White House

What to Expect This Autumn

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President Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives for a motions hearing regarding evidence in his case at U.S. District Court in Washington, May 23, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Coming attractions for the big political news in the weeks to come; why we need to end the era of the celebrity presidential candidates; and football comes back . . . with all of the boring bumbling that preseason promises.

Think of This as a Coming-Attractions Trailer for Autumn’s News Headlines

I head out next week on vacation, and while “August is slow in Washington” is an often-inaccurate cliché, it does feel like the big political news is in a holding pattern.

What will happen in Paul Manafort’s trial? We don’t know, but either way, the charges against him don’t really relate to the 2016 presidential campaign. Lots of folks seem to think that proving Manafort got loans on false pretenses somehow begins the tumbling snowball that will turn into an avalanche that leads to Trump’s impeachment.

Our old friend Elaina Plott is covering the trial and writes bluntly about the gap between the expectations and the trial’s actual events:

Judge T. S. Ellis III adjourned his court just before 5:30 p.m. As I slid into the elevator, a blond woman noticed me holding my notebook. “What do you think the headline is? The secret affair?” she asked. Before I could answer, she said, more quietly, “I wonder if that’s the story of all this.” It seemed to be confirmation that in the end, the day’s trial, like the momentary hint of a “secret life,” had proved unsatisfying. As we descended, I began to wonder whether at the culmination of Mueller’s investigation, we would feel the same.

What does Robert Mueller have? We don’t know, but does this investigation look or sound like it’s ready to wrap up and issue a report anytime soon? It seems like a lot of plates are still spinning. This morning CNN notes that while there’s no official Department of Justice written rule about issuing final reports or making public announcements within 60 days of an election, there is a longstanding custom about not making big announcements relating to elected officials close to Election Day.

(Somewhere Hillary Clinton is wondering why this custom wasn’t honored by former FBI director Jim Comey, and George H. W. Bush and Caspar Weinberger are wondering why this custom wasn’t honored by Lawrence Walsh.)

If Mueller wants to avoid a public announcement in that 60-day window — a factor that is by no means guaranteed — he’s going to have to turn it in very soon. The 60-day window would begin September 6 or 7, and as noted earlier, Mueller turns in his completed report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has to go through and redact anything classified, or sensitive grand-jury discussions. Anything can happen, but it’s probably more likely that the public will see Mueller’s final report after the midterm elections than before them.

What will happen with the confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh? We don’t know, but this could very well be the least surprising confirmation battle in recent memory. We can expect just about every Senate Democrat who isn’t in a competitive race to vote “no.” Seven have already announced they will vote “no,” which makes their cries for the release of more documents from Kavanaugh a little cynical. (What, are you looking for some long-lost document that will make you suddenly change your mind and support him?) We can expect just about every Senate Republican to vote “yes.” Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski says she wants to take her time. Maine senator Susan Collins is making it clear that her vote is probably going to hinge on Kavanaugh’s answer to one big question about Roe v. Wade at the confirmation hearing:

“So what is important to me is does Judge Kavanaugh consider Roe to be settled law?” Collins said. “Does he believe it is established precedent on which people have relied that has now been incorporated into the fabric of our society as a recognized constitutional right?”

The Senate’s “state work period” ends the day after Labor Day, September 4. They’re not in session September 10-11. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley says the confirmation hearing will be “sometime in September.”

What will happen in the 2018 elections? We don’t know, but a motivated Democratic base and a less-than-fully motivated Trump-Republican base add up to a bad year for the GOP.

It’s Not Too Late to Argue That the Presidency Is Not Meant to Be Entertainment

In a better world, a significant portion of the people who encounter Michael Avenatti, the lawyer best known for representing porn star Stormy Daniels, would tell him, politely but directly, that he has no business running for president of the United States.

“I think there’s a huge appetite within the party for a fighter,” he said. “I think the party has yearned for a fighter — a fighter for good, if you will — for a significant period of time. And for many, I’m probably seen as that individual.”

See, no. The purpose of the president of the United States is not to be “a fighter.” It’s not about being pugnacious on cable news.

Every day the president of the United States wakes up and, presumably fairly early in the day, gets his daily briefing. Inside it, or during the briefing by intelligence officials, he’s (hopefully) kept up to date on every development and threat that could endanger U.S. interests. He may or may not have to sign off on covert operations, or the decision to put U.S. troops in harm’s way. He has to grapple with a lot of situations with no good options and plenty of bad ones. He has to carry the burden of knowing that some good men and women are likely to die because of his decisions.

He oversees a workforce of about 3 million employees — 2 million civilians, 1.3 million active-duty military. Any given day will bring problems that are complex — an Ebola outbreak, brinksmanship by Chinese or Russian military forces, a school shooting, natural disasters, tumultuous markets, some viral video of a police encounter with a minority stirring up racial tensions in an American city.

Amidst it all, he’s trying to get Congress to pass bills to enact his agenda and get his appointees confirmed. He’s meeting with foreign leaders, both friendly and hostile. There are pardons to consider. Organizations and special interests want attention and action on their agenda. The president’s party wants him to give speeches at fundraisers and rallies. The whole task involves a lot of management and negotiation — which is why for a long while, American voters preferred presidential candidates who were governors, who had run their own little mini-presidencies in Atlanta, Sacramento, Little Rock, and Austin.

There’s something fascinating about presidents who beat the tar out of each other on the campaign trail becoming friends later in life. Many presidents find that their predecessors who seemed so foolish and out of touch when they were mere candidates were doing the best they could in a difficult circumstance — and that they are among the few who really understand the burdens of the job.

And of course, the whole time, there’s relentless media scrutiny — speeches, interviews, press conferences. That last part bleeds into the concept of the president as a celebrity — appearing on late-night comedy shows, making NCAA bracket picks on ESPN, tweets and other social-media content — and it’s the least important aspect of the job in terms of the Constitution and governing . . . and yet somehow, it’s becoming one of the most important aspects of the job in the modern media environment.

A generation ago, a figure like Michael Avenatti announcing interest in running for president would be seen as roughly akin to Pat Paulsen. Now, Avenatti gets invited to Democratic party events in Iowa, has a Hillary Clinton staffer helping out, and gets credulous interviews in the Des Moines Register.

Football is Back! Kind of. Sort of.

It’s that glorious time of the year when fans who have endured a long off-season tune in, cheer “football is back!” . . . and then, after a few minutes, remember what an unbearable, unwatchable slog most preseason football is. False start. Time out. Offsides. Fumble. Pass to empty space, because the receiver who’s not going to make the team ran the wrong route, and the third-string quarterback didn’t look at where he was running.

Still, the year has already brought some surprises. What, were the Cleveland Browns helmets too exciting? It’s bad enough that they’re not, you know, brown, that they have no logo, but now they take off the stripes? They look like a bunch of neon-orange golf balls. Apparently the stripes return for the regular season, when the final roster has “earned their stripes.”

But hey, Baker Mayfield looks good for the Browns, and Saquon Barkley looks like he’ll be exciting for the Giants, and even the Bills’ Josh Allen had some rocket throws against the third (fourth? fifth?) string defenders of the Carolina Panthers. Hope springs eternal for every team who hasn’t already had a critical player get knocked out for the season with an ACL.

ADDENDA: It’s bad enough that Democratic congressman Steve Cohen said, “The big orange president . . . He’s going to come down here and he is going to endorse Marsha Blackburn, because Marsha Blackburn, if he says, ‘Jump off the Harahan Bridge,’ she’ll jump off the Harahan Bridge.”

But to do it at a community prayer breakfast?

Come on, man.

U.S.

Unite the Right 2: Electric Boogaloo

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White supremacists carry a shield and Confederate flag at a rally in Charlottesville, Va., August 12. /(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Washington, D.C., and the state of Virginia prepare for a weekend white-nationalist rally in front of the White House; another once-trusted Trump aide reveals secret recordings of their conversations; and the Academy Awards creates a special category for films that audiences actually watched.

The Weekend Forecast: Cloudy with a Chance of White Nationalism

Hearing police discuss their plans to keep the peace during a white-nationalist rally and counterprotest in Washington, D.C. this Sunday sounds a little ominous . . . but at least they’re preparing, and perhaps the country will be spared a rerun of the appalling scenes of violence in Charlottesville last year.

Up to 1,000 counterdemonstrators are expected at Freedom Plaza between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday for the DC United Against Hate rally and march, according to a permit issued by the National Park Service on Wednesday afternoon. Two other permits are pending for other counterdemonstrators.

After the rally, the group plans to march about five blocks to Lafeyette Park, the site where between 200 and 300 white supremacists have proposed to rally. The permit for that rally is pending, a National Park Service spokesperson says.

D.C. Chief of Police Peter Newsham says officers will do whatever is necessary to keep Unite the Right rally attendees separate from counterdemonstrators.

In fact, the whole state of Virginia is battening down the hatches.

“We are treating this as a statewide event,” said Jeffrey Stern, coordinator of emergency management for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. “We will be in support both of the city and [Albemarle] County here, as well as Fairfax County and other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia and our partners across the Potomac [River] in Washington, D.C., for the events on Saturday and Sunday.”

More than 1,000 federal, state and local law enforcement members are expected in the area over the weekend. Officials said roughly 700 members of the Virginia State Police would be in the area and about 300 Virginia National Guard members would be on standby.

Both Market Street Park, where last year’s rally was held, and Court Square Park will be completely fenced off, according to city spokesman Brian Wheeler.

They’re going to set up pedestrian checkpoints in downtown Charlottesville.

Hopefully this all passes without serious incident, but one can’t help but suspect that the most odious white nationalists walked away from last year’s display with a sense of accomplishment. The violence brought weeks of national attention to their ideas, and those who are willing to march under a Nazi flag aren’t deterred by negative media coverage. They probably hunger for it and relish it, believing that some segment of the audience will be attracted to their agenda. And their plan is to rally in front of the White House this weekend.

Who Wasn’t Secretly Recording Trump?

Omarosa Manigault-Newman, the former Apprentice star who President Trump brought to the White House to work as “assistant to the president and director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison,” secretly recorded conversations with him, marking the second time in a few weeks that we’ve learned that a longtime associate of Trump’s was secretly recording their conversations.

At this rate, the only party that will turn out to have not wiretapped Trump Tower will be the Obama administration.

Manigault-Newman apparently showcased the tapes while shopping her forthcoming book, Unhinged, which she says will offer a deeply critical portrait of Trump, claiming he is in “mental decline.”

This seems like a good moment to remind Omarosa that back in September 2016 she was declaring that everyone who ever criticized Trump will be forced to bow down to him once he won: “Every critic, every detractor will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who ever disagreed, who ever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.” (If a candidate is battling accusations of being a narcissistic, power-mad aspiring autocrat, comments such as that one do not help.)

Just what could Trump say in a secretly recorded conversation that would be all that surprising or scandalous, considering what he says in public?

President Trump takes great pride in his belief that he is an impeccable judge of character and talent. Back in 2016, he said, “I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people. We want top of the line professionals. I really don’t want publicity seekers who want to be on magazines or who are out for themselves.” At the 2016 Republican Convention, Ivanka Trump assured us, “he hires the best person for the job, period.” (Then again, you might feel that way, too, if he kept asking your spouse to handle every important responsibility.)

Whether Trump sees it or not, he attracts and seems to prefer sycophants, who often turn out to be grifters eager to cash in on their connections to him. That person in our life who speaks too bluntly and rubs us the wrong way can sometimes be doing us a favor.

‘And the Award For ‘Best Film that Audiences Actually Watched’ Goes To . . . ’

The Academy Awards are adding a special category for “outstanding achievement in popular film”. . . in other words, an Oscar category for films that audiences actually watched.

At least as important, in terms of improving the ratings of the Oscars telecast for ABC, the Academy also said in its letter that it “will create a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film” in time for the 91st Oscars, adding that “[e]ligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.” Some will complain that adding such a category cheapens the prestige of the Oscars, making it more like the People’s Choice Awards or MTV Movie & TV Awards, but that is old-world thinking. More than the length of the telecast or the name of the host, Oscar ratings have been shown to correlate with the popularity of the nominated films among the general public. And the gulf between what the public buys tickets to see and what the Academy nominates and awards has never been greater.

You could argue that by nominating the lesser-known, smaller-release films, the Academy was urging audiences to take a look at films they otherwise might never encounter or consider. Perhaps the embrace of more obscure and smaller films in recent years reflected an exhaustion with the old criteria of “Oscar bait”: sweeping historical dramas, war films that suggest conflict between nations is meaningless, intense performances of tragic historical figures, actors embracing extreme weight gain or weight loss for a role, actors playing characters with mental or physical handicaps, and heavy-handed message movies.

The speech that Anton Ego, snooty Parisian food critic, gives in the Pixar film Ratatouille has a lot of truth in it:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations; the new needs friends.

But let’s throw in a few kind words for negative criticism, or at least acknowledge the occasional need for it. Sometimes a movie, television show, or book just doesn’t work out. The audience isn’t thrilled, and, like taking apart a malfunctioning machine, it’s useful to see where it went wrong, what part isn’t working, what concepts could have been interesting but just never developed quite right. (Ideally, this sort of rigorous evaluation and editing goes on during the creative process, instead of after the final product is presented to an audience.)

Face it, Hollywood in particular is a cynical business. Studios seem to think audiences will buy tickets to watch anything. Giant companies envision the toy line and merchandising first, and the story second.

The negative critic can be the equivalent of the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Sometimes everyone wants a project to succeed and convinces themselves that it is working when it isn’t.

For example, someone might ask, “How could Batman v. Superman fail? It’s got two of the most popular comic-book characters of all time!” And as hordes of bloggers and YouTube-show hosts have observed, besides the exceptionally dark vision of the characters, sometimes a movie just tries to do too much. Batman v. Superman tries to be a sequel to a preceding Superman movie, introduce a new Batman, introduce a new Lex Luthor, introduce Wonder Woman and set up a plot point for her own forthcoming movie, set up an adversarial relationship between Superman and Batman, introduce Doomsday and set up a storyline inspired by “The Death of Superman” storyline from the comics, introduce images that evoke the climactic fight from “The Dark Knight Returns,” offer teases of the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, continue the commentary on whether today’s modern world would trust a figure like Superman, set up a philosophical and ideological clash between the title characters, as well as the physical battle . . .  it’s just too much. Few of those goals are achieved well at all. Really handling all of those points, characters, plot points, and ideas would have probably required something closer to a ten to twelve-hour miniseries.

At the heart of a lot of negative feedback is the hope that the next effort will avoid the same mistake and be better.

ADDENDA: Sonny Bunch with a point that many on the left won’t want to hear:

If you create a world in which you appeal to principles and then weaponize these principles in such a way that only one side of the fight is hurt — a world in which Kevin D. Williamson is canned from the Atlantic while Sarah Jeong maintains her position at the New York Times; a world in which right-wing YouTubers are demonetized while left-wing videos skate by; a world in which conservative voices see their tweets disappear while liberal voices flourish — you encourage people to abandon their principles altogether. (That’s why conservative provocateurs tweet about following “new rules”: They see principles as a weakness, and in a total cultural war, they might not be wrong.)

Elections

Ohio’s Election Results Are Too Close for Comfort

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Troy Balderson with President Trump (REUTERS/Leah Millis )

Making the click-through worthwhile: The Ohio special election shows Democrats don’t have to worry about their get-out-the-vote efforts in 2018, a stunning report about who’s getting farm subsidies and from where, and some deep thoughts about the “Deep State” and why Americans perceive sinister foreign influences in their political debates.

The Ohio House Result Should Make Republicans Nervous

The morning brings news that Republican Troy Balderson edged out Democrat Danny O’Connor in the special election in Ohio’s 12th congressional district. President Trump immediately boasted that he turned around the race.

This is whistling past the graveyard. Ohio’s 12th, which includes communities north and east of Columbus, has been a traditionally heavily Republican district; Trump won it by eleven in 2016, and previous incumbent Pat Tiberi usually won by a two-to-one margin. Balderson and O’Connor will meet in a rematch in November.

You’re going to hear a lot of breathless analysis of this special House election, but the basic outlines of November haven’t changed much since what we saw in Virginia and New Jersey last November. The Democratic base is roused. They will come out to vote. A side effect of that “own the libs!” “Democratic tears are delicious!” antagonism is that it does the job of Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts for them. Maybe it’s worth it.

Look at it this way. In 2016, 112,638 turned out in this district to vote for the Democratic congressional candidate, Ed Albertson. Yesterday, 99,820 voted for Democrat O’Connor. Democrats got roughly nine out of every ten Democratic-leaning presidential-election-year voters to come out for a mid-August special election!

By comparison, a whopping 251,266 voted for Tiberi in 2016, and just 101,574 voted for Balderson last night — meaning about four out of every ten GOP-leaning presidential-election-year voters came out for the special election. Balderson hung on just because of the district’s demographics.

Right now, you’d have to conclude that the Democratic base just wants it more than the Republican one. If that pattern keeps up, forget it. There will be no drama on Election Night 2018. It’s just a question of the size of the new Democratic House majority.

This isn’t the result of some great new micro-targeting gizmo, or a jarring advertising campaign, even a particularly great crop of Democratic candidates. This is primarily driven by a Republican president who is in the headlines every single day and who finds some new way to jab and poke at voters who didn’t vote for him in 2016 and voters who have spent his presidency convinced he is Beelzebub.

There’s a great irony to this: Remember when conservatives thought Trump might be eager to work with Democrats on an infrastructure bill, imposing tariffs, raising the debt ceiling, and other areas where they thought his agenda might overlap with the Democrats? Maybe some working-class whites are drifting over to the GOP, but a lot of suburban women are heading to the Democrats. Chuck Schumer boasted at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in 2016 that his party would come out the winner in that trade, but it didn’t work out the way he expected. But maybe those Trump voters aren’t so motivated if he isn’t on the ballot.

Can Republicans have an okay 2018? Sure, but a highly-motivated Democratic base, and a president who alienates demographics that had once been open to the GOP means there just isn’t much room for error.

Oh, and early voting starts in Minnesota in 44 days.

You Won’t Believe Who’s Receiving Taxpayer-Funded Farm Subsidies . . .

Who wants to read about farm subsidies?

Scratch that — who wants to read about farm subsidies going to residents . . . of America’s most densely populated cities? OpenTheBooks.com has collected all of the data about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm subsidies in a new report, and . . .

[Residents of America’s five largest cities] received nearly $17 million in farm subsidies over a three year period, including Chicago ($7.7 million), Miami ($4.5 million), New York City ($2.8 million), Los Angeles ($1.6 million), and Philadelphia ($309,000). In Washington, D.C., more than 350 recipients received $1.7 million in fiscal year 2017 farm subsidies.

Some of this stems from the legal owners of farms residing in cities far from their actual agricultural operations. But at some point, it seems fair to ask that if you’re living comfortably, or well beyond comfortably, why do you need the taxpayer money to help keep your operation going?

The report found that in fiscal year 2017, “$4.8 million in farm subsidies flowed to the upper-middle class elites in America’s most expensive zip codes. Recipients in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood received $139,080 and $94,090 over the last three years, respectively . . . Billionaire businessman Glen Taylor — the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves NBA team — received $116,502 in federal farm subsidies for his egg and dairy farm in Iowa. Additionally, twelve members of Congress collected up to $637,059 in subsidy payments last year alone.”

Back in 2015, then–Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said his department would be cracking down on subsidies to landowners who aren’t really farmers.

“The reality is that this has been a loophole that has been utilized by folks in [business] partnerships to allow for many, many, many people to qualify as actively engaged [in farming] when in fact they might only be engaged in a conference call or in a very narrow sense participating in decision-making in a farming operation,” Vilsack said. “We will close that loophole to the extent that we can.”

In 2013, the Government Accountability Office pointed to one common, troublesome practice: As much as $590 million was being paid in farm subsidies annually to so-called general partnerships, in which multiple individuals could claim to participate in the management of a single farm.

“I think you’ll probably see a lot of folks who in the past have been in an office in, say, a big city who had an interest in a farming operation for tax purposes who will not be getting the benefits that they got before,” Vilsack said.

The OpenTheBooks report found . . . Vilsack received $14,324 in fiscal 2017 through the Crop Rental Program.

Deep Thoughts about the Deep State

Ever since the “Deep State” entered the American-political lexicon, I’ve chuckled a bit because it was commonplace in discussions about Turkish politics back when I lived there from 2005 to 2007. And for what it was worth, from my limited understanding of the Turkish government and politics during that time, it was a pretty valid concept. Both the Turkish government and its political parties had a lot of secret factions and shifting alliances and hidden agreements and forces operating behind the scenes.

Today in NRO, Bruno Maçães, a senior nonresident fellow at the Hudson Institute, argues that over the past decade, American politics has grown to resemble that of these not-quite-Third-World not-quite-First-World countries:

What has been taking place in the U.S. since the 2016 elections would look strikingly familiar to Turks or Egyptians. Some episode or other of foreign involvement in the democratic process is reported. That is bad enough as far as it goes, but it gets worse. Once the fatal virus of suspicion enters the political bloodstream, it will never leave. Foreign involvement as such becomes a political strategy. The different sides in the political contest will strive to win not by developing better policies but by turning their opponents into traitors and quislings.

If you think the problem is Trump, think again. The forbidden fruit has been bitten. How could we go back? Why would Republicans refrain from lobbing the same accusations of foreign meddling against Democrats in the future? And why would foreign powers not attempt the same tactics again, now that they have seen how easy it is to sow chaos and discord? Trump did not bring this situation with him. He is in fact the product of a new world where voters in the U.S. feel increasingly vulnerable to influences from the outside — influences which can no longer be managed or controlled as they were in the past.

The thing is, we already had accusations that “shadowy foreigners are influencing the presidential candidate,” from Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign and Chinese money, to the claim that the Bushes were too close to the Saudi royal family. We remember all of the accusations that “neocons” and their Israeli allies were dictating foreign policy in the modern Republican party. In 2008, the Obama campaign website allowed donors to use largely untraceable prepaid credit cards, raising questions about whether foreign citizens were donating to his vast campaign war chest. “Manchurian Candidate” is one of the most tired attack lines against any presidential candidate.

At some point, a candidate’s having a different perspective became synonymous with it being a suspiciously foreign perspective.

ADDENDA: Watching late-night comedy shows can leave you dumber, as last night Stephen Colbert called Jonah Goldberg a “Trump ally.”

U.S.

Should Alex Jones Be Banned from Social Media?

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(REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo )

Yesterday, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Spotify erased most of the posts and videos on their services from raving lunatic/radio- and web-show host Alex Jones.

Today, our David French pops up in the New York Times, offering the tech companies a better, clearer standard for when they can and should bar users, grounded in decades of established law.

Tech companies don’t have to rely on vague, malleable and hotly contested definitions of hate speech to deal with conspiracy theorists like Mr. Jones. The far better option would be to prohibit libel or slander on their platforms.

To be sure, this would tie their hands more: Unlike “hate speech,” libel and slander have legal meanings. There is a long history of using libel and slander laws to protect especially private figures from false claims. It’s properly more difficult to use those laws to punish allegations directed at public figures, but even then there are limits on intentionally false factual claims.

It’s a high bar. But it’s a bar that respects the marketplace of ideas, avoids the politically charged battle over ever-shifting norms in language and culture and provides protection for aggrieved parties. Nor do tech companies have to wait for sometimes yearslong legal processes to work themselves out. They can use their greater degree of freedom to conduct their own investigations. Those investigations would rightly be based on concrete legal standards, not wholly subjective measures of offensiveness.

Yesterday afternoon’s Twitter brawl amounted to anti-Jones voices accusing free-speech advocates of coming to Jones’s aid and defending everything he’s ever said and done, and free-speech advocates accusing Jones’s critics giving the tech billionaires veto power over public discourse and taking a chainsaw to the First Amendment.

A lot of the discussion about this on social media amounts to, “I don’t trust Facebook.” And that’s a reasonable position! Facebook has given a lot of people a lot of reasons to doubt its word and impartiality! None of the people who run these companies are constitutional scholars specializing in First Amendment cases, nor did they ever aspire to be in that role. They set up and joined these companies to make money — and now they’re in the weird position of American Public Discourse Police.

But right now, Alex Jones is fighting a defamation lawsuit from the parents of a six-year-old killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. The parents’ suit alleges that Jones showed his audience their personal information and maps to addresses associated with the family, leading to years of threats and harassment from Jones followers who claimed the shooting was a hoax. As this Wired article lays out, the ruling may depend on whether the judge and jury think Jones intended for the parents to be harassed.

A few shock jocks on talk radio have successfully deflected defamation cases by arguing that no one took their comments seriously. But even if Jones wins that argument, he might lose against Pozner and De La Rosa’s claims that he intentionally inflicted emotional distress. See, the tale of the shock jock cuts both ways: According to Baron, shock jocks were the only defendants she ever saw lose to that argument, because their behavior — while performative — was considered so outside any form of civilized norm. Might harassing (and doxing) the parents of a murdered child qualify? It’s apparently not outside the internet’s moral code. [In real life], it’ll depend on the judge, and the jury.

Your mileage may vary, but I think the argument about whether online platforms should ban Jones looks really different if a judge and jury determine, after hearing all of the arguments, that he said something literally indefensible. If you don’t think Facebook or YouTube or other platforms should ban Alex Jones after he’s lost a defamation lawsuit over what he’s posted on their websites, you more or less are arguing that they should never ban anyone.

And if you want that to be the rule, fine. Ironically, that’s close to how the tech companies saw themselves for a long time: as technology companies, not as media companies, and thus no more responsible for what gets written on Facebook than the people who build bathroom stall walls are for someone writing, “For a good time call Jenny at 867-5309.”

But as I pointed out a little while back, the bathroom-stall wall doesn’t delete messages it deems inappropriate, meaning that Facebook has already subtly acknowledged some responsibility for what ends up written on the site.

Imagine you invent a new social-media platform, and just as you’re about to launch it, someone tells you that it’s going to be used by neo-Nazis, Columbiners, gang members, child abusers, and so on. You might recoil in horror and hesitate about whether you actually want to offer that product to the world. At the very least, you would want to be able to deny those folks you find unacceptable from using it.

The don’t-ban-anyone crowd is arguing that Facebook and other social-media platforms are something like public utilities, something that should be available and accessible to everyone, no matter the circumstances. Public utilities are either run by the government or by heavily regulated by a public commission. Do we really prefer that path?

The Book Is Closed on a Horrific Event, with Less-Than-Satisfying Answers

It was easy to miss the announcement last week from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office that they had closed the case on the October 2017 deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas and concluded that they could not find a clear motive.

There will be some who will be able to shrug it off with, “He was crazy,” and no doubt on some level he was. But it was the kind of crazy that didn’t interfere with him meticulously planning this over a long time — researching open-air concert venues, Las Vegas SWAT tactics, weapons and explosives, and purchasing more than 55 weapons between October 2016 and September 2017. Casinos are filled with security guards and cameras, and he managed to bring an arsenal into a room and launch the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Somewhere ISIS is asking, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

If the shooter had made a statement of allegiance to ISIS or some other extremist group, this would at least have been easier to understand. But police said there was “no evidence of radicalization or ideology to support any theory that [the shooter] supported or followed any hate group or any domestic or foreign terrorist organization.” Some wondered whether the selection of a country-music festival represented a deliberate target — a crowd that probably represented Trump voters or perhaps some other demographic that the shooter hated.

But police found evidence he had also considered targeting another music festival, with a different style, in a different city: a reservation for a hotel during the Lollapalooza music festival held at Grant Park in Chicago during the month of August: “Like the Route 91 Harvest music festival, the Lollapalooza festival was held in an open-air venue. Paddock specifically requested a room overlooking the venue when he made the reservation. That reservation was cancelled two days prior to the check-in date.”

The police report offers a theory that is quite chilling, quoting the shooter’s brother, Eric.

Eric believed [the shooter] may have conducted the attack because he had done everything in the world he wanted to do and was bored with everything. If so, [the shooter] would have planned the attack to kill a large amount of people because he would want to be known as having the largest casualty count. [the shooter] always wanted to be the best and known to everyone. 

[The shooter] would not have cared about the people he killed. It would not matter their race, religion or sex. [the shooter] was described by Eric as a “narcissist” and only cared for people that could benefit him in some way. Eric stated [the shooter] needed to be seen as important and needed to be catered to.

It seems unimaginable: Today, 58 people are dead and more than 800 are recovering from injuries, with thousands more traumatized, because some gambler got bored with his life and this was the only way he could conceive to end that boredom.

Speaking of Mass Shootings . . .

A change has come to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office:

Capt. Chris Mulligan, a military veteran and sheriff’s office employee for 19 years, will replace Capt. Jan. Jordan.

Parkland city officials asked the Sheriff’s Office to replace Jordan after complaints about her leadership during the shooting Feb. 14.

Among the criticisms: A Coral Springs deputy fire chief repeatedly asked her for permission to send his medics into the school but was rebuffed. At the time, the shooter hadn’t been caught and only a handful of specially trained SWAT paramedics were in the school.

Jordan told the deputy fire chief she’d have to check before letting more medics enter, he said. By the time the whole building was deemed safe, there was no need — everyone had been brought out by police or was dead.

Any chance that the sheriff who went on CNN and demonized Dana Loesch, knowing that the officer at the school didn’t engage the shooter, can go with her?

ADDENDA: Think of this closing note as a crossover with The Remnant: It’s a shame to see Arthur Brooks of AEI so shamelessly echoing “Bear Propaganda.” Surely Jonah will remain vigilant.

Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren: Our Justice System Is ‘Racist, All the Way, Front to Back.’

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Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H., October 24, 2016. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

You think you have a tough job this morning? Imagine being the guy who has to organize “Cops for Warren 2020” in a year or so.

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, speaking at Dillard University in New Orleans this weekend:

“Let’s just start with the hard truth about our criminal justice system,” she railed. “It’s racist. It is. And when I say our system, I mean all the way. I mean front to back. This is not just sentencing reform we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the front end on what you declare to be illegal on how you enforce it, on who gets arrested.”

“Racist all the way, front to back,” is a really surprising and troubling thing to hear about a system that was, until 18 months ago, effectively headed by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and before her, Eric Holder, appointed and accountable to the nation’s first African-American president. A system that has 214 African-American federal judges, 125 of Latino or Hispanic heritage, 41 Asian-Americans, and three Native Americans. A system that has at least 400 black prosecutors (although far too few elected ones).  A system where 27 percent of the officers and police personnel are members of minority groups, as of 2013, the most recent year data are available. Do all of these people feel like they are cogs in the “racist all the way, front to back” machine?

Does she think her potential rival, former Massachusetts governor and assistant attorney general Deval Patrick was part of a racist system? How about former district attorney and state attorney general Kamala Harris?

Wait a minute . . .  Holder, Patrick, and Harris have all made noise about running for president. Say, Warren’s across-the-board denunciation of the entire American criminal justice system wouldn’t be a subtle early attempt to paint all of three potential African-American rivals as suspect, having spent long chunks of their careers in this system, would it?

It’s not like Elizabeth Warren ever said or did something cynical about race to get ahead, right?

If Warren believes what she’s saying, and this isn’t just careless incendiary rhetoric, the only logical conclusion is that all of the prosecutions and incarcerations in recent memory are at least suspect and likely unjust.

Trouble’s Coming to Washington This Weekend

Give us all a moment to choke on the irony that one of the plans to avoid violence at next week’s white-nationalist rally in Washington, D.C., was to take the city’s subway and institute a system that seems uncomfortably close to . . . separate but equal:

Metro is no longer considering running separate trains for protesters participating in the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” white nationalists rally in the District, the transit agency’s board chairman said Saturday.

Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans had previously said that running a separate train was among options being weighed by officials.

“Metro will not be providing a special train or special car for anyone next Sunday,” Evans said.

Word about the possibility of the service for rally-goers spread quickly Friday and Saturday, drawing condemnation from those who decried “special treatment” for white nationalist groups, which are focused on the goal of achieving a whites-only state or the separation of whites from other groups. Others thought the possible move to constitute a form of segregation.

The separate-trains idea more or less gives these creeps what they want, doesn’t it?

Still, you have to sympathize with Metro officials and every other government authority in D.C., because in all likelihood, trouble is coming to Washington this coming weekend. Some of those white nationalists are probably spoiling for a fight and/or looking for an opportunity play the victim. Plenty of angry local residents will be outraged by the sight of the white nationalists, and some are probably itching to demonstrate their opposition to fascism by physically assaulting someone for holding fascist opinions, oblivious to the irony. There are probably some angry voices licking their lips in anticipation — eager to argue that the marching buffoons representing the hidden malevolent souls of many more white Americans, and genuine racists will no doubt see the controversy surrounding any clash as recruiting opportunity.

Good luck, Washington.

The review of the city government and police handling of the Charlottesville rally was scathing, an absolute failure to protect the public in a dangerous situation that is simply mind-boggling. One white-nationalist protester literally pulled out a gun and fired at the ground near a counter-protester with a torch, and this didn’t bring the police running. There was a line of state troopers behind a nearby barricade!

This weekend, Portland, Ore., saw a rally and small-scale clash between the “Patriot Prayer” group and counter-protesters.

 Portland’s police chief on Sunday acknowledged allegations of injuries suffered a day earlier as officers cleared streets and fired various crowd-control munitions near crowds of protesters.

Chief Danielle Outlaw said any complaints would be forwarded to the Office of Independent Police Review.

The police bureau said Saturday that three people were treated by Portland Fire medics, and one was taken by ambulance to a local hospital with a non-life-threatening injury. None of those injuries were the result of police actions, police spokesman Sgt. Chris Burley said.

Police were stationed in large numbers in downtown Portland on Saturday in anticipation of a face-off between the right-wing group Patriot Prayer and groups of counter-protesters. Police lined Southwest Naito Parkway in an effort to keep the groups separated.

Around 2 p.m., officers ordered a group of counter-protesters near the intersection of Southwest Naito Parkway and Southwest Columbia Street to disperse. When the group didn’t immediately leave, police fired dozens of flash-bang grenades other crowd-control munitions. Officers rushed toward the crowd, shoving some protesters out of the street.

Police said protesters had thrown a “chemical agent” and other objects at officers.

All of that represents something of an improvement for Portland law enforcement, because earlier this summer they basically refused to help control protesters outside an ICE office:

 A mob surrounded ICE’s office in Southwest Portland June 19. They barricaded the exits and blocked the driveway. They sent “guards” to patrol the doors, trapping workers inside. At night they laid on the street, stopping traffic at a critical junction near a hospital. Police stayed away. “At this time I am denying your request for additional resources,” the Portland Police Bureau’s deputy chief, Robert Day, wrote to federal officers pleading for help. Hours later, the remaining ICE workers were finally evacuated by a small federal police team. The facility shut down for more than a week.

Ah, That Neutral Civil Service!

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, in a column contending that the Trump administration is harming America’s tradition of a “neutral civil service”:

Think about whether you want your water’s cleanliness to be measured by an expert or by someone’s cousin. Think about whether you want your tax forms read by people looking for information they can use as a political tool against you. There are reasons a neutral, professional civil service, as well as one that is small and efficient, is intimately connected to any definition of good government.

Yes, a bunch of political partisans at the IRS would indeed be terrible! Good thing nothing like that ever happened!

Applebaum also writes, “I was once told of an Asian country in which people pay hefty fees to the foreign minister to become ambassadors,” which seems strangely oblivious of the long, bipartisan American tradition of American presidents making big campaign donors ambassadors. (Is it better if someone writes a check to a presidential campaign instead of writing one to the foreign minister?)

ADDENDA: The National Pizza Museum is going to Chicago, and suddenly the country’s divide over New York–style vs. Chicago-style has turned them into the Sunni and the Shia.

Politics & Policy

There Are a Lot of Reasons to Feel Optimistic about America’s Future

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After Wednesday’s gloom, here are a few thoughts about reasons for optimism for the future . . .

We groan that we’re governed by crooks, incompetents, and morons, but we’ve actually done a pretty good job of solving the problems that faced this country a generation ago.

Crime rates? Way down from the 1990s. Drunk-driving rates? They hit a new all-time low a few years ago. Air travel keeps getting safer and cheaper.

Teen-pregnancy rates? Steadily declining. The abortion rate? The lowest since Roe v. Wade passed. Our infant-mortality rate is low and getting even lower.

High-school graduation rates? Highest level ever. With the exception of marijuana, teen drug use is down dramatically. Very few teenagers are succumbing to the national opioid-abuse epidemic. Teenage binge drinking is way lower than in the 1990s.

Slightly more than a third of American adults have a four-year college degree, the highest level ever measured by the U.S. Census Bureau. College enrollment has dropped by 2.4 million since 2011 . . . but one might interpret that as a customer base rejecting an overpriced product.

You’ve heard about the low unemployment rate. When Vice President Mike Pence boasts that more Americans are working than ever before, skeptics scoff that it simply reflects that the American population is larger than ever before. But there are now more job openings than unemployed workers. The all-time high in the employment-to-population ratio was 64.7 percent in April 2000; we’re currently at 60.4 percent. It got as low as 58.2 in 2010. (Census Bureau figures indicate that 4.4 percent of those 85 or older are still working!)

Census Bureau data indicate that the median U.S. household income in 2016 was $59,039 — and that the past two years combined have shown the fastest growth since the 1960s. The poverty rate is 12.7 percent, almost but not quite to pre–Great Recession levels. Yes, we would like to see some better numbers for wage growth, but separate Labor Department data just released days ago showed workers’ wages and salaries increased 2.8 percent over the past year. The Federal Reserve and Wall Street economic forecasters feel confident for the future.

We fear terrorism, but one of the reasons that terrorism and asymmetrical warfare is rising is because conventional war is growing rarer. We don’t have many country-vs.-country wars anymore, and that’s a blessing. We have Russia’s small-scale war against Ukraine. We have civil wars — Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Yemen, Mexico’s struggle against the cartels. (Even in these cases, on a global scale, the number of casualties is declining, although it’s fair to wonder how accurately they can count the dead in places like Syria.) But you don’t see tanks and artillery crossing borders the way you used to — and that’s a blessing.

Every day since 9/11, the jihadists have wanted to execute the most spectacular attack they could. Most days they achieve nothing. Some days they launch attacks in places most Americans have never heard of, and once in a great while, they launch an attack on American soil with a fraction of the casualties of 9/11. We live in a world where most Americans don’t think about terrorism every day, a condition that was unthinkable 17 years ago.

Osama bin Laden is dead. Mullah Omar’s dead too. The Islamic State doesn’t control any territory anymore, and we don’t hear from Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi much. Considering where we were, and what we feared would follow 9/11, the jihad against the United States must be classified as a catastrophic failure so far.

Coalition military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are down dramatically in the past five years.

Yes, we live in an era of serious challenges to American military superiority. But we still have some pretty ingenious minds giving us an edge. DARPA is developing drones that will never need to land or refuel; space planes; swarms of tiny flying robots, IED-proof vehicles that don’t need windows; and guided rounds capable of zeroing in on a target, enabling novice shooters to hit moving targets. (That’s right: Someday soon, we’ll be able to shoot around corners.) Lockheed Martin is developing hypersonic weapons, missiles that travel at Mach 5, roughly one mile per second. No wonder no one wants to get into conventional wars with us anymore.

If you grew up in the 1990s, you probably thought AIDS would be the scourge of the 21st century. New drugs and treatment drove the HIV mortality rate down in the United States by more than 80 percent, and the number of new infections is down by two-thirds. In the 15 years since the Bush administration enacted PEPFAR — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — the program has saved 14 million lives.

One of the laments on Wednesday was the ever-growing economic power of Amazon. Still, the company largely earned its way to the top with a revolutionary service. Think about it: You can get just about any book, movie, DVD set, toy, article of clothing, or gadget ever created delivered to your door for a pretty modest price. This is a gift of knowledge, art, and literature on a scale that was inconceivable for most of human history. Just a generation ago, readers were limited to what the manager of their local bookstore or B. Dalton thought was a good title.

Whatever old toy or knickknack you loved as a child can probably still be found on eBay.

The flip side of my fear about too much escapism into virtual reality and immersive gaming is that you, the consumer, have never had more options for entertainment. Thanks to computer graphics, there is really no great novel, comic book, historical era, or idea that would be impossible or too expensive to film.

As a creator — whether it’s writing, the visual arts, music, filmmaking — you’ve never had an easier time bringing what you create to a vast audience. This doesn’t guarantee that your work will find an audience, but the old gatekeepers separating you from your potential audience don’t function in that role anymore. Self-published books can turn into big Hollywood movies.

The Internet and modern technology have eliminated a lot of those little annoyances of life from a generation ago. Need to find out where to go? Use the map app on your phone. Think about how much less frequently people get lost compared to before the Internet era.

I lamented Americans’ excessive use of 911 on Wednesday, but let’s face it — we’re all probably safer knowing that at the site of any car accident, fire, or crime, somebody can dial 911 with their cell phone. Think about all the phone-recorded video that has exposed wrongdoing.

Do you need to fix something in your house? There’s a good chance there’s a YouTube video showing you how to do it. Did you lose the instruction manual for that so-called easy-to-assemble furniture? There’s a good chance the manufacturer posted it online for download.

Your local supermarket probably has way more varieties of food, of better quality, than it did a generation ago. You can find six-packs from small breweries and craft beers in supermarkets now. You could go to a place like Total Wine and never run out of new options. If you have food allergies, or practice religious dietary restrictions, or are vegetarian or vegan, lactose intolerant or gluten-free, most restaurants understand and will try to accommodate you.

Think about how rarely you get stuck behind someone at the grocery line paying for everything with a check. Yes, your email inbox gets a lot of spam, but you have quicker access to more people than ever before and the important stuff is much less likely to get “lost in the mail.” We gripe about Facebook, but now we know what happened to all of those old classmates, neighbors, and friends from earlier chapters of our lives.

Think about the many pictures you take now for which you don’t have to buy and develop film.

Think about how much more you know about your health thanks to your FitBit or other wearable health-monitoring devices. Think about how many people are going to have their lives saved now that defibrillators are getting more common in public places.

Think about how many people don’t die in car accidents, now that most cars on the road have airbags and crumple zones. Advances in steel allow engineers to design structures that can dissipate and redirect the force of the crash.

If, as Yuval Levin says, conservatism begins with gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then striving to build on it, we can and should be thankful to be living in this moment, and in this society — even with all of its flaws and the daily screaming headlines of bad news.

Two Countries That Have a Bit of a Troubled History When They Team Up

A right-of-center foreign-policy analyst called my attention to this quote from Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, during a speech in Tokyo a little more than a week ago:

“In this geopolitical situation we need Germany and Japan to close ranks,” Maas said. “Alone, it will be tough for us to be a ‘rule maker’ in this multipolar world. When we combine our powers, we can perhaps become something like a ‘rule shaper’ — designers and motors of the international order.”

Germany and Japan, getting back together and combining their powers to design a new international order. Gee, if only there was some sort of nifty nickname we could give this alliance, like they’re trying to get the world to spin on a new axis . . . If this guy starts talking about inviting Italy to the party, watch the skies over Hawaii.

Paraphrasing an old Dennis Miller joke, I look at a new Germany–Japan alliance the same way I look at a Hall & Oates reunion tour. I wasn’t a fan of their old work together, and I’m not all that eager to see the new stuff.

ADDENDA: Friday’s a good day to remind you to consider joining NRPlus — get full access to the entire NR archives, way fewer ads when you’re visiting the website, participate in the members-only Facebook group (which is probably at least 99.9 percent free of foreign intelligence services attempting to manipulate us with images of Bernie Sanders as a bodybuilder), and get early invitations and discounts to NR events.

U.S.

Look Who Else Was Making Ten Grand a Day Working for a Ukrainian Politician!

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Former Bernie Sanders aide Tad Devine meets with reporters in Burlington, Vermont, March 2, 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

When I knock somebody for being not that different from Paul Manafort, in their eagerness to do the bidding of shady or unsavory overseas regimes for cold hard cash, that’s not a defense of Manafort. (It’s pretty revealing that some insist it must be that.) It’s an attempt to further illustrate that most people’s concept of “corruption” aligns perfectly with “political figures and institutions I don’t like.” Looking too closely at the big-name consultants on their side of the aisle disrupts their reassuring worldview that their party is the good guys and the other party is the bad guys.

The Manafort trial has already produced one bombshell that’s hitting an unexpected political source. The New York Times reports this morning:

It also revealed bipartisan largess. One 2014 email presented in court on Tuesday showed the Democratic consultant Thomas A. Devine proposing a “day rate” of $10,000 to do work in Ukraine on behalf of Mr. Yanukovych, the Russia-aligned former president who was a longtime client of Mr. Manafort.

“You would need to make the travel arrangements, and transfer the $50G before the trip,” he wrote to Rick Gates, Mr. Manafort’s partner for the Ukraine work. “If you want me to come on Monday and leave Thursday it would be $40G.”

Mr. Devine, who is known as Tad, went on to become the chief strategist for the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist.

Yanukovych is the Ukrainian leader who fled to Russia with the help of Russian troops in 2014. The entire Democratic party has become born-again Russia hawks, but no one is bothered by the fact that Bernie Sanders’s longtime top aide was working for this guy for $10,000 per day?

Remember, Devine is the guy who was saying in interviews in 2016 that the Sanders campaign was about “what is holding a rigged economy in America in place today . . . He believes that and I think he’s right.” Do those $10,000-per-day contracts with foreign leaders get exempted from the Sanders definition of a “rigged economy”?

Devine has known Sanders for 20 years and considers him a friend. In 2016, the Sanders campaign paid Devine’s firm $4.8 million for video and media production services, $438,403 for legal services, and Devine’s firm “shared at least $10 million in commissions through the end of May.”

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank spits hot fire over Devine’s hypocrisy.

[Devine] repeatedly echoed the Sanders message that “our economy is rigged,” that “special interests” buy politicians, that “all of the new wealth is going to the top of America,” that there is a “corrupt system of campaign finance” of which Hillary Clinton offered an “egregious” example. Sanders, by contrast, “supported the little guy.”

Those who heard Devine’s interviews and watched his Sanders TV ads therefore may be surprised to know that, in the years and months leading up to the Sanders presidential campaign, Devine was making gobs of money to secure the election of one of the world’s most corrupt political figures and then his allies…

Devine produced a memo of advice for Yanukovych’s party in 2012, even though by then Yanukovych had thrown the leading opposition politician in jail and had built a $100 million mansion — complete with zoo, helipad, golf course and replica galleon on an artificial lake — while his people were, in Devine’s own words, struggling with “joblessness, hunger and the general despair.”

The difference between Paul Manafort and Tad Devine is that Manafort allegedly tried to hide all of the money he was making overseas and Devine filed all the right paperwork and paid all the appropriate taxes.

Look, I realize we live in a world where politicians of both parties are going to give speeches denouncing America’s corporations as greedy and eager to work with oppressive, exploitative regimes in pursuit of profits. But it’s pretty galling when the guy shaping that message is doing the same darn thing behind the scenes.

Oh, and there may be more revelations in this realm:

Mr. Mueller’s team pursued three other investigations into lawyers and lobbyists who did work in Ukraine.

The cases involve Gregory B. Craig, who served as the White House counsel under President Barack Obama before leaving to work for the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Tony Podesta, an influential Washington lobbyist whose brother, John D. Podesta, was chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign; and former Representative Vin Weber, Republican of Minnesota, who joined the lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs after leaving Congress.

None have been charged with any crimes. Mr. Mueller’s referral of those cases several months ago to federal prosecutors in New York was revealed in news reports on Tuesday.

Making Up Stories about Criminal Conspiracies Is Bad, Right?

This QAnon stuff — basically, “son of Pizzagate” — is deranged nonsense on stilts.

And political leaders who spread wild, false rumors and claiming their opponents are involved in vast criminal conspiracies ought to be driven out of leadership for making moves like that. It’s morally wrong, toxic to our system of government, and thoroughly un-American.

I just . . . don’t remember there being much of a widespread, bipartisan denunciation of this sort of behavior back when Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid was spreading the rumor that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes for ten years.

Is the idea that the governor of Massachusetts, two-time presidential candidate, and one of the richest guys in the country could escape scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service for not paying any taxes for a decade really that much more farfetched than the vast celebrity criminal conspiracies alleged by the QAnon crowd?

But Harry Reid didn’t suffer any real consequence for telling that shameless lie. Sure, there were a few tsk-tsk columns, but no Democratic party figure spoke out against him. Barack Obama and Joe Biden certainly didn’t speak out against him — never mind all that talk about inspiring people and how the American public deserved better. No Senate Democrat argued that he no longer was fit to lead the party in the chamber. No Nevada Democrat announced a primary challenge, arguing that Reid had disgraced his office and forfeited his right to represent the state.

No, the Democratic party as a whole decided that even if they found the tactic unsavory, Harry Reid was doing what was needed to win — and the end justified the means. When you decide that anything is justified in the pursuit of political victory, don’t be surprised when the other side adopts that philosophy, too!

Democratic Clerks For Kavanaugh

Meanwhile, in the confirmation fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the Judicial Crisis Network is launching two new ads — one featuring a Democratic clerk for Kavanaugh, Kathryn Cherry, which will air on MSNBC and the other featuring J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy.

Since July 9, JCN has spent $4.3 million highlighting what it calls “Judge Kavanaugh’s incredible record on the bench”; $2.1 million of that total spend has been in Indiana, West Virginia, North Dakota, and Alabama.

JCN’s chief counsel Carrie Severino: “These ads underscore the fact that those who know Judge Kavanaugh best know him to be a good man, a fair and independent judge with a long track record of basing his decisions on the law and the Constitution. He will be another great justice on the Supreme Court.”

ADDENDA: I’m scheduled to talk about yesterday’s column with Glenn Beck this morning, around 10:30 a.m. eastern.

Culture

The End Is Nigh

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American flags fly on National Mall as high-wind weather conditions continue in Washington, March 2, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: a survey of fears of American decline that might keep you up at night, Trump officials speak to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward for his new book and hope for the best, and Google chooses a side in China.

What Thoughts Keep You Up at Night?

Tyler Cowen tries to envision American decline, slowing economic growth, increasing addiction rates, declining infrastructure maintenance, a vicious cycle of tax hikes to protect entitlements, a diminished U.S. military, and a globally dominant China.

A few fears he missed, or doesn’t share, or hasn’t thought of yet . . .

What happens if virtual reality, immersive gaming, and other forms of “feels real and interactive” entertainment make living in a virtual world a lot more fun and interesting than the real world?

What percentage of our fellow citizens would grow obsessed with spending time in some technology-enabled virtual Shangri-La, where everything is easy, everyone is beautiful, and nothing is boring? What happens if some demagogue or exploitative corporation comes along with a cynical understanding of how many people are willing to trade away their freedom in exchange for unlimited access to their full-HD Paradise VR hookup?

What happens to our society if the traditional virtues of adulthood — growing up, getting a real job, getting married, and having children — get increasingly perceived as a sucker’s deal? What happens when spending your adult years living like an adolescent becomes normal, and the already shrinking birthrate plummets as marriage and family become perceived as luxury goods?

One of the hardest lessons of my lifetime is that problems that seem faraway and small, such as a bunch of lunatic guys in a cave who claim to have declared war on the United States, can suddenly change the world one morning. On the evening of September 10, 2001, very few Americans knew much or cared about al-Qaeda. Our quasi-isolationist impulses make us reluctant to worry about or pay much attention to every anarchic corner and extremist group on the planet. Al-Qaeda is largely defeated, and ISIS has been hit hard, but what if they get replaced by extremists from every destabilized region of the globe, all convinced that the world will bend to their demands — or at least stop ignoring them — if they pull off a spectacular enough attack on a Western city? What if terrorism becomes perceived as the most effective form of political action?

The online rumor mill and Facebook posts helped set off violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar. And then Sinhalese-language Facebook groups did something similar in Sri Lanka. Similar threats and violence arose in Indonesia, India, and Mexico, all with the same formula: poor neighborhoods, ethnic divisions, a mistrusted government that lead to riots, lynch mobs, ransacked stores, arson. Is this a third-world problem? How far are we from this with our own homegrown ISIS wannabes, the alt-right and the Charlottesville nut-jobs, “Incels,” and “Columbiners”? The world has never had a shortage of angry young men with an endless list of grievances against the world for not being fair to them. What if technology is making it easier to recruit them to extremist causes?

The world said “never again,” but genocides keep happening — the Balkans, Rwanda, Darfur. We found a reason to not intervene in Syria; international organizations stopped counting the dead in 2016. Outside organizations think it’s more than half a million dead now. How do the world’s dictators, warlords, brutes, and militias respond when they know nobody’s coming to keep the peace? Do you think future waves of refugees will be larger or smaller than in the past?

What if the fallout from a terrible terror attack — nuclear, biological, chemical, radiological — breaks down our traditional idea of a free society? The police-state fears — cops on street corners asking to see your identification — are bad enough, but our society inadvertently taught “stranger danger” to children. What happens when Americans start seeing every stranger as a potential threat? We already have citizens calling 911 over children selling water in the street.

In the economic realm, just how far away are we from the cyberpunk concept of global corporations becoming more powerful than governments? In the competition for Amazon’s new headquarters, Fresno offered Amazon partial control over 85 percent of the tax revenue it would generate, and Chicago offered to divert between 50 and 100 percent of the taxes paid by Amazon employees back to the company. Some elected officials are perfectly comfortable giving corporate entities powers that are traditionally reserved for governments.

In Peter Thiel’s book, he noted that we’re already in an era of de facto monopolies, particularly in the technology realm. Yes, there are other search engines besides Google, but none count as true competitors. There are plenty of online-shopping sites, but Amazon is by far the king. Facebook and Twitter are similar but distinct and only really compete with each other. Disney now controls a good chunk of America’s childhood; it owns its own characters, Pixar, “Star Wars,” Marvel Studios, and just purchased a big chunk of Fox’s intellectual property. ABC television, ESPN, Hulu, A&E, History, Lifetime . . . it’s all part of one big corporation.

What happens when all of that power over what Americans watch, shop for, find in web searches, and see gets concentrated in one executive suite?

What happens if enough Americans convince themselves that socialism and/or Communism will give them a better quality of life, and that these belief systems have nothing to do with the gulags, the secret police, the Stasi, forced resettlement, the Red Terror, the Cultural Revolution, Holodomor, the Great Purge, the Katyn Massacre, the Great Leap Forward, the Cambodian Genocide or North Korea’s prison camps, and that “this time it will be different”? What if they conclude that it’s simply coincidence that socialist countries produced Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, the Khmer Rouge, and Nicolae Ceaușescu?

After Obama’s election and the instant — and intense — adoration of figures like Obama and Sarah Palin, I debated writing a book about cults of personality in politics. What happens when people stop seeing politics and governance as being contests of ideas, policies, and philosophies, and it starts being a battle of mortal demi-gods? What if — having so thoroughly left behind the concept of a divine redeemer — Americans turn to a series of secular saviors, ambitious narcissists who promise the world and seek scapegoats when they fail to deliver?

Our current political moment features a lot of tension between the Left and the Right, but also perhaps even more tension between those who paid attention in civics and history classes and those who didn’t. One in six Americans expresses approval of “having the army rule” and more than 40 percent of wealthy Americans support the idea of “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections.” Polling reveals only half of Americans know that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech. Half of us are arguing what the laws ought to be, based upon the Constitution; the other half of us are arguing what the laws ought to be based upon how our gut feels that day. The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from erratic changes in public opinion by making the Constitution difficult to change. But they couldn’t make it difficult to ignore.

Anyway, have a good Wednesday!

Wait, What Image Is Woodward’s New Book Going to Shatter?

It’s Fire and Fury all over again, but with a reliable reporter this time:

The result is what often happens in Trump world: Senior officials, acting as lone wolves concerned with preserving their own reputations, spoke to [Bob] Woodward on their own — with some granting him hours of their time out of a fear of being the last person in the room to offer his or her viewpoint.

As one former administration official put it: “He hooked somebody, and that put the fear of God in everyone else.”

Another former official added: “It’s gonna be killer. Everyone talked with Woodward.”

Woodward has written similar books about every White House since Clinton’s presidency, and they’ve all had the same unwritten rule: individuals who talk to him come across better than individuals who don’t. He gets a lot of “if only they had listened to me” anecdotes.

Still, one wonders if this book’s cavalcade of anecdotes will really be that damaging. What’s that, you say? The staff is infighting and leaking? What else is new?

Does anyone look at this White House and see a unified, methodical, well-oiled machine? They’ve got the turnover rate of Spinal Tap’s drummer position, the president’s daily statements are heavily shaped by what he sees on Fox & Friends in the morning, the president regularly tosses his written text and ad-libs his speeches, and well-meaning messaging efforts like “Infrastructure Week” get overtaken by events.

The Woodward book brand is usually “despite the placid, carefully-managed image, this White House is deeply divided between warring factions, each convinced the president is being led down the wrong path.” Is the public as interested when there is no placid, carefully-managed image to shatter?

Google, Helping China Censor More Effectively

This week, you’ll hear a lot of people expressing well-earned disgust at Paul Manafort’s willingness to do the bidding of overseas oppressive regimes in exchange for cold, hard cash.

Of course, America’s big tech companies aren’t that different.

Documents seen by The Intercept, marked “Google confidential,” say that Google’s Chinese search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall. When a person carries out a search, banned websites will be removed from the first page of results, and a disclaimer will be displayed stating that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.” Examples cited in the documents of websites that will be subject to the censorship include those of British news broadcaster BBC and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

The search app will also “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, the documents state. The censorship will apply across the platform: Google’s image search, automatic spell check and suggested search features will incorporate the blacklists, meaning that they will not recommend people information or photographs the government has banned.

Remember when people said the internet would jeopardize the rule of autocratic regimes?

ADDENDUM: The first Jewish speaker of the House in American history is . . . Paul Ryan! Technically. Ten generations back.

Just think about how much work this creates for all of the anti-Semitic nutjobs who have to update their conspiracy charts.

White House

The Trump-Koch Alliance of Convenience Starts to Split

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David H. Koch (1940–2019) (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: The functional alliance between the Koch network and the Trump administration always ran on good policy outcomes, and once that ended, a split was inevitable; Washington’s lobbyists and bureaucrats live down to their worst reputations; and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes makes a revealing comment about the audience’s interest in climate change.

The Trump-Koch Alliance of Convenience Starts to Split Apart

President Trump began his morning fuming about the Koch brothers:

The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade. I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas. They love my Tax & Regulation Cuts, Judicial picks & more. I made them richer. Their network is highly overrated, I have beaten them at every turn. They want to protect their companies outside the U.S. from being taxed, I’m for America First & the American Worker — a puppet for no one. Two nice guys with bad ideas. Make America Great Again!

It’s hard to be “highly overrated” when you win most of your battles. In 2016, seven of eight Koch-backed Senate Republicans and 96 percent of all Koch-backed candidates nationwide won on Election Day. The Koch network spent $250 million in that cycle but effectively sat out the presidential race, as Charles Koch summarized the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the choice between “cancer or a heart attack.”

What probably has Trump so irked, besides the past criticism, is the network’s announcement that they would not support GOP representative Kevin Cramer in his race to unseat vulnerable Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. The network is upset that Cramer supported a $1.3 trillion spending measure in March, he’s taken a very measured tone in his discussion of the administration’s trade tariffs, and earlier this month he “commended the President for instructing the USDA to give our farmers a safety net during this short term uncertainty” — in other words, more government spending.

Let’s get real. North Dakota is one of the cheapest states to run a Senate campaign. In 2012, Heidi Heitkamp and Rick Berg spent a combined $11.7 million. In 2012, the average winner alone spent $10.2 million. The only poll since February put Cramer up by four. This isn’t likely to hurt Cramer that much, nor alter the odds of Republicans controlling the Senate significantly. This is the lowest-cost, minimally consequential “shot across the bow” that the Koch network can throw at the Republican party.

One of the things that separates the Koch network from other political groups is that they don’t just swoop in with television advertising in the closing months of a campaign. At their twice-yearly conferences, they like to tout their “permanent grassroots infrastructure in 36 states.” Americans for Prosperity is the most visible arm of the network, but in recent years others have sprung up: the Libre Initiative, aimed at America’s Latino communities; Generation Opportunity, which focuses on Millennials; Concerned Veterans for America, which addresses veterans’ issues; and Stand Together, which endeavors to build social capital.

One of my recurring irritations with coverage of the Koch network is that a lot of correspondents don’t really understand the Koch network philosophy, which will overlap with the Trump administration’s on issues such as taxes and regulation but have massive differences on trade and immigration. As I put it earlier this year, the Kochs are libertarians, and a particular kind of communitarian libertarian, if that doesn’t seem too contradictory. Their passions are for reducing the size of government, promoting entrepreneurship, solving social problems through community organizations, and, particularly this year, criminal-justice reform and anti-recidivism programs in prisons.

Some traditional libertarian causes aren’t really on their radar screen because not all donors share the Kochs’ libertarianism. At their conferences, you won’t hear much about government surveillance, the joys of legal drugs or the Second Amendment; those topics just aren’t their thing. It’s also not clear how uniformly socially conservative their donors are; if you drew a Venn diagram of the Koch-network donors and the attendees of, say, the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual meeting, you probably wouldn’t see a huge overlap.

Back in January, I wrote that the Koch agenda and Trump administration agenda were aligning more than either side expected — lower taxes, rolling back regulations, excellent judicial nominations. But a lot can change in six months. The administration has charged full speed ahead on tariffs and trade wars and is talking up $12 billion in aid to farmers. The deficit is likely to hit $1 trillion this year and for several years to come, a spending habit that we had hoped to have left behind in the early Obama years. The hopes for any immigration reform are pretty much kaput, and the separation of children from parents at the border doesn’t align with the Koch hope for an immigration policy that “treats everyone with dignity.” Entitlement reform is off the table, and congressional Republicans show little appetite for a broad-based reform agenda. At their meetings, most members of the network make clear that they find nothing to like in Trump’s incendiary comments and Twitter tirades. Good policy kept them on board, not his style.

In February, I wrote “Trump and the Kochs aren’t friends, they’re allies of convenience. And if the Kochs start to believe Trump endangers their vision of a society of maximized freedom and minimal barriers to pursuing the American dream, that alliance will break quickly.”

Well . . . here we are.

Lobbyists and Bureaucrats, Living Down to Their Reputation

This morning brings two more stories that illustrate why Washington is still a swamp, and why the disdain from the rest of the country is well-earned.

A comment from Politico’s morning newsletter, about the incentives for top-tier lobbyists, as revealed by the Paul Manafort indictment:

Blue chip clients — Fortune 500 companies, and the like — used to shell out massive retainers to lobbyists for basic government-relations work. No longer. So many lobbyists who want to keep up their high-flying lifestyle or make their corporate overlords happy have gone overseas to represent despots and strongmen who are willing to pay piles of dough because they have massive reputational problems and have a hard time finding someone willing to take up their cause in the U.S.

FOREIGN CLIENTS are often willing to pay ten times the fees for a sliver of the work. That’s created a skewed incentive structure that encourages operatives to take work from unsavory figures.

— WHILE UNSAVORY, IT’S ATTRACTIVE WORK. Countries fly American lobbyists all over the world in first class. They pay huge sums. They treat these influence peddlers like royalty. Tony Podesta saw himself as a man about the globe. Who wouldn’t like that?

Who wouldn’t like that? Oh, I don’t know, anybody with enough of a functioning conscience to be troubled by working for infamous dictators and brutal regimes? I mean, if the Islamic State had wanted a lobbyist and offered to finance a “man about the globe” lifestyle, would you take the money? “You have to see the luxury condo in Raqqa that they’re offering!”

Meanwhile, over in the civil service . . .

The personnel chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — who resigned just weeks ago — is under investigation after being accused of creating an atmosphere of widespread sexual harassment over years in which women were hired as possible sexual partners for male employees, the agency’s leader said Monday.

Your tax dollars at work! Notice this is a guy hired in 2011 from the U.S. Secret Service, and the alleged repulsive behavior goes back to 2015; the article quotes officials as saying, “Many of the men and women Coleman hired were unqualified yet are still at the agency.” (Lots of unqualified workers at FEMA? Hey, what’s the worst that can happen?)

This is not a Trump scandal; this is not an Obama scandal. This is a “federal workers behaving badly, for a long time, in a way that a lot of people know and can see, with zero accountability” scandal.

Gee, if only someone had written a book about why the federal bureaucracy is the way it is . . . and if only the Trump appointees, so full of hopes to overhaul how government works, had read it.

A Revealing Quote about Climate-Change Coverage

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, discussing coverage of climate change and global warming: “Almost without exception, every single time we’ve covered [it], it’s been a palpable ratings killer.” Now, just think, this is an MSNBC audience, which presumably agrees with the arguments and believes in climate change. This is the television-news audience most inclined to watch segments discussing the issue. And Chris Hayes sees a “palpable” change in his ratings over it.

I could be wrong, but I suspect it’s because a lot of climate-change coverage offers the same predictable and usually deeply depressing themes, even if you agree with the scientific consensus: 1) The situation is terrible and it’s too late to really make any meaningful difference. 2) It’s all the fault of those people — those who drive SUVs, eat Big Macs, the Trump administration, coal miners. Environmental coverage rarely emphasizes that the wealthy elites in the audience — say, people who fly on airplanes frequently — add to carbon emissions.

I notice we don’t see a lot of cable news segments about the ticking time bomb of entitlement programs, and too many retirees and not enough workers. So maybe it’s just that television-news viewers don’t like hearing about problems that they think won’t affect them for a long while.

ADDENDUM: Bloomberg serves up a map showcasing how the United States uses its land, and inadvertently reveals the awesome power of Big Maple Syrup.

White House

The Liberal Faith in the Inevitability of Impeachment

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A woman holds signs against Steve Bannon and encouraging the impeachment of Trump and Pence during a protest of Donald Trump’s travel ban at the International terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Los Angeles, California, January 28, 2017. (Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters)

I would inform you that President Trump is raging about special counsel Robert Mueller on Twitter again, but then you would shrug and conclude that the news is in reruns this morning.

This is the 440th day of the Mueller investigation. No doubt, the former FBI director is working the highest of high-stakes investigations, with enormous consequences for everything from the presidency to U.S.–Russian relations to Silicon Valley, and sorting all of that out will take time. There’s little to no room for error; the president and his allies will seize on any mistake, misstep, unsupported assertion, or legal setback. No one outside the investigation really knows whether it’s wrapping up or whether there’s still a lot of work ahead, and no one knows whether Mueller will turn in his final report before or after the midterm elections.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s trial starts Tuesday. USA Today summarizes the charges:

The multicount indictment against Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, alleges two kinds of crimes: 1) hiding from U.S. authorities, including the IRS, millions of dollars in payments for work on behalf of the pro-Russian political party in Ukraine and then-President Viktor Yanukovych; and 2) falsifying applications for loans from banks after Yanukovych was deposed and Manafort’s income plunged precipitously, imperiling his extravagant lifestyle.

You notice that all of that . . . doesn’t really involve Trump, other than the egregious judgment to hire someone involved in that sort of muck, and we’ve been making fun of Trump’s “I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people” since the days of Corey Lewandowski, Omarosa Manigault, and Steve Bannon.

Former U.S. attorney Harry Litman writes that a conviction of Manafort would undermine Trump’s “witch hunt” argument, but . . . let’s face it, people’s opinions of Mueller are more or less determined by their opinions of Trump. There aren’t a lot of fierce Trump critics who don’t approve of Mueller, and there aren’t many enthusiastic Trump fans who think Mueller’s doing a fine job.

A few weeks ago, CBS late night host James Corden did a funny little sketch and song parody playing Mueller, and singer Shaggy played Trump — with parody lyrics to Shaggy’s song, “It Wasn’t Me,” an ode to implausible denials of cheating.

(I didn’t realize until now that Shaggy is a Marine who served in the Persian Gulf War. Thank you for your service, Shaggy.)

It ends with Corden-as-Mueller singing, “They may say I take too long, and my probe is a giant fail, but stay tuned, my investigation’s putting Donald Trump in jail,” and the sketch concludes with FBI agents taking Trump away in handcuffs.

I wonder how many people — particularly the not-tuned-in Trump haters — think that is how this is going to work. Mueller enjoyed a long and distinguished career at the FBI, taking over the bureau a week before 9/11, but he barely permeated the public consciousness in that role. Now he’s being portrayed as the ultimate no-nonsense tough guy by Robert De Niro on Saturday Night Live. How many Americans think that once Mueller issues his final report, this will be resolved quickly and neatly like a Scooby-Doo episode, with a mask being pulled off and everyone gasping, “It was Old Man Putin all along!”

For what it’s worth, back in April, the Washington Post reported that Mueller informed President Trump’s attorneys that he was a “subject” of the investigation but not a “target.” And remember that Mueller’s report is not public information — at least not at first. Mueller turns it in to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — you know, the guy that a faction of House Republicans want to impeach — and then Rosenstein has to decide what to do with it. He also has to make decisions about redactions of classified materials and grand-jury proceedings that are, traditionally, not released to the public. Mueller’s report is not likely to be short, and the decisions about what to redact are not likely to be simple or undisputed.

And all of this is just to get to the public disclosure of what Mueller found. To actually remove President Trump from office, his foes would need a majority of votes in the House — not so difficult if Democrats win control in the midterm elections — but then they would need two-thirds of the U.S. Senate to vote to remove Trump from office. Maybe some Senate Republicans would vote to impeach Trump if Mueller presents an airtight, scathing, absolutely indisputable account of criminal behavior on the part of Trump himself.

(Can we all agree that if Mueller doesn’t come back with airtight, scathing, absolutely indisputable evidence of crimes by Trump, it doesn’t exist? Does anyone want to argue that Mueller is rushing the job, or leaving stones unturned? De Niro is playing Mueller as U.S. Marshall Samuel Gerard right now; I don’t want to see arguments that Mueller is really Inspector Clouseau or Mister Magoo if he disappoints liberals.)

Short of that indisputable evidence, most GOP senators are not going to go along with what their grassroots supporters see as an attempt to undo the 2016 presidential election.

In other words, short of that airtight case, an impeachment vote in the Senate is likely to fail, offering something similar to the Clinton impeachment — a case where the president’s critics are convinced he committed crimes and escaped serious consequence, and the president’s supporters are convinced he was unfairly targeted by a partisan vendetta and a prosecutor who was determined to claim a scalp.

Corden’s audience laughed and applauded as “Trump” was taken away in handcuffs — but how do liberals react when they realize that their long-awaited, elaborately fantasized dream scenario won’t happen?

We’ve been here before. From 2005 to 2008, there were plenty of furious liberal voices who believed that President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and adviser Karl Rove would all be arrested for terrible crimes. Vermont Democratic senator Patrick Leahy argued that the United States needed a post-Apartheid South Africa–style “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to review the cavalcade of alleged crimes and horrors of the Bush years. In May, The New Republic ran a cover story calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the Trump years.

In the minds of many liberals, every Republican presidency ranks among history’s greatest injustices and terrors.

Mercy, Mercy Me

Former attorney general and potential 2020 presidential candidate Eric Holder weighed in on the issue of separating illegal-immigrant children from their parents at the border again, posting on Twitter an image of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the quote, “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”

It’s a powerful quotation from the former president, as long as you avert your eyes from the 120,000 Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during the Second World War or the thousands of Jewish refugees turned away and forced to return to Europe.

It’s time for government to be kind, says the attorney general whose Department of Justice oversaw the Fast and Furious scandal, subpoenaed the phone records of reporters, named reporters co-conspirators in leak cases, and approved a drone strike on a U.S. citizen. (Anwar al-Awlaki had it coming, but using military force to execute an American citizen without a trial is a pretty dangerous precedent to set.)

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your 2020 Fundraising Engines

Michael Scherer of the Washington Post looks at the shadow fundraising campaign among Democrats thinking of a 2020 bid and finds this revealing quote from a former Obama official:

“I would say you have to have a path to raising at least $15 [million] or $20 million in that first quarter,” said Julianna Smoot, a Democratic consultant who oversaw then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 fundraising effort. “And I think there may be four or five who will be able to do that.”

The first quarter of the 2020 cycle is March 31, 2019 . . . 245 days from now, about eight months. This means a serious Democratic candidate will need to raise about $2 million a month, starting now.

Except . . . the Democrats will have a lot of not-so-serious candidates, and for that matter, you may see some not-so-serious Republican challengers to Trump, and not-so-serious independent or third-party bids.

ADDENDA: A new poll from CBS News finds that two-thirds of Republicans support federal payments to farmers adversely affected by tariff disputes, while 78 percent of Democrats oppose them.

So if I don’t want more big-spending government entitlement programs . . . am I a Democrat now?

Politics & Policy

Mark Zuckerberg’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill, April 11, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Happy Friday! Making the click-through worthwhile: some spectacular new economic numbers are unveiled, while polling shows Democrats believe the economy is getting worse; Facebook crashes on the rocks; and North Korea shows another small sign of good faith.

Enjoy the Trump-Era Economic Boom!

The U.S Department of Commerce unveiled some really good economic numbers this morning: “[The U.S.] gross domestic product grew at a solid 4.1 percent pace in the second quarter, its best pace since 2014, boosting hopes that the economy is ready to break out of its decade-long slumber.”

The question is, how much of this nice figure stems from a one-time burst from a “get-exports-in-before-the-tariffs-start” mentality? “In addition to the rise in consumer and business spending, increases in exports and government spending also helped. Exports rose in part as farmers rushed to get soybeans to China ahead of expected retaliatory tariffs to take effect in the coming days. Declines in private inventory investment and residential fixed investment were the main drags, the report said.”

Public perceptions of the economy are pretty good, according to the Gallup poll . . .

The economy is Americans’ top response when asked to name the “most important thing going well” in the U.S. today, showing the flip side of Gallup’s list of the “most important problems” facing the nation. Economic factors are cited by 37% of Americans as what is going most well. The social climate, including social awareness, civic activism and the “resistance” movement, is the next-largest category of responses, at 17%, followed by the 12% saying “nothing” or “not much” is going well.

According to the poll, 55% of Americans believe U.S. economic conditions are excellent or good, and the same percentage perceive the economy to be improving.

But considering the unemployment rate and these numbers . . . those figures seem a little low.

Almost 20 percent of Democrats told Gallup the economy was doing “poorly” and another 45 percent said it was performing “only fair.” Among Democrats, 60 percent said the economy was “getting worse.”

They just can’t possibly admit that the guy they didn’t vote for is getting something right, can they?

Trust Me, You Had a Better Week Than Mark Zuckerberg Did

Bad week? Lots of rain? Can’t wait for summer vacation? Trust me, you had a better week than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The 19 percent drop vaporized $119 billion of the company’s stock-market value; CEO Mark Zuckerberg saw his net worth fall by roughly $16 billion as a result. It was Facebook’s worst trading day since going public in 2012; the collapse eclipsed Intel’s decline of $91 billion in September 2000, without adjusting for inflation.

Market analysts say the stunning drop is mostly a matter of missed earnings and a sense that Facebook’s growth has plateaued. The problems facing the company, in particular European- privacy laws starting to constrain the company’s ability to target particular groups of consumers for advertisers, are getting bigger. Investors figure they might as well sell, since the peak has probably passed.

Political pressure alone doesn’t explain a crash like this, but it is probably not merely coincidence that the crash comes at a time when the company has no friends on the political spectrum.

Some Democrats want to believe that the couple million that Russian entities spent on social media in 2016 made the difference in the election. (Never mind that roughly one quarter of their Facebook ads were never seen by anyone.)

A more compelling argument against Facebook is that 2016 demonstrated the company was mercenary — they didn’t care who was buying the ads, didn’t look into who was buying them, and had no real problem being manipulated by a foreign-intelligence service as long as the checks cleared.

If corporate America seems more jittery and politically correct as the Trump era progresses instead of less, perhaps that’s the real lesson that they learned from the 2016 shock: When the Democratic party’s grassroots, leaders, and media allies are looking for a scapegoat, they will find one and they will not be too picky about whether the scapegoat status is deserved or not.  Once Democrats find a reason to believe you’re to blame for Trump, you’re in trouble, and to hell with the facts.

Republicans don’t think that Facebook is on their side, either. They’ve heard too many stories of somebody’s account being suspended or groups being banned for vague or implausible reasons. Former Facebook workers said they routinely suppressed certain topics that conservatives found interesting, such as CPAC, Mitt Romney, or Glenn Beck. They allowed the 2012 Obama campaign to use data from users without their consent, the same act that has Cambridge Analytica in so much trouble.

A quick scan of headlines about Facebook shows that the company built something amazing and far-reaching but didn’t really figure out how to manage it — as if it had put a newspaper printing press and vast network of street-corner distribution racks in the hands of every user. They trusted their users, and some users abused that trust.  On a site like Amazon or eBay, if a user promises to deliver something and doesn’t, frustrated buyers can leave public complaints and one-star reviews, and discourage others. For “fake news” . . . there isn’t the same system of self-policing.

That’s because nobody likes it when they order a widget and it doesn’t arrive . . . but some of us kind of like “fake news.” We like a glimpse of a world where our side is even more noble and righteous and the other side is even more openly corrupt, malevolent, and incompetent. Some of us want to believe, and are eager to share it with the Facebook friend or neighbor who strikes us as everything we can’t stand about the other side.

Fake profiles are proliferating faster than they can be recognized and shut down.

Facebook tried to set up a policy of blocking advertisements that depict nudity . . . and accidentally banned a tourism campaign for the Belgian city of Flanders, because it featured nude paintings from the Rubens House Museum. (I guess you could say the anti-nudity policy is . . .Baroque-en.)

(Apparently there’s no amount of financial pressure that can get Facebook to simply switch back to the old system of showing posts in reverse chronological order.)

Mike Allen, who composes that other morning newsletter, writes this morning,“People who invested in utopian visions are beginning to feel bait-and-switched.”

Gee, there’s no historical precedent for that, now is there?

Look Who’s Playing Nice as the Week Progresses . . .

Huh. Another small, but significant example of North Korea keeping a promise after the Singapore summit.

Remains believed to be those of 55 American servicemen were flown out of North Korea on Friday, the first visible result of President Trump’s efforts to bring the American war dead home 65 years after the end of combat in the Korean War.

“We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change,” the White House said in announcing the handover.

An American Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo plane carrying the remains landed later at Osan Air Base south of Seoul, the South Korean capital. Hundreds of American service members as well as a military honor guard lined up on the tarmac to mark the return of the fallen troops.

As the honor guard and the troops stood at attention, 55 small coffins containing the remains were individually carried out of the plane by dress-uniformed soldiers and loaded into six vans. Each of the boxes was wrapped with the United Nations flag, the flag that American troops fought under in the Korean War.

We’re still a long way from the preeminent goal of U.S. policy — a North Korea that doesn’t have nuclear weapons. But there have been no test detonations, no test missile launches, one facility reportedly dismantled, and now the returned remains. This is, all things considered, the easy stuff — but it is progress.

ADDENDA: How long until we start touting Maryland’s GOP governor Larry Hogan as a Scott Walker-style triumphant conqueror? Maryland Democrats used to be nearly impossible to beat; now their gubernatorial nominee, Ben Jealous, is struggling to keep everybody on the same page:

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett is declining to endorse Jealous for now because of concerns that Jealous’s positions on taxes, school funding and Amazon.com’s second headquarters would penalize Leggett’s constituents in the state’s most populous jurisdiction.

Long-serving Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert), an influential moderate, offered only tepid backing for Jealous while praising Hogan for “governing from the middle.”

Other top Maryland Democrats, while voicing strong support for Jealous, disagree with him on issues such as his support for state-based, single-payer health care. They include U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel), all of whom say they favor the goal of universal health care but question whether Maryland can afford it.

 

PC Culture

The Controversy over Controversy

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Writer and director James Gunn poses at the world premiere of Marvel Studios’ “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” in Hollywood, California, April 19, 2017 (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

It wasn’t that long ago — the 90s? — when controversy and being “edgy” was practically a requirement in popular culture.

You could start the day awakening to wacky, occasionally off-color “Morning Zoo” radio hosts on your clock radio and end it with an HBO series that pushed the envelope of the language, sex, or violence portrayed in a drama series. In between, your hours could be filled with Howard Stern, the furious voices of some corners of conservative talk radio, and hip-hop lyrics that its fans insisted were a form of nonfiction narrative about urban black culture but that usually seemed to offer a uncomfortably sympathetic portrayal of gang members, drug dealers, and pimps. Beyond hip-hop, the easiest way to stand out on MTV was to have the network either refuse to air your video as is or demand it be edited.

If you tuned in to stand-up comedians, at least half, if not more, were working “blue.” Only once in a great while did one of the crasser voices wear out their welcome, like Andrew Dice Clay. If you went to the cineplex, there was at least one Tarantino-inspired quasi-“independent” film featuring violence, sex, vulgar language, and a generally nihilist attitude. Even children’s entertainment got “edgy.” Ren and Stimpy featured fart jokes and lessons like “Don’t Whiz on the Electric Fence.” Don’t like Demi Moore’s naked-pregnant cover of Vanity Fair? Then there’s Madonna on the cover of Esquire in a dog collar and bra. Don’t like that? Oh, here’s Britney Spears in a Lolita-esque pose on the cover of Rolling Stone. Oh, you think that was as offensive as we could get? Here’s Kanye West in a crown of thorns on the cover of the same magazine.

A few years back, I wrote about the edgy “I say the things that are true that no one else will” persona:

You’ve seen this style of television personality before. We saw it in 1990s-era Dennis Miller, and Denis Leary’s old stand-up persona, and more or less Bill Maher today. This is not a comparison of their quality, just their tone and attitude: I’m the guy who’s got the guts to tell it like it is, whether you like it or not. In the sports world, we’ve seen it from Jim Rome and more recently, Colin Cowherd, who may have gotten me to yell “YOU ARE COMPLETELY WRONG” at my car radio more than any other host. For a while, Glenn Beck’s old CNN show offered billboards with a slightly obscured “Cut the cr*p” slogan.

Regardless of whether you liked any of these offerings, they represented a very big cultural change. Instead of avoiding taboos, entertainers steered towards them, hit the accelerator, and attempted to crash through the barrier. Once in a while, someone like Sinead O’Connor would step over the line and encounter a consequential backlash. The tawdry Showgirls crashed, although it gained a fan base for its purported so-amazingly-bad-it’s-entertaining qualities. Roseanne Barr wore out her original welcome for her egregious national anthem antics.

Now, seemingly all of a sudden, edgy is bad. Very, very bad, or at least, very risky. Your controversial statements now might spur a furious reaction on social media, a threatened boycott, and make your advertisers nervous. Your movie’s sex scene is exploitational — and let’s face it, a segment of the audience now wonders if a casting couch was involved in the creation of the film. Your minor one-joke supporting character now is accused of being an ethnic stereotype.

And apparently there’s no statute of limitations. Hollywood Reporter columnist Marc Bernardin points out that the current mentality — where year-old tweets can mean instant termination if they’re bad enough, regardless of how you treat people in real life — does not allow people to make awful decisions and learn from them and become better.

Is the content of those past tweets revolting? Absolutely. Undeniably. And Gunn, now 51, was in his 40s when he sent them, hardly a kid. But so long as there has been no actual criminal activity, there has to be a difference between who a person was and who a person is. And we have to allow for the fact that people can change.

Roseanne Barr is the kind of person who dresses up in a Hitler costume and threatens to bake Jews in an oven. She is the kind of person who fires off racist tweets and conspiracy theories. Jeffrey Tambor is someone who creates a hostile work environment on the sets of his television shows. You fire that person today for something she or he did yesterday. 

What’s weird is that the culture is moving in two different directions in its thinking about crimes and punishment simultaneously. On both sides of the aisle, we’re seeing a policy push for criminal-justice reform and prison reform — and a sense that people who have made bad decisions and broken the law need a path to a better way, in addition to punishment. Advocates for reform like to point out that about 95 percent of all state prisoners will be released someday, so we might as well put some effort into helping them stay away from the criminal life and bad decisions. If our country is indeed founded upon and sustained by Judeo-Christian values, we can’t just ignore the redemption part.

But a certain segment of society doesn’t feel there’s any path of redemption for those who commit thought crimes. There doesn’t seem to be much of a “medium” setting for bad decisions, particularly in the realm of social media. There’s no penalty box, paid or unpaid leave, counseling, community service, or fines. Usually the consequence jumps straight to termination and presumably a struggle to find different work in obscurity. Social media can galvanize and accelerate outrage, but it sure hasn’t figured out how to do the same for forgiveness.

(Chris Brown still walks the streets a free man, right? He pled guilty to felony assault on Rihanna in 2009. Anybody in the music industry refusing to work with him? How does the outrage mob nail Brendan Eich and James Damore but leave Brown unscathed?)

Sonny Bunch points out that many of these outrage mobs generate those instant, perhaps-panicked firings by threatening boycotts, and he has his doubts that those boycotts will ever come to fruition if an employer chose to stand by a controversial figure.

Corporations are so used to caving without a fight in order to avoid a few bad headlines that we don’t really have any idea if social-media boycott campaigns of mega-popular entities — an actual refusal to hand over money for goods and services — would really make a dent in anyone’s bottom line.

This will take a little backbone, and lord knows corporations don’t exactly have a surfeit of vertebrae. But it’s worth trying out if only as a means of breaking the cycle of stupidity. The next time a mob — conservative, liberal, nihilist, whatever — comes for one of your employees, refuse to play along until you see how serious they are.

Guys, You Can’t Use NATO Troops as a Bargaining Chip

The fairest point in Michael Brendan Dougherty’s column, disagreeing with myself and several other NR contributors on the value of NATO:

Also, NATO lately makes decisions on military matters for non-military reasons. The U.S. State Department recently protested Poland’s recent law on Holocaust scholarship by threatening to redeploy NATO troops and resources outside of Poland. Why? Either the troops had a strategic reason to be stationed in Poland, or they did not. NATO is a either a military alliance to deter Russia, or it is a political project to deter central European populists.

Dougherty’s weakest point is the argument that Montenegro “offers no significant military or intelligence capability to the alliance and its financial contributions will not be noticed.”  That’s true enough as it goes, but the decision to welcome Montenegro into NATO had little to do with its military and a lot to do with its tiny stretch of coastline on the Adriatic Sea. Look around the Adriatic: Croatia’s a member of NATO, Albania’s a member, Slovenia, Italy, Greece . . . Until recently, everybody around that body of water was in NATO except one. And guess who noticed?

“Russia’s interest in Montenegro heightened several years ago. As the reliability of its naval base in Tartus, Syria became less certain, Russia began seeking alternatives. In September 2013, the Russian government requested a meeting with the Montenegrin Ministry of Defense to discuss the temporary moorage of Russian warships at the ports of Bar and Kotor,” Tuesday’s report reads. “By Moscow’s proposal, Russian ships would dock under a privileged status that would allow for the extensive use of territorial waters.”

Geography turned Montenegro into a prize. Had Russia signed an alliance with it, Russian ships would be able to sail into the Adriatic and dock in Montenegro’s ports . . .and use that as a way to keep a naval presence in the Adriatic and keep an eye on NATO’s members around there. NATO brought Montenegro in to keep the Russians out.

Is having Montenegro as a member of the alliance worth it? NATO’s naval chiefs seem to think so.

If You Outlaw Straws, Only Outlaws Will Have Straws

Really, how difficult would it be to become an illegal plastic straw cartel kingpin?

As bans on plastic straws are cropping up in municipalities up and down the West Coast, Santa Barbara has escalated things with a ban that includes the possibility of jail time for repeat plastic straw-distributing offenders.

Honest to goodness, you know somebody in Santa Barbara is contemplating the Breaking-Bad-to-Scarface route right now.

Noah Rothman observes how quickly we move from “commonplace” to “controversial” to “banned” in some parts of the country:

If there had been a genuine give and take between adversarial factions, as was once customary in American politics before one-party municipalities summarily banned minor conveniences, the cities and towns behind this new prohibition might have been told that it would have almost no effect on the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean.

ADDENDA: If you don’t like the idea of Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avanetti being discussed as a serious presidential candidate, don’t get mad at him. Get mad at the Iowa Democratic groups that are inviting him and treating him like a serious candidate.

White House

Michael Cohen Turns on Trump

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President Donald Trump’s onetime personal attorney, Michael Cohen and President Donald Trump (Lucas Jackson, Leah Millis/File Photos/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Michael Cohen starts revealing the audiotapes of his conversation with Trump, leaving us wondering just what his long-term strategy is here; New Jersey senator Cory Booker pulls muscles reaching too far; and a sad tale of a celebrity demonstrates that fame doesn’t actually solve those personal troubles and doubts that keep us up in the middle of the night.

Michael Cohen Turns Against Trump — Are We Supposed to Like Him Now or Something?

We’re in pretty uncharted waters here, so who knows what the final ramifications of Michael Cohen’s secret taped conversations with Donald Trump will be. But having said that, doesn’t this make one feel a little sympathy for Trump? After all, your lawyer is supposed to be on your side, not accumulating blackmail or leverage material to use against you at some later date. Maybe this will get special counsel Robert Mueller off Cohen’s back, but it will be interesting to see what career options remain for Cohen when all of this is over. Trump and his allies will hate him as a turncoat, while Trump critics are unlikely to warmly embrace the man who cleaned up Trump’s ugliest legal messes for years.

Even if Cohen’s reputation wasn’t the public-relations equivalent of Chernobyl, no one would want to talk to him . . . knowing Cohen’s habit of surreptitiously recording conversations.

Cohen’s secret taping of his conversations with Trump was probably legal, because in New York you only need “one party to the conversation” to consent to taping to make it legal.

Of course, this assumes that both Trump and Cohen were in New York when the discussion occurred. This conversation was in September 2016, when Trump was campaigning around the country. Eleven states require all parties involved in a conversation or phone call to consent before the conversation can be recorded. If Trump was in California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, or Washington during these conversations . . . then technically Cohen violated that state’s law on wiretapping.

For what it’s worth, the American Bar Association prohibited secret recordings, ruling it “professional misconduct,” from 1974 to 2001. That year, it changed its opinions to argue that it could be acceptable in certain circumstances if the recording has a “valid purpose” and doesn’t violate the other party’s legal rights, but that a lawyer should not “falsely represent that a conversation is not being recorded.” Did Cohen ever tell Trump he wasn’t being recorded?

Do the tapes suggest that Trump knew about efforts to buy the rights to women alleging extramarital affairs with him, and prevent those allegations from being revealed to the public? Sure. But how many of us were buying Trump’s denials on that?

How many of us were buying Trump’s denials of the affairs?

Look, maybe this crew all deserves each other. But at some point, Trump will argue, “my own lawyer betrayed me in order to save his own skin,” and . . . he’ll largely be right.

Senator Cory Booker vs. the Forces of Evil

Do you remember John Kerry on the presidential stump? I think it was Rob Long who said Kerry was a comedic godsend, the embodiment of the comedic stock character of the smug snob, using terms like “would that it were” while trying to joke around with Jon Stewart. Whenever Kerry needed to come across as a “relatable guy,” he would try too hard, and call the Packers home “Lambert Field” or call the Neil Diamond song associated with his hometown Red Sox “Sweet Adeline.” He kept trying, really hard, to be something that he wasn’t, and it inevitably broke through in a cringe-inducing way.

I’m wondering if Cory Booker has a similar streak of overexertion and phoniness. We know from his mayoral record and early years in the Senate that Booker spent much of his career building a reputation as “Mister Bipartisan” and reaching across the aisle, trying to emulate the early Obama image of the post-partisan problem solver. But by 2016, the Democratic party was mad as heck about Trump, and Booker was left trying to reinvent himself as Shouty McAngryPants. He once worked with Sessions on legislation and praised him but then jumped to oppose his nomination as attorney general. He berates Trump administration officials when they testify before the Senate.

As our Jack Crowe reports, Booker keeps going one step beyond plausibility:

Flanked by a deacon and fellow Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Booker described the Kavanaugh confirmation battle as a “moral moment” that demands that all who oppose evil also oppose the constitutional originalists’ confirmation.

“I’m here to call on folk[s] to understand that in a moral moment there is no neutral. In a moral moment there is no bystanders,” Booker told the crowd. “You are either complicit in the evil, you are either contributing to the wrong, or you are fighting against it.”

The rising progressive star then suggested that opposition to Kavanaugh’s confirmation was tantamount to walking through the “valley of the shadow of death.”

“It doesn’t say that I sit in the valley of the shadow of death. It doesn’t say I’m sitting on the sidelines in the valley of the shadow of death. It says I am walking through the valley of the shadow of death. It says I am taking agency that I am going to make it through this crisis,” Booker said. “And so I am calling on everyone right now who understands what’s at stake, who understands who Kavanaugh is. My ancestors said ‘if someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.’ He has shown us who he is.”

Kavanaugh, a Christian father of two who regularly donates his time to serve food to the homeless, has been pilloried in the media for taking on credit-card debt to purchase season tickets to the Washington Nationals.

Anybody buying the argument that Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh is . . . evil?

Fame Really Doesn’t Fix Any Problems, Does It?

Awful news about pop star Demi Lovato . . .

One can’t help but wonder if we’re witnessing a drawback to celebrities publicly discussing their struggles with addiction — a gesture no doubt taken with the best of intentions. The idea, presumably, is that ordinary, non-celebrity folk look at the rich and famous celebrity’s struggles and think, “Wow, they’re just like me. I’m not so different or uniquely troubled after all. If it could happen to them, there’s no shame in my struggle with this.” But how many non-celebrities hear about the rich and famous battling the bottle or pills, and think, “Wait, that person is famous and rich and successful and has all kinds of advantages that I don’t, and if they still relapsed . . . what chance do I have?” (Of course, a celebrity’s glamorous lifestyle may offer more temptations, opportunities for relapse, and enabling figures than the average person’s life.)

I came across this deeply sad anecdote about Lovato:

Lovato’s tolerance for artifice reached its breaking point at the 2016 Met Gala in New York, the annual celeb-packed, black-tie fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, presided over by Vogue’s Anna Wintour. “I had a terrible experience,” says Lovato, her voice rising in pitch for the only time during our conversation. “This one celebrity was a complete b**** and was miserable to be around. It was very cliquey. I remember being so uncomfortable that I wanted to drink.” She texted her manager, then went straight to a 10 p.m. Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

“I changed my clothes, but I still had my diamonds on — millions of dollars of diamonds on in an AA meeting. And I related more to the homeless people in that meeting who struggled with the same struggles that I deal with than the people at the Met Gala.”

This probably showcases how these problems aren’t rational, or at least aren’t easily understood by most of us. Lovato found the event “very clique-y”? She’s at the Met Gala, one of the most exclusive parties in America! Most of us would think that’s the ultimate validation, perhaps the most spectacular and high-profile venue to declare “you belong” in the world.

How could one other celebrity make Lovato feel so miserable? She’s a superstar — six albums, worldwide sales, critically acclaimed, touring around the world, her own line of skincare products, regular gigs on television shows such as The X Factor and Glee, a New York Times bestselling book . . . and she feels insecure and not accepted by others? What more could she want? What more could she need?

Shortly after Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, I came across this quote from actor Anthony Hopkins about fame:

He understands that we can all be terrible, and we can all be kind. Fame and power have nothing to do with it. I tell Hopkins something the singer Tony Bennett once said — “Life teaches you how to live it if you live long enough” — and he is delighted. “How extraordinary. What an amazing thing to say! You know, I meet young people, and they want to act and they want to be famous, and I tell them, when you get to the top of the tree, there’s nothing up there. Most of this is nonsense, most of this is a lie. Accept life as it is. Just be grateful to be alive.” 

The odds are good that you’ll be the same person at the top of the tree that you were at the bottom — and that you’ll have the same inner problems there that you do here.

ADDENDUM: So this . . . really didn’t turn out to be “Iran Week” after all, huh?

Politics & Policy

North Korea Makes Progress on Their Promise

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President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un shake hands after signing documents during a summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore, June 12, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: A surprising, and welcome, sign of progress in North Korea; the White House floats a dumb and vindictive idea; Hollywood finds comfort in denouncing “toxic fans” when films disappoint; and a familiar face fans the flames of the 2020 presidential-campaign discussion.

Could It Be That Very, Very Slowly, the U.S. Policy on North Korea Is . . . Working?

Everyone could be forgiven for expecting the North Koreans to enjoy their global summit and then walk away laughing, confident that they had pulled another fast one on the Americans yet again.

But now there’s a little tangible evidence that maybe — just maybe — North Korea is willing to make a few tangible moves to keep the process moving in the right direction:

North Korea has started dismantling a missile-engine test site, as president Donald Trump said the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, promised he would during their historic summit meeting in Singapore in June, according to an analysis of satellite imagery of the location.

The North Koreans have started taking apart the engine test stand at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, said Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., an expert on North Korea’s weapons programs, in a report published on Monday on the website 38 North. The dismantling work probably began sometime within the last two weeks, he said.

North Korea has also started dismantling a rail-mounted building at the Sohae station where workers used to assemble space launch vehicles before moving them to the launchpad, Mr. Bermudez said.

Mr. Bermudez compared satellite photos of the Sohae facilities taken on Friday and Sunday to conclude that North Korea had begun taking “an important first step toward fulfilling a commitment made by Kim Jong-un.”

On Sunday, there were reports that President Trump was growing frustrated with the lack of visible progress with North Korea. On Saturday, the top U.S. military commander on the Korean peninsula, Vincent Brooks, said that the North Koreans had “gone now 235 days without a provocation.” That’s better than the alternative, obviously.

Maybe the adulation at the summit gave Kim Jong-un something he doesn’t want to lose.

Another Dumb, Vindictive, Half-Baked Idea . . .

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, yesterday: “Not only is the President looking to take away [former CIA director John] Brennan’s security clearance, he’s also looking into the clearances of [former FBI director James] Comey, [Former Director of National Intelligence] Clapper, [former CIA director and NSA director Michael] Hayden, [Former national-security adviser Susan] Rice, and [former deputy FBI director Andrew] McCabe. The President is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance because they’ve politicized and, in some cases, monetized their public service and security clearances.”

They’ve “politicized their public service”? Every former CIA director has done public interviews and weighed in on current events and U.S. policy. James Woolsey chaired the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, joined the Project for a New American Century, and advised John McCain and Donald Trump — until he quit the transition team after Trump started publicly criticizing the intelligence community.

You want to talk about former intelligence officials who became active in politics? How about Michael Flynn, who became one of Trump’s top advisers and surrogates? He headed the Defense Intelligence Agency until 2014; he joined the Trump campaign in February 2016.

Oh, what’s that? The Trump administration doesn’t like people with security clearances cashing in with book deals? I guess Trump and the administration are really upset about Michael Flynn’s Field of Fight, published in 2016, right? Hey, is there a clearer form of “monetizing” one’s former job and security clearance than secretly working as a lobbyist for the Turkish government — while working on a presidential campaign?

Oh, I see. This administration only has a problem with the security clearances and “monetizing” when the former official is an outspoken Trump critic. Unless they’re leaking classified information, that criticism is protected by the First Amendment.

For what it’s worth, both Comey and McCabe lost their security clearances when their employment with the FBI ended. Michael Hayden says that he no longer goes back for classified briefings. Clapper said yesterday that the president has the authority to revoke clearances, but that it would be “very, very petty.”

Look, if any of the figures that Sarah Huckabee Sanders listed have leaked classified or sensitive information, then the proper move isn’t revoking their security clearance — it’s referring the allegations to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation. Short of that, there’s no good argument for revoking the clearance. The criteria for a security clearance have always been, “Can this person be trusted with sensitive or classified information? Does this person have some vulnerability to blackmail or coercion?” The question has never been, “Does this person say things that the president doesn’t like?”

I realize that everyone is too blinded by partisan rage to look too far down the road, but if the Trump administration goes ahead with this move, then it’s a safe bet that a future Democratic administration will revoke the clearances of John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and the rest of the Trump administration national-security team. And dumb, blind, stupid, vindictive partisanship will claim another victim, weakening our government further.

An All-Female Remake of a Beloved Movie . . . Still Has to Be a Good Movie

Peter Spiliakos has a good article on the new trend of Hollywood’s creative class blaming “toxic fans” for movies that get less-than-sterling receptions, and how the “culture war is becoming the last defense of artistic mediocrity.”

After a while, condemning “toxic” critics can morph into an effort to drown out all critics. If you don’t like the movie (or rather say too loudly that you don’t like the movie), the bad guys win. One could adopt the common saying: If you have the law on your side pound the law. If you have the facts on your side pound the facts. If you have neither the law nor the facts on your side, pound the table.

If you can’t defend the movie on the merits, pound on “toxic fandom.”

The all-female Ghostbusters remake was generally awful, and it’s hard not to suspect that its creators were eager to blame “misogyny” rather than face the movie’s considerable flaws. The guys at RedLetterMedia did a pretty insightful video noting that besides the usual problems of remaking a beloved classic, the four lead actresses have all been funny in other work, and that one of the film’s problems was an inability to keep the balance between four comediennes ad-libbing and keeping the narrative going. (Profanity warning at that link.)

This summer’s Ocean’s Eight was . . . perfectly fine, although a little disappointing considering the level of talent accumulated. I notice that in Ocean’s Eleven, one of the key points is that, to protagonist Danny Ocean, the heist isn’t about the money at all — it’s all about getting the love of his life, Tess, back from the insufferable casino owner, Terry Benedict. The entire movie builds up to the moment where Danny can force Benedict to make a choice and prove to Tess that she’s less important to Benedict than the money. Besides Benedict’s smug arrogance, casinos make great villains. They lure people in, leave them penniless, and are associated in the public’s mind with the mob. As we root for the heroes, we’re certain that the villains have it coming.

In Ocean’s Eight, the all-female crew is robbing . . . Tiffany’s. What did Tiffany’s ever do to anyone?

ADDENDUM: Oh, good, former attorney general Eric Holder is thinking about running for president in 2020. The Democratic field in 2020 might make the Republican field in 2016 look small and cohesive. My guess is that the political parties don’t start thinking about ways to prevent the gadflies, riff-raff, also-rans, and never-weres from launching publicity-seeking, never-that-serious “campaigns” until 2021.

World

Trump Tweet Makes Iran This Week’s Topic

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President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference after his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. (Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information)

Making the click-through worthwhile this week: The president tweets about Iran and the question before the media is now how they choose to discuss that country’s regime, what you need to know about state election officials’ efforts to secure the vote for the 2018 election, and a funny ad in Wisconsin thankfully doesn’t live down to the fears of toilet humor implied by the title.

Oh, the National Media Is Going to Pay Attention to Iran This Week?

President Trump on Twitter, shortly before midnight last night:

I guess the national political media will spend this week talking about Iran.

Iran didn’t go anywhere. They’re threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off the Persian Gulf from the rest of the world, but those of us with long memories will remember this is an Iranian habit. They’re still prepping for cyber attacks against the United States. They’re still arresting teenagers for dancing, and cracking down on student activists. The regime’s police are still shooting protesters who are objecting to a lack of water in drought-stricken areas. Their diplomats are being arrested for helping assist plots to bomb opposition-group meetings in France.

They’re filing a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice over our latest sanctions.  

I don’t mind the national political media spending this week talking about Iran. I wish we spent more weeks talking about Iran, and outside of the context of the Iranian nuclear deal, which basically turned into a proxy for how you felt about Obama. If you liked Obama, it was a diplomatic masterstroke, a triumph of peace in the most difficult of circumstances; if you didn’t like Obama, it was a slew of concessions in exchange for a spotty inspection regime that allowed the biggest state sponsor of terror in the world to race to build a nuke in eleven years.

Just because we only hear about the Iranian regime doing bad things sporadically doesn’t mean the Iranian regime is only doing bad things sporadically.

The good news is, if you’re reading National Review, you’re hearing about Iran even when the president isn’t tweeting about it. In the latest issue, we note that Iranian military general Gholam Reza Jalali is running around saying the Israelis are stealing the rain from his country — another advocate of the “Jews control the weather” theory. (He should run for D.C. city council.)

Back in June, our Jay Nordlinger wrote a bit about Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, and how after the short-lived “Green Revolution” against the regime in 2009, he spent 118 days in prison, 107 of them in solitary confinement. He was tortured, both physically and psychologically. “Every day, I was told I was going to be executed.”

(When you see women dressed as characters from “The Handmaid’s Tale” at speeches by Vice President Mike Pence, it seems overwrought and ridiculous; when contrasted with the actual tyranny and systematic oppression of Iranian women, it’s galling. In Iran, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is much closer to reality.)

Tzvi Kahn, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued that the United States needed to sanction Mahmoud Alavi, the head of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. And Victor Davis Hanson called our attention to Mohammad-Javad Larijani, a high-level official in Iran’s judiciary, who announced recently in public that the regime allowed several of the 9/11 hijackers to go through their country without passport stamps to ensure they could travel freely elsewhere.

This is what the Iranian regime is, day after day, year after year. Sanctions against the regime weakened it but did not change its nature and, if we’re being honest, didn’t mitigate the threats from it nearly as much as we would like. Years of Obama-era engagement and endless summits in Geneva and the Iran Deal strengthened the regime, but did little to change its nature or aggression. As much as some of us would probably prefer to ignore Tehran, it sponsors too much terrorism to ignore and backs dangerous factions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran is well along the road to being the dominant power in the Middle East.

The country would be well-served by a national discussion of what to do about Iran’s mullahs, one that went beyond “Are the president’s tweets provocative or not?”

What You Need to Know About the Security of Your Vote in November

Toward the end of last week, you probably saw headlines such as, “Additional election security funding left out of bill passed Thursday.” House Democrats wanted to add another $380 million for election security to an appropriations bill for the Interior Department.

The argument from House Republicans was that this problem had already been addressed. The $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill passed in March included $380 million for election security.

Inconveniently for the Democratic argument, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission announced earlier in the week that more than $333 million had been transferred into state accounts. (States have to cover 5 percent of the cost of security measures; they can cover their portion at any time within two years of receiving the grant.)

States can use the money to replace old equipment, ensure that the voting machines leave a paper record of the vote, upgrade election-related computer systems and cyber-security, post-election audit systems, and train state and local officials.

If any official in any local or state government doesn’t feel like their system of voting and tabulating votes is safe from tampering, fraud, or hacking, the time to say so is now — not after the election!

Another point worth noting is that earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed data from 564 voting jurisdictions across the country and concluded that “80 percent of the population nationwide resided within jurisdictions that used voting equipment that resulted in an auditable paper trail — and more jurisdictions are heading in that direction every day.” That same GAO report found that 96 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the way their voting equipment worked in the 2016 election.

A paper trail makes it much tougher for hackers to mess around with the recorded votes. The Center for Election Innovation and Research notes that Pennsylvania and Delaware are currently moving towards paper-record systems and they calculate that by the 2020 general election, “85 or even 90 percent of Americans will live in jurisdictions that used voting equipment with an auditable paper trail.”

Governing magazine points out that all of the “Russia hacked the election” and “Russia influenced the election” talking points conflate efforts to influence the election with actual incidences of breaking into computer systems and altering the votes or vote totals: “There’s no proof that any actual votes were changed by hackers in 2016, but the whole menu of Russian attacks — fake social media profiles, political ads on the internet, hacking into Democratic Party emails — has undermined public confidence. Actual voting infrastructure, such as voting machines and voter registration rolls, are often conflated in media accounts with these other types of attacks on the political process as a whole.”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s latest indictment indicates that hackers affiliated with Russian military intelligence did get access to voter-information data in Illinois in July 2016. But there’s no evidence that they actually managed to alter or make mischief with any of the data and no indication that they could alter the vote total. (Note that Hillary Clinton won Illinois by a larger margin in 2016 than Barack Obama did in 2012 and 2008.)

Usually You Cringe When You Hear About a Political Ad Entitled ‘Flush’ . . .

By far, the best use of a toilet in a campaign ad this year comes from GOP Senate candidate Leah Vukmir.

Vukmir, a state senator, is in a tight primary fight with Kevin Nicholson. She’s earned an A+ and an endorsement from the NRA. The primary is August 14; Wisconsin’s Republican senator, Ron Johnson, pushed a plan earlier this year to ensure that all of the Republican candidates unify behind the nominee in the fall.

ADDENDA: I’m scheduled to appear on HLN sometime around noon today.