Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sunday Reading

Words Matter — Amy Davidson Sorkin in The New Yorker on the garbled language of politics.

One function of the testimony that Robert Mueller, the special counsel who oversaw the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, delivered before two House committees last week was to illustrate how various factions in Washington have come to speak different languages. The words may be the same, but the meanings are not. “Un-American,” in the lexicon of Representative Denny Heck, Democrat of Washington, describes people in Donald Trump’s orbit who seek to cash in on their positions when dealing with Russians. For Representative Guy Reschenthaler, Republican of Pennsylvania, “un-American” means Mueller’s decision to include in his investigation’s report so much negative information about a man “who happens to be the President of the United States.” It’s hardly a wonder that Mueller occasionally appeared confused. Each time the questioning swung between the Democrats and the Republicans, he had to switch vernaculars.

More than that, Mueller had to navigate two different narrative realms. In the one more grounded in his report, Democrat after Democrat argued that, if Trump were not the President, he would have been charged with obstruction of justice. In an exchange with Representative Ted Lieu, of California, Mueller briefly appeared to agree that a Justice Department legal opinion that precludes charging a sitting President was all that had stopped him from doing so—but later clarified that, because of that opinion, he never got to the point of deciding whether an indictment was merited.

Meanwhile, the excitable Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, demanded to know why Mueller had charged “thirteen Russians no one’s ever heard of” but not “the guy who puts the country through this whole saga!” He meant not Donald Trump but Joseph Mifsud, whom he identified as a “mysterious professor who works in Rome and London,” and a key figure in the theory, popular on Fox News, that the Trump campaign’s alleged Russia contacts were actually just a cleverly engineered setup. As Jordan berated Mueller, he proclaimed what he called “the good news”: Attorney General William Barr is on the case. This was a reference to Barr’s commitment to an inquiry by Michael Horowitz, the Department of Justice’s inspector general, of the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign that the F.B.I. opened in 2016, and Barr’s appointment of John Durham, the Connecticut U.S. Attorney, to review the whole affair. The Wall Street Journal said that “Barr will never have a more important assignment” than pursuing the matter. Lindsey Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has also pledged to hold hearings.

Among other things, Horowitz’s investigation concerns how officials handled a dossier assembled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent with experience in Russia, who was working for a company called Fusion GPS, which had been retained by a law firm hired by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The dossier relates some wild claims—for instance, that “knowledgeable sources” said the Russians had compromising sexual material on Trump—which have never been substantiated. The thesis on the Trump side is that the dossier was a Russian disinformation operation, in which Clinton was complicit; in other words, that’s the real collusion.

Mueller, citing the Justice Department’s continuing inquiries, said that the dossier was “beyond my purview,” which only further incensed his questioners. So central has the dossier become to the Republican narrative of Trump’s victimhood that, when Mueller appeared slow to recognize the name Fusion GPS, some Fox News figures were left slack-jawed. (“What does that say about Robert Mueller?” Tucker Carlson asked. “This isn’t a medical program, so we’re not going to speculate.”) Trump retweeted the clip.

There are questions worth exploring about the Steele dossier, having to do with, say, the transparency of campaign spending. But they are not the questions congressional Republicans are asking. As in their prolonged hearings into the attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, they are likely to twist any useful threads into an unedifying tangle. This time, though, the Republicans are engaging in an even more dangerous delusion. The pretense is that, as long as they keep talking about mysterious professors and British spies, they aren’t ignoring the threat that Russia and other foreign powers continue to pose to the integrity of American elections. Hillary Clinton is, once again, their excuse for inaction.

The urgency of focussing on election security was one of Mueller’s key messages. It was underscored a day later, when the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report indicating that, in 2016, the Russian government likely probed American voting systems in all fifty states. (Many of the state systems are known to be vulnerable.) The attempts appear to have been mostly exploratory. They may go further, though, in 2020, and Russia might not be the only perpetrator. And yet, that same day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell killed legislation aimed at bolstering election security, saying that Democrats were just looking for a “political benefit.”

It’s not clear that the Republican Party can still conceive of a definition of the country’s interests—or of itself—that does not include support for Trump. It was thus all the more striking, during Mueller’s testimony, when certain Democrats seemed to be speaking his language—that of a straightforward officer of the law. One such moment came when Val Demings, of Florida, previously Orlando’s chief of police, asked about the written responses that Trump had submitted to Mueller, in lieu of sitting for an interview with his investigators. Was it true that Trump “simply didn’t answer” many questions? Mueller: “True.” Did he give answers that “contradicted other evidence?” Mueller: “Yes.” Could Mueller say that “the President was credible?” Mueller: “I can’t answer that question.”

Was it fair to say, Demings continued, that the President’s answers were not only inadequate but “showed that he wasn’t always being truthful?” Mueller: “I would say, generally.” That exchange is almost a catechism for keeping one’s bearings amid the tumult of a truth-mocking Presidency. Such a task won’t be easy in what is bound to be a bitter election, when the contested terms will include not only “un-American” but a more essential one: “American.”

Culture Of Fear — Will E. Young on censorship at Liberty University.

In my first week as editor in chief of the Champion, Liberty University’s student-run weekly, our faculty adviser, Deborah Huff, ordered me to apologize. I’d noticed that our evangelical school’s police department didn’t publish its daily crime log online, as many other private university forces do, so I searched elsewhere for crime information I might use in an article. I called the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to find out what the law required Liberty to disclose. But the public affairs worker there told the Liberty University Police Department, which complained to Huff. She called to upbraid me: Apparently, I had endangered our newspaper’s relationship with the LUPD. Huff and Chief Richard Hinkley convened a meeting inside a police department conference room, and Huff sat next to me while I proffered the forced apology to Hinkley — for asking questions. Huff, too, was contrite, assuring the police chief that it wouldn’t happen again, because she’d keep a better eye on me.

This wasn’t exactly a rude awakening. I’d spent the previous three years watching the university administration, led by President Jerry Falwell Jr. (who took a very micromanaging interest), meddle in our coverage, revise controversial op-eds and protect its image by stripping damning facts from our stories. Still, I stuck around. I thought that if I wrote with discretion and kept my head down, I could one day win enough trust from the university to protect the integrity of our journalism. I even dreamed we could eventually persuade the administration to let the Champion go independent from its supervision. I was naive.

Instead, when my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an “oversight” system — read: a censorship regime — that required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review. Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article; they added and deleted whatever they wanted. Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally, as he had a year earlier when, weeks before the 2016 election, he read a draft of my column defending mainstream news outlets and ordered me to say whom I planned to vote for. I refused on ethical grounds, so Falwell told me to insert “The author refused to reveal which candidate he is supporting for president” at the bottom of the column. I complied. (Huff and the police department declined to comment on the contents of this essay. Falwell and the university did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Eventually I quit, and the School of Communication decided not to replace me, turning the paper into a faculty-run, student-written organ and seizing complete control of its content. Student journalists must now sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbids them from talking publicly about “editorial or managerial direction, oversight decisions or information designated as privileged or confidential.” The form also states that the students understand they are “privileged” to receive “thoughts, opinions, and other statements” from university administrators.

What my team and I experienced at the Champion was not an isolated overreaction to embarrassing revelations. It was one example of an infrastructure of thought-control that Falwell and his lieutenants have introduced into every aspect of Liberty University life. Faculty, staff and students on the Lynchburg, Va., campus have learned that it’s a sin to challenge the sacrosanct status of the school or its leaders, who mete out punishments for dissenting opinions (from stripping people of their positions to banning them from the school). This “culture of fear,” as it was described by several of the dozen Liberty denizens who talked to me for this story — most of them anonymously, to protect their jobs or their standing — worsened during my four years on campus because of the 2016 presidential election.

By 2016, Liberty’s efforts to limit free expression were already well-established. (“The big victory was finding a way to tame the faculty,” Falwell told the New York Times last year for a story about privileging Liberty’s financial growth over its academics.) But the school’s methods became even more aggressive after Falwell endorsed Donald Trump early that year, according to multiple current and former faculty members. “The closer you get to the president’s office,” says former history professor Brian Melton, discussing a chilling effect on campus, “the worse it becomes.” Falwell’s staff now operates masterfully to squash challenges to his views and his rise in national political influence.

The dissent that did exist — from off-message campus speakers, insufficiently sycophantic board members, student activists and our newspaper staff — was ruthlessly neutralized. Liberty, founded on principles of fundamental Christianity, is now a place that has zero tolerance for new questions and ideas. Those who harbor them must remain silent, or leave.

Falwell, 57, possesses a certain Orwellian gift for painting Liberty as a bastion of tolerance where alternate viewpoints are not just permitted but encouraged. In March, he attended the signing of Trump’s executive order on college free speech and later claimed on “PBS NewsHour” that Liberty was inclusive of all ideas because it had invited Jimmy Carter to deliver its 2018 commencement address and Bernie Sanders to speak in 2015 at the assembly that students are required to attend twice a week. After Falwell learned last month that I was writing this essay, he posted a column on Liberty’s site disputing “sensational stories . . . that we do not allow opposing views.” He wrote, “If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that there will be a strong and critical response to this article by a few former students and a handful of national media determined to paint Liberty in a completely different light on these issues.”

His Twitter account is a much better reflection of his approach to dissent. Falwell’s profile announces that “Haters will be blocked,” and several students who have disagreed or argued with him on Twitter have met this fate. Falwell outright lied on the platform to Sojourners Web editor Sandi Villarreal — who is now my colleague — when he said he’d removed a Champion op-ed criticizing Trump’s “locker room talk” defense because there was simply not enough room on the page. (The piece was already laid out on the page when he pulled it.) In fact, much of Falwell’s message control has to do with safeguarding Trump.

Mark DeMoss was something like Liberty royalty. His late father, Arthur S. DeMoss, gave $20 million to build DeMoss Hall, the school’s main academic building. Mark was also an alumnus, a former chief of staff to university founder Jerry Falwell Sr. and eventually a public relations executive who counted Liberty among his clients. He won a seat on the school’s board of trustees in 1991 after serving as Liberty’s spokesman and became the board’s executive committee chairman in 2008.

In January 2016, days before Trump was scheduled to speak at Liberty, Falwell emailed DeMoss asking whether he should endorse Trump for president. DeMoss says he recommended against endorsing anyone, and Falwell thanked him for the “great advice.” Falwell, at the speech, held back his imprimatur. But a week later, he anointed the billionaire with his support. DeMoss was horrified. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ,” he told The Washington Post at the time. Falwell seemed to take the rebuke in stride, saying he was “disappointed” in DeMoss but understood “that all the administrators and faculty have their own personal political views.”

Within a few months, though, DeMoss would be gone. The night before a Liberty board meeting that April, the executive committee, including Falwell, convened without DeMoss to vote on a motion to oust him from his role as chairman. DeMoss says that his criticism of the endorsement was the cause. (Before the meeting, Falwell had called him a pawn of rival campaigns.) DeMoss resigned as a trustee days later, on April 25, 2016, citing “a lack of trust.”

A week after that, Liberty changed the sign on DeMoss Hall to “Arthur S. DeMoss Hall,” making clear that the structure honored the father and not the wayward son. The message to faculty and students was clear: If you challenge Falwell, you will be not only removed but erased.

The culture of Liberty is governed by lists of principles. According to the Faculty Handbook, for instance, professors are expected to “promote . . . free market processes” and “affirm . . . that the Bible is inerrant in the originals and authoritative in all matters.” One cause of perpetual insecurity at Liberty is the school’s militant refusal to award tenure to any faculty member (outside the law school, which must offer it for accreditation). Instructors are instead hired on year-to-year contracts; during the spring semester, they find out whether they will be coming back the next fall.

The result is constant, erratic faculty turnover. One recently fired teacher describes the spring as a cycle of stressed-out, fearful professors wandering into each other’s offices to ask if they had their contracts renewed yet. “If you’re a conservative Christian in the academic world, the chances of you getting a job are nil in many areas,” says Melton, who worked at Liberty as an associate professor for 15 years before resigning because of what he described as the school’s surveillance and fear tactics. “The administration knows that, and . . . they wield that very effectively, keeping people quiet.”

Late-notice faculty removals have also become more commonplace, according to Melton, stemming in part from Falwell’s stated desire to tame the teaching corps. “He considers the faculty to be disposable beasts of burden,” Melton says. Last summer, 14 professors at Liberty’s School of Education were suddenly told that their contracts would not be renewed as part of what former Liberty spokesman Len Stevens called a “reorganization.” This June, a dozen faculty members at Liberty’s School of Divinity were notified that their contracts would not be renewed. By that late in the year, it is too late to find another job in higher education for the fall.

For former faculty members, Liberty’s culture of fear can live on. The school often requires terminated professors to sign a nondisclosure agreement if they want their severance packages, several told me — a practice that is extremely uncommon in higher education, according to Robert Bezemek, a California lawyer who represents labor unions at universities. (As Melton puts it, “They force this NDA on you by leveraging the ability to feed your family against you.”) Even former teachers who hadn’t signed NDAs told me they feared that talking to me on the record would somehow get them blacklisted from jobs elsewhere or imperil their friends who still work at Liberty. One thought my request to speak with him was a trap, calling my previous connection with the school “fishy.” When I contacted another for an interview, she warned me, “The university is on to you.” I confess I harbor a certain paranoia, too, from years of being watched at the Champion. Melton and several other current and former members of the faculty told me that they believe the administration surveils everything they do on Liberty’s server, tracking when instructors complete a task late and searching for evidence of “disloyalty,” as a former professor put it. Another onetime instructor declined to use his university-issued laptop because he thought Liberty had equipped it with spyware.

One cause for alarm came just before Trump’s inauguration, when then-Provost Ronald Hawkins ordered all campus faculty members to fill out an anonymous survey rating how politically and socially liberal they were on a scale of 1 to 5. “We are interested in how we compare with other institutions on political and social views,” Hawkins’s office said in a follow-up email to faculty members. But, according to a former professor who talked with others in her department, many initially refused to take the survey out of fear that if a department had too many left-leaning professors, the administration might target it for more oversight or even firings. There is no evidence of Liberty firing a faculty member explicitly for his or her political beliefs, but everyone I spoke to believed that the school could easily manufacture some other pretense. “There is zero trust between the administration and faculty,” Melton says. FIRE, a nonprofit that fights for free speech on campus, put Liberty on its 2019 list of the 10 worst colleges for freedom of speech.

Things aren’t much better for the 15,000 students on campus. In 2009, Liberty withdrew funding and recognition for its College Democrats chapter because, as Mark Hine, the senior vice president of student affairs, put it, the national party defends abortion, opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, supported “the ‘LGBT’ agenda, hate crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc.” A.J. Strom, who graduated in May, tells me that several students wanted to revive the College Democrats but no faculty members were willing to advise them, without which Liberty will not recognize a student club. “They said they would love to sign on but that if Jerry saw their name on the club application, they would be fired,” Strom says.

Student leaders have consistently helped administrators enforce the culture. After the Charlottesville rally in August 2017, members of Liberty’s Student Government Association drafted a statement expressing solidarity with Heather Heyer, the protester murdered by a neo-Nazi, and all people demonstrating against white nationalism. Then-SGA President Caleb Johnson refused to release the message and send it to university administrators for fear of what Falwell might think. (Johnson said in an email this past week that the statement’s author was “a self-described ‘Never-Trumper’ ” and that “we would not allow the platform of Liberty Student Government to be improperly used by a political activist with obvious ulterior motives.”) “There’s 100 percent an atmosphere of fear at Liberty,” says Caleb Fitzpatrick, who was then the student government’s speaker of the House and helped draft the statement. “There was a need to avoid being seen as a liberal or progressive, or even being different.”

In September 2018, nearly a year into the #MeToo movement, Liberty invited conservative provocateur Candace Owens to speak at an assembly. A few days before her visit, Owens tweeted that the women accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault were “making it up.” In response, Addyson Garner, then president of a libertarian club on campus, organized a rally to support victims of sexual assault, called #LUforMeToo, which would occur right after the Owens speech. The day before, Jacob Page, then the student body president, summoned her to his office, where he and Vice President Derek Rockey pressured her to cancel the event, Garner says. She left the office in tears, but she and her fellow organizers decided to protest anyway. About 25 students attended, a rare show of defiance on a campus that discourages political dissent. (In an email this past week, Rockey said he thought students should attend a public dialogue on these topics rather than stage a protest. Page said he and Rockey “support bringing awareness to victims of sexual assault” but “felt it was unproductive to engage in partisan protests.”)

Guests at the school who deviate from the prescribed philosophy can be targeted, too. In October 2017, the anti-Trump pastor and writer Jonathan Martin arrived at the invitation of the Christian musical duo Johnnyswim, who were performing on campus that night; Martin also announced on Twitter that he would lead a prayer meeting with students the next morning. Falwell took it as an unauthorized protest, and the LUPD sent three armed officers to remove Martin from campus, telling him he’d be arrested if he returned. Martin tweeted that it was “evidently in response to my strong criticism of @JerryFallwellJr’s alignment not only with the darkest contours of Trumpism, but expressly with Steve Bannon & the alt-right he represents.” Falwell told the Champion that Martin’s forcible removal was “a matter of safety.”

A similar episode unfolded in 2015 when Jonathan Merritt, a Liberty alumnus and Christian writer, was disinvited to speak on campus after authoring an article critical of Hobby Lobby, the company permitted by the Supreme Court in 2014 to deny its employees contraceptive health-care coverage. The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, is close with Falwell. “You don’t seem to remember who your friends are,” Merritt remembers Falwell saying over the phone.

One afternoon in April 2016, when I was still a cub reporter in my sophomore year, I received a one-sentence email from Deborah Huff, our adviser: “need to talk to you about SG,” the subject line read; I should call her that night. She copied the editor in chief, a senior. I was clearly in trouble.

“SG” stood for Scott Garrett, a traditionalist conservative who represents Lynchburg in the state legislature. According to records I had found through the Virginia Public Access Project, he owned millions of dollars in stock, some from companies that lobby lawmakers in Richmond. A few days earlier, I interviewed him for the Champion about possible conflicts of interest stemming from his assets.

After dinner, I called Huff. She sounded annoyed. When I described my reporting to her, she told me the Champion would not run my story, because Garrett was afraid that the article would hurt his reputation. The message was clear: I had no business heckling Liberty’s friends and allies. (“I don’t remember the incident in question,” Garrett emailed me this week when I asked him for a comment. “And I don’t understand why I would say the article would hurt my reputation because there was no conflict of interest.”)

Out of fear that arguing with her would end my career at the paper — she selected which students would advance to editorships — I apologized for looking into Garrett’s finances and assured her that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again. I understood that her job, and by extension mine, was to protect our righteous, evangelical university. Before becoming a Liberty teacher and then supervisor of the Champion, Huff worked for the Fundamentalist Journal, a now-defunct Falwell-owned periodical. I didn’t see defending the faith or protecting Liberty as the main purpose of journalism. But in the face of a mentor I trusted, I believed I must have been in the wrong.

Looking back on the emails from that episode three years later, I’m embarrassed by my naivete — and my willingness to abandon a scoop with obvious journalistic merit. The scales began to fall from my eyes as, over the next 18 months, I saw how in every issue of the Champion the administration strategically manipulated or erased stories. Huff discouraged us from following leads that might disrupt the image of Liberty as a prestigious, respectable evangelical institution. In pitch meetings, she made it clear that the Champion would not cover Liberty scandals, even those that appeared in mainstream news outlets (such as the Falwells’ secret business relationships or the wave of Liberty alumni who sent back their diplomas after Falwell defended Trump’s comment that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the white-nationalist Charlottesville rally).

By the time I became the Champion’s editor, the censorship I hoped to stop was already shameless. In February 2017, I wrote an article on a higher-education task force that Trump had asked Falwell to lead. Falwell emailed me his personal edits, removing every quote from an expert concerning possible conflicts of interest that Falwell created by accepting the position (in the end, the task force was never formed). Months later, Huff ordered that my story about Martin’s expulsion from campus include lines about how Liberty is inclusive of different political beliefs, in the face of obvious counterevidence. An administrator spiked a news report about an on-campus swing dancing club that was temporarily banned. When film students drafted a petition in early 2018 objecting to “The Trump Prophecy” — a hagiographic tale about a firefighter who said he had prophesized Trump’s election, which Liberty students were compelled to produce in order to receive their degrees — faculty at the film school crafted our coverage into a fluffy bit of PR highlighting students who looked forward to working on set. Champion reporter Jack Panyard was so disgusted, he removed his byline from the piece. Then there was sports editor Joel Schmieg’s column about “locker room talk” after the “Access Hollywood” video came out; Falwell blocked it from publication.

This interference frequently caused shouting matches with, and passive aggressive emails from, administrators. “Too bad the editor and chief of The Champion penned this editorial for the homecoming edition without any effort to learn all that is being done at Liberty to prevent and react appropriately to sexual assault,” Liberty General Counsel David Corry wrote to Falwell and Huff about my column on campus sexual assault. Instead of sticking up for the journalists she supervised, Huff emailed me to complain that I did not “make sure Liberty was separated from the conversation or address what Liberty does that is different than other schools.” Later that day, the piece was removed from the website without my consent. (In his preemptive statement last month, Falwell seemed to address these episodes. “In the past few years, some students screamed ‘censorship’ when they didn’t get their every word published in our campus newspaper,” he wrote. “But that standard isn’t even attained within the newsroom of commercial newspapers.”)

In the wake of these run-ins, members of our staff often gathered in my office to daydream about taking the paper independent or grouse about Huff, whom we felt was gaslighting us. What kind of newspaper adviser would denounce our attempts to keep Liberty accountable and make us repeatedly apologize to administrators for trying? By this point, it was clear that the principles of investigative journalism I was learning in class were verboten when it came to Liberty itself. The Champion could never be an avatar of press freedom or truth-telling.

I grew up in a politically conservative household and was active in my denomination; my values changed at Liberty as I embraced a more inclusive and open vision of the church. My views of Liberty, and of the values I saw Falwell profess on a daily basis, changed as well. I considered transferring schools or resigning from the paper. The weekly fight for the right to publish was exhausting. Still, I decided to stay because I saw that, on the occasions we won — when we either persuaded administrators to leave an article alone or worked around their objections — we sparked dialogue among students on Twitter and in classrooms that challenged Liberty’s status quo. But ultimately, our fraught relationship with our overlords was untenable, and something had to give.

The end finally came for the Champion when a left-leaning faith group, the Red Letter Christians, organized a “Lynchburg Revival” in April 2018 to protest Falwell’s support of Trump and what the group called “toxic evangelicalism.” Two days beforehand, Liberty’s police department notified RLC leader Shane Claiborne that he would be arrested if he set foot on campus. The Champion had already decided to cover the event, but the stakes were higher now. Huff told us it would be too controversial for print, but the other editors and I didn’t think we could ignore it.

The day before the gathering, Falwell sent an email to Erin Covey, our assistant news editor: “Let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.” When we explained our dilemma to RLC organizers, they tipped off a reporter at the Religion News Service, which ran a piece detailing Falwell’s censorship. Covey gave on-the-record quotes. Panyard, who was set to succeed me as editor in chief in a few weeks, briefed the reporter on background, as did I. (Vox also picked up the story and amplified it, and I imagine it galled Falwell to be depicted as an insecure tyrant in a liberal publication.)

The school’s response was swift. Falwell convened a tele-meeting with Bruce Kirk, who was then dean of the School of Communication, and our entire staff. They reprimanded us for talking to the press, and Falwell justified his censorship by arguing that the Red Letter Christians were “not keeping with the values of the university.” Then he spoke candidly for the first time about, as he saw it, the virtues of censoring us: “That’s what you kids are going to run into when you get into the real world and start working for for-profit newspapers. That’s what they’re going to expect of you, and I want you to learn that while you’re here.” Kirk, who was sitting with us for the meeting, chimed in, agreeing with Falwell. Being censored by a higher-up in the media industry is “just a part of life,” he said. (Before he began at Liberty, he worked for a local news station operated by Sinclair Broadcasting.)

After the meeting, I felt sick. I hadn’t said a word while Falwell flayed us for trying to practice basic journalism and act with integrity. I went into my office, closed the door and waited until most of the staff had left the newsroom. Then I sat down at my desk and wept.

A week and a half later, Kirk called Panyard and Covey into his office and told them they were being let go as part of a “reorganization.” Nobody else was affected; they’d been fired. It was the most aggressive and direct action the administration had ever taken to silence the Champion. I was not fired — I was a lame duck anyway — but I resigned and refused to take part in the production of the year’s final edition. I cleaned out my office that same day. Soon after, I learned I would be the last student editor in chief of the Champion and that from now on the paper would be run directly by the school. (Kirk did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.)

Even at Liberty, there are still those who publicly reject Falwell’s diktats. A petition supporting Mark DeMoss won more than 70 student signatures when Falwell ousted him in 2016. During the presidential election, free speech lived a little when Liberty United Against Trump, a student group, scored national media attention for its stance that the school did not uniformly approve of Falwell’s endorsement. It said it accumulated more than 2,000 student signatures for its statement.

Panyard, the deposed editor, launched a new independent newspaper, the Lynchburg Torch, with the help of other refugees from the campus weekly. In the past year, it has published stories that the Champion’s overseers would have blocked, such as a report on LGBTQ students who oppose Liberty’s position on same-sex relationships. Addyson Garner put on another rally this year to support queer Liberty students after transphobic comments from Falwell and his wife, Becki. (“We’re raising her as a girl,” Becki Falwell said of their granddaughter Reagan, as her husband looked on. “We’re not letting her have a choice.”) Dozens of students participated, according to Garner and posts on social media. It was the first time I had ever seen the rainbow pride flag flown openly on Liberty’s campus. The school is changing.

But in significant ways, it is not more tolerant, and it certainly does not celebrate “the open exchange of competing ideas” that Falwell described in his column. In a discussion with the incoming Champion staffers after I left, Kirk said, “Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is.” The students who recall a more open time at Liberty, before Trump, have now graduated. All those who remain chose to go to Falwell’s school after he endorsed Trump, forming a much more compliant student body that generally accepts and even supports Falwell’s crackdown culture.

I graduated last year. Since then, I’ve tried to put Liberty — and the stress and self-doubt that officials there saddled me with — behind me. But I still fume when Falwell spews dumbfounding conspiracies online or retweets a bigoted rant from Trump, and I still become uneasy when I see my diploma, which is sitting in a cluttered drawer at my parents’ house. I made amazing friends and memories on campus, but I’m realizing the extent to which I internalized the fear tactics; I still sometimes self-censor my thoughts and writing. How can a college education stifle your freedom of thought? When people ask me if I regret going to Liberty, as many do, I usually pause. I don’t know.

Doonesbury — Tweeterdum.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

We Have The Video

Charles P. Pierce sums up yesterday’s two-fer marathon in the House.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, Nuisance of the Nation, was gaggling outside the chambers of the House Judiciary Committee, and he was fairly glowing with the kind of radioactive glee common to shady used-car dealers and the peddlers of aluminum siding to infirm widows.

“Republicans,” Gaetz burbled, “are taking a victory lap.”

This is curious, indeed. In the first of his two appearances before congressional committees on Wednesday, former special counsel Robert Mueller testified that a) he didn’t indict the president* on obstruction at least partly due to that godawful Office of Legal Counsel opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted, an opinion that should be burned and have its ashes scattered on Sam Ervin’s grave; b) that a president*—like, say, this one—can be indicted once he leaves office, thereby implying that there is something there for which he could be indicted; c) that his report did not exonerate the president*; d) that there was a concerted effort on behalf of the White House to hamstring his investigation into the Russian ratfcking of the 2016 presidential election; and e) that Russia definitively wanted the president* to become the president*. And, remarkably, two of these statements came as answers to Republican senators [sic]. If this is a victory lap, I don’t know what a crash-and-burn would be.

(An aside: if Chuck Todd uses the word “optics” ever again in connection with American politics, I am going to raise William Allen White from the dead and make him put Todd on the night rewrite desk until Jesus comes home.)

Otherwise, the hearing was a matter of having Democratic members of the committee soliciting damaging, “Yes,” answers while Republicans yelled at Mueller, called his actions un-American, waved at him so the folks at home got the notion that Mueller was doddering, and basically loosed all the pent-up soundbites that they hadn’t yet gotten to deliver on Sean Hannity’s program. There ever was a citing of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email procedures. I mean, when you can line up Louie Gohmert, Padishah Emperor Of The Stupid People, Jim Jordan, and Gaetz, you have firmly set up headquarters in the Land of the Lost.

At one point, Jordan just started rattling off names that may be familiar to people in 4Chan chatrooms, but that were otherwise baffling.

THEY DIDN’T GO TO THE COURT. THEY USED HUMAN SOURCES. FROM THE MOMENT PAPADOPOULOS JOINS THE CAMPAIGN YOU’VE GOT ALL THESE PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD STARTING TO SWIRL AROUND HIM. NAMES LIKE HALPEL, DOWNER, MEETING IN ROME AND LONDON, ALL KINDS OF PLACES. THE FBI EVEN SPENT A LADY POSING AS SOMEBODY ELSE WHO AND DISPATCHED HER TO LONDON TO SPY ON MR. PAPADOPOULOS. IN ONE OF THESE MEETINGS MR. PAPADOPOULOS IS TALKING TO A FOREIGN DIPLOMAT AND HE TELLS THE DIPLOMAT RUSSIANS HAVE DIRT ON CLINTON. THAT DIPLOMAT THEN CONTACTS THE FBI AND THE FBI OPENS AN INVESTIGATION BASED ON THAT FACT. YOU POINT THIS OUT ON PAGE 1 OF THE REPORT, JULY 31ST, 2016, THEY OPEN THE INVESTIGATION BASED ON THAT PIECE OF INFORMATION. DIPLOMAT TELLS PAPADOPOULOS THE RUSSIANS HAVE DIRT — EXCUSE ME, PAPADOPOULOS TELLS THE DIPLOMAT THE RUSSIANS HAVE DIRT ON CLINTON, THEY TELL THE FBI. WHAT I’M WONDERING IS WHO TOLD PAPADOPOULOS? HOW DID HE FIND OUT?

Beats me. I fell out of the train back on “Downer.” I’m sure these conjuring words make sense to the initiates but, to me, it sounded like Jordan’s hard drive was downloading at warp speed.

The Democratic approach was best exemplified by Rep. Karen Bass of California, who led Mueller through a damning yes-no litany regarding the president*’s attempts to get Mueller fired through his then-White House counsel Don McGahn. Bass asked:

COMMUNICATING THROUGH HIS PERSONAL ATTORNEY, McGAHN REFUSED, BECAUSE HE SAID, QUOTE, THAT THE TIMES STORYWAS ACCURATE IN REPORTING THAT THE PRESIDENT WANTED THE SPECIAL COUNSEL REMOVED. ISN’T THAT RIGHT?

ON PAGE 113 IT SAYS, QUOTE, THE PRESIDENT THEN DIRECTED PORTER TO TELL McGAHN TO CREATE A RECORD, TO MAKE IT CLEAR THAT THE PRESIDENT NEVER DIRECTED McGAHN TO FIRE YOU, END QUOTE. IS THAT CORRECT?

AND TO BE CLEAR, THE PRESIDENT IS ASKING HIS WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL, DON McGAHN, TO CREATE A RECORD THAT McGAHN BELIEVED TO BE UNTRUE WHILE YOU WERE IN THE MIDST OF INVESTIGATING THE PRESIDENT FOR OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE. CORRECT?

OKAY. BUT THE PRESIDENT STILL DIDN’T GIVE UP, DID HE? SO THE PRESIDENT TOLD McGAHN DIRECTLY TO DENY THAT THE PRESIDENT TOLD HIM TO HAVE YOU FIRED. CAN YOU TELL ME EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED?

WELL, ON PAGE 116, IT SAYS THE PRESIDENT MET HIM IN THE OVAL OFFICE, QUOTE, THE PRESIDENT BEGAN THE OVAL OFFICE MEETING BY TELLING McGAHN THAT THE “NEW YORK TIMES” STORY DIDN’T LOOK GOOD AND McGAHN NEEDED TO CORRECT IT. IS THAT CORRECT?

Mueller answered, “Correct,” or “True,” or, “I refer you back to the report,” to all of these. And if that isn’t plainly an obstruction of justice, I don’t know what you’d call it. And the fact that Mueller wasn’t exactly Richard Pryor while delivering his answers doesn’t matter a damn. He said the president* is a crook. Everyone in Congress knows it, and they knew it before Wednesday even had dawned. But now there’s video.

I watched/listened off and on throughout the day, and while Mr. Mueller was not exciting and seemed at times to have trouble hearing the questions (hey, lighten up, the guy’s 74), he basically did his job.

It’s no surprise that the Republicans are trying desperately to turn the turds he handed them into gold ingots and mass mailing material for 2020.  No one ever doubted they would spin it like that.  The fact that they are doing it furiously just proves that they know that they are up a certain creek.

Not that this will give rise to an impeachment hearing or anything.  John Cassidy in The New Yorker:

The tragedy is that this might not matter. Even as Mueller was still testifying, some media commentary was intimating that his appearance wouldn’t change anything. “Those who wanted to begin impeachment proceedings needed bombshells from the former special counsel,” Politico’s Playbook newsletter said. “Mueller gave them nothing besides affirmation about what was in his report, and a series of sidesteps when he did not want to answer questions.” Later in the afternoon, the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, “If Democrats hoped this would be a seminal moment, they will apparently leave sorely disappointed—in large part because their star witness was no star.”

It is now up to the House Democrats. Leaving a meeting of her caucus on Wednesday afternoon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters, “The American people now realize more fully the crimes that have been committed against our Constitution.” But, in a subsequent press conference, she indicated that a move toward impeachment wasn’t imminent. “We still have outstanding matters in the courts,” she said.

Moving from here to impeachment with any hope of actually succeeding it like trying to carry a grand piano up the stairs by staring at it.  But what it does — if anything — is lay out a clear choice for the country in the next election cycle: do we want more of this, or do we want to return to what has passed for our quirky version of an honest and largely decent civilization.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Show Your Work

Some thoughts on Robert Mueller’s reluctance to testify because he says everything he had to say is in his report:

When I wrote my PhD thesis, I still had to mount an oral defense and undergo some rather rigorous questioning by my committee. It wasn’t a pro forma event; I had to defend my sources, research methods, and conclusions, and it lasted over two hours. I passed, but it was not a foregone conclusion, and I know some candidates who had to go back and basically re-write their thesis.

I don’t know if they have the same sort of exam in law school to get the degree, but someone as smart and insightful as Robert Mueller should know he couldn’t just lay this report on us and walk away.

What To Expect

So today is the day Robert Mueller is going to testify before Congress.  The way the cable channels — one in particular — are playing it up, it’s the Super Bowl and the Nixon Tapes Revelation Day at the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 all rolled into one.

I hate to burst their bubble, and I know they’re doing it to hike the ratings so they can up their rate card for selling prescription meds with side effects that are worse than the disease, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to measure up to the hype.  And if anyone out there thinks that once Mr. Mueller is done, any Republicans will say “Holy shit, Trump’s a criminal!”, you might as well flip over to We TV and watch “Law & Order” re-runs; there’s more courtroom drama there.

Of course the Republicans are lying in wait for him, sharpening their claws with pointed “gotcha” questions, which, if history is any guide (see Clinton, Hillary; Benghazi hearings) will resonate like a popcorn fart yet still get the wormtongues at Fox News all twitterpated.  And of course if the Mueller investigation had been scrutinizing a Democrat, they’d have voted out articles of impeachment the day the report hit the press.  So don’t expect any moving of any needles from them, and we’ll be back to where we started.

The only way today’s testimony is going to change the game is if it inspires further investigation into what happened in 2016.  But that’s what Mr. Mueller was doing all these years, and if there were further leads, I’m pretty sure he’s not been sitting on them just so he can do a big reveal on live cable TV.

So watch it if you want, but save the popcorn for when you’ll really need it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Trying To Muzzle Mueller

It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here.

Justice Department officials have communicated to Robert Mueller that the department expects him to limit his congressional testimony this week to the public findings of his 448-page report, according to one current and one former U.S. official familiar with the preparations.

In extensive discussions since the former special counsel was subpoenaed on June 25 to testify, department officials have emphasized that they consider any evidence he gathered throughout the course of his investigation to be “presumptively privileged” and shielded from public disclosure.

The Justice Department is “taking the position that anything outside the written pages of the report are things about which presidential privilege hasn’t been waived,” the former U.S. official said.

The White House and the Justice Department, however, have signaled they don’t intend to place lawyers in the room during Mueller’s highly anticipated testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on Wednesday.

Without a presence at the hearing, administration officials would have little recourse to prevent Mueller from going off-script and revealing details of his investigation that the White House considers off-limits. They are poised instead to rely on Mueller to self-police his remarks, indicating that they are confident the former special counsel will stick to carefully planned comments that mirror the already disclosed findings of his investigation.

Not that Mr. Mueller has been a blabbermouth anyway, this ham-handed attempt by the White House to limit the testimony of a witness is rather telling in itself: what do they think he’s going to talk about other than what’s in the report?

There are two points to ponder here.  First, as Josh Marshall notes, it’s outrageous that the DOJ is trying to limit the investigation by a co-equal branch of government.

Barr is saying, on no credible legal basis, that Congress has no right to know anything about an investigation of the President – one which concluded with a report that basically invited an impeachment inquiry – other than what was released in the public report.

Second, if as the Trump people and his thumbs claim there’s no there there, why are they making such a big stink about keeping Mr. Mueller from testifying?  Let him talk and show the world that there’s nothing to all the hoopla and it’s all fake news.  Trying to silence or limit him only makes it more likely that there’s something to hide.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Mueller To Testify Before Congress

Via the Washington Post:

Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will testify to Congress in a public session next month about his investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and possible obstruction of justice by President Trump, a reluctant witness long sought by House Democrats.

The House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, in an announcement late Tuesday, said that “pursuant to a subpoena,” Mueller has agreed to appear before both panels on July 17. Mueller, who oversaw the 22-month inquiry, is perhaps the one person lawmakers and the nation have been wanting to hear from the most.

I wonder what the betting is on Trump doing something to divert attention: bomb Iran?  Make out with Kim Jong-un?  Read aloud from Uncle Wiggly?

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Stuff Of Drama

From the page to the stage:

A star-studded cast — including John Lithgow, Alyssa Milano, Alfre Woodard, Annette Bening and many others — will perform in a play based on the Mueller report.

The performers will take the stage Monday for “The Investigation: A Search For The Truth in 10 Acts,” a play written by Robert Schenkkan. The work by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Schenkkan is based on special counsel Robert Mueller‘s 448-page report on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill, “Veep’s” Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Sigourney Weaver are also reportedly poised to participate in the reading. The event is being hosted and livestreamed by LawWorks, an organization that says it works with “bipartisan voices and educates the public on the importance of the rule of law, the role of the special counsel in the justice system, and the integrity of our judicial institutions.”

Also among the high-profile list of performers appearing in the one-night-only Mueller report reading in New York: Kevin Kline, Joel Grey, Gina Gershon, Zachary Quinto, Kyra Sedgwick, Piper Perabo, Michael Shannon and Jason Alexander, among others.

The performance comes just days after a Washington theater announced it would host an 11-hour reading of the second volume of Mueller’s report that deals with possible obstruction of justice committed by President Trump.

Arena Stage said next month’s reading would feature as many as 200 guests, including D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and former Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), as well as Democratic activists.

I wonder who got to play the part of “Redacted”?

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Civic Duty

Robert Mueller’s nine minutes on TV yesterday pretty much wrapped up Trump and Attorney General Barr in Saran Wrap and delivered them to the front steps of the Capitol.  “Okay, Congress; this is your turd now.”

Departing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III finally spoke publicly Wednesday, and his carefully chosen comments highlight the ways in which he disagrees with his boss, Attorney General William P. Barr, about the facts and the law surrounding the investigation into President Trump.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said Wednesday.

Barr had that confidence. He declared in March that while Mueller’s principal conclusions did not include a determination of whether the president had committed the crime of obstruction of justice, Barr had reviewed the evidence and concluded Trump did not break the law.

“The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime,” Barr wrote to Congress at the time.

In his report and his public remarks, Mueller indicated he holds a different view on the question of potential presidential crimes, refusing to clear the commander in chief and alluding to Congress’s impeachment power as the constitutional arbiter.

So now we will see what they will do with it.  If it was up to me, I’d send a cordial but unequivocal invitation to Mr. Mueller to show up at a Congressional hearing.  He can’t just ride into the sunset.

[…] that brings us to the most disappointing thing about Mueller’s brief appearance on Wednesday: his stated reluctance to appear before Congress. He has no excuse left. He is a private citizen now. And if he only repeats what’s in the report, on television, in front of the country, it will contribute mightily to the political momentum behind the demands that Congress do its damn job or shirk its duty entirely. He still needs to testify. He still needs to take questions. He’s only a citizen like the rest of us now, and he has a duty to do the right thing. We all do.

Shit happens when good people do nothing.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Good Question

If the Mueller report totally exonerated Trump and proved that there was NO COLLUSION at all ever oh yeah, then why would he object to Robert Mueller testifying to Congress?

Trump reversed himself on Sunday and said that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, should not testify before Congress, setting up a potentially explosive confrontation with Democrats over presidential authority and the separation of powers.

The president argued on Twitter that Mr. Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election — which found no conspiracy between Moscow and Mr. Trump’s campaign but did not exonerate the president on obstruction of justice — was conclusive and that Congress and the American people did not need to hear from Mr. Mueller. “Bob Mueller should not testify,” he said. “No redos for the Dems!”

On Friday, Mr. Trump had said it was up to Attorney General William P. Barr whether Mr. Mueller testified. The president’s about-face now puts new pressure on Mr. Barr, who must decide whether to accede to Mr. Trump’s call. Last week, Mr. Barr said he had no objection to Mr. Mueller testifying.

So what’s the problem?  What could Mr. Mueller possibly say that would undermine Trump’s claims about his pure-as-the-driven-snow innocence?  If anything, he should be in favor of the world hearing straight from Mr. Mueller how the entire investigation was a total waste of time, right?

I’d say that this was evidence of a guilty conscience, but we have yet to have any proof that Trump has one in the first place.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

That’s Not What I Said

Turns out Robert Mueller has some issues about the way Attorney General William Barr interpreted his report.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III wrote a letter in late March complaining to Attorney General William P. Barr that a four-page memo to Congress describing the principal conclusions of the investigation into President Trump “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of Mueller’s work, according to a copy of the letter reviewed Tuesday by The Washington Post.

[…]

“The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller wrote. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”

One-minute play version:

MUELLER: While there’s plenty of evidence pointing to obstruction on the part of Trump and his gang, we are leaving it up to the Congress and the Department of Justice as to whether to proceed…

BARR: HE’S INNOCENT!  NO COLLUSION!  GO AWAY!

Anyone for some popcorn?

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Sunday Reading

The Stakes Are Mortal — Charles P. Pierce on Joe Biden’s run for the White House.

It is a troubled time in America. Institutions are tottering. Widespread discontent is evident in the streets. There is a profound lack of faith in our ability to govern ourselves and in the ability of our leaders to solve the crises that seem to be growing by the hour. The president is embattled. He is besieged. His re-election seems uncertain. In these desperate hours, a veteran leader, a former vice-president, steps forward and offers himself in service to his country. He assures us we are strong enough to meet all these challenges, and that we are a better people than we have demonstrated ourselves to be. He says:

“…your responsibility is greater than ever. The nation is in grave difficulties, around the world and here at home. The choices we face are larger than any differences among Republicans or among Democrats, larger even than the differences between the parties. They are beyond politics. Peace and freedom in the world, and peace and progress here at home, will depend on the decisions of the next President of the United States. For these critical years, America needs new leadership. During [my] years in Washington, I learned the awesome nature of the great decisions a President faces…I have had a chance to reflect on the lessons of public office, to measure the nation’s tasks and its problems from a fresh perspective. I have sought to apply those lessons to the needs of the present, and to the entire sweep of this…century.

And thus did Joe Biden announce his candidac…no, wait. That’s Richard Nixon from 1968.

Here’s a better one.

Did we come all this way for this? Did American boys die in Normandy and Korea and in Valley Forge for this? Listen to the answers to those questions. It is another voice, it is a quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non shouters, the non demonstrators. They’re not racists or sick; they’re not guilty of the crime that plagues the land; they are black, they are white; they’re native born and foreign born; they’re young and they’re old. They work in American factories, they run American businesses. They serve in government; they provide most of the soldiers who die to keep it free. They give drive to the spirit of America. They give lift to the American dream. They give steel to the backbone of America. They’re good people. They’re decent people; they work and they save and they pay their taxes and they care.Like Theodore Roosevelt, they know that this country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless it’s a good place for all of us to live in.

And thus did Joe Biden announce his candidac…no, wait. That’s Richard Nixon again, accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1968, after having failed to be elected president in 1960, and after having failed to be elected governor of California in 1962.

Joe Biden is not Richard Nixon. (Although, to be fair to the historical record, they once held the same position on busing.) He is not history’s yard waste. He does not teem with angry angst and delusions of persecution and self-esteem that can be measured in a teaspoon. He enters the 2020 presidential campaign with a lifetime in politics to defend, and with eight years of being Barack Obama’s vice-president that served to take much of the edge off that lifetime of politics. In his campaign announcement video, he makes clear that he learned about the politics of this perilous moment from those eight years as Obama’s wingman.

I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen. The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America is at stake.

That’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for president of the United States. Folks, America’s an idea—an idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant. It gives hope to the most desperate people on earth. It guarantees that everyone is treated with dignity. It gives hate no safe harbor. It instills in every person in this country the belief that no matter where you start in life, there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you work at it.

This is Biden channelling the spirit of Obama’s famous breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, a speech that subsequent history—and Mitch McConnell—have fed into the shredder, and a speech that the election of this president* proved to be woefully naive and, quite honestly, as full of shit as the Christmas goose. The fact is that many of us are not better than the politics we see today, that this moment in time is not as aberrant as Biden says it is. In 1968, Richard Nixon subtly stirred the same politics of resentment while simultaneously saying he would bring us together.

The current president* just doesn’t bother with the second part, is all. We indeed are in a battle for the soul of this nation and one of the major fronts in that battle is just what the soul of this nation truly looks like. That question remains wide open.

Does Biden recognize this? Does his vaunted appeal to regular Joes and Janes blind him (and us) to the fact that a lot of those people have been digesting the ideological crud spooned out to them for so long that they’ve developed a taste for it, that a lot of the salt of the earth hath lost its savor? The arc of Joe Biden’s long career almost perfectly traces the rise of conservative politics that culminated inevitably in the election of the current president. It tracks precisely the end of the Roosevelt coalition and the powerful salience among those same voters of appeals to racial and cultural hatred. It follows in close harmony the endless attempts by the Democratic Party to backtrack on its most profound principles in order to bring back people who have been taught to hate it day after day on their radios and television sets, and by the politicians who have convinced them that their lowest impulses are their highest triumphs, and that the better angels of their nature wear brass knuckles and carry a sap under their robes. To argue that we are better than the politics of the Trump Era requires a whopping offer of proof. Is Biden able to provide it?

Standing in this same place a third of a century ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a Nation ravaged by depression and gripped in fear. He could say in surveying the Nation’s troubles: “They concern, thank God, only material things.” Our crisis today is the reverse. We have found ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth. We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them. To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit. To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves. When we listen to “the better angels of our nature,” we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things–such as goodness, decency, love, kindness. Greatness comes in simple trappings. The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us.

Richard Nixon said that on a cold day in January of 1969, seven months before Americans landed on the moon and a year before he first approved a plan devised by an ambitious young fascist named Tom Charles Huston to use the intelligence apparatus of this country to spy on political activists and political opponents. Eventually, he rescinded that plan, formally, but several elements stayed active within the government. In 1972, he was re-elected in an unprecedented landslide.

Joe Biden is not Richard Nixon. Neither is he Donald Trump nor Barack Obama. He is joyful where Nixon was paranoid and where Obama was cool and considered. He is not grossly cynical, nor is he imperturbably rational. He is as he always has been—an incurable optimist whose burbling good will occasionally run ahead of his syntax and his ideas. He believes we are better than we keep proving ourselves to be. He’d better be right, because the stakes are mortal this time around.

The Mueller Report and “Game of Thrones” — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

Among the many oddities in the second episode of the new (and final) season of “Game of Thrones,” none was odder than the disproportion of time spent combating a desperate existential threat versus time spent arguing over the demands of dynastic primacy. After spending approximately thirty seconds on an actual plan to defeat the Night King and his icy undead army (and a terrible plan it was: Bran, you hang out around the old tree and try to catch the king in some kind of mind-meld, and we’ll have the P.T.S.D. victim Theon Greyjoy mind you as you do), far more time was spent on whether a single, and single-handed, knight, Jaime Lannister, might be an acceptable ally to the Stark-Targaryen clans. Accused by Daenerys of having been the kingslayer of her father, and therefore the guy against whom she had sworn vengeance, Lannister gave a strange response. One expected him to say, “Look, your dad was called the Mad King for a reason. He burned people alive and was a threat to existence and decency, no matter what his last name, or what house he belonged to. One thing I’ll never feel ashamed about is helping to expel that lunatic.” Instead, he spoke the language of dynastic squabbling—insisting that he had acted only on behalf of his house and his family—and (in a horrible bit of anachronistic dialogue) got the imposing Brienne of Tarth to say that she would “vouch” for him.

The eloquent relevance of this scene to our current real-world predicament is obvious: too much of the discussion of what to do about an unhinged monarch turns on a modern version of dynastic squabbles—on party politics, on who will do well or badly, on how it will play out for Democrats in the 2020 election, on what it will do to the Republican base, and so on. This squabbling seems, in light of the release of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, irrelevant and even kind of frivolous. What the report reveals is what we sensed but could not entirely know: that Donald Trump has contempt not just for the rule of law but for the idea of law. He is a man who rose to power knowing only loyalty and subservience as acceptable institutional attitudes; a man who, according to the report, asked the White House counsel to “do crazy shit” and then asked him to lie about it; a man who repeatedly tried to obstruct not just an investigation into what he or his campaign might have done but the whole idea of an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Those who predicted that Trump was not just another right-wing politician but an opponent of liberal democracy grow chill watching him assert the position—one that was not long ago as unacceptable to Americans as the idea of commending a foreign autocrat’s attempts to subvert our elections—that the Department of Justice should now pursue his political opponents for nonexistent crimes.

That the scale of the danger Trump poses is becoming clearer to more and more people is due to the paradoxical truth that, despite Trump’s endless claims to the contrary, the Mueller report is the least witch-hunt-like witch hunt in the history of witch hunts. Painfully, dutifully, at times in ways almost unduly dainty, the report works its way through the intricacies of its charge, of Department of Justice standards and practices, of what it can fairly conclude, and of what can’t be legitimately pursued. It does so with a sober judiciousness that would be wonderful to read if one were not a little haunted by the fact that not all special prosecutors or independent counsels have previously shown so much delicacy of mind. One recalls that hit of yesteryear, the Starr Report, written, as seemed evident at the time and still more so now, with the sole political purpose of humiliating President Bill Clinton into resigning, even though its own initial charge—to investigate the Whitewater land deal—left it with insufficient evidence to indict.

The finding of the Mueller report, ably occluded by Attorney General William Barr, isn’t that there was no collusion and no obstruction—it’s that there isn’t enough evidence to rise to the legal level of conspiracy, and that obstruction was not a charge that the office was permitted to pursue, in any case, because Trump is a sitting President. And then that—a rather convoluted piece of reasoning—the accusation cannot be unambiguously stated even if it is true, since it is also against the rules to accuse of a crime someone who can’t defend himself in court. The actual point of view of the authors, though, is made clear in their repeated, and rather ornate, return to an otherwise bafflingly opaque formula: if we could conclude that the President was exonerated of the charge of obstruction we would say so, but we can’t. In cash-value, or real-world, terms, they are saying that they can’t properly say that they found obstruction, but they did find a lot of evidence and are passing it along to those who might be allowed to act on it. It’s a heavy hint in the form of a labyrinthine legal argument.

It may be that, in retrospect, the Mueller investigation will be seen to have been unduly cautious. The failure to subpoena Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, Jr., is puzzling. So, too, is the larger failure to compel the President to be interviewed in person, given the almost aggressive absence of responsiveness in his written answers. This seems particularly evident considering that the independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s team had no compunctions about subpoenaing Bill Clinton to testify, despite the more trivial nature of its initial charge. (They withdrew it after Clinton agreed to testify.)

But, on the whole, and taken on its own terms, the Mueller report is a powerful and positive document, because it is written testimony to the liberal faith in the power of rules and systems to bring order and justice. Mueller and his team were trying on every page of the report and in every instance to follow the rules, even if the rules they were following forced them into contorted prose and easily misrepresented positions. The rules are worth following, the underlying premise of the report insists, because only in accepting the rules can we insure justice. This is why the language of “norms” and their violation is misapplied to Trump and his conduct. What is at stake here are not “norms,” in the sense of ornamental ritual regularities in the conduct of office. What is at stake are rules—rules meant to insure objective judgment and fair dealing no matter who the subject may be or how you may feel about his or her conduct. These are fair-minded rules put in place by the painfully slow accession of power to procedure, equitable rules put in place over time and that, historically, remain vanishingly rare. As “Game of Thrones” reminds us—it may be the chief reason for the show’s current appeal—the rule of pure power asserting itself exactly as it likes whenever it likes is what most often happens among human beings.

This is why the idea that Mueller cleverly engineered his report to force Congress to act misses the point. Mueller didn’t intend it. The rules did. This is why impeachment—at least attempting to remove from power someone obviously unfit to hold it, whatever the outcome may be—has, within a week, passed from a distant speculative possibility to what seems to many like a primary moral duty. It is being miscast as a prudential act, or even as an act of overdue partisan aggression. Right now, it seems more like collective self-defense against a common danger.

Doonesbury — Outsourcing.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Real Threat

Hillary Clinton in the Washington Post:

Our election was corrupted, our democracy assaulted, our sovereignty and security violated. This is the definitive conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report. It documents a serious crime against the American people.

The debate about how to respond to Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” attack — and how to hold President Trump accountable for obstructing the investigation and possibly breaking the law — has been reduced to a false choice: immediate impeachment or nothing. History suggests there’s a better way to think about the choices ahead.

Obviously, this is personal for me, and some may say I’m not the right messenger. But my perspective is not just that of a former candidate and target of the Russian plot. I am also a former senator and secretary of state who served during much of Vladi­mir Putin’s ascent, sat across the table from him and knows firsthand that he seeks to weaken our country.

I am also someone who, by a strange twist of fate, was a young staff attorney on the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate impeachment inquiry in 1974, as well as first lady during the impeachment process that began in 1998. And I was a senator for New York after 9/11, when Congress had to respond to an attack on our country. Each of these experiences offers important lessons for how we should proceed today.

First, like in any time our nation is threatened, we have to remember that this is bigger than politics. What our country needs now is clear-eyed patriotism, not reflexive partisanship. Whether they like it or not, Republicans in Congress share the constitutional responsibility to protect the country. Mueller’s report leaves many unanswered questions — in part because of Attorney General William P. Barr’s redactions and obfuscations. But it is a road map. It’s up to members of both parties to see where that road map leads — to the eventual filing of articles of impeachment, or not. Either way, the nation’s interests will be best served by putting party and political considerations aside and being deliberate, fair and fearless.

The Republicans, of course, will not listen to this.  All they will say is that she’s a sore loser and E-MAILS!  But what is so striking is that they and a lot of other people were willing — and still are — to take Trump’s word that the Russians did nothing to interfere with the election of 2016 and are just as likely to do the same next year.  Oh, but our real national security is threatened by refugees from Central America who are begging, with their last dime, for asylum.  But the systematic corruption of our electoral system?  Nah.

We have to get this right. The Mueller report isn’t just a reckoning about our recent history; it’s also a warning about the future. Unless checked, the Russians will interfere again in 2020, and possibly other adversaries, such as China or North Korea, will as well. This is an urgent threat. Nobody but Americans should be able to decide America’s future. And, unless he’s held accountable, the president may show even more disregard for the laws of the land and the obligations of his office. He will likely redouble his efforts to advance Putin’s agenda, including rolling back sanctions, weakening NATO and undermining the European Union.

Of all the lessons from our history, the one that’s most important may be that each of us has a vital role to play as citizens. A crime was committed against all Americans, and all Americans should demand action and accountability. Our founders envisioned the danger we face today and designed a system to meet it. Now it’s up to us to prove the wisdom of our Constitution, the resilience of our democracy and the strength of our nation.

The very fact that Trump and his toadies are saying “Move along, folks, nothing to see here,” is reason enough to hold hearings and get to the truth.  It may lead to impeachment; it may not.  But to sit back and do nothing is exactly what the Russians are expecting us to do.  They know we’re too easily distracted by trivial bullshit and shiny objects; while the country is obsessed with the latest Kardashian sighing, they’re robbing us and getting away with it.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sunday Reading

Be Grateful — Kori Schake in The Atlantic.

Passover and Easter are religious holidays of gratitude—gratitude for the release of the Jewish people from Egypt, gratitude by Christians for the sacrifice of Jesus in redemption for humanity’s sins. The Trump administration may have cynically calculated that releasing the Mueller report on the eve of a double holiday might dampen interest, but the timing seems oddly fitting, because the special counsel’s findings provide so much to be grateful for.

Undoubtedly, the special counsel’s report on the 2016 election makes for grim reading. A foreign government conducted a years-long campaign to undermine American democracy. It used the openness of our society and the technologies of our creation against us. Russia crafted “a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States,” paired with criminal acts designed to assist the election of Trump. And they succeeded.

The Russian influence operation should be taught in graduate schools of political science and journalism—and in intelligence training programs. Operatives began in mid-2014 to identify social fissures and build a wide following. They passed as American citizens and organizations while assisting candidates Trump and Bernie Sanders. They shifted as the presidential race narrowed to “a targeted operation that by early 2016 favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton.” They orchestrated not just internet activities but also acts in the physical world, including rallies. They intruded into the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to steal hundreds of thousands of documents, made those documents public via third parties thought to be independent of the Russian government (including WikiLeaks), attempted (in some cases successfully) to access voting machines in 21 U.S. states, and surreptitiously purchased political advertising to affect voting in swing states. The former FBI agent Clint Watts has argued that even shielding Trump from direct contact was by design, because the “standard Russian approach would have been to influence Mr. Trump through surrogates like Mr. Gates and Paul Manafort rather than through direct command.”

Nevertheless, let us be grateful that our worst suspicions were not substantiated: The president of the United States is not a traitor. A liar, a petty and ineffectual chief executive who repeatedly attempted to get others to commit illegal acts and suborn themselves for his protection—those qualities the Mueller investigation proved. But not a traitor. The Mueller investigation unearthed no evidence that the president is in the employ of a hostile foreign power or actively cooperating with a hostile foreign power to harm our country. That it even had to be proved is shocking, but it is nonetheless a relief to know that Trump is not a Manchurian candidate.

The rule of law is being upheld even where politically damaging to the powerful. Special Counsel Robert Mueller determined that Russian activities violated U.S. criminal law and charged those identified with “conspiracy to defraud the United States by undermining through deceptive acts the work of federal agencies charged with regulating foreign influence in U.S. elections, as well as related counts of identity theft.” The investigation concluded that there was no evidence American citizens had conspired or coordinated on those operations, which is also cause for relief (although the report notes a “reasonable argument” that Donald Trump Jr. violated campaign-finance laws).

Another source of relief is the extent to which the agencies of government and civil society worked as intended. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency saw the pattern of interference early and properly reported it to both the executive and legislative branches. They were unwavering in their assessments even when the president attempted to suborn them (the deputy attorney general, the FBI director, the NSA director and deputy director all documented those attempts). The Justice Department initiated investigation and sustained it against blistering pressure. Individual failures abounded, but bureaucracies are designed to buffer against individual failure, and they largely succeeded.

Journalists, too, deserve applause and appreciation. American media reported on all of the key elements in the report before its publication: Instigation of social division, the Trump Tower meeting, Paul Manafort’s decision to share polling data, WikiLeaks’ timed release of hacked emails to blunt the effect of the Access Hollywood tape, Eric Prince’s Seychelles meeting, Michael Flynn’s phone call to Russian Ambassador Kislyak, widespread lying to investigators by Trump associates. The only new element I saw in the Russia volume of the Mueller report was that Jared Kushner had devised a “reconciliation plan” for the U.S. and Russia. Journalists, too, have been under constant derogation by the president, yet have continued to provide the public with accurate information and essential insight into the conduct of administration officials.

Journalists do deserve some condemnation for their unwitting complicity in Russia’s interference campaign. Russian military intelligence rightly assessed that American journalists would be unable to resist the temptation to report on criminally acquired information. All of the major American news outlets regaled readers with stories of hypocrisy and personal quirks (John Podesta’s pasta sauce) that hurt the Democrats. Keeping our government honest requires journalists to receive leaks, and journalism is a business as well as a profession, so they are not to be maligned for writing about what the public will pay to read or watch. But in this new Wild West of cyberespionage, journalists ought to be more introspective about whether to publish stolen information.

I’m also grateful that, through this process, rather unlikely individuals have proved themselves capable of standing on principle. I confess I was surprised by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s starchiness in protecting the investigation, as well as by the number of people who simply disregarded presidential direction they considered illegal or immoral. Obviously it’s not ideal that senior government figures felt they had to ignore the elected chief executive, but even some of the least upright people the president has surrounded himself with, it turns out, have a useful sense of self-preservation, maybe a moral compass. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis got a standing ovation at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner for his integrity; the Mueller report indicates that figures of less obvious rectitude deserve credit for protecting the republic from the president.

Out To Get Them — Satire from Andy Borowitz.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Reacting to the journalist April Ryan’s call for her to be fired, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said, on Friday, that she has been the victim of the media’s “widespread anti-liar bias.”

“From their obsession with fact-checking to their relentless attacks on falsehoods, the media have made no secret of their bias,” Sanders said. “It’s open season on liars in America.”

“This is media hypocrisy at its very worst,” she added. “The same journalists who advocate freedom of speech want to take that freedom away from anyone whose speech consists entirely of lies.”

“This is nothing more or less than a direct attack on the lying life style,” she said. “You take away my right to lie and you take away my ability to earn a living.”

Kellyanne Conway, the White House senior counsellor, spoke out in support of Sanders, telling reporters, “An attack on one liar is an attack on all liars.”

“Our country has seen some dark days, from the Bowling Green Massacre to the bugging of the White House microwave,” she said. “But this might be the darkest.”

Doonesbury — Milestones.

Friday, April 19, 2019

From Here On Out

Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker:

In the most memorable scene in the most anticipated government report in recent history, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, takes us inside the Oval Office on May 17, 2017. President Trump, having fired the F.B.I. director in an apparent effort to shut down the investigation of him and his 2016 campaign, was in the middle of interviewing candidates for the new vacancy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, much to the President’s fury, stepped out of the room to take a phone call. He returned with bad news: his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, had appointed Mueller to be a special counsel and conduct an independent investigation. Russiagate would live on. Trump “slumped” over in his chair, according to the report. “Oh, my God, this is the end of my Presidency,” he said. “I’m fucked.”

For now, at least, it appears that he was wrong. The appointment of Mueller did not lead to the end of Trump’s Presidency. Not yet, and probably not ever. The release of the special counsel’s report, on Thursday, showed that Mueller did not turn up conclusive evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians who interfered in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy. But the report’s belated publication, almost four weeks to the day after Mueller submitted it to Attorney General William Barr, is hardly the “complete and total exoneration” that Trump initially claimed it was and that Barr misleadingly and incompletely portrayed to the country. We knew that wasn’t the case the minute Trump said it.

What we didn’t know until Thursday, when we finally saw the four-hundred-and-forty-eight-page document, is how much evidence Mueller had amassed about the President, panicked and in crisis mode, trying to shut down and block the investigation. The report documents ten different incidents that raise questions about the President’s behavior. Was it obstruction of justice? The Mueller report concluded (albeit in legalistic and unclear language) that that is a matter for Congress to decide. And Congress, as a matter of political calculation and senatorial math, remains unlikely to pursue the question to its bitter end.

Whatever happens, and for however long the Trump regime lasts, be it until 2021 or 2025, it will be scarred, tarred, and broken by the Mueller report, redacted or not, or whether or not it winds up as a series on Netflix.  History will prove that how Trump got to office and how he dealt with the aftereffects will overshadow and skew anything he does, and just as Watergate will forever be the tagline and epitaph for Richard Nixon, not to mention the people who worked with and for him, the story of Russian meddling and how the Trump regime responded to it will be the first line in its obituary.

And it’s all his own doing.  The only reason he’s not under indictment for collusion is that his campaign couldn’t get their act together to do it right.  As for obstruction of justice, it’s certainly not for the lack of trying.

So despite all the crowing and calls to move on from the base and the Wormtongues at Fox, Trump called it: he’s fucked.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Mueller Thursday

So, here we go.

The Justice Department plans to release a lightly redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s 400-page report Thursday, offering a granular look at the ways in which President Trump was suspected of having obstructed justice, people familiar with the matter said.

The report — the general outlines of which the Justice Department has briefed the White House on — will reveal that Mueller decided he could not come to a conclusion on the question of obstruction because it was difficult to determine Trump’s intent and because some of his actions could be interpreted innocently, these people said. But it will offer a detailed blow-by-blow of the president’s alleged conduct — analyzing tweets, private threats and other episodes at the center of Mueller’s inquiry, they added.

Attorney General William P. Barr plans to hold a 9:30 a.m. news conference to address “process questions” and provide an “overview of the report,” a senior Justice Department official said. The report will be delivered on discs to Capitol Hill between 11 a.m. and noon and posted on the special counsel’s website thereafter, the official said.

Thus beginneth the spinning.

Thursday’s rollout plan — and news of the White House’s advance briefing, which was first reported by ABC News and the New York Times — sparked a political firestorm Wednesday, with Democrats suggesting the attorney general was trying to improperly color Mueller’s findings before the public could read them.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at a news conference that Barr “appears to be waging a media campaign on behalf of President Trump” and had “taken unprecedented steps to spin Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation.” He said after his committee had time to review the redacted report, he would ask Mueller and other members of his team to testify before Congress.

And the Republicans, who impeached Bill Clinton for lying about a blowjob from an intern, will suddenly have found that their moral compass now includes giving latitude to working with a foreign hostile power to win an election.  But hey, at least there’s room to think he didn’t mean to.  Which means the excuses you’re going to hear from Fox News and the Trumpistas is that he was too stupid to figure out that he was being played by the Russians and certain members of the campaign staff, none of whom he says he ever laid eyes on.

But you know there has to be some news in the report that casts doubt on the Trump’s motives and his actions.  Otherwise, why would the White House and their cronies be gearing up such an elaborate response effort?

Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers, has said he is preparing a counter-report to Mueller’s findings and in a recent interview said his document would explain from the president’s viewpoint every episode that could be considered obstructive. Giuliani and others have long feared Mueller’s findings on obstruction, viewing them as potentially more damaging than anything found on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians.

Mueller did not find a conspiracy between Russians and Trump or his campaign, Barr said in a brief letter describing the special counsel’s conclusions shared with Congress late last month.

Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s attorneys, told The Post, “We do not discuss conversations that we may or may not have had with the president.” A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to address questions about its briefings to the White House, the report’s redactions or Mueller’s findings on obstruction.

Oh, and speaking of collusion…

Trump had also apparently been briefed in advance of the planned news conference, which he revealed Wednesday during a radio appearance only to have it confirmed later by a Justice Department spokeswoman. Barr will appear alongside Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, the spokeswoman said, and he planned to take questions.

Barr has faced intense scrutiny from the public and lawmakers on Capitol Hill for his handling of Mueller’s report so far. The Thursday news conference could give him an opportunity to address his critics — and perhaps provide them fresh ammunition. It is sure to be watched closely by Trump, an avid TV viewer whose relationship with his attorney general will almost certainly be colored by Mueller’s findings and what Barr says about them.

Since when in the course of jurisprudence and legal ethics has the prosecution worked with the defendant to provide a cover and alibi for the accused?  Maybe that works in a regime where the fix is already a forgone conclusion.  Like in Russia.

Josh Marshall:

The goal here is to max out every avenue to protect the President from the contents of the Report. Bill Barr and his friends at the White House clearly do not care what anyone outside of Trump world thinks at this point. They are not even bothering to keep up appearances at the margins. A good and increasingly relevant question for Bill Barr at this point would be at what point the statutory powers of the Attorney General can amount to obstruction of justice if exercised with corrupt intent.

[…]

Every detail of this has been planned to spin the Report or maximally conceal it in the interests of protecting the President.

None of this is on the level.

Not that it was ever going to be on the level in the first place.

So, brace yourself, kids; it’s going to be a wild ride.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Sunday Reading

Yes, It Matters — Lucas Grindley in The Atlantic on Pete Buttigieg’s sexuality.

Pete Buttigieg plays harmonica, guitar, and piano! He speaks Norwegian! Whoa, he actually speaks eight languages! I heard he even wrestled a bear live on CNN. None of the gee-whiz stories solidifying into the Buttigieg canon make any difference to me in deciding which of the Democratic candidates will get my vote. But as a gay man, I do care that Buttigieg is gay.

In my lifetime, it has been illegal for me to serve in the military, illegal for me to marry, illegal for me to adopt children, and even illegal for me to have sex. Society barred me from the first three; until 2003, the fourth meant risk of a fine or a prison sentence in some states. This discrimination did not just happen in a history book—it happened to me, and it happened to Buttigieg, too.

I am two years older than Buttigieg. We could have grown up with the same cartoons, listened to the same music, felt the same fear when we heard that Matthew Shepard had been murdered. We’ve lived through discrimination, and the fact that laws have changed doesn’t alleviate the trauma of our past. Ask our gay elders whether they’ve recovered from losing their friends and colleagues who died by the tens of thousands during the AIDS crisis. That pain is fresh.

During an interview with an LGBTQ magazine, Buttigieg described himself as “somebody whose marriage exists as a function of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court.” Our position in society is hardly secure. The fight for equality isn’t won. It still matters that I am gay, so it matters to me that Buttigieg is gay.

Today, if Buttigieg or I wish to donate blood, we must abstain from sex for one year, or our blood is deemed unfit for use. Gay people are still classified as so great an HIV risk that it’s easier to reject our blood.

In many states, it remains legal to fire gay people for being gay. And if you’re tired of hearing about that fact, imagine how tired I am of living it. There is no public-accommodations law at the federal level that stops landlords from refusing to rent me an apartment if I show up for the home tour while holding my husband’s hand.

Buttigieg was mayor of South Bend when the Indiana governor signed a law in 2015 allowing businesses to turn away gay customers. That law didn’t stick, but the governor is now our vice president, Mike Pence. He stuck. Forgive me if I like the idea of having someone in the White House who understands what I’ve been through, and who would protect me from the people who would turn me away.

An NBC News poll published in March found that 30 percent of Americans said voting for a gay or lesbian candidate would make them “very uncomfortable” or give them “some reservations.” How polite. That’s the third I worry about whenever I consider kissing my husband goodbye in public.

For the first time in my life, I’m now represented in government by another gay man, Brian Sims, the outspoken Pennsylvania lawmaker who went viral for flipping off Mike Pence. (He represents my corner of Philadelphia in Harrisburg.)

Sims told me that being gay put Buttigieg in “learning situations” that give the candidate “heightened insight into issues far beyond human sexuality.” Sims believes that a “multidimensional identity can help educate, enlighten, and ultimately solve many of our most pressing cultural problems.”

Identity matters. Like most Democrats, I have not yet decided who to vote for in a primary that is still months away. But I believe it matters that Cory Booker is a black man, that Kamala Harris is the daughter of an Indian mom and a Jamaican dad, and that Buttigieg is gay. These facets of their identities mean that they can understand the powerless, as victims of power, and that they can understand the alienated, having been marginalized.

Beyond questions of empathy, Buttigieg being out is germane because he’s a role model to those who want to come out.

Gay men are largely missing from positions of power. An out gay man has never served on the U.S Supreme Court. Not a single out gay man served on the federal bench until President Barack Obama took office. There is not and has never been an out gay man in the U.S. Senate. Buttigieg came out in 2015 on his own terms, but that counts as progress only in an unfair system. Mike Michaud didn’t have that luxury just two years earlier when running for governor of Maine; he faced a whisper campaign.

There is one (and only one) out gay man leading a Fortune 500 company: Tim Cook came out in 2014 after becoming CEO of Apple. I notice that absence and hear it like a whisper that says I don’t belong whenever I’m in a conference room dominated by straight males. I confess there was a time when I monitored the way I sat, my gestures, even whether my voice was loud enough.

“When you are a member of a marginalized or often invisible community, there is something especially powerful about seeing someone like you that isn’t actually you,” said Erin Uritus, the head of Out & Equal, a group for LGBTQ business people, when I asked her about Buttigieg. “When LGBTQ young people wonder what is in store for their future and they can look to Tim Cook or Rachel Maddow or Pete Buttigieg, their entire world opens up.”

Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different had I grown up with a gay role model. “I can’t even begin to quantify the transformative power of visibility in belonging,” Uritus said.

The movement for equal rights has made tremendous strides. But we are not immune from persecution, especially not young people. Researchers at the Williams Institute estimate that 4.5 percent of the American population is LGBTQ. They also estimate that 40 percent of youth in homeless shelters are LGBTQ.

You can be sure that LGBTQ people are paying attention to how society treats Buttigieg as a candidate. The questions on their mind: Is it safe out there? Is this really possible?

“Anytime a member of our community breaks through a barrier, it’s extremely significant,” said Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island when I asked whether it matters that Buttigieg is gay. Cicilline ought to know; he was also the first out mayor of Providence—or any state capital. “For young members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom may be suffering discrimination or bullying or even being ostracized from their own family, seeing a member of our community run for president helps them know it’s going to be okay.”

“As we continue the fight for full LGBTQ equality,” Cicilline said, “Mayor Buttigieg’s candidacy is an important measure of the progress we’ve made.”

As a gay man, I will definitely factor that progress into my vote for president.

The Fix Is In — Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker on William Barr’s choices for the Mueller report.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the intellectual polymath who represented New York in the United States Senate for twenty-four years, developed a well-founded skepticism toward government secrecy. Bureaucrats and others, Moynihan knew, could always conjure reasons to keep information under wraps, and the ratchet of secrecy generally worked in only one direction. Secrets begat more demands for secrecy, at ever greater peril to the public’s right to know what was happening in its name. Secrecy, Moynihan wrote in his 1998 book of that title, thus became “a hidden, humongous, metastasizing mass within government itself.”

That swelling mass may yet envelop the Mueller report. When President Trump nominated William P. Barr to be Attorney General, late last year, it was clear that one of his principal responsibilities would be to determine how much of the forthcoming report from Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel, would be disclosed to the public. At each stage in the process, Barr has narrowed the range of information that he says he will allow the public to see. At his confirmation hearing, in January, he pledged that he would be guided by a commitment to “transparency.” Last month, though, after Barr received Mueller’s four-hundred-or-so-page report about possible ties between President Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian interests, and the President’s attempts to cover them up, the Attorney General, on his own initiative, created a series of roadblocks to public disclosure.

Under the Department of Justice regulation that sets the rules for the release of a Special Counsel’s report, the Attorney General is supposed to consider the “interests of the public in being informed of and understanding the reasons for the actions of the Special Counsel.” But Barr erected a quasi-legal structure that gives him enormous leeway to censor much of the Mueller report. According to a letter he sent to congressional leaders, Barr established four categories that were off limits for public disclosure. They are: “Material subject to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e) that by law cannot be made public”—that is, matters subject to grand-jury secrecy; classified information; matters relating to other pending investigations; and, finally, “information that would unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties.”

The first category, about protecting grand-jury secrecy, sounds straightforward, but it isn’t. The Supreme Court has never precisely defined the scope of Rule 6(e). In its narrowest (and best) interpretation, it means that grand-jury testimony cannot be released to the public. But some courts have suggested that it covers any subject that was discussed in the grand jury—potentially a much broader category. Barr did not disclose what definition he plans to adopt, but a broad conception could keep substantial amounts of Mueller’s report out of public reach. Barr had the option of petitioning the federal district court in Washington, D.C., to relieve him of the demands of grand-jury secrecy. (Such a ruling allowed wide public disclosure of grand-jury matters during Watergate.) But there is no sign that he sought this kind of permission.

The classified-information category is the least controversial. Still, the intelligence agencies are notoriously overzealous in classifying their own information. (This is a major theme of Moynihan’s book.) If Barr were to defer to them on this issue, that act would virtually guarantee widespread deletions in the report.

The third area, concerning information about other investigations, such as those under way in the Southern District of New York, provides another expansive loophole for the Justice Department. Indeed, Mueller himself has already redacted significant amounts of information from his own court filings on this ground. Because prosecutors do not reveal the scope of ongoing investigations, there is essentially no way to check Barr’s work in this category; we will simply have to trust him. This area is a black box—and Barr controls its contents.

The fourth category is an invention on Barr’s part; there is no law or regulation prohibiting disclosures of this kind. Moreover, the words are subject to wide interpretation. What does “unduly” mean in this context? Who is a “peripheral” third party? What counts as an infringement on someone’s reputation? It’s all, apparently, up to Barr. And this category also raises the most provocative question. As is now well known, Justice Department policy prohibits the indictment of a sitting President. Thus, because Mueller cannot indict Trump, the President, by definition, becomes one of those third parties mentioned in the regulation. Considering this scenario, is it possible that Barr could also prohibit disclosure of any information about the President? This would be an outrage, but it’s a potential outcome of Barr’s four-part test.

The Attorney General also reported to Congress what he said were the principal conclusions from Mueller’s report. According to Barr, Mueller found no evidence of criminal collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but he apparently regarded the evidence on obstruction of justice by the President as too ambiguous to make a final call. News reports last week suggested that some members of Mueller’s staff think that Barr slanted the evidence in the report in order to make Trump look good. What is certain is that Barr took Mueller’s equivocating as an invitation to make his own decision to exculpate Trump. The Attorney General had no business volunteering such a judgment about an investigation he did not conduct, but, when it came to obstruction of justice, he could not resist riding a favorite hobbyhorse.

In June of 2018, while he was still a private citizen, Barr, of his own accord, wrote a nineteen-page memo to senior officials of the Justice Department asserting that, in light of the President’s inherent constitutional powers, Trump could not have obstructed justice. This memo probably played no small part in Trump’s decision to choose Barr in the first place. Barr has now turned his outsider’s judgment (which is likely wrong on the merits) into an official vindication of his new boss. In all, Barr has taken every possible step to lessen the sting of the Mueller report—and, so far, to block it from view altogether. Senator Moynihan was educated not only in the halls of academe but in the streets of New York, and he might well have reached an earthy conclusion about this Attorney General and his President: the fix is in.

Doonesbury — Gimme Shelter

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Drip…Drip…

You had to know that this — leaks from the Mueller team — would happen soon enough.  Via the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations.

At stake in the dispute — the first evidence of tension between Mr. Barr and the special counsel’s office — is who shapes the public’s initial understanding of one of the most consequential government investigations in American history. Some members of Mr. Mueller’s team are concerned that, because Mr. Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel’s findings, Americans’ views will have hardened before the investigation’s conclusions become public.

Mr. Barr has said he will move quickly to release the nearly 400-page report but needs time to scrub out confidential information. The special counsel’s investigators had already written multiple summaries of the report, and some team members believe that Mr. Barr should have included more of their material in the four-page letter he wrote on March 24 laying out their main conclusions, according to government officials familiar with the investigation. Mr. Barr only briefly cited the special counsel’s work in his letter.

However, the special counsel’s office never asked Mr. Barr to release the summaries soon after he received the report, a person familiar with the investigation said. And the Justice Department quickly determined that the summaries contain sensitive information, like classified material, secret grand-jury testimony and information related to current federal investigations that must remain confidential, according to two government officials.

Mr. Barr was also wary of departing from Justice Department practice not to disclose derogatory details in closing an investigation, according to two government officials familiar with Mr. Barr’s thinking. They pointed to the decision by James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, to harshly criticize Hillary Clinton in 2016 while announcing that he was recommending no charges in the inquiry into her email practices.

The officials and others interviewed declined to flesh out why some of the special counsel’s investigators viewed their findings as potentially more damaging for the president than Mr. Barr explained, although the report is believed to examine Mr. Trump’s efforts to thwart the investigation. It was unclear how much discussion Mr. Mueller and his investigators had with senior Justice Department officials about how their findings would be made public. It was also unclear how widespread the vexation is among the special counsel team, which included 19 lawyers, about 40 F.B.I. agents and other personnel.

What is very clear is that there’s a lot more to the Mueller report than what the Attorney General summarized in a four-page letter that read like some kid in Grade 6 writing a book report on Treasure Island: “There were no pirates.”

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sunday Reading

It’s Mueller Time — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

Late last year, Vintage Books reissued “Night of Camp David,” a political thriller from 1965 that seemed to rhyme with the strangeness of our era. The novel centers on a Commander-in-Chief named Mark Hollenbach, who is gradually coming unwound. President Hollenbach is in the habit of summoning confidants to his cabin in the Maryland woods, where, at night, he turns off the lights and rants until dawn about the conspirators encircling him. He rails against pernicious legislators, disloyal appointees, and craven reporters. For no coherent reason, he intends to distance the United States from Western European allies and make common cause with a Kremlin leader named Zuchek. He also wants to tap every telephone in the country, declaring, “No respectable citizen would have a thing to fear. It’s the hoodlums, the punks, the syndicate killers, and the dope peddlers we’re after.” Lacking Twitter, he writes deranged letters. One key character is a Supreme Court Justice by the name of Cavanaugh. The marketers at Vintage shrewdly wrapped the reissue in a black-and-white cover emblazoned with a question intended to play upon the country’s collective jitters: “What Would Happen if the President of the U.S.A. Went Stark-Raving Mad?”

The author, Fletcher Knebel, wrote a popular syndicated column in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, called “Potomac Fever,” before turning full time to fiction. “Night of Camp David” was published the same year that Congress passed the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which clarified the procedure for removing a President who is no longer able to carry out his duties. Half a century later, Potomac Fever has reached new heights; for the past two years and two months, it has been hard not to think periodically about that crucial addition to the Constitution.

The Trump Presidency has, from the first, represented a threat to truth, liberal democracy, and the rule of law. Donald Trump’s contempt for basic norms of governance is accompanied by a lack of decency, empathy, and psychological stability. This was never more evident than this week, when Trump, seemingly rattled by the imminence of the Mueller report, set off a fusillade of unhinged tweets, called the spouse of one of his senior advisers a “whack job,” raged about the late Senator John McCain in front of a military audience at a tank plant in Lima, Ohio, and pronounced the Democratic Party “anti-Jewish,” deepening, at every turn, the impression that he is unfit for government work.

The perils of such instability are incalculable. Sidney Karper, the wizened Defense Secretary in “Night of Camp David,” says of Hollenbach, “It is sheer folly to have that man anywhere near the command and control machinery.” In the novel, a self-appointed council of party leaders, Supreme Court Justices, and members of the security establishment secretly deliberates on how to deal with the delusional President, and catastrophe is averted. Hollenbach coöperates in his own removal from office, and, in the end, he is deemed to have “the finest heart in America.”

Current realities offer no such reassurance. Trump has the psyche of an emotionally damaged toddler. You hear this not only from his ideological opponents but from countless departing confidants, lawyers, and advisers. He is devoted not to public service but to feeding the demands of his ego and his appetites.

The pressures on Trump will inevitably increase now that the Mueller report has been delivered to the Attorney General. Meanwhile, a raft of investigators on various congressional committees and in outposts of the Justice Department are accelerating their searches into matters including hush-money payments, money laundering, irregular security clearances, foreign interference in the 2016 election, illegal use of inaugural funds, and improper use of foundation money. And yet it is impossible to imagine Trump changing his behavior. He retains the support of the Republican leadership; the odds of his completing his term are considerable. Trump’s affinity for the autocratic likes of Rodrigo Duterte, Mohammed bin Salman, Jair Bolsonaro, and Vladimir Putin suggests that he might refuse—as his former satrap and attorney Michael Cohen warned he would—to give up power without trying to undermine the legitimacy of the American political system. What’s more, given Trump’s skills in the dark arts of campaigning and the general public satisfaction with the economy, no matter its inequities or vulnerabilities, it would be foolhardy to discount his chance of winning reëlection.

The emergency that the Trump Presidency represents leaves the Democratic Party’s cast of candidates with a singular responsibility—to win the election—and two colossal reclamation projects. The first involves the environment. Presidential debates in past elections have largely ignored the costs of climate change. But public opinion on the topic is moving, and there is cause for at least some political optimism in the fact that many Democrats have gotten behind the idea of a New Deal-scale effort to address the issue. Candidates who can best give shape to that impulse and find a plausible way to make it a legislative reality deserve the most urgent attention.

The second reclamation concerns Trumpism. Somehow, sometime, Trump will leave the political stage; but the moral and material corruption he has inflicted will be with us for a long while. Who has the vision and the language to confront xenophobia and white-supremacist ideology? Who has the dexterity and the pragmatism to enact reforms on voting rights, health care, immigration, mass incarceration, and campaign finance, and so strengthen a stressed democracy? Who has the political acumen to argue for policies adequate to resolve our crises and, at the same time, to win back the millions of voters who cast a ballot for Barack Obama and then shifted to Trump?

Trump will be dropping loaded hooks in the water every day, but Democratic candidates ought not take his bait. He’ll use “socialism,” “Jexodus,” or whatever comes to mind as a means of distraction and division. It is perfectly legitimate to test the candidates and their potential weaknesses: Are Biden and Warren and Sanders too old? Is Beto O’Rourke the second coming of Robert Kennedy, or does he just look like him when you squint? And so on. But the kind of serious campaigns and debates that are never found in political novels are precisely what’s now required.

Spring Elsewhere — Marina Koren in The Atlantic finds out what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.

Ah, spring.

The season of vibrant flowers lining the sidewalk on the commute home, their gentle fragrance wafting into the air. Of sunshine that calls for a light jacket instead of a bulky coat. Of the passionate urge to clean everything in sight.

Outside The Atlantic’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, it’s about 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius)—not warm enough for open-toed shoes, but still more pleasant than, say, a polar vortex. I’ve been longing for this day, and it got me thinking about spring on other planets, and whether it even exists.

We owe the seasons to Earth’s axis, which stays tilted at about 23 degrees as the Earth loops around the sun. But the orientation of the planet’s hemispheres in relation to the sun changes; different parts of the Earth lean toward or away from the sun at different times of the year, and receive varying amounts of sunlight.

But how do other planets work? To find out, and also to procrastinate my spring cleaning, I reached out to some scientists who spend their days thinking about other worlds.

Mercury

“Mercury doesn’t really have anything approaching spring, or any season for that matter,” says Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist at North Carolina State University. The planet’s axial tilt, a fraction of a degree, is negligible. “The amount of daylight at a given latitude on Mercury is essentially fixed during the entire year.”

The daylight is relentless and scorching. But the orientation produces a rather cool phenomenon. “It lets Mercury have regions of permanent shadow near its poles that are never sunlit, and lets ice be present in those regions—even on the planet closest to the sun,” says Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

“It’s one weird little planet,” Byrne adds.

Venus

“There is no springtime on Venus, nor any other season—no seasons in hell!” says Allan Treiman, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

It’s difficult to sugarcoat the environment on Venus. Surface temperatures are a sizzling 870 degrees Fahrenheit (470 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt lead, all year round. Like Mercury’s, Venus’s axis isn’t tilted enough to produce a noticeable difference.

But the real reason the planet doesn’t have any seasons is its atmosphere, which is choked with clouds. “The clouds are so thick that its surface gets nearly no light or heat from the sun. Nearly all the sunlight and heat are absorbed by clouds, which then radiate heat down to the surface—the famous greenhouse effect,” Tremain says. “Venus clouds circulate faster than the surface does, so all the greenhouse heat is spread around the planet, whether it’s day or night.”

That’s not all. “To top everything else off, Venus’ day is longer than her year,” says Vicki Hansen, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. (It takes 243 Earth days for Venus to rotate once on its axis, but 225 Earth days for the planet to loop around the sun.) “So if she had spring, it would be hard to say what day it happened.”

Mars

Mars’s axis is tilted slightly more than Earth’s—about 25 degrees—which means the planet experiences distinct seasons, too. In fact, like the Northern hemisphere here, the Northern hemisphere on Mars is entering spring now.

“The Northern hemisphere is starting to heat up; the Southern hemisphere cooling off—just like on Earth,” says Don Banfield, a scientist at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science.

Well, not just like on Earth. Orbits affect seasons, too; the Martian year is twice as long as a terrestrial year, so the seasons stretch out longer. There are seasonal trends, such as summer dust storms, “but without rain and plants, they aren’t quite as obvious,” says Banfield.

Jupiter

“Jupiter does not have a springtime,” says Cheng Li, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Like Mercury, Jupiter’s axial tilt is too small to matter.

Saturn

Saturn does have spring: Its axial tilt is similar to that of Earth and Mars.

“Saturn is warm in the summer and cold in the winter,” says Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester. “The clouds and chemicals respond to these changes in sunlight. Perhaps the best example is the color of Saturn’s atmosphere, which shifts from blue hues in the winter—relatively clear skies with very few hazes—to golden hues in summer—a more smoggy atmosphere with lots of hazes.”

Saturnian spring also provides the most visibility for a massive, hexagon-shaped storm at the planet’s north pole that has mesmerized scientists for years. Some parts of Saturn can even experience miniature versions of seasons, thanks to its shimmering rings.

“A fixed point in Saturn’s atmosphere would experience additional periods when the rings shade the sun,” says Mike Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We actually have something like this at my house, because the neighboring building has a billboard on top. From a certain date in November to a certain date in February, our roof is in constant shade because the billboard blocks the sun, so our house gets colder.”

Uranus

With a 98-degree tilt of its axis, Uranus basically spins on its side. This alignment means the planet experiences the most extreme seasonal contrasts in the solar system.

“The poles get a great deal of illumination from an overhead sun that barely seems to move in the sky during local summer and a great deal of darkness in winter,” says Glenn Orton, a scientist at NASA’s JPL. “As spring begins, the sun is virtually always at the horizon for anyone living at the poles and virtually straight overhead for a Uranian in the low-latitude tropics.” (We should clarify: These are fictional Uranian residents. Alien life hasn’t been discovered there.)

During spring, a giant white cap emerges over the north pole, standing out against the planet’s usual blue hues. Scientists suspect the warming temperatures produce atmospheric changes.

This far out in the solar system—where orbits are vastly longer—seasons stretch out for years. A Uranus spring lasts 21.

Neptune

Spring on Neptune is twice as long. The planet experiences distinct seasons, but “I don’t think we’ve been able to observe Neptune long enough with enough detail to say for sure how spring in one hemisphere differs from any other season in terms of atmospheric activity,” says Anne Verbiscer, a planetary scientist at the University of Virginia.

Pluto

“Why yes, it’s springtime on Pluto right now, at least in the northern hemisphere!” says David Grinspoon, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. “And it has been since 1990.”

(Please don’t overthink the inclusion of Pluto on this list. Scientists have spent years arguing over the correct categorization of this celestial body. For some of them, the 2006 decision to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet is not the final word. We’ll leave the debating to them.)

Pluto’s orbit around the sun is highly elliptical. “The distance to the sun is quite different for the same season in the south versus the north,” Grinspoon says. “This creates asymmetrical and extreme climate behavior where, over the timescale of the seasons—which are many decades long—the atmosphere goes through the magnitude of changes that on other planets we would call climate changes.”

Spring sounds mild compared with colder seasons. Without enough exposure to sunlight, Pluto can get so cold that its atmosphere freezes and falls on the surface. “You can imagine what life would be like if we had that experience on Earth,” says Bob West, a scientist at JPL. “The air we breathe and which sustains all life on the dry land would form crystals of water, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide and fall to the ground as snow, leaving a near vacuum where once there was air.”

Wow. A little spring cleaning doesn’t sound so bad now.

Doonesbury — Origin stories.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Reality Check

Other than the fact that Robert Mueller has delivered his report to the Attorney General and no new indictments are forthcoming from him, none of us knows any more than we did before 5 p.m. Friday, March 22, 2019.

So you might as well just turn off the cable chatter and read a book, take a walk, do the crossword puzzle, clean the kitchen, or whatever.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Covering The Coverup

The New York Times is out with an analysis of how Trump and his minions have routinely tried to quash, silence, and intimidate anyone or any news organization trying to uncover the truth about whatever the hell is going in in his administration.

WASHINGTON — As federal prosecutors in Manhattan gathered evidence late last year about President Trump’s role in silencing women with hush payments during the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump called Matthew G. Whitaker, his newly installed attorney general, with a question. He asked whether Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York and a Trump ally, could be put in charge of the widening investigation, according to several American officials with direct knowledge of the call.

Mr. Whitaker, who had privately told associates that part of his role at the Justice Department was to “jump on a grenade” for the president, knew he could not put Mr. Berman in charge because Mr. Berman had already recused himself from the investigation. The president soon soured on Mr. Whitaker, as he often does with his aides, and complained about his inability to pull levers at the Justice Department that could make the president’s many legal problems go away.

Trying to install a perceived loyalist atop a widening inquiry is a familiar tactic for Mr. Trump, who has been struggling to beat back the investigations that have consumed his presidency. His efforts have exposed him to accusations of obstruction of justice as Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, finishes his work investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Mr. Trump’s public war on the inquiry has gone on long enough that it is no longer shocking. Mr. Trump rages almost daily to his 58 million Twitter followers that Mr. Mueller is on a “witch hunt” and has adopted the language of Mafia bosses by calling those who cooperate with the special counsel “rats.” His lawyer talks openly about a strategy to smear and discredit the special counsel investigation. The president’s allies in Congress and the conservative news media warn of an insidious plot inside the Justice Department and the F.B.I. to subvert a democratically elected president.

An examination by The New York Times reveals the extent of an even more sustained, more secretive assault by Mr. Trump on the machinery of federal law enforcement. Interviews with dozens of current and former government officials and others close to Mr. Trump, as well as a review of confidential White House documents, reveal numerous unreported episodes in a two-year drama.

White House lawyers wrote a confidential memo expressing concern about the president’s staff peddling misleading information in public about the firing of Michael T. Flynn, the Trump administration’s first national security adviser. Mr. Trump had private conversations with Republican lawmakers about a campaign to attack the Mueller investigation. And there was the episode when he asked his attorney general about putting Mr. Berman in charge of the Manhattan investigation.

Mr. Whitaker, who this month told a congressional committee that Mr. Trump had never pressured him over the various investigations, is now under scrutiny by House Democrats for possible perjury.

On Tuesday, after The Times article published, Mr. Trump denied that he had asked Mr. Whitaker if Mr. Berman could be put in charge of the investigation. “No, I don’t know who gave you that, that’s more fake news,” Mr. Trump said. “There’s a lot of fake news out there. No, I didn’t.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman said Tuesday that the White House had not asked Mr. Whitaker to interfere in the investigations. “Under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, then-Acting Attorney General Whitaker stated that ‘at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation,’” said the spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec. “Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony.”

The story of Mr. Trump’s attempts to defang the investigations has been voluminously covered in the news media, to such a degree that many Americans have lost track of how unusual his behavior is. But fusing the strands reveals an extraordinary story of a president who has attacked the law enforcement apparatus of his own government like no other president in history, and who has turned the effort into an obsession. Mr. Trump has done it with the same tactics he once used in his business empire: demanding fierce loyalty from employees, applying pressure tactics to keep people in line and protecting the brand — himself — at all costs.

It should be noted that the Justice Department’s denial of Mr. Whitaker’s actions is irrelevant.  It’s that Trump tried to get an attorney that was on his side to run the investigation.  Whether or not Mr. Whitaker complied isn’t the issue; that Trump tried is.

What emerges from this story is that Trump is obsessed with putting an end to any news coverage of him that isn’t fawning.  Given his past and his personality, that’s not surprising, but where it has gotten him in trouble is that in order to win over the base and win the election, he and his minions engaged in illegal acts, and now they’re trying to cover them up and intimidate and demonize anyone who is trying to get to the truth.  Innocent people don’t act like that.  If they’ve done nothing wrong, they don’t need to.

The other element in this story is the acknowledgment that the public is basically immune to being outraged or surprised by Trump.  That’s to be expected in a time when a viral meme can come and go with the lifespan of a fruit fly — this week’s media obsession is next week’s question in bar trivia contests — but whether or not the public cares or is aware of high crimes and misdemeanors really has no bearing on whether or not he should be held accountable.  Nor should the attempts by his leather-lunged supporters to distract our attention with yet another attempt to bring up Hillary’s e-mails or Barack’s birth certificate.  Those of us who are old enough to remember Watergate know that the public was far more interested in what happened to Patty Hearst than what Richard Nixon was doing in the West Wing.  It wasn’t until the Senate hearings interrupted “The Price Is Right” and soap operas that the average voter was even aware that crimes had taken place, and their response was typical: “When will I get my stories back?”

Fortunately that doesn’t matter.   Justice and the application thereof is not based on how it trends on Twitter, and no amount of threats and cries of “Fake News!” will put an end to it.