Robert Mueller Did Not Save Us

TrumpNestingDolls

Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

So it turns out that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was not, after all, coming to save us. Don Jr. will not be indicted (at least not by Mueller); Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway were similarly spared. Mueller — at least according to the Attorney General — concluded that although Russia assisted Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2016, it was not in coordination with the campaign. More nebulously, Attorney General William Barr and his deputy Rod Rosenstein made the decision that the president did not commit criminal obstruction of justice, although the AG did quote Mueller’s terse assessment that “he is not exonerated,” and the summary of the report released by Barr doesn’t conclude that the president did nothing wrong but that all the elements of the crime were not met. This is pretty weak tea from two Trump appointees!

Still, this wasn’t terrific news for Democrats and Trump and his fans, including his press secretary, are declaring not just a victory but “total EXONERATION.” (This victory lap feels premature to me; I think I would have held back on the gloating until more of the full report was available, since even the summary literally says “he is not exonerated,” but who am I to stand in the way of a good football spike?) It is frustrating to deal with people who apparently did not ace the reading comprehension portions of the SAT. I, too, enjoyed the impressively edited “Russia with Love” montage of Mueller arresting all the most repellent members of the Trump administration. And I, too, long for a Jared Kushner perp walk. (Confidential to my boss: if Kushner is ever arrested, I will absolutely be late for work that day, and it will not be due to an accident on I-96.)

But I do think any criticism of Mueller’s motives is misplaced. I said when Mueller was first appointed that I would trust his conclusions, and I stand by that. I continue to believe in his integrity. If Mueller says he could not find evidence that Trump’s campaign actively worked with the Russians, then I believe him. I have a lot of questions, and I would like to see his evidence, but ultimately I believe him. (I never thought Trump colluded personally, on the grounds that he is too dumb to collude.) On the other hand, I do not trust Barr or Rosenstein, and I cannot take on faith their assertion that obstruction of justice could not be proven. They are going to have to give me something other than their word.

If you were hoping that Mueller’s report would contain so many bombshells even the Republicans would be willing to dump him, then you are entitled to be disappointed. But let’s keep some things in mind:

  • We now know for a fact that the Russians sought to influence the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. It was not so long ago that this idea was dismissed as a liberal fantasy. We now have a former FBI director and a Republican attorney general telling us it is fact. That is important, and we cannot allow Republicans in government to ignore it. It is crucial that we do everything we can to prevent this from happening in 2020; and it is equally crucial to remember that Trump’s narrow win is forever tainted by this actuality. We do not know what would have happened without Russian meddling. Do not let anyone tell you the Democrats cannot win in 2020. We absolutely can.
  • The special counsel did not declare the president innocent of obstruction of justice. He declined to make a decision. This is perhaps the most critical reason why the public needs to see Mueller’s 700-page report. There is at least some evidence against the president, even if every element of criminal obstruction cannot be proven. The American public must see it. Call your senators and representatives and tell them you demand it. No matter how you think they will be voting, it is important that they hear from you.
  • The fact that Trump did not actively conspire with the Russians while running for president does not mean that Trump is not currently in Putin’s sway. We know he has complicated financial entanglements with Russia. We know that his campaign insisted on changing the Ukraine plank in the 2016 platform (that was the only plank the Trump campaign cared about); we saw the disgraceful press conference with Putin in Helsinki. Maybe there’s no criminal conspiracy, but you would have to willfully ignore everything Trump has said about Russia in the last two years to believe that Putin has no undue influence on the president.
  • This report does not end the investigations into the president, his businesses, his charity, his inauguration, and his family. Those investigations will continue for the foreseeable future. Trump has also already been implicated in financial crimes by Michael Cohen. The SDNY is still investigating these crimes. They are not going to go away. It’s very possible that Don Jr. and Kushner and even Ivanka and Eric are going to get swept up into these investigations as well. And the House of Representatives is also investigating a veritable smorgasbord of Trumpian misdeeds; the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has already said he will ask the Attorney General to testify about the report.

Nothing Barr says in his summary of the Mueller report changes the fact that Trump is a terrible president who should be drummed out of office as soon as possible. He is a cruel, selfish, narcissistic grifter who repeatedly embarrasses our nation on the world stage. And so we need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get on with the business of electing Democrats in 2020. Defeatism is the enemy. I do not believe for one second that the Democrats who are running for president are panicking over Mueller’s conclusions. I do not believe that they have been pinning all their presidential hopes on the special counsel. Now we have to stop daydreaming about Mueller riding in on a white horse, and we have to get to work. We have an abundance of talented candidates running, and they have a lot of impressive ideas and policies and reasons for your vote that have nothing to do with Robert Mueller. I urge you to find and support your candidates of choice, while also pledging to support the ultimate nominee. We need this win. And this race is absolutely winnable. (And don’t stop with the presidential race! We also need to flip the Senate if we can at all.)

Mueller didn’t save us. That is okay. We can save ourselves.

John McCain’s Last Wish: Trolling Trump

When Charles Dickens divorced his wife, her sister sided with him and even lived with him for several years to help him raise the children. The ex-Mrs. Dickens took this remarkably calmly, but when she died she left her sister one piece of jewelry: a ring shaped like a snake. I have long regarded this as the finest example of throwing shade from beyond the grave I have ever encountered.

Until today.

 

Morning Reading, May 22, 2018

This morning:

  • A long Christopher Caldwell article in the Weekly Standard about the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte:

    There is no world leader quite like Duterte, but in his special claim to run a country being drawn at lightning speed into modernity, he bears a resemblance to Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who also made the leap from big-city mayor to maximum leader. As Erdogan once was in Istanbul, Duterte was an extraordinary boss of Davao, the largest city on the vast and violent island of Mindanao. Duterte is political royalty there—his father was a governor of the province of Davao. When Duterte himself became mayor in 1988, Davao City was one of the most violent places in Southeast Asia—racked by both the New People’s Army (the Maoist armed wing of the Philippine Communist party) and radical Islamic terrorism. Islam moved through Indonesia to what is now the southern Philippines centuries ago, and Muslims make up 5 percent of the population. Most of them live just west of Davao and many want self-determination and even independence. Last year ISIS-inspired guerrillas took over the city of Marawi and were rooted out only after the army and air force waged a Stalingrad-style house-to-house campaign of urban warfare that killed hundreds. Muslims have brought their war to Davao with terror attacks, and Manila’s malls will remind Israelis of home, with bag-opening guards at the doorways of coffeehouses and sneaker stores.

    That is the secret of Duterte’s electoral success. Over two decades, at a time when Davao was doubling in size to over 1.5 million, Duterte transformed the city from a Third World hellhole into a pleasant place for a law-abiding person to live—even a business hub. He pulled this off by mixing wiles and ruthlessness, offering Muslims and Communists financial incentives to carry their campaigns elsewhere and threatening them with retribution should they not. Many human rights groups hold him responsible for about 1,000 unsolved killings during his tenure, carried out by shadowy assailants who came to be called the Davao Death Squad.

    Prior to reading this profile, I knew nothing about Duterte other than a vague impression that he was an anti-democratic authoritarian who used personal death squads to rid his country of drug dealers. That’s all true! But the Caldwell article does draw interesting parallels to the current situation in the United States; Trump and Duterte have similarities, alas, but the country is also seeing the same kind of breakdown in the separation of powers and the delegitimization of the media that we’re experiencing here.
    Most alarming of all is this quote from a Philippine senator: “The strategic aim of the [extrajudicial-killing] campaign is not to win the war on drugs. It is to promote a broader authoritarian agenda by establishing a climate of intimidation and fear that will make the destruction of democratic political institutions and political rights and their remaking in an authoritarian direction a ‘walk in the park.’” Isn’t the same thing true of the draconian crackdown on immigrants in the United States?
    I don’t necessarily agree with Caldwell’s conclusion (“Under the circumstances, it would be natural if the Philippines looked increasingly towards China, which has made ‘build, build, build’ the cornerstone of what it offers its allies, and less towards the United States, which in recent years has contented itself with ‘nag, nag, nag'”): I don’t see how it follows naturally from what came before it; it felt a bit tacked on. And I get the feeling that Caldwell has some pangs of admiration for Duterte that I do not share. But the deep dive into Philippine politics and culture is interesting.

  • In the New Republic, David Dayen takes down Paul Ryan:

    The next six months before the midterms will put the ungovernable House on display. They still have to pass a budget in September to avoid a government shutdown. There can be no greater boost to Democratic hopes to win the midterms than a Republican government unable to fulfill such basic tasks.

    You can lay that at the feet of one man. Ryan will likely leave office with Nancy Pelosi or another Democrat taking his speaker’s gavel. His own seat, in Republican hands for decades, is now a toss-up. He achieved almost none of the vaunted “reforms” he spent a lifetime promoting: Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and countless other policies remain mostly the same as when Ryan entered office. Sure, Republicans got their tax cuts—that’s no feat with a caucus of tax-cutters—but Ryan imagined the overthrow of the welfare state and got next to nothing. However he exits the House this year, it’s sure to be an appropriately ignominious end to his political career.

    Congratulations, David Dayen, on making me almost feel sympathy for Paul Ryan. This is brutal. Accurate, but brutal.

  • Duelling articles on impeachment in the Nation and the Atlantic. In the Nation, John Nichols argues that congressional Democrats are too skittish about the idea of impeachment:

    Top Democrats have largely refused to embrace an essential truth of the American experiment: that the threat of impeachment is a necessary tool for maintaining a functional system of checks and balances. It is an unfortunate fact that the Republicans who currently form a majority in the House—the chamber that is charged with beginning an impeachment inquiry—are unlikely to respect their oaths of office. It may even be the case that some of those dishonorable members are conspiring with the president to undercut the inquiry.

    But that is no excuse for dialing down discussion of impeachment. If there is any point to a two-party system, it is this: When one party is acting in a lawless manner, the other must be all the more vocal in explaining and defending the rule of law.

    I agree with Nichols that impeachment should be the consequence of Trump’s really egregious misdoings; where we disagree is whether it’s wise for the Democrats to bring this up now. I just don’t think this is the energy we need to be coming from the Democrats before the midterms. He calls that “cowardly”; I call it pragmatic.
    Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, David Frum reviews the new book by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz, To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, which throws oold water on the idea of impeachment.
    The thesis of this book is that voting and activism are more effective in the long run than impeachment; as they put it, “Under most circumstances, removing the president from office this way is bound to be divisive and disheartening. Even when taking that step is fully justified, the price may be higher and the benefits more modest than some would envision.” Frum–a never-Trump conservative–calls this “aspirin to cool a political fever.”
    But (without having yet read the book) my feeling is that this point ignores one enormous problem: Trump is perhaps unprecedentedly incapable of doing this job. By many accounts, he pays little attention to briefings and makes wide-ranging decisions out of fits of pique, without caring about or even considering their long-term consequences. He is also inclined to use the powers at his disposal not just to enrich himself and his family but also exact revenge on his political enemies. He is literally dangerous to the world, and becomes more dangerous the longer he remains in office; and for that reason I believe he should be removed as soon as possible, political consequences be damned.

  • And Foreign Policy has two articles about the Trump administration’s plans for Iran, one in favor of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s strategy, the other opposed.
    Ray Takeyh and Mark Dubowitz write that “The United States today has a strategy, one that is expansive in its ambitions, justified in its tactics, and judicious in its assessments of Iran.” Their argument is that Iran is so dangerous that its “clerical imperialists” must be defeated and the Iranian people won over to the West’s way of thinking.
    On the other side, Jon Wolfsthal and Julie Smith say that making a series of unilateral demands is no way to negotiate, and that the United States has no way to make Iran accede to any of its preconditions, especially given that Europe isn’t showing any signs of abandoning the accord the Trump administration just withdrew from. “So, Iran remains a problem, ” they conclude, “the United States is more isolated and less trusted abroad, and Iran is now able to, at a time of its choosing, turn up the nuclear pressure, because the nuclear accord is on life support. That is not a strategy for success. It is a strategy for disaster.”
    I incline more to the Wolfsthal/Smith side; if making unilateral demands isn’t going to work with North Korea I don’t see why it would work with Iran. (Luckily no one has yet used the words “Libya model” in regard to Iran; maybe that’s next week.) Regime change hasn’t worked in Iraq, so why would it solve the Iran problem?

Morning Reading, May 21, 2018

This morning:

  • I thought I was all done with the royal wedding, but then this morning I read a Vox article by Dylan Matthews arguing that a constitutional monarchy is better than an elected head of state:

    Monarchs are more effective than presidents precisely because they lack any semblance of legitimacy. It would be offensive for Queen Elizabeth or her representatives in Canada, New Zealand, etc. to meddle in domestic politics. Indeed, when the governor general of Australia did so in 1975, it set off a constitutional crisis that made it clear such behavior would not be tolerated. Nothing like it has happened since.

    As Margit Tavits at Washington University in St. Louis once told me, “Monarchs can truly be above politics. They usually have no party connections and have not been involved in daily politics before assuming the post of the head of state.” But figurehead presidents have some degree of democratic legitimacy and are typically former politicians. That enables a greater rate of shenanigans — like when Italian President Giorgio Napolitano schemed, successfully, to remove Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister, due at least in part to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s entreaties to do so.

    I am sympathetic to this point of view, partly because I think the American system (where we just tack on all the responsibilities of being head of state to the president’s already overwhelming portfolio) is a hot mess. Both because the president doesn’t really have time for ceremonial duties and because the fact that the president has just survived a highly contentious, several-month-long election means that a sizable chunk of the country doesn’t feel represented by and, in fact, very likely wants nothing to do with him (or, someday, her). Some countries elect their head of state, which solves the first problem but not the second.

    To be clear, I think there are big philosophical issue with monarchies (the financial arguments against them are pretty weak to my mind) but I’m not convinced they don’t work better than elected heads of state, and if you don’t elect the head of state and it’s not an inherited position, how do you choose someone? Maybe in the future we can use a lifelike robot.

  • In the Atlantic, Joel S. Wit writes about a series of meetings with North Koreans that he attended in 2013, and what the North Koreans said then about denuclearization. His argument here is that Bolton’s “Libya model” (in which North Korea unilaterally denuclearizes and then receives rewards in return) will doom the summit and that the United States needs to be prepared to make upfront concessions of its own:

    . . . [W]hat they outlined was a step-by-step process of denuclearization accompanied in each phase by U.S. measures of their own. It is entirely different from the “Libya model” espoused by John Bolton, which involves giving up its program first and only then getting benefits in return. Indeed, the Trump administration doesn’t necessarily endorse Bolton’s view. Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state in charge of Asia, said last week that it was obvious there would be multiple steps in a long process of denuclearization, and the key issue was what happened first.

    How those differences over denuclearization are resolved inside the Trump administration, and whether common ground can be found with the North Koreans, will determine the future of the Korean Peninsula. The stakes are nothing less than the success or failure of the world’s best current chance to disarm North Korea. The Thornton approach could mean, over the long term, that it really happens. The Bolton approach would assure that it won’t.

    Wit seems a little more bullish on the summit than I am (my own view is that it’s either going to be cancelled or we’re going to be taken the cleaners, since I suspect Kim both has a much firmer grasp of the issues at hand and is less desperate for a win than Trump is). I think it’s possible we could get somewhere if we had the right people at the table, but I don’t think we do. Also, if they were so open to negotiation and ultimately denuclearizing as Wit claims, why couldn’t previous administrations get this done? I couldn’t help but wonder if Wit wrote this article before North Korea threw a fit over previously scheduled joint American/South Korean military exercises and the U.S. caved and canceled them. I’m more skeptical of the North Korean’s sincerity than Wit seems to be.
    (Also, this article introduced me to Wit’s North-Korea-centric website, 38 North, which looks excellent and informative.)

  • Slawomir Sierakowski writes in Foreign Policy about the collapse of the left wing in Europe:

    In his latest research paper, titled “Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right,” the economist Thomas Piketty presents an interesting theory of how we ended up here. Analyzing electoral results in France, Britain, and the United States and comparing them to data on voters’ income and education, he found that in the 1950s and 1960s, left-wing parties drew most of their support from poorer, less-educated voters. Since then, the political left has gradually become associated with well-educated voters, giving rise to a “multiple elite” party system in the past two decades: Highly educated elites now vote for the left, while high-income elites vote for the right. In other words, elites control both the left and the right.

    Under these conditions, the working class, which does not feel represented by the left, is giving its support to populist parties, and only the center-right remains to confront them. The European political spectrum has been reduced to the mainstream right and the populist right, with the mainstream gradually evaporating as it absorbs the ideas and rhetoric of the populists.

  • And I guess I’m going to have to talk about the Constitutional crisis that the president is absolutely determined to provoke. Two pieces on this caught my eye this morning: one by Theodore B. Olson in the Weekly Standard and another by Benjamin Wittes in the Atlantic.
    Olson (who turned down an offer to represent Trump a few weeks ago) argues that the president can’t be required to testify before a grand jury because Mueller hasn’t yet shown it is legally necessary.

    The importance of all this to the president is that it is unlikely that he can be forced to give grand jury testimony simply to satisfy Mueller’s curiosity and submit to a potential perjury trap. He could, in short, put Mueller to his proof—make Mueller show that the president’s testimony was necessary to prosecute someone else. And that such evidence could not be obtained elsewhere. That is a high bar, indeed, and one that at this point Mueller has not shown he would be able to surmount.

    I am not a lawyer! But I don’t really understand this argument: Mueller hasn’t shown he would be able to surmount the bar, however high it is, because he hasn’t yet tried. All we know about potential subpoenas of the president come from leaks or from the not-necessarily-reliable chatter of Rudy Giuliani. So why would we assume that Mueller can’t make the case if he wants to? It just seems odd to me to argue that Mueller hasn’t shown something when he’s never, to my knowledge, attempted to make a legal argument for it. I am a little surprised at how insubstantial this article seemed; I usually think Olson is smart and thoughtful even when I disagree.
    Meanwhile, Wittes is decorously freaking out over the president’s tweet yesterday:

    I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!

    Which, I grant you, is a pretty extraordinary tweet coming from the president of the United States. As Wittes says:

    It’s a statement of intent to issue a specific investigative demand of the Justice Department for entirely self-interested and overtly political reasons. And Trump published it in the absence of a shred of evidence that might support the demanded action. If we take his tweet at face value, the president is announcing that he will on Monday “officially” “demand” the Justice Department launch a specific investigation of activity that would be criminal were it true—about whether the DOJ and FBI spied on the Trump campaign for an improper purpose and whether the Obama administration demanded such action of them.
    This is a nakedly corrupt attempt on the part of the president to discredit and derail an investigation of himself at the expense of a human intelligence source to whose protection the FBI and DOJ are committed.

    As Wittes also says, though, given that Trump is Trump it’s hard to know how much this means. It could mean that tomorrow he’s going to order Rosenstein to pursue a full-fledged investigation (Rosenstein said yesterday he had asked the OIG to look into it, which may or may not appease the president); or, it could mean that he needed a nap and by the time he woke up this morning he’d forgotten about it. Who knows? My guess is that Rosenstein’s statement yesterday will be enough to calm him down and forestall a Monday Afternoon Massacre. So we’re OK for the short term, but the long term could get sticky.

Morning Reading, May 18, 2018

Tomorrow is the royal wedding! I’m going to be totally honest here, I am 100% getting up at the crack of dawn so I can watch the guests arrive. I have no particular interest in Prince Harry or Meghan Markle but I do love a good fascinator.

Anyway, to this morning’s reading:

  • Of course there are tons of articles this morning about the wedding and What It Means. For example, Helen Castor (who wrote a great book about English queens before Elizabeth I, She-Wolves) argues in the New York Times that Markle is simply following in the bland, toothless footsteps of such royal brides as Blanche of Lancaster (who married John of Gaunt in 1359, and later became the mother of Henry IV), destined to symbolize power but never wield it:

    We’ve since made our peace with increasingly disempowered crowns resting on female heads: between them, Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II have sat on the British throne for 130 of the last 200 years. But, despite the embattled presence of Prime Minister Theresa May, a quick head count in the Houses of Parliament or the boardrooms of major corporations shows the problems we still have with the reality of women with actual power.

    Our newest royal bride, meanwhile, has already shut down her blog and deleted her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. From now on, even as her image becomes increasingly ubiquitous, her voice will be heard less and less. Like Blanche of Lancaster before her, Meghan Markle appears to know exactly what she’s letting herself in for, and all the indications are that she will do her job in the royal “Firm” with style and grace. We can wish her well and at the same time question the job description: the recent prominence of royal women might make for splendid pageantry, but when it comes to the story of gender and power, it’s the antithesis of real change.

    There are many other pieces about the wedding this morning, of course, one or two per outlet, and they’re all (to my mind) overthinking it. Sometimes a tiara is just a tiara.

  • In the Washington Post, David Ignatius frets about the relationship between the United States and Europe, given that the U.S. has elevated a dangerous, unstable autocrat to its highest government position.

    Trump is so unpopular in Europe that defying him carries little political risk. On issues such as trade, climate change, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and global economic policy, the traditional centrist policy consensus has mostly held in Europe.

    The transatlantic divide on culture and values, once the bedrock of the alliance, is striking. Trump, with his braggadocio and vulgarity, seems almost a caricature of a rough, violent United States that many Europeans dislike. A poll last year by the Pew Research Center found that only 11 percent of Germans, for example, trusted Trump to do the right thing, compared with 86 percent for his predecessor, Barack Obama.

    Americans have taken European support for granted for so long that few analysts have examined what a real breach in the transatlantic alliance would look like. Maybe it’s time to consider the “what ifs.”

    Similarly, in the New York Times, Roger Cohen traces the cracks in the alliance to a “moral rot” at the center of the presidency:

    The deepest form of rot is the erosion of the distinction between truth and falsehood. Totalitarianism was one big lie perpetrated on human beings reduced to the often hopeless quest for survival in a fog.

    A universe where morality ceases is the one Trump is most comfortable in. “Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?” Trump’s answer, on April 5: “No, no.” Except, as the president clarified in a recent financial disclosure, he did know.

    This is Trump’s Ministry of Truth, the new American normal. It’s impossible to overstate the enormity of it. That’s why the Alliance is collapsing and Germany finds no basis for cooperation: Trump’s America stands for nothing. As Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state, told recent graduates in a speech, going wobbly on the truth means “we go wobbly on America.”

  • More about Trump. (Sometimes it’s hard to remember that for several years I went for hours, days even, without thinking about what the president was doing.) David Graham has a really interesting piece in the Atlantic about how Trump’s experience in real estate negotiations is affecting the way he conducts foreign policy:

    Were Kim Jong Un and Trump sitting down to try to hammer out a real-estate deal, the ramifications of a failure would likely be few. Trump could simply seek new opportunities elsewhere. That doesn’t work in diplomacy, though. It’s not as if the U.S. can simply move on to another rogue state and try to negotiate with them, since the North Korea problem would remain unsolved. A different mutation of the same dynamic has transpired with Iran. Trump has pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Tehran, but he continues to speak hopefully about striking a new and better deal, overlooking the damaging effects of a breach of trust on the first deal. One reason Kerry was so eager to strike an accord was his fear that failure would mean Iranian proliferation.

  • And still more about Trump. In the New Republic, Sarah Jones takes down the Salena Zito/Brad Todd account of Trump’s 2016 campaign, The Great Revolt:

    “In the short span of a generation, the face and focus of the Democratic Party nationally has shifted from a glorification of the working-class ethos to multiculturalist militancy pushed by the Far Left of the party,” they argue.

    Considered against the Obama presidency in particular, the racial dimensions of their argument become clear: The Democratic Party got too black and brown, and abandoned white voters. It’s a familiar Trumpian dog whistle. As the party of minority rights, the Democrats have to accept they will lose some white voters. But they don’t need to lose these voters because they’ve fostered the perception that the party has gotten too rich—that it has become complicit in systemic inequalities. Still, the GOP has aligned itself completely with monied interests, and Trump embodies those interests.

    So why vote for Trump over any Democrat? It comes back to resentment. When voters feel precarious, they become susceptible to demagoguery. So Trump invents the bad hombre, just as the GOP once invented the welfare queen. It’s a con job, and it works partly because the middle class does have cause for resentment. Something does block its upward trajectory. But poor immigrants aren’t blocking anyone’s path; that credit belongs to the wealthy, like Donald Trump and his cabinet.

     

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.