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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You don’t need to be “deaf, dumb and blind” to be fair

Read this from Vox.com, this is very good.  It’s helped me think more clearly in considering whether there’s been a rush to judgment against men recently accused of sexual assault and harassment.

First, I’ll go out on a limb and say, I’m against sexual harassment and sexual assault.  I’m against men with professional or financial power using that power against women.  I believe the women who are making the accusations, especially when the men choose not to put up much of a defense and just disappear (anyone hear anything from Charlie Rose lately?); I do not reject the accusations just because they are being made by women, or because I believe that the men are somehow being treated unfairly.

I have wondered if there are cases in which the past has been turned on its head.  Used to be, a woman’s accusation of misconduct against her boss, for example, was dismissed out of hand as not being credible, and the justice system has long made it difficult for a woman to prosecute a case against her rapist…men in charge protecting other men lest they be the next to stand accused.  But since The New York Times and The New Yorker broke stories about movie producer Harvey Weinstein last year, the tide has turned and we’re told we must believe the woman.  #MeToo proponents and others argue that women who have been harassed or assaulted do not lie about it.  OK, I’m with you.  But are there women who were not harassed or assaulted who are lying, who are making false accusations?  In our newfound effort to correct past wrongs, are we being appropriately concerned about that possibility?

Dozens of power brokers have been the subject of allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct since Bill O’Reilly was ousted from Fox News in April 2017. And as more and more figures face consequences — financial, political, professional, and legal — for their bad behavior, one term that comes up over and over again is “due process,” referring to the legal concept enshrined in the Constitution.

Even President Donald Trump is in on it: In a tweet on Saturday, apparently prompted by the resignations of two of his aides, Rob Porter and David Sorensen following allegations of domestic abuse, the president lamented the number of “lives being shattered” by a “mere allegation” of misconduct. “Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?” he asked, almost plaintively. But what does due process really mean today, now that people have begun to invoke it as a cultural concept?

I asked seven legal scholars and experts what due process is, with the understanding that in legal circles the question is essentially an existential one. Due process in court is one thing — in the court of public opinion, it is a much more fluid notion, entangling questions of what is fair, what is reasonable to believe, and what rings emotionally true.

The first of the seven, former federal judge Shira Scheindlin, makes a case that I find very clear and persuasive, clarifying that “due process” in a court of law is not the same as that which a reasonable man or woman should give to public accusations such as these:

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, provides, inter alia, that “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” This legal standard means what is says. Certainly Rob Porter, and others who have been accused of sexual abuse or harassment, are not being deprived of their life or their liberty as a result of the allegations made against them. Property is a closer question in that some have lost their jobs — and the income resulting from that employment — as a result of accusations rather than proof in a court of law. Nonetheless, in most instances the question is not one of civil or criminal liability. Rather, the question is whether given the quality of the allegations, the person against whom the allegations have been made, should remain in the position of trust, confidence, and responsibility which he (and it usually is he) currently holds.

(snip)

But when a business, a government entity, or a voter must decide whether someone is fit for his position, the decision process is of necessity much less formal, quicker, and truncated. A judgment call must be made and it often must be made quickly. The due process of a court action is often a very complicated and lengthy affair, involving pre-trial discovery, witnesses, and a judicial proceeding. But given the stakes of loss of life or liberty that makes sense. In context, the accusations that cause a person to lose his job must be evaluated by the employer who must make a judgment call based on the strength of those allegations. There is nothing wrong with that. If the person removed from his position feels aggrieved he is welcome to bring a case in court in which he would have the burden of showing that he was wrongfully terminated. In that proceeding I have no doubt that the underlying accusations would be fully aired. That may be why so few — if any of the accused — have pursed this course.

Law professor and author Michael Meltsner of Northeastern University agrees that there is a distinction between due process as a legal concept as compared to a societal norm, and warns that raising that flag in these cases “can be an ideological screen behind which abusers or those defending them try to justify, deflect or delay condemnation.”  (He didn’t say it here but it made me think of President Trump, the credibly-accused, and self-confessed, harasser and assaulter of girls and women.)

What often gets lost in the wake of allegations of sexual abuse is that even the most flexible construct of due process focuses us on a struggle for fairness in the face of our human tendency to rush toward moral judgment. But just as importantly, due process isn’t deaf, dumb, and blind. It is essentially evidence-based, so where the facts have emerged — and we have a plethora of such examples now before us — no one need hesitate to pass judgment. At the same time, due process suggests being wary of broadsides that read all accusations identically. Human behavior, especially where sex, gender and power are concerned is often hard to fathom. Because one size rarely fits all, we are constantly challenged to name, call out, and demand action while at the same time accepting nuance and complexity. If this suggests closing your Twitter account, so be it.

Finally, an answer that makes sense

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“That explains so much.”

Thanks, The New Yorker

Fight the normalization of Trumpism

A year ago the Republican establishment felt pretty good about its prospects, crowed about the outstanding group of people who were running for president, and acted confident about the party’s chances of winning back control of the executive branch of the national government.  Today we see party leaders trudge to the microphone with all the cheer of a condemned man on the way to the gallows to endorse He Who Has All But Won the Party’s Presidential Nomination, while a growing Greek chorus is warming up a “not so fast” refrain for an electorate faced with two bad choices.

Stepping out from the chorus today, in National Review, Charles Murray issues an important challenge to what he calls the conservative establishment: go on the record—now; right now—with your view of Donald Trump.  It’s not good enough for Republicans or conservatives to shrug their shoulders and side with Trump because they disagree with Hillary Clinton on the issues and think she’d make a worse, or much worse, president, he argues.  Although voters often have to pick from among two or more bad choices, Murray calls on those who make politics their livelihood to assess Trump as a candidate for president without comparing him to the presumed Democratic nominee or any other particular candidate.  Tell us, does the man meet your standards as a potential president; what’s your real opinion.

Murray answers his own challenge: “Donald Trump is unfit to be president in ways that apply to no other candidate of the two major political parties throughout American history.”  OK.  It is not, he says, just that Trump is greedy and venal and narcissistic, or even that he’s a liar…anyone could miss a few facts:

Then it gets a little more important, as when [Trump] says Paul Ryan called to congratulate him after his victory in the New York primary, announcing a significant political event that in fact did not happen. Then the fictions touch on facts about policy. No, Wisconsin does not have an effective unemployment rate of 20 percent, nor does the federal government impose Common Core standards on the states — to take just two examples plucked at random from among his continual misrepresentations of reality. That he deals so heedlessly in those misrepresentations makes it impossible for an opponent to conduct an authentic policy debate with him.

It’s one thing when a candidate knowingly deceives the public on a few specific topics. Hillary Clinton has knowingly tried to deceive the public about her flip-flop on gay marriage and her misuse of her e-mail server. That’s bad. It should be condemned. This aspect of her character should affect one’s deliberations about whether to vote for her. It’s another thing entirely when a candidate blithely rejects Pat Moynihan’s (attributed) dictum, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.”

Murray links to other writers who have made their own contributions to the growing collection of reasons why Trump is unfit, and it turns out they are some of the very same pieces I’ve been saving for future reference: Ross Douthat, Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, among others.  They have identified aspects of the candidate’s character that should make any reasonable person nervous at the prospect of a President Trump: the bullying, the unreconstructed pandering to voter fear and racial prejudice, the threats against journalists who dare ask pointed questions, the unrealistic view of the modern world and America’s place in it.

I am told that it is unfair to speak in such harsh terms of a person I don’t know personally: Look how nice his kids seem to be. Look at all his friends who say that he’s really a pleasant fellow in private. Sorry. I don’t need any secondary sources. Donald Trump makes the case for David Brooks’s assessment in every public appearance. When a man deliberately inflames the antagonism of one American ethnic group toward another, takes pleasure in labeling people “losers,” and openly promises to use the powers of the presidency to punish people who get in his way, there is nothing that person can do or say in private that should alter my opinion of whether he is fit to be the president of the United States.

I know that I am unlikely to persuade any of my fellow Establishmentarians to change their minds. But I cannot end without urging you to resist that sin to which people with high IQs (which most of you have) are unusually prone: Using your intellectual powers to convince yourself of something despite the evidence plainly before you. Just watch and listen to the man. Don’t concoct elaborate rationalizations. Just watch and listen. [emphasis added]

That’s important.  His ability to (apparently) win the nomination of one of the two major political parties for president of our country, as stunning as it is, shouldn’t be our excuse to relax and think, well, if the GOP thinks he’s fine then I guess he must be; I must’ve misunderstood some of what he said (or the media reported it wrong!).  It will be tough to do, but don’t let the sheer lunacy of what he says wear off—don’t just get used to the outrageousness and let it become normal, become just another opinion.

And, one more thing from Murray:

…contemplate this fact about history: We have had presidents whose competence once in office was better than we could have anticipated. Truman, for example. We have had presidents whose characters were subsequently revealed to be worse than they had seemed during the campaign. Kennedy, for example. We have never had a president whose character proved to be more admirable once he was in office than it had appeared during the campaign. What you see on your television screen every day from Donald Trump the candidate is the best that you can expect from Donald Trump the president. “Hillary is even worse” doesn’t cut it.

If you need a giggle, try Xinhua

Official government news agencies are not famous for their whimsy, particularly those whose mission is to convey all the warmth and humanity of a dictatorial regime.  Yet China’s Xinhua agency delivered the goods when it reported that Jeff Bezos had purchased The Washington Post by mistake and was having trouble cancelling the transaction!

Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon reports that Xinhua came across this Andy Borowitz piece in The New Yorker and republished it as fact: Amazon founder Bezos inadvertently clicked on the Post’s website and ended up making a purchase, and customer service wasn’t being too helpful in straightening out the mistake.

Mr. Bezos said he had been on the phone with the Post’s customer service for the better part of the day trying to unwind his mistaken purchase, but so far “they’ve really been giving me the runaround.”

According to Mr. Bezos, “I keep telling them, I don’t know how it got in my cart. I don’t want it. It’s like they’re making it impossible to return it.”

Xinhua does not have an American sense of humor, clearly; it apparently does not have an American sense of plagiarism, either.