The story of the film so far

The top level news from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report to the attorney general on his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is important confirmation: the Russians did try to influence the outcome of our 2016 presidential election.  Based on Bill Barr’s summary of the report sent to Congress last Sunday, the only currently available report on the report’s contents (a source I choose to trust, as I trust the effort of Mueller’s team), we should now have no reasonable disagreement that Vladimir Putin’s government committed cyber war on our country, and that we should be doing something about it.  I know our president has belittled that notion in the past (disagreeing with the findings of our country’s intelligence community; not clear why), but if he’s going to accept the other conclusions from the Mueller investigation he’ll have a hard time disagreeing with this one by blaming the messenger.  (I say that despite Trump’s demonstrated disdain for anything approaching intellectual consistency, but still…)

Next up: Mueller does not find evidence to indicate that Trump or any of the people in his campaign intentionally or unintentionally worked with the Russians to influence the outcome of the election: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”  I find I agree with the analysis that this is good news…for everybody.  For Trump, certainly, in that it seems to clear him from being pursued criminally in that respect, reduces the chance of impeachment proceedings, and provides a political boost for his 2020 campaign.  But also for our country, in that we can take some solace in knowing that our president and his people did not conspire with a foreign government to seize power.  This was never a given, sadly, so it’s good to know now.

I also agree with the many who argue for the public release of Mueller’s complete report.  A shorthand argument: if the report “completely exonerates” Trump, as he insists it does, then we should all get to share the happy details.  A good longer version comes from David French in Sunday’s National Review:

The American people need full disclosure — and not just of the Mueller report itself. We need to see relevant FISA applications, supporting documents, classified testimony, and any other evidence relevant to not just the Mueller investigation itself but also to the inception of the Trump–Russia investigation. This conclusion is rendered even more urgent by two important political realities.

The first relates to the obstruction of justice. As Barr explains in his letter, the Mueller report neither accuses Trump of committing obstruction of justice in the course of the investigation, nor does it exonerate him [emphasis added]. Instead, the attorney general and deputy attorney general (both Trump appointees) examined the evidence and concluded that the evidence was “not sufficient” to conclude that the president obstructed justice. Democrats will trust this conclusion exactly as much as Republicans would trust a Democratic attorney general to evaluate the actions of a Democratic president.

(snip)

…nothing in Barr’s letter excuses the fact that Trump hired and surrounded himself with some of the worst people in politics — felons and liars who sometimes committed crimes in the ham-handed attempt to cover up their own contacts or attempted contacts with Russian assets or operatives. The president’s personal lawyer, his campaign chair, his longtime friend and adviser, and his first national-security adviser (among others) each engaged in patterns of deception that were not only criminal, they created real and genuine alarm in fair-minded Americans that at least some people in the president’s inner circle were more than willing to work with our enemies abroad to gain financial or political advantage here at home.

But these facts notwithstanding, there are still grounds for immense relief that America’s most recent presidential election has been (further) legitimized and that years of speculation about President Trump’s ties to the Russian government have proven unfounded. These last 30 months of investigations — beginning well before Mueller’s appointment — are among the most divisive and contentious events in modern political history. As we wait to read the full report and move into the inevitable battles over its contents, we can be sure that more division and contention await. Yet today, at least, we can be grateful for the good news we have, and it is good news indeed.

Mark Joseph Stern echoes French’s argument in the sense that full disclosure of the Mueller report is also necessary for analysts to determine if Barr’s quick assessment and summary of the results of the 22-month investigation were an improper effort to head off further action against the president who appointed him to the job.

Barr outlined one key finding unambiguously: The Trump campaign, he wrote, did not coordinate with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. That conclusion will come as a great relief to the president and his supporters, if Mueller’s report is as clear-cut as Barr indicates. But the attorney general’s summary includes a second finding that is confusing and equivocal. Mueller, Barr wrote, left “unresolved” the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. He instead laid out “evidence of both sides” and allowed Barr, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to use those findings to determine whether the president committed obstruction. On the basis of this evidence and analysis—which we cannot yet evaluate—Barr and Rosenstein decided that Trump did not commit such an offense.

This portion of the summary will remain a puzzle until Mueller’s report is released to the public. But Barr provided a clue to his reasoning, by suggesting that he did not see evidence Trump hampered the Russia probe with “corrupt intent.” As former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal has noted, it is hard to understand how Barr, or Mueller, or anyone, could gauge Trump’s intent, because the president has not been interviewed about his intentions. Why not? We know at least one person vigorously opposed to compelling Trump to submit to an interview: Bill Barr, whose 2018 memo declared that Mueller could not legally do so.

The full report will be beneficial to Congressional committees, too, to the extent that they are resolved to pull their heads out of their asses and start providing checks and balances of the executive branch rather than being the president’s cheering section and public defender.

So we wait, for…who knows how long.  Barr has said he’s all about the transparency, the president says he doesn’t mind at all if the report is made public, but there’s no requirement in law that it ever be released to anyone other than the AG nor any mention of a time limit for so doing.  That’s given Dahlia Lithwick time to bemoan the fact that facts don’t, in fact, seem to matter…that this issue has already devolved into political posturing and stupidity without most of us ever seeing what Mueller did, in fact, report.

Someday, when we’re sitting around the electronic campfires we’ve lit to pretend-warm the huts in our Mars colonies, we will tell our grandchildren about whatever vestigial memories we have of facts. Perhaps we will be able to date their demise to the 46-ish hours between the announcement on Friday, March 22, 2019, that Robert Mueller had submitted his final report to Attorney General William Barr, and the letter Barr released on Sunday, March 24, 2019, which purported to summarize its contents and legal conclusions entirely.

In those 46 hours, there were exactly two facts known: that nobody else had been indicted by Mueller, and that Barr did not find any proposed action by Mueller to be “inappropriate or unwarranted.” That was, quite literally, all we knew. And into that void—that absence of facts—swept the spin. On Fox News, the declamation came forth that there had been an actual finding, of, what else, “no collusion.” Indeed, as Justin Peters noted, the television news station that exists exclusively to protect and defend the president’s preferred narrative declared, without basis in any publicly known or knowable fact, that it was “No Collusion Day!” While every other network was trying to parse out scenarios and future outcomes, and carefully explaining that nothing definitive had been shared with the public, conservative media and congressional Republicans were already claiming that the facts had been amassed, and assessed and released, and supported their cause. Were they clairvoyant? Did they have some insider information? No, they just had the special feeling they get at Fox: The facts are not material to the claim. In the absence of any knowable facts, Republicans declare victory and invent their own. In the absence of any knowable facts, Democrats declare defeat.

Still, you kinda feel like there’s so much more to know, so much more you want to know.  We need to know…

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Resist, America!

Happy Birthday, you big ol’ wonderful U S of A, you!

db180701

Doonesbury Archive/Washington Post

More of the same, Mike.  It just keeps coming and coming, crazy outburst after incomprehensible decision.  An unprovoked trade war here, a cruel immigration enforcement policy there…how can we be expected to even keep up, much less resist?  It’s too hard, right?

Yes, it’s hard, but not too hard.  This isn’t over unless we let it be over.  (“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”)

America can’t throw up its hands and quit because our president lies to us, unconstitutionally profits off of holding the office, threatens our alliances all over the world, and shows no signs of changing his behavior.  There’s more and more of it every day, and it feels like we have no time to rest up from the onslaught from the White House, even a sliver of which would have been unimaginable before January 2017.  In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick used the occasion of the separation of immigrant families at the border last month to encourage us all to speak up and not let Trump’s treatment of America become normal.

That we are finding ourselves unable to process or act or organize because the large-scale daily horrors are escalating and the news is overpowering is perfectly understandable. But we need to understand that and acknowledge it and then refuse it any purchase. Because to be overwhelmed and to do nothing are a choice.

It’s a choice, and it’s also a luxury, because the asylum-seekers at the borders cannot afford to go numb. Female victims of domestic abuse who are coming to the United States to save their own lives cannot afford to go numb. Teen girls denied access to reproductive care do not have the luxury of going numb.

(snip)

There isn’t a lot we can control in the present time, but as any good counselor will tell you, we can absolutely control how we react to what’s going on around us. And this is the scene in the movie where even though you want to fall asleep in the snowdrift, you need to get up and walk around. If you decide to stop swimming and just drift for a while, you’re apt to wake up in a land you don’t recognize. Because “going numb” is the gateway drug to acceptance.

As David Frum wrote in January, reflecting back on the first year of Trump, “the unacceptable does not become more acceptable if it is accepted by increments.” It’s only easier to swallow and more apt to wear down our defenses. Don’t let other people tell you what to focus on. Choose for yourself. Sure, tune out that which makes you feel hopeless. But hold on to what motivates you to act. Find all the humans you can find who agree with you and make calls and register voters. Because if things continue on this way for people without funds, or with brown skin, or for women and children and the sick, there will come a time when we all have fewer choices. This is not yet that time. Get out of the snow bank, find the St. Bernard with the tiny flask of hope, and stomp around like democracy depends on it

You don’t have to be a member of Congress to fight back, although it sure might help if members of Congress started holding the president to account—that is part of their damn job.  We can all start by being careful in the language we use in talking and writing about what’s going on, and not lazily repeating the words Trump uses that make him seem stronger and more rational than he really is.  This is a spot where we all have to make an extra effort because the president has an advantage: our brains just naturally keep track of what is true and what is not, what makes sense and what’s just crazy talk, but he’s just spewing whatever he wants to be true at the moment he says it or Tweets it, with no effort at accuracy, or consistency, or even sensibility.  Lili Loofourow calls it a “linguistic emergency” and urges us to stop reinforcing his defenses.

Sidestep every attempt he and his allies make to equate treating people badly with being strong, because their efforts to link those concepts are working. Neutral outlets are defaulting to his language for what he does—he’s “cracking down” on unions! He’s taking a “hard line“ on the G-7! Driving “hard bargains”! These all position him as powerful, which he loves. The trouble is, it’s wrong. In practice, Trump’s positions slip and slide all over the place. He never got that “hard bargain” he allegedly drove (though he sure got credit for driving it). His deals fall through, his policy shifts depending on whomever he spoke to last. It would be the height of irony if the weakest president on record managed to rebrand himself as the strongman he so badly wants to be.

(snip)

A president’s lack of basic competence is worth accurately reporting on. And it must be reported on when there is nothing else of value worth reporting.

So why doesn’t this happen more? Two reasons: For one, I sense in much of the reporting on Trump a secret fear that maybe we’re missing something. He won, after all. And he keeps insisting that he’s strong despite all the evidence, so maybe there’s something we’re not seeing. This, as many have pointed out, is gaslighting. It’s why he always says he has a plan he won’t describe.

The second reason is that many news organizations still confuse neutrality with accuracy. Better to just report what he says and let the people decide, the thinking goes.

But that’s wrong. And that’s due to the power of language: Simply repeating his fantastical claims makes them seem less fantastical. What a president says usually matters a great deal. But because what Trump says usually bears no relation to the truth (or to what his own policies end up being) it therefore fails to inform the public, and is not worth repeating. He wants to propagate the story of a power he doesn’t have. We shouldn’t help him.

Jon Stewart made the same point, along with some others, when he visited his pal Stephen Colbert last week:

And remember, along with still having our votes to use this November, we in the resistance have one other advantage: unlike Trump, we have a sense of humor and can see the ridiculousness for what it is…all he has is a mirror.  Sad.

Tom the Dancing Bug for Jun 15, 2018 Comic Strip

 Tom the Dancing Bug at go.comics.com

Don’t let the facts get in the way of (your) truth

A old friend of mine—a friend from way way back, I mean; I’m actually older—recently published a nice piece in which he argues for all of us to expand the sources of news and information we regularly sample and to rediscover the ability and the inclination to think critically.  You can read it here, and when you get past the cows and the sharks (you’ll see) he makes a good point about how in today’s world our experience and exposure tend to drive most people into a set of beliefs that become impermeable to facts and reason.  Unfortunately.

Today I was looking through articles I’d saved to write about some day, and found one that relates to Joe’s post: from almost three years ago, Rex Huppke’s Chicago Tribune obituary for Facts.

To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet. Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are communists.

(snip)

“It’s very depressing,” said Mary Poovey, a professor of English at New York University and author of “A History of the Modern Fact.” “I think the thing Americans ought to miss most about facts is the lack of agreement that there are facts. This means we will never reach consensus about anything. Tax policies, presidential candidates. We’ll never agree on anything.”

(snip)

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Facts reached adulthood as the world underwent a shift toward proving things true through the principles of physics and mathematical modeling. There was respect for scientists as arbiters of the truth, and Facts itself reached the peak of its power.

But those halcyon days would not last.

People unable to understand how science works began to question Facts. And at the same time there was a rise in political partisanship and a growth in the number of media outlets that would disseminate information, rarely relying on feedback from Facts.

(snip)

Though weakened, Facts managed to persevere through the last two decades, despite historic setbacks that included President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the justification for President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the debate over President Barack Obama’s American citizenship.

(snip)

“American society has lost confidence that there’s a single alternative,” [Poovey] said. “Anybody can express an opinion on a blog or any other outlet and there’s no system of verification or double-checking, you just say whatever you want to and it gets magnified. It’s just kind of a bizarre world in which one person’s opinion counts as much as anybody else’s.”

Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion…

…and a not-so-distant cousin, Bald-Faced Lie, all of whom now appear regularly in the political “reality show” that passes for journalism on the 24-hour news networks.

(Relive the debut of “truthiness” right here.)

Truthiness

Today Stephen Colbert retires “Stephen Colbert.” Since October 2005 Colbert the comedian and satirist has launched “Colbert” the character on a mission to entertain us by shining a light on the hypocrisy and evil intentions of people who profit from pandering to a fear and ignorance in American society that refuses to wilt in the face of truth. In fact, he told us as much on the very first episode (click the pic):

ColbertTruthinessEver thought about what it must take for Colbert to stay in character, and to do it for so many years? This morning I ran across a nice little article that links to a Slate podcast in which Colbert explains—very interesting.

This one guy says the evil super PACs are SAVING democracy, others are less charitable

I’m not sure if he’s right or not, but he makes an interesting argument.  Dave Weigel is an excellent political reporter who’s spent a lot of time chronicling the conservative movement.  Today at Slate he makes the provocative argument—it was to me, anyway—that the political action committees fostered by the U. S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decisionare a good thing, that they have been a force to strengthen democracy and have made this year’s Republican presidential contest fairer.

Huh?  No, no, no, wait a minute: Citizens United is an evil thing, a twisted interpretation of dictionary English by the conservative members of the court so that now the godless, faceless corporations are considered “persons” for the purposes of political participation, and they can secretly donate as much of their giant piles of money as they like to PACs and buy elections and marginalize the little guy like me (I was going to say you and me, but I really shouldn’t presume to speak for you, should I?)…it’s already happened starting in Iowa this year, right?  I mean, that’s what we’ve all been told, right?

But Weigel argues that the super PACs have had a leveling effect: the big money from super PACs is all that’s kept Mitt Romney from outspending his opponents into submission, and essentially buying the GOP nomination.  And despite the concerns about the secretive nature of the super PACs, he notes that we seem to know more about the biggest of the big donors to super PACs than we do about the people making direct donations to the individual candidates’ campaigns. He writes, “The big fear about campaign money is that it corrupts the candidates who have to beg for it.”

But that worry applies better to the shadowy bundler than it does to the megabucks super PAC donor. Corruption can’t grow in the sunlight. The people giving big to super PACs are famous. I didn’t fully understand how famous until I tagged along with [Newt] Gingrich at a speech to Aloma Baptist Church in Florida, when a parishioner asked him to explain why he was taking dirty money from the gambling industry. Gingrich explained that he and [Sheldon] Adelson had a simpatico, guns-a-blazin’ view on Israel. Is it corruption if the candidate tells you what he’ll do for the donor?

(snip)

We know more about those guys than we know about the bundlers, who’ve been passing money under the table for years. So which of those systems is worse for our democracy?

I know what’s good for our democracy: satire and ridicule, and in the case of Citizens United it’s been coming most effectively from Stephen Colbert.  The Comedy Central comedian started his own super PAC and has been using it to expose the ridiculous reality resulting from the court’s ruling.

The line between entertainment and the court blurred even further late last month when Colbert had former Justice John Paul Stevens on his show to discuss his dissent in Citizens United. When a 91-year-old former justice is patiently explaining to a comedian that corporations are not people, it’s clear that everything about the majority opinion has been reduced to a punch line.

The court fights aren’t over, and perhaps the coolest one is in Montana where the state supreme court has told the one in Washington to pound sand.  The court voted 5-2 to uphold the constitutionality of Montana’s ban on corporate campaign contributions, finding justification for the ban that Citizens United does not consider.  Beyond that, Justice James Nelson unloaded: “Corporations are not persons.  Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people—human beings—to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.”   And that from one of the two dissenters in the ruling!

More fundamentally, the majority and one dissenter seem to understand perfectly how much the American people resent being lied to about the burning need for courts to step in to protect the oppressed voices of powerless corporate interests. As Judge Nelson wrote in dissent, “the notion that corporations are disadvantaged in the political realm is unbelievable. Indeed, it has astounded most Americans. The truth is that corporations wield enormous power in Congress and in state legislatures. It is hard to tell where government ends and corporate America begins: the transition is seamless and overlapping.”