Tag Archives: Trump administration

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?

The Media isn’t “Polarized”, It Has a Right-Wing Cancer

As individuals, liberals and conservatives share all the failings humans are prone to. But left-wing media and right-wing media are structured differently, and the implications are huge.


What’s the difference between right-wing media and left-wing media? Or between conservatives and liberals in general? If you have an answer, how do you know that your answer is objective, rather than just a reflection of your own bias? (As John Locke observed more than three centuries ago: “Everyone is orthodox to himself.”) Or if you think there is no difference, couldn’t your both-sides-ism itself be a bias? Wouldn’t it be odd if Right and Left had exactly the same levels of reasonability or factuality?

How would you know?

Network Propaganda. In Network Propaganda, (whose text and illustrations are available free online, as well as for sale as a book or e-book) Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts go to great lengths to produce an objective look at how news travels through the different regions of the US political universe.

It starts with data.

We collected and analyzed two million stories published during the 2016 presidential election campaign, and another 1.9 million stories about the Trump presidency during its first year. We analyze patterns of interlinking between the sites to understand the relations of authority and credibility among publishers high and low, and the tweeting and Facebook sharing practices of users to understand attention patterns to these media.

What they found overall looks like this:

This aggregate view of the open web link economy during the 2016 election period shows a marked difference between the right and everything that is not the right. There is a clear overlap and interaction between the left, center-left, and center media outlets. These are all centered on the cluster of professional, mainstream journalism sites: the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, and Politico form a basin of attraction for outlets ranging from the editorially conservative Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Business Week, or USA Today, through the liberally oriented MSNBC. Zooming in, we see that the right side of the spectrum, by contrast, has Breitbart and Fox News as its basin of attraction, has almost no overlap with the center, and is sharply separated from the rest of the map. The other leading sites on the right include the New York Post, the Washington Times, the Daily Caller, the Daily Mail, and the Washington Examiner. There is almost no center-right, and what there is, anchored around the National Review, is distinct from the set of sites anchored by Fox and Breitbart on the right. The Huffington Post, the Guardian, and MSNBC receive the largest number of media inlinks on the left, joined by Mother Jones, Slate, Vox, and Salon.

Dynamics. This structure produces two distinct dynamics on the left and right. People of all persuasions like to have their prior opinions reinforced, and so we are all susceptible to clickbait (fantastic headlines that appeal to our biases, but have no real substance) and fake news (made-up or grossly exaggerated stories that we want to believe). So both kinds of disinformation are constantly being produced on the extreme Left and Right alike. The difference is what happens then.

there is ample supply of and demand for false hyperpartisan narratives on the left. The difference is that the audience and hyperpartisan commercial clickbait fabricators oriented toward the left form part of a single media ecosystem with center, center-left, and left-wing sites that are committed to journalistic truth-seeking norms. Those norm-constrained sites, both mainstream and net-native, serve as a consistent check on dissemination and validation of the most extreme stories when they do emerge on the left, and have no parallels in the levels of visibility or trust that can perform the same function on the right.

In other words: False stories that come from the Left drift towards the center and get debunked. And that’s usually the end of them. Sites on the far Left know that a lot of their audience also listens to NPR or reads The New York Times. Even if a story has to make it all the way to the center-right (The Wall Street Journal, say, or National Review) before it gets shot down, the correction will filter back, making left-wing sites look bad if they keep repeating the false information.

Nothing similar happens on the Right.

Dynamics on the right tend to reinforce partisan statements, irrespective of their truth, and to punish actors—be they media outlets or politicians and pundits—who insist on speaking truths that are inconsistent with partisan frames and narratives dominant within the ecosystem.

In other words, the right-wing news ecosystem has no antibodies that fight infection by false information. Left and Right are each exposed to misinformation and disinformation, but nothing on the Right keeps it from taking root.

It is not that Republicans are more gullible, or less rational, than Democrats. It is not that technology has destroyed the possibility of shared discourse for all. It is the structure of the media ecosystem within which Republican voters, whether conservatives or right-wing radicals, on the one hand, and Republican politicians, on the other hand, find themselves that made them particularly susceptible to misperception and manipulation, while the media ecosystem that Democrats and their supporters occupied exhibited structural features that were more robust to propaganda efforts and offered more avenues for self-correction and self-healing.

Examples. The book illustrates this bifurcated pattern with

parallel but politically divergent false rumors, about Trump raping a 13-year-old and Hillary and Bill Clinton being involved in pedophilia, [and how the rumors] followed fundamentally different paths through the media ecosystems into which each was introduced.

The Trump-rape story was based on a Jane Doe lawsuit. It made an initial splash on the Left, as Democrats on social media shared and reposted  a Huffington Post article arguing that the case deserved media attention. But the same day as the HuffPost article, The Guardian ran a skeptical article, claiming the suit had been “orchestrated by an eccentric anti-Trump campaigner with a record of making outlandish claims about celebrities.” Within a week the story had virtually vanished, even from very liberal news sources.

The Clinton pedophilia story, on the other hand, began in May, 2016 and continued to rattle through the right-wing echo chamber for the rest of the campaign.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, made the accusation on-air, interviewed by Sean Hannity and by Greta Van Susteren on Fox News. Bret Baier, anchoring Fox News’s prime-time news show ran a detailed segment on the accusations of Bill Clinton flying to Orgy Island on the Lolita Express. Fox News online published the underlying materials. Rush Limbaugh discussed the allegation as something everyone knows. Trump’s campaign adviser and national security adviser in waiting, Michael Flynn, tweeted it out. Breitbart, the most widely shared right-wing online site whose on-leave CEO Steve Bannon was then running Trump’s campaign, aired an interview constructed of pure disinformation. It seems highly unlikely that any of the people involved—Prince, Flynn, or the publishers of Breitbart—thought that the accusation that Hillary Clinton had flown six times to Orgy Island was anything other than utterly false, and yet they published it four days before the election on Breitbart’s radio station and online. Not one right-wing outlet came out to criticize and expose this blatant lie for what it was. [my emphasis] In the grip of the propaganda feedback loop, the right-wing media ecosystem had no mechanism for self-correction, and instead exhibited dynamics of self-reinforcement, confirmation, and repetition so that readers, viewers, and listeners encountered multiple versions of the same story, over months, to the point that both recall and credibility were enhanced. It is hardly surprising, then, that a YouGov poll from December 2016 found that over 40 percent of Republican respondents thought that it was at least somewhat likely that someone was running a pedophilia ring out of the Clinton campaign.

This disinformation had real-world consequences. In December, a young man fired three shots in a DC-area pizza restaurant supposedly involved in the pedophilia ring.

Despite extensive efforts, we were unable to find an example of disinformation or commercial clickbait started on the left, or aimed from abroad at the left, that took hold and became widely reported and believed in the broader network that stretches from the center to the left for any meaningful stretch of time

A second set of examples came from the “fake news awards” President Trump announced in 2017.

Comparing the Uranium One, Seth Rich, and Lolita Express and Orgy Island diffusion patterns we observed in earlier chapters on the one hand, and the various winners of the “fake news awards” on the other hand, underscores the fundamentally different dynamics in the right wing as compared to the rest of the American political media ecosystem. When observing right-wing conspiracy theories, we saw positive feedback loops between the core of that network—composed of Fox News, leading Republican pundits, and Breitbart—and the remainder of the online right-wing network. In those cases we saw repetition, amplification, and circling of the wagons to criticize other media outlets when these exposed the errors and failures of the story. By contrast, the mainstream media ecosystem exhibited intensive competition to hold each other to high journalistic standards, and a repeated pattern of rapid removal of content, correction, and in several cases disciplining of the reporters involved. Moreover, in none of these cases did we find more than a smattering of repetition and amplification of the claims once retracted.

Why doesn’t the Left do the same thing? This is one of the book’s more interesting points. People watch news programs for two purposes: to stay informed and to have their worldview reaffirmed. Since the 1980s, the Right has established an alternate news system that primarily serves the second purpose. But this isn’t just an ideological crusade, it also makes money.

So why doesn’t a parallel system make money on the Left? (It’s been tried. Air America tried to establish liberal talk radio during the Bush years, but went bankrupt.) Various liberal news outlets exist, but they’ve never escaped from the mainstream news ecosystem. It’s tempting to claim some superior virtue on the Left, but that’s not where Network Propaganda goes. Instead, it finds a first-mover advantage: Once a self-contained right-wing propaganda system exists, it allows the left-wing audience to gets its worldview affirmation from the center.

But once one wing has established the strategy of partisan bias confirmation, the centrist media with their truth-seeking institutions and reputations suddenly deliver a new benefit to partisans of the opposite pole—as objective external arbiters they can offer institutionalized credibility to reinforce their view that what their opposition is saying is false. Once one partisan media pole is established, the coverage of existing objective media outlets takes on a partisan flavor without any shift in their own focus on objectivity.

The mainstream media will be able to reconcile their goals of truth-seeking and confirmation from the center with providing a steady flow of partisan-confirming news for the wing in opposition to the wing that is already in the grip of the propaganda feedback loop. The outlets that formed the partisan ecosystem have a first-mover advantage over outlets that try to copy them on the opposite side, because as they decrease the value of the mainstream media to their own audiences, they increase it for the putative audiences of their opponents. The further the first-moving partisan media ecosystem goes down the path of its own propaganda feedback loop, the greater its tendency to produce untrue statements, and the greater the opportunities for reality-check centrist media organizations to deliver news that is both truthful and pleasing to partisans from the other side.

Fox is not a news network. During the primary campaign, Fox News represented traditional conservatism and was skeptical of Trump. Consequently, it lost ground to Breitbart as the center of right-wing coverage. After the election, though, it regained its standing by going full Trump.

Chapter 5, “The Fox Diet”, demonstrates how not just the content, but the timing, of Fox coverage derived from what the Trump administration needed, rather than what was new or true or relevant.

One case involves the argument that Democratic activist Seth Rich was murdered to hide the fact that he, not Russia, was responsible for leaking the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails. The other case involves use of a story surrounding a company called Uranium One to attack the integrity and independence of the key law enforcement officers involved in the special counsel investigation. The timing and pattern we show in these case studies strongly suggest that they were launched for the specific partisan purpose of deflecting the Trump-Russia allegations and undermining the special counsel investigation. And in the two specifically fact-based cases, we show that Fox News actively promoted these stories despite the fact that they were repeatedly fact checked and debunked by a wide variety of professional journalists.

Both the Seth Rich and Uranium One stories had initially flared and died down, but re-emerged months or even years later when Trump needed them to shift the narrative. Uranium One was initially an anti-Clinton story early in the campaign, but was repackaged after the election as an Deep-State-law-enforcement story when the Mueller investigation heated up and Trump needed to undermine its credibility.

Manipulating the mainstream media. The existence of a propaganda network, one that constantly accuses traditional journalists of bias, puts those journalists under constant pressure to prove their objectivity. Often this takes the form of “balance” — finding a negative story about one side to balance a negative story about the other.

a core driver of the [Clinton] email focus was misapplication of the objectivity norm as even-handedness or balance, rather than truth seeking. If professional journalistic objectivity means balance and impartiality, and one is confronted with two candidates who are highly unbalanced—one consistently lies and takes positions that were off the wall for politicians before his candidacy, and the other is about as mainstream and standard as plain vanilla—it is genuinely difficult to maintain balanced coverage. The solution was uniformly negative coverage, as Patterson and colleagues showed, and a heavy focus on detailed objective facts. The emails were catnip for professional journalists. They gave journalists something concrete to work with. They had the aura of salacious reporting of uncovered secrets, while being unimpeachably factual and professional. And they allowed the mainstream publications to appear balanced in that their coverage of the two candidates was equally hard-hitting and tough.

The result was that Trump by far got the advantage of news coverage during the campaign: Coverage of Clinton tended to be about scandals, many of which had dubious substance. Trump, on the other hand, got covered for his positions on immigration, jobs, and trade.

Articles about Clinton in The New York Times and Washington Post often had scandalous headlines that were walked back by details far down the column. Such articles were frequently cited on the Right (as NYT and WaPo stories seldom are) to validate an anti-Clinton narrative.

Consider where the actual balance-of-scandals tilted: the Trump sexual harassment stories had numerous first-person witnesses, while the Trump University fraud eventually required a $25 million settlement. Supposed scandals about the Clinton Foundation were almost entirely conspiracy theories, while the largely uninvestigated Trump Foundation is currently facing a lawsuit calling for its dissolution for self-dealing. And yet this was the balance of coverage:

The Right needs this kind of mainstream cooperation, because the number of people who live inside the right-wing bubble is somewhere iin the range of 25-30% of the population — not nearly enough to win elections.

Russia and other bad actors. The good news in the book is the authors’ conclusion that Russian social media campaigns, fake news entrepreneurs, Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook’s news algorithms actually had little effect on the course of news coverage.

The Russians tried but were unlikely to have been a critical factor. The commercial bullshit artists made some money, but were peripheral. And while Facebook’s data team certainly did make it possible for a complete outsider running with little help from party institutions to identify millions of voters and reach out to them effectively, the Cambridge Analytica manipulative advertising and the dark ads part of the story was still, in 2016, more of a red herring than the game changer some made it out to be.

[Note: This is about the effectiveness of Russian social media campaigns. No one disputes that the DNC emails hacked by the Russians and distributed by WikiLeaks had a major impact.]

However, the existence of a right-wing propaganda ecosystem, with correspondingly low resistance to false facts it wants to believe, is a continuing vulnerability in the American political system. As long as it exists, it will be open to outside manipulation.

Russian propaganda seems to have targeted both sides, and Facebook clickbait sites tried to manipulate denizens of all sides of the American public sphere. But, just as we saw in the case of the competing Trump rape and Clinton pedophilia frames, the responsiveness and success appear to have been very different in the two parts of the media ecosystem. In the right-wing media the propaganda feedback loop enabled conspiracy theories, false rumors, and logically implausible claims to perform better, survive longer, and be shared more widely than were parallel efforts aimed at the left.

The authors also saw little effect from far-right-wing groups (like white supremacists) seeding their messages into the right-wing core. The problem wasn’t that VDare or The Daily Stormer manipulated Fox News into spreading racist anti-immigrant messages, but that Fox went looking for those memes.

In general,

a population with high trust in bias-confirming news and high distrust in bias-disconfirming, professional-norms-driven media will be more vulnerable to disinformation campaigns than a population that has generally higher trust in professional journalism on average, but lower trust in any given media outlet…. As Joanne Miller and her collaborators and, independently, Adam Berinsky have shown, for Democrats, the more knowledgeable they are about politics, the less likely they are to accept conspiracy theories or unsubstantiated rumors that harm their ideological opponents. But for Republicans more knowledge results in, at best, no change in the rate at which they accept conspiracy theories, and at worst, actually increases their willingness to accept such theories.

What can be done? Something, but not a lot. Mainstream media needs to recognize that it lives in a propaganda-rich environment, and that the propaganda does not come equally from both sides.

When mainstream professional media sources insist on coverage that performs their own neutrality by giving equal weight to opposing views, even when one is false and the other is not, they fail. … [T]he present journalistic practice of objectivity as neutrality has perverse effects in the media ecosystem we document here. By maintaining the “one side says x, the other side says y” model of objectivity in the presence of highly asymmetric propaganda efforts, mainstream media become sources of legitimation and amplification for the propagandists.

Instead of balance, mainstream journalism needs to focus on truth-seeking and accountability. The authors make an interesting suggestion about, for example, anonymous sources. A responsible editor will insist on knowing a reporter’s sources, but an irresponsible organization could abuse that practice. What if some independent, highly trusted organization were set up that news organizations could use to verify their anonymous sources without revealing them? The system might function like peer review in science.

Journalists also need to apply skepticism to illicitly obtained documents that come from, say, Russian hackers rather than whistle-blowers.

Recognizing the asymmetry we document here requires editors to treat tips or “exclusives,” as well as emails or other leaked or hacked documents with greater care than they have in the past few years. The “Fool me once, shame on you . . .” adage suggests that after, for example, the New York Times’s experience with Peter Schweizer and the Uranium One story, mainstream professional journalists need to understand that they are subject to a persistent propaganda campaign trying to lure them into amplifying and accrediting propaganda. This happens of course as normal politics from both sides of the partisan system, but our work here shows that one side is armed with a vastly more powerful engine for generating and propagating propaganda.

But ultimately the Right will have to fix itself. It may seem far-fetched at the moment, but traditional conservatives (as opposed to white supremacists or other right-wing extremists) must already realize that the current system is not working for them.

There is nothing conservative about calling career law enforcement officials and the intelligence community the “deep state.” The fact that the targets of the attack, like Robert Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, or Andrew McCabe, were life-long Republicans merely underscores that fact. There is nothing conservative about calling for a trade war. There is nothing conservative about breaking from long-held institutional norms for short-term political advantage. And there is nothing conservative about telling Americans to reject the consensus estimate of the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA that we were attacked by Russia and suggesting instead that these agencies are covering up for a DNC conspiracy. What has happened first and foremost to make all these things possible is that the Republican Party has been taken over by ever-more right-wing politicians.

The authors suggest that a series of election losses might motivate such a re-assessment of where the trends of the last 30 years have brought the conservative movement. Network Propaganda was published prior to the recent midterm elections, but we can hope that 2018 was the first in a series of such losses.

The Big Picture: From Russia to Ukraine to Brexit to Trump

The author of On Tyranny is back with a travelogue of The Road to Unfreedom


For several years now, we’ve been observing a global trend of once-democratic countries moving towards fascism. The paradigmic example is Putin’s Russia, but various other “right-wing populist” leaders have taken their countries some greater or lesser distance down the same road: Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Duda in Poland, Trump in the US, and (soon) Bolsonaro in Brazil. Even in countries that have held the extreme right at bay, some proto-fascist party has shown surprising strength: National Rally in France, Alternative for Germany, Austria’s Freedom Party, and several others.

Each country has a unique story to tell about personalities, opposition weakness, dissatisfaction among key voting blocs, or previous government corruption. But when you look at the larger picture, you have to ask why. Why now? Why the right rather than the left? Why everywhere at once?

Timothy Snyder has an answer for you. Like all big theories, it’s a bit speculative. If you want a case ready to take to court, you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for way to tell one big story about the current crisis of democracy rather than framing it as an unfortunate convergence of many little stories, his recent book The Road to Unfreedom is as a good a narrative as I’ve found.

To an extent, I’m misrepresenting The Road to Unfreedom in this article. I’ll be focusing on the abstract stuff in the background, the frame that holds it together. But Snyder’s book is anything but abstract; it is also a detailed description of how the internal politics of Putin’s Russia led to the invasion of Ukraine, and then to information warfare against the European Union and the United States. It maps out the common tactics that show up again and again, from Russia to Ukraine to Brexit to Trump.

But why did those tactics work so well in so many different countries?

Two mythologies and the reality they hide. Snyder points to a sea change in the dominant mythology of democratic societies. For decades, we have been living under a flawed but more-or-less benign mythology he calls “the politics of inevitability”, which is a version of the myth of progress: Irreversible historical trends are pushing us towards an “end of history” in which all nations will become human-rights-respecting democracies joined in a global market. As we approach this goal, many good things are supposed to happen: societies become more tolerant, more and more groups achieve justice and get their rights recognized, and technological progress leads to economic growth that raises the overall standard of living.

The exact timing of these benefits may depend on some heroic action here or there, and occasionally there might be a temporary setback. But the overall outcome is destined; it just happens.

Politics in an era of inevitability becomes either boring or frustrating, depending on your point of view. On issue after issue — a new trade pact, a newly recognized civil right, a new market, new patterns of behavior that correspond to new technologies — there seems to be no real choice. The Future is going there; you either get with the program or you don’t.

Over the last two decades or so, that myth has been undermined, by a lack of progress, by hitting environmental limits, and by contradictions among the various values “the Future” was supposed to optimize. Climate change presents a possibility of dystopia rather than utopia. Both globalization and technological change have produced losers as well as winners. As new groups get their rights recognized, groups privileged by the old arrangements may feel less and less at home; society used to fit them like a glove, and it no longer does. The increased freedom of capitalists may lead to decreased opportunities for workers, and while overall economic growth may continue, the new wealth may simply pile up at the top.

Occasionally, the failure of inevitability manifests in some shocking statistic like this one: Life expectancy in the United States fell in both 2015 and 2016. The drop (from 78.9 years in 2014 to 78.6 years in 2016) corresponded to an increase in deaths related to hopelessness: drug overdoses and suicides. In the face of such news, the rhetoric of inevitable progress becomes unconvincing.

The faltering of inevitability has made room for a rival myth that Snyder calls “the politics of eternity”: Your own group (whatever it is) is perpetually virtuous and innocent, but it is surrounded and assailed by evil enemies. He refers to this viewpoint as “eternal” because the story never changes.

When each day is devoted to emotional venting about supposed enemies, the present becomes endless, eternal.

Nothing your group does can ever besmirch its innocence, and the rightful steps it takes to defend itself will never be accepted by the evil forces that assail it. All victories and defeats are just temporary. Only an annihilating defeat or a millennial victory at the end of time could truly break the cycle.

Both myths hide the reality that history is whatever humans make it. We are perpetually confronted with choices, and many outcomes are possible. Humanity makes progress (or not) depending on what we do. Virtue is not something we are born with or inherit from our ancestors; it either manifests in our actions or it does not.

Fictionalization. Inevitability politicians offer an idealized future. Eternity politicians have no utopian vision, so they instead offer a return to an idealized past. If you are suffering here and now, inevitability frames your pain as an aberration or a temporary inconvenience or a worthy sacrifice. Eternity, on the other hand, has no better future to offer you, but it tells you who to blame.

An eternity politician defines foes rather than formulating policies.

One key difference between the two myths is that the Future actually arrives, a little bit at a time. So the case for progress is inherently a fact-based case. An inevitability politician may make up facts, perhaps, or twist them, but he can’t do without them. “A plausible future,” Snyder writes, “requires a factual present.”

But eternity-politics requires only struggle, and the less factual the struggle, the easier it is to maintain. A real struggle might come to some conclusion, but an entirely made-up one never will.

The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional.

So, for example, the millions of illegal voters who decide American elections can’t be stopped, because they’re not real. The struggle against them will go on forever. Democrats can never stop trying to take your guns, because they weren’t trying to take your guns in the first place. The War on Christmas will come back every year, regardless of anything the faithful might do to defend themselves.

People believe these narratives because they are emotionally satisfying, not because they are factual. And so eternity propaganda doesn’t simply repeat what it wants the public to believe, but attempts to destroy the public’s confidence in any factual present or coherent narrative of history. Snyder describes Putin’s propaganda during the invasion of Ukraine like this:

According to Russian propaganda, Ukrainian society was full of nationalists but not a nation; the Ukrainian state was repressive but did not exist; Russians were forced to speak Ukrainian though there was no such language.

The point is not to win a rational argument, but to make rational argument impossible.

The tools and attitudes of ordinary journalism have failed to deal with this more fundamental attack.

One can mark the fictions and contradictions. This is not enough. These utterances were not logical arguments or factual assessments, but a calculated effort to undo logic and factuality. … The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts. Putin’s strategy of implausible deniability exploited this convention while destroying its basis. He positioned himself as a side of the story while mocking factuality. “I am lying to you openly and we both know it” is not a side of the story. It is a trap.

And if the war is against factuality itself, the press becomes an enemy of the People.

in the Russian model, investigative reporting must be marginalized so that news can become a daily spectacle. The point of spectacle is to summon the emotions of both supporters and detractors and to confirm and strengthen polarization; every news cycle creates euphoria or depression, and reinforces a conviction that politics is about friends and enemies at home, rather than about policy that might improve the lives of citizens.

Already in 2014, as the Russia was invading Ukraine, Putin was unveiling a media strategy that has since become very familiar to American news consumers.

Western editors, although they had the reports of the Russian invasion on their desks in the late days of February and the early days of March 2014, chose to feature Putin’s exuberant denials. And so the narrative of the Russian invasion of Ukraine shifted in a subtle but profound way: it was not about what was happening to Ukrainians, but about what the Russian president chose to say about Ukraine.

You might think that history would be useful to a nostalgic movement, but only a vague, cherry-picked history will do. Putin, for example, is the heroic inheritor of both the czars and the Soviets who overthrew them. Similarly in the United States, Trumpists simultaneously revere the statues of slave-owning Confederates and blame slavery on the Democrats, claiming the legacies of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as it suits them. Actual history will never support the perpetual virtue and innocence of Russians, Americans, or anyone else, so it must be made incoherent as well.

Authoritarianism arrives not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.

Why Russia? In the West, the Great Recession of 2008 was a hammer blow to the myth of inevitability. For communities that had been stagnant or even falling behind for decades, it put an exclamation point on a growing sense that utopia was not coming.

But Russia had gotten to that point much sooner. Within one generation, the fall of the Soviet Union blasted away the Communist vision of historical inevitability, and the corruption and incompetence of the Yeltsin regime discredited the market-democracy alternative. So Russia was the ideal place to hone the new tactics, because it was ahead of other nations on the path to despair and cynicism.

From the beginning of his rule, Putin offered Russians narratives of danger, first from the terrorist Chechens. But after his fraudulent re-election in 2011 brought protesters into the streets, Putin decided he needed a larger enemy: the West, and particularly the United States. The protests, he claimed, resulted from a conspiracy by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Putin’s subsequent information war on the West has been motivated by internal politics. Russians know that their own democracy is a fraud, but Putin needs them to understand that all democracies are frauds. No Western nation should stand as an example Russians can aspire to.

Trump. Snyder goes into considerable detail about the course of the Ukraine war (where the current stalemate serves Putin’s interest), as well as the particular myths that have made the European Union vulnerable to attacks like Brexit. But let’s skip straight to Trump.

Trump’s advance to the Oval Office had three stages, each of which depended upon American vulnerability and required American cooperation. First, Russians had to transform a failed real estate developer into a recipient of their capital. Second, this failed real estate developer had to portray, on American television, a successful businessman. Finally, Russia intervened with purpose and success to support the fictional character “Donald Trump, successful businessman” in the 2016 presidential election.

Snyder often repeats the  notion of “Donald Trump, successful businessman” as a fundamentally fictional character.

In these conditions, a fictional candidate enjoyed a considerable advantage.

From his campaign through his administration, Trump has been about spectacle and outrage, rather than about substantive plans to improve the lives of Americans — even the Americans who voted for him. He provides emotional benefits for his followers — an energizing anger, self-righteousness, and revenge against largely imaginary enemies — rather than healthcare or highways or schools.

Trump governed just as he had run for office: as a producer of outrage rather than as a formulator of policy.

This can only work for an electorate that expects nothing better from government. And in that sense, it is the failure of inevitability politics that made us vulnerable.

The American politics of inevitability also prepared the way for the American politics of eternity more directly: by generating and legitimizing vast economic inequality at home. If there was no alternative to capitalism, then perhaps yawning gaps in wealth and income should be ignored, explained away, or even welcomed? If more capitalism meant more democracy, why worry? These mantras of inevitability provided the cover for the policies that made America more unequal, and inequality more painful.

Trump’s message resonated (at least among whites) wherever there was hopelessness.

The correlation between opioid use and Trump voting was spectacular and obvious, notably in the states that Trump had to win. … Every Pennsylvania county that Obama won in 2012 but Trump won in 2016 was in opioid crisis.  … With one exception, every Ohio county in opioid crisis posted significant gains for Trump in 2016 over Romney in 2012. … In Scioto County, Ohio, ground zero of the American opioid epidemic, Trump took a spectacular 33% more votes than Romney had.

It was in the localities where the American dream had died that Trump’s politics of eternity worked. He called for a return to the past, to a time when America was great. Without inequality, without a sense that the future was closed, he could not have found the supporters he needed.

Getting off the road to unfreedom. The recent mid-term elections demonstrated that Americans are not yet in thrall to eternity politics. The final tallies are not in yet, but in the best measure of national sentiment — the total popular vote for the House — Trump’s party looks to have lost by something like 8%. (Obama’s 2008 landslide was a 7% victory.)

But as we can see by looking at other countries, Trump is not unique. It was the failure of our politics and our culture that made us vulnerable to eternity politics. In Snyder’s view, we need to resist the charms of national mythology.

To break the spell of inevitability, we must see ourselves as we are, not on some exceptional path, but in history alongside others. To avoid the temptation of eternity, we must address our own particular problems, beginning with inequality, with timely public policy. To make of American politics an eternity of racial conflict is to allow economic inequality to worsen. To address widening disparities of opportunity, to restore a possibility of social advance and thus a sense of the future, requires seeing Americans as a citizenry rather than as groups in conflict. America will have both forms of equality, racial and economic, or it will have neither.

He ends with a call for a “politics of responsibility”, one recognizing that history has no direction of its own, and that we have no pre-ordained special role inside it. We can make a better world if we collectively decide to do so, but we can’t just wait for the better world to arrive on its own.

If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better. We halt our thoughtless journey from inevitability to eternity, and exit the road to unfreedom

12 Things to Remember Before You Vote

Since Inauguration Day, we’ve been dealing with a faster news cycle than we’ve seen before. Again and again, we see some news story and think: “This changes everything. I’ll never forget about this.” But in a few days there’s something else, the media focus shifts, and last week’s incredible story seems like ancient history. “Are you still going on about that?”

It’s worth remembering how strange this is, and what a shift it marks since the Obama administration. While Fox News and its ilk never lacked for some story they could manufacture outrage over — Obama put his feet on a White House desk, he saluted while holding a latte, Michele wore a sleeveless dress — really outrageous things were rare.

And so they were remembered. President Obama’s claim “If you like your health insurance you can keep it” stuck in everyone’s mind, because he so seldom cut corners on the truth. (For what it’s worth: I liked my health insurance and I kept it.) Benghazi conspiracy theories hung on forever, because so little else happened that Obama-haters could base a good conspiracy theory on. (A few months ago, I saw a guy wearing a “Benghazi: We will never forget” t-shirt. I had to wonder whether the things he will never forget about Benghazi actually happened.)

But as one Trump scandal after another vanishes down the memory hole, it takes some effort to remember things that at the time seemed unforgettable. (As I compiled this list, I kept having an “Oh yeah, that happened” response.) It’s even harder to sort out the really important things from the overhyped distractions: NFL players kneeling, Stormy Daniels, the immigrant caravan, and so on.

But when it comes time to play our role as voters, we need to remember, and we need to make sure that other people remember.

So here’s my list of the most outrageous, most objectionable things that have happened since Republicans took control of the White House and both houses of Congress. In compiling it, I have tried to avoid listing actions (like pulling out of the Paris Agreement or cutting rich people’s taxes) that I simply disagreed with because I am more liberal that President Trump. I’ve also left out times where he did something he had promised to do in the campaign, even if I consider it reprehensible.

Instead, I’m looking for violations of what previous administrations (of both parties) would have regarded as universal American values. They happen fairly regularly, but each seems to push the previous ones out of our memories.

1. Kids in Cages.

From some time in April until late June, the administration carried out a “zero tolerance” policy at the border with Mexico. According to Wikipedia:

The policy involved prosecuting all adults who were detained at the U.S.–Mexico border, sending the parents to federal jails, and placing children and infants under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. According to government officials, the policy led to the separation of almost 3,000 children from their parents.

Many of these families had done nothing wrong: Seeking asylum is legally protected under both international law and US law. (Trump refers to these laws as “loopholes”.) Many who came to legal entry points trying to turn themselves in and claim asylum were turned away, forcing them to turn themselves in to border agents after crossing illegally. Texas Monthly discussed the problem with Anne Chandler of the Children’s Border Project:

TM: So if you cross any other way besides the bridge, we’re prosecuting you. But . . . you can’t cross the bridge.

AC: That’s right. I’ve talked to tons of people. There are organizations like Al Otro Lado that document border turn-backs. And there’s an effort to accompany asylum seekers so that Customs and Border Patrol can’t say, “We’re closed.” Everybody we’ve talked to who’s been prosecuted or separated has crossed the river without a visa.

By June, public outrage had forced the administration to stop routinely separating families. But HHS and the Justice Department never acknowledged that they had done anything wrong or had created a problem they needed to fix. Whatever corrective action HHS has taken has always been carried out under court order and with a lot of foot-dragging.

On July 26, responding to an ACLU class action lawsuit, a federal judge ordered all separated children, except where not appropriate, be reunited with their parent within 30 days.[19][20] On July 26, the Trump administration said that 1,442 children had been reunited with their parents while 711 remained in government shelters. Officials said they will work with the court to return the remaining children, including 431 parents of those children who have already been deported without their children.[21] As of August 20, 528 of the children — about a fifth — have still not been reunited with their parents.

A number of the children the government regards as “discharged” have been released to a sponsor in the US, rather than reunited with the families they were stolen from.

As Adam Serwer observed in The Atlantic, the cruelty of this policy is the point. Jeff Sessions may call it “deterrence” that will prevent other people from trying to come here, but that’s just a fancy language for describing cruelty: Don’t come here, because if you do we’ll take your children away.

Recently, Trump has discussed implementing a new family-separation policy:

One option weighed by the administration, as reported by the Post: Migrant families seeking asylum can be detained for up to 20 days, at which point they must decide whether to stay together in detention waiting for their cases to proceed or choose separation. This would involve children being transferred to a government shelter so other family members could claim custody.

Federal officials believe this can be done legally.

The ACLU disagrees:

“The government need not, and legally may not, indiscriminately detain families who present no flight risk or danger,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said in an email to the Post. “It is deeply troubling that this Administration continues to look for ways to cause harm to small children.”

2. Putting Russia first in Helsinki.

In July, the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki was a huge propaganda triumph for the Russian president. Trump appeared to balance the unanimous conclusion of the US intelligence agencies (that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections to help Trump) against Putin’s word, and came down in favor of Putin.

My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. … I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

It wasn’t just that Trump has a blind spot about his own election. In what CNN’s John King called “the surrender summit“, Trump also failed to confront Putin about his interference in European elections (including Brexit) or with any of Russia’s other bad behavior: the annexation of Crimea, fomenting a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, assassinating critics in the UK, or propping up the brutal Assad regime in Syria, just to name a few.

Instead of calling out Putin for his violations of international laws and standards, Trump said US/Russia relations are in a bad place because “we’ve all been foolish”. Trump described a Putin proposal that would have let Russian intelligence interrogate US officials (like former ambassador Mike McFaul) as “an incredible offer”. (The Senate rejected it 98-0.) In an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, Trump worried about the “aggressive people” of tiny Montenegro, a NATO ally, provoking Russia into war.

Writing in The Washington Post, Julia Ioffe put her finger on the root problem: Trump has let Putin shape his picture of reality.

It’s possible to argue about why the American president has become a mouthpiece for Russian propaganda: Does Putin have kompromat on him? Is it because his real estate empire depends on Russian money? Is he still angling to build Trump Tower Moscow?

But the reason barely matters compared to the result: When the President of the United States speaks about issues Russia cares about, more often than not what comes out of his mouth is Russian propaganda. “America First” has turned into “Russia First”.

3. The Very Fine Nazis in Charlottesville.

Trump has told reporters he is “the least racist person you have ever interviewed“. But his denials have never convinced one very important group of people: white supremacists, who are quite sure that the president is on their side. That’s why he was endorsed by former KKK grand wizard David Duke, and why Richard Spencer led a Nazi-saluting crowd in a chant of “Hail Trump! Hail victory!” after the 2016 election. It’s wrong to claim that all Trump supporters are white racists, but just about all white racists are Trump supporters.

Emboldened by Trump’s 2016 victory, a coalition of Nazis, white supremacists, Neo-Confederates, and other alt-right groups formerly considered to be on the fringes of conservative politics decided to make a big public splash in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, 2017.

In classic storm-trooper style, they held a torchlight parade Friday evening, where they chanted slogans like “Jews will not replace us“, “blood and soil“, and “Hail Trump!“. Men with AR-15s ominously hung around outside a synagogue.

The violence of Friday night culminated Saturday afternoon, when a rally participant rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer (the only fatality of the weekend) and injuring 19 others.

Trump responded to this spectacle by pushing the organizers’ cover story: that the rally was really about a Robert E. Lee statue that Charlottesville wants to move to a less prominent spot. (The parallel with #2, where he uncritically repeated Putin’s propaganda, is worth noting.) After looking at the pre-rally posters and the line-up of speakers, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist begs to differ:

this was a Nazi march from the beginning, planned by Nazis, for Nazis. As to whether any hapless moderates strolled in there thinking this was just about the statue—well, I live in this area and used to be active in the local Tea Party group. I know people who are not white nationalists who oppose the removal of the statues based on high-minded ideas about preserving history. None of them were there, and if they had been, they would have bolted the moment they saw a bunch of guys with torches chanting “Blood and soil.”

“Very fine people”, Trump assured the country, were on “both sides”. And “both sides” were responsible for the violence, even though only one side had somebody wind up dead.

4. Alternative facts.

The Trump administration started with a bang. In his first meeting with the White House press corps, Press Secretary Sean Spicer berated reporters for stating correctly what anyone with eyes could see: Trump’s inauguration didn’t draw nearly as many people as Obama’s. But Spicer angrily insisted: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”

The next Sunday, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Kellyanne Conway about this incident, which at the time seemed bizarre, though we’ve since gotten used to such performances.

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary — gave alternative facts,” she said. Todd responded: “Alternative facts aren’t facts, they are falsehoods.”

At the time we didn’t know that Conway’s “alternative facts” was the opening salvo in an all-out assault on truth that has become increasingly shameless with time.

“All presidents lie,” Trump apologists say, and point to Obama’s “If you like your health plan you can keep it”, Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman” or Bush the First’s “Read my lips: no new taxes.” What makes those statements stand out years later, though, is how rare such lies have been for previous presidents of either party.

All presidents have presented facts selectively, emphasizing the ones that fit their narrative while skipping over the ones that didn’t. All presidents have shaded the truth and obfuscated inconvenient facts, particularly when they have been directly accused of something. But we have never seen anything like the thousands of lies Trump has let fly on every conceivable subject.

Just this week, for example, he made up riots in California that never happened, talked about a tax cut that hasn’t even been proposed in Congress, and made a baseless claim about “unknown Middle Easterners” in the current migrant caravan. Even while admitting he had no evidence of the Middle Easterners (who he presumably meant to imply were terrorists), he repeated that “they very well could be” in the caravan — as if he were justified in claiming anything not already proven false.

When things he says are proven to be false, he keeps saying them. This also is completely new in American politics. Previous presidents could be shamed into changing their misleading rhetoric. (Clinton, for example, stopped saying that he never had sex with that woman.) But Trump is shamelessly dishonest.

Some observers tend to write this off as a quirk, like your crazy uncle who tells tall tales about the good old days. But constant lying has a corrosive effect on democracy. It’s impossible to have any kind of reasonable discussion of the issues that face our country when the President can claim anything or deny anything, and (as long as Congress is OK with it) no one can hold him accountable.

5. Puerto Rico.

The Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina was such a turning point that conservative media spent the entirety of  Obama’s two terms looking for “Obama’s Katrina”. At least two dozen unfortunate events got labeled that way, though none of the labels stuck. In the end, Obama’s Katrina was the GOP’s white whale; they chased it for eight years, but it got away.

In just its eighth month, though, the Trump administration had an honest-to-God direct Katrina parallel: Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. In just about every way, the Trump administration and the Republican Congress sent the message that — while Puerto Ricans may technically be American citizens under the law — they don’t really count.

Stories of the botched response are mostly anecdotal, because the administration is sticking to its line that it did “a fantastic job”, and Congress has never investigated.

In the year since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, killing nearly 70 percent more people than Katrina, the GOP-led House has yet to create a select committee to oversee the Trump administration’s recovery efforts. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees FEMA, has held just two hearings related to the storm. Neither the House nor the Senate have issued any major reports, and none appear to be in the works.

Here are some of the things we do know: Rather than the two weeks required to restore electric power after Hurricane Irma (which blew through Florida only two weeks later), restoring power to Puerto Rico took eight months. Granted, the shakiness of Puerto Rico’s power grid before the hurricane made the job harder, but ordinarily in America a harder problem inspires a greater effort. Not so this time.

Much of the aid that did make it to the island got stuck in the port of San Juan. 20,000 pallets of bottled water got left on an airport runway, where they were discovered nearly a year later. While Puerto Ricans were dying in hospitals without electric power, or from the inability to get their prescriptions filled, a Navy hospital ship was treating only six patients a day.

Ten months after the storm, the official death toll stood at 64, a number everyone knew was absurd. (Only a month after landfall, CNN had talked to about half of the island’s funeral homes and found 499 storm-related deaths.) The current estimate is just below 3,000 deaths, with some estimates as high as 4,600.

The scene that sums up the Trump administration’s go-through-the-motions response was the President’s own visit to the island, where he casually flipped rolls of paper towels into a crowd the way interns throw compressed t-shirts into the stands at minor-league baseball games.

The challenge posed by Puerto Rico combined Trump’s character flaws and unfitness for office into a perfect storm of dysfunction.

  • He has below-normal levels of compassion in any case. This has been obvious in other disasters as well. Last month, during a photo op where he was handing out food to victims of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina, he told a box-lunch recipient to “have a good time“, a line he had also used at an emergency shelter in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
  • He particularly doesn’t care about brown people who speak Spanish. “America First” has always meant “White English-speaking Americans First”. Puerto Ricans are not “Real Americans” to Trump or to Trumpists, so the fact that they were suffering — and many of them were dying — rang no alarm bells.
  • He neither understands nor takes responsibility for how government works. Part of the challenge of Hurricane Maria was the dysfunctionality of the island government. (Similar problems arose after Katrina because of inefficiencies at the Louisiana and New Orleans levels.) But a president who understood government — picture, just for the sake of argument, President Hillary Clinton — would have grasped this from the outset and planned around it. Likewise, the bureaucratic gaps between FEMA, the Pentagon, and other relevant agencies should have been taken into account, but weren’t.
  • He can’t correct his mistakes because he can’t admit them. When it became clear that the death toll was much higher than the early estimates, and that his administration hadn’t been doing “a fantastic job” at all, Trump treated that objective information as a partisan attack against himself. Rather than try to fix anything, he lashed out at the Mayor of San Juan, at Democrats, at the media, and at the Puerto Ricans themselves, who “want everything done for them“.

6. Don’t believe women.

The Kavanaugh controversy is recent enough to still be on the public radar, but it’s far from the only time when the administration has shrugged off the testimony of multiple women. Remember creepy Roy Moore? I’ll let Wikipedia sum up:

In November 2017, nine women accused Roy Moore — a United States Senate candidate and a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama — of sexual misconduct. Three of the women alleged that he had sexually assaulted them, two during their adolescence (one who was 16 at the time of the alleged incident, when Moore was 31, and one who was 14 at the time of the alleged incident, when Moore was 32).[1] Six other women recalled Moore pursuing romantic relationships, or engaging in inappropriate or unwanted behavior with them, while they were between the ages of 16 and 22.

Trump was unfazed in his endorsement of Moore. “He totally denies it,” the President said. And that, apparently, was all it took to convince him. After all, the accusers were just women.

Two White House staffers, Rob Porter and David Sorensen resigned after allegations of physical violence against their wives. Rob Porter was accused by both of his ex-wives, including one who offered a black-eye photo as evidence. Even though he was aware of what the FBI had found during its background investigation, Chief of Staff John Kelly praised and defended Porter:

Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.

White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders called Porter “someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character”. The White House learned of the accusations in November, 2017, but did nothing about them until they became public in February, 2018.

After Porter’s resignation, Trump’s sympathy was entirely with him rather than his victims: “We certainly wish him well. It’s obviously a very tough time for him. He did a very good job while he was in the White House.”

And of course I have to mention what happened before the election: After a video of Trump bragging about his sexual assaults became public, he claimed it was merely “locker room talk” between guys, and not anything he had actually done. Subsequently, more than a dozen women came forward to say that he had sexually assaulted them, while several others alleged lesser forms of misconduct.

Trump responded to more than one of the accusations by claiming that the women were not attractive enough to assault. He said that they were all lying and promised to sue them after the election, which he never did.

7. Repeal, but don’t replace.

As a candidate, Trump railed against ObamaCare almost as much as against immigration. He wasn’t just going to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, he was going to replace it with something much, much better.

Donald Trump: I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.

Scott Pelley: The uninsured person is going to be taken care of how?

Donald Trump: They’re going to be taken care of. I would make a deal with existing hospitals to take care of people. And, you know what, if this is probably–

Scott Pelley: Make a deal? Who pays for it?

Donald Trump: –the government’s gonna pay for it.

But by the time John McCain cast his famous thumbs-down vote against it, the Republican “repeal and replace” slogan had turned into just “repeal”. Every repeal-ObamaCare plan the CBO analyzed (some plans Republicans pushed to a vote before the CBO could analyze them) would have resulted in the number of uninsured Americans going up by 10-20 million.

In the tax bill, they managed to repeal the insurance mandate; we’ll see if that change starts a death spiral (more and more heathier-than-average people opting out of the system as premiums increase) when it takes effect next year. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has filed a brief supporting a lawsuit that would declare unconstitutional ObamaCare’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

And there is still no TrumpCare plan, not even on paper. “Everybody’s going to be taken care of” was just a lot of blather.

8. Insulting a military widow (and lying about her congresswoman).

Already during the campaign, we saw that Trump has only conditional respect for gold-star families. If they play their assigned roles in his personal narrative, he loves them. But if they criticize him — particularly if they are not white or not Christian — he’ll come at them with both barrels.

On October 4, 2017, four American soldiers died in Niger, a land-locked Africa country that I (like most Americans, I suspect) didn’t know we had troops in, and probably couldn’t have found on a map. The White House staff drafted a public statement about the incident, but (for some unknown reason), it was never released. For weeks, Trump said nothing to the American public about these soldiers or their mission.

Eventually, a reporter shouted a question to Trump, who responded by telling a very odd lie: He made condolence calls to the families of soldiers who died in the line of duty, he claimed, but Obama and some other previous presidents hadn’t. The ensuing controversy got reporters asking questions about presidential condolence calls, and somebody eventually talked to Rep. Fredica Wilson of Florida, who is a friend of the family of one of the four dead soldiers, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson. Wilson said she had been in a car with the widow, Myeshia Johnson, and overheard Trump’s call when Myeshia put it on speakerphone.

Trump, Wilson claimed, told the widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for”, a statement she and the family found insensitive. Trump labeled this account a “total lie“, and stuck by that claim even after Wilson’s story was supported by Sgt. Johnson’s mother. When the widow gave her own interview, saying that Trump’s call “made me cry cause I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said he couldn’t remember my husband’s name”, Trump couldn’t let that stand either, insisting that he “spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”

Take that, you military widow! How dare you remember something the Commander in Chief doesn’t want remembered.

Not to be outdone, Chief of Staff John Kelly also had to get into the fiasco: He slammed Rep. Wilson by telling a false story about her. Kelly said that he had heard Wilson speak at the dedication of a new FBI field office in Miami. He described her ignoring the two dead agents the building was dedicated to and instead focusing entirely on her own role in getting funding for the building. He claimed he had been “stunned” by this, and summarized her character with “Empty barrels make the most noise.”

Unfortunately for him, the Sun Sentinel had a video of the event, which bore no resemblance to Kelly’s story. He had lied. He has never acknowledged the lie or apologized for it.

9. The swampiest administration ever.

Other than The Wall That Mexico Will Pay For and locking up Hillary Clinton, the campaign promise Trump repeated most often was that he would “Drain the swamp.”

It’s a good thing to promise, because there really is a Swamp, and it really does need to be drained: Members of Congress (from both parties) rely on contributions from special interests to fund their campaigns, and the people who work in the government’s administrative agencies (in both Republican and Democratic administrations) know that they can have lucrative second careers working for the interests they’re supposed to be regulating — but only if they play ball with the special interests rather than enforce regulations that are supposed to protect the public.

The result is a government that only works for the American people part-time. The rest of the time it works for big corporations, rich individuals, and whatever single-issue groups can afford to hire good lobbyists. (If you want a more detailed discussion of the problem, read Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig.)

But just as the Wall is not getting built, Mexico will never pay for it, and Hillary Clinton is still free, the Swamp is not being drained. Quite the opposite, in fact: This is the swampiest administration in my lifetime, and maybe ever.

It starts at the top: A big part of draining the swamp is enforcing transparency about the money special interests spend to gain influence and where it goes. But Trump has never liked transparency, at least not when it applies to himself.

Since Nixon, all presidents and nearly all presidential candidates have revealed their tax returns, usually going back many years. (Whenever someone on social media raises the question of how the Clintons have made so much money over the years, I point out that we know exactly how, because we have all their tax returns since Bill first ran for president in 1992.) After repeatedly promising that he would release his returns at some point in the future, Trump has settled on the position that his election win (with 46% of the vote) showed that the American people don’t care about his taxes.

As a result, we can’t say for sure whether the tax plan that he signed in December was primarily for the country’s benefit, or for his own. (We can make some guesses though: The plan looks designed specifically to cut the taxes of people like him. How big a tax cut you’ll get largely depends on how much you resemble Donald Trump.)

He also broke a longstanding tradition of American presidents insulating themselves against financial conflicts of interest by either putting their assets into a blind trust or moving all their investments to Treasury bonds. Trump turned management of The Trump Organization over to his sons, though of course he knows what they’re doing and where his investment interests lie.

He also has directly profited from his presidency. His election led to Mar-a-Lago doubling its membership fee to $200,000. Since Trump spends so much of his time there, it is a unique opportunity to pay money directly into the President’s pocket in exchange for access, leading Chris Hayes to dub Mar-a-Lago “the de facto bribery palace“. Three Mar-a-Lago members have been named ambassadors, while three others are “the shadow rulers of the Veterans Administration“. They got influence in the US government by paying Trump money. Every golfing trip also generates money for the President, as the entire presidential entourage has to be accommodated at the taxpayers’ expense.

Foreign governments pay Trump money as well. The Industrial & Commercial Bank of China pays him $2 million a year to rent the 20th floor of Trump Tower. Qatar bought a $6.5 million apartment at Trump World Tower. Saudi Arabia paid Trump’s D.C. hotel $270,000 to house veterans groups who lobbied for a Saudi interest. It would be trivial for a foreign government to pour huge amounts of money into Trump’s pocket: Just set up shell corporations to buy Trump Organization condos at inflated prices. Is that happening? How would we know?

With that example, it’s little wonder that so many cabinet heads misused public funds. Disgraced EPA head Scott Pruitt is the most famous offender (and Trump accepted his misbehavior until the publicity got to be too much; without a free press, Pruitt would still be in office). But he’s far from the only one: Wilbur Ross, Ryan Zinke, Steve Mnuchin, and Ben Carson all have scandals that would have gotten them ejected from the Obama administration. But Trump’s standards are lower.

10. Politicizing justice.

The campaign chant of “Lock her up!” (which Trump has continued to encourage in his rallies as president) was unique in American political history. I know of no previous example where an American presidential candidate threatened to put his opponent in jail, though this often happens in third-world dictatorships.

Since taking office, he has frequently put forward the idea that the Justice Department should protect him and his allies from investigations while harassing his opponents. Just last month he tweeted:

Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff

I assume he’s talking about Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins, who appear to have broken some serious laws. Hunter used campaign money to upgrade his lifestyle, and filed false reports with the FEC to cover his tracks. Collins used his insider knowledge to tip off his family members to sell stock in a drug company before its bad test results became public. Pretty swampy behavior in each case. But apparently Trump believes Attorney General Sessions should have suppressed those investigations, at least until after the fall elections.

Together with allies in Congress (like Devin Nunes), Trump has run a disinformation campaign against the FBI in an attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation into his campaign’s collusion with Russia. Just about everyone involved in starting that investigation has been drummed out of the FBI, all without any evidence that the investigation is tainted. The Economist observes:

Mr Trump’s attacks on the [Department of Justice] do not help. He seems to think of the agency as part of his operation, as though he has been elected chief executive of America and the DoJ is the company’s legal department. It follows that, in failing to protect him from Mr Mueller, the department is not doing its job. He has never forgiven Mr Sessions for recusing himself from Mr Mueller’s investigation, and believes he has “the absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department”.

This contravenes long-standing norms, under which a president appoints an attorney-general and other top officials, then sets general policy direction, but otherwise respects the department’s independence—and certainly does not intervene in investigations. Susan Hennessey, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and former lawyer for the National Security Agency, believes the president “has no reference to the DoJ as an institution that has to be defended—it’s entirely personal for him”. The DoJ’s independence, and the rule of law that independence protects, are not features of the American system to Mr Trump; they are pesky inconveniences.

11. Shithole countries.

During a closed-door discussion of immigration last January, Trump revolted at the idea of taking more people from countries like Haiti and various African nations: “Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?” he asked, and wondered why we couldn’t get more immigrants from Norway.

Just about all American families (other than native Americans) originate from places that (at the time) could have been described in similar terms, and probably were: Ireland during the famine, for example, or the Jewish Pale in Russia during the pogroms. In general, people who are doing well stay where they are. (We don’t get more Norwegians now because — largely thanks to socialismNorway is nice place to live, in many ways nicer than the US.)

But Trump’s outlandish statement is all of a piece with the worldview that makes him so popular with the white supremacists we talked about in #3: America is for white Christian people. At every possible turn, he has tried to keep other kinds of people from coming here, and to throw out those who were already here, even if they came legally.

That simple rule of thumb explains a wide variety of Trump administration policies and rhetoric: the Muslim ban, the Wall, the mythical immigrant crime wave, and a host of others. White Christian people are good, and we want them. Any other kind of people are bad, and we want them gone.

12. Enemies of the American people.

Every administration feuds with the press, and none gets the coverage it thinks it deserves. (Nixon VP Spiro Agnew famously called the press “nattering nabobs of negativism“.) Hindsight resolves most of these disputes in the press’ favor. For example, both Presidents Johnson and Bush II criticized the media for not telling the public the “good news” about the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, respectively. But in fact those wars just weren’t going well, as the media accurately reported.

But no previous president has ratcheted up his anti-media rhetoric to Trump’s level of vitriol, not just against specific stories or reporters, but against the very idea of a free press itself. Just this morning, only days after a Trump supporter mailed a bomb to CNN, he denounced “The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People“. In his rallies, he points to the area reserved for reporters and says things like “these people back there, these horrible, horrendous people“. Independent observers are worried about what this abuse portends for American democracy.

“His attacks are strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts,” said David Kaye and Edison Lanza, the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression for the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, respectively.

The President has labelled the media as being the “enemy of the American people” “very dishonest” or “fake news,” and accused the press of “distorting democracy” or spreading “conspiracy theories and blind hatred”.

“These attacks run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law,” the experts said. “We are especially concerned that these attacks increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.” …

“Each time the President calls the media ‘the enemy of the people’ or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavored outlets,” the experts added, “he suggests nefarious motivations or animus. But he has failed to show even once that specific reporting has been driven by any untoward motivations.

Before the election, the term fake news actually meant something important: It referred to entirely made-up stories packaged to look like news reports and distributed over social media, like “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” which got noticed by more than half a million Facebook users a few days before the election.

We know this is fake because The Denver Guardian, which supposedly published it, does not exist. Fake news like this was rampant before the election. Most of it favored Trump, and some of it came from Russia.

Since the election, Trump has perverted fake news to mean any report he doesn’t like, particularly those where White House staffers leak something anonymously. Quite often, an article he labels “fake news” turns out to be true.

His statements after the capture of the MAGA bomber have ominous historical echoes: He blames the press for raising public anger against itself, and takes no responsibility for his own rhetoric.

There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony. Fake News Must End!

In other words: Unless the press stops criticizing him and pointing out his lies, he will continue to unleash his brownshirts on them. Only when no one criticizes the Great Leader will he be able to “bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony”.

This is why the Founders banned emoluments

If Congress were doing its job, we wouldn’t have to wonder who the President is working for.


Remember Helsinki?

It was just three months ago, in July. The President of the United States stood on a stage with Vladimir Putin and was abjectly subservient to him. On the subject of Russian interference in the 2016 election, he weighed the unanimous opinion of US intelligence agencies against Putin’s denial and sided with the foreign autocrat. Putin’s other bad behavior — the ongoing proxy war against Ukraine, poisoning of critics in the UK, human-rights abuses at home — led to nary a whisper of criticism from the supposed Leader of the Free World. Trump blamed “both sides” for the poor state of US/Russian relations, and in a subsequent interview, he questioned whether the US would really go to war to defend a NATO ally like Montegnegro from Russian aggression.

If there had been any doubt that Trump was in Putin’s pocket, Helsinki ended it.

This week we saw something similar happen with Saudi Arabia.

The shifting Saudi explanations. In the weeks since the expatriate Saudi journalist (and Virginia resident and Washington Post contributor) Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, the Saudi Arabian government has put out a series of narratives, each as preposterous as the last.

  • First they claimed Khashoggi left the consulate alive (and yet somehow evaded the Turkish cameras that saw him enter). Saudi officials even expressed concern about his well-being and said they were trying to find him.
  • When the Turkish government published the names and images of the Saudi agents who came to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi, the Saudis denounced “baseless allegations”. They threatened to respond to any international action against them “with a bigger one“.
  • Then they allowed that Khashoggi might be dead, but if so, it was the work of “rogue killers” who somehow murdered him inside the consulate and disposed of his body without any legitimate Saudi officials noticing.
  • The latest story is that the killing was essentially an accident: The Saudis just wanted to “return” Khashoggi to the Kingdom, i.e. kidnap him. But he struggled, one of the kidnappers got him in a chokehold, and he died. The body was then disposed of by a “local collaborator”, so the Saudis don’t know what happened to it.

Above all, the narratives insist that whatever was done to Khashoggi had nothing to do with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who Khashoggi had been especially critical of, and whose known associates seem to be the murderers.

The Trump echo chamber. Through this all, Trump has been giving his best Helsinki performance, repeating Saudi talking points as if he were working for them and not for us. King Salman’s denial of involvement, he said, was “very, very strong“. (In Helsinki, “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”) “Maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?” (“Who knows?” is also a standard element when Trump wants to defend someone. He projects a reality where it’s impossible to know anything and all scenarios are equally likely. The hacker who hit the DNC computers “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?“) He compared MBS to Brett Kavanaugh, who (in Trump’s mind) was also wrongly accused.

In an interview with The Washington Post Saturday, Trump backed off only a little, acknowledging that the Saudi government’s stories “are all over the place”, but standing by MBS and continuing to repeat the latest Saudi talking points, without worrying about the now-abandoned talking points he repeated only a few days ago.

There is a possibility [MBS] found out about it afterward. It could be something in the building went badly awry. It could be that’s when he found about it. He could have known they were bringing him back to Saudi Arabia.

and insisting that there’s no way to really know.

Nobody has told me he’s responsible. Nobody has told me he’s not responsible. We haven’t reached that point. I haven’t heard either way.

Why? After Helsinki, Americans were left to wonder what exactly had turned Trump into such a puppet. Does Putin have kompromat to hold over his head? Is Trump paying his debt from 2016? Or does the debt go back further, to the Russian money that had come to Trump’s rescue when no one else would fund him? The explanations were suggestive, but still speculative.

This time, though, we don’t have to speculate, because Trump has told us himself:

“Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” Trump told a crowd at an Alabama campaign rally in 2015. “Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

Trump has downplayed his conflict of interest, tweeting: “I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia.” But Noah Bookbinder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington points out how misleading that denial is: Saudi money still makes its way into his pocket, whether his interests are “in” Saudi Arabia or not.

In 2017, Saudi lobbyists spent $270,000 to reserve rooms at Trump’s hotel in Washington. The kingdom itself paid $4.5 million in 2001 to purchase a floor of Trump World Tower and continues to pay tens of thousands in annual common charges to Trump businesses for that property (the total of which could be up to $5.7 million since 2001, according to one estimate). In the past year, as bookings fell overall, Trump’s hotels in New York and Chicago reported a significant uptick in bookings from Saudi Arabia. And a major factor in a recent increase in revenue for the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan was that Saudis accompanying the crown prince during a recent visit stayed there, as The Washington Post has reported.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s point man for the Middle East and someone MBS has described as “in my pocket“, has also often sought Saudi funding for his real estate ventures.

Trump has tried to paint his own mercenary interests as the nation’s mercenary interests, weaving together a fanciful story of a $110 billion arms order that will create American jobs. But the money Trump has received (and continues to receive) is real.

He has also tried to paint the Saudis as allies that we must stand by (as a counterweight to Iran). But Trump freely criticizes more important allies, like Canada and the other NATO countries. And Senator Lindsey Graham, who is also an Iran hawk, isn’t protecting MBS. The Saudis, he says, “need us more than we need them”.

This is the most in-your-face move by a Mideast ally outside — maybe ever. To kill a man in a consulate in a foreign country, extrajudicial killing, shows contempt for the relationship. I would like to punish those involved. The Global Magnitsky Act would put punishment, sanctions on the individuals that had a hand in this.

And I find it impossible to believe that the crown prince wasn’t involved. So, go after him and his inner circle. Save the alliance. I don’t mind military sales, but I cannot do business with the current leadership. MBS, he’s done to me.

Emoluments and Congress. Even if you find the support-our-arms-customer or support-our-ally-against-Iran motives credible, you will never be sure that Trump’s real motive isn’t to keep raking in Saudi cash. Trump himself may not know for sure which motive is most compelling.

That’s why the Founders put this clause into the Constitution:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, 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.

This is not an innocent-until-proven-guilty thing: No one needs to prove that an officer of the United States government has engaged in quid-pro-quo bribery with a foreign power. It’s not necessary to identify precisely what the officer did for the foreign power, that the action wouldn’t have been done anyway, or that the gift or payment he or she received wasn’t totally innocent. What matters is only that the emolument was paid.

The point is clear: The loyalty of officers of the US government needs to be beyond question.

As the clause says, the only thing that makes an emolument legal is “the Consent of Congress”. (In a famous motivating case, Congress allowed Benjamin Franklin to keep a jewel-encrusted snuff box he was given by the King of France.) Congress is supposed to police this concern. But the current Republican majority simply does not want to know whether Trump is doing anything wrong. It has not passed any resolution consenting to the money Trump’s businesses receive from the Saudis or any other foreign government. Neither has it condemned these emoluments, or even held hearings on them. It just doesn’t want to know.

Stymied from taking any direct action, Democrats in Congress have signed on to a lawsuit attempting to enforce the Emoluments Clause through the federal courts. That case is moving forward, and a judge recently agreed that they have standing to sue. But this lengthy legal process is a far cry from the checks and balances the Founders imagined.

Remember in November. There are many different reasons to want a change of leadership in Congress. (I’ll outline a number of them next week.) But for the long-term health of the Republic, the biggest is that Congress has a constitutional role to play, and it is failing in that role. Blatantly unconstitutional things are happening in the Trump administration, while Congress averts its eyes.

It should be a bipartisan desire that the President work for the American people, and not for foreign princes or presidents. The fact that even this most basic issue has become partisan is a measure of just how far the Republican Party has fallen.

What should we make of “Anonymous”?

As I’m pretty sure you already know, Wednesday the New York Times published “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” by an anonymous “senior official”. [1] The author claims to be one of many similarly placed people who are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations”. They do this because “we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”

Anonymous diagnoses problems that run deep in Trump’s character and competence: He is “amoral” and has “no discernible first principles”. His “impulses are generally anti-trade [2] and anti-democratic”.  And his leadership style is “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective”, resulting in “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back”.

In response, the internal resistance works to “preserve our democratic institutions” by keeping “bad decisions contained to the West Wing”. This results in a “two-track presidency”, where Trump may say one thing, but the government actually pursues a different policy entirely. Anonymous gives the example of how we deal with other countries:

In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations.

Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals.

So don’t worry, America, “there are adults in the room … [who are] are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t”.

The questions this raises. Since Wednesday, debate has sprung up in a number of areas.

  • Is this for real? If it isn’t, then the NYT (which claims to know who Anonymous is and to have verified that he really wrote this) has made the whole thing up. To me, that kind of fraud would be way more incredible than anything in the essay, but I imagine some Trump supporters will believe that “the fake news media” and “the failing New York Times” do stuff like this all the time. Trump himself, as usual, wants it both ways: He both suggests that the article is fake and demands that the Justice Department find out who wrote it (even though there is no crime to investigate, so this shouldn’t be a DoJ matter).
  • Who is Anonymous, and who else is part of this “we” he describes? (Like most commenters, I’m going to use a male pronoun, which is a good bet for a “senior official in the Trump administration”.) This is the kind of guessing game that Washington insiders love, because getting it right proves you’re more savvy than everybody else. But what difference does it make? Suppose I tell you it’s Mike Pompeo or Dan Coates; does that change anything? [For what it’s worth, here’s my guess: Somebody who just barely qualifies as “senior” wrote it, but he did it with the blessing of his boss, who can now say “Not me!” to Trump and to the public. I’ll illustrate with analogies from previous administrations: What if Lawrence Wilkerson had written such an essay with the blessing of Colin Powell, or Huma Abedin under the direction of Hillary Clinton?]
  • Should the NYT have published this? I hadn’t thought this was a particularly interesting question, but The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen convinced me otherwise. More about that below.
  • Are the internal resisters heroes or villains? This is complicated. Obviously, if Trump throws a fit and wants to nuke Belgium, any staffer who loses that order before it reaches the missile silos is a hero. But when unknown people consistently decide that they’re smarter than both the elected officials and the voters who elected them, that’s a problem for democracy. (It reminds me of countries like pre-Erdogan Turkey, where the military was always checking to make sure the voters got it right.) More below.
  • How will this article affect events going forward? As many people have pointed out, publishing this essay is just going to make Trump more erratic and more paranoid, so it’s hard to see how it furthers the author’s apparent goals. On the other hand, it’s got to have an effect on the mid-term voters. Stories about Trump’s unfit behavior have been around for a while now, but they’ve been filtered through reporters who could be exaggerating or distorting. (Bob Woodward is harder to dismiss on that count than Michael Wolff or Omarosa, though the MAGA-hatters will manage somehow.) But the Anonymous essay is on a different level. Unless you’re willing to believe that the NYT conjured Anonymous out of pure smoke, you have to admit that even some Republicans who work with Trump and his administration every day think that he’s dangerous. Suddenly it makes a lot of sense to elect a Democratic Congress to fill the constitutional check-and-balance roles that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have abdicated.

Gessen’s take on the NYT’s decision. Masha Gessen argues that the Anonymous essay is not newsworthy enough to offer the author an anonymous platform. The anonymous Trump “resister” is just repeating a point of view that we’ve heard many times before: Trump is unfit. He doesn’t understand the presidency, the American system of government, or the details of any particular issue. He doesn’t respect democracy or the rule of law. He doesn’t think rationally, or even hold an idea in his head from one minute to the next. The people around him try to manipulate him (and often succeed) because they believe (correctly) that he’s a dangerous fool.

That’s not news. We’ve been hearing it from anonymous White House sources for a long time now, and just heard it again in Bob Woodward’s new book (out tomorrow, but already widely quoted). The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer sums up:

The biggest open secret in Washington is that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. His staff knows it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell knows it. House Speaker Paul Ryan knows it. Everyone who works for the president, including his attorneys, knows it.

If you know about Trump’s unfitness, are in a position to do something about it, and choose to do nothing, then you are complicit in his presidency. It’s really that simple, no matter what story you tell yourself. Gessen expands the circle of complicity further:

The thing about autocracies, or budding autocracies, is that they present citizens with only bad choices. At a certain point, one has to stop trying to find the right solution and has to look, instead, for a course of action that avoids complicity. By publishing the anonymous Op-Ed, the Times became complicit in its own corruption.

The way in which the news media are being corrupted—even an outlet like the Times, which continues to publish remarkable investigative work throughout this era—is one of the most insidious, pronounced, and likely long-lasting effects of the Trump Administration. The media are being corrupted every time they engage with a nonsensical, false, or hateful Trump tweet (although not engaging with these tweets is not an option). They are being corrupted every time journalists act polite while the President, his press secretary, or other Administration officials lie to them. They are being corrupted every time a Trumpian lie is referred to as a “falsehood,” a “factually incorrect statement,” or as anything other than a lie. They are being corrupted every time journalists allow the Administration to frame an issue, like when they engage in a discussion about whether the separation of children from their parents at the border is an effective deterrent against illegal immigration. They are being corrupted every time they use the phrase “illegal immigration.”

The corrupt exchange here is that (in return for an article that everyone wants to read), the Times allows Anonymous to paint a virtuous self-portrait: By keeping the American people from knowing what its government is actually doing or why, people like him become “unsung heroes”. I’m sure they tell themselves that, but few things could be farther from the truth. Rather than actually resist, they cover for Trump’s incompetence. Rather than stand up to him, they flatter him.

But since the NYT has bestowed anonymity, we can’t effectively contest that self-portrait, or hold Anonymous responsible for the Trumpian policies he actually did carry out. Why, you might wonder, didn’t some internal resister get in the way of Trump taking children away from asylum-seeking parents? Officials who participated in that evil policy, or helped justify it after the fact — what kind of “resisters” are they really? Or why couldn’t the “adults in the room” manage to get Puerto Rico some help before thousands of American citizens died there?

The Devil’s bargain. If Trump really is unfit, and if this is widely known in the administration and Congress, then why don’t they remove him, either through impeachment or the 25th Amendment? Even if the resisters are only a minority of the cabinet, why don’t they stage a mass resignation and bring their case to the public? Why do the never-Trumpers continue to be such a lonely and pathetic segment of the Republican party?

Serwer explains:

But they all want something, whether it’s upper-income tax cuts, starving the social safety net, or solidifying a right-wing federal judiciary. The Constitution provides for the removal of a president who is dangerously unfit, but those who have the power to remove him will not do so, not out of respect for democracy but because Trump is a means to get what they want. The officials who enable the Trump administration to maintain some veneer of normalcy, rather than resigning and loudly proclaiming that the president is unfit, are not “resisters.” They are enablers.

We’re seeing this process right now with the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. It makes literally zero sense to allow a president like Trump (who may only hold his office because he committed a crime to get it) to appoint judges who will probably have to rule on important points of his case, like whether he can be subpoenaed or whether he can pardon himself. But Kavanaugh will cement a far-right majority on the Supreme Court, something the conservative movement has been trying to achieve for decades. Why let that questing beast get away, just because the President is unstable and may have to use undemocratic methods to stay in power?

This is how tragedies happen: because everyone in a position to prevent them has some special reason not to. And usually they all have some way of telling the story that makes them sound like heroes.

They’re not. An official who refuses to carry out an illegal or unconstitutional order is a hero. When a staffer conveniently ignores orders given when the president is not in his right mind, ones that the president himself will soon be glad weren’t implemented — that staffer may be a better friend than the president deserves. There is virtue in openly refusing to implement policies you believe to be immoral or catastrophic, in telling the president directly that you will resign first, and then carrying out that threat and warning the public about what is happening.

But there’s nothing virtuous about setting yourself up as a permanent unelected government-within-the-government, and tasking yourself to implement a policy agenda the voters rejected. Elections ought to be consequential, and if those consequences are too much for the country to bear, then the president should be removed by legal means.


[1] Don’t miss the parodies: Slate’s “I Am Part of the Police Department Inside This Bank Robbery” and McSweeney’s “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside Nyarlathotep’s Death Cult“.

[2] Of all the Trump policies that officials can justifiably monkey-wrench in the name of democracy, I would think trade is about last, because protectionism and getting tough with our trade partners was a big part of Trump’s message from the beginning. If Americans really wanted free trade, somebody like Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush should have been able to make that case against Trump in the Republican primaries. So I have to agree with Ross Douthat:

One might say that insofar as the officials resisting Trump are trying to prevent his temperamental unfitness from leading to some mass-casualty disaster or moral infamy, they are doing the country a great service. But insofar as they are just trying to prevent him implementing possibly-misguided populist ideas, they are being presumptuously antidemocratic and should resign instead.

John McCain Shot Liberty Valance

This week’s eulogies told us more about the hero we need
than the man we’ve lost.


In the classic John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a senator from an unnamed western state (Ranse Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart) is a living legend, and the legend goes like this: Once an idealistic young lawyer from the East, he arrived in the West to discover a town being terrorized by the gunslinger and gangster Liberty Valance. Though he barely knew how to shoot, Stoddard’s refusal to run away landed him in a gunfight with Valance, which he somehow won. Then Valance was dead and his tyranny ended.

Stoddard himself was ashamed to have killed a man in a lawless gunfight, but ever after, he was the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. On the strength of that reputation, he was chosen for the statehood convention, and then to represent the territory in Washington. When the territory became a state, he served three terms as its first governor, and then went on to the Senate. Now a national figure and a senior statesman, he is in line to be the next vice president.

But the truth about Stoddard is a bit more complicated: He did face Valance, got a shot off, and Valance wound up dead — but not because Stoddard’s shot killed him. Though he never promoted himself as Valance’s killer, he was never in a position to deny it either. So the story grew up around Stoddard and stuck with him because it was the myth that the West needed to tell: The Lawyer had killed the Gunslinger; the rule of law had ended the reign of violence.

Now Stoddard is finally able to tell the true story, because the man who did kill Valance is dead and can’t be tried for murder. But after he is done telling it, the local editor tears up his reporter’s notes and burns them. “This is the West, sir,” he explains. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

This week we celebrated the memory of another legendary western senator, John McCain. And we did it in pretty much the same way: We told the legend of the hero we need. That legend intersects with John McCain’s actual life in a number of ways, but the story of the real man is much more complicated — and in many ways less relevant to those of us who didn’t know him.

So by all means, let us discuss the legend, because it tells us a great deal about the times we live in.

The Trump Era. No president in my lifetime (or maybe ever) has dominated the national conversation the way Donald Trump does. Whether you love him or hate him, whether he fills you with pride or disgust, it’s hard to talk about anything or anybody else for very long.

The Trump style is made up of bombast, rudeness, and above all, divisiveness. Unlike previous presidents, he does not reach out to those who voted against him. [1] When he speaks, he does not talk to the nation, he talks to his base. He lies constantly, and his personal life is a parade of sleaze. [2] Every issue, first and foremost, is about him.

Trump’s story is full of irony. Having run on a pledge to “Make America Great Again”, his character is defined by smallness. There is nothing magnanimous about him, and there seems to be no situation that he is able to rise above. He cannot laugh at himself, and rarely laughs at all. Every personal slight must be answered, every blow returned with double force. Gold Star parents, bereaved widows of soldiers, leaders of our closest allies — it doesn’t matter. No one must be allowed to cast a shadow on Trump’s fragile ego.

Having taken offense at every perceived disrespect for the symbols of America — the flag, the anthem, the police — his own loyalty to the nation is questionable; when the Russians attacked our system of government, his weak and subservient response added to the speculation that he is in league with them. Having pledged to “drain the swamp”, he has flaunted his conflicts of interest and presided over the most corrupt administration in many decades. Having won on the strength of the Evangelical vote, he has governed as the anti-Jesus [3], concentrating his cruelty on “the least of these” and favoring the rich man over Lazarus. Famous for saying “You’re fired!”, he actually has no stomach for face-to-face confrontations, preferring to let John Kelly do the dirty work, or to tweet something nasty after he has left the meeting.

The hero we long for. What kind of hero do we need to celebrate in the Trump Era? One who embodies all the virtues that Trump so conspicuously lacks:

  • higher purpose
  • humility
  • willingness to endure hardship
  • courage
  • magnanimity
  • sense of humor
  • devotion to principle
  • idealistic vision of what America means and stands for
  • respect for opponents and willingness to ally with them on issues of common concern
  • compassion
  • honesty even when the truth is not flattering
  • willingness to confront facts and admit mistakes

It also wouldn’t hurt if that hero had a history of criticizing Russia. And it would be even better if he or she were a Republican, because a principled, virtuous, reasonable Republican Party is the single most conspicuous lack in America today. As a Democrat, I may yearn for a hero who can send the GOP into a long and well-deserved exile from power. But even better, I have to admit, would be to return to an America where the need to win was not so desperate, because Eisenhower-like Republicans could be trusted to preserve the Republic until we had a chance to make our case to the voters again.

McCain the legend. Was John McCain that hero? Sometimes. If we pick and choose properly, his life can bear the story we need to tell about it. [4]

He certainly endured hardship at the Hanoi Hilton, and in his final battle with cancer he showed that his fighter-pilot courage had not left him. President Obama said:

He had been to hell and back and yet somehow never lost his energy or his optimism or his zest for life. So cancer did not scare him.

Every time I heard him speak, at some point or other he stressed the importance of having a purpose higher than self. And it was there again (along with an idealistic vision of America) in his final message to the American people:

To be connected to America’s causes — liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people — brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.

McCain didn’t say it explicitly, but it’s clear that he didn’t envy the guy who lives in a golden penthouse and has sex with porn stars (who he then needs to pay off). “I have often observed that I am the luckiest person on earth,” he wrote.

Humility, sense of humor … I first saw McCain in 1999, when he was running against George W. Bush in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary. I wasn’t blogging then, so I have no record of what he said beyond my own memory. I recall that he made a point about his campaign’s momentum (he would eventually win that primary) by joking about how unpopular he had been at the outset: “The first poll had me at 2%, and the margin of error was 5%. So I might have been at minus three.”

I was blogging by the time he ran in the 2008 cycle, so I have this:

He answers questions — even hostile questions — patiently and with empathy. (“Meeting adjourned,” he announces in response to the first gotcha. The room erupts in laughter, and then he answers.) He tells corny jokes and at the same time manages to wink at you, as if the real joke is that you have to tell jokes to win the world’s most serious job. He runs himself down, confessing to being fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, saying that his candidacy proves that “in America anything is possible.” And yet no one in the room forgets that he is John McCain, and he has survived things that would have destroyed any mere mortal. It is an amazing balancing act.

McCain invited the two men who defeated his presidential campaigns, Bush and Barack Obama, to speak at his service in the National Cathedral on Saturday. (Trump was eventually invited to attend — by Lindsey Graham, with Cindy McCain’s approval — but spent the day playing golf.) Obama noted McCain’s humor, magnanimity, and respect for opponents:

After all, what better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience? And most of all, it showed a largeness of spirit, an ability to see past differences in search of common ground.

Lindsey Graham noted the contrast between McCain’s magnanimity and Trump’s churlish response to McCain’s death. (He raised the White House flag back to full staff until public outrage made him lower it again.)

John McCain was a big man, worthy of a big country. Mr. President, you need to be the big man that the presidency requires.

Obama made a similar point more obliquely:

So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.

And Bush agreed:

To the face of those in authority, John McCain would insist: We are better than this. America is better than this.

Principle and respect for opponents were stressed by another of those opponents: former Vice President Joe Biden.

The way things changed so much in America, they look at him as if John came from another age, lived by a different code, an ancient, antiquated code where honor, courage, integrity, duty, were alive. That was obvious, how John lived his life. The truth is, John’s code was ageless, is ageless. When you talked earlier, Grant [Woods], you talked about values. It wasn’t about politics with John. He could disagree on substance, but the underlying values that animated everything John did, everything he was, come to a different conclusion. He’d part company with you if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself.

For Bush, McCain symbolized America, or at least the America we want to be:

Whatever the cause, it was this combination of courage and decency that defined John’s calling, and so closely paralleled the calling of his country. It’s this combination of courage and decency that makes the American military something new in history, an unrivaled power for good. It’s this combination of courage and decency that set America on a journey into the world to liberate death camps, to stand guard against extremism, and to work for the true peace that comes only with freedom.

And Meghan McCain drew the parallel most clearly, in a litany of statements about “the America of John McCain”, that culminated in:

The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold. She is resourceful, confident, secure. She meets her responsibilities. She speaks quietly because she is strong. America does not boast because she has no need to. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great. That fervent faith, that proven devotion, that abiding love, that is what drove my father from the fiery skies above the Red River delta to the brink of the presidency itself.

McCain the man. Unless we are willing to massage their stories and avert our eyes from unfortunate facts, no actual human being is precisely the hero we need. So it is no insult to point out that the actual John McCain was not that hero.

McCain had a temper and could be verbally abusive. His commitment to campaign finance reform arose out of his own scandal. His opposition to torture was never as complete as it seemed. In order to get the Republican nomination in 2008, he embraced the same evangelical preachers he had called “agents of intolerance” in 2000. He famously corrected a supporter who questioned Obama’s citizenship and religion, but he also empowered Sarah Palin to rouse that same rabble.

He vigorously supported the Iraq invasion, and opposed Obama’s withdrawal from that war. In 2013, Mother Jones published a map of all the places McCain had threatened with military intervention.

And despite that one key vote against repealing ObamaCare, McCain was not that big of an anti-Trump rebel; he voted with the president 83% of the time — more than 538’s model of his state’s electorate would predict.

He talked a good game against Trump, but how much did he actually do? He was chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which had only one more Republican than Democrat. With the Democrats, he could have led an anti-Trump majority. He had subpoena power; any Trump scandal with a national-security angle was within his purview. He did nothing with that power.

So no, the real John McCain was not the hero the Trump Era calls for. He was not the anti-Trump.

Should we be cynical about him? To a large extent, it was McCain himself who orchestrated this celebration of the anti-Trump hero. He had known he was dying, and gave serious thought to his funeral. He invited Bush and Obama to speak and stipulated that Trump not speak. He wrote an explicitly political last message to America.

He knew his death would be a political weapon, and he very intentionally set out to use it. His death, like his life, would serve a purpose bigger than himself.

As his daughter Meghan acknowledged, no one would have been more cynical about such a display than John himself:

Several of you out there in the pews who crossed swords with him or found yourselves on the receiving end of his famous temper or were at a cross purpose to him on nearly anything, are right at this moment doing your best to stay stone-faced. Don’t. You know full well if John McCain were in your shoes today, he would be using some salty word he learned in the Navy while my mother jabbed him in the arm in embarrassment. He would look back at her and grumble, maybe stop talking, but he would keep grinning.

It is tempting to denounce all this, as voices from both the left and the right have. And yet, I will not.

This era needs an anti-Trump hero. The perfect avatar of that ideal has not emerged yet. In the meantime, we have John McCain, whose life in so many ways can remind us of the thing we long for.

We should celebrate that; neither in ignorance nor in cynicism, but in hope. Someday the Trump Era will end. May that day come soon. And if the Legend of John McCain helps it come sooner, then I say: “Print the legend.”


[1] Liberals and conservatives, respectively, often think of George W. Bush and Barack Obama as divisive presidents. But each tried to appeal to those who voted against him.

Bush worked with Ted Kennedy on education policy. The day after winning re-election in 2004, he directed a  portion of his speech to supporters of John Kerry: “We have one country, one Constitution and one future that binds us. To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support, and I will work to earn it.” For his part, Kerry recounted his post-election conversation with Bush: “We talked about the danger of division in our country and the need — the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together. Today I hope that we can begin the healing.”

Obama hoped to start his presidency with a bipartisan compromise: His stimulus package was smaller than many advisers recommended, and tax cuts made up about a third of the package. (In the end he got no Republican votes in the House and only three in the Senate.) Later in his term, a variety of “grand bargains” with House Speaker John Boehner attempted to address what (at that time) was the Republicans’ central issue: the long-term budget deficit. But Boehner was never able to pull together enough support within his caucus.

Trump, on the other hand, is still tweeting about “Crooked Hillary”, pushing his Justice Department to prosecute her, and promoting conspiracy theories about the investigation that cleared her. I have tried to think of a similar situation in American history, and I have not come up with one.

[2] Think about where the hush-money story has gone. A long series of denials have collapsed, and Trump no longer bothers to argue about whether he had sexual affairs with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal during his marriage to Melania. He admits his lawyer Michael Cohen paid each woman six-figure sums so that they wouldn’t tell their stories before the election. The new line of defense is that the payments weren’t illegal, because the money ultimately came from his personal funds and not from the campaign. That’s how deep in the sleaze the President has gotten. I-paid-her-myself is a defense now.

Remember what a presidential scandal looked like during the Obama years? He put his feet up on an Oval Office desk. He ordered a Marine to hold his umbrella. His Christmas cards were too secular. Michelle wore sleeveless dresses.

[3] I’m intentionally not saying “anti-Christ”, because that evokes all the speculative Book of Revelation interpretations that have distracted so many Christians from Jesus’ teachings. I’m not postulating some end-times role for Trump, I’m just noting that it’s impossible to imagine him saying a single line of the Sermon on the Mount. Well, maybe: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” But the rest of it — turn the other cheek, love your enemies, blessed are the meek and the poor in spirit, “do not lay up for yourselves treasures on Earth” — no way.

[4] Something similar could be said about Ranse Stoddard, who really did have the virtues the myth assigned him. He didn’t kill Liberty Valance, but the people who thought he did were not disappointed when they met him.

The drift towards autocracy continues

In a republic, executive powers are tied to executive responsibilities. In an autocracy, executive powers are personal prerogatives, subject to the whim of whomever the Executive happens to be.


For a lot of reasons, it’s hard to make a victim out of John Brennan.

  • The ex-CIA chief is well known, outspoken, and has lots of influential friends.
  • Government service generally has a nice retirement program, and I suspect MSNBC pays its contributors decently, so he’s probably doing OK financially.
  • The privileges he lost when Trump took away his security clearance are ones that the rest of us get along fine without. Clearances typically lapse after people leave the jobs that require them, but high-ranking intelligence officers like Brennan are an exception to that general rule.
  • Losing his clearance probably does not even inconvenience him much. Brennan says that he’s not currently accessing any classified information. He has been available if the CIA wants to consult with him about anything, but he hasn’t sought briefings from them about current situations.
  • Far from being silenced by Trump’s action, Brennan’s point of view is getting a lot of attention these days. Rachel Maddow did an extended interview with Brennan Friday night, and he had a column in The New York Times on Thursday.

So you might be wondering why you should care about Brennan’s clearance, especially at a time when the Trump administration is carrying out much more egregious injustices. For example, hundreds of the children separated from their parents at the border are still in government custody, including 24 who are younger than 5. The children Trump is damaging and the parents who worry about them are much better targets for your sympathy than John Brennan. Why should you care about him?

Bipartisan protest. Let’s start by noting that a lot of people do care, including many who are not reflexively against everything Trump does. Retired Admiral William McRaven (who headed the Special Operations Command when it planned and carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and who has not taken any public political stands until now) published an open letter in The Washington Post, telling Trump that

I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.

Twelve other retired intelligence officials, including six CIA chiefs going back to William Webster from the Reagan administration, signed a statement of protest:

we all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances – and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech. … We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case.

Three others (including Robert Gates, who was not only CIA Chief under Bush the First, but also Secretary of Defense under Bush the Second and Obama) added their names later. An additional 60 CIA officers issued their own statement:

Our signatures below do not necessarily mean that we concur with the opinions expressed by former Director Brennan or the way in which he expressed them. What they do represent, however, is our firm belief that the country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their views.

So is this really a big deal, or is the Deep State just closing ranks around one of its own?

Presidential power. It’s really a big deal, for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are specific to the intelligence community, but the more general issue is that Trump is redefining presidential power in a way that is moving us ever closer to a Putin-style autocracy. He has been pushing in that direction almost from the moment he took office, but this is a major new step.

During the last two years, a number of books have come out about how a republic can degrade into an autocracy. Studying the ominous examples of Russia, Hungary, Turkey, and Poland, we see that none of them had a revolution or a coup, and all of them still have elections and parliaments and many other trappings of democracy. Nonetheless, in each of them the essence of republican government is either entirely gone or significantly diminished. How does that happen?

The answer is through the erosion of norms, those underlying principles so basic that constitutions don’t even mention them, or the common-sense practices that enforce those principles. Norms are not written laws and cannot be enforced by courts. They are largely unarticulated traditions that are enforced politically, through public outrage.

Since he took office, Donald Trump has broken a lot of norms. That’s a fancy way of saying that he doesn’t act the way we expect presidents to act. His insult-laden tweet storms, his intertwining of public and private business, his lack of financial transparency, his lack of shame when he denies some obvious fact or contradicts today what he said yesterday (or even a few minutes ago) — it’s all either brand new or on a scale that we’ve never seen before.

But how much of it matters? Breaking a norm might just be a change in personal style, or even a breath of fresh air. Or it might be dangerous. How do we tell the difference?

Here’s a norm that is key to separating a republic from an autocracy: In a republic, executive powers are tied to executive responsibilities. In an autocracy, executive powers are personal prerogatives, subject to the whim of whomever the Executive happens to be.

Revoking John Brennan’s security clearance is the clearest example yet of Trump’s autocratic view of executive power. Presidents have power over security clearances because they are responsible for safeguarding the nation’s secrets. But Brennan, and the other government or ex-government officials whose clearances Trump threatens to revoke next, have not even been accused of endangering classified information. Trump is just taking a swing at people he sees as his enemies.

In other words, he’s treating his power over clearances as a personal prerogative, rather than as a public trust that must account for.

It’s not the only power he’s been using that way.

Pardons. The Constitution grants the president the pardon power (except in cases of treason) and says nothing about how to use it. But traditions going back to Federalist #74 explain its purpose: to correct injustice and show mercy.

The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.

In other recent administrations, there has been a process that starts with the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice. You apply, the Pardon Attorney studies your case, and recommendations wind their way up to the president, who makes the final decision.

Trump, by contrast, views pardons as Get Out of Jail Free cards that he carries in his pocket. There was nothing unjust or cruel in the criminal convictions of Joe Arpaio or Dinesh D’Souza. Arpaio willfully violated a court order, and D’Souza funneled campaign contributions through straw donors. Arpaio was facing at most six months in prison and D’Souza got no prison time at all.

Both were pardoned because they were political allies of the President. Arpaio appeared at Trump campaign rallies in Las Vegas and Phoenix, and spoke at the Republican Convention. D’Souza is paying Trump back for his generosity with a new film that equates Trump with Lincoln and the Democrats with Nazis.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney seems to have played no role in either decision. Trump just wanted to pardon these guys, so he did. He routinely tosses around thoughts of pardoning other people (like Martha Stewart) with no process and for no particular reason. (Possibly Trump thinks pardoning Stewart would strike a blow against James Comey, who prosecuted her.)

Law enforcement. Trump has frequently put forward the point of view that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should be working for him rather than for the United States. Again and again Trump has faulted Sessions for failing to “protect” him from the Russia investigation. Again and again he has complained that the Justice Department should be investigating his enemies, not his friends. “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he told The New York Times.

The most obvious example of Trump doing “what I want” with the Justice Department was the firing of FBI Director James Comey. FBI Directors have 10-year terms precisely to insulate them from political interference. The only other time an FBI Director has been fired was when President Clinton fired William Sessions in 1993. That FBI director had “stubbornly refused to resign despite Justice Department ethics findings that he abused his office”.

The Justice Department report found, among other things, that [William] Sessions had engaged in a sham transaction to avoid paying taxes on his use of an FBI limousine to take him to and from work, that he had billed the government for a security fence around his home that provided no security and that he had arranged business trips to places where he could meet with relatives.

Comey had been accused of misjudgments, but no ethical lapses. He seems to have be fired for his role in the Russia investigation.

Tariffs and Immigration. During the Kennedy administration, the Trade Expansion Act granted the President power to impose tariffs on products “being imported into the United States in such quantities or under such circumstances as to threaten or impair the national security”. Before Trump used it to raise tariffs on steel and aluminum, that power had been dormant since 1982. You could sort of imagine how it might apply to imports from rival powers like China or Russia: What if our ability to build fighter jets depended on getting aluminum from Russia? But Trump put tariffs on Canadian aluminum as well. Seriously? It threatens national security if we become dependent on Canadian aluminum?

Well, no, and Trump has admitted as much in a tweet: “Our Tariffs are in response to [Canada’s] of 270% on dairy!” The dairy industry, I will point out, does not have national-security significance. But the law has given Trump a power, so he uses it as he pleases.

The Muslim Ban is another example. During the campaign, Trump announced:

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.

Imposing a religious test on people entering the country is completely unconstitutional, and the first two versions of his Muslim Ban were overturned by the courts. But the administration studied to determine how much of a Muslim Ban could be shoe-horned into presidential powers that existed for other reasons. The Supreme Court, to its shame, has let them get away with this. Lawfare’s Susan Hennessy comments:

The President of the United States expresses in his own words that he is motivated by racial and religious animus — so he says, “I am enacting this immigration policy because I want to prevent Muslims from entering the country”. He says that clear as day. He says it multiple times. And then, the Department of Justice offers a different reason for that. They say, “No. This is within the President’s appropriate authority regarding immigration. This has a real security rationale.” And then the President again and again, even after those filings, not only does not disavow his statements, but makes them again and reaffirms them.

[The issue is] whether or not the Court, which traditionally extends deference to the executive branch says, “Well, we’re going to believe what you say. We’re going to examine the facial representation that you’re making about why you’re doing this.”, whether or not they’re allowed to look beyond the pure formal actions, at what the President is saying. So what the Court decided was: No, they are going to continue to extend traditional national security deference to the Executive, even in the face of blatant, open contradiction by the Executive himself.

And so that case really is an example of elevating legal formalism above the plain facts. And that is something where Trump really has been able to quite strategically and shrewdly play institutional commitments to these deeper principles against the very institutions themselves. It’s allowed him to get away with things — and get away with things really brazenly and openly — that I think even three years ago we would have said was impossible.

Security clearances. The security clearance process exists for a reason: to determine who is or isn’t likely to protect classified information.

At various times in a previous career, I held Secret and Top Secret clearances (which have lapsed; I currently have no clearances and don’t need or want any). To get those clearances, I submitted ID information, told the government where I’d lived, listed references of people who knew me there, and gave dates and reasons for every time I’d left the United States. I answered questions about my finances and what drugs I’d used. The themes of the investigations were easy to trace: Am I who I claim to be? Am I generally a responsible person? Am I vulnerable to foreign influence or blackmail?

No one ever asked me who I voted for or whether I supported the current administration. (I got my first clearance during the Reagan administration, which I did not support.) Whether I believed in the American system of government was deemed important, but whether I agreed with the current president wasn’t.

That’s how we do things in America.

But that’s not how Trump does things. The president sits at the top of the executive branch, and consequently he is the ultimate arbiter of every executive process, including the clearance process. So he has the power to grant and revoke security clearances.

I know of no case where any previous president has gotten directly involved in these decisions, but I can imagine how it might become necessary. (In case of a military coup attempt, for example, the president might need to freeze the conspirators out of the government without taking the time to go through any formal process.)

None of the circumstances I can imagine, though, apply to the Brennan situation: No one questions his loyalty to the United States or his discretion in protecting classified information. He is not involved in any emergency that requires quick action, or in some unique circumstance that the ordinary clearance-reviewing processes can’t handle. He’s just somebody the President doesn’t like.

Trump himself explained removing Brennan’s clearance to the Wall Street Journal like this:

I call [the Trump/Russia investigation] the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham,” Mr. Trump said in an interview. “And these people led it! So I think it’s something that had to be done.

“These people” include everyone else involved in launching the investigation: James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, Andrew McCabe, Bruce Ohr, Lisa Page, Susan Rice, and Sally Yates. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders read a presidential statement saying that their clearances are being reviewed as well.

Trump doesn’t like being investigated, and he has power over security clearances, so he’s using that power to strike back at the people he blames for the investigation. This is not some cynical interpretation of Trump’s actions; it’s what he and his people are openly saying. (If you want a cynical interpretation, Rachel Maddow has one: Trump’s targets aren’t just the people who started the investigation, they are also potential witnesses in an impeachment hearing. Without clearances, they will be unable to review their own files from the relevant period before testifying, and so will be less effective witnesses against Trump.)

George W. Bush’s CIA Director Michael Hayden, who also finds himself on Trump’s enemies list, draws an obvious conclusion:

The White House just messaged the entire American intelligence community if you stand up and say things that upset the president or with which he disagrees, he will punish you. And that is a horrible message to be sending to folks who are there to tell you objective truth.

Just as the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court averted their eyes from the improper history of the Muslim Ban, Republicans in Congress are finding excuses to support Trump now. Senator Orrin Hatch, for example, responded by saying “I’m surprised it took him so long. Brennan has not been a friend of the administration at all.” But Hatch knows that under no previous president has being “a friend of the administration” been a factor in whether or not you held a clearance. Until Trump, it would have been scandalous to suggest that it should be.

And Rep. Jim Jordan of the House Autocracy Freedom Caucus fully embraces Trump’s autocratic view of clearances:

I don’t even see frankly why there is a debate. If the commander in chief of the United States thinks these people should have their clearance revoked, I don’t see why they should have their clearance.

No process, no criteria — security clearances are just a matter of the president’s personal whim, and are not related to any presidential responsibility.

Where this goes. It’s easy to go wild on slippery-slope arguments. (That’s what the NRA does with gun control. Any restrictions on assault rifles will inevitably lead to complete public disarmament, leaving us all at the mercy of armed police and criminals.) At the same time, sometimes there are slippery slopes, and each concession you make puts you in a worse position to fight future concessions. Principles make good lines in the sand: Once you start accepting violations of the principles, you lose your most easily defended positions.

The abstract principle here is that presidential powers are not personal prerogatives, they are tied to presidential responsibilities. In this case, the president’s power over security clearances is tied to his responsibility for securing the governments’ secrets. Any security-clearance decision that can’t be justified in those terms is illegitimate, even if it is technically legal.

If we lose this principle, if Trump is allowed not just to occasionally rationalize his way around it, but to openly deny it and pay no price, then I honestly don’t know where this slide towards autocracy stops. Looking at the way Republicans like Hatch and Jordan are defending Trump, and the many other Republicans (like Paul Ryan) who are dodging the question of his autocratic inclinations, it’s hard to argue with Paul Krugman’s vision:

Make no mistake: if Republicans hold both houses of Congress this November, Trump will go full authoritarian, abusing institutions like the I.R.S., trying to jail opponents and journalists on, er, trumped-up charges, and more — and he’ll do it with full support from his party.

Some examples of Trump’s autocracy are complicated. This one isn’t. If Republicans won’t stand up to Trump here, where does it stop?