Two Impeachment Timelines, for No Reason in Particular

Because you might find it interesting—FOR COMPLETELY ACADEMIC REASONS—here is the timeline of the Watergate scandal:

  • May 28th, 1972: Operatives under the direction of the President’s reelection campaign, broke into Watergate Hotel to tap opposition phone lines.
  • June 17th, 1972: Operatives reentered Watergate to repair the tap. Because a security guard noticed doors had been taped so that they would not lock, he called the police. Five men were arrested for burglary.
  • June 19th, 1972: A check meant for Nixon’s campaign was found in a one of the burglar’s accounts. This would implicate the reelection campaign. (I’m not sure this was, in and of itself, illegal in 1972; campaign finance has come a long way. Either way, paying for burglars was.)
  • Around this time, Nixon used presidential power to block the FBI investigation.
  • September 27th, 1972: News broke that the Attorney General controlled the finances for Nixon’s illegal spying ring.
  • February 7th, 1973: Senate investigation begins.
  • March 23rd, 1973: Court proceedings revealed that perjury—lying under oath—had been committed in the initial Watergate trial.
  • April 30th, 1973: Nixon demands the resignation of top aids.
  • July 16th, 1973: The bombshell revelation that Nixon had recorded everything in the West Wing. The special prosecutor subpoenaed the President, which was controversial at the time.
  • October 20th, 1973: The President fired the special prosecutor.
  • November 17th, 1973: Nixon famously declared at a press conference, “I am not a crook”.
  • March 7th to April 18th, 1974: A wave of indictments against former high-level Nixon aides.
  • April 29th, 1974: Nixon releases partial transcripts of his tapes, to mixed reviews.
  • July 24th, 1974: SCOTUS orders the full tapes be given to the special prosecutor.
  • July 27th, 1974: The House Judiciary Committee passed Articles of Impeachment for consideration on the Floor of the House; they were considered likely to pass after debate.
  • August 5th, 1974: The White House releases the “smoking gun” tape that proved that the President was, in fact, a crook.
  • August 7th,  1974: Nixon resigns facing imminent and near certain impeachment.

So yeah, from discovery to resignation took 2 years, 2 months, and 10 days. In case anyone is, you know, counting. If someone were drawing lessons from this, it seems it takes awhile to move against the sitting president.

The only post-War impeachment to actually go down involved Bill Clinton:

  • November 1995: Clinton begins affair with Lewinsky.
  • March 1997: The affair ends.
  • January 13th, 1998: The Drudge Report, of all places, breaks the scandal.
  • January 17th,1998: Clinton is deposed in his other sex scandal, a sexual harrasment case brought by Paula Jones. He is asked about Lewinsky and denies ever having sex with her. The definition of “sex”, which he is shown, will later become an issue.
  • July 28th, 1998: Lewinsky received immunity and handed over the “blue dress” that had DNA evidence of Clinton’s infidelity and, more saliently to what was to come, he had perjured himself in the Jones case.
  • December 19th, 1998: Clinton formally impeached by the House.
  • January 8th, 1999: The Senate trial begins.
  • February 12the, 1999: The trial concludes and Clinton is acquitted.

This one was at least simpler! But it took about a year and a month from the initial perjury to get to a trial, and another month to conclude it.

The common ingredients, again, provided as a total hypothetical, seem to be specific illegal activity combined with sustained controversy.

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Non-Violent is not a Synonym for Peaceful

On February 18th, 1965 C. T. Vivian, a member of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, lead a march on the Perry County Courthouse in Alabama. Tensions were running high. For two dangerous, bloody years African Americans* in Alabama had been struggling against voter restrictions. The restrictions were often Kafkaesque in their implementation. Alabama was nominally complying with the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by allowing African Americans to register to vote, but employed a number of tricks to prevent them from actually doing so. For example, they limited both the number of days one could register and the number of black people who could assemble; if three black people attempted to go through the slow registration process at the same time, they were arrested.

The march was interrupted by brutal police opposition. They dimmed—some say shot out—the street lights and attacked the protesters. One reporter was injured so badly he was forced to stop covering The Civil Rights movement. During the attack, a young, black Vietnam vet named Jimmie Lee Jackson sought refuge in a nearby cafe. He was followed by a State Trooper who shot him in the stomach. Jackson lived for 8 days before dying of complications and infection. We live in an era where people simply do not die of gut injuries, but they are slow, agonizing deaths. For those organizing what came next, the stakes were nothing short of death.

What came next, of course, is one of the defining moments in American history. SCLC helped organize a march from Selma to Montgomery, most immediately to demand Governor Wallace seek justice for Jackson, but more widely to call for protection for all African American citizens who sought to vote. The march was set for March 7th, and on March 6th Wallace announced that it would not take place. He was worried, in a way that echoes down to us, that the protesters might block traffic. He ordered the protest be cleared by any means.

The 7th was, not by any sort of coincidence, a Sunday. The marchers drew from Christian faith and principles to animate their organizing. SCLC practiced radical non-violence, which is much more than just simply maintaining peaceful protest. “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action,” King wrote in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King later rejected that he had an absolute obligation to maintain the peace:

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

It is a strategy that, frankly, the denizens of the social media age should understand. Quite crudely, nonviolence is a publicity stunt. You call the press and you put your body on the line so as to say, “I believe this so thoroughly I will not resist state power; I will leave you to judge if this power is being used in a just, humane way.” Do not mistake my simplification for saying it is a mere publicity stunt—the violence that its practitioners endured stands as a testament to their convictions.

Which brings us back to the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma. On March 7th, 1965, hundreds of people arrived to march illegally. They were greeted as they crossed into town by dozens of armed police. The police used billy clubs and tear gas to subdue the marchers, who did not physically resist. 17 were hospitalized and many more were injured. America was horrified; this was the impetus for Johnson pushing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and in many ways marked the turning point for the Civil Rights Movement.

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An iconic photograph from the first attempt at a march on Montgomery.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen the word “non-violent” conflated with “peaceful”. The Woman’s March on Washington was peaceful, as it collaborated with D.C. authorities to ensure the march followed the law. I do not raise this as a criticism, per se; peaceful protest certainly can achieve some ends. But no one was putting their bodies on the line. Likewise, I’ve seen criticism of the UCLA protests that seem to suggest it would have been appropriate to engage in non-violent protest instead. I worry that people saying that don’t understand what they are calling for. Physically (and illegally) occupying Milo’s podium to prevent him from speaking would be non-violent so long as the people involved did not resist arrest. But I sense what people mean here is that the protesters should have stood meekly at the side. There is a real case to be made that when talking about a White Supremacist who uses his platform to encourage violence against individual students by name, the University has abdicated its responsibility to safe and legal discourse. Even if you reject violence, you should not pretend that King’s philosophy supports following every letter of the law or each campus dictum.

If what you support is unyielding deference to authority, leave non-violence out of it.

 

*This term was not yet in use.

We Won on Betsy DeVos—Even if She is Confirmed

This is not some Orwellian proclamation—War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. This is an observation about political capital.

Cabinet votes are never this contentious. This is partially because when they get this contentious, the nominees pulls themselves from consideration so that it doesn’t get to a vote. But DeVos and Trump have plowed forward.

Importantly, Senators have been under siege about this. Any Republican who is voting for DeVos—and that appears to be all but two of them of them as I write this—has considered how this is going to play in the press. The Senate in particular is designed so that they have a few of these votes against the will of the people in them. This is not all bad; the original logic was that voters do not always consider long-term ramifications. The batch of Senators who was just elected can consider six years of effects before facing elections, meaning they are somewhat insulated from the passion around any given vote. The truth is that the Senate is not designed to bend to every bit of public input, and on treaties and votes about war that’s especially good for the nation.

The firestorm that just hit the Senate is taking its toll, even though the body is designed to absorb it. The 6:30 a.m. cloture vote to end debate last Friday was, to say the least, unusual. It was designed to ensure DeVos got through as fast as possible. A confident Majority Leader need not have done that. McConnell has the catch-22 that even if he wants to dump DeVos or would just as soon pretend all this never happened, that has no endgame. She would be replaced by someone of Trump’s choice and the whole fracas goes back to committee. For McConnell, the only way out is through. He wants to dump this mess on the White House and move on with his agenda.

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“Here”, of course, was the President’s desk, not the Majority Leader’s.

Unfortunately, if DeVos gets through, it will be hard to feel like we had an impact. I promise you, the fact that Senators are literally trying to escape their own town halls is a good sign. Remind yourself and everyone you know: we changed the game. If we keep doing this, the McConnell will have to give concessions to his members seeking reelection. They can only give two Senators a pass per vote, and the optics of having Pence break a bunch of ties is bad. The long-term effect of this kind of campaign will keep changing the narrative on The Hill.

Political scientists call this sort of thing “political capital”. Every Senator has a stockpile of goodwill with their constituents at the moment they are elected; otherwise, how could they have gotten a majority? Every contentious vote spends some of that. Senators are spending a lot of political capital in these early weeks on a few theories: the opposition might get tired, reelection is two to six years away, voting against Betsy DeVos opens them up to White House criticism, and there is no guarantee DeVos’s replacement won’t generate a contentious vote. Each of these votes erodes the political capital of GOP Senators regardless of the final outcome.

Its obviously better to stop DeVos, but remember, DeVos winning a contentious vote is less of a loss than DeVos sailing through.

 

Today is my Otter Day

I’m tired. We’ve had a lot stuff come at us the last few weeks. I could plow through, think about it some more, and see all your friends on Facebook saying the darnedest things. But eventually I’ll burn out. So, I’m taking An Otter Day.

Otter Days are days where I do not read the news. I minimize Facebooking. I try to do nice things for myself. They are so named because I like looking at gifs of otters being adorable.

This guy also cannot believe everything that is going on right now:

giphy

I find this game of follow the leader intensely satisfying:

It’s so precious!

I may work this one into comments on Facebook for the especially unworthy:

Make sure you’re taking Otter Days from time to time. Or Puppy Days or Cake Baking Days or whatever your self care day is. We have a lot of fights to fight and you can’t fight any of them if you burn out.

Media Bias, Dissected

There has been a lot of discussion about media bias and fake news. For the most part, I think the term “fake news” is getting overused, but its a real problem. Fake news is when an outlet simply makes up things and tries to pass them off as reporting and journalism. Its not a new problem—yellow journalism in the late 1800s looked like this, except on paper.

Beyond that, though, the internet has allowed news to decentralize. That has its benefits, but it also has encouraged “boutique” news which is written to capture a certain audience. This is not all bad—boutique newspapers have long been a staple in Europe. They allow more activist editorial points and more competing ideas. However, they can be caustic when people mistake them for a neutral source, poisoning discourse. One example of a boutique source is Vox. Now, I broadly like Ezra Klein’s media 2.0 news experiment, but I’ll be the first to say a health news diet is not founded on them. In fact, most of this post is about a particular piece Vox ran a week and a half  ago.

I’ve not chosen Vox to treat it as a punching bag. Rather, Vox’s streangths and weaknesses are very emblematic of the bigger problems in political journalism in the internet age. Vox has transparently taken a stance of aggressively fact-checking Trump and being uncharitable to his lack of clarity. The reason they give is that Trump is, knowingly or not, exploiting traditions of deferring to controversy and letting the reader decide. The problem is that Trump’s lies are so aggressive that less activist outlets often give the impression that there is some sort of uncertainty about whether or not Trump is wrong. Vox broke with tradition to combat this—its one of the reasons they are still in my media diet.

I’ve marked up the text of the piece below. Green indicates that the piece is giving a clear, reliable account of what happened in the ballpark of normal journalistic standards. Orange indicates an active editorial voice. This is not necessarily bad, as outlined above, but it means that the journalist is nudging you. Red indicates that I think the piece has crossed into full analysis or editorializing. Again, this would not be bad, except Vox contends that it offers news—a different product. I’ve footnoted some of my decisions, especially those where the reader might differ.

The first White House press conference of the Trump administration was supposed to happen on Monday. But on Saturday afternoon, after a little more than 24 hours in office, the administration called an impromptu press briefing for the purpose of yelling at the press1.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer, visibly agitated1, gave a statement that made the following claims:

  • Spicer called Zeke Miller of Time magazine (whom Spicer identified as “one reporter,” but whom President Trump called out by name earlier today in a speech to the CIA) “irresponsible and reckless” for reporting erroneously that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. Spicer strongly implied that Miller had lied about why he hadn’t seen the bust, saying Miller “tried to claim” the bust had been blocked by a Secret Service agent.2
  • Spicer accused media images of being “intentionally framed” to make the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration look smaller than it actually was (in part by arguing this was the first time ground coverings had been used on the Mall, which wasn’t true).
  • Spicer claimed that it would be irresponsible to cite any estimates of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration (or of Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington) because the National Park Service, as a rule, doesn’t release official estimates of crowd sizes.
  • Spicer then claimed that President Trump drew the “largest audience to witness an inauguration period, both in person and around the world.” He did not offer any evidence for this claim, nor did he square it with the idea that it was impossible to estimate crowd size.3
  • Spicer gave a glowing report of the president’s speech to CIA staff Saturday, then cried, “That’s what you guys should be” covering.
  • Spicer warned that while journalists talk about holding the president accountable, “I’m gonna tell you that it goes two ways. We’re gonna hold the press accountable as well.”

Spicer also delivered quick reviews of Trump’s schedule for over the weekend, but since this wasn’t a prescheduled press briefing it clearly wasn’t the point. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Trump administration believes the most important thing that happened in its first day in office — something so important that it was worth calling an unscheduled, weekend press briefing — was snapping at the press, and attempting to replace relatively well-documented estimates of the relatively paltry attendance at Friday’s inauguration with a wholly undocumented claim that this was the biggest inauguration ever.4

Defenders of Donald Trump’s candidacy and his presidential transition have often dismissed the more capricious and unpresidential aspects of his personality — his thin-skinnedness; his grudge holding; his obsession with media coverage, popularity, and ratings — as things that wouldn’t affect his administration. Either they’ve argued that the Donald Trump America has seen so far is an act that would be dropped once he assumed the burden of leading the federal government or they’ve hinted that Trump would be a figurehead who kept doing his thing while the “real” work of government went on around him.5

Saturday’s press conference put a stake through both of those rationalizations. Donald Trump didn’t appear in that briefing room; Sean Spicer and the rest of the White House communications staff bore his message forward on his behalf. Trump’s staff will represent Trump, not cage him.

Donald Trump is not becoming more presidential. The presidency, and the administration, is becoming more Trump-like.6

1These first two orange parts show a clear emotional bias that (no pun intended) colors the factual text. It is worth pointing out here that such decisions can absolutely be the product of good journalistic judgement. The “visibly agitated” especially tells us how the journalist perceived the act she is describing—and that is a part of a journalist’s job.

2Two things here. First, the reporter has unambiguously inserted her judgement in rendering implication explicitly. This is, again, part of her prerogative as a journalist. Second, I made the scare quotes green because they are truthful and accurate summaries of what the press secretary said, but the passage is lightly editorial. By breaking up his quotes you get the impression of being mocked.

3Accurately pointing out a contradiction is tricky territory. A more neutral rendering of the secretary’s remarks would suggest less to the audience about the journalist’s judgment and more about what was literally said, but highlighting such an obvious contradiction explicitly has the benefit of making the (lack of) connection between arguments clear.

4The sentiment here could be defended as a strong editorial voice at Vox; after all, they explicitly have a policy of pressing the Trump Administration’s statements hard and they have justified it. This analysis, however, makes complex assertions about motive and effect that go well beyond mere framing. I want to note, in my own editorial voice, that I agree with the assertions and analysis put forward here, but still note they pass beyond even actively editorial reporting.

5This is an unsourced, generalized argument. Even when true at a charitable standard (like this one), they are a warning that something might be amiss…

6And there it is. This is now full-blown opinion, putting forward the argument that Trump is not going to act “Presidential”. There is nothing wrong with the argument, but it does not qualify as informative news.

The actual problem with Vox—and a lot of other popular internet sites—is that they are blurring the line between information and opinion. Vox’s decision to inform the reader that Donald Trump’s statements don’t pass a certain evidentiary muster is one thing; we rely on journalists to shape our views of the world. When journalists tell us that there is no evidence for the White House’s claims (provided there aren’t), they are arming us. But when they veer into making predictions about the future or broad generalizations about behavior, they are no longer in the business of news, fake or real.

Finally, I hope you read news in this way, critically engaging with the subtext and choices the writer has made. More than any choice journalists have made, it is is the best way to ensure you are insulated against media bias.