Fantasy problems don’t have realistic solutions

As the government shuts down after Trump blew up a bipartisan compromise, The New Republic raises a question: What is the Democratic position on immigration, and is the lack of any clear position a problem?

To a certain extent this is the kind of problem propaganda always causes: When propagandists build an artificial crisis out of more mundane problems, opponents are usually stuck without a crisis-sized solution. The classic example of this is the blood libel: What solution could Europe’s “good” Jews propose to the problem of Jews whose recipe for Passover matzos required the blood of Christian children? How could they address an issue that existed only in the minds of anti-Semites?

The whole point of a manufactured crisis is to make common-sense solutions seem inadequate. We have to build a wall for the same reason we had to invade Iraq: Manageable issues have been puffed up into an existential threat that only some grand project can address.

People sneaking into our country do create a few problems, but the “border crisis” Trump keeps talking about is mostly in his mind and the minds of his followers. The wave of drugs and crime spilling into our country from Mexico is 99% fantasy. There is the occasional criminal among the undocumented, just as there are criminals among any large group of people. Some drugs are carried across the border by undocumented human “mules”, but the great majority arrives by mail, by ship, by air, or in the luggage of citizen travelers. If a complete shutdown of the border were possible, that portion of drug trafficking would shift to other avenues without any significant effect on the availability of drugs in your town.

Similarly, the Wall is a solution that only works in fantasy. (The whole purpose of “Build the Wall!” was to make Trump’s crowds cheer. That’s as far as he has ever thought it out.) Perfectly securing the border — which the Wall won’t do — wouldn’t even end illegal immigration: About half of the undocumented immigrants come in legally as tourists or on business, and then stay after their visas run out. Short of closing down foreign travel completely (and bankrupting Disney World), you won’t solve that problem.

Since it exists only in fantasy, though, Trump’s Wall can do anything. (I am reminded of the cartoon domes people used to illustrate Reagan’s fantasy missile-defense plan.) Its steel slats will have 9-inch gaps, but drug packages (or skinny children) won’t be able to pass between them. “Drones & Technology are just bells and whistles” compared to the advanced Bronze Age thinking that a wall represents.

Some Democrats imagine that giving Trump his wall will at least shut him up, but that won’t work any better than the Wall itself: As Jim Wright points out in some detail, a wall through a remote area is easily circumvented. (“All you need to defeat it is a ladder and some quiet time.” A shovel might work too.) So unless the Wall is actively manned and monitored for its full 2000-mile length, it will be useless. In other words, once it’s built the new issue will be that Democrats aren’t willing to fully fund the maintenance and monitoring of the Wall — which they won’t, because (like the Wall itself) that will be a stupid waste of money.

So what’s to be done? The biggest security problem related to undocumented immigrants isn’t anything they do themselves, but the mere fact that they’re outside the system and don’t dare claim its protection. So many of them might not testify to crimes they see, send their kids to school, get inoculated against epidemics, or insist on the rights that we want to enforce in all American workplaces. They are natural prey, so they attract predators. That hurts us all.

So the first priority should be to get them some kind of legal status. Deport the criminals among them. (I mean real criminals, not pillars of their communities who were arrested once thirty years ago.) Send back recent arrivals who have no legitimate asylum claim. Fund enough courts and judges to process the backlog on asylum claims that might be real. (That’s been our treaty obligation since 1951, by the way.) And finally, recognize that some people, however they arrived, have built a life here and are pulling their weight. So make them pay a fine or something and grant them legal residence.

Next, figure out why they keep coming. In particular, why are Guatemala and Honduras such hellholes that people are willing to walk thousands of miles to escape them? Wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier to do some nation-building there rather than deal with their refugee caravans? (Again, you need to ignore some propaganda. The great majority of the world’s population prefers to stay home, if that’s a viable option. The caravans are people escaping from real dangers, not being drawn here by the magnet of American welfare programs.)

To the extent that people are coming here to work, make legal work permits easier to get and crack down on employers of undocumented workers.

And yes, patrol the border. But do it efficiently, with those “bells and whistles” Trump shrugs off, recognizing that no one — not the Chinese, not the Soviets, not the Nazis — has ever completely shut down a 2000-mile border. Border protection won’t be impenetrable — neither would Trump’s Wall — but the point should be to keep the undocumented immigration problem down to manageable proportions.

In short, address the non-crisis with a lot of little improvements. That approach may not be bold or grand or sexy, but it makes sense. Trump’s Wall doesn’t.

Is this any way to run a superpower?

It’s not crazy to want U.S. troops to come home from Syria and Afghanistan. It is crazy for a superpower’s global strategy to shift from one tweet to the next.


When I heard that Trump had tweeted the withdrawal of America’s 2,000 troops from Syria, and then heard reports that he would soon pull half of our 14,000 troops out of Afghanistan, my initial reaction was: “What’s wrong with that?”

I’m not a pacifist, but I judge an American intervention in a foreign war by a few simple criteria.

  1. Are we fighting on the right side?
  2. Do our soldiers have a clear mission with an achievable goal?
  3. Are the resources we’re committing sufficient to achieve that goal?
  4. Do Congress and the American people believe that the goal is worth the cost, and understand the risks involved?

Weighing Syria and Afghanistan. The Syria commitment could pass that test only as long as the goal was narrowly defined: to make ISIS a stateless state again by driving it out of all its territory. Given the nature of ISIS, which is as much an idea as a caliphate, that probably won’t kill it. But it should make it less of a focal point for global Muslim discontent.

What’s more, the strategy laid out by President Obama was working: ISIS had lost the majority of its territory by the end of the Obama administration, and Trump more or less continued what Obama had been doing, until now ISIS has been driven back to a few small enclaves. (The claim that we had not been beating ISIS under Obama but started “winning” under Trump is the usual Trumpian bullshit.) If those enclaves were about to fall, then it was time to think about declaring victory and getting out.

The longer we stay in Syria, though, the more secondary goals the mission picks up. We’re supporting rebels against the brutal Assad government that Iran and Russia back. We’re protecting the Kurdish forces (who have been doing most of the fighting against ISIS) from attack by Turkey (which has its own Kurdish region and fears Kurdish nationalism).

Those might be fine things to wish for, but they don’t fare well against my criteria. In particular, if we’re going to be players in the Syrian civil war, we’ll need a lot more than 2,000 soldiers. I don’t think the American people are ready to back that kind of commitment, and I don’t see how it is supposed to end.

Our Afghan commitment is harder to justify. Originally, we sent forces to Afghanistan in response to 9-11. The goal, which had close to universal support from the public at the time, was to capture or kill the people who attacked us and establish an Afghan government that wouldn’t let Al Qaeda operate freely within its borders. But 17 years later, Bin Laden is long dead and our effort to stand up an effective pro-American government in Kabul has failed. It’s hard to estimate a troop level that could truly pacify the country — Obama couldn’t do it with 100,000 — but whatever it is, the American people aren’t willing to underwrite it.

So yes, we should be trying to disengage. But here’s an idea the Master of the Deal might want to consider: Couldn’t we negotiate some concessions from the people who want to see our forces gone? Why just make an announcement and start pulling out?

And here’s my real problem with Trump’s decision: Disengagement requires a plan just as much as engagement does. Maybe I have things to do and I’m sick of standing here plugging a hole in this dike with my finger. But predictable things will happen if I pull my finger out, and how do I intend to respond when they do?

ISIS isn’t defeated yet. The premise of Trump’s Syria tweet was clear:

We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.

But as he so often does, Trump is claiming credit for something that hasn’t happened yet. (Despite his claims, North Korea isn’t denuclearized yet either, and probably won’t be in the foreseeable future. And the trade deal with China he announced still hasn’t been worked out.) ISIS still controls a small amount of territory, it still has fighting forces, and it has squirreled away a considerable amount of money to fund future operations.

So the job isn’t done, but the US withdrawal will begin immediately. (Although Sunday’s tweet described the pullout as “slow & highly coordinated”.) Trump himself seemed to acknowledge this in a subsequent contradictory tweet that also happens to be false. (Russia loves that we’re leaving Syria.)

Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.

So the first predictable thing that might happen is that ISIS stages a comeback and starts gaining territory again. What’s the plan for that scenario? Accept it? Send our troops back in? Ask our Russian friends or our buddy Bashar al-Assad to handle it for us? (No, wait! Turkey will do it, according to last night’s tweet. Turkish troops going deeper into Syria, which they used to rule back in the Ottoman days, where they might come into conflict with Assad, Hezbollah, and Russian forces … what could possibly go wrong? “We also discussed heavily expanded Trade.”)

What’s the new mission in Afghanistan? I can’t find any explanation for the 7,000 figure: What is the mission of the 7,000 that will remain, and why do they no longer need the help of the 7,000 who are leaving? My intuition says that there is no new mission. “Pull out half of them” just comes from Trump’s gut, and isn’t based on anything.

What about the Kurds? The reason American casualties in Syria have been so low is that Kurdish militias are doing most of the actual fighting against ISIS.

The Kurds and their Syrian allies paid a severe price: They have suffered about 4,000 dead and 10,000 wounded since 2014. Over that same period, the United States lost only three soldiers in Syria, according to a U.S. military spokesperson.

Trump seems not to know these facts. “Time for someone else to fight,” he tweeted, as if Americans were battling ISIS alone.

Turkey is worried about Kurdish militias operating in its own territory, which it sees as terrorism. According to AP, a December 14 phone conversation between Trump and Turkish autocrat Erdogan sparked the withdrawal decision.

Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, two U.S. officials and a Turkish official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press.

The Dec. 14 call came a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed to have the two presidents discuss Erdogan’s threats to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria, where American forces are based. The NSC then set up the call.

Pompeo, Mattis and other members of the national security team prepared a list of talking points for Trump to tell Erdogan to back off, the officials said.

But the officials said Trump, who had previously accepted such advice and convinced the Turkish leader not to attack the Kurds and put U.S. troops at risk, ignored the script. Instead, the president sided with Erdogan.

The obvious implication is that if Erdogan wants to attack the people we’ve been relying on to push ISIS back, he should just have at it. We’ll get out of his way.

Erdogan isn’t the only one likely to attack after we leave. To the Assad government, the Kurds are just one more set of rebels. What if the Kurdish region of Syria (green on the map) collapses and our former allies start getting slaughtered? What are the implications of that in other conflicts where the US wants to find local allies?

Sometimes, superpowers have to make such betrayals. We left a number of Vietnamese allies in the lurch when we exited the Vietnam War, but few Americans would want us still to be fighting there. I just wish I could believe Trump (or anyone involved in his decision process) had thought these questions out and was making these decisions strategically.

What generals and diplomats are for. There’s a way that major policy changes are supposed to happen: The National Security Council meets and the various departments involved weigh in: Pentagon people talk about military implications, State Department people anticipate how our allies will react, and regional experts from the intelligence services outline the most likely scenarios. They all make their recommendations and then the President announces a decision. The advisors whose advice wasn’t taken then try to talk him out of it. If the President stands firm, though, they have to yield.

Next, all the principals return to their departments with the message: This is where we’re going; make plans. The plans go back to the NSC, where they get accepted or rejected. (Sometimes the President has to say one more time, “No, I really meant it. This plan doesn’t do what I asked for.”) Allies get consulted. Political types design a messaging strategy to explain the new policy to the American people as well as the rest of the world. Then, when all the ducks are in a row, an announcement is made and the whole government moves in unison. If things are working well, our allies move with us.

There’s a reason for doing things that way: A global superpower is much bigger than the kind of family business Trump is used to running. There’s more to know and more to figure out. (As an analogy, consider the different medical specialists who might get together before a particularly complicated surgery. It’s not just a question of where to cut, but whether last week’s infection is under control, whether the patient’s heart will stand the stress, how the patient tolerates anesthesia, what kind of recovery plan is needed, and dozens of other considerations.) The various departments are in the meeting not just to protect their turf, but because they represent different kinds of expertise. You consult with the generals and diplomats because that’s what they’re there for. They know stuff.

Hardly any of the usual process seems to have happened in this case. The only advisor Trump seems to have listened to before making his decision is Erdogan, a foreign autocrat. (He’s also the former client of Michael Flynn, for what that’s worth.) The messaging strategy was for Trump to write a tweet; everybody else had to adjust on the fly.

The result is that most of the interested parties, both within our government and among our allies, were taken by surprise. As they carry out the withdrawal, no one involved can possibly have confidence that all the relevant factors were considered and all the risks foreseen.

Mattis and McGurk. Two major officials, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Special Envoy Brett McGurk, resigned in protest. Historian Michael Beschloss claims no defense secretary has ever done this before.

Mattis’ resignation letter explains his decision in terms of worldview. In Mattis’ world, American power depends on its alliances, but Trump sees our allies as parasites.

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships…. [W]e must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances.

Mattis mentions Russia and China as examples of the kind of “malign actors and strategic competitors” that we and our allies need “common defense” against, because they “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model”.

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

I can’t help believing, though, that it’s as much Trump’s process as his policy that makes it impossible for Mattis to keep working with him. If a decision as important as withdrawing from a war can be made off the cuff while talking to a foreign dictator (Turkey may not be a threat as large as Russia or China, but it also a country run on an “authoritarian model”.), by a President who doesn’t read memos or listen to briefings, then it’s not clear what role there is for people who know things.

The Monday Morning Teaser

If you thought the news might slow down for the holidays … well, let’s just say that didn’t happen. The big things going on are: troop pull-outs from Syria and Afghanistan got announced (to the great surprise of our allies and a lot of people in our own government), the Secretary of Defense resigned in protest for the first time in US history, a quarter of the government is shut down in a fight over funding Trump’s border wall, the Supreme Court agreed with the “Obama judge” who blocked Trump’s attempt to ignore asylum laws, and a few other things.

I had thought I might slow down and do Christmas stuff, but instead I’ve got two featured posts this week rather than the usual one. The first post “Is this any way to run a superpower?” is my response to the Syria/Afghanistan announcements. It’s complicated: I do wish we’d disengage from these sorts of wars, but not like this. Trump makes up his mind while talking to Erdogan, and the rest of the government just has to adjust on the fly. Meanwhile, the American people get the new policy explained to them in a series of contradictory tweets. White House spokespeople may try to flesh this out, but they’re guessing just as much as we are. Anyway, that post should be out shortly.

The second “Fantasy problems don’t have realistic solutions” is my response to people who want to hear a stronger message from Democrats about protecting the border. Trump has so distorted the undocumented immigrant problem that of course no fact-based approach to the issue will seem adequate. That’s how propaganda works sometimes: It creates fantastic problems that demand grand solutions like the Wall. That should be out be maybe 10 or 11 EST.

The weekly summary has the shutdown and everything else to cover. I’m hoping to have it out by noon, closing with an interview with Santa’s lawyer and an ancient take on the commercialization of Christmas by Stan Freberg.

Looking Behind the Lies

A lie isn’t always a crime, but it is always an indication that the person telling it has something they want to conceal.

– Paul Waldman, “This is not how innocent people act

This week’s featured post is “Trials of Individual-1: a scorecard“.

This week everybody was talking about the President’s legal problems

A list of the various investigations and where they stand is in the featured post. Also of note has been the shifting defenses  offered by Trump and his supporters, which in nearly every case evolve according to this general pattern:

  1. Nothing happened.
  2. Whatever happened, Trump didn’t know about it.
  3. It wasn’t a crime.
  4. He had no way to know it was a crime.
  5. It’s not a serious crime.

When one step turns out not to be true, they move on to the next. We’ve gone through the whole list with the pay-offs to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal to hide from voters the fact that Trump cheated on Melania with them. In particular, Orrin Hatch and Kevin McCarthy have made it to Step 5. (Though Hatch later tried to walk it back, retreating to the position that “I don’t believe the President broke the law.”)

Hatch:

I don’t think he was involved in crimes, but even then, you know, you can make anything a crime under the current laws if you want to, you can blow it way out of proportion, you can do a lot of things.

McCarthy:

If [Democratic Congressman Adam] Schiff is taking this beyond to go forward and say that there’s an impeachable offense because of a campaign finance problem, there’s a lot of members in Congress who would have to leave.

We can only wonder what step 6 will be, because there’s no reason to think that the current explanations are any more true than the previous ones.

The progression hasn’t yet played out all the way with regard to Russian collusion, but think about the steps we have already seen:

  1. It’s all fake news.” Trump had “nothing to do with Russia“. The campaign didn’t talk to Russians and Trump wasn’t doing business deals with them.
  2. Trump’s people (at least 14 of them, according to the Washington Post) were talking to Russians, but not about influencing the election. And Trump was trying to do a major business deal in Russia, but it didn’t happen, it was “very legal & very cool“, and “everybody knew about” it (in spite of Trump’s public denials in Step 1).
  3. Donald Trump Jr. arranged a meeting with Russians to talk about getting “dirt on Hilary Clinton” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”, and Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner also attended, but nothing came of it. WikiLeaks started releasing hacked DNC emails shortly thereafter, but the Trump campaign knew nothing about that. (Ignore whatever happened between WikiLeaks and Roger Stone.)

Again, there’s no reason to believe it stops here, or that it will stop with Step 5. To me it’s pretty obvious where this could go: “Sure, he committed treason, but it wasn’t TREASON treason.”

Trump supporters need to ask themselves if they’re willing to stick with him that far down the slippery slope. (For that matter, did you ever imagine you’d be defending what you’re defending now?) And if not, at what point short of that are they planning to get off?

and ObamaCare

A judge in Texas ruled the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. This appears to me to be exactly the kind of activist-judge-legislating-from-the-bench that conservatives always accuse liberals of.

It’s worthwhile to look back at an 2012 article by Salon’s Andrew Koppelman “Origins of a healthcare lie“. The lie in this case is that the individual insurance mandate is somehow unconstitutional.

The constitutional limits that the [Affordable Care Act] supposedly disregarded could not have been anticipated because they did not exist while the bill was being written. They were invented only in the fall of 2009, quite late in the legislative process.

For now, the ruling will have no effect as the appeal works its way up the chain of courts. It should make it to the Supreme Court by next year, where it ought to be reversed. As the NYT’s Cristian Farias notes “all five justices who, in 2012, already determined that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional will still be there.” Please petition the deity of your choice that nothing happens to any of them.

Politically, I think this is a disaster for Republicans, one that they have made for themselves. It means that the 2020 campaign will begin (and possibly end) with millions of people facing either the loss of their health insurance or being shunted off into plans that won’t cover what they need. Meanwhile, neither Republicans in Congress nor the administration will have produced a health plan of their own, because “get rid of ObamaCare” is the only idea they’ve been able to agree on. (A large number of Republicans hold a position they can’t say out loud: People should only get the health care they can afford. If you’re not rich and you get something that requires an expensive treatment, too bad for you.) Any actual plan will expose the lie in the various contradictory promises Trump has made.

One anchor GOP candidates carried in 2018 was the need to claim that they supported the popular parts of ObamaCare (like coverage of pre-existing conditions) without being able to point to any viable plan that preserved those features of the law. That conservative judge has guaranteed that they’ll continue carrying that anchor for a while longer.

but I’ve been ignoring other countries lately

It’s hard for the US news media — myself included, in this case — to cover foreign affairs properly, for a number of reasons:

  • The US produces enough news of its own that it doesn’t need to import any. This has only gotten worse during the current administration. So a change of government in Brazil or Germany can get lost in a Trump tweet storm.
  • The American audience (and a number of American journalists, and a lot of times, myself) don’t have the background to appreciate foreign news events. So it’s a little like watching a sport when you don’t know the rules or the players. You can try to look them up and explain them on the fly, but it’s still hard to appreciate the action while it’s happening.

To catch up a little, let’s start in the UK. Brexit is scheduled to happen on March 29, but there is still no agreed-on plan for how it happens. Here’s the BBC’s chart of where things stand:

The problem is that at the time of the referendum Brexit was just a vague idea: Britain leaves the EU. That can mean a lot of different things, and no individual one of those things is popular. So the UK is in the curious situation where all the possible outcomes (PM May’s plan to leave the EU in name only, and remain subject to EU customs laws; leave for real and erect a national border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, possibly restarting the Troubles; Parliament deciding to oppose the Brexit referendum and stay in the EU; holding a new referendum on some particular Brexit plan) seem far-fetched.

I can’t help noticing the comparison to repealing ObamaCare, and why Republicans were never able to come through on the “replace” part of repeal-and-replace: ObamaCare is a specific program and “repeal” is a vague idea. As soon as Republicans tried to flesh out their specific replacement, it was less popular than ObamaCare.

The Brexit situation is at least producing some good humor, like Andy Serkis portraying some kind of Gollum/Theresa May synthesis.

Now let’s move to the yellow vest protests in France. Basically, it’s as if in 2016 the angry Trump and Sanders voters had gotten together and taken to the streets. Or maybe if Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party found a common cause. It’s a strange mixture of left-wing and right-wing populism. It’s anti-government, but none of the opposition parties have managed to stake a claim on it. Crimethinc comments:

Clearly, neoliberal capitalism offers no solutions to climate change except to place even more pressure on the poor; but when the anger of the poor is translated into reactionary consumer outrage, that opens ominous opportunities for the far right.

The issue that seems to have touched off the recent protests is a green tax, a move “to increase fuel taxes to raise money for eco-friendly projects“. The Macron government has since backed off, but the protests — mostly non-violent, but occasionally violent — continue.

As in the US, there is a widespread but inchoate feeling that the system is working against ordinary people. It remains to be seen whether someone will manage to turn that view into a program that makes things better, whether some demagogue will ride the yellow vests to power, or whether the energy will dissipate without doing anything to decrease the general dissatisfaction.

In Germany, Angela Merkel won’t seek re-election when her term ends in 2021. She has already stepped down as head of her party, the Christian Democrats. Her replacement is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

The party has faced a dilemma, to either keep itself on the course set by Merkel – who was determined to secure the centre ground and has turned the CDU into a champion of gay marriage, a minimum wage and a quota for women in politics – or to take it more to the right in an attempt to win back the voters lost to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). … Kramp-Karrenbauer’s victory is a sign that the party wants to continue on the path set for it by Merkel. Nevertheless, Kramp-Karrenbauer has repeatedly said she would forge her own path, and is decidedly more socially conservative than her predecessor.

In Brazil, right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro will take office on January 1. He plans to pull Brazil out of the UN’s Global Compact for Migration, and to develop the Amazon rain forest. In many ways a Brazilian version of Trump, we’ll see if he has a similar impact on Brazil’s rule of law.

Vox talks to North Korea watcher Van Jackson, who is not impressed with the “progress” Trump thinks he has made toward de-nuclearization. In his view, events are proceeding according to Kim Jong Un’s plan, not Trump’s.

He’s been pushing for simultaneously growing the economy and becoming a nuclear power. Now that he’s got the nuclear program where it needs to be, he’s decided to more aggressively pursue economic development, because that’s the other part of his strategy.

Pursuing economic development means getting sanctions relief. And how can you possibly get sanctions relief without pursuing a charm offensive?

So where we are today is because Kim reached what he sees as a position of strength.

… The structure of the confrontation has not changed. The nuclear situation has not changed. Sanctions have not changed. And frankly, they’re not likely to.

And finally, Yemen, where a war has combined with an ongoing famine to produce a truly horrifying situation. The UN has warned that 13 million people in Yemen are facing starvation in “the worst famine in the world in 100 years”

The famine is the direct result of the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen and blockade. Yemen was already the most impoverished nation in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, and Al Hudaydah one of the poorest cities of Yemen, but the war and the naval blockade by the Saudi-led coalition and the United States Navy made the situation much worse. Fishing boats, the main livelihood of Al Hudaydah’s residents, were destroyed by Saudi airstrikes, leaving them without any means to provide for their families. As a result, one child dies every ten minutes on average. A UN panel of experts found that Saudi Arabia is purposefully obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid into Yemen.

The particularly dismal thing about the US role in this tragedy is that so few Americans have any idea where Yemen is or why we’re involved in a war there. (Yemen’s civil war is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. We’re on the Saudi side.)

The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi crown prince has at least got people taking another look at our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution against US involvement in Yemen.

This joint resolution directs the President to remove U.S. Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting Yemen within 30 days unless Congress authorizes a later withdrawal date, issues a declaration of war, or specifically authorizes the use of the Armed Forces. Prohibited activites include providing in-flight fueling for non-U.S. aircraft conducting missions as part of the conflict in Yemen.

The resolution is not being debated in the House, though, and Trump could veto it even if it passed the House, so it has no legal effect. It does, however, mark the willingness of at least a few Republican senators to break with Trump on this issue. No doubt it will come up again when Democrats take control of the House in January.

and you also might be interested in …

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is the latest corrupt official to leave the Trump administration. But in a virtual replay of Scott Pruitt’s exit, his replacement will be no improvement in policy terms: Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is a former oil-industry lobbyist.


I’m trying not to make too much of the showdown in the Oval Office between Trump and Nancy Pelosi. I think Pelosi handled him well, but even so: Personality conflict is what Trump does; if we’re talking about whether our leader beat their leader, we’re on his turf.

Democrats need to stay focused on the people who gain or lose from what the government does, like the 7-year-old girl who died of dehydration while in the custody of the Border Patrol, or the millions who stand to lose their health insurance if ObamaCare really is ruled unconstitutional. Whether or not Pelosi got in the best line is of little importance by comparison.


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

Double standards are Paul Ryan being elected at 28 and immediately being given the benefit of his ill-considered policies considered genius; and me winning a primary at 28 to immediately be treated with suspicion & scrutinized, down to my clothing, of being a fraud.

When I was discussing the ways that Hillary Clinton had to overcome sexism in 2016, one of the things I pointed to was the abundance of positive cultural stereotypes that are open to men with some weakness or character flaw: A duplicitous man can be a charming rogue, for example. An angry man can be a Jeremiah. No comparable framing is available to a woman.

In the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, both Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham expressed anger in ways that would have made Christine Blasey Ford or Diane Feinstein appear to be raving. We’re used to seeing men as channels for righteous indignation. Women, not so much.

We’re seeing a similar thing here. An inexperienced man can be a whiz kid, a young gun, or a young Turk. None of those frames fits a woman. Some types open to young women are ingenue, mean girl, and damsel in distress — none of which are all that useful to a woman in a position of power.

It’s important to understand this as structural sexism. Even if nobody were consciously trying to mistreat Ocasio-Cortez, the same problem would be present: American men (and a lot of women as well) don’t know how to think about or talk about women in certain roles. So even when we think we are open to them playing those roles, our unconscious reactions will betray us if we don’t pay attention.


Another much-maligned female politician is Nancy Pelosi. She seems to have nailed down the support she needs to become Speaker when the new Congress takes office on January 3. To get the last few votes, she pledged to step down as Speaker after 2022.


Pro Publica looks at the IRS, whose budget and staff keeps shrinking. Meanwhile, audits are down and uncollected taxes are up, providing a “tax cut for tax cheats”.

Tax collection largely depends on the public’s voluntary cooperation, which could be endangered if people start to think that everyone else is cheating. That was largely the problem in the Greek economic crisis. It wasn’t that the Greek government spent too much money, it was that it couldn’t collect the taxes it was owed.


The Republican attempt to undo the 2018 election continues. Michigan has now passed a law that guts a referendum to raise the minimum wage and require paid sick leave. In states where the legislature is heavily gerrymandered, the only way voters can control the state government is through referenda and through state-wide offices like the governorship. But undemocratic Republican legislatures are doing their best to take power away from these voter-controlled institutions.

and let’s close with something memorable

In August, 2014, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into World War I, 888,246 red ceramic poppies (one for each of the British and colonial soldiers who died in that war) were arranged to flow out of a window in the Tower of London and fill the moat. The temporary exhibit (now gone) was called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”. It’s one of the most stunning views of the cost of war I’ve ever seen.

Trials of Individual-1: a scorecard

The legal jeopardy of Donald Trump, a.k.a. Individual-1, is the kind of story that our news media doesn’t cover very well. It’s not that they don’t give time to it; they do, every night, on every news channel other than Fox (which sometimes decides that a controversial nativity scene is more important, or that we still haven’t looked hard enough at the emails of a private citizen named Hillary Something-or-other).

The problem is that investigations move at a different speed than “news”. “News” is something happening right now that we didn’t know about yesterday. It’s what’s new since the last time you tuned in.

Investigations, on the other hand, play out over months or even years. Any given day might produce one or two new pieces of information, but it’s just a coincidence if today’s “news” happens to be what most deserves your attention. More often, an investigation plays out like a game of postal chess — a sport that will never have a TV contract.

What we’ve been seeing develop over that last several months, move by move, is the gradual encirclement of the GOP King. There are, by now, multiple investigations by multiple prosecutors, pursuing sketchy or suspicious or blatantly illegal behavior by (as Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter David Fahrenthold puts it) “nearly every organization [Trump] has led in the past decade.”

It’s kind of hard to keep track of them all without a program. And when a new detail appears, it can be difficult to file it properly in your mind: Which investigation is this exactly? Of what alleged wrong-doing? And which stage is that particular investigation at? Is it speculation about something that looks fishy? Or was probable cause established some while ago? Is it ready for indictments? Trials? Sentencing?

Trump, of course, is counting on you getting confused. So, for example, when a campaign finance charge starts to look indictable (or indictable for anybody who isn’t President), he will claim that this clears him of any conspiracy with Russia — despite the fact that those investigations are being pursued by two different sets of federal prosecutors.

So let’s start just by listing all the investigations, in no particular order:

  • Russia. We know Russia did a variety of things to help elect Trump; it’s highly likely that Russian interference made the difference. (In an election that close, just about any factor that helped Trump probably made the difference.) Russians hacked Democratic computers and leaked the results, propagated anti-Hillary fake news through social media, and so on. Simultaneously, Trump was calling for an end to sanctions against Russia, weakening the Republican platform’s support for Ukraine, and negotiating to build a highly profitable Trump Tower Moscow. Maybe Trump was just the unwitting beneficiary of Russian favors, and has had his own reasons for pursuing pro-Russia policies. But if those dots are connected, it’s treason.
  • The inauguration. Practically since it happened, people have been wondering how the Trump Inaugural Committee could possibly have spent $107 million. (Obama put on a bigger show for half the money.) Thursday, the The Wall Street Journal reported that there is a criminal investigation into (1) what happened to all the money, (2) whether some of it illegally came from foreign sources, and (3) whether donors received any government favors in exchange.
  • Paying off women. Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal were paid six-figure sums not to tell their stories of affairs with Trump. That in itself is not illegal, but if it was done for the purpose of helping Trump get elected, and if the money wasn’t mentioned in official reports of campaign contributions and expenses, that’s a crime. And were payoffs made to other women we don’t know about yet?
  • Emoluments. The Trump Organization continues to get revenue from foreign sources, including foreign governments. Does that violate the Emolument Clause of the Constitution? And does it account for Trump’s unwillingness to criticize emolument-paying countries like Saudi Arabia?
  • The NRA. Did the Trump campaign illegally coordinate with the NRA, which spent $30 million supporting him? And did the NRA get any of that money from Russia? And what is confessed Russian agent Maria Butina saying to prosecutors in her cooperation agreement?
  • The Trump Foundation. Trump’s foundation appears not to be a real foundation at all: It has no staff, no policy for making grants, and a board that didn’t meet for 18 years. It makes payments that benefit Trump’s businesses, and let itself become an arm of his election campaign. New York State is suing to shut it down.
  • Obstruction of justice. Obstruction is a second-order felony: a crime that you commit to cover up other crimes. Sometimes the obstruction is so successful that the original crime can’t ever be prosecuted. But you can still be convicted of what you did to cover up whatever-that-other-thing-was. The most obvious obstruction case against Trump involves the Russia investigation, but we may yet see obstruction of other investigations as well.

Wired breaks these seven areas down further and counts 17 investigations.

Now that you know the layout, let’s take a closer look.

Russia. Anything you hear about the Russia investigation proceeds on two tracks: what we know from what has been publicly reported and what Robert Mueller knows.

The two are very different, because (unlike recent investigations against Clintons), Mueller’s team doesn’t leak. This is noteworthy. Ken Starr’s investigation into Bill Clinton leaked constantly. And during the anti-Hillary investigations into Benghazi and her famous email server — neither of which turned up anything worth taking to court — we were bombarded with salacious stories that eventually had to be walked back. Information from inside the investigation would get filtered through Republican staffers in Congress and then wind up in a distorted form on the front pages.

That’s not happening here, and the result is that we’re not sure what Mueller has until we see a court document like an indictment, a guilty plea, or a sentencing memo. That gives Republicans room to imagine that Mueller doesn’t really have much, while letting Democrats imagine that the crushing blow will fall any minute. The investigation could be about to wrap up or could go on for another year or two.

What we do know is that something in the Trump/Russia relationship was worth lying about. The Washington Post has totaled up 14 different Trump associates who were in contact with Russians during the campaign or transition. Across the board, those people lied about it. Mike Flynn and George Papadopoulos lied to the FBI. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump Jr., and Michael Cohen lied to Congress. Trump himself has lied constantly to the public.

Republicans are often frustrated by how quickly Trump critics jump to the treason explanation, but there’s a simple reason they do: Trump defenders have not produced any coherent explanation for the wall of lies. If not treason, what?

Also, there must be some reason why Trump wants to de-legitimize or shut down the investigation: why he has resisted testifying, why he kept faulting Jeff Sessions for failing to “protect” him, why the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee worked so hard to throw mud on investigators and seemed not to want to know what Russia did to interfere with our election. The Deep-State-witch-hunt explanation might work on InfoWars, but it’s just not credible outside the Trump bubble. Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, and Jim Comey were all Republicans when this started. If you work at it, you can imagine that they all suddenly found a new Republican administration so threatening that they had to throw away spotless reputations they’d spent their entire lives developing. But why?

That’s the ground, the reason to be suspicious. The figure is the following possible conspiracy, which so far we just see the outlines of: Trump was compromised by a long history of business interactions with Russian oligarchs, possibly involving money laundering through his real estate empire. At the start of the campaign (and continuing through the Republican Convention), he was negotiating what would have been one of the biggest deals of his career: Trump Tower Moscow, which couldn’t have been built without Putin’s personal approval.

From the beginning of his campaign, Trump advocated a more lenient policy towards Russia. In particular, he wanted to do away with the economic sanctions imposed after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. (Rex Tillerson came to the Secretary of State job from Exxon, which was set to exploit Russian oil resources worth hundreds of billions.) Presumably, that’s what Michael Flynn was discussing in those conversations with Russian officials he lied to the FBI about.

Since taking office, Trump has been unusually solicitous of Putin, most notably in the infamous Helsinki press conference, where he sided with Putin against the American intelligence community.

The Trump campaign appeared to get advance knowledge of the Democratic emails Russia hacked and then passed through WikiLeaks. Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi appear to have been the connection between the campaign and WikiLeaks. Trump publicly asked Russia to look for Clinton’s missing emails, and they did.

What we don’t know (but Mueller might) is whether this pattern is a fortuitous convergence of interests between Trump and Putin, or a quid-pro-quo arrangement.

The Inauguration. At the moment, all we really know about this topic is that SDNY has opened a criminal investigation. The WSJ says the investigation is in its “early stages”. Pro Publica raises the possibility that a big chunk of the inaugural money eventually made its way to Trump, by way of over-market rates charged to the Inaugural Committee by Trump’s Washington hotel. (That’s the same hotel the emoluments suit is about.)

Paying off women. The case that is moving fastest and looks closest to being proved is the campaign-finance case about paying off Daniels and McDougal. Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday, partly for his role in these payments and partly for lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance felonies and says he committed them under Trump’s direction. A third member of the conspiracy, American Media Inc. (AMI), publishers of National Enquirer, negotiated an non-prosecution agreement with the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) in which it confessed its role.

As a part of the agreement, AMI admitted that it made the $150,000 payment in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that the woman did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election. AMI further admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Trump asked AMI CEO David Pecker “What can you do to help my campaign?”

Mr. Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements. He directed deals in phone calls and meetings with his self-described fixer, Michael Cohen, and others. The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has gathered evidence of Mr. Trump’s participation in the transactions.

NBC News confirmed Thursday that Trump was in the room at the August, 2015 meeting when the plan for National Enquirer to squash negative stories about Trump was agreed to.

Michael Cohen paid $130K to Stormy Daniels out of his own pocket, routing the money through a shell corporation. He was repaid $420K by The Trump Organization through a retainer agreement for “legal services”. The difference in figures raises the question of whether Cohen was also being repaid for similar payments that haven’t become public yet. Vox comments:

So Trump’s company certainly appears to have been heavily involved in these illegal payoffs — which raises the question of whether the company itself will be charged.

Trump’s defense rests on two shaky notions: The payments weren’t part of the campaign, but were made for personal reasons (so Melania wouldn’t find out, say). And he trusted Cohen as his lawyer not to get him involved in anything illegal. But everyone else in the picture seems clear about this being part of the Trump campaign and Trump knowing about it at the time. Plus, the long string of lies and elaborate methods used to cover up the transaction points to Trump’s awareness that he was breaking the law. People don’t lie to hide their innocence, they lie to hide their guilt.

If he weren’t president, he’d be on trial right now, and he’d probably be convicted.

Emoluments. It’s an old-fashioned word whose meaning is suddenly relevant again. The Constitution says:

no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

It hasn’t been relevant because no previous president was simultaneously carrying on a business that had foreign customers. But Trump has retained his ownership stake in The Trump Organization, which carries on business around the world, including with kings, princes, and foreign states.

What makes this a legal mess is that the Constitution doesn’t say who is supposed to police emoluments or what penalties should be assessed for violations. (Until now, a simple “don’t do that” has been sufficient.) So despite the fact that Trump is clearly violating the Constitution, it’s not clear who is in a position to do anything about it, short of impeachment.

Trump’s position is that he is policing himself: The Trump Organization makes voluntary contributions to the Treasury equivalent to its own estimates of its profits from foreign governments. There are two problems with this: First, it’s a trust-me arrangement; no other branch of government is receiving reports that it can audit. Further, Trump is interpreting emolument to mean only the profit he makes; profit being an infinitely flexible concept in the real estate business, which the Trump family has abused for decades.

Maryland and the District of Columbia are suing on behalf of merchants that compete with the Trump International Hotel in D.C. (One legal hurdle is establishing standing to sue. Simply being a citizen trying to enforce the Constitution is not enough.) They contend that emoluments are payments, not profits, and the judge seems to agree with them.

So far the suit has survived all of Trump’s attempts to have it thrown out. It has reached the discovery phase, which means that the plaintiffs can subpoena Trump Organization records, giving them a view into the company that no outsider has had before. Trump’s lawyers are trying to slow this down, but they will ultimately lose. What happens next depends on what the subpoenas turn up.

This investigation is likely not criminal, but is that rare situation where something non-criminal could be impeachable, because impeachment might be the only tool available for enforcing the Constitution.

The NRA. So far we know a lot more questions than answers. The NRA did spend $30 million boosting Trump, which is way more than they’d ever spent on a presidential election before. There was a Russian intelligence operation dedicated to using the NRA to exert influence on the Republican Party.

Like the Trump campaign, the NRA faces questions about to what extent it knowingly cooperated with Russia. In addition, Mother Jones and The Trace are reporting illegal coordination between the NRA’s pro-Trump spending and the Trump campaign itself. It’s not publicly known yet whether Mueller or any other prosecutor is investigating this.

The Foundation. One characteristic that defines Trump’s psychology is projection: If he accuses his enemies of something, chances are he’s doing it himself.

During the campaign, he constantly bashed the Clinton Foundation, which is a legit non-profit that doesn’t appear to have done anything wrong. At worst, the family foundation was a way for the Clintons to keep the band together between campaigns; people they wanted to hang onto could get jobs (doing actual work) at the Clinton Foundation. But no one has come up with examples of money passing from the Foundation to the Clintons, and none of the attempts to hang a pay-for-play label on the Foundation ever held water.

Quite the opposite is true of the Trump Foundation.

[New York] Attorney General Barbara Underwood said the Donald J. Trump Foundation “was a shell corporation that functioned as a checkbook from which the business entity known as the Trump Organization made payments.”

Just before the Iowa caucuses, the Trump Foundation was illegally taken over by the Trump campaign.

campaign officials were controlling the timing of donations ahead of the election. It’s not illegal for an individual to make donations during an election, but it is against the law for political campaigns to coordinate un-reported political expenditures.

… The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the foundation’s failure to make good on promised donations led to this investigation, reports that Trump ordered the foundation’s executive director Allen Weisselberg to fly to Iowa with checkbook in hand so that he could make donations to local groups immediately. Trump gave out at least five $100,000 grants to local groups in the lead-up to the caucuses, which he won in a shock victory that helped propel him to the Republican party nomination.

Trump tried to have the suit thrown out, claiming he couldn’t be sued while in office. But a judge didn’t buy that. Here’s what’s at stake.

The attorney general’s office, led by Barbara Underwood, is seeking to dissolve the Trump Foundation and wants $2.8 million in restitution, plus additional penalties. The office is also seeking to ban Trump from serving as a director of any New York nonprofit for 10 years and to prohibit the other board members, the Trump children, from serving for one year.

But it might not end there. The NYAG has referred the case for criminal investigation by the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, though it’s unknown whether those offices are doing anything with it. The interesting point here is if there is criminal activity, the Trump children might be involved. They can be indicted, even if their father is president.

Obstruction of justice. This is the investigation where the public perception and the legal reality seem furthest apart, at least to me. Trump has successfully popularized the notion that obstruction requires a “smocking gun“. White-collar crime is supposed to be something that happens behind closed doors, so the public believes that making a case requires looking behind those closed doors.

In those terms, the case is mainly a he-said/he-said between Trump and James Comey, who has testified that Trump tried to influence his investigation of Michael Flynn in particular and the Russia conspiracy in general. Trump’s firing of Comey (and then telling Russian officials that Comey’s firing had relieved the pressure of the Russia investigation) looks a lot like obstruction, if you believe that Comey isn’t just making stuff up.

What the public is largely missing is that Trump’s obstruction of the Russia investigation is happening in plain sight. Over Twitter, he tries to intimidate potentially hostile witnesses out of testifying and dangle pardons in front of friendly witnesses. He has publicly urged the attorney general to squash the investigation, and has conspired with Republican congressmen to ruin the careers of the FBI agents who started the investigation.

The fact that he is totally brazen about it doesn’t mean that it’s legal. (I might walk into a grocery and brazenly start eating an apple. It wouldn’t look like shoplifting, but it would be.) Trump claims he is just “fighting back” against the investigation. But when the President or his administration is a potential target of investigation, and he uses the power of his office to “fight back”, that IS obstruction of justice. As ThinkProgress puts it:

Suffice it to say there is no “fighting back” exception to obstruction of justice charges, which were part of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

The issues we need to be thinking about (and not thinking about). At the moment, despite Trump’s “fighting back”, the special prosecutor, the SDNY, and the New York attorney general are actively pursuing their investigations. Once Democrats take over the House in January, Congress will be a backstop for those investigations. (If, say, Trump’s new attorney general would try to suppress Mueller’s report, the House could still subpoena it.) So more and more, it looks like the truth will come out.

At that point, both Trump and the country will have to decide what to do about it. Trump may launch a wave of pardons, including the legally suspect move of pardoning himself. The administration may defy subpoenas, and defy court orders to enforce subpoenas. Democrats will have to decide whether to pursue impeachment. Republicans will face the question of how much illegality they want to defend. Ordinary citizens will need to decide when to take to the streets, or whether to launch tactics that have never been necessary in America before, like a general strike.

One question will be in the background of all our decisions: Addressing the issue of Trump’s (possible) crimes will be disruptive in the short term. If they turn out to be something short of treason, some will say that the disruption isn’t worth it. But looking to the long term, do we dare allow the precedent that presidential crimes can be ignored? If we establish that boundary, between tolerable and intolerable presidential wrongdoing, how might future presidents push it further?

A lot of those questions will hang on timing: If investigations drag out until an election is looming, maybe the decision should be left to the voters.

All in all, I think these questions point to a more useful focus for your attention than trying to guess what some witness might be saying behind closed doors, or when some new indictment might appear: What are you willing to tolerate? And what will you be willing to do if intolerable things are being ignored?

The Monday Morning Teaser

The portion of your time and energy that you have to devote to news and the larger world can easily get consumed by the day-to-day details of the Trump investigations. Every day, it seems, something has happened, or is about to happen, or might happen in the near future. There are legal experts to interview about what it means, or could mean, or could start to mean soon if some additional thing happens. Sometimes they argue with each other.

On this blog, I’ve been taking the attitude that this isn’t a good use of your time. It’s not the the investigations aren’t important — they definitely are. (My personal belief is that this is the most corrupt administration in living memory, and that most — but probably not all — of the investigations will turn up some serious wrongdoing.) But a chunk of time every day (or even every week), focused on whatever new thing came out that day or on speculation about what might happen soon, is just not an efficient way to follow the story. It’s better, I think, to maintain a loose day-to-day awareness of what’s happening, and then occasionally do a deeper dive: What’s been happening over the last month or two? Where have we gotten to in the process of figuring out what happened and what should be done about it?

Doing that, I think, allows you to maintain a sense of scale. Some days, the new thing that is being breathlessly discussed on MSNBC just isn’t that significant. Other days it is. You don’t want to get uniformly agitated about everything.

So anyway, this is my week to focus on the investigations. The featured post today will be “The Trials of Individual-1: a scorecard”. The “scorecard” aspect comes from the old baseball adage “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.” Because there isn’t just one investigation any more; there are at least half a dozen more-or-less separate areas of concern, being pursued by at least three separate groups of investigators. Some are already sending people to jail. Others are just getting started, pursuing something that looks suspicious, but might not turn into much. Some have been going on for a while behind closed doors; there might be something back there, but whatever it is isn’t public knowledge yet. Maybe several of them will eventually coalesce into one big picture, or maybe they won’t.

I’ll try to get that out by 9 EST. In the weekly summary I plan to catch up on something else I’ve been paying too little attention to: other countries. Britain, France, Yemen, Brazil, Germany … important stuff has been happening in all those places while American attention has been absorbed in our own news. I plan to resist the temptation to pretend to understand more than I do, and instead find links to real experts who can catch you up.

In addition to that, there’s the court ruling that ObamaCare is unconstitutional (which doesn’t take effect soon and probably will be overruled before it does). The Democratic Congress is getting ready to take over after New Years. The Interior Secretary resigned under a cloud of scandals that would have been the top story almost any time during the Obama years. And, oh yeah, the government — or at least a quarter of it — is scheduled to shut down on Saturday.

The summary should come out by noon or so.

Making Truth Matter

This is the crisis of journalism, which I feel that journalists have not wrapped their heads around very well: It’s no longer particularly difficult to uncover the truth and write about it. All knowledge is public these days. Everything is out there. If you want to go find it, you can. The challenge is making truth matter.

– David Roberts
Why is this Happening?” 12-4-2018

This week’s featured post is “Why All the Bush Nostalgia?” In the end, I find that what I’m nostalgic for is a shared reality that is accepted by both major parties and forms the playing field for our political contests. Now 1/3 of the country lives in its own reality and is virtually unreachable.

The David Roberts interview quoted above plays a key role in that post. Near the end of that conversation, Chris Hayes sums up: The problem isn’t with conservatives as individuals — Roberts has just said that they’re not dumb — but with the social processes of the conservative community.

Remember: Everyone’s got confirmation bias. Everyone does motivated reasoning. We’re all doing that. But in the divorce, one side got the actual institutions that do a pretty good job of producing knowledge, and the other side didn’t get any of it. That’s the key here. … The institutional universe of developed rigorous processes of attempting to get at the truth, the entirety of that, more or less, ended on the left side in the epistemic divorce.

By “institutional universe” he means the scientific community, academia, and mainstream journalism.

This point is similar to the one I was making last week in my review of Network Propaganda.

This week everybody was talking about the Mueller investigation

A number of interesting court documents came out these last two weeks:

Some of these documents (particularly the Flynn memo) were only released to the public with substantial redactions, so there has been a lot of tea-leaf-reading in the media. I’m trying to avoid getting ahead of the facts, so I’ll just link to it without commenting.

One part that doesn’t require much interpretation, though, comes from the “Cohen’s illegal campaign contributions” section of the SDNY document:

During the campaign, Cohen played a central role in two similar schemes to purchase the rights to stories – each from women who claimed to have had an affair with Individual-1 – so as to suppress the stories and thereby prevent them from influencing the election. With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election. Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments. In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1. [my emphasis]

SDNY (not Mueller) is claiming that the president himself was part of that criminal conspiracy. The Trump Organization was also involved:

Executives of the Company agreed to reimburse Cohen … the Company then falsely accounted for these payments as ‘legal expenses.’


It’s fascinating to watch Fox News try to spin this. Here’s Byron York suggesting how Trump might claim that the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal weren’t illegal campaign contributions:

I think Trump’s biggest defense in the payoff case is: “I’ve been paying off women for years. … I didn’t start doing it when I ran for president.”

Basically, it’s an “I’m not a crook, I’m just a scumbag” defense. The Fox panel also invokes the same logical fallacy Trump himself often uses: that charges of non-Russia-related crimes indicate that prosecutors don’t have evidence of Russia-related crimes. But there’s no logical connection there.

Also, Cohen’s lying-to-Congress confession goes right to the heart of collusion: At the same time that Russia was hacking the DNC and putting together its social-media campaign to elect Trump, and Trump was calling for an end to sanctions against Russia, Trump’s people were negotiating with Putin to build Trump Tower Moscow. The outlines of a conspiracy case are starting to take shape.


Another campaign violation is coming out: There was illegal coordination between the Trump campaign and the NRA, which spent $30 million supporting him.

Reporting by The Trace shows that the NRA and the Trump campaign employed the same operation — at times, the exact same people — to craft and execute their advertising strategies for the 2016 presidential election. … “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation where illegal coordination seems more obvious,” said Ann Ravel, a former chair of the FEC who reviewed the records. “It is so blatant that it doesn’t even seem sloppy. Everyone involved probably just thinks there aren’t going to be any consequences.”


A point that everyone needs to keep in mind: Again and again, when Trump’s people were asked about contacts with Russia, they lied. Some lied to Congress, some lied to investigators, and Trump himself repeatedly lied to the public. Trump and his supporters still have not put forward a credible story that explains what motivated all these lies.


I posted this video when it came out in 2017, but it’s worth watching again.

and election fraud in North Carolina

Invariably, when one side starts making up stories about the other cheating, the result is cheating “to get even” on their own side. It’s no big deal any more, they think, because everybody is doing it.

In North Carolina’s 9th congressional district, Republican Mark Harris appeared to win by 905 votes. But there were some obvious shenanigans with absentee ballots. Once that was noticed, it became clear that something similar had happened in Harris’ narrow primary win over the incumbent congressman.

The state election board has refused to certify Harris’ victory, and could order a new election. This is the only seat in Congress that is still undecided.

and other Republican attempts to undo the will of the voters

After Democrat Roy Cooper won the North Carolina governorship in 2016, the gerrymandered Republican super-majority in the legislature changed a bunch of rules to take power away from the governorship. At the time this seemed like an extreme overreach, causing the Electoral Integrity Project to score North Carolina’s democracy as on a par with countries like Cuba and Indonesia.

But that’s become the model for how Republicans respond to losing elections.

In November, Wisconsin’s electorate ended eight years of Republican dominance in state government by choosing Democrats Tony Evers as governor and Josh Kaul as attorney general. Democrats also won races for secretary of state and state treasurer. … Having lost the governorship, [Republicans are] using a lame-duck session of the legislature to strip Evers of many powers they were perfectly content to see Republican Gov. Scott Walker exercise. Why are they doing this now? Because Walker, who was defeated by Evers, is still in office to sign their bills.

Among other things, the legislation would stop Evers from taking control of a state economic development agency that the Democrat has pledged to abolish, and it would make it harder for him to overturn restrictions Walker imposed on social benefits. It would also limit early voting (which helped the Democrats win by expanding turnout). For good measure, the legislature wants to prevent Kaul from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act — even though that’s exactly what Kaul told voters he would do.

In addition to the plain bad sportsmanship of this, there’s another issue: The Republican majority in the legislature is already illegitimate.

The Democrats won the popular vote in State Assembly contests by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent but emerged with only 36 seats to the GOP’s 63.

Something similar is happening in Michigan. In a variety of states, Republican legislatures are mucking around with laws passed by voter referendums. In Florida, for example, 65% of the electorate voted to restore voting rights to felons (other than murderers and rapists). But not so fast, voters. The Secretary of State has invented some problems with the language of the referendum, and so he is refusing to give instructions to local officials who need to implement the law.

Some counties say they will allow former felons to begin registering on January 8, but others may not. That could lead to lawsuits over the disparities in people’s voting rights based on the county where they live. Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor and an expert in elections, predicted Tuesday that Detzner’s “resisting implementation of the restoration of felons voting rights…is going to lead to costly litigation for the state, with voters footing the bill.”

but you should still be paying attention to the climate

Carbon emissions are still rising: Up an estimated 2.7% in 2018, after a 1.6% rise last year. This breaks what had been a “three-year plateau”.

The United States is one of the culprits, with emissions up 2.5% after several years of declines. (The EU posts a decline.) That’s not as bad as India’s 6.3% rise, but there’s also much less excuse for it. (India is still trying to bring electricity to 300 million people.)

It’s important to keep the right baseline in mind: Leveling off is not nearly good enough to avoid climate disasters down the road. Carbon emissions need to be going down quickly. The NYT has some compelling graphics comparing the track emissions are on, where the Paris Agreement would put them, and what would be needed to keep global warming below 2 degrees centigrade.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to go in exactly the opposite direction. This week they unveiled a plan to open 9 million acres of the American West to oil and gas drilling.

and you also might be interested in …

The New York Times points out just how revealing the location data collected by your cell phone apps can be. The data sold to advertisers may not say who you are, but who else spends the night at your house and then goes to your workplace? A separate article gives you instructions for turning off this data flow.


A hidden gem from a couple of weeks ago is Ezra Klein’s conversation with Peter Beinart on Klein’s weekly podcast. It’s the kind of conversation that a non-Jew like me seldom gets to hear: two smart, articulate, liberal American Jews talking to each other as Jews.

The conversation is multi-faceted, but centers on (in Klein’s words) “the strange, vulnerable space that many Jews, myself included, find themselves in today.” It covers fear of rising anti-Semitism; the debate over whether Jews are better off turning to the right and allying with the Evangelical Christians or to the left and allying with other religious communities (like American Muslims) who understand the need for religious tolerance; disillusionment with Israel’s right-wing drift; and a view of Judaism that emphasizes “the importance of remembering what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land, of knowing that bigotry takes whatever forms it requires to justify itself, of maintaining humanity amid struggle.”


Here’s an interesting view from the other side: an anti-transgender-rights activist analyzes his side’s stunning (68%-32%) loss on a referendum to repeal a transgender rights law in Massachusetts.

The author faults his side’s reliance on the fear-mongering predator-in-the-bathroom argument, which he admits was “largely contrived”, i.e., based on nothing. He argues instead that conservatives need to target trans people directly:

three important points were not being presented to the public: (1) the LGBT movement’s “civil rights” argument has no basis whatsoever; (2) that “transgenderism” is actually a mental disorder and a destructive ideology, and (3) this law forces people to accept an absurd lie – men can never become women.

He makes an analogy to the same-sex marriage debate, which his side also lost: Rather than talk about side issues like “every child deserves and mother and and father”, they should have denigrated gays more:

they refused to argue that homosexuality was immoral, had terrible health risks, was fraught with addiction and mental health problems, etc.

Personally, I think that strategy only works as long as the denigrated group stays in the closet. Once people understand that they already know such individuals, they stop buying the argument that they’re all sick and immoral. (It’s hard to convince yourself that the nice gay couple across the street is a threat to Western civilization.)

Through my church, I know a couple of transgender young adults. They don’t seem mentally ill to me. And to the extent that they have any problems — what young adult doesn’t? — I don’t see how forcing them back into their previously assigned gender roles will help.


Forbes looks at the President’s self-dealing. Of the money contributed to Trump’s 2020 campaign, $1.1 million has been spent at Trump businesses. The article raises questions about how much value the campaign is getting for its money.


Price-fixing schemes prevent generic drugs from lowering your healthcare expenses as much as they should.


The former presidents and their wives shared a pew during the Bush funeral. During the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, Trump and Melania were the only ones who didn’t join in. It’s often illuminating to think of Trump as a child, and that’s what I saw when the cameras panned past him: Church is boring, and he doesn’t endure boredom well. At least he didn’t fidget.


If Colin Kaepernick’s lawsuit against the NFL needed any more ammunition, the Washington Redskins have just provided it. Kaepernick — who has been criticized by President Trump for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police killings of young blacks — was still unsigned on opening day. But as the season goes on, more and more quarterbacks get injured and jobs open up. Kaepernick has not been offered any of them, despite being a Super Bowl quarterback still in his prime.

Washington was leading its division when it’s starting quarterback, Alex Smith, broke his leg. But rather than turn to Kaepernick, they moved back-up Colt McCoy into the starting role and signed ex-Jet Mark Sanchez to to be the back-up. (Sanchez is best known for the famous butt-fumble play against the Patriots, which made #2 on this list of all-time worst plays.) Things went badly, and the team fell to 6-6.

Even so, there were still many playoff scenarios when McCoy also got injured for the rest of the season. Of all the quarterbacks available during this time, Kaepernick has clearly been the best option. But instead they signed Josh Johnson, who “last threw a pass in 2011”.

Sunday, the Redskins fell behind the New York Giants 40-0 before losing 40-16. Their playoff chances are now virtually gone. Their fans need to start asking why staying on Trump’s good side was more important than winning.


Rex Tillerson made his first public appearance since being fired from the Trump administration.

On Thursday night, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a rare public appearance that he had to repeatedly tell Donald Trump that some of the things the president wanted to do were impossible because they were against the law or violated a treaty.

“I’d say here’s what we can do,” the former Exxon CEO said in a Houston speech. “We can go back to Congress and get this law changed. And if that’s what you want to do, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Mr Tillerson called the president “a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.'”

Trump naturally couldn’t let that be the final word, so he struck back, tweeting that Tillerson was “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell”.

Trump never seems to get it: When you insult someone that YOU brought into the public eye, you’re just insulting your own judgment. As I commented after he called Stormy Daniels “Horseface”: Dude, you’re the one who had sex with her.


Trump continues to strip expertise out of the government: Nikki Haley may not have had foreign policy experience before she became UN Ambassador, but at least she had some kind of substance (having been governor of South Carolina). Her replacement, Heather Nauert, has none. She was a Fox News blonde until Trump made her a spokeswoman for the State Department. She looks good on TV, and that’s what counts in this administration.

“In terms of what we normally look for at the United Nations, her résumé is very thin,” David Gergen, the veteran presidential aide, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday night. He said the role of U.N. representative was not a “communications job” but rather “a place where we conduct active diplomacy with nations around the world.”

Not any more, apparently.

and let’s close with something seasonal

This year once again, we’re debating “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”: Is it really a date rape song or not?

Here’s an analysis that I find persuasive: In the context of its era (the 1940s), it wasn’t. But that context is so lost by now that playing the song should require an explanation longer than the song itself. Here’s the conclusion:

So it’s not actually a song about rape. In fact it’s a song about a woman finding a way to exercise sexual agency in a patriarchal society designed to stop her from doing so. But it’s also, at the same time, one of the best illustrations of rape culture that pop culture has ever produced. It’s a song about a society where women aren’t allowed to say yes … which also happens to mean that it’s also a society where women don’t have a clear and unambiguous way to say no.

So I wouldn’t include it on my holiday play list, but now that I know how to listen to it, I also won’t be disgusted by it.

Why All the Bush Nostalgia?

It’s not President G. H. W. Bush himself that I miss. It’s an era of public trust in a shared reality.


It was weird, wasn’t it? Watching and listening to all that nostalgia for George H. W. Bush and his presidency?

I know, this is what we do when somebody dies: We retell his story to display him in the best possible light. We did it with John McCain just a few months ago. We do it all the time.

But even so, wasn’t it a little extreme? Bush, after all, was never particularly beloved when he was active. He only made it to the presidency by hanging on to Ronald Reagan’s coattails, and he always gets second billing when people recall the Reagan-Bush Era. He served only one term. When he stood for re-election in 1992, he was challenged in his own party by Pat Buchanan (the ancestor of today’s American First xenophobes), and got only 37% of the general election vote (the worst incumbent performance since Taft in 1912).

The Soviet Union fell on his watch, but hardly anyone believed then or now that he caused it. (It’s equally absurd to claim that Reagan caused it, but that’s a different argument.) The accomplishments he was lauded for at the time look worse in light of subsequent events. His greatest triumph, putting together the coalition that won the Gulf War, (which temporarily zoomed his approval rating up to 90%) turned out to be the prelude to his son’s disastrous Iraq invasion. His $100 billion bailout of the bankrupt savings and loans became a model for the much bigger and less popular bailout of the big banks after the real estate bubble of 2008. His pardons of the key figures in Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal are precedents that I’m sure Trump’s people are studying. He is also remembered for his “No new taxes” lie, the racist Willie Horton ad, and the appointment of Clarence Thomas.

So what was all the nostalgia about? A number of writers have tried to explain it, some more convincingly than others.

The Un-Trump. It’s not like Bush left his eulogists nothing to work with. In many ways he was an admirable guy: After enlisting in the Navy on his 18th birthday, he flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. He went on to live a life of public service: as a congressman, diplomat, Director of the CIA, vice president, and then president.

He was a family man, married once and for life to Barbara, with whom he raised another president as well as a governor. His personal demeanor was friendly and gentlemanly. One word nearly everybody uses to describe him is decent.

Those qualities led to the first and most obvious theory: That praising Bush the First was a backhanded way of criticizing the current president, who so obvious lacks all those virtues.

Bush could be testy, but was never cruel. He was intelligent, courteous, careful in his speech, and distinguished. His patrician upbringing and overall success in life gave him a secure ego, so he could respect expertise, let someone else be the smartest man in the room, and take seriously the findings of scientists. In the light of the current crises of democracy and the environment, even a liberal like me can look back at Bush and think “If only we still had Republicans like that.”

The last of his kind. But more than the man himself, there is something about his era that we would like to have back. But exactly what it is isn’t so easy to put your finger on.

In “The Last True Republican Presidentrecites a litany of “lasts”. Bush was the last president who

  • was shaped by the distinctive culture of the New England WASP upper class
  • came from the so-called “Greatest Generation” that was forged in the fires of depression and world war
  • was alive during World War II
  • fought in any war at all
  • represented Eastern establishment values of prudence, pragmatism, tolerance, measured judgment, and internationalism
  • got more than 53% of the vote (in 1988)
  • was a moderate Republican
  • had significant experience in foreign policy
  • seriously believed in the Republican Party’s legacy of fiscal conservatism

Legitimacy. That list points in two directions that two other writers pulled apart: Peter Beinart called attention to Bush as “the last person to occupy the Oval Office whose opponents saw him as a fully legitimate president.”

That’s because in the contemporary United States, presidential legitimacy stems from three sources. The first source is democracy. Although America’s system of choosing presidents has many undemocratic features, many Americans associate presidential legitimacy with winning a majority of the vote. The second source is background. Throughout American history, America’s presidents have generally looked a certain way. They’ve been white, male, (mostly) Protestant, and often associated with legitimating institutions such as the military, elite universities, or previous high office. Americans are more likely to question the legitimacy of presidents who deviate from those traditions. The third source is behavioral. Presidents can lose legitimacy if they violate established norms of personal or professional conduct.

George H. W. Bush was the last president who could not be impugned on any of these fronts.

Bill Clinton never got 50% of the vote (because he ran in three-way races with a Republican and independent Ross Perot), and was characterized as a “draft dodger” who would be incapable of commanding respect as commander-in-chief. George W. Bush was installed in office by the Supreme Court after he lost the popular vote. (Though Bush’s re-election campaign got 50.7% in 2004.) And Barack Obama may have won handily twice, but his race made him unacceptable to a large number of white Americans (who sought out bizarre theories like Birtherism to justify their rejection in terms that weren’t explicitly racist). Donald Trump not only lost the popular vote by a wide margin, but since taking office his actions have been anything but “presidential”. (Just to pick one example out of many, it’s impossible to imagine GHWB publicly distorting an Democratic congressman’s name into “little Adam Schitt“.)

Whether you liked Bush-41 or not, he was the president and everyone knew it. That didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but after a quarter century without that kind of universally accepted legitimacy, we miss it.

The WASP aristocracy. Ross Douthat picked up on Bush’s WASPiness: The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment, he claims, may not have been fair or representative of America, but it simply did a better job than our current “meritocratic” leadership class. He describes

Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

The new ruling class, Douthat claims, is as “self-replicating” as the old one, but since they have fooled themselves into believing they earned their places at the top of the pyramid, they have less of a sense of responsibility towards those beneath them. (Chris Hayes makes this point better and at some length in The Twilight of the Elites.)

Douthat goes on to claim (and this is where he goes off the rails in my opinion) that we need an aristocracy, and that the current one needs to gain self-consciousness and become “a ruling class [that] acknowledge[s] itself for what it really is, and act[s] accordingly”.

Fareed Zakaria, who knows he would have no place in a WASP-dominated world, lauds the old establishment’s “modesty, humility and public-spiritedness”, noting how many of the powerful men on the Titanic let women and children board the lifeboats.

The aristocracy was secure in its power and position, so it could afford to think about the country’s fate in broad terms, looking out for the longer term, rising above self-interest — because its own interest was assured.

In my terms, they felt like the owned the country. Today’s CEOs and political leaders are just renting America — and seem likely to trash it before their lease is up. Zakaria calls on today’s upper crust to recognize how much accident and luck is involved in their ascendancy and “live by one simple old-fashioned, universal idea — rich or poor, talented or not, educated or uneducated, every human being has equal moral worth.”

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that. But even so, I don’t want the WASP aristocracy back. There’s got to be something else.

Shared reality. Strangely, the moment when I finally started to feel like I understood Bush nostalgia was when I listened to a discussion that didn’t mention Bush at all: Chris Hayes’ conversation with environmental writer David Roberts on his Why Is This Happening? podcast.

What they talked about instead was what Roberts has called the “epistemic crisis” in the US. In other words, due largely to right-wing propaganda that shapes the worldview of about 1/3 of the population, we have lost our ability to form a public reality.

Roberts, who was a graduate student in philosophy before turning to journalism, found himself wandering back into epistemology (the branch of philosophy that studies how we know things) because of what he was seeing in his coverage of climate change: The science is clear, the problem is urgent, and the solution (drastically reducing our use of fossil fuels) is obvious, but nothing happens because it no longer seems possible to turn scientific truth into the kind of public knowledge that produces political action.

Instead, people who live inside the right-wing bubble are told that the scientific community is corrupt. (Trump responded to a recent government report on climate change by saying that climate scientists have a “political agenda“, and Trump supporter Rick Santorum expanded on that comment by saying that “A lot of these scientists are driven by the money they receive.” If climate change weren’t real, he says, they’d be unemployed.) Similarly, they are told that fact-checkers at the major news-gathering organizations produce “fake news” and academic research is left-wing propaganda. (The Washington Post Magazine recently featured a profile of a leading voice in the pro-Confederate movement. The fact that academic historians uniformly disagree with his version of the Civil War does not bother him in the slightest. “A lot of people think if you have half the alphabet after your name, you’re automatically right on everything,” he says.) When every economic model showed that the Trump tax cut would balloon the deficit, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin simply asserted that it would cut the deficit, as if one opinion were no better than the other.

“Call it 30% of Americans,” Roberts estimates, “have basically hived off from mainstream institutions of knowledge creation and knowledge verification, and have created their own hermetically sealed world.”

To me, this is the basis of the other Bush nostalgia explanations. President Obama won clear majorities twice, but acceptance of his legitimacy couldn’t penetrate the conservative bubble. The WASP aristocracy was able to accept and promote a public version of reality that today’s leaders either can’t or don’t want to deal with. As a result, Bush had go back on his “no new taxes” pledge because reality and consistency with his other values demanded it: He was against deficits, and taxes have to be part of any realistic deficit-reduction plan. So he proved faithless to conservative orthodoxy, but faithful to reality. He couldn’t simply assert that the deficit would go away because he wanted it to. (Trump, on the other hand, is talking about “paying down debt“, but also about more tax cuts, not cutting Social Security or Medicare, and raising defense spending.)

That’s the big difference between politics in the Bush Era and today: 25-30 years ago, political debates took place inside an arena of shared reality. You could have your own opinions, but you couldn’t have your own facts. Now, if you’re a conservative Republican, you can. Reality is whatever the Leader says it is.

That common reality is what I miss. Not the Bush administration, not the WASP aristocracy, and not even George H. W. himself, no matter how great a guy he may have been. I miss a sense that I live in the same world with all my fellow citizens, that facts about that world can be determined by trusted institutions committed to objectivity, and that ultimately all our opinions and predictions will all be judged according to what really happens.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The strangest thing about these last two weeks was the outpouring of nostalgia that surrounded the funeral of President George H. W. Bush. If you lived through his administration, you undoubtedly remember that he was not a particularly beloved figure. His own party only accepted him because he was Ronald Reagan’s anointed successor, and he managed only 38% of the vote when he ran for re-election. True, he never generated the kind of hatred that has been directed at subsequent presidents (including his son), but he also never really had a fan base.

Clearly something else was going on. But what? That’s what I try to fathom in this week’s featured post “Why All the Bush Nostalgia?”, which should be out shortly. Spoiler: It’s got more to do with his era than with the man personally, and what I at least am nostalgic about is a sense that we all lived in a shared reality, rather than 1/3 of the population hiving off into right-wing fantasyland.

The weekly summary covers the recent developments in the Mueller investigation, the bizarre election fraud in North Carolina, attempts by minority-rule Republicans to scuttle the will of the voters in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, Trump administration turnover, and a variety of other topics. It should be out around noon.

Political Asymmetry

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear December 10.

To speak of “polarization” is to assume symmetry. No fact emerges more clearly from our analysis of how four million political stories were linked, tweeted, and shared over a three-year period than that there is no symmetry in the architecture and dynamics of communications within the right-wing media ecosystem and outside of it.

– Benkler, Faris, and Roberts, Network Propaganda

This week’s featured post is “The Media isn’t ‘Polarized’. It has a Right-Wing Cancer.” In it, I review the recent book Network Propaganda, which you can read for free online.

If you happen to be near Billerica, Massachusetts on Sunday, you can hear me speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church on “Men and #MeToo”.

This week everybody was talking about Trump vs. the law

A federal judge blocked the administration’s new asylum rules, which would have automatically denied asylum to anyone who crossed the border somewhere other than a recognized border crossing. In the ruling, he wrote:

Congress has clearly commanded in the [Immigration and Naturalization Act] that any alien who arrives in the United States, irrespective of that alien’s status, may apply for asylum – “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.” Notwithstanding this clear command, the President has issued a proclamation, and the Attorney General and the Department of Homeland Security have promulgated a rule, that allow asylum to be granted only to those who cross at a designated port of entry and deny asylum to those who enter at any other location along the southern border of the United States.

The rule barring asylum for immigrants who enter the country outside a port of entry irreconcilably conflicts with the INA and the expressed intent of Congress. Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden.

So: There’s a law, the judge quotes it, and Trump’s policy obviously violates it.

Try to keep that in mind, because from there Trump did everything possible to try to make the controversy into yet another clash of personalities. Without responding to the question of whether he was violating the law, he denounced the “Obama judge” and the Ninth Circuit that he serves in. That prompted Chief Justice John Roberts to issue a statement directly contradicting the President:

We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. … The independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.

Trump argued back, and tweeted, and returned to the subject in a Thanksgiving call to the troops, claiming that “It’s a terrible thing when judges take over your protective services, when they tell you how to protect your border.” But it is the law that tells the President what to do. The judge is just reading the law.

Trump’s trolling has produced a bunch of drama and drawn a lot of media attention. But he still has not addressed the plain fact that his policy violates the law. The key conflict here is not Trump vs. an Obama judge or the Ninth Circuit or John Roberts or any other collection of Deep State enemies. It’s Trump vs. the law.


On Slate, Angelo Guisado explains why asylum seekers cross the border illegally:

the U.S. Customs and Border Protection systematically and unlawfully rejects their asylum attempts at official ports of entry.

The unwillingness of the Trump administration to process asylum claims at ports of entry led 450 would-be asylum seekers to camp out on the Mexican side of bridges leading to El Paso. Rather than deal with them according to the law, U.S. custom officials arranged with Mexican officials to have the migrants removed.

The administration says there is a deal with Mexico to keep asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border until their asylum petition is granted. (Though the incoming Mexican government says there is no deal yet , and incoming House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings says “that’s not the law“.) I worry that the next step is to slow down the process even further, in hopes that people will give up.

In a tweet concerning an incident at the border on Sunday, Lindsey Graham tweeted about “the broken laws governing asylum”. But it’s not that the laws are broken, it’s that the administration keeps breaking them.


I know I don’t do breaking news well, and things often turn out to be different than they first appear, so I’m not going to say much about the tear gas attack against the would-be border-crossers Sunday. The Guardian has a lot of pictures.


In other legal news concerning Trump, the New York attorney general’s suit against the Trump Foundation will go forward. A state judge in New York denied a motion by the Trump family to dismiss the suit, which claims the Foundation “functioned as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.” The AG seeks to dissolve the Foundation and claim monetary damages from the Trump family.

One argument Trump’s lawyers made for dismissing the suit was of a piece with his continuing attack on our judicial system. Basically, the claim was that Trump can’t get a fair hearing in a state like New York, where he is unpopular. This is similar to the claim he made against Judge Curiel in the Trump University case, that Curiel couldn’t hear Trump fairly because he was “Mexican”. Judges, in Trump’s view, are not experts who rule on the law, they are just people expressing their opinions. They rule for or against him because they like or dislike him, and not because of facts and the law.


Earlier this month, another judge put a serious delay on the administration’s approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline into Canada. The judge claims that government agencies “simply discarded” factual findings made under the Obama administration, without providing “reasoned explanations”.

“This has been typical of the Trump administration,” said Mark Squillace, an expert on environmental law at the University of Colorado Law School. “They haven’t done a good job dealing with the factual findings of the previous administration. The courts have been clear that you can change your position, even if it’s for a political reason. But you have to show your work, how you got from Point A to Point B.”

and Trump’s shrug at MBS murdering a Washington Post contributor

Again, ignore Trump’s blather and keep the basic facts in mind: It is increasingly clear that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the killing of Wsahington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, which took place October 2 at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi had gone to get documentation about his divorce so that he could remarry. (His Turkish fiance was waiting in the car.) Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist who had gotten on the wrong side of the Saudi government and had gone into voluntary exile. After some time in London he had moved to Virginia in June, 2017 and had been living as a legal permanent resident of the United States.

So an American president should have three issues with MBS: killing journalists whose only threat to you is what they might write, killing people who have left your country and are on the soil of our NATO ally, and killing people who live under our protection.

This week the White House put out a statement. It is poorly written, poorly thought out, full of falsehoods, and morally bankrupt. The gist of it is that America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and with MBS as the heir apparent will go forward without a hitch. It makes two arguments:

  • Saudi Arabia is a necessary ally in the regional power struggle with Iran.
  • The Saudis are good customers of the U.S., particularly of the U.S. defense industry.

Apparently, this means they can do whatever they want and we just have to accept it. It’s hard to reconcile this passivity with Trump’s frequent invocation of how “strong” America has become under his rule. In response, Hawaiian Democrat Rep. Tulsi Gabbard tweeted:

being Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not “America First.”

Trump’s defense of MBS is similar to his defense of Vladimir Putin: We live in a nihilistic world where nothing can actually be known, so we might as well believe the people we want to believe. (As they say in Assassin’s Creed: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.“)

King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

In a subsequent interview Trump hammered harder on this point: US intelligence agencies don’t really know anything, their leaders just “have feelings, certain ways“. Well, the Saudis have feelings too. (In the same interview, he said “if we went by this standard, we wouldn’t be able to have anybody as an ally”. Try to imagine how that statement goes down in Canada or the UK.)

Julian Sanchez parodied the White House statement’s style and logic:

Crucifixion is a terrible, terrible thing. Should never happen. And we may never know whether Jesus was guilty of crimes against Rome. Who can say? But thirty pieces IS a lot of silver, and it would be very foolish to turn it down.


Republicans as well as Democrats have spoken out against Trump’s position. I would characterize the bipartisan criticism like this: The question isn’t whether you believe in “America first”, but rather what you think America is, and where you think American strength comes from. If America is defined by blood and soil, and if its strength comes purely from money and arms, then Trump is right. But if you believe that America is primarily about ideals and values, that anyone who shares those ideals and values is our natural ally, and that our greatest strength comes from the power of those ideals and values, then he is surrendering America, not putting it first.

The next question is what Congress can do. Rep. Brad Stevens (D-CA) wants Congress to intervene in a deal to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis, making sure that the nuclear material can’t be used for weaponry. If the erratic and unpredictable MBS is going to be king, letting the Saudis go nuclear is not measurably better than letting the Iranians go nuclear.


BTW, you can’t overlook Trump’s personal financial interest in keeping the Saudis happy. The true operating principle here might be “Trump first!”


Matt Yglesias writes:

Since Trump is very clearly betraying American values, it’s tempting to accept the notion that he is implementing a trade-off that advances American interests. But “don’t murder our people” and “don’t use embassies located in allied countries as killing zones” are not airy values. They are interests too.

and the Mississippi Senate run-off

The run-off between Democrat Mike Espy and Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith is tomorrow. Given that it’s Mississippi, you’d think Hyde-Smith would have an easy time of it. But she’s doing her best to screw it up. The Senate will be Republican either way: 53-47 if she wins and 52-48 if she loses.

and what we learn from the midterm results

The Democrats’ lead in the House national popular vote keeps growing: It’s up to 8.1%, or just over 9 million votes. That’s bigger than any other recent “wave” election: 2010 (Republicans win by 6.8% or 6 million votes), 2006 (Democrats 8%, 6.5 million), 1994 (Republicans 7.1%, 5 million). But it still can’t touch the Mother of All Midterm Waves, the post-Watergate 1974 election, which Democrats won by 16.8%.

If the remaining undecided election (CA-21) goes to the Republican (who is currently slightly ahead), Democrats will have a 234-201 majority.


Here’s a way to judge the impact of gerrymandering nationwide: In 2016, Republicans won the House national popular vote, but only by 0.9%. That yielded a larger majority than the Democrats will have: 241-194. So a margin nine times bigger gives Democrats a smaller majority.


Nancy Pelosi seems to be doing what she does best: counting votes until she comes up with a majority.

I think Monica Hesse is onto something:

The Nancyness of Nancy Pelosi is like the Hillaryness of Hillary Clinton: It’s not a definition so much as a collection of amorphous descriptors — cackling, scheming, elitist, ex-wife-like — that nobody can ever quite articulate, other than to say they don’t like it.

With that in mind, I’ve been watching a different set of impossible standards attach to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she gets ready to enter Congress. She doesn’t have enough money in her bank account, her clothes are too nice, and so on. How long before her Alexandrianity becomes similarly disqualifying? Before long, we’ll probably start hearing: “I don’t know what it is, I just don’t like her. She’s got too much baggage.”

The phenomenon here is something I would call bank-shot misogyny. Direct misogyny says “I don’t like her because she’s a woman.” Bank-shot misogyny relies on the fact that (due to the structural misogyny in our national conversation) mud tends to slide off men and stick to women. Then it asks, “Can’t we find someone with less mud on her?”


A number of articles have reminded us that presidents whose parties lose in midterm elections still often get re-elected: Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1992, Obama in 2012.

But it’s hard to see how those examples will help Trump. In each case, the midterm loss caused the president to change course, to be more cautious, and to work harder to find common ground with the other party. It’s hard to picture Trump learning that lesson, because Trump never makes mistakes and all conflicts are somebody else’s fault, so there’s never anything for him to learn.


Not so long ago, Illinois and Missouri were both swing states, but they have gone in opposite directions: Illinois is now reliably blue, Missouri reliably red. Bill Clinton won Missouri twice, but Hillary lost it in 2016 by 18%. Republican presidential candidates won Illinois six straight times in 1968-1988, but have lost it seven straight times since. Trump lost it by 17%.

Now it looks like several other central states may be separating in a similar fashion. According to Nate Silver, Democratic House candidates won the popular vote in Pennsylvania by 10%, in Wisconsin by 8%, and in Michigan by 7%. Meanwhile, they lost in Ohio by 5.5%.

For decades, Ohio has been the ultimate swing state. (The last time its electoral votes went to the loser was to Nixon in 1960.) But that seems to be changing, so now it’s red even in a blue year. Virginia, conversely, has made a quick trip from reliably red (Bush by 8% in 2004) to solidly blue (Democratic House candidates by 10% in 2018). Ditto Colorado (Bush by 8% in 2000, Dem House by 10% in 2018).


A Washington Post article about Wisconsin politics shows a promising national model: Trump outrage motivated people to become active in politics, but once they got there they didn’t just try to spread Trump outrage. Instead they branched out into voting rights and progressive local issues.


There’s a weird idea going around that House Democrats either won’t or shouldn’t launch a bunch of Trump investigations “because voters have little tolerance for partisan witch hunts”.

I agree that Democrats shouldn’t try to drum up scandal out of nothing, as Republicans did during the Obama administration. (Benghazi deserved one investigation, not eight.) But there is plenty of legitimate wrongdoing and bad policy to investigate. There’s no need for witch-hunting when there’s a crime wave going on.

So Democrats shouldn’t chase wild rumors or grill Ivanka about her emails. But somebody needs to ask exactly how we started putting kids in cages at the border, and look into how Trump is profiting from his presidency. The wastes of money by various cabinet officials deserve public scrutiny. Once the Mueller Report comes in, the House should hold hearings to publicize its findings and to debate whether they merit further action. That’s not witch hunting, that’s Congress doing its job.

In short, Democrats should have high standards for what they investigate. But I think there’s plenty of material that meets high standards.

but we should all be watching the Justice Department

Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Trump had told White House Counsel Don McGahn that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and Jim Comey. McGahn reportedly told the president that this would be an abuse of power and could be grounds for impeachment.

Like all stories with anonymous sourcing, you have to maintain some degree of skepticism. I don’t believe the Times makes up sources (as Trump often claims), but anonymous leaks usually come from people trying to make themselves look good. McGahn looks good here, so he (or someone loyal to him) is probably the source.

Two things about this story are worrisome: First, it paints a picture of a president with authoritarian impulses, who is only being restrained by underlings who still believe in the rule of law. Second, McGahn has left the White House, and the Justice Department is in the hands of a Trumpist hack, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. If Trump pushes on the system again, it might yield to him.

And Whitaker has his own issues. A number of legal cases will force judges to rule soon on whether his appointment was legal. And somebody in Congress needs to ask him about this:

Before becoming Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker received more than $1.2 million in salary from a conservative nonprofit that does not reveal its donors, according to financial disclosure forms.

That would be one of those justified investigations I talked about. No need to nail him to the wall, but get an answer: What was he paid for?

and the climate

A joint report issued by 13 federal agencies directly contradicts the administration’s rhetoric on global warming. Current policy is to loosen climate-change-fighting restrictions in order to spur economic growth. But the report emphasizes the cost of climate change: The report predicts

that if significant steps are not taken to rein in global warming, the damage will knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end.

… in direct language, the 1,656-page assessment lays out the devastating effects of a changing climate on the economy, health and environment, including record wildfires in California, crop failures in the Midwest and crumbling infrastructure in the South. Going forward, American exports and supply chains could be disrupted, agricultural yields could fall to 1980s levels by midcentury and fire season could spread to the Southeast, the report finds.

Meanwhile, Republican senators are holding the line on current GOP rhetoric: Doing anything about global warming will break the economy, which just sort of ignores the whole report. Doing nothing about global warming is going to break the economy.

And then there’s this:The NYT has a good article about the persistence of coal as a fuel for electrical plants, in spite of the environmental costs and economic competition from cleaner fuels.

and you also might be interested in

There are lots of rumors about what Robert Mueller might do next, but we’ll all know soon enough.


The stock market has been plunging lately (though it’s up so far this morning), but Trump econ advisor Larry Kudlow isn’t worried about a recession. Of course, he also wasn’t worried about a recession in 2008.


Paul Krugman points to a way forward on health care: Congress may be gridlocked, but a lot can be done in states that Democrats control:

The most dramatic example of how this can be done is New Jersey, where Democrats gained full control at the end of 2017 and promptly created state-level versions of both the mandate and reinsurance [two provisions of the ACA that Republicans have managed to undo at the national level]. The results were impressive: New Jersey’s premiums for 2019 are 9.3 percent lower than for 2018, and are now well below the national average. Undoing Trumpian sabotage seems to have saved the average buyer around $1,500 a year.

Now that Democrats have won control of multiple states, they can and should emulate New Jersey’s example, and move beyond it if they can. Why not, for example, introduce state-level public options — actuarially sound government plans — as alternatives to private insurance?

Insurance works better with a bigger population. So how about it, California?


Are you ready for your annual dose of humility? The NYT’s 100 Notable Books list is out. This year I have read exactly two of the novels: The Witch Elm by Tana French and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. Of the nonfiction books: zero.


“Money laundering” isn’t supposed to be this literal: Dutch police found $400K hidden in a washing machine.


Retired General Stan McCrystal writes about his decision to get rid of his portrait of Robert E. Lee.

We want to be proud of our past, so it’s tempting to look at only the best aspects of it. … There is, in the end, little point in studying a version of history that contains cartoons and monuments rather than real people with nuanced actions and decisions — people whose complexities can teach us about our own. As we come to learn more about our world and ourselves, it is crucial to reexamine our role models and our enemies. There is tremendous value in wrestling with the errors over which history commonly glosses.


This week included the strange tale of the 26-year-old American, John Chau, who went to the remote North Sentinel Island to attempt to convert the natives to Christianity. The natives killed him, as they have killed or tried to kill any outsiders who come to their island. North Sentinel sits in the Bay of Bengal as part of the Andaman chain, and is technically part of India. The Indian government has put it off limits and the Indian navy patrols to keep outsiders away. Chau had hired a fishing boat to stay offshore, and paddled in on a kayak.

This is one of those stories that people going to project their own values onto. To me it points out the hazards of living in a myth rather than in reality. With no common language and little common experience, Chau would have needed years to communicate even the most basic notions of his religion, and he seems not to have made preparations for that kind of stay. He apparently paid no attention to the possibility that he might bring diseases that could wipe the natives out. I picture him expecting some kind of Pentecost miracle, with himself as St. Peter. That lack of realism got him killed.


The Washington Post reported last Monday that Ivanka Trump (like Hillary Clinton) used a personal email account for public business. This is an apparent violation of the Presidential Records Act, because Ivanka isn’t just the president’s daughter, she has an official position in the White House. Like Clinton, Ivanka says that she did not understand the rules and had no ill intent. Like Clinton, she addressed the issue by having a lawyer review her records to separate the public emails from the private ones.

The point here shouldn’t be to make problems for Ivanka, but to point out how bogus a lot of the Hillary-email hoo-ha was (as I explained at the time). If the Presidential Records Act is anything like the Federal Records Act that Clinton ran afoul of, violations are not a go-to-jail offense.


George Lakoff’s advice on how to cover Trump:

Journalists could engage in what I’ve called “truth sandwiches,” which means that you first tell the truth; then you point out what the lie is and how it diverges from the truth. Then you repeat the truth and tell the consequences of the difference between the truth and the lie. If the media did this consistently, it would matter. It would be more difficult for Trump to lie.

Actually, it would still be incredibly easy for Trump to lie — he’s a natural — but he wouldn’t get as much benefit out of it.

and here’s something odd

While re-reading the Astro City comic book series this week — I know, I should be reading all that nonfiction on the NYT’s Notable Books list instead —  I ran across the strangely prescient issue #7, published in 2014: Winged Victory, the Astro City universe’s most Wonder-Woman-like character, is being framed as a fraud. Her biggest victories, it is claimed, were staged; the women she has been sheltering and teaching to defend themselves are actually being abused all over again; and so on. When WV goes to a microphone to defend herself, she is shouted down by protesters chanting — wait for it — “Lock her up!” Trump’s crowds didn’t start chanting that about Hillary until 2016.

I’m reminded of an episode of Zorro from 1959, where a Spanish captain gives a patriotic speech and comes darn close to JFK’s “ask not” quote from 1961.

and let’s close with some gross but bizarrely fascinating animal facts

Scientists at Georgia Tech now have an explanation for how wombats manage to poop out cubes. They’re the only known animals with stackable cubic poop.

But even wombat poop is not as amazing as whale earwax. Whales don’t have fingers they can stick into their ears, so their earwax just accumulates through their lives. (Never thought about that, did you?) And they’re huge, so ultimately they wind up with waxy plugs in their ear canals that can be as long as ten inches, plugs that The Atlantic compares to “a cross between a goat’s horn and the world’s nastiest candle”.

It turns out that an earwax plug contains a record of the whale’s life, if you know how to read it.

As whales go through their annual cycles of summer binge-eating and winter migrations, the wax in their ears changes from light to dark. These changes manifest as alternating bands, which you can see if you slice through the plugs. Much as with tree rings, you can count the bands to estimate a whale’s age. And you can also analyze them to measure the substances that were coursing through the whale’s body when each band was formed. A whale’s earwax, then, is a chronological chemical biography.

Researchers at Baylor University have begun studying whale earwax plugs, which coincidentally had been accumulating in museums for more than a century.

“Museums are notorious for collecting everything, and waiting for the science to catch up,” [biology professor Stephen] Trumble says. “We called Charles Potter at the Smithsonian Institution, and he said, ‘It’s interesting you called because we have pallets and pallets of these ear plugs sitting around, and we’re thinking of throwing them away.’ Instead of being thrown away, those ear plugs are now objects of wonder.”

Makes you curious about what else is occupying space in Smithsonian warehouses, doesn’t it?

Trumble and research partner Sascha Usenko measured stress hormones in the plugs, combined findings across numerous whales, and produced “a 146-year chronicle of whale stress”, which turns out to have an obvious-in-retrospect correlation with the output of the whaling industry. The exception is a peak during World War II, when whaling was down, but whales were probably being stressed by underwater explosions. Whale stress is back up lately, possibly in response to climate change.