-case rate flattened and then turned upward.

Med school Professor Florian Krammer points to the same three explanations I’ve given: more testing has raised the new-case rate (or more accurately, made it better match the actual spread of the infection); better care is keeping people alive; but most of all, that the age-distribution of the infected population is shifting to younger people who are more likely to survive.

But he then goes one step further: Something similar happened in Iran in May. The new-case curve had been dropping, but started going up again around May 1.

But deaths did not go up. People explained to me, that now mostly young people are getting infected so nothing bad would happen.

Deaths started going up May 25.

What happened? First, it takes time to die of COVID-19. Second, cases probably really built up in younger people. But they diffuse into older populations. And then the deaths rose.

Each state has its own version of the pandemic, and death rates might already have started upward in some of them, like Arkansas and Texas. (The curves are jittery enough that it’s hard to be sure.) But nationwide, the new-case curve started rising around June 10. That would suggest deaths will begin rising about July 4.

Similar ideas (with a similar timeline) show up on the COVID Tracking Project Blog.

New daily positive cases only began to exceed the plateau of the previous two weeks around June 18-19, which means that an increase in deaths as a result of the rise in new cases would not be expected to show up until July.

So where are we? In some ways, we’re back where we were in April, and in some ways we’re worse off. Except in the northeast, whatever we gained through the sacrifices of the shutdown has been frittered away by bad leadership.

So now John Kelly knows: What happens if we have a real crisis “with the way he makes decisions”? This.

What is needed at this point is another wave of restrictions, and every state that thinks it is about to reopen its bars or arenas needs to think again. The American people can’t be trusted in bars; that is now a proven fact, at least until we have a vaccine. But a second wave of stay-at-home orders is hard to feature given that most of the country has nothing to show for the first wave.

We also need the kind of public spirit we had in the early days of “flatten the curve”: We need to encourage each other to wear masks, avoid crowds, keep our distance, and in general use common sense. Unfortunately, this is very unlikely to happen now that flouting common sense is necessary to establish your identity as a Trump conservative.

As best I can tell, this hasn’t happened in any other country (except maybe Brazil, which is also in very bad shape). Things got bad in Italy and Spain, but taking stupid risks never became a political identity.

And that reminds me of another famous question, this one raised by Trump himself in the 2016 campaign. “What the hell do you have to lose?

Now we know.

What’s in a Slogan?

Democrats may reach consensus about the future of policing more easily than they reach consensus about what to call that vision.


If the demonstrations set off by the murder of George Floyd (and now possibly extended by the killing of Rayshard Brooks) are going to be more than just a way to blow off steam, they have to lead to substantive change in the ways America enforces its laws. As I laid out last week, some reforms are already happening. Cities and states across the nation are banning chokeholds, instituting new procedures for reporting incidents of excessive force, and making it easier to identify and prosecute police officers who step over the line.

Is that enough? While those reforms are welcome and overdue, it’s hard to be confident that they will solve the problem, which goes to the heart of how police function in America: They are heavily armed, are inclined to escalate conflicts rather than de-escalate them, and reflexively cover for each other when rules are broken. Making more rules may not help, as long as police are motivated to help other police get away with breaking those rules. The pseudonymous author Officer A. Cab of “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop” testifies:

“All cops are bastards.” Even your uncle, even your cousin, even your mom, even your brother, even your best friend, even your spouse, even me. Because even if they wouldn’t Do The Thing themselves, they will almost never rat out another officer who Does The Thing, much less stop it from happening.

… I really want to hammer this home: every cop in your neighborhood is damaged by their training, emboldened by their immunity, and they have a gun and the ability to take your life with near-impunity. This does not make you safer, even if you’re white.

Police also cost a huge amount of money. Bloomberg estimates:

Over the past four decades, the cost of policing in the U.S. has almost tripled, from $42.3 billion in 1977 to $114.5 billion in 2017

The number of violent crimes peaked in 1993 and is down by more than 1/3 since then, but police budgets have continued to eat up about 3.7% of all state and local spending. That figure does not include the estimated $81 billion spent on prisons or the $29 billion spent processing people through the criminal courts. Some large cities spend considerably more than 3.7%: New York City budgets about $5.9 billion, which is more than 6% of its total spending.

Given all that, a surprisingly wide range of people are proposing a very simple idea: What if we just had fewer police?

The predictable backlash. That suggestion is easy to exaggerate and demonize.

Here’s an obvious attack ad to run against any politician who endorses it: Some white woman reenacts her totally true story of hiding in the closet with her toddler and calling 911 while strange men ravage her home. The invaders run away when they hear sirens approaching, and she and her boy emerge unharmed. She expresses her perfectly genuine gratitude to the helpful and reassuring officers who arrive on her doorstep. (I’d make one of the cops black, just to insulate against charges of race-baiting.)

Then a male narrator says: “Julie and Luke escaped their harrowing experience without a scratch, and the damage to their home was soon repaired. But if Senator Liberal Democrat had his way, no one would have answered her desperate call.” [A busy signal gets louder and louder as the camera slowly zooms in on the window the invaders broke to enter.] “Far-left politicians like Senator Democrat want to fire Officers Good and Noble, and slash the budgets of their departments. Let’s fire Senator Democrat instead, before the call that goes unanswered is yours.” [visual fade to the sound of an annoyingly loud busy signal]

It’s no wonder that people planning to have their names on ballots in the fall — people like Joe Biden and Jim Clyburn — have been running away from the “Abolish the Police” or “Defund the Police” slogans. A recent YouGov poll (scroll down to page 58) says that only 16% of the public favor cutting police budgets, while 65% oppose such cuts. So it’s also no wonder the Trump campaign is already running this ad:

 

But think about it. The fewer-police proposal isn’t just that we get rid of police and do nothing else. The point is that interrupting crimes in progress and arresting dangerous suspects is a very small part of what police do. If we let them concentrate on stuff like that, and didn’t load them down with every public problem that their cities don’t have covered some other way, we wouldn’t need nearly so many of them. Minneapolis Councilman Steve Fletcher explained the council’s pledge to “dismantle” the MPD.

What we’re trying to change is how we answer 911. So many of the calls that we currently send police officers with guns would actually be better served by mental health professionals, by social workers, by outreach workers, by conflict resolution specialists.

This already happens in certain cases: If you call 911 and say your house is on fire, they don’t send police, they send a fire engine. If you say somebody is having a heart attack, they send an ambulance with EMTs. If a bear is rummaging through your garbage or a rabid raccoon is in your driveway, you might get connected to an animal-control department. There’s no reason cities couldn’t also have specialized emergency responders for many situations they currently handle by dispatching police: drug overdoses, domestic arguments, loud parties, homeless people camping out someplace they shouldn’t, and so on.

Friday night’s shooting of Rayshard Brooks is a case in point: The original problem was that he fell asleep while his car was parked, partially blocking a Wendy’s drive-through. Did someone with a gun need to handle that? If someone without a gun had been sent — the kind of plan San Francisco is rolling out, and a few smaller cities are already trying — Brooks would probably still be alive.

Even most criminal investigation doesn’t really need a policeman, or at least not an armed one. Typically, police show up in the aftermath of a crime: Your car has been stolen, or you came home to find your house had been burglarized. The perpetrators are long gone. Armed police come, but what the situation really calls for is someone with the skills of an insurance adjuster — someone who can take your statement, shoot some photos, collect some evidence, and write a report. Guns shouldn’t be necessary until it’s time to make an arrest, and maybe not even then.

The Washington Post assembled this graphic summary of what police do in a major American city:

In short, the fewer-police proposal is also a more-people-to-handle-stuff-the-police-should-never-have-been-asked-to-do proposal. And police departments’ funding gets cut, not to punish them, but because the money for those other specialists has to come from somewhere.

Some of that work would be preventive rather than responsive. For example, if a city put real resources behind finding each homeless person a home (like they do in Finland), police (or whoever) wouldn’t have to answer so many calls about them. (The homeless are probably a large chunk of that “suspicious person” block in the graphic.)

And one final point from Georgetown law professor Christy Lopez:

Once we begin to undertake this inquiry [of rethinking public safety], we quickly see that there are some things that police are doing that nobody should be doing, such as enforcing laws that criminalize poverty and addiction, arresting people instead of issuing citations, writing tickets to raise revenue rather than protect the public, and using armored vehicles to evict women and children from a home they have occupied to protest homelessness.

Political activism vs. electoral politics. “Abolish the Police” is probably a great slogan if you want to raise energy for a protest, but across most of the country it would be a suicidal slogan for a political campaign.

A good issue-activist slogan is provocative in much the same way that online clickbait is. It draws your attention, maybe shocks you a little, and pulls you into the discussion if only to argue against it. Once drawn in, you may consider ideas you had never thought of before, and the activists may elaborate their proposals in ways that make them more reasonable than they originally sounded.

To a large extent, that’s working. I have lost count of the number of articles I’ve read explaining that “Abolish the Police” and “Defund the Police” don’t really mean “abolish the police” or “cut their funding to zero”: Somebody would still answer 911 calls, and if the needed response was for armed warriors to show up — say, in an active shooter situation — the city would still have some on the payroll. As Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing told NPR:

I’m certainly not talking about any kind of scenario where tomorrow someone just flips a switch and there are no police.

(Then again, some people really do mean “Abolish the Police”.)

Would I have read those articles and considered those ideas if they had just been labeled “police reform” or something equally bland? Maybe not.

But while it makes sense for an issue activist to shock you with a slogan and then explain the nuances later, that’s an insane strategy for a politician trying to get elected. Ronald Reagan was right: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Issue-oriented activists tend to underestimate the importance of low-information voters in electoral politics. But those voters are why every campaign works hard to oversimplify its opponents’ positions to the point of absurdity, and then to get those simple absurdities into the minds of voters who can’t be bothered to consider the complicated details.

In 1988, for example, Mike Dukakis had a huge lead in the polls after the Democratic Convention. But George H. W. Bush caught up and won handily on the strength of two “issues”: Mike Dukakis hates the Pledge of Allegiance, and Mike Dukakis will let big black dudes rape your wife. Both were nonsense, but explaining why they were nonsense derailed Dukakis’ whole message. He had to keep explaining, and so he lost. Bush’s 53% of the vote is more than any presidential candidate has gotten since.

Trump and Biden. You can already see Trump pushing a similar oversimplification on immigration policy: Democrats want “open borders“. None of the Democrats running for president in this cycle endorsed “open borders”, and I can’t think of a single Democrat in Congress who has even said the phrase. But nonetheless it’s a staple of Trump rhetoric: If Democrats take over, the Mexican border will be left completely unmanned and unprotected.

He has been helped in this effort by liberal activists who pushed the slogan “Abolish ICE”. Now, “Abolish ICE” doesn’t mean “leave the border unprotected”, but it sounds like it does. If you tell low-information voters that Democrats want open borders, and illustrate with demonstrators waving “Abolish ICE” signs, they’ll be convinced.

Similarly here, “Abolish the Police” or “Defund the Police” doesn’t mean “You’re on your own if a criminal attacks you.” But it sounds like it does. If I tell a low-information voter that Joe Biden won’t protect him from criminals, and then cut to a video of Biden saying “Abolish the police”, he’ll be convinced.

And that’s why Biden will never say, “Abolish the police.”

Rep. Jim Clyburn elaborates:

If you’re talking about reallocating resources, say that. If you mean reimagining policing, say that. If you’re going to reform policing, say that. Don’t tell me you’re going to use a term that you know is charged — and tell me that it doesn’t mean what it says.

California Governor Gavin Newsom explored the limits of how far a mainstream politician can go:

California Governor Gavin Newsom [said] Wednesday that while he’s not interested in “eliminating police,” he’s open to considering how a police officer’s role in a community could change.

“If you’re talking about reimagining and taking the opportunity to look at the responsibility and role that we place on law enforcement to be social workers, mental health workers, get involved in disputes where a badge and a gun are unnecessary, then I think absolutely this is an opportunity to look at all of the above.”

Is there any good electoral slogan here? Personally, I’m frustrated that no simple English verb expresses the idea I want. No everyday verb means “Expand other things so that one particular thing gets crowded out.” I can’t even think of a good metaphor to express that notion.

I agree with the abolition supporters that “reform” is too tepid. We’ve been reforming police for a long time now, and yet we still have George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. I can’t claim that nothing has changed, because Floyd’s killer is charged with murder when so many killer officers have previously gone uncharged. The Brooks incident has already pushed the Atlanta police chief to resign, and charges against the officer are expected soon. Stuff like that didn’t used to happen. But the unnecessary deaths continue, and (even assuming the reforms currently on the table become law) I can’t say when they’ll stop.

What is stronger than “reform”, but doesn’t have the unfortunate implications of “abolish”? I don’t have a good candidate. Some people are saying “dismantle”. “Reconstitute” might work. I’m tempted to steal a word from the business world, and talk about “downsizing” the police.

Another option might be to talk about “the police state” rather than just “the police”. Americans have ambivalent feelings about police, but nobody likes a police state. (Trump loves to defend the police, but defending the police state would be a gift to his enemies.) “Police state” would capture the idea that black neighborhoods are over-policed, and would also tie in to the idea of mass incarceration. It points to the observation that we currently deal with all kinds of social problems (like homelessness or addiction) through the police rather than through more appropriate institutions.

Downsize the police? Dismantle the police state? End policing as we know it? None of them strikes me as an election-winning slogan, but they’re the best I can do.

Do activists and politicians need to say the same words? Another way to look at this is to let activists advance issues and let politicians win elections. Activists could keep saying “Abolish the police”, and no electoral harm would be done as long as they understood that no national figure could say it with them. The redefinition of police and of public safety is going to have to happen locally anyway. Maybe the best thing the federal government can do is stay out of the way.

Maybe it could be enough for Biden and other major Democrats in the fall election to say things activists could interpret positively, while still holding back from “Abolish the police”, as Governor Newsom did. Maybe it would be enough if Biden could say something like “The beauty of our federal system is that cities and states are free to experiment and try new things. If some of them want to find creative ways to deliver public services, and if they want to develop a new vision of how to ensure public safety, then a Biden administration will try to work with them.”

But maybe it wouldn’t be enough. Trump won in 2016 by pounding two wedges: a “corruption” wedge between Hillary Clinton and the center-right, and a Bernie-was-robbed wedge between Clinton and left. He’s going to try the same thing again. “Abolish the Police” works for him either way: If Biden agrees with the slogan, that becomes a wedge separating him from the center. If he doesn’t, it’s a wedge separating him from the left.

So that’s the question activists will be left with: Is it enough for Biden to indicate a general sympathy with their movement (when Trump is steadfastly against it), or does he have to repeat their words?

How Should American Policing Change?

“Actually, we’re just getting started.”

This week it’s been easy to assemble video collections of misbehaving police. The current crisis began with a Minneapolis policeman killing George Floyd — not instantaneously, by shooting him in a moment of confusion or fear, but slowly, by kneeling on his neck as his life ebbed away. In the two weeks since, we’ve seen phalanxes of militarized police attack angry but non-violent crowds of protesters on multiple occasions. Friday, the NYT’s Jamelle Bouie put together a list:

Rioting police have driven vehicles into crowds, reproducing the assault that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. They have surrounded a car, smashed the windows, tazed the occupants and dragged them out onto the ground. Clad in paramilitary gear, they have attacked elderly bystanders, pepper-sprayed cooperative protesters and shot “nonlethal” rounds directly at reporters, causing serious injuries. In Austin, Texas, a 20-year-old man is in critical condition after being shot in the head with a “less-lethal” round. Across the country, rioting police are using tear gas in quantities that threaten the health and safety of demonstrators, especially in the midst of a respiratory disease pandemic.

That list is sadly incomplete. For example, Bouie’s “elderly bystander” is not the one you’re thinking of. These bystanders are in Salt Lake City, not Buffalo. The video Bouie linked to also shows an old man being pushed to the ground, but he falls on his chest rather than striking the back of his head.

It is tempting to keeping throwing more and more videos at the dead-enders who refuse to see the widespread problem in American policing. But those who are not convinced by now will probably never be convinced, and in the meantime we have let them freeze the conversation. Something similar happens with climate change: A handful of stubborn denialists can freeze a conversation at the is-it-real stage, and prevent reality-based people from discussing what to do about it.

It’s time to ignore the dead-enders and move forward without them.

More than a few bad apples. It also time to start ignoring people who make the few-bad-apples argument, as White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien did recently. If there were no systemic problem, that handful of bad cops would be easy to identify and remove from the force. (Don’t tell me the other cops don’t know who they are.) But the problem is not just the occasional officer who violently abuses his power; it’s all the other cops who cover for him and resist any attempt to hold him accountable.

The initial police statement on George Floyd mentioned nothing about Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, but was titled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” When Buffalo police shoved a 75-year-old protester — a white man, in this case — who hit his head on the pavement and soon had blood pooling around his ear, their initial statement said:

A 5th person was arrested during a skirmish with other protestors and also charged with disorderly conduct. During that skirmish involving protestors, one person was injured when he tripped & fell.

In both cases, that false account probably would have stood if not for bystander video, leaving us to wonder how many police assaults and murders are routinely covered up — not just by the “bad apples” who commit those crimes, but by the criminally complicit police around them.

The Buffalo situation demonstrates an even deeper rot. When bystander video showed that the police report was a lie, Buffalo’s police commissioner suspended without pay, pending investigation, the two officers who pushed the man down. (The officers who knowingly allowed a false report to be issued have not been punished.) But even this small move towards accountability was too much: All 57 fellow active members of the Buffalo Police emergency unit resigned from the squad (but not from the police).

“Fifty-seven resigned in disgust because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders,” Buffalo Police Benevolent Association president John Evans told WGRZ on Friday.

Their orders were to clear the square of protesters, not to assault old men. (The two officers were charged with assault Saturday. Over 100 police and firefighters showed up at the courthouse to support them.) But not a single member of the emergency unit looked at that video and said, “Hey, we shouldn’t be doing things like that.” They have chosen their side. There aren’t two bad apples on that squad; there are 57 bad apples. There’s probably no bureaucratic mechanism that can bring about this outcome, but none of them should ever be police anywhere again. (According to the local ABC TV channel, though, two of the 57 claim the union manipulated this outcome by saying they could no longer defend members of the emergency unit under these conditions.)

What can be done? We need to be thinking on multiple time scales. Some significant changes need to be announced immediately, while the crowds are still in the streets. But problems this deep and old resist quick fixes. So the country needs a long-term plan, but that plan has to visibly begin right now.

In Minnesota. In the specific case of George Floyd’s murder, most of what the protesters want has already been achieved: All four officers involved have been arrested and charged. Derek Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, and the other three face aiding-and-abetting charges. Unless we want to see the officers handed over for mob justice, that’s all that can be done right now. The legal process will play out over months, and ultimately a jury will have to decide what happens to them.

More broadly, the Minnesota Commissioner for Human Rights filed suit against the City of Minneapolis and its police department on Tuesday, claiming that

the City of Minneapolis Police Department has engaged in a pattern and practice of race-based policing in violation of the [Minnesota Human Rights Act]

Friday, the Commissioner and the City agreed to a plan that they have asked the Court to impose as an injunction. The plan has six provisions:

  • Ban chokeholds and neck restraints of any kind.
  • Police officers who witness another officer’s unauthorized use of force have an immediate duty to report the incident to their commanders.
  • Police officers who witness another officer’s unauthorized use of force have a duty to intervene “by verbal and physical means“, or face the same punishment as the offending officer.
  • Crowd control weapons (chemical agents and rubber bullets are specifically mentioned) can only be used after authorization by the Chief of Police.
  • Pending disciplinary actions must be decided within 45 days. Future actions have to be decided within 30 days.
  • The City’s Office of Police Conduct Review can audit body-camera footage “proactively and strategically”. (Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucerno explains: “Right now, body cam footage exists. However, it’s only reviewed when there’s a complaint.”)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his own proposal, which requires action from the legislature:

  • Make police disciplinary records transparent
  • Ban chokeholds
  • Make false race-based 911 reports a hate crime
  • Attorney General must act as independent prosecutor for any police murder case

Several other states and cities have announced plans to ban either chokeholds or tear gas or both.

8 Can’t Wait. Campaign Zero is an organization devoted to ending police violence. It put out the “8 Can’t Wait” agenda, of steps any city could take right away. (The “Data proves …” claim in the graphic below is theirs, not mine. I have not tried to evaluate it.)

Matt Yglesias explains the 8 in more detail, and looks at some of the supporting statistics. Some are easy to understand: banning chokeholds and the duty to intervene are already part of the Minneapolis agreement discussed above. The ban on shooting at moving vehicles and requirement to warn before shooting are self-explanatory.

A comprehensive reporting requirement means that officers need to report each time they use force or threaten to use force against a civilian. … The use of force continuum is a specific set of requirements governing what kinds of weapons can be used versus what levels of resistance. And a deescalation requirement mandates that officers try to secure their personal safety through distance and communication before resorting to force.

Medium-term proposals. A number of ideas are included in the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which Democrats in the House and Senate are introducing this morning. It’s hard to imagine Mitch McConnell allowing any of these reforms to be passed in time to bring this season of protest to a successful conclusion, but the problem isn’t going away until we have reforms more significant than anything that can happen quickly.

  • a national database of deaths in police custody. It’s hard to believe this doesn’t already exist, but apparently not.
  • a national police misconduct registry. So that bad cops fired in one city can’t just get a new job somewhere else.
  • ending or altering “qualified immunity”. Qualified immunity shelters government officials from civil lawsuits for violating someone’s rights, “unless the victims of those violations can show that the rights were ‘clearly established’.” In practice, this has made such suits almost impossible for plaintiffs to win.
  • changing the standard for police use of force. “victims of excessive force or other violations need only show that officers ‘recklessly’ deprived them of their rights. The current statute requires victims to show that officers’ actions were ‘willful’.”
  • formalize the Justice Department’s oversight of police departments with a history of bad practices. During the Obama administration, Justice took oversight of local police seriously, but when Jeff Sessions became attorney general, he abandoned those efforts.

A change more likely to be made on the state level than the federal level: setting up a special prosecutor or special process for investigating killings by local police. In Minnesota, for example, the state attorney general has taken over the prosecution of the George Floyd officers. Some states already have state guidelines for investigating officer-involved deaths that make sure police departments aren’t investigating themselves. All states should.

And finally, cities need to change their relationships with police unions. In general, unions are good, and collective bargaining for better wages and benefits is fine. But too often police unions intent on protecting their members torpedo any move towards public accountability.

Long term: police culture. Welcome as reforms like those mentioned above would be, many doubt they would solve the problem.

Two aspects of the problem are more complicated than just changing a few rules and hiring better people:

  • The institutional culture of police departments needs to change.
  • The tasks that belong to police departments need to be rethought.

Both of these are too big for a few paragraphs at the end of a long article, but here are some thoughts to get you started.

Friday night, Chris Hayes interviewed Patrick Skinner, a former CIA counterterrorism officer who came home to be a beat cop in Savannah. One of the themes of their conversation was the dysfunction of the “warrior” mentality of police. Skinner said that police would do better to think of themselves as neighbors rather than warriors. In a recent Washington Post op-ed he wrote:

As I got better at being a rookie cop, I kept asking myself this question: “If I didn’t have a badge and a gun, how would I handle this call?” Whatever I came up with that was legal, transparent and kind, I would try.

Hayes reviewed the video of the 75-year-old man being pushed down in Buffalo, and observed that probably none of the officers present would act that way in everyday life: They would not push an old man out of their way, and if they saw an old man bleeding on the pavement, they would stop to help. Somehow, their police training overrode those human reactions.

Long term: defunding. Philip and Thenjiwe McHarris note all the reform efforts by the Minneapolis police — none of which saved George Floyd’s life. They think it’s foolish to expect similar small-scale reforms to end the killing of black people in general.

The focus on training, diversity and technology like body cameras shifts focus away from the root cause of police violence and instead gives the police more power and resources. The problem is that the entire criminal justice system gives police officers the power and opportunity to systematically harass and kill with impunity.

The solution to ending police violence and cultivating a safer country lies in reducing the power of the police and their contact with the public. We can do that by reinvesting the $100 billion spent on policing nationwide in alternative emergency response programs, as protesters in Minneapolis have called for.

In most American communities today, police get called to deal with all manner of disorder, from the homeless man sleeping on your stoop to the loud teen-age party next door to domestic violence to drug overdoses to episodes of mental illness.

But what defines the police is their ability to use force, all the way up to deadly force. Their very presence is a threat of force, and opens the possibility that someone could end up dead. I sincerely doubt that the clerk who called the police on George Floyd intended for them to come and kill him. The store owner now says: “If I was [there] I don’t think the authorities would have been called and we would have policed our own matters.”

Often situations would be better addressed by a civic official with different capabilities, different options, and different training. Or perhaps the disorder would not exist at all if some kind of preventive service had been provided during the previous weeks. But cities don’t have the resources for such alternatives precisely because they’re spending so much money on police.

Moves to cut both the responsibilities and the budgets of police, and to use that money to provide services in alternative ways, are often promoted with slogans like “Abolish the police”. This is poor messaging, in my opinion, and opens itself up to easy caricature from police advocates. (Are cities going to stop enforcing their laws? Should citizens buy more guns and take the law into their own hands?) But what abolish-the-police advocates really want is something far more reasonable: Reduce to the absolute minimum the number of occasions when Americans come into contact with people who could kill them and get away with it.

This Week, Democratic Protest Outlasted Riot and Repression

Fascism got out to an early lead, but a late comeback won the week for democracy.


A week ago, peaceful protests by day were competing with violence by night: violence by protesters, violence by opportunistic looters, violence from mysterious agitators seeking a wider conflict, and violence by police. President Trump seemed to think this unrest worked in his favor politically — perhaps his re-election campaign could ride a wave of white backlash, as Richard Nixon did in 1968 — so he ignored the peaceful protests, denounced the rioters, and focused on “dominating” American streets with overwhelming force.

That cycle peaked Monday. Washington D.C. had no governor with the authority to object, so Trump brought in National Guard units from across the country, and moved 1,600 active-duty troops to nearby bases. (According CNN, those troops were not used; “no active duty forces have entered the city yet to respond to civil unrest.”) CBS News reported a heated meeting at the White House Monday, when Trump demanded that the Pentagon deploy 10,000 active-duty troops in the streets in cities across the country. (To get around the restrictions the Posse Comitatus Act puts on military law enforcement, Trump would have had to invoke the Insurrection Act.) Defense Secretary Esper, Attorney General Bill Barr, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley all opposed the idea.

But if the Army wasn’t deployed, another ominous force was: unidentified federal police, who would say only that they came from the Department of Justice. They had no name tags or other means of identification, and hence zero accountability. One protester nailed the issue:

God forbid if there’s an escalation of violence and there’s a video circulating of an officer using his baton on a protester, and there’s no way to identify who that officer is,

Also Monday morning, after a conversation with his autocratic mentor, Vladimir Putin, Trump berated governors in a teleconference, calling them “weak” if they did not call out the National Guard and “dominate the streets”.

Trump also claimed to know the sinister conspiracy he needed to dominate: Antifa, which Wikipedia describes as “a diverse array of autonomous groups”. Trump is often best answered by laughter, so the satire site Beaverton posted: “ANTIFA surprised to discover it is an organization“.

“All this time all I thought I was doing was taking direct action to fight nazis,” stated self-professed anti-fascist Mattheus Grant of Eugene, OR. “But when I learned that I’m actually a member of an organization, I got so excited! Maybe we can get an office now?”

More seriously, The Nation obtained a situation report on the D.C. protests from the FBI’s Washington field office (WFO):

based on CHS [Confidential Human Source] canvassing, open source/social media partner engagement, and liaison, FBI WFO has no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence.

So either Trump knew more than the FBI, or he just made this up.

The photo op. Trump’s photo-op stunt with an Episcopal Church as a backdrop and a Bible as a prop happened Monday evening.

That PR gimmick began a half hour before curfew with an attack on peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. After the crowd was cleared away, Trump walked from the White House to St. John’s Church to have his photo taken holding up a Bible. Brandishing the Bible like a weapon seemed to be the only use he could think of.

Leaders from The Episcopal Church have condemned the reported use of tear gas and projectiles to clear clergy and protesters from the area around St. John’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House, so President Donald Trump could use it for an unauthorized photo op on June 1.

Video of the attack is disturbing in some places and boring in others, but I recommend watching chunks of it, particularly after the 30-minute mark when the police begin moving the crowd.

What I see in that video are angry but entirely non-violent demonstrators, mostly young adults and a surprising (to me) number of whites. Police push them back with gas, exploding projectiles, shields, and horses.

Perhaps even more disturbing was the baldly false statement issued by the Park Police afterwards:

At approximately 6:33 pm, violent protestors on H Street NW began throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids. … As many of the protestors became more combative, continued to throw projectiles, and attempted to grab officers’ weapons, officers then employed the use of smoke canisters and pepper balls. No tear gas was used by USPP officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to close the area at Lafayette Park

The video shows none of this, and none of the journalists covering the demonstration saw it. In the video, the police look entirely undisturbed. They do not flinch to avoid projectiles, and nothing bounces off their shields. After the police begin to fire gas and advance, I noticed two or three water bottles hit the pavement in front of them. The bottles hit with a splash — they are not frozen — and do not hit the police. No one appears to be trying to grab police weapons.

As the week went on, more and more people in the administration claimed to have nothing to do with the decision to launch this attack. No one was responsible. Not Mark Esper. Not General Milley. Not even Bill Barr. Success has many fathers, the proverb says, but failure is an orphan. By that standard, Trump’s church-and-Bible photo op was a failure.

Damage to America’s standing in the world. If you think this combination of factors — calling out the military against protesting crowds, blatant lying, secret police, using low-flying military helicopters to intimidate dissidents, attacking journalists, and denouncing imaginary conspiratorial enemies — sound like the kind of autocratic response to dissent that the US usually condemns, you’re not the only ones who noticed. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, who learned about autocracy by studying Putin, described it as “the performance of fascism“.

A power grab is always a performance of sorts. It begins with a claim to power, and if the claim is accepted—if the performance is believed—it takes hold. Much as he played a real-estate tycoon in the most crude and reductive way, Trump is now performing his idea of power as he imagines it. In his intuition, power is autocratic; it affirms the superiority of one nation and one race; it asserts total domination; and it mercilessly suppresses all opposition.

China noticed too, and gloated. The editor of China’s Global Times tweeted:

The US repression of domestic unrest has further eroded the moral basis to claim itself “beacon of democracy”. The era that the US political elites could exploit Tiananmen incident at will is over.

And Thai Enquirer couldn’t resist an ironic jab at the oh-so-superior United States: “Unrest continues for a seventh day in former British colony“.

The United States has had a long history of suppressing and persecuting its various ethnic minorities since the country gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1776.

The treatment of its indigenous ‘Native Americans,’ its imported Asian and Black communities, and its Hispanic community has long been a source of friction.

American black minority groups were under a program similar to South Africa’s Apartheid policy until as recently as 1964. Today, the ethnic black community is still detained and killed with impunity by the state security forces and black Americans make up the majority of those incarcerated under the country’s archaic judicial system.

Religion also plays a major role in governance with religious beliefs separating key state organs including the country’s highest court where many social laws are passed based on the justices’ personally held religious convictions.

In short, US ambassadors around the world have just seen their moral authority collapse.

In addition to Trump’s proposed misuse of the Army, his unilateral dismantling of America’s soft power is probably a major factor causing previously silent military figures to speak out: Trump’s ex-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to name two out of many.

Peaceful protest wins out. But if Trump imagined that unleashing police power on the protesters at Lafayette Park would intimidate them, he was wrong. On Tuesday they were back in larger numbers, and have not stopped protesting near the White House since. Friday, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed the section of 16th Street that ends at Lafayette Park “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and painted an enormous “Black Lives Matter” on the pavement. (In the vanishing point of the photo below, you can barely make out the White House.)

Bowser’s move was an institutional version of the well-known protest chant: “Whose streets? Our streets.”

Wednesday, President Obama filled the healing role that Trump has left vacant, urging young African Americans to “feel hopeful even as you may feel angry”. Don’t choose between protest in the streets and action within the political system, he advised. Do both.

This is not an either-or. This is a both-and. To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented. … Every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals, has been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable. And we should all be thankful for folks who are willing in a peaceful, disciplined way to be out there making a difference.

A memorial service for Floyd was held in Minneapolis on Thursday, and another in Raeford, North Carolina (where he was born) on Saturday. Both were surrounded by emotional, but nonviolent, crowds.

That turned into the pattern across the nation. As the week went on, violence faded and peaceful protest gained momentum. The largest protests occurred this weekend unblemished by violence from either looters or law enforcement.

Strikingly, protests occurred all over the country, in small towns as well as big cities, and included many whites as well as people of color. (Mitt Romney marched Sunday in Washington.) In this photo, taken Wednesday a few blocks from where I live in Bedford, Massachusetts, two passing police stop in the Great Road to take a knee in front of the protesters on the town common. The officers were later commended by the police chief, and every protester I’ve talked to was touched by the gesture. (Our local protests continued all week; I attended on Friday.)

There are two ways to interpret the late-week peace. In one narrative, the overwhelming display of force on Sunday and Monday sent the message that protester violence would not be tolerated. As rioters went away, law enforcement withdrew. But in another narrative, it was law enforcement’s lower profile that de-escalated the cycle of violence.

One inarguable point, though, is that the absence of burning buildings and marauding police left the media little to cover other than the substance of the protests. By this weekend, there was increasing discussion of proposals to get America’s police back under control. (See the next article.)

Thoughtful people can disagree about whether the early-week violence was necessary to focus the nation’s attention. But it was clearly necessary for that violence to end so that the message could be absorbed.

In the end, on balance, it was a good week for democracy and for the nation. But we’ll need a lot more good weeks to see change take root.

The Three Stories of George Floyd

The George Floyd story is really three separate stories: how he died, how he fits into the larger story of police brutality against black people, and the demonstrations and riots that have happened around the country since his killing.

His death. The first story is the most difficult to watch, but the easiest to tell: Last Monday in Minneapolis, police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck “for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, with 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that occurring after Floyd was unresponsive”.

We know the timing that exactly because a bystander uploaded a video to Facebook. It shows Floyd repeatedly complaining that he can’t breathe, and then becoming motionless while bystanders plead with police to “check his pulse” and ask the policeman who was keeping the growing crowd away “You going to let him kill that man in front of you?”. Chauvin doesn’t get off Floyd’s neck until an ambulance has arrived and a stretcher is ready to receive his (possibly already lifeless) body.

The police account, from a few hours before the video went viral, tells none of that. The New York Times summarizes:

Minneapolis police said they were investigating an accusation of forgery on Monday night in the southern part of the city. They confronted a man who was sitting on the top of a blue car. The police said the suspect had “physically resisted officers” as he was placed in handcuffs. He appeared to be “suffering medical distress,” according to the police statement released on Monday night after an ambulance was called to the scene.

That account is true, as far as it goes. Floyd was being arrested on a complaint that he had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a local grocery. NBC reconstructed the arrest from a number of video sources. At times Floyd struggled with the police arresting him, but he presented no weapons and was always greatly outnumbered. (According to the criminal complaint against Chauvin, the struggle you can barely make out in the NBC video is Floyd resisting being put in the squad car.) At no point did he seem to be getting away. When Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck, Floyd was already handcuffed.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey commented:

The technique that was used is not permitted; is not a technique that our officers get trained in on. And our chief has been very clear on that piece. There is no reason to apply that kind of pressure with a knee to someone’s neck.

The four police officers involved in the incident were fired on Tuesday. On Friday, Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. [1] According to the local Star Tribune, he is the first white police officer in Minnesota to be charged in the death of a black civilian.

The other officers have not been charged with anything, but the county attorney says they are under investigation and charges are expected. Local Channel 9 speculated on what those charges might be:

The most serious charge the other three fired officers could face is aiding and abetting the murder. “That could be giving him a tool or weapon, it could be keeping people away from interfering with that was going on,” Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor, told FOX 9.

Friday, a Washington Post editorial expressed dissatisfaction with the official response:

Minneapolis’s own police have done little to suggest they can earn the trust of the community they are sworn to serve. They have not released body-cam footage of Mr. Floyd’s arrest, nor apologized for the specious statement they published about the incident, which elided the fact that Mr. Chauvin’s knee choked Mr. Floyd. The head of the city’s police union, Lt. Bob Kroll, said “now is not the time to rush to judgment” on Mr. Chauvin or the other officers at the scene, who did nothing to interfere as Mr. Floyd begged for his life.

Racism and American police. Excessive violence against black people accused of crimes is a very old story in America. By various accounts, thousands of blacks were lynched between the Civil War and the 1930s, often on little more than a false accusation. By definition, a lynching is an extra-judicial killing, but local law enforcement officers commonly either participated or looked the other way. (For example, the local sheriff was identified as a conspirator in the Mississippi Burning murders of three civil rights activists in 1964.) I don’t know any estimate of the number of African Americans who have died in police custody since the end of slavery. Such killings were easily attributed to the suspect resisting arrest, attempting to escape, or committing suicide in prison.

For most of my lifetime, whites have regarded police brutality against black people as a they-said/they-said story. Blacks almost universally complained that police treated them more harshly than whites, and statistics showed that blacks were arrested, charged, and convicted far more often. But police said that blacks committed more crimes and were more likely to have a bad attitude towards police. Most white people never saw police arresting or otherwise accosting blacks, so the problem was easy to deny, ignore, or minimize.

The advent of ubiquitous video has changed all that. In recent years, the whole world has seen police choke Eric Garner to death while arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes, shoot 12-year-old Tamir Rice dead for playing with a toy gun, shoot Walter Scott in the back while he was running away from an officer who had stopped him for having a bad brake light, and many similar incidents.

Those videos made us see other incidents differently, even if the actual death was off-camera: John Crawford III was shot dead in a WalMart for carrying a toy gun he was thinking of buying. Stephon Clark was shot dead in his grandmother’s back yard when police mistook his cellphone for a gun. Philandro Castille was riding with his girl friend and her four-year-old daughter when a policeman stopped the car. Castille informed the officer that he had a legal gun in the car, and the officer shot him dead. Freddie Gray died from a “rough ride” that police gave him back to the station after arresting him for carrying a knife.

The great majority of these incidents — even the ones caught on video — resulted in no jail time for the police involved. No one was indicted for Garner, Rice, Crawford, or Clark’s deaths. The officer who killed Castille was acquitted. Gray’s death resulted in a mistrial, some acquittals, and dropped charges. Walter Scott’s killer was convicted on federal charges, eventually, after his trial on a state murder charge ended in a hung jury.

Police have also tended to look the other way when white civilians kill blacks. Trayvon Martin was shot dead by a neighborhood watchman as he returned to his father’s fiance’s house after buying Skittles at a convenience store. Rather than treating the shooting as a crime, police returned the shooter’s gun and sent him home. Massive protests pushed local authorities to indict the shooter eventually, but he was acquitted.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the American justice system doesn’t regard the killing of a black person as a big deal. The anti-brutality movement is called Black Lives Matter in response to the apparent reality that they don’t. [2]

Recent events. By the time Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, outrage had already been building for some while.

In late February, Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Brunswick, Georgia by two white men (a retired police detective and his son) while he was out jogging. The killers told police they suspected him in some local burglaries. For months the police took no action and the case got no attention in the press. But in early May, a video of the incident (which police seem to have known about all along) went viral. It showed Arbery being chased down and shot by three men in two trucks. It looked a lot more like a lynching that the resisting-citizen’s-arrest story the killers told.

Within two days of the video’s release, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had gotten involved and arrested the two men in the lead truck. The third man, who videoed from the second truck, was arrested later.

How, the nation wondered, could police have sat on this video for months without making an arrest? If the video hadn’t leaked, would the killers have gotten away with it?

Another recent case generating outrage: Breonna Taylor, a Louisville EMT. Plain-clothes police with a no-knock warrant burst into her home (her boyfriend claims without identifying themselves as police), setting off a gun battle in which Taylor was killed and her boyfriend wounded. The warrant was to look for drugs, which they did not find. The boyfriend’s story — that he thought he was defending against a home invasion by armed criminals — seems pretty credible.

Echoes of Ferguson. Before we get into this week’s demonstrations and riots, I want to talk about the last time something like this happened.

In 2014, after the Michael Brown shooting in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, demonstrations erupted and sometimes turned violent. I commented at the time on the coverage from Fox News and other conservative media, which framed the community reaction as a great mystery: Most of these people never knew Michael Brown and had no idea whether the police were telling the truth or not about his killing. What riled them up so much that they had to go break windows or burn down a store?

If you came to the Ferguson story with that question in mind, racist stereotypes provided an obvious answer, which Fox didn’t need to spell out (though some right-wing voices did): The Brown shooting was just an excuse for young black men to indulge their inherently lawless nature.

I addressed this “mystery” in “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson“, a piece that I think holds up pretty well after nearly six years. What Fox did wrong was present the Brown shooting as a one-off event, when the real story was the ongoing predatory behavior of the Ferguson police towards the black community. [3]

The right story begins not with Officer Wilson’s bullets, or even with Michael Brown in the convenience store, but with a community where lesser forms of police abuse are an everyday occurrence. … So it’s no mystery at all why people who never met Michael Brown have been out on the streets. Brown’s death is part of a bigger issue that they all have a stake in: How can the police be gotten under community control, and disciplined to treat the community with respect? …

What’s rare about the Brown shooting isn’t the shooting itself, but how visible everything is: The body was lying in the street for hours. The eyewitnesses have been on TV. Nothing in the autopsy or other available evidence contradicts their testimony. If the police don’t have to answer for this, then what are the limits? Is there anything they can’t sweep under the rug?

This week’s responses. That’s the context to keep in mind as you think about the sometimes-violent demonstrations that we’ve seen around the country since Floyd’s killing. It isn’t that thousands of people have suddenly decided to care about a guy they’d never heard of a week ago, and it’s not that lawless animals have been turned loose. The anger being expressed in these demonstrations, by both peaceful and violent demonstrators, is largely personal anger. George Floyd symbolizes that anger, but it’s much bigger than him.

Very large numbers of black people have had their own bad experiences with police, incidents where they felt humiliated or threatened or disrespected. (One young man in Ferguson schooled a condescending Fox News reporter: “We go through this shit every day.“) And for the most part they have had no recourse; no one who had the power to demand justice would take their complaint seriously.

So when they see the tape of Chauvin killing Floyd, their response isn’t, “Oh my God, can you believe that?” but “There! Look at that! That’s how they are!” Not “I can’t believe stuff like that happens in America” but “Finally somebody got the goods on them.” [4]

And at the same time, there’s the fear that even with this kind of evidence, nothing will change. Maybe Chauvin will be tried and maybe he’ll even be convicted, but maybe he’ll get off somehow, as so many others have. Maybe the other cops have been fired, but probably somebody — maybe even Minneapolis again — will hire them and put them back on the street. Or maybe they’ll be the rare cops to pay some kind of price for their racism, but the racist policing system as a whole will rumble on.

There is no reason for the demonstrators to have faith that something else will happen, that America finally gets it now. That’s why they’re on the street.

For comparison, think about school shootings. Again and again — Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland — an event is so shocking that it rises above the usual platitudes. And for a moment you think: “Now. Now something will change, because things like just can’t go on.”

But they do go on. Sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes there’s some incremental change in how we sell or track guns. But before too long there’s a new shooting, one even more horrible than the last one. And we go through it all again. Remember how that feels?

Riots. What we saw rising through the week and then reaching a crescendo over the weekend was a pattern of peaceful demonstrations by day and violence by night — not just in Minneapolis, but in cities across the country.

I don’t know how to cover the destruction, or even how to grasp it. A news network may show you a store being looted or a police station being burned, but are all the stores being looted? Is the whole city burning? The destruction seems widespread, but I don’t know how to get a handle on it.

I think it’s important, though, that riots not become the story. The original injustice — both specifically in the Floyd case and generally in the racial bias of our law enforcement — needs to be the story. Yes, the riots need to stop. Yes, people who use the cover of the chaos to commit crimes should be arrested and punished. And we need to take a hard look at crowd-control policing to see whether its tactics set off people who might otherwise disperse on their own. But just returning to the status quo is not a solution, because before long there will be another George Floyd, and then it will happen all over again.

I think it’s important to remember that peaceful protest was tried and it failed. Remember Colin Kaepernick? What he was protesting when he knelt during the national anthem was precisely the racist nature of policing in America. The main result of Kaepernick’s protest was to end his NFL career, largely because Trump wouldn’t let up. LeBron James reminded us of this by posting this photo with the comment “This is why”

When you suppress peaceful protest against legitimate injustices, and punish the people who do it, you make violent protest inevitable.

And I don’t want to hear the platitude that violence never changes anything. In fact it does, and I think we’re seeing that now. The riots are sending white America the message that this can’t go on. It could have heard that message when Eric Garner said, “I can’t breathe.” It could have understood that message when football players knelt. But it refused. Now the message is being sent with fire and broken glass.

This can’t go on.

The agitators. Finally, there’s the mystery of the Umbrella Man, and an indeterminate number of others like him. A white man dressed in black, hiding his face behind a gas mask and an umbrella, got the Minneapolis riots started by calmly and methodically smashing the windows of an AutoZone with a hammer. He then walked away. He does not seem to be either a protester or a looter; he’s just there to catalyze the transition from protest to riot.

There are many similar stories of mysterious people, many of them white, who perform some initial act of violence and then vanish. Sometimes they arrive in trucks with no license plates.

So far, a lot more is being said about these mystery men than anyone actually knows. Some say they’re white supremacists trying to set off the race war that their rhetoric says is coming. Trump says Antifa is behind it. [5] A number of protesters in Minneapolis suspect undercover police of agitating the violence to discredit the peaceful protests. (In the Umbrella Man video, bystanders keep asking “Are you a cop?”)

Any of those stories might have been false originally, and then become true. If you’re an isolated white supremacist or a left-wing anarchist, and you hear a false report that people like you are trying to turn the protests into riots, maybe you go out and do it without orders from anyone.

All those explanations need to weighed against the need of local officials to deny that their own constituents are so disillusioned that they’re ready to start burning stuff down. Blaming it all on “outsiders” is an easy out for them.

My advice: Pay attention to actual cases and the observations of specific witnesses, but don’t take anybody’s conclusions seriously yet.


[1] A local TV station summarizes what Chauvin was and wasn’t charged with.

A person commits third-degree murder when the person does not intend to kill another person but does so by acting recklessly, or “without regard for human life.”

It can lead to as many as 25 years in prison. The manslaughter charge carries a sentence up to 10 years, and is easier to prove.

A person commits second-degree manslaughter when their negligence causes another person’s death. Manslaughter only requires the person to create “an unreasonable risk,” while third-degree murder requires the person to act “without regard for human life.”

The more serious charge of second-degree murder would require establishing that Chauvin intended to kill Floyd, and first degree would mean that he planned the killing.

So it depends on what Derek Chauvin was thinking. If he walked into the situation thinking “I’m going to kill that guy”, it’s first degree. If in the moment he realizes “I’m killing this guy” and continues, that’s second degree. If he just thinks “Eh, if he dies he dies”, that’s third degree. If he should have known that Floyd’s life was at risk, it’s manslaughter even if he didn’t know.

In my personal opinion, the Floyd killing is second-degree murder. But if I wanted to give myself the best chance to win in court, I’d do what the prosecutor has done. I’m not sure I could prove to a jury that the thought “I’m killing this guy” went through Derek Chauvin mind (though being surrounded by people yelling “You’re killing him” should have given him a clue). Proving that Chauvin acted recklessly and should have known Floyd might die seems much easier.

[2] That’s why the response “all lives matter” is so off-base. If all lives really did matter, there would be no need to assert that black lives matter.

[3] That behavior was laid out in detail months later in a Justice Department report. One key quote:

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.

In other words, the police went into the community looking for things to fine people for, not to protect life or maintain order. The racial attitude of the police was characterized by things like this:

A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

[4] The Trump administration is still in denial about this. Sunday on CNN, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien rehashed the full a-few-bad-apples story.

No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism. I think 99.9% of our law enforcement officers are great Americans and many of them are African-American, Hispanic, Asian. They’re working in the toughest neighborhoods, they got the hardest jobs to do in this country. … There are some bad cops that are racist, there are cops that maybe don’t have the right training,. There are some that are just bad cops and they need to be rooted out because there’s a few bad apples that are giving law enforcement a terrible name.

What the administration sees is a PR problem, not a race problem. The thing to fix is not black people getting killed, but police getting “a terrible name”.

A lot of people on social media are sharing this Chris Rock quote:

Some jobs can’t have bad apples. Some jobs, everybody gotta be good. Like … pilots. Ya know, American Airlines can’t be like, “Most of our pilots like to land. We just got a few bad apples that like to crash into mountains. Please bear with us.”

[5] Over the years, Trump has said a lot of nonsense about Antifa, which is not even an actual organization so much as a collection of local groups who share some ideas and tactics. The general idea is that fascists are violent, so anti-fascists need to be prepared to match their violence. But Trump needs a left-wing group to distract from white supremacist violence, so Antifa is it.

Trump Has No Endgame

Stop stressing yourself trying to anticipate the masterstroke in his nefarious plan.


Both in the mainstream media and among my social-media friends, I see people who ought to know better switching back and forth between two divergent and contradictory images of Donald Trump: the Magical Thinker and the Master Planner. Recognizing that the president is a magical thinker makes them despair over how our country will deal with the current crisis. But at the same time they have nightmares about the master planner who will find a cunning way to stay in power.

In everything else, Trump is the Dunning-Kruger poster child. But when the subject changes to the election, or to everything that happens between the election and the inauguration of a new president, they suddenly see him as the genius he claims to be. An evil genius, perhaps — a Lex Luthor or a Victor von Doom — but a genius all the same.

Magical Thinker. When we’re talking about practical governing or attempting to solve the problems of the nation, it seems obvious that Trump indulges in magical thinking: He believes he can make the world be what he wants it to be just by insisting that it already is. What he wants to happen will happen, because he says so: The virus will go away “like a miracle”. It’s no worse than the ordinary flu. Anybody who wants a test gets a test. We lead the world in testing. There is no shortage of PPE for hospital workers. The country is ready to reopen, and when it does, the economy will come zooming back. Everyone should be grateful to him for the great job he’s been doing.

His magical thinking is made even worse by his childlike inability to consider the future. His entire focus is on looking good right now, even if it will hurt him in the long run. During February and early March, for example, his happy talk about the virus seemed to be aimed at keeping the stock market high, because that was the core of his re-election pitch: The market is high, unemployment is low; I promised a great economy and I delivered.

There was never any chance he could keep that scam going until November, but it didn’t seem to matter to him. If the market stayed high today, that gave him a talking point today, and improved his poll numbers today. November was November’s problem.

His daily coronavirus briefings (which he continued until wiser heads made him stop) were full of short-term image-building that could never hold up over time. The hospitals have plenty of masks and ventilators, no matter what they say. And Trump is a genius who has genius ideas nobody else thinks of: Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle drug. Bleach can kill virus inside the body.

It’s obvious now that it was always in Trump’s best interest to do a good job fighting the virus. Imagine if he had sounded the alarm early and started emergency preparations back in January and February (as the disease experts inside the government were pleading for him to do). The death total would be lower by tens of thousands and the economy really might be in a position to reopen. What if the US anti-virus efforts were one of the world’s success stories rather than the cautionary tale of neglect and incompetence it is now?

He could have benefited from the we’re-all-in-this-together wave that has boosted the approval numbers of Democratic and Republican governors alike, even in the states that have the highest death totals. If he had met the crisis head-on and given the American people straight talk combined with the steady reassurance of realistic hope (like Andrew Cuomo did in New York), Covid-19 might have been the tailwind that pushed an otherwise unpopular president across the finish line to re-election.

But that strategy would have required a months-long time horizon, which he doesn’t have. He’d have needed to sacrifice the immediate satisfaction of bragging about how wonderful he is and what a perfect economy he has made. He just couldn’t do it.

He still can’t. With another month or so of lockdown, combined with a well-funded, well-organized national test-and-trace program and some realistic guidelines for gradual reopening, the worst of the crisis might yet be in the rear-view mirror by Election Day. But pushing the states to relax restrictions while the virus is still spreading is the same short-term magical thinking all over again. It feels good right now to tell upbeat stories about restaurants and barber shops reopening, and to imagine schools and baseball stadiums opening soon. But how will that look in the fall, when people start voting?

By November, another few weeks of boredom and struggle in May and June would be long forgotten. But a pandemic that in November is still killing thousands of Americans (but not thousands of Germans or Koreans or Canadians) every week will be hard to wish away.

Master Planner. When it comes to politics, though, many people who otherwise see Trump’s cognitive, intellectual, and psychological shortcomings imagine the existence of a Master Plan that ultimately makes it all work in his favor. If he seems to be charging towards a cliff, that can only mean that he has a parachute, or that a military helicopter is waiting to pluck him out of the air.

I mean, he couldn’t just be stupid or delusional, could he? He couldn’t possibly imagine that the cliff will go away because he wants it to, or that he will sprout wings and fly when he gets there? That would be as crazy as … well, all the other stuff he’s done.

But from this point of view, he’s not blundering his way through the virus fight; he wants the virus to be raging in November so that he can use it to suppress the vote. Or maybe he plans to declare martial law and cancel the election. Even if he loses the election, he must have a plan for that too.

Heather Cox Richardson, who usually strikes me as very level-headed, sees an ominous portent in Trump’s “ObamaGate” maneuvers.

It suggests that the Trump administration really is contemplating legal action against F.B.I. officials who were investigating the attack on the 2016 election. This is unprecedented. More, though, it suggests that the Trump administration does not anticipate a Democratic presidency following this one, since it could expect any precedent it now sets to be used against its own people. That it is willing to weaponize intelligence information from a previous administration suggests it is not concerned that the next administration will weaponize intelligence information against Trump officials. That confidence concerns me.

Gee. Inventing a talking point that helps him today creates a scenario where it all backfires somewhere down the road. Who could imagine Trump doing such a thing?

Apply the model of Trump that we see validated every day in every other part of his administration: He doesn’t “anticipate a Democratic presidency” because he doesn’t anticipate anything. Imagine being a Trump aide and raising the question “What are we going to do if Biden beats you?” Do you think you’d get an answer? Would you expect him to tell you to assemble a team and construct a Biden-beats-me contingency plan? Or would he just take your head off and replace you with somebody who doesn’t ask questions like that?

We need a plan even if he doesn’t have one. Trump never looks ahead, but once he gets into a bad situation he looks around. He isn’t bound by moral scruples or political norms or even the law. All options are on the table.

So I expect him to keep denying his poor prospects for re-election until at least mid-October. In the same way that Hitler in 1945 kept promising “miracle weapons” — like the V-2 rocket or jet fighter planes — that would turn the war around, Trump will always have some reason to project success: a last-minute vaccine announcement, a surprise uptick in the economy (or maybe just forcing the Labor Department to publish fake numbers), war with Iran, or a final ad blitz that will destroy Biden once and for all.

As the election approaches, though, it will eventually dawn on him that he’s really losing. As in the Reagan/Carter race of 1980, the voters who make up their minds at the last minute will ask themselves whether this president deserves another term, and they’ll say no. At that point — and not a second before — he will ask, “How can I stop this?” How can I stop people from voting? How can I discredit the vote count? How can I steal votes in the Electoral College? Can the Senate or the Supreme Court declare me the winner even though I lost? Can I just refuse to leave?

At that point, he’ll thrash like a fish in a net. But whatever he does won’t be well prepared or well planned. A military coup is a bit more complicated than just calling the Pentagon and ordering them to keep you in power. Politicians and bureaucrats and judges who cooperated with you when you seemed invincible may decide they don’t want to go to jail for you now that you’re on your way out. And those bands of overweight yahoos with AR-15s may be willing to get violent on his say-so, but who will they shoot and what will they accomplish? All that would require a plan, and there is no plan.

Democrats should not get complacent going down the stretch, because at the last minute Trump will be ready to try anything. But he won’t suddenly become a master strategist.

He’ll thrash and he’ll bluster and he’ll try crazy things. But like most things he tries, they won’t be well thought out. And like most things he tries, they won’t work.

This Week in Corruption

Even by the standards of a historically corrupt administration, this week stood out.


Corruption is an ongoing story in the Trump administration, dating way back to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns or distance himself from his business empire. The Trump International Hotel, whose building is rented from the federal government, places Trump in the position of being both the renter and the landlord. His cabinet has been riddled with scandal and conflicts of interest. His impeachment by the House was essentially a corruption story, as he tried to extort a personal favor from Ukraine in exchange for doing his duty as president. And as the Senate considered his fate, he raised millions of dollars to re-elect the Republican senators standing in judgement over him.

This week, though, at least three serious corruption stories were current at the same time:

  • The Justice Department dropped its prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
  • The recently-deposed director of BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) filed a whistleblower complaint alleging “cronyism” and political pressure to ignore the scientific merit of proposals — including (but not exclusively) proposals related to the current pandemic.
  • Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear Trump’s claim of “temporary absolute immunity” that shields him and his business empire and business associates from any form of investigation.

But at the same time we can’t lose sight of the constant low-level corruption we’ve gotten used to. Like this tweet, in which Trump uses the same Twitter account in which he sometimes announces major government policy changes or personnel moves to promote the re-opening of his Los Angeles golf club. Or putting a crony in charge of the Post Office, which he has long been trying to pressure into raising rates on Amazon, as a way to strike back at Jeff Bezos for owning the Washington Post, which Trump feels mistreats him. Stuff like that happens almost every week.

Flynn. For months we’ve been expecting Trump to pardon Michael Flynn, his first National Security Adviser, who lasted only two weeks in the job before resigning; he had lied to Vice President Pence and to the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn pleaded guilty to the charge, and also acknowledged being an unregistered foreign agent while he was working as an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. (Flynn famously led a chant of “Lock her up!” at the Republican Convention.) He later sought to withdraw his guilty plea and attack the Mueller investigation that indicted him. The judge had not yet ruled on that motion.

Pardoning Flynn would tie up one of the remaining loose ends in Trump’s obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe. But now Trump may not have to commit that particular impeachable offense, because Attorney General Bill Barr is trying to accomplish the same thing: Thursday the Justice Department has asked the judge to drop the indictment of Flynn, despite his guilty plea. Former Solicitor General Neal Katyal and fellow Georgetown law professor Joshua Geltzer write:

The Justice Department’s new position isn’t that Mr. Flynn didn’t lie — that couldn’t be its position, because he did lie, and he admitted in federal court that he lied. Instead, the new filing argues that it was wrong for the F.B.I. to interview him in the first place. Look carefully at who the villain becomes in that narrative: not Mr. Flynn for lying, but the F.B.I. for asking the questions to which he lied in response.

Barr’s move is worse than a pardon, as Jeffrey Toobin explains in the New Yorker:

A pardon would have been outrageous but within Presidential prerogative. Instead, the Justice Department manufactured a phony pretext to pretend that Flynn’s guilty plea was illegitimate.

The pretext is based on the recently released documents concerning the FBI’s preparation for the interview in which Flynn lied, which it claims shows the agents planning to entrap Flynn. Further, it claims that the investigation under which Flynn was interviewed — the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation into possible collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign — had already concluded. The closing communication had been written, but not yet approved.

Consequently, the Justice Department motion holds

Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements that were not “material” to any investigation.

This contention was disputed in the NYT Sunday by Mary McCord, who had been acting assistant attorney general for national security at the time. The Justice Department’s motion is in part based on an interview with her. She claims it has “twisted my words”.

But the report of my interview is no support for Mr. Barr’s dismissal of the Flynn case. It does not suggest that the F.B.I. had no counterintelligence reason for investigating Mr. Flynn. It does not suggest that the F.B.I.’s interview of Mr. Flynn — which led to the false-statements charge — was unlawful or unjustified. It does not support that Mr. Flynn’s false statements were not material. And it does not support the Justice Department’s assertion that the continued prosecution of the case against Mr. Flynn, who pleaded guilty to knowingly making material false statements to the FBI, “would not serve the interests of justice.”

Trying to dismiss the Flynn indictment echoes Barr’s previous corrupt move: his interference a few months ago in the sentencing of another obstruction-of-justice loose end, Roger Stone. (Interim US attorney for D.C. Timothy Shea signed off on both.)

The case was thrown into disarray last week when Attorney General William P. Barr overruled a sentencing recommendation by four career prosecutors, who then quit the case in protest. Mr. Barr said he decided on his own that the prosecutors’ request for a prison term of seven to nine years was too harsh. But his move coincided with Mr. Trump’s public complaints about the prosecutors’ recommendation and elicited widespread criticism that he had bent to the president’s will.

Similarly here, lead prosecutor Brandon Van Grack withdrew from the case Thursday, apparently so that he would not have to submit the request to withdraw Flynn’s indictment.

What happens next in the Flynn case is not clear. It’s up to the judge whether or not to accept Barr’s motion to dismiss, but ultimately what else can he do? If he allows Flynn to withdraw his guilty plea, then there would have to be a trial. But he can’t force the Justice Department to mount a prosecution.

The judge could hold a hearing on the dismissal motion, including asking Van Grack why he withdrew rather than present it. That might embarrass the government, but wouldn’t convict Flynn. He could dismiss the indictment “without prejudice”, which could allow a Biden Justice Department to pursue the case next year. Barr is asking for a dismissal “with prejudice”, which would prevent any future Justice Department from restarting the case.

Meanwhile, both Trump and Barr are hinting that reprisals are coming against the people who investigated the Trump/Russia connection. Barr said:

I mean, it’s not going to be the end of it. We’re going to get to the bottom of what happened. … We also are seeing if there are people who violated the law and should be brought to justice, and that’s what we have our eye on

and Trump said:

I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a lot of things happen over the next number of weeks. This is just one piece of a very dishonest puzzle. … [Flynn] was targeted in order to try and take down a president. I hope a big price is going to be paid. A big price should be paid. … It’s treason.

Now, Trump says a lot of things that never go anywhere, they just sound good to him in the moment. But he could also be planning some kind of show trial against someone like James Comey.

I’ll give the last word to Steven Hall, the retired CIA Chief of Russian Operations:

I’m no lawyer, so I won’t comment on Flynn from that perspective. But I was an intel officer, and I can tell you there are serious counterintelligence issues. Flynn should never have a clearance again.

And another thing: I’ve met with many foreign intel chiefs, most of whom at one point or another expressed admiration for American rule of law. Some begrudgingly. It’s going to be much harder now to make the case for that, and as a result, the US has been weakened.

Dr. Bright’s complaint. The part of Dr. Rick Bright’s whistleblower complaint that got headlines was the conflict over hydroxychloroquine that seems to have been the immediate cause of Bright losing his directorship. But the complaint is worth reading in full as a horror story. The part that I found most agonizing happened in January, as Bright tried to get his superiors (Trump political appointees) interested in procuring more N-95 masks.

Secretary Azar and Dr. Kadlec responded with surprise at Dr. Bright’s dire predictions and urgency, and asserted that the United States would be able to contain the virus and keep it out of the United States. Secretary Azar further indicated that the CDC would look at the issue of travel bans to keep the virus contained. Dr. Bright responded that virus “might already be here. We just don’t have the tests to know one way or the other.” Dr. Bright’s comments were met with skepticism and were clearly not welcome. … As a result of the critical concerns raised by Dr. Bright in the January 23, 2020, meeting with Secretary Azar, HHS leadership excluded him from the next COVID-19 meeting, even though the agenda listed Dr. Bright as a participant.

He had similar frustrations over Covid-19 tests, swabs, reagents, syringes, and just about everything else that we now wish the government had prepared better. But the administration had bet all its chips on keeping the virus out of the country, and didn’t want to draw attention to the possibility that it might get in.

There is, of course, nothing inherently corrupt about lack of foresight and bad decisions, even if those bad decisions get many people killed or infect healthcare workers with a deadly virus. But Bright also tells a series of stories in which some drug company employs John Cherici as a consultant, and then Clerici deals directly with Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Kadlec, who puts pressure on BARDA to ignore the recommendations of its scientists.

from approximately the spring of 2017 through the date of his involuntary removal as Director of BARDA, HHS leadership pressured Dr. Bright and BARDA to ignore expert recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections and cronyism. Dr. Bright repeatedly clashed with Dr. Kadlec and other HHS leaders about the outsized role played by John Clerici, an industry consultant to pharmaceutical companies with a longstanding connection to Dr. Kadlec, in the award of government contracts.

Bright’s complaint does not explain exactly what the deal with hydroxychloroquine was: Did somebody stand to make a lot of money, or was Trump’s prestige the thing at stake? (Bright may not know.) But for whatever reason, Bright was under pressure to sign off on a protocol that would make hydroxychloroquine “available for the treatment of COVID-19 outside a hospital setting and without close physician supervision” — despite the lack of scientific evidence of the drug’s effectiveness and concerns about its safety.

Absolute immunity. Remember Stormy Daniels? That whole scandal seems almost quaint now, being about nothing more serious than illicit sex and campaign finance laws. No deaths, no undermining of US foreign policy or the rule of law, no hundreds of millions of dollars, no Russians choosing our president for us. But Michael Cohen is in jail, in part because his pay-off of Daniels on Trump’s behalf constituted an illegal campaign contribution.

An issue that was never resolved in Cohen’s trial is whether the Trump Organization reimbursed Cohen for those illegal campaign contributions, and how it reported those expenses on its tax filings. The Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., a county official, appears to be investigating whether any New York state laws were violated. In the course of his investigation, he subpoenaed eight years of Trump’s personal and corporate tax returns. The subpoena was issued not to Trump, but to his accountants.

Trump has sued to block that subpoena, arguing not only that he is personally immune from indictment under state as well as federal laws, but that he cannot be investigated either. Law professors Claire O. Finkelstein and Richard W. Painter explain in the New York Times:

Mr. Trump claims that a president has “temporary absolute immunity,” meaning he cannot be criminally investigated while in office. Indeed, in oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, his lawyers said that if the president were to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, he could not be investigated or indicted until after he left office.

Apparently, this immunity also extends to any underlings at the Trump Organization who might have fudged the business records, as well as to his accountants.

Finkelstein and Painter do a pretty good job laying out how Trump’s claims contradict what the Supreme Court held in the Nixon tapes case and in the Paul Jones case. George Conway (Kellyanne’s husband) wrote of the briefs in the Paula Jones case. He explains that while a President may have a variety of immunities when he is acting in his official capacity, what he does as a private individual — like pay off troublesome porn stars before taking office — is not protected.

The law seems clear, so the corruption question moves to the Supreme Court, which begins hearing the case tomorrow: Will its five partisan Republican justices enforce the law against a Republican president? Or will they find some way to twist the law to give him what he wants? If they do, Finkelstein and Painter warn, the Republic is in real trouble.

If the justices endorse this extreme view, they will make it impossible to hold this president, and all future presidents, answerable in courts for their actions.

Conway seems confident that the Court will “teach the lesson” that the President is not above the law. But even if it doesn’t, I’m not that worried about future presidents, at least not if they’re Democrats. The five Republican justices are perfectly capable of reversing themselves once a Democrat takes office.

What’s Up With the Stock Market?

Unemployment has hit levels not seen since the Great Depression. More than 10,000 Americans are dying every week with no end in sight. And the Dow is up 33% since March 23.


Friday morning, the April jobs report came out, and it was horrific: The economy lost 20.5 million jobs in April, and the unemployment rate soared to 14.5% — territory not seen since the Great Depression. And there’s no reason to think it won’t go higher. (If you can’t read the graph below, click on it to go to the CNN article where I found it.)

So naturally, the Dow Jones average proceeded to go up 455 points. That jump was weirdly typical of how the market has been behaving lately. In March, when the economy was being shut down, the Dow plunged in a way that seemed appropriate to the unfolding disaster: from its all-time high of 29,568 on February 12 down to 18,213 on March 23. But since then the market has had a nice rally, making up more than half its losses and getting back to 24,331.

Another way to look at it is in time rather than dollars: Friday the Dow closed 1,000 points higher than it was at the start of 2019. Can you remember back 16 months or so? Unemployment was 3.7% then, not 14.5%. Did that strike you as a less promising time than right now? Did you have more confidence in the economy? Less uncertainty and fear?

Among people who don’t study investing, facts like these are usually taken as signs of collective insanity, or maybe evidence of a vast market-manipulating conspiracy of the super-wealthy. And while collective insanity has been known to strike the market from time to time, and I’ve never regarded the super-wealthy as entirely trustworthy, there are some reasons why the market is where it is. Several recent articles (Emily Stewart’s in Vox is my current favorite) review those reasons, which I will try to summarize in my own way.

Forward-looking? I need to start by debunking a bad explanation. One old saw you will hear repeated at moments like this is: “The market is forward-looking.” In other words, things may look bad right now, but the market is looking ahead to conditions six months or a year down the road, when the situation will be much better.

Really? If that’s what investors are thinking as they bid prices up to this level, then I’m thrust back into the collective-insanity explanation. It’s definitely possible that some of our current uncertainty will resolve in a positive way over the coming months: Maybe phase-two vaccine trials will look promising. Maybe remdesivir or some other anti-viral drug will turn out to be an effective treatment, or just limit the lethality of the disease. Maybe curve-flattening will keep working even as we start to open more businesses, so that we hit some sweet spot of a better economy without a worse public-health situation.

None of that is unreasonable to hope for. But it’s also not assured. So far, the death numbers have stayed stubbornly high, and a lot of states’ opening-up plans have lacked the care and thoughtfulness many of us expected. (The Trump administration decided not to publish the CDC’s guidelines for opening various kinds of businesses safely. My guess is that Trump’s people thought they would be too discouraging. If that’s what it takes to open safely, lots of businesses might just stay closed. Much better, the Trumpists think, just to go ahead and encourage them to open unsafely.) The virus appears to be making the transition from urban areas to rural areas. If there is a weather effect, and infection numbers go down in the summer, they might snap back in the fall. There’s still no good plan for re-opening the schools, and how are you going to get parents back to work until their kids have somewhere to go?

In short, pessimism has its case too. And in addition to the epidemiological pessimism, you might also have economic pessimism: There could be a vaccine tomorrow, and the economy still might not recover right away. As we saw in years after the 2008 collapse, economies are like that. If something causes a depression, the depression doesn’t automatically go away once the cause is removed.

So no, the market is not predicting that something wonderful will happen between now and the fall or winter. Maybe it will, but maybe it won’t.

So what are the real reasons the market is so high?

Publicly traded businesses are not typical of the economy. It’s not hard to think of publicly traded companies that are doing badly right now. The big retailers are almost all close to bankruptcy. The real-estate trusts that own the malls are in bad shape. So are the cruise lines, and the hotel chains, and the movie theaters. Even as its new streaming-subscription service is booming, Disney suffers under the twin blows of closed parks and movies it can’t release. And whenever other businesses do badly, banks suffer, because a lot of loans may never be repaid.

But it’s an ill wind that blows no one to good. Lots of businesses are doing OK during the plague, maybe better than ever. Zoom is benefiting from the boom in online meetings. Gilead could have a blockbuster drug in remdesivir. Quest and LabCorp have developed home Covid-19 tests. What’s bad for the gyms is great for Peloton, which pulls isolated stationary-bike riders together into classes or even communities. The money people aren’t spending on restaurants is going to grocery chains like Kroger. What’s killing Macy’s is boosting Amazon. The business models of Google and Facebook are unaffected by the virus. Netflix is well positioned. Stocks like that are up for good reasons.

More ominously, in the long run the big chains stand to benefit if their smaller competitors get wiped out. The family that runs your local diner might go bankrupt, but Denny’s will probably survive. Your barber might lose his shop, but Supercuts will make it. Who knows what will happen to your friendly neighborhood coffee shop, but Starbucks isn’t going anywhere.

The local coffee shop is not on the New York Stock Exchange, but Starbucks is. A lot of the economic pain in the country is happening outside the view of the NYSE. And the demise of businesses off the stock exchange is raising the prospects of the businesses on it.

The Fed Put. For several years, the United States’ single biggest exporter has been Boeing. The aircraft manufacturer employs 161,000 people. The company was already under stress before the pandemic, due to the safety problems of its 737 MAX airliners, which have been grounded for more than a year. And now its main customers, the airlines, can’t fill the planes they have. The maps below — again, click to find a more legible version — show the decline in air traffic between March and April.

But there’s more to that story: “We’re not letting Boeing go out of business,” Trump told Fox News on March 24. The CARES Act included $17 billion that could have been loaned to Boeing.  As it turned out, the company didn’t take the money, choosing instead to float a $25 billion bond issue. But that also might turn out to be government money in a more roundabout way. The bond market is so cooperative because the Federal Reserve, fearing a liquidity crunch, has announced its intention to buy huge quantities of corporate bonds.

And even if Boeing’s money doesn’t come directly from the Fed, wouldn’t you feel more confident owning its bonds, now that you know Trump won’t let the business fail?

I pick out Boeing just for clarity, but it illustrates a wider phenomenon. The Fed has been creating money at a fierce rate, both to cover the federal budget deficit and to prevent a credit crunch or a collapse in demand. Inevitably, some large chunk of that money eventually flows into the investment markets, driving up prices, or at least keeping them from collapsing. Among traders, this is known as “the Fed put” — the belief that the downside risk in the stock market is limited because the Federal Reserve will intervene if things start to collapse.

Interest rates and stock prices (1). But the biggest reason stock prices are as high as they are is interest rates, which are historically low right now. (Again, due to the intervention of the Fed.) It’s practically axiomatic that low interest rates lead to high stock prices.

There are two ways to see that. The first is just simple comparison shopping. Imagine that you’re a big investor. Say you manage the investments of a big pension fund. The model under which your pot of money funds the pensions it’s supposed to cover says that you have to make a certain average return year after year. Let’s make up a number and say it’s 4%. If you average 4% over the next 20 years, the teachers (or whoever) get their pensions and everybody’s happy.

Now imagine interest rates are such that you can buy well-rated 20-year bonds that pay 6%. You’re done. Just buy them and you’ll exceed your goal.

But if you’re in an environment like we see today, a 20-year bond won’t pay much over 1% unless it’s pretty risky. So if you’re going to make your goal, you’re probably going to have to invest in stocks and hope for growth.

When a lot of investors come to that conclusion at the same time, they bid up the price of stocks.

Interest rates and stock prices (2). The second way to see how interest rates affect stocks is more theoretical. In theory, what a stock is worth is the present value of the sum total of all the future earnings per share. The “present value” of $1 of earnings in 2050 — what somebody should be willing to pay today to get $1 in 2050 — is usually quite a bit less than $1. But how much less is determined by the long-term interest rate. What an interest rate is, in essence, is a measure of how the value of money changes through time.  If the long-term interest rate were 0%, that would mean that $1 in 2050 is worth $1 today. At higher rates, that future dollar might only be worth fifty cents today or twenty-five cents or ten cents.

So when interest rates go down, the fundamental value of a stock goes up — even if the economic prospects of the company have not improved.

What investors are thinking. It sometimes comes up on this blog that I buy and sell stocks. I’m far from a tycoon, but my wife and I do have a retirement nest egg that needs to be invested somewhere. So while I don’t operate on the scale of someone who manages a big pension fund or hedge fund, I do go through some of the same thought processes.

And yes, that thinking has to start with the recognition that the economy is historically terrible right now. People disagree about what kind of recovery we can expect over the next year or two, but I expect it to be slow. If the states roll back their lockdown restrictions in a sensible way, we should eventually get to an economy that is just very, very bad rather than apocalyptic. (I think it was Matt Yglesias who imagined a recovery where 80% of the population does 80% of what they used to do. That would still constitute a huge drop in GDP.) If they do it badly (and I think some are), the virus could spike again and start a new lockdown.

At the same time, there will be winners in that world, and we’re all competing to figure out who they will be. For example, I’m betting that most people will continue to pay their phone bills, and that many of them will want to up their data plans. So I own stock in Verizon.

Assuming that you’ve picked a company that will weather the storm, you then have to decide what you think their stock is worth. Is the current price a bargain? Or is it so overvalued that you should sell the stock you own?

And that’s where the question of competing investments comes in. If I sell, what do I do with the money I get? If I leave it in a money market account, it will earn near zero interest. Lots of stocks pay dividends that don’t sound like much by our previous standards, but that look pretty good compared to zero. (Apple currently pays about 1%. Coca-Cola pays 3.5%.) Maybe I wouldn’t buy them if I could get 4% from a CD at my credit union. But I can’t.

On the other hand, maybe the economy’s prospects are even worse than my fellow investors think. (There’s a good chance of that. Investors tend to be professional-class folks or higher up the pyramid. They’re likely to know a lot of people who can work from home and think of the lockdown as an inconvenience. They likely don’t know many people who can’t work and are defaulting on their rent or mortgage. They probably underestimate how many such people there are.) Maybe as we get into summer, the real state of things will filter into the statistics they pay attention to, and we’ll see another crash. In that scenario, I would be happy that I had kept money sitting in a fund paying .01%. Then I could swoop in and buy Apple and Coke at much lower prices (and higher dividend rates).

But back on the first hand, the Fed has created a lot of money, and so have the central banks in other countries. Wherever that money starts out — like the federal government borrowing a bunch of it to send people those $1,200 payments — eventually it’s going to pool up somewhere. And whoever owns that pool is going to want to invest it somewhere. Wouldn’t it make sense to be in the market now, before all that extra money arrives and bids prices up higher?

It’s a conundrum. But on the whole, the lack of competing investments and the fear of missing out pushes me into the market, the same way it pushes a lot of other people. I hold back a little, and I try to be careful about what I buy, but I’m not sitting out.

And that’s why the market is so high.

Things We’re Finding Out about the Pandemic

So far, Covid-19 has been characterized more by what we don’t know than what we do. That has allowed reporters to write either scary or reassuring articles, depending on what they assume about the unknown. This week I went looking for articles that give the unknown its due respect, and explain a lot of the artifacts in the data that might look like trends, but aren’t.

A good place to start is Ed Yong’s “Why the Coronavirus is So Confusing” in The Atlantic.

Terminology: “SARS-CoV-2 is the virus. COVID-19 is the disease that it causes.” It’s like HIV and AIDS. The epidemic — how the disease develops in a community — is yet a third thing.

The fatality rate isn’t a property of the virus. The reason the death rate (or case-fatality rate or CFR) is so hard to pin down is that it only becomes an objective quantity — number of deaths divided by number of cases — in retrospect. The CFR describes how the epidemic unfolded in a particular place; it’s not some inherent property of the virus.

The CFR’s denominator—total cases—depends on how thoroughly a country tests its population. Its numerator—total deaths—depends on the spread of ages within that population, the prevalence of preexisting illnesses, how far people live from hospitals, and how well staffed or well equipped those hospitals are. These factors vary among countries, states, and cities, and the CFR will, too.

We’re not really sure how the virus causes the symptoms of the disease. We know what a human body looks like after Covid-19 has attacked it. We’re not sure how to separate that into (1) damage the virus does, (2) collateral damage the immune system’s response causes, and (3) side effects of treatment.

The disease seems to wreak havoc not only on lungs and airways, but also on hearts, blood vessels, kidneys, guts, and nervous systems. It’s not clear if the virus is directly attacking these organs, if the damage stems from a bodywide overreaction of the immune system, if other organs are suffering from the side effects of treatments, or if they are failing due to prolonged stays on ventilators.

Others viruses might also have more wide-ranging effects than we know, but we just haven’t seen enough cases to notice them.

“Is COVID-19 fundamentally different to other diseases, or is it just that you have a lot of cases at once?” asks Vinay Prasad, a hematologist and an oncologist at Oregon Health and Science University.

Science doesn’t go straight to the right answer. The back-and-forth nature of the early scientific debate (asymptomatic people can’t spread the disease; yes they can) throws a lot of people, but it’s not that unusual.

This is how science actually works. It’s less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty. “Our understanding oscillates at first, but converges on an answer,” says Natalie Dean, a statistician at the University of Florida. “That’s the normal scientific process, but it looks jarring to people who aren’t used to it.”

The upshot is that if your whole view of the virus depends on one study by one lab, you should maybe take a wider look.

Uncertainty is a strength, not a weakness. In politics, the guy who is loudest and most sure of himself tends to win the argument. But expertise doesn’t work that way; real experts understand just how far their expertise goes, and recognize past some point, other kinds of expertise become more important.

The idea that there are no experts is overly glib. The issue is that modern expertise tends to be deep, but narrow. Even within epidemiology, someone who studies infectious diseases knows more about epidemics than, say, someone who studies nutrition. But pandemics demand both depth and breadth of expertise. To work out if widespread testing is crucial for controlling the pandemic, listen to public-health experts; to work out if widespread testing is possible, listen to supply-chain experts. To determine if antibody tests can tell people if they’re immune to the coronavirus, listen to immunologists; to determine if such testing is actually a good idea, listen to ethicists, anthropologists, and historians of science. No one knows it all, and those who claim to should not be trusted.

In a pandemic, the strongest attractor of trust shouldn’t be confidence, but the recognition of one’s limits, the tendency to point at expertise beyond one’s own, and the willingness to work as part of a whole.

The flu comparison is even less appropriate than the numbers make it sound. In Scientific American, Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust concludes that the comparisons we hear about flu deaths vs. Covid-19 deaths are misguided.

When reports about the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 began circulating earlier this year and questions were being raised about how the illness it causes, COVID-19, compared to the flu, it occurred to me that, in four years of emergency medicine residency and over three and a half years as an attending physician, I had almost never seen anyone die of the flu. I could only remember one tragic pediatric case.

He began asking other emergency-medicine doctors, and found that their memories match his. They remember lots of opioid deaths, gun deaths, and traffic-accident deaths — which are supposed to happen in similar numbers — but not flu deaths. Flu death totals, he came to understand, are not counted deaths — deaths of particular people whose doctors write “influenza” on their death certificates — they’re extrapolations based on models. The models assume that many people die of the flu outside of hospitals, and aren’t officially counted.

In the last six flu seasons, the CDC’s reported number of actual confirmed flu deaths—that is, counting flu deaths the way we are currently counting deaths from the coronavirus—has ranged from 3,448 to 15,620, which [is] far lower than the numbers commonly repeated by public officials and even public health experts.

In other words, (and I’m commenting here, not quoting or summarizing Dr. Faust) the flu death totals we usually hear are more comparable to the Covid-19 death totals we’re starting to get from excess-death demographic models — which show much higher numbers than the 65,000+ you commonly see reported. But if we compare counted Covid-19 deaths during the second week of April to counted flu deaths during the worst week of an outbreak “we find that the novel coronavirus killed between 9.5 and 44 times more people than seasonal flu”.

What happened in Belgium? If you study those country-by-country death totals, the one that always stands out is Belgium, which has 677 deaths per million compared the US’s 204 or Italy’s 475. What horrible lesson, you might wonder, should we learn from Belgium’s disastrous handling of the epidemic?

Maybe none.

Belgium’s high numbers have less to do with the spread of the disease and more to do with the way it counts fatalities. Its figures include all the deaths in the country’s more than 1,500 nursing homes, even those untested for the virus. These numbers add up to more than half of the overall figure.

The curve has flattened, but hasn’t turned downward much yet. Check out the Washington Post’s graphs of deaths and new cases per day. The peak in deaths was 2,874 on April 21 (assuming we ignore April 14, when New York City created a blip by reclassifying 3,700  previous deaths). But deaths have been in the neighborhood of 2,000 a day for the last two weeks. Trends are harder to detect due to a Sunday/Monday effect, when deaths are lower for some reason I don’t understand. (Sunday April 26 had “only” 1,087 deaths, but yesterday had 1,558.)

The numbers also depend to a certain extent on how they’re being collected. The WaPo numbers come from Johns Hopkins, and list 2,461 on Wednesday, 2,097 on Thursday, and 1,723 on Friday. But the WHO has a different way of collecting deaths and assigning them to days. They announced that 2,909 people died in the US on Thursday, a new high.

If you look at things Monday-to-Monday, as I do, there is a downward trend. 68K today, 55K last week, 40K and 22K the weeks before. So new deaths per week have gone from 18K to 15K to 13K.

As for where the numbers might be going next, 538 collects the projections of a variety of models about how many deaths we’ll see in the next three weeks. From the 65K deaths already recorded by May 1, some models predict as few as 72K deaths by May 23, others as many as 103K deaths. But if social distancing is abandoned too quickly and a second wave starts, all those projections go out the window.

When (and even whether) a vaccine shows up is anybody’s guess. A good summary here is Stuart Thompson’s article in Thursday’s NYT. If the normal vaccine-development timetable holds, a vaccine is years away, or maybe even decades. (There’s still no HIV vaccine, for example, after more than 30 years of looking for one.) But lots of things are being done to speed up the normal timetable, and maybe they’ll work.

There is a process to finding and producing a vaccine, but not one that can be easily predicted.

Clinical trials almost never succeed. We’ve never released a coronavirus vaccine for humans before. Our record for developing an entirely new vaccine is at least four years — more time than the public or the economy can tolerate social-distancing orders.

But if there was any time to fast-track a vaccine, it is now.

The main way you speed things up is that you do everything at once. Rather than take the most likely vaccine candidate, test it, and then test the next one after the first one fails, 95 different vaccines are being worked on at the same time. Some of them are probably very bad ideas.

What if a promising vaccine actually makes it easier to catch the virus, or makes the disease worse after someone’s infected? That’s been the case for a few H.I.V. drugs and vaccines for dengue fever, because of a process called vaccine-induced enhancement, in which the body reacts unexpectedly and makes the disease more dangerous.

That’s why you don’t just dream up a formula and start injecting it into the general public. Normally, there are three phases of testing, with time in between for analysis. But for Covid-19, you might start one phase before the previous one finishes. You also might start prepping a factory for production before you’re sure a vaccine works.

If you do all that and you get lucky, you might have a vaccine in mass production by August 2021.

The most aggressive timetable has been put forward by a group at Oxford, which is talking about availability in September, 2020. That would be a million doses, not the billions ultimately needed. But a lot has to go right before that happens. Human trials started this week. Right now all we know is that it works in rhesus macaques.

Whatever we’re returning to, it’s not “normal”. Another Atlantic article, Uri Friedman’s “I Have Seen the Future—And It’s Not the Life We Knew“, looks at the early signs of post-lockdown life in countries that are ahead of the US: China, South Korea, Denmark, and a few others. The very resemblance to normal enhances the strangeness of it.

In China, Friedman reports, reactions bifurcate as everyone anticipates the possibility of a second wave or a new plague. Some remain constantly on their guard, while others take a live-now approach: You’d better do whatever you can while you can, because it might all be taken away tomorrow. In general, the Chinese are saving more and spending less, frustrating planners who hope for a quick economic recovery.

Denmark seems to have the opposite problem: When the government reopened daycare centers and schools, many Danes took it as an all-clear signal. “[Just] because the schools open, doesn’t mean you should stop washing your hands,” says a University of Copenhagen professor.

Temperature screening at City Hall in Seoul

The NYT has a similar article:

In Hong Kong, tables at restaurants must be spaced at least five feet apart and customers are given bags to store their face masks during dining.

In China, students face temperature checks before they can enter schools, while cafeteria tables are outfitted with plastic dividers.

In South Korea, baseball games are devoid of fans and players can’t spit on the field.

… Libraries in Hong Kong are reopening, but visitors are allowed to be inside for only an hour at a time.

Hair salons in Sydney, some of which had closed because of the virus or financial pressures, are back in business with abundant supplies of masks and hand sanitizer. At some, magazines are no longer handed out to customers.

… In Sydney, schools are reopening in phases, holding classes one day a week for a quarter of the students from each grade and gradually expanding until the end of June.

We can hope that our opportunities increase over the coming months. But normal? Well, not exactly.

Trump Is Still Eating Souls

I really don’t want to talk about injecting Clorox, but I kind of have to.


To start with: Don’t do it. Disinfectants work by killing living things. You are a living thing. Complete the syllogism.

With that out of the way, the thing to focus on here isn’t that Trump said something monumentally stupid Thursday. He does that; it’s usually not quite this bad, but he says stupid things fairly regularly. On the whole, I think I’d rather have him saying incredibly, ridiculously stupid things rather than run-of-the-stupid-mill things — like that you should take dangerous drugs that haven’t been tested yet — because fewer people are likely to believe him and do harmful things to themselves or others. (Though apparently some did believe him this time too.)

No, the really scary thing about the inject-disinfectant story is what happened next. DHS Undersecretary William Bryan (who had just talked about the effectiveness of sunlight and bleach in killing coronavirus on surfaces — not inside the body) was still standing near the podium, and Dr. Deborah Birx was sitting a few feet away, and neither jumped in to protect public health by telling people not to do what the President just suggested.

Within a minute or two, Bryan was asked a question by a reporter, and he didn’t backtrack to tell people not to inject themselves with bleach. Even later, when a reporter specifically asked “But I — just, can I ask about — the President mentioned the idea of cleaners, like bleach and isopropyl alcohol you mentioned. There’s no scenario that that could be injected into a person, is there? I mean —”, Bryan said “no” in a deflecting way, not calling it out.

No, I’m here to talk about the findings that we had in the study. We won’t do that within that lab and our lab.

In other words: “No, that’s not my department”, not “No, that’s a really bad idea.” Later, on Fox News, Birx did this bit of spin.

When [President Trump] gets new information, he likes to talk that through out loud and really have that dialogue and so that’s what dialogue he was having. I think he just saw the information at the time immediately just before the press conference and he was still digesting that information

Assume that’s true for a second: It’s still political malpractice. Imagine any previous president “digesting information” about a crisis on national TV in real time. Picture George W. Bush — not my favorite president — digesting what his generals are saying about Iraq and spitballing whatever crosses his mind. “Couldn’t we just nuke them? We’re going to wargame that, right?”

I can only assume that both Bryan and Birx have made the same calculation: Protecting public health is less important than protecting the President’s fragile ego. Admitting that Trump said something stupid is a good way to get fired — and then maybe no one in the administration would care about public health.

And so Bryan and Birx have been corrupted by the soul-eating process James Comey described a year ago: First you don’t interrupt when Trump lies about trivial things like his inauguration crowd. Then you give in to peer pressure and flatter him in public.

Next comes Mr. Trump attacking institutions and values you hold dear — things you have always said must be protected and which you criticized past leaders for not supporting strongly enough. …

It bothers you, at least to some extent. But his outrageous conduct convinces you that you simply must stay, to preserve and protect the people and institutions and values you hold dear. Along with Republican members of Congress, you tell yourself you are too important for this nation to lose, especially now. … Of course, to stay, you must be seen as on his team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values.

And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.