This will never be normal

One of the current complaints of the Trump right concerns the treatment given to Alex Jones by Facebook, which has temporarily banned the Internet radio host for videos that violated “community standards.” According to Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network, “freedom of speech [is] under attack.” Fox News television personality Tucker Carlson has also come to Jones’s defense, saying sarcastically, “I know we’re supposed to think Alex Jones is way more radical than, like, Bill Maher.”

.. Well, yes, that is precisely what we should think. At various points, Jones has promoted the belief that

  • 9/11 was an “inside job,” that
  • Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria, that
  • NASA had built a child slave colony on Mars in order to harvest blood and bone marrow, that
  • the Oklahoma City bombing,
  • the Boston Marathon bombing and the
  • Sandy Hook school shooting were government “false flag” operations, that
  • some shooting survivors were “crisis actors,” that
  • “globalists” are intent on committing genocide and that
  • Democrats are on the verge of launching a second civil war.

.. President Trump has made a great many unpleasant things unavoidable. He has appeared on Jones’s Infowars program and assured Jones that his “reputation is amazing.” The White House briefly gave Infowars a press credential. And Donald Trump Jr. has retweeted Infowars stories.

.. It represents not only a certain approach to political strategy but also a certain approach to morality, pressed to its logical extreme. Trump is not a dogmatist; he is an egotist. He judges others not by their convictions, or even by their hold on reality, but by their fidelity to his person. It is a form of identity politics in which all that counts is one man’s identity. So Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), being faithless to Trump, is an enemy. And the revealer of child slavery on Mars is a friend.

.. Remember when a white man in Boston, spouting Trump slogans, beat up a homeless man outside a subway station? Trump responded: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

.. Remember when a Trump supporter punched an African American man at a rally? Trump said that his follower “obviously loves his country.”

.. Remember when the alt-right provoked violence in Charlottesville? Trump pronounced some white nationalists to be “very fine people.”

.. The president has a nearly impossible time criticizing his fans, even when they are guilty of hate crimes and violence. In Trump’s own private creed, they are absolved of guilt by their loyalty to him.

.. This commitment

  • transforms their cruelty into the proof of passion; their
  • prejudice into an expression of patriotism; their
  • lawlessness into the embrace of his higher order. ‘

Just ask former Phoenix area

  • sheriff Joe Arpaio, pardoned after his abuse of Hispanic migrants. Or
  • Oregon cattle ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, pardoned after defying the federal government.

All were justified and sanctified by their devotion to Trump.

.. Any political movement is defined not just by what it aspires to, but also by whom it excludes. And the alt-right, the Alex Jones right, the white nationalist right know that they are fully included in Trump’s definition of his movement.

.. They know that their loyalty to him has been rewarded with a legitimacy they have craved for decades. And they are full, enthusiastic partners in the Trump project — to delegitimize any source of authority and information but his own.

  • .. Genuine populists are discredited by consorting with people who accuse elites of arming for mass murder.
  • The religious right is caught in bed with a diseased, seeping moral relativism. And
  • Fox anchors come to the defense of a man who verbally defiles the graves of murdered children.

 

The Likeliest Explanation for Trump’s Helsinki Fiasco

Character, not collusion, best explains the president’s bizarre deference to Vladimir Putin.

Last week, I wrote that the best way to think about a Trump Doctrine is as nothing more than Trumpism on the international stage. By Trumpism, I do not mean a coherent ideological program, but a psychological phenomenon, or simply the manifestation of his character.

.. During a joint news appearance with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Trump demonstrated that, when put to the test, he cannot see any issue through a prism other than his grievances and ego.

.. Trump made it clear that he can only understand the investigation into Russian interference as an attempt to rob him of credit for his electoral victory, and thus to delegitimize his presidency.’
.. For most people with a grasp of the facts — supporters and critics alike — the question of Russian interference and the question of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign are separate. Russia did interfere in the election, full stop. Whether there was collusion is still an open question, even if many Trump supporters have made up their minds about it. Whether Russian interference, or collusion, got Trump over the finish line is ultimately unknowable, though I think it’s very unlikely.

.. Among the self-styled “resistance,” the answer takes several sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory forms.
  1. One theory is that the Russians have “kompromat” — that is, embarrassing or incriminating intelligence on Trump. Another is that
  2. he is a willing asset of the Russians — “Agent Orange” — with whom he colluded to win the presidency.

.. their real shortcoming is that they are less plausible than the Aesopian explanation: This is who Trump is. Even if Russia hadn’t meddled in the election at all, Trump would still admire Putin because Trump admires men like Putin — which is why he’s praised numerous other dictators and strongmen.

.. The president’s steadfast commitment to a number of policies —

  • animosity toward NATO,
  • infatuation with protectionism,
  • an Obama-esque obsession with eliminating nuclear weapons, and
  • his determination that a “good relationship” with Russia should be a policy goal rather than a means to one

— may have some ideological underpinning. (These policies all seem to be rooted in intellectual fads of the 1980s.)

 

One Thing Donald Trump Would Like Is Freedom From the Press

More than any president in living memory, Donald Trump has conducted a dogged, remorseless assault on the press. He portrays the news media not only as a dedicated adversary of his administration but of the entire body politic. These attacks have forced the media where it does not want to be, at the center of the political debate.

Trump’s purpose is clear. He seeks to weaken an institution that serves to constrain the abusive exercise of executive authority.

.. He has described news organizations as “the enemy of the American people.” He has routinely called reporters“scum,” “slime,” “dishonest” and “disgusting.”

.. Rosen observed that the history of right-wing attacks on the media

extends back through Agnew’s speeches for Nixon to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and winds forward through William Rushertalk radio, and of course Fox News, which founded a business model on liberal bias.

Trump is not just attacking the press but the conditions that make it possible for news reports to serve as any kind of check on power.

.. From undue influence (Agnew’s claim) to something closer to treason (enemy of the people.) Instead of criticizing ‘the media’ for unfair treatment, he whips up hatred for it.

.. Trump has some built-in advantages in his war on the media. Confidence in the media was in decline long before Trump entered politics

..  in September 2017 that 37 percent of the public had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the mass media, down from 53 percent in 1997.

.. The Trump administration, with a rhetoric that began during the campaign and burgeoned in the earliest days of Donald Trump’s presidency, has engaged in enemy construction of the press, and the risks that accompany that categorization are grave.

.. Insofar as Trump succeeds in “undercutting the watchdog, educator, and proxy functions of the press,” they write, it

leaves the administration more capable of delegitimizing other institutions and constructing other enemies — including

  • the judiciary,
  • the intelligence community,
  • immigrants, and
  • members of certain races or religions.

.. Trump is signaling — through his terminology, through his delegitimizing actions, and through his anticipatory undercutting — that the press is literally the enemy, to be distrusted, ignored, and excluded.

.. motivate it to want to call out the changing norms that it sees around it, and to defend the role of important democratic institutions when they are attacked. But when the press is itself one of those institutions, it finds itself a part of the story in ways that it is unaccustomed to being, and it has to weigh the potential loss of credibility that might come with an aggressive self-defense.

.. “The best way for the press to react to Trump’s undemocratic behavior is to continue trying to do their jobs the best they can,”

.. Ladd specifically warned against “reacting to Trump by becoming more crusadingly anti-Trump.”

Trump has successfully “put the mainstream media in a difficult position,” according to Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago:

If the media directly address the accusations of fake news, they ironically run the risk of dignifying the accusations. But if they ignore the accusations, they miss the opportunity to prove their professionalism to those who have grown skeptical.

.. Trump’s disdain for the First Amendment is an integral part of a much longer series of developments in which both parties have demonstrated a willingness to defy democratic norms, although the Republican Party has been in the forefront.

For a quarter of a century, Republican officials have been more willing than Democratic officials to play constitutional hardball — not only or primarily on judicial nominations but across a range of spheres. Democrats have also availed themselves of hardball throughout this period, but not with the same frequency or intensity.

.. Fishkin and Pozen cite the work of Mark Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, to define constitutional hardball as “political claims and practices”

that are without much question within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine and practice but that are nonetheless in some tension with existing pre-constitutional understandings. Constitutional hardball tactics are viewed by the other side as provocative and unfair because they flout the ‘goes without saying’ assumptions that underpin working systems of constitutional government. Such tactics do not generally flout binding legal norms. But that only heightens the sense of foul play insofar as it insulates acts of hardball from judicial review.

Republicans on the far right, in particular, Fishkin and Pozen write, have been willing to engage in constitutional hardball because they are drawn to “narratives of debasement and restoration,” which suggest

that something has gone fundamentally awry in the republic, on the order of an existential crisis, and that unpatriotic liberals have allowed or caused it to happen.

The severity of the liberal threat, in the eyes of these conservatives, justifies extreme steps to restore what they see as a besieged moral order.

.. As with so many things about President Trump, it strikes me that he didn’t start the fire. He got into office because it was already burning and now he’s pouring on gasoline.

.. Accusations that the press has a political agenda can, perversely, help create an agenda which is then said to corroborate the accusations.

.. Pozen described Trump’s denunciation of the press as “the culmination of several decades of comparable attacks by media pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh” and he argues that Trump’s calls

to lock up one’s general election opponent, encouraging online hate mobs, lying constantly, attacking the press constantly, contradicting oneself constantly, undermining the very idea of truth are individually and in common potentially profound threats to the integrity and quality of our system of free expression.

 

‘Delegitimizing’ Mueller? Don’t Blame the Nunes Memo

The FBI and Justice Department hyped Trump–Russia collusion. Rod Rosenstein can right that wrong.

.. The most bitter dispute over the Nunes memo involves Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. This might seem odd since the memo, published last week by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee chaired by Devin Nunes (R. Calif.), does not address the Mueller investigation. Rather, it homes in on potential abuses of foreign-intelligence-collection authorities by Obama-era Justice Department and FBI officials, said to have occurred many months before Mueller was appointed.

.. Nevertheless, it is simply a fact that many ardent supporters of President Trump claim the legitimacy of the Mueller investigation is destroyed by revelations in the Nunes memo — particularly, the improper use of the unverified Steele dossier to obtain a FISA-court warrant to spy on Carter Page, who had been a Trump campaign adviser. The idea is that without the Steele dossier, there would be no Trump-Russia narrative, and thus no collusion investigation — which is how Trump supporters perceive the Mueller probe.

.. Trump critics see the Mueller investigation as the path to impeachment, and thus anathematize Chairman Nunes as a Trumpist hack bent on razing the FBI

.. The Mueller investigation is supposed to be a counterintelligence probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Getting to the bottom of Russia’s perfidy is a goal every American should support

.. Yet the FBI and the Justice Department went out of their way, and outside their own policy, to frame the Russia investigation within an innuendo-laden narrative of Trump collusion. They did so by selectively broadcasting investigative information that is supposed to be confidential and non-public.

.. Thus the bleating about how Republican worries over FISA abuse are just a smokescreen for discrediting Mueller’s investigation. But they did the same thing: exploiting concerns about Russian interference in our election process as camouflage for a campaign to delegitimize Trump’s presidency.

.. From a law-enforcement perspective, the government should speak publicly about an investigation only in court, when it formally charges a person with a crime, and when that person thus enjoys all the due-process protections our system affords. Prior to that point, confirming an investigation would stigmatize a suspect who has not been charged and is presumed innocent; while denying that an investigation is ongoing would create a need to confirm or deny in every case.

.. From a counterintelligence perspective, the wisdom of the no-comment policy is even more obvious. Intelligence work is classified. The point is not to prosecute crimes; it is to derive information about foreign governments and actors who threaten American interests.

.. The FBI and Justice Department should always resist acknowledging that an investigation is under way. Even when the fact of an investigation is unavoidably public (because, for example, people find out a search warrant has been executed, or someone has been subpoenaed to the grand jury), the no-comment rule enables prosecutors and investigators to decline to answer questions about their work.

.. The real problem with Director Comey’s announcement involves what he said next. The counterintelligence investigation, he elaborated,

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. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed. [Emphases added.]

None of this should have been said.

.. There was still no reason to broadcast these suspicions. The public announcement created the perception that the bureau strongly suspected that a nefarious, overarching Trump–Russia conspiracy was afoot.

.. This would have been indefensible under any circumstances, but the lapse is especially glaring given that Director Comey was privately telling President Trump and congressional leaders that Trump himself was not a suspect. Why gratuitously say something that could only lead people to believe he was?

.. Moreover, there was no reason for Comey to publicly mention “an assessment of whether any crimes were committed” in the context of a counterintelligence, rather than criminal, investigation.

.. The stunning announcement conflated two things it has always been important to keep discrete:

  1. the counterintelligence investigation of the threat Russia, with its advanced cyber capabilities and anti-American intentions, clearly poses to our electoral system; and
  2. the dubious Trump–Russia collusion angle. For much of the public, they became one and the same.

.. Ordinarily, prosecutors are not assigned to intelligence cases because intelligence work is not prosecution — it is the work of trained analysts assessing threats, not lawyers proving statutory offenses

.. the deputy attorney general did not undertake his own description; he instead adopted as his own Comey’s description of the probe in the March 20 House testimony — i.e., the portrayal of the probe that emphasized Trump–Russia collusion.

.. Only a week before appointing Mueller, Rosenstein had authored a memorandum arguing that Comey should be removed as FBI director for failing to adhere to traditional Justice Department policies and norms. In particular, Rosenstein scolded Comey for publicly revealing derogatory investigative information about people who have not been formally charged with crimes.

.. Comey’s defensive claims that he had tried merely “to say what is true,” and to protect the FBI from charges that it had “concealed” from the public important information about a politically fraught investigation.

.. there is no basis in the regulations for the assignment of a special counsel to a counterintelligence investigation.

.. his task was to describe the factual basis for a criminal probe and the crimes that he was giving Mueller jurisdiction to investigate. The Comey testimony that he adopted had done neither of these things — it floated speculation

.. Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein could do a great service by amending his special-counsel appointment to make clear that

(a) Mueller is to investigate Russia’s actions to interfere in our election;

(b) the previous statements about possible Trump campaign “coordination” with the Russian government were unnecessary and are withdrawn; and

(c) President Trump is not personally suspected of wrongdoing

.. Rosenstein should relieve the president of the burden of this suspicion if that can be done honestly.

.. If Rosenstein did that, Mueller’s investigation would have the public support it should have