• Archive of "Democracy" Category

    Blackface: Confronting One’s Integrity in the Past

    February 6, 2019 // 19 Comments »


     
    We live in an age when one’s past is dragged up by those with ill intent to confront one’s integrity in the present.
     
    If you worked in Asia in the 1980s or earlier, you likely remember a popular toothpaste called, sadly, Darkie. It featured a caricature of a black-faced minstrel performer on the label, with shining white, white teeth.

    I have an old Polaroid photo of a very young American diplomat from that era, now a senior official, dressed as that logo, complete with blackface and a top hat, from a long-ago Halloween party. Others present were dressed as local characters, logos, kind of a theme. One person was done up as the Frito Bandito, a caricatured portrayal of Mexicans. The black-faced diplomat was not a racist then and is not now, actually has done some important things for the State Department at some personal risk in terms of getting it to treat its people better. Most today would describe him as “woke.”

    Yet I am sure the NYT, or if not them, TMZ, would rush to publish the photo and the diplomat would be pressed to resign. His career would be impacted, his decent work stopped, and none of that would have a whit of any effect on racism in America. Unspoken is the idea that the same guy who wore blackface then is the same guy who is doing good things today. You just know something more about one evening long ago that now seems to matter so much when it doesn’t matter at all.

    I have no intention of revealing the photo from three decades ago. But we live in miserable times for this kind of thing when judging someone based on 30 years of their life seems to make less sense than picking something from 30 years ago and ignoring everything else since.
     
    Our society’s current solution is to selectively allow offenders to apologize, often accompanied by a sizable donation to some appropriate charity. Kevin Hart was offered the chance with hosting the Oscars as his prize, Louis C.K., not so much. Al Franken’s time came too soon; today he’d likely be let off by the mob with a heartfelt mea culpa; one can see the tears behind those smug glasses.

    But overall the idea of apologizing as a work-around is a bit of a strawman, a cheap trick to somehow drag the discrete events of the past into the present day — well, he did XYZ in 1984, but he continued not to apologize for the last 35 years! And it offers the mob another chance to judge; see, it’s about something happening today (the apology) and not an event from when TV was in black and white! Yet in one case it was presented as enough to derail a Supreme Court nomination and in another it is dismissed as a political smear.

    Anybody can say they’re sorry, especially under the gun of the social media-regular media mob that passes judgement on these things. What might make more sense is to look for are amends, what someone has done with their life since some bad thing. Are you a better person? Are you still espousing racism? What have you done with the years? Oh, but that’s complicated. Easier to snarl at a old photo and tweet.
     
    Inside the world of security clearances, where practicality often still overrules mob shoutdowns, standards have evolved. When I joined the State Department during the Reagan era, you could not get a clearance if you admitted to smoking a joint, and you certainly could not be cleared if you admitted to being gay. Same for holding significant debt, which supposedly made you vulnerable to Russian spy payoffs. Heavy drinking? Well, that was almost part of the job description and was generally overlooked. It got to the ridiculous point where only good liars, people from strict religious backgrounds, and folks who could hold their liquor could pass.

    If today was debt was a show stopper the vast majority of young applicants, with their massive student loans, would be denied clearances. Limited illegal drug use in the past is not a problem in most cases, and we all know of the 180 degree change on LGBT status. There are still showstoppers in the clearance process (having relatives in “bad” countries is a huge issue as more and more first generation Americans, some with critical language skills, seek clearances,) but the emphasis is now on holism, a long view of a person’s life that looks for trends and patterns instead of hyper-focusing on singularities.

    Few claim Northam in blackface is a good thing. The real question is at what point do we judge, a single point in the past or the sum of a man’s life. I don’t know much about his work in the last 35 years, but that seems a more reliable indicator of how he’ll serve as governor (the actual issue) than a photo from whenever. Northam resigning does not erase racism of the past, and it does nothing practical about racism today. He just joins the crowd of those sacrificed at the altar of identity politics, a feel-good to the many who only seem to have realized these issues exist since Trump was elected.
     
    See, it is not like this issue of how the past affects the present is new; we’ve just resolved it more practicaly in other iterations. How many states are seeking to allow felons to vote again? Parole, expungement, time served — people who have committed actual crimes, even murder, get to a point where they can move on.

    Our tolerance for illegal drugs has followed a similar path. Decades ago, Bill Clinton was confronted with accusations he smoked marijuana. To save himself, he came up with the line that while he may have once held a joint to his lips, he never actually inhaled (Clinton would employ similar word play later in his career over whether a blow job constitued sex.) Fast-forward to candidate Barack Obama, who early on casually admitted to smoking weed, and even experimenting with other drugs. The public response? Meh. People grow, people change, that was then.

    The alternative is to allow the mob greater control. With Facebook turning 15 years old today, politicians on the rise will find more and more of their pre-celebrity lives documented. Will we band together online to hunt down every person who ever did anything wrong and drive them out of home and job in some Great Cleansing? What happens when definitions of “wrong” morph? Is such a mob vetting likely to bring better people into government, or send them running?

    Unspoken is the idea the same guy who wore blackface then is the same guy who was elected by the people of Virginia now and, until about a week ago, apparently well-thought of by them. We all just know something more about his past that powerful forces are seeking to drag forward into the present and claim represents a different man. We live in the age when one’s past is dragged up to confront one’s integrity in the present.
     
    We don’t want to talk about Brett Kavanaugh, but there are elements that awkwardly pair with the Northarm story. What really happened decades ago? Are we learning about those events now accurately and unemotionally, or are they being spoon-fed through a ready tablodized media for partisan political ends?

    How were the Kavanaugh accusations, uncorroborated and in some instances refuted by other witnesses, more in line with #BelieveWomen than those now directed by a woman at the Virginia Lieutenant Governor but labeled as a political smear by his supporters? Yet in one case it was presented as enough to derail a Supreme Court nomination and in another it is dismissed as a political smear, spiked by a partisan Washington Post who basically said to the victim “Honey, time to take one for the team, we’re not running this an causing a Democrat to lose this election. Now, did Judge Kavanaugh ever lay a hand on you?”

    And not a single 2020 Democrat has commented on Fairfax, though pretty much all have condemned Northam. Meanwhile, in the hearings to replace Kavanaugh in his old job, Democrats hyperfocus not on the nominee’s years on the bench, but on her now-politically incorrect articles written by the nominee in the 1990s, containing what they label as anti-feminist advice such as “a man who rapes a drunk girl should be prosecuted. At the same time, a good way to avoid a potential date rape is to stay reasonably sober.” We’ll leave judging the actual usefulness of such advice to those with daughters reading this.

    Now imagine the potential for what we awkwardly call blackmail should an unscrupulous lobbyist confront a politician with some old photos, asking for a political favor. Need we demand candidates hand over their yearbooks along with their old tax forms as a bulwark against social media mob justice?
     
    This is about the future, not Ralph Northam. How did the very serious business of #MeToo end up a political tool? How did we get to a place where old yearbook photos may overturn an election? Why are we accepting this as the way we’re conducting our democracy?

      

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    Posted in Democracy

    Seriously WaPo?

    February 4, 2019 // 5 Comments »

    Seriously WaPo, you spent millions on a Super Bowl ad using Tom Hanks to tell us, “Um, guys, really, journalism is good.”
     
    And your best strategy for that is paint yourselves as victims, brave patriots who put their lives in danger to report the news?
     

     
    Oh! My dudes, seriously, a tiny, tiny number of journalists are ever hurt or killed due to their jobs, though a huge number daily seek “Victim Status” on social media bragging about their death threats. The fact they think their job is some heroic or dangerous profession shows how deluded the media has become and I guess, full circle, why WaPo needs to spend millions to convince the public to take what passes as journalism there seriously.

    I much preferred the Super Bowl commercial that seemed to suggest someday little girls will play pro football, or the tribute showing Dr. King’s relatives endorsed the coin toss.

    And by the way, WaPo, that “democracy dies in the dark” catch-phrase is way, way over dramatic, especially coming from a paper that bases most of its political coverage on anonymous sources and documents leaked to harm someone’s political enemies using you as the tool.

      

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    Venezuela: What Happens in an Evacuation?

    January 30, 2019 // 7 Comments »


     

    Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered American diplomats to leave his country. The United States refused. What happens next?
     

    Last week in Venezuela opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido declared the current Maduro government illegitimate. President Trump agreed, announcing the U.S. considers Guaido “interim president.” Maduro responded by cutting off diplomatic ties and ordering American diplomats out under a deadline now extended for 30 days. Washington said Maduro’s orders are invalid as he no longer has “legal authority to break diplomatic relations or declare our diplomats persona non grata,” and thus will not withdraw embassy staff. Standoff.

    Trapped in the middle of this high-level muscle-tussle are America’s diplomats on the ground in Caracas. Maduro threatened to cut off the electricity and water to the embassy, and more than one person inside State remembers it was 38 years ago last week American diplomatic hostages were finally released by Iran, after government-sponsored “students” took over the American Embassy in Tehran. Will Maduro, who still enjoys the loyalty of the Venezuelan military, harm U.S. diplomats, leading to some sort of military intervention by the U.S.?

    Unlikely. Shooting one’s way out of Dodge is used only as the last resort when no one is in charge, and thus there’s no one to negotiate with. Whether it’s Maduro, or Guaido, or some as-yet nameless colonel in the Venezuelan army, that is not the situation in Caracas. It is always safer to talk your way out. That said, such rescue scenarios are part of Marine units’ special operations qualification tests, and are regularly practiced. I participated in three such field exercises and many tabletop versions during my 24 years as an American diplomat.

    With the glaring exception of Tehran, diplomatic hostage situations, and evacuations under force are uncommon. Instead, traditions dating back to the Greeks are generally followed. The host country, Venezuela in this case, is always responsible for the safety of diplomats inside its borders. Embassies are special places that while not “sovereign soil,” are inviolable, off-limits to host country law enforcement and military. As such, diplomats’ physical presence is often used to send a message. Things will get tense — the symbolism almost requires them to get tense — but in the end both sides know the boundaries.

    The norms were respected throughout the Cold War and beyond. The former U.S. Embassy building in Afghanistan was left largely untouched even as the Taliban swept to victory. Saddam did not take any U.S. diplomats hostage despite two wars, and the old American Embassy in Baghdad was never attacked. The list of all 250 diplomats killed since 1780 has only a handful who lost their lives under direct attack; the majority of deaths were due to disease.
     
    The idea behind this record of general safety is treatment of diplomats affects a country globally, and is reciprocal. A government or militia leader knows his relationship with the United States and all that entails can be affected for decades (see: Iran) if protections are violated. You mess with our people one place, it comes back to bite you in another — playground rules, push and you get pushed back.

    It’s easy enough to confidently write that now, but it is also easy enough to remember a mob outside the embassy shouting, then hearing glass break, while I hid under my desk wondering if I’d get home that day. The rules are clear, but in the breach will the local cops risk harming their own countrymen to protect you? Did the local cops even show up? Is the strongman, seeking to rally his support, really ready to trade on violating diplomatic tradition?

    So while it would be significant step for Maduro to attack the embassy, every embassy plans for just that to happen. Every outpost, including Caracas, has an Emergency Action Plan (EAP). The EAP explains how the embassy will be defended by its local security forces and/or Marine guards, where people will take safe haven, the locations of friendly embassies, and more. In updating the EAP, staff pace off local green spaces to see if they are wide enough for helicopters to land, and find out how much blood local hospitals keep in reserve.

    The embassy and Washington will then establish highly classified tripwires for the EAP, agreed upon events to trigger some action. If Maduro does this, we will do that type of things, leading toward an evacuation of all personnel in the extreme.

    A critical tripwire to watch in Venezuela is the availability of outbound commercial transportation, the most common assurance of escape. If local infrastructure is compromised (flights canceled, blockades on airport access), the State Department often moves to arrange an evacuation via chartered transportation.

    Military options, including non-violent ones like large transport planes, are a last resort. As the State Department advises “Rescue by helicopters [and] armed escorts reflect a Hollywood script more than reality.” I once watched a Secretary of State twist the arm of an airline CEO to get commercial flights to fly uninsured into a beleaguered foreign airport, to avoid using U.S. military planes which would have roiled the local conflict during an evacuation. In the Mid East, the U.S. at some cost negotiated a temporary stop to an artillery attack by a foreign entity to allow commercial barges to enter a harbor in lieu of the U.S. Navy.
     
    The airport outside Caracas is still open. So what’s happening in Venezuela?

    Most likely following an EAP tripwire, the State Department evacuated dependents and non-essential personnel with a requested local police escort. The evacuation flight was conducted using commercial transportation as an ordered departure. The U.S. is not releasing numbers, but the Washington Post stated there were originally 124 Americans, including 46 family members, at the embassy. A ballpark figure of diplomats still present in Caracas today would be in the dozens.

    Even in the most routine evacuations, things go wrong. There are never enough diapers for the inevitable delays. Women go into labor. Pets may have to be left behind. Most evacuations limit how much luggage you can leave with, and a senior person shows up way over the weight set. Serious stuff, too, like a scared soldier at a roadblock who didn’t get the message to allow the Americans to pass. A once-junior diplomat now an ambassador is a minor legend for smoking a pack of cigarettes (he never smoked before) with a group of trigger-happy militia at a checkpoint to calm them enough to allow a convoy of evacuating dependents through.

    With only a core staff left, the next big job at the embassy is reducing the amount of classified material just in case the building is attacked. Every embassy is required to know how much classified material is on hand, and how long it would take to destroy it. Say there are three feet of paper in a file drawer, how many hours of shredding would it take for 500 drawers? The whole idea is to destroy the most sensitive materials well-ahead of the threat without tying up the whole staff to do it.

    Under the “no double standard” rule, the embassy also notified private American citizens of the dependents’ evacuation. As long as commercial transport is available, citizens are expected to make their own way out of the country, though unlike staff they can’t be ordered to do so. Local-employed staff, Venezuelans, are rarely evacuated. The embassy’s cooks, drivers, and translators are usually left to make their own way in what can be a very dangerous environment for someone seen as an American collaborator. Should it come to it, physical control of the embassy compound is handed over to a locally-contracted security force if possible. Some American is then literally is the last one out, locking the front door behind her.

    We’re not anywhere close to that in Caracas.
     
    One path out of crisis would be to use the extended 30 day window Maduro declared for Americans to depart Venezuela to negotiate a downgraded level of relations. The U.S. and Venezuela could continue diplomacy through “interest sections,” de facto embassies for nations with no formal ties. The “diplomats” would be gone, at least in name, while talks continue. This is the most likely outcome unless one side demands a fight.

    Meanwhile, events continue to happen both on the ground and in Washington. Secretary Pompeo announced $20 million in “humanitarian aid” to somebody in Venezuela, and don’t be surprised if that is eventually funneled through the military. For the short term, the embassy is stocked with food, water, and fuel for the generator, mitigating threats to cut off services. Washington on Saturday fanned the flames, urging the world to “pick a side” in Venezuela.

    Will Maduro push back? If protesters show up at the embassy, do they appear to be under someone’s control? Are they at the front gate, where the news cameras are, or are they seeking to encircle the building? Are diplomats being hassled on the street by law enforcement, or ignored when they are “off stage?” These things are being watched as staff hunker down. It is a nervous time inside the American Embassy in Caracas.

    In such situations it is hard to say goodbye to evacuated colleagues and dependents, and hard to stay focused on work when your safety is in question. The big decisions may be happening outside of your control. Is your physical presence sending a resolute signal of support as diplomats’ presence often does, or are you bait deliberately placed in harm’s way by the Trump administration hoping for an incident? Like the song, in the end the waiting is the hardest part.
     
    BONUS: For those who believe Trump is beholden to Putin and skews American foreign policy to his benefit, maybe you can explain below why Trump is trying to oust Putin ally Maduro in Venezuela in the first place. Does access to oil beat out the risk of the Russkies uploading the pee tape to Instagram?

    The Russians are warning the U.S. not to interfere with their friends, the current Venezuela government. Russian security contractors are helping guard Maduro. China stated it too opposes foreign interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs. Imagine the reaction if following the 2016 election powerful nations declared they would not recognize Donald Trump as president and demanded Mike Pence take the oath instead.
     
    BONUS BONUS: Under near-ancient rules governing the exchange of diplomats, the host country approves foreign diplomats for service in their nation; Venezuela, Russia, Canada, Great Britain and all the rest say yes or no when the U.S. wants to ship in a new foreign service officer. The concept works in the inverse as well; the host country can order diplomats out. Formally that’s called declaring them unwanted, no reason needed, persona non grata (PNG.) It happens regularly, often tit-for-tat among enemies. It was back in May that Maduro did PNG the acting American Ambassador Todd Robinson and his deputy Brian Naranjo, claiming they were part of some “conspiracy.” The U.S. has no ambassador in Venezuela, with just another acting person in charge.

    With friendly nations, the formal process exists only in the extreme. More likely the host country Foreign Minister will phone up the American Ambassador first with an informal “suggestion” someone be packed out, or a visa will be denied for some technicality to preserve face for bigger issues. So the trick of the light being used here by the U.S. is fully acknowledging Venezuela’s right to throw our people out, while saying the current president Maduro no longer makes those decisions. Delicate protocol is preserved even while a harsh message is sent. Diplomacy is tricky when played well.
      

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    What if Political Journalism Really Can’t Snap Back from Tabloidization?

    January 25, 2019 // 11 Comments »


     

    After a week in which Buzzfeed published the false claim Donald Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, quickly followed by a tsunami of inaccurate reporting over a bunch of Covington high school kids and their MAGA hats, it’s time to ask: What happens if political journalism can’t snap back from its current state of tabloidization?

    Journalism is the only profession mentioned in the Bill of Rights. The Founders assigned it a specific role in helping citizens carry out informed debate. And yet in the last two years, serious political journalism has all but been pushed aside in a rush toward tabloidization, the goal of which is to do away with Donald Trump, not via informed debate but by any means necessary.

    The justification is America is on the precipice of 1933 so running Trump out of office is a moral duty. Trump is a Nazi, red MAGA caps the new Klan hood. Under such dire circumstances, media can no longer risk both sides being heard (now known as “giving them a platform”) or chance unbiased reporting might inadvertently make Trump look good. Some journalists believe they were partially responsible for Hillary’s defeat, and live in fear some scrap of truth might accidentally abet Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin. The new standard is tabloid-level journalism, so every story can be a Fruity Pebbles sugar high serving the cause. Objectivity is #Collusion.

    Classic tabloids like the National Enquirer run Elvis-is-alive articles, announce miracle cancer cures, and traffic in outrageous celebrity gossip. Sources are anonymous, conclusions spoon-fed, headlines bombastically out of line with the text. It’s OK in its place because absent a few blue haired old ladies in what used to be called the beauty parlor, no one really believes the stories. We’re spectators at a magic show where we know no one is actually sawed in half but it is fun to be fooled anyway. The concern is with the tabloidization of real news.

    The most recent example is Buzzfeed’s claim documentary proof exists Trump ordered his attorney (whom the media by common agreement libelously calls a “fixer”) to lie to Congress about the Moscow Project. Tabloids use assumed narratives and prejudices – a cure must be out there to save Mom if only Big Pharma would get out of the way – and in this case the narrative chain is Trump wanted to build a hotel in Moscow so the Russkies helped him win the presidency so he’s now their asset and so it all has to be lied about and so Trump has to be in on it.

    Lack of actual evidence has held back Russiagate in all its metastasizing forms for over two years. Enter Buzzfeed, who sets the hook with something new: its mystery sources saw the evidence Trump told Cohen to lie. One of the Buzzfeed authors, albeit one with a history of plagiarism and misreporting going back years, kinda sorta maybe said he personally saw it too.

    Same as with the miracle cure, to any objective person Buzzfeed’s story was too good to be true: a literal paper receipt for perjury! Trump can’t lie his way out of that! He’ll be out of office as fast as the paperwork can be processed! Impeach the MF!

    Legacy prestigious media outlets such as WaPo and the New York Times picked up the story, having learned how to hide behind the thong of appending “As reported by Buzzfeed…” after which for all they care they can headline The Earth is Flat! at no reputational risk to themselves. In 2019 they are no longer responsible for what they (re)print.

    Congressman Jim Clyburn spoke for the media and his fellow pols when he said “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front, ‘If this is true.’ When you preface your statement with ‘If this is true,’ that, to me, gives you all the cover you need.” One imagines with horror those words chiseled on a journalism building Clyburn funds at his alma mater.

    The only sort of problem is Buzzfeed’s story wasn’t true. It was shut down by a statement from the Special Counsel’s office in less than 24 hours, the first such rebuke ever issued, though to be fair, James Comey also stated some New York Times reporting on Russiagate was wrong. The media in both instances characterized being told it was wrong by the definitive source it otherwise deified as just a “dispute,” “push back,” a “controversy.”

    Buzzfeed’s specific reaction included a clumsy jujitsu of challenging Mueller to tell them exactly what he thought was inaccurate. They perhaps understood in the tabloid world truth has a viral-length expiration date, that truth is only what people are willing to believe anyway, including that magicians really can saw women in half on stage. Falsehoods are the work of bad sources, even though we’ll try again next week with basically the same story from new sources. All that matters is an infusion saying Trump is evil and that end justifies the journalistic means.

    Advocacy journalism, tabloid style, is not about pointing out real wrongs with an occasional correction issued. It is about teeing up tales to support a political goal. Let Buzzfeed open the door for WaPo to legitimize the story. Members of Congress then bypass the fuzzy source to cite the name-brand one (“according to sources” becomes “according to the Washington Post”) until Democrats want hearings into the Buzzfeed story Mueller’s office already made clear isn’t true.

    In the same week as Buzzfeed, a selective short clip of an encounter between some white Covington, Kentucky high school students wearing MAGA hats, a Native American (whom the media falsely lionized for days as a Vietnam vet), and some black protesters was fanned into a racial showdown, when all it took was for someone to watch the whole recording of the interaction to realize that was not true.

    Or the mass-proclamation conservatives were furious over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s silly dance video when no one was. Or this long list of Russiagate game-changers that weren’t. Or two-years’ worth of false breaking news somebody in the Trump administration was about to flip, quit, be indicted, get fired or fire Mueller.

    Tabloid journalism for a political ends has assumed priority over reporting facts. People are being conditioned to overreact. Name calling is commentary. Prejudice and stereotyping are offensive when aimed left, allowed when projectiled by Pulitzer-winning columnists at Trump voters. Headlines can be less true than the text. Belief trumps truth. The ends justify the means when attacking a political opponent. Too much free speech plays into the hands of the authoritarians. The term “both sides journalism” is a now a negative one. Journalists have convinced themselves serving up the correct sort of political bias is equivalent to serving the nation.

    It’s sad some measure of the truth has to come from Whoopi Goldberg on The View, who wondered why the media rushed to judge the Covington teens. “Because we’re desperate to get Trump out,” co-host Joy Behar asserted.

    Political journalism adopting the standards and methods of the tabloids is a true threat to democracy. As one writer put it “let’s not underestimate the damage being done… people of all political stripes will acknowledge the important role that free and unfettered discourse plays in the democratic process. By extension, when that discourse is poisoned, so too is the process.”

    The Buzzfeed story, followed so quickly by the Covington high school story, should be a significant moment of reflection, when the media remember they play a critical role in our system. Yet there are few calls against the misuse of sources, the rushes to judgment, the purposeful dropping of objectivity, the loss of seeking out other perspectives, the problem of reporting wrongly too often, the slurring of editorial into reporting.

    Still no one asks why there aren’t mainstream “Sources: Trump is innocent” stories that later need to be walked back. No one demands as much emphasis on corrections as on the original false story. Instead, the standard response to being caught wrong seems to be either dig in as with Buzzfeed, or at most to delete a Tweet or two about the Covington mess, as if in the age of the Internet that makes something to have never happened.

    It is unlikely things will change, especially when this model of journalism is also good for a business where clicks equal dollars. The sad thing is craven economic self-interest is the least worst explanation for tabloidization. Democracy dies in the darkness? It’s in danger in plain sight.

     
     

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    What if Political Journalism Can’t Snap Back from Tabloidization?

    // No Comments »


     

    What if mainstream political journalism can’t snap back from its current state of tabloidization? After a week in which Buzzfeed brought the false claim Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, quickly followed by a tsunami of inaccurate but inflammatory reporting over a bunch of Covington high school kids and their MAGA hats, the media needs to do more than apologize and delete a few Tweets. It’s time for a dollop of introspection.

    Journalism is the only profession specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights, and the Founders assigned it a specific role, helping citizens (we have a task assigned as well) carry on an informed debate. And yet in the last two years, serious political journalism has all but been pushed aside in a rush toward tabloidization. Political journalism has slipped into a kind of con job to wash away the dangers of free speech.

    The con is this: since by acclamation America is perched on the precipice of 1933 (you’re reading this somewhat tongue-in-cheek but too many people are dead serious about the historical warning) resisting Trump’s policies until he can be run out of office (emoluments lawsuit, 25th Amendment, indictment, impeachment, an election if it really has to come to that) is a moral duty. Trump and his MAGA people are Nazis, their red caps the equivalent of Klan hoods. This is for the first time in American history beyond the push-pull of politics. The survival of the Republic itself on the line, dammit don’t-you-know.

    It follows journalism in the specific and free speech more generally cannot afford to allow for both sides to be heard (now known as “giving them a platform”) or allow objective reporting that might inadvertently make Trump look good. Journalists, some of whom literally believe they are responsible for Hillary’s defeat, live in fear they might abet the government-sanctioned mass lynchings of blacks and beatings of transpeople they expect to break out across America, Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin. Objectivity is #Collusion. Advocacy is #Resistance. The new standard is tabloid journalism, where every story has to be a Fruity Pebbles sugar high serving the cause of freedom.

    While the tension between objectivity and advocacy isn’t particularly new (read up on The Jungle and The Way the Other Half Lives) what’s new is the near-complete way the mainstream media has created an anti-Trump narrative of Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin while condemning any outlet not on board as the Fox in democracy’s henhouse. Demonizing a perspective has gotten rougher in the age of deplatforming and weaponized “fact checking.” A new step in the wrong direction is to claim talking heads have blood on their hands for supporting disagreeable but still legitimate political positions say on restricting immigration or withdrawing from Syria. It’s a bit much, but it falls within a snappable-back range for now.

    Classic tabloids like the National Enquirer once upon a time ran Elvis-is-alive articles, or reported on aliens walking among us, or trafficked in outrageous celebrity gossip. It was OK, because absent a few blue haired old ladies in what used to be called the beauty parlor, no one really believed the stories were true. The con included us as willing participants, spectators at a magic show where we know no one is actually sawed in half but it was fun to be fooled anyway.

    The greater concern lies in how alongside all this social media has tabloidized “real” news. The most recent example is Buzzfeed’s use of anonymous sources to claim documentary proof exists Trump ordered his attorney (whom the media by common agreement libelously calls a “fixer”) to lie to Congress about the so-called Moscow Project. Tagged on is the fact-free narrative chain of Trump wanting to build a hotel in Moscow so the Russkies helped him win the presidency so he’s now their asset. To any objective reader, same as an Elvis sighting, Buzzfeed’s story was too good to be true: a literal paper receipt for perjury before Congress. Trump could not lie his way out of this, and he would go down for basically the same crime Bill Clinton was impeached over. Trump would be out of office as fast as the paperwork could be processed.

    The Buzzfeed story appeared out of nowhere, went globally viral, and was shut down by the Special Counsel himself, all within a span of hours.

    So that’s why there are no viral stories that need to be walked back claiming “Trump is innocent.” Nope, the media wants to believe he is guilty of, well, something, and they know they are peddling that belief to a willing audience. A good con also has some truth in it, otherwise the con artist’s job is much harder. Cohen actually did lie to Congress. Next step is knowing most media and many Americans want to believe Trump was involved. Not a hard sell. But it has been the lack of actual evidence that has held back Russiagate in all its metastasizing forms for over two years, you know, actual proof, something you can hold in your hand or listen to online, not simply the now-you-see-it now-you-don’t self-serving statements from convicted perjurers, anonymous officials, and felons we love to hate.

    Enter Buzzfeed, who sets the hook with something new, and it appears given Mueller’s unambiguous press statement, wholly untrue: Buzzfeed’s sources have seen written evidence Trump told Cohen to lie. One of the Buzzfeed authors, albeit one with a history of plagiarism and misreporting going back years, kinda sorta maybe even said he personally saw the documents.

    Social media rockets the story around the globe. Media outlets as once prestigious as the WaPo and New York Times have learned how to hide behind the micro bikini bottom of appending “As reported by Buzzfeed…” after which for all they care they are allowed to headline “The Earth is Flat” at no cost to themselves. In 2019 they are no longer responsible for what they print. Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn spoke for all media and pols when he said “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front [by saying], ‘If this is true.’ When you preface your statement with ‘If this is true,’ that, to me, gives you all the cover you need.”

    It doesn’t hurt that this model of journalism seems to be also good for business in a market where clicks equal dollars, in the words of one NYT columnist “reinforc[ing] the prejudices of your readers.” The sad thing is craven economic self-interest in the service to social media mob-think is the least worst explanation for this phenomena of tabloidism.

    The free press the founders wrote into the Bill of Rights isn’t part of some long con, where the goal is to take the rubes for their ticket money, or give them a chuckle over Elvis. No, the serious media adopting the standards and methods of the tabloids, feeding us back what we want to hear, pretending this all is serious and real without the little wink which says “pssst, we’re in on it with you…” is a very bad thing for a democracy. As one writer put it “let’s not underestimate the damage being done… people of all political stripes will acknowledge the important role that free and unfettered discourse plays in the democratic process. By extension, when that discourse is poisoned, so too is the process.”

    We are being taught there is no truth beyond ever-briefer viral spasms. Falsehoods are just bad sources, we’ll try again next week with basically the same story about Trump from hopefully better sources. Because all that matters is proclaiming some moral stance — Trump is evil, really evil, not just a bad president — and that ends justifies the journalistic means. Advocacy journalism in 2019 is not about pointing out real wrongs with the occasional professional missteps caused by the haste of social media. Nope, it is about teeing up “crimes,” with any small outlet opening the door for the bigger ones to legitimize the story. Members of Congress, citing the Times or the Post, then do things like demand investigations into the Buzzfeed story even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office made clear the original story wasn’t true.

    It’s not like the Buzzfeed saga is a one-off. In the same week, a carefully edited clip of an encounter between some white Covington, Kentucky high school students wearing MAGA hats, a Native American, and some black protesters was fanned into a racial showdown, when all it took was for someone to first watch the whole recording to realize that was a completely false narrative. Or CBS’ lead journalist falsely Tweeting he was under an arrest warrant in Egypt. Or something as silly as a mass-proclamation conservatives were furious over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s silly dance video. Or this long list of Russiagate game-changers that weren’t. Or two-years’ worth of inaccurate breaking news somebody in the Trump administration was about to flip, quit, be indicted or get fired. The narrative has assumed priority over reality. People are conditioned to overreact as their first impulse. Somebody is going to get hurt.

    Buzzfeed’s reaction was to “stand by its reporting” and challenge Mueller to proofread their work for them and be more specific in telling them where they screwed up, beyond the Special Counsel’s clear, blanket statement the Buzzfeed article was simply not accurate. That was the first such rebuke issued by Mueller in some two years. Though to be fair, James Comey also stated in front of Congress some New York Times reporting on Russiagate was wrong. The media in both instances characterized being told it was wrong by the definitive source as a “dispute.” Otherwise, the standard response to being wrong is to apologize and maybe delete a Tweet or two, the damage done, the zeitgeist stirred.

    The Cohen story, followed so quickly by the Covington high school story, should be a pivot point, a significant moment of reflection for the media when they stop, take a deep breath, and remember why they really exist as a free press. Hint: they were written into existence by the Founders to play a critical role in critical thinking in our system of government. This tabloidization is already out of control, the media already largely written off as a force for good through the 2020 election cycle. One hopes after that some amount of resiliency will take hold, and the press will snap back.

    Now that way of dealing with political enemies, choosing stereotypes and falsity over accurate reporting, does indeed have some echoes back to 1933.

     
     

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    I Wanna Sit With the Cool Kids at Lunch Again

    January 21, 2019 // 14 Comments »

    Never Again
     

    Never again, Tucker. I wanna be able to sit with the cool kids at lunch again. So here is my apology. I was wrong about everything.

    Trump is an orange #CheetoJesus whoremonger who must be mocked in every forum alongside his Satan-spore children, especially the boy ones with greasy hair, the adopted Jew, and the hot girl known as Incestaka. Lock ’em up!

    There is no longer anything around our forebearers might recognize as “comedy.” This all matters too much and that’s not funny. The Dark Lord is among us. I hope to one day be welcome enough among you to make a Voldemort joke about him here. Like Trevor and Seth, and Sam Bee. So cool! Go Brooklyn!

    Trump is a dog eating its own vomit. He’s a carrion bird dining on rotted rat meat. He hates kittens, eats only fast food and ho’ spit, and steals towels from other people’s hotels. He made a pee tape, and an elevator tape, and for a brief period worked undercover in the movies with a different toupee using the name “Ron Jeremy.” He has no heart, no soul, hires third world illegals to wipe his bum, and doesn’t wash his hands after pee pee, on or off tape. The Apprentice was a terrible show no one watched. His dad was a piece of crap even other pieces of crap did not care for. People who voted for Trump are all slack-jawed inbred yokels who will either shoot themselves with their own guns or rightfully die of opioid overdoses while driving pickup trucks they can’t afford to churches that preach racism. Like everyone on the east and west coasts (the best coasts) I hate them all and wish they would all combine into one giant racist ball and move to like Austria or France.

    America is in its #FinalDays, our beautiful democracy ruined by this grifter thug, who wasn’t even elected. Some call him president, but I say now, “president.” Trump? No, “Rump.” If he didn’t cheat by gerrymandering the black folks in North Dakota, he got help from the Russians, or Jill Stein, or MySpace, or maybe all of them (how deep does the rabbit hole really go??????) And Bernie, especially Bernie, helped because those of us stupid enough to be distracted from voting from the candidate the Democratic party knew was best for us all along after Martin O’Malley dropped out of the race are personally responsible for every minority-ish person who is called a bad name today. I hope all 240 million trans-folk of America can one day forgive me for imaging there could be more than two parties. My bad, um, guys.

    That and still believing in white-centric models of free speech makes me a Nazi. The Reichstag will burn, oh, yes it will. Wait, does America have a Reichstag? Maybe at Epcot Center. And Trump is so Hitler. “Alexa, change the date to 1933” we might as well say. I have said it. #TimesUp!

    Christopher Steele, He lead the way, He showed us the path to redemption began with the pee tape, but I shunned Him. I said because He had no evidence to back up His accusations He was a False Prophet. But others — Comey, Brennan, Clapper, Mueller — all fine men, came from the Deep State which I know now only exists in my impure mind and showed me the light. I should have trusted them all, as have so many presidents and everyone at CNN before me.

    Trump has always been a Russian asset, maybe from his birth, maybe from Russia’s birth. We know this because.

    By the way, I want to personally apologize to All The Media. You are the mighty hawkmen of our time, the canaries in the coal mine, the bravest of our generation. If only we had another Dunkirk, you would be there. For me. Because when the call came, I stuck to contrarian thoughts, wicked thoughts, anti-Obama and anti-Hillary thoughts. I wrote of these and tried to convince others. Only now, alone with my eyes having been eaten out by rats working via Fiverrr in Room 101, can I really see how wrong I was. But I have the voices I can still hear — Maddow, Blitzer, all those blonde women on daytime teevee — to guide me like #BlindBirdBox Challenge. And hey, “Faux News,” I hope a zombie in a MAGA hat eats your face.

    Also, for the record, I am ashamed of being a white biologically male. I wish I wasn’t, because everything we broke must be fixed by people of fluid color, non-binaries, and it would be better if most of them could also be Muslims and left-handed. Sorry! At least we know now one of the founding fathers was actually a hip POC guy, so thanks #Hamilton! Shame the dude was allowed to die in Hurricane Maria by Trump.

    In the end, I was also so very, very wrong on foreign affairs. We really did have those wars with North Korea, China, and Iran Twitter said we would, and which I did not believe would happen. Same for the global trade wars and economic collapses. To make amends, I am returning all the gains my stocks made over the last two years, like a sweet 26%, to Wall Street asking they include them in their next donations to the 2020 Democratic savior.

    Of course, there is still time for Trump to be impeached, or locked up in the crazy house under the 25th Amendment as it was intended to do, or prosecuted for emoluments crimes against humanity for the #Unfair minibar prices at Trump hotels, or made to eat soap out of Michael Cohen’s buttocks in the showers at some Federal corrections facility for corruption and collusion. Suck it up, buttercup, it’s Mueller time! #TickTockMF

    Then we will not need an election. By voice acclamation, America will disband the Electoral College and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will assume the role as our leader as it was foretold by Instagram likes. I will petition her and her Vice President Reality Winner to spare my life. Beto will offer himself in my place at the last minute, and get 1,000,000 new friends on Twitter to become Secretary of Goodness. He only asked me to turn my apartment into a sanctuary city in return. Deport ICE I say!

    The payments I received for my thought crimes came in now-worthless rubles; I’ve fed them to my dog, who identifies as a she/her. The sex I had with Vladimir Putin in return for my service still warms me, shamefully, in my darkest moments, but the guy does have game, sorry for that. Being back on the mainstream team does however allow me to recycle all the old homo jokes from junior high, as long as they are aimed at Cockholster Trump and Putin the Impaler. Otherwise, all LGBTQetc people are simply better than me in all ways and I worship them for their youth and beauty.

    I know now we have always been at war with Syria. I know only the Party and Twitter knows what is best. It has been a difficult two years but I now want to be part of you all again, be on Twitter, to have memes, visit the State Department cafeteria for coffee with other old timers, get asked to do interviews by NPR on how the Republic is in danger, and on Democracy Now! about how only through corporate censorship of hate speech can we prevail. I want to earn the pronoun “they/them.”

    Is that enough? Please say it is, because friends, I am changed. I love Big Brother.

     
     

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    Social Media Legally Falls Under the First Amendment; Here’s How

    January 18, 2019 // 14 Comments »


     
    A court just came close to acknowledging the First Amendment applies to social media. But there is still a lot of ground to cover to protect our free speech rights online.
     
    In Davison v Randall, a local government official blocked a constituent from an “official” Facebook page. The court held this to be viewpoint discrimination, a 1A violation in a long-recognized category of unconstitutional speech restraint. Advocates like the ACLU and Knight Institute supported the case to bolster the argument Trump cannot block people on his Twitter feed; lower courts have agreed it is unconstitutional under the 1A for Trump to silence his critics this way. The Department of Justice is appealing, and the ACLU is happy to build precedent with smaller cases like Davison v Randall, as the Trump case almost certainly will wind its way to the Supreme Court.

    The ACLU is likely to continue to prevail against Trump. The problem is while narrowly focusing on an individual politician’s responsibility not to block users with unpopular opinions, the courts continue to allow Facebook, et al, to do exactly the same thing on a much larger scale.
     
    In the age of Trump, social media companies’ suspensions skew against conservative and libertarian commentators (I am permanently banned from Twitter) but Facebook could just as easily block all Sanders supporters, or anyone left handed for that matter. Despite this, and driven in part by the ACLU’s apparent desire to only disadvantage Trump and not enlarge 1A protections in ways that might empower his critics, the broader issues are being bypassed in favor of a narrower one.

    The struggle to grow the 1A to cover social media has a history of piecemeal progress. One victory confirmed the status of social media, when the Supreme Court struck down a law making it a crime for registered sex offenders to use Facebook. Justice Kennedy wrote in Packingham v North Carolina social media is now part of “the modern public square.” Denying access violated the First Amendment.

    But the decision made clear unconstitutional denial still has to come from the government. Facebook and others may deny those speech rights any time they want. The argument only the government is covered by the 1A seems to have reached its limit with technology that so grossly delineates whose literal finger clicks the mouse when the results and implications for free speech in our society are exactly the same.

    Technology and market dominance complicate the 1A environment by giving greater power to a handful of global companies (currently all American but imagine the successor to Twitter based in Hong Kong with Chinese censors at the helm) even as the law seeks to crave the simplicity of the 19th century. That way of thinking requires willful ignorance that Facebook would never act as a proxy for the government, unconstitutionally barring viewpoints on behalf of a politician who would not be allowed to do it themselves.

    Except it already happened. Following a hazy intelligence community assessment accusing the Russians of influencing the 2016 presidential election, Twitter and Facebook punished Russian media RT and Sputnik by banning their advertising in line with the government’s position the two did not deserve the protections of the 1A. Senator Chris Murphy got it. He demanded social media censor more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy,” with companies acting as proxies for those still held back by the First Amendment.
     
    It may even seem to some a valid argument in the realm of social media. But when the same proxy idea appears in the flesh, the underpinning seems less acceptable. It is easy to see how the government using federal law enforcement to bar entry to opposition supporters at a town hall meeting held at some theater is unconstitutional. It is equally easy to see the president’s best friend hiring private security guards to do exactly the same thing would not pass a court challenge, yet that is basically what is currently allowed online.

    The sub-argument the theater is private property and thus outside the 1A (just like Twitter!) does not hold up. The Supreme Court recognizes two categories of public fora: traditional and limited public forums. Traditional public forums are places like streets, sidewalks, and parks. Limited public forums are not traditionally public, but ones the government has purposefully opened to some segment of the public for “expressive activity.” Like that town hall meeting held in a private theater.

    By inviting the public to Facebook for comment, the government transforms a private place into a limited public forum covered by the 1A. The Court only requires a “forum” for 1A purposes “to be private property dedicated to public use” or when the government “retains substantial control over the private property.” Like how the government cannot censor public library books even if the library is located in a private storefront. Like a Facebook page set up and administered by the government.

    The most analogous example of how shallow the debate is comes from a technology of the 1980s, one originally expected to change the nature of debate: public access television. Before the Internet, it was envisioned privately-owned cable TV companies would make air time available to the public as “the video equivalent of the speaker’s soapbox.” Even though the channel and equipment used to produce the programming was privately owned, the programming fell under the 1A. The Court concluded “public access channels constituted a public forum, notwithstanding that they were operated by a private company,” the dead solid perfect equivalent of social media.

    The faux public-private argument is being double-plus used as a work-around to prohibit disagreeable speech, say by labeling a conservative viewpoint as hate speech and letting @jack banish it. Millennials who celebrate Twitter not being held back by the 1A believe that power will always be used in their favor. But back to the law, which sees further than the millennial obsession with Trump. In City of Lakewood v Plain Dealer the Court held all that power was itself a 1A problem: “The mere existence of the licensor’s unfettered discretion, coupled with the power of prior restraint, intimidates parties into censoring their own speech, even if the discretion and power are never actually abused.”

    The once-upon-a-time solution was to take one’s free speech business elsewhere. The 2019 problem is the scale of the most popular social media platforms, near global monopolies all. Pretending Facebook, which claims it influences elections, is just another company is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Technology changed the nature of censorship so free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about having some place to speak. In 1776 you went to the town square. In 2019 that’s on popular social media. Your unknown blog is as free, and irrelevant, as a Colonist making an impassioned speech alone in his barn.
     
    Asking for the 1A to reach now to social media is in line with the flexibility and expansion the 1A has shown historically. For example, it wasn’t until the post-Civil War incorporation doctrine that the 1A applied equally to the states and not just the federal government. Some private institutions accepting federal funding are already covered by the 1A. The Supreme Court has regularly extended 1A protection to new and non-traditional speech, including nudity and advertising.

    Facebook and others like it have become the censors the Founding Fathers feared. The problem is the ACLU and other advocates today apply political litmus tests to what speech they will defend. And so they aggressively seek to force the 1A into social media to prevent Trump from blocking users he dislikes, but they have not taken on cases which would force the 1A into social media to prevent Facebook and Twitter from blocking users whose conservative and libertarian ideas upset their own viewpoints.

    The greater First Amendment challenge is thus stymied by politics, even while the problem only grows with the greater impact of social media. Yet the cornerstone of free speech, the critical need to have all views represented in a marketplace of ideas, has not changed. One hopes these core elements of our democracy will collide inside the Supreme Court in the near future. If not, the dangers of narrow, short term thinking, that Trump is the problem, not the one of access to free speech, will become more obvious.
     

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    The Wall May Be a Waste, But It is Not a Crisis

    January 14, 2019 // 21 Comments »


     

    Trump’s wall isn’t going to stop much illegal immigration. On the other hand, it is unlikely to hurt much of anything; it will most likely just be another waste of money. It is certainly not a Constitutional crisis over authoritarianism.

     

    There are currently some 700 miles of fence/wall/barrier along the 2,000 mile southern border, built in pieces under the Bushes and Clinton administrations, and maintained under Obama. Clinton even called his 1994 wall effort “Operation Gatekeeper.” There was little-to-no national opposition raised when the various walls were constructed, and no widespread movement to tear them down when Democrats held full control of the government in the early Obama years. No Russian leader stood on the border and declared to freedom loving people everywhere “Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton, Other Mr. Bush, or Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!”

    Democrats in the Senate,including then-Senators Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which was signed into law by George W. Bush. The law authorized a fence along about 700 miles of the border between the U.S.-Mexico border. By 2015, Customs and Border Protection had constructed 654 miles.

    There was certainly nothing on the scale of what we are hearing today, with Nancy Pelosi calling Trump’s plan to add another 234 miles of fence/wall/barrier “immoral… not who we are as a nation.”

    Maybe she forgot the beloved Abe Lincoln was an actual railsplitter, a person whose job it was to create rails for fences. The wall meanwhile wasn’t immoral in the 1990s and it wasn’t immoral a year ago when Democratic senators negotiated a compromise Republicans rejected for a wall in exchange for legislation on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

    So what’s different in 2019? Via the New York Times: unlike the other parts of the existing fence/wall/barrier, the part Trump wants to add will be “a symbol of hate and racism.” How can one tell? Different construction? A sign? Why isn’t Trump’s part just another brick in that existing wall? What’s the message conveyed by the unwalled half of the border still left after Trump’s part is built?

    The president wants something and the other side doesn’t want him to have it. Think of this all as a prelude to the 2020 campaign, including the fierce commentary storm enraging everyone. The media even has us debating whether “walls” as a concept work; do or don’t people sometimes build walls around their (gated) communities for protection, some ask with great seriousness. WaPo ran an Op-Ed criticizing all walls, from medieval times to the present day.

    Silly media. Like the shutdown, this is not about walls. Every government shutdown is about brinkmanship. And brinkmanship is risky business, because it demands someone must lose and compromise is off the table. That’s not always a good idea when one side holds a trump card. The president’s is he may declare a “national emergency” (there are also less dramatic “declarable” options) which he feels would allow him to reprogram funds to pay for his contribution to the fence/wall/barrier. Within his narrative, it will play as decisive – someone had to solve the impasse – and as an antithesis to whatever people expected from the midterms’ Blue Wave. “No wall, no deal,” Mike Pence declared. “We’re going to keep standing strong, keep standing firm.”

    That sounds all scary, even authoritarian, and you will read articles about how it is unconstitutional or a crisis or an impeachable offense. One outlet called this a “Pandora’s Box” that could even lead to Trump shutting down CNN and Facebook.

    It’s not. Declaring a national emergency is at times necessary, at times bureaucratically convenient, and at times rough politics. Shutting down government over a policy dispute is always a cheap move. Trump and the others involved will be judged by the voters. But that’s about it, folks.

    Here’s a list of the current 28 standing national emergencies. See if you can find some that rise to the level of what any normal person thinks of as an emergency that couldn’t be dealt with except by the president using extraordinary powers. For example, Obama proclaimed Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela as a national emergency.

    Funny thing: the September 11 national emergency, still in force today, was used to have the military do some domestic construction work, the same thing anti-wall pundits claim is now illegal under Trump (other laws also suggest Trump can use the military in this manner.) What if Trump used the existing 9/11 emergency again for whatever he wants, same as Bush and Obama did, instead of declaring a fresh emergency? Maybe that would wake Americans up.

    Now if you still want to talk about misuse of executive power, you may want to look at the Constitution. The document doesn’t say much about walls, but it does limit the power to declare war to Congress. Nobody has done much about that misuse of power, as every president since WWII started new wars without any declaration and in most cases without even a head nod out of Congress. To make things clear after Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973, a bit of executive power-limiting legislation that has been fully ignored ever since.

    Leaving aside the gross fig leaf of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that has been waived over every American invasion, special forces incursion, regime change, drone attack, bombing campaign, reconstruction project, and police action in the last 17 years and still counting, there has been more debate given to the wall than much of any of the conflicts around it.

    Certainly more anger and angst has been spewed alongside the wall, and the waste of money it represents. Trump wants $5.7 billion to build it! That is all of about 1/7 of the yearly cost of the war in Afghanistan, and of course that war has run on at $45 billion a year for 17 years. Anybody want to talk about that money being wasted? Maddow? Pelosi? Ocasio-Cortez? Bueller?

    And for the media, who discovered via “fact-checking” Trump exaggerated the terrorist threat on our southern border, where were you when every facet of American foreign and domestic policy was driven by two administrations using this same lie?

    Apparently all the fears about abuse of power center on a couple of hundred miles of wall in the desert; wars in deserts further away now barely make the news. Spare us the hand wringing over crisis, abuse of power, and unconstitutionality. If anyone really wants to talk the talk on those topics, let’s reopen the debate on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria as part of the negotiations to reopen the government.

    That all of that is ignored while the nation is on edge over a slice of wall tells you what this is all really about: 2020.

     
     

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    Wall B.S. and the Politics of 2020

    January 11, 2019 // 27 Comments »


     
    A wall was not immoral every other time it was built. There are already 700 miles of wall along the southern border, and we’re talking today about building only another 235 miles but somehow that is “not who we are.” In linear distance, it less than a third of who we are, actually. Nobody objected then because this is all about the politics of 2020.

    No previous national emergency declaration (there have been over 50 since the law changed in 1976) was ever considered a sign of “Pandora’s box” with all the fear mongering about authoritarianism attached. Nobody objected then because this is all about the politics of 2020.

    Senators Schumer, Obama, and Clinton voted for a border wall, fence, and barriers in 2006 (the Secure Fence Act), which was completed under Obama in 2015. Nobody objected then because this is all about the politics of 2020.

    The media never “fact checked” Bush or Obama’s statements about the terrorist threat which were used to justify every war and domestic loss of civil rights in the last 17 years. The media “checks” only when it suits their narrative.

    With respect, this is all about the politics of 2020.

    Everyone is otherwise losing their heads, as they have over Steele, Comey, Syria, North Korea, Putin, and everything else this administration has touched. There are better and worse decisions over the last two years, but it is not all crisis, all the time.
     

    BONUS: Trump’s wall isn’t going to stop much illegal immigration. On the other hand, it is unlikely to hurt much of anything; it will most likely just be another waste of money.

     
     

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    Exaggerated Terrorist Threats on the Southern Border!

    January 9, 2019 // 5 Comments »


     
    Dear All Media who are deeply concerned about exaggerated terrorist threats coming from the president for his own political purposes. Where the fuck were you between 2001-2016 when every facet of American foreign and domestic policy was driven by this exact lie and you abetted it? Thank you.
     
    And to those ready to write “But Trump is lying” or something along the lines of “Two/Three wrongs don’t make a right,” in your partisan blindness, you miss the point. The media is manipulating you, again, taking advantage of your fear and anger to tell you how to think. That’s the takeaway, chump, not Trump.
     
    Try this, in simpler terms: it’s all lies. Bush and Obama fanned the flames of fake terrorism, abetted by the media, to justify their wars and the dissolution of our civil rights. Trump is trying the same fear game with terrorism for his political goals. Only this time the media is on the other side, so they are “fact checking.” Imagine if they had done 10% of the same with those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
     

    BONUS: Here’s a fun article from 2017, criticizing Trump for not declaring a national emergency on another issue. But the real point is that such declarations are not uncommon (there are 28 current “national emergencies” in force), and in fact the national emergency declared for 9/11 is still in force. That emergency, now in its 17th year, has justified everything from spying on Americans to war in Libya. Trump should just use it again for whatever he wants, same as Bush and Obama did. Maybe that would wake Americans up to how they have been asleep during previous authoritarian regimes.

     
     

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    The Democratic Party Has One More Shot at Relevancy

    January 8, 2019 // 34 Comments »


     
    Elizabeth Warren, in the final hours of 2018, announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. She stands at the precipice with a Democratic Party that must hold the primaries in 2020 it should have held in 2016 to remain relevant.
     
    Among the 30-some people the New York Times says may seek the Democratic nomination, almost all the serious candidates should have run in 2016, including Warren, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. Instead the fix was in; who doesn’t believe Obama pulled Biden aside to say “Kid, this ain’t your year.” Warren, et al, either had their own come-to-Obama moments or were smart enough to back down with dreams of Clintonesque Cabinet positions dancing in their heads. They reassured themselves they would still have time to run after Hillary wrapped up her eight years in office and before it was Chelsea’s turn.

    Old Man Bernie likely never imagined he’d do much more than use his primary platform to air out his signature issues of healthcare and economic reform. That’s why in the beginning he didn’t run against Hillary as much as he ran alongside of her, always gentle on her tender spots like those damn emails. But there was a hunger among some Democrats to confront Wall Street excesses and income inequality. Bernie caught a tailwind and when he did, we all know via the leaked DNC emails and some tell-alls how the Party took him out of the race with super delegates, rigged debates, ad buys, and did other dirty tricks we’d see more of later. Did you know he honeymooned in Russia?

    The primary season was to be little more than a warm-up for Hillary, with her Scooby van listening tour and her book tour and her staged “debates” with Official Party Cuck Martin O’Malley playing the role of the Washington Generals to Hillary’s Globetrotters. How’d that work out anyway?
     
    While no candidate this year has the power Hillary held in 2016, the temptation by the Party to rig the primaries again is great; why spend all that money on a long series of ho-hum votes, and why hand Trump footage like Harris calling Warren ineffective in some debate when the winner can be pre-determined? If Dems grant the media, currently operating with the hive mind of a 24-year-old Brooklynite who owes her parents money, too much influence, it’ll be some accomplishment-free shiny object like Beto for Trump to treat as a political chew toy. Give the voters another rigged primary – make it another her’s turn again – and you likely give America another four years of Trump.

    The Democratic Party in 2016 engineered defeat by not letting the process do what it is designed to do: weed out the weak and their weaknesses. Instead, every weakness was meant to be swept under the rug: Hillary Clinton was the archetypal 21st century candidate, a perfectly-formed tool of the oligarchy, all appetite. Never mind the emails, the Clinton Foundation, Hillary’s warmongering record, and most of all her lack of answers to the questions the electorate wanted answered. The voters knew Obamacare often failed them by providing health insurance they could afford but not actual healthcare they could afford, and that they were being left behind in an economy fueled by inequality. People with kids dying in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere were unsure why. Meh, her turn, deal with it.

    These shortcomings would have been exposed during a real primary. Instead they were left to fester in voters’ minds, and Trump happened. Yet the after action reports on 2016 mention none of this. Instead, supposedly Trump won because of Russia and racist redneck misogynists. Anyone working to elect a Democratic president in 2020 who isn’t willing to consider that by rigging the 2016 primary they ran a weak candidate is being foolish. The only answer is a free-for-all primary, where the ideas that roil the Democratic party, the push and pull of what has come to be called “progressivism,” are allowed to slug it out.

    Because if the primaries don’t wash out the weaknesses, Trump most certainly will use his honed predator’s instincts to do it in the general campaign. Did you know Beto’s wife is part of a billion-dollar real estate family in Texas, making him more Jared than caped crusader? The primary needs to poke at Warren’s bizarro-world claims the system is rigged while it was the same rigged system that allowed her to rise into a position of prominence, what one commentator described as “a curious vision coming from a person whose life story, like that of tens millions of Americans who have risen far above their small beginnings, refutes her own thesis. It was curious, also, coming from someone who presumably believes that various forms of rigging are required to un-rig past rigging.’”

    And how much emphasis will voters place on blud purity? After years of bleating about diversity, what to do with Old White Straight Men like Biden or Michael Bloomberg in all this? Will Sanders’ supporters come home to the Party, or will they remember Bernie humiliated into a little nobody helping nominate someone at the Democratic Convention he clearly loathed? The primaries must above all else settle the question of whether or not Bernie is the divisive element a Democratic party already showing its cracks does not need in 2020.

    What will a sharp look at Cory Booker’s time as photo-op mayor of Newark and his warm relationship with Wall Street money reveal? What about Kamala Harris’ complex history of supporting some progressive causes while rejecting others as California attorney general? Why didn’t she prosecute Steven Mnuchin‘s bank? Meanwhile, how much time and money will be wasted on political fluffers like Beto, a guy who lost in his home state, one of the most important in terms of electoral votes?
     
    This is not to over-focus on any one candidate at this point; quite the opposite. It is to point out the kinds of issues that demand an aggressive, unfiltered, unrigged primary process to address, because nobody in the Democratic Party leadership knows the answers. The goal is two-fold: how will the candidates handle their past decisions and future plans in front of the public, and how will voters react to those attempts.

    No one can win against Trump in 2020 simply by being Not Trump. Never mind the Blue Wave in the House, it is the map which allowed the Republicans to grow their Senate majority in 2018 that controls the Electoral College. Trump is the natural end point of 17 post-9/11 years of keeping us afraid. He is the mediagenic demagogue a country gets when it abandons its people to economic apartheid. He feeds off being Not Not Trump. Every time someone says “well, that’s the end of Trump” after some outrageous statement, Trump needs only to top himself in the next tweet and the process restarts.
     
    Let the primaries get rough; the winner will need the experience to rise above Trump while simultaneously standing up to him. To beat Trump is to offer a counter-vision under fire. The primary process has to sort out which of the Democrats looking at the White House might be able to do that. Because if the Democratic Party again does not allow the primaries to do their job, Candidate Trump most certainly will. Again.

     
     

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    Dear People Wishing for Stock Market Trouble

    January 3, 2019 // 19 Comments »


     
     
    Dear People Wishing for Stock Market Trouble:
     
    Stock market trouble will not make Trump go away.

     

    You can have fun posting memes though! He’s owned! He screwed up the one thing he says he’s good at! Rich people will abandon him! Hah hah!

    Any serious downturn in markets will cause more economic inequality. Wealthy people depend on periodic downturns to force middle class people to sell. The rich then buy cheap and wait for the inevitable swing back. They end up owning more stuff, and they got it cheaply.

    About half of all American households own stock, in most cases indirectly through mutual funds, and, more and more via 401(Ks) and whatever company pension accounts still exist. Yet despite that broad base — half of us own something in the stock market — the richest 10% of Americans owned 84% of the total value of the market as of 2016.

    Though those numbers roughly match those of America’s worst period of inequality, the so-called Gilded Age, they are a big change from 2001, when the top 10% owned only 77% of all stocks.

    Today, they have more. You have less. Your part of the market exists because the few wolves need lots of rabbits to eat. You are predator or you are economic prey. Guess where this goes? Think of it as one of those pictures where parallel railroad tracks seem to get closer and closer as they recede into the distance. The theoretical end point is one person owns 100% of everything. But modern wealthy would be happy if .01% owned just 99%, close enough.

     

    In case you missed it, that’s what the 2008 mortgage/housing crisis was all about. Middle class people lost their homes when they could not pay their mortgages. “The banks” then owned those homes and you did not. It took a few years and most prices started back up. You in turn now rent from someone who now owns those homes.

    The inequality of net worth, after almost two decades of little movement, went up sharply from 2007 to 2010, and relative indebtedness for the middle class expanded. The sharp fall in median net worth and the rise in overall wealth inequality over these years are traceable to the high leverage of middle class families and the high share of homes in their “portfolio.”

    What that means is middle class people have most of their net worth embedded in their homes, but see most of that “worth” is actually debt (leverage.) When times get tough, they may lose the home because they can’t pay the debt. People rich enough to spend money in downturns buy up those homes. They have extra money to ride out the tougher years until the government bails out the markets like Obama did in 2008. Same story for the stock market.

     

    It gets worse, because you get money by working for wages. Rich people get money through capital gains, basically stuff they buy cheaply becoming worth more over time. That’s why the downturn is bad for you, ultimately good for most of them. It is math!

    If you like math with letters in it, it is written as R > G. All explained here if you want to understand precisely why you are going to be poorer. And as a bonus, be sure to note the part about how in the U.S. wages are taxed at a higher level than capital gains. You can never have too many advantages.

    Note also that until slavery was ended in the United States, human beings were also considered as part of capital. Meanwhile, because rich people pass on their wealth to their relatives, the children of rich people are born rich and unless they get really into hookers and blow, will inevitably get richer. They almost can’t help it. The gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent must grow. This will create the society reminiscent of the pre-Enlightenment past we are in the early stages of now. You know it from Jeopardy! as “feudalism.”

     
    Downturns are a huge sucking, a redistribution of wealth upward. You’re basically fucked in this process. Poverty is ennobling, so you do have that. Have a nice day!

     

    BONUS: I wrote a whole book about this called the Ghosts of Tom Joad but few people wanted to read it, so this is all kind of a fun secret between us.

     
     

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    Looking out the Window at 2019…

    January 2, 2019 // 4 Comments »

     

    I got up on January 1 and hurried to look out the window. Those medias made so many predictions during 2018, each one tagged with “Just wait!” that I had to see how many came true.

     

    • No flying cars, hoverboards, home sex robots or time machines for 2018. Again. Dammit.
    • Trump did not resign, get impeached, or go insane. He was not indicted, arrested, forced to quit, run out via the 25th Amendment, or jailed over the Emoluments Clause.
    • It never really became “Mueller Time.”
    • Nobody fired Mueller. There was no Saturday Night Massacre.
    • Mattis quit in protest, but only because Trump said he wanted to stop a war.
    • The U.S. did not go to war with Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or anywhere else. None of those countries invaded America. We’ll have less troops deployed in 2019 than in 2016.
    • The Constitution, at least the parts Obama and Bush left intact, was still in place. The Rule of Law and the press, too. No troops in the streets, no economic devastation, Alaska was not sold back to Putin.

     

    With such an abysmal, sad, and completely wrong record of dire predictions, you’d think the media folk would dial it back a notch as we enter the new year. You would of course be wrong.

    I picked up my New York Times and learned despite being absolutely wrong on all of the above predictions and more, one writer proclaimed 2019 to be the Year of the Wolf, warning “It will be a year in which Donald Trump is isolated and unrestrained as never before. And it will be in this atmosphere that indictments will fall, provoking not just a political crisis but a constitutional one…  our very system of law is at stake.” Holy moley! There’ll be no more laws working pretty soon it says.

    But none of that matters, because this article says we may need to “accept the notion that life as we know it may cease in 2018” because Trump. I got to that one a bit late, because it’s already 2019 and life as we know it has not ceased. Whew. Close call.

    Salon.com knows what Mueller is up to somehow, and says the walls are closing in, but it’ll be in 2019, not last year like they said a year ago, so make a note of that. It’s because Salon just found out “Russian infiltration and sabotage of the 2016 election and Trump’s subsequent obstruction of justice are hardly the only potential high crimes and misdemeanors likely to be investigated by the new Congress.” Golly, that is worrisome. It seems to have something to do with porn star Stormy Daniels and things which happened before Trump was actually elected. Imagine how notable it will be to impeach a president for stuff he did before being president. I hope the Founders thought about that one.

    Now some guy labeled as a “former Bush advisor” is even more specific. He says “the self-professed supreme dealmaker will use his presidency as a bargaining chip with federal and state authorities in 2019, agreeing to leave office in exchange for the relevant authorities not pursuing criminal charges against him, his children or the Trump Organization.” You have to read all the way to the end, but the former Bush advisor who wrote this widely-linked article had the job of regional administrator of Region 2 EPA under the Bush administration and executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, so you know he knows this legal stuff inside and out.

    Another insider, America’s Lawyer Michael Avenatti, tells us Trump, Jr. is already indicted, but see it’s a sealed secret indictment that only Avenatti knows about because he knows stuff. He’s challenged Don, Jr. on Twitter to deny this and there was no reply. So you know what that means.

    MSNBC, which has been predicting the demise of Trump since day one, started the New Year with senior shouter Joe Scarborough “Calling for 25th Amendment, Trump’s Presser Show’s He’s ‘Obviously’ Not Fit for Office.” Obviously!

    Oh, and there might be a military coup soon. “There’s a lot of talk in the active ranks right now about these continued assaults on general officers and the military,” retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling told CNN. “Make no mistake about it, it is being discussed in the active ranks about what is occurring with the president and how he’s treating the military.” Maybe he’s right, because Maggie Haberman of the NYT said on Twitter so you know it’s true “In ways big and small, unencumbered retired senior military officers have questioned Trump’s fitness to serve in the last few weeks.”

    A lot of people seem to feel it’s gonna hit the fan with the military in 2019. A professor at the Naval War College writing in the Atlantic says “the president has opened a Pandora’s box” with his criticism of the military, warning “If Trump continues on this path — and he will — we could face the most politicized and divided military since Vietnam, or even since the Civil War.” Wow, the Civil War, that was a bad one, right? The funny thing is how all the people whispering about a military coup seem to avoid saying that is a bad thing, you know, with democracy in danger and fascism and all.

    But before the coup, that impeachment thing is lit. A USA Today op-ed laid out “damning evidence” Trump attempted Russia collusion in plain sight in 2016, before even getting not elected by the popular votes. I guess Mueller missed this damn evidence, so I hope someone staying in a hotel brings him a copy of the paper so he can check this out. Plain sight no less!

    The Times must know stuff, too, because they wrote an article called “The Inevitability of Impeachment” and that word (I checked) means it definitely will happen.

    Even Lindsey Graham knows 2019 is going to be the end, because he warns “President Trump’s loss in wall battle could be ‘end of his presidency'”

    To make things very clear, Politico just says it in a headline: “Yes, 2019 Is the Year You Were Worrying About.”
     
    So holy patootie, this is all really serious! It looks like all the stuff the many medias said was gonna happen in 2017 2018 is actually going to happen in 2019 you guys! Remember, you heard it here first.
      

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    Tiresome Things of 2018:

    December 31, 2018 // 12 Comments »


    Tiresome things of 2018:

    “News” that is just stuff someone tweeted;

    “News” that is just repeating what a late night TV host said;

    “News” reported on one web site which is just a rewrite of a story on another web site;

    Deification by the left of scum from the right like McCain, Mattis, Clapper, Comey, Brennan, et al, only because they said something bad about Trump;

    Desperate creation of insta-heroes to satisfy some greater political goal (‘Dem Parkland Kids, the cult of ‘Notorious’ RGB, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Friggin’ Beto), empty heros in a time of disappointment and cynicism;

    Movements which claim they have changed everything because their hashtag trended on Twitter;

    All media abandoning even the pretence of objectivity in favor of advocacy but pretending they are still objective;

    The primacy of “sources say…” over anything resembling actual fact-gathering;

    “Fact checking” that is actually partisan gaming of information;

    Idiots thrilled when bad things happen (like stock market declines) because they think it validates their Trump hate;

    Idiots over-dramatizing bad things (like stock market declines) into evidence the world is ending, fascism is taking over, end of democracy, time to worry, walls closing in, tick tock;

    Idiots hoping for more bad things to happen, like a doomsday cult does, because they think that will hasten the end of Trump;

    People who have been saying “Just wait” for three years now into Russiagate. We’re waiting.

    That most social media which isn’t cat pictures is now endless self-promotion because everyone is a brand or selling something or demanding we follow them or friend them or like them or thumbs up them;

    People who just read the headlines and media which writes headlines which are not reflective of the actual content;

    The way transpeople have become progressives’ adopted bestest minority of the moment;

    Over-use of the word “folk”;

    Insta-hate that finds some way to make anything Trump does from the dramatic to the mundane evil and wrong;

    Historical revisionism that turns people like George W. Bush into kindly old men sharing candies with Goddess Michelle instead of thugs who dragged America into war and recession and forever damaged our nation’s credibility by torturing human beings;

    Anything that starts with “As a ____” (woman, POC, Kurd, left handed Asian-American) because you know the rest is just going to be someone whining about how life is unfair, the system unjust, the deck stacked, because they are a ____ and can comment with the full authority for everyone ____ everywhere because they are a ____ and you are not;

    Discussions on immigration policy that dead-end when someone has to tearfully tell us about how his great grandfather didn’t speak English, forestalling any serious attempt to look at broader policy in the 21st century.

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    Don’t Weep for Mattis but for the Global War on Terror, 2001-2018, R.I.P.

    December 25, 2018 // 20 Comments »



    Senior officials never seem to resign over a president starting a war. And Trump, the guy who was supposed to start new wars, instead ended one and is on his way to wrapping up another.

    A full pull-out of U.S. forces from Syria and a drawdown in Afghanistan are much more important as markers of the end of an era than either a bureaucratic tussle (Mattis is stepping down as defense secretary after Trump overruled him and other top national security advisers) or a disastrous geopolitical decision.

    The New York Times, its journalists in mourning over the loss of a war, ask “Who will protect America now?” Mattis the warrior-monk is juxtaposed with the flippant Commander-in-Cheeto. The Times also sees strategic disaster in an “abrupt and dangerous decision, detached from any broader strategic context or any public rationale, sowed new uncertainty about America’s commitment to the Middle East, [and] its willingness to be a global leader.” “A major blunder,” tweeted Marco Rubio. “If it isn’t reversed it will haunt… America for years to come.” Lindsey Graham called for congressional hearings.

    What is history if not irony. Rubio talks of haunting foreign policy decisions in Syria seemingly without knowledge of its predecessor decisions in Iraq. Graham wants to hold hearings on quitting a war Congress never held hearings on authorizing.

    That’s all wrong. Mattis’ resignation, and Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, are significant as marking the beginning of the end of the GWOT, the Global War on Terror, the singular, tragic, bloody driver of American foreign policy for almost two decades.

     

    Why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    It’s 2018. Why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    Defeat ISIS? ISIS’ ability to hold ground and project power outside its immediate backyard was destroyed somewhere back in 2016 by an unholy coalition of American, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, Turkish, and Israeli forces in Iraq and Syria. Sure, there are terrorists who continue to set off bombs in marketplaces in ISIS’ name, but those people are not controlled or directed out of Syria. They are most likely legal residents of the Western countries they attack, radicalized online or in local mosques. They are motivated by a philosophy, and that way of thinking cannot be destroyed on the ground in Syria. The fundamental failure of the GWOT is that you can’t blow up an idea.

    Regime change? It was never a practical idea (as in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, there was never a plan on what to do next, how to keep Syria from descending into complete chaos the day Assad was removed) and though progressives embraced the idea of getting rid of another “evil dictator” when it came through the mouthpiece of Obama’s own freedom fighter Samantha Power, the same idea today has little drive behind it.

    Russia! Overwrought fear of Russia was once a sign of unhealthy paranoia satirized on The Twilight Zone. Today it is seen as a prerequisite to patriotism, though it still makes no more sense. The Russians have always had a practical relationship with Syria and maintained a naval base there at Tartus since 1971, and will continue to do so. There was never a plan for the U.S. to push the Russians out — Obama in fact saw the Russian presence are part of the solution in Syria. American withdrawal from Syria is far more a return to status quo than anything like a win for Putin (Matt Purple pokes holes in Putin Paranoia elsewhere on TAC.)

    The Kurds? The U.S.-Kurd story is a one of expediency over morality. At each sad turn there was no force otherwise available in bulk and the Kurds were used and abandoned many times by America: in 1991 when it refused to assist them in breaking away from Saddam Hussein following Gulf War I, when it insisted they remain part of a “united Iraq” following Gulf War II, and most definitively in 2017 forward following Gulf War III when the U.S. did not support the Kurdish independence referendum, relegating the Kurds to forever being the half-loved stepchild to Baghdad. After all that, U.S. intentions toward the Kurds in Syria are barely a sideshow-scale event. The Kurds want to cleave off territory from Turkey and Syria, something neither nation will permit and something the U.S. quietly understands would destabilize the region.

    Mattis, by the way, supported NATO ally Turkey in its fight against the Kurds, calling them an “active insurgency inside its borders.” The Kurds run a propaganda operation inside the U.S. to rival any other, and, as if to signal that they would not go quietly, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are discussing the release of 3,200 Islamic State prisoners, a prominent monitoring group and a Western official said Thursday. Western media of course featured this story heavily, without thinking for even one second how stupid it would be to release thousands of ISIS prisoners who would immediately turn on you, just to spite the U.S.

    A final point — “The Kurds” are not a nation, or an organization, or a sports team. As referred to in this context, “The Kurds” are a violent subset of an ethnic group spread across multiple nation borders, including Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Supporting “The Kurds” means supporting a non-uniformed armed force which uses violence many classify as terrorism, including urban car bombs, to take and hold territory. The roots of these conflicts go back centuries, and the U.S. should tread carefully when inserting its 500 pound gorilla-self into them. Certainly discussion beyond Op-Eds is needed. Sorry, kids, it’s called real world politics: forced to choose between Turkey whose second-largest army in NATO controls the entrance to the Black Sea, and the stateless Kurds, um…

    Iran? Does the U.S. have troops in Syria to brush back Iranian influence? As with “all of the above,” the genie got out of the bottle years ago. Iranian power in the greater Middle East has grown dramatically since 2003, and has been driven at every step by the blunders of the United States. If the most powerful army in the world couldn’t stop the Iranians from essentially being the winners of Gulf Wars II and III, how can 2,000 troops in Syria hope to accomplish much? The United States of course wasn’t even shooting at the Iranians in Syria; in most cases it was working either with them, or tacitly alongside them towards the same goal of killing off ISIS anyway. Tehran’s role as Assad’s protector was set as America rumbled about regime change. Iran has since pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria and will not be giving that up, certainly not because of the presence of absence of a few thousand Americans.

    American credibility? Left is that once-neocon, now progressive catch-all, we need to stay in Syria to preserve American credibility. While pundits can still get away with this line, the rest of the globe knows the empire has no clothes. Since 2001 the United States has spent some $6 trillion on its wars, and killed multiples of the 9/11 victims worth of American troops and foreign civilians. The U.S. has tortured, still maintains the gulag of Guantanamo as a crown jewel, and worst of all credibility-wise, lost on every front. Afghanistan after 17 years of war festers. Nothing was accomplished with Iraq. Libya is a failed state. Syria is the source of a refugee crisis whose long-term effects on Europe are still being played out. We are largely left as an “indispensable nation” only in our own minds. A lot of people around the world probably wish America would just stop messing with their countries.

    Our allies? The much-touted coalition which the U.S. lead into Afghanistan was in pieces before it fell apart in 2003 ahead of the Iraq invasion. One-by-one, American allies across Europe, including Britain, as well as Canada, have dropped out of GWOT or reduced their participation to token forces. Nonetheless, the media has found people as far away as Australia to quote on how the U.S. is abandoning its post-WWII roll as the world’s protector. And of course any U.S. ally who feels the fight in Syria/Afghanistan/Yemen/Etc. is worth dying for is more than welcome to send in its own troops.

     

    So why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    Anyone? Bueller? Mattis?

    The U.S. presence in Syria, like Jim Mattis himself, is an artifact of another era, the failed GWOT. As a Marine, Mattis served in ground combat leadership roles in Gulf Wars I and II, and also in Afghanistan. He ran United States Central Command from 2010 to 2013, the final years of The Surge in Iraq and American withdrawal afterwards. There is no doubt why he supported the American military presence in Syria, and why he resigned to protest Trump’s decision to end it — Mattis knew nothing else. His entire career was built around the strategy of the GWOT, the core of which was never question GWOT strategy. Mattis didn’t need a reason to stay in Syria; being in Syria was the reason.

    So why didn’t Trump listen to his generals? Maybe because the bulk of their advice has been dead wrong for 17 years? Instead, Trump plans a dramatic drawdown of troops in Afghanistan (American soldiers will be there in some small number forever to act as a rear-guard against the political fallout that chased Obama in 2011 when he withdrew troops.) The U.S. presence in Iraq has dwindled from combat to advise and assist, and Congress seems poised to end U.S. involvement in Yemen against Mattis’ advice.

    There is no pleasure in watching Jim Mattis end his decades of service with a bureaucratic dirty stick shoved at him as a parting gift. But to see this all as another Trump versus the world blunder is very wrong. The war on terror failed, and needed to be dismantled long ago. Barack Obama could have done it, but instead was a victim of hubris and bureaucratic capture and allowed himself to expand it. His supporters give him credit for not escalating the war in Syria, but leave out the part about how he also left the pot to simmer on the stove instead of removing it altogether.

    A New Lens

    The raw drive to insta-hate everything Trump does can mislead otherwise thoughtful people. So let’s try a new lens: During the campaign Trump outspokenly denounced the waste of America’s wars. Pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas was driven by people who agreed with his critique, by people who’d served in these wars, whose sons/daughters had served, or given the length of all this, both. Since taking office, the president has pulled U.S. troops back from pointless conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Congress may yet rise to do the same for American involvement in Yemen. No new wars have started. Though the results are far from certain, for the first time in nearly twenty years negotiations are open again with North Korea.

    Mattis’ ending was clumsy, but it was a long time coming. It is time for some old ideas to move on. And if future world events cause us to have some sort of debate over what the proper U.S. role is in places like Syria and Afghanistan, well, that’s been a long time coming, too.

     

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    This Year’s Top 10 Hottest Holiday Gifts

    December 24, 2018 // 16 Comments »


     

    This Year’s Top 10 Hottest Holiday Gifts

    Still shopping for the right last minute gift? Received $300 in $10 Amazon gift cards from the Secret Santas you’ve had to participate in at all your part time jobs and want to treat yourself? Here are some great suggestions!

     

    Middle East Lego Playset

    The set retails for three trillion dollars. Included are enough Legos to build replicas of Mosul and Fallujah, allowing a child to refight those battles over and over. Figures, all with removable heads, include Sunni militias, Islamic State fighters, Shia militias, one figure representing the actual Iraqi Army, Americans, Iranians, Yemenis, Kurds, Russians, Syrians (moderate and radical, though they look alike), Israelis, Saudi financiers, Hezbollah fighters, and a starter pack of refugees. Don’t forget even more adventures can be played with the Turkish Expansion Pack. Parents, please note, even with the best of intentions, the playset tends to simply fall apart after awhile and everyone gets bored with it. Not included: any weapons of mass destruction.

     

    DVD Set: Ken Burns’ America’s Afghan War, 2001 – Who Knows

    America’s master of the documentary returns with this insightful history of America’s longest war. Weighing in at over 12,345,000 hours of DVD footage delivered in three container trucks, the documentary largely consists of one scene played over and over of Marines capturing and then giving up then recapturing the same hill outside Kabul while narrator Morgan Freeman reads letters from other troopers detailing how their PTSD ruined two marriages and they’ve missed nine birthdays for their youngest son.

    On the Blu-Ray version, Burns offers us an interview montage of a Taliban leader in 2001 saying he will outlast the Americans, followed by his son saying the same thing in 2006, followed by his grandson repeating it in 2010, followed by twin great grandchildren making the same promise in 2018 while various American presidents mime “nyah nyah” behind them. The Deluxe Edition comes with $20 billion in American dollars, along with a match so you can set it on fire, a far better use of the money than funding another year of war.

     

    Trump: The Foreign Policy Game

    Game night will never be the same! This basically is just a regular game of Jenga. The new rules, however, allow a player to suddenly yell “Make America Great Again” and knock over the tower.

     

    The Amazon Alexa Ocasio-Cortez Plug-In Adapter

    In addition to changing Alexa’s voice to that of Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, this software update occasionally sets your device to simply scream at the top of its lungs for no discernible reason until you wish she would just go away. When you order something for yourself, the device refuses to process the request and says “That’s just so wrong!” Several times a month it does use your credit card to purchase artisanal honey-based shampoos made in Brooklyn to ship to refugee centers because they need comforts too, and to pay off student loans held by Members of Congress. After six months the software self-destructs and you never hear from it again. Includes a coupon good next Christmas for the Ilhan Omar and Beto versions.

     

    Speak to Me Millennial Doll

    Has your Millennial son or daughter stopped talking with you since the 2016 election? The Speak to Me Millennial Doll is the answer! The doll comes in only one transgender version with a nose ring and simulated tattoo of alleged comedian Pete Davidson making love to Hillary Clinton. Pulling the string causes the doll to nasally utter such phrases as “That’s racist!,” “You’re a fascist,” “Seriously, you’re going to eat that ‘food’?”, “No more hate speech,” and “I wish I wasn’t white.” The doll has a feature in which no matter where you put it down it automatically returns to sleep on the coach in your basement.

     

    CLUE – the 2020 Democratic Presidential Edition

    A crime has been committed and the game is afoot! Who has been nominated for President and Vice President by the Democratic party? It’s your job to follow the clues and figure out who the culprits are! Is it Biden and Some Black Person in the men’s room? Warren and Bernie in the Assisted Living Wing, Gillibrand alone locked outside, or Hillary running alone through the house killing off the others with a candlestick shouting “It’s still my turn!” Comes with a free tax increase, a new war in the Middle East, and an Obamacare “Tarnished Tin” level starter-pack. Libertarian candidate cards not available in the U.S.

     

    Grow Your Own Putin

    Available exclusively at PetSmart, you get a glass tank and a small ceramic Trump Tower that doubles as an air filter. Simply fill the tank with water (or blood) and pour in the pre-measured freeze-dried Putin flakes. Watch as they grow! Initially your Putin may only occupy a small corner of its tank. But the more you pay attention to it, the bigger it will get! With proper media exposure, your little Putin will soon dominate your entire household, and come to be the thing to blame when someone forgets to buy milk, when the dishes are not done, and when the spark just seems to have gone out of your marriage. Warming lamp, food pellets, and 24/7 fiber optic access to social media sold separately.

     

    Mueller Supercut, Hero Edition

    For the antifa niece or nephew on your list, this is a supercut of all classic tough guy movies (Clint Eastwood, Arnold, Bruce Willis) where, using state-of-the-art computer graphics, Robert Mueller’s face is substituted in. Hear your favorite Man o’ the Resistance utter lines like “Make my day, punk,” “Yippie Ky-ee, MF” and of course “Get off my lawn.” Also included are the really romantic stuff from Love, Actually where Mueller is shown doing all the nice things you wish your damn boyfriend would do for you just once this Christmas how the hell hard can it be to make up some cards and ring the doorbell, and those not-gay scenes from Magic Mike where each shirtless image of Channing Tatum is redone with Mueller’s face.

    Comes with a temporary Mueller tattoo, because we know you’ll come to regret it even if you don’t yet. And for one lucky child with terminal cancer, the real Robert Mueller will come to his hospital bed and whisper the secret ending of the investigation. This insight will cure the child and he will be able to walk again.

    (Note: this gift idea replaces an earlier supercut in which Ruth Bader Ginsburg was CGI-ed as several Avengers characters.)

     

    CNN or FOX News Pundit Gift Certificate
    Don’t watch the news, create the news! This attractive gift certificate, available for your favorite not fake news channel, allows you to appear as one of a panel of 25 experts to comment on the most important story of the day. Your image on screen will be approximately the size of an Apple watch, and your remarks must be limited to shouting “But wait just a minute,” “The walls are closing in,” “What about the emails?” or “Oh right, the Russians,” delivered either with righteous anger or drippy sarcasm depending on which channel you choose. Buy two or more certificates and you will be quoted as “an unnamed source close to the White House” and given a book deal. The buyer is responsible for travel to CNN headquarters in New York and the trailer park where Fox News is thought to originate.

     

    Your Own GoFundMe

    With GoFundMe now America’s largest health insurer, give the gift of an account to a loved one!

     

    …And some bonus items!

    Media Critique Kit

    An educational “toy” to encourage a more thoughtful approach to the mediascape of 2019, the kit is just a gallon of vodka. The advanced kit includes a stout rope and sturdy stool.

     

    The Mar-a-Lago Experience

    Why not a little getaway to the Happiest Place in America? All-inclusive, the weekend includes an appointment to whatever Cabinet position happens to be open at the time. Seriously, you don’t have to really go there for the weekend, just please someone take some of these jobs if you can.

     

    Military Leadership: From Battleground to Boardroom

    A good book always makes a great gift. But this isn’t really just one book, you can give a million of them to everyone on your list because every retired service member from 30-year-generals to privates kicked out on bad conduct violations writes one. Don’t worry which to choose, as they are all the same! Every book is created by a computer that just randomly shuffles chapter headings like “Lead from the Front,” “People are Your Best Resource,” “No Surrender,” “Details Count,” “Be the Leader You Always Wanted,” “Combat Hardens Men (and Women Now Too!),” and more. Even the titles are similar, always with a colon: Leading from the Front: A General’s Story or What I Learned in Combat: A Major’s Lessons from the Front or Trident Glory Honor Sweaty Stuff: SEAL Lessons for Managers Who Don’t Have to Kill People.

     

    The Password for my Netflix Account
    Seriously, about 20 people are already “borrowing” it. You might as well use it. How does this company make money?

     

    A Fill-In-the-Blank ‘Never Forget’ Bumper Sticker
    Be prepared.

     

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    Seeing the Promised Land: Springsteen on Broadway, a Review

    December 18, 2018 // 10 Comments »

    Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show finished its 236 performance run in New York, and arrived on Netflix December 16.

    It is extraordinary. It is an autopsy of us, a public service, a political rally, a tally of what we need to do next as a nation. A man confesses his sins, asks for our forgiveness, tells us about an America we still might be able to become, and opens his heart about what it means to be closer to the end than the beginning.

    I saw the show live, an early winner of the ticket lottery. The Netflix version of the same show (and album, DVD, etc.) is a simple recording of what we all saw in the theater. No backstage footage, no interviews, no B-roll of Bruce grimly driving around his hometown. Someone was smart enough to focus the cameras and get out of the way. Over the year and a half run, Bruce moved a few things around a bit ,a nd added two songs, Long Time Coming and Ghost of Tom Joad. Otherwise, the show stayed pretty much the same.

    Politics is missing from the show and politics is present in nearly every line. While there are references to “the current state of affairs” and admonishments against giving in to those who probe at our differences for their own benefit, you don’t hear the name Trump, same as you didn’t hear Reagan, or Bush, or much of Obama during Bruce’s long career. Instead, you hear about the people those presidents left behind, those once the American Dream and now just what happened to it.

    Bruce signals early it is time to make amends, via spoken passages pulled from his autobiography interlaced with his music. I’d heard something like this before – at AA meetings where people working through their 12 Step Programs admitted what they’d done, the people they’d hurt, and sought redemption. Bruce stood up and apologized for allowing Born in the USA to become an anthem. Bruce is pissed off now singing, no, shouting the lyrics. He seeks amends by telling us it should have always been sung as a protest song, that it always was to him, but he let it slip away.

    So he took the song back, hitting the line “son, you don’t understand” hard, maybe directed at himself in 1984 trying to ride the tiger of fame, maybe at himself as a young man dodging the draft and later, politicized by Ron Kovic, wondering when he visited the Vietnam Memorial who was sent in his place.

    Springsteen’s politics are bigger than one passing president, same as his vision for us. He professes we need a conscience, not a party affiliation, to make America great. So the words of a nation turning its back in the 1980s on those who built it double for the words of a nation turning its back on some of its most vulnerable citizens in 2018.

    The lack of empathy which caused us to abandon factory workers in the Midwest isn’t all that different from the lack of empathy that causes us to abandon people in need today. Some manipulative politicians tell us it is all different, that we don’t need to care about old white laborers, same as others tell us we don’t need to care about poor immigrants of color. There are no deplorables here, just Haves and Have Nots, and some who Took It All. Springsteen channels, mimics, and echoes the poets who came before him and understood it, too: Whitman, Guthrie, Steinbeck, Agee, Debs, Dylan, alongside a little Holden Caulfield and Joe Dirt.

    Land of Hope and Dreams captures all this, with its signature line about a train called America carrying saints, sinners, whores, and gamblers borrowed from Woody Guthrie who borrowed it from John Steinbeck. We can be better, even if we never were better before. America’s greatness isn’t about romanticizing a past that never existed; we always pushed back against immigrants, always sent men and women to die for the wrong reasons abroad. This used to be a country that talked about dreams with a straight face; it was never supposed to be a finite place. And so Bruce amends a key line from Promised Land to warn, changing “I believe in a promised land” from his records to “I believe there is a promised land.” The danger is always in thinking we cannot be better.

    Promised Land thus is an unexpected highlight of the show, framed around a retelling of Bruce’s first trip across the great western deserts. Springsteen makes no secret the promise he saw in America then remains unfulfilled, and the answer is us. He finished the song aside the mic, singing and playing without amplification. It was as if he was singing to each of us as individuals, and it was meant to be so.

    Yet for its intimacy, much of what happens doesn’t seem like it was for us at all. We didn’t show up to see him as much as he seemed to need us to show up so he’d have someone to talk with. Bruce’s adult life has been all about crippling bouts of depression relieved only by maniacal touring. You could imagine if it was somehow possible, he would have liked to deliver this show to each of us individually, maybe in the kitchen, with little more than the light off the stove to give some space between us. Gathering everyone into a theater was a necessary but unwanted logistical thing.

    A lot of this hummed around the edges of Bruce’s performances for years; he was already working out his emotions over his unloving father on stage as a kind of rap meditation when I first saw him perform in 1978. But tonight when he imitated his father telling him to go away as a young Bruce was sent to fetch him from some bar – “don’t bother me here, don’t bother me here” – that was an eight-year-old on stage mimicking an adult. If it was Bruce acting for us, the pain was as involuntarily present as the sweat on his forehead.

    The evening was as necessary as a last hospital visit with an old friend. Bruce wanted to know – he asked – if he’d done OK by us, had he been a “good companion.” We’d made him very rich, allowing him as he joked to never have to hold a job in his life. Twice he accused himself of being a fraud, saying he’d never been inside a factory in his life. But it’s time now to take that long walk. We’re tired, we’re old, we’re at the point where there is more to look back on than to look forward to. So did he do OK by us? Was it… enough?

    Yeah, Bruce, it was. The show finished where things started really, with Born to Run. Everyone in the audience heard it a first time a different time since it came out in 1975, but now, 43 years passed, we had grown old together. Every one of us, and by God that had to include Bruce, heard a hundred versions of that song in that moment. We heard it on 8-track, bootleg cassette, LP, CD, MP-3, DVD, YouTube, and Netflix and had to face, together, the warm embrace and cold slap of never being 16 years old again.

    Age is omnipresent – maybe we ain’t that young anymore – right down to the construction of the song list; it’s telling a 69-year-old Springsteen chose about a third of the set from his youthful period forty years earlier. As he said on stage, there’s less blank paper left for us to write on. Maybe as a person, maybe as a nation. Maybe they are the same thing if we think on it right.

    Unlike a typical Springsteen concert, where anything less than three hours is a short cut, the Broadway show is short, tight, maybe even a bit rushed. Not like Bruce was trying to cram in everyone’s favorite songs and still get home for the news, but that he had a lot to say and knew he didn’t have a lot of time to say it. The end is coming even though we don’t know exactly when, so you listen up now.

    The weight of it all – the love lost, the hate and pain collected, a nation wavering on itself and its promise – feels heavier than it used to when there was more time. Now, Bruce seemed to say, I’m going to get these things together for you and hand them over during these hours. After that, they’ll be yours to take care of. In a way, they always were.

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    Why Trump is Unlikely to Be Indicted or Impeached for Campaign Finance Crimes

    December 12, 2018 // 14 Comments »

    Almost overnight the focus of Russiagate shifted from treason and Trump as a Russian asset to a hyperfocus on payoffs to two women Trump slept with years ago. But even if it can be shown Donald Trump’s actions toward those two women are actually chargeable crimes, he will not be indicted while in office.

    That leaves impeachment, over acts the president did before being elected. We are in a load of trouble if there is a way to impeach a president essentially retroactively, for things done before he assumed office. This is Twitter-think gone wild, destroying people for old Tweets written in some cases years ago, or holding a Supreme Court nomination hostage to yearbook scribbles. The politics of personal destruction. Let’s see where things stand.

     

    Indictment?

    Before getting into the specifics of Trump, Cohen and those payoffs, it is clear the attorneys of the Southern District of New York (SDNY), under the control of the U.S. Department of Justice, will not be permitted to break long tradition (here’s the document from the Office of the Legal Counsel which establishes it would be unconstitutional to indict) and indict a sitting president. No one will say it, but no one wants that door opened, even to get Trump; if it is, every future president can expect to find himself endlessly enveloped in frivolous indictments from prosecutors seeking to make a name for themselves and/or score political points by turning an opinion into a headline. Nope, nobody is throwing Baby political safety out with the bathwater of Trump.

    There is also crazy talk SDNY is preparing the indictment against Trump now, to file against him the day he leaves office in 2021 (assuming he loses the election to Hillary/Beto or whomever), a new level of pointless revenge in America that won’t happen. No newly-elected Democratic president wants to send that Third World vengeance message alongside of obligatory “time to heal” rhetoric. And of course if Trump is elected to a second term the SDNY indictments disappear; there is a five year statute of limitations on any 2016 election finance crimes such as Trump might be accused of. As New York magazine put it in a headline, “Trump 2020 Shaping Up to Be a Campaign to Stay Out of Prison.”

    Indictment of trump, now or in the future, seems headed nowhere. But we’ll talk about it endlessly anyway.

     

    A Tale of Two Women

    So bottom line: SDNY isn’t going to do anything. It’s impeachment or nothing from the Democratic House starting in January.

    There are two women, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, at the center of all this. Both are alleged to have had affairs with Trump, and both are said to have received money to not speak of those affairs (though they have.) You can in fact pay people to shut up about affairs. That happens all the time. It is not illegal.

    The fact is Trump could have made the payment himself without violating the law. In the simplest version, if Trump had paid the women with money clearly his own, with a note attached saying “No politics, this is only to spare my family shame, you filthy bimbo,” there would be absolutely no crime. Sleaze, disgrace, cravenness, yes, of course. But the crime, if it exists, is based on the way this was done, not that it was done. So can any of this be criminalized to the extent that it becomes the “high crime or misdemeanor” necessary to impeach Trump?

    Let’s start with Stormy.

    Stormy Daniels

    For Stormy’s $130,000 payoff to morph into something illegal, it will be necessary for someone to determine the money paid her came from campaign funds, that it was a donation. If it was 100% Trump’s private money, there is no case. Nothing Mueller or the SDNY has released has said where the money came from. Think about think how complex Trump’s finances are. Proving the money was campaign funds is a critical part of this. Keep in mind the idea that campaign funds are illegal to use here hinges on none of this cash was Trump’s own money, even money he donated himself to his own campaign. The illegal part is based mostly on a $2,700 donation limit imposed on the supposed “giver,” Michael Cohen in this case, a limit which does not apply to the candidate himself. The campaign funds part comes in in tracking the source of the cash used to reimburse Cohen.

    In short, the payment is not a donation if it was made for an expense that was independent of the campaign – that is, money that would have been paid even if there were no campaign.

    If the money can be shown to be campaign funds or a donation by Cohen, one next has to prove the purpose of the payoff was to influence the election, not say to prevent shaming Trump’s family. Absent hard information to the contrary, Trump could claim he wanted to hide the affair say from his young son reading about it in the media, and maybe even show he’s been paying off women for decades, long before he ran for president, as proof that Stormy was just another in a long line of galpals paid to shut up after the deed.

    If the money can be shown to be campaign funds and somehow intent was clear, then impeachment would still require tying all that to Trump, because as things stand at this moment, it was Trump lawyer Michael Cohen who paid the money out with whatever intent Cohen himself had at that time. Trump himself did not pay anything to Stormy per se.

    Cohen, in his guilty pleas seeking lenient sentences on his unrelated tax cheating convictions, says that was the case, for him, that his intent was to influence the election. We currently have only his word that it was also Trump’s intent when (again, only on Cohen’s word) Trump ordered him to make the payoff. Absent additional information, those key elements of the crime depend on convicted felon Michael Cohen’s impeachment testimony from his jail cell as to culpability and intent of the president.

    Then there is the question of the money again. Cohen claims he paid Stormy using his own personal funds, and then was reimbursed by Trump. Assuming that is true, then step one (above) would be to prove the reimbursement money came from campaign donations and Trump knew the money was being reimbursed for the payoff specifically. Intent is very much a factor in proving a crime here. So if say Cohen sent an unitemized invoice (as Rudy Giuliani has suggested) to Trump for a dollar amount simply for “services rendered” (call it plausible denial), Trump can claim he had no idea the money was being used illegally. So hopefully someone will produce a receipt annotated “Shady Payoff to Stormy.”

    This is a complicated case to prove — that the payoffs were in fact “campaign donations,” that the intent was to influence an election after Trump had already made clear to the electorate his sleazy background with women, that Trump knew in detail what Cohen said was done by him, and that Trump ordered these things to happen. That would mostly leave Trump guilty of some sort of “conspiracy to…” charge, something second hand the public might see as short of impeachable.

    The fact that Cohen chose to plead guilty to campaign finance crimes seeking a lighter sentence means that none of these questions were ever contested in a court, nothing was proven, no evidence produced, and no witnesses called and examined. Cohen’s choice to plead guilty is not prima facie evidence of the truth of any of this. His guilty plea is not “evidence” in the impeachment of Trump, though Cohen would obviously be a key witness.

    One can imagine the media circus as Cohen, maybe clad in an orange jumpsuit on day pass from some Federal prison, testifies alongside Stormy Daniels, whose skills at anal sex are watchable on Porhub turning breaks in the proceedings. Also,

    A federal judge on Tuesday ordered Stormy Daniels to pay nearly $300,000 in legal fees to Trump over a defamation lawsuit dismissed on October 15 to add to the gathering of shame. Bazinga!

     

    Karen McDougal

    If the number of elements which must be proven to impeach Trump over what happened with Stormy seems a long road, the case of Karen McDougal is even more complex.

    In McDougal’s case, Cohen claims he paid $150,000 in Trump money to David Pecker (you can’t make this stuff up), who runs American Media, which controls the National Enquirer. Pecker then supposedly used that money to buy exclusive rights to McDougal’s story of sex with Trump with the intent of never publishing the tale, thus burying it. Although Cohen said he would reimburse Pecker (and then Cohen would be reimbursed by Trump), the reimbursement did not happen. So the crime here is Cohen causing a third party (Pecker) to make an illegal contribution.

    Illegal contribution? Well, that’s another point in both cases, Stormy and McDougal. For these cases to add up to crimes, instead of a legal payoff to remain quiet/buy the rights to a story, the House would have to somehow conclude the money was actually a contribution to Trump’s campaign, a contribution either made illegally beyond allowable limits, or made illegally to influence the election, or made illegally just because it wasn’t disclosed. If the whole mess was to be heard in a real court, this point of law would be a showstopper, and a focal point for both sides to contest. How it will be adjudicated in front of Congress is anyone’s guess, but expect Trump’s defense team, if things get that far, to try and move the question out of Congress and into a real court.

    Another element is it must be shown Pecker spiked the McDougal story to influence the election, not simply as an editorial decision. Fun fact: prosecutors first granted Pecker (and another American Media executive, Dylan Howard) immunity to testify in this case. They then announced a “Non-Prosecution Agreement” with American Media, which quickly said the whole thing was political. No one is above the law, unless you are willing to testify against someone more important than you, in which case you get off scot-free for your own crimes!

    And maybe someday we can talk about the third world system we are watching play out where plea bargains and lesser sentences are bartered for nasty testimony.

     

    The Jury of Us

    Proving the many legal points is hard enough, but that’s just the beginning of the real test. This is all about the politics of destruction; Democrats couldn’t beat Trump n 2016, they couldn’t gin up enough Russia-fever to get him, and so may choose to settle on working these payoffs as their last act.

    Keep in mind all of the above elements will need to be proven in hearings held in the House, with witnesses and defense teams, all no doubt televised. There is a difference between what a prosecutor asserts in a one-sided filing designed (see the job title, “to prosecute,” the other side is called the defense) to present someone as guilty, and proving those same elements of an actual on-the-books crime, with evidence. There is a difference between what you so desperately want to believe is true, and what actually is true under the Rule of Law you also believe is so in danger but would throw away in a heartbeat to oust Trump.

    Democrats will have to answer in a way average Americans will agree with how this is all so different from when it was discovered Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was guilty of violations involving nearly $2 million – an amount that dwarfs the $280,000 in Cohen’s case – the Obama Justice Department decided not to prosecute. Instead, the matter was quietly disposed of by a $375,000 fine by the Federal Election Commission. How’d we go from a fine to impeachment anyway?

    To be sure, SDNY prosecutors have charged election finance violations as felonies before, most notably in 2014 against conservative Dinesh D’Souza, whom Trump later pardoned. That no doubt displeased the folks at SDNY, so there’s an element of shallow revenge for the public to chew on as well.

    Politics

    The story will unfold in the context of hearings where the real jury are the Americans who’ll vote in 2020. Since absent some bombshell the Republican Senate will never convict Trump no matter what the House does, this is all for show, and we’re the audience. Democrats thinking this all through must remember the dumpster fire of the Bill Clinton impeachment, where in return for their efforts to trump up similar charges and their actual impeachment vote against Clinton, they ended up with the voters turning against them, sick of the whole thing and ultimately taking Bill’s side more or less-ish.

    Can the Democrats really expect to convince a large number of Americans that in his third year in office, Trump needs to be impeached over a violation of conspiracy to violate Section 30116(a)(7)(A) of the election laws which occurred before he was even elected? That the 2016 election needs to be overturned for that, for the good of the country, and that this wasn’t just the politics of personal destruction out of control again, as we saw with Kavanaugh?

    They might. The Democrats from Day One have wanted to put an asterisk by Trump’s election. The Russiagate-collusion narrative has turned dusty and old. It isn’t as easy to understand or as sexy as a pee tape, but in its place Dems may try and use Trump’s payments to two mistresses as a way of locking in their narrative that Trump won by cheating. Mueller is a man of the Deep State, a fixer for them, and his dirty hands are being well-employed with fixing the problem of Trump being elected when the Plan was always for Hillary.

    Or maybe not. I don’t think the Dems will risk it. I don’t think Trump is going to face impeachment, or indictment. There will be a flow of noise and threats and dire Maddow-esque predictions, but this all ends one way or another with the election of 2020, not impeachment or indictment.

     

    BONUS

    It’s easy to forget the special prosecutor who sent Bill Clinton into impeachment began with the financial mess of Whitewater and ended with Monica Lewinsky and lying to Congress, even as Mueller started with Putin controlling the Oval Office and seems likely to end with payoffs to a porn star.

    The concept of appointing a Special Prosecutor with the task of finding SOMETHING to try and overthrown an election is an ugly one. While so many Americans are near-joyful over each crumb that suggests Trump is in deeper trouble, I wonder how they’ll feel when a Special Prosecutor becomes a standard opposition weapon used against a president they like. A reminder you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

    BONUS BONUS

    And yes, to save some time, let’s just assume all the people who have commented for 2.5 years “But just wait!” have already done that again here, ‘kay?

     

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    Mueller’s End Game

    December 11, 2018 // 12 Comments »

    A baby born when Robert Mueller started his investigation would be talking by now. But would she have anything to say?

    We last looked at what Mueller had publicly, and what he didn’t have, some ten months ago, and cautioned skepticism that he would prove “collusion.” It’s worth another look now, but we’ll give away the ending: there is still no real evidence of, well, much of anything significant about Russiagate. One thing clear is the investigation seems to be ending. Mueller’s office reportedly even told various defense lawyers it is “tying up loose ends.” The moment to wrap things up is politically right as well; the Democrats will soon take control of the House and it is time to hand this all off to them.

     

    Ten months ago the big news was Paul Manafort flipped; that seems to have turned out to be mostly a bust, as we know now he lied like a rug to the Feds and cooperated with the Trump defense team as some sort of mole inside Mueller’s investigation (a heavily-redacted memo about Manafort’s lies, released by Mueller on Friday, adds no significant new details to the Russiagate narrative.) George Papadopoulos has already been in and out of jail — all of two weeks — for his sideshow role, Michael Avenatti is now a woman beater who is just figuring out he’s washed up, Stormy Daniels owes Trump over $300k in fees after losing to him in court, there is no pee tape, and if you don’t recall how unimportant Carter Page and Richard Gates turned out to be (or even remember who they are), well, there is your assessment of all the hysterical commentary that accompanied them a few headlines ago.

    The big reveal of the Michael Flynn sentencing memo on Tuesday was he will likely do no prison time. Everything of substance in the memo was redacted, so there is little insight available. If you insist on speculation, try this: it’s hard to believe something really big and bad happened such that Flynn knew about it but still wasn’t worth punishing for it, and now, a year after he started cooperating with the government, nobody has heard anything about whatever the big deal is. So chances are the redactions focus on foreign lobbying in the U.S.

     

    This week’s Key to Everything is Michael Cohen, the guy who lied out of self-interest for Trump until last week when we learned he is also willing to lie, er, testify against Trump out of self-interest. If you take Cohen’s most recent statements at face value the sum is failed negotiations we all knew about already to build a Trump hotel in Moscow went on a few months longer than originally stated. Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York submitted a sentencing memo Friday for Cohen recommending 42 months in jail. In a separate filing, Mueller made no term recommendation but praised Cohen for his “significant efforts to assist the special counsel’s office.” The memos reveal no new information.

    Call it as sleazy as you want, but looking into a real estate deal is neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor, even if it’s in Russia. Conspiracy law requires an agreement to commit a crime, not just the media declaiming “Cohen was communicating directly with the Kremlin!” Talking about meeting Russian persons is not a crime, nor is meeting with them. The takeaway this was all about influence buying by the Russkies falls flat. If Putin sought to ensnare Trump, why didn’t he find a way for the deal to actually go through? Mueller has to be able to prove actual crimes by the president, not just twist our underclothes into a weekly conspiratorial knot. For fun, look here at the creative writing needed to even suggest anything illegal. Doesn’t sound like Trump’s on thin ice with hot shoes.

     

    Sigh. It is useful at this point of binge-watching the Mueller mini-series to go back to the beginning.

    The origin story for all things Russiagate is a less-than-complete intelligence finding hackers, linked to the Russian government, stole emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016. The details have never been released, no U.S. law enforcement agency has ever seen the server/scene of the crime, and Mueller’s dramatic indictments of said hackers, released as Trump met with Putin in Helsinki, will never be heard of again, or challenged, as none of his defendants will ever leave Russia. Meanwhile, despite contemporaneous denials of the same, it is now somehow accepted knowledge the emails (and Facebook ads!) had some unproven major affect on the election.

    The origin story for everything else, that Trump is beholden to Putin for favors granted or via blackmail, is opposition research purchased by the Democrats and carried out by an MI6 operative with complex connections into American intelligence, the salacious Steele Dossier. The FBI, under a Democratic-controlled Justice Department, then sought warrants to spy on the nominated GOP candidate for president, based on evidence paid for by his opponent.

    Yet the real origin story for all things Russiagate is the media, inflamed by Democrats, searching for why Trump won (because it can’t be anything to do with Hillary, and “all white people and the Electoral College are racists” just doesn’t hold up.) Their position is Trump must have done something wrong, and Robert Mueller, despite helping squash a Bush-era money-laundering probe, lying about the Iraq War, and flubbing the post-9/11 anthrax investigation, has been resurrected with Jedi superpowers to find it. It might be collusion with Russia or Wikileaks, or a pee tape, or taxes, all packaged as hard news but reading like Game of Thrones plot speculation. None of that is journalism to be proud of, and it underlies everything Mueller.

    As the NYT said in a rare moment of candor, “From the day the Mueller investigation began, opponents of the president have hungered for that report, or an indictment waiting just around the corner, as the source text for an incantation to whisk Mr. Trump out of office and set everything back to normal again.”

    The core problem is Mueller just hasn’t found a crime connected with Russiagate someone working for Trump might have committed. His investigation to date hasn’t been a search for the guilty party, Colonel Mustard in the library, but a search for an actual underlying crime, some crime, any crime. All Mueller has uncovered are some old financial misdealing by Manafort and chums that took place before and outside of the Trump campaign, payoffs to Trump’s mistresses which are not in themselves inherently illegal (despite what prosecutors simply assert in the Cohen sentencing report, someone will have to prove to a jury the money was from campaign funds and the transactions were “for the purpose of influencing” federal elections, not say simply “protecting his family from shame.” Cohen’s guilty pleas cannot legally be considered evidence of someone else’s guilt), and a bunch of people lying about unrelated matters.

     

    And that’s the give away to Muller’s final report. There was no base crime as the starting point of the investigation. With Watergate there was the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters. With Russiagate you had… Trump winning the election (remembering the FBI concluded the DNC hack was done by the Russians forever ago, no Mueller needed.)

    Almost everything Mueller has, the perjury and lying cases, are crimes he created through the process of investigating. He’s Schroeder’s Box; the crimes only exist when he tries to look at them. Mueller created most of his booked charges by asking questions he already knew the answers to, hoping his witness would lie and commit a new crime literally in front of him. Nobody should be proud of lying, but it seems a helluva way to contest a completed election as Trump enters the third year of his term.

    Mueller’s end product, his report, will most likely claim a lot of unsavory things went on. But it seems increasingly unlikely he’ll have evidence Trump worked with Russia to win the election, and even less likely that Trump is now under Putin’s control. If Mueller had a smoking gun we’d be watching impeachment hearings by now.

    Instead Mueller will end up concluding some people may have sort of maybe tried to interfere with an investigation into what turned out to be nothing, another “crime” that exists only because there was an investigation to trigger it. He’ll dump that steaming pile of legal ambiguity into the lap of the Democratic House to hold hearings on from now until global warming claims the city of Benghazi and returns it to the sea. Or the 2020 election, whichever comes first.

     

    BONUS:

    The uber-point of all this Ocean’s Nineteen-level conspiracy is supposedly so Putin can, whatever, sow dissent in America. Because if he wanted a puppet in the Oval Office it has been a damn poor return on investment — sanctions are still in place, NATO is still on Russia’s border, Montenegro joined NATO, Trump approved arms sales to the Ukraine, RT and Sputnik are sidelined as registered foreign agents, Cold Warrior-like hardliners Bolton and Pompeo are in power, the U.S. just delivered Russia an ultimatum on an arms control treaty that could return some American missiles to Europe, and more. On the plus side, there were those friendly Tweets.

    Along the way new journalistic “norms” were created: Trump is too stupid to have made his money, so it must be ill-gotten. Trump did real estate deals in NYC and so is mobbed up. Trump’s taxes (albeit available to the IRS and Treasury for decades, the FBI and Mueller via warrant for years) hide secrets. Meanwhile, everyone in Russia with a few bucks is an oligarch, and everyone who anyone from the Trump side spoke with is “connected to Putin.” Trump doesn’t have lawyers, he has fixers and consigliere.

    These tropes allow journalists to communicate in a kind of shorthand with the rubes who still imagine something will happen to annul the 2016 election. They allow each mini-development to appear to be a major event, as in the mind of the media everything is related, and everything accumulative. So a lie about a real estate deal in Russia is HUGE because it has something to do with Russia and see that connects all the dots!

    None of that is journalism to be proud of, and it underlies everything Mueller. It is almost sad looking back at the old articles and TV tales to see how excited everyone got — Flynn was indicated! Sessions recused himself! Comey will save us! The Nunes Memo! They all used to matter sooooo much. Outlets like the NYT and WaPo rolled out a “source close to the White House” to comment whatever just happened means Mueller is getting close to nailing Trump. The nutters who took over once cogent places like HuffPo and Salon run “reporting” that reads like Game of Thrones plot speculation. Everybody runs the same headlines: BREAKING: Reports: Sources: Trump Fixer to Flip; Avenatti Says “Orange is the New Black, Buttercup!”

    As one writer puts it, “For the last two years the mass media machine has been behaving very, very strangely, and it isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. Not since the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq have we seen mainstream media outlets trying to shove narratives down our throats so desperately and aggressively.”




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    Julian Assange Will Die Alongside Your 1st Amendment Rights

    December 2, 2018 // 10 Comments »




    Accidentally disclosed information confirms the U.S. is actively planning to prosecute Julian Assange. What happens to Assange will almost certainly change what can be lawfully published in our democracy. This threat to our freedoms is being largely ignored because the Assange, once a progressive journalist, is now regarded as a hero-turned-zero. At stake? The ability of all journalists to inform the public of things the government specifically wants to withhold.


    A clerical error revealed the Justice Department secretly has filed criminal charges against Assange. Court papers in what appears to be an unrelated case used cut-and-pasted language from documents prepared previously against Assange.

    Though the new information makes clear prosecution is planned if Assange can be delivered to American custody, no further details are available. Assange is under scrutiny at a minimum for unauthorized possession of classified material going back to at least 2010, when Wikileaks burst on to the international stage with evidence of American war crimes in Iraq, and exposed years worth of classified State Department diplomatic cables. More recently, Assange has been accused of trying to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election with his release of emails from the Democratic National Committee server. The emails, some believe, came to Wikileaks via hackers working for the Russian government (Assange denies this) and are deeply tied to the claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow otherwise known as “Russiagate.” Less publicized in the media but of critical concern inside the U.S. government is Wikileaks’ publication of the so-called Vault 7 materials, CIA hacking and malware tools, which revealed American technical intelligence skills and methods. Assange has hinted on at least one occasion he may have “Vault 8” materials as yet unreleased.

    When Assange is prosecuted, on trial with him will be a key question concerning the First Amendment: do journalists actually enjoy special protection against national security charges? Can they publish classified documents because the national interest creates a 1A shield to do so? Or only when the government allows it?

    Under the current “rules,” you get caught handing me a SECRET document, you go to jail. Meanwhile, I publish to millions, including any Russian intelligence officers with Internet access, and end up on Kimmel next to Taylor Swift. I whisper “I’m a freedom fighter, you know” into Taylor’s moist ear and she sighs.

    Ask Edward Snowden, in dark exile in Moscow. Talk to Chelsea Manning, who spent years in Leavenworth while journalists for the New York Times and the Washington Post won accolades for the stories they wrote based on the documents she leaked. See how many stories today cite sources and reports, almost all of which are based on leaked classified information, stuff the government doesn’t want published yet accepts as part of the way journalism and the 1A work.

    Yet despite widespread practice, there is no law rendering journalists immune from the same national security charges their sources go to jail for violating. There is no explicit protection against espionage charges written between the lines of the First Amendment. It is all based on at best an unspoken agreement to not prosecute journalists for revealing classified data, and it appears it is about to be thrown away to nail Julian Assange.


    In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, to the New York Times. Reporters at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act but published anyway, even as the Washington Post wimped out. The Nixon administration quickly found a court to order the Times to cease publication after initial excerpts were printed, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper.

    The Supreme Court then handed down New York Times Company v. United States, a victory for the First Amendment which allowed the Papers to be published, but an opinion which sidestepped the larger question about whether the 1A protects journalists publishing classified in favor of simply affirming the government couldn’t censor the news in advance. The Court left the door open for the government to prosecute both the leakers (by dismissing Ellsberg’s leaker case on technical grounds and ignoring his public interest defense) and the journalists who publish them (by focusing narrowly on prior restraint.) The Justices avoided saying the 1A offered a specific shield to journalists in matters of national security.

    The Pentagon Papers case has governed everything about national security journalism from that day until the moment the U.S. government finally gets Julian Assange into an American courtroom.

    On the source side, the Obama administration was especially virulent in prosecuting leakers. Trump continued the policy by throwing the book at Reality Winner. Both administrations made clear there was nothing to distinguish between taking classified documents to inform the public and taking them say with the intent to hand over secrets to the Chinese. On the other side of the equation, the journalists, the government (including, to date, Trump despite all the noise about attacking the press) has chosen not to prosecute journalists for publishing what leakers hand over to them.


    The closest step toward throwing a journalist in jail over classified information came in 2014, when Obama Attorney General Eric Holder permitted subpoenaing New York Times reporter James Risen regarding a former CIA employee. After much legal muscle tussle, the Supreme Court turned down Risen’s appeal, siding with the government in a confrontation between a national security prosecution and infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether the First Amendment includes an unwritten “reporter’s privilege” in the free press clause. The Court instead upheld existing decisions finding the Constitution does not give journalists special protections. The door was w-a-y open to throwing Risen in jail.

    But instead of becoming the first president to jail a journalist for what he published, Obama punted. Happy with the decision affirming they could have prosecuted Risen, with no explanation prosecutors asked the U.S. District Court to simply leave Risen alone. Risen’s alleged source went to jail instead for leaking classified. The unspoken rules stayed intact.

    Unspoken rules are useful — they can be read to mean one thing when dealing with the chummy MSM who understands where the unspoken lines are even if they need the occasional brush back pitch like with Risen, and another when the desire is to deep-six a trouble-maker like Assange. Julian Assange poked the Deep State — he exposed the military as war criminals in Iraq (ironically in part for gunning down two Reuters journalists), the State Department as hypocrites, laid bare the CIA’s global hacking games in the Vault 7 disclosures, and showed everyone the Democratic primaries were rigged. None of those stories would have come to light under the MSM alone. And if Assange does know something about Russiagate (did he meet with Manafort?!?), what better place to silence him than a SuperMax.

    The government is likely to cite the clear precedent from the Obama years it damn well can prosecute journalists for revealing classified information, and keep the established media happy by offering enough thin exceptions (natsec journalism groupies have already started making lists) to appear to isolate Assange’s crucifixion from setting broad precedent. Say, start with the fact that he wasn’t covered by the 1A outside the U.S., that his sources were Russian hackers seeking to harm the U.S. instead of misguided chaps like Ellsberg and Manning. Assange had no national interest in mind, no sincere desire to inform the public. He, a foreigner no less, wanted to influence the 2016 election, maybe in collusion!


    Shamefully, those stuck in journalism’s cheap seats are unlikely to side with Assange, even though they wrote stories off what he published on Wikileaks. They’ll drift along with the government’s nod and wink this is all a one-off against Julian, and those who play by the government’s unspoken rules are still safe.

    They’ll self-righteously proclaim Assange going to jail a sad but unfortunately necessary thing, claiming he just took things too far dealing with the Russkies, ignoring while the door to prosecute a journalist for national security has always been carefully left open by administrations dating back to Nixon, it is only under their watch that it may be slammed on the hands of one of their own whom they refuse to see, now, for their own misguided self-preservation, as a journalist. The Daily Beast’s take on all this, for example, is headlined a TMZ-esque “Unkempt, Heavily Bearded Julian Assange No Longer Has Embassy Cat For Company.”

    They will miss where previous cases avoided delineating the precise balancing point between the government’s need to protect information, the right to expose information, and the media’s right to publish it, an Assange prosecution will indeed create a new precedents, weapons for the future for clever prosecutors. It will be one of those turning points journalists someday working under new press restrictions will cite when remembering the good old days.



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    Is a Blue Wave or a Red Undertow Coming? (Prediction Time!)

    November 1, 2018 // 34 Comments »

    There will not be a Blue Wave. Democrats’ goal in the Senate has devolved to limiting losses, not gaining seats, and they are unlikely to take control of the House. Even the Washington Post and New York Times are hedging their bets. Here’s why.

    Midterms are always a question of whether people have a reason to risk change. Historically, incumbents retain their seats over 80% of the time. Recent flips of the House were driven by large-scale demands for change, including concern over the Iraq War and Obamacare, that reached deeper and more broadly into society than this year’s casus belli, Trump Rage. History does show midterm elections generally bring some losses to the ruling party. But all that matters this year is a 24 seat Democratic gain. Anything less – a Blue Dribble – and the House stays in Republican hands subject to party-line votes. Leaving aside everything else, those are rough odds mathematically.

    But the “everything else” part matters a lot. What is the impetus for an Ohioian who went Republican last round, and maybe before that except Obama in 2008, to take another chance on change?

    Though healthcare is the number one issue of concern, there has been little new offered by Democratic candidates. Republicans failed to dilute Obamacare. Things today are basically at status quo November 2016 when candidate Clinton pronounced the system about the best we could hope for and called Bernie Sanders’ general ideas as now roughly endorsed by many Democrats too expensive. Democrats’ current change of heart seems driven more by poor election results than policy stance, so are they to be trusted? Elizabeth Warren says she took her DNA test to restore trust in government, so there’s that.

    People are instead supposed to vote for “Medicare for All,” though please, please don’t ask for details, or how it will be paid for, or what the massive insurance industry Obama allowed to stay in control of the system and now subsidized by the government will have to say about it. Otherwise there are few drivers of change. The economy is doing well. Nobody seems happy with immigration or guns, but as for new Democratic ideas, well there is that the one guy with the ponytail yelling abolish ICE.

    The headlines leading up to the midterms are instead a Kavanaugh hangover (with mumbles still about impeaching him), something bad with the Saudis that does not affect Americans, the Twitter Outrage O’ the Day, the still-unemployed Colin Kaepernick, those transgender bathrooms that keep progressives up sobbing at night, and the crazies, who now include the once-stolid Carl Bernstein and Paul Krugman shouting like so many Chicken Littles fascism, dictatorship, and mandatory Nazi cosplay are imminent. And what happened to those wars with Iran, China, North Korea, and maybe Canada Trump was supposed to have started by now? Anybody heard from Mueller recently? It seems like a lot until you realize in reality it isn’t much of anything.

    And even if you, say, did share concerns over Kavanaugh, you were required to throw away the centuries-old cornerstone concept of innocent until proven guilty or be a gender traitor. Immigration? Sensible talk must wait until concentration camps for infants are torn down. Gun reform? You either are complicit in child murder or a Parkland Kidlet. Same for Maxine Waters encouraging people to scream at Republicans while they eat dinner, not a way to open the tent to more swing voters in places like Minnesota or the Dakotas.

    The Democrats have left precious little middle ground on important issues, and if they want Republicans and independents to shift from their previous voting stance, they need some middle ground for those people to take a stand on. Who wants to join a party when you’re not invited?

    The only driver of change seems to be the Democrat fantasy voters want a do-over on the 2016 election. The problem is a Fox poll shows “rein in Trump” of significant concern to only 10% of voters. An MSNBC poll has nothing of the sort, with the serious issues of healthcare and immigration instead topping a list of voter concerns.

    Polls do consistently show white, educated women favoring Democrats (but even that is only a sort-of-OKish 61%; some 30 million women voted for Trump.) Not much of a change from 2016, where the same feisty, angry, fierce, polarized group failed to elect Hillary. Democrats are still apparently unaware there are few House districts where white, educated women are the majority, and where their husbands don’t vote. Meanwhile, Rahm Emmanuel imagines there’s a new block of voters to turn the tide – “Mea culpas,” those who did not vote in 2016 and feel remorse over the resulting Trump win.

    The whole midterm hopey-changey thing instead depends on producing historical turnouts from millennials and blacks loosely attached to the electorate, though there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan for that other than Social Media! and having the undead Hillary proclaim an end to political civility until her side finally wins an election. Meanwhile, Republicans rely on demographics that do turn out, in numbers such that Democrats need to motivate four millennials to actually produce one vote, while Republicans will likely get more than three for four. Actual turnout for age 65+ is 82%, dropping to 26% for those 18-29.

    There are other factors. Trump’s overall approval rating continues to rise, a bad sign for a Democrat party framing the midterms as a referendum on him. Some 75% of Republicans want their congressional candidates to fall in line with Trump’s agenda. Republicans vote in midterms in higher percentages than Democrats. A group Democrats magically hoped would support them because they are not white, “Hispanics,” apparently don’t see themselves that way.

    Depending on people who don’t vote, Democrats run the risk of internalizing losses. There are too many reasons to lose again already teed up: If it’s not the Russians, it’s voter suppression, gerrymandering, racism or the proportional representation system people just seemed to notice 230 years after it started. They mean to anger people into voting, but it can easily have the opposite effect.

    The deck is stacked against us can seem disheartening to voters, and may leave as many sitting home drinking as heading out to the revolution. Already a quarter of millennial students found the 2016 election so traumatic they claim to have PTSD. In psychology, this is known as “catastrophizing,” driving yourself into depression envisioning ridiculous outcomes beyond even a real-world worst case scenario. It can lead to suicide. It’s becoming the core Democratic strategy for the midterms.

    Many millennials seem to believe all they have to do is retweet hashtags, sign online petitions, and protest on school days. It created Beto mania, but it didn’t defeat Kavanaugh. This result is a black wave of false hope when social media driven movements fail to cross over into the real world, the appearance of a novel, seemingly authentic movement/moment creating the illusion of action and change. See, for example, the current progressive superhero Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose victory was replacing a Democrat with a Democrat, all based on a 13% turnout, only about 27k people from a densely populated district caught sleeping through a primary. A trick play that only works once.

    The Democratic party is held back most of all by mistaking an exception for a trend. About a year ago my dog came upon a full box lunch left on the sidewalk. She gulped it down before some sorry construction worker came back, and ever since she stops at that spot, certain one of these days there will be another meal waiting. The year 2008 was historic in American politics, when a near 100% desire for change following an exhausting eight years of Bush drove record turnouts in front of one of the best campaigning politicians since the Greeks invented democracy. The real lessons for the future were missed in the weaker victory over a mediocre opponent in 2012.

    Obama could have been FDR. He could have gotten a real healthcare solution but settled for the expedient. He could have saved middle class homes with a New Deal-style mortgage bailout, dramatically reducing economic inequality, but further enriched the One Percent instead. He could have pulled out of Bush’s Middle East mess but instead gave us Iraq War 3.0, and the humanitarian disasters of Syria, Libya, and Yemen. He failed at change, and those swing voters from 2008 know it, even if Democrats now try to push the Obama years as ones of social justice aplenty as a way of countering what they naively think matters most to most people about Trump.

    Unless and until Democrats recognize their failures as most Americans lived them and offer change that might happen on the things that really matter, no Blue Wave in 2018. And don’t ask about the Red Undertow of 2020.

    BONUS: Meanwhile, while WaPo admonishes us “Democracy Dies In Darkness,” it is owned by a CIA contractor and the richest man on earth. Democrats are trying to sell people that this is some kind of bulwark against corporate fascism when it is the very vanguard of corporate fascism. Best if the millennial freedom fighters don’t figure that one out until after the midterms.

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    New York Times Speculates the Secret Service May Murder Trump

    October 25, 2018 // 29 Comments »

    Jesus to Trump: Drop Dead

    For no real reason just two weeks ahead of the midterms and only a day after pipe bombs were sent to politicians across the country, the New York Times commissioned and published five authors to write “fiction” about President Trump and Russia that reads like a modern-day Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Here’s a sample:

     

    — One story has Trump pardoning everyone who testified against him to Mueller and then pseudo-resigning via the 25th Amendment with a promise from Pence to pardon him. The deal lets Trump live in the White House and play lots of golf while Pence is called the Acting President. Some nasty bits about how “close” Trump and Ivanka are, too;

    — One has the Secret Service helping murder Trump after an assassin sent by Putin to take out his failing agent can’t complete the hit. As the Russian’s gun jams, we read: “The Secret Service agent stood before him, presenting his Glock, butt first. ‘Here,’ the agent said politely. ‘Use mine…’;

    — One story has Trump instigate cyberwar with Russia, including flooding Russian TV with a biopic about dissident punk band Pussy Riot starring the American actress Reese Witherspoon (this is the mildest of the five);

    — Another posits Edward Snowden, still in exile in Moscow, controls the “pee tape” and ponders releasing it before the 2020 election after he failed to do so prior to 2016. This story also manages to mock Snowden’s patriotism and suggest the Russians control him via threats to his girlfriend;

    — The last features a new “dossier” surfacing which reveals Trump and Putin cooperating on money laundering. Trump calls Putin to warn him there’s a leak inside the Kremlin, and Putin tells Trump he did it because Trump failed to carry out his part of the bargain — Russia would get him elected if he wiped away the sanctions. Trump is a liability now, and Putin will give the Democrats the information they need to impeach him.

    I wanted to read these like they were bad fan fiction, you know, the kind that features a bikini-clad Princess Leia arriving on earth desperate to mate with teenage Star Wars fans. Instead, it comes off as hateful, nasty, like a snuff film, the worst impulses transferred from someone’s bad brain to a tangible medium.

    Yes, violence is bad, but if the NYT wants to give its readers a hard-on imaging the Secret Service murdering the president, I guess that’s ok nowadays. And where the stories aren’t violent porn, they are childish in making fun of Trump’s hair over and over, like a lounge lizard comic recycling bits he heard on Kimmel last week. The Russian assassin stays in a Trump hotel and we get this line of Pulitzer-prose: “The bar of soap had the hotel name stamped into both sides. He made sure to wash his ass with it.” Just what you expect now I guess from the “newspaper of record.”

    Because I know the Times is interested in always showing both sides to an issue, I’ve sent in my own fun stories for their consideration. One has Cory Booker and Kamala Harris lynched by the Secret Service after a white nationalist’s rope breaks. Another features Elizabeth Warren receiving fake DNA test data from her Chinese handlers, the same people who created the birth certificate making it look like Obama was born in Hawaii, “Operation Moana Pocahontas.” There’s a tale with Joe Biden, where he lusts after one of his sons (but not the dead one, there are limits!) The best story features Ed Snowden in possession of the actual video showing Hillary Clinton killing Vince Foster.

    The Times had previously paid off progressive hero-writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to produce a snarky little made-up “story” showing Melania is an air headed bitch, alongside some lovely hints of Daddy’s incestous relationship with Ivanka as the wife he would never have. Regardless of what you think about Trump, it is inconceivable the Times would have done this with any other president, or any other person. It is unworthy of a newspaper that otherwise pretends to do serious journalism. It is a marker for historians cataloguing how far we have fallen.

    Read it yourself.

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    Google, the “Good Censor,” is Going to Think for You

    October 24, 2018 // 7 Comments »




    Google might soon add its Terms of Service to the First Amendment.

    A leaked document written by Google argues because of a variety of factors, including the election of Donald Trump, what they call the “American tradition” of free speech may no longer be viable. The document lays out how the company can act as the world’s “Good Censor,” protecting us from harmful content and, by extension, harmful acts like electing the wrong president again.

    The document, which Google has officially characterized as research, is infuriatingly vague about whether the company has made any decisions or taken any action. So think of all this as a guidepost, like the Ghost of Christmas Future showing us the worst case scenario.

    The company is talking about changing the rules so the freedom to speak will no longer exist independent of the content of speech. What you can say could depend on Google’s opinion of whether or not it will negatively affect others. To Google, the personal liberty of freedom of speech might need to be balanced against collective well-being. The company acknowledges for the first time it has the responsibility and power to unilaterally adjudicate this battle between “free-for-all and civil-for-most” versions of society.

    We probably should be paying more attention to how they plan to do this, but because the document leaked on Breitbart, and because the initial rounds of censorship have impacted right of center, it has received little critical attention. But the significance of Google’s plans extends beyond the left-right fight; which content is censored is easily changed. If this plan is implemented, everything you will ever read online will be judged before it reaches you. Or doesn’t reach you.

    The old ideas seem as archaic to Google (Facebook, Twitter, and their successors) as the powdered wigs the Founders wore when they wrote them. People should be free to say nearly anything they want. In the marketplace of ideas good will overpower bad. If we block one person’s speech, we can soon block others, right up to when it comes to us. The collective right to free speech is more important than an individual’s reaction to that speech. There is an uncomfortable duty to protect speech irrespective of its content.

    Jefferson had a good run. Then the election of Donald Trump scared the free speech ideal out of Google. Could they have been… responsible… for helping elect a threat to democracy, the last president, someone who would shape-shift into a dictator? Should they have tried to stop him? Wouldn’t you have killed baby Hitler if you could have?

    Under such circumstances, free speech is reimagined by many as a liability which bad actors will exploit judo-style, the tools of democracy used to destroy democracy. The Google document warns “online manipulation and disinformation influenced elections in more than 18 countries, including the U.S. [as] free speech becomes a social, economic and political weapon.”

    The irony is the Internet was supposed to be, and maybe briefly was, the highest expression of what is now the legacy definition of unfettered speech. Anyone could start a website to stand alongside the .govs. One voice was as loud as anyone else’s, and search engines were the democratizing connective tissue. Google was created to organize the world’s knowledge, not help control it. Free speech flourished online. Government censors had real restrictions; we know them as borders.

    Not so for global entities like Google. What doesn’t pass through their search engines or social media travels through their servers and cloud storage. There is no more pretending any but a minority of users can use another tool, or ignore the web, and still functionally live in the real world. Google sees itself at the nexus of this historic change, saying “Although people have long been racist, sexist, and hateful in many other ways, they weren’t empowered by the Internet to recklessly express their views with abandon.” We apparently can’t handle that, and Google is, for the first time in human history, in a position to do something about it. After all, they acknowledge they “now control the majority of our online conversations” so the Internet is mostly whatever they say it is.

    At that point, Google worries, the “we’re not responsible for what happens on our platforms” defense crumbles. How much the last election was influenced doesn’t matter as much as the realization the tools are in place to do it more effectively next time. Existing laws can limit foreigners buying political ads stuffed with controversial news, but if Americans want to do the same thing laws not only don’t limit them, the legacy version of the 1A demands they be allowed to blast out hate speech and gendered bigotry. Something has to be done. Google’s document says they as the apex predator can now create online “well-ordered spaces for safety and civility.”

    There is no one to stop them. It is very clear what private companies can do vis-a-vis speech; the argument is over what they should do. Thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Google is shielded from traditional publishers’ liability and responsibility. The 1A does not apply. No one at Google stands for election. Users matter only in the aggregate of millions of clicks. Google as the Good Censor would be accountable to pretty much no one (though the Supreme Court last week agreed to hear a long-shot case that could determine whether users can challenge social media companies on free speech grounds.)

    As proof-of-concept – what they are capable of doing – the Google document cites Charlottesville. Following racial violence, Google, GoDaddy, and Cloudflare quietly ganged up to end their relationships with The Daily Stormer, “effectively booting it off the Internet.” Google noted “While some free speech advocates were troubled by the idea that ‘a voice’ could be silenced at its source, others were encouraged by the united front the tech firms put up.” Same with Alex Jones, as corporations serially kicked him off their sites. Facebook and Twitter also actively censor, with Facebook removing over 800 political pages for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” an Orwellian term Facebook claims means they were not forums for “legitimate political debate.”

    Google and the others aren’t acting in a vacuum. Some 69% of American college students believe intentionally offensive language should be banned. The ACLU now applies a litmus test to cases it defends, weighing their impact on other rights (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the rights of POC not to hear it), declaring free speech can be secondary to other political goals. As Google suggests, censorship has a place, per the ACLU, if it serves a greater good.

    The document makes clear Google understands current censorship efforts have fallen short. Decisions have been imprecise, biased, and influenced by shares and likes. Yet while acknowledging they never will please everyone, Google is emphatic it can’t escape “its responsibility for how society functions and progresses.” So the document is rich in words like transparency and fairness as it wrestles with the complexity of the task, with Google envisioning itself as more an imperfect but benign curator than Big Brother. But like a bad horror movie, you can see the ending from miles away.

    Eliminating voices to “not influence” an election is influencing an election. Once one starts deleting hate speech, there is no bottom to the list of things offensive to someone. Once you set your goal as manipulating thought via controlling information, the temptation to use that tool will prove great. Why not manipulate stock prices to fund “good” nonprofits and harm bad ones? Who should be elected in Guatemala? What’s the Google solution for that land dispute in St. Louis? It is so easy. Just placing links for one candidate above another in a test search increased the number of undecided voters who chose that candidate by 12%.

    The cornerstone of free speech – the absolute right to speak remaining independent of the content of the speech – is now in the hands of corporate monopolies, waiting for them to decide whether or not to use the power. Where the Supreme Court refused to prohibit hate speech, Google can do so. Where the 1A kept the government from choosing what is and isn’t called true, Google may decide. Journalists can take a first pass at writing news, but Google is the one positioned to determine if anyone sees it. Like some TV murder mystery, Google is perched on the edge of a terrible decision, having tested opportunity, means, and method. All that’s left is the decision to pull the trigger.




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    What Kavanaugh Tells Us about the Midterms

    October 13, 2018 // 36 Comments »

     

    While Democrats refight the 2016 election, Republicans confirmed their second Supreme Court judge.

    The soiled Kavanaugh confirmation process put Democratic strategy for the 2018 midterms in plain view. The question is will what hasn’t worked to date do any better for the Dems a month from now?


    This week’s FBI investigation was never going to turn up much beyond incomplete recollections. Apart from liberal Twitter, all of whom are apparently trauma memory experts (last week they were scholars of perjury law), most people in Normal America have a hard time conjuring up long ago details. It is even harder to remember things that never happened. The FBI had done background investigations six times on Kavanaugh over a period of decades without uncovering any of what people said this week, so in reality, the investigation lasted 30 years. Democrats knew unless the FBI miraculously turned up a blue dress with semen stains on it, the facts by themselves were never going to be enough.

    The investigation, like Trump’s taxes and Russiagate, was really just a way to turn a scar into a scab to pick at, enough of something to propel the story into another week. Then if no new smoking gun-let drops into the media’s lap, the script says claim the process itself was unfair – Putin stole the election, gerrymandering cheated the vote, the FBI wasn’t allowed to interview enough witnesses.

    The real plan was always to force the confirmation into the mold Democrats think will win them the House, the same gambit they thought would deliver a landslide in 2016. And so Kavanaugh’s complex judicial record was discarded in favor of Clinton-esque, er, progressive, talking points: the election, um, sorry, the confirmation is all about respect for women, fighting misogyny, defeating privilege, too many White Men, Trump is evil, we can’t have an accused rapist in the White House, sorry, on the Supreme Court! Disqualification via demonization. The Kavanaugh hearings were an updated version of what was supposed to be the 2016 game-changer, the “pussy grabbing tape.” The Dems would give America another shot at having had it with the patriarchy.


    It didn’t work. Despite endless bleating the hearings were a “job interview” (imagine the lawsuit after a Microsoft hiring manager pivoted from coding skills to accusing someone of being a drunk) the hashtags were not enough. Judicial temperament problems? The issue never came up in Kavanaugh’s long career. Even so, few courtroom situations turn a judge into a Senators’ punching bag; maybe a little righteous anger was called for? Some may even remember how Democratic voters abandoned presidential candidate Mike Dukakis when he was too dispassionate in his reaction to a question about someone assaulting his wife.

    Things devolved too quickly from concern over Roe v. Wade to an attempt to catch Kavanaugh out on yearbook nomenclature. Dems convinced themselves it was conclusive when Maddow labeled Kavanaugh a liar over what “Devil’s Triangle” really meant in a suburban Maryland boy’s school in 1982. They imagined people would believe wrongly stating the drinking age in Maryland decades ago was perjury and not just a mistake. They thought people would care more if the pool of “victims” (i.e., anyone who saw Kavanaugh with a brewski) increased exponentially. Most everything serious was lost in a cloud of stupid.

    It is a hard ask to get people concerned about health care as a life-or-death issue to take you seriously as a party when all you seem to care about is high school butt sex. Jester Michael Avenatti pushed things further into farce with an “accuser” whose credibility failed sitcom standards. Susan Collins specifically cited Avenatti’s actions as part of her decision to vote yes on Kavanaugh. Yet Democrats still see Avenatti as a useful idiot, a kamikaze working alongside them, without understanding he demeans the seriousness of everything he touches as a tabloid Midas.

    It was little surprise the absurdity of it all was missed by the Dems. One Democratic strategist statedidentity politics has really become the ecology you’re operating in. Economics aren’t as dispositive as they used to be.” That makes sense only to a party banking its midterm strategy on voters not noticing the economy is doing pretty well. It follows pretending constant predictions of trade wars and real wars haven’t all turned out to be crying wolf. It starts to make sense America would go along with the idea a guy claiming he wasn’t a drunk in college means he’s a liar unfit to serve on the Supreme Court.


    There were issues in Kavanaugh’s judicial history worth debating. Concern over Roe runs deep. But the Democrats spent little thought on that, failing to grasp while American demographics may be changing, they haven’t yet changed.

    The only constituency re-energized over Kavanaugh is suburban liberal white women (accuser Ford could not have been more a Clintonite if Murphy Brown was reanimated out of the 1980s via a horcrux from Hillary herself), a group favoring the Democrats anyway. Apparently this group can also be counted on to ignore the likelihood a Democrat Senator outed Ford when she wanted to remain anonymous, and to overlook attempts to slut-shame high school girl Renate Schroeder on the grounds that if she was a pass-around then Kavanaugh was a non-virgin who screwed tramps like that. Same for the tsunami of criticism directed at Susan Collins, labeled a traitor to her gender to the point where people are donating money to her unknown opponent of the future. No one on CNN praised her as a courageous woman who made a thoughtful decision.

    There seems little inside the Kavanaugh fight to specifically drive minorities, already understood as reluctant voters, to the polls. Millennial voters share a low historic turnout rate. If you can’t get a lot more than 1 out of 4 in a demographic to show up things are unlikely to work out (71% of Americans over 65 vote, skewing Republican, and the Kavanaugh saga could easily energize them into an even higher turnout). There seems little-to-no Democratic plan to shift these historical trends other than Trump rage, and the warm feelings of consensual hallucination embodied in social media aside, that failed again this week to affect a #RealWorld event.

    Purple” men moving to the Democrat side? One of the things which damaged the women’s movement in the 1980s and helped the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA; remember that?) to fail was an overemphasis on men as the enemy, a feature of the Kavanaugh process. Many women walked away from the feminist groups supporting the ERA, knowing the mantras “all men are rapists” and “Republicans hate women” just weren’t true.

    This is what is happening now, when people who support Trump based on economics end up labeled fascists, people who support Kavanaugh based on his judicial history are rape apologists (or traitors), and people who support free speech are Nazis. Same as post-Parkland, when people who support the 2A were slandered as child killers. It’s deplorable. No one supports rapists or child killers. But few voters are willing to trust Democrats that see them as people who do.

    The point of politics is to change people’s minds, not declare them unfit to walk among decent folk. Kavanaugh proved the Democrats (and their partnered media) are still unaware while this may be the year of #MeToo in Washington, New York, and Hollywood, it’s still just 2018 in West Virginia.

    The Democrats failed in 2016 when they tried to make the election a referendum on Trump’s behavior. They failed again this week with the same strategy, even after elevating Kavanaugh to a psychopathic POTUS mini-me. With no tailwind from Russiagate, Democrats move toward November with little more than more of the same, throwing in some mumbled threats to impeach Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court (will that be before or after they impeach Trump?) if they take the House.

    It’s bad enough to pick the wrong hill to die on. Even worse to do it three times.




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    Before the Vote, What I Saw at the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings

    October 2, 2018 // 33 Comments »



    Everyone knew the testimony would not clear anything up. You were expecting a Colonel Jessup moment from A Few Good Men? Instead, the Judiciary Committee vote, likely along party lines, is scheduled for Friday with basically the same information in front of members as they had yesterday.

    Along the way the world’s self-proclaimed greatest deliberative body soiled itself with partisan rancor – slut-shaming a woman not present, calling a sitting judge a drunk without evidence, and then labeling him a gang rapist, all in efforts to provide… advice and consent.

    Christine Blasey Ford is a serious, empathetic, and sincere woman. That does not alter that prior to her testimony today, Ford’s accusation as she repeated it in front of the Judiciary Committee had already been refuted by everyone she said was present at that party in 1982 where Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her. Her “evidence” was she had told a similar story earlier to her husband (albeit without mentioning Kavanaugh by name), some “beach” friends in California recently, and her therapist (again without mentioning Kavanaugh by name), what most people in or out of a court would consider repetition, not corroboration. When asked about the possibility the assault took place but that she misremembered the assailant as Kavanaugh, Ford just said no and things were left there.

    There never could be any physical evidence nor was any suggested to exist to investigate. Ford admitted not remembering specifics that could have formed the basis of exculpation, including how she got home from the party, that driver being in a key position to assess Ford’s condition after the alleged assault and thus support or weaken her story. By not providing an exact date and location for the alleged assault, Ford did not allow for Kavanaugh to present an alibi, proof he was somewhere else. Ford in fact couldn’t say where they both were supposed to be to begin with, apart from “a suburban Maryland house.”

    The attorney speaking for the Republicans gently pointed out multiple inconsistencies and inaccuracies between Ford’s previous statements and today’s testimony, walking Ford back from assertions to assumptions. The questioning was consistent with what is done in sexual assault prosecutions to help evaluate the credibility of witnesses. Ford in the end presented a dramatic, heartfelt but ultimately general accusation, backed by the hashtag of #BelieveWomen that precluded any serious questioning of her key assertions, and nothing more.


    Brett Kavanaugh made clear from the initial reports right through the hearing Thursday none of what Ford (or his later accusers) said happened, had happened. He was unambiguous. He left no wiggle room. He could add no additional details to describe something that had not taken place. Clever lawyers created the appearance of a he said/she said. These are typically a case of two contradictory versions of a single event, as in date rape cases where sex is acknowledged by both parties who differ over the presence of consent. Kavanaugh’s situation is different; for the past four decades there was no “she said” until a handful of Democratic senators standing behind a victim they may have outed themselves forced Kavanaugh to deliver another round of “he said” denials today.

    Kavanaugh showed real emotion in today’s testimony, calling how he has been treated a political hit, revenge, the expression of left-over anger from the 2016 presidential election, a national disgrace, finally breaking into tears. He called out the media for slut-shaming one of his female friends based on a vague high school yearbook reference. Multiple Democrats returned to the same accusations later anyway.

    The outcome of all this hinges on a philosophy that believes people without discerning inquiry based on emotional responses and political expediency (i.e., a “credible accusation.”) So about the only real question left after today’s testimony was whether 99.99% or 100% of the people watching had already made up their minds in advance. Like any investigation that might have been launched, no clarity was possible under the circumstances. Ford was unable to prove the positive and Kavanaugh could never prove a negative.

    Truth became in the end extraneous to what was really going on. Ford was a prop used against Kavanaugh by Democrats seeking to shift from holding a confirmation hearing they would likely lose to a referendum on mistreatment of victims of sexual assault they might win.



    Democrats used their questioning time to make stump speechlets about the horrors of sexual violence, one going as far to say Ford had “inspired men to listen to women.” Nearly every Democrat ceremoniously entered thousands of letters of support for Ford “into the record.” To make sure everyone really, really got the point, Feinstein invited celebrity #MeToo activist Alyssa Milano to attend Thursday’s hearing (and speak with the media, of course.) Everyone cranked out plenty of campaign B-roll. This was theater.

    At times things seemed one step away from bringing in Handmaiden’s Tale cosplayers. The once great Senator Patrick Leahy engaged in an argument about the meaning of slang terms used in a 40 year old high school year book with a nominee to the Supreme Court, as if proof of immaturity was proof someone was a gang rapist. Another exchange focused on whether a word meant puke or fart. For every careful courtesy shown Dr. Ford during her testimony, Democrats treated Kavanaugh like a cheap punching bag.

    Sensing the confirmation might not go their way and needing someone to blame, Feinstein spent her question time trying to coerce Kavanaugh into requesting an FBI inquiry. Senator Durbin demanded Kavanaugh to turn to the White House Counsel present at that moment and demand an FBI investigation on live TV. When Chairperson Grassley cut that off, Durbin responded by telling Kavanaugh if he had nothing to hide, he had nothing to fear, a line often attributed to Joseph Goebbels. Senator Kobuchar played good cop, trying to persuade Kavanaugh to call for the FBI. Expect the demand for an investigation to be Maddow’s (and Wolf’s, and Twitter’s) talking point tonight, when everyone cries for the confirmation vote to be delayed. To call it all a circus is a disservice to real clowns.


    How did the very serious business of #MeToo end up a political tool?

    Only about ten days ago, without the votes to reject Brett Kavanaugh, Democrats started throwing stuff against the wall hoping something would stick. It started with Cory Booker’s failed Spartacus stunt. Kamala Harris, a fellow 2020 Democratic presidential aspirant, demanded more documents about well, something, we hardly knew then or remember now the issues from two administrations ago, brought forward likely in the hope there might be a perjury trapplet buried in those 100,000 pages for an intern to find.

    Kavanaugh was accused of having a gambling problem, and of being an alcoholic (Senators Hirano, Kobuchar, and Booker accused him of having a drinking problem again today, Kobuchar explaining she knew one when she saw one because her grandpa was in AA.) And how had he paid off his debts after buying baseball tickets for friends? A pattern emerged: the goal wasn’t to suggest Kavanaugh was unqualified as a jurist but to insist he was unqualified as a human being. In each instance Kavanaugh denied the accusations. He couldn’t add much more. He couldn’t prove a negative no matter how many times the Democrats and the media demanded he try. Until…


    Until a strategy ripe for 2018 finally emerged – he’s a witch! How do we know he’s a witch? Just see how vehemently he denies it! Well, maybe not a witch, that’s so 17th century. But a rapist is 2018, where a Resistance-charged mob can be convinced denial is proof of guilt. One can still credibly deny being a drinker, or a gambler, or stealing money in 2018, but one is no longer allowed to simply say no when accused of sexual assault.

    Democratic lawmakers went out of their way to gleefully proclaim this was a hearing (or “a job interview,” in Feinstein’s Constitution-contradicting words), not a trial, and so their plan was not going to be sidelined by fussy old stuff like a presumption of innocence. There was no question Ford’s testimony was really just an excuse to prosecute Kavanaugh. Senator Hirano, in basically announcing no holds were barred because this was not a trial, sounded more like she belonged in the Octagon than a Senate chamber. Cory Booker asked questions like a bad first year law student, stopping just short of demanding if Kavanaugh still beat his wife. A woman of lost virtue had been found by the Democrats, was willing to point her finger, and we was gonna have us a lynching. It might as well have all been set in a sweaty Alabama courtroom decorated to look like 1950.

    With all the theatrics, much of the context behind today’s main event was missed. Christine Blasey Ford’s path to the hearing has not been given much critical attention. She wrote to her local representative this July with a request for anonymity. The letter was sent to Dianne Feinstein, who sent it to the FBI. Ford as the victim was then outed publicly after all of the above gambits to derail Kavanaugh failed, dramatically just hours before his assured confirmation vote. Ford testified today she never gave anyone permission to release her letter or name to the public.

    The media, normally reluctant to splash victims of sexual assault across the front pages, went into spasm. Nobody seemed overly concerned about who, how, or why Ford’s name was leaked. No one seemed to include Feinstein’s sitting on the letter for weeks in their stories claiming Republicans weren’t giving the accusations enough time to be heard, though Chairman Chuck Grassley raised the point today.


    Ford was near-perfect for the Democrats’ purposes, the archetype Clinton voter, down to a photo circulating of her in her pink pussy hat. The hearings brought together everything anyone hated about Trump in a mediagenic bundle: mistreatment of women, fears over Roe, white male privilege, every tidbit of identity politics teed up. And when idea emerged really “credible” cases had multiple accusers, the always-reliable Rowan Farrow dug around until he found another. Michael Avenatti, the Fagin-like wrangler of Trump-era accusers, was unleashed. He did not disappoint, phoning The View the afternoon before Ford’s testimony to accept congratulations for finding a victim (again with no evidence or corroboration; 64 people who knew Kavanaugh well in high school say they have no idea who the accuser is) who upped the accusations against Kavanaugh to gang rape.

    Alongside, Politico called Kavanaugh a liar for claiming he was a virgin in high school (Kavanaugh re-confirmed his virginity as a senior today) and thus questioned his credibility on all things. A new witness appeared then disappeared. Two men claimed they were the ones who assaulted Ford. Third-party hearsay accusations made headlines. Rawstory libeled by association the attorney Republicans hired to question Ford. Mark Judge, a supposed witness to the Ford assault who actually exculpated Kavanaugh, was smeared as a drug and sex fiend. Yale was painted as Sodom.


    The counter-narrative that this was a Democratic set-up, with Ford as an unwitting victim of that, too, is all of this emerged organically and righteously, after decades, albeit right on time. The accusers were never compelled to speak up by civic duty during Kavanaugh’s years in the White House. Or when he worked with Special Counsel Ken Starr and was looked into by Bill’s Clinton’s supporters doing opposition research. Or during the confirmation hearings that seated him as a lifetime appointee on the Court of Appeals. Or during his original hearings a week or so ago, including by Dianne Feinstein, who already had the information from Ford literally in hand. And none of the assaults, including ten “gang rape” parties, ever resulted in even one complaint by a parent who noticed her child come home in the condition someone who was drugged and raped by multiple men would be in. And the FBI, which conducted six full background checks on Kavanaugh over his decades of government employment, just plain missed it all.

    In the end, everyone is going to believe what they want to believe. It is unclear a single mind was changed today, as it is equally likely not a single mind today was open to change. Something terrible happened to Christine Blasey Ford when she was in high school, there seems little doubt, but it is quite unclear that that also involved Brett Kavanaugh.

    Ford, despite her doctorate, came off as almost naive, claiming not to know what exculpatory evidence was, saying she didn’t understand why people encouraged her to hire a lawyer before going public, testifying she didn’t know why she took a polygraph test and had no idea who paid for it. She said she did not know how her lawyers, one a Democratic regular recommended to her by Feinstein, were paid. She appeared a bit mystified by the vast forces swirling around her, and seeming to believe, a modern-day Mr. Smith, the system would work and honorable people would empower her, not use her. As the day ends and we move into the nightly news cycle, no one in America will have the conversation they need to about whether the Democrats’ ends justify their means.


    The final question goes beyond what happens to Kavanaugh. Will the same strategy the Democrats ran and lost on in 2016 — Trump and his people are pigs, vote for someone else — serve them any better in November than it did this week?




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    Requiem for Justice: “Credible Accusation” and Brett Kavanaugh

    September 26, 2018 // 30 Comments »




    Without the votes to reject Brett Kavanaugh, and after a failed Spartacus stunt or two, a strategy ripe for 2018 emerged– he’s a witch! How do we know he’s a witch? Just see how vehemently he denies it!

    Well, maybe not a witch, that’s so 17th century. But a rapist is 2018, where a Resistance-charged #MeToo mob can be convinced denial is proof of guilt and evidence is unnecessary.


    (This is published before the testimony of Professor Ford and Judge Kavanaugh on September 27)



    Though we will somehow move on from Kavanaugh no matter the ending of his confirmation, those problems do not go away gently. Like those claiming it’s great news the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private companies, allowing non-progressives’ free speech rights to be dumped in the trash, claiming because Kavanaugh’s confirmation wasn’t a trial anything goes – particularly the weaponized use of “credible accusations” — is making us incapable of rational participation in civic life.

    “Credible accusation” is not a legal standard. But in 2018 politics “credible” has become a pseudo-standard with enormous power handed essentially to a mob buttressed by traditional and social media, especially when coupled with another new hashtag standard, #BelieveWomen (morphing into the more dramatic #BelieveSurvivors.) They are meant in the best of intentions to correct injustices of the past. They are used now under the worst of intentions as political weapons. No past mistakes are resolved by defining credibility as an emotional reaction to an accuser’s story, twisted for partisan political ends.

    How partisan this all is is made clear when the new rules are applied only in cases of sexual assault. We are not admonished to believe women are more accurate witnesses in income tax fraud cases, even against white male Republicans. We are not told to believe women face no challenges of politically motivated accusations around shoplifting incidents. We are not admonished to believe women are incapable of lying, misremembering, exaggerating or making a mistake in water rights disputes.

    This all allows a unitary actor declared “credible” by default (there seems to be no allowance for a non-credible accusation of sexual assault in 2018) to initiate harm simply by pointing a finger. It really is conceived by progressives as just that easy: “Even if it wouldn’t support a criminal conviction or civil liability, a merely credible allegation is enough to disqualify him,” wrote the New York Times.

    And when the public tires of the one accuser, dig around until you find another. Send Michael Avenatti, the Fagin-like wrangler of Trump-era accusers, to round up as many as needed. Without the need for corroboration, they are not hard to find in bulk. Under the Kavanaugh standards, nearly any person can destroy anyone among tens of thousands of people they went to high school or college alongside of, or ever worked with. Not convinced? In the comments below, leave the details of your next scheduled job interview. And then be prepared to prove you were not in a specific room four decades ago if you want the job, because someone might make a call.

    Of course these are confirmation hearings, not a trial, some say, gleeful the written rules of law don’t apply and they are free to create new standards and expedient practices to fit the needs of the moment. But that is a gross misunderstanding of the “rule of law” which will haunt America past Kavanaugh.

    Like free speech, fairness, and justice, rule of law is a philosophy that underlies a just society, not merely something partially codified in dusty books. Rule of law is a way of living together under a known set of standards, equally applied, with changes broadly supported. Things like the accuser rightly bears the burden of proof. Jobs, respect, property, and freedoms are not taken away by accusation. Claims of innocence are not treated as proof of guilt.

    In Kavanaugh’s case, no evidence has been presented other than the accusations themselves. Whether written to a Congressperson, told to a therapist, or mumbled to a friend, in the end the circle is a circle that points back to a single person, the accuser herself. That’s repetition, not corroboration. Kavanaugh stated the events did not happen. For the past four decades there was no “she said” until a handful of Democratic senators forced Kavanaugh to deliver a “he said.”

    With Kavanaugh, his unambiguous denials are by definition not credible, as the inverse of Believe Accusers is to Disbelieve the Accused. Kavanaugh has been repeatedly asked for more details, somehow a more persuasive denial, of something he says never happened. The task set before him was to prove a negative, then do it again when a new accuser was produced with an even vaguer scenario from years ago. Give us more details of the trip to Paris you never took!

    We were warned. Franz Kafka, in The Trial, has his main character, known only as K, taken to jail without ever being told what his crime might have been. “I’m not guilty,” said K. “There’s been a mistake.” “That is how the guilty speak,” replied the priest counseling him.

    It seemed any defense at all was wrong. “Though Kavanaugh has been careful not to slime Ford, his denial of the incident impugns her anyway,” wrote the Atlantic. When asked if there was anything a truly innocent Kavanaugh could do to prove his innocence, Senator Tim Kaine replied: “That’s kind of very hypothetical.” Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post claimed it didn’t really matter what Kavanaugh said, it wasn’t even in his hands: “It’s not simply that Kavanaugh must be convincing — Christine Blasey Ford has to seem unconvincing.” Matthew Dowd at ABC took that even further and claimed it didn’t matter what either party testified, simply that “Let’s believe the she… For 250 years we have believed the he in these scenarios. Enough is enough.”

    Reason and judgment become subordinate to a social and political agenda. The point is to take advantage of alleged victim-hood before it’s been proven, to use assumed victim-hood to shut down questioning whether there even is a victim. In this mindset Kavanaugh should have been finished months ago when the first accusation appeared anonymously, or maybe it was really all over in 1982 that very night at the high school party, and the rest of this, including his decades on the bench, has been unnecessary epilogue.

    It all tracks with a dire situation in our society where people are increasingly unable or unwilling to listen to different viewpoints as forces inside America have succeeded in turning people against the once-sacred ideal of free speech. Now, speech, fairness, and justice are no longer goals or ideals, just tools to be manipulated expediently to serve political ends. “That’s offensive!” (or sexist, or racist) is an accusation, but it is also understood as evidence itself of the truth of the accusation; why would the accuser be motivated to lie? Aren’t all opinions valid, even if the opinion becomes an accusation? How can a self-absorbed individual leave mental space for her own thoughts to be… wrong? The accusation is enough to demand resolution. Take that and expose it to shrewd Democratic politicians and you get the Kavanaugh confirmation process. And likely the next one, too.

    This is very dangerous territory for a nation claiming to fear the loss of the rule of law. In the worst days of racial injustice, evidence-free accusations of rape from a white woman sent groups of black men to be lynched, her testimony as unquestionable as virtue itself. During the McCarthy era, mere accusations of communist ties were used to destroy political enemies; questioning that meant you were unpatriotic. Scholars find evidence accusations during the infamous Salem witchcraft trials were used to settle land disputes, with questioning the accusers seen as a direct affront to God. In my time in Iraq, an accusation of al Qaeda affiliation from a tribal leader being courted by the U.S. could bring a Special Forces night raid down on a neighbor of his choosing. There are dark lessons here.

    The Democrats have managed in about a week to take the very serious business of #MeToo and turn it into a partisan weapon. In the extreme, they propose no common humanity, simply a society of rapists and their enablers, and victims and their allies. Kavanaugh, the recent process demanded, is more than unqualified for the Court; he is a rapist and liar, unqualified as a human being. Which side will you vote for? It might create a Blue Wave, or it might drive people to vote Republican as a matter of self-defense, more soul-crushing negative partisanship to the body politic.

     

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    Enough Gossip. Where are the Trump Whistleblowers?

    September 17, 2018 // 17 Comments »

    As a federal whistleblower who lost his career to tell the truth about the Iraq war publicly, I am burdened by how the interviewees in Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, and Anonymous, that New York Times “resistance” Op-Ed author, have been hailed in heroic terms.

    Many see them as patriots “resisting Trump” from the inside, holding back his worst impulses through fibs and bureaucratic tricks, being the clandestine adults in the room. Having faced similar choices, I know their approach is neither honorable, nor effective. In the past the more common word applied to such officials would have been insubordinate.

     

    No one should join government to do only things they think are personally right; one serves the United States, and takes an oath to a Constitution which spells out a system of government and a chain of command running from the president. There is no addendum saying “but if you really disagree with the president it’s OK to do what you want.” In many military offices, the chain, from president to the lowest officer present, is literally displayed on the wall via pyramided portraits of those specific men and women; the blank space at the end is “you.”

    This is not to support robotic bureaucrats. But ideas, no matter how vigorously debated or opposed, at some point change from being Trump’s or Obama’s policies to those of the United States. Implementing them on a global scale, whether on a battlefield or across a negotiating table, is a team sport. Any other way is to bring on the chaos Anonymous claims to be pushing back against.

     

    I served 24 years in such a system, joining the State Department under Ronald Reagan and leaving during the Obama era. That splay of political ideologies had plenty of things in it to disagree with or even believe dangerous. Same for people in the military and the intelligence agencies, who, for example, were sent to train Afghan mujaheddin under one president and then kill them under another, more significant than wonky disagreement over a trade deal. An amoral president, in Anonymous’ words? How about one who set Americans to torturing prisoners to death?

    In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, some inside government were privy to information about the non-presence of weapons of mass destruction, and understood the president was exaggerating the case for war if not lying about it. Three senior officials resigned from the State Department and left a clear marker in the history books the policy was wrong. Another State Department official, a former Marine, resigned in protest over the war in Afghanistan. He stated in the New York Times (a signed letter, not an anonymous Op-Ed) “[I] tried and failed to reconcile my conscience with my ability to represent the current administration. I have confidence that our democratic process is ultimately self-correcting, and hope that in a small way I can contribute from outside.” More than a decade earlier, four State Department officials quit over the Bosnian conflict, also via public letters of resignation.

    Others who believed a president’s decisions were harmful to the United States blew the whistle, making public information at the cost of their jobs and/or freedom to build an evidence-based case. Chelsea Manning spent years in prison to expose war crimes, Ed Snowden ended up with a lifetime in exile to inform the public of NSA policies threatening Constitutional freedoms. For me, I chose to write a whistleblowing book exposing the failed reconstruction efforts in Iraq I once helped lead, and lost my career in return.

    The consistent threads are important: disagreements over policy, many involving millions of lives, are not new or unique to the Trump administration. Nor are questions of competence: Reagan was thought to be senile, Bush a dolt. Challenges to conscience were answered by good people who believed enough in the United States that they placed their lives, fortunes, and honor as collateral toward being listened to. Challenges to conscience were not thwarted by working from deep inside government to surreptitiously ruin policy.

     

    Until now, at least according to Anonymous’ Op-Ed and Woodward’s book, Fear. Anonymous claims they disrupted things without giving any details; we’re to assume whatever they are doing, accountable to no one, must be better than anyhing Trump wants. Woodward claims Jim Mattis put a Resistance-like stop to Trump’s demand to assassinate Syrian President Bashar Assad, though Mattis denies it. Of course the order to kill, if it occurred at all, would have been illegal and thus require anyone in government to refuse it. No resistance there, simply someone following the law.

    About the only actual act of “resistance” to examine comes from Woodward’s book. Gary Cohn, Trump’s former economic adviser, supposedly walked into the Oval Office and snatched a letter off Trump’s desk saying the United States was pulling out of a trade agreement with South Korea. Cohn thus stopped Trump from signing the document after he never noticed it missing.

    The story is almost certainly untrue; “decision paper” for signature going in and out of the Oval Office is tracked assiduously by White House staffers. Stuff doesn’t just go missing, and if it does, someone looks for it; I know, I held just such a job working for the American Ambassador in London. It’s like tearing up a credit card bill thinking the debt will go away. And that’s before getting into how few people the Secret Service lets drop by the Oval Office and grab stuff off the Resolute desk.

    But even accepting Cohn pulled off his heist, is protecting a trade agreement the act of resistance America demands? Reading the actual letter, Trump’s intent was to make a threat of withdrawal, taking advantage of an 180 day delay in implementation to force new negotiations. Trump campaigned on just such promises. There was no madman with his finger on a button. Cohn didn’t agree with his boss (or the results of an election.) That’s not patriotic, it’s a disgruntled employee.

     

    As to the claims Trump is uniquely too stupid to be president, John Kelly, like Mattis, denies he said anything of that to Woodward (in kindergarten did to, did not style, Woodward called Mattis a liar for calling Woodward a liar.) As with Michael Wolff’s nearly-forgotten book which spurred the last round of calls for the 25th Amendment to oust Trump eight months ago, there is no evidence of actionable insanity or stupidity. It’s all circular reinforcement, unnamed voices repeating things heard before, backed by psychiatrists who never met the president claiming he is insane, and enhanced by shock jock pundits reading tweets like a fortune teller reads goat entrails. Almost two years now of the world and democracy not ending have diluted claims this president is a unique danger.

    Until now the people working for presidents as different as Reagan was from Obama understood, as I did, the only way for America to function credibly was for us on the inside to work on her behalf until we couldn’t, and that meant following the system created by the Constitution, remembering we weren’t the ones elected, that we ultimately worked for those who did the electing, that there is no “But Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama/Trump is different…” clause in the Constitution. We understood acting as a wrench inside the gears of government to disaffect policy (the Washington Post warned with some apparent glee “sleeper cells have awoken”) is what foreign intelligence officers recruit American officials to do. Instead, we argued inside our offices, we dissented via internal channels, and for some, we resigned or blew the whistle to credibly and effectively force the issue into the public eye.

     

    So let one of the people inside government who believes America is at mortal risk do something more than gossip to their favorite journalist to keep detrimental memes alive for another painful news cycle– resign, testify, and bring out the documents as proof to separate yourself from the partisan operatives. That person of conscience need not be a Cabinet secretary; Chelsea Manning was a private. Snowden a contractor, not even an NSA employee. “We never should have heard of them,” said a 1993 story in the Washington Post about those State Department Bosnia dissenters. “They were mid-level bureaucrats, dots in the State Department matrix. But they’ve gone and done something extraordinary in Washington: They quit their jobs on moral grounds.”

    Until any of that happens, we shouldn’t waste another moment on anonymous resisters and unnamed/uncredible sources, whether they write in the Times or show up in books by Woodward or Wolff. America, if she truly is at grave risk, is more important than a job in the West Wing. Stand up if the threat is real, shut up if it’s not.

     

     

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    I Sorta Know Who Wrote That Anonymous NYT Op-Ed

    September 15, 2018 // 9 Comments »

    That anonymous New York Times Op-Ed writer inside government thwarting Trump’s plans does not understand how government works. Amplified by worn accusations in Bob Woodard’s new book, the Op-Ed is nonetheless driving calls for Trump’s removal under the 25th Amendment to save America.

    But look closer: there are no patriots here, and little new; it’s all nasty politics.

     

    You don’t join government to do whatever partisan thing you think is right; you serve the United States, and take an oath to a Constitution which spells out a system and chain of command. There is no Article 8 saying “but if you really disagree with the president it’s OK to just do what you want.”

    I served 24 years in such a system, joining the State Department under Ronald Reagan and leaving during the Obama era. That splay of political ideologies had plenty of things in it my colleagues and I disagreed with or even believed dangerous. Same for people in the military, who were told who to kill on America’s behalf, a more significant moral issue than a wonky disagreement over a trade deal.

    But the only way for America to function credibly was for us to work on her behalf, and that meant following the boss, the system created by the Constitution, and remembering you weren’t the one elected, and that you ultimately worked for those who did the electing. There were ways to honorably dissent, such as resigning, or writing a book with your name on the cover (my choice) and taking your lumps.

    But acting as a wrench inside the gears of government to disaffect policy (the Washington Post warned “sleeper cells have awoken”) is what foreign intelligence officers recruit American officials to do, and that doesn’t make you a hero acting on conscience, just a traitor. It seems odd someone labeled a senior official by the New York Times would not understand the difference before defining themselves forever by writing such an article.

    So don’t be too surprised if the author turns out to be a junior official not in a position to know what they claim to know, a political appointee in a first government job reporting second- or third-hand rumors, maybe an ex-Bushie in over their head. That will raise important questions about the Times’ exaggerating the official’s importance, and thus credibility, and whether anonymity was being used to buff up the narrative by encouraging speculation.

     

    Next up to sort out are the “new” facts forming the underbelly of calls to end the Trump presidency. The Op-Ed’s release was set by the Times to perfectly dovetail with Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear (It would be interesting to know how much was created by the Times — did contact with the author cause the Times to encourage them to write? Did they have to be persuaded? How much editing was done? How far from the role of journalist into political activist did the Times stray?)

    Neither the book nor the Op-Ed breaks any new ground. Both are chock full of gossip, rumors, and half-truths present from Trump Day One and already ladled out by Michael Wolff’s own nearly-forgotten book and Omarosa’s unheard recordings: the man is clinically insane, mind of a child, acts impulsively, and is thus dangerous. Same stuff but now 18 months shinier and sexier – Woodward! Watergate! Anonymous! Deep Throat! It’s clever recycling, a way to appear controversial without inviting skepticism by telling people what they already believe because they’ve already heard it. What seems like confirmation is just repitition.

    The stuff is chock-a-block with accusations (“Trump is not smart“) denied by those quoted (Jim Mattis and John Kelly, for example.) But one new item, the claim Gary Cohn, Trump’s former economic adviser, walked into the Oval Office and snatched a letter off Trump’s desk, suggests how sloppy the reporting is. Cohn supposedly stopped Trump from pulling out of a trade agreement with South Korea by stealing an implementing letter, preventing Trump from signing it. Woodard writes Cohn did the same thing on another occassion to stop Trump pulling out of NAFTA.

    “Paper” inside government, especially for the president’s signature, does not simply disappear. Any document reaching a senior official’s desk has been tasked out to other people to work on. The process usually begins when questions are asked at higher levels and then sent down to the bureaucracy; no president is expected to know it’s Article 24.5 of an agreement that allows withdrawal. That request creates a paper trail and establishes stakeholders in the decision, for example, people standing by to implement a decision or needing to know ahead of negotiations with Seoul POTUS changed his mind.

    So paper isn’t forgotten. I know, I had a job working as the Ambassador’s staff assistant in London where most of my day was spent tracking letters and memos on his behalf. Inside the State Department an entire office known as The Line does little else but keep track of paper flowing in and out of the Secretary of State’s actual In/Out boxes. This isn’t just bureaucratic banality at work; this is how things get done in government, as documents with the president’s signature instantly turn into orders.

    So even if, playing to the public image of a dotard-in-chief, Trump didn’t remember calling for that letter on South Korea, and thus never missed it after Cohn allegedly stole it to change history, a lot of other people would have gone looking for it. Stealing a letter off the president’s desk is not the equivalent of hiding the remote to keep grandpa from changing channels. And that’s to call the claim absurd even before noting how few individuals the Secret Service allows into the Oval Office on their own to grab stuff. While the example of the stolen letter is a bit down in the bureaucratic weeds, it is important because what is being widely reported, and accepted, is not always true.

     

    The final part of all this which doesn’t pass a sniff test is according to the Op-Ed, 25th Amendment procedures to remove the president from office were discussed at the Cabinet level. The 25th, passed after the Kennedy assassination, created a set of presidential succession rules, historically used for short handovers of power when a president has gone under anesthesia. Most relevant is the never-used full incapacitation clause.

    An 2018 interpretation of that clause made popular by TV pundits is now the driver behind demands that Trump is so stupid, impulsive, and insane he cannot carry out his duties, and so power must be transferred away from him today. While the Op-Ed writer says the idea was shelved only to avoid a Constitutional crisis, in fact it makes no sense. The 25th’s legally specific term “unable” does not mean the same thing as the vernacular “unfit.” An unconscious man is unable (the word used in the Amendment) to drive. A man who forgot his glasses is unfit (not the word used in the Amendment), but still able, to drive, albeit poorly.

    The use of the 25th to get Trump out of office is the kind of thing people with too much Google time, not senior officials with access to legal advice, convince themselves is true. The intent of the amendment was to create an administrative procedure, not a political thunderbolt.

    But intent aside, the main reason senior officials would know the 25th is not intended to be used adversarially is the Constitution already specifies impeachment as the way to force an unfit president out. The 25th was not written to be a new flavor of impeachment or a do-over for an election. It has to be so; the Constitution at its core grants ultimate power to the people to decide, deliberately, not in panic, every four years, who is president. Anything otherwise would mean the drafters of the 25th wrote a backdoor into the Constitution allowing a group of officials, most of whom were elected by nobody, to overthrow an elected president they simply think turned out to be bad at his job.

     

    The alarmist accusations against Trump, especially when invoking mental illness to claim Americans are in danger, are perfectly timed fodder, dropped right after Labor Day into the election season, to displace the grinding technicalities of a Russiagate investigation. Political opponents of Trump had been counting on Mueller by now to hand them November amid a wash of indictments, and thus tee up impeachment with a Democratic majority in the House.

    Since Mueller, alongside economic collapse at home, trade wars everywhere, a nuclear arsenal as yet un-unleashed, war with North Korea and Iran, have all failed to materialize, and lacking much of unified theme themselves, for Democrats it’s making the midterms Trump vs. Trump, with the carefully timed help of the New York Times. The Op-Ed does indeed signal a crisis, but not a Constitutional one. It is a crisis of collusion, among journalists turned to the task of removing a president via what some would call a soft coup.

    Because it’s either that, or we’re meant as a nation to believe an election should be overturned two years after the fact based on a vaguely-sourced tell-all book and an anonymous Op-Ed.




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    Red Pill, Blue Pill… No, Take the Yellow Pill: I Watch Mainstream Media News

    September 7, 2018 // 10 Comments »



    Take the Red Pill some say, see the world as it is. No, the Blue Pill, stay comfortably numb in the Matrix. Well, I had some sweet yellow ones during a week flat on my back in the hospital with little to do but watch TV news. Mainstream media, the stuff I otherwise never watch. I learned as long as you don’t change channels, everything makes sense.

    At least until a very nice nurse brought those little yellow pills every four hours, which made me lose track. She usually switched channels for me at the same time, like shifting my bottom around to avoid bed sores. That’s where things got confusing.


    I quickly lost track — who are we counting on to save America? Is it the porn star trying to revive her career, the lawyer who lied for years now trying to save himself hinting outside of court he knows something, or the editor of the National Enquirer who literally invented fake news for the late 20th century? Through my pharmacological haze, it was difficult to grasp how quickly the media flipped their opinions when a person told us what we wanted to hear — who would have imagined Omarosa on CNN to “bring down Trump?” She went from being Uncle Tom to the star of BlacKkKlansman before I was allowed to use the toilet without a nurse present. It’s almost as if we all vaguely recall out of a little yellow pill haze we weren’t at war last week with Eurasia when the news has made clear we have always been at war with Eurasia.

    And did you know Trump’s taxes are locked in the vault at Gringotts? It wasn’t “news” but several channels featured tax return stories anyway. As best I could tell no one on TV seemed to know the IRS has all of Trump’s taxes, has audited him many times, and that his tax records are and always have been available by warrant to law enforcement. They appear unaware Trump’s taxes are in fact an open book, albeit one they personally can’t check out of the hospital library. They are certain a bunch of 27-year-old Park Slope “journalists” who probably file 1040EZs will find what has been missed over decades by all those professionals. A 1099 from Putin? More after this message and yes, doctor, I agree, my pain does seem worse, better up the dose…


    TV says with great certainty the Trump presidency will end very soon; I really didn’t expect it to outlast my hospital stay and was briefly excited there’d be a cheaper health care system before I was discharged. Nearly every channel said we’d entered a new round of “it’s over,” or claimed “tick tock,” or the walls were closing in — Mueller time! There was actually mass-scale wishful thinking for a national tragedy of any sort to hasten this. There was even a race among channels to grow the death toll in Puerto Rico from a year ago, so much so they invented a new thing called “excess deaths.” Who knew?

    I learned apparently all Russians making more than minimum wage are oligarchs. And everyone in Russia over 18 is connected to Russian intelligence, and said to be close to Putin. Drug-addled, my brain tried to convince me Russia was a much smaller place than I remembered it as.

    Also Cohen was going to flip, and maybe Don, Jr. or even Ivanka to save themselves, just wait. But the main thing that apparently had flipped was the House. I only found out later this actually did not happen, but you’d forgive me for believing it, because while it may have been the fever thinking for me, it all seemed to get more certain as I drifted from the Afternoon Blonde to the Evening Gray of Wolf to Anderson to Cuomo, a succession of gas station glory hole mouths. There was a primary, or maybe just a show of hands among twenty people somewhere, said Maddow, emphasizing I should listen closely because things are moving fast now, THAT IT COULD HAPPEN, meaning DemsWouldTakeHouseImpeachTrumpAbolishICEHangPenceRenameWashingtonDClinton.



    As the nurse with the little yellow pills started dropping by less often as I recovered, I started to understand the news was less about reporting what happened and more about creating the image we are on an inevitable path to Trump’s legal collapse, his mental collapse, or impeachment for… something, we’ll figure the details out later, just accept there is a crisis. That’s when I got it: it’s not about information, but persuasion. I wasn’t an audience, I was raw material.

    I sort of remembered during the lulls of “ask your doctor about…” prescription medicine commercials that in my non-writing day job I speak with people from the midwest, and the middle west and south, people with AOL addresses and landlines, people to whom New York City is as foreign a place as Tokyo. Though I don’t know if they’ll vote Republican or stay home, they will never vote Democrat, at least not the identity politics “socialist” flavor-of-the-month Democrat emerging in 2018. They aren’t racist or hateful people, but they certainly see those problems falling well below the economy when it comes to what matters. And not one believes the Russiagate story in whole. I didn’t see a lot of TV reflecting those voters; actually most of the news I saw was sculpted to say those people matter less all the time. This is all their fault, anyway. I have to remember to let them know.

    People on TV don’t seem to care their doomy predictions have not happened even as they still insist they will. It’s kind of like hoping fireworks shot into the night sky, having once popped and sang — Ohhhh! — will somehow do it again even as the sparks die out. Hours of TV make it is clear Trump — the fact that he exists at all — is so central to how the media view the world now they cannot see past their loathing and even briefly remove that loathing from the analytical equation of what’s happening. The media live forever with 2016’s broken heart; it never healed but instead of getting back out there to date they want you to feel the pain, too. Luckily I fell asleep each evening before the late night shows came on or I’d have been moved to the intensive care unit, if not psych.

    Facts and assertions and opinions and reports from sources and we heard and according to reports are all jumbled now into the same thing. The burden of proof is turned around and placed on the unprepared viewer, so believing anything but what you’re told makes you the conspiracy theorist. Even with a volume control I could sometimes reach on the bedside table it was too loud to argue against. It became easier and easier to let the drugs slip to the foreground and mistake what I was made to feel for what I wanted to think.

    What was left, in the words of one songwriter, was only seeing the shadow they intentionally left behind for me to find and follow. Thinking was hard. TV explained things slowly, so I could understand it in the way they wanted me to. It was easy and they wanted to make it easy. It was more like sports, with someone slapping down, dismissing, destroying, devastating, dissing, crushing or owning someone on the other side of an opinion.


    I’m back home now, on the mend. The outrages from my hospital stay (Brennan’s security clearance, Cohen’s non-flip, trade war with Mexico, McCain’s flag at half-staff, Sessions/Mueller to be fired) are nearly forgotten. Red pill? Blue pill? I wish I had more of those little yellow pills.



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    The People v. Trump: Is There a Case for the 25th Amendment?

    September 6, 2018 // 21 Comments »



    (This post originally ran in January, the last time “Use the 25th!” was trending.)

    The media is of one mind: Donald Trump is mentally incompetent and must be removed from office before he blows us all to hell. It says so on Vox, New York Review of Books, CNN, The Intercept, CNBC, The Nation, Bill Moyers, Salon, and the NYT. A new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, concludes “Trump’s mental state presents a clear and present danger to our nation and individual well-being.”

    The solution is in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The 25A creates a mechanism aside impeachment to remove an “incapacitated” president, and Trump’s mental state, some believe, qualifies him. Is there a case?


    Dr. Bandy Lee, one of the editors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, says yes. Her primary evidence is tweets Trump sent threatening Kim Jong Un. She really has no other ammunition: no doctor who says Trump is insane, including Lee, has examined him. No doctor that has examined him says he is insane. Third party anonymous accusations of incompetence are shot through with gossip. A book written by a Hollywood trash reporter is otherwise held up as critical evidence of the inner workings of the president’s mind.

    So is there a case without the tweets? Not really. Lee adds while Trump has not committed violent acts against himself or others, his “verbal aggressiveness, history of boasting about sexual assault, history of inciting violence at his rallies, and history of endorsing violence in his key public speeches are the best predictors of future violence” and thus concludes he will destroy the world. Lee also weakly points to Trump “being drawn to violent videos.” Oh my.

    We might instead look at the actual decisions Trump has made, and those of his predecessors. One president used nuclear weapons to decimate two cities worth of innocents, and a set of presidents squandered hundreds of thousands of American lives watering Vietnam with blood. Ronald Reagan was famously caught over an open mic saying he was going to start bombing the Soviet Union in the next few minutes. Another president lied about WMDs to launch an invasion of Iraq in part to avenge his dad. The same guy mocked North Korea’s leader as a pygmy. Obama said he “will not hesitate to use our military might” against the North, knowing that meant Armageddon. Historical psychiatrists say half of our past presidents may have suffered some sort of mental illness. If Trump is dangerous as president, he seems to have company.

    But how can we know? Trump will never voluntarily undergo a mental competency exam, though courts can order people to submit. But even Lee, who met with Congressional representatives to press the case Trump is insane, admits this is unlikely to happen. “Many lawyer groups have actually volunteered to file for a court paper to ensure that the security staff will cooperate with us,” Lee said. “But we have declined, since this will really look like a coup, and while we are trying to prevent violence, we don’t wish to incite it through, say, an insurrection.”


    There doesn’t seem much of a case. Still, people arguing Trump is insane and must be removed from office point to the 25th Amendment to the Constitution as just what the doctor ordered.

    The Constitution did not originally lay out (Article II, Section 1, Clause 6) what happens if a president dies or becomes incapacitated. It was just assumed the Vice President would serve as “Acting President.” The 25A, passed after the Kennedy assassination, created the first set of rules for this sort of situation.

    The 25A has four short subsections. If the presidency goes vacant (for example, fatal heart attack), the vice president becomes president. If the vice-presidency goes vacant, the president chooses a new VP. If the president knows he’ll be incapacitated (unable to carry out his job, for example, due to scheduled surgery), he can voluntarily and temporarily assign his duties to the vice president. If the president is truly incapacitated (unconscious after an assassination attempt) and can’t voluntarily assign away his duties, the VP and cabinet can do it for him, with a two-thirds majority confirming vote of the House and Senate.

    In the minds of the “Trump is Insane” crowd what matters most is that never-used fourth subsection, the incapacitation clause. People claim because Trump is insane he is unable to carry out his duties, and so Mike Pence, et al, must step in and transfer power away from him today. Trump would legally exist in the same status as Grandpa Simpson in the nursing home, and Pence would take over. Among other problems, this thinking imagines the 25A’s legally specific term “unable” means the same thing as the vernacular “unfit.” An unconscious man is unable to drive. A man who forgot his glasses is unfit, but still able, to drive. The 25A only refers to the first case.


    The use of the 25A to dethrone Trump is the kind of thing non-experts with too much Google time can convince themselves is true. But unlike much of the Constitution, where understanding original intent requires the Supreme Court and a close reading of the Federalist Papers, the 25A is modern legislation. We know the drafters’ intent was an administrative procedure, not a political thunderbolt. The 25A premises the president will almost always invoke succession himself, either by dying in office, or by anticipating he will be unable to discharge his duties, as in 2007 when George W. Bush went under anesthesia for his annual colonoscopy and signed things over to his vice president for a few hours.

    The reason the 25A is not intended to be used adversarially is the Constitution already specifies impeachment as the way to force an unfit president out against his will, his unfitness specifically a result of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The people who wrote the 25A did not intend it to be an alternate method of impeachment or a do-over for an election.

    It has to be so; the Constitution at its core grants ultimate power to the people to decide, deliberately, not in panic, every four years, who is president. Anything otherwise would mean the drafters of the 25A wrote a back door into the Constitution that would allow a group of government officials, many of whom in the Cabinet were elected by nobody, to overthrow an elected president who they simply think has turned out to be bad at his job.

    Accusations of mental illness are subjective, unprovable in this case, and alarmist, perfect fodder to displace the grinding technicalities of Russiagate. Denouncing one’s political opponents as crazy was a tried and true Soviet and Maoist tactic, and a movie trope where the youngsters try to get the patriarch shut away to grab his fortune. We fear the mentally ill, and psychiatric name calling against Trump invokes that fear. “The 25th Amendment would require, for mental incapacity, a major psychotic break,” said one former Harvard Law School professor. “This is hope over reality. If we don’t like someone’s politics we rail against him, we campaign against him, we don’t use the psychiatric system against him. That’s just dangerous.”


    People saying the president is mentally ill and the 25A is the cure know they have no rational basis for their position. They know the 25A is not a work-around for impeachment proceedings they are unlikely to see. They are aware they are unethically trying to medicalize bad leadership, damning it with the taint of mental illness. They know Mike Pence and Trump’s own cabinet will never sign off on a power transfer, and they don’t want Pence in the Oval Office anyway. They know this is all kabuki, liberal fan fiction, a shadow play. The talk of mental illness and the 25A is simply political sabotage ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections.

    Trump’s time in office is finite, but what happens around him will outlast his tenure. It is dangerous to mess with the very fundamentals of our democracy, where the people choose the president, replacing that with a kabal called into session by pop psychologists. This is an attack on the process at its roots; you yokels voted for the wrong guy so somebody smarter has to clean up.




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