U.S.

The Starbucks Protesters Took a Page out of Al Sharpton’s Book

Philadelphia Councilman Kenyatta Johnson (center) addresses the media along with colleagues outside the Center City Starbucks in Philadelphia, Pa., April 16, 2018. (Mark Makela/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: What the career of Al Sharpton can tell us about the current racial controversy surrounding Starbucks, Michael Cohen’s schedule gets a little busy, and some ominous news about how the Russian government sees the world and the weapons they want to develop.

The Starbucks Controversy, and How Al Sharpton Went Mainstream

You have to wonder how the nation’s 175,000 Starbucks employees are feeling this week, knowing that on May 29, all stores will close for one day to conduct anti-bias training after two African-American men were arrested at a Philadelphia coffee shop. The manager of that store who called the cops has already been dismissed, and the CEO has apologized profusely. All of those Starbucks employees had nothing to do with the incident in Philadelphia, but they must commit acts of penance nonetheless.

Our Kyle Smith:

The leadership of Starbucks unwisely granted the mob’s premise — that the entire company is tied to the action of the Philadelphia employee — when it announced it would close every store in the chain (that’s 8,000 stores) on May 29 to train 175,000 employees in how to avoid racial bias. This centralized the manager’s action instead of distancing the corporation from it. It’s as though the entire city of Richmond vowed to undertake a reeducation program every time one of its citizens commits a crime. The move guaranteed that “Starbucks” and “race” will continue to be linked in the public imagination for weeks to come.

I suspect you can trace the country’s unexpected path to this mindset on racial controversies by following the twists and turns in the career of Al Sharpton.

If you grew up in the greater New York City area in the 1980s, one of the more remarkable aspects of modern American life is how Sharpton somehow became a respected national voice on race. Back then Sharpton was overweight, had a wild pompadour, and wore sweatsuits and giant medallions on gold chains, and was much more widely seen as a buffoonish character — particularly after the Tawana Brawley case and the arson at Freddie’s Fashion Mart. If there was a bad, racially-charged incident in New York City in the 1980s and early 90s – and there were plenty of those – Sharpton could be counted on to show up and make a bad situation worse. In Thomas Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, the opportunistic, cynical demagogue “Rev. Reginald Bacon” is fairly obviously inspired by Sharpton.

He was once a very safe target for comedians; let me show you Late Night with David Letterman‘s Top Ten list on May 4, 1991:

Top 10 Travel Tips from Al Sharpton:

10. To avoid overweight charges for your luggage, wear as many of your medallions as possible.

9. Don’t forget the electrical adapter for your blow dryer.

8. All foreign food is good if you bring your own gravy.

7. Before making reservations, make sure hotel has a Fat Guy Suite.

6. If hair pomade is not available in Far East, duck sauce will work.

5. March on Buckingham Palace to protest fact that there hasn’t been a black king in years.

4. When in Venice, have them load up front end of gondola with sacks of peat moss to balance you out.

3. If the pope tries wearing some big medallion, go ahead and wear two.

2. Be careful: In some countries, being loud and obnoxious is considered rude.

1. Trust me: One jogging suit is all you’ll need.

But somewhere along the line — perhaps the NYPD shooting of Amadou Diallo? — the mainstream media started to take Sharpton more seriously and despite his past incendiary comments — in the case of Freddie’s Fashion Mart, perhaps almost literally — he was treated with much more respect. He ran for president in 2004 and no one in the Democratic party was willing to take the heat that would arrive with the obvious declaration that Sharpton wasn’t a serious candidate and didn’t belong on the debate stage. (Among Sharpton’s helpers that year? Longtime Donald Trump friend and ally, Roger Stone.)

In The New Republic, Randall Kennedy laid out how the rise of Barack Obama created a new role for Sharpton:

Sharpton was not a supporter at the outset of Obama’s campaign. Indeed, initially he was downright skeptical if not dismissive. But as soon as Sharpton perceived that Obama would probably win the nomination, he jumped aboard the bandwagon. Showing notable discipline, Sharpton expressed support in a fashion calculated to lessen the risk that negative views of himself would rub off hurtfully on Obama.

Since Obama’s victory, Sharpton has been not only an unequivocal cheerleader. He has been a vocal critic of blacks on the left who complain about Obama’s priorities (attending to the hurts of Wall Street ahead of pain in the ‘hood), appointments (all manner of centrist technocrats but no prominent progressives in major posts), and methods (compromise over confrontation)… In that way, Sharpton performs the valuable service to Obama of validating his racial bona fides.

By 2014, Politico described Sharpton as Obama’s “go-to man on race.” In 2011, MSNBC gave Sharpton his own show. His critics have contended that the network, owned by Comcast, gave him the show in order to ensure he would not protest the company’s mergers and acquisitions. Sharpton could no longer be mocked, certainly no longer ignored, and with a symbiotic relationship with the president, he was dangerous to criticize. He could only be placated and appeased by expensive gestures.

Kyle describes an instantly-iconic Philadelphia Inquirer photo: “Black Lives Matter activist Asa Khalif standing in front of a staffer, identified on his apron as Zack. Zack is not the employee who called the police last week. Khalif is yelling into a bullhorn despite being maybe three feet away from poor Zack, who is standing with his hands folded, patiently absorbing abuse for something he had nothing to do with.”

Going into an establishment with a bullhorn and leading a protest against hapless retail staff is exactly the sort of attention-grapping maneuver Al Sharpton used to use. The old Al Sharpton may gone, but we’re still living in his world.

Cohen: You Know, I’m a Little Busy Right Now

Earlier in the week, this newsletter laid out the reasons for wariness about McClatchy’s “Mueller has confirmed Cohen traveled to Prague in the summer of 2016” scoop. But this morning, something a little unusual occurred:

Embattled attorney Michael Cohen has dropped a pair of much-touted libel suits against BuzzFeed and the private investigation firm Fusion GPS over publication of the so-called dossier detailing alleged ties between President Donald Trump and Russia.

The explanation from Cohen’s lawyer is that his client has a lot on his plate right now, an obviously true statement if there ever was one. But Cohen was suing the institutions in part because he contended that the Prague meeting had not occurred.

There’s Still a Bear in The Woods

Today on NRO, Ellis Mishulovich offers an absolutely fascinating — and more than a little bit ominous — look at how the thinkers who put together Russia’s military arsenal think.

As Vladimir Putin alluded to in his March 1 address to the Federal Assembly, the Russians have developed, among other “superweapons,” a Doomsday Torpedo — an autonomous, unmanned stealth submarine armed with a 100-megaton thermonuclear warhead. For a sense of scale, 100 megatons is some 7,000 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. It’s twice as powerful as the biggest H-bomb ever built — the so-called Tsar Bomba, detonated by the Soviets on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in October 1961. Adding a touch that is both Biblical and Carthaginian, the warhead is “salted” with cobalt and optimized to submerge the East Coast of the United States beneath a massive radioactive tidal wave, thereby rendering the Atlantic seaboard uninhabitable for centuries. To repeat, this new weapon is autonomous, suggesting potentially alarming new degrees of meaning in the words “Russian hacking scandal.”

Assessments like the one below ought to make America’s foreign policy thinkers contemplate whether we want countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and others in Eastern Europe to be autonomous, independent and free and part of NATO, or just the first three adjectives. We usually think that NATO ought to be open to any country that is interested in joining and is willing to pull its weight as part of the alliance. But Moscow interprets this dramatically differently:

From the standpoint of most Russian foreign-policy observers, NATO’s main goal since 1991 has been to capitalize on the collapse of the Soviet Union by permanently advancing its frontiers into the Slavic heartland. The Russians also see an unprecedented new strategic challenge in the rise of the European Union. If fully successful, European integration would create a massive new superpower on Russia’s doorstep, with a population of more than half a billion and an economy of comparable size to that of the United States. Accordingly, Russia’s principal objectives since the turn of the century have been the weakening and eventual dismemberment of NATO and the derailment of the European “ever-closer union” project.

What do you do if one of your non-aggressive, non-hostile moves is interpreted by a powerful rival as an aggressive, hostile mood? How do you keep peace with the paranoid?

ADDENDA: We’re in that time of year that offers a slew of ominous anniversaries. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the final FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas, as well as the 23rd anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. Earlier this week marked the anniversaries of the Boston Marathon bombing (April 15), the Virginia Tech shooting (April 16), and tomorrow is the anniversary of the Columbine shootings (April 20).

As they used to say on Hill Street Blues . . . “Let’s be careful out there.”

Politics & Policy

The Underappreciated Barbara Bush

2000-From left: Laura Bush, Barbara Bush, and George W. Bush advisor Condoleezza Rice at a campaign stop in Southfield, Mich., October 18, 2000. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: realizing how little we appreciated Barbara Bush when she was in the public’s eye; Mike Pompeo meets with Kim Jong Un and the long road to presidential attendance at high-stakes summit meetings; and Democrats propose a vast, expensive new plan to tackle unemployment . . . at a particularly unusual time.

RIP, Barbara Bush

I’ve been thinking about how the culture saw Barbara Bush during her years in the public eye.

Phil Hartman was a great comedic performer, but his old Saturday Night Live sketches playing Barbara Bush feel unnecessarily mean now. The moment Hartman first appeared as Bush in a 1988 sketch, the audience laughed — a fairly big guy in a dress, acknowledging that Bush wasn’t petite or svelte. Hartman played opposite Jan Hooks all three times — Elizabeth Dole in one sketch, Kitty Dukakis in the next, and Nancy Reagan in the last. In Hartman’s first appearance as Barbara, Nora Dunn’s dim-witted television hostess character Pat Stevens asked, “Are you proud of your son?” Once corrected, she followed up, “Well, she looks so much older, I hardly think it’s my faux pa!” (Of course, after the presidency of George W. Bush, the question is funnier for its prophecy than for its disrespect.)

Still, Hartman tried to capture Bush’s gentle tone and gracious manners, even in the face of wild indignities. Perhaps the intended target of the joke was how tactless and rude people could be about her appearance — but the whole sketch presupposed that Bush somehow didn’t fit the mold of a traditional First Lady.

The Naked Gun 2 ½ featured a lot of slapstick humor involving Barbara Bush — Frank Drebin opening a door into her face, taking away her chair as she’s about to sit, banging her head onto a table, accidentally kissing her, and knocking her over a balcony. But even in this depiction, she’s relentlessly courteous to the buffoonish klutz Drebin, who keeps accidentally clobbering her. No doubt the creators concluded that if opening a door in someone’s face is embarrassing, opening a door into the face of First Lady Barbara Bush — America’s grandmother! — would be mortifying. She was more popular than her husband in most polls during his presidency, and by 2014, a survey found her to be the most popular former first lady.

Then again, maybe these depictions are something of a salute; Barbara Bush could handle it. She could handle anything. An easily-forgotten tale of young Barbara revealed she stood her ground in the toughest of places. Bush, two African-American caretakers, and her children Jeb, Neil, and Marvin, were journeying from west Texas to Connecticut in the summer of 1957:

The Bushes had made reservations at hotels along the way. They were not aware, until they reached Oklahoma City the first night, that the hotels they had chosen would not accommodate blacks.

“She came out and told us the manager didn’t want us to stay there,” [Otha Taylor, one of the caretakers] recalled.

“We explained to her this would be all right, she could let us get a motel or something in the black neighborhood. She said no.”

The hotel finally relented and let the women stay. Otha Taylor recalls Barbara Bush fighting the same battle at each stop — pressuring hotel clerks, changing reservations, refusing to split up the group.

“She insisted that we were together and we were going to stay together,” Taylor said. “Sometimes she would go out (of a hotel) upset. This was all the way to Maine. She would talk to us and tell us how badly she felt. She kept us with her and she didn’t go anyplace we couldn’t go, and she didn’t live anyplace we couldn’t live.”

The passing of Barbara Bush feels like a marker, or a reminder, that not so long ago public figures could be strong without being nasty or combative. Or perhaps rarely so; Terence Hunt shares a fascinating story of the time Barbara Bush lost her temper and appeared to use a crude term about Geraldine Ferraro back in 1984. She later told a biographer that she had cried for “twenty-four hours” at the thought of how she had embarrassed her husband and family, and called Ferraro and apologized.

We rarely appreciate people enough until they’re gone.

When Pompeo Met Kim

Should Mike Pompeo be confirmed as secretary of state? Or is that now just a formality, since he’s doing the sorts of things a secretary of state usually does already?

CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a top-secret visit to North Korea as an envoy for President Trump to meet with Kim Jong Un, and plans for a possible summit between the two leaders are underway, Trump confirmed Wednesday.

The extraordinary meeting between one of Trump’s most trusted emissaries and the authoritarian head of a rogue state was part of an effort to lay the groundwork for direct talks between Trump and Kim about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

His meeting with Kim marks the highest-level contact between the two countries since 2000, when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s late father, to discuss strategic issues. Then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. visited the country in 2014 to secure the release of two American captives and met with a lower-level intelligence official.

By itself, a pre-summit meeting between a foreign leader and a high-level American official is pretty standard and normal. I’m reading William Taubman’s Gorbachev: His Life and Times, and the book is full of fascinating details pulled from interviews with all of the key figures of the era, records from the Soviet state archives, and Gorbachev’s diaries and contemporaneous notes.

In 1985, George Shultz went to Moscow to meet with Gorbachev before Reagan and the Soviet leader had their first meeting in Geneva. From Taubman’s book:

Other elements of the meeting encouraged Shultz. Gorbachev didn’t flare up when interrupted, but seemed to relish sharp exchanges, and although “he talked a lot, but he also listened.” But on the whole, according to Dobrynin, the conversation was “long and difficult.” Gorbachev complained heatedly about SDI [the Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. “Star Wars”]. Shultz gave as good as he got. Dobrynin thought Gorbachev was “overdoing [SDI] because that would merely reinforce Regan’s belief in its importance.” Shultz felt Gorbachev was “acting, posturing, trying to show how tough he was.” Gorbachev came away disappointed that Shultz “did not have serious baggage for the summit.”

I’m not opposed to negotiations with Pyongyang. I’m just not convinced that this White House is ready to even start discussions, much less reach a good agreement. It’s easy to forget that the first few Reagan–Gorbachev summits were disappointments in terms of substantive negotiations, although the two leaders gradually built a genuine personal friendship and understanding. The world seemed to relax a little bit, watching the leaders of the Cold War superpowers discuss their differences amiably; perhaps a Trump–Kim summit would have a similar calming effect.

But Reagan spent almost all of his second term in continual negotiations and offers and counter-offers with Gorbachev. Nothing we’ve seen from President Trump indicates that he has the patience, focus or fortitude to enter a detailed, complicated, multi-year process of negotiating a path to verified denuclearization of North Korea. No one knows where the president stands on any details of policy until he says so himself, and even that can change; Trump apparently changed his mind on another round of Russia sanctions at the last minute.

Heck, this administration is still operating with a skeleton crew. We’re still waiting for the Senate to confirm the new secretary of State; the new CIA director; and Susan Thornton, the nominee to be the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who was nominated in January. We’re still waiting for nominations to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea, the State Department’s coordinator for threat-reduction programs, and the special envoy for North Korea human-rights issues.

Reaching a workable deal with North Korea would be difficult enough, even when fully staffed.

It’s the Perfect Time for an Expensive Jobs Plan, Right?

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: “If Republicans could give $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to corporations and the wealthiest among us, why can’t we invest a similar amount in a guaranteed jobs plan for regular Americans who are unemployed and willing to work to better their local community?”

Er, has she noticed that the number of new jobless claims hit the lowest point since 1973 recently?

Gillibrand appears to be embracing a proposed plan from a former economic adviser to Bernie Sanders, a not-too-subtle cry of “Hey, Bernie revolutionaries, look at me!”

It’s interesting to watch liberals cry we need to reach “true full employment” — a term which insists that the current moment is not-quite-true full employment. And perhaps it isn’t. But we’ve been at 4.1 percent for the past six months, the lowest in 17 years, and just barely ahead of 2000’s 3.9 percent; before that, you have to go all the way back to 1969 for a national unemployment rate of 3.5 percent. If our current economic conditions don’t constitute full employment, we’re in the neighborhood.

ADDENDA: The LIBRE Initiative and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce will be launching a seven-figure national campaign calling on congressional leaders to agree to a permanent solution for Dreamers. That’s quite a sum, going towards national television ads on both broadcast and cable as well as some digital advertising.

Regardless of what you think the policy on the Dreamer immigrants ought to be, notice that everyone who demonizes the Koch network won’t even bother to acknowledge these efforts.

U.S.

Putting Hannity’s Michael Cohen Problem in Perspective

Sean Hannity on the set of his Fox News program (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile today: What matters, and what doesn’t, about Michael Cohen claiming Fox News host Sean Hannity as a client; the alleged bombshell story about Robert Mueller and Cohen that seemed to disappear; checking the progress of that caravan of migrants in Mexico that everyone seemed to forget about; and finally, taking a last look at the finances of one other easily forgotten figure.

The Cohen–Hannity Connection Is a Little Embarrassing, but Not All That Consequential. . . Yet

No doubt it was surprising to learn that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, counted Sean Hannity as one of his ten clients in the past year. (Cohen said he had three legal clients and seven consulting clients.) Yes, Hannity is demonstrating pretty awful journalism ethics by discussing his lawyer on his national cable-news show, and the FBI raid of his lawyer’s offices, and never bothering to mention to viewers that he’s his lawyer. But viewers of Sean Hannity know what they’re getting — the most Trump-favorable accounting of the day’s events possible.

And if Hannity’s description of Cohen’s work for him is accurate — “brief discussions” about real estate that never involved Hannity paying Cohen money — it’s easy to understand the host’s surprise that Cohen is describing him as a client in court. (One can wonder just how many documents would be generated by such a limited legal relationship.)

In case you’re wondering, no, a client doesn’t have to pay his lawyer for attorney-client privilege to apply. But it’s limited; as the American Bar Association puts it, “Because the privilege is contrary to the judicial goal of bringing relevant evidence to light, it is construed narrowly and protects only those disclosures necessary to obtain informed legal advice which might not have been made absent the privilege.” Emails between Hannity and Cohen that discuss the Yankees, the weather, or topics outside Hannity’s legal needs wouldn’t be covered.

But this brouhaha amounts to a briefly amusing side issue to the main question before Judge Kimba Wood, which is what documents, if any, seized by the FBI are covered by attorney-client privilege. You probably heard about the “crime-fraud exemption,” which means that if you are using the attorney-client relationship to perpetrate a crime, your discussions and the related documents are not protected by the privilege and can be used as evidence. Cohen wants a “special master” — a legal expert appointed by the judge — to sort through the documents and determine which ones are covered by attorney-client privilege.

Once you look beyond the Hannity brouhaha, Cohen had a reasonably good day: Judge Wood “decided that prosecutors would not immediately have access to the materials and that Mr. Trump would ultimately receive copies of the documents that pertain to him.” Wood also indicated she is considering appointing a special master. On the other hand, she doesn’t seem to have any concerns about the FBI or the prosecutors’ actions so far: She said, “I have faith in the Southern District U.S. attorney’s office that their integrity is unimpeachable.”

Whatever Happened to that Cohen-in-Prague Story?

Speaking of Michael Cohen, Friday the McClatchy news service reported what seemed to be a mega-bombshell in the Russia investigation: “The Justice Department special counsel has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to two sources familiar with the matter.”

Outside of the Russian hooker claims, one of the Christopher Steele dossier’s most shocking claims was that Cohen had met with Konstantin Kosachev, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin in Prague in August 2016. The alleged secret meeting, right out of a spy novel, would be the strongest evidence that the Russian government didn’t merely try to influence the U.S. presidential election but that it was doing so with close communication, if not cooperation, with those closest to Trump. But Cohen dismissed it as nonsense and tweeted out an image of his passport. He’s denied the Prague trip all along, including under oath to the House Intelligence Committee; if Cohen lied, he would likely face perjury charges.

It’s Tuesday morning, and no other news organization has confirmed the McClatchy report. This is a bit surprising and unusual, as there’s no shortage of reporters sniffing around Mueller’s investigation and the Russia story.

The McClatchy story states, “it’s unclear whether Mueller’s investigators also have evidence that Cohen actually met with a prominent Russian — purportedly Konstantin Kosachev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — in the Czech capital.” This is some unusual wording that suggests the two “sources familiar with the matter” are not within Muller’s investigative team. In fact, the McClatchy article spends a lot of time detailing what their sources either didn’t know or wouldn’t say: “The sources did not say whether Cohen took a commercial flight or private jet to Europe, and gave no explanation as to why no record of such a trip has surfaced.” (If he took a commercial flight, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol keeps records of entry and exiting the country for five years. It would be extremely easy for Mueller’s investigation to figure out when Cohen left the country and returned.)

Robert Mueller’s investigation began in May 2017, so it’s been going on for about a year. The whereabouts of Cohen in August of 2016 would be one of the first things to investigate, and among the easier things

Over at the Daily Caller, Chuck Ross and Peter Hasson lay out the reasons for skepticism. Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at Brookings and well-connected guru on Russiagate, finds himself doubting it.

One presumes that whenever Robert Mueller issues his final report, he will sort out what is true and what is false in the Steele dossier to the best of his ability. Your mileage may vary, but I suspect that the longer that Mueller’s investigation goes on, the less likely it is that he will unveil a smoking-gun, “sorry, America, the Russian government conspired with your current president in the 2016 election” conclusion. (Mueller may very well find some other serious legal problem for Trump, unrelated to Russia’s attempts to meddle in the election.)

If the special counsel did affirm the worst-case “Manchurian Candidate” scenario . . . wouldn’t everyone be asking how Mueller’s old home, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, could so completely fail to stop it?

Checking on that Easily Forgotten Caravan of Central American Migrants

Hey, remember that caravan of migrants slowly working its way north through Mexico?

Back on April 1 Fox News did a segment on a caravan of 1,200 migrants from Central America making their way north towards the United States, spurring a series of angry presidential tweets about Mexico and an unsecured southern border.

Back on April 3, “Mexican officials began to interview the more than 1,000 people from the caravan who’ve been camped there since Saturday night, trying to determine who was likely to seek a humanitarian visa or a permit to remain in the country temporarily.” Those who qualified for humanitarian visas or temporary permits to stay in Mexico left the caravan when it reached Mexico City.

The caravan is now down to 500 people; they’re in Tultitlan, just north of Mexico City. It’s about 600 miles to Brownsville, Texas, or 700 miles if they head further north to Loredo. The Mexican government offered most of the migrants temporary visas; the remaining migrants plan to request asylum from the U.S. government.

One More Forgotten Figure to Check Upon . . .

One last where-are-they-now story for the day: After losing the Alabama Senate race, Roy Moore asked supporters for donations to support a recount. That recount never happened. His campaign’s final report showed about $49,000 in his account. Moore told Alabama reporters the remaining funds would be used for “paying for legal fees and other expenses necessary for the prosecution and defense of the false and malicious attacks on my wife, family, and me.”

Under the law, Moore can use the money for almost anything except personal expenses.

ADDENDA: A thought-provoking column from David Brooks: “Loneliness and social isolation are the problem that undergird many of our other problems. More and more Americans are socially poor. And yet it is very hard for the socially wealthy to even see this fact. It is the very nature of loneliness and social isolation to be invisible. We talk as if the lonely don’t exist.”

I’m scheduled to appear on CNN International’s State of America at around 2:30 p.m. eastern today. It’s always possible that CNN domestic will need a right-of-center warm body at some point during the day.

World

Striking Syria Was the Right Call

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor flies over Syria in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, March 25, 2018. (Staff Sergeant Colton Elliott/USANG)

Hope you’ve got those taxes done! Making the click-through worthwhile today: a Goldilocks response to chemical weapons — not too hot, not too cold — and the tired complaints of the Left on Middle East messes, James Comey meets George Stephanopoulos and conveniently forgets a few details, and why the former FBI director didn’t have one useful law-enforcement tool when investigating Hillary Clinton.

The Airstrikes in Syria: The Best Option in a Bad Situation

This morning, to the extent the joint American-British-French strikes in Syria are still in the news, they’re the focus of complaints about being insufficient or ill-considered. The Washington Post rushes to inform us of “the many things Trump didn’t accomplish in the latest Syria strike.” Thank goodness there are experts to tell us that launching 105 missiles did not “take ownership of the Syrian endgame.”

It’s abundantly clear that neither the American people, nor this president, nor many figures in his administration, nor most members of Congress, nor our NATO allies, nor our regional allies want to “take ownership of the Syrian endgame.” We would rather not deal with it at all, and for most of the Obama administration, that was more or less our policy, even when presidential “red lines” were crossed. A half-million deaths later . . .

Color me among the few who actually think this strike was about right. It seemed appropriate that America and its allies contemplated striking Syria during Holocaust Remembrance Day, since once again the Western powers confronted the question of how to deal with a hideously brutal regime that uses poison gas, attacks civilians, and builds giant crematoriums, led by a dictator with a poorly-groomed mustache. No, sending 105 missiles isn’t going to alter the course of the Syrian Civil War. It’s just going to demonstrate to Assad and his allies that every time they reach for the chemical weapons, we’ll blow some of their stuff up*. Stick to conventional weapons — war is awful enough without poison gas becoming a standard part of the arsenal.

(*The strike also demonstrated that those highly touted Russian air-defense systems aren’t all that effective against the United States or its key allies. Back in 2012, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey told Congress that “a long-term, sustained air campaign would pose a challenge because Syria’s air defenses are five times more sophisticated than Libya’s” and that “suppressing the Syrian air defenses would take an extended period of time and a significant number of aircraft, an effort that would have to be led by the United States.” Perhaps for a sustained air campaign, but last Friday night four British Tornadoes, five French Rafales, four French Mirages, two U.S. E-3F AWACS Sentries, six U.S. C-135 tankers, and two U.S. B-1 bombers all took the skies, all 36 missiles launched from aircraft hit their targets, and all aircraft returned safely.)

Andrew Rawnsley, writing in The Guardian:

To let yet another use of chemical weapons happen without any form of response would have given a complete sense of impunity to the Assad regime and its sponsors in the Kremlin. Every dictatorship on the planet has been getting the message that there is no penalty for the acquisition and use of weapons prohibited since the First World War and that has chilling implications for future conflicts.

Elsewhere in the U.K., Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn retches a mealy-mouthed collection of tired clichés about diplomacy that apparently hasn’t been updated in years:

We have to remove the scourge of chemical weapons but also use our influence to end the still greater scourge of the Syrian war. A diplomatic solution that will allow for the country to be rebuilt, for refugees to be able to return home and for an inclusive political settlement that allows the Syrian people to decide their own future could not be more urgent.

Oh, hey, a diplomatic solution! Gee, why didn’t we think of that? Corbyn just ignores that the Arab League launched peace talks in 2011, the United Nations in 2012, additional talks in Geneva that year, and again in 2014, and in Vienna in 2015, and in Riyadh in 2015, and back to Geneva again in 2016, and a very short-lived ceasefire that year, and then back to Geneva yet again in 2017, and then talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, throughout last year. Wishing for a diplomatic solution is like wishing for a unicorn.

Corbyn writes, “There can be no question of turning a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons. Their deployment constitutes a crime, and those responsible must be held to account.” Well, nobody’s heading over to Syria to arrest Assad or to knock on bunker doors with search warrants. You want to hold somebody accountable, you send Tomahawks and Storm Shadow missiles.

On March 10, 2016, Derek Chollet, former assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs, said, “Imagine if Syria’s chemical weapons were still there today.”

Way, way back in the National Review archives in 2004, before the Kerry Spot days, some wire-service reporter wrote, “even Assad has to wonder whether he wants to be the last Middle Eastern dictator bragging about having chemical and biological weapons.”

When James Chatted with George

James Comey, to George Stephanopoulos last night, describing the FBI’s interview of Hillary Clinton: “There was nothing she said that they [the interviewers] believed we could prove was false.”

Really? They didn’t look very hard, did they?

Clinton told agents that she could not recall “any briefing or training by State related to the retention of federal records of handling of classified information.”

As Jeryl Bier laid out, on January 22, 2009, Clinton signed the standard State Department Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement declaring, “I hereby acknowledge that I have received a security indoctrination concerning the nature and protection of classified information.”

But leave it to Stephanopoulos to ask questions that leave you sympathizing with Comey:

George Stephanopoulos: So if no prosecutor would prosecute this case, why not put out a one-line statement, “We decline to prosecute”?

James Comey: Yeah. It’s a great question and a reasonable question. And the reason I thought that would be inappropriate is the faith and confidence of the American people in the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. are at the core of those organizations. If they’re not believed to be honest, independent, and competent, they’re done. If you issue a one liner from the Obama Justice Department about one of the two candidates for president of the United States, in this case the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, and say, “We’re done here,” in the absence of any kind of transparency, corrosive doubt creeps in that the system is rigged somehow.

Could you imagine a lengthy investigation from either Comey or Lynch saying, “we decline to prosecute,” without a word of criticism of Clinton? A lot of people would have justifiably screamed “whitewash!” and “coverup!”

This is why network news divisions should not choose famous political operatives to anchor their political news coverage. Particularly one that, say, donated $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation.

A Point on Comey and the Authority to Convene a Grand Jury

The great Andy McCarthy writes in with a point to clarify about the discussion in Friday’s Morning Jolt — that it would be just about impossible for FBI director James Comey to convene a grand jury without cooperation from Loretta Lynch and the Department of Justice.

If the FBI wants to compel production of evidence or testimony, they have to ask the prosecutor for a subpoena. I have no doubt that Comey understood the Obama DOJ did not want to authorize a grand jury investigation and that he went along with that decision. But it wasn’t his decision, it was DOJ’s . . .

The complicating overlay in the Clinton case was classified information in the emails. That means the Department of Justice’s National Security Division had to have been involved. Plus, we know from the reporting at the time of Cheryl Mills’ FBI interview that Main Justice was keeping close tabs — when the feds tried to ask Mills about the process used to sift through the emails and decide which were private, her lawyer objected and DOJ intervened, telling the FBI they couldn’t ask questions that might infringe attorney-client privilege. Since Main Justice was so heavily involved, and Comey was in frequent contact with Main Justice on the case (it was Lynch herself who told him not to call it an “investigation”), I don’t think Comey could have shopped the case to a willing U.S. attorney. This was DOJ all the way.

ADDENDA: National Review’s spring Webathon is here — and while you may not particularly enjoy being asked for money (we don’t particularly enjoy asking for it!), the latest missive from Jack will lay out where your donations will go in detail. Please give it a look.

I’m scheduled to appear on HLN, discussing James Comey’s new book, around 12:30 this afternoon. I’m also scheduled to appear on CNN International’s State of America, around 2:30 p.m. eastern tomorrow.

U.S.

James Comey’s Inadvertent Admission

(Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)

The good folks at the Republican National Committee awaken and realize that perhaps former FBI agents make more compelling critics of James Comey than, say, Maxine Waters.

Yesterday afternoon brought the first excerpts of James Comey’s new book, A Higher Loyalty, and we were expected to run around in panicked excitement at the revelation that Comey thought President Trump’s hands were “smaller than mine, but not unusually so.”

It’s fascinating how little the public discussion about Comey touches on the job he did at the FBI beyond the investigations of the two presidential candidates. Generally, Comey’s record at the bureau is praised, but it had its problems. He gave inaccurate testimony before Congress. We all witnessed the number of times the FBI had a terror suspect on a “watch list” but didn’t do anything until it was too late. The FBI employed a translator who went on to marry an ISIS terrorist. Any Comey critic could have objected to sending $1.3 million to an unspecified third party in exchange for software to hack into the phone of the San Bernardino terrorist.

But no, as far as most of our public discourse is concerned, Comey’s time at the FBI can be summed up in a handful of decisions all relating to the 2016 election: not pursuing criminal charges against Hillary Clinton, announcing the brief reopening of the case shortly before the election, and various authorizations to investigate allegations of Russian meddling.

This morning, President Trump offered one of his Twitter tirades about Comey:

James Comey is a proven LEAKER & LIAR. Virtually everyone in Washington thought he should be fired for the terrible job he did-until he was, in fact, fired. He leaked CLASSIFIED information, for which he should be prosecuted. He lied to Congress under OATH. He is a weak and . . .

untruthful slime ball who was, as time has proven, a terrible Director of the FBI. His handling of the Crooked Hillary Clinton case, and the events surrounding it, will go down as one of the worst “botch jobs” of history. It was my great honor to fire James Comey!

In my article about former FBI agents growing disgruntled with Comey’s more political role since leaving the bureau, former special agent Bobby Chacon told me his first real problem with Comey was his decision to not empanel a grand jury for the Clinton investigation, a move that he contends would have somewhat insulated the bureau from political controversy by leaving the decision to indict or not indict in others’ hands. (This would have required finding a cooperative U.S. attorney or federal prosecutor.)

On paper, Chacon is right, but let’s remember that if Comey decided to convene a grand jury, that would mean headlines like “Grand Jury Investigating Hillary Clinton’s Private E-Mail Server.” We’ve seen what the Clintons do to law enforcement who investigate them with Ken Starr; the Clintons would have contended that Comey — registered Republican, formerly George W. Bush’s deputy attorney general — was an out-of-control crazed partisan and the second coming of J. Edgar Hoover’s worst traits. The Clintons had been among the most powerful people in American politics for two and a half decades, and had a slew of allies and a dominant message machine.

FBI investigators found plenty of obvious instances in which Clinton and her staff had mishandled classified information – if not outright lied to them, giving answers that strained credulity or were implausible. During the interview with the FBI, Clinton said she could “not recall” more than three dozen times. One portion of the report notes that Clinton could not remember whether or not she had received security briefings on how to handle classified info — this, despite the fact that she had previously signed official documents declaring that she had received proper briefings.

On July 5, 2016, Comey held his press conference criticizing Clinton for being “extremely careless” with classified information but insisted that she hadn’t met the criteria for criminal motive, a motive that is not required in the statute. That wasn’t a great decision, but it was an understandable one. The FBI Director left the decision of consequences in the hands of a metaphorical grand jury consisting of the American electorate.

As for his second major decision of the 2016 cycle, one of the released excerpts of Comey’s book illuminates his thinking. . . and it seems inadvertently damning:

As for his controversial disclosure on Oct. 28, 2016, 11 days before the election, that the F.B.I. was reviewing more Clinton emails that might be pertinent to its earlier investigation, Comey notes here that he had assumed from media polling that Clinton was going to win. He has repeatedly asked himself, he writes, whether he was influenced by that assumption: “It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls. But I don’t know.”

Does he realize what he’s admitting here? If the polls had been closer, Comey would not have informed Congress about new developments in the e-mail investigation as promised, because he feared it would influence the election and derail Clinton’s victory?

In a memo to the bureau after telling Congress that the Clinton investigation was reopened, Comey wrote, “Of course we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel an obligation to do so given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed. I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record.”

No Longer Bothering to Tally the Cost of War

I used to compare the death toll between the Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War, in part because I think it demonstrates that the Middle East and corrupt, brutal Arab regimes are capable of generating awful massacres with or without American intervention.

This morning the New York Times notes that international organizations stopped counting.

Even the United Nations, which released regular reports on the death toll during the first years of the war, gave its last estimate in 2016 — when it relied on 2014 data, in part — and said that it was virtually impossible to verify how many had died.

At that time, a United Nations official said 400,000 people had been killed.

The last comprehensive number widely accepted internationally — 470,000 dead — was issued by the Syrian Center for Policy Research in 2016. The group, which was based in Damascus until that year, was long seen as one of the most reliable local sources because it was not affiliated with the government or aligned with any opposition group. . .

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said last month that at least 511,000 people had been killed in the war since March 2011. Many organizations rely on this tally as the best current assessment.

Earlier this year, the Washington Post looked at the conflicting numbers for the Iraq War casualties and concluded, “About 400,000 deaths were probably attributable to the conflict from 2003 to 2011, about 240,000 of them a result of violence and 160,000 from war-related causes.” (The United States withdrew just about all military forces from Iraq by December 2011, but obviously more Iraqis died afterwards from conflict, particularly in the rise of ISIS.)

Washington, While Important, Is Not the Same as the United States

Matthew Continetti with a point that’s pretty darn important at this moment: Washington is chaos, but American life remains mostly orderly.

In this moment, perhaps the most valuable skill we possess is to obtain and assess the empirical evidence of our situation, to try to decipher the facts of the case, view them dispassionately and detachedly, to not lose our heads. And, if we are conservatives, to do this keeping in mind the traditions of constitutionalism and self-government that we seek to perpetuate, and the cause of human freedom we have championed for so long. We might take comfort in the fact that, despite the tumultuousness in Washington and the unconventionality of our presidential wild-child, American life does not seem appreciably different: the economy is humming, the vast majority of people go about their daily lives peaceably and civilly, the political agenda is largely in keeping with the traditions of the party in power, and the precedent of off-year elections, which have seen the last three presidents lose control of Congress at some point in their terms, looms in the background. When one turns one’s eyes away from the distortion, a more familiar picture comes into view.

ADDENDUM: This morning’s column from David Brooks praises a lot of young(ish) writers at NR. . . and a lot of the people I know.

U.S.

The Right Way to Counter James Comey

James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee, June 8, 2017. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)

It gives me no pleasure to slam the folks at the Republican National Committee, but this strikes me as a particularly ineffective way of countering James Comey:

The battle plan against Comey, obtained by CNN, calls for branding the nation’s former top law enforcement official as “Lyin’ Comey” through a website, digital advertising and talking points to be sent to Republicans across the country before his memoir is released next week. The White House signed off on the plan, which is being overseen by the Republican National Committee.

“Comey isn’t credible — just ask Democrats.” The digital ads will show several Democrats calling for Comey’s resignation after he injected himself into the 2016 presidential race, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who is shown saying: “All I can tell you is the FBI Director has no credibility.”

Well, if Maxine Waters says someone has no credibility, that settles it, doesn’t it?

Just about everyone already knows that Pelosi, Schumer, and Waters refused to believe Comey when he criticized Hillary Clinton, but will believe everything he says when he criticizes President Trump. Yes, Democrats are flip-flopping hypocrites, we know. The RNC is coming across the same way by approvingly citing Pelosi, Schumer, and Waters.

A much more effective way to counter Comey would be to quote the criticisms coming from former agents. “Smug.” “Diminishing the FBI.” “Crossed the line.” “He put the agency and himself directly in the spotlight, not a good place for us ever to be. . . he enjoys the spotlight.” “Incomprehensible” decision-making. “Makes [himself] look better than what actually happened.” “Self-serving, narcissistic.”

Way back in 2004, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth put together a devastating ad that began by quoting John Kerry’s running mate, “If you have any question about what John Kerry is made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him.” If you really want to knock Comey’s credibility, why not create a variation of that ad, spending a few minutes with the men who served under him at the bureau?

Grading the Nation’s Governors

The Morning Consult polling firm released its quarterly Governor Approval Rankings, and once again, the top ten most popular governors in America are all Republicans. In fact. . . it’s almost the exact same top ten as last quarter. Congratulations to Governors Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Phil Scott of Vermont. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota, Matt Mead of Wyoming, Gary Herbert of Utah, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas. Greg Abbott of Texas, in the top ten last quarter, “plummeted” all the way to No. 14 . . . with a 56 percent approval rating.

(Once again, I notice that the most popular governors in America are little-known outside their states, and keeping their heads down, focused on running state governments — the workhorses, not the show horses.)

In fact, you have to go all the way down to No. 15 in the approval rankings to find a Democratic governor, Montana’s Steve Bullock. He’s tied with Florida’s Rick Scott, who’s aiming to win a Senate seat this year.

Good luck, Maryland Democrats. Hogan is sitting pretty with a 68 percent approval rating.

Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy, who once called National Review “a right-wing tea bag organization,” is the country’s least popular governor with a 21 percent approval rating and an astounding 72 percent disapproval rating. It’s fitting, since Malloy sneered that label of National Review after we called Malloy the worst governor in the United States. Hey, go figure: Connecticut voters see we were right all along.

But Republicans have a few reasons to be nervous. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker is at a 43 percent approval, 50 percent disapproval.

The Problem with Apu Is Addressed Well By the Solution That Is Pradheep

Pradheep J. Shanker, a radiologist who focuses on health policy and a longtime reader, has a terrific piece on NRO about the muttered complaints around The Simpsons character, Apu the convenience-store owner.

A moderately well-known South Asian standup comic, Hari Kondabolu, late last year produced a documentary called The Problem with Apu. Kondabolu both praises the character, for providing him with the basis for Indian-based humor as a child, and chastises the same for the racial stereotypes that he feels it propagated and for greater prejudice that it promoted in our society.

Kondabolu’s complaints are not without some basis. Indian Americans were virtually unrepresented in American media well into the 1990s. I myself, growing up in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, thirsted for Indians in American culture I could look up to as models to emulate. In many ways, Apu was American society’s introduction to Indian culture.

That said, Kondabolu’s tirade largely runs off the tracks as he blames the Apu character for all sorts of slights and insults during his career: “Apu was the only Indian we had on TV at all so I was happy for any representation as a kid. . . . He’s funny, but that doesn’t mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don’t even notice it when it’s right in front of you.”

I’ve been thinking about this on and off since I heard about the documentary. The Simpsons doesn’t need to change or apologize for much, but it never hurts to try some empathy and look at the world through the eyes of someone else. It’s not succumbing to political correctness to acknowledge that Hollywood wasn’t very diverse until the 1990s at the earliest, and it’s extremely easy to understand why some folks would grow irritated with stereotypes on the big and small screen. Or perhaps it’s the lack of many characters and roles beyond the stereotype that irked members of minority groups even more than the stereotype.

For example, you probably don’t know the name Al Leong, but you probably know his face. He’s an actor/stuntman who’s played a lot of henchmen over the years — from The A-Team and MacGuyver to Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and The Last Action Hero. Perhaps his biggest role was as Genghis Khan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Yes, it’s natural that when you’re trained as a stuntman, you’re going to get cast in a lot of action movies and get knocked around, but one wonders if he ever got tired of playing roles like “Chinese Gunman Number 9”  and wanted to play an accountant or a lawyer or something.

Thankfully, there are more Indian Americans working regularly in Hollywood today — Kal Penn, Mindy Kaling, the luminous Priyanka Chopra. Prime-time television’s had quite a few regular Indian-American actors, even if they’re not always playing Indian-American characters: Naveen Andrews on Lost, Sendhil Ramamurthy on Heroes, Archie Panjabi on The Good Wife, Indira Varma on Game of Thrones, Dev Patel on The Newsroom, Kunal Nayyar on The Big Bang Theory. If you’re an aspiring Indian-American actor, you probably feel like you’ve got a shot at playing something besides a convenience-store owner someday.

It’s good to acknowledge that for a long time, a lot of Hollywood’s movies and television shows relied on stereotypes and tropes, and some cultures were almost ignored entirely. (When I was in Turkey, I came across someone who wrote that the appearance of Ataturk in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was the most important exposure Americans ever had to a Turkish character on television. That episode aired once, in July 1993.)

But then again, we’ve heard a lot of bad things about Hollywood in the past year.

The Simpsons isn’t responsible for every nasty slur or insult hurled an Indian Americans over the past 30 years. (To say nothing of the implausible contention that the show is some sort of disguised vehicle for white supremacy, when most of the characters are bright yellow. I know, I know, that joke comes from a jaundiced perspective.) But its vision of generic small-town America stems from the late 1980s television world, and if someone started a similar show today, they would probably see a more diverse cast of characters, and one less reliant on stereotypes.

ADDENDA: This morning I joined Tony Katz of WIBC in Indianapolis to discuss the darkening outlook for the Republicans in the midterms. You can listen here.

Politics & Policy

The Social Network 2: Zuckerberg Testifies

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before congressional committees regarding the company’s use and protection of user data on April 10, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Oof, what a day already! House speaker Paul Ryan is ready to hang it up, President Trump tells Russia and Syria to “get ready!” and I’ve got a lot of thoughts about Mark Zuckerberg testifying before the Senate.

Zuckerberg Meets the Senate: Grandpa Tries to Interrogate Your Company’s IT Guy

Yesterday’s joint Senate Commerce and Judiciary hearing with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made clear that, with a couple of exceptions, we don’t have a U.S. Senate that is ready to rise to the challenges of the world in 2018. It was depressingly clear that most of the older senators were reading questions that were prewritten by staffers and that they had only the vaguest understanding of what Facebook does, what should worry them, and what, if anything, the federal government should do about it.

For a long time, Facebook insisted they’re a technology company, not a media company, and thus they are no more responsible for what gets written on Facebook then the people who build bathroom stall walls are for someone writing “for a good time call Jenny at 867-5309.”

But 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 it. This is not necessarily a bad instinct. But we need clear criteria for what sorts of things are acceptable on Facebook and what isn’t, and so far, the company’s criteria seem extraordinarily arbitrary.

Last September, ProPublica revealed that the company’s algorithm for advertising categories had no way to filter out explicitly hateful criteria:

Until this week, when we asked Facebook about it, the world’s largest social network enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’”

To test if these ad categories were real, we paid $30 to target those groups with three “promoted posts” — in which a ProPublica article or post was displayed in their news feeds. Facebook approved all three ads within 15 minutes.

After we contacted Facebook, it removed the anti-Semitic categories — which were created by an algorithm rather than by people — and said it would explore ways to fix the problem, such as limiting the number of categories available or scrutinizing them before they are displayed to buyers.

But while Facebook is slow to remove groups like “SS” or “Nazi Party,” they also come down like a ton of bricks on non-controversial groups and conservative individuals. As Ted Cruz laid out yesterday:

Gizmodo reported that Facebook had purposely and routinely suppressed conservative stories from trending news, including stories about CPAC, including stories about Mitt Romney, including stories about the Lois Lerner IRS scandal, including stories about Glenn Beck. In addition to that, Facebook has initially shut down the Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day page, has blocked a post of a Fox News reporter, has blocked over two dozen Catholic pages, and most recently blocked Trump supporters Diamond and Silk’s page, with 1.2 million Facebook followers, after determining their content and brand were, quote, ‘unsafe to the community.’

Zuckerberg answered, “Facebook in the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place, and I — this is actually a concern that I have and that I try to root out in the company, is making sure that we do not have any bias in the work that we do, and I think it is a fair concern that people would at least wonder about.”

I’ve written that some of the coverage of Cambridge Analytica seems to treat the company as if it has a mind-control ray. I don’t think there’s a form of Facebook advertising that can make you do something you don’t have some preceding willingness or interest in doing. But that doesn’t change the fact that Cambridge Analytica said it wanted the Facebook data for academic-research purposes, and then turned around and used it for a political campaign’s purposes. That’s fraud. What guarantees can Facebook give that other companies and institutions haven’t obtained data for one promised purpose and then used it for another purpose?

It’s hard to shake the feeling this Facebook simply sees itself as an efficient mechanism to collect, collate, and organize as much information about you as possible and then offer that data as a tool to anyone willing to pay. It’s like the National Security Agency, but capable of keeping secrets.

A corporate philosophy like that should not be described in technical bureaucratic jargon very deep in a frequently updated user agreement. Look, Zuckerberg, we signed on to your gizmo to see which high-school classmates had gotten fat and to quietly check on our exes. If we wanted to enable some sort of massive information-gathering database about ourselves, we would have just bought an Amazon Alexa.

Given a rare moment where one of the biggest most influential companies in the country had attracted bipartisan anger for its actions and significant public interest . . . a lot of our senators just whiffed, preened, or offered questions in the form of long, rambling diatribes.

Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, one of the younger and allegedly tech-savvy senators, wanted to know if Facebook ads flipped the swing states in the 2016 election: “On the subject of Cambridge Analytica, were these people, the 87 million people, users, concentrated in certain states? Are you able to figure out where they’re from?” If there are 87 million Facebook users, and about 139 million total votes cast in 2016, then yes, it is likely that a lot of those 87 million voted and a lot of them reside in swing states.

Senator Orrin Hatch, God bless him, seemed surprised to learn that Facebook’s business model depends upon running ads. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, only 45, asked about what can be seen when he’s “emailing within WhatsApp,” which is a text-messaging and voice-call app.

There were a few bright spots. Lindsey Graham raised the fair point that if Facebook isn’t a monopoly, it should be easy to think of competitors, but obviously no other social-media company quite collects and organizes user data the way Facebook does. Dick Durbin made something of a point on privacy by asking if Zuckerberg wanted to say publicly which hotel he was staying in, although his metaphor didn’t quite work. (Hackers and cyber-thieves love to hack customer data from hotels, too.)

One senator who did understand the dangers ahead was Nebraska’s Ben Sasse. Earlier in the hearing, Zuckerberg had suggested that Facebook will eventually develop algorithms that will sniff out hate speech and be able to address it immediately. “Hate speech — I am optimistic that, over a five to ten-year period, we will have A.I. tools that can get into some of the nuances — the linguistic nuances of different types of content to be more accurate in flagging things for our systems.”

When Sasse’s turn to question Zuckerberg arrived, he asked a simple question: “Can you define hate speech?”

Zuckerberg said it would be hard to pin down a specific definition, and mentioned speech “calling for violence” as something Facebook does not tolerate.

Does anyone at Facebook understand the ramifications of a vague definition of hate speech? Does Zuckerberg think that the sometimes-violent opposition to any viewpoint that is even remotely conservative on college campuses happened in a vacuum?

House Speaker Paul Ryan Won’t Run for Reelection

There have been hints and suggestions of this for a while, but apparently today it will become official: “House Speaker Paul Ryan has told confidants that he will announce soon that he won’t run for reelection in November, according to sources with knowledge of the conversations.”

Who wants to be the next GOP House minority leader? Because at this rate, the Democrats are going to take the House in November 2018, and it’s not even going to be that difficult. Republican-leaning suburban women are repelled by the Trump-era GOP, the 2016 Trump voters aren’t showing up for candidates not named Trump, everybody and their brother is retiring, Democrats have multiple candidates in every district they need, and Republicans are finding that beyond the tax cuts, this White House has too much tumult and rapidly changing priorities to get much done on DACA, guns, repealing the rest of Obamacare, a big infrastructure bill, higher-education reform, welfare reform, or any other GOP priorities.

Weather Forecast for Damascus: Cloudy with a Chance of Incoming Cruise Missiles

So much for the element of surprise. Trump tweeted this morning, “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

The good news: We’re hitting Syria for chemical-weapons use, Trump is accurately labeling Assad a “Gas Killing Animal” with his traditional Germanic capitalization, and the argument that Trump is a Russian stooge seems less plausible than ever.

The bad news: Apparently the plan is to give Syria as much time as possible to move and hide their chemical weapons and anything valuable before the airstrikes hit.

ADDENDA: After yesterday’s Jolt hit emailboxes, new information arrived that modified yesterday’s argument about the raid on Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s office. ABC News reported that U.S. attorney Geoffery Berman was not involved in the decision to raid Cohen’s office, as he is recused from the case. Others in the SDNY attorney’s office handled the decision. “The recusal was approved by senior Justice Department officials who report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the sources said. Rosenstein himself was notified of the recusal after the decision was made.”

White House

The Pretty Big Exception to Attorney-Client Privilege

U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Making the click-through worthwhile: Figuring out what has to happen before the FBI can get the authority to raid a lawyer’s office, how James Comey’s past defenders are grumbling about his more political persona and upcoming book tour, and a big twist in an alleged scandal involving a Republican governor.

Sorry Mr. President, but Attorney-Client Privilege Isn’t Limitless.

President Trump on Twitter, 7:07 a.m. this morning: “Attorney–client privilege is dead!”

There has always been an exception to attorney-client privilege, called the “crime-fraud exception,” which applies if the client was in the process of committing or intended to commit a crime or fraudulent act, and the client communicated with the lawyer with intent to further the crime or fraud, or to cover it up. This usually applies to actions like suborning perjury or asking an attorney to present testimony she knows is false, destroying or concealing evidence, witness tampering, or concealing income or assets.

At some point, special counsel Robert Mueller must have come across something that made him suspect Trump attorney Michael Cohen had committed crimes. But Mueller must have also had doubts that he had the authority to pursue them, suggesting that whatever he found, it probably didn’t relate to a “full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”

This morning, the New York Times reported that the FBI sought documents that dated back “several years,” meaning whatever they’re investigating, it may date to before Trump’s presidential campaign. The alleged payment to Stormy Daniels is “only one of many topics being investigated, according to a person briefed on the search.”

Mueller referred it to the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman. Berman is a former law partner of Rudy Giuliani and donated $5,400 to Trump’s campaign in July 2016 and gave $5,200 to Senator John McCain’s PAC the year before. In August 2017, Trump personally interviewed Berman, which legal analysts said was “virtually unprecedented.” In January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Berman would be the interim U.S. attorney. Interim U.S. attorneys can serve for 300 days; Berman is awaiting a confirmation vote. (New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand said in January that she would oppose Berman’s nomination, contending he had a conflict of interest on matters related to Trump. Heck of a call, senator.) Either way, we can conclude that Berman is probably not going to casually request a raid of the president’s attorney; claims that Berman is a secret Trump enemy, that he’s got an axe to grind against him, or that he’s part of the “deep state” can be dismissed as nonsense.

Berman and his office had to take the evidence and allegations of crimes by Cohen — about as sensitive and politically-consequential as an allegation can get — up the chain in the Department of Justice, presumably to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Then, once Rosenstein approved, the prosecutors would have to go to a federal judge and demonstrate sufficient probable cause for a warrant instead of a subpoena — i.e., “If we don’t go ourselves and take the documents we want, with no warning, Cohen will destroy them.”

Knowing that this is probably going to be one of the most heavily scrutinized warrants in American history, the judge signed off on it. You have to figure the “i”s are dotted and the “t”s are crossed; no one wants to hide some information that undermines the prosecutor’s argument in a footnote like this is a FISA warrant or something like that.

We’ll see what this raid finds, and what charges, if any, the U.S. attorney’s office brings. But this is not the kind of action any prosecutor takes lightly.

UPDATE 12:45 p.m.: ABC News has learned Geoffery Berman was not involved in the decision to raid Michael Cohen’s office, as he is recused from the case. Others in the SDNY attorney’s office handled the decision.

The Big, Long-In-The-Works Article on James Comey, Political Celebrity

If you haven’t read yesterday’s big article on retired FBI agents who once defended James Comey, and who are now irritated with his last-honest-man-in-Washington, hero to “The Resistance,” mega-book-tour shtick, please do so now.

As Alexandra Brown kindly observed, “This isn’t ‘sources say,’ this is these specific, named people make these specific statements. What a breath of fresh air.”

It’s easier to get eyebrow-raising quotes when you’re interviewing retired FBI agents and not current agents, but if the retired agents aren’t thrilled at the thought of Comey joking around with Stephen Colbert later this month, it’s not hard to imagine a significant portion of current agents share that view.

“This current effort to meet the president in the public square, at his own game of slinging mud and punching and contributing smugness to the debate, it’s a bad look for him,” Gagliano says. “I think it’s going to diminish the FBI, and I think it’s going to diminish whatever’s left of Comey’s reputation.”. . .

“Comey was well liked and well thought of as a director overall by FBI employees, although many former agents believed he crossed the line when he publicly declined prosecution of Hilary Clinton,” Savage says. “Decisions on prosecution strictly are the responsibility of the Department of Justice. When [Attorney General Loretta] Lynch tossed the ball to the FBI and she advised she would abide by the recommendations of the FBI, he should clearly have tossed that ball back across Pennsylvania Avenue to Sally Yates and made sure that a comprehensive prosecutive report was delivered to DOJ from the FBI for their consideration.”. . .

“He put the agency and himself directly in the spotlight, not a good place for us ever to be,” Chacon says. “It now appears that he enjoys the spotlight.”. . .

“If I had any witness in a case, much less a potentially critical witness, who’s making all kinds of public statements about the case, or statements that can be used as evidence of bias against that witness, I’d be quite upset,” he says. “I’m sure Robert Muller is not very excited about this publicity tour. This is all kinds of ammunition that a defense lawyer can later use to discredit his prime witness. Everything that Comey is saying on Twitter and in the book and on this press tour will be material when he’s a witness on any obstruction of justice or anything involving the FBI–White House relationship.”

I suspect the vast majority of FBI agents and officials want to think of themselves as above or beyond America’s partisan divide; they wake up every morning and set out to investigate crimes and enforce the laws, without fear or favor. I believe that most FBI agents do their best to meet this fair-minded standard. But it only takes a few bad examples to shake the public’s faith in the bureau’s lack of partisanship or partiality. How will Americans feel when they see James Comey laughing it up with Stephen Colbert?

About that Missouri Governor with the Allegedly Odd Exercise Suggestions. . .

Remember Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, who allegedly had an affair, tied up the woman, took pictures, and threatened to release the photos if she didn’t keep quiet about the affair?

Greitens’ lawyers just unveiled a heck of a potential doubt about the accuser’s story:

In a court filing dated Sunday, Greitens’ attorneys say the woman testified during a Friday deposition that she never saw Greitens with a camera or phone on the day he is accused of taking a partially nude photo of her while she was blindfolded and her hands bound.

The court filing says the woman also testified that she doesn’t know if her belief that he had a phone was the result of a dream.

A spokeswoman for St. Louis Circuit attorney Kim Gardner said Monday that Greitens’ attorneys had ‘cherry picked bits and pieces’ of the woman’s nine-hour deposition ‘to attack her credibility.’

Prosecutors previously acknowledged that they don’t have the photo. But they could be trying to obtain it. If the photo were taken using a smartphone, it may have been automatically transmitted to cloud-based storage and the government could subpoena a technology company for access to it.

The court filing by Greitens’ attorneys said the woman participated in a lengthy deposition Friday. After acknowledging she hadn’t seen a camera or phone, she was asked if she saw what she believed to be a phone.

“I haven’t talked about it because I don’t know if it’s because I’m remembering it through a dream or I – I’m not sure, but yes, I feel like I saw it after that happened,” she responded, according to the court filing.

Wait, prosecutors don’t have the photo, and they just have her testimony, and she’s saying she “feels” like she saw the photo afterward? I’m not a lawyer, but I think it’s probably a bad sign when a key witness prefaces her description of important details with, “I’m remembering it through a dream.”

Without the blackmail, doesn’t this become a garden-variety married-politician-has-an-affair story, and not a criminal matter?

ADDENDA: Why people don’t take the United Nations seriously: “Syria will next month chair the United Nations disarmament forum that produced the treaty banning chemical weapons.”

If this occurs, Nikki Haley’s gonna smash through the wall like Kool-Aid Man.

World

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Has to Ask Himself One Question: Does He Feel Lucky?

U.N. Ambassador John Bolton speaks before voting against a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s recent attacks in Gaza at the U.N. headquarters in New York November 11, 2006. (Keith Bedford/Reuters)

How do you define a death wish? How about, “using chemical weapons in an area where their effects are likely to be recorded on camera, right before John Bolton becomes national-security adviser”? You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the ol’ Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with The ‘Stache.

A month ago, then-private citizen John Bolton wrote:

Security Council weapons inspectors monitoring North Korea’s compliance with United Nations sanctions have reportedly concluded that, for several years, the North has been selling Syria materials for the production of chemical weapons. Additional sanctions violations also are reported, but none compare to the gravity of this evidence that Pyongyang is trafficking in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology.

Pyongyang’s dangerous behavior today dramatically foreshadows exactly what it will do with nuclear and ballistic-missile technology as soon as it thinks it is safe to do so.

The U.N. report and other sources also indicate considerable involvement by Iran, China and Russia in financing and transporting North Korea’s chemical and other weapons-related materials to Syria. The complex web of business dealings shows serious, perhaps insoluble, problems in the enforcement of international sanctions applicable to both Pyongyang and Damascus.

That certainly sounds like a man fed up with the status quo approach to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And certainly President Trump’s Sunday morning tweets — the first to criticize Vladimir Putin directly by name(!) — suggest the commander in chief is appalled and outraged at the use of chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, someone — everyone suspects the Israelis — bombed Syrian airbase T4 early Monday morning, a base used by Syrian and Iranian-backed militias.

Former secretary of State John Kerry, in his farewell memo to America’s diplomats, touted the alleged success of destroying 1,000 tons of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and then added, “unfortunately, other undeclared chemical weapons continue to be used ruthlessly on the Syrian people.” It’s been said that the easiest way to persuade President Trump to do something is to tell him Obama refused to take a particular course of action. Is someone like Bolton going to tell Trump that Obama refused to enact a lengthy campaign of punitive airstrikes, aiming to destroy any suspected Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles?

Get Ready for an Expensive, Tough Senate Race Down in Florida.

Florida governor Rick Scott is making it official: He’s running for Senate in 2018, challenging incumbent senator Bill Nelson. Today in Orlando he’ll announce his bid and call Washington “horribly dysfunctional” because of “career politicians” and call for term limits for members of Congress.

Last May, I talked to Scott, and it was clear he was thinking about a bid, and that he had no real working relationship with Nelson.

“I don’t talk to him,” Florida governor Rick Scott says, referring to his state’s three-term Democratic senator, Bill Nelson, an incumbent up for reelection in 2018.

A few weeks ago at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Atlanta, Scott addressed the attendees and offered a surprisingly explicit argument for replacing Nelson. “I believe it’s crucial that we increase the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate,” Scott told the NRA crowd, after praising Trump’s decision to nominate Neil Gorsuch. “Look at the votes on this Supreme Court nominee, and you can see there are a number of senators who did not represent their states. These senators need to be retired. Unfortunately, one of my state’s senators, Bill Nelson, has veered far to the left.”

Asked about why he called out Nelson before a politically active crowd, Scott insists he wasn’t hinting at a 2018 Senate bid. “You look at Neil Gorsuch, how could you vote against the guy?” Scott said during a recent visit to Washington. “[Nelson’s] the senator from Florida, and that’s why it was relevant to talk about him.”

It’s clear Scott feels no particular warmth toward Nelson, as he explains why he doesn’t talk to his state’s senior senator. “What you learn in this job, I’ll give you a story. My hometown is in Collier County. I know who to call in Collier County to get things done.”

The governor is too careful and even-keeled a politician to really come out and say it explicitly; his version of a smackdown is a pause so pregnant it might as well be having triplets. But the implication is clear: Scott doesn’t talk to Senator Nelson because he doesn’t think his state’s Democratic senator is a guy who can get things done. With a little twist of the knife, Scott says, “I talk to Marco [Rubio] quite a bit.”

Right there, the twin prongs of a GOP message against Nelson in 2018 become visible. For a purple state that’s trending red, the incumbent has become just another Democrat marching in lockstep. And for a three-term senator from an important state, Nelson is an easily overlooked nonentity in the nation’s big debates. It’s bad enough that Nelson’s a liberal, but he’s a liberal afterthought.

Of course, since then, Scott signed gun legislation that raises the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21 from 18, banned bump stocks, gave law enforcement greater power to seize weapons and ammunition from those deemed mentally unfit, and allows the arming of some teachers if both the local school district and local sheriff’s department agree.

It’s a safe bet the governor won’t be speaking to the attendees of this year’s NRA Annual Meeting in Dallas; the organization is challenging the age restrictions of the new law in court.

So far this year, the incumbent Nelson has enjoyed a narrow lead in polling about the now-no-longer hypothetical matchup.

The Increasing User-Unfriendliness of Social Media

There’s more discussion of allegations that Twitter is “shadow banning” users, as Mickey Kaus and Monica Showalter claim. It’s worth noting that at this point, it’s mostly anecdotal, people saying things like, “I follow Ted Cruz on Twitter, but I feel like I never see his posts on my timeline.” But it sure seems like a lot of people realizing that they feel like they never or almost never see tweets from those that they follow.

Showalter runs some senators’ accounts through web-based gadget TwitterAudit, which:

Takes a sample of up to 5000 Twitter followers for a user and calculates a score for each follower. This score is based on number of tweets, date of the last tweet, and ratio of followers to friends. We use these scores to determine whether any given user is real or fake. Of course, this scoring method is not perfect but it is a good way to tell if someone with lots of followers is likely to have increased their follower count by inorganic, fraudulent, or dishonest means.

According to TwitterAudit, 83 percent of Cruz’s followers are real people, not bots. The same gadget concludes that an astounding 55 percent of Kamala Harris’ followers are not real — which might explain why Harris gets a lot more retweets.

Also as of 2016, 93 percent of my followers are real . . .  and they’re spectacular. I love 93 percent of you.

What’s indisputable is that what we see on social media is heavily shaped by algorithms that are a lot more complicated (and user-unfriendly) than simply, “hey, what’s the most recent thing posted by the people I follow?” Two painfully funny tweets about this on other forms of social media, first from Bethany Mandel:

Facebook [stinks] for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is this: Every time I open the page, the same update from 11 hours ago appears at the top of my newsfeed from my high school best friend’s mom about not having power.

And Anthony Carboni’s observation about using YouTube:

Me: *watches a single YouTube tutorial so I can fix my door hinge*

YouTube: WHAT’S UP, HINGE-LOVER? HERE ARE THE TOP 1000 VIDEOS FROM THE HINGER COMMUNITY THIS WEEK. CHECK OUT THIS TRENDING HINGE CONTENT FROM ENGAGING HINGEFLUENCERS

No matter how many times I click “see less often,” Twitter likes to show me tweets that got a lot of reaction from eight to 17 hours ago, statements or posts that are usually outdated or overtaken by events.

Elsewhere in the social-media landscape, over in Wired, Zeynip Tufekci is tired of Mark Zuckerberg’s latest apology tour, and points out that when it comes to user data, we keep seeing the same problems, apologies, and promises from Facebook.

By 2008, Zuckerberg had written only four posts on Facebook’s blog: Every single one of them was an apology or an attempt to explain a decision that had upset users.

In 2010, after Facebook violated users’ privacy by making key types of information public without proper consent or warning, Zuckerberg again responded with an apology — this time published in an op-ed in The Washington Post. “We just missed the mark,” he said. “We heard the feedback,” he added. “There needs to be a simpler way to control your information.” “In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use,” he promised.

I’m going to run out of space here, so let’s jump to 2018 and skip over all the other mishaps and apologies and promises to do better — oh yeah, and the consent decree that the Federal Trade Commission made Facebook sign in 2011, charging that the company had deceptively promised privacy to its users and then repeatedly broken that promise — in the intervening years.

There are very few other contexts in which a person would be be allowed to make a series of decisions that have obviously enriched them while eroding the privacy and well-being of billions of people; to make basically the same apology for those decisions countless times over the space of just 14 years; and then to profess innocence, idealism, and complete independence from the obvious structural incentives that have shaped the whole process. This should ordinarily cause all the other educated, literate, and smart people in the room to break into howls of protest or laughter. Or maybe tears.

ADDENDA: Speaking of the tech industry and social media, I’m currently giggling my way through Frank J. Fleming’s Sidequest in Realms Ungoogled, a madcap fantasy novel where Silicon Valley has suddenly become overtaken by a Lord of the Rings–style fantasy world, and a mild-mannered computer programmer suddenly finds himself trying to survive in absurd mirrored-reality of magic swords, demons, mermaids, fairies, secret societies, and blind dates with women who claim to be from “The Sisters of Torment, Who Serve the Darkness.” (You know, it’s not hard to imagine some of these tech CEOs transitioning quite well to a land of dark lords, conquest and monsters.)

You know Frank from his hilarious blog, IMAO, novels like Superego, and non-fiction humor books like Punch Your Inner Hippie and Obama: The Greatest President in the History of Everything.

U.S.

The Atlantic’s New Director of Personnel Is Named Stu Pidgrievances

Kevin D. Williamson at the 2017 National Review Institute Ideas Summit

Jeffrey Goldberg’s announcement that The Atlantic had “parted ways” with our old friend Kevin Williamson — what a gutless way to announce you’ve fired someone, a week or so into the job — represents a successful effort to redefine “beyond the pale” in the political debates of 2018, or to close the Overton Window, if you prefer that metaphor.

A week ago, Goldberg told his staff this in a memo:

I don’t think that taking a person’s worst tweets, or assertions, in isolation is the best journalistic practice. . . He’s an excellent reporter who covers parts of the country, and aspects of American life, that we don’t yet cover comprehensively. . . Diversity in all its forms makes us better journalists; it also opens us up to new audiences. I would love to have an Ideas section filled with libertarians, socialists, anarcho-pacifists and theocons, in addition to mainstream liberals and conservatives, all arguing with each other. If we are going to host debates, we have to host people who actually disagree with, and sometimes offend, the other side. Kevin will help this cause.

Yesterday, allegedly because of Kevin’s comments in a podcast — “the language used in the podcast was callous and violent,” Goldberg decreed — Kevin was suddenly unacceptable, and he had no place in Goldberg’s vision of a wide-ranging, diverse, provocative debate.

This explanation that some long-forgotten podcast comment suddenly made Kevin persona non grata doesn’t make much sense. What does make sense is the theory that Goldberg completely underestimated the level of liberal rage about the presence of an outspoken conservative in its pages — both outside and inside the building. (For those saying, “what about current Atlantic columnists David Frum, Caitlin Flanagan, and Conor Friedersdorf?” I’d respond, “I said an outspoken conservative.”) It didn’t take a master detective to figure out that if Goldberg continued to defend the hiring of Williamson, he would be the next figure in the crosshairs of the angry leftist mob.

Congratulations, Jeffrey Goldberg. You’ve worked your way up to a position of management and leadership at a major media publication, and now you’ve agreed to give the Woke Twitter crowd veto power over your personnel decisions. Who runs The Atlantic? The loudest complainer on staff who makes Goldberg nervous.

Look, dear reader, if Kevin Williamson is “beyond the pale,” beyond the realm of socially and politically acceptable thought and discourse, then you and I are either beyond the pale as well or bumped right up against it, as social justice warriors strain to pull it ever leftward. Our speech doesn’t merely challenge or provoke them, it is decreed threatening and dangerous, a social crime if not a literal legal one.

Yet.

Are You ‘Shadow-Banned’ on Twitter?

Are you seeing a surprisingly low level of responses to your Tweets? Do some people seem to miss Tweets that you’re certain they should have seen? Does it feel like your level of followers has plateaued?

There’s a contention that Twitter “shadow bans” certain accounts it doesn’t like based on user reports and algorithms. The company won’t tell you if you’re in this quasi-detention and your account won’t be suspended; your tweets just won’t show up in the feeds of certain people. You’ll be walled off from the rest of Twitter, kept in a limited realm of existing followers who aren’t bothered by you.

To test this, I decided to compare two of the higher-profile members of the U.S. Senate.

Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz has more than 3.2 million followers. You would figure that almost every tweet he wrote would get a significant reaction. And yet, as you scroll through his feed, you find most tweets he writes have, collectively, a few hundred retweets and likes at most. Just in the last few days: 259 retweets, 90 retweets, 62 retweets. Cruz’s most retweeted item in the past few days appears to have been retweeted 416 times.

California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris has 1.5 million followers, roughly half that of Cruz. But almost all of her tweets are shared at a rate three to four times, sometimes as much as forty times, as much as Cruz’s. Her most recent tweets have been retweeted 1,800 times, 1,300 times, 981 times, and 4,000 times.

Is it just that Harris’ tweets are so much more interesting? Are her followers, constituents, and fans so much more likely to share her tweets, compared to his? Are conservatives just less likely to retweet something than liberals are?

Or are some of Cruz’s followers just not seeing his tweets?

Remember, a Twitter contractor managed to shut down the president’s account for eleven minutes on his last day on the job. It’s not like we can just dismiss the possibility of partisan or ideological shenanigans in Silicon Valley.

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee invited Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify about user privacy. Zuckerberg has agreed to attend.

Perhaps it’s a fair question to ask managers of social media networks — do your companies’ policies or algorithms ever limit a user’s audience and reach without informing them? And what is the criteria for this sort of secret semi-ban?

A Clarifying Point About the Stormy Daniels Scandal

I’ve had little interest in the Stormy Daniels story, as it seems to be a tawdry retelling of what just about all of us already knew about Trump: He cheats on his wives, he uses money to influence people, he threatens people who he thinks could hurt him in some way, and he loves non-disclosure agreements.

But something clicked after Trump’s uncharacteristically terse comment about her and her claims on Air Force One Thursday.

In her 60 Minutes interview, Daniels makes clear that she knew what she was getting into with Trump. She was introduced to him at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe in July 2006. He invited her to dinner, and she accepted, agreeing to dine with him in his hotel suite. She seemed to have no illusions about what he was interested in, she proposed the. . . suggestive act with the magazine, and she said their sex was entirely consensual, even though she wasn’t attracted to him. He had mentioned having her as a contestant on The Apprentice.

So why would Trump allegedly want her to sign the non-disclosure agreement, and why would $130,000 come her way in October 2016, allegedly paid by Trump’s lawyer out of his own pocket?

Melania.

By October 2016, the old philandering stories weren’t going to harm Trump. He had already won the Republican nomination, the Christian Right had come to terms with his infamous history, appearing on the cover of Playboy, etc., and Stormy Daniels telling the story of the affair probably wouldn’t have made a significant impact on the 2016 presidential race. He had already survived the infamous Access Hollywood tape!

But if Daniels told her story, she would make Donald Trump’s relationship with Melania a lot more complicated really fast. Philandering is bad; philandering while your wife is raising your four-month-old son is really bad. If the rumors are true, Melania Trump is quickly approaching her breaking point; a woman can only put up with so much humiliation and disrespect.

Donald Trump may be a terrible husband, but it seems safe to assume he doesn’t want a divorce. Even though he’s got a pre-nuptual agreement, it would mean a lot of pain, embarrassing headlines, probably fights about access to Barron, and all of the other stresses, disputes, and heartache that comes with a messy divorce. Whatever his numerous flaws and runaway narcissism, Donald Trump probably likes his life with Melania a lot more than the prospect of one without her.

So that’s what made Stormy Daniels’ denial worth $130,000.

ADDENDA: Michael Graham looks at the possibility of a 2020 primary challenge to Trump and points out that while primary challenges to sitting presidents rarely succeed, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush all were considerably damaged by their difficulties in fighting off Eugene McCarthy, Ted Kennedy, and Pat Buchanan.

Would John Kasich or Jeff Flake be content to play spoiler and help a Democrat win in 2020?

Culture

Mark Zuckerberg: Yeah, Your Facebook Data Was Probably Stolen. Sorry About That.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to users: Oh, hey, sorry about that.

Facebook said Wednesday that “malicious actors” took advantage of search tools on its platform, making it possible for them to discover the identities and collect information on most of its 2 billion users worldwide. . .

The scam started when malicious hackers harvested email addresses and phone numbers on the so-called “Dark Web,” where criminals post information stolen from data breaches over the years. Then the hackers used automated computer programs to feed the numbers and addresses into Facebook’s “search” box, allowing them to discover the full names of people affiliated with the phone numbers or addresses, along with whatever Facebook profile information they chose to make public, often including their profile photos and hometown.

Two thoughts on Facebook. . .

First, the only things that Facebook has of real value are your attention and your personal information. No matter how much the company attempts to assure users that it respects their privacy, the temptation to sell that information is likely to be overwhelming at some point. They’re likely to promise whatever they feel they need to get through this public-relations debacle, and then, once someone comes along with a lucrative offer and their own trust-us-we-won’t-abuse-this-data-you’re-giving-us pledge, offer access to your data once again.

After all, Facebook previously assured users their information is secure and would never be used by, say, a data-research firm affiliated with a presidential campaign without their consent.

Secondly, even if Facebook was run by angels, the information is likely to be of value to hackers, and worth the effort on the part of the hacker. Your individual information by itself may not be of great value, but it may be once it’s bundled with the information of lots of other people.

Does this mean you shouldn’t use Facebook? No, but you probably shouldn’t post anything on there that you wouldn’t feel comfortable being out in the public domain.

What People Choose to Believe About the Pulse Nightclub Massacre

I read this good piece in the Huffington Post by Melissa Jeltsen about the Pulse nightclub shooting, pointing out that “everyone” — and by that, she means almost everyone on the left — convinced themselves that the massacre was driven by homophobia, despite a lack of any real evidence. Now that the shooter’s wife, Noor Salman, is acquitted of charges of supporting terrorism and obstructing justice, and the government’s evidence is public, it’s now irrefutable that this was an ISIS-inspired terror attack.

Almost overnight, a narrative emerged that until now has been impossible to dislodge: Mateen planned and executed an attack on Pulse because he hated gay people.

“Let’s say it plainly: This was a mass slaying aimed at LGBT people,” Tim Teeman wrote in The Daily Beast. The massacre was “undeniably a homophobic hate crime,” Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic. Some speculated that Mateen was a closeted gay man. He was likely “trying to reconcile his inner feelings with his strongly homophobic Muslim culture,” James S. Robbins wrote in USA Today. . . .

Salman’s trial cast doubt on everything we thought we knew about Mateen. There was no evidence he was a closeted gay man, no evidence that he was ever on Grindr. He looked at porn involving older women, but investigators who scoured Mateen’s electronic devices couldn’t find any internet history related to homosexuality. (There were daily, obsessive searches about ISIS, however.) Mateen had extramarital affairs with women, two of whom testified during the trial about his duplicitous ways.

Mateen may very well have been homophobic. He supported ISIS, after all, and his father, an FBI informant currently under criminal investigation, told NBC that his son once got angry after seeing two men kissing. But whatever his personal feelings, the overwhelming evidence suggests his attack was not motivated by it.

As far as investigators could tell, Mateen had never been to Pulse before, whether as a patron or to case the nightclub. Even prosecutors acknowledged in their closing statement that Pulse was not his original target; it was the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex. They presented evidence demonstrating that Mateen chose Pulse randomly less than an hour before the attack. It is not clear he even knew it was a gay bar. A security guard recalled Mateen asking where all the women were, apparently in earnest, in the minutes before he began his slaughter.

Of course, the homophobia narrative wasn’t that hard to dislodge on the right, because it never got much traction or took root. In the eyes of most conservatives, the nightclub shooting looked like terrorism, sounded like terrorism, and smelled like terrorism. And when Jeltsen writes. . .

During the trial, I spoke to one LGBT community leader there who said he would always know, in his heart, that Mateen picked Pulse to kill gay people, and that Salman knew of his plans. No amount of evidence would change his mind, he said.

What she’s writing is that progressives can succumb to the temptation of “fake news” as much as anyone else.

Remember, Mateen’s attack occurred in June 2016, just weeks before the major party nominating conventions, at a time when Donald Trump and most Republicans were arguing that the Obama administration had done a lousy job in fighting ISIS and containing the threat of terrorism. The killing of Osama bin Laden was receding into the rear view mirror, and the San Bernardino attack occurred about six months earlier. Conceding that the Orlando massacre was another case of Islamist terrorism, committed by another “known wolf,” would mean admitting that Obama’s critics had a point.

No, it was much more emotionally reassuring to recast Mateen as a more politically-convenient kind of villain, a right-wing mass shooter, driven by the repressive sexual ethics of traditional religion. And thus, a group of Americans embraced their own “alternate truth” divorced from the facts of what had actually happened.

A Wee Bit of Problem in Colorado’s State Senate

Earlier in the week I wrote that journalism attracted more than its fair share of, well, nut-jobs. Clearly, the same is true for politics: Out in Colorado, they’ve got a problem with a male state senator who allegedly keeps using the women’s bathroom. Apparently this isn’t merely “walking in the wrong door without paying attention once” or “really had to go in an emergency” or “those pictograms really aren’t all that clear.” No, apparently this is habitual.

Effie Ameen, the Colorado state senate secretary, in a February 2018 phone call to Heather White, Communication supervisor of the Colorado State Patrol:

Here’s the problem I’m having and you can maybe help me figure out the best way to do this. And, again, I don’t, I don’t know if this will prevent anything. But, we have a person who works here, a male, that has been frequently accessing the bathroom, and so . . . yeah, it’s so awkward. . . and so that’s why I wanted to change the code, because I know the code we have on there is sort of our generic one that we use like for everything so it’s not shocking that people would know it but ummm . . .

Shortly thereafter, White sent out an e-mail to certain staffers:

“I also removed the Senate Restroom door (#260) from the door group “Senate Offices and Restrooms Only”. Effie advised this is a women’s restroom and Senator Daniel Kagan has continued to use it even though he’s been advised this practice needs to stop.

So, Senator Kagan now has access to these two door groups which has eliminated his access to the Women’s Senate Restroom.”

This is the sort of thing that usually gets worked out in kindergarten, right?

I’m sure this guy thinks he’s a whiz and that he’s making a splash, and that everything he does is golden. As a Democrat, he’s probably fought against trickle-down economics and he demands an investigation into the infamous alleged “pee tape.” But I don’t care what kind of party you’re in, at this rate, this kind of creepy behavior needs to get flushed. Time to send his political future down the drain.

ADDENDA: I recently chatted with Michael Graham on his soon-to-retire podcast, discussing “Trump unleashed!”, the still-very-limited prospects for potential Republican presidential challengers in 2020, and the genuine concern for Republicans in the midterm elections. Michael will soon launch a new podcast entitled “Behind the Blue Wall,” spotlighting life for conservatives in deeply-Democratic states.

Heartbreaking; the coffee and pie at the diner that was used in Twin Peaks apparently isn’t really that good.

White House

Mueller Downgrades Trump’s Role in the Russia-Collusion Investigation

Special counsel Robert Mueller departs Capitol Hill after briefing senators on his collusion investigation, June 21, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: asking just how much reassurance President Trump should feel after special counsel Robert Mueller said he’s a subject, not a target, of his investigation; China retaliates on America’s tariffs, hitting farmers in a slew of Trump states; and an attempted mass shooting that just doesn’t warrant the front pages of the nation’s biggest newspapers.

Mueller to Trump: Relax, You’re a Subject of My Investigation, Not a Target

Most of Washington is reacting with surprise to this revelation in this morning’s Post:

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III informed President Trump’s attorneys last month that he is continuing to investigate the president but does not consider him a criminal target at this point, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

In private negotiations in early March about a possible presidential interview, Mueller described Trump as a subject of his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Prosecutors view someone as a subject when that person has engaged in conduct that is under investigation but there is not sufficient evidence to bring charges.

Is this really a bombshell, though? If Mueller had said Trump was a target of the investigation, the president’s lawyers would be more likely to succeed in persuading him not to testify, concluding that the request to testify was a perjury trap. According to the Post’s sources, John Dowd, Trump’s top attorney dealing with the Mueller probe, resigned last month “amid disputes about strategy and frustration that the president ignored his advice to refuse the special counsel’s request for an interview.”

From the manual for U.S. Attorneys:

A “target” is a person as to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant. An officer or employee of an organization which is a target is not automatically considered a target even if such officer’s or employee’s conduct contributed to the commission of the crime by the target organization. The same lack of automatic target status holds true for organizations which employ, or employed, an officer or employee who is a target.

A “subject” of an investigation is a person whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury’s investigation.

But look deeper in the manual for what it says about notifying individuals that they are targets of the investigation:

Notification would not be appropriate in routine clear cases or when such action might jeopardize the investigation or prosecution because of the likelihood of flight, destruction or fabrication of evidence, endangerment of other witnesses, undue delay or otherwise would be inconsistent with the ends of justice.

Trump isn’t a flight risk, but could Mueller think Trump will destroy or fabricate evidence, endanger witnesses, or take more steps to interfere with the investigation?

For what it’s worth, I doubt Mueller was ever likely to recommend charges and criminal prosecution of the president. He may, however, lay out whatever evidence he finds of criminal actions and then let the House and Senate decide whether it warrants impeachment.

What probably ought to unnerve fans of the president is the description of Trump’s reaction:

The president has privately expressed relief at the description of his legal status, which has increased his determination to agree to a special counsel interview, the people said. He has repeatedly told allies that he is not a target of the probe and believes an interview will help him put the matter behind him, friends said.

It was just March 18 when Trump was arguing that Mueller was leading a partisan witch hunt, tweeting, “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!” and “Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans? Another Dem recently added…does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!”

Now Trump’s eager to sit down with Mueller, in a situation where any lie could be interpreted as obstruction of justice? If so, you just can’t save this man from himself.

Those Retaliatory Tariffs the White House Insisted Wouldn’t Happen . . . Are Happening.

White House National Trade Council director Peter Navarro, discussing the potential impact of the U.S. imposing tariffs on aluminum and steel imports, on Fox Business, March 2: “I don’t believe any country in the world is going to retaliate for the simple reason that we are the most lucrative and biggest market in the world. They know they’re cheating us and all we’re doing is standing up for ourselves.”

The news this morning:

China announced tariffs on U.S. products worth $50 billion on Wednesday, retaliating against American tariffs on Chinese high-tech goods and sharply escalating a trade war that could damage the global economy.

The Tariff Commission of China’s powerful State Council plans to impose a 25% tariff on 106 U.S. products including soybeans, cars and chemicals, according to an announcement by China’s state broadcaster CCTV. Beijing will also target U.S. corn, cotton, beef, orange juice, whiskey, tobacco, and several lubricants and plastic products.

And here’s how the tariff conflict is playing the Trump-won state of Pennsylvania . . .

“China is a top-five market for Pennsylvania’s producers,” said William Nichols, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “The agriculture community is concerned about trade and the direction of the nation’s trade policy, and this week’s news of retaliatory tariffs on American goods being traded with China is further cause for alarm.”

Pennsylvania exports $413 mil­lion a year in agricultural and related products to China, Nichols said.

And in the Trump-won state of Wisconsin . . .

The Chinese government suggested the tariff last month and originally planned to wait 60 days before it was enacted, but the process was accelerated and the tariff went into effect early Monday morning, said Bob Kaldunski, the president of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin, based in Wausau. China is the largest consumer of American ginseng.

Kaldunski said he was surprised by China’s quick implementation and believes that the tariff will have detrimental consequences for Wisconsin’s industry. Wisconsin is home to 95 percent of the American production of the plant.

And in the Trump-won state of Michigan . . .

“The timing of this comes when we have a lot of product, a lot of hogs coming. And so strategically the timing of this to affect our markets is at a bad time,” says Bob Dykuis, of Dykuis Farms Inc. “When about 25% of the product is exported, you kind of live and die by that as far as your markets. The Chinese announcement has affected the last couple of days dramatically on the futures.”

David Williams says if a soybean tariff goes into effect it wouldn’t be long before soybean farmers in Michigan started feeling the pinch. Soybeans are also used for animal feed, including pigs, so they would have an impact on each other.

And in the Trump-won states of Missouri and North Carolina . . .

Processed foods like pork products are the third-largest export for the Kansas City area and China is the area’s third-largest export partner, so the recent announcement of China implementing a 25 percent pork tariff is bad news for the Kansas City area.

The Kansas City area is home to two of the nation’s largest pork producers: Smithfield Foods Inc. and Seaboard Corp.

Smithfield Foods, which has an operation in Kansas City employing 948 people, is the world’s largest pork producer. Its largest plant, which can process up to 32,500 hogs a day, is in Tar Heel, N.C. It also has operations in the northern Missouri town of Milan; Clinton, N.C.; Crete, Neb.; Denison, Iowa; Gwaltney, Va.; Los Angeles; Monmouth, Ill.; and Sioux Falls, S.D.

And in the Trump-won state of Nebraska:

“We want to sell more product to China not less,” said Nebraska Pork Producer Association Executive Director Al Juhnke.

He said the Nebraska exports about $16 million in pork to China every year.

“If it goes on long term, it’s going to affect our rural economies here in Nebraska and the upper mid-West,” Juhnke said.  There is also a ripple affect according to Juhnke.

There are three pork processing plants in the state and hogs consume a lot of soybeans. Soybean growers are also concerned they may be targeted next.

“We have heard directly from the Chinese government that soybean imports are a prime target for retaliation,” said Nebraska Soybean Growers Association Executive Director Lori Luebbe.

Nice call, Navarro. I’ll bet his mock draft is really inaccurate, too.

Beware Those Angry Vegan Activists Who Are Upset with YouTube.

Beware those angry vegan activists.

YouTube, where millions turn to watch news of the world unfold, became the subject of its own trending video feed Tuesday after its headquarters turned into a shooting ground for a woman who critically wounded an employee and injured two others in a courtyard before killing herself . . .

With the name Nasim Agdham, some wondered if there was a terrorism-related motive. But at least according to initial reports, she had a different intention.

A law-enforcement source told the Bay Area News Group late Tuesday afternoon that the shooting may have been fueled by a domestic dispute and that the suspect was targeting a boyfriend, not others who were injured. But in an interview Tuesday night, her father Ismail Aghdam told this news organization his daughter was a vegan activist who was angry with YouTube because the company stopped paying for her content.

USA Today offers more details:

In a video posted on YouTube on Jan. 28, Aghdam alleges she’s “being discriminated (against) and filtered on YouTube and I’m not the only one.”

In an Instagram post dated March 18, Aghdam claims that all her YouTube “channels got filtered by Youtube so my videos hardly get views. . . This is the peaceful tactic used on the Internet to censor and suppress people who speak the truth and are not good for the financial, political. . . gains of the system and big businesses.”

Aghdam described herself on her Instagram account as “Athlete Artist Comedian Poet Model Singer Host Actor Director Producer” and the videos she made appear to mix satire and dark humor to rail against authority, capitalism and popular culture. She posted videos in English, Turkish and Farsi, the official language of Iran.

In one section of her website that also includes a quote attributed to the German dictator Adolf Hitler she alleges: “There is no equal growth opportunity on YOUTUBE or any other video sharing site, your channel will grow if they want to!!!!!”

Compared to the Florida school shooting, this shooting was considered . . . mid-range in news importance at most by the country’s biggest papers. This morning’s New York Times story on the shooting appeared on page . . . A11; there was a photo of the shooting’s aftermath in the bottom right corner of the front page. The Washington Post ran its story on page A3; it also had a small photo on the bottom of the front page. USA Today put it in the inside section as well.

It is because there were fewer casualties? Or is that the shooter doesn’t fit the familiar narrative?

Or is there fear that reporting that a 39-year-old Iranian immigrant attempted a mass shooting might fuel Islamophobia?

ADDENDA: As noted on the Corner, I think the journalism profession attracts more than its share of individuals who are, to use the technical psychological term, “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.”

World

What Is Trump Doing to Prepare for the North Korean Meeting?

(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Wondering about the preparations for that easily-forgotten summit with Kim Jong-un; the gritty details on how Amazon and the U.S. Postal Service negotiate package-delivery rates; and a fascinating proposal to reduce police misconduct.

Hey, Remember that Announced North Korean Summit?

Hey, remember that summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, announced to the world back on March 8?

“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible,” declared South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, at the White House after a meeting with President Trump. “President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.”

It’s nearly a month later, and nothing’s been set yet. Not the date, not the location, not the participants beyond the two leaders. Since the announcement, President Trump has changed his secretary of State, national security adviser, and CIA director. He still hasn’t nominated anyone to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea. This is, arguably, the most high-stakes presidential meeting with a foreign leader since the end of the Cold War, and it’s not clear that this has been more than a passing thought on the president’s mind since the announcement.

One wonders if the rest of the region is getting worried, or starting to have doubts that the summit will occur at all. Yesterday, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told reporters, “Historical experience tells us that at the moment of easing of the situation on the peninsula and as first light dawns on peace and dialogue, frequently all manner of disruptive factors emerge. So we call on all sides to maintain focus, eliminate interference, and firmly follow the correct path of dialogue and negotiation.”

President Ronald Reagan and his White House made extensive preparations for their first meeting with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The summit was announced in the summer of 1985 and didn’t begin until November 19. Reagan had wanted a summit with the Soviets since the beginning of his presidency, but as he put it so memorably, “they kept dying on me.” (Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982, Yuri Andropov died in 1984, Konstantin Chernenko died in 1985.) Reagan read through dozens of policy papers, met with slews of experts on Russia policy and history, former Soviet diplomats and KGB officials who had defected, former presidents Nixon and Ford, and former national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. Reagan watched Gorbachev’s speeches, and did a complete dress rehearsal with Soviet Affairs expert Jack Matlock playing Gorbachev. Is there anything remotely like this going on in the current administration?

To the extent the president is thinking about the Koreas at all, he seems to be winging it with protectionist saber-rattling. As Fred Kaplan notes, on Thursday in Ohio, Trump referred to a recently reached trade deal with South Korea, saying, “I may hold it up until after a deal is made with North Korea. You know why? Because it’s a very strong card. And I want to make sure everyone is treated fairly.” Why would the United States threaten to make implementation of a trade deal with South Korea dependent upon a nuclear deal with North Korea?

Meanwhile, North Korea has launched its own “charm offensive” on the South Koreans. God knows if it will work, but Kim Jong-un and his wife are doing photo ops attending K-Pop concerts. They’re doing everything possible to maximize their leverage heading into this summit (presuming the summit happens). What is our side doing?

Earlier this morning, Robert Kelly, associate professor at Pusan National University, told CNBC that the lack of preparation on the part of the White House, coupled with North Korea’s supreme preparation, are such a predictable formula for disaster that the summit ought to be called off.

Trump “doesn’t know a great deal about Korea — we know that he doesn’t read very much, he watches a lot of television, and his national security staff is sort of in chaos right now,” Kelly said.  “The North Koreans have been working on this stuff for a long time, so they’re going to come in there and know every single detail and they’re going to be ready to negotiate down deep into the weeds.”

(Yes, Robert Kelly is that professor in South Korea. It’s okay. We’re all watching the door behind him.)

Could we get a few North Korean experts booked on Fox & Friends?

Can we get Mike Pompeo confirmed as secretary of State as quickly as possible? (Recently 93 conservative leaders signed a petition supporting his confirmation.) His confirmation hearing is reportedly scheduled for April 12; right now, nothing is set on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee schedule.

The Gritty, Easily Overlooked Details on the Trump War against Amazon

I’m starting to think that the markets overreact to any change in Washington.

President Donald Trump’s threats to raise postal rates on the tech giant Amazon — which many consider his proxy war against the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post — cost the company over $35 billion in stock value on Monday, suggesting Trump’s war with the media has the potential to hit media companies in their pocket books.

The company’s stock dropped 75.35 points — or 6.21 percent — as part of a larger sell-off on Wall Street after Trump accused Amazon of exploiting the U.S. Postal Service.

Is Amazon a significantly different company than it was a week ago? Does it have any fewer products, fewer trucks and warehouses, employees? Less web traffic or fewer customers?

The only thing that really changed is coverage of the president’s rage against the company, which allegedly raises the possibility of higher postal rates.

Package-delivery rates are set by the U.S. Postal Service in negotiation with Amazon, the service’s biggest customer. Despite the president’s claims, the postal service does not lose money on every package delivery for Amazon. The 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act made it illegal for the postal service to charge a price for package delivery that is lower than the cost of making the delivery. All changes to delivery prices have to be approved by the federal Postal Regulatory Commission, which has five members; no more than three members can be of the same party. The commission currently has four members; three are Republicans. All members of the PRC must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

If Trump wanted to raise rates for Amazon, he could contact the PRC’s current members and articulately effectively persuade, with evidence, figures, and reason, that they undercharged the service’s biggest customer to the detriment of the American taxpayer. (Stop laughing.) Tweeting things like “only fools, or worse, are saying that our money losing Post Office makes money with Amazon!” probably isn’t going to change their minds.

Presuming none of the current members feel they were fools to approve the current rates, Trump could find an anti-Amazon Democrat and get him confirmed by the Senate. Then, on October 14, the term of Republican member Tony Hammond expires. Trump could then find an anti-Amazon Republican and get him confirmed; that would give him two votes to raise rates on Amazon.

They could attempt to persuade one of the other current members. If they can’t, the next vacancy is Commissioner Nancy Langley, a Democrat, currently the only Democrat, the following month. But commissioners can continue to serve for a year after their term expires if no replacement is ready.

In other words, if the Senate goes along with Trump’s anti-Amazon agenda, he could put in three commissioners who would approve higher rates for Amazon by the end of the year. But that’s a pretty big “if,” and without that cooperation, the quartet that approved the current rates is in place until autumn 2019.

In the meantime, Amazon is also developing its own delivery methods. And at some point, if the U.S. Postal Service wants to make Amazon deliveries more expensive, UPS and/or FedEx might step in and make a competitive bid.

If Vanity Fair’s sources are right, Trump is eager to use the levers of government to mess with Amazon any way he can.

Now, according to four sources close to the White House, Trump is discussing ways to escalate his Twitter attacks on Amazon to further damage the company. “He’s off the hook on this. It’s war,” one source told me. “He gets obsessed with something, and now he’s obsessed with Bezos,” said another source. “Trump is like, how can I [f-word] with him?”

According to sources, Trump wants the Post Office to increase Amazon’s shipping costs. When Trump previously discussed the idea inside the White Hose, Gary Cohn had explained that Amazon is a benefit to the Postal Service, which has seen mail volume plummet in the age of e-mail. “Trump doesn’t have Gary Cohn breathing down his neck saying you can’t do the Post Office [stuff],” a Republican close to the White House said. “He really wants the Post Office deal renegotiated. He thinks Amazon’s getting a huge [f-word-ing] deal on shipping.”

Advisers are also encouraging Trump to cancel Amazon’s pending multi-billion contract with the Pentagon to provide cloud computing services, sources say. Another line of attack would be to encourage attorneys general in red states to open investigations into Amazon’s business practices. Sources say Trump is open to the ideas. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)

At the end of 2018, how likely is it that the U.S. Senate will want to approve postal commissioners who agree with policies that amount to a Trump vendetta against Jeff Bezos?

ADDENDA: This is a fascinating idea that could work as long as it included sufficient safeguards:

Like police, doctors have a difficult and stressful job that sometimes involves making life-or-death decisions under conditions of uncertainty. But unlike police, doctors don’t expect the rest of us to pay for their mistakes. Instead, doctors carry professional liability insurance, which pays to defend them against malpractice claims and protects them from financial ruin by paying out damage awards to successful plaintiffs. Insurance companies are exceptionally good at identifying risk. Think about car insurance. The more accidents or speeding tickets a driver has had, the higher their premiums will be. The same is true for teenagers, who tend to get in more wrecks than adults and therefore represent a greater risk to the insurance company.

The question is, would merely filing a complaint cause a police officer to have to pay a higher rate for liability insurance? Because a significant number of individuals who get arrested — or even who gets a traffic ticket! — might want to stick it to the cop in any way possible. And would there be any consequence for filing a baseless complaint?

Immigration

Mis- and Dis-Information Surround That Caravan of Illegal Immigrants

President Trump speaks during his tour of border wall prototypes near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego, California on March 13, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

I’m back from vacation; thanks to Theodore Kupfer for writing the Morning Jolt last week. Making the click-through worthwhile today: What you need to know about that caravan of migrants in Mexico slowly approaching the U.S. border; how our old friend Kevin Williamson turned into last week’s Emmanuel Goldstein; The Rise of the Working Class Shareholder, and a couple works that hit the public while I was away.

That Caravan of Migrants in Mexico Is Still. . . Almost 900 Miles from the U.S. Border

This morning, President Trump tweeted, “Congress must immediately pass Border Legislation, use Nuclear Option if necessary, to stop the massive inflow of Drugs and People. Border Patrol Agents (and ICE) are GREAT, but the weak Dem laws don’t allow them to do their job. Act now Congress, our country is being stolen!”

Those of us with memories of. . . several months will remember when President Trump was boasting on February 28, “45-year low on illegal border crossings this year. Ice and Border Patrol Agents are doing a great job for our Country. MS-13 thugs being hit hard.” What a change in a little more than a month!

Here are the actual numbers on Southwest border patrol apprehensions. In the last full month of the Obama administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended a little over 48,000 individuals; the peak in the past few years was May 2014 at nearly 69,000. The first full month of the Trump administration, the number dropped to 23,000; by April it was below 16,000. But the number of apprehended attempted crossers creeped up to between 35,000 and 40,000 in the past few months.

The border is on the president’s mind, after Fox News did a segment on a caravan of 1,200 migrants from Central America making their way north towards the United States. According to Adolfo Flores, a BuzzFeed reporter traveling with the caravan, there are about 1,200 participants and “about two-thirds of people are planning on crossing into the United States undetected or asking for some type of protection like asylum.” (This means the caravan amounts to roughly 2 percent of the recent typical monthly sum of intercepted migrants.)

This morning Trump also tweeted that “Mexico has the absolute power not to let these large “Caravans” of people enter their country” — although the caravan began reportedly gathered in Tapachula, meaning it formed within Mexico, not Guatemala. But the BuzzFeed reporter’s account does describe Mexican efforts to stop migrants: “Twenty-nine-year-old Mateo Juan said the caravan was his third attempt at getting to the United States. Seven months ago, Mexican immigration officers pulled him off the bus. The same happened about a month ago.”

In Flores’ last update, he describes the migrant caravan setting up camp in Santiago Niltepec, in Mexico’s Oaxaca state. That is nearly 900 miles from Brownsville, Texas, the closest point on the U.S. border.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

While I was away, our old friend Kevin Williamson became the Emmanuel Goldstein of the week — the mild-mannered figure who committed the sin of writing words that offended the Left and who suddenly became one of the most important and most denounced figures in media: “The program of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching.”

Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg offers a memo to the staff, explaining — some might say, justifying — his decision to hire Kevin. Over at Slate, Jordan Weissman quotes the memo and trashes Kevin, calling him “a troll.”

When National Review hires somebody, I usually send a little “welcome” message and then go about my job. It takes some gumption, nerve, or arrogance to think that you know who your boss should hire better than your boss does. You notice that when a liberal publication hires somebody right-of-center — Bret Stephens at the New York Times, Megan McArdle at the Washington Post — the left-of-center staffers begin griping to management, on or off the record, and organizing an effort to oust the newbie.

Weissman writes that mainstream publications hiring the likes of Williamson, Stephens, and McArdle and other NeverTrump conservatives amounts to letting “fairly abhorrent writers and thinkers launder their careers, provid[ing] them an unearned sheen of legitimacy.” When you list Williamson, Stephens, and McArdle among the abhorrent and illegitimate, you’re revealing that your range of socially-acceptable opinions runs from A to B.

The ‘Ownership Society’ and the ‘Working Class Shareholder’

Back in 2004, the editors of National Review wrote about the expansion of the “investor class” and declared that America is becoming an “ownership society,” a seismic development in both economics and politics. But the stock market crash and Great Recession whittled down the percentage of Americans who own stocks — from 62 percent in 2008 to 54 percent in 2017.

Boston University law professor David Webber is my metaphorical brother-in-law, and he has a new book out, The Rise of the Working Class Shareholder: Labor’s Last Best Weapon. Organized labor has taken it on the chin for the past few decades, but one bright spot for labor unions is the massive growth of worker pension funds, which amount to anywhere between $3 billion to $6 billion, invested in corporations, hedge funds, and private equity funds.

This means that when institutions like CalPERS (the California Public Employees Retirement System, with about $340 billion in assets) and NYCERS (the New York City Employees Retirement System, with roughly $60 billion in assets) pick up the phone and dial with the intention of saying, “jump,” a lot of company CEOs will pick up the phone and at least begin negotiations on “how high?” The collective assets of the retirement savings of hundreds of thousands of employees amounts to a considerable amount of leverage.

I doubt David would dispute me characterizing him as a left-of-center professor and thinker; his book offers a lot of food for thought for the Right, both in its critiques of the Left and the unresolved question about whether the Right has contemplated this realm of corporate governance as thoroughly as needed.

“For far too long, labor and its progressive sympathizers have sought to transform the market from outside the market: from courts, from legislatures, from regulators, from street protests, from strikes. These tools are important. But ultimately, it is not possible to transform the market from the outside. It must be transformed from within,” David writes. “The American left — particularly the segment that is focused on worker issues – is viscerally uncomfortable with labor wielding shareholder power, a capitalist weapon.”

Shareholder activism should strike most thinking conservatives as perhaps the fairest form of activism. The shareholder has earned his seat at the table; he’s bought the stock. He’s got skin in the game and an interest in the long-term health of the company. This isn’t some lawmaker or bureaucrat imposing a change from the outside, with or without an understanding of the challenges facing that business. And while we might dispute just how many corporations live down to the worst stereotypes, we’ve never had to look too hard for examples of bad corporate leaders who were completely unaccountable to their shareholders — enjoying outlandish pay, enacting short-sighted layoffs, pushing overly ambitious expansions and risky borrowing, and so on.

Some might argue that activist shareholders are muddling the mission of the corporation and that activist-minded funds are serving their clients badly, and that the wisest investor only focuses on maximizing the rate of return. But we all have our moral red lines. Many of us would find it morally unacceptable to invest in North Korea, but some do. For a long time, a big advertiser in the pages of National Review was the Ave Maria Mutual Fund — a fund that only invested in companies that did not violate the principles of the Catholic Church, i.e., no investing in businesses that provide abortions or pornography, etc. The California State Teachers Retirement System divested from gun companies after the Newtown shootings.

During a Q&A at a book reading in Washington D.C. last month, David said something along the lines of, “the capital markets are so powerful, that by the time you’ve elected the leaders you want, passed the law you want, and managed to fight all the lawsuits you’ll have to fight over that law, the capital has already moved out. . . The only way to reform the markets is by working within the markets.” (I was ready to stand up and applaud that line; the professional labor-lawyer, probably-voted-for-Bernie-Sanders crowd around me didn’t seem to share the sentiment.)

David’s skeptical that there is a dire public employee pension crisis facing the country, more skeptical than I am, although I generally agree with his assessment that if the stock market performs over the next fifty years as it has for the past century or so, most pension funds should be okay. At the reading, one of the audience members contended that a more secure future for pension funds could be achieved by a combination of A) higher employee donations (which I figure most righty folks would be fine with), B) reduced benefits for future retirees (again, folks on the right won’t object), and C) a higher rate of return on investments going forward.

Of course, if you want to get the highest rate of return on investments going forward. . . it means you might have to drop some of the moral objections to certain companies and industries.

ADDENDA: Christian Toto, one of the most interesting and unpredictable right-of-center voices discussing film and Hollywood, was kind enough to have me on his podcast a little while back. You can listen to his podcast here. We discussed whether Hollywood was likely to change much after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, our mixed feelings about Disney producing a new Star Wars movie every year, and watching movies with children and figuring out what’s age-appropriate.

Over in the magazine, I profile Maryland’s GOP governor Larry Hogan, blocking bad legislation and thriving in a heavily-Democratic state during the Trump era.

A new study concludes that the 2016 exit polls overestimated the turnout of college-educated whites and underestimated the turnout of whites without college degrees. Over in the Corner, I pointed out that this is part of a familiar pattern of complaints about the exit polls in recent years.

A pleasant surprise last night: I’m sure plenty of Christians will have some theological/doctrinal objections to NBC’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar last night: no Resurrection, unless you count the curtain call. . . but NBC just spent a bundle and recruited big stars to tell the story of Jesus in prime time on Easter Sunday.

U.S.

The Latest “Revelation” in the Mueller Investigation

Robert Mueller (Yuri Gripas)

Making the click-through worthwhile: A TV show does well everywhere — except the coasts; a supposedly groundbreaking revelation in the special counsel’s investigation; and a spat over criminal-justice reform.

Roseanne revival draws huge numbers

In his last book, The Revolt of the Elites, the late social critic Christopher Lasch chided an emerging class of Americans — educated people of decent means who lived on the coasts, made their living working with information rather than their hands, and participated in a global marketplace of transients — for trading socialism for the culture war. American elites couldn’t bring themselves to embrace a genuinely left-wing economic program in part because they feared that would endanger their elite status, Lasch contended; instead, they preferred to channel their political energy into ridiculing middle America, whose habits were so abhorrent to them. Published in 1994, it’s a book that anticipated a lot of today’s political discourse.

Lasch, obviously, was not the first social critic to suggest that there is an emerging class of American elites who have cloistered themselves off from the rest of the country. (A while back, National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty penned a column for The Week looking at of some of these thinkers.) But key to his definition of the elite class was that middle America was alien to them. If he was onto something, we would expect the Americans he identified to send their kids to separate schools, contribute to “causes” rather than locally oriented charities, eat different types of food, and watch different shows on television.

All of which is a long-winded way of contextualizing the news that a staggeringly high number of people watched the first episode of the Roseanne revival last night — and that they mostly came from middle America. What does it say about me that I had no idea this show was coming back? The regional split, described by Deadline, is stark:

Not surprisingly, the top TV markets where Roseanne delivered its highest ratings were in states handily carried by Trump in the election. No. 1 was Tulsa in Oklahoma, which Trump won with 65.3% of the vote. It was followed by Cincinnati, Ohio and Kansas City, Missouri. The only marquee city from a blue state in the Top 10 was Chicago at No. 5 — the area where the series is set. ABC focused some of its marketing efforts in the region with a preview of the revival at the 54th Chicago International Film Festival.

The top market of the country, New York, was not in the Top 20; No. 2, Los Angeles was not in the Top 30. And yet, Roseanne delivered the highest demo rating for any comedy telecast in 3 1/2 years, since the fall 2014 season premiere of TV’s biggest comedy series of the past five years, The Big Bang Theory.

This is the kind of news story that will beget a fresh round of thinkpieces from elite writers role-playing as interpreters of middle-American sentiment. It’s worth asking for whom will those essays be written.

Trump’s attorney floated pardoning Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn

I can’t opine grandiloquently on the Robert Mueller investigation into the Trump campaign. I’m a layman, not a lawyer. To stay informed, I read David French, Orin Kerr, Julian Sanchez, Andrew C. McCarthy, and a few others . . . and I’m not qualified to adjudicate any of the disputes they have (though, privately, I have my theories, as most of us do).

So here’s my not-so-brilliant insight: Doesn’t it feel like there’s a gigantic, un-dropped shoe looming over the entire affair? And doesn’t it seem like we’ll treat anything as groundbreaking news while we wait for it to drop? So many of the recent “revelations” have amounted to this: “A major event almost happened.” Trump wanted to fire Robert Mueller (he hasn’t yet). The Devin Nunes memo was going to upend Mueller’s investigation (it hasn’t yet). Trump was going to hire two combative attorneys to ramp up his attacks against Mueller (he hasn’t yet). The latest, from five top reporters at the New York Times, is that Trump was going to pardon Manafort and Flynn to dissuade them from cooperating:

A lawyer for President Trump broached the idea of Mr. Trump’s pardoning two of his former top advisers, Michael T. Flynn and Paul Manafort, with their lawyers last year, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.

The discussions came as the special counsel was building cases against both men, and they raise questions about whether the lawyer, John Dowd, who resigned last week, was offering pardons to influence their decisions about whether to plead guilty and cooperate in the investigation.

The talks suggest that Mr. Trump’s lawyers were concerned about what Mr. Flynn and Mr. Manafort might reveal were they to cut a deal with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, in exchange for leniency. . . .

During interviews with Mr. Mueller’s investigators in recent months, current and former administration officials have recounted conversations they had with the president about potential pardons for former aides under investigation by the special counsel, according to two people briefed on the interviews.

It’s an interesting report. But we’re all waiting for that shoe to drop, whether it’s Mueller coming after someone closer to Trump’s orbit or Trump taking more-aggressive action against the special counsel. In the meantime, be sure to read about this event that almost happened, this article that says it constitutes obstruction of justice, and this other article that says it doesn’t.

Sessions and Kushner square off on criminal-justice reform

Congress is unlikely to do anything significant this year. It doesn’t seem to have the energy, will, gumption, moxie, drive, or cajones to take any action on health care, immigration, infrastructure, welfare, higher education, or entitlements. And on the rare issues where there seems to be a bipartisan consensus, White House infighting is lowering the chances legislation. The New York Times has an in-depth report on the battle Jeff Sessions is waging against criminal-justice reform:

On Capitol Hill, a wholesale reconsideration of American sentencing laws and prison policies has bipartisan support. Dozens of senators have sponsored a bill to change mandatory-minimum sentences and ease drug laws that have been used to seek lengthy sentences for nonviolent offenders. The bill also includes provisions to expand education, worker training and drug rehabilitation programs in prison.

[Jared] Kushner, administration officials say, supports such sweeping change. [TK: Look, another progressive-yet-ill-fated policy that “administration officials” say Kushner supports.] Mr. Sessions is adamantly opposed. The two men reached a compromise in recent months: Mr. Kushner could push for the prison changes, but Mr. Sessions would position the administration strongly against a broader overhaul.

In a letter to Congress last month, Mr. Sessions excoriated the bill, predicting it “would reduce sentences for a highly dangerous cohort of criminals, including repeat dangerous drug traffickers and those who use firearms.”

National Review has generally supported Sessions’s term as attorney general. But those with libertarian sympathies on criminal-justice issues might find his DOJ frustrating. Sessions supports civil-asset forfeiture, stridently opposes sentencing and drug-policy reform, and is generally a tough-on-crime true believer.

Four things you should read today

It’s Opening Day! On the homepage, Alexandra DeSanctis has a beautiful essay on baseball. (There are only two problems with it: The featured image is of a bottom-tier ballpark, and the first line in the third paragraph contains an odious aside that testifies to the arrogance that all Yankees fans possess.) (This might get me fired.)

At The American Conservative, Nick Phillips writes about the “Secular Benedict Option.” Adopting Rod Dreher’s call for religious conservatives to opt out of modernity, Phillips points out the reasons secular conservatives might want to establish bulwarks against its rising tide, too.

For First Things, Matthew Schmitz has an article on Jordan Peterson. There have been quite a few entries into the genre, lately, but this is one of the best.

Every now and then, it’s important to read a left-wing polemic, so here’s Eugene McCarraher’s “The World Is a Business” in the new Baffler. It’s like jumping into a freezing-cold lake: as wrong as it is bracing.

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