White House

Will Anyone Corroborate the Ukraine Ambassador’s Testimony?

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Acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor arrives to testify at a closed-door deposition as part of the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry led by the House Intelligence, House Foreign Affairs, and House Oversight and Reform Committees in Washington, D.C., October 22, 2019. (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Bill Taylor’s claims have to be taken seriously, as they paint a specific and damning portrait of an administration willing to disregard and even shut out the secretaries of defense and state, the CIA director, and the national-security adviser on a key decision made in secret; what keeps parents up at night; and yet another person you have probably never heard of is thinking of running for president.

The Almost Unbelievable Claims of Bill Taylor, the U.S. Envoy to Ukraine

You’re going to hear a lot of furious reactions to the testimony of Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine*, to the House panel preparing articles of impeachment. Perhaps the most mind-boggling sentence in his prepared statement is this one, describing concern at the highest levels of government about aid not getting to Ukraine in July of this year: “My understanding was that the Secretaries of Defense and State, the CIA Director, and the National Security Advisor sought a joint meeting with the president to convince him to release the hold, but such a meeting was hard to schedule and the hold lasted well into September.”

Read that again. Are we honestly to believe that four of the highest-ranking cabinet officials with duties relating to national security couldn’t get a meeting with the commander-in-chief? What, was the president avoiding them?

This should not be an eternal, impenetrable mystery. Either secretary of defense Mark Esper, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, CIA director Gina Haspell, and former national-security adviser John Bolton will corroborate this account or they won’t. If they contradict it, then Taylor is offering a version of events that exaggerates the level of concern about Trump’s blocking the Ukraine aid. If they confirm it — and the President of the United States simply wouldn’t talk to four of his top officials about a decision about aid to an ally against the Russian military — then we have a state of dysfunction at the highest level of our government that is positively nightmarish and that must be remedied immediately, by whatever constitutional methods are available.

The president can think aiding Ukraine is a bad idea all he wants. He could have tried to legally and constitutionally withhold the aid under the Impoundment Control Act, which gives Congress 45 days to effectively veto a president’s attempt to stop such an expenditure. But Trump didn’t do that. Based upon what we know now, it appears the president and his top staff tried to withhold the aid in secret, in defiance of Congress, and in defiance of the advice of his top national-security officials. Refusing to distribute funds that Congress had authorized and appropriated would be a violation of the separation of powers; the president cannot decide to simply refuse to carry out funding decisions of Congress and not tell anyone.

Beyond that, the administration’s repeated insistence that there was no quid pro quo is contradicted by government officials, including the president, stating that U.S. military assistance would only be sent if the Ukrainian president announced the Bidens were under investigation. That’s what a quid pro quo is.

Taylor writes:

“The following day, on September 8, Ambassador Sondland and I spoke on the phone. He said he had talked to President Trump as I had suggested a week earlier, but that President Trump was adamant that President Zelenskyy, himself, had to “clear things up and do it in public.” President Trump said it was not a “quid pro quo.” Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelenskyy and Mr. Yermak and told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelenskyy did not clear things up public, we would be at a stalemate. I understood a stalemate mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance. Ambassador Sondland said that this conversation concluded with President Zelenskyy agreeing to make a public statement in an interview with CNN.”

The country needs to hear from these officials publicly, and perhaps under oath, really soon. Taylor describes a July 19 phone call that suggests the administration couldn’t even discuss its national-security priorities without partisan politics muddying the waters:

[Fiona Hill, National Security Council Senior Director for Russian and European Affairs and National Security Council European Director Alex Vindman] gave me an account of the July 10 meeting with the Ukrainian officials at the White House. Specifically, they told me that Ambassador Sondland had connected “investigations with an Oval Office meeting for President Zelenskyy, which so irritated Ambassador Bolton that he abruptly ended the meeting, telling Dr. Hill and Mr. Vindman that they should have nothing to do with domestic politics. He also directed Dr. Hill to the lawyers. Dr. Hill said that Bolton referred to this as a “drug deal” after the July 10 meeting. Ambassador Bolton opposed a call between President Zelenskyy and President Trump out of concern that it “would be a disaster.”

Keep in mind, Bill Taylor is still the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. If President Trump wanted to have a different ambassador, he could have nominated one at any point during his presidency. The president famously complained about Marie Yovanovitch in his conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, but he’s had a GOP-controlled Senate since he took office.

The administration’s countermove has been to contend that Taylor is a “radical unelected bureaucrat waging war on the Constitution.” Er, yeah, he must be one of those left-wing radicals who went to West Point, served in the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne in Vietnam, then received a Bronze Star and Air Medal V for heroism. He’s the kind of left-wing radical who would work with NATO during the Reagan administration and that George W. Bush would appoint as ambassador to Ukraine. He’s the kind of left-wing radical who worked for the State Department coordinating assistance to Afghanistan just a few months after the Taliban fell, and oversaw reconstruction in Iraq about a year after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell. Yeah, sure, this guy’s a regular Code Pink Antifa type.

If the administration wants to argue that Taylor ultimately proved to be an internal foe of Trump’s worldview, that’s probably accurate. His entire statement is a giant splash of cold water:

If Ukraine succeeds in breaking free of Russian influence, it is possible for Europe to be whole, free, democratic, and at peace. In contrast, if Russia dominates Ukraine, Russia will again become an empire, oppressing its people, and threatening its neighbors and the rest of the world. With the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and the continued aggression in Donbas, Russia violated countless treaties, ignored all commitments, and dismissed all the principles that have kept the peace and contributed to prosperity in Europe since World War II. To restore Ukraine’s independence, Russia must leave Ukraine. This has been and should continue to be a bipartisan U.S. foreign policy goal.

From his statements and actions, the president of the United States does not agree with that. His willingness to withhold aid — specifically for information about the Bidens, not for any broad-based anti-corruption initiative — indicates that he does not think that keeping Russian military forces out of eastern Ukraine should be a U.S. priority.

The one time that President Trump addressed Crimea recently, he described the invasion and occupation of Crimea as some sort of Obama-administration problem that he has no responsibility to address.

A certain section of Ukraine that you know very well, where it was sort of taken away from President Obama.  Not taken away from President Trump; taken away from President Obama. President Obama was not happy that this happened because it was embarrassing to him.  Right?  It was very embarrassing to him.  And he wanted Russia to be out of the — what was called the “G8.”  And that was his determination.  He was outsmarted by Putin.  He was outsmarted.  President Putin outsmarted President Obama.

The inevitable response from Trump fans is some variation of, “how many lives are you going to sacrifice over Crimea?” — even though many of these same folks pointed to the occupation of Crimea as a sign of Obama’s weakness back in 2014. As with the Obama administration’s defense of the Iran deal, the argument contends that the only two options are the administration’s preferred course of action or all-out war. The United States never lacks tools in its toolbox, it just lacks lawmakers willing to use them: sanctions, intelligence-sharing, espionage, joint training exercises, the bully pulpit, economic assistance, and perhaps most significantly, arms exports and military assistance.

American military assistance to Ukraine had been the single biggest and most glaring piece of counter-evidence against the accusation that President Trump is a Putin stooge. It’s now clear that Trump was never that strong a supporter of this policy.

*Technically, Taylor’s title is “Chargés d’affaires ad interim,” because he was appointed to the position by the secretary of state but not confirmed by the Senate.

The Questions That Keep You Up at Night

What keeps you up at night? Over on the NR homepage, I wrote about wondering if your kids are going to be prepared for the challenges of adulthood, being taught the right things, able to get into a good school, able to get hired, and able to keep a good job. Government policies at the national, state, and local level, and our society’s values and behavior, can make that path easier or more difficult. These days, a lot of folks who seem to be doing okay still feel like they’re being squeezed by an unseen force, trying to nudge them into choices that aren’t their own.

This Guy Makes Julian Castro Look Like a Household Name

Running for president is the hot new trend, apparently, and everybody’s doing it. “Ed Stack, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods and a longtime Republican donor, is testing the waters for a possible third-party presidential bid that could scramble the dynamics of the 2020 general election.”

This guy is so obscure that Joe Sestak, Andrew Messam, and Irving Schmidlap have never heard of him.

To his credit, I loved him on Unsolved Mysteries. Oh, wait, that was Robert Stack.

ADDENDUM: Ever see a man dunk on an entire league? Last night, Shaquille O’Neal on Tuesday came to the defense of Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey and made almost everyone else associated with the NBA look like a bunch of cowards.

Politics & Policy

It’s Easy to Overlook the Faults of Our Leaders When We Catastrophize the Alternative

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President Trump welcomes Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau to the White House in 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Justin Trudeau wins again, and Virginia Democrats appear set to win again, yet people still wonder why Trump voters stand by their man; some Democrats wonder if they have any more options in 2020; and the final trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker arrives, greeting a much more wary fanbase.

Almost Everybody Finds a Way to Excuse the Sins of the Leaders They Prefer

You hear this question from a lot of people, including from colleagues I respect a great deal: “How can Trump voters/Republicans/evangelicals just shrug their shoulders at President Trump and his pressure on Ukraine/abandonment of the Kurds/sordid payoffs to Stormy Daniels/warm and fuzzy talk about Putin and Kim Jong-un/[insert scandal du jour here]?”

Trump voters shrug their shoulders at these scandals probably for the same reasons that so many in the Canadian Liberal party shrugged their shoulders at Justin Trudeau’s multiple embarrassing occasions wearing blackface or his decision to pressure prosecutors who were investigating a politically connected corporation.

They probably do it for the same reasons that so many Joe Biden supporters shrugged their shoulders at all the times powerful institutions paid Hunter Biden enormous sums because he was the son of the vice president.

Probably for the same reasons that so many Virginia Democrats eventually shrugged their shoulders at Governor Ralph Northam and state attorney general Mark Herring wearing blackface, and the sexual assault allegations against Justin Fairfax. Virginia Democrats are expected to have a good Election Day next month, and they’ve doubled their fundraising compared to four years ago.

Probably for the same reasons that so many Hillary Clinton supporters shrugged their shoulders at foreign governments like Qatar making million-dollar donations to the Clinton Foundation, then argued that Donald Trump’s election victory couldn’t possibly be legitimate because of foreign interference, and that he deserved to be impeached because foreign governments were spending lavishly at his hotels.

Probably for the same reasons that so many Democrats believe that Al Franken was unfairly forced to resign.

The reason none of these factions get all that upset about glaring hypocrisy or unethical behavior by their preferred leaders is that as a culture — and perhaps as a species — we’re really good at coming up with reasons as to why the scandals surrounding the leaders we like aren’t that important.

Politics attracts people who dream of doing good on a grand scale. They don’t just want to be good parents, good spouses, good workers, good neighbors, and good friends; they want to save the planet, to make America great again, to preserve the Constitution, to end gun violence, to end poverty, to immanentize the eschaton. Cleaning up the local park in the name of the environment is too modest and humdrum; they want to end carbon emissions. Mentoring a kid who needs it is too time-consuming and labor-intensive; they’re going to remove every AR-15 rifle from all of America’s homes. Political activists, and in particular those who choose to run for office, have big dreams and grandiose ambitions.

And the vast majority of politicians sell an extremely seductive vision: You can make the world a much better place just by voting the right way and convincing other people to vote the right way. Fighting poverty in your own community is tough. It’s much easier to just vote for the right candidate and to believe, despite many decades of contrary evidence, that once in office, that candidate will solve the problem of poverty for the rest of us through the power of government.

Back in 1981, then-Mayor Bernie Sanders contended that supporting the right government policies meant he didn’t need to support charitable causes:

“I don’t believe in charities,” said Mayor Sanders, bringing a shocked silence to a packed hotel banquet room. The mayor, who is a Socialist, went on to question the “fundamental concepts on which charities are based” and contended that government, rather than charity organizations, should take over responsibility for social programs.

Alternatively, politicians like to argue that a victory for their opponent is an apocalyptic catastrophe — the moral equivalent of Flight 93 on 9/11. Most modern political rhetoric is designed to emphasize the all-consuming enormity of our stakes. When debating climate change, we’re told the fate of the planet and all of humanity is at stake. When debating gun control, we’re told that our children’s lives are at stake and that if we don’t agree with the other side, we have blood on our hands.

Quite literally, the leaders of both sides of the political spectrum currently contend the other side is trying to destroy the country. President Trump said recently, “Pelosi, Shifty Schiff, Schumer — these people are trying to destroy the country.” Retired admiral William McRaven — the man who planned the Osama bin Laden raid! — contended President Trump is attacking the country and trying to destroy it, and that “the fate of our Republic” depends upon replacing him quickly. Former CIA director John Brennan repeatedly accused Trump of treason, contending, “he’s bringing this country down.” Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton contended that the previous nominee of the Green Party and that a U.S. congresswoman were agents of the Russian government.

In light of how frequently we’re told that our opponents want to destroy the country, or that Paul Ryan wants to push granny off a cliff, or to put African Americans back in chains, or that armed gangs of Ed Gillespie supporters are hunting minority children, is it really that shocking that some people would shoot up a baseball field of congressmen?

Good heavens! When the political opposition is trying to destroy the country, who can be bothered to care about some payoffs to a porn star, or old party photos in blackface, or arm-twisting a foreign government for dirt on a political opponent or donations. The moral and legal failures of our side’s leader fade to nothingness when compared to the Armageddon-level stakes of the upcoming election, inevitably touted as “the most important election of our lifetimes.”

Because if it ever wasn’t the most important election of our lifetimes, we would have the time and energy and mental real estate to contemplate the moral failings, bad behavior, and perhaps even lawbreaking on the part of the leaders we prefer. And if we did that, we might demand better from our elected officials. And God knows where that could lead!

Democratic Donors: Are You Sure We Don’t Have Other Candidates Waiting to Jump In?

We keep getting told that this is a huge, varied, and strong field of Democratic candidates . . . but apparently some big donors aren’t quite satisfied with their options:

Would Hillary Clinton get in, the contributors wondered, and how about Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor? One person even mused whether Michelle Obama would consider a late entry, according to two people who attended the event, which was hosted by the progressive group American Bridge.

“There’s more anxiety than ever,” said Connie Schultz, a journalist who is married to Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, another Democrat who some in the party would like to see join the race. “We’re both getting the calls. I’ve been surprised by some who’ve called me.”

“I can see it, I can feel it, I can hear it,” Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor, said of the unease within the party. He said he thinks Mr. Biden is best positioned to defeat Mr. Trump but called the former vice president’s fund-raising “a real concern.”

Most of the time late entries never go anywhere; a candidate just doesn’t have the time or resources to throw together a get-out-the-vote organization and file the right paperwork. But Bloomberg would have the money to buy whatever organization he needed, and Michelle Obama probably has so much accumulated goodwill in the Democratic grassroots that she would instantly become a top contender.

Hillary, on the other hand . . . how many Democrats are itching for a 2016 rerun?

ADDENDA: Last night brought the final trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The mood among the fans online is significantly less enthusiastic than before The Last Jedi — cautious optimism and perhaps some trepidation. Fans will be debating the qualities of Episode Eight for the rest of time; what’s now indisputable is that director Rian Johnson had no interest in picking up the story threads J. J. Abrams left to continue from Episode Seven — who’s Snoke? Who are Rey’s parents? Who are the Knights of Ren? — and went off in his own direction, “deconstructing” the mythos with the occasional heavy-handed modern political metaphor. (Forget the First Order, the real villains are war profiteers!)

Let’s also point out that The Last Jedi came along at a time when Hollywood’s sequel and reboot mania seemed to grow obsessed with reinventing beloved heroes as bitter, defeated, old men: Wolverine in Logan, Ben Affleck’s Batman in Batman v. Superman, Deckard in Blade Runner 2047. One might add Dale Cooper into that category. It was one part a concession to aging actors, one part an attempt at gritty realism, and one part an attempt to reset a triumphant hero back to underdog status.

This approach to returning characters meant that no matter how much the hero’s previous story seemed to end in success, subsequent developments meant the victory was ephemeral — things still turned out badly for mutants, replicants, Jedi, Gotham City, and the residents of Twin Peaks. (Here’s hoping the new series Picard doesn’t continue the trend.)

. . . This is what happens when I take a week off from denouncing Jets head coach Adam Gase.

White House

Can Trump Still Fix His Mistakes?

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President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., June 23, 2019. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: President Trump suddenly realizes that hosting the G-7 summit at his Doral resort is a bridge too far for many of his Republican allies; some new data shows that the Chinese economy is slowing down, suggesting that Beijing may be feeling the pain of the tariffs more than they’re letting on; and a new election security bill would put the federal government into the business of deciding what is and what is not “legitimate” journalism.

If President Trump Can Change His Mind on the G-7 . . .

For much of the Trump era, there’s been this recurring qualified defense of the president from his fans: Ignore the tweets, look at the policies. Ignore the nonsensical statements that are beneath the presidency and look at the results. Look past the revolving door cabinet and look at the judicial appointments instead. Don’t stare in bewilderment and exasperation at the president’s furious denunciations of his own appointed officials, and stare at your tax return and low the unemployment rate.

That was a strong argument for a while. But it was stronger before the tariffs of the trade war started hitting American manufacturing harder, before the president decided to remain quiet about the Hong Kong protests while griping about the NBA, before Turkey invaded Syria in an effort to wipe out Kurds who had fought alongside us against ISIS, before captured ISIS fighters started breaking out of prison, before North Korea started testing missiles again . . .

Oh, and the outlook for keeping GOP control of the Senate doesn’t look so hot and the GOP could go 0 for 3 in the governors’ races this year. But other than that, everything’s peachy.

When you demand to be graded entirely on results, you had better generate consistently good results. Step one would be to stop stepping on rakes and concentrate your energies and focus on the battles that matter most, and stop dragging your political allies into battles that they have no interest in fighting. A big fight over hosting the G-7 at Trump’s Doral resort would have been the opposite of that. Thankfully, at some point, President Trump realized his party was getting tired of defending him in fights with no public policy gain:

President Trump was forced to abandon his decision to host next year’s Group of Seven summit at his private golf club after it became clear the move had alienated Republicans and swiftly become part of the impeachment inquiry that threatens his presidency.

In a round of phone calls with conservative allies this weekend, Trump was told Republicans are struggling to defend him on so many fronts, according to an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

If President Trump can recognize his mistake and correct course on this front . . . why can’t he do it on other fronts?

  • Trump should recognize that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t respect him and stop trying to win him over.
  • That goes double for Kim Jong-un in North Korea.
  • As the Washington Examiner noted, the president should stop boasting about Chinese trade deals until the Chinese government commits in writing. Beijing has pulled the rug out from under him several times, and he never seems to learn.
  • Trump wants the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement passed — and so does the Mexican government! It’s a rare case of the administration working in cooperation with a foreign government, where Nancy Pelosi is being the obstacle to a broadly supported bipartisan deal. Prime Minister Blackface, er, Justin Trudeau reached out to Pelosi to assure her that Canada would hold up its end of the bargain. This is a big legislative accomplishment and campaign promise fulfilled — if he can just get the House to pass the legislation.

Also, the president should probably tell Rudy Giuliani to get off the television.

Is China’s Economy Hurting More Than Beijing Is Letting on?

As noted above, we’re getting the worse end of the tariff war, but that doesn’t mean China is escaping unscathed. Back on September 10, I pointed to a Wall Street Journal report and other evidence that the Chinese economy might be feeling more pain from the trade war than they’re letting on.

Friday, the Chinese government announced its economy “grew by 6 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier. It’s believed to be China’s slowest GDP gain in at least 27 and a half years.” (It’s worth noting that some economists who study China believe the government adjusts the numbers to paint a prettier picture than reality.) And this morning the International Monetary Fund projected even slower growth — declaring “the Chinese economy could grow at 5.8 percent next year — slower than the 6.1 percent forecast for 2019.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese government seems to be getting angrier with the National Basketball Association, not calming down.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver will face “retribution sooner or later” for saying that Beijing wanted him to fire the general manager of the Houston Rockets, state broadcaster CCTV said in a commentary published late Friday.

The government-controlled broadcaster said Silver “crossed the bottom line” by continuing to defend Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. “To cater to the taste of certain American politicians,” CCTV claims, Silver “fabricated lies out of thin air” and portrayed China as unforgiving.

“I saw that in the news, and I specifically checked that with the competent authority. The answer is, the Chinese government has never raised such demands,” Geng Shuang, spokesman for the Chinese Ministry, said Friday according to a transcript posted on the ministry website.

“Silver is making every effort to portray himself as a defender of free speech and is using so-called ‘freedom of speech’ to cover for Morey, who voiced support for violent elements in Hong Kong,” CCTV said, in a translation by CNBC.

Sure, because the same Chinese government that puts a couple million people in concentration camps would never go so far as to demand somebody be fired and then lie about it.

Both Silver and the rest of the NBA — and the rest of the American business community — have to be asking themselves, is access to the Chinese market worth the risk of suddenly becoming an enemy of a rather ruthless foreign power over a tweet?

An Election Security Bill That Also Determines ‘Legitimate’ Journalism

This week, the House is expected to pass another election security bill, this one called the “Stopping Harmful Interference in Elections for a Lasting Democracy, or SHIELD, Act.”

The bill would require political campaigns to report any attempt by a foreign government or individual to influence an election to the Federal Election Commission and the FBI. It also would apply all of the current FCC rules on political advertising to the Internet and social media, — meaning disclaimers about who paid for the ad — but makes an exemption or “a communication appearing in a news story, commentary, or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station or any online or digital newspaper, magazine, blog, publication, or periodical.” All online platforms would have to keep records of requests to advertise on their sites and make those records available to the public if the expenditures are $500 or more.

Those records would need to include a digital copy of the ad, “a description of the audience targeted by the advertisement, the number of views generated from the advertisement, and the date and time that the advertisement is first displayed and last displayed,” the ad rates, the candidate the ad or issue refers to, and the name and address of the person purchasing the advertisement.

But the real wrinkle comes in the section that declares, “Nothing in this subtitle or the amendments made by this subtitle shall be construed to impede legitimate journalistic activities.” At some point, the federal agencies enforcing this law would have to determine what is “legitimate” journalism and what is not “legitimate” journalism. And Republican House members are understandably concerned that having the government decide which journalistic institutions are “legitimate” will set up First Amendment challenges down the road.

Separately, the bill would set penalties of up to five years in prison and fines up to $100,000 for “knowingly disseminating false written, electronic, telephonic, or other statements regarding Federal elections within 60 days of an election.” No word on whether it would apply to the old joke, “because of expectations of high turnout, Republicans will vote on Tuesday, Democrats will vote on Wednesday.”

The SHIELD Act on elections should not be mistaken for the Strengthening Homeland Security, Intelligence, and Essential Law Enforcement Departments Act of 2019 or the Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution Act of 2019.

Regarding the bill’s title, I’m reminded of the first episode of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.

Maria Hill: What does S.H.I.E.L.D. stand for, Agent Ward?

Grant Ward: Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.

Hill: And what does that mean to you?

Ward: It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out “shield.”

ADDENDUM: You’ve probably heard Bill and Hillary Clinton’s 1992 interview with 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft, the one where Hillary declared, “I’m not sitting here, some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I’m here because I love him.” What you probably didn’t know was that during the interview, a light fell off the wall and nearly hit the Clintons!

Maybe the light just couldn’t take it anymore. Or maybe the lamp simply refused to be part of an activity whose objective was the opposite of illumination.

Culture

Mark Zuckerberg Takes a Surprising Stand for Freedom

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Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg answers questions about the improper use of millions of users’ data by a political consultancy, at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, in this still image taken from Reuters TV May 22, 2018. (ReutersTV)

It’s been a rough week, with Washington awash in conflict, anger, lies, betrayals, finger-pointing, implausible denials, and blithe denial of glaring problems. It’s like the whole town has taken on the spirit of the Redskins.

Let’s close out this week with four bits of good news: In an era where a lot of prominent voices are eager to label ideas they disagree with “hateful,” itching to play censor, and chomping at the bit to “de-platform” those who challenge them, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg refused to play ball. The prospect of impeachment means that all of those Democratic senators running for president will have to put their campaigning on hold. For everyone who was waiting for America’s business leaders to stand up to socialists in politics, Seattle’s about to offer a key test case. And finally, a former head of Planned Parenthood is publicly discussing the moral complications of abortion.

Mark Zuckerberg Refuses to Bend the Knee

You may hate Mark Zuckerberg or you may love him — probably more in the former than the latter — but you have to give him credit: At this moment, a whole lot of powerful political, social, and economic entities would like to see him bend the knee and pledge that Facebook will remove statements from politicians that are deemed “misinformation.” Clearly, these powerful forces are most outraged — arguably exclusively outraged — by social media posts from President Trump and his supporters. You never hear that Facebook should take down posts saying Elizabeth Warren’s health care plan will not require tax increases on the middle class, or that Michael Brown was “murdered in Ferguson.” Nobody ever got all that mad about Warren skewing research data from the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. No, it’s always Uncle Floyd sharing that WARREN IS AN AGENT OF COMMUNIST CHINA screed from PatriotFreedomEagle.net that is deemed the preeminent threat to democracy.

Zuckerberg’s speech is long, nuanced, and willing to dive into the details of what choices his company has to make and what influenced his decisions. A couple of highlights:

Some people believe giving more people a voice is driving division rather than bringing us together. More people across the spectrum believe that achieving the political outcomes they think matter is more important than every person having a voice. I think that’s dangerous.

I believe we have two responsibilities: to remove content when it could cause real danger as effectively as we can, and to fight to uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible — and not allow the definition of what is considered dangerous to expand beyond what is absolutely necessary. That’s what I’m committed to . . .

Political advertising is more transparent on Facebook than anywhere else — we keep all political and issue ads in an archive so everyone can scrutinize them, and no TV or print does that. We don’t fact-check political ads. We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with many of our standards. I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.

Zuckerberg and Facebook have taken a lot of criticism, much of it deserved. But he’s right to draw distinctions. Organized Russian-government-driven disinformation efforts are not the same as some yokel spouting off, and shouldn’t be treated the same.

This section of Zuckerberg’s speech might be particularly relevant to the National Basketball Association:

It’s one of the reasons we don’t operate Facebook, Instagram or our other services in China. I wanted our services in China because I believe in connecting the whole world and I thought we might help create a more open society. I worked hard to make this happen. But we could never come to agreement on what it would take for us to operate there, and they never let us in. And now we have more freedom to speak out and stand up for the values we believe in and fight for free expression around the world.

Notice that Zuckerberg’s angriest critics just hand-wave away the concerns about freedom of expression in their denunciations.

“Zuckerberg attempted to use the Constitution as a shield for his company’s bottom line, and his choice to cloak Facebook’s policy in a feigned concern for free expression demonstrates how unprepared his company is for this unique moment in our history and how little it has learned over the past few years,” said Bill Russo, a spokesman for the presidential campaign of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Right, right. Facebook is taking this position because of that $20 million in ad spending from the Trump campaign, otherwise the company would have to struggle to get by on a mere $55 billion in annual revenue. (Can we just observe that after the Hunter Biden foreign investor stuff, it’s a bad idea for Joe Biden’s campaign to denounce a company that said it refused to work with China because of censorship complaints?)

For Six Senators, the Impeachment Trial Could Come at the Worst Time

No human being can be in two places at once, and BuzzFeed notices that if you’re a Democratic senator, you can’t be sitting in judgment of an impeachment of a president and campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire at the same time. If your name is Cory Booker, Michael Bennet, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren, that’s a problem. No one knows exactly when a Senate impeachment trial would start — talk of November sounds really early, so December or January seems more likely — and how long it would last. But for those six, it’s likely to come at just about the worst possible time:

It’s not as if senators can rely on showy moments during the trial like dressing down a witness during a committee hearing. Because senators are the jurors of an impeachment trial, they must live through every politician’s nightmare of sitting and watching the proceedings without speaking . . .

Sanders and Warren would have to fly out to places like New Hampshire and Iowa for evening events and then back to Washington in time for the next day’s hearings.

You can almost see Joe Biden’s Cheshire cat grin right now. The former vice president is currently in a close second to Warren in Iowa and New Hampshire. Retail politics, shaking hands in diners, showing up for every little event can only move the needle so much, but it can make a difference. (Best example I ever saw was Mark Sanford against Elizabeth Colbert Busch in 2013. He just outhustled her, doing five or so events a day open to everyone, while she was doing one tightly-scripted one with no questions from reporters.) If you’re Biden, while the Senate is tied up in impeachment, you do events all day every day, and perhaps even more importantly, you focus on the future. Impeachment is going to be an angry, ugly slog focused upon the past and for a candidate who wants to win on Election Day 2020, it’s a sideshow.

Amazon Decides It’s Had Enough Socialism in Seattle Politics, Aims to Deliver New City Council

Two interconnected facts of our modern American life: corporate America is bigger, wealthier, and more influential than ever before, and socialism is more accepted, embraced and touted in American life than at any point since the end of the Cold War or even earlier. On paper, America’s biggest corporations and business leaders have the most to lose from socialism. Yet we rarely see a consistent pushback; all too often, America’s big companies push a sort of soft corporatism — which is on paper, the opposite of socialism, although maybe in practice it just means big business and big government teaming up against the little guy — and tout it as progressive or “woke capitalism.” A lot of America’s biggest businessmen think of themselves as forces for progressive change; think of Howard Schultz.

For those of us who believe in free peoples and free markets, this is the worst of both worlds. It was infuriating to watch big health insurance companies, endlessly demonized by Democrats, eagerly jump into bed with them to create the rules for Obamacare. Wall Street and big banks were the perpetual villains in Democratic stories, but they and their employees kept writing big checks to the party. Big corporations love regulations that give them a competitive advantage over newer, smaller companies.

But there’s one under-the-radar sign that one of America’s biggest companies has had enough trying to placate self-proclaimed socialist lawmakers.

On Tuesday, Amazon gave an additional million dollars to support business-friendly members of the City Council like [City Council candidate Egan] Orion. The tech giant has now poured an unprecedented $1.45 million into the local elections, and ballots are being sent to voters this week. (Washington votes by mail.)

[Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant] has long been an outspoken critic of large corporations, and it’s not surprising that she’s ended up in Amazon’s sights. During a contentious City Council meeting last summer, she called Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos the “enemy.”

. . . Amazon has donated huge sums to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce PAC. The Amazon-backed PAC is backing challengers against all but one of the three incumbents running for reelection, which has left many predicting that the City Council is going to look a lot different next year. The Washington Technology Industry Association, the state’s largest tech trade group, which this year endorsed political candidates for the first time, also backed Orion. Top executives at Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft have donated to Orion’s campaign, including Jay Carney, the PR and policy chief for Amazon and former White House press secretary to President Barack Obama; and Sam Whiting, director of Boeing Global Engagement. “It’s clear now to the majority of people that big corporations like Amazon are absolutely going to war against ordinary people in this city, in this election, and are attempting to buy this election,” said Sawant.

When asked if Orion felt comfortable with executives’ donating money to his campaign, he responded with his own question: “Are you referring to my neighbors? There’s a large number of Amazon executives that live in district 3.”

Here’s the perfect irony: for all extents and purposes, this is Seattle, which means there are no Republicans or conservatives in this story. This is a story of people in the private sector who think of themselves as good progressives getting sick and tired of being painted as the bad guy by other people who think of themselves as good progressives.

Socialists, and perhaps even more importantly, the demographic we could characterize as socialism-curious, tell themselves a happy little fairy tale that America can thrive without a private sector that competes in a marketplace to provide the best goods and services. This fairy tale contends that capitalism is just a name for an egregiously unjust system of endless little demonstrations of greed and selfishness, and that we’ve all just been waiting for an enlightened generation to come along and demonstrate that we can all be happier if the government takes over. Never mind that government at all levels regularly demonstrates waste, mismanagement, scandals, unaccountability, over-promising, under-delivering, etcetera. The problem is not the system of government; the problem is that the system is full of human beings and human beings are flawed.

In the socialists’ mind, every success of government is a demonstration of the government’s inherent superiority, and every failure of the government is just an example of a hidden sinister “corporate influence.” Do Amazon executives want to live in a city that’s struggling to deal with runaway real estate prices and rampant homelessness? Socialists frequently insist this is the case because they need a villain in their narrative. But Amazon executives and employees want to live in a thriving city too. They just have different ideas about how to achieve the goal.

Is Amazon above criticism? Hell no. But they comply with existing tax law, pay roughly $250 million in state and local taxes in Washington annually, and pay the single biggest property tax bill in the city. They have a right to argue that they do a lot for the city of Seattle and are tired of being the perpetual scapegoat for the city’s problems.

Another important point: “Labor groups have funneled $2,432,230 toward Seattle elections.”

ADDENDUM: Holy smokes, no wonder Leana Wen didn’t fit in with Planned Parenthood. Speaking at the “TIME 100 Health Summit,” the recently deposed Wen declared, “A lot of us believe that abortion is a complex moral issue. And we may not want to have an abortion ourselves but would never get in the way of somebody else making this deeply personal medical decision for themselves. Or maybe we’re even uncomfortable about abortion but would not want women to die because they don’t have access to safe, legal abortion either.”

Pro-lifers obviously won’t agree with that in full but give Wen credit for recognizing moral complexities and moral discomfort, at a time when the Democratic party and her previous employer are increasingly adamant that the issue isn’t complicated, and that any limitation under any circumstances represents a draconian patriarchal injustice. Wen sounds like the kind of pro-choice advocate that a pro-lifer could have a good conversation with, and in this era, that’s a small miracle.

National Security & Defense

Representative Elijah Cummings Dies Unexpectedly

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Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Elijah Cummings (D., Md.) in Washington, D.C., February 27, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: An already full news environment is greeted by two more shocks, one tragic, one hopeful. Representative Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, died this morning at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore from “longstanding health problems.” Meanwhile, over in the United Kingdom, the British government and the European Union think they’ve worked out a Brexit deal. Elsewhere, Trump declares the PKK to be worse terrorists than ISIS, and the Democrats contend the impeachment process can be secret and fast.

RIP, Elijah Cummings

How many Americans even knew that Elijah Cummings was sick? According to the Baltimore Sun, “Cummings had not participated in a roll call vote since Sept. 11. His office said recently that he had undergone a medical procedure, but the seriousness of his condition had not been known. This morning’s statement says Cummings died from ‘complications concerning longstanding health challenges.’” He had heart surgery in 2017, a transarterial aortic valve replacement. He was only 68 years old. Requiescat in pace.

The vice chair of the House Oversight Committee is Katie Hill, a freshman Democrat from northern Los Angeles.

Under Maryland law, sometime in the next ten days, Governor Larry Hogan will set the dates for a special primary election and a special general election shall be held to fill the vacancy, a Tuesday no sooner than 36 days from now. Cummings’ district — which you may recall President Trump tweeting about earlier this year — scores a D+24 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index.

The House of Representatives currently has three vacancies. Cummings just passed away, Sean Duffy of Wisconsin resigned September 23 after learning that his wife was about to give birth to a daughter with a serious heart condition, and Chris Collins of New York resigned shortly before pleading guilty to insider trading and lying to the FBI.

We Might Just Have a Brexit After All!

Wasn’t it last month or so that everyone was writing the oh-so-early political obituary of Prime Minister Boris Johnson? This morning he announced a new deal with the EU had been reached. “We will leave the EU’s Customs Union as one United Kingdom and be able to strike trade deals all around the world.”

The big sticking point had been Northern Ireland, and the gist is that Northern Ireland will remain aligned to a limited set of EU rules, remain in the United Kingdom’s customs territory but will be an entry point for British goods into the EU market, the sales tax will remain in place, and Northern Ireland will be able to decide whether to continue applying union rules every four years.

That doesn’t sound so hard. But the deal still needs to get passed through the British Parliament, and to the surprise of no one, Jeremy Corbyn immediately denounced the deal and announced the Labour Party’s opposition. The expectation is that the parliament vote will be extremely close.

‘More of a Terrorist Threat Than ISIS’ Is a Really, Really High Bar to Clear, Mr. President

One of the frustrating aspects of our era is how frequently the wrongdoing of one figure is used as a defensive shield to excuse the wrongdoing of another figure. I don’t like Jared Kushner being handed extremely important foreign policy duties just because he’s the president’s son-in-law. But that doesn’t erase the problems relating to Hunter Biden. I see the overly wasteful spending on fancy office furniture by Trump’s cabinet and the return of trillion-dollar-per-year deficits. That doesn’t make it okay for the Democrats to propose a Medicaid for All plan that would cost another $34 trillion over ten years — a 60 percent increase in all federal spending, all by itself.

I fume over grifter PACs on the right that promise a lot, mislead donors, and pocket the money. The corrupt figures on the Right don’t make the incestuous progressive aristocracy in government, media, academia, publishing, Hollywood, or other elite institutions any less insufferable.

Problems with Option A do not mean that Option B is correct, and vice versa.

Yesterday, the president did this sort of thing again, declaring, “the P.K.K., which is a part of the Kurds, as you know, is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways than ISIS.” From the perspective of U.S. interests, this is bonkers. But this doesn’t mean the PKK isn’t that bad. They’re pretty darn bad. “Not quite as dangerous and threatening as ISIS” is a really low bar to clear.

I knew Trump was a nationalist, I just didn’t realize he was a Turkish nationalist.

Sometimes you get stuck with the Iraq-Iraq War, Aliens vs. Predator, or a championship between your two least favorite teams. But we should reject these Kobayashi Marus whenever possible. In politics and in policy, our goal should be to get as close to the right answer as possible, not to settle for being marginally less wrong than the alternative.

This is where we are on Thursday morning: Trump is sounding unhinged, the Democratic effort to impeach him is progressing in an unfair manner, and a conservative who finds Trump infuriating on a daily basis can still find the Democratic alternatives even less appealing. A sane ideologue working for policies that I think will hurt the country is not an improvement.

‘Don’t Be a Tough Guy! Don’t Be a Fool! I Will Call You Later.’

You could gaze in wonder and horror at Trump’s letter to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan full of schoolyard taunts, declaring, “History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” and “Let’s work out a good deal! You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will.”

But perhaps the more relevant note is that the letter was sent on October 9. The Turkish military launched its ground offensive on October 10 and has continued each day since.

Erdogan does not fear Trump and he does not respect Trump. But perhaps more significantly, Erdogan does not fear or respect the United States of America. He does not think that America is willing or capable of doing something to him and his country that will make him regret trying to smash the Kurds over the border in Syria.

A lot of presidents would be hopping mad about that. A lot of presidents would be convening their national security councils and meeting with Congress to figure out how to apply the maximum pressure on Erdogan — to send a blisteringly clear message that a warning from the United States is not to be ignored.

There’s an interesting aspect of Trump’s legendary temper — when he’s stymied against a particular foe, he tends to suddenly drop the issue and he moves on to new targets. Last night, President Trump was retweeting Lou Dobbs, asking where the server from the DNC is and complaining that Anthony Weiner’s laptop is “still in the possession of the FBI and has not undergone further analysis.”

House Democrats: Trust Us, Our Secret Fast Impeachment Will Be Totally Legit

The New York Times has now heard from every House Democrat, and all of them say they support an impeachment inquiry into President Trump. They, along with one independent, add up to 228 votes.

So why haven’t they voted on it? The Trump administration says they’re not cooperating with any request for documents or testimony because the inquiry is not legitimate unless the House votes on it. That’s . . . not necessarily legally true, but you would think that everyone who supports impeachment would also support formally voting to open an inquiry. House speaker Nancy Pelosi keeps emphasizing how important it is: “This is not a game for us. This is deadly serious, and we’re on a path that is getting us to a path to truth and timetable that respects our Constitution.”

So why not vote on it?

The easiest theory is that some of those 228 House Democrats who told the New York Times they support an impeachment inquiry don’t really support it. They like it in theory, but they fear the consequences of formally voting to start it. They prefer this limbo-like status where the House begins the impeachment process but never actually votes on starting it.

But even by the standards of spineless and cowardly members of Congress, that’s a particularly shortsighted approach to a problem that isn’t going away. You’re gonna have to vote on the articles of impeachment sooner or later anyway! What, do some swing-district members think the day is going to come when a vote to start an inquiry or to impeach isn’t going to be controversial?

And because the process is informal, Republican lawmakers are being blocked from closed-door depositions with key witnesses.

Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff says private sessions are needed “to prevent witnesses from hearing each other, the same protocol used by prosecutors in criminal investigations.”

Okay, but as we keep getting reminded, impeachment is not a legal process or criminal investigation, it is a political act. If the elected officials in the Senate do not believe that a serious crime merits removal from office — say, perjury or suborning perjury! — the president does not get removed.

The depositions will presumably be made public in the future, and Democrats say that eventually they will hold public hearings, but this looks ridiculous. We don’t even have a clear timetable on when members who aren’t on the committees will get access to the depositions. Representative David Cicilline (D., R.I.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told Politico, “our expectation should be to have our work done by year’s end.”

But once everything gets public, according to what Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is hearing, this impeachment process could move so fast it might as well have a drive-through lane: “Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell told Senate Republicans on Wednesday that he expects Speaker Nancy Pelosi to approve articles of impeachment as early as Thanksgiving, according to five people familiar with Wednesday’s party lunch. McConnell then surmised that the Senate could deal with the trial by Christmas, concluding the impeachment proceedings before the Democratic presidential primaries begin.”

To summarize, House Democrats are telling us that impeachment process is deadly serious, the House doesn’t need to vote on starting it, the first steps must be held in secret and they can’t say when everyone will be able to see the evidence and testimony they’re collecting behind closed doors . . . and yet the whole process will be done quickly.

ADDENDUM: Last year I wrote that I sometimes wonder if a significant number of political activists are “actually grappling with personal psychological issues and projecting it onto the world of politics.”

This week we learned Peter Navarro, a White House adviser on trade issues, has apparently been quoting an imaginary friend, “Ron Vara” — an anagram of Navarro — in his books for many years.

You know, guys, if you really want to write fiction, you can just write fiction.

Elections

Last Night’s Debate Was Full of Genuine Surprises

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From left: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Beto O’Rourke at the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, U.S., October 15, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Last night brought some genuine surprises. The first was which candidates brought their A-games when they needed them most; the second was an early endorsement by one of the Democrats’ biggest names; the third was that two candidates are running out of money. Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke continues to say the quiet part out loud; and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announces his intent to snub Vice President Mike Pence.

You Can’t Script October — in Either Baseball or Politics

Genuine surprise of last night, number one: Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, two candidates who were starting to slide into irrelevance, had their best nights yet. That may not be enough to get them into the first tier, but at a time when the Democratic primary is getting ready to weed out the riff-raff, both candidates made an unexpectedly strong case that they’ve got something useful to say.

(I write my debate assessments as the debates come to a close and try not to look at other people’s wrap-ups and declarations of the winners and losers before sending them off to be reviewed by the editors for typos. If I echo the conventional wisdom, fine; if I don’t, who cares, and perhaps being one of the first assessments posted online ends up shaping that post-debate conventional wisdom. But whatever happens, I don’t follow the crowd.)

Notice that Buttigieg is at 12 percent in Iowa in the RealClearPolitics average, and 8.7 percent in New Hampshire. That may not sound like much, but nobody else outside of the big three is anywhere near double digits anywhere. The South Bend mayor’s rise is Exhibit A of counterevidence when other candidates whine that the process is rigged in favor of well-known candidates who have been in politics forever.

Klobuchar had, until last night, been a strong contender for the biggest “why is she running?” status. She wasn’t the biggest centrist or the most progressive, she’s from a state that might, theoretically, be competitive this cycle but isn’t most cycles and up until last night, “Minnesota Nice” appeared to be a synonym for boring. What does Klobuchar do well? It turns out she can politely but firmly poke holes in Warren’s arguments, making the Massachusetts senator’s high-dudgeon “you’re attacking me because I’m the only one standing up for the people” schtick sound overwrought and ridiculous.

“At least Bernie’s being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up. And I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.”

“I appreciate Elizabeth’s work. But, again, the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.”

“I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth, because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires.”

What we saw last night — particularly in the one-on-one concern-off held by Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke on gun violence — is that progressive Democrats get really used to being able to play the “I care about people, and you don’t” card against their opponents, and they’re really shocked and indignant when their own style of criticism is turned against them. You get the feeling that Buttigieg really sees O’Rourke as a political dilettante, play-acting at leadership having never had that much executive responsibility in office.

O’ROURKE: Listening to my fellow Americans, to those moms who demand action, to those students who march for our lives, who, in fact, came up with this extraordinary bold peace plan that calls for mandatory buybacks, let’s follow their inspiration and lead and not be limited by the polls and the consultants and the focus groups. Let’s do what’s right.

BUTTIGIEG: The problem isn’t the polls. The problems is the policy. And I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal. Everyone on this stage is determined to get something done.

Genuine surprise of last night, number two: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar are endorsing Bernie Sanders — Omar already has, AOC will do so in a big Sanders rally in the Bronx Saturday.

It’s not surprising that Ocasio-Cortez was inclined to prefer the field’s most outspoken socialist, but this is a little early, and a shot in the arm just when Sanders campaign needs it. Think about it, Sanders had a heart attack two weeks ago; for a lot of campaigns, that would wrap it up. The Vermont senator was as loud and lively and fired up as ever last night; no doubt he beat back that heart attack by yelling and berating it into submission. Sanders has the most cash on hand, and as I predicted before the heart attack, “Sanders will probably have enough financial resources to stay in the presidential race as long has he likes, all the way to the Democratic convention in Milwaukee if he wants.” In most polls, both national and state, he’s in a third place that is respectable but distant.

This is also really good news for Joe Biden, because the former vice president wants and perhaps needs at least two big progressive alternatives in the race competing for the same voters, and hopefully knocking each other around. The Sanders health scare looked like it was setting up an early Biden-Warren showdown.

Biden did not have a great night — he really hasn’t had any great debate nights this cycle — and those advantages of having the biggest name and most Democrats’ “default choice” are starting to fade. His fundraising is “meh” — $9 million cash on hand? For a former veep? — and the lingering odor from the Hunter Biden deals obviously doesn’t help him. (A more deft candidate would have used Trump’s attacks to make most Americans forget that the primary was still going on.) Biden needs the current status quo — still the national frontrunner, a close second in Iowa, a close second in New Hampshire, the leader in Nevada, the leader in South Carolina by a wide margin, and most progressives split between Warren and Sanders — to stay in place.

Genuine surprise of last night, number three: Are the two Texans in the Democratic presidential race about to depart because they’re running out of money? The latest fundraising reports, revealing the campaigns’ cash on hand as of September 30, suggest that another culling is coming soon. It’s mid-October. Longshot campaigns that looked like cute larks or boutique candidates in the spring have had their moment in the sun and are running on fumes. Julian Castro has less than $1 million in the bank. Beto O’Rourke’s down to $3.3 million. The candidates who didn’t qualify for the debate all have less than $2 million. You can’t run campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina with that kind of money.

Genuine surprise of last night, number four: The Washington Nationals swept the St. Louis Cardinals. I only casually follow baseball, but what’s noteworthy about this year’s Nationals is that they’ve finally made it to the championship after a lot of talent-laden Nationals teams in past years flopped in the playoffs. And it’s ironic that they make to the World Series after mega-slugger Bryce Harper departed the team in free agency. And it’s even more ironic that they’ve made it so far after looking miserable in spring; on May 23, the team had 19 wins and 31 losses.

Beto: Okay, Maybe the Cops Will Have to Confiscate Your AR-15

This morning, Beto O’Rourke told Joe Scarborough that if people refused to comply with his mandatory buyback of AR-15s, “in that case, I think there would be a visit by law enforcement to recover that firearm.” There are roughly 16 million AR-15s or similar models in private hands in the United States today.

Is it too late to get the Democrats to nominate this guy?

That’s It. No More Mr. Nice NATO Ally.

I mean it when I say it’s time to begin the process of expelling Turkey from NATO. Our so-called ally is apparently no longer willing to talk: “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will refuse to meet with Vice President Mike Pence, who is due to travel to Turkey to argue for a ceasefire in the ongoing Syria conflict.”

Last night, in another one of those moments where you wonder how much Joe Biden understands what’s going on in the world, the vice president declared, “Erdogan understands that — you talk about should he stay in or out of NATO — he understands if he’s out of NATO, he’s in real trouble.”

Does he? Does he look, sound, or act like a man who prioritizes staying on good terms with his NATO allies?

I’ve been writing about Erdogan for a long, long, long, long time. He’s steadily accumulated more and more power to reach authoritarian status. Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world. And now he’s invading a neighboring country, blowing up the forces of a U.S. ally, and in the process releasing Islamic State fighters from prison.

Just what does this guy have to do to get us to believe he’s no longer an ally to NATO or U.S. interests?

ADDENDUM: A Morning Jolt reader, perusing coverage of the NBA and China, reminds me of an old Charles Barkley quote: “I can be bought. If they paid me enough, I’d work for the Klan.”

At the time, we were all pretty sure he was joking.

White House

LeBron Turns His Back on Hong Kong

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Miami Heat’s LeBron James pauses during a break in play against the Dallas Mavericks during Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Dallas, June 9, 2011. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters )

Making the click-through worthwhile: LeBron James chooses to stand with China; the U.S. examines its options for leverage with Turkey; and Hunter Biden admits something obvious about his past employers.

LeBron James and Donald Trump Finally Agree on Something: Abandoning Hong Kong

 “Yes, we do have freedom of speech, it can be a lot of negative that comes with it.” — LeBron James.

LeBron James announced that, like everyone else in the NBA, he finds the imprisonment of one to two million Uighurs in concentration camps and increasingly violent crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong simply too complicated and nuanced to comment upon.

“I think when we talk about the political side, I think it’s a very delicate situation. A very sensitive situation. And I think for me personally, for any of you guys who know me or always cover me, you know that when I speak about something, I speak about something I’m very knowledgeable about. Something that hits home for me. Something I’m very passionate about, and I felt like with this particular situation it was something that not only was I not informed enough about, I just felt like it was something that not only myself of my teammates or the organization had enough information to talk about it at that point in time. And we still feel the same way.”

But the situation isn’t so complicated that James doesn’t feel comfortable criticizing the one guy who dared tweet, “Stand with Hong Kong.”

“I think that’s another situation that should stay behind closed doors. I think when we all sit back and learn from the situation that happened, understand that what you could tweet or could say . . . We all talk about this freedom of speech. Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself. I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say, and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”

Lest you think this was an isolated slip of the tongue:

“That’s just my belief. I don’t know. That’s my belief. That’s all I can say. I believe he was either misinformed or not really educated on the situation. And if he was, then so be it, but I have no idea. That’s just my belief that when you say things or do things, and you know the people that can be affected by it, and the families an the individuals and everyone that can be affected by it, sometimes things can be changed. And also sometimes social media is not always the proper way to go about things as well. But that’s just my belief.”

See, if Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey just had a little more “education,” he would see the other side of the story about concentration camps and brutal police crackdowns. It’s complicated. On one side, you have the people who don’t want to be put in the concentration camps, and on the other side, you have the people running the concentration camps. On one side, you’ve got the cops in Hong Kong, and on the other side, you’ve got the people being beaten and shot. Who among us can say who’s right, you know?

James also tweeted, “My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it . . . Let me clear up the confusion. I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that.”

I don’t know about you, but my heart just breaks about all the difficulty that some of the world’s most highly paid and well-treated athletes on the Golden State Warriors and throughout the NBA have been through this week. I’m sure that James and his teammates have been through almost as rough a week as the Uighurs or Hong Kong protesters.

And no, our president is no better and is in fact even more shameful, considering the traditional role of the President of the United States in standing up for American values. No one’s asking the president to nuke Beijing or deploy troops to Hong Kong. Just stand up for what’s right and denounce the abuse of innocent people, instead of insisting that a new trade deal will resolve the situation.

In case you missed it, our president shrugged and declared, “I think great progress has been made by China in Hong Kong. I’ve been watching, and I actually told the vice premier, it really has toned down a lot from the initial days of a couple of months ago, when I saw a lot of people and I see far fewer now.” [Note: Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in central Hong Kong Monday night.] “We were discussing it, and I think that’s going to take care of itself. I think this [U.S.-China trade] deal is a great deal for the people of Hong Kong to see what happened. I think this is a very positive thing for Hong Kong. But it really has — the escalation, it really has de-escalated a lot, and we were discussing it.”

Lest you think that the situation is calming down, Chinese president Xi Jinping said Sunday in Nepal that any attempt “to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.”

As Melissa Chan observes, “Between LeBron and Kerr you’ve got some pretty well-known social justice sports guys whose social justice begins in America but ends at Communist China’s doorstep. Or put another way — willing to give Americans a hard time but not any Chinese.”

Precisely. Both LeBron and Kerr specifically are outspoken about disrespecting the rights of minorities, about police abuses, and about a government abusing its power and authority here in the United States. But when faced with the same issues, in a conflict where one side is effectively paying the NBA enough, these guys suddenly go silent.

On paper, any entity in America that was wealthy enough could purchase the silence of NBA superstars. NBA revenue from China is estimated at $500 million annually, although it could be higher. If the National Organization of Police Organizations thinks NBA players have unfairly demonized cops in their discussions of police brutality, then start passing the hat. The United States has roughly 700,000 police officers; throw in non-uniformed personnel and federal agents and you get up to about 865,000. Surely, some civilians would generously contribute to the “Let’s Purchase the NBA’s Silence” fund.

If everyone in law enforcement kicked in $579 or so — less than $50 per month — they could outbid China and sign a deal with the NBA that pressured the players into not speaking about topics that could offend U.S. police organizations. Every time there was a controversial police shooting, LeBron would have to go out in front of the cameras and declare that the situation was “complicated,” and how he felt like he just didn’t know enough about the circumstances to comment, and that any of his colleagues who did comment were misinformed or not educated.

That’s how it works now, right?  Like the old joke goes, we’ve established what they are; now we’re just haggling over the price.

What Do We Do Next Regarding Turkey and the Kurds?

It would be good if tonight’s Democratic presidential debate asked the candidates about what to do next regarding Turkey, the Kurds, Syria, and the couple hundred escaping ISIS. Not just denouncing the president, which will be easy, but laying out what they would do differently starting from this moment if they were sworn in and working in the Oval Office starting tomorrow.

Yesterday morning, Trump speculated that the Kurds are deliberately releasing Islamic State fighters to get the United States involved militarily, but that they will be “easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came.”

You may be encountering people online who deploy the same argument about this moment that the Obama administration deployed about the Iran deal: “Either you agree to the administration’s approach, or you want all-out war in the Middle East.”

As of this writing, the invitation to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit the White House next month has not been rescinded.

Keep in mind, Turkish forces deliberately fired at U.S. positions. You hear a lot from administration defenders these days that any effort to assist the Kurds as Turkey tries to destroy them would be “attacking an ally.” If they’re shooting at our troops, they’re no longer an ally. This should be a deal-breaker and a relationship-breaker. If the Turks want to argue that the United States has never prioritized fighting the PKK enough, they’re free to do that; it’s now abundantly clear that they don’t prioritize fighting ISIS enough for our security interests.

The announced sanctions are nice. But there are a lot more options.

  1. End all U.S. arms sales to Turkey.
  2. Remove all U.S. nuclear weapons from Injirlik Air Base, along with all U.S. forces.
  3. Begin sharing intelligence with the Kurds about what we know about Turkish offensives, if we haven’t already.
  4. Move to expel Turkey from NATO. We’ve been lamenting the increasingly awkward nature of this alliance for the past fifteen years. As the Turkish government has been warming up to Russia and China, and increasingly hostile to their European neighbors, it’s fair to ask whether this alliance still works for anyone involved. At the very least, we need to use this option as leverage.
  5. Temporarily suspend visa services at embassies, as both countries did to each other in 2017.
  6. Increase our warnings to U.S. citizens about traveling to Turkey.
  7. Stop opposing resolutions at the United Nations denouncing the Turkish incursion into Syrian territory.
  8. Recall our ambassador and or request the dismissal of theirs. (There is probably value in keeping the lines of communication open, even if it’s just to make clear how furious we are about this.)

The president periodically insists that ISIS is destroyed, and more or less ignoring the escaped ISIS prisoners in his speeches. Yesterday at the Values Voters Summit, he said, “So let’s see what happens. And it’s a long ways away. We killed ISIS. We defeated — we did our job.  We have to go home. We did our job.”

ADDENDA:  Hunter Biden gets the slowly-walking-through-a-garden interview treatment from ABC News.

“In retrospect, look, I think that it was poor judgment on my part. Is that I think that it was poor judgment because I don’t believe now, when I look back on it — I know that there was — did nothing wrong at all,” said Biden. However, was it poor judgment to be in the middle of something that is . . . a swamp in — in — in many ways? Yeah.”

“I gave a hook to some very unethical people to act in illegal ways to try to do some harm to my father. That’s where I made the mistake,” Hunter Biden told ABC News in an exclusive interview. “So I take full responsibility for that. Did I do anything improper? No, not in any way. Not in any way whatsoever.”

“If your last name wasn’t Biden,” Robach asked, “do you think you would’ve been asked to be on the board of Burisma?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. Probably not, in retrospect,” he said. “But that’s — you know — I don’t think that there’s a lot of things that would have happened in my life if my last name wasn’t Biden.”

Over on the homepage, a discussion of what NR is doing against “the circus of liars” that has come to town, and how you can help us.

National Security & Defense

We Betrayed the Kurds. Now Captured ISIS Fighters Are Escaping.

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A Turkish military convoy is pictured in Kilis near the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey, October 9, 2019. (Mehmet Ali Dag/ Ihlas News Agency/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: The weekend brought an absolute disastrous reversal in the United States’ battle to ensure ISIS stays defeated; Joe Biden makes a campaign promise that includes an inherent admission; and Tulsi Gabbard decides not to stay home on debate night, surprising no one.

While Betraying the Kurds, America Gives Away a Hard-Won Victory over ISIS

As the situation on the border between Turkey and Syria gets worse, defenders of the president’s decision have shifted to hand-washing that would impress Lady Macbeth.

“This isn’t our fight!”

The battle against ISIS certainly is our fight, and any comprehension of the interests of the United States would require keeping captured ISIS prisoners behind bars. Whatever else you think of the Turkish government, Erdogan, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces or YPG (“People’s Protection Units,”), the primary objective of the U.S. presence in that region had to be to ensure that dangerous Islamic State fighters stayed behind bars and were not let loose to either reconstitute the Islamic State or restart the ISIS campaign of terror against everybody they deem an infidel or apostate.

The fallout from Trump’s decision to give Turkey the green light to attack across the border is a mass breakout of captured ISIS prisoners.

At this point, out of the 11,000 or so captured Islamic State fighters, the U.S. military can guarantee the continued detention of . . . two. Not even the 60 worst-of-the-worst that they had initially hoped to transfer to American custody.

Trump has said repeatedly that the United States has taken the worst ISIS detainees out of Syria to ensure they would not escape. But in fact the American military took custody of only two British detainees, half of a cell dubbed the Beatles that tortured and killed Western hostages, American officials said.

The Kurds refused, the American officials said, to let the American military take any more detainees from their ad hoc detention sites for captive ISIS fighters, which range from former schoolhouses to a former Syrian government prison. Together, these facilities hold about 11,000 men, about 9,000 of them Syrians or Iraqis. About 2,000 come from 50 other nations whose governments have refused to repatriate them.

The fighting has raised concerns that jihadists detained in the battle to defeat ISIS could escape, facilitating the reconstitution of the Islamic State. Five captives escaped during a Turkish bombardment on a Kurdish-run prison in Qamishli on Friday, Kurdish officials said.

After a Turkish airstrike, female detainees connected to the Islamic State rioted in a camp in Ain Issa, lighting their tents on fire and tearing down fences, according to a camp administrator, Jalal al-Iyaf.

In the mayhem, more than 500 of them escaped, Mr. al-Iyaf said.

Most of the camp’s other 13,000 residents are Syrian, but there are also refugees from Iraq who sought safety in Syria because of violence at home. By nightfall, some of those people had left the unguarded camp, too, fearing that it was no longer safe, Mr. al-Iyaf said.

Everybody’s loose. We had ISIS bottled up. We had victory. And then we gave it away.

The United States military might have been able to transfer more prisoners to more secure facilities if U.S. policy, set by the commander in chief, hadn’t abandoned the Kurds so suddenly and completely. “After the Kurds acquiesced to those two transfers, they stopped cooperating with the United States in anger at what they saw as Mr. Trump’s betrayal, according to American officials.”

And no, we’re probably not going to get another chance to transfer those prisoners. “The Pentagon’s decision on Sunday to pull American forces out of northern Syria means the opportunity to take custody of additional ISIS prisoners — even if the Kurds were to decide to start cooperating again — is rapidly evaporating, the officials said.”

Maybe you’re the kind of hardline nationalist who thinks that terrorist attacks in other countries are their problem, not ours — even if Americans are getting killed in those attacks. Maybe you have the ability to shrug at bombings, stabbings, and other attacks in Brussels metro stations, trains in France and Germany, the Jewish Museum in Belgium, the Canadian War Memorial in Ottawa, hostage-taking and stabbing during a mass in Normandy, France. Maybe you remember all of that and think it’s a problem for our allies to deal with, not us.

But surely you recall Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik opening fire on people in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 and injuring 24.

You remember Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando.

On November 28, 2016, Abdul Razak Ali Artan stabbed people and tried to run over them with his car on the campus of Ohio State University.

I do recall everybody on the right side of the aisle being justifiably furious when Obama went golfing right after the beheading of James Foley. I also remember a whole lot of us being furious when Obama declared that the Islamic State was “contained” several days before the dreadful ISIS attacks in Paris.

How many of the same people will reflexively defend President Trump’s decision now?

Franklin Graham — son of Billy Graham, one of the most influential voices in Evangelical Christian circles, and usually a staunch ally of President Trump — is calling for U.S. sanctions on Turkey. Last week he tweeted:

“The Kurds are the ones who have been leading the fight against ISIS in Syria. Also pray for the Christians who the Kurds have been protecting. They could be annihilated. Would you pray w/me that President Trump will reconsider? Thousands of lives hang in the balance.”

Last week, Mike Huckabee tweeted:

“a HUGE mistake to abandon Kurds. They’ve never asked us to do THEIR fighting-just give them tools to defend themselves. They have been faithful allies. We CANNOT abandon them.”

We did.

Joe Biden: If Elected, I Will Not Continue That Arrangement That I Insist Was Ethical

Spot the inadvertent admission in the announcement from Joe Biden this past weekend:

Biden promised to bar his family members from occupying any office within the White House and said they won’t “sit in meetings as if they are a Cabinet member.” That was a jab at Trump, who taps daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, as advisers. Biden did not say if his pledge meant that his wife, Jill Biden, would not get the office traditionally assigned to first ladies, should he win.

He further vowed that no one in his family will have “any business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or foreign country.”

A few sentences earlier, Biden declared, “No one has asserted my son did a single thing wrong, except a lying president.”

Er, no, Mr. Vice President. It might be accurate to say, “no one has yet shown evidence that your son broke the law.” But going all the way back to MBNA hiring him right out of law school and him forming his own lobbying firm, wealthy people and institutions who needed government policy steered in a particular direction hired him. Other Obama administration officials were uncomfortable about the arraignment; at some point the administration would inevitably make some decision that benefited one of Hunter Biden’s clients, and critics of the administration could contend the decision was reached to benefit the client instead of whatever greater good it was supposed to serve.

If having a business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or foreign country is ethical, there’s no need for Joe Biden to make this pledge now. And if having a business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or foreign country is unethical . . . then the Bidens have to account for that now.

Tulsi Gabbard Ends Her Bluff

The least surprising announcement in a while: “Four days after announcing that she was considering boycotting the next debate, Tulsi Gabbard says she’s going to go.”

Gee, you mean she didn’t choose to give up a hard-earned moment in the national spotlight? Go figure! The “I may not participate in order to protest the DNC and corporate media” was always an implausible threat and something of a cheap gimmick.

ADDENDA: I don’t know about you, but a lot of my autumns are essentially: “I HATE FOOTBALL WHY DO I WATCH I HATE FOOTBALL WHY DO I WATCH I HATE FOOTBALL WHY DO I WATCH I HATE FOOTBALL WHY DO I WATCH OH MY GOD WHAT IS HAPPENING DID I JUST SEE THAT I CANNOT BELIEVE WE’RE WINNING YES YES YES I LOVE FOOTBALL I CAN’T WAIT UNTIL NEXT WEEK.”

National Security & Defense

Understanding the Situation between Turkey and the Kurds — and the U.S.

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U.S. and Turkish military forces conduct a joint ground patrol inside the security mechanism area in northeast, Syria, October 4, 2019. Picture taken October 4, 2019. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew Goedl/Handout via REUTERS)

Making the click-through worthwhile: a deep dive on how the United States got into this mess with Turkey and the Kurds, and the limited options for trying to get to a better place than where we are; the NBA keeps digging in deeper, with a famous coach choosing to denounce only convenient targets and the league barring press access to the players entirely during their China trips.

How Do We Fix a Bad Decision on Turkey and the Kurds?

Reuters: “Turkish warplanes and artillery hit Kurdish militia targets in northeast Syria on the third day of an offensive that has killed hundreds of people, forced tens of thousands to flee and turned Washington’s establishment against President Donald Trump.”

(I can hear a lot of people asking, “what you mean, ‘turned’? Washington’s establishment was already against him!”)

Reuters continues, “Overnight, clashes erupted at different points along the border from Ain Diwar at the Iraqi frontier to Kobani, more than 400 km to the west. Turkish and SDF forces exchanged shelling in Qamishli among other places,  [Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Marvan] Qamishlo said. ‘The whole border was on fire,’ he said.”

Even before Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to power in Ankara, Turkey was an odd and sometimes challenging ally. What attracted Turks to the NATO alliance was the relative closeness of the Soviet Union and the notion that NATO would help ensure a bulwark against Godless Communism. Back when I was living in Turkey — 2005 to 2007, so I try not to exaggerate the relevance or recency of my experience — a Turkish official who had visited the United States told me during his visit he was struck by how many churches there were in American communities, and how that reassured him as a Muslim. “Even though our religions are different, you guys recognize a power higher than the state.” Turkey is (was?) a secular country, but that didn’t mean that Islam wasn’t extremely important to many Turks.

With the end of the Cold War and the threat of the Soviets trying to take over and establish an atheist regime gone, perhaps Turkey was destined to have a little more friction in its relationship with the United States. Turkey lives in a dangerous neighborhood; the southern and western neighbors are Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Turkish government was usually a little warmer or open-minded towards the Assad regime, Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the Iranian mullahs than U.S. foreign policy preferred. Some of this was simple proximity, as they weren’t interested in stirring up a hornet’s nest with the brutal or fundamentalist regimes next door.

But the bigger issue for Turkish government was always how to deal with the cross-border population of Kurds. The Kurds are this giant ethnic community with their own language, culture, traditions. Draw a circle around the spots where the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran meet, and that’s pretty much “Kurdistan.” After World War I, the Kurds were supposed to get their own country, but . . . the treaties after the war left the Kurds out. Unsurprisingly, this set off a long and violent period of ethnic tensions in all of those countries.

The Turkish government does not deal with its Kurdish minority with a light touch. Following a 1980 military coup — Turkey has military coups roughly once a decade, as sort of a control-alt-delete of resetting the government when things go really wrong — the Turkish government banned the Kurdish language entirely. Since 1984, the Turks and Kurds have fought a low-level terror campaign/counterterror campaign, with roughly 40,000 dead, most of them civilians.

It is hard to overstate how much the Turkish government and the average Turk loathe the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, the main pro-Kurdish terrorist group that tries to blow people up around Turkey in the name of Kurdish independence. Turks over there kept insisting to me that the PKK were their al-Qaeda, and they hated the PKK the way Americans hated al-Qaeda for 9/11.

This is the backdrop between the current confrontation between the Turks and the Kurds in Syria. We, the United States, are in an awkward spot. The PKK are irredeemable terrorists, no two ways about it, and we can and should cooperate when possible with the Turkish government to put PKK terrorists behind bars. But the Kurdish forces in Syria are the ones who stepped up to fight ISIS. Our traditional but recently difficult ally is determined to smash our more recent and helpful ally.

A week ago, President Trump gave the Turks the green light to move into Syria and try to beat the hell out of Kurds who were, up until a week ago, key allies in ensuring the Islamic State stayed defeated. The editors of National Review denouncing the decision. My colleague Andy McCarthy dissented, and as we would expect from Andy, he makes a lot of fair, not easily dismissed points in his dissent.

But a lot of it amounts to, “we shouldn’t have made the decisions we made that brought us here.” Andy’s right; the entrance of U.S. military forces into Syria was half-hearted and sloppy, with contradictory goals. At heart, Obama didn’t want to do anything with Syria. The thinking of both the president and Ben Rhodes was so craven and reflexively attuned to seeing things through the lens of partisan advantage that they rarely saw the forest for the trees. In his memoir, Rhodes wrote that in August 2013, after Bashar al-Assad killed hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons, Obama was comfortable if Congress wouldn’t approve the use of force in response.  “The thing is,” he said, “if we lose this vote, it will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism — everyone will see they have no votes.” Of course, a lot of innocent Syrian civilian men, women, and children had to die painful deaths in order to prove that point against those oh-so-terrible neocons.

But we are where we are. The relevant question is not what we should have done back then; we can’t change the past. The question is what is the best course of action now?

Andy writes, “the American people’s representatives never endorsed combat operations in Syria, and the president is right that the public wants out.” But the American people did elect a president who throughout the campaign promised to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” and “knock the hell out of ISIS” and various other four-letter variations. It is fair to say the president’s plans for ISIS were not particularly specific, and in fact the president insisted his plan had to remain secret: “We’re gonna beat ISIS very, very quickly, folks. It’s gonna be fast. I have a great plan. It’s going to be great. They ask, ‘What is it?’ Well, I’d rather not say.” The problem with a president who makes vague and often contradictory promises is that it’s difficult to argue that the American people rejected any particular course of action.

Andy argues that “our arming of the Kurds has already exposed our allies in Turkey to unacceptable risk.” Eh, let’s not overstate this. We supplied the the Kurdish forces with“mortar shells, nothing heavier. No missiles, no anti-aircraft weapons, no anti-tank.” We’ve sold the Turks all of their fighter planes, transport aircraft, most of their tanks and two-thirds of their armored personnel carriers.

Yesterday afternoon, Trump tweeted, “We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!” We’re obviously not pursuing option one. Option two would at least demonstrate our objection to Turkey’s action — whether or not Trump intended to give Erdogan the green light to invade, that certainly is how Erdogan interpreted it. While the odds are long on option three, it would be the best one for our interests. Maybe the U.S. could persuade Erdogan with the message: “You’ve proved your point, the Kurds know you can beat them on the battlefield, now head to the negotiating table and let’s hammer out a deal that ensures your country’s security for the long term.”

The NBA Just Keeps Digging in Deeper

Golden State Warrior coach Steve Kerr was in China and he said that during his visit to that country, no one had asked him about Chinese human rights abuses . . . nor “our record of human rights abuses”, either, referring to the United States.

“As far as North Korea, I don’t know much about North Korea. As far as the Ukraine situation, I don’t know much about the Ukraine situation. We could just go around the world and maybe I can pinpoint a couple others I’m comfortable about, but this whole thing is so ridiculous. Again, we’re fortunate in this country to have free speech. I exercise that. But part of having free speech is also electing not to speak if you don’t feel comfortable about something.”

“It has not come up in terms of people asking about it, people discussing it,” Kerr said. “Nor has our record of human rights abuses come up, either. Things that our country needs to look at and resolve. That hasn’t come up either. None of us are perfect. We all have different issues we have to get to. Saying that is my right as an American. It doesn’t mean that I hate my country. It means I want to address the issue. But people in China didn’t ask me about, you know, people owning AR-15s and mowing each other down in a mall. I wasn’t asked that question.”

“Generally, my feeling is the things that I’m going to comment on are the things that I feel comfortable speaking about, things I feel well versed about,” he said. “I comment a lot about gun safety. It’s a cause that’s very near and dear to my heart. It’s very crucial for our country for our future. We face mass shootings literally every day. So I’m involved with four or five different gun safety groups. It’s my pet cause. So I’m going to comment on it. It’s my right. That’s why I love being an American and love my country. I’m able to channel my energy and my resources to places where I want it to go. I feel really comfortable with that. There are places where I don’t feel as comfortable. This would be one of them.

It’s astoundingly convenient that Kerr feels comfortable denouncing American gun owners and American “human rights abuses” but he just doesn’t feel “comfortable” saying anything about the regime running concentration camps, with whom he and his league have arranged lucrative deals.

In other news, the NBA has canceled all media access for the remainder of its visit to China as it puts players in a ‘complicated’ and ‘unfair’ situation, it said. The NBA’s way of dealing with difficult questions is to bar the press entirely. Once again, we’re not exporting our values to them; we’re importing their values to us.

ADDENDA: Hey, it’s been a while since I’ve nagged anyone to buy Between Two Scorpions. Book Two is now written and it’s in that unnerving having-friends-read-it-to-give-initial-feedback stage. When writing a sequel, the challenge is to be similar enough to what people liked about the first one, but not so similar that it feels like a rehash or predictable. (Looking at you, Season Two of Stranger Things.) I’ve ripped plenty of bad sequels over the years; now I get to see if I can get the formula right.

The Amazon reviews continue to be great: “A fun read with great pop culture references that broke the tension. A very entertaining tale.” “Good tale, fast paced and lots of interesting references to current tensions.” “Fast moving, funny, suspenseful. It has it all.” “Clever page-turner that’s part post-9/11 terror thriller, part X-Files, and part screwball comedy. Geraghty handles his antic crew of leads, the Dangerous Clique of the subtitle, entertainingly, handling the married couple at its heart with particular deftness.” Columbus Day is coming, enjoy that three-day weekend (for some) with a book!

Sports

The NBA Has Already Chosen China

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Outside the NBA Store in New York City (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: deeply ominous signs at home and abroad, as NBA teams start taking steps to stifle any expression of criticism against China by fans; and the American abandonment of the Kurds bears its first bitter fruit.

The NBA Starts Enforcing China’s Speech Restrictions on American Soil

You should see the “Google Uighurs” sign that arena security removed from Capitol One arena last night, as the Washington Wizards played a preseason game against the Guangzhou Long-Lions. It’s barely bigger than an 8×11 sheet of paper. The man holding it is not obstructing anyone’s view — it’s an NBA preseason game on a weeknight, there are tons of empty seats — and he’s not being profane, disruptive, or creating any problem for any other fans.

“No political signs,” the security guy says — and to the extent we can read his body language, at least initially he doesn’t appear eager to enforce this edict. But when asked if he knows what the Uighurs are, he responds, “I’m not interested in having a political conversation.”

I presume he has never, as the sign recommended, googled to learn more about the Uighurs. There are anywhere from one million to two million Uighurs in concentration camps in Western China. Human rights organizations have detailed that those camps are rife with torture, abuse, rapes, forced abortions, and sterilizations. The Chinese government is destroying traditional Uighur burial grounds and paving over their graveyards. The Chinese government is attempting to completely erase Uighur culture; what we are witnessing is a slow-motion state-sponsored genocide.

But arena staff, presumably taking their instructions from Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and/or the NBA as a whole, believed “Google Uighurs” is too political a sign to have at the game. The Washington Wizards have welcomed and saluted Joe Biden at their games, but that wasn’t too political. Players wore “I can’t breathe” t-shirts after Eric Garner’s death, but that wasn’t too political. (Apparently the NBA is fine with protesting American police brutality, but not Hong Kong police brutality.) The Miami Heat wore hoodies in warmups “in solidarity with Trayvon Martin” in 2012, and two years earlier, the Phoenix Suns wore “Los Suns” jerseys to protest that controversial Arizona immigration law. So clearly some forms of political protest are not merely tolerated or accepted but endorsed by NBA teams.

But any protest relating to China is unacceptable.

Another pro-Hong Kong sign was taken away by security during the United States National Anthem. It was taken away before the singer got to the lyric “in the land of the free and home of the brave.” Please consult your doctor before consuming such painfully concentrated doses of irony.

Cesar Conda says he saw another fan kicked out for chanting, “free Hong Kong.” (As Conda notes, fans yell exceptionally rude things at the referees or opposing players and no one minds.) Candice Bucker has video footage of security confronting another pair of fans. Patrick Hedger says he got kicked out.

A spokesman for the Wizards contends no one was asked to leave the game. In other news, the Chinese government contends that “most people” have been released from the concentration camps. (Never mind that footage from drones posted last week shows hundreds of people bound and blindfolded being unloaded off a train into camps.)

Meanwhile, up in New York, building security told a man protesting outside NBA headquarters that he couldn’t stand too close to the building.

We are living through a clash of two systems — one free, and one unfree, and the battlefield is right here in our own country. It is not “a time for choosing,” as Ronald Reagan said in his famous speech; the choice has already been made. And many of the biggest, wealthiest, and most powerful institutions in this country have made their choice: They support the unfree side and will voluntarily enforce its edicts.

If you’ve ever wondered what could unite Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ted Cruz, as well as . . . this is it. They, along with Senator Ben Sasse, Senator Tom Cotton, Senator Ron Wyden, Representative Mike Gallagher, and others have written to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and urged him to “suspend NBA activities in China until government-controlled broadcasters and government-controlled commercial sponsors end their boycott of NBA activities and the selective treatment of the Houston Rockets, and emphasize that the association will stand unified in the face of future efforts by Chinese government-controlled entities to single out individual teams, players, or associates for boycotts or selective treatment,” and “reevaluate the NBA’s training camp in Xinjiang, where up to a million Chinese citizens are held in concentration camps as part of a massive, government-run campaign of ethno-religious repression.”

Over in Slate, Tom Scocca points out the ugly truth that Silver and the rest of the NBA don’t want to confront: If the Chinese government had this kind of a furious and heavy-handed reaction to a tweet, they’re only going to get worse in the future.

China has already played its hand. If Hong Kong is non-negotiable, there’s nothing to discuss. The subject will become more sensitive, not less, if the Hong Kong police move from tear gas and rubber bullets to the routine use of live ammunition, or if the People’s Liberation Army moves in. Would the NBA muzzle its employees then? Would the players and staff of a globally prominent American company censor their own feelings to protect the Chinese market? Why not take the stand before it gets to that?

I am sure that the tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey deeply offended the Chinese government. You know what ought to offend all of us? Running concentration camps and brutal crackdowns and then expecting Americans to restrict the speech of other Americans on behalf of those running those concentration camps and brutal crackdowns.

We’re Abandoning the Kurds

Behold, the fruits of a sudden change in American policy in the Middle East: “Fighting lit up the sky early Thursday as Turkish troops pressed their air and ground offensive against United States-allied Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. At least 16 Kurds were reported to have been killed, one monitoring group said.”

To say the members of the U.S. military who worked with and fought alongside the Kurds against ISIS are distraught is an understatement. “I am ashamed for the first time in my career,” one told Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin. “We met every single security agreement. The Kurds met every single agreement. There was NO threat to the Turks – NONE – from this side of the border. This is insanity.”

Members of the military are not infallible, but when everyone at the Pentagon, everyone in the intelligence community, and all of our allies and every expert on the region thinks a decision is a bad move, it takes a remarkably obstinate man to insist that he’s right and everyone else who’s been studying this region from the beginning is wrong. There is a willful blindness to the consequences and a message sent to every country and population around the world. The Kurds did everything the United States could possibly want against a foe that stunned the world with its cruelty, brutality, barbarism, and bloodthirstiness. And once our commander in chief believed we didn’t need them anymore — which is different from actually not needing them anymore — our country chatted with Recep Erdogan and let the Turks tear them apart.

It’s fascinating to see the president’s defenders insisting that we have to acquiesce to this long-desired military aggression on the part of the Turks. Funny, Turkey’s been our NATO ally all along, and up until last week, we believed it was a priority to keep the Turks — our fair-weather allies against ISIS — and the Kurds, our all-weather allies against ISIS, from going at each other.

The departure of U.S. forces means we’re no longer around to help the Kurds imprison 11,000 captured ISIS fighters. We’re apparently taking up “about five dozen” of the worst of the worst with us. Great, that means there are only 10,940 or so ISIS fighters who could break out during the upcoming fighting.

But apparently we don’t have to worry about ISIS fighters escaping, because, President Trump declared, “they’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go, they want to go back to their homes.” I guess we’re just cool with thousands of ISIS fighters running around Europe now.

Gee, it’s a good thing no Americans live in Europe.

ADDENDA: On this week’s The Editors podcast, Rich, Charlie, the soon-to-be-much-missed David French, and I discuss impeachment, the NBA, and Syria.

White House

Our Constitution Is Clear on Powers, and We Really Should Read It

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President Donald Trump speaks about the House impeachment investigation at the White House in Washington, D.C., October 7, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: a full-throated defense of the powers and authorities of those in elected office, as set under the U.S. Constitution, and how that stance proved inconvenient to many in the political realm in recent years; ESPN suddenly loses its voice when it comes to covering the NBA’s dispute with China.

The Powers of an Office Don’t Change Depending on Whether You Like the Officeholder

The powers and authority of an elected office do not change depending upon whether you like or agree with the person in that office.

This means that when the House of Representatives or one of its committees requests documents or testimony or issues a subpoena, an administration can’t simply ignore the request — or send an eight-page letter from lawyers that amounts to a middle finger.

It doesn’t matter if the administration officials insist there’s nothing important in the requested documents, or if the administration says the demand for the documents is just a “blatant partisan maneuver to discredit the White House in an election year.”

In the coming days, you’re going to hear members of Congress outraged at the White House defiance of a coequal branch of government. They will argue that the refusal to comply with demands amounts to a coverup of a crime, a violation of the Constitution, and that resisting officials like the attorney general “knows the answers are there because he’s the one who has the documents that contain the answers we’re looking for. He’s the gatekeeper here, and if he won’t give us the information this institution needs to do our duty, our constitutional duty, then we will use every legal and constitutional tool that we have to get to it.”

You’re going to hear members of the president’s party declare that “this is a witch hunt, pure and simple, Mr. Speaker, and it has no place in this House.” They will howl that the fight “is about politics” and the opposition “doing whatever it takes to attack the administration, no matter the issue, no matter the cost.”

Members of the president’s party will contend that perhaps the fight is the point, that the outcome matters less to the House majority leaders than assuring their base that they’re fighting the president with everything they’ve got: “Under this majority, everything has to be a fight — everything. Everything has to be a confrontation. Everything has to be a showdown. And I get the politics. I understand this is an election year. But this goes way, way too far. It is just wrong.” The president and his allies will argue that the opposition party’s base voters never recognized the preceding election’s results, and furious grassroots activists believe that the president isn’t really legitimate, and that thus they cannot possibly honor a request driven by such unhinged and extreme motives.

And in the end, it will all result in the House finding Eric Holder in contempt.

Oh, I was talking about former attorney general Eric Holder’s refusal to turn over documents to Congress about Fast and Furious back in 2012; what did you think I was talking about?

The thing is, back then a lot of folks seemed to think Holder had the right to refuse to turn over those documents, and that the subpoenas were somehow illegitimate or unlawful because of what they claimed was blatant partisanship and bad faith demonstrated by the Congressional majority. (The fact that 17 House Democrats agreed with the GOP majority was conveniently ignored.)

The Atlantic’s David Graham declared, “There is a strong whiff of election-year fishing to this case.” The New York Times editorial board denounced the GOP for “shamelessly turning what should be a routine matter into a pointless constitutional confrontation.” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson thundered the contempt vote against Holder was “a partisan witch hunt by House Republicans,” “without legitimate cause,” and that Darrell Issa was trying to “manufacture something that can be portrayed as a high-level Obama administration cover-up.”

Rep. Jerry Nadler didn’t vote on the contempt charge; he walked out during the vote, calling the effort “shameful” and “politically motivated.” More than 100 Democrats joined him in refusing to vote. Nancy Pelosi also called the contempt vote “shameful” and contended that it was really designed to suppress Democratic turnout in 2012: “These very same people who are holding him in contempt are part of a nationwide scheme to suppress the vote. They’re closely allied with those who are suffocating the system: unlimited special interest secret money.” To Pelosi, it was simply unthinkable that House Republicans could have wanted to see Department of Justice documents relating to Fast and Furious for any legitimate reason.

Just to be clear, back in 2012, a lot of people thought it was just fine if an administration and its officials refused to turn over documents because they thought the members of Congress investigating them were a bunch of partisan hacks.

When Holder defied Congress, a lot of people cheered. When Congress held him in contempt, a lot of people thought Holder should wear it as a badge of pride.

A Wired headline declared, “Holder Held in Contempt of Congress, Which Means Almost Nothing.” Admittedly, a big reason for the lack of consequence was the fact that the executive branch official in charge of enforcing contempt of Congress against Attorney General Eric Holder was . . . Attorney General Eric Holder. (“Officer! Arrest that man looking at you in mirror!”)

Back then, we could have had a broad bipartisan consensus that even the biggest, dumbest partisan hack is entitled to the full powers and authorities of the office. We could have all agreed that even if a committee chairman has a bigger axe to grind than Paul Bunyan, that didn’t make compliance with requests for documents, subpoenas, or testimony optional. We could have agreed that congressional oversight of the executive branch was an important tool against bad decisions, corruption, and coverups, and that because of its importance, oversight by a lawmaker we thought was too partisan was still better than brazen disregard and defiance of that oversight.

But congressional Democrats and their allies in the media didn’t make that choice. They established the argument that some defiance of Congressional subpoenas is okay, as long as the executive branch believes that the Congressional investigators are being unfair. And now, here we are.

No, the president of the United States and his administration should not refuse to cooperate with a House impeachment effort in any way, shape or form. But we didn’t get here overnight. The power and authority of an elected office do not change depending upon whether you like or agree with the person in that office — and that applies to the current president, too.

If you want an imperial presidency when your guy is in charge, you have to live with the consequences of an imperial presidency when the other guy is in charge. From the founding of the United States legal system to 1963, there were no judicially imposed nationwide injunctions against any federal policy. During the eight years of the Obama administration, judges imposed 20 national injunctions. In the less than three years from the start of Trump’s presidency to September 2019, judges have imposed 40 national injunctions, including ones blocking administration changes to the DACA program, the question about citizenship on the national census, and changes to the temporary protected status of immigrants.

The good news for the administration is that sometimes some superior court will look at the national injunction and rule it unjustified. As the Republican Policy Committee notes:

. . . on July 26 the Supreme Court stayed an injunction from a California federal district court that would have prevented the Trump administration from repurposing appropriated funds to build a border wall. Second, on September 11 the Supreme Court stayed a nationwide injunction against the Trump administration’s new rule requiring asylum seekers who cross the U.S.-Mexico border to apply for asylum in Mexico or another third country before applying in the United States. These decisions did not resolve the underlying lawsuits, but did allow the federal government to move forward with its policies. In addition, on June 26, 2018, the Supreme Court stayed a district court injunction against the Trump administration’s travel ban against people from several nations, which allowed that policy to continue.

There’s this really great document under glass at the National Archives that spells out what the powers of Congress and what the powers of the executive branch are. Some folks in Washington should check it out sometime, they would learn a lot.

ESPN: The Worldwide Leader in Not Saying Anything That Could Offend the Chinese Government

Of course: “Chuck Salituro, the senior news director of ESPN, sent a memo to shows mandating that any discussion of the [Houston Rockets general manager] Daryl Morey story avoid any political discussions about China and Hong Kong, and instead focus on the related basketball issues. The memo, obtained by Deadspin, explicitly discouraged any political discussion about China and Hong Kong. Multiple ESPN sources confirmed to Deadspin that network higher-ups were keeping a close eye on how the topic was discussed on ESPN’s airwaves.”

Someone asked whether my grumbling about ESPN’s reluctance to discuss the controversy that started China’s sudden fury at the NBA amounts to the position of, “Stick to sports, unless I deem your sports-related political stance worthy.”

Obviously, I’m never wrong. First, as the Deadspin article above makes clear, you end up with sports-focused talking heads referring to “the issue” or “the controversy” without ever saying what the issue or controversy is. Sure, most ESPN watchers probably have at least a vague sense that people in Hong Kong are protesting something, but this is just bad journalism, to deliberately speak around what set off the controversy. This turns the protests in Hong Kong into Voldemort, the conflict-which-must-not-be-named.

Secondly, is there a demographic of American sports-watchers or ESPN viewers who would be offended, bothered, or outraged by discussion of protests in Hong Kong, or concentration camps, or brutal crackdowns?

Because there are demographics of American sports-watchers and ESPN viewers who are offended, bothered, or outraged by discussion of Caitlyn Jenner being a new icon of womanhood and courage, or Bob Costas telling us we need stricter gun-control laws at halftime, or that Colin Kaepernick is the new Rosa Parks, or highly-charged political topics like that. Maybe those discussions are important enough to be worth offending some viewers. If they are, then the NBA’s relationship with a regime running concentration camps would certainly be an important enough topic.

There are demographics that are offended, bothered, or outraged by discussion of protests in Hong Kong, or concentration camps, or brutal crackdown, but those demographics are the Chinese government and the Disney executives who want to make billions of dollars in China but who need the continued approval of those Chinese government. Who is ESPN designed to serve? Its viewers, or the leagues that it covers?

In other words, there’s “sticking to sports” because your viewers want it, and don’t want to watch political debates that they can get on any news channel. And then there’s “sticking to sports” because your corporate parent company’s financial concerns.

ADDENDA: Yesterday I wrote that we were not exporting our values to China, but that instead we were importing their authoritarian values to the United States of America.

Last night, two fans with pro-Hong Kong signs were removed from a preseason NBA game and ejected from the arena.

In Philadelphia.

World

We’re Not Exporting Our Values to China — We’re Importing Theirs

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President Donald Trump’s limousine, flying U.S. and China flags, waits for him to depart after a day of meetings and events with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China ,November 9, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

This morning, NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a new statement about Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s support for protesters in Hong Kong, and it is a somewhat better one, declaring, “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

In that statement, Silver sounds like a man who wants to do the right thing but realizes that doing so will cost his organization a fortune and perhaps even endanger people. Silver continued to try to talk a tightrope Tuesday at a news conference in Tokyo before a preseason game between the Rockets and NBA champion Toronto Raptors.

“Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right as one of our employees,” Silver said. “What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.”

“We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression,” Silver said. “I regret — again, having communicated directly with many friends in China — that so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans. At the end of the day, we come with basketball as an opportunity to sell dreams, sell hopes . . . that we are causing disruption in people’s lives and that we are causing disharmony, that’s something I regret.”

The cops are shooting people from point-blank range in Hong Kong. Disruption and disharmony are already here. The question is what the NBA’s players, coaches, managers, owners, and officials are willing to do in response to this disruption and disharmony. (A more serious comment from the President of the United States wouldn’t hurt, either.)

Back in May, I went back to the arguments American policymakers had with themselves in the 1990s as they contemplated extending “most-favored-nation” status to China, and then “permanent normal trade relations.” Something weird happened when chief executives of American companies discussed China back then. They kept describing a market of a billion new customers, as if the average Chinese citizen was awash in disposable income. They pictured a China full of people eating American soybeans, drinking Coke, wearing blue jeans made with American cotton, celebrating with American bourbon and riding on Boeing airplanes.

America’s policymakers, by and large, agreed. Here’s Bill Clinton describing America’s future relationship with China in 2000, after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed Permanent Normal Trade Relations:

With more than a billion people, China is the largest new market in the world. Our administration has negotiated an agreement that will open China’s markets to American products made on American soil, everything from corn to chemicals to computers.

Bringing China into the WTO and normalizing trade will strengthen those who fight for the environment, for labor standards, for human rights, for the rule of law . . . At this stage in China’s development, we will have a more positive influence with an outstretched hand than with a clenched fist.

Clinton hailed the deal as a step to “a China that is more open to our products and more respectful of the rule of law at home and abroad.” And from that year on, America’s trade relationship with China was “normal.”

Except . . . China wasn’t a “normal” country, and it never was one. Only a few decades earlier, the Chinese regime had perpetrated some of the greatest horrors of the century upon its people — the Great Chinese Famine — which killed tens of millions! — the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution. The Tiananmen Square massacre had just been a few years earlier. It still had political prisoners and a police state, it was slowly but steadily building up its military, it still harvested organs from prisoners in its jails. And yet most of America’s political and business leaders looked across the Pacific, averted their eyes from the draconian human rights abuses, focused relentlessly on that growing economy and potential billion customers and declared, “we can do business with these people.” And they told the rest of us to trust them. Oh, and Bill Clinton assured us that money donated by Chinese citizens in his reelection campaign had never influenced his thinking about China. Even though in 1992, he had campaigned as a tough critic of China and called George H. W. Bush as too soft on the regime.

Nothing could seem to dissuade America’s business leaders when it came to their vision of an endlessly mutually profitable relationship with the regime. We kept being told how absolutely ruthless and relentless the Chinese efforts at corporate espionage were, and how brazenly and defiantly they stole patents, blueprints, and intellectual property. I don’t know about you, but when somebody steals from me, I don’t want to keep doing business with them. Yet America’s business leaders never seemed to experience anything that made them conclude the regime is so bad that it’s not worth doing business with them. There was this consistently weird disconnect in the comments from American business leaders, as they kept saying their Chinese competitors were overtly or secretly state-subsided, or would complain about corruption . . . but no one wanted to stop putting more resources there.

But as companies became more economically entangled with China, they stopped having any interest in uttering a critical word about China. You stopped hearing about Tibet, or the Falun Gong. As the Chinese government started assembling a surveillance network that would make George Orwell gasp, American companies were happy to supply the tech. The employees and leaders of Google didn’t renew a deal with the U.S. Pentagon, contending the Pentagon’s use of their artificial intelligence tech violated their moral principles. But the company didn’t see working with the Chinese military as similarly problematic. (Back in the early days of the war on terror, some of us would scoff about self-proclaimed peace activists that they weren’t anti-war, they were just pro-the-other-side.)

Americans don’t like thinking about trade policy. It’s a topic so inherently boring that it can bog down the excitement of a Star Wars prequel. Americans would much rather think about fun topics, like basketball and movies.

But the business world’s rosy view of China started manifesting itself in strange new ways. The remake of Red Dawn at first imagined China invading was suddenly and hastily rewritten to depict tiny North Korea invading and attempting to conquer the United States. An Iron Man sequel featured this weird, tacked-on subplot about a Chinese surgeon saving his life, and the Chinese version of the film was even more disjointed and heavy-handed. A Transformers sequel replaced Michael Bay’s usual slow-motion tributes to American military hardware with weirdly discordant shots of Chinese officials pledging to protect Hong Kong from rampaging Decepticons. The one Chinese film star that most American audiences might recognize — Fin Bangbang, who played the voiceless mutant Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past, just disappeared for a few months; the Chinese government later announced she had been put under house arrest for alleged tax evasion. No one in Hollywood mentioned her in their awards speeches or organized any protests.

Hollywood stars never hesitated to denounce any Republican president in the harshest of terms, but the only big star still publicly critical of the Chinese government is Richard Gere. Financial incentives for big institutions like movie and television studios created incentives for self-censorship that are probably even more effective than a police state. Some people will defy a police state out of inherent rebelliousness or irritation with authority. But everybody hates to walk away from a potential fortune — and for every major player in Hollywood, China represents a potential fortune and investors in future films.

A proposed law that would allow Hong Kong cops to send arrested suspects to mainland China turned into a flashpoint, an increasingly violent conflict between the people of Hong Kong and the authoritarian rulers of China, who cannot accept any form of defiance of their power. One general manager of one National Basketball Association team put out one tweet, and since then, the NBA has worked overtime to demonstrate our new cultural power structure.

Criticism of the Chinese government is forbidden — I don’t mean in China, I mean de facto in the United States for anyone who is part of any institution that has any investment in China.  The sports league that prides itself on freedom of expression and social relevance  — one so politically correct that it banned the word “owner” because the term allegedly evokes slavery — has no one willing to say Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is right and that people around the world should, as he tweeted, “fight for Freedom” and “stand with Hong Kong.” As of this writing, not a single player, not a single coach, not a single owner has spoken out in support of Morey. You couldn’t get all those guys to agree on any topic in domestic American politics. But for the first forty-eight hours of this controversy, the opinion of everyone associated with the NBA was uniform. Our relationship with China has not made them more like us. It has made us more like them.

Think about it: we have no shortage of professional athletes who are willing to publicly denounce American cops who they deem abusive and brutal. But everybody’s looking at their shoes as the cops in Hong Kong beat the hell out of anybody in a mask and shoot people at point-blank range.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has plenty to say when the topic is mass shootings, Donald Trump, or Colin Kaepernick. But suddenly he finds the topic of Hong Kong just too complicated and “bizarre” for him to comment. “Actually I don’t,” Kerr said when asked if he has thoughts on the controversy. “It’s a really bizarre international story. A lot of us don’t know what to make of it. It’s something I’m reading about like everybody is, but I’m not gonna comment further.”

It’s an authoritarian regime cracking down on protests and public expressions of dissent. Is that really . . . “bizarre”?

ADDENDA: In case you missed it yesterday, our foreign policy is muddled, because the public’s views are muddled, because our leaders are afraid to tell voters things they don’t want to hear; President Trump blindsides the Pentagon, which is the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, and a cheap shot at Bernie Sanders on The Daily Show reveals the inherent danger of treating comedy shows as journalism.

White House

Trump Disregards Evidence from Allies over Russian Murder in U.K.

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President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint news conference following their summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Trump doubts our allies about a chemical weapon attack; the NBA pledges to obey the Chinese government; the long Joker review; and the United States formally abandons its Kurdish allies before a Turkish attack. Yeah, this is one heck of a Monday.

Why Does Trump Believe Putin’s Denials?

The Washington Post:

In a summer 2018 call with Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump harangued the British leader about her country’s contribution to NATO. He then disputed her intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin’s government had orchestrated the attempted murder and poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.

“Trump was totally bought into the idea there was credible doubt about the poisoning,” said one person briefed on the call. “A solid 10 minutes of the conversation is spent with May saying it’s highly likely and him saying he’s not sure.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted an article about Trump’s doubts Sunday and added, “Best evidence that no evidence of Russian involvement exists.”

For those who forgot,  Sergei Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer recruited by British intelligence as a spy in the mid-1990s, was nearly killed by a nerve agent called Novichok — a chemical weapon designed by the old Soviet Union — just as two agents of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency just happened to be in his neighborhood. Skirpal’s daughter was also poisoned, and another British woman who was not a target was killed by the nerve agent.

In August 2018, secretary of state Mike Pompeo signed off on a determination that Russia violated international law by poisoning the former spy — meaning either Trump changed his mind (good) or Pompeo’s just issuing statements that the president disagrees with (bad).

You know, congressional Republicans, when remaining in the president’s good graces requires you to look at your shoes and be silent when the president believes Vladimir Putin’s denial that the Russian government tried to kill its own turncoat with a weapon in its own arsenal, when our closest ally, the British government, has a mountain of evidence . . . it’s time to ask just what the hell you’re getting out of the deal.

The Soul of the NBA, a Wholly Owned Subsidiary of the Chinese Government

The Chinese government says, “jump,” the National Basketball Association says, “how high?”

Every time an NBA official, team, or player tells us they’re socially aware, dedicated to improving their communities, throw this back in their faces. Between the democracy activists in Hong Kong and the authoritarians in Beijing, the league and the owners are choosing to stand with the authoritarians. One brief comment by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey — a tweet declaring, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” — caused the Chinese government and its various business allies to erupt and threaten the NBA’s operations in China. And just about everybody in the NBA’s upper ranks backed down quickly:

The NBA said Monday that it recognizes that Morey’s views “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”

“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA Chief Communications Officer Mike Bass said in a statement, which was published on the Chinese social media website Weibo. “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”

Morey on Monday said in a series of tweets that he was speaking on his own behalf. “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” Morey said. “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”

Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tried to distance the team from politics. The team is in Tokyo for a series of preseason games against the Toronto Raptors this week. Morey “does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization,” Fertitta said Saturday on Twitter.

These men are cowards, driven by greed to stand with the oppressor instead of the oppressed.

One way or another, in the coming days, the superstars of the NBA will stand up for their values. The question is . . . what are their values?

Joker: Self-Actualization Through a Gun and a Camera

[LOTS OF SPOILERS FOR ‘JOKER’ AHEAD.]

To paraphrase the late former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green, it was what I thought it was.

For what Joker is trying to be, it’s well done. I just don’t like what it’s trying to be. As many observed going back to the first trailer, Joker wants to be a Martin Scorsese-esque film about a mad loner wrestling with his demons and losing amidst the crumbling slums of what’s called Gotham City, but that looks just like late 1970s New York City, right down to the logos on the police cars, the Times Square porn theaters, and the tabloid newspaper headlines. This is a dark psychological drama that just happens to share a handful of character and location names with the comic book, and one wonders if this started out as a completely different idea for a film that was later attached to the comic character.

As for whether this movie asks the audience to sympathize with its protagonist . . . our Kyle Smith, a guy whose judgment and analysis about film is as good as anybody in the country, thinks that contention is preposterous. As much as I respect Kyle, I’m not so sure I agree. I’d argue that in its storytelling choices, Joker goes right up to the line of trying to get the audience to sympathize with its titular character.

In the first act, the movie uses every “pet the dog” trick in the book to get us to like Arthur Fleck, the man who will become the Joker. He takes care of his elderly mother. He performs at the children’s ward of the local hospital. He tries to entertain a little boy on the bus by making faces. His medication is threatened by the faceless menace of “budget cuts.”

Joker uses Arthur as an unreliable narrator, meaning that well into the film we learn that certain scenes did not happen the way we saw the first time. We get the sense that his first attempt at stand-up at a comedy club didn’t go that well, but the subsequent videotape makes it clear he bombed completely.

About two-thirds into the story, we learn Arthur has no relationship with the single mom played by Zazie Beetz, and that the burgeoning courtship we’ve seen is all in his head. (In all of the previous scenes before the revelation, I thought her amiable attraction to the perpetually weird and off-putting Arthur was wildly implausible.) When she finds him in her apartment — and we realize he imagined their relationship — the scene ends rather abruptly; perhaps he left quietly or perhaps he did something terrible. But if we the audience had watched him do something terrible to her, that would have made Arthur a monster a little too early in the story.

Because almost every scene follows Arthur, this narrative sleight-of-hand means we shouldn’t be sure that anything we’ve seen before is accurate, or whether it’s Arthur’s imagination or reinterpretation. At least three times, people are nasty or cruel to Arthur for seemingly no reason: the punks who steal his sign and beat him up in the alley, the mom who snaps at him on the bus, and the Wall Street-ish jerks who bully a woman and then attack him on the subway. (We might even throw in the social worker who doesn’t seem to listen all that closely.) Except . . . did they? The movie suggests that he’s the love child of Thomas Wayne and a family servant, then suggests that he isn’t, and then it leaves the window open again — we see his mother insisting that the story of his adoption is a fake to cover up the scandal of Wayne impregnating the staff. A bizarrely reckless co-worker gives the obviously twitchy and medicated Fleck a gun for protection . . . or did he?

In the climactic scene, Arthur gets interviewed on a Johnny Carson/David Letterman style late-night comedy talk show host. (I see you, Dr. Ruth stand-in and subtle shout-out to The Dark Knight Returns.) Arthur gets the chance to offer his self-justifying monologue, arguing that the world is mean and uncivil (it is) and that someone like Thomas Wayne has no idea what it’s like to live a life like his (he doesn’t). Then the argues that DeNiro’s talk show host is as mean as the rest, because he invited him on the show to make fun of him. (He did.)

This is a frustrating argument to put front and center before the climax, because the Joker is at least technically right about everything he says — or at least he seems right based upon what we’ve seen in the film so far. We haven’t seen him kill anyone who was the least bit likable; we learn that even his mother has done terrible things to him. For a maniac filled with rage, this Joker picks some frustratingly reasonable targets for his rage. Joker’s vengeance against the talk show host is swift and brutal, and hopefully everyone in the audience will recognize that however legitimate or accurate Joker’s gripes about society’s injustices are, his solution is abominable. An early fantasy scene suggests Fleck just wants the love of a father and to be treated with respect — or at least, that’s what Fleck imagines he wants. But from what we can see, what he really wants to do is kill people because he thinks it’s funny.

People will understandably freak out about this movie and the messages some people would take away from it. Mass murder as a form of protesting society is having a big moment right now: Shooting cops, shooting Latinos in Wal-Mart, shooting classmates, shooting family members. We are awash in angry people — mostly angry young men, but not exclusively — who insist that their family, classmates, parents, cops, and society at large treated them so badly that the only way they could even the score was by picking up a gun and trying to put bullets into other people’s bodies.

Every post-shooting manifesto is the same: I may look like a villain to you but I’m really the hero, because of how I suffered. They almost always insist that someone else who’s really to blame, and the murderers the true victims because of what has come before, wrongs that a callous society failed to address. I’ve written in the past about how criminologists and psychologists found many mass shooters to be “grievance collectors,” people who grow increasingly obsessed with the idea that they’ve been uniquely unjustly punished and that someone else has taken advantage of them; everyone else’s good fortune is a sign that they’ve been cheated somehow.

The film’s next-to-closing scene is Joker standing upon a police car, as a rampaging riot of thugs in clown masks, indistinguishable from Antifa or Occupy Wall Street, tear apart the city and revere him as a hero. Fleck smiles his first genuine smile of the movie; despite all of his failures, he’s found his purpose and people who appreciate him for what he is. He has power, he has fame, he’s stumbled into the role of a cult leader of sorts — all because he picked up a gun and started shooting the “right” people without warning, when the cameras were rolling to record it all.

Everyone involved in this film set out to make a gripping and unforgettable portrait of how a man turns into a monster, and they did that with style and panache. But along the way they’ve also made Fleck’s transformation into a monster appear liberating and empowering. Arthur Fleck is a sad sack, and life beats him up in every way imaginable. When he becomes the Joker, he doesn’t endure pain; he inflicts it, with euphoric glee.

Who knows how many frustrated, sad, angry young men watched the movie weekend and saw that scene and thought, “that could be me”?

This isn’t an argument for banning the film, or a suggestion that if someone in a clown mask chooses to do something terrible in the coming days, weeks or months, that the filmmakers are responsible. Criminals are responsible for their own actions. But Joker isn’t as profound as it thinks it is, or it wants to be. You could have made a similar film from the perspective of the Columbine shooters or the Sandy Hook shooter or Timothy McVeigh or Mohammed Atta. Every evil man believes he’s doing the right thing, that in the long run, his actions will be seen as justified and righteous.

A slew of creative people set out to make a film that would teach us how the world looks when seen through the eyes of a psychopath. Except we get those lessons outside the theater with disturbing regularity.

ADDENDUM: It’s amazing that anyone is ever this country’s ally: “The White House said Sunday that U.S. forces in northeast Syria will move aside and clear the way for an expected Turkish assault, essentially abandoning Kurdish fighters who fought alongside American forces in the years-long battle to defeat Islamic State militants.”

Elections

Trump Calling for China to Investigate Hunter Biden Doesn’t Appear to Make Sense

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Hunter Biden (left) and then–Vice President Joe Biden walk down Pennsylvania Avenue following the inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2009. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Trump talks about the Bidens and China, mangling what ought to be a clear and compelling argument; a diagnosis of the reporters covering the Democratic primary and which candidate reminds them the most of themselves; and David Brooks’s “Flyover Man” tells the New York Times readership things that they don’t want to hear.

Mr. President, Why Would China Want to Investigate Hunter Biden?

President Trump, speaking to reporters yesterday:

REPORTER: Mr. President, what exactly did you hope Zelensky would do about the Bidens after your phone call? Exactly.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I would think that, if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens, because how does a company that’s newly formed — and all these companies, if you look at — And, by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with — with Ukraine

Later:

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think Biden is going down. And I think his whole situation — because now you may very well find that there are many other countries that they scammed, just like they scammed China and Ukraine. And basically, who are they really scamming? The USA. And it’s not good.

Q: He said he was carrying out the official policy —

THE PRESIDENT: And that’s probably why China, for so many years, has had a sweetheart deal where China rips off the USA — because they deal like people with Biden, where they give their son a billion and a half dollars. And that’s probably why China has such a sweetheart deal that, for so many years, they’ve been ripping off our country.

“What happened in China” was that Hunter Biden, after forming the investment consulting firm Rosemont Seneca, met with two top executives of China’s sovereign wealth fund, social security fund, and largest banks. It is not an exaggeration to say these were some of the biggest and most powerful investors in the world; in 2011, the Chinese sovereign wealth fund had more than $800 billion in assets. In 2012, the Chinese social security fund had $137.9 billion in assets.

Let’s be clear: top executives at institutions like that don’t meet with Americans unless the Chinese government is absolutely fine with that meeting. Biden then had meetings with Jonathan Li, who ran a Chinese private-equity fund, Bohai Capital, and Chinese energy tycoon Ye Jianming, whose company, CEFC China Energy, “aligned itself so closely with the Chinese government that it was often hard to distinguish between the two,” according to CNN Again, all of these figures are men who have risen to the top of the Communist-turned-authoritarian-capitalist system. They are not in the business of antagonizing the leadership in Beijing, other than making enough money to stir jealousy.

In other words, everything Hunter Biden was doing was hunky-dory with the Chinese government. Why on earth would the Chinese government want to investigate that?

Trump may come closest to alleging a crime when he contends “they scammed China and Ukraine,” because the Chinese investors may have felt that by investing with Hunter Biden, they were getting influence at the highest level of the Obama administration.

It’s fair to wonder just what Rosemont Seneca had to offer huge institutional investors beyond the stepson of a top Democratic senator-turned-Secretary of State (John Kerry) and the son of the vice president. It certainly wasn’t a big firm, one with an enormously experienced staff, or one with enormous financial resources, and it was new, it had almost no track record.

Trump and Giuliani keep insisting that the Chinese paid or gave Hunter Biden $1.5 billion, and that’s not quite accurate. Hunter Biden, Devon Archer, Jonathan Li, and some other business partners formed BHR Partners in June 2013. Under the terms of the deal, Hunter Biden was an unpaid member of BHR’s board and received his share of the money after his father leaves the White House. According to Hunter Biden’s lawyer, In October 2017, he bought 10 percent of the BHR; as of July, that was worth $430,000. Defenders of the Bidens and critics of Trump will focus on what’s false about the accusation to obscure what’s true about the accusation: institutions that were closely tied to the Chinese government were happy to set up an investment fund that everyone involved hoped would, at some point down the road, turn into a lucrative fortune for everyone — including Hunter Biden.

The argument from Trump and Giuliani would be stronger if they could point to a particular decision by Biden that steered Obama administration policy in a direction friendlier to Beijing’s priorities. There’s mixed evidence here. Some foreign policy analysts argue that when Obama left office, the “U.S.-Chinese security relationship and the Asia-Pacific region in general [were] far tenser than they were at the start of 2009.” From the perspective of the Chinese, Obama attempted to talk a lot, but they didn’t like his “pivot to Asia.” You could argue that the Obama administration was consistently slow, sluggish and nonconfrontational in response to Chinese aggression, but the administration had the same approach to the rise of ISIS, the Iranian regime, and North Korean saber-rattling. Yes, Joe Biden’s perspective about China has been characterized as naïve — “they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us” — but Biden had that perspective long before Hunter Biden started striking deals with Chinese investors.

Team Trump keeps insisting that the meeting with Zelensky didn’t include a specific quid pro quo. (That’s a bit of a stretch; right after Zelensky mentions the Javelin missiles, Trump says, “I want you to do me a favor.”) But we can turn around and apply the same standard to the Bidens: what was the quid pro quo in the deal with China? What did China specifically get from this arrangement that it would not have gotten anyway?

As I tried to lay out in the timeline, the problem with Hunter Biden wasn’t that what he was doing was illegal. The problem is that it was legal! The United States has no law that bars the family of members of Congress or the president or vice president from working as lobbyists, setting up hedge funds, setting up investment funds, or sitting on the boards of foreign entities. Maybe we ought to have some laws; maybe there’s just too much opportunity to “buy friendship” and create a backdoor way of making a payment to a politician’s closest relatives. If you want to have enormous power over shaping government policy, you and those close to you will have to sacrifice some financial opportunities.

Lots of powerful political figures have children that turn out… not so great. It’s tough living in the shadow of a powerful and beloved father. The Kennedys would be exhibit A. George W. Bush’s life until his late 30s would be exhibit B. Drinking, drug abuse, messy divorces, run-ins with the law . . . There’s a long bipartisan tradition of politicians getting their kids minimal-responsibility, well-compensated jobs on campaigns, in offices, with lobbying firms, consulting firms, companies run by big donors, appointed to boards and commissions and so on. What happened here was a gradual escalation of this common practice.

Warren Can Rally Her Base and Meet with Reporters at the Same Time!

Over in the Washington Post, David Byler offers a sharp assessment that will irritate two groups: members of the national media and fans of Elizabeth Warren. His contention is that they are one and the same, really.

Warren also matches an upscale cultural image of who the president should be. Many in the media followed a specific academic and professional path: We did our homework, took tough classes, competed on the high school speech and debate team, maybe went to an elite college, got a white-collar job and earned institutional validation all along the way. Warren and Buttigieg are the real-life images of that version of success, in which ambitious, academically accomplished, culturally refined people work extremely hard within institutions to achieve “meritocratic” recognition. Other Democrats fit the bill, too: Cory Booker was a Rhodes scholar, as well; Amy Klobuchar is a Yale- and University of Chicago-educated lawyer; and Julián Castro interned in the Clinton White House while at Stanford University. But they haven’t targeted the demographic many members of the media happen to fall into as clearly as Warren and Buttigieg have.

If you ask someone to describe the traits their ideal president would have, they will often describe someone like themselves, or at least someone with the traits they want to believe that they themselves have. (Whether people really see themselves clearly is debatable and a topic for another time.) Many outspoken people believe that being outspoken is a good trait to have and an advantage in life. Many highly educated people believe this is the single best measurement of a person’s ability to do a job well. People who are methodical and deliberate are usually wary about leaders who are impulsive and trust their guts. Veterans may often prefer a candidate who’s worn the uniform, gun owners would prefer a candidate who is one of them, and members of various faiths gravitate to candidates who share the same beliefs.

What do members of the media do well? Hopefully, write and speak clearly. (I know, I know, a lot of days the Three Martini Lunch and pop culture podcasts are festivals of “um” and “you know” and other verbal placeholders, and this newsletter has been mixing up “addenda” (plural) and “addendum” (singular) from the start.) Sure, members of the national political media will generally be left-of-center and prefer Democratic candidates. But they’ll really swoon over eloquent speeches and polished essays, op-eds, and occasionally the autobiographies and campaign books. (Those are usually ghostwritten anyway.)

‘Flyover Man’ Has a Point

Continuing the theme of columnists telling their colleagues and readers something they don’t want to hear, David Brooks channels “Flyover Man”, the Trump supporter who lives away from the coast: “The media fixates on scandals because they’re easier to talk about than complex issues like why urban and rural America are drifting further apart. You wasted billions of hours speculating about the Mueller report, and now news about Adam Schiff overshadows everything else while my world burns. Let’s face it: Bashing Trump is the media’s business model. That’s what drives eyeballs and profit.”

ADDENDA: Elsewhere in the New York Times, Spencer Bokat-Lindell reexamines whether Facebook should be broken up into smaller companies . . .

You can enjoy my late-afternoon chat with Ed Morrissey from yesterday.

White House

When the Story Is Written, the Whistleblower Will Just Be an Afterthought

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President Donald Trump listens to reporters in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why the whistleblower will be only a minor player in the upcoming impeachment drama; the lower-tier Democratic presidential candidates start turning on each other; and the Joker movie is almost here.

How Much Does the Whistleblower Really Matter?

Here’s an assessment sure to be unpopular: When the story of the impeachment effort against President Trump is written, the whistleblower will be an afterthought or a minor player in the overall story at most. Either the whistleblower’s claims are accurate, or they aren’t. Impeachment will hinge upon whether President Trump’s actions strike lawmakers as an effort to effectively blackmail Ukraine into finding dirt on Joe Biden, or whether it’s just Trump being Trump, wanting the facts on Biden strong-arming a foreign government to fire a prosecutor who might have been investigating a company that employed his son. The vast majority of lawmakers’ conclusions on this will just happen to align with their partisan affiliations.

The whistleblower might be a really partisan individual, or the whistleblower might have no strong political views and simply saw the president as crossing an ethical line in a way too egregious to remain silent. The motive of the accuser doesn’t make the accusation any more or less true or false. The proper procedure for handling a complaint like this may have been followed, or it may not have; it certainly sounds like a labyrinth.

The whistleblower, employed by the CIA and who at one point worked at the White House, first offered an anonymous complaint to the CIA’s general counsel, Courtney Elwood. Elwood was obligated to check out the complaint and contacted John A. Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel and her counterpart at the National Security Council. Eisenberg and Elwood both spoke on Aug. 14 to John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division. Demers read the transcript of the call and went to deputy attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, and Brian Benczkowski, the head of the department’s criminal division. Shortly thereafter, Attorney General William Barr was briefed about the brewing issue. Meanwhile, that CIA officer then went separately to the House Intelligence Committee, and an intelligence panel staffer told the whistleblower to get a lawyer and go to the CIA Inspector General. That panel staffer at some point informed chairman Adam Schiff.

Adam Schiff’s spokesman, Patrick Boland, told the New York Times that the congressman “never saw any part of the complaint or knew precisely what the whistle-blower would deliver.” How much work is “precisely” doing in that sentence?

Our Mairead McArdle already noticed that on September 17, Schiff appeared on MSNBC and declared, “We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower. We would like to, but I’m sure the whistleblower has concerns that he has not been advised as the law requires by the inspector general or the director of national intelligence just as to how he is to communicate with Congress.” He didn’t speak directly with the whistleblower, but his committee staff did.

We now know Schiff’s statement on MSNBC wasn’t accurate; some people would call that a lie.  (If you’re House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, you’ve probably noticed that is two unforced errors on the part of Schiff in this process already; first the ‘parody’ of Trump’s call readout, now this not-quite-true statement.)

You’re going to continue to hear a lot of claims that the whistleblower isn’t credible because of the information being secondhand. Once again, this is somewhat moot; either the president did what he’s accused of or not. Senator Chuck Grassley lays this out: “When it comes to whether someone qualifies as a whistleblower, the distinctions being drawn between first- and second-hand knowledge aren’t legal ones. It’s just not part of whistleblower protection law or any agency policy. Complaints based on second-hand information should not be rejected out of hand, but they do require additional leg work to get at the facts and evaluate the claim’s credibility.”

If the whistleblower had never written up the complaint, we may well have ended up in this same place anyway. Defense appropriators on Capitol Hill were inevitably going to notice that security assistance to Ukraine was getting delayed, and were already starting to complain in late August.

In fact, notice this August 21 report in the New York Times:

Over the last few weeks, Mr. Giuliani has spoken on the phone and held an in-person meeting, in Madrid, with a top representative of the new Ukrainian president, encouraging his government to ramp up investigations into two matters of intense interest to Mr. Trump.

One is whether Ukrainian officials took steps during the 2016 election to damage Mr. Trump’s campaign. The other is whether there was anything improper about the overlap between former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s diplomatic efforts in Ukraine and his son’s role with a gas company there.

Mr. Giuliani’s efforts have inflamed the situation, said several government officials who handle foreign policy in the United States and Ukraine. Speaking anonymously to avoid running afoul of Mr. Trump or his allies, they blamed Mr. Giuliani for complicating efforts to arrange a visit by Mr. Zelensky to the White House, and for creating a perception that such a meeting would be contingent upon the new Ukrainian government demonstrating support for the investigations.

Meaning by mid-to-late August, some unnamed U.S. government officials were complaining to the New York Times about the “creation of a perception” that a quid pro quo was at work with the new Ukrainian leadership. Was the whistleblower one of their sources? Or were the efforts of the whistleblower redundant, considering the officials speaking to the Times?

One other wrinkle being widely overlooked: the investigation into Burisma had been reopened by a prosecutor appointed by Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro O. Poroshenko. The New York Times, May 1: “Kostiantyn H. Kulyk, a deputy for Mr. Lutsenko who was handling the cases before being reassigned last month, told The New York Times that he was scrutinizing millions of dollars of payments from Burisma to the firm that paid Hunter Biden.” So it’s not quite accurate to say Trump and Giuliani wanted the Ukrainians to investigate Hunter Biden; they wanted them to reopen the investigation into Hunter Biden and Burisma.

For what it’s worth, John Solomon wrote back in April that Ukrainian prosecutors had “financial records showing a Ukrainian natural gas company routed more than $3 million to American accounts tied to Hunter Biden.” Was that just the routine payments for a board member? What was the crime being investigated? Was Hunter Biden simply guilty of being underqualified, overpaid, and a figurehead to create the impression that Burisma is better-connected than it really was? Or had some U.S. or Ukrainian law been broken by the company?

The Second- and Third-Tier Democrats Start Eating Their Own

Running for office is hard. Running for president is particularly hard. People who have run for lower office multiple times and won statewide suddenly find themselves flailing once they run for president. Lawmakers with sterling resumes, top-flight intellects, buckets of charisma, sharp wits, and amiable senses of humor can jump into a presidential race and suddenly find themselves stumbling and never really even getting competitive. The list, to quote Top Gun, is long and distinguished: Pete Wilson, Tommy Thompson, Phil Gramm, Jack Kemp, Bill Bradley, Mo Udall.

Losing stinks, and the closing days of a doomed presidential campaign must feel like a daily exercise in humiliation. You can’t get enough press attention, and when you do, it’s negative. If you spill something on your tie or shirt while trying some god-awful local delicacy, that’s the picture of you that will run on the front page of the biggest newspaper in Iowa or New Hampshire. Attendance at your town hall meetings is sparse, and every question amounts to, “so, what will you do for me?” Groups invite you to an ‘issues forum’ out of obligation, knowing if they were ever seriously considering endorsing you, that time passed a while ago. Some SUV splattered mud on your yard signs by the side of the road. Some strip club buys ad space right next to your billboard by the highway. Staffers quit or secretly send their resumes to your rivals.

Desperation kicks in, and it’s no wonder that some candidates get a little angrier and nastier as the heat is turned up. This year’s second and third tier of the Democratic field is starting to turn into a piranha tank.

Beto O’Rourke Saturday: “I mean, I could maybe do a Facebook livestream with a kitten and, say, you know, ‘Now, we don’t want anything to happen to the kitten . . . and so, you know, send your $5 or $10 or $15 in now. And, you know, Miss Whiskers is going to be fine.'”

O’Rourke, Wednesday: “I heard some of the comments made today on this stage,” O’Rourke said Wednesday at a “March for Our Lives” forum in Las Vegas. “Those who are worried about the polls and want to triangulate — I’m thinking about Mayor Pete on this one.”

Cory Booker, later that day, noted that O’Rourke “criticized me when I came out for” licensing, but noted that the Texas Democrat now supports the policy. And Cory Booker’s the nice guy in this race!

Julian Castro’s press secretary chose to hit Saturday Night Live for not including him in their Democratic debate sketch.

Do you smell that? Take a big whiff. That’s premium desperation right there!

ADDENDA: I did not expect to see the day I would be quoted in Hello, the international celebrity news magazine. One minor correction; I didn’t review Joker, I simply wrote about what seemed unnerving about the tone and message of the trailer. I have little doubt that at some point in the film — which our Kyle Smith called “mesmerizing” — the filmmakers will attempt to make clear that no matter how terribly society has treated Arthur Fleck, he’s not justified in becoming a homicidal maniac. The question is, does the audience understand that point? Kyle writes, “Set in a 1981 urban hell piled with garbage and overrun by rats, Joker channels the notorious misfits of the era, including fictional ones: Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Bernhard Goetz, Travis Bickle (whose actions inspired Hinckley, the failed assassin of President Reagan) and Rupert Pupkin (an entertainment-industry isotope of Bickle).” The thing is, a bunch of those real-life figures looked at violent cinema and believed it was telling them that their violent acts were okay. It doesn’t seem hard to imagine that some ticking time bomb out there will watch this story and perceive the same message . . .

Separately, I’m scheduled to appear on Ed Morrissey’s program today around 5 p.m. eastern.

Elections

How the Trump Campaign Is Preparing for 2020

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(Jim Bourg/REUTERS)

Yesterday, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee announced they had raised a combined $125 million over the past three months and had $156 million in cash on hand — roughly twice as much as President Obama and the DNC had at this point in the 2012 cycle.

The good news for the Democrats in that is that more spending doesn’t always guarantee a win. Hillary Clinton and the DNC out-raised Trump and the RNC in 2016, and her allied SuperPACs outspent the Trump-aligned ones. The bad news is that the game plan for an incumbent president with a gargantuan campaign war chest is clear and relatively easy to execute, and when done correctly, can more or less “win” the presidential race before it even begins.

Why have four of the last five incumbent presidents won reelection? There are a lot of reasons, but a big one is that the structure of the primary calendar, the rules for campaign spending, and party unified behind the president give the party in power an enormous structural advantage. In 1996 and 2012, incumbent presidents had enormous resources to run ads in swing states defining the Republican nominee, when the GOP nominee had used all his money to win the primary and did not have any cash to return fire. The Clinton and Obama campaigns, along with help from their friends the media, defined the image of Bob Dole and Mitt Romney before the contest really started. In 2004, the Bush campaign ran similar advertising against John Kerry in swing states.

Trump won’t have the assistance from the media, but he will have a Democratic primary that will probably go deep into the spring and drain the resources of the eventual nominee and may well leave some bad blood among supporters of the final candidates. And like Bush’s campaign in 2004 and Obama’s campaign 2012, they’ll have the resources to experiment with all kinds of voter-targeting technology and get-out-the-vote apps and gadgets and doodads. Not all of them will work, but not all of them need to work. Well-funded campaigns have the freedom to try new ideas that aren’t guaranteed; they don’t have to put all their eggs in one basket. The last two Republican presidential victories were driven by Republicans turning out in rural and ex-urban precincts in numbers that the Democratic campaigns never imagined.

It’s easy to find compelling arguments about why Trump will have a tough time getting reelected. His approval rating is low in many important states and has been low for a while. His head-to-head polling against the top Democrats is not encouraging at all. The 2018 midterm elections demonstrated a whole bunch of suburban voters who were usually at least open to voting for the Republican Party had sharply turned against the Trumpified Republican Party. Trump is a very nontraditional president, which means he may not enjoy the traditional advantages of incumbency.

But marinating in the political coverage of the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed, and the rest could give someone the impression that the dramatic portion of the 2020 election will effectively end when Democrats pick their nominee, and that Trump is toast. Democrats may well be underestimating the difficulty of beating Trump in November 2020.

Let’s get the polling argument out of the way. Nate Silver argued after the election that “Trump outperformed his national polls by only 1 to 2 percentage points in losing the popular vote to Clinton, making them slightly closer to the mark than they were in 2012. Meanwhile, he beat his polls by only 2 to 3 percentage points in the average swing state.” (It’s really worth noting that some key states had very little polling in the final week, and a bunch of the polls that were released had been asking questions ‘out in the field’ for long stretches. The last YouGov poll in Wisconsin was collecting responses from October 4 to November 6. That’s not ideal for perceiving a late break in the direction of one candidate.)

It’s easy to believe that there is a group of voters who intend to vote for Trump but who don’t want to say so to anyone before Election Day. Voting for Trump gets labeled racist, xenophobic, fascist, hateful, sexist, and so on. It’s reasonable to argue that Trump will do better than his late polling numbers, but we don’t know if this “shy Trump voter” demographic is one percent of the voting electorate, two percent, five percent . . .

Trump’s lousy job approval numbers indicate a lot of Americans are getting tired of the daily drama and the constant circus. But the Democrats are not running on a return to normalcy. They’ve publicly and loudly embraced a whole bunch of ideas that don’t poll nearly as well as the candidates themselves do. Medicare for All polls well until people are asked if they’re willing to give up their current private health insurance for it. When told they would have to give it up, support drops from 70 percent to 41 percent.

Only 33 percent think it’s a good idea to create a national health insurance program for people who are in the country illegally, and only 27 percent support decriminalizing crossing the U.S. border without permission. Only 27 percent think reparations for slavery are a good idea. Only 32 percent of American adults think their state should make it easier for women to have an abortion. Only 4 percent of Americans think the taxes they pay are too low; 45 percent think the taxes they pay are too high. Only 35 percent want the death penalty abolished nationwide; only 31 percent think those currently in prison should be allowed to vote.

The 2020 election will see a deep urban vs. rural divide and the Democrats should have the upper hand in the suburbs. On paper, that should add up to a win for Democrats. But there’s a reason that previous generations of Democrats spent a lot of years courting the white working class, farmers, union members, etcetera. In that recent House special election in North Carolina, Democrat Dan McReady did even better than in 2018 in the most heavily suburban county. But he did worse in all of the more rural counties compared to last November, and Republican Dan Bishop won by 2 percentage points. If Democrats don’t pursue votes in these communities, they’re leaving a lot of votes on the table. Montana governor Steve Bullock’s whole presidential campaign is an attempt to pull the fire alarm about this for the rest of the party, and most Democrats are ignoring him.

Trump reelection campaign strategists like Bill Stepien say they’ve identified “2018 disengagers” — voters who enthusiastically turned out for Trump in 2016 but sat home during the mid-term elections in 2018. And there are a handful of states that Trump lost in 2016 that could be won just by getting the Trump vote a little higher. Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire by just 2,736 votes. Clinton and Trump split the congressional districts in Maine, winning one electoral vote each, and she won the statewide total (and the other two electoral votes) by a margin of 20,035 votes. Clinton’s margin in Nevada wasn’t that much bigger at 27,202 votes. And if the Trump team thinks it can outperform their 2016 totals by a five-figure sum in key states, two more states appear within reach. Clinton’s margin in Minnesota was just 44,593 votes; in New Mexico, 65,567 votes.

Thirty-two states and territories will have held their primaries by March 29, 2020; the Democratic nominee may be clear by then. The party nominee’s campaign doesn’t get to control and direct spending of the national party until they’re officially the nominee, which won’t happen until July 16, 2020. In April, May, June, and early July, the Trump campaign will have an enormous window of opportunity to define his opponent as extremist, out-of-touch, reckless, unethical, etcetera.

Oh, and if the Democrats nominate Elizabeth Warren, some big donors may sit out the cycle or switch sides, according to CNBC’s inquiries to Democrats working in the financial industry: “Democratic donors on Wall Street and in big business are preparing to sit out the presidential campaign fundraising cycle — or even back President Donald Trump — if Sen. Elizabeth Warren wins the party’s nomination.” So if Warren really is overtaking Trump, as her fans hope, Trump’s fundraising advantage may grow further.

Now put all of these pieces together: In spring 2020, as the Democratic nominee is becoming clearer, the Trump campaign and RNC take some of that $150 million or so and use it to run ads defining the Democratic nominee as extremist who wants to ban private health insurance, offer taxpayer-funded health care to illegal immigrants, decriminalize crossing the border illegally, raise taxes, make it easier to get an abortion, enact reparations for slavery, and ban the death penalty. They target cost-effective, not-so-big television markets like Green Bay, Madison, Wausau, Marquette, Eau Claire, Erie, Harrisburg Duluth, Cedar Rapids, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Wilkes-Barre, and Winston-Salem. Maybe if they’ve really got money lying around, they expand into Bangor, Fargo (it reaches into northwest Minnesota) Sioux Falls (southwest Minnesota) Albuquerque-Santa Fe, Mankato, and Rochester, Minn. Suddenly, after months of ads laying out the unpopular stances of the new Democratic nominee, that nominee isn’t polling so well in head-to-head matchups with Trump, and that vulnerable incumbent president doesn’t look so vulnerable anymore.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it, the NRA finds a happy ending in San Francisco.

White House

The State of Impeachment

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President Trump after his first address to a joint session of Congress in February 2017. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Democrats strategize how to proceed with impeachment, while Mickey and I record another wide-ranging episode of the pop-culture podcast — including a discussion on how to criticize a film without banning it.

The Inherent Tensions within the Effort to Impeach President Trump

Writing in the New York Times, Elizabeth Drew warns that Democrats are “risking making their target too narrow and moving too fast. In so doing they could end up implicitly bestowing approval on other presidential acts that amount to a long train of abuses of power. And going too quickly could shut off the oxygen that might fuel Republican acceptance that it’s time to break with Mr. Trump — perhaps enough of them to end his presidency.”

That’s the real trick, isn’t it? If impeachment takes a long while — the impeachment of Clinton took six months — the country will acclimate to and digest the latest charges and shrug that it’s just Trump being Trump. The White House can drag this out if it wants to, and it’s probably to the president’s advantage to make this process last as long as possible. And there will always be Democrats who contend they’ve discovered something new that needs to be added to the articles of impeachment.

Monday, lawyers for House Democrats contended that Trump lied to the Mueller investigation about his campaign’s contact with WikiLeaks, creating another reason to pursue impeachment. A Harvard law professor argued that Trump’s tweet about Pastor Robert Jeffress warning about the potential of another civil war is itself a separate justification for impeachment.

Democrats believe that Trump can and should be justified for violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, for not reporting the payments to Stormy Daniels as a campaign expenditure, for firing James Comey (Rep. Al Green), for “creating chaos and division”, (Rep. Maxine Waters), for “being a clear and present danger” (Tom Steyer), for “undermining the federal judiciary” (Rep. Steve Cohen), for being “the most dangerous president in American history” (DNC Chair Tom Perez), for “betraying his oath of office” (Nancy Pelosi), for offering to host the next G7 summit at his own personal property (the House Judiciary Committee).

All told, Grabien has found 89 reasons Democrats have listed to justify impeaching the president.

The advantage of the Ukraine story is that it is simple and direct. A bunch of the reasons listed above are vague and matters of opinion. (Doesn’t any criticism of any judge or judicial decision “undermine the federal judiciary”? When President Obama mischaracterized the Citizens United decision and rebuked the Supreme Court to their faces during the State of the Union in 2010, that wasn’t undermining the federal judiciary?)

But if the Democrats pursue impeachment over the Ukraine policy, and then it fails in the Senate, they will look like a bunch of maniacs if they then turn around and say, “wait a minute, we forgot his violations of the emoluments clause. Clearly foreign governments buying rooms and booking events at Trump hotels is backdoor bribery, we’re going to start this whole process all over again on a different issue.”

Over at The Intercept, Mehdi Hasan argues that Democrats can’t leave other issues unmentioned in their impeachment effort:

For House Democrats to wait this long and then impeach a reckless, lawless, racist, tax-dodging president only over his interactions with the president of Ukraine would effectively give Trump a clean bill of health on everything else. Going into an election year, Democrats would be unilaterally disarming — unable to offer further substantive criticisms of Trump’s crimes and abuses of power across the board. “Why didn’t you impeach him for it?” Republicans will ask.

But the more counts of impeachment the House Democrats bring, the longer the process will drag on. Even if the Democrats choose to skip hearings — which is not going to reassure people that this is not a partisan vendetta — the Senate is going to have to debate and dissect the evidence on each one of these charges.

Then again, maybe Democrats believe the proper historical consequence for Trump is for him to be the first president impeached by the House multiple separate times. Drew asks, “if a president were to be impeached more than once, what is the meaning of impeachment?” (If you’re talking about going back again a second time, as Pelosi reportedly is, you’re pretty much admitting that you don’t expect to get the 67 votes needed to remove him from office.) This will change impeachment from a rarely used ultimate consequence for presidential lawbreaking — the atomic bomb of our separation of powers — to just another way for Congress to say, “we disapprove of you.” It will turn into a resolution of censure.

What We Won’t Be Talking About While We’re Talking About Impeachment

There are a lot of reasons to be frustrated by the state of American politics right now. Maybe you think the impeachment of President Trump is long overdue; maybe you think this is a de facto coup attempt against a legitimately elected president. Barring some dramatic turn of events, the next few months will be dominated by the impeachment process. The odds of other legislation getting passed were already bad, now there’s almost no chance.

Meanwhile, beyond Washington, life goes on.

But we’re not going to hear much about any of that while Washington is obsessed with an impeachment process that is almost certainly going to fall short of the 67 votes needed to remove the president.

ADDENDA: Mickey and I recorded another wide-ranging edition of the pop culture podcast that discusses the Vontaze Burfict suspension, Ziva returning to the unkillable NCIS, Prodigal Son and Hollywood’s now-almost-clichéd sophisticated, debonair serial killers; The Irishman and how I can prove the trailer makes it look like the most Martin Scorscese-ish Martin Scorscese movie of all time; Kanye West prepares to unveil a gospel album and whether he’s forming the “Branch Kanyedians,” whether Saturday Night Live has turned a corner and is funny again or whether they’re just making fun of Democrats for a change, and why this year’s Emmy awards were a snore.

We also touch on the Joker movie again. My friend Christian Toto, creator of the excellent Hollywood In Toto site, reports that Warner Brothers announced they will not allow reporters to ask questions of the cast, crew and creators at the premiere, a decision Toto calls cowardly. “Our Constitution protects our right to express ourselves. That could mean an offensive painting, a love sonnet or a major motion picture that could captivate the nation on opening day. Warner Bros. should stand aside and let their artists speak.”

As I’ve noted before, we need some sort of space for criticism of an artist or filmmaker’s decision that falls short of “ban it,” something that argues, “this film is arguing in favor of something that is wrong.” The 2002 Denzel Washington medical drama John Q. was meant to be an indictment of America’s health care system, but basically tries to argue that taking hostages and forcing doctors to perform a surgery at gunpoint is a morally justified act. We’re rooting for the protagonist because he’s trying to save his son, and he’s played by Denzel, but the movie’s inherent contention is that it’s morally justified, even heroic, to force people to do things through threats of violence if the stakes are high enough. If you make that movie from the surgeon’s perspective, it’s the story of a maniac with a gun who bursts into the hospital and threatens to kill you unless you save his son.

Christian’s raising money for a redesign of his site; you can help him out here.

White House

The Coming Battle of Exhausting Perpetual Outrages

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President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House, September 9, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

One of the factors that may impede the Democrats’ efforts to impeach President Trump is outrage fatigue in the American public. Outrage fatigue is also probably going to be a factor that causes Americans to tune out President Trump’s own metronomic insistence that he’s always the victim of a vast confluence of sinister foes.

There are a couple of defenses you can make of the president’s behavior regarding Ukraine. (I have contended and still believe that attempting to restrict congressionally authorized and appropriated security aid to Ukraine unless the Ukrainian government investigates a potential rival of the president is a straight-up abuse of presidential power.)

You could argue, as Luke Thompson does, that President Trump did nothing wrong. Thompson is correct when he writes that the United States government has a compelling interest in knowing if its private citizens are involved in corruption abroad, either alone or in concert with current, former, or future public officials. The catch is that this is why we have institutions like the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The lead investigator of allegations of American citizens and officials participating in corruption abroad is not supposed to be the president’s personal attorney. If Trump had said something along the lines of, “if you encounter any evidence that any American committed a crime, be sure to reach out to our Department of Justice, and let me know if the State Department can help with any extradition issues,” this would not have provided much fodder for impeachment advocates, because Trump would be steering the investigation through proper channels.

Defenders of the president could more or less plead ignorance. You periodically hear variations of the argument, “look, Trump’s not a politician, he’s never worked in government before, he just doesn’t know what sort of thing is allowed and what isn’t.” Except that’s his job as president to know the laws that define and limit his authority and the Constitutional boundaries. That’s not a side issue or errata; it’s a prerequisite.

Defenders of the president could argue that Trump wasn’t specifically looking for dirt on Biden out of partisan and personal interests, and that this is just a reflection of a commitment to good and honest government. That argument would be stronger if we had ever heard Trump publicly going on at length about corruption in other countries. It’s not like there’s a shortage of good suspects: North Korea, Sudan, Cambodia, Haiti, Turkmenistan, Nicaragua, etcetera. Cisco, IBM, and SAP share source code with Russian authorities, including Russia’s Federal Security Service, more commonly known as the FSB. I’ve never heard Trump complain that American companies could be inadvertently facilitating Russian hackers, cyber-espionage, or cyber-attacks, or turning a blind eye to their corrupt partners.

Defenders of the president could argue that the security assistance to Ukraine was a bad idea in the first place. As I noted last week, there is a way for the president to attempt to stop the expenditure of congressionally authorized and appropriated funds. It’s called the Impoundment Control Act, and it’s like a veto, complete with Congress having the opportunity to override the veto. Trump didn’t bother.

You could argue that what the president did was wrong but doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. As Andy McCarthy writes, “Trump should not use the powers of his office solely for the purpose of obtaining campaign ammunition to deploy against a potential foe. But all presidents who seek reelection wield their power in ways designed to improve their chances. If Trump went too far in that regard, we could look with disfavor on that while realizing that he would not be the first president to have done so.” Congress has options to rebuke or punish a president short of impeachment, but few Democrats are interested in those. After all, folks like Rashida Tlaib have impeachment merchandise to sell.

Defenders of the president are likely to deploy some variation of “turnabout is fair play.” There are undoubtedly some people asking how different Trump’s request to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is from all the favor-trading that went on at the Clinton Foundation in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

You may recall those “lock her up” chants. At any point, the new administration could have investigated the Clinton Global Initiative. It’s not like there was never any credible evidence of influence-peddling there. In a 2011 memo to Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, John Podesta, and other members of the foundation’s board, the ex-president’s longtime aide Doug Band laid out how his consulting firm simultaneously gave donations to both the Clinton Foundation and lucrative speaking and consulting gigs for the former president from the same companies and individuals. After the election, foreign governments suddenly announced they were no longer interested in donating to the Clinton Global Initiative, indicating that once Hillary Clinton was no longer likely to be in a position to influence American policy, they didn’t see a point to sending more money. Band also contended that Clinton Foundation funds had been used to pay for Chelesa Clinton’s wedding, although he showed no supporting evidence. Huma Abedin, the longtime aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, worked for a little under a year as a “special government employee” for the State Department, while simultaneously working as a consultant for Band’s firm called Teneo, giving private investors information about the government.

The Department of Justice could have investigated any or all of these claims and unusual arrangements. They didn’t.

In November 22, 2016, Trump said during an interview that he didn’t “want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t. She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways.”

On December 10, 2016, at a “thank you rally” in Michigan, after the “lock her up” chants began again, President-elect Trump said, “No, it’s okay. Forget it. That plays great before the election. Now, we don’t care, right?”

Why did the Clintons get away with it? Because no one chose to investigate further, probably taking their cues from the incoming commander in chief.

No, what we’re going to get for the next six months is just unending servings of the biggest level of outrage possible from all the major players.

On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee held a hearing and chairman Adam Schiff attempted to, in his words, “parody” the president’s comments in the call during a hearing on the whistleblower’s complaint that helped bring Trump’s call with Zelensky. This was a bad decision for a lot of reasons. The readout had just come out earlier that morning; some people hearing Schiff’s words may have thought, at least initially, that he was quoting the real words from the president. While various lines hinted at the parodic nature — “I’m only going to say this seven times, so you listen good” — it wasn’t all that funny; it seemed to be some sort of Schiff fan-fiction of how he imagined Trump speaking to foreign leaders like Tony Soprano. Stephen Hayes, formerly of the Weekly Standard and light-years away from being a fan of Trump declared, “The Trump/Zelensky phone call readout is bad on its face. And yet, Adam Schiff, not satisfied with the facts as they are, offers a summary that is a distortion, designed to make it look worse.”

It was a dumb move, and if you’re Nancy Pelosi, you should be fuming that the guy who kept insisting that Russia-gate would lead to impeachment and who then started to complain that Robert Mueller wasn’t doing a thorough enough job kicked off this new stage of investigating the president with some comedy sketch writing.

How does Trump respond this morning? “Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people. It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?”

“Arrest for treason.”

The outrage always has to be turned up to eleven, no matter the issue or circumstances.

ADDENDUM: If you haven’t already, go check out the 3,000-word timeline providing everything you ever wanted to know about Hunter Biden’s employment, work, and connections and deals going back to the early 2000s . . . or at least everything that can be known from public records, public statements, news accounts, and other documents. One aspect that is important is that while many of the particular actions of Hunter Biden — and Joe Biden’s blind eye or tacit approval — can be justified as demonstrations of bad judgment but not quite illegal, a clear pattern emerges when you look at all of them together. Hunter Biden’s clients and business associates always had business before the federal government; they always paid him a lot considering his meager experience; it was often difficult to determine what exactly Hunter Biden offered them beyond his famous surname and connections to power, and they often got arrested and indicted for fraud and bribery schemes, although ones not directly tied to Biden’s work. Collectively, this should probably nuke Biden’s campaign. Every father loves his son, but not every father either allows or assents to his son getting this deep into this many deals with this many shady characters. At some point, Joe Biden needed to say, “for the sake of the public duties I’ve been entrusted with, you can’t do this. The office of the vice presidency comes with a lot of perks, but it also comes with a lot of responsibilities, and one of my responsibilities is to avoid circumstances that create a conflict of interest or even the appearance of a potential conflict of interest. I need you to do something with your talents and abilities that does not involve attempts to shape or profit from U.S. policy.” It would have been a difficult discussion, but it was a needed one.

It didn’t happen, and now we see the consequence.

Elections

Not All Trump Critics Are Sold on Impeachment

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Signs at an anti-Trump protest in Vista, Calif., October 31, 2017. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Raise your hand if you expected the argument against the impeachment of Trump to be led by . . . David Brooks in the New York Times.

This is completely elitist. We’re in the middle of an election campaign. If Democrats proceed with the impeachment process, it will happen amid candidate debates, primaries and caucuses. Elections give millions and millions of Americans a voice in selecting the president. This process gives 100 mostly millionaire senators a voice in selecting the president.

As these two processes unfold simultaneously, the contrast will be obvious. People will conclude that Democrats are going ahead with impeachment in an election year because they don’t trust the democratic process to yield the right outcome. Democratic elites to voters: We don’t trust you. Too many of you are racists!

Impeachment is no longer a rare and grave crisis in American life; it’s becoming a device parties use when the House and the presidency are in the hands of different parties. Democratic House members have already introduced impeachment articles against Trump on at least four occasions. It’s just another partisan thing.

Okay, that’s the . . . er, hard-right MAGA-head Trump loyalist David Brooks. Let’s see what a reasonable Republican like former Ohio governor John Kasich thinks.

[Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president] was completely inappropriate, it’s an outrageous thing . . . You just don’t say, ‘okay, I read a newspaper article, or I saw one transcript, and therefore, you throw the guy out of office. I think it is a long process, and there has to be more, in my opinion . . . I’m not going to support Trump, I didn’t support him the last time, I’m not going to support him again. I don’t think he’s conducted himself appropriately in that office — not just these things, but dividing our country. But that’s a long way from impeachment . . .

I think [Pelosi] moved forward too fast, myself. I think she should have waited until this testimony in the intelligence committee. But she felt a lot of pressure from her party. Her party’s saying, ‘we’re in power, it’s time for us to go and do something here.’ They’re all looking for a pound of flesh because they’re so angry at Donald Trump. You cannot proceed on the basis of emotion and anger. You have to proceed logically, carefully. This is really an important matter. This is not just about Donald Trump, this is about the precedents for the future as well.

Okay, fine, that’s Kasich. He’s always been squishy and looked for the middle ground. Let’s turn to our old friend Jonah Goldberg, who’s called it like he sees it every day of the Trump era:

Impeachment is ultimately a question of whether a president violated the public trust. But there’s nothing in the Constitution that says a president must be impeached for violating the public trust. I can list any number of occasions when presidents have done that and it never even occurred to anyone that they should be impeached for it . . .

Absent new facts, the GOP-controlled Senate will not remove Trump. The president would claim “exoneration,” and his behavior would become normalized for future presidents. So I’m not sure Democrats are right to pursue impeachment. I’m sure Republicans are wrong to pretend that what Trump did was totally fine.

If you’re a Democrat, the hesitation about impeachment from consistent Trump critics like Brooks, Kasich, and Goldberg probably ought to strike you as a red flag. Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t expect the party that’s increasingly openly embracing socialism to recognize a signal of “danger ahead” in a red flag.

For the past week, I’ve been pointing out the challenges of the timing for the Democrats, and how the clock is working against them. The closer the country gets to the general election, the sillier it looks to pursue an impeachment effort to remove a president, particularly when everyone knows impeachment proponents are extremely unlikely to persuade 20 Republican senators to vote to remove him from office.

Apparently the Democrats’ upcoming strategy to cope with this challenge is to focus on, as one Democratic aide put it to the Washington Post, “the need for speed.”: “‘Very few hearings, if any,’ said a senior Democratic aide, who said the coming investigative work will largely take place in closed-door interviews.”

Boy, that’s reassuring, huh? Back in 1998, the House Judiciary Committee held seven separate hearings, running from November 19 to December 12.

Have those senior Democratic aides noticed that the House is out of session for three of the next six weeks? We’re simultaneously being told that this is serious enough to remove a president from office, something this country has never done in its history, and that it’s so important it can’t be left to the voters to judge in the upcoming election, and that so far, it doesn’t require any changes to the schedule of the House of Representatives. Fellas, it doesn’t add up.

Here’s an argument in favor of impeachment: Since day one, progressive Democrats have believed that President Trump deserved to be impeached, and that an overwhelming majority of the American people agree with them, and that they would not suffer any backlash at the ballot box for attempting to remove the president from office. No amount of polling or expressions of nervousness and hesitation from freshman Democrats in swing districts can persuade them. The only way to prove to them that this is a bad idea is to let them go through with it and live with the consequences. Political parties crave power and have a difficult time prioritizing anything above the accumulation and preservation of power. The only thing that will prevent the increasingly common weaponization of impeachment against future presidents is the lesson that this approach costs the impeaching party power.

And if we’re honest, none of us can say with absolute certainty what the consequences of this impeachment effort are going to be. The poll numbers are moving a bit on impeachment, but it’s a familiar story: Democrats love it, Republicans hate it, and independents are marginally against it — 44 percent approve, 50 percent disapprove in the new NPR/PBS/Marist survey.

Maybe there won’t be a political backlash against impeachment in the next election. Democrats surely thought the unpopular impeachment that ended in 1999 would hurt the Republicans, but George W. Bush won the next presidential election and Republicans kept their majorities in the House and Senate. By the time November 2000 rolled around, impeachment was old news. (For what it was worth, Al Gore apparently blamed Clinton’s sex scandals and low personal-approval rating for his loss.)

There’s an old saying in politics that migrated to screenwriting and fiction writing: “Hang a lantern on your problem.” In the context of politics, it means instead of avoiding or downplaying your problem, discuss it openly and directly before anyone else can level an accusation against you. In the screenwriting and fiction writing, it means addressing your plot hole or implausible turn of events before the reader or audience can. “Boy, we’re really lucky that this old hidden passageway was back here! I thought we were trapped! No one ever mentioned it before, and it wasn’t on the map.” “Yeah, I read once that they used this place during Prohibition, it must have been installed by bootleggers!” etcetera.

Impeachment fundamentally is an action that undoes the results of an election, and it is inherently a divisive and angry process. Democrats can’t hide from it, so they might as well embrace it. Back in August, our Kevin Williamson appeared on Bill Maher’s program and made an argument that had not-friendly audience surprisingly nodding in agreement, that some principles of the United States were too important to be decided by popular will:

Like me, you don’t trust big masses of people because they tend to be stupid and easy to scare. All of the best things about our Constitution are the anti-democratic stuff like the Bill of Rights, which is America’s great big list of stuff you idiots don’t get to vote on. If we had put slavery up to a vote in 1860, it’d have won, it’d have won 70 to 30. If we put free speech up to a vote today, it’d probably lose.

By pursuing impeachment before the 2020 election, Democrats are declaring this is too important a matter to leave for Americans to vote on. Democrats might as well say, “Yes, we know about half of you love this man, and about half of you believe that whatever he did, it’s probably justified. We know that you may vote against us in the next election if we attempt to remove him from office. But an abuse of power is an abuse of power, whether it’s popular or unpopular. What the president did was wrong; strong-arming an ally for political dirt on a rival violates his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, and no polling number can change that. Yes, this action will undo the choice of the electorate in 2016. We are indeed overruling the decision of the people, because the people selected someone who cannot perform his duties ethically. Our country is significantly weakened by a president who cannot distinguish between his own personal and political interests and the national interests. This mindset in governing endangers our allies, strengthens our enemies, and makes free and fair elections impossible. This is simply too important to leave in the voters’ hands in 2020.”

A lot of Americans would hate that argument, but few could argue Democrats were not being honest about how they saw the issue. Maybe that’s a bridge too far. But the alternative, as Judge Judy would put it, is to pee on the public’s leg and tell them it’s raining: “We’re not trying to overrule the 2016 election, we’re just trying to remove the president from office.”

I just wish leading Democrats such as Representative Adam Schiff would take the sage advice of this man:

Impeachment is an extraordinary remedy, not to be entertained lightly, and in the case of a president, would mean putting the country through a deeply wrenching process. It is instead a remedy that must be considered soberly, mindful of the fact that removing a president from office should be the recourse for only the most serious transgressions.

Should the facts warrant impeachment, that case will be made more difficult politically if part of the country feels that removing Mr. Trump is the result that some of their fellow Americans were wishing for all along.

That was written by . . . Adam Schiff, back on May 4, 2018.

ADDENDUM: The weeks ahead will inevitably bring a lot of scrutiny about Hunter Biden and his business partners and deals and anything that looks or sounds unsavory or creates the appearance of a conflict of interest for Joe Biden. Surely, no one in the Democratic party could want to fan the flames on that, right?

White House

The Impeachment Fervor Isn’t Going Anywhere

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leads Democrats in introducing proposed “For the People” legislation on Capitol Hill, January 4, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why a Democratic attempt to impeach President Trump was destined from the beginning; why Democrats suddenly get awkward and tongue-tied when asked to bar children of high-ranking officials from serving on foreign corporate boards; and Alexander Hamilton’s warning about how impeachment efforts will always reflect partisan divisions.

A Democratic House Was Always Destined to Impeach President Trump

More than 218 of the 235 House Democrats are now unified in support of an impeachment “inquiry,” and when push comes to shove sometime in the coming months, the overwhelming majority of House Democrats will vote to impeach the president.

The previous resistance to impeachment from Nancy Pelosi was perhaps the right call in terms of long-term political advantage, but also was fundamentally phony. A significant chunk of the Democratic party has wanted to impeach Trump since early in his presidency, in some cases literally making the argument the day he took office. Liberal activist groups set up an online petition calling for Trump’s impeachment on Inauguration Day, declaring, “From the moment he assumed the office, President Donald Trump has been in direct violation of the US Constitution.”  On February 10, about three weeks into Trump’s presidency, the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling offered a survey finding that 46 percent of all respondents supported the impeachment of President Trump, and 80 percent of all self-identified Democrats did. Representative Maxine Waters (D., Calif.) tweeted, “get ready for impeachment” on March 21, 2017. By April, localities such as Berkeley passed resolutions calling for Trump’s impeachment

You may recall that for much of 2018, House Republicans campaigned on the message that Democrats would impeach Trump if they took control of the House. The assessment in many corners of the media was that this was a reflection of Republican paranoia, a desperate hyping of an implausible scenario designed to motivate the party’s base through fear.

In April 2018, representative Dina Titus of Nevada told the New York Times, “They’re trying to encourage us to be more out front on impeachment so then they can use that to rev up their base and say, ‘That’s all the Democrats care about.’”

In August, Perry Bacon Jr. wrote at FiveThirtyEight, “If the Democrats are planning to impeach Trump if they win control of the House, they are doing a really great job of hiding it. Congressional Democrats aren’t talking about impeachment.” That same month, New York magazine explained, “Republicans, not Democrats, want the midterms to be about impeachment.”

In September, CNN’s Rebecca Buck reported, “many Democrats [are] downplaying or rejecting the prospect of impeaching President Trump, while Republicans, including the President and his closest allies, insist his ouster is all but certain if their party loses power in Washington.”

Clearly, some of the newly elected Democrats didn’t get that memo; Representative Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), famously vowed on her first day in Congress to “impeach the mother****er.” By March, Tlaib claimed, “I think every single colleague of mine agrees there’s impeachable offenses. That’s one thing that we all agree on. We may disagree on the pace.”

Was Tlaib wrong? Did any House Democrat believe that Donald Trump had not committed any action that qualified as a high crime and misdemeanor, and that impeaching him was morally and legally wrong? Wasn’t it clear that for at least a large majority of Congressional Democrats, the only compelling argument against it was the likely political fallout?

And isn’t the heart of the current moment the Democrats’ belief that Trump’s comments and moves regarding Ukraine are so egregious that there will be no political fallout for pursuing an impeachment effort that is almost certain to fail in the Senate?

During her period of resistance to the #Resistance, Pelosi was forced to say things that we can reasonably conclude she does not truly believe. In March of this year, the newly restored House Speaker declared, “impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.”

Much of Nancy Pelosi’s agenda is comparably “divisive to the country,” and she wants to go down those paths.

In May, Pelosi contended Trump was “almost self-impeaching,” which I guess meant the House of Representatives didn’t have to vote on it.

We should give those activists on the Left who called for impeachment on Inauguration a smidgen of credit for their honesty about their views, an honesty that few Democratic lawmakers dared to exhibit. Their contention, if never quite articulated explicitly, is that Constitutional eligibility for the presidency is not enough, and that the American president must meet some other unwritten criteria in order to be a “legitimate” president. In their eyes, Donald Trump was always ineligible for the presidency because of who he is and how he sees the world. In their worldview, he was not merely a mistaken, wrongheaded, or bad president, but one who could not be permitted to continue.

Of course, once a standard or tactic is adopted by one political side in our culture, it will quickly be adopted by the other political side. At some point in the future, there will be another Democratic president and another Republican House. And the forces of negative polarization will drive that House towards impeaching that president.

Warren: A Veep’s Kids Shouldn’t Serve on Foreign Company Boards. No, Wait, They Can.

Just how conditional is the outrage of Democratic presidential candidates when it comes to elected officials leveraging their position for personal gain? Really conditional.

Taking questions from reporters following a town hall event in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state of New Hampshire, the Massachusetts Democrat was asked if she would allow her vice president’s child to serve on the board of a foreign company if she were president. Warren quickly answered, “no.”

When asked why, she said, in a rare moment where she appeared flustered: “I don’t know. I have to go back and look at the details.”

The “details” to which Warren was referring are from the two ethics plans she’s unveiled to tackle corruption in government. Her campaign later clarified to the Washington Post that the plans wouldn’t prevent any child of a vice president from serving on such a board.

Elizabeth Warren is supposed to be like Xena the Warrior Princess when it comes to powerful business interests influencing government policy. So why was she so confused and contradictory on this question?

Because lots and lots of children of government officials in both parties benefit from lucrative and/or powerful consulting gigs, lobbying jobs, appointed government positions, elected offices of their own, or other rewards from being related to a lawmaker. Warren couldn’t propose a strict change like that without stepping on the toes of a lot of colleagues, including ones she probably counts as allies.

Your perspective on how harmful nepotism is probably relates a great deal to who your parents are and whether you harbor secret fears that you benefited from the practice. As I wrote way back in 2014, “nepotism isn’t the only way that America’s most wealthy and powerful ensure that their children will also be wealthy and powerful, but it’s a piece of the puzzle. It’s a thumb-on-the-scale bit of legal cheating that everyone averts their eyes from because acknowledging it too openly would raise the question of how many of the folks in the highest positions of our country actually earned them.”

Democrats may not particularly like the idea of Hunter Biden, who had never worked in the natural gas industry before in his life, getting $50,000 per month to sit on the board of Bursima Holdings although Representative Ted Lieu argues that it’s normal. But most Democrats don’t want to make too big a stink about it, in part because they see it as a small drop in the bucket of inequality and partially because they can justify it to themselves as an inevitable part of the system, or even a justified perk of the office.

Democrats vs. the Clock

Imagine some future president governs relatively free of scandals for his first three and a half years, but then in the summer of his fourth term in office, all kinds of ugly information comes out. Would the Congress impeach him? Or would the general sense be that because the presidential election was so close, the wiser choice is to allow the American people to render their own verdict at the ballot box? Or what about for a president who’s on the tail end of his eighth year in office?

Suppose that a scandalous president was defeated in his bid for reelection. Would the House and Senate attempt to remove a president during the period between Election Day and Inauguration Day? Would some vice president end up with a presidency of William Henry Harrison-level brevity, operating as a caretaker for a short period between November and January 20?

Clearly at some point, removing a president from office so close to Election Day or the end of his term starts to look ridiculous, unless the argument in favor of impeachment looks so ironclad and broadly supported that it can be done quickly. (Impeachment in 1998-1999 took six months.) The White House can drag out this process a great deal. Democrats are likely to make the Senate consider the removal of Trump, about seven months or so before he’s up for reelection.

ADDENDA: Rob Port, a great North Dakota political blogger who I met way back in the day when bloggers had conventions, reminds us that Alexander Hamilton saw the inherent problems with impeachment coming, all the way back in Federalist No. 65:

A well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective. The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.

White House

The Dominoes of Impeachment Start to Topple in Sequence

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds a weekly news conference with Capitol Hill reporters, July 26, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

“I am announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry.” With those words yesterday evening, House speaker Nancy Pelosi knocked down the first domino in a long line.

That last word in that sentence matters; on paper, nothing changed with Pelosi’s words. The House Judiciary Committee had already started an “impeachment inquiry,” but Democrats insist that this effort is different, because it is simple.

We will get the — likely non-verbatim — transcript of Trump’s call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky soon, but at this point, it’s almost moot. If Trump’s conversation includes an explicit quid pro quo, despite his denials, it will create a Category Five political hurricane, but if it doesn’t, many will insist the quid pro quo is implied strongly enough, and it will be “only” a Category Four political hurricane. Democrats have already gone out onto the limb, placed their bets, burned their ships like Cortés. There’s no way they can say, “Oh, wait, this call transcript doesn’t look as bad as we thought it would, never mind.”

At this point, there are far too many national-security officials who are confirming the ugly implications of Trump’s own statements — that the issue he was most interested in discussing with Ukrainian officials was why they hadn’t uncovered and investigated what he believed was obvious, glaring, and far-reaching evidence of the Bidens’ corruption. Notice this paragraph in today’s Post, discussing how White House officials felt about Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, suddenly taking such a large role in discussions with the Ukrainian government:

Then-national security adviser John Bolton was outraged by the outsourcing of a relationship with a country struggling to survive Russian aggression, officials said. But by then his standing with Trump was strained, and neither he nor his senior aides could get straight answers about Giuliani’s agenda or authority, officials said. Bolton declined to comment.

Officials whose job was to worry about U.S.–Ukraine relations and the security and stability in Eastern Europe did not find Hunter Biden’s membership and actions on the Burisma board from April 2014 to 2019 to be particularly interesting, troubling, or relevant.

If Hunter Biden or Burisma were involved in something indictable, or at least easily indictable, then prosecutors in Ukraine probably would have moved on it — if not before 2017 then afterward, because hey, what better way to win over the new American president than by nailing the son of one of his potential rivals. That Ukrainian legal authorities still didn’t move on it even after Trump brought it up suggests that there wasn’t enough there to justify even a “we’re reviewing the contracts and decisions from that time period to see if there was anything inappropriate” non-investigation investigation. Foreign leaders attempt to placate one another by going through the motions all the time, and for Trump’s political purposes, any report of an investigation would put a cloud of suspicion over Biden.

Now that the “inquiry” is started, there’s almost no way that the House Democrats can avoid drafting articles of impeachment, and once they’re drafted, the House will have to vote on them. You know that every Democratic presidential candidate except for Tulsi Gabbard will call for impeachment.

According to the New York Times count, 204 House Democrats now support impeachment. After yesterday’s announcement, Pelosi cannot let it fall short of 218 on the final vote. A House vote that falls short would be like the Mueller report all over again; Trump would be twerking on the White House lawn, and the progressive grassroots would be at the throats of the Democratic holdouts. There are 235 House Democrats; all but a handful will end up voting for impeachment.

What do House Republicans do? Some may vote yes, gambling that Trump is damaged goods and there’s no point in defending the indefensible. Many will insist that Trump’s questions to Zelensky were legitimate anti-corruption efforts, that this is no different than the British Government Communications Headquarters contacting their U.S. counterparts when they observed contacts between Trump’s team and Russians. Some will discuss yesterday’s option of concluding that as much as they’re troubled by Trump’s actions, impeachment is silly with a reelection decision approaching in November. The Twitter Left is convinced “let the people decide” is a terrible stance for Republicans. We will see; they also believed that the Senate GOP’s treatment of Merrick Garland was one of the greatest injustices in American history, but for some weird reason, not a single Democrat mentioned Garland at all during their 2016 convention.

Do the Democrats think impeachment polls badly because the American people think Trump is an all-around good guy with a sterling character? Or is it because the American people know they’ll have their own chance to render a judgment on Trump in November 2020, and they don’t want lawmakers attempting to interrupt that choice and make it for them?

The progressive grassroots are also convinced this will all come to a vote soon, which I guess depends upon your definition of “soon.” Back in 1998, the Starr report was released to the public on September 11, and the House Judiciary Committee votes to launch a congressional impeachment inquiry against President Clinton on October 5. Starr testified on November 19. The House Judiciary Committee approves three articles of impeachment on a party-line vote December 11, a fourth one the following day, and the full House vote occurred on December 19.

If the House operates on a similar timetable, they’ll be voting to impeach Trump around Christmas again. The Senate began the impeachment trial January 7, they heard testimony for about a month, and deliberations began February 9. The acquittal vote occurred February 12.

Pelosi knocking over that first domino yesterday means that we will probably spend the next six months talking about this. On the merits, Trump’s behavior is inexcusable, a sadly typical demonstration of his inability to separate his personal and political interests from the national interest. The president’s personal lawyer has no proper role in investigating criminal activity. We have law-enforcement agencies whose duty is to investigate these sorts of things, and the claim that the FBI and Department of Justice are just too partisan to investigate the Bidens is nonsense. Who appointed the FBI director? Who appointed the attorney general? Who appointed the deputy attorney general? The argument that American law-enforcement agencies can’t be trusted, which is allegedly a defense of Trump’s actions, is actually an indictment of him, if Christopher Wray, William Barr, and Jeffrey Rosen really have so little ability to control the institutions they direct and manage.

If a Democratic president ever did this, the reaction from Republicans and conservative grassroots would be comparable to a sun going supernova. For those who insist that the Obama administration’s actions investigating Trump before the election are parallel, the reaction from Republicans and conservative grassroots was comparable to a sun going supernova! But a whole lot of folks on the right have decided that emulating the Obama administration’s blurred lines between political interest and national interests is no longer wrong and that “justice” can only be served when their preferred figures have committed the same acts those folks previously denounced. There is no longer objective right and wrong, only turnabout, under the theory that someday if our side acts badly enough, the other side will suddenly see the light and behave better.

But this isn’t happening in a vacuum. The Democratic party spent the better part of two years claiming that Trump’s election was illegitimate; that the election had been hacked, rigged, and stolen; and in many, many cases, that Trump was a Russian agent. It was a festival of implausible paranoia that approached quasi-religious status, complete with prayer candles. The Democrats and their media allies didn’t just cry “wolf,” they made their cries more ubiquitous and omnipresent than Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” And when the wolf didn’t show up in the Mueller report as expected, a lot of people decided to tune them out.

There’s one other aspect that isn’t going to get nearly as much attention as it deserves. The judgment by both Bidens and the Obama administration surrounding that March 2016 trip to Ukraine was terrible. Secretary of State John Kerry could have carried that “fire Viktor Shokin or you’re not getting the loan guarantee” message, or the ambassador, or anybody else in the State Department, or the U.S. trade representative, or maybe even the military attaché. Anybody who didn’t have a son on the board of a natural-gas company who may or may not have been in the crosshairs of this prosecutor would have been a better choice that would have avoided any allegation of a conflict of interest. The fact that Biden is still telling the story with pride indicates he still can’t see why anyone would object. In his mind, he’s a good guy, his son’s a good guy, and thus no one could possibly have any problem.

Hunter Biden is a familiar figure in American politics — the frequently troubled son of the famous man, who never quite figured out how to carve out his own identity, frequently offered lucrative opportunities by those with an interest in government policies to be a backdoor conduit to his father, and who blindly assumes that everyone who’s being so nice to him (ooh, a 2.8 karat diamond gift, why thank you!) — is on the up and up.

ADDENDA: As noted yesterday, Nancy Pelosi spent much of this past year resisting her own caucus on impeachment and antagonizing traditional allies, making compelling arguments to her own party that impeachment involved considerable political risks . . . only to find herself in the exact spot she spent all that time and effort trying to avoid.

If impeachment took human form, it would be Thanos from the Marvel movies: “You could not live with your own failure. Where did that bring you? Back to me.”

Elections

Slouching toward Impeachment?

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May 6, 2019; Washington, D.C., USA; President Donald Trump speaks during the ceremony to present the Commander in Chiefís Trophy at a White House event with the Army Black Knights in the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports – 12654045

Making the click-through worthwhile: For the love of God, Democrats, stop telling us how seriously you’re thinking about impeaching the president, and just do it or drop the issue; how Trump’s accusations about Hunter Biden help Joe Biden in the Democratic primary; why some people can’t perceive irony; and straw-gate.

Go Ahead, Democrats. Rip Off the Band-Aid of Impeachment. Get It Over With.

How many times since January 20, 2017 have we heard promises, pledges, and predictions that congressional Democrats would impeach the president? The Washington Free Beacon gathered all of those “the walls are closing in” statements. For months, Democratic members of Congress have contended that Trump’s lawbreaking is self-evident, that he’s trying to “make America white again,” that he’s created a constitutional crisis, and that “this man and his family are the greatest threats to democracy of my lifetime” . . . but then the lawmakers making those white-hot accusations voted against impeachment. Guys, if what you’re saying is more than just a fundraising pitch, then act on your words. But if you don’t mean what you say, stop saying it.

Back in April, after the Mueller report came out, I argued that Democrats ought to get impeachment over with, recognizing that it would probably work against their long-term interests. If they really believed Trump had committed high crimes and misdemeanors, and they really believed impeachment was warranted, they should stop talking about it, do it, and accept the consequences. They could legitimately argue that it was not the sort of matter that should be resolved in the upcoming election. A presidential election is not a trial; the opposing party’s nominee is not a prosecutor and the electorate is not a jury. Our Constitution includes a mechanism for resolving allegations of presidential lawbreaking, and that’s impeachment. In 1998 and 1999, many Congressional Republicans concluded that presidential lawbreaking demanded consequence, whether enforcing that consequence is popular or not. Democrats are free to embrace that philosophy today.

Democrats in the grassroots love to tell themselves a story that they’re the good guys, that they do what’s right even when it’s difficult, and that they don’t duck responsibilities out of political expediency. House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s determination to avoid impeachment is eating away at how grassroots Democrats perceive their party.

Here we are in mid-to-late September. An impeachment process that took six months, like the one against Bill Clinton, would resolve itself sometime in March or so, after the first primaries and caucuses. If you’re a congressional Republican, this is the easiest call in the world. You shake your head in deep concern about what Trump is alleged to have done and then conclude, “while I find the description of the president’s actions troubling, suggesting a blurring of the lines between his political interests and the national interests, we are just months away from the election. I believe this is a matter best left for the American people to judge at the ballot box. I trust the voters to decide, unlike some people who have been throwing tantrums every day since Election Night 2016.”

There’s a chance impeachment could cost Democrats control of the House of Representatives; at least 13 House Democrats who represent districts that Trump won would have to vote “yes” on impeachment for it to get to the Senate. Then again, maybe an impeachment vote creates some headaches for Republican senators like Susan Collins in Maine, Cory Gardner in Colorado, or Thom Tillis in North Carolina.

Oh, and if Democrats genuinely believe that the allegation of an attempt to strongarm Ukraine is a completely different, more serious, and clearer argument for impeachment than the president’s actions described in the Mueller report, they should not have the argument led by people like Adam Schiff who insisted all the Russian collusion stuff was a serious and clear case for impeachment. Chicken Little has a credibility problem.

Ben Domenech argues that President Trump wants to be impeached. “It polls terribly. He won’t be removed from office. And he wants the tribal “they’re crazy, they tried to impeach me for this” narrative.”

That’s undoubtedly a factor at play, although I don’t think Trump is faking his outrage that the Democrats would even think of impeaching a president as self-evidently terrific as he is. As he put it in a May tweet, “Impeach for what, having created perhaps the greatest Economy in our Country’s history, rebuilding our Military, taking care of our Vets (Choice), Judges, Best Jobs Numbers Ever, and much more?” As we all know, Article Two, Section Four of the U.S. Constitution states that Congress may not impeach the president if the national unemployment rate is below five percent.*

As of last week, just 37 percent of registered voters supported impeachment and 50 percent oppose it. Maybe the new allegations about an attempt to strongarm Ukraine will change those numbers, but probably not dramatically.

The conventional wisdom is that an impeachment effort would probably strengthen Trump’s reelection odds. But Democrats might also wonder if their constant talk of impeachment but continued refusal to go through with it adds to the perception that nothing the president has done is out of the ordinary or all that bad. Impeachment might strengthen Trump politically, but it could also conceivably weaken him.

Ann Althouse theorizes that Democrats aren’t so sure that they will win in 2020, and that they might see impeachment as their best tool to hobble Trump going forward.

Either way, time is not on the Democrats’ side. The closer we get to Election Day, the more ridiculous it looks to try to remove the president right before Americans get to decide on whether he deserves a second term. Some Democrats might even be foolish enough to echo the argument of William Weld, that if Trump gets reelected, Congress should impeach him afterward. Impeachment is not meant to be election insurance in case the voters make a choice that Congressional majorities oppose.

*No, not really.

Trump’s Attack on Biden

Because Democrats perceive Donald Trump to be the devil and believe that any allegations the president makes about any Democrat must be a lie, now no Democratic candidate can even bring up Hunter Biden. Reread the Biden sections of Friday’s and Monday’s Jolts. At the absolute minimum, Hunter Biden keeps attracting shady foreign businessmen as partners, is willfully blind to the conflict of interest issues he keeps creating for this father —“I guess this Chinese tycoon just gave me a giant diamond out of genuine friendship, there’s no way he could possibly be trying to purchase a connection to a future president of the United States” — and Joe Biden loves his son too much to recognize or acknowledge the problems his son is creating. Hunter Biden had the audacity to tell The New Yorker that one of his clients going to prison for a “multiyear, multimillion-dollar scheme to bribe top government officials in Chad and Uganda” was simply a matter of “bad luck.”

Hunter Biden’s business partners and clients and potential conflicts of interest are absolutely legitimate issues for any rival of Joe Biden’s to bring up. But now none of the Democrats can talk about them, because it would be seen as at least partially validating Trump’s complaints about the Bidens and corruption.

In an odd way, this is one of the best developments of the primary for Biden. Right now, any attack on him from any rival would be seen as kicking him when he’s down or at least taking fire from Trump.

Elizabeth Warren could and should say, “in November, we Democrats are going to want to have the clearest contrast possible with Donald Trump. This president loves to make counter-accusations of corruption against anyone who criticizes him. If our nominee has a son who’s been involved with all kinds of shady characters, Trump will use this to muddy the waters and leave people thinking all politicians have these sorts of issues. We as a party can’t afford that risk, and we need to nominate someone else.” But if she went out and made that argument now, the grassroots that currently love her would probably get mad that she’s conceding that Hunter Biden is a legitimate issue of concern.

Trump talking about Biden and Biden talking about Trump make it feel like we’ve already moved on to the general election. Good luck getting your message out in this environment, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and Amy Klobuchar.

By the way, do you notice who hasn’t burst through the wall like the Kool-Aid Man to declare that the allegations about the Bidens are specious nonsense and a smear; to declare that the former vice president’s effort to get the Ukrainians to fire a state prosecutor were right, proper, and motivated entirely by the national interest?

Barack Obama.

Some People Need to Go Back to Irony School

I knew some folks who weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer would interpret yesterday’s “Inside the Mind of the Warren Voter” as some sort of straight-up personal endorsement of Warren, and contend that National Review had now gone full-on hard-left progressive. (It was a follow-up to the preceding week’s “Inside the Mind of the Biden Voter.”)

Please tell me you spotted the deliberate glaring contradiction below:

You can’t believe anyone’s still giving her grief over the Native American thing. All she did wrong was believe her own family’s stories! Nobody can prove that the claim of Native heritage alone ever got her hired or promoted or recognized. She didn’t tell Harvard Law School to call her a “woman of color.” She says she didn’t even know the school was doing that, and you believe her. Even if she did know about it, a white lie like that never really hurt anyone. It’s a distraction from the main issue: that dishonest elites who cut corners have risen to the top of American society and they’re now trying to get even more power for themselves.

Or this:

As for Bernie Sanders, there are days you love him, but you’re not so certain he can get the job done. He senses the same injustices that you do, but he isn’t willing to do the homework the way Warren was. He railed about this stuff for decades before anybody noticed. You hope his truce with Warren holds, because he deserves a lot of credit for shaking up a complacent, corporatist Democratic party in 2016. But it’s really time for him to pass the torch to someone younger, like the 70-year-old Warren.

To quote the guys on NFL Live, “come on, man!”

There are a whole bunch of folks out there who get offended by something you write and conclude that because you wrote it, you must secretly be on the other side.

ADDENDA: Kevin Williamson shocks the world by coming out against straws. Not plastic straws, just straws in general. Madeline Kearns is left to defend the instrument for imbibing liquids.

Kevin says “everybody wants to give me a straw,” which means he hasn’t encountered the Straw Commissars who are currently rampaging across the Acela Corridor countryside, barring plastic straws from Starbucks and restaurants and replacing them with paper ones that seem designed to dissolve when they come in contact with liquids.

World

What Trump’s Interloping with Ukraine Means for the Future of the Presidency

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President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. August 20, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A lot of Trump fans will hate the first part of today’s newsletter; Joe Biden fans will hate the second. That doesn’t make what’s in it any less true.

Every Unprecedented Move Sets a New Precedent

Just picture what happens next if the American people decide that it is legal and ethical for an American president to urge foreign leaders to investigate his political opponents, as it appears Donald Trump encouraged Ukrainian leaders to do in Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Someday, there will be another Democratic president. The country could see another Democratic president as soon as January 20, 2021, or it could be sometime many years after that. But someday, there will be one, and this future Democratic president could use this exact same tactic against his or her potential Republican challengers.

This future Democratic president could urge Iraq or Afghanistan to investigate Dan Crenshaw’s units to see if they violated any rules of engagement.

This future Democratic president could urge Germany to investigate whether Nikki Haley and the South Carolina state government ever did anything unethical or cut any corners in their agreements to bring BMW production plants to the Palmetto State.

This future Democratic president could urge any of the countries that Mike Pence visited as governor on trade missions — China, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Israel, Canada — to claim that some sort of “shadowy backroom deal” was proposed.

And of course, a future Democratic president could tell just about any foreign government where there is a Trump property — two dozen countries around the world — to announce an investigation to see if there was anything unethical or shady about any Trump organization dealings, just to have more allegations to throw at Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka, etc. if they ever express political ambitions.

The point, of course, would not be whether any of those GOP lawmakers ever did anything wrong. There’s no evidence that any of them did anything wrong. The point would be to create a cloud of scandal over a potential GOP presidential candidate, to generate the headline “[FOREIGN GOVERNMENT X] INVESTIGATING [POLITICAL FIGURE Y] OVER CORRUPTION ALLEGATIONS.” And the odds are good that some foreign official somewhere would be willing to leak something along these lines in order to ingratiate himself with a Democratic president seeking a second term.

When a president does something “unprecedented,” that action creates a new precedent. Every move you use against your opponents can be used against you, too. But in today’s politics, nobody wants to think that far ahead — or they conclude that their opponents are so irredeemably devious and unethical, that any devious and unethical move of their own is pre-justified. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” to quote the cliché that has become the universal excuse for everyone willing to cheat in pursuit of victory.

Trump’s claim Sunday that he merely wanted to fight corruption in Ukraine is pretty rich coming from the guy who hired Paul Manafort, but even if that was the motive, we have institutions of law that are supposed to investigate and prosecute allegations of corruption at home and abroad: the FBI, the Department of Justice, Interpol. If a president wants a foreign country to investigate corruption, he doesn’t tell them to work with his personal lawyer.

You’re Not off the Hook So Quickly, Bidens

The irony is that there is indeed an odor coming off of Joe Biden’s efforts to get Ukraine to replace a state prosecutor, and Hunter Biden’s foreign business partners in general.

Go back to Friday’s Jolt. You don’t have to look hard to find Obama administration officials who were uncomfortable with Hunter Biden’s deals, not because they saw any ipso facto corruption but because it was nearly inevitable that at some point, some Obama administration policy change would end up being beneficial to the interests of Hunter Biden’s clients, leading to accusations of the vice president steering policy in a way to help out his son. While no one has proven Biden acted out of a conflict of interest, there’s no denying that the father and son’s situations created a perception of a conflict of interest, and neither Biden seemed to care.

In the coming week, you’ll see a lot of people acting like only one party has an issue with executive branch relatives trying to make money off their powerful connections.

The State Department’s EB-5 visas are perfectly legal (which is a separate question from whether they’re a good idea). Foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in a U.S. business and plan “to create or preserve 10 permanent full-time jobs” in the U.S. are eligible to apply for the program and get a visa.

But when Jared Kushner’s family held an event in a Beijing ballroom for wealthy Chinese investors in 2017 with brochures that declared, “invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States,” people understandably perceived a conflict of interest. The family appeared to be cashing in on Kushner’s closeness to the president and role in the White House to convince Chinese investors that they have a better shot of getting a visa by investing in the family’s projects. The SEC announced an investigation (although nothing’s come of it so far), and a few changes have been made to the EB-5 program, increasing in the required minimum investment amounts and clarifying the definition of a “targeted employment area” under the law. (Hey, some of us were reporting about worries that the EB-5 program amounting to a visa-selling scheme way back in 2013 when Terry McAuliffe was running for governor. But did anyone listen? No.)

Go back to the big New Yorker article about Hunter Biden. It is full of Hunter Biden and his former associates insisting there was never any conflict of interest and other people who are less close to the Bidens not being quite so sure. We’re told that there’s been a “decades-old” rule between father and son to never talk business. In 2000, Hunter Biden joins a lobbying firm, the National Group.

[Firm co-founder Vincent] Versage told me that the National Group had a strict rule: “Hunter didn’t do anything that involved his dad, didn’t do anything that involved any help from his dad.”

An informal arrangement was established: Biden wouldn’t ask Hunter about his lobbying clients, and Hunter wouldn’t tell his father about them. “It wasn’t like we all sat down and agreed on it,” Hunter told me. “It came naturally.”

Then when Biden becomes vice president:

Jen Psaki, a State Department spokesperson, said that the State Department was not concerned about perceived conflicts of interest, because Hunter was a “private citizen.” Hunter told Burisma’s management and other board members that he would not be involved in any matters that were connected to the U.S. government or to his father.

We’re constantly being reassured by Joe Biden and Hunter Biden that the son’s lobbying work, consulting work, corporate or foreign clients never influenced the father’s thinking, decision-making, or policy choices. Joe Biden thinks his son is a swell and ethical guy; Hunter Biden thinks his father is a swell and ethical guy, and they assure the world that nothing wrong . . . and I guess we’re all just supposed to take them at their word.

Except the rest of the New Yorker article is full of folks who aren’t quite as convinced.

Timothy Lannon, the university’s president, who offered Hunter the contract, described Hunter to me as “like his dad: great personally, very engaging, very curious about things and hardworking,” adding that he had “a very strong last name that really paid off in terms of our lobbying efforts.”

. . . Hunter had heard that, during the primaries, some of Obama’s advisers had criticized him to reporters for his earmarking work. Hunter said that he wasn’t told by members of the Obama campaign to end his lobbying activities, but that he knew “the writing was on the wall.”

. . . Hunter’s meeting with Li and his relationship with BHR attracted little attention at the time, but some of Biden’s advisers were worried that Hunter, by meeting with a business associate during his father’s visit, would expose the vice president to criticism. The former senior White House aide told me that Hunter’s behavior invited questions about whether he “was leveraging access for his benefit, which just wasn’t done in that White House. Optics really mattered, and that seemed to be cutting it pretty close, even if nothing nefarious was going on.”

. . . As the former senior White House aide put it, there was a perception that “Hunter was on the loose, potentially undermining his father’s message.” The same aide said that Hunter should have recognized that at least some of his foreign business partners were motivated to work with him because they wanted “to be able to say that they are affiliated with Biden.” A former business associate said, “The appearance of a conflict of interest is good enough, at this level of politics, to keep you from doing things like that.”

In the article, Hunter Biden describes a 2.8-carat diamond that became an issue in his divorce, worth anywhere from $10,000 to $80,000. In 2018, he had “been given the diamond by the Chinese energy tycoon Ye Jianming, who was trying to make connections in Washington among prominent Democrats and Republicans, and whom he had met in the middle of the divorce.”

Maybe it’s legal, but Americans are entitled to be unnerved hearing that a Chinese tycoon gave the son of the former vice president and front-running likely presidential candidate a giant diamond as a gift. Hunter told the New Yorker that the gift couldn’t possibly be a bribe: “What would they be bribing me for? My dad wasn’t in office.” Er, because everybody thought that there was a good chance Joe Biden would run for president again and a decent chance he could be president someday?

There’s this willful obliviousness that keeps cropping up with Hunter Biden:

Hunter began negotiating a deal for CEFC to invest forty million dollars in a liquefied-natural-gas project on Monkey Island, in Louisiana, which, he said, was projected to create thousands of jobs. “I was more proud of it than you can imagine,” he told me. In the summer of 2017, Ye talked with Hunter about his concern that U.S. law-enforcement agencies were investigating one of his associates, Patrick Ho. Hunter, who sometimes works as a private lawyer, agreed to represent Ho, and tried to figure out whether Ho was in legal jeopardy in the U.S. That November, just after Ye and Hunter agreed on the Monkey Island deal, U.S. authorities detained Ho at the airport. He was later sentenced to three years in prison for his role in a multiyear, multimillion-dollar scheme to bribe top government officials in Chad and Uganda in exchange for business advantages for CEFC. In February, 2018, Ye was detained by Chinese authorities, reportedly as part of an anti-corruption investigation, and the deal with Hunter fell through. Hunter said that he did not consider Ye to be a “shady character at all,” and characterized the outcome as “bad luck.”

These arguments are likely to fall on deaf ears. A lot of Republican voters are invested in President Trump, a lot of Democrats are invested in Joe Biden, and even his primary rivals don’t want to suggest that the Obama administration was steering its policies in foreign countries to benefit the business interests of family members. A lot of people are willing to forgive a little corruption from their preferred political leaders.

ADDENDA: Two great NRO pieces worth reading: first, Jay Nordlinger on the excellent newly expanded International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., and Robert VerBruggen analyzing a new study about Harvard University’s admissions for legacy students (those whose parents attended), athletes, and children of faculty and staff:

The argument against affirmative action has always been that we should judge people as individuals, and the work of Arcidiacono et al. shows that these other preferences do immense damage at the individual level. They let in hundreds of students each year simply because of who their parents are or how well they can throw a ball (or whatever one does to score in lacrosse) — and every preferred student who’s admitted excludes someone more qualified. Worse, these preferences exist not as an attempt, however misguided, to redress America’s reprehensible racial sins but merely to heap more donations on top of Harvard’s $37 billion endowment and to cultivate an amorphous sense of community based around sports teams and family members who attended the school decades ago.

White House

What to Make of the Trump–Whistleblower Kerfuffle

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President Donald Trump walks to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Md., June 26, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Everything you need to know about the intelligence official’s whistleblower complaint against President Trump, and Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine.

Of Course Trump Wanted Ukraine to Investigate Somebody. He Always Wants Somebody Investigated.

This is not that complicated.

Donald Trump believes that just about everyone he doesn’t like must be corrupt or engaged in lawbreaking of some manner and should be investigated. Earlier this week, he tweeted out, “Look at the Obama Book Deal, or the ridiculous Netflix deal. Then look at all the deals made by the Dems in Congress, the “Congressional Slush Fund,” and lastly the IG Reports. Take a look at them. Those investigations would be over FAST!”

Last month, after sharing a tweet that speculated that the Clintons were responsible for Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide under suspicious circumstances, Trump indicated law enforcement should investigate the Clintons further: “The question you have to ask is, did Bill Clinton go to the island? Because Epstein had an island. That was not a good place, as I understand it, and I was never there. So you have to ask, did Bill Clinton go to the island? That’s the question. If you find that out, you’re going to know a lot.”

In July, the president called for an investigation of “corrupt government” in Baltimore, and that representative Elijah Cummings must be stealing money, adding “he should investigate himself with his oversight committee.”

That same month, he called on law enforcement to “subpoena all of the records having to do with Hillary Clinton and all of the nonsense that went on with Clinton and her foundation.” He also promised “the Trump Administration will take a look” at claims that Google committed “treason” by working with the Chinese government.

The previous month, he complained that Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian influence into the 2016 election never started looking into “how and why Crooked Hillary Clinton deleted and acid washed 33,000 Emails immediately AFTER getting a SUBPOENA from the United States Congress.” (This is presumably a reference to Clinton’s tech team using software called BleachBit. It is not a chemical and is not related to acid-washed jeans.)

He has twice called for the Federal Elections Commission and Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether Saturday Night Live is colluding with the Democratic party.

In September 2018, Trump called upon the Department of Justice to investigate who wrote an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times, purportedly from an administration official who was attempting to constrain and undermine the Trump administration from the inside. Trump said it was a matter of “national security.”

A few months earlier, Trump “demanded” that “the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” That same month, Trump ordered the Department of Commerce “to consider an investigation into whether the imports of automobiles, including trucks, and automotive parts” threaten “America’s national security.”

In November 2017, Trump called for an investigation of the death of an intern in then-representative Joe Scarborough’s office in 2001. The medical examiner determined that she had a heart condition, hit her head on a desk, and that there was no foul play.

You notice that few of these calls for investigations led to any investigations, right? (Also notice that in an era of relentless partisan warfare, you don’t hear very much from FBI director Christopher Wray, and when you do hear him testifying before Congress, he doesn’t generate much controversy. It’s reasonable to worry about the politicization of law enforcement at a moment like this, but so far, there’s not much evidence of it. The overwhelming majority of personnel at the FBI get up every morning, do their jobs, and follow the evidence like professionals, thank God.

It is easy to understand why Trump feels he was treated unfairly by the national news media, why he believes claims of Russian influence on the elections were meant to delegitimize his 2016 victory, and why he feels Robert Mueller’s investigation was a giant waste of time in attempting to find proof to verify a farfetched conspiracy theory. Trump had to endure a long and thorough investigation and now wants his political opponents to have their turn on the hot seat.

What’s more, Trump speaks as if he’s convinced that some sort of colossal, ruinous scandal is lurking behind each one of his foes, and all of them could be ruined if federal investigators would just look hard enough.

So it shouldn’t be the least bit surprising that Trump — and allies like Rudy Giuliani — believe that Hunter Biden’s work for a giant gas company in Ukraine must be not merely unsavory or created the appearance of a conflict of interest, but somewhere along the line, the Bidens must have broken the law. (More on this topic below.)

Should the president of the United States repeatedly call for law enforcement investigations of his political enemies, based upon rumors, media reports, and his own theories? No, of course not. By doing so, he jeopardizes any legitimate law enforcement investigation by giving the targets of the investigations the arguments that they’re targets of a political vendetta.

But Donald Trump does a lot of things that the president of the United States hasn’t traditionally done and shouldn’t do. No doubt he’s been told this by advisors, lawyers, and staffers many times that every time he publicly calls for an investigation of a foe, he does a favor for that foe’s defense lawyer. He doesn’t care. He is who he is, and he’s not going to change.

Does this enter a different area if the president is promising X to foreign officials in exchange for an investigation of American political rival Y? It all depends upon the specifics. “That [insert Trump foe here] is a real crook, everybody knows it, everybody’s saying so, and if you guys caught him and nailed him to the wall, I’d be thrilled,” is probably just Trump being Trump. Some sort of explicit quid-pro-quo, like, “I will authorize the arms exports to your country after you guys indict him” would probably throw another log onto the bonfire of cries of impeachment.

Sooner or Later, Hunter Biden Will Become a Big Problem for His Father’s Campaign

The Washington Post, this morning: “A whistleblower complaint about President Trump made by an intelligence official centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter, which has set off a struggle between Congress and the executive branch.” If the discussion is about Ukraine, it probably revolves around the Trump campaign’s interest in what Hunter Biden did for Ukrainian companies in the tail end of the Obama administration.

As usual, partisans are getting wound up about a belief in some sort of secret and explicit lawbreaking, when the legal but unethical actions probably ought to generate sufficient outrage themselves.

When the Obama campaign was vetting Joe Biden to be vice president in the summer of 2008, “one of the most sensitive issues they examined” was the relationship between the senator and his family connection to the large Delaware bank MBNA. The bank was the largest donor to Biden’s campaigns over his career, hired Hunter Biden in 1996, and had made Hunter a vice president by 1998 — when he was all of 28 years old. Hunter departed to do a short stint in the Department of Commerce, but kept a $100,000 a year retainer from the bank after returning to the private sector as a lawyer in Washington, working for a lobbying firm. The Bidens insist Hunter’s lobbying work never crossed paths with his father’s work in the Senate. However, during this time, Joe Biden voted in favor of a bankruptcy reform bill that MBNA and other banks supported, and that many Democrats, including then-senator Barack Obama, opposed. (Elizabeth Warren is most likely licking her chops and waiting for just the right moment to go on the attack over that legislation.)

When you’re the son of a famous senator or vice president, doors keep opening for you. By 2014, Hunter Biden had been a bank vice president, a lawyer, a partner at a mergers and acquisitions firm, attempted to purchase a hedge fund, founded two consulting firms, and shortly after his father started his second term as vice president, joined the U.S. Naval Reserve. That ended badly; he was discharged after about a year for failing a drug test.

Returning to the investment world, Biden’s business partners included Jonathan Li, who ran a Chinese private-equity fund, Bohai Capital. In April 2014, at age 44, Hunter Biden joined the board of directors for Burisma Holdings, the largest non-government run natural gas company in Ukraine.

Not everyone in the Obama administration was comfortable with Hunter’s new business partners, according to The New Yorker:

Hunter’s meeting with Li and his relationship with BHR attracted little attention at the time, but some of Biden’s advisers were worried that Hunter, by meeting with a business associate during his father’s visit, would expose the Vice-President to criticism. The former senior White House aide told me that Hunter’s behavior invited questions about whether he “was leveraging access for his benefit, which just wasn’t done in that White House. Optics really mattered, and that seemed to be cutting it pretty close, even if nothing nefarious was going on.” When I asked members of Biden’s staff whether they discussed their concerns with the Vice-President, several of them said that they had been too intimidated to do so. “Everyone who works for him has been screamed at,” a former adviser told me. Others said that they were wary of hurting his feelings. One business associate told me that Biden, during difficult conversations about his family, “got deeply melancholy, which, to me, is more painful than if someone yelled and screamed at me. It’s like you’ve hurt him terribly. That was always my fear, that I would be really touching a very fragile part of him.”

At the very least, Hunter Biden’s business dealings were creating the appearance of a conflict of interest for the vice president. While no one has yet found evidence where Vice President Biden explicitly changed or pushed for changes in U.S. policy that would benefit his son’s business partners, perhaps the fairest criticism is that both elder and younger Biden simply couldn’t see potential problems that seemed glaring to everyone else:

Several former officials in the Obama Administration and at the State Department insisted that Hunter’s role at Burisma had no effect on his father’s policies in Ukraine, but said that, nevertheless, Hunter should not have taken the board seat. As the former senior White House aide put it, there was a perception that “Hunter was on the loose, potentially undermining his father’s message.” The same aide said that Hunter should have recognized that at least some of his foreign business partners were motivated to work with him because they wanted “to be able to say that they are affiliated with Biden.” A former business associate said, “The appearance of a conflict of interest is good enough, at this level of politics, to keep you from doing things like that.”

In 2018 appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations, former Vice President Biden described the time that he threatened to withhold foreign aid from the Ukrainian government unless they fired prosecutor Viktor Shokin:

I was supposed to announce there was going to be another billion dollar loan guarantee. I had gotten a commitment . . . that they were going to take action against the state prosecutor and they didn’t. And I said ‘We’re not going to give you the billion dollars. They said, ‘You have no authority. You’re not the president.’ … I said, ‘call him.’ I said, ‘I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars.’ I said, ‘you’re not getting the billion, we’re leaving in six hours.’ I looked at them and said, ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a bitch! He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”

The argument from the Obama administration was that Shokin was resisting efforts to reform Ukraine’s judicial system and had done a poor job investigating corruption of the previous regime. The European Union and Ukrainian parliament were happy to see Shokin go.

But there’s one other really important wrinkle or at least a hugely consequential allegation. In April, John Solomon of The Hill reported that before Shokin was fired, the prosecutor was preparing a wide-ranging corruption probe into . . . the natural gas firm Burisma Holdings, the same company that had Hunter Biden on its board of directors.

If that’s true, it changes a lot. Maybe the Obama administration had good and legitimate reasons to want to see Shokin replaced. But sending the vice president to strongarm the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor who’s investigating his son’s company stinks to high heaven and reeks of corruption.

Clearly, Biden doesn’t think he did anything wrong; he was still telling the story about getting the prosecutor fired last year.

There’s a long history of high-ranking lawmakers and their offspring who have gone into lucrative and/or powerful consulting gigs, lobbying jobs, appointed government positions, elected offices of their own, or other rewards from being related to a lawmaker. If you’re going to be a senator negotiating big changes to laws that affect banks, your son probably shouldn’t be working for one of the country’s biggest banks. If you’re going to be vice president and helping shape U.S. policy on China and Ukraine, you can’t play hardball to get a guy investigating your son’s company dismissed.

It’s not the job of the president of the United States to tell the Ukrainians who to investigate. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything worth investigating there.

ADDENDA: Coming soon, a new edition of the pop-culture podcast: looking at the miserable start to the NFL season for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets; the arrival of Seinfeld to Netflix, and whether the show holds up; the American Horror Story television series and what we fear at this moment; whether our society is getting more vindictive; and the U.S. military acknowledges some flying objects are unidentified.

Culture

‘Toxic Fans’ Reflect a Society that Is Desperate to Believe in Something

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Nicki Minaj arrives at Tidal’s office in Oslo, Norway March 4, 2019. (NTB Scanpix/Ole Berg-Rusten/via REUTERS )

The latest issue of The New Yorker knows how to grab your attention. The headline promises, “How Superfans Captured the Culture,” and warns, “One afternoon, Wanna Thompson, a Nicki Minaj fan, wrote a mildly critical tweet about her idol. Hours later, she had received hundreds of threatening messages — including one from Minaj’s own account — and been fired from her internship. Michael Shulman reports on the rise of extreme fandom.”

If you’re wondering how critical Thompson was, she merely wrote, “You know how dope it would be if Nicki put out mature content? No silly [stuff]. Just reflecting on past relationships, being a boss, hardships, etc. She’s touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed.” Not exactly a scathing reproach, but apparently one that hundreds of people believed must be rebuked with a response of pure rage.

Extreme fandom, toxic fandom — The New Yorker article argues, “fans are more powerful than ever.” Is this something new, though? How different is this from young women getting into screaming hysterics and fainting over Elvis or the Beatles — or the Jackson Five, or New Kids on the Block or the Backstreet Boys. Charles Dickens was mobbed by fans when he visited the United States in 1842, Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes in 1893 in part so he wouldn’t have to keep feeding the ravenous public appetite for more stories of the famous detective. In 1927, silent film star Rudolph Valentino died and allegedly at least two obsessed women fans committed suicide. More than 50,000 people showed up for the funeral,  and 100 people were injured in a riot.

The phenomenon of fixated fans, so consumed with passion that they remind us that ‘fan’ stemmed from the word ‘fanatic, is not unique to American culture, as soccer hooligans, K-pop obsessives, and Bollywood prove. Part of this is the Internet suddenly making it so much easier to quickly send an anonymous death threat. You don’t even need to pay for a stamp anymore! There was a time when a death threat over popular culture meant the Ayatollah had issued a fatwah on Salman Rushdie. But more than a decade ago, we passed the point of pollsters getting death threats from folks who don’t like the results. Death threats are the new and idiotic way of saying, “I strongly disagree.”

The fact that so many people are willing to lash out so angrily over some random person’s criticism of their favorite pop star suggests to me that we live in a society full of people who are desperate to believe in something. They yearn for someone to put their faith in and to inspire them. They want to believe that someone out there is, if not perfect, about as close as any human being can get to that exalted status. They want to feel connected to a larger group, a community all experiencing the same feelings at the same time. They want to believe in something greater that gives them purpose and direction, provides a set of role models, and often gives them some sort of lesson about what living a good life is.

Traditional organized religion may not have the influence in American society that it used to, but eerily similar systems of belief keep stepping in to fill that vacuum.

NBC News is giving people a venue to make their “climate confessions.” Union Seminary gave people the opportunity to confess their sins to plants. There are all kinds of websites, chat boards, and apps that give people the ability to anonymously admit their darkest secrets.

Many of us would argue that the other side’s political rallies resemble cult-like religious services . . . not that our side would ever see a political leader in such blatantly messianic terms.

One of my all-time favorite jokes stems from the time Pope John Paul II held Mass at the Meadowlands in New Jersey in 1995. He chose the home stadium of the Jets for the site of the Mass because he had heard that Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason had already had amazing success in getting tens of thousands of people to simultaneously cry out, “Jesus Christ almighty!”

But what are sports events? Large crowds sit in rows and look upon their leaders in hopes of feeling exultation as they witness something extraordinary. They chant, sometimes sing songs, they stand and raise their arms as they do “the wave.” They feel connected to strangers — or maybe, over years of season tickets, those strangers up and down the row start to feel like community or family. They put their faith in a player or team. They’re often reenacting a ritual that their father participated in, and his father before that, and that they’ll pass along to their kids. When there’s disappointment and heartbreak, they share the feeling with a stadium or an arena full of strangers. When there’s victory and euphoria, they share that feeling with all of those strangers, too — and will probably never forget the feeling. When someone they never met in person tears an ACL, they feel heartbreak. When a rookie hits his first home run in the big leagues, they feel proud for him. “Soccer is like a religion here,” has become a cliché of sportswriters visiting foreign countries.

I love the observation that set social psychologist Jonathan Haidt down his path of diagnosing how our political divisions often stem from how we define morality. He described attending a breakfast with liberal friends where the host made an offhand comment about how uptight, repressed, and strict Christians were about sex . . . and then assured the guests that all of the food was organic, pesticide-free, free-range, fair-trade, etcetera. Just like the Christians, the liberal host had his own strict code of what was moral and immoral to do with his body, but he couldn’t grasp that just as he found traditional Christians’ restrictions on sexual activity silly, many other people would find his beliefs about what was morally acceptable to buy and eat silly. He had found his religion; he just didn’t see it as a religion.

A couple of years back, I noticed a lot of Bob Dylan fans don’t like his song “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Maybe they find the implications of the song unnerving:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You may not think of yourself as a believer or a member of any organized religion, but that doesn’t mean your thoughts, actions, and habits aren’t serving someone. The fact that these behaviors are so ubiquitous, even in contexts we don’t think of as religious, suggests that they’re baked in the cake of the human condition.

A shrewd and canny observer of that human condition once argued, “Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”

Okay, technically, that was Loki in The Avengers movie. But it’s a good villain’s rant, because as power-mad as it seems, it’s got a little bit of truth to it. Freedom is rarely easy and isn’t always fun. It comes with responsibility and accepting the consequences of our choices and mistakes and flaws. At some point, our freedom to make our own choices is going to leave us in some situation that disappoints us and fills us with regret. Even smart people can make big and consequential bad decisions. A theoretical particle physicist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill really believed he was having an online romance with Denise Milani, a Czech bikini model. Sometimes those who are lucky in love find they can’t handle money, those who are a whiz at finances can never find the right words, great leaders in the workplace find raising their own children to be an endless challenge. The only people who never feel stupid in life are those who are consumed by the Dunning–Kruger effect.

We often want someone to love, to serve, some greater cause we can devote ourselves to, because devotion can be invigorating and reassuring. We want someone whose judgment we can always trust, who will always have the right answers, who will look out for us for all those times when we’re blinded by pride or ego and aren’t looking out for ourselves.

We talk a good game about the joy of independence and being free spirits and bound to no one, and but . . . life can be pretty lonely sometimes. Even Ayn Rand found it hard to live up to her own standards of not needing anyone else. We also crave connection, and we don’t always demand perfect equality and a level playing field in our relationships, because we may conclude we need other factors more. Sometimes it’s a relief to just be a hanger-on to the popular kid, to be joyfully wrapped around the finger of the most beautiful woman or the biggest hunk, to be the loyal right-hand man of the bold and decisive leader. Parents dote on their kids, children put their parents on a pedestal. In Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, the long-suffering devoted campaign aide looks at a full moon and declares, “That’s me. Beautiful, huh? Very impressive to the earthlings. But Henry, honey, it’s only reflected light. It needs the sun. And I lived my life drawing light and warmth from the Stantons — and, God, they were so good and glowing. I could go for years without remembering I wasn’t producing any warmth myself, any light of my own.”

Maybe those kinds of relationships can drift into unhealthy territory pretty easily. Still, in all of those cases, we’ve at least found a flesh-and-blood real person for our devotion. And it doesn’t leave us sending death threats to a stranger on Twitter because she thought Nicki Minaj needs to grow as an artist.

ADDENDA: It’s one of those rare one-topic Jolts today. Check out the Corner for more variety in your news diet.

Politics & Policy

Paying Attention to the Most Provocative Young People Never Turns Out Well

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Lauren Duca (Women in the World/via YouTube)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Sure, we can kick around some of the most infamous controversy-courting Millennial wunderkinder, but they don’t represent their generation; perhaps it’s time to hold those big institutions accountable for their choices about hiring, promoting, and spotlighting the edgiest and most provocative young people; Israel’s latest election results don’t clear up much; Nancy Pelosi and Jerrold Nadler are getting angrier with each other; and the hard truths that presidential candidates are reluctant to face.

God Save Us from the Controversy-Courting Famous Wunderkinder

BuzzFeed offers an eye-opening profile of Lauren Duca, the young feminist columnist for Teen Vogue who rocketed to a certain level of fame after a confrontational interview with Tucker Carlson and who New York University selected to teach a six-week journalism course for both high school and college students about “The Feminist Journalist.” The portrait is a deeply unflattering one; as a teacher, she seems unprepared, self-absorbed, unprofessional, and basically offered students “a master class in [her] personal life.” Perhaps most disturbingly, Duca allegedly regularly berated and mistreated one foreign exchange student for whom English was her second language. Students sent a collective formal complaint to the heads of the NYU journalism school about Duca’s conduct, saying “We are disappointed at the department and NYU for hiring a professor with more interest in promoting her book than teaching a group of students eager to learn.”

You can be mad at Duca, but there’s another glaring question in this piece: How did NYU come to the conclusion this person would make a good teacher? Who did the university not select to teach a course on journalism in favor of Duca?

Elsewhere, in The Hollywood Reporter, the cast of HBO’s Girls get together to mark the end of the show and reveal that Lena Dunham was 23 years old when she sold Girls to HBO with “a page-and-a-half-long pitch that included nary a character nor a plot.” For those of you familiar with the television industry, this never happens. You may recall that Dunham went on to fame, fortune, and more than a little bit of controversy, particularly for her autobiography. She described childhood sexual acts in troubling ways, and a sexual assault in her college years that tiptoed up to the line of libel by using an allegedly random pseudonym and description that just happened to match a student at Oberlin a little too precisely.

Last week, The Cut, a website published by New York magazine, wrote a lengthy profile piece about Carolina Calloway, a 27-year-old “Instagram influencer” who once received a $375,000 book deal from Flatiron Publishing but who found she couldn’t finish the book, and who hosted a “creativity workshop” that reportedly didn’t deliver on its promises. She then went on to host another workshop she called, “The Scam.”

You’re familiar with Tomi Lahren, right? Conservative political commentator, started hosting her own television show on One America News Network at age 22. She’s the one with the new “athleisure” line of red, white, and blue, stars-and-stripes apparel entitled “Freedom” that is manufactured overseas. A few years ago, when asked what books most influenced her, Lahren responded, “I’m not a reader. I don’t read long books.” She has a new book out, Never Play Dead: How the Truth Makes You Unstoppable. It is 256 pages.

And when last we heard from Milo Yiannopoulos, he was banned from a Midwestern convention of “furries,” a gathering of people who enjoy dressing up in full-body animal costumes.

Millennials — and Generation Z, the generational border is a little fuzzy — get a lot of undeserved grief, in part because generations are largely defined by stereotypes. Only some of the members of the Greatest Generation went overseas to fight the Axis; only a fraction of the members of the Baby Boomers protested the Vietnam War and went to Woodstock; and only a small segment of the members of Generation X listened to Nirvana, were depressed when Kurt Cobain died, and went on to work at dot-coms.

Millennials have a wide variety of life experiences; they weren’t all suckered by the Fyre Festival, and they aren’t all obsessed by the actions of  “celebrity influencers,” or incapable of having a face to face conversation because they need to check their phones every five seconds. Perhaps the rise of social media accelerated the need to stand out in a crowd by saying and doing outrageous things. Or perhaps social media created sufficient financial incentive to make saying and doing outrageous things a lucrative career path, particularly with those who didn’t believe they had the brains, talent, or work ethic to achieve success on other paths.

We like to laugh and scoff at Olivia Jade Giannulli, the daughter of Lori Loughlin caught up the college admissions scandal. But she already had endorsement deals with Hewlett-Packard, Sephora, the online fashion retailer Lulus, Amazon, Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs Beauty, Smashbox Beauty Cosmetics, Smile Direct Club, Too Faced Cosmetics, Boohoo, and Unilever’s TRESemmé. There are Super Bowl MVPs who don’t have that many endorsement deals!

When Giannulli sounded insufferably entitled and declared, “I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend. I do want the experience of like game days, partying . . . I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know” . . . think about her life experiences up to that point. If your kids had lined up endorsement deals with eleven companies by the age of 19, how enthusiastic would they be about studying? If they were getting paid money to mention products in their social-media feed, do you think you could still get them to prioritize hitting the books for that chemistry test?

There are a lot of bright young people with big dreams out there, and the vast majority of them are willing to work hard. Many are smart, many are talented, many are willing to devote a relentless focus to the task at hand and demonstrate a tireless dedication to doing the job before them well. Many see life as more than just an endless series of opportunities for self-promotion. You just don’t hear much about them, because they’re too busy working and doing what they’re supposed to do to. They don’t become the subject of juicy profile pieces laying out their worst decisions and scandals.

But big institutions have a choice in who they select to hire, promote, and spotlight. Maybe, just maybe, rewarding the edgiest, most provocative, and controversial young people doesn’t generate the best results?

Come on, Israeli Voters, Make up Your Minds

So much for those latest Israeli elections clearing things up, huh?

Israeli politics now appears all-but-deadlocked and destined for complex negotiations between the two main parties and the smaller parties over possible coalition arrangements.

Addressing his Blue and White party supporters in Tel Aviv a few hours after the polls closed, Gantz struck a tone of measured optimism, saying that an era of “polarization and antagonism” now lay in the past with “unity and reconciliation” being the way forward.

Gantz said contacts with other parties to build what he described as a “broad unity government” had already started.

“I intend to talk to everybody, starting tonight,” he said.

Netanyahu meanwhile, was hoarse as he addressed his Likud Party supporters, neither claiming victory nor conceding defeat.

I know lots of people insist they like the multiparty parliamentary system, but you always seem to end up with coalition governments that are cobbled-together from factions that have almost nothing in common with each other. “The new majority European Union Parliament coalition includes the Christian Democrats, the Swedish Donald Duck Party, the Polish Good Humor Party, the Italian Partito dell’Amore, Hungarian Two-tailed Dog Party, and the Norwegian Beer Unity Party.” (Those were all real parties, by the way, although most were jokes or political stunts.)

Pelosi to Nadler: Your Ego Is Writing Checks That This Caucus Can’t Cash

In a battle of Nancy Pelosi vs. House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, my money’s on Pelosi: “Pelosi criticized the panel’s handling of impeachment in harsh terms, complaining committee aides have advanced the push for ousting President Donald Trump far beyond where the House Democratic Caucus stands. Democrats simply don’t have the votes on the floor to impeach Trump, Pelosi said. “And you can feel free to leak this,” Pelosi added, according to multiple people in the room.”

If you want an impeachment process to be taken seriously, don’t begin it by inviting Corey Lewandowski to testify. At CNN, Elie Honig puts a tough question to lawmakers who support impeachment:

House Democrats essentially have conceded the Mueller report is not enough — perhaps politically more than legally — and there needs to be something more to proceed. But there very likely won’t be evidence relating to Russian interference or obstruction beyond what’s already in the Mueller report. House Democrats have set themselves up for failure.

Moving forward, House Democrats need to address this question squarely: Is the conduct in the Mueller report enough to impeach? If so, then why are we wasting time with the kind of absurd hearing we saw on Tuesday? 

ADDENDA: Somebody’s going to win this Democratic presidential nomination — probably Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren — but boy, has it been fun to watch some once-promising Democrats crash and burn. Kirsten Gillibrand’s already out, Julian Castro now looks like a jerk, Beto O’Rourke looks like a joke, and Kamala Harris is at 6 percent in her home state, behind Andrew Yang! Maybe this will discourage some of the no-hopers the next time around. The shame isn’t in running and losing; the shame is in believing your own hype, not being able to see yourself clearly, and jumping into the race unprepared.

Running for president is hard. Being “pretty good” is never good enough to get the nomination. Candidates are never as well-known as they think they are, their accomplishments never wow audiences the way they think — “in the House, I introduced a bill to—” — and their grandiose promises slam into a wall of well-justified skepticism. In the eyes of the average potential Iowa caucus-goer, you’re just another guy, and they’ve met dozens of guys just like you running for president over the years. Those other also-rans are barely remembered . . . and the odds are good you’ll barely be remembered, too.

Law & the Courts

The New York Times’ Activism on Kavanaugh Ignores Fundamental Ethics of Journalism

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(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: the New York Times takes what’s left of its credibility and sets it on fire, burning it to ashes; how well-off politicians are adapting to our era of stylish populism; an old parody with new relevance; and the new public service announcement that the country needs, not the one that it wants.

The New York Times Throws a Bonfire of Its Credibility

Conservatives have complained about The New York Times for a long time, but now the newspaper’s increasingly slippery standards for reporting and verification are getting so glaring, even its own former staffers can’t ignore it. Joe Pompeo writes in Vanity Fair:

Sources say Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly initially pitched their reporting to the news side, but top editors ultimately felt that there wasn’t enough juice to warrant a story there—punting the scoop to the Sunday Review section. “In today’s journalistic world, the conversation is a bit irrelevant,” one source said. “Your average reader is not gonna really know or care where it is.”

Similarly, in the words of a former high-ranking Times figure, “In today’s journalistic world, the conversation is a bit irrelevant, because for most of the people who read the New York Times online or on their phones, it doesn’t matter. It’s all the same. Your average reader is not gonna really know or care where it is. They played it up pretty big, and I have to tell you: When I first read it, I had no idea it was in the Review. I tapped on a link, and at the top it said ‘News Analysis.’ And I also didn’t know it was a book adaptation, because I didn’t even get to the end. I get the point of view of the activists. They want the Times to further their agenda, but that’s not the Times’ job.”

Wait, it gets worse! Pogrebin and Kelly told MSNBC last night that the qualifier about the other alleged Kavanaugh accuser not remembering an incident at Yale was included in the initial draft but removed. And then this morning, Pogrebin started describing the woman who said it didn’t happen in not-so-flattering terms: “She was incredibly drunk at that party . . . Memory here is really a questionable issue.”

The article — er, pardon me, “book excerpt” that ignored the alleged victim saying the event didn’t happen — did its job, by one measure: House Democrats are now beginning a push to impeach Justice Kavanaugh. Senate Democrats, who realize they don’t have the votes to impeach Trump, never mind Kavanaugh, are calling the effort unrealistic.

Our Kyle Smith makes the compelling argument that this is battle-space preparation for upcoming Supreme Court decisions that progressives won’t like. The Left knows they’re going to lose a lot of 5–4 decisions, and if Trump gets the opportunity to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, maybe a bunch of 6–3 decisions, too. Because progressives believe they can never legitimately lose a battle over what America’s laws ought to be, they need to lay the groundwork for the argument that any decision that involves Justice Brett Kavanaugh (and maybe Clarence Thomas, too) shouldn’t “really” count because one or both should never have been appointed to the court in the first place.

There’s one other point, though. The election of Donald Trump really shocked America’s progressives (and a lot of other people, too) and stands as a global disaster on par with 9/11 or the rise of Hitler. (Jonathan Chait declared Trump’s election is the “worst thing that has happened to the world in my life.” He was alive during 9/11!)

If you could go back and time and falsely report things that would lead to the early and abrupt end of a brutal dictator’s rule, would you do it? Most people would make that trade; a bit of dishonesty to prevent widespread injustice and misery. The end justifies the means. Once you see Trump as history’s greatest nightmare, every action taken in opposition to him and those allied with him is justified. This kind of thinking is how you get people trying to shoot up a baseball field full of Republican congressmen.

Our Populist Era of Faux-Downscale Politicians

Quite a few people — including quite a few Joe Biden fans — liked yesterday’s column, “Inside the Mind of the Biden Voter.” Part of understanding politics is understanding the thinking, values, and priorities of people who aren’t like you, and I’m trying to be better at that.

Many contend we’re in a populist moment; some might argue this is a new populist era. Part of populism is an inescapable awareness of and focus upon who society’s big guys and little guys are, and a seething distrust and even contempt for those at the top. Back in 2008, Robert Reich talked about four classic narratives in American politics, and one of them was “the rot at the top.”

The last story concerns the malevolence of powerful elites. It’s a tale of corruption, decadence, and irresponsibility in high places–of conspiracy against the common citizen. It started with King George III, and, to this day, it shapes the way we view government–mostly with distrust. The great bullies of American fiction have often symbolized Rot at the Top: William Faulkner’s Flem Snopes, Willie Stark as the Huey Long-like character in All the King’s Men, Lionel Barrymore’s demonic Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, and the antagonists that hound the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Suspicions about Rot at the Top have inspired what historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in U.S. politics–from the pre-Civil War Know-Nothings and Anti-Masonic movements through the Ku Klux Klan and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. The myth has also given force to the great populist movements of U.S. history, from Andrew Jackson’s attack on the Bank of the United States in the 1830s through William Jennings Bryan’s prairie populism of the 1890s.

You don’t have to look far in post-2000 America to see why millions of Americans not only believe in “the rot at the top,” but are driven or even consumed by the thought of it. The housing bubble, the Wall Street collapse, the bailouts and the Great Recession, and the sense that no one was ever held accountable for reckless decisions. Enron. Federal bureaucrats at the General Services Administration enjoying a lavish taxpayer-funded party in Las Vegas. Executives at nonprofits making a half-million a year. At least two separate waves of abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. GM’s cars not being safe, Boeing’s planes not being safe, one database breach after another. Bernie Madoff. Harvey Weinstein. #MeToo. Jeffrey Epstein. A giant, far-reaching bribery scandal to get dumb kids of rich and famous parents into top schools.

There are enough egregious examples of bad behavior by powerful people to convince the masses of two powerful conclusions. The first is that the people currently in charge of American society should not be in charge, that they did not earn their positions of power and authority fairly, that they frequently and shamelessly abuse their power and betray people’s trust, and not only does the cream not rise to the top, but the scum does. The second is that the reason they don’t feel as powerful and successful in American life as they wish they were is that they weren’t willing to cheat, lie, steal, and be as immoral as the powerful people were.

That first conclusion is an exaggeration, and that second one is a soothing explanation that hand-waves away anyone’s individual mistakes, bad judgments, attitude, ability to work with others, etc. But it’s easy to see why people believe them.

One of the points of yesterday’s column is that Biden voters and Trump voters see their guy in a similar way: “Sure, maybe he’s technically one of the elites, but he’s always been on the side of the little guy.”

This is why Joe Biden insists everyone calls him “Middle-Class Joe” even though the only person who’s ever been quoted calling him “Middle-Class Joe” is Joe Biden. He was elected to the Senate at 29 because his birthday was before the day of his swearing-in ceremony. He may well have been “poor” by the standards of the U.S. Senate, but every senator is wealthy by the standard of the average American.

This is why Elizabeth Warren frequently tells the story that “at 19, I got married, dropped out of school, took a minimum wage job, thought my dream was over.” Okay, but she was an associate dean of a law school by the time she was 31. By 1998, Harvard was paying her $192,550 in salary and an additional $133,453 in “other compensation” — which included a faculty mortgage subsidy, housing allowance, moving expenses, and imputed interest.

This is why Bernie Sanders talks about “growing up in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an immigrant who came to this country without a nickel in his pocket.” You could argue Sanders’ first regular job came with his election to mayor in 1981. But that job paid $33,824, the equivalent of more than $100,000 in today’s dollars, and money went pretty far in 1980s Burlington. As many know, Sanders is now a multimillionaire.

None of this means these figures were never poor or of modest means, or that they don’t remember what it was like to be that way. But every major presidential candidate in either party has been living, at minimum, an upper-middle-class lifestyle for many years. A populist mood in the nation forces politicians to pretend that they’re poorer than they are, that those hard times weren’t as long ago as they were, and that they still share or at least freshly remember the economic anxiety that stresses so many Americans.

Perhaps in the often sordid and shamefully dishonest realm of politics, a candidate downplaying his wealth and how long he’s lived comfortably is a small sin. But this sort of thing caught up to Hillary Clinton — “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt.”

I recall years ago watching prominent liberal journalist lamenting the greed of millionaires on television and the roughly $200K-per-year magazine columnist referring to “ordinary people like us.” To paraphrase that slang term of incredulous skepticism, “rich, please.”

An Oldie but a Goodie

This old Onion parody of Vox has never seemed more accurate.

ADDENDA: Finally, the public service announcement about mono that the country always needed.

World

While the Media Focus on Inconclusive Kavanaugh Allegations, There’s Evidence of Iran Striking Saudi Arabia

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Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh speaks at a ceremonial swearing-in at the White House, October 8, 2018. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

This weekend brought another moment where what the majority of the American news media thinks is important and what is actually important diverged wildly. Someday, the news media will be chasing clicks and ratings discussing their cotton-candy news story while ignoring the important and consequential broccoli news story, which will later blow up in a way that millions of Americans feel it. News consumers will wonder how it happened, why it happened, and why they weren’t being told about the broccoli when it mattered. Kind of like the “summer of the sharks” before 9/11.

The Broccoli Story: Iran — Or Somebody — Wants to Blow Up Saudi Arabia’s Oil Production

That brewing fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia isn’t just brewing anymore. It’s looking more and more like an all-out war.

Global energy prices spiked on Monday after a weekend attack on key oil facilities in Saudi Arabia caused the worst disruption to world supplies on record, an assault for which President Donald Trump warned that the U.S. was “locked and loaded” to respond.

U.S. officials offered satellite images of the damage at the heart of the kingdom’s crucial Abqaiq oil processing plant and a key oil field, alleging the pattern of destruction suggested the attack on Saturday came from either Iraq or Iran — rather than Yemen, as claimed by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels there.

Iran for its part called the U.S. allegations “maximum lies.”

The Houthis on Monday warned of more attacks on Saudi oil facilities and urged foreign companies doing business in the kingdom to stay away from its energy sites. Yahia Sarie, a rebel spokesman, said facilities such as the Abqaiq oil processing plant and the oil field hit this weekend could again “be targeted at any time.”

Hope you filled up your tank. President Trump said the country will tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve if necessary, and this sort of emergency is why we have the reserve.

At Bloomberg, Eli Lake argues that the U.S. has tried the “open to negotiations” approach and gotten its hand bitten in response too many times.

Trump also now needs to reconsider military options to deter future escalations. As I have reported, U.S. intelligence agencies have mapped the precise locations of Iranian bases and commanders in Yemen and the Middle East. If Trump wants to respond militarily without attacking Iranian territory, he has many targets outside the country.

If Trump continues to pursue negotiations with Iran’s regime, he will be inviting more attacks on America’s allies. This is exactly the strategy — and the consequences — followed and paid by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in his second term. During and after the negotiations for the nuclear deal, Iran armed and trained its proxies in Syria and later in Yemen. The Middle East is now paying for these mistakes. Trump would be a fool to repeat them.

Nobody — or perhaps its more accurate to say few Americans — want a war with Iran, but the Iranians get a say in that, too. Assume the coming days bring proof that Iran launched an attack that shut down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. What would the appropriate response from the United States be?

The Cotton Candy Story: Sure, Let’s Rehash the Whole Kavanaugh Drama All Over Again

Our John McCormack notes that a New York Times book excerpt — not an article — that is supposedly a bombshell new accusation against Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh is really a dud, in large part because the book includes rather glaring counter-evidence that the accuser does not recall the incident of Kavanaugh that the book describes. And the Times didn’t feel it was important to mention that!

The New York Times added a correction that essentially says “never mind” to the explosive allegation:

An earlier version of this article, which was adapted from a forthcoming book, did not include one element of the book’s account regarding an assertion by a Yale classmate that friends of Brett Kavanaugh pushed his penis into the hand of a female student at a drunken dorm party. The book reports that the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say that she does not recall the incident. That information has been added to the article.

We keep hearing liberal commentators insist that Kavanaugh has been “credibly accused.” They have an odd definition of this. The three witnesses that Ford mentioned said they don’t remember any party like the one she described. Another man told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believes he was the man whom Ford remembers. The second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, “contacted former Yale classmates asking if they recalled the incident and told some of them that she could not be certain Mr. Kavanaugh was the one who exposed himself,” according to the New York Times. Julie Swetnick contradicted her own affidavit in her media interviews, backtracking about what she specifically saw. Senate Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley found her tales of weekly rape parties in Georgetown going on interrupted for three years — with no contemporaneous reporting, complaints to parents, or police investigations of any kind — so implausible that she was referred the matter to the Justice Department for investigation of whether she could be prosecuted for lying to Congress.

Terry McDermott is a Los Angeles Times staff writer who wrote a book about the 9/11 hijackers. In 2005, he wrote about the number of people convinced they encountered Mohammad Atta in places and times he simply couldn’t be there:

Over the last four years, I have interviewed dozens of people who swore they saw Atta somewhere he wasn’t. This includes an assortment of waiters, students, flight instructors, taxi drivers and, more dramatically, two women who each claim to have been married to Atta, this despite the fact that they were never in the same city at the same time he was.

How could it be that so many people remember that they knew Atta, that they saw him or his name, when all the facts argue otherwise? I don’t think they are all lying. Maybe none of them is.

I think Atta entered an American psyche desperate for a name and face and an explanation. He came complete with what has become one of the iconic images of 9/11 — his Florida DMV mug shot, an image so memorable, so powerful and perfect for the moment that it allowed people to see in it whatever they needed to see. I think people subsequently, subconsciously placed that face where it made sense to them.

Research indicates that over time, our brain “edits” our memories. It’s not like bringing a photo out of a file cabinet. It’s like re-painting a portrait each time. This is one of the ways people who are not telling the truth can pass lie detectors. They’ve convinced themselves that they remember something happening, but their memory isn’t quite accurate.

For someone who went to Yale, who vaguely remembers a party with heavy drinking and some guy being a jerk who engaged in unforgivable or embarrassing behavior, who wants the perpetrator to be Kavanaugh because he now represents in their mind everything they hate about Trump, or Republicans, or conservatives, or pro-lifers, the perpetrator’s face becomes that of Kavanaugh. Motivated reasoning meets motivated remembering.

The Times correction doesn’t matter this morning. Way too many prominent Democrats have already pushed their chips to the center of the table and can’t change their bets now. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Julian Castro all called for impeaching Kavanaugh and removing him from the court. Joe Biden didn’t quite join them, but said, “We need to get to the bottom of whether the Trump Administration and Senate Republicans pressured the FBI to ignore evidence or prevented them from following up on leads relating to Justice Kavanaugh’s background investigation, subsequent allegations that arose, and the truthfulness of his testimony to the Senate.” This morning Biden is getting grief for a “tepid” response.

Democrats and their allies in the media have to pretend that correction never happened, the same way they have to pretend Debra Katz, the attorney for Christine Blasey Ford, never said, “When he takes a scalpel to Roe v. Wade, we will know who he is, we know his character, and we know what motivates him, and that is important; it is important that we know, and that is part of what motivated Christine.” Oh. So she knew how he was going to rule on a particular issue, and that was part of what motivated her?

Wonder of Wonders, It Turns Out Joe Biden’s Memory Might Be Underrated

At first, I thought Michael Harriot’s dissection of Joe Biden’s not-quite-so-plausible tale of confronting the notorious gangster “Corn Pop” at a Wilmington swimming pool in 1962 was painfully hilarious. (Some bad language at the link.) Actually, it’s indisputably hilarious, the question is whether it’s fair. Because it turns out CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale found some evidence to corroborate parts of Biden’s story. William Morris, nicknamed “CornPop,” existed and passed away a few years ago. A former mayor of Wilmington knew him and knew he was a rough kid in his teen years. There was indeed a gang called “the Romans” in Wilmington in the 1960s, and other longtime residents recall the story of Biden confronting a gang member at a pool.

Go figure. Good for you, Joe Biden.

Of course, Michael Graham wonders how Biden could work as a lifeguard during the summers in college and simultaneously be medically excused from Vietnam for “asthma as a teenager.”

ADDENDA: Thanks to everyone who came out to Barnes and Noble for the book signing Sunday afternoon! For about half of you, I spared you the kickoff of a disappointing day of professional football. The reader reviews remain happy, and I will try to line up other book events as opportunities arise.

Elections

Why Last Night’s Debate Was Both Comically Bad and Painfully Annoying

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From left: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro pose before the start of the Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Texas, September 12, 2019. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why last night’s Democratic presidential primary debate was so bad; a suddenly hot issue that surprisingly never came up last night; an important and under-discussed detail about that Trump resort in Scotland; and a very important appointment for this weekend.

The Democratic Debates Have Curdled from Somewhat Illuminating to Bad

Last night is when the Democratic presidential primary debates shifted from mildly entertaining showcases of comically overambitious narcissists with little to no self-awareness — “I’m ready to be commander-in-chief on day one because in the House, I’ve introduced a bill that would —” to a genuinely annoying group exercise in ritualized belief that bumper-sticker slogans can fix the world, that most of the country’s problems go away once Donald Trump is no longer president, and that anecdotes prove it.

Readers, you know I have plenty of beefs with President Trump. Some of you write in to let me know you disagree, and some of you let me know that you’re tired of me pointing out where Trump gets it wrong. But I have no illusions — if somebody else steps into the Oval Office on January 21, 2021, the country’s still going to have big, complicated problems. We have 7.2 million job openings, but most of the people who are unemployed either aren’t qualified or aren’t near where the jobs are. We still are struggling with opioid addiction and suicides, with the longest sustained decline in expected lifespan in a century. Amidst prosperity and a decline in crime, we have these dark underground subcultures of “Columbiners,” and “Incels,” and hate groups: angry young men eager to lash out through violence and justify it all with an incoherent manifesto. We’re dependent upon technology in so many ways, but we don’t know if we can trust technology. The world still has terrorists, hostile states, aggressive and expansion-minded powers. Whether or not you buy into the particulars of climate change, we’re a country that loves to live on the coast and build it bigger and more expensive every time — even though powerful hurricanes are a fact of life.

Trump-bashing is a really useful crutch for every candidate on that stage. No matter how the moderators ask, “what would you do on this issue?” the candidates can offer some version of, “I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t do what Trump has done, because he’s done X, Y, and Z and that’s destroying the American dream/dividing us/corrupting the ideals of America/leaving a worse world for our children.” Cue audience applause.

These debates would be so much more edifying, useful, and revealing if there was no audience, and no candidate felt the need to try to awkwardly shoehorn in an applause line at the end of their answer. Judging from the transcript, the audience applauded 136 times last night. This isn’t Saturday Night Live or a sporting event; we don’t need to hear “WHOOOOO” when a candidate promises to create a special White House office for hate crimes and white supremacy, as Cory Booker did last night. If creating a special White House office focusing on a problem solved it, the country would have no problems.

Almost everything that was bad about last night’s debate stemmed from having ten candidates on stage. The answers were limited to a minute and 15 seconds because ABC News didn’t want to leave candidates quiet for a half-hour at a time. The debate was scheduled to be three hours long — mercifully, it actually ran about two hours and forty-five minutes, because there are ten candidates on stage and the moderators wanted to cover a lot of issues. As much as the candidates want to believe that that there are glaring and consequential differences among them in policy, those differences are hard to articulate without getting into the weeds, which is difficult to explain in 75 seconds. So the night turns into a competition of emoting and who can tell the best anecdote about an average American they met on the campaign trail who is dealing with a problem that only the candidate can solve.

The fact-checkers will have their hands full, to the extent their efforts make any difference.

Former vice president Joe Biden declared, “comparing this president to the president we have is outrageous, number one. We didn’t lock people up in cages. We didn’t separate families. We didn’t do all of those things, number one.” That’s just flat-out false; immigrants at border processing facilities were kept in chain-link enclosures during the Obama administration, too.

As many irritated conservatives have pointed out, the Associated Press file photo that accompanies many articles about the Trump administration’s policy was taken in 2014 at a Customs and Border Protection facility in Nogales, Ariz. And the Obama administration did separate families, but on a case by case basis, not as an explicitly recommended policy.

Biden also declared “nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime,” which no doubt thrilled viewers like Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. The vice president will be walking that one back soon.

Our John McCormack caught Elizabeth Warren insisting that the assault weapons ban failed to pass in 2013 because of “corruption, pure and simple.” McCormack noted that it received only 40 votes — 16 Democrats joined 44 Republicans in opposition. That’s a lot of broad and bipartisan “pure and simple corruption.”

Andrew Yang offered Democrats a reassuring fairy tale: “Why are we losing to the fossil fuel companies? Why are we losing to the gun lobby and the NRA? And the answer is this, we all know, everyone on this stage knows that our government has been overrun by money and corporate interests.” Right, right. It has nothing to do with how people vote, and that those 16 Democrats and 44 Republicans knew that if they voted for the assault weapons ban, they would likely get tossed out of office by their constituents.

Bernie Sanders declared, “we have the highest child poverty rate of almost any country on earth.” He’s exaggerated a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that put the U.S. in the middle of 38 countries studied; there are 195 countries on earth. The frustrating thing is that Sanders could have said, “too many American children live in poverty, and we should do everything we can to bring that number to zero” and everyone across the political spectrum would agree.

Beto O’Rourke called the El Paso shooting an “act of terror, that was directed at our community, in large part by the president of the United States.” Trump says a lot of controversial, incendiary, and ill-considered things, but it is a damnable lie to contend that Trump directed the shooter to kill Latinos in a Walmart.

Presidential elections are decisions. If you think the electorate hasn’t gotten it right in some of the past elections, it’s likely that part of the problem stems from what sort of information the public is using to make the decision, and I don’t just mean disinformation on social media from the Russians. Do the voters recognize that the president is not a king? Do they realize that most of these proposals must be enacted by legislation, not executive orders, and that to become law they must get majorities in the House and Senate — and 60 votes, if the filibuster is intact? Do they understand that everything they want to enact into law has to be considered constitutional by the Supreme Court? The only person who uttered the word “Constitution” last night was Joe Biden. No wonder the online progressives can’t stand him; he keeps reminding them about reality.

Do the voters understand that some problems in American life are probably not solvable? While the government can take steps to reduce poverty and maximize the opportunities for a better life, there is no country on earth that has completely eliminated poverty. (I suppose if you want to count Vatican City. Separately, it’s worth noting that global poverty has been cut in half since 2000. All that international trade is good for something!) “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

The Missing Issue of the Night Was . . .

By the way, something that didn’t come up at all, which surprised me: Trump calling for a ban on flavored vaping products. Put vaping, flavored or unflavored, on that long list of “Things I Don’t Like and Don’t Do Myself, but Don’t Want the Federal Government Banning.”

About Those Stays at Trump Hotels . . .

The headline: “The U.S. Air Force has lodged crews at President Donald Trump’s Scotland resort up to 40 times since 2015