The Hot New Right Wing Conspiracy is Really Boring, Guys

In the Great Book of Washington Spin, there is a tactic as old as politics: Whataboutism. Whataboutism is asking, “Yeah, what about…” and inserting the scandal of the day. Its barely tolerable during election season when it is tantamount to saying, “My guy is bad, but your guy is worse.” But now that the election is over, Whataboutism is simply ridiculous.

Which brings us to the Obama scandal of the moment: the NSA under Obama systematically violated the Fourth Amendment. Take for example this Fox News piece:

The secret court that oversees government snooping took the Obama administration to task late last year, suggesting it created “a very serious Fourth Amendment issue” by violating rules the government itself had implemented regarding the surveillance of Americans.

According to top-secret documents made public by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – often referred to as the FISA court – the government admitted that, just days before the 2016 election, NSA analysts were violating surveillance rules on a regular basis. This pattern of overreach, coupled with the timing of the government’s disclosure, resulted in an unusually harsh rebuke of the administration’s practices and principles.

This is largely true. (An “unusually harsh rebuke” is true mostly in that Obama didn’t usually draw the Court’s ire for anything, not in that the abuse was severe—more on that in a second.) Much of the rest of the piece, including that press outlets like The New York Times didn’t cover it, are false. Indeed, it largely passed unnoticed in the liberal press because, frankly, it was not a particularly interesting story.

The gory details laid out by the FISA Court are far from scintillating. In fact, they are almost comically boring. As mentioned, ts true that in late September a pattern of Fourth Ammendment violations was found and brought before the Court. But who uncovered and reported this dastardly plot? Well, it turns out to have been the Inspector General of the NSA. That’s right: The NSA caught the NSA making these errors and told the court. They were rebuked, lest you think anyone ends up looking good here, for being slow to report them, but the Court gives no reason for the month delay and draws no wider conclusion as Fox does.

The abuse itself was hardly the basis of a Hollywood thriller or vast conspiracy against a CBS journalist. The main problem according to the Court was that the software the NSA was using to query its database required its analysts to opt out of data about people on email threads. If the analyst left a box checked, they might find out that an American citizen was on an email thread. I don’t want to pull the punch: The NSA should not have been finding that out. But the several hundred (the exact number is redacted) instances of this being used over 5 years were not linked to any sort of criminal behavior. It was systemic in the sense it appears few meant to do it, the system was just built that way.

The conservative press needs this to be a big issue because if the NSA was habitually breaking the law, Kushner’s actions can be excused. It’s the worst sort of whataboutism. Never mind that they would not be looped in until after many of the alleged exchanges happened. Never mind that email threads are not something you’d go into a Russia SCIF to hide. Never mind that there is a lot more substance to the accusations against Kushner than just, “some IC dudes said so”; he’s admitted to hiding his contacts with Russia, a transparent felony.

This isn’t a hot conspiracy. It’s a boring technical violation that the Government was fixing anyway.

The Catch-22 of Leaks

How do I even summarize the last few weeks? Words have failed me, so let me just share a gif:


The White House has been a tire swing on fire. Special prosecutor? Ryan maybe-but-maybe-not joking about Trump being on Putin’s payroll? Flynn and Manafort being completely, hopelessly, utterly screwed? I’m sure within two days these examples will seem quaint developments from a simpler, less chaotic time. The point is not to keep you updated on this dumpster fire. Its to point out something that ties all the developments together.

Everything we know so far is because someone with inside information called a journalist they strictly should not have. Donald Trump—sit down for this—has a point when he says there is a story in why his administration is hemorrhaging information to the press. To use Congress’s favorite word, it is “troubling” that people without authorization are fanning the flames of this scandal with leaks. That’s not how this is supposed to work.

A subtle line was crossed with the leak of the Paul Ryan tape. The transcript reveals that Paul Ryan, at best, actively considered that Trump was on the Russian payroll and thought it funny. At worst, it shows he was willfully complicit. Neither is good. But the leak is taking aim at Ryan’s domestic agenda by undercutting his Speakership. The problem is that Ryan and McConnell have been willfully ignoring the mounting evidence because it endangers their legislative master plan. We are at a precarious moment where a whistle blower has demanded the domestic agenda be put on ice to address a growing international espionage scandal.

The ethics of this, I think, are pretty straightforward. Leakers should only disrupt the domestic agenda if there is a clear and present danger to national security. The events of the past two weeks should have convinced you that the Russia collusion allegations are 1) substantive and 2) worth vetting. Trump likely got an Israeli spy killed and damaged our national security because he bragged to Russian officials about our intelligence. If the allegations of collusion are true—and the leaker may be in a position to know better than us—then Congress dragging its feet is doing real-time damage to our nation.

The Catch-22 is there is no way to be certain if it was ethical without Congress digging deep into this. If it is found that the FBI or the leaker in particular did not have solid reason to believe that there was immediate danger, this is in and of itself a scandal. But with what is public its hard to imagine that there is nothing fishy here.

Therefore, the question of leaks is fundamental. It’s not an either/or, where we should drop the investigation to find the leakers. We should immediately seek to learn why this information was being made public and make the determination if the judgement was sound. Whistle blowers should be judged on what they knew and the judgement of a reasonable person. The only way to know if this is, in the President’s words, a witch hunt is to vet the evidence.

The only way out is through.

Why Yes, I’ll Trash Paul Ryan Even More

The great problem before The Speaker of the House was this: His membership wanted a healthcare bill that was more conservative than what would pass the Senate. His challenge was to reach a compromise.

Which was hard and Paul Ryan doesn’t work hard so he didn’t.


Here’s the thing about the version of AHCA that just passed out of the House. The Senate hates it. The first group of people Paul Ryan wrote off in creating the legislation was Senate Democrats; using the reconciliation process they need only 50 votes and the Vice President to pass it. With 52 GOP Senators, 3 defections kills the bill so its a narrow path to walk.

So what did Paul Ryan put in the bill to sweeten the deal for his folks? Well, for starters, it defunds Planned Parenthood, a non-starter for the two pro-choice Republicans. It also added the much vaunted Upton Amendment, which, and I’m only exaggerating a little, offers peanuts to people with preexisting conditions. That may have been good enough in House, but several Senators have said that the issue needs properly dealt with. It also stripped out help for the opioid crisis—I don’t have a clue why that was popular in the House either—and has given Rob Portman cause to signal no. In fact, the theme from the Senate seems to be, “That’s nice, but, uh, we’re writing our own.”

And a big blow to the bill is coming. When Democrats passed Obamacare, they had every amendment scored by the CBO before voting. While they were accused of not reading the bill (and it was literally true), they carefully weighed and studied each part trying to get it to work. Ryan intentionally rammed this bill through before the CBO could comment on it because it is going to tear the bill to shreds. Most policy experts think the amendments made the bill worse from a deficit standpoint, which will make this even more unattractive in the House, and will increase the number of uninsured people. Pelosi claimed on the floor, and I’m not going to contradict her, that the pitch the GOP made was the Senate would fix that. But then they would send it back to the House—presumably with changes to make it less popular among the very people who narrowly passed it in the first place, thus endangering the coalition that now knew how bad it was.

Let’s review. To make the bill palatable, the Speaker put in several provisions that are DOA in the Senate. He did this without checking with the CBO because he knew that would be bad news. On the off chance the Senate does pick it up—and they say they won’t—any changes to make them accept it endanger the coalition that passed it in the first place.

One arrives at the inescapable conclusion: this is a photo op, proof of life for Ryan’s Speakership. As long as this is rotting in committee, Ryan can tell his caucus that they passed something, that its the dastardly Senate’s fault that nothing happened. And his caucus was stupid enough to go along with it in the first place, so who knows, maybe they will buy it. They got a beer and front page pictures with Trump, after all.

But man, this is a garbage legislative gambit that is already failing.

Unwarranted Hysterics

A general view of damaged buildings in Jouret al-Shayah, Homs

In the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to shell an installation in Syria, someone viewing my Facebook feed with no wider context would be forgiven for concluding that the world was ending. Indeed, noted alarmist Glenn Greenwald said,

But U.S. war fever waits for nothing. Once the tidal wave of American war frenzy is unleashed, questioning the casus belli is impermissible. Wanting conclusive evidence before bombing commences is vilified as sympathy with and support for the foreign villain (the same way that asking for evidence of claims against Russia instantly converts one into a “Kremlin agent” or “stooge”).

War fever? Several days later the US has stood by its stated intention not to escalate. While it is fair to note that I have the mighty perch of hindsight, I can look down from it because I did not rush to deluge the internet with purple prose about how this was some sort of overture of war. Greenwald’s piece has other problems; it uncritically repeats Assad’s account of what happened—so much for objectivity!—and misrepresents Canada’s position on the bombing—likely a function of rushing to press. While Greenwald could have raised serious concerns in a serious manner, he was more interested in scoring points against his favorite boogeyman.

Common Dreams echoed many people by suggesting that this was a “wag the dog” moment:

Now, as many foreign governments, U.S. lawmakers, and the corporate media are lining up in support of the bombing campaign, observers say it appears like a ‘Wag the Dog’ moment for Trump, distracting the opposition while conveniently flipping the script about Russia. In a column on Friday, The Nation’s Greg Grandin pointed out that with the one assault, the president successfully splintered the Democratic resistance, won the praise of the media, and changed the story of his friendly relations with the Kremlin.

This extraordinary narrative is ultimately supported by…nothing. While Trump does seem to have briefly changed the narrative, the idea that a swift and timely response to the use of chemical weapons was deployed months after the Russia scandal started taking out members of his cabinet is pure conjecture. While I won’t deny that there was a gross rush to fawn over the President, the moment was fleeting and met with backlash.

Linda Stasi at The New York Daily News posited that this was to help Trump’s approval rating.

If President Trump actually cared more about the Syrian genocide than his own popularity, he would never have tried to ban Syria’s suffering “beautiful babies” and their families—twice—from entering this country. Which he did, and it was horrific. If President Trump genuinely cared more for the suffering Syrians being starved and tortured in unbelievably Dark Ages refugee camps than his own approval ratings, he would have acted sooner to help stop the ongoing genocide, which has claimed nearly half a million people — including tens of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims. Which he didn’t and it was horrific.

I don’t especially want to slow down those pointing out the President’s rank hypocrisy; the “Muslim ban” is very much at odds with his rationale here. (Though, this grossly flattens the situation in refugee camps, while often bad, down to Assad’s torture complexes, easily worse.) That said, this is far from conclusive. It might just be, as Ezra Klein at Vox suggests, that the president has an impulsive strategy. That doesn’t warrant praise, but it’s not a cynical scheme either. Which is worse? pft! They’re both pretty bad.

Even with hindsight, though, left-wing publications are sounding the alarm about a “rally around the flag” effect. Slate ran a headline, “Donald Trump’s approval ratings are up because he bombed a foreign country”. By how much? Well, they declined to print that, instead linking to data that shows, with some even deeper digging, that since the end of March he’s gained 3 points. There are a number of possible reasons for that, not the least of which is statistical uncertainty; the two findings are almost statistically equal. FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate polling, as of writing, has him up half a percentage since the bombing. If that’s even real, you can expect perhaps a little more as more polls roll in. Far from uncritically rallying around the flag, what the CBS data shows is that there is a gap between people who support this particular policy and people who support the administration as a whole. But, when did “data” ever stop Slate from publishing a liberal narrative?

This is not to say there aren’t fair, savvy critiques of the President and his actions, including embedded in the pieces I skewered above. I share the left wing reservations about what the endgame in Syria even looks like, concerns about Trump’s governance, and outrage at his hypocrisy on this issue. But there is a terrible irony that warnings about jingoism have become a dogma all their own. Watching Stop the War prioritize their dogmatic position by speaking over Syrian commentators has been as painful as it is emblematic. Again, if you have a good reason to criticize the actions the President is taking, this is piece is not aimed at you.

But too many commentators have been fitting the facts to their narrative and not the other way around.

Let Me Trash Paul Ryan Some More

On Friday, I pointed out that Paul Ryan is bad at his job. I thought I was done.

And then Devin Nunes kept happening.

Last week, Nunes inexplicably confirmed that the White House Transition team—of which he was part—was incidentally intercepted in FISA warrants. If true, this would amount to learning that we spied on people the Trump’s transition team communicated with. This is hardly surprising; the idea that any incoming administration makes no phone calls to people who are suspected of international criminal activity is laughable. The real scandal here is Nunes throwing out all protocol and decorum and making the information public. It is almost certainly a violation of law.

I figured that Paul Ryan had to feel pretty burned. This story broke on Wednesday, in the lead-up to what should have been his first major achievement of the Trump era. The media frenzy that followed detracted from making his case and likely further chilled the House. (For what its worth, Ryan’s own haste and incompetence doomed the bill either way.) But it also made sense that Ryan would put off dealing with it until after the vote. Disciplinary measures against a Committee chair in the middle of tough vote would be politically unsavvy. Fair enough.

But the bill was pulled on Friday. Further revelations show that Nunes is probably collaborating with the people he is supposed to be investigating. Don’t get me wrong, Ryan has an incentive to see the Trump investigation slow-walked, hidden, and generally set a high burden of proof. Paul Ryan is, lest we forget, a Republican. Nunes is rushing things, running to the press, and spouting half-baked theories. Nunes is a political liablity to Ryan and making it look like they are part of the coverup.

Still he has his chair. It is time for us to admit an uncomfortable truth: Ryan is just not that interested in being Speaker. I don’t mean that he doesn’t want the job, though he said as much. I mean that as Speaker he has been very choosy about which parts of his job he has actually done. It is the Speaker’s job to whip a coalition by negotiating amendments to tough bills; he passed that off to Trump. It is his job to craft a legislative strategy that will work; he’s been quite impotent. And it is his job to keep his coalition in line; Nunes keeps floundering very publically.

In fact, Ryan has only done things that fulfill two criteria: they must be easy and they must relate to entitlements. Nunes requires a politically hard action in the short term and has to do with international espionage. Ryan isn’t here for that.

And given that budget reform looks like it is going to be hard, I have to ask: what is Ryan here for?


Three Paths for the Russia Scandal

With the news that Paul Manafort had a longstanding campaign to advance Russia’s position, it is worth stopping to ask what the endgame looks like. The crass partisanship in parsing the evidence is to be expected, and, I think this is definitely a case where both sides are jumping to conclusions.(“Calm down” is something I am writing a lot in the Trump era.) The fact is that there is a lot we don’t know. So what are the three paths this scandal can take?

  1. Unwitting Agents: The most favorable outcome for the GOP at this point is that the Kremlin manipulated a number of people close to Trump (and perhaps Trump himself) into believing that Russian and American interests aligned. Being duped is not criminal, though it would not be a small scandal either. People posting #ImpeachTrump should square themselves with the fact that a coordinated campaign by the Russians to soften up people around Trump looks an awful lot like a more sinister example of espionage. This will likely be the line of anyone facing legal repercussions from this, but because it is a plausible one. It is hard to imagine that there was no collaboration from Manafort, but that is not the legal standard here.
  2. The Cabinet Goes: One thing that is not getting considered as thoroughly as I think it should is that some fraction of Trump’s White House committed crimes related to Espionage during the campaign, but not Trump himself. The reason its being under-considered is because it is an unsatisfying resolution for both sides; it would be a major, party damaging scandal for the GOP, but short of getting the President. But being politically inconvenient is not the same as being unlikely. I think based on the evidence available today, this is the most likely truth, never mind that it will be easier to prove. Its worth noting this is almost how Watergate turned out before the Smoking Gun tapes were released and that President Park Geun-hye of South Korea tried for this outcome by firing her cabinet. Iran-Contra and the Scooter Libby Scandals both took out a large fraction of their President’s cabinet, but their respective Presidents were never directly implicated. Because of the way power flows through the Executive Branch, it is fairly common for the President to survive scandals that it seems he or she ought to have known about by claiming ignorance.
  3. The President is Impeached and Removed: The evidence here is a lot thinner than a lot of liberals seem to think. It is definitely eyebrow raising that the President is surrounded by people who are on the payroll of Putin and his oligarch buddies. It is definitely eyebrow raising that Trump has some shady financial ties to them. But half the House would be wrong to impeach Trump on such shady evidence, and it would be a scandal in its own right if the Senate found 67 votes to convict on such flimsy grounds.

As we learn more, these options will narrow. Looking at the range here, we have “major scandal borne of gross incompetence” to “Largest scandal in US history”. While there is a lot we don’t know, the fact is that the White House is in a lot of trouble.

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.

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.