Deadly Serious — John Cassidy on Robert Mueller’s mission.
On Friday night, CNN reported that a grand jury in Washington, D.C., has approved the first charges arising from the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign and the Russian government. Citing “sources briefed on the matter,” the network said that a judge had ordered the charges kept under seal, but that at least one arrest could take place as early as Monday.
Details were scant. The CNN report didn’t specify what the charges were or whom they had been brought against. But the news created an immediate furor, as other news organizations sought to follow up the story, and people on television and social media began speculating about the nature of the charges. Shortly before midnight, the Wall Street Journalconfirmed CNN’s scoop, without providing any additional details.
Speaking on CNN, Michael Zeldin, a lawyer who served as a special assistant to Mueller when he was director of the F.B.I., suggested that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, might be the person charged. Zeldin imagined Mueller taking such a step to pressure Manafort to coöperate. “There is a lot of pressure on people who are under investigation to coöperate with Mueller after this indictment,” Zeldin said. Well before Mueller was appointed special counsel, the F.B.I. had been investigating Manafort’s financial ties to a pro-Russia party in the Ukraine. Mueller took over that investigation after he was appointed, in May. In July, F.B.I. agents staged a pre-dawn raid on Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia.
Manafort isn’t the only name being speculated about. Other commentators suggested that Carter Page, a former adviser to the Trump campaign who had his own extensive Russian ties, or Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser who was ousted from the White House over his post-election contact with Russia, might be subjects of the charges. It has been reported that the former F.B.I. director James Comey, when he was leading the Russia investigation, secured permission from a secret court operating under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to tap the communications of Page and Manafort. It has also been reported that Mueller’s team demanded White House documents about Flynn.
A key political question is whether these charges are related to things that happened as part of the Trump campaign, or whether they relate to alleged wrongdoings that occurred before it began or separate from it. If there are direct ties between the charges and the campaign, that will obviously have huge ramifications on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. But if the charges concern alleged actions on the part of Manafort or others that were unrelated to the 2016 campaign, the White House may well accuse Mueller of moving beyond his remit. That allegation wouldn’t be accurate—the terms of Mueller’s appointment gave him license to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly” from the Russia probe—but accuracy has never concerned Trump much.
One thing we can say for sure is that the news of the charges has moved the Mueller investigation firmly into the media spotlight, where it is likely to stay. Since Mueller’s appointment, his team of prosecutors and investigators has operated largely out of the public eye. One of the few known facts was that it had convened a grand jury in Washington. Friday night’s CNN report said that earlier in the day, “top lawyers who are helping to lead the Mueller probe, including veteran prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, were seen entering the court room at the D.C. federal court where the grand jury meets to hear testimony in the Russia investigation.”
There was no immediate comment from the White House about the CNN story. But it was published less than twelve hours after Donald Trump tweeted, “It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!”
For days, the White House and conservative media organizations have been touting a Washington Poststory that revealed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped to pay for the controversial Russia dossier written by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer. “I think this further proves if there was anyone that was colluding with the Russians to influence the election, look no further than the Clintons, look no further than the D.N.C.,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, told Fox News on Thursday. “Everything that the Clinton campaign and the D.N.C. were falsely accusing this President of doing over the past year, they were actually doing themselves.”
After CNN published its story on Friday night, some Democrats and commentators suggested that the Trump Administration may have known the Mueller indictments were coming and leaked the Steele story to create a smokescreen. “So clearly target is in crosshairs, alerted Trumpsville, right wing media & Trump engineered mass diversion &main stream media fell for it,” Neera Tanden, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton who is the president of the Center for American Progress, tweeted.
Plausible as that theory sounds, it, too, is conjecture. What isn’t speculation is the fact that, five months into his investigation, Mueller has brought a first set of criminal charges. By the standards of recent special prosecutors, that is fast work, and it confirms Mueller’s reputation as someone who doesn’t like to dally. Now that he has started arresting people, there is no reason to suppose he will stop. And that is precisely the message he wants to send.
Hurricane Recovery — Nathalie Baptiste and Mark Helenowski on how nature is reclaiming itself five years after Sandy.
Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy—a monstrous post-tropical cyclone with hurricane force winds—struck New York, bringing record-breaking wind gusts and deadly flooding. In New York City, 53 people died—nearly half of them were from Staten Island. The Ocean Breeze, Midland Beach, and Dongan Hills communities were especially hard hit, with 11 fatalities. A few months after the storm, WNYC reporter Matthew Schuerman described the square mile that makes up parts of these communities as “the most dangerous place to be in New York City” during Sandy.
Joe Herrnkind, a middle-aged man who moved to Ocean Breeze in 2000, remembers those days, as he walks through the deserted streets of his once tight-knit beach community. Most of the homes have been torn down, and a few are boarded up waiting to be demolished. The homes that do remain are surrounded by empty plots of land where wild turkeys wander. Unlike many other New York victims of Sandy who have rebuilt their communities, those from these neighborhoods knew that rebuilding was not the best option. Some sold their land to developers, and a few others, like Herrnkind and his neighbors, sold their land to the governor’s office so it can be returned to its natural state.
“We’re a low-lying community,” he says. “We had constant flooding and wildfires. You hear all this and you’re saying, ‘Why would you want to live there?’”
Recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have all raised the same question: What is to be done with the dozens of towns and cities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico that have developed infrastructure on vulnerable flood-prone land that routinely requires massive cleanup and rebuilding efforts after each disastrous storm? Altogether, the recent storms could costup to nearly $400 billion in damages. But some communities and local leaders are starting to realize that this model won’t break the cycle. In Ocean Breeze, instead of rebuilding on vulnerable flood plains, some residents have chosen to leave old neighborhoods behind and let nature take its course.
In 2012, when Sandy approached New York, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered evacuations of nearly 375,000 people in low-lying communities ahead of the storm. Herrnkind gathered his two dogs and left to stay with a friend in New Jersey. Most of his neighbors followed the evacuation orders, but eight or nine families stayed behind. Two of his neighbors died.
Sandy’s peak winds were recorded at 115 miles per hour and Staten Island saw wind gusts of up to 80 miles per hour. Father Cappodano Boulevard, the main road separating Ocean Breeze from the Atlantic, rises several feet above the side streets. Sandy’s unprecedented 16-foot surge overtopped the roads and poured into homes. A few days later, when Herrnkind was able to return, he had no idea if his home was going to be standing. The city estimated that more than 300,000 homes were damaged by the storm’s flood.
“An officer told me, ‘You can’t go down there,’” Herrnkind recalls. When he finally arrived the water was still nearly waist deep. “It’s still there,” he remembers thinking when he first saw his house. “I have something to work with.” The watermark on a lamp post today shows that the storm surge reached far above his head, which explains why his furniture and all his personal belongings were gone.
Local leaders struggled to respond to the crisis. New York City created Build It Back, a program for rebuilding destroyed and damaged homes. There are more than 8,000 participants and by 2017, the mayor’s office estimates 87 percent of those who enrolled have received compensation, completed construction, or had their homes acquired by the city. But the program has come under criticism. Many homeowners dropped out due to delays. City Controller Scott Stringer and City Councilman Mark Treyger who represents parts of Brooklyn have been fierce critics of the program. In a letter to Build It Back director Amy Peterson, the two wrote that the number of dropouts “raises serious questions about our City’s ability to mount an efficient and effective recovery operation in the event of a future disaster.” Herrnkind jokingly refers to it as “Build It Wrong.”
After six months of living in his car, which he had parked in front of his abandoned house, and disappointed by the city’s program, Hernnkind realized “the land itself should never have been built on.” Much of the region was a salt marsh, particularly vulnerable to storm surge and floods. “It was a very low, natural, spongy salt marsh, and it was filled to create homes,” Robert Brauman, a project manager for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection told Curbed New York in 2016, “and that was where the problems started.”
Another option for some homeowners was a program from the Governor’s Office for Sandy Recovery, which has been buying houses that were destroyed or substantially damaged and transforming them to open space and wetlands. The goal is to create a natural coastal buffer that can protect communities from future storms. In late 2013, more than a year after the storm Gov. Cuomo announced that Ocean Breeze would join Oakwood Beach as a town eligible for state buyouts, and Hernnkind’s entire block was included. Reluctant to “put someone else in harm’s way,” Hernnkind concluded that he and his neighbors should take advantage of the state buyout program. He was able to sell his home to the state at pre-storm value and move elsewhere on the island.
So far, more than 600 homes have been purchased through the buyout program. Once the sale goes through, the state government demolishes the home and lets nature reclaim the land. Today, Ocean Breeze is mostly empty, but complicating matters are the residents who refuse to leave. In Oakwood Beach where most of the land is going back to nature, remaining residents struggle with lack of trash pick-up and crumbling roads. One of Herrnkind’s former neighbors who stayed behind is an elderly woman who feared her children would put her in a nursing home if she left. Some opted out of the program because they didn’t have the proper paperwork required to sell their homes. Others didn’t want to give up their homes in a community they loved.
But staying behind comes with a cost. According to the New York Times, flood insurance premiums could rise up to 25 percent for homes that were damaged by Sandy.
On Hernnkind’s section of the street, only one home remains out of eight. “Around here, 90 percent of each block went,” he says, “and only one or two people stayed.” Just down the street from where Herrnkind used to live, more turkeys mill about on empty lots where homes used to be.
Hernnkind’s former neighbor Frank Moszczynski, a tall man with a large presence, took the state buyout and moved to another neighborhood on Staten Island. He doesn’t have much sympathy for someone who willingly stays in a vulnerable area. “Why should someone emergency workers have to go out and risk their lives for someone who chose to stay in harm’s way?” he asks pointedly. Today, the only thing protecting the Ocean Breeze from another storm is a four-foot hill of sand.
Across the street from the vacant lot he used to call home, Hernnkind stands on the beach looking at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and Brooklyn’s Coney Island, a view he used to be able to see from his bedroom window. “If it weren’t for Sandy,” he says, “I’d still be here.”
How Twitter Killed the First Amendment — Tim Wu in the New York Times.
You need not be a media historian to notice that we live in a golden age of press harassment, domestic propaganda and coercive efforts to control political debate. The Trump White House repeatedly seeks to discredit the press, threatens to strip broadcasters of their licenses and calls for the firing of journalists and football players for speaking their minds. A foreign government tries to hack our elections, and journalists and public speakers are regularly attacked by vicious, online troll armies whose aim is to silence opponents.
In this age of “new” censorship and blunt manipulation of political speech, where is the First Amendment? Americans like to think of it as the great protector of the press and of public debate. Yet it seems to have become a bit player, confined to a narrow and often irrelevant role. It is time to ask: Is the First Amendment obsolete? If so, what can be done?
These questions arise because the jurisprudence of the First Amendment was written for a different set of problems in a very different world. The First Amendment was ignored for much of American history, coming to life only in the 1920s thanks to the courage of judges like Learned Hand, Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Courts and civil libertarians used the amendment to protect speakers from government prosecution and censorship as it was practiced in the 20th century, such as the arrest of pamphleteers and the seizure of anarchist newspapers by the Postal Service.
But in the 21st century, censorship works differently, as the writer and academic Zeynep Tufekci has illustrated. The complete suppression of dissenting speech isn’t feasible in our “cheap speech” era. Instead, the world’s most sophisticated censors, including Russia and China, have spent a decade pioneering tools and techniques that are better suited to the internet age. Unfortunately, those new censorship tools have become unwelcome imports in the United States, with catastrophic results for our democracy.
The Russian government was among the first to recognize that speech itself could be used as a tool of suppression and control. The agents of its “web brigade,” often called the “troll army,” disseminate pro-government news, generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government. The Chinese government has perfected “reverse censorship,” whereby disfavored speech is drowned out by “floods” of distraction or pro-government sentiment. As the journalist Peter Pomerantsev writes, these techniques employ information “in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.”
Our distressing state of public discourse stems from the widespread use of these new tools of censorship and speech control, including by the White House. The administration habitually crosses the line between fact and propaganda. Instead of taking action itself, it demands that others punish its supposed enemies. To add to the mess, it is apparent that the Russian government and possibly others hope to manipulate American political debate, as its exploitation of Facebook and Twitter in the last election shows.
What can be done? It is time to recognize that the American political process and marketplace for ideas are under attack, and that reinvigorating the First Amendment is vital. First, it is an imperative that law enforcement and lawmakers do more to protect journalists and other public speakers from harassment and threats. Cyberstalking is a crime. And as the Supreme Court has made clear, threats of violence are not protected speech. A country where speaking one’s mind always results in death threats is not a country that can be said to be truly free.
Second, too little is being done to protect American politics from foreign attack. The Russian efforts to use Facebook, YouTube and other social media to influence American politics should compel Congress to act. Social media has as much impact as broadcasting on elections, yet unlike broadcasting it is unregulated and has proved easy to manipulate. At a minimum, new rules should bar social media companies from accepting money for political advertising by foreign governments or their agents. And more aggressive anti-bot laws are needed to fight impersonation of humans for propaganda purposes.
Finally, the White House needs to be held accountable when it tries to use private parties to circumvent First Amendment protections. When it encourages others to punish its critics — as when it demanded that the N.F.L., on pain of tax penalties, censor players — it is wielding state power to punish disfavored speech. There is precedent for such abuses to be challenged in court.
Some might argue, based on the sophomoric premise that “more speech is always better,” that the current state of chaos is what the First Amendment intended. But no defensible free-speech tradition accepts harassment and threats as speech, treats foreign propaganda campaigns as legitimate debate or thinks that social-media bots ought to enjoy constitutional protection. A robust and unfiltered debate is one thing; corruption of debate itself is another. We have entered a far more dangerous place for the republic; its defense requires stronger protections for what we once called the public sphere.
Doonesbury — Walled off.