Some must-listen podcasts:
- Breaking News [Radiolab]
- Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now [OnBeing]
- Meeting the Russians [NPR: Planet Money]
This week’s most important news stories may have been:
Thursday’s news that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is tapping a grand jury as part of his ongoing investigation jolted Washington and sent pundits to the airwaves, seeking to explain what this latest twist in the Russia story might tell us about President Trump’s ultimate fate.
There’s no doubt that this move is significant: It means Mueller believes that there is sufficient evidence that a crime was committed to warrant a criminal investigation. But people are leaping to conclusions that the public evidence doesn’t yet support.
Only a grand jury can issue an indictment, which is the only way that someone can be charged with committing a felony pursuant to the U.S. Constitution. Merely impaneling a grand jury does not mean that Mueller will ultimately seek an indictment, although most grand jury investigations do result in someone being indicted.
…As for Trump, we’re probably a long way from learning whether he’s broken any laws, although he very well may be in Mueller’s sights. The fact that a grand jury has been impaneled does not impact whether Mueller will be fired, as the president has threatened to do, and it does not in any way restrict the bounds of his investigation.
That said, as a practical matter, the existence of a grand jury investigation confirms that Mueller is conducting a criminal investigation, not merely a counterintelligence investigation. It’s possible that the existence of a federal criminal investigation might increase the political cost of firing Mueller. Republican senators have already warned there will be “hell to pay” if Trump fires Jeff Sessions, whose recusal from the Russia investigation has enraged and frustrated the president, so that he can hire a more pliant attorney general.
That said, Thursday’s news is not surprising. Mueller has already hired 16 prosecutors—some of the most accomplished investigators ever assembled on one team. These are people with deep skills and experience in prosecuting cases on money laundering, campaign finance violations and foreign bribery, as well as a sophisticated understanding of how to handle sprawling, complex investigations like this one. If any crimes were committed, they’re likely to find out.
‘This deal will make me look terrible’: Full transcripts of Trump’s calls with Mexico and Australia (Washington Post)
Trump: Malcom [sic], why is this so important? I do not understand. This is going to kill me. I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country. And now I am agreeing to take 2,000 people and I agree I can vet them, but that puts me in a bad position. It makes me look so bad and I have only been here a week.
- Why this matters:
- for an alternate point of view, see Why The Leaked Presidential Transcripts Are So Frightening [By Jennifer Rubin, who writes for the Washington Post – here is her bio: “Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.”]
First, it is shocking to see presidential conversations released in this way. Some in the executive branch, as Anthony Scaramucci aptly put it, are intent on protecting the country from Trump. This is a good thing, by the way. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has obviously failed to plug the flood leaks, and one wonders whether a leak this egregious is meant to signal that the White House will remain dysfunctional. (Trump should understand that anything and everything in his administration that could be compromising will come out sooner or later.) Although leaking transcripts of presidential conversations is potentially very harmful in the long run, I would argue in this case that it is justified.
And that brings us to the next point: Trump is frighteningly obsessed with himself and his image to such an extent that he cannot fulfill the role of commander in chief. He cannot frame logical arguments based on public policy, and therefore comes across as, well, a fool to foreign leaders. His desire to maintain his own image suggests he’d be more than willing to make the country’s interests subordinate to his own need for personal affirmations. Dealing with foreign allies is bad enough, but one can only imagine what he has said to adversaries.
And now, for your regularly scheduled updates from the swamp:
Presidential income tax returns are subject to mandatory audit . The IRS can decide whether Trump’s transfers were truly gifts. If they were, which seems likely, Trump’s failure to file a gift tax return opens him up to penalties and fines, or even criminal charges. Perhaps such a charge wouldn’t go anywhere, since the president must consent to being indicted by a federal prosecutor. But tax law would permit them.
Keep the Trump Leaks Coming (New Republic)
It is perfectly consistent to say that the growing clout of generals John Kelly (the White House chief of staff), H.R. McMaster (the national security advisor), and Jim Mattis (the defense secretary) is preferable to an alternative in which Trump shambles through his presidency unencumbered, but dangerous in its own right, and evidence of serious institutional failure. The hope is apparently to keep Trump’s administration within certain guardrails, so that if and when it fails, he doesn’t take the country and the world off the road with him.
…Where the generals haven’t been empowered to run the show, they have asserted themselves nonetheless. “In the earliest weeks of Trump’s presidency,” the Associated Press reported Tuesday, Mattis and Kelly agreed “that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House.”
It would be sensationalizing things to call this a soft coup, but it is impossible to deny that real presidential powers have been diluted or usurped. Elected officials have decided that leaving the functioning of the government to unelected military officers is politically preferable to invoking constitutional remedies that would require them to vote.
Among his biggest challenges was holding the attention of the president. In classified briefings, Trump would frequently flit between subjects. “We moved very quickly from news to intelligence to policy with very little clarity on which lanes we were in,” said a U.S. official who took part in the briefings. “McMaster would act like the tangents didn’t happen and go back to Point 2 on his card.”
Trump had little time for in-depth briefings on the Afghanistan’s history, it’s complicated politics or its seemingly endless civil war. Even a single page of bullet points on the country seemed to tax the president’s attention span on the subject, said senior White House officials.
“I call the president the two-minute man,” said one Trump confidant. “The president has patience for a half-page.”
SHAPIRO: In the last week, the president has criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions, saying it is unfair that Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation and more. Many presidents have expressed frustration or even disagreement with things the Justice Department has done. In your opinion, what makes this criticism different?
YATES: Well, primarily what makes this different is that what the president is complaining about is that it’s unfair that he doesn’t have an individual in place to protect him or those close to him from the Russia investigation. That is very, very different from having just, for example, a policy disagreement with the attorney general or others in the Department of Justice and really invades that area that is supposed to be sacrosanct for DOJ and that being that criminal investigations and prosecutions – those decisions are made just by consideration of the law and the facts and nothing else.
SHAPIRO: Now, the former FBI Director Robert Mueller is leading an independent investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election. President Trump has suggested, including in an interview with The New York Times, that he might consider firing Mueller if the investigation goes certain directions – for example, if it reaches into Trump Corporation finances. What do you think the consequences of that would be?
YATES: I think that would really be catastrophic. And I think that you’re hearing that both from Democrats and Republicans. The White House is not supposed to have any involvement in any investigation or case at all and certainly no involvement in an investigation that involves the White House itself or the president’s campaign itself. And so then to take a step to fire special counsel Mueller would be turning the rule of law on its head and would be violating that basic core principle that no one is above the law.
While top Justice Department officials have sometimes appeared at White House events to discuss policy issues in recent years, some ex-officials said it was a mistake for law enforcement officials to be discussing individual cases from a venue like the White House briefing room.
“The Department of Justice generally goes to great lengths to maintain arms length distance from the White House when it comes to when it comes to specific criminal or investigative matters,” said William Yeomans, who worked at the Justice Department from 1978 to 2005. “Having people from DOJ who engage in ongoing operations go to the White House to speak from the podium probably suggests the traditional lines are not being observed.”
Yeomans said the presentation would be less troubling if it had taken place at the Justice Department or the Department of Homeland Security.
“I do think the venue makes a difference,” he said. “We are very sensitive about politicizing prosecutions in our democracy. Under rule of law, the worst thing that can happen is that people get prosecuted for political reasons.”
The details of the dispute between the Trump Organization and the Secret Service were not clear Thursday. Two people familiar with the discussions said the sticking points included the price and other conditions of the lease.
…In this case, Trump’s government sought to be a customer of Trump’s business. To protect him, the agency needed space in the pricey tower where he lives. But the two sides couldn’t agree. The Trump Organization was willing to accept a situation where the agents moved out and the space was available for others.
And, finally, just some interesting articles I’ve been looking at:
They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 [excerpt from book]
“You see,” my colleague went on, “one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not?—Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.
“Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, ‘everyone’ is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there would be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’
“And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. You are left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as you have.
“I believe that today, the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the cold war,” he said. “And yet, we here in the room today are blissfully unaware of that.”
On North Korea, he warned against a preemptive strike by the U.S., arguing instead for continued diplomatic efforts with China. “There is a path forward on diplomacy, but it’s a very difficult path,” he said, “and it’s not clear that we are in a mood to follow that path.”
He also told stories from his career of moments where intelligence was either lacking or wrong, reflecting that, in tense situations, much depends on the temperament of the president.
At DEF CON, I Watched Hackers Take Voting Machines Apart (motherboard)
“I’m tired of reading misinformation about voting system security so it is time for a DEF CON Village,” conference organizer Jeff Moss, also known as “The Dark Tangent,” wrote in a forum post earlier this year announcing the event.
The machines were a hodge-podge of touchscreen tablets and Windows-based machines, with some still being used nationwide. Before this workshop, researchers had already exposed issues with all of these machines, from being able to miscalibrate a device’s screen so a user will likely cast the wrong vote, to infecting the machine with malware. When introducing the machines to participants, Hursti pointed out that some were running horribly out of date software.
The data I present here suggests that before we keep pointing fingers at specific countries and tweeting about companies “hacking the election,” as well as to solve the scourge of “fake news,” it might be good to look inward. By this, I mean we should start the quest for transparency in politics with a few firms based in New York City and Silicon Valley.
A website launched on Wednesday by a former FBI special agent-turned disinformation expert claims to track Russian propaganda in near-real time, as it spreads via Twitter accounts that have been linked to Russian influence operations.
Clint Watts, who garnered national media attention after testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russia’s ongoing cyber and propaganda war against the West, spearheaded the project called Hamilton 68 — a hat tip to the founding father’s Federalist Papers No. 68.
“In the Federalist Papers No. 68, Alexander Hamilton wrote of protecting America’s electoral process from foreign meddling,” the site reads, alluding to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. “Today, we face foreign interference of a type Hamilton could scarcely have imagined.”
Watts worked on Hamilton 68 with JM Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism who studies extremism and propaganda on social media; Andrew Weisburd, a fellow at the Center for Cyber & Homeland Security; and Jonathon Morgan, the CEO of New Knowledge AI and head of Data for Democracy, a volunteer collective of data scientists and technologists.
The ‘Leak’ in the Age of Alternative Facts (Atlantic)
The more things change, yes, but also: Safire, in his column, worried that something had shifted, when it came to leaking—that there was a thinning line, even then, between leaks and propaganda. He worried about the ease with which misinformation can spread. He worried about the fate of facts. He worried about leaks getting weaponized in a bigger kind of war. “With a manipulator at the controls,” Safire wrote, in his revealing essay about revelations, “truth has taken a beating.”
“Breaking story after story, two great American newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, are resurgent, with record readerships. One has greater global reach and fifth-generation family ownership; the other has Jeff Bezos as its deep-pocketed proprietor and a technological advantage. Both, however, still face an existential foe.”
To boil it down, it’s no surprise that a law enforcement officer of Rosenberg’s stature has rebuked Trump for his comments and risked his wrath in doing so. He is on the record, and quite recently at that, telling Congress in effect that someone who behaved as Trump does routinely would be subject to disciplinary action for violating the cornerstone of his agency’s vision of ethical law enforcement.
The surprise, rather, lies elsewhere. It’s that it is the acting head of the DEA, not either the attorney general or the deputy attorney general, who has had the guts to say semi-publicly what everyone knows to be true: that President’s Trump’s approach to law enforcement is dangerous and that the senior ranks of law enforcement “have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong. That’s what law enforcement officers do. That’s what you do. We fix stuff. At least, we try.”
My Party is in Denial About Donald Trump (Politico)
I’ve [Sen. Jeff Flake] been sympathetic to this impulse to denial, as one doesn’t ever want to believe that the government of the United States has been made dysfunctional at the highest levels, especially by the actions of one’s own party. Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist and former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote, four months into the new presidency, “The conservative mind, in some very visible cases, has become diseased,” and conservative institutions “with the blessings of a president … have abandoned the normal constraints of reason and compassion.”
For a conservative, that’s an awfully bitter pill to swallow. So as I layered in my defense mechanisms, I even found myself saying things like, “If I took the time to respond to every presidential tweet, there would be little time for anything else.” Given the volume and velocity of tweets from both the Trump campaign and then the White House, this was certainly true. But it was also a monumental dodge. It would be like Noah saying, “If I spent all my time obsessing about the coming flood, there would be little time for anything else.” At a certain point, if one is being honest, the flood becomes the thing that is most worthy of attention. At a certain point, it might be time to build an ark.
Under our Constitution, there simply are not that many people who are in a position to do something about an executive branch in chaos. As the first branch of government (Article I), the Congress was designed expressly to assert itself at just such moments. It is what we talk about when we talk about “checks and balances.” Too often, we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, “Someone should do something!” without seeming to realize that that someone is us. And so, that unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.