Trump held an impromptu press briefing in the White House early Wednesday evening, popping into a meeting of reporters and his chief of staff and telling the group that he’s “looking forward” to speaking “under oath” with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
That’s the Robert Mueller who is overseeing a Justice Department investigation into whether Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with the Kremlin to tilt the 2016 election in his favor. That’s the Robert Mueller who is examining whether Trump and others in his orbit obstructed law-enforcement efforts to examine that matter. And that’s the Robert Mueller scouring the president’s businesses and finances. He’s already indicted four former Trump insiders
for a variety of crimes, including lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Yet the president mustered the bravado to tell reporters last night that he “would love to” sit down with Mueller in two or three weeks.
Sometimes love is blind.
Whether he realizes it or not, Trump is in a perilous position. He presides over a chaotic White House stocked with competing interests and egos, he’s mired in a complex investigation and he’s advised and protected by a relatively scanty phalanx of private attorneys. If the president goes mano-a-mano with Mueller, the outcome of that encounter is likely to hinge on how careful, credible and capable he is under oath.
Speaking from experience, I think the president’s attorneys should grab their worry beads. Trump sued me for libel in 2006 for a biography I wrote, “TrumpNation,” alleging that the book misrepresented his business record and understated his wealth. Trump lost the suit in 2011, but during the litigation my lawyers deposed him under oath for two days in 2007. We had the opportunity to ask Trump about his business and banking practices, his taxes, his personal finances and his professional relationships.
Trump’s attorney then was Marc Kasowitz, who also briefly represented the president when the Justice Department investigation first got rolling in Washington. My attorney was Mary Jo White, a former federal prosecutor steeped in many of the same legal traditions and courtroom experiences as Mueller. It didn’t go well for the future president.
Hammered by White and her deputies, Trump ultimately had to admit 30 times that he had lied over the years about all sorts of stuff: how much of a big Manhattan real estate project he owned; the price of one of his golf club memberships; the size of the Trump Organization; his wealth; his speaking fees; how many condos he had sold; his debts, and whether he borrowed money from his family to avoid going personally bankrupt. He also lied during the deposition about his business dealings with career criminals.
Trump’s poor performance stemmed in part from the fact that he was being interrogated by shrewd attorneys wielding his own business and financial records against him. But there were lots of other things that went wrong as well.
Trump is impatient and has never been an avid or dedicated reader. That’s OK if you’d rather play golf, but it’s not OK when you need to absorb abundant or complex details. Lawyers typically prepare binders full of documents for their clients to pore over prior to a deposition, hoping to steel them for an intense grilling. My lawyers did that prior to my own deposition in the Trump lawsuit. But Trump didn’t appear to be well prepared when we deposed him, a weakness that my lawyers exploited (and that Mueller surely would as well).
Trump, for example, had submitted a document to the court from his accountant outlining his assets and liabilities. He was proud of the document’s glowing conclusions but hadn’t seemed to have read most of it prior to sitting down with my lawyers – including a section that said that the report wasn’t a reliable gauge of his wealth. Trump seemed surprised when my lawyers pointed that out.
Trump also has a well-known inability to stick to the facts and a tendency to dissemble and improvise. While under oath, he’ll try to avoid saying that he’s lied in the past until he’s presented with documentation proving otherwise.
“How do you differentiate between exaggeration and a lie?” one of my lawyers, Andrew Ceresney, asked when discussing inflated sales figures Trump had used to promote a property.
“You want to put the best spin on a property,” Trump replied. “No different than any other real estate developer, no different than any other businessman, no different than any politician.”
Ceresney pointed out that there was a difference, though: the actual sales figures for the property being discussed, which Ceresney possessed. This is relevant today, because Trump probably doesn’t know which documents Mueller has collected. If the president sits down under oath and lies, it’s likely that Mueller will have a raft of paperwork on hand to document that fact.
Trump has also courted the spotlight for so long that there’s an ample public record going back decades of statements he’s made on a wide array of subjects. That’s not true of most people sitting for a deposition, but it’s true for Trump and it’s a problem for him. My lawyers unearthed wildly conflicting statements Trump had made about his wealth over the years, for example, but they only had media and books to rely on. Mueller can dig into the president’s ill-considered and possibly damaging Twitter rants about what he calls the Russia “witch hunt,” the FBI and his life in the Oval Office.
Trump’s campaign and White House aides may have done any number of problematic things without Trump knowing about them, and that could protect him from being charged with setting illegal things in motion (like obstructing a federal investigation, for example). But another Trump weakness is that he basks in the perception that he’s the man in charge and everyone else follows his orders.
At moments during his deposition in my libel case, Trump would have been well served to acknowledge that others in his organization – like his chief financial officer – had independently decided to gather and report certain problematic financial information. But Trump couldn’t resist saying that his minions at the Trump Organization and elsewhere were just following his orders, a boast that also raised the legal stakes for himself (even if he didn’t realize that’s what he was doing).
Trump’s enthusiasm for a get-together with Mueller clearly freaked out his lawyers, who scrambled to roll back the president’s statements shortly after he made them. His lead lawyer, Ty Cobb, said that the president was speaking off the cuff and that a more considered approach to Mueller and his team might be taken.
“He’s ready to meet with them, but he’ll be guided by the advice of his personal counsel,” Mr. Cobb said of the president.
I’m not so sure. Cobb’s client hasn’t often been guided by advice from anyone. He’s probably not going to start now.
Facebook’s crushing blow to independent media arrived last fall in Slovakia, Cambodia, Guatemala, and three other nations.The social giant removed stories by these publishers from users’ news feeds, hiding them in a new, hard-to-find stream. These independent publishers reported that they lost as much as 80 percent of their audience during this experiment.
An Appreciation of Ursula K. Le Guin — John Wray on the writer who defied categorization.
Facebook doesn’t care. At least, it usually seems that way.
Despite angry pushback in the six countries affected by Facebook’s algorithmic tinkering, the company is now going ahead with similar changes to its news feed globally. These changes will likely de-prioritize stories from professional publishers, and instead favor dispatches published by a user’s friends and family. Many American news organizations will see the sharp traffic declines their brethren in other nations experienced last year—unless they pay Facebook to include their stories in readers’ feeds.
At the heart of this change is Facebook’s attempt to be seen not as a news publisher, but as a neutral platform for interactions between friends. Facing sharp criticism for its role in spreading misinformation, and possibly in tipping elections in the United States and in the United Kingdom, Facebook is anxious to limit its exposure by limiting its role. It has long been this way.This rebalancing means different things for the company’s many stakeholders—for publishers, it means they’re almost certainly going to be punished for their reliance on a platform that’s never been a wholly reliable partner. Facebook didn’t talk to publishers in Slovakia because publishers are less important than other stakeholders in this next incarnation of Facebook. But more broadly, Facebook doesn’t talk to you because Facebook already knows what you want.
Facebook collects information on a person’s every interaction with the site—and many other actions online—so Facebook knows a great deal about what we pay attention to. People say they’re interested in a broad range of news from different political preferences, but Facebook knows they really want angry, outraged articles that confirm political prejudices.
Publishers in Slovakia and in the United States may warn of damage to democracy if Facebook readers receive less news, but Facebook knows people will be perfectly happy—perfectly engaged—with more posts from friends and families instead.
For Facebook, our revealed preferences—discovered by analyzing our behavior—speak volumes. The words we say, on the other hand, are often best ignored. (Keep this in mind when taking Facebook’s two question survey on what media brands you trust.)Tristan Harris, a fierce and persuasive critic of the ad-supported internet, recently offered me an analogy to explain a problem with revealed preferences. I pledge to go to the gym more in 2018, but every morning when I wake up, my partner presents me with a plate of donuts and urges me to stay in bed and eat them. My revealed preferences show that I’m more interested in eating donuts than in exercising. But it’s pretty perverse that my partner is working to give me what I really crave, ignoring what I’ve clearly stated I aspire to.
Facebook’s upcoming newsfeed change won’t eliminate fake news… at least, it didn’t in Slovakia. People share sensational or shocking news, while more reliable news tends not to go viral. When people choose to subscribe to reliable news sources, they’re asking to go to the gym. With these newsfeed changes, Facebook threw out your gym shoes and subscribed you to a donut delivery service. Why do 2 billion people put up with a service that patronizingly reminds them that it’s designed for their well being, while it studiously ignores our stated preferences? Many people feel like they don’t have a choice. Facebook is the only social network, for example, where I overlap with some of my friends, especially those from my childhood and from high school.
I don’t want Facebook to go away—I want it to get better. But increasingly, I think the only way Facebook will listen to people’s expressed preferences is if people start building better alternatives. Right now, Facebook chooses what stories should top your news feed, optimizing for “engagement” and “time well spent.” Don’t like the choices Facebook is making? Too bad. You can temporarily set Facebook to give you a chronological feed, but when you close your browser window, you’ll be returned to Facebook’s paternalistic algorithm.This fall, my colleagues and I released gobo.social, a customizable news aggregator. Gobo presents you with posts from your friends, but also gives you a set of sliders that govern what news you see and what’s hidden from you. Want more serious news, less humor? Move a slider. Need to hear more female voices? Adjust the gender slider, or press the “mute all men” button for a much quieter internet. Gobo currently includes half a dozen ways to tune your news feed, with more to come. (It’s open source software, so you can write your own filters, too.) Gobo is a provocation, not a product. While it’s a good tool for reading Twitter, Facebook only allows us to show you Facebook Pages (the pages that are being deprioritized in the news feed changes), not posts from your friends, crippling its functionality as a social network aggregator. Our goal is not to persuade you to read your social media through Gobo (though you’re certainly welcome to try!), but to encourage platforms like Facebook to give their users more control over what they see.
If you want to use Facebook to follow the news, you should be able to, even if Facebook’s algorithms know what really captures your attention. There’s a robust debate about how Facebook should present news to its readers. Should it filter out fake news? Prioritize high quality news? Focus on friends and family instead of politics? Facebook’s decision to steer away from news is an attempt to evade this challenging debate altogether. And perhaps we were wrong to invite Facebook to this debate in the first place.Instead of telling Facebook what it should do, people should build tools that let them view the world the way they choose. If regulators force Facebook and other platforms to police news quality, they’ll give more control to a platform that’s already demonstrated its disinterest editorial judgment. A better path would be to force all platforms to adopt two simple rules:
- Users own their own data, including the content they create and the web of relationships they’ve built online. And they can take this data with them from one platform to another, or delete it from an existing platform.
- Users can view platforms like Facebook through an aggregator, a tool that lets you read social media through your own filters, like Gobo.
The first rule helps solve the problem that Facebook alternatives like Diaspora and Mastodon have faced. People have a great deal of time and emotional energy invested in their online communities. Asking them to throw these connections out and more to another network is a non-starter. If we can move our data between platforms, there’s the possibility that some of Facebook’s 2 billion users will choose a social network where they have more control over what they read and write. The second rule allows developers to build real customizable aggregators, not toys like Gobo, which would let people control what they read on online platforms—helping them live up to their aspirations, not down to their preferences.
Obviously, Facebook is filled with people who care deeply about these issues. Some are my friends and my former students. But Facebook suffers from a problem of its own success. It has grown so central to our mediated understanding of the world that it either needs to learn to listen to its users stated desires, or it needs to make room for platforms that do.
Four years ago, on a midsummer Sunday, I rang the doorbell of an unassuming Victorian perched on the north slope of the Forest Park neighborhood of Portland, Ore., and waited for Ursula Kroeber Le Guin to come to the door. I’d grown up with — and in no small part, because of — her writing, from “Earthsea” to “The Left Hand of Darkness” to “The Dispossessed” to “Lavinia,” and the moment felt appropriately otherworldly. Not everyone is lucky enough to find himself ringing the doorbell of one of his literary heroes, let alone with a decent chance of being let in, and I was somewhat dumbstruck at the privilege. My host, when she came to the door, was decidedly less solemn.
“Come on in, Wray,” she said. “You get here all right? Good. Watch out for that [expletive] cat. He’s a terrorist.”
(Ms. Le Guin’s vernacular, I’d soon discover, was saltier than might be anticipated from an 84-year-old with a pixie cut. From here on, let the reader insert invectives into our dialogue at will.)
Fittingly for a writer of speculative fiction, Ms. Le Guin’s house seemed larger on the inside than it was on the outside. I entered cautiously, and not only because of the cat. I was there to spend a long weekend conducting an interview with her for The Paris Review, the highbrow literary journal known for its in-depth conversations on the craft of fiction, and I’d had to lobby the editor for a month to get him to consider featuring a writer whose work was so tinged with genre. Ms. Le Guin, however, was distinctly beyond caring what literary New York thought of her — if the thought, in fact, had ever crossed her mind.
“Where I can get prickly, Wray, is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer,” she said. “I’m not. I’m a novelist and a poet. Don’t shove me into your pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”
My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions. If there’s ever been a better description of Ms. Le Guin’s astonishingly diverse and adventurous body of work, I’ve yet to come across it. She’ll doubtlessly be remembered for her sophisticated, nuanced and profoundly humanistic speculative fiction, and of course for her series of magical coming-of-age novels, the Earthsea series, without which the Harry Potter megafranchise could scarcely be imagined. But she was more than a sci-fi or fantasy writer, much more. She was more than her identity as a trailblazer in the overwhelmingly male (and chauvinistic) field of 1960s and ’70s science fiction, as well, and more than an iconoclastic thinker on gender, or on ethics, or on the material world. The much-discussed fluidity of gender in her most famous novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” could serve as a metaphor for Ms. Le Guin’s entire approach to living, thinking and creating: She reserved the right to think, and write, and react as she saw fit — and to inhabit a completely different role as the occasion, or the project, demanded.
Ms. Le Guin cared passionately about many things, as is clear to any reader of her books: the rights of indigenous peoples, the search for alternatives to our pitiless economic scheme, the myth of innate gender difference, our slow collective murder of the planet. But what she cared about above all, it seems to me, was the paramount freedom — if not obligation — of all thinking individuals to define their personal enterprise strictly for, and by, themselves. By the time I came to know her, Ms. Le Guin had made peace with the nature of her legacy, and with the reductive effects of the passage of time. But it was, to the end, an anarchist’s peace.
I learned many things from Ms. Le Guin in the course of that first day, which we spent drinking tea and chatting on her slightly vertiginous veranda, with its glorious view of the snowy cone of Mount St. Helens. We talked about the usefulness of whispering one’s writing aloud when revising, and how it somehow functioned better than reading at a normal volume, when trying to get the music of a sentence right. We talked about the advantages an interest in ethnography can give to writers interested in imagining entire societies, if not whole worlds. We talked about the mysterious power of artists in the last stages of their creative lives, when they were writing to please no one but themselves.
I was working on a science fiction novel of my own at the time — my first — and I confessed to her that it seemed to be turning into something too complex, perhaps even convoluted, for the rollicking page-turner I’d hoped for. Her response shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.
“Entertaining them is all well and good, Wray, but does it make them think?”
I answered, a bit defensively, that I thought my book did — maybe more so than most readers might be looking for. That snort came again.
“We don’t know what we’re looking for when we pick up a book, no matter how clear-cut the genre,” she said. “We think we do, but we don’t. Don’t ever give people the thing they expect just because they expect it. Our job is to surprise them, to shake them — to turn their expectations on their heads. And do you know why, Wray?”
Why, I managed to mumble.
“Because that’s when the MRI of their brain lights up, and they begin to see.”
Don’t try to fit Ms. Le Guin into your pigeonhole, posterity — or even into two, or three, or half a dozen. Her tentacles are coming out in all directions.
Doonesbury — Advice for the road.