Morning Reading, May 17, 2018

This morning’s reading feels very Trump- and Mueller-centric, which I suppose makes sense given all of yesterday’s news:

  • In honor of the Mueller investigation’s one-year birthday, Politico profiles the FBI agents working on the Mueller probe:

    Mueller’s FBI crew appears to be a combination of agents who were already working aspects of the investigation before the former FBI director took over a year ago, either because of their expertise or their location, and a set of volunteers who jumped aboard or were invited to join as the special counsel staffed up.

    “The agents come two ways,” said Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago, now with Berkeley Research Group. “One is geographic. But, as you’re constructing your perfect investigative team, if you have your druthers and there’s agents you’ve worked with in the past, wherever they are in the country, on a case like this you do reach out and say, ‘Would you like to be involved in this?’”

  • The Weekly Standard also marks the Mueller probe’s anniversary–with an editorial calling for it to end swiftly:

    Special Counsel Mueller is everything we value in a public servant—honest, competent, utterly averse to partisan hackery. He has done valuable work, and—we repeat—the deputy attorney general was right to appoint him. But it has been a year of acrimony. If Donald Trump and his aides received help from the Russian government to win the election, Americans should know it and offenders should stand trial. If they did not, or if such a thing can’t be proved, Americans should be told that, too. The hour is late.

    One assumes the Weekly Standard‘s editorial board is beside themselves with outrage over the numerous and extended investigations into Benghazi.

  • Joan Walsh writes about Tuesday’s primary results in the Nation, touting the success of women and progressives:

    Of course, within the Beltway, where good news for Democrats is always turned into a “Dems in disarray” story line, all of this winning is being spun as… losing. “The far left is winning the Democratic civil war,” screamed The Washington Post on Wednesday morning. But none of the women who won US House nominations in Pennsylvania can be termed “far left.” Susan Wild is excoriated for attacking the anti-choice, anti-immigrant Morganelli, while the fact that she beat an actual Our Revolution candidate is ignored, since it doesn’t fit the narrative. Scott Wallace is attacked, essentially, for being Henry Wallace’s grandson, and for declaring after his victory: “Arise, ye children of starvation…” Just kidding. Wallace declared: “Together, we can make America sane again.” Is that really “far left” today? And sure, Nebraska’s Eastman is well to the left of Ashford—but Ashford already lost the same seat, to Republican Don Bacon in 2016. He sure doesn’t have a magic formula for victory.

    As I said yesterday, I’m skeptical that these are wins for progressives as much as they are losses for the conservative wing of the Democratic party. (As Walsh notes above, Susan Wild beat Bernie Sanders’s preferred candidate.) And I’m not at all sure the progressives who won in Nebraska and Idaho can win the general. But I do think these are encouraging signs for the long-term future of the Democratic party. (Also, I just love Joan Walsh, and I was really happy to see her font this morning.)

  • Finally, more on Israel in the New York Times, this from Matti Friedman. Friedman argues that the Palestinian casualties in the conflict with Israel are not always what they seem:

    At the end of 2008 I was a desk editor, a local hire in The Associated Press’s Jerusalem bureau, during the first serious round of violence in Gaza after Hamas took it over the year before. That conflict was grimly similar to the American campaign in Iraq, in which a modern military fought in crowded urban confines against fighters concealed among civilians. Hamas understood early that the civilian death toll was driving international outrage at Israel, and that this, not I.E.D.s or ambushes, was the most important weapon in its arsenal.

    Early in that war, I complied with Hamas censorship in the form of a threat to one of our Gaza reporters and cut a key detail from an article: that Hamas fighters were disguised as civilians and were being counted as civilians in the death toll. The bureau chief later wrote that printing the truth after the threat to the reporter would have meant “jeopardizing his life.” Nonetheless, we used that same casualty toll throughout the conflict and never mentioned the manipulation.

    Friedman’s basic point is that everything happening in Israel is complex, and the video of dying Palestinians tells only part of the story. It’s a fair point, but although he notes that “Israeli soldiers facing Gaza have no good choices,” he never acknowledges that the Palestinians also have only bad options. So in the end the piece feels unfinished and incomplete, as unfairly weighted against the Palestinians as he believes the bloody video is weighted against the Israelis.

Morning Reading, May 16, 2018

So when I checked the primary results this morning I was amused to discover these dueling takeaways: Politico says that “moderate Democrats took it on the chin,” while Slate proclaimed that “Democratic voters responded by playing it safe, picking a bevy of establishment-friendly candidates.” And both articles talk about some of the same races! I think the disconnect here is that the candidates Politico considers moderate (specifically John Morganelli in Pennsylvania’s 7th district and Rachel Reddick in Pennsylvania’s 1st) seem more conservative to me, almost in the mold of Joe Manchin or Joe Donnelly. Morganelli doesn’t support abortion rights, which puts him solidly outside the Democratic mainstream; and Reddick was a Republican not too long ago. The winners of these primaries (Susan Wild in the 7th district and Scott Wallace in the 1st) are progressive but more “establishment-friendly” than the Bernie Sanders crowd; in fact, Wild beat Sanders’s preferred candidate, Greg Edwards. So (somewhat to my surprise) I think Slate got this one more right than Politico did.

The most interesting result of the night, to my mind, was Paulette Jordan’s victory over A. J. Balukoff in the Idaho governor’s Democratic primary. Now here is a win that really is progressive over establishment: Balukoff had sewn up most of the Idaho Democratic establishment’s endorsements, while Jordan was endorsed by Cher and Khizr Khan. To a degree, the progressive vs. establishment divide is cosmetic: Balukoff and Jordan have strikingly similar policy positions. But she’s younger and female and, if elected, would be the nation’s first Native American governor; it’s hard not to think (or, maybe, hope) that she represents the future of the Democratic party and Balukoff the past.

Having said that, she’s almost certainly going to lose to Brad Little in November.

Other stories I read this morning:

  • In the New Republic, Eric Cortellessa argues that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem without extracting any concessions from Israel is only going to make peace negotiations more difficult than they already were:

    It is a foreign policy axiom that the U.S. is the only third party that can give both sides the kind of guarantees they need to make the compromises necessary: It’s why in the past, throughout the Oslo Peace Process, Israelis and Palestinians alike wanted American officials in the room for negotiations, not a delegation from the United Nations, not the European Union. Of course, only Israelis and Palestinians can ultimately cross the rubicon of peace, but the Palestinians now rejecting American leadership has far-reaching ramifications, effectively sidelining the only international actor that can facilitate a deal.

    This isn’t an original argument, I realize, but Cortellessa does a good job here of summing up the issues with the embassy move.

  • Marc Thiessen has a Washington Post op-ed that is both weird and dumb: Trump has had two “major foreign policy achievements” over the past week and Democrats are not giving him enough credit. The achievements? Bringing home three North Korea hostages, and moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

    I’m sorry, I found this piece completely infuriating. Granted, I am a Democrat and I recently blamed Trump for the leak in my dishwasher so I am not a disinterested observer. However, moving the embassy isn’t a diplomatic achievement; it’s something that any president could have done since 1995–including George W. Bush, the president for whom Thiessen worked. They all chose not to. Moving the embassy didn’t require any negotiation skills; it just required signing something. The reason the three earlier presidents didn’t do it wasn’t because they couldn’t but because it was a bad idea (see Cortellessa’s article above). “Americans see Trump being criticized for doing exactly what Congress demanded, and his Democratic and Republican predecessors promised, and they rightly see hypocrisy,” Thiessen writes, conveniently ignoring the polls that show that only 36% of Americans actually support the move.

    Also, Thiessen doesn’t even mention the dozens of Palestinians who were killed in protests during the opening of the embassy. “This is a huge victory for Trump, pay no attention to the dead people behind the curtain” seems to be his thesis.

    Meanwhile, as Thiessen himself acknowledges, Democrats aren’t unhappy that the hostages are home; they are unhappy that the president effusively praised Kim Jong Un for returning them. Kissing up to an authoritarian dictator is not a foreign policy achievement and not worthy of praise! (I continue to be shocked by the things that have to be said out loud in 2018.) It is also not particularly effective, as this morning’s news that North Korea will reconsider attending the summit if denuclearization is on the table. So in addition to being weird and dumb, this article has also aged very poorly since it was published at 4:41 yesterday afternoon.

  • In Foreign Policy, Dahlia Scheindlin makes the enormously depressing argument that Benjamin Netanyahu’s political survival depends on continual conflict with the Palestinians:

    The result of strongman leadership is that people become much less enthusiastic for the foundations of democracy, favoring splashy personal achievements or controversy instead. And the irony of consolidating power is that it harms democracy but simultaneously generates an environment in which one person gets credit for everything going well, reinforcing support for that same leader.

    Such a leader could also be blamed for all bad things. But many Israelis have apparently traded personal economic frustrations for an occasional celebration, be it Israel’s victory in the Eurovision contest or the U.S. Embassy moving to Jerusalem. Voters have lowered their standards on personal integrity in return for domestic tranquility, punctured only by the occasional war that most believe could not have been prevented. And, so the logic goes, it’s better to have Bibi fighting that war — or killing those protesters in Gaza who dare to seek a way out after 11 years of closure — than a despised left-winger.

    Sooner or later, Netanyahu will eventually exit the political stage. But given the way that every crisis reinforces his power, and what his years in power have done to Israel, the pendulum doesn’t look likely to swing in the other direction soon.

  • And in Lawfare, Harry Litman has a fascinating post about how one might go about flipping Michael Cohen:

    Step one in that transition is the isolation of the lieutenant from the family and the daily social life, which usually consists largely of a lot of hanging out and killing time and not all that much actual criminal activity. That much seems already to have happened, notwithstanding that Cohen has yet to be arrested. The Times reported recently that Cohen has told associates that he feels isolated since the FBI search.

    With the spell of daily connection to the family broken, the feds will seek to persuade the made man that the Don doesn’t esteem him—or worse—doesn’t even respect him. Here, again, Trump has provided the FBI and the New York prosecutors quite a lot of material to work with, should they need to. Cohen appears to have endured years of petty slights from his narcissistic boss. One such humiliation recently reported by the Wall Street Journal was Trump’s boorish speech at Cohen’s son’s bar mitzvah, when he arrived late and gave a speech telling guests he had only come because Cohen called him, his secretary and the Trump children begging Trump to attend.

    I’ve just started rewatching The Sopranos for the first time in a decade and it feels very timely. Michael Cohen reminds me forcefully of Big Pussy Bonpensiero. But comparing Trump to Tony Soprano feels a bit insulting to the memory of James Gandolfini.