Tag Archives: Trump administration

Mueller by Gaslight

Last Monday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report had only been finished for a few days, and Attorney General Bill Barr’s first letter to Congress had only come out the day before. All through this process, I’ve been urging patience over speculation, so my initial impulse was to give Barr the benefit of the doubt, at least for a little while. After all, he was promising to do the right thing:

[M]y goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.

His second letter, written Friday, fleshed that out a little.

I anticipate we will be in a position to release the report by mid-April, if not sooner.

In between, though, Trump and his supporters have gone on a scorched-earth victory lap. First he claimed a vindication that so far is not supported by the available facts,

No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!

He went on to demand revenge against the enemies who supported investigating the President’s dubious relationship with Russia in the first place.

Congressman Adam Schiff, who spent two years knowingly and unlawfully lying and leaking, should be forced to resign from Congress!

Trumpists in Congress — who said nothing when Schiff’s predecessor Devin Nunes ran the House Intelligence Committee in a thoroughly partisan manner — joined in:

Republicans in Congress and the White House are calling for Rep. Adam Schiff to resign his position as the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee. The president and his supporters say Schiff perpetuated a false narrative about Trump and his potential illegal activities.

At a rally in Grand Rapids Trump listed his enemies — Schiff, Jerry Nadler, the media — and led a chant of “Lock them up!“. Lindsay Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to investigate the people who investigated Trump:

We need a special counsel to look at the potential crimes by the Department of Justice — the FBI — regarding the Clinton e-mail investigation and the Russian investigation against Trump early on.

Trump also wants revenge against the media.

So funny that The New York Times & The Washington Post got a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage (100% NEGATIVE and FAKE!) of Collusion with Russia – And there was No Collusion! So, they were either duped or corrupt? In any event, their prizes should be taken away by the Committee!

(MSNBC’s David Guru examined how the NYT and WaPo reporting holds up: pretty well, it turns out.)

The Trump campaign sent out a memo asking networks to blacklist critics of the administration:

“Moving forward, we ask that you employ basic journalistic standards when booking such guests to appear anywhere in your universe of productions,” the memo read. “You should begin by asking the basic question: ‘Does this guest warrant further appearances in our programming, given the outrageous and unsupported claims made in the past?‘”

The memo, written by communications director Tim Murtaugh, lists Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and former CIA Director John Brennan.

And all this is based on what exactly? A four-page letter written by an attorney general that Trump hand-picked for this purpose. And that letter itself may not say as much as it seems to.

Barr’s summary. In general, as facts trickled out of the Special Counsel’s office during the last two years, I have tried to avoid tea-leaf reading. I figured that there would eventually be an actual report that said things clearly. I stuck to that policy last week, and did not do a word-by-word analysis of Barr’s letter. But if Trump and his supporters are going to get this far ahead of the facts, and to try to bully various players in our political system into actions based on their extreme interpretation of Barr’s letter, then I think it would be irresponsible to let those interpretations own the field until Barr sees fit to release some version of Mueller’s actual report.

So what exactly did Barr say?

The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. As the report states: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

I think it’s rational to assume that Barr is being a good servant to his master here: Assuming that what this passage says is true at all (always a major concession when dealing with the most dishonest administration in my lifetime), it reads Mueller’s report in the way most favorable to Trump’s interests. And it does not say “no collusion”. It says that Mueller could not prove that the Trump campaign and the Russian government were directly conspiring. But was Roger Stone part of the Trump campaign? Was Russian oligarch (and Paul Manafort’s former employer) Oleg Deripaska part of the Russian government? What if WikiLeaks was a middleman, conspiring on the one hand with Russia and on the other with the Trump campaign?

In other words, the quote could mean what Trump wants it to mean: that Mueller found the accusations of collusion entirely baseless. Or it could mean that Mueller found a lot of suggestive and suspicious evidence, perhaps better than 50/50 evidence, but no smoking gun — at least not one that would stand up in a criminal trial — that could be tied all the way back to Trump in one direction and Putin in the other. We won’t know which is closer to the truth until we can read the full report.

The second part of Trump’s claim — “no obstruction” — has nothing to do with Mueller. Barr writes:

The Special Counsel did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct [of the President] constituted obstruction. … The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” … Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

Again, not a clean bill of health, just a statement that the evidence is insufficient to prove a crime in court, at least in Barr’s mind, though not necessarily in Mueller’s. (If Rod Rosenstein really does agree with Barr’s conclusion, I’d like to hear him say so himself, rather than let Barr put words in his mouth.) And if that’s the most favorable-to-Trump interpretation possible, then I have to agree with George Conway (Kellyanne’s husband):

Americans should expect far more from a president than merely that he not be provably a criminal.

To conclude this section: Nothing in the information currently available would justify making Schiff resign, rescinding the Pulitzers of the Times and Post, investigating the investigators, letting the Trump campaign write a media blacklist, or locking up any Trump critic. If Trump thinks the full Mueller report contains such information, well, release it and then we’ll all see.

Why the delay? Which brings up the question of why no one can see the report yet. (Alex Cole pointed out how typical this is: “Donald Trump is: 1) ‘a billionaire’ but you can’t see his taxes 2) ‘a genius’ but you can’t see his grades 3) ‘exonerated’ but you can’t see the report.)

In his first letter, Barr listed two things he needed to redact before making the report public. His second letter expanded it to four things:

  • proceedings of a grand jury
  • whatever might compromise intelligence sources and methods
  • material that could affect “other ongoing matters”, which I take to mean open investigations
  • “information that would unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties”.

House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler has pointed out that these may be considerations that limit what can be released to the public, but they shouldn’t (and usually don’t) apply to Congress.

[R]ather than expend valuable time and resources trying to keep certain portions of this report from Congress, [Attorney General Barr] should work with us to request a court order to release any and all grand jury information to the House Judiciary Committee — as has occurred in every similar investigation in the past.

Similarly, the House Intelligence Committee routinely deals with intelligence sources and methods; there’s no reason to keep any part of the report secret from them on that account. Having seen how Mueller writes his indictments, I would be greatly surprised if information that could affect “other ongoing matters” hasn’t already been identified and segregated.

And then we come to the “reputational interests of peripheral third parties”. This looks like a black hole that could suck down anything Barr doesn’t want the public to know. Because who exactly are peripheral third parties? Trump family members? Anybody not specifically indicted? And I’m not aware of any widely accepted definition of “reputational interests”.

Since there really is no good reason that the report has been held so closely, I have to assume that the motive is political: to intimidate Trump’s critics, and so create a period during which Trump’s defenders would own the field. If during this period they succeed in bullying Democrats into silence, then perhaps they won’t have to release the report at all.

Don’t think nobody has thought of that. A recent poll showed that 40% of Republicans think that Barr’s letter is enough; nobody needs to see the rest of Mueller’s report. If Democrats got sufficiently intimidated, not releasing the report could be spun as a magnanimous gesture: There’s no need to embarrass Democrats further; let’s just move on.

And what about Barr’s promises? Well, these things have a way of evaporating if nobody insists on them. Remember when Trump was going to have a news conference to present the evidence that Melania came to America legally? Never happened. And who can count the number of times Trump said he was going to release his taxes?

The gaslighting hasn’t worked. For a few days, Barr’s first letter and Trump’s response to it threw Democrats for a loop: What if Mueller’s report really does totally vindicate Trump? What if it all does turn out to be a big nothingburger and we have to eat all the words we’ve said in the last two years? Do we really want to say more words, knowing that they might come back to us along with all the others?

But by mid-week I think a lot of people independently came to the same conclusion: If this report really did exonerate Trump, it would already be public. And the rush to judgment among Trump supporters has been a little too extreme. You don’t do that when you know that the slowly grinding mills are going to get you what you want.

Thursday, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee read a letter asking Chairman Adam Schiff to resign, and Schiff was ready for them. He listed all shady stuff we know about Trump and Russia in a litany of “You may think it’s OK if …”. It went viral.

Since then, I think a lot of us have been in a mood to call Trump’s bluff: You think you’ve got the goods? Let’s see them.

It will all come out eventually. I suspect we will at some point see nearly all of the Mueller Report. It will come out, because the benefit of keeping it secret is fading: If it exonerates you, let’s see it. If we can’t see it, it probably doesn’t exonerate you.

Some parts of the public report may be redacted, and a few names of more-or-less innocent people may be replaced by the kind of placeholders that labelled Trump as “Individual 1” in the Michael Cohen indictment. But we will see it, and Congress will see it in its original form.

This is a testing period, where Trump’s people have been gaslighting us with their interpretation of the report we can’t see, and are floating the idea of keeping the report secret just to see if they can get away with it. In the end, I suspect, the public and the Democrats in Congress will stand firm, and Barr will magnanimously fulfill his promise. “See,” we’ll be told, “you’ve been getting all upset about nothing again. We said we’d release it, and here it is.”

However, the test is real. If they could get away with burying the report, they would. The first version Barr releases will probably be inadequate in one way or another, and the deadline for releasing it might slip further, just to see if anyone cares. But people care.

And when it does come out, the Adam Schiff approach is exactly right. “Does this evidence establish a crime beyond a reasonable doubt?” shouldn’t be the only question. We also need to ask: “Is this kind of behavior OK? Are we willing to accept that American democracy will look like this from now on?”

Inside the Trump bubble it will make no difference. Fox News has trumpeted that the Mueller Report clears Trump, and that conclusion will be allowed to stand after the report comes out, whether it is accurate or not. Anyone who dares to raise the issue will be treated as a traitor and drummed out of the community.

But for the rest of the country, I think the answer will be No. We don’t want our presidents getting elected this way. And once they’re in office, we don’t want them to behave in a way that makes us wonder if they’re loyal to a foreign adversary. That may or may not be a crime. But it’s not OK.

A Very Early Response to the Mueller Report

Yesterday afternoon, Attorney General William Barr delivered to congressional leaders his summary of the conclusions of the Mueller report, which he received Friday. You might as well read it yourself, because it’s only four pages long. Key quotes:

The report does not recommend any further indictments, nor did the Special Counsel obtain any sealed indictments that have yet to be made public.

The report outlines the Russian effort to influence the election and documents crimes committed by persons associated with the Russian government in connection with those efforts. … The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election … despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.

The Special Counsel did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct [of the President] constituted obstruction. … The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” … Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

[M]y goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.

A few things worth noting.

1. Once Mueller found that Trump was not involved in the original crime, obstruction became harder to establish. Barr reviews the three factors needed to prove obstruction:

  • “obstructive conduct”, i.e., doing something that impedes the investigation
  • “nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding” i.e., not just making investigators’ lives difficult in some generic way, but disrupting an effort aimed at charging some particular crime
  • “corrupt intent”

All three have to be present in the same action. So while it’s undeniable that Trump has been undermining the investigation in all sorts of ways, proving in court that a particular action was done knowingly to prevent investigators from reaching a particular outcome might be difficult. If Trump had been involved in the Russian conspiracy, then the corrupt intent that he not be caught would be obvious.

Mueller apparently thought that judgment was beyond his pay grade, so he gathered the evidence and kicked the decision upstairs, where Barr and Rosenstein decided there wasn’t enough to prosecute. The issue of whether a sitting President can be indicted didn’t come up, because the process didn’t get that far.

2. The “applicable law, regulations, and Department policies” that could prevent parts of the report from becoming public have to do with the rules that prevent abuse of the grand jury process. This is not a phony issue, because theoretically a prosecutor could use a grand jury to dig up all sorts of non-criminal dirt about somebody — including speculative testimony that isn’t corroborated by any other evidence — and then publish it.

That said, the regulations themselves could be used to cover up stuff that the public ought to know. We’ll have to see how this plays out.

3. So far, the process seems to be working, despite fears on both sides. On the one hand, Mueller was allowed to finish his work and write a report, which (so far, at least) the Attorney General seems to be handling in a responsible way. On the other, there’s no sign of the “witch hunt” by “angry Democrats” that Trump has been ranting about.

4. If it’s really true that Trump didn’t conspire with the Russians to get elected, that has to count as good news.

5. One reason the Trump-conspired-with-Russia theory has been so persuasive was that it explained a number of things that otherwise seem mysterious: Why did so many of Trump’s people have contacts with Russians during the campaign? Why did they lie about those contacts later? And why has Trump been so subservient to Vladimir Putin since taking office?

If Trump didn’t conspire with Russia to get elected, those mysteries don’t go away, and they require some alternative explanation. The first could possibly be pinned entirely on Russia: Putin’s people tried really hard to infiltrate the Trump campaign, so they approached anybody they could. But the second still seems mysterious to me. Why, in particular, did Michael Flynn need to lie to the FBI about conversations during the transition concerning sanctions against Russia? Why did Jared Kushner leave his conversations with Russians off his security clearance form?

And then there’s the mystery of Helsinki. What makes it impossible for Trump to disagree with Putin in public, even when all his intelligence services tell him something different than Putin is saying? Does it have something to do with Russian money that has gone into Trump’s real estate projects in the past? Is it related to prospects for future Trump Organization profits? Congress needs to pursue this.

Fear of White Genocide: the underground stream feeding right-wing causes

The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto is a Rosetta Stone for multiple strains of crazy.


I don’t usually recommend that you read something I totally disagree with, but this week I’ll make an exception: If you have the time, look at the the 73-page manifesto posted by Brenton Tarrant, who apparently killed 50 worshipers Friday at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you don’t have quite that much time, just look at the Introduction on pages 3 and 4.

Manifestos of terrorist murderers are usually described in the press as the incoherent ramblings of diseased minds. And perhaps sometimes they are; I haven’t read that many of them. But reading this one struck me the opposite way: The ideas fit together, and once you accept a fairly small number of baseless notions and false facts, everything else spins out logically. What’s more: this ideology links a large number of right-wing notions that we on the left usually imagine as separate pathologies, and either ignore as absurd or argue against in a whack-a-mole fashion.

So I think it’s worth trying to understand.

The assumption in the background. One idea seems so obvious to Tarrant, and presumably to his target readers, that it goes without mentioning until fairly deep in the text: Races are real things. So there is a White race, and its members are united by something far greater than a tendency to sunburn. Whites are a “people” who have a culture. [1] Whiteness is an identity, an Us that exists in an eternal evolutionary war with all the Thems out there.

To Tarrant, there is some essential nature to all the races and peoples.

Racial differences exist between peoples and they have a great impact on the way we shape our societies. … A Moroccan may never be an Estonian much the same as an Estonian may never be a Moroccan. There are cultural, ethnic, and RACIAL differences that makes interchanging one ethnic group with another an impossibility. Europe is only Europe because if its combined genetic, cultural, and linguistic heritage. When non-Europeans are considered Europe, then there is no Europe at all. [2]

Birthrates. There’s a worldwide phenomenon that is fairly well understood: When a society becomes wealthy, educates its women, and gives them opportunities in addition to motherhood, birth rates go down. A woman who has a shot at being a CEO or a cancer researcher may or may not decide to have children, but she almost certainly won’t have 7 or 8 of them. That’s why educating women is seen as a possible long-term solution to the population explosion.

There’s nothing about this phenomenon that is specifically white — it applies equally well to Japan, for example, and countries in Africa have seen the same effect among their educated classes — but European countries (and countries like the US and Australia that were largely settled by European colonists) do tend to be wealthy and relatively feminist. So birthrates are down across Europe. And in the US, recent immigrants of non-European ancestry have higher birthrates than whites.

So largely as a result of their own economic success, majority-white countries tend to have birthrates below replacement level. As economic growth continues, opportunities open up for immigrants, who retain their higher birthrates for a generation or two after they arrive. All over the world, then, majority-white countries are becoming less and less white, with the possibility that whites themselves might eventually become a minority.

One recent estimate has the United States becoming a minority-white country by 2045. As I pointed out in August, we’re-losing-our-country is an old story in the US: Once the US was majority-English, until German immigrants (and Africans brought here by force) made the English a minority. For a while longer, it was majority-Anglo-Saxon, until a wave of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants put an end to that. Each time, alarmists claimed that the nation was losing its soul — Ben Franklin worried about the arrival of the Pennsylvania Dutch — but somehow America continued to be America.

But now combine the diminishing white population with the conviction that race really means something. Sure, 21st-century Americans can laugh at Franklin’s fear of people who put hex signs on their barns and make all those buttery pies. But now we’re talking about a whole different race. This was a white country, and now it’s being taken over by other races! Other peoples are taking what’s ours, but they’re doing it through demographics rather than warfare.

We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history. [3] Millions of people pouring across our borders, legally, invited by the state and corporate entities to replace the White people who have failed to reproduce, failed to create the cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base that the corporations and states need to thrive. … Mass immigration will disenfranchise us, subvert our nations, destroy our communities, destroy our ethnic bonds, destroy our cultures, destroy our peoples — long before low fertility rates ever could. Thus, before we deal with the fertility rates, we must deal with both the invaders within our lands and the invaders that seek to enter our lands. We must crush immigration and deport those invaders already living on our soil. It is not just a matter of our prosperity, but the very survival of our people.

Tarrant presents demographic estimates of what will happen:

In 2100, despite the ongoing effect of sub-replacement fertility, the population figures show that the population does not decrease in line with these sub-replacement fertility levels, but actually maintains, and, even in many White nations, rapidly increases. All through immigration. This is ethnic replacement. This is cultural replacement.

THIS IS WHITE GENOCIDE.

If you believe in this demographic invasion that is taking your people’s lands, then it follows logically that there are no non-combatants. People are stealing your country simply by being here.

There are no innocents in an invasion. All people who colonize other peoples’ lands share their guilt. [4]

In particular, children are not innocent. They will grow up and vote and reproduce (probably in large numbers, because “fertility rates are part of those racial differences”). So Tarrant was not worried that he might kill children. The point here is not to kill all the immigrants, but to kill enough to drive the rest out and deter future immigrants from coming.

Few parents, regardless of circumstance, will willingly risk the lives of their children, no matter the economic incentives. Therefore, once we show them the risk of bringing their offspring to our soil, they will avoid our lands. [5]

Why don’t I fear losing my country? As I said, Tarrant’s demographics aren’t wrong, at least in the US. (White nationalists in European countries tend to overestimate how many non-whites surround them. France, for example, is still about 85% white. The prospect of whites becoming a minority there is still quite distant.) So why don’t I, as a white American, feel as alarmed as he does?

And the answer is that I don’t see any reason why non-whites can’t be real Americans. Back in the 90s, my wife and I went to China to support our friends as they adopted a baby girl. That girl is now in her mid-20s, and I have watched her grow up, including seeing her on every Christmas morning of her life. To the best of my ability to judge such things, she is as American as I am. I do not worry in the least that some essential non-American nature is encoded in her genetic makeup, or that her presence is turning America into China. [6]

In my view, America (or Western culture, for that matter) isn’t something that arises from the essential nature of the White race. America is something we do, not something we are. It is an idea that can be shared by anyone who is inspired to share it.

So when I picture that white-minority America of 2045 (which I have a decent chance of living to see), I don’t see it as a country that “my people” have lost. That’s because I already see the idea of America and Western culture being shared by lots of other folks that Tarrant would see as invaders, like, say, Fareed Zakaria, Ta-Nahisi Coates, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I have faith in the continuing strength of the American idea, which I believe will continue to inspire a majority of Americans well beyond 2045. California, where whites are already less than half population, still feels like America to me.

Assimilation. Tarrant lacks faith in assimilation, because he sees race as having a direct effect on culture. This is a common belief among white nationalists, and many whites who resonate with white-nationalist concerns, even if they don’t identify with the movement.

A frequent complaint on the American right, which you will hear often on Fox News, is that recent immigrants are not assimilating the way previous waves of immigrants did. The data does not bear this out, but it is believed because white-nationalist ideology makes it seem necessary: Hispanics and other non-white immigrants can’t assimilate the way Italians and Poles did, because they aren’t white.

In memory, we tend to forget how long it took waves of European immigrants to assimilate. Whites who can remember their grandparents speaking Hungarian at home are somehow appalled that Hispanic immigrants don’t instantly learn English, or that they form ethnic enclaves (like, say, Little Italy in New York). American Catholics may feel that immigrant Muslims are changing the essential Christian nature of their country, but they forget that America once saw itself as a Protestant nation, and many felt threatened by immigrant Catholics in precisely the same way. (Catholicism was viewed as a fundamentally authoritarian religion that could never adapt to republican America.)

In fact, Catholics from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other European countries did change America. But America also changed Catholicism. The same thing is happening with Islam.

Anti-democracy. If shared genes are what makes us a people, if immigrants by definition can’t join us, and if my people are in danger of losing their land due to a demographic invasion, then democracy as it is currently practiced — where immigrants gain citizenship and become voters — is just part of the national suicide process. An invasion isn’t something that can be voted on, especially if the invaders are allowed to vote.

Worse, even before the invaders become the majority, democracy has been corrupted by those who hope to gain from the invasion and the “cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base” that it brings. So Tarrant has no love of democracy.

Democracy is mob rule, and the mob itself is ruled by our own enemies.

Until now, I’ve relegated comparisons to American politics to the footnotes. But this is where it needs to come into the foreground. Because several important Trumpian concepts have moved onto the stage:

  • the notion of a unified corporate/government “elite” whose interests are at odds with the American people
  • a fundamental disrespect for democracy
  • the righteousness of violent action if and when the wrong side wins elections.

Trump and his allies have not come out and said openly that democracy is bad, but the notion that gerrymandering, the Electoral College, purging legal voters from voter lists, and various forms of voter suppression are undemocratic carries very little weight with them. The myth that undocumented immigrants vote in large numbers, which circulates despite an almost total lack of evidence, persists as a stand-in for an unspoken underlying concern: that immigrants become citizens and vote legally.

Trump fairly regularly either encourages violence among his supporters or hints that violent action might follow his impeachment or defeat.

All of this makes sense if you believe that democracy is only legitimate as a way for a People to govern itself, and becomes illegitimate when a system designed for a People becomes corrupted by the votes of invaders.

Sex and gender. Tarrant’s manifesto is addressed almost entirely to White men, whom he urges to defend their homelands.

Weak men have created this situation and strong men are needed to fix it.

He has little to say about women, but the implications of his beliefs should be obvious: If the underlying problem is a low birthrate among whites, the ultimate fault lies with white women. Women who let their professional or creative ambitions distract them from motherhood, who practice birth control, abortion, or lesbianism — their failings aren’t just matters of personal morality any more, they’re threats to the survival of the race.

The closest Tarrant comes to addressing this is:

Likely a new society will need to be created with a much greater focus on family values, gender and social norms, and the value and importance of nature, culture, and race.

But it doesn’t take much imagination to picture this new society: It will have fewer opportunities for women, and less acceptance of women in roles other than motherhood. It will also discourage men from abandoning their procreative roles through homosexuality, and will in general support the “traditional value” of separate and unchanging gender roles.

It is easy to see the attraction of this ideology to a variety of crazies, including incels, who have themselves at times become violent terrorists. The same opportunities that have diverted women from motherhood have likewise made them more picky about the men they choose to procreate with, with the result that some men find themselves unable to have the active sex lives they feel they deserve. Incels are already overwhelmingly white, so the attraction of a white-nationalist ideology that would restrict women’s choices should be obvious.

Power and purpose. All of these positions enhance the power of groups that are already privileged: whites, the native-born, Christians, and men. They could be attractive to those groups on that cynical ground alone. But cynicism alone seldom succeeds for long, because the pure quest for power and advantage only inspires sociopaths. The rest may pursue that quest, but never without misgivings.

The charm of an ideology, though, is that it can give power-seeking a higher purpose: I seek these advantages not just for myself, but to save my people from annihilation!

The underground stream. Few American politicians openly embrace white nationalism as a label, even if their views align with it. Even Steve King disclaims the term, and Republicans who share many of his white-nationalist views have felt obligated to distance themselves from him.

At the same time, though, something is motivating them. It is hard to listen to Trump’s litany of falsehoods about the border without wondering what the real justification for his Wall is. Obviously it’s something he doesn’t think he can get away with saying in so many words.

Similarly, it’s hard to see what other ideology unifies the full right-wing agenda: anti-illegal-immigration, anti-legal-immigration, anti-democracy, anti-abortion, anti-birth-control, anti-women’s-rights, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-black, and so on.

When asked about white nationalist terrorism after the Christchurch shooting, President Trump waved off the problem, saying: “It’s a small group of people.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps it is the ideology that dares not announce itself: Its followers just “know” the truth of it, but can’t say so because of “political correctness”. More and more, white nationalism — and the demographic fear at its root — looks like the underground stream that feeds all the various insanities of the Right.


[1] I discussed and rejected this notion a couple years ago in a piece called “Should I Have White Pride?” The artificiality of “white culture” becomes obvious to me when I start trying to imagine a White Culture Festival: What food would we serve? What traditional costumes would we wear? It makes sense to hold a German Festival or a Greek Festival, but a White Festival, not so much.

[2] The evidence for this impossibility is of the we-can’t-imagine-that variety. If you picture a Moroccan and an Estonian next to each other, they just seem different, at least to Tarrant and his target audience.

But of course, the same is true for any lands that are far apart, even within Europe. Italians seem different from Swedes, when you picture them, but somehow they are all white Europeans. To see if the concepts of whiteness and European-ness have any real substance, you’d want to check what happens at the boundaries. So better questions would be: Could a Greek become a Turk, or vice versa? Could a Moroccan became a Spaniard? Those transformations don’t seem nearly so difficult, and in fact are easier for me to imagine than a Spaniard becoming an Estonian.

But in fact, such transformations happen all the time, particularly here in the United States, where we have a long history of light-skinned blacks passing as white, to the point that after a few generations the shift may be forgotten. If you have a Greek-American immigrant living on one side of you and a Turkish-American immigrant on the other, you might have a hard time telling the difference, either racially or culturally. Both would likely have dark hair and make baklava and strong coffee. Both sets of children will likely be as American as yours.

[3] President Trump agrees with Tarrant about this. On the same day as the 50 murders — and, in fact, during a public appearance that began with his statement of support for New Zealand in dealing with these attacks — Trump announced his veto of the bipartisan Congressional resolution to terminate the national emergency that he intends to use to commandeer money to build his wall. Within a few paragraphs, he went from denouncing the “monstrous terror attacks” in New Zealand to echoing the attacker’s rhetoric.

People hate the word “invasion,” but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.

[4] Several people have cited this and many other of Tarrant’s statements as examples of projection. Who, after all, has done more colonizing of “other peoples’ lands” than Europeans? Isn’t that how the US, New Zealand, and a bunch of other places became “White nations” to begin with?

Though accurate, I doubt this observation would unsettle Tarrant. “Guilt” here is a relative concept, and is not related to a universal morality. Of course peoples contest with each other for possession of lands in the evolutionary Us-against-Them struggle for survival and dominance. Of course native peoples should have regarded colonizing whites as invaders and tried to repel them.

[5] There’s a strong resonance here with the Trump administration’s family separation policy. Like Tarrant’s attacks, it is an intentional cruelty whose purpose is to deter future immigrants by threatening their children.

[6] Iowa Congressman Steve King disagrees. He tweeted:

[Dutch nationalist leader Geert] Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

A Fishy Emergency Threatens the Republic

Friday morning, Trump declared a national emergency that he said would allow him to start building his wall by redirecting funds Congress has appropriated for other purposes. The speculation-to-action ratio has been particularly high since then, with political and legal experts giving conflicting views of what will happen next. Let me see if I can boil it down without adding to the confusion.

1. The declaration was made in bad faith. There is no national emergency on the southern border. Trump admitted as much: “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this.”

As I explained two weeks ago (under the sub-head “and national emergencies”), the point of the national emergency process is to allow the President to respond to events that unfold too fast for Congress to take action. Whatever you think about the issues of immigration and smuggling on the Mexican border, they have been playing out over decades, and are less serious now than they have been at other times.

Congress has had plenty of time to consider appropriating money to build a wall, and has decided not to do it.

With no honest case to be made for either a national emergency or for circumventing Congress to build a wall, Trump once again gave a speech full of lies.

2. This is unlike any previous emergency declaration. As Trump rightly pointed out, presidents have declared national emergencies before (59 times since the National Emergencies Act was passed in 1976, according to Fox News’ Chris Wallace). But a national emergency declaration has never been used as a partisan weapon before. Wallace challenged Trump advisor Stephen Miller to “point to a single instance when the president asked Congress for money, Congress refused to give him that money and the president then invoked national emergency powers to get the money”. Miller could not answer.

A national emergency declaration has never been challenged in Congress or the courts before, but that’s because previous presidents have used them in uncontroversial ways, not because Trump is being specially persecuted by his opponents.

3. The money will be taken from more worthy projects. USA Today lists the sources.

$3.6 billion will come from a military construction fund, and White House officials admitted that “they did not yet know which military constructions might be cancelled or delayed by the move.” Military Times lists some possibilities:

a new vehicle maintenance shop at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, drydock repairs at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, F-35 hangar improvements at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, ongoing hospital construction at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and new family housing builds in South Korea, Italy and Wisconsin.

Also: a middle school on an Army base in Kentucky. Lindsey Graham explained that “It’s better for the middle school kids in Kentucky to have a secure border.”

Another $2.5 billion will come from a Defense Department drug-interdiction program. So presumably it will be easier now to get drugs into the country by boat or plane. Trump’s bogus wall, which will do little to affect drug traffic, will squeeze out programs that actually catch drug smugglers.

4. Congress still has a chance to weigh in, but there’s a catch. As originally passed in 1976, the National Emergencies Act allowed what is known as a legislative veto: Congress could override the President’s declaration if both houses agreed to do so. This is, in fact, likely to happen. The Democratic House will pass a resolution against the emergency fairly easily, and the Republican Senate will probably follow suit. (In order to do so, all 47 Democrats and 4 Republicans will have to agree. Mitch McConnell can’t prevent the resolution from coming to the floor, and it can’t be filibustered.)

However, in 1983 the Supreme Court (in regard to a different law entirely) found legislative vetoes to be unconstitutional. As laid out in the Constitution, Congress passes laws and the President has an option to veto them. Congress can delegate its power to the President (as it did in the National Emergencies Act), but it can’t switch places with the President and give itself veto power over his decisions.

As a result, Congress can still undo the President’s declaration, but it requires a joint resolution, which is then subject to a presidential veto. A two-thirds majority of each house would then be necessary to override the President’s veto. This is currently considered unlikely, because not enough Republicans are willing to go against Trump.

So the most likely scenario goes like this: Congress passes a joint resolution against the emergency, the President vetoes it, and Congress fails to override the veto.

5. Then it’s up to the courts. Congress will sue on the grounds that its power of the purse has been usurped. States along the border will sue. Property owners whose land will be seized will sue. Some of those suits have already been filed. (Congress’ suit will probably wait until after its attempt to override the emergency declaration fails.) Then the courts will have to decide whether Trump’s emergency is legitimate.

Whatever conclusion you want to hear, I can point you to an expert who predicts it. Vox assembled 11 experts, and their responses amounted to: Judges shouldn’t OK this, but there’s just enough justification that they can if they want to.

The point of view most generous to Trump is that Congress screwed up when it passed the National Emergencies Act, so its power-of-the-purse is delegated, even if it shouldn’t be. The law doesn’t define “emergency”, but trusts the president not to abuse his power to declare one. Who knew we’d eventually have an untrustworthy president?

Some judges will feel that it’s not their job to second-guess Trump on this. That’s more-or-less how the Muslim Ban case came out. After the administration revised its first two obviously-unconstitutional Muslim bans, the third one passed muster — not because the 5-4 Supreme Court majority agreed with the bigoted pile of bullshit Trump used to justify it, but because five justices deferred to the president’s judgment and declined to examine the details.

As with the Muslim ban, this case hangs on the question of bad faith: How transparently faithless does the President have to be before a judge is obligated to notice?

The problem I have with the Congress-screwed-up view is that the original version of the law didn’t delegate this much power, because Congress retained the ability to override illegitimate emergencies. Now the President only needs one-third of one house to support him. So the Supreme Court changed something significant in the law when it rejected legislative vetoes.

So I would be tempted to make the same kind of argument that conservatives have made against the Affordable Care Act: The National Emergencies Act is a coherent whole, and you can’t invalidate the legislative veto while leaving the delegation-of-power intact. I haven’t heard anyone make that argument, so there must be some reason not to (aside from the fact that all of the currently active national emergencies become invalid, which might not be a bad thing).

6. And the people. This is something worth getting into the streets about. MoveOn has protests planned today, and no doubt there will be others soon.

If you live in a state or district represented by a Republican, you need to challenge your representative to defend the Republic. The expectation that Congress can’t override a veto is based on the idea that most Republicans will stand by Trump’s seizure of power. But if they hear from enough voters, they won’t.

7. Once again, conservatives in Congress and in the courts  will face a challenge: Will they support Trump, even at the expense of what was once considered a core conservative principle? Over the last several decades, much hot air has been blown about defending “the Constitution” and “the vision of the Founding Fathers”. It goes virtually without saying that neither the Constitution nor the Founders ever envisioned or endorsed a process like this: Congress refuses to fund a presidential project, the president seizes the money, both houses vote to condemn that seizure, but it goes through anyway.

Any congressional Republican who refuses to override Trump’s emergency declaration or his subsequent veto can never again claim to be a defender of the Constitution, and should never again be allowed to invoke the Founding Fathers without hearing about this betrayal of their vision. Any judge who allows this travesty to play out can likewise never in good conscience claim to be an “originalist” or “strict constructionist” rather than a partisan judicial activist.

8. There are hardly any core conservative principles left. Republican respect for the Constitution has been suspect at least since Mitch McConnell ignored President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. The GOP’s claim on the Constitution further eroded when the Party decided to ignore the Emoluments Clause and let Trump profit from what are essentially bribes by foreign governments and the governments of the states. But it’s also worth considering the other conservative principles that have already fallen since Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee.

Republicans once claimed to care about the federal deficit, but they have allowed Trump to blow up the federal balance sheet in a completely unprecedented fashion. The record Bush/Obama deficit of FY2009 was a response to an economic catastrophe, but Trump’s deficits are approaching those levels in the late stages of an economic expansion, when the federal budget should be in its best shape. (President Clinton had a surplus during a comparable period.) The next recession, which is due to hit soon, will send deficits into territory never before seen.

Republicans once championed a global system of free trade, but now they stand for tariffs, presidential bullying of American corporations, and one-on-one negotiations with each country.

Republicans once were the advocates for rural America, but now Republican trade policies hit farmers harder than anyone.

Republicans claim their opposition to undocumented immigration stems from a belief in the rule of law, but they support Trump in violating our laws by refusing to let refugees turn themselves in at the border and ask for asylum.

Republicans once claimed to be the party of patriotism and freedom, and promoted Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a “shining city on a hill”. Now they stand behind a president who is totally subservient to a Russian dictator, who shows no respect to the world’s other democracies, and instead expresses admiration and envy for brutal autocrats like China’s Xi, North Korea’s Kim, and the Philippines’ Duterte.

Republicans once styled themselves as the party of traditional family values, and (particularly during the Clinton administration) talked endlessly about the importance of a president’s character. Now they make excuses for Trump’s infidelity, corruption, sexual assaults, and shameless lying.

What ground is left for Republicans to stand on, other than bigotry against Hispanics, making the rich richer, and a naked desire to wield power?

Another Week in the Post-Truth Administration

Trump was angry that his intelligence chiefs had contradicted him on TV, until he convinced himself that it just hadn’t happened.


This week a bizarre drama played out. On Tuesday, the chiefs of the major intelligence agencies (CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA, and NGA, along with their overseer, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats) appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee in an open hearing that was televised live and accompanied by a 42-page report. The chiefs were all careful not to draw this conclusion in so many words, but the inescapable message of their testimony was that the world they see bears little resemblance to the one President Trump tweets about.

In the world where the intelligence chiefs live, the major threats the US faces come from Russia and China, who “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s”. The security of our elections is a major vulnerability, and other hostile countries are learning from Russia’s interference in 2016. North Korea is not denuclearizing and isn’t likely to. ISIS hasn’t been eliminated. Iran hasn’t violated the nuclear agreement President Obama negotiated. And (as the NYT noted) the threat Trump shut down the government to oppose barely registers.

Notably missing in the written review was evidence that would support building a wall on the southwestern border; the first mention of Mexico and drug cartels was published nearly halfway through the report — following a range of more pressing threats.

The senators on the committee — including Chairman Richard Burr and other well-known Republicans like Marco Rubio — likewise seemed uninterested the so-called “national emergency” on our southern border. Each member of the committee had five minutes for questions. None asked the intelligence chiefs to comment on the need for a border wall.

Trump reacted with anger and belittlement on Wednesday, tweeting that the intelligence chiefs were “extremely passive and naive” and “wrong”; he  suggested that they “should go back to school“. His reaction raised a question that I don’t think has ever been answered: If Trump’s superior knowledge isn’t coming from the intelligence services, where does it come from? Does he just know, like an oracle, or does he have access to some more reliable source, like maybe Fox & Friends.

But by Thursday, it was all good again: Trump was now comfortable in the knowledge that the testimony we all saw didn’t really happen.

Just concluded a great meeting with my Intel team in the Oval Office who told me that what they said on Tuesday at the Senate Hearing was mischaracterized by the media – and we are very much in agreement on Iran, ISIS, North Korea, etc. Their testimony was distorted [by the] press. I would suggest you read the COMPLETE testimony from Tuesday. A false narrative is so bad for our Country. I value our intelligence community. Happily, we had a very good meeting, and we are all on the same page!

Think about how backwards this all is. If any of the intelligence chiefs actually had been misquoted or taken out of context by the media, you might expect the complaint to come from them, or perhaps from their agency’s spokesperson. Such a statement might point to a quote in the media, and then give a more accurate or more complete quote from the hearing’s transcript. Or if the quote had been accurate and the chief had simply misspoken, the agency could make a clearer statement of its actual assessment.

None of that happened. Instead, Trump simply announced that there had been no contradiction, blamed the media, and claimed without evidence that “the COMPLETE testimony” backed him up. He knows, of course, that no one in his base (and few people in general) will watch two-and-a-half hours of video to check up on him. To the MAGA-hatters, the incident is just another Trump-said/media-said conflict. The ultimate truth about it is unknowable, so they will take Trump at his word.

But if you do want to take Trump’s advice and watch the whole testimony, you can do it here or here. I have, and so has Vox’ Alex Ward, who characterized Trump’s tweet as a lie and summarized the major places where Tuesday’s testimony contradicted him. Even more damaging that the verbal testimony is the accompanying report, prepared under DNI Coats’ byline. You might imagine that even the director of an intelligence agency might mess up an answer to an unanticipated question. But written reports are drawn up carefully, weighing each word and phrase. Here are a few quotes (with the original emphasis):

On North Korea:

Pyongyang has not conducted any nuclear-capable missile or nuclear tests in more than a year, has declared its support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and has reversibly dismantled portions of its WMD infrastructure. However, we continue to assess that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions. North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival, according to official statements and regime-controlled media.

In his oral testimony, Director General Robert Ashley of the DIA said: “The capabilities and threats that existed a year ago are still there.” This directly contradicted Trump’s tweet that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

Iran:

We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.

ISIS:

ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses. The group will exploit any reduction in [counter-terrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities,such as media production and external operations. ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States. … ISIS remains a terrorist and insurgent threat and will seek to exploit Sunni grievances with Baghdad and societal instability to eventually regain Iraqi territory against Iraqi security forces that are stretched thin.

Climate change:

Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution

Iraq:

Iraq is facing an increasingly disenchanted public. The underlying political and economic factors that facilitated the rise of ISIS persist, and Iraqi Shia militias’ attempts to further entrench their role in the state increase the threat to US personnel.

I’ll give the last word to Alex Ward:

As president, Trump has every right to make foreign policy decisions as he sees fit, and he’s not required to listen to what the US intelligence community tells him. Intelligence is meant to help him and his advisers make the smartest, best-informed decisions possible based on the facts. If Trump chooses to completely disregard those facts and make foreign policy decisions based solely on his gut instincts, that’s his prerogative.

But that doesn’t support his claim that the media willfully mischaracterized what his top spies said. What the intelligence community effectively showed, knowingly or not, is that Trump’s foreign policy isn’t based in reality. Trump’s scapegoating the media, in this case, won’t change that.

The End of the Shutdown

Friday night, Trump released his 800,000 hostages without getting anything for them. Zero. He signed exactly the same deal that was on the table back in December: Keep the government funded at its previous level for a few weeks while an immigration/border-security compromise gets negotiated.

The fact that it came out that way is extremely important. Giving him anything, even just the “pro-rated down payment on the Wall” he had demanded on Thursday, would invite regular government shutdowns for the rest of his term. Every time some budget bill needed to be signed, Trump could say, “No. I want more or I’ll shut down the government again.”

By holding the line until things really started to get bad, Speaker Pelosi stood by the important principle of not paying ransom. If Trump wants something from the Democrats, he can offer them something positive in exchange. (That’s how politics is supposed to work in America.) But he’s not going to get concessions just by threatening to hurt people or hurt the country.

Why now? If the same deal has been available since Day Zero, why did it happen on Day 35? There were two precipitating causes: the test votes the Senate held on Thursday, which showed Republican unity beginning to crack, and the 82-minute ground stop Friday morning at New York’s LaGuardia Airport due to air traffic controllers not coming in to keep working without pay, which caused delays that rippled across the country. This was widely interpreted (correctly, I think) as a warning sign from a system about to break down.

The Senate voted on two proposals Thursday, and neither got the 60 votes necessary to proceed. But Trump’s preferred outcome ($5.7 for the Wall, plus other restrictions on immigration and asylum) got 50 votes, with one Democratic crossover (Joe Manchin of West Virginia), while the Democrats’ proposal (open the government temporarily without additional provisions) got 52 votes, with six Republican crossovers: Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Susan Collins (Maine), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Mitt Romney (Utah). (And at least a few of the Republicans who stuck by Trump were not happy.) According to the Washington Post, this outcome surprised Trump, because Jared Kushner had assured him that Democrats were about to start defecting.

But pointing to the Senate as a cause just shifts the question to another level: Why Day 35? Why did Mitch McConnell finally allow the Senate to vote on something, and why did Republican senators start to break ranks?

The LaGuardia ground stop was part of a nationwide pattern: As government workers faced losing a second paycheck, warning lights were flashing and systems were beginning to fail.

The FBI Agents Association put out a report listing the effects the shutdown was having on law enforcement. Perhaps the most egregious example: The FBI agents investigating the MS-13 gang (that Trump so often features in his anti-immigrant speeches demanding a wall) were unable to pay a translator to communicate with their informants. The Commandant of the Coast Guard tweeted:

I find it unacceptable that @USCG members must rely on food pantries & donations to get through day-to-day life.

What made this growing pressure worse for Republicans was the repeated insensitivity and tone-deafness expressed by plutocratic Trump administration officials, who are clueless about the half the country that lives paycheck-to-paycheck. Chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow described federal employees forced to choose between working without pay and losing their jobs as “volunteers”. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross couldn’t understand why federal workers would go to food banks when they could take out loans. And Trump himself spun Ross’ comment into a fantasy about compassionate grocers who “know the people, they been dealing with them for years, and they work along.” Perhaps extrapolating from his own experience owing hundreds of millions to Deutsche Bank, he claimed that banks too would “work along” with missed mortgage payments.

As a result, polls were turning against Republicans. Trump’s approval rating dropped from 42.2% at the beginning of the shutdown to 39.3% by the end. Polls consistently showed that the public blamed either Trump or congressional Republicans for the shutdown, and believed that getting Trump’s Wall funded was not worth shutting down the government.

Now what? The spending bill just lasts for three weeks, at which point the whole standoff could start again. In an effort to claim he hadn’t lost to Pelosi, Trump threatened as much:

This was in no way a concession. It was taking care of millions of people who were getting badly hurt by the Shutdown with the understanding that in 21 days, if no deal is done, it’s off to the races!

But it’s hard to see Republicans in Congress standing by him for another shutdown. Mitch McConnell didn’t want this shutdown and certainly doesn’t want another one. (He is fond of saying, “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.”) And ultimately, he holds the high card over Trump: If he works out a deal with Democrats and Trump vetoes it, McConnell could sway enough Republicans to override that veto. The thought of 2/3rds of the Senate voting against him on anything should be terrifying to a president who could well face impeachment before the end of his term.

So what will happen in the next three weeks? Ezra Klein lays out four possibilities:

  1. A grand bargain on immigration takes the issue off the table for the near future.
  2. Pelosi, Schumer, and McConnell reach no deal and the government shuts down again.
  3. No immigration/wall deal, but there’s no shutdown, and Trump seeks to build his Wall without Congress by declaring a national emergency.
  4. No immigration/wall deal, but no national emergency.

I foresee a lesser bargain, similar to what Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin have already worked out: Democrats have already signaled that they’re willing to offer more money for border security, but they think the Great Wall of Trump is a stupid waste. (Not that it matters, but reality is on their side here; the Wall is a stupid waste. Republicans know this, which is why they didn’t fund it when they had the majority in both houses.) A number of Republicans (including even Trump, at times) have said they don’t want to deport the DACA people, whose cause gets a lot of sympathy from Americans in general.

The question is how much funding for how much DACA protection. Here, I think the failure of the shutdown pushes the needle towards Democrats. This is what I picture:

  • DACA recipients get permanent legal status, with a path to citizenship left vague. Democrats can promise to eventually get them citizenship, while Republicans can deny this will ever happen.
  • Border security gets the $5.7 billion Trump was asking for, but mostly for technology at ports of entry and more immigration judges.
  • Rules for legal immigration change a bit, but Congress reaffirms support for the United States’ treaty obligations under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Trump has been ignoring.
  • Some small number of additional barriers on the border are authorized, which Democrats will be able to claim is not Trump’s Wall, but Republicans can claim is a step toward Trump’s Wall.

Finally, I hope Democrats insist that a study be done to produce something that until now has never existed: an actual design for a sea-to-sea border wall, with a realistic cost estimate and expert estimates of its effects on illegal immigration, drug smuggling, violent crime, and the environment. The era of wild claims has to end.

Trump may or may not try to build his wall without Congress by declaring a national emergency, but I doubt it will get him anywhere. (Truman wasn’t able to seize the steel industry, and that was during wartime.) Whatever he wants that declaration to accomplish will be tied up in court for the rest of his term. The point of declaring a national emergency, I believe, is mainly to con Trump’s base into thinking that he didn’t really lose.

While I don’t think it will be effective in building a wall, declaring a bogus emergency breaks another norm that protects democracy. Down the road, it could cost us dearly: A leader’s abuse of emergency powers is a common way for democracies to become autocracies.

The Scoop That Wasn’t

For a day or so, it looked like impeachment would start happening right away. Then the Special Counsel’s Office doused the flames. Now what?


Thursday, BuzzFeed electrified the country with this claim:

President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.

The accusation seemed especially strong, because it supposedly rested on much more than just Cohen’s word.

The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.

For most of Friday, the media buzzed with the implications. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent compared this moment to the appearance of the tapes that brought down Richard Nixon.

if BuzzFeed’s stunning new report is true, we could be looking at a real inflection point in this whole story

Others referred to the report as a “game-changer”, the first easily-grasped-by-the-public evidence that Trump had committed a significant crime. Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks told Lawrence O’Donnell:

This is exactly the Watergate model. … This should be enough. … Even the Republican Senate is going to have to say, “We’ve been had.”

And then Friday night the Special Counsel’s office, which hardly ever comments on any news report, released this statement:

BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate

That’s not the money quote from a longer statement; that’s the whole thing. But what does it mean? It asserts the existence of inaccuracies, but doesn’t say what they are. And it doesn’t even hint at what the actual truth might be. As best I can tell, it does two things:

  • It monkey-wrenches the drive to a quick impeachment.
  • It keeps us all in suspense about what Bob Mueller’s office will eventually report.

Reading the tea leaves. For its part, BuzzFeed rechecked its sources and didn’t back down. Editor Ben Smith responded:

We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing,

That’s the big question: Is the whole story “inaccurate”, or just some small detail? And what was it about this story that made Mueller’s office decide it needed to comment?

On Rachel Maddow’s show Friday night, several good insights pointed in opposite directions. Rachel herself related the would-be scoop to an earlier puzzle: Why was Michael Cohen charged with lying to Congress to begin with? He had already pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, and the Special Counsel didn’t ask for any additional jail time for Cohen. So why was that worth everybody’s time?

The Buzzfeed story, Maddow observed, offered an answer to that question: The charge against Cohen sets up a later charge against someone else, presumably Trump. If you’re going to accuse Trump of suborning perjury, it helps if you’ve already established that there was a perjury.

She then talked to Michael Isikoff, one of the top reporters on this beat. Isikoff said the original BuzzFeed article was full of “red flags” that should have made us all cautious. It contained no details about when or how Trump gave Cohen his instructions. What texts and emails could the article have been referring to, when Trump himself doesn’t write texts or emails? Cohen’s guilty plea had offered him a perfect opportunity to implicate Trump, and he didn’t.

Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, who has worked with Mueller, tried to read the tea leaves of the Special Counsel statement, and came up with a very narrow interpretation:

The Mueller team is pushing back on aspects of the Buzzfeed story. But I think in the main, what you can glean from their December 7 sentencing [of Michael Cohen] memorandum is that the core of the Buzzfeed story is accurate.

But the Washington Post’s anonymous sources come to the opposite conclusion.

People familiar with the matter said the special counsel’s office meant the statement to be a denial of the central theses of the BuzzFeed story — particularly those that referenced what Cohen had told the special counsel, and what evidence the special counsel had gathered.

The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow offers an in-between perspective. First, BuzzFeed took a bigger chance on its reporting than he was willing to take.

I can’t speak to Buzzfeed’s sourcing, but, for what it’s worth, I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind.

But Farrow mostly agrees with the story.

Note that the general thrust of Cohen lying to Congress “in accordance with” or “to support and advance” Trump’s agenda (per Cohen’s legal memo) is not in dispute. The source disputed the further, more specific idea that Trump issued—and memorialized—repeated direct instructions.

This is consistent with numerous reports that The Trump Organization works like a Mafia family: The Boss indicates what he wants to happen without leaving specific instructions that can be quoted in court. (Not “Kill that guy”, but “Take care of the situation” or “I think you know what to do”.) Cohen may well have known what Trump wanted done without being able to point to any specific instructions. There might well be “supporting documents”, but of an indirect sort (i.e., Trump Organization people trying to coordinate their stories) rather than written directives from Trump himself.

One of the more interesting speculations is that the conflicting sources are in rival offices: the SCO on the one hand and the Southern District of New York US Attorney on the other.

Impeachment. To me, this whole incident underlines a point that Yoni Appelbaum makes in the current issue of The Atlantic, in an article written before the BuzzFeed article: America needs a formal, dignified, judicious impeachment process, rather than what’s happening now.

The investigation of Trump’s possible crimes, and the corresponding destructive effects on our democracy, should be happening in public view, not behind closed doors at the Special Counsel’s Office, or through anonymous sources in the press.

For decades, we have been talking about the expanding power of the Imperial Presidency, and what should be done about it, if anything. But just as important is the Shrinking Congress.

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.

Is the continuance of the Trump administration dangerous to democracy? That question needs an open debate, with the relevant information made public and the relevant witnesses questioned where everyone can hear them. We shouldn’t be waiting for Bob Mueller to save us, and in the meantime debating over whose anonymous sources really know what they’re talking about.

The Story that Really Mattered This Year

Will American democracy survive the Trump presidency? The jury is still out on that, but things are looking up.


Ever since the Electoral College named Donald Trump president, news (some of his making and some not) has been coming at us like water from a fire hose — indictments, injunctions, special election upsets, gaffes, natural disasters, high-ranking people getting fired or resigning under pressure, insults to our allies, mass shootings, lies, government shutdowns, outrages against common decency (like ripping kids from their parents and putting them in cages), or the spectacle of an American president repeating the propaganda of foreign autocrats like Mohammad bin Salman, Kim Jong-Un, or Vladimir Putin.

All year, as I write my weekly summaries of the news, I’ve been complaining about it. (Tiresomely, I’ve decided, having just reviewed a year’s worth of Monday Morning teasers.) There is too much to process. Week after week, developments that might have been the Story of the Year in any other administration — the wide-ranging corruption of Scott Pruitt, say — nearly slip my mind. “Oh yeah,” I remind myself. “That happened too.” We get worn out by it. How many cabinet or top White House posts are vacant now due to scandal or protest or insufficient toadying? I’ve lost track.

But since November 6, 2016, one story has stood above all the others. Day-to-day, and even week-to-week, it was easy to lose sight of, but it was always there, sometimes in the background of whatever stories were getting attention. The unanswered question: Will American democracy get through this?

In recent years, authoritarian populism like Trump’s has been corrupting democracies around the world, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the original rise of fascism in the 20s and 30s. (I’ve been trying to cover that in the abstract, by reviewing books like How Democracies Die and The Road to Unfreedom. Recent posts have also been influenced by Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, though I haven’t gotten around to writing about that book explicitly yet.) Trumpists claim that “fascism” is an unfair exaggeration, but the key components are there:

  • idealization of a vague past whose restoration would make the country “great again”;
  • assault on the institutions that try to establish a common basis of truth: science, the courts, experts within academia or the government, and the press;
  • elevation of a leader whose word and power replaces those sources of truth;
  • constant lying by that leader, to the point that lies become loyalty tests and expressions of power: How ridiculous a statement, or how self-contradictory a series of statements, will followers repeat with conviction?
  • identity politics focused not on the powerless and oppressed, but on the powerful and favored, with constant emphasis given to the grievances (some real, but most imagined) of whites, of men, of Christians, of the native-born, of the wealthy, and of all those who simply want to be left alone to enjoy their privileged places in the world;
  • glorification of the leader’s decisiveness, and his unwillingness to be bound by convention, propriety, morality, his own word, or even the Constitution.

And yet, this is America. We have the rule of law and a Constitution that has stood the test of time. We have long traditions of independent courts, independent law enforcement, and a free press. Could we really go the way of failed democracies like Russia and Turkey and Hungary?

It was a real question at the end of 2016, and it still hasn’t been decisively answered. That’s a good thing: At the end of 2016, there was reason to fear that it might be decisively answered by now.

2017. To me, the big story of 2017 was that Trumpian fascism did not prove to be popular.

It might have. Trump took office in the middle of an economic upturn that Obama had never been given credit for, and at a time of relative peace. He had a compliant Congress that would repeat his talking points, harass those who challenged him, refuse to investigate obvious corruption, and pass tax cuts and spending increases without worrying about the resulting budget deficits.

He had chosen his victims and scapegoats well: Muslims, immigrants of color, and refugees. Would the rest of the American people care if they suffered, or be energized by the sheer cruelty of it all? If police were once again unleashed to hassle (or occasionally even kill in cold blood) the non-white poor with no oversight or repercussions, would white Christian citizens react with horror, or gratitude? Would Americans care about the planetary environment they handed off to their children and grandchildren, or would they be happy to ignore all that in an fossil-fuel-burning orgy of après moi le déluge?

On Inauguration Day, none of that was clear, and even it hindsight it was a disturbingly close call: About 40% of the public has welcomed Trumpism, to the point that no development or revelation can move them. It could have been 50% or more.

2018. But even if Americans would tell pollsters they disapproved, would they vote? Or would they be confused or bamboozled or discouraged by dark fantasies of invading caravans? Could Democrats once again be played off against each other, so that they failed to unite behind any less-than-perfect candidate? Could anti-Trump women be cowed by the enraged male privilege of Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham? (Herodotus tells how similar tactics put down a Scythian slave revolt. The slaves repulsed an initial assault by their masters, who then came up with the following plan: “Now therefore to me it seems good that we leave spears and bows and that each one take his horse-whip and so go up close to them: for so long as they saw us with arms in our hands, they thought themselves equal to us and of equal birth; but when they shall see that we have whips instead of arms, they will perceive that they are our slaves, and having acknowledged this they will not await our onset.” Just so, Kavanaugh’s foaming outrage replaced any attempt at contrition, compassion, or fact-based defense: Now you’ve made Daddy angry.)

In retrospect, all that might seem absurd. But a year ago it did not, at least to me. Certainly there were red states where things played out that way and incumbent Democratic senators lost, sometimes by large margins.

And even if a majority wanted to vote against Trump’s party, would it be enough to overcome voter suppression and gerrymandering? In Georgia, suppression of the black vote worked, and a white Republican secretary of state oversaw his own elevation to the governorship. Gerrymandering also did its job: A record-setting Democratic popular vote (nationally, a nearly 10 million vote margin, or 8.6%) resulted in a mere 235-199 House majority, smaller than the 241-194 majority that a far narrower Republican margin (1.4 million votes, or 1.1%) produced in 2016.

What if? Imagine if 2018 had come out otherwise. What if the electorate, or at least enough of the electorate to maintain unified Republican control of Congress, had endorsed what they’ve seen these last two years? What if Democrats had won the national House popular vote by only 5% or so, and it hadn’t been enough to gain control?

Then the gloves would be off. Any restraint wary Republicans had exercised on Trump would vanish. Fire Bob Mueller and purge non-Trumpists from the FBI. Finish gutting the Voting Rights Act, so that elections can become mere formalities, like the empty rituals of a faith no one really believes any more. Round up immigrants en masse and drop them on the other side of the Wall without hearings. Openly defy any courts that say all this is forbidden by laws or treaties or the Constitution. Why not? Who’s going to stop it?

Laws can say whatever they want, but if no one is motivated or empowered to enforce them, what do they matter? That’s the essence of Putinesque fascism. Revoke freedom of the press? Why bother, when troublesome reporters can simply be killed and the murders will forever remain unsolved? Why bother, when persistently annoying networks and newspapers can be bankrupted and bought out by your cronies? Disband opposing political parties? Why go to all that trouble, when their backers can be convicted of corruption, and their candidates can be killed or induced to leave the country?

That’s the track we would be moving down, if voters hadn’t come out in large enough numbers to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives. We could still wind up on that track. But it’s a lot less likely now.

What the House can do. By itself, of course, the House can’t end this crisis of democracy. It can’t pass laws by itself, and the executive branch is still in charge of enforcing them. Even the impeachment process requires a Senate supermajority.

But the House can guarantee that any further subversion of democracy happens in full public view. If the new Attorney General suppresses the Mueller Report, the House can subpoena it. It can draw attention to the Trump family’s violation of the Constitution’s Emolument Clause, as well as the rampant corruption on the lower levels of this administration. Public hearings can bring to light the human rights abuses and violations of law happening on our southern border, and make administration officials respond with something more than doubletalk.

The executive branch, particularly at its lower levels, is still full of people who are committed to the missions of their departments and agencies. (This is the kernel of truth behind all those “Deep State” conspiracy theories.) People at the EPA still want to protect the environment, in spite of the instructions they receive from the top. People in the Justice Department still want to enforce the laws. People at the State Department still believe in diplomacy and treaties and international law. People at the CIA still want American policy to be based on facts. People at the Pentagon still resist seeing America dominated by Putin or other foreign leaders, no matter what kompromat they have on the president or how much revenue they generate for The Trump Organization.

At times, all those people can feel alone and surrounded. Why resist? Why not go along or take an early retirement and let the administration do whatever it wants? The election told them they are not alone, that the country is resisting as well. And the House can give them a bastion of support, as well as a place to tell their stories to the resisting majority. If a crisis comes, and they start receiving drastic unconstitutional orders, they are much less likely to carry them out, now that they know that the electorate and at least one branch of government is behind them.

What’s more, the 2018 election puts the question to Republicans who have to run in 2020: The American Republic might be in trouble, but it hasn’t failed yet. You still have to face the voters, and so does Trump. Maybe it’s time to start looking beyond this administration, to the party you will have to rebuild after Trump is gone.

It’s not over yet. As we saw in the aftermath of the election, not everyone got the voters’ message or was willing to accept it. In Wisconsin and Michigan, Republican leaders in the legislature have insulated themselves against the electorate through gerrymandering, so that large majorities voting for Democratic control were unable to achieve it. The statewide offices can’t be gerrymandered, but Democrats who win them can be disempowered. And so, to that extent, democracy is thwarted.

It’s not just Trump. There is a rising anti-democratic spirit in the Republican Party as a whole, which David Frum summed up like this:

If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.

The myth of massive voter fraud has no evidence behind it, but conservatives believe it because it provides an excuse to ignore unfavorable election results. If there is a conservative coup someday, it will be justified by a claim that an election was stolen and they only lost due to fake votes.

Republicans still control the White House and the Senate. Attempting to take them back in 2020, Democrats will again run a hazardous gauntlet: Can we stay united? Can we convince reluctant voters to turn out? Can we ignore disinformation and manufactured crises? Can we overcome the electoral-college advantage that has given popular-vote-losing Republicans the presidency twice in the last five elections? Can we win by margins that convince Republicans to drop their flirtation with fascism?

What the midterm elections gave American democracy was a chance to survive, not a final victory.

The damage done. Even a massive 2020 victory won’t automatically set everything right again. The flood of Trump/McConnell judges will be making absurd rulings and blocking progressive change for decades to come. It will be a very long time before America’s traditional allies regard us as trustworthy partners again. The tax-cut giveaway to corporations and the rich will be hard to reverse.

Worse, the time we have lost in fighting climate change can’t be reclaimed. The carbon emitted can’t be recaptured. The wells dug, power plants constructed, and pipelines built will be long-term features of our energy landscape.

But worst of all, I think, is the long-term damage done to democracy itself. One-third of the electorate now buys into a worldview that blames its problems on Muslims and Mexicans, distrusts any attempt to establish objective truth, and won’t believe any vote that doesn’t come out in its favor. Standards of decency and truthfulness will be hard to restore. Partisan, ethnic, racial, and class divides have deepened. Even if we somehow manage to restore trustworthiness to government, will the American people trust it? There will be times of crisis in the future, when Americans will need to unite behind their leaders and move forward in together. It will be difficult, even if in the meantime we have managed to elect wise and honest people.

This election was a major step, but there are many steps to come before we are out of the woods.

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.

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?