Friday, September 24, 2021

Regardless of the Durham Indictment, We Still Don't Know What Was Up With the Trump-Alfa Bank Servers

In May of 2019, then Attorney General Bill Barr announced that he had tasked John Durham with investigating the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. The former federal prosecutor from Connecticut has now be at it longer than the original investigation conducted by Mueller.

Three days before the term of the grand jury Durham impaneled was set to expire, the special prosecutor filed an indictment against Michael Sussmann, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner at the law firm Perkins Coie. 

Sussmann is charged with lying to the FBI in September 2016 during a meeting with General Counsel Peter Baker. Sussmann had requested the meeting in order to warn the FBI that news stories were about to be published regarding connections between the Alfa Bank in Moscow and the Trump Organization. According to the indictment, Sussmann is not charged with lying about the allegations he made, but about who he was representing. Durham claims that Sussmann told Baker that he was "not doing this for any client" when, in fact, he was representing the Clinton campaign and a tech executive. 

After two years and four months, that is the sum total of what Durham was able to come up with. Both Barbara McQuade and Benjamin Wittes have written excellent pieces detailing the weakness of Durham's case against Sussmann. The only two people who know what transpired are the defendant and Baker. During congressional testimony in October 2018, Baker repeatedly stated that he didn't recall whether Sussmann identified himself as representing the Clinton campaign. So if Baker is the only witness, he's going to have a tough time during cross examination if this one ever goes to trial. 

It's also worth noting that Barr specifically assigned Durham with investigating the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. Right wing media is now salivating at this indictment as proof that the whole thing was hatched by the Clinton campaign. Oh how quickly they've moved on from their accusations about the so-called "deep state." In this scenario, the FBI isn't the culprit, but the unwitting victim of a cabal working on behalf of Trump's opponent.

What these folks want to ignore is the fact that Mueller didn't even mention Alfa Bank in his report. Instead, he documented multiple instances of collusion between Trump and the Russian government - even though he wasn't able to prove a criminal conspiracy. In addition, Mueller found at least 10 examples of obstruction of justice. As Benjamin Wittes wrote, "The extensive findings of the Mueller report depend not a whiff on Perkins Coie or Fusion GPS (read: the Steele dossier). Not even if Michael Sussmann lied to Jim Baker about his clients."

When it comes to the accusations about Alpha Bank, I remember reading the first article published about that, which was written by Franklin Foer. Not being a techie, a lot of it went over my head. But in layman's terms, what it boils down to is that a group of computer scientists disclosed, on the basis of DNS (Domain Name System) logs, that two internet servers belonging to Alfa Bank had looked up the address of the Trump Organization server 2,820 times between May and September 2016. The speculation was that this might have been a back-channel way for Russian operatives and the Trump campaign to communicate. 

The accusations were serious enough that the FBI opened an investigation. From there things get a little confusing. Here is what the Senate Intelligence Committee reported in September 2020:

Based on the FBI’s assessment, the Committee did not find the DNS activity reflected the existence of covert communication between Alfa Bank and Trump Organization personnel. However, the Committee also could not positively determine an intent or purpose that would explain the unusual activity.
They also noted that the committee was not able to see the underlying records that the FBI used in its briefings to members.

In his report on the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, Inspector General Michael Horowitz noted that "The FBI investigated whether there were cyber links between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, but concluded by early February 2017 that there were no such links.” However, in March 2017, CNN reported  this:
Federal investigators and computer scientists continue to examine whether there was a computer server connection between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank, sources close to the investigation tell CNN.

Questions about the possible connection were widely dismissed four months ago. But the FBI’s investigation remains open, the sources said, and is in the hands of the FBI’s counterintelligence team – the same one looking into Russia’s suspected interference in the 2016 election.

One U.S. official said investigators find the server relationship “odd” and are not ignoring it. But the official said there is still more work for the FBI to do. Investigators have not yet determined whether a connection would be significant.

What stood out to me about that report is not only the timing - coming a month after Horowitz said that the investigation into the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank had concluded. It also references the FBI's counterintelligence team. You might recall that on March 20, 2017, then FBI Director James Comey made this announcement during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee:

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part out our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.

That counterintelligence investigation (Crossfire Hurricane) began on July 31, 2016 based on Trump campaign consultant George Papadopoulos's assertions of Russians having damaging material on Hillary Clinton. 

On May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey. According to Rep. Adam Schiff, that is when intelligence briefings on this matter stopped and he was not able to determine if the counterintelligence investigation had been closed. Apparently it had, which is what Michael Schmidt reported in the New York Times.

The Justice Department secretly took steps in 2017 to narrow the investigation into Russian election interference and any links to the Trump campaign, according to former law enforcement officials, keeping investigators from completing an examination of President Trump’s decades-long personal and business ties to Russia…

[L]aw enforcement officials never fully investigated Mr. Trump’s own relationship with Russia, even though some career F.B.I. counterintelligence investigators thought his ties posed such a national security threat that they took the extraordinary step of opening an inquiry into them. Within days, the former deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein curtailed the investigation without telling the bureau, all but ensuring it would go nowhere.

Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said that Rosenstein led him to believe that such a counterintelligence investigation would be handled by Mueller. But sources told Schmidt that “privately, Mr. Rosenstein instructed Mr. Mueller to conduct only a criminal investigation into whether anyone broke the law in connection with Russia’s 2016 election interference.” 

So Rosenstein limited Mueller to a criminal investigation and led the FBI to believe that the special prosecutor would take over the counterintelligence investigation. In other words, the Trump administration effectively shut down any probe into the president's decades-long personal and business ties to Russia. That would also shut down any investigation into the Trump-Alfa Bank connection. 

What we have is a former president who - at minimum - welcomed Russian interference in his election, obstructed justice, and shut down a counterintelligence investigation. In the end, we still don't know what was up with the Trump-Alfa Bank servers.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

White Supremacy Has Become Mainstream Republican Thinking

A little over four years ago, white supremacists protested the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA while chanting "You will not replace us." Donald Trump's suggestion that the protesters were "good people" drew condemnation from almost every corner of the country - including many Republicans.

The slogan the protesters were chanting has a long history among white supremacists, reflecting their adoption of the "great replacement theory," that whites are being replaced by non-white immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, and the end result will be the extinction of the white race. The danger of this kind of rhetoric is demonstrated by the fact that it spurred killing sprees in Christchurch, New Zealand; Poway, California; and El Paso, Texas.

Nevertheless, the great replacement theory has been a staple on Fox News over the last couple of years.


But as I pointed out previously, this hate-filled message isn't just coming from Fox News hosts and guests. It has been picked up by Republican elected officials, candidates, and right wing commentators.

Wednesday night, Tucker Carlson was at it again. This time he claimed that, during remarks in 2015, Vice President Biden "explained the entire point of mass immigration." Carlson then showed a video clip of Biden saying this:
An unrelenting stream of immigration. Nonstop, nonstop. Folks like me who are Caucasian, of European descent, for the first time in 2017 we'll be an absolute minority in the United States of America. Absolute minority. Fewer than 50% of the people in America from then and on will be white European stock. That's not a bad thing. That’s a source of our strength.

Carlson went on to say this:

"An unrelenting stream of immigration." Why? Joe Biden said it. To change the racial mix of the country. That’s the reason. To reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly arrived from the third world. And then Biden went further and said that non-white DNA is the source of our strength. Imagine saying that. This is the language of eugenics. It’s horrifying. But there’s a reason Biden said it. In political terms, this policy is sometimes called the great replacement — the replacement of legacy Americans, with more obedient people from faraway countries.

Your first clue that something is amiss with that Biden quote is that it begins mid-sentence. He made the remarks as an introduction to a White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. After commending several U.S. cities for their work to prevent the recruitment of people to violent extremism, Biden said this:

I want to make it clear, though, I’m not suggesting to the press or any of our guests that I think America has all the answers here. We just have a lot more experience. By that I mean we are a nation of immigrants, that's who we are. That is not hyperbole. We talk, we teach our kids we're a melting pot. The God's truth is, we are a polyglot, we are a melting pot. It is the ultimate source of our strength, it is the ultimate source of who we are, what we've become. And it started all the way back in the late 1700s, there's been a constant, unrelenting stream of immigration. Not in little trickles, but in large numbers.

The former vice president then went on to recount a conversation he had with the former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, who said that countries like China were looking for the figurative “black box” that “allows America to constantly be able to remake itself, unlike any other country in the world.” After commenting about this country's skepticism for orthodoxy, Biden returned to the theme of immigration, which is where the clip Carlson showed kicks in. But here's the context.

I said, “There's a second thing in that black box — an unrelenting stream of immigration, nonstop, nonstop.” Folks like me who are Caucasian, of European descent, for the first time in 2017 we'll be in an absolute minority in the United States of America, absolute minority. Fewer than 50% of the people in America from then and on will be white European stock. That's not a bad thing, that's a source of our strength.

And so, we have been — we haven't always gotten it right. I don't want to — I don't want to suggest we have all the answers. But we have a lot of experience of integrating communities into the American system, the American Dream.

A generation from now, as I said, things will be changed even more. It's not merely that we're a melting pot, but we're proud to be a melting pot. And with that, we've made a lot of mistakes, but we've also made a lot of progress. And you know, we've learned a lot of hard lessons.

But the most important lesson we've learned, we don't always practice it, is that inclusion counts. Let me say that again — inclusion counts. Inclusion counts. Being brought in and made a part of the community — whether as my Irish ancestors with signs, “No Irish need apply,” and the anti-Catholic movement of the Know-Nothings in the late 1800s, straight through to how some respond today to the number of folks in the United States of America that are Hispanic in background.

It’s always — we've always ultimately overcome it. But it's always been about inclusion, being a part of the whole. As I said, we still have problems, but I’m proud of the American record on cultural and economic integration of not only our Muslim communities but African communities, Asian communities, Hispanic communities. And the wave still continues. It's not going to stop, nor should we want it to stop. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the things I think we can be most proud of.

Perhaps now you understand why Carlson had to cherry-pick from Biden's remarks in order to remove them from a context that is a direct challenge to the great replacement theory. 

Already today, both Charlie Kirk and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) have picked up on Carlson's lie. Here's Rep. Babin: 

Carlson has once again given Republicans their talking points and we're likely to be hearing this kind of thing whenever the topic of immigration comes up. Aaron Ruper is absolutely right: the great replacement theory (read: white supremacy) has become mainstream Republican thinking. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Always Be Suspicious When the Anti-Science Crowd Claims to Be Following the Science

When it comes to major issues like climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, right wingers have positioned themselves firmly against the scientific consensus. But now that the Supreme Court has validated what amounts to a ban on abortions in Texas, there are those in their ranks who want to claim the mantle of following the science. 

Case in point: Andy Puzder, who isn't a scientist, but a businessman, recently published an article on the Fox News website titled: "Biden ignores science on abortion – he follows politics on question of when life begins." Puzder's case basically boils down to this:

The science on when human life begins is not in serious dispute. For example, the American College of Pediatricians’ (ACP) website states that "[t]he predominance of human biological research confirms that human life begins at conception—fertilization. At fertilization, the human being emerges as a whole, genetically distinct, individuated zygotic living human organism, a member of the species Homo sapiens, needing only the proper environment in order to grow and develop. The difference between the individual in its adult stage and in its zygotic stage is one of form, not nature."

So the American College of Pediatricians has stated that, according to biological research, human life begins at conception. That sounds official, doesn't it?

But wait...what is the American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds)? It is important to note that they are NOT the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP), which was founded in 1930 and currently has a membership of over 67,000 physicians. ACPeds was founded in 2002 when a small number of socially conservative AAP members broke away from the professional association after it endorsed adoption by same-sex couples. Here are a couple of quotes Souther Poverty Law Center pulled from the ACPeds website:

“Homosexual men and women are reported to be promiscuous, with serial sex partners, even within what are loosely-termed 'committed relationships.' Individuals who practice a homosexual lifestyle are more likely than heterosexuals to experience mental illness, substance abuse, suicidal tendencies and shortened life spans.”
—“Homosexual Parenting: Is It Time for A Change?” updated July 2017, available on ACPeds website

“Driving in this morning I began to wonder. Why isn’t the movement of LGBT not the PLGBT movement: ‘P’ for pedophile? ...In one sense, it could be argued that the LGBT movement is only tangentially associated with pedophilia. I see that argument, but the pushers of the movement, the activists, I think have pedophilia intrinsically woven into their agenda. It is they who need to be spoken to and against.”
—Blog post on ACPeds website, July 15, 2015

“[T]here is sound evidence that children exposed to the homosexual lifestyle may be at increased risk for emotional, mental, and even physical harm.”
—“Homosexual Parenting: Is It Time For Change?” ACPeds article, January 22, 2004

“For unwanted sexual attractions, therapy to restore heterosexual attraction has proven effective and harmless.”
—Facts About Youth website, 2010

“Gay, lesbian, and bisexual students are not born that way. The most recent, extensive, and scientifically sound research finds that the primary factor in the development of homosexuality is environmental not genetic.”
—Facts About Youth website, 2010
That is the organization Puzder relies on to suggest that there is "scientific evidence" to support the claim that life begins as conception. The group also believes that homosexuals are serially promiscuous pedophiles who pose a danger to children, but can be "cured" via “reparative” or sexual orientation conversion therapy. Nothing in any of those statements is backed by any more scientific evidence than the one about life beginning at conception. 

As you can see, it is no wonder that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled ACPeds a hate group and the ACLU refers to them as a fringe group that has acted to promote "unscientific and harmful 'reparative therapies' for LGBTQ students."

The anti-choice movement in this country has a long history of attempting to adopt abortion restrictions that fly in the face of facts and science, as Rachel Bensen Gold and Elizabeth Nash have documented

At least 10 major categories of abortion restrictions—including measures based on claims of protecting a woman’s health—lack a foundation in rigorous scientific evidence.

These restrictions include unnecessary regulations on abortion facilities and providers, counseling and waiting period requirements that belie the scientific evidence, and laws based on false assertions about when fetuses can feel pain.

To those we could add the Hobby Lobby lie that certain birth control methods are abortifacients as well as the misnamed "fetal heartbeat bills," like the one recently passed in Texas.

The idea that science has determined that life begins at conception is preposterous. Those who promote it, like Puzder and ACPeds, are engaging in propaganda, not a rational argument. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

Why Did Politico Publish a Hit Piece on Jennifer Rubin?

One of the reasons I've always been interested in the NeverTrumpers is that I too was once immersed in conservative politics. Questions began to emerge - one often leading to another. Rather than deny those questions, I thought them through. The process was gradual, but eventually I found myself on the other side of the political spectrum. 

It might be a bit of projection, but I see the same process happening with the NeverTrumpers. Due to the insanity of Donald Trump, it came a lot quicker for most of them. But someone like David Frum started the break years ago, as was evidenced by his column titled "Waterloo" in which he explained how the Republican Party had been captured by right wing media.

One of the columnists who went through a more abbreviated process was Jennifer Rubin from the Washington Post. She was an avowed Republican who couldn't stomach Donald Trump. I watched as she began to ask questions, coming to the conclusion in late 2017 that the GOP couldn't simply be rebranded, it needed to be junked. Here is how she described her former party:

If there is a single idea animating Trump’s GOP, it is that “blood and soil” (or race and religion, if you prefer) — not the American creed (“All men are created equal…”) — is the defining feature of the United States. Whatever else that is not white and Christian is foreign, alien and a threat to “real America.” Whether in day-to-day politics, foreign affairs or domestic policies, there is no right and wrong, only them and us. That’s Trumpism in a nutshell.

Regardless of how you feel about Rubin's conversion, she was spot-on. 

I say all of that because on Thursday, Alex Thompson and Nick Needzwiadek at Politico's "West Wing Playbook" decided to launch an attack on Rubin. They suggest that she has become one of the White House's most reliable defenders and have a big problem with that. The evidence they provide: White House staff sometimes tweet her articles. They go on to say that this is because "she usually backs up the administration."

OMG - an opinion columnist who often agrees with a president! What an affront to journalism! Of course, Thompson and Needzwiadek don't provide any specifics about where Rubin and the president were wrong because being accurate or inaccurate is not the issue. For them, real journalism means that you are required to find fault with both sides. 

The authors then engage in a typical Politico pattern of reporting on a whisper campaign from anonymous sources suggesting that Rubin has stoked divisions within the Post newsroom. Here's a quote from one of their sources at the Post:

“She is an opinion columnist and does not represent the newsroom,” said one Post reporter. “I think our news coverage has been pretty sharp toward Biden on a number of fronts — immigration, Afghanistan, etc. — and we have a lot of good reporters. Jen Rubin is not a good representation of the news coverage of the Washington Post. I have been asked before if I hate sharing a newsroom with her... I reply that I don't.”

Now that's the kind of journalism Thompson and Needzwiadek applaud. Being "sharp toward Biden" is what "good reporters" do, regardless of accuracy. 

From there, things get even worse. The authors point out that they reached out to Rubin to get a response. Initially she ignored them. But recently she sent them an email with the subject line: "OFF THE RECORD." They quoted the whole thing anyway, justifying it by saying that they hadn't agreed to conduct an off the record conversation. So the folks who are attacking Rubin for her style of opinion journalism decided to reprint private communication that she clearly identified as off the record. What blazing hypocrites they are!

Since they've already published Rubin's email, it is worth noting that she is also spot-on in her assessment of Politico (emphasis mine).

How utterly predictable that Politico would run the zillionth hit piece on a prominent woman, especially one candid in her critiques of Politico's hysterical, clickbait style of coverage. The notion that I am polarizing in a newsroom (as opposed to any of the dozens of other opinion writers) is a "take" only Politico could come up with — by of course running around to ask the question in the first place. I trust the Post's superb news side folks spend zero time thinking about me (as is entirely appropriate).

Of course, the Politico piece was picked up by right wing sites like Fox News and Red State. It also garnered applause from Tucker Carlson's favorite guest, Glenn Greenwald. So if, as I suggested recently, the new owners of Politico want to pattern it after their European tabloid by mainstreaming the far right, the publication is already well on its way to fulfilling that goal. 

It is worth wondering why Politico chose to go after Rubin when they could have chosen other targets at the Post like NeverTrumper Max Boot, or perhaps a liberal opinion columnist like Jonathan Capehart who also tends to agree with the Biden administration. This is the kind of dilemma women often face. They have to wonder if attacks like this are motivated by sexism. Rubin suggests this isn't the first time Politico went there when she wrote that this would be their "zillionth hit piece on a prominent woman."

I've been clear for a while now that Politico is a big part of the problem with mainstream media. Commenting on the fact that the publication has recently been bought the German media company Alex Springer, Perry Bacon suggests that Politico bears some responsibility for the fact that political journalism drifted off course. 

Politico largely embraced the prevailing orthodoxies of political journalism, particularly in its early days — it was Beltway-focused, obsessed with not offending Republican readers, sometimes resembled sports coverage and its leading reporters were nearly all White. It was in many ways just a faster, more interesting version of how politics had long been covered...For more than a decade, not only did Politico keep gaining strength, but the entire political media became more like Politico.

And this is where things went wrong. It was (and is) fine to have a publication focused on insider politics. But it was not ideal when The Post, the New York Times and many other major mainstream news outlets drifted toward this model — and when they did so was particularly problematic.

The Politico approach is probably fine if you are covering parties and politicians who share some values and norms...But early in the Obama years...the most important stories in American politics were the deepening polarization of the American electorate along cultural and racial lines and the growing radicalization of the GOP. But a Politico-ized national political press was both largely unwilling and in some ways unable to center its coverage on those realities.

Bacon ends his piece on an upbeat note, suggesting that the presidency of Donald Trump shook up those norms. But as this attack piece on Rubin demonstrates, that is not the case at Politico. For that publication, woe be to any columnist who shuns bothsiderism in favor of making rational arguments.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Overlooked Crime: Domestic Violence

Republicans and their enablers in the media have been telling us that we should be worried about a dangerous rise in crime over the last couple of years. Of course, this is all meant to not only take us back to the failed "tough on crime" policies of the past, but is also meant to put a halt to any notion of police or criminal justice reform. The best defense of against these claims are facts and data.

The first thing to note is that national statistics differentiate between violent crimes and property crimes. Here's what the numbers are telling us about what happened in 2020:

Violent crime was up 3.3% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to preliminary data from the FBI’s quarterly Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system. This includes a 25% increase in the homicide rate. The recent uptick in violent crime is a change from more than 30 years of decreases in property and violent crime. Data shows crime spiked across all categories in the early 1990s and have steadily decreased since with few exceptions. Meanwhile, property crime decreased by 7.9% in 2020.

While violent crime was up 3.3%, property crimes continued to decline. As that quote indicates, the rise in violent crimes was driven by a 25% increase in homicides. That is the issue we all need to focus on. 

As German Lopez explained, we don't know what caused the increase in homicides in 2020. But most researchers are pointing to three possibilities:

1) The Covid-19 pandemic: The coronavirus caused massive disruptions in American life, from the economy to education to entertainment. With all this change in human behavior, there’s a good chance that people changed something in their day-to-day lives that led to more violent crimes, shootings, and murders. Experts don’t necessarily know what that something might be yet...

2) The protests over policing: After the police killing of George Floyd, America was rocked by months of protests over police brutality. Initial rioting at some protests led to a brief spike in nonresidential burglaries in late May, but that quickly subsided and doesn’t explain the increase in violent crime; instead, experts cite breakdowns in police-community relations...

3) More guns, more gun violence: In 2020, Americans bought a record number of guns, likely in response to the chaos and fears that engulfed the year. The research is consistent on this point: More guns lead to more gun violence.

While Republicans will want to focus on #2 and claim that calls for police accountability are actually to blame, it seems clear that a combination of #'s 1 and 3 could be lethal, and just might point in a direction no one is looking. 

When we think of homicides, our minds have been trained to envision criminals (usually black or brown men) shooting at each other or innocent victims. We rarely hear that one quarter of homicides every year are the result of domestic violence and the majority of those involve a gun. Furthermore, the risk of homicide is three times higher when there are guns in the home. 

What happened in 2020 was a recipe for disaster. For months we were confined to home while gun sales skyrocketed. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to come up with a pretty solid hypothesis about what happened. But you won't get there unless/until you are willing to recognize that many homicides are the result of domestic violence. For example, as much as I appreciate the work of German Lopez on issues like this, take a look at how he described the impact of the pandemic on murder rates:

When people, especially teenage boys and young men, lack the right social connections and have a lot of free time on their hands, they’re more likely to get into trouble — spending time when they’d be at work or school on gang or other illicit activity, possibly to make ends meet or to socialize. As the pandemic shut down much of day-to-day life, including schools and some sectors of work, those circumstances were more likely in 2020, and may have led to more violence.

He can envision young men being more likely to engage in "gang or other illicit activity," but doesn't even mention the possibility of increased tensions in the home leading to domestic violence.

We all know that the vast majority of the victims of domestic violence are women. As long as most crime reporters, police, and politicians are men, it is likely to continue to be a crime that is overlooked when pontificating about the rise in homicides.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Antidote for Projection: Empathy

One of my favorite columns from Steve Benen is the one he wrote back in the spring of 2011 about Karl Rove's "affection for projection."

Karl Rove has a special, some might call it “pathological,” quality as a political pundit. More than anyone I’ve ever seen or heard of, Rove identifies some of his own ugliest, most malicious, most pernicious qualities, and then projects them onto those he hates most...

A lesser hack might find it difficult to launch political attacks that are ironic, wrong, hypocritical, and examples of projection, all at the same time, but Rove is a rare talent.

At this point, Rove's talent isn't so rare. As Martin Longman suggests, the entire Republican Party is projecting their nefarious motives onto Democrats. For example, the party whose president incited an insurrection on January 6th is accusing their opponents of tyranny. As we learn more about how intelligence about what was coming on January 6th was stymied or ignored, they are the party that is accusing their opponents of manipulating intelligence on the Taliban. Similarly, the party whose governors are doing everything they can to block efforts to prevent the spread of COVID are now blaming their opponents for the continuation of its spread. I could go on, but perhaps you get the point.

The recovering therapist in me wants to diagnose what is happening here. It is possible that, in the case of someone like Karl Rove, this is a calculated strategy. It is meant to disarm criticism of your side by jumping the gun and accusing your opponent of the same nefarious motives and deeds. In that case, mainstream media's addiction to "bothsiderism" is part of the package. That is precisely why right wingers hatched the whole idea of a threat from antifa as cover for their connection to extremist white supremacy groups.

But projection is also an interesting psychological phenomenon. As Longman writes:

We have to guess about what other people are thinking and what motives lie behind their actions. Our best reference point is what we’d likely feel or do in similar circumstances. If our feelings or actions would be unacceptable, then we’re likely to think other people would have a similarly problematic reaction. 

Another way of looking at the Republican attachment to projection is that using oneself as a reference point to explain the motivations behind someone else's behavior is pretty common. Since Republicans were willing to let the global economy tank during the Great Recession in order to rob their opponent of any accomplishments, they are prone to believe that their opponent would use a pandemic for political gain. Longman's point is that this is why Republicans don't understand Democrats. 

Democrats are capable of some cynical political ploys but they would never try to gain power by helping a deadly virus proliferate. The record is clear, too, that the Democrats will act to shore up the economy in an emergency even if it will help their political opponents. Remember, when the big banks needed to be bailed out in lead-up to the 2008 election, it was the Democrats who stepped up and took the heat.

With that said, it is important to note that human beings have the ability to understand the motivations of people who are different from them. It requires two things: (1) listening, and (2) empathy. I am reminded of something Barack Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope."

I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.
Empathy was a major theme for Obama. You might remember that, prior to nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, he said that he wanted someone with “empathy” for “people’s hopes and struggles.” One of the former president's most important speeches was the one he gave on Martin Luther King Day in January 2008 at Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was all about our empathy deficit.
I’m not talking about the budget deficit. I’m not talking about the trade deficit. Talking about the moral deficit in this country. I’m talking about an empathy deficit, the inability to recognize ourselves in one another.

Of course, empathy is one of those soft, squishy things we write off because it's a woman's thing that doesn't have any place in a man's world of hardball politics. But I am convinced that if we are ever going to understand why our country seems to be riding off the rails these days, we're going to have to come to grips with how and why we wound up with such an empathy deficit, especially (but not exclusively) on the right. 

I suspect that it has something to do with this country's excessive focus on individual liberties over community responsibilities. That is precisely the ugliness we're seeing play out with anti-vaxers and anti-maskers. Everything is about their own "freedoms" with no thought whatsoever for how their actions affect others. 

On a final note, this empathy deficit is also one of the main contributors to the persistence of white privilege. We tend to project our own experiences onto people of color and find their actions confusing at best and problematic at worst. The work of anti-racism begins when we listen with empathy.

In the end, I don't have any grand solutions for how we overcome this addiction to projection rather than empathy when it comes to dealing with opponents. But what I DO know is that it is critically important that we understand the circumstances we're dealing with. This is just one more example of how the job of liberals is harder and why it is important to reject the messaging strategies embraced by Republicans. 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

What We Should Be Talking About on the Anniversary of 9/11

I wrote the piece below in September 2016, just two months before the election of Donald Trump. But it is as relevant today as it was five years ago. 

Fifteen years ago this Wednesday Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) Against Terrorists. Just three days after the attacks on 9/11, it passed unanimously in the Senate and only one member of the House - Rep. Barbara Lee - voted against it. If you have some time, I suggest that you listen to her accounting of that decision that was part of RadioLab's broadcast called "60 Words" (the number of words contained in the AUMF).

The reason those 60 words are so important is because they changed the way this country deals with terrorism - and it is still in effect 15 years later. If you remember, prior to that time, terrorists like Ramzi Ahmed Yousef (WTC bombing) were apprehended and tried in our court system. The 2001 AUMF launched the Bush/Cheney "global war on terror" which not only led to the war in Afghanistan, but was used to justify things like torture and the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Of all the legacies of President Obama, his handling of that war is likely to receive the most mixed reviews. But his critics on the left have consistently missed the mark by arguing against his approach from the perspective of civil liberties. That ignores the sea-change that happened when this became a war. From that perspective, it would be helpful to review what has happened and where we stand today.

It is interesting to note from the get-go that President Obama attempted to re-name the "global war on terror." Take a look at how Dick Cheney reacted to some of the differences he was noticing in 2009.


Cheney was concerned that the President was taking the country back to dealing with terrorism as a law enforcement problem. A couple of months later in May 2009, he and Obama gave dueling speeches about their different approaches to combating terrorism. In his speech, President Obama talked about ending the use of torture and his plan to close Gitmo. But he also said this:
Now let me be clear: We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability. For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable -- a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass.
In other words, the war would continue - but within the bounds of "our legal traditions and time-tested institutions." As such, it was the 2001 IUMF that AG Eric Holder relied on to defend the administration's use of drones.
In response to the attacks perpetrated – and the continuing threat posed – by al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, Congress has authorized the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those groups. Because the United States is in an armed conflict, we are authorized to take action against enemy belligerents under international law. The Constitution empowers the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of violent attack. And international law recognizes the inherent right of national self-defense. None of this is changed by the fact that we are not in a conventional war.
Then in May 2013, Obama gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency. Here is how he introduced the conversation we need to be having:
Now, make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth. But we have to recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions -- about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them...

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do -- what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom. 
The President went on to discuss repealing the 2001 AUMF.
So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
The headlines after that speech were astounding:

The End of Perpetual War
"This War, Like All Wars, Must End"
Obama Lays Out a Plan to End the War Against Al Qaeda 

Unfortunately that speech was soon forgotten as the threat of ISIS emerged and the war on terror was given new life. That is the state of the situation that President Obama will pass on to his successor.

If Hillary Clinton wins in November, she will face the same kind of excoriation that Republicans have launched at Obama for any terrorist attack either here at home or in places like Paris. Rather than rallying around our Commander-in-Chief (as the entire country did after 9/11), it is clear that Republicans will use an attack to inflame anger and fear against her. Because of that, Clinton's administration will need to be just as vigilant or be blamed for the consequences. So it is hard to imagine any president making another move to end the war on terror. In the wrong hands, it is a recipe for disaster.

As President Obama outlined in 2013, that poses some difficult questions - ones that need to be answered based on hard-earned wisdom rather than fear. The threat of terrorism is real (although not nearly as large as too many Americans assume). But being perpetually at war poses a threat as well. On the anniversary of 9/11, that is what we should be talking about.

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