Reading the Mueller Indictment

In a New Yorker article reviewing the Mueller indictments, an important note about Americans’ inability to correctly understand the news they’re reading:

The power of news illiteracy. At the heart of the Russian fraud is an essential, embarrassing insight into American life: large numbers of Americans are ill-equipped to assess the credibility of the things they read. The willingness to believe purported news stories, often riddled with typos or coming from unfamiliar outlets, is a liability of today’s fragmented media and polarized politics. Even the trolls themselves were surprised at what Americans would believe. According to the indictment, in September, 2017, once U.S. authorities had begun to crack down on the fraud, one of the defendants, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, e-mailed a family member, saying, “We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues.” She went on, “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”

Mueller Knows All

From Axios this morning:

  • We’ve only been reading about Mueller’s interviews with Trump associates and White House officials — because these are the folks that Washington reporters talk to.
  • But Mueller has been picking apart complicated, secretive and well-funded Russian networks that could only have originated from the Kremlin.
  • Mueller’s indictments are not the work product of some frivolous fishing expedition to indict Trump, as some of Trump’s conservative allies have claimed.
  • This shows that Trump was wrong when he said during a debate that the DNC hacker “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” It’s not fake news.
  • This shows Mueller has been doing consequential work, not just sniffing around the White House looking for an excuse to indict Trump. 
  • President Trump is either woefully ignorant, or deliberately lying, about the scope of Kremlin influence. This was a major Kremlin operation.

Those comments during the first debate that the DNC hacker “could have been somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds” were so deeply disingenuous at the time (he was receiving intelligence briefings then, so he knew better). Now that he’s president, he’s violating his oath of office if he does nothing to respond.

The essence of Trump though is that he only ever cares about himself. In the context of Russia (assuming he’s innocent of any collusion and assuming he’s not being blackmailed or otherwise unduly pressured by Russia), what that means is avoiding accepting any conclusion or taking any action that calls into question the legitimacy of his election.

“Both Sides” are not the Problem

An exerpt from from It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, written 5 years ago:

The second is the fact that, however awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.

Recognizing these two realities and understanding how America go here is key to taking the right steps to overcome dysfunctional politics.

How Obama and McConnell Handled Russian Election Interference

This is a story from December 2016 that gives some detail on what the Obama Administration tried to do in response to Russia’s election interference:

In a secure room in the Capitol used for briefings involving classified information, administration officials broadly laid out the evidence U.S. spy agencies had collected, showing Russia’s role in cyber-intrusions in at least two states and in hacking the emails of the Democratic organizations and individuals.

And they made a case for a united, bipartisan front in response to what one official described as “the threat posed by unprecedented meddling by a foreign power in our election process.”

The Democratic leaders in the room unanimously agreed on the need to take the threat seriously. Republicans, however, were divided, with at least two GOP lawmakers reluctant to accede to the White House requests.

According to several officials, McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.

This is an illustration of the point I was making yesterday that Republicans are more aggressive about forwarding their own partisan interests than Democrats are, even when faced with an issue that goes to the core of our democratic process. It also illustrates the weakness of Democrats, where McConnell’s threat was apparently enough to get Obama to back off. So what if Republicans choose to politicize it? Republicans politicize every non-partisan institution that gets in their way: the FBI in the Russia investigation, the CBO during the health care debate, the Senate parliamentarian when he doesn’t rule their way, and on and on.

Some Clinton supporters saw the White House’s reluctance to act without bipartisan support as further evidence of an excessive caution in facing adversaries.

“The lack of an administration response on the Russian hacking cannot be attributed to Congress,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who was at the September meeting. “The administration has all the tools it needs to respond. They have the ability to impose sanctions. They have the ability to take clandestine means. The administration has decided not to utilize them in a way that would deter the Russians, and I think that’s a problem.”

I think in 50 years, we’ll look back at the various causes that led to the national disaster unfolding today and view Obama’s timidity in the face of Russia’s actions to be a key part of where things broke down. In my view, if Obama though the right thing to do was to make Russia’s election interference public, he should have done that. If Republicans then choose to mount a partisan defense, let them and deal with it when it comes.

How the Republicans Broke Congress

Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein nail what’s broken in our politics today in an op-ed for The New York Times:

If in 2006 one could cast aspersions on both parties, over the past decade it has become clear that it is the Republican Party — as an institution, as a movement, as a collection of politicians — that has done unique, extensive and possibly irreparable damage to the American political system.

The only problem I have with this setup is calling out the year 2006 as a time when one could cast aspersions on both parties. For example, after routing Republicans in congressional elections that year, and facing a historically unpopular President Bush who incompetently blundered the nation into a never-ending conflict in Iraq, Democrats refrained from impeaching him and instead trusted they would win the presidency in 2008. In other words, they let the appropriately allowed the electoral process to play out. In 1998, however, a Republican Congress impeached President Clinton for lying about having an affair with an intern during a deposition. This was a minor matter of no national importance, but the Republican Party hated Clinton so much that they were willing to impeach him over almost anything.

If one accepts that at any given time both parties indulge in a certain amount of lying, cheating, and stealing as part of the day-to-day of politics, what we’re talking about today with the Republican Party is something different. I’ve been following politics closely since the 1992 presidential election. During that time, there has been an obvious march of the Republican Party to the right. As it’s gotten more conservative, it’s also gotten more intransigent. It’s now completely unwilling to compromise; has developed a view of Democrats and liberals not as political opponents who simply have a different view of, say, tax policy, but rather as being fundamentally un-American.

The authors go on to describe this shift:

First, beginning in the 1990s, the Republicans strategically demonized Congress and government more broadly and flouted the norms of lawmaking, fueling a significant decline of trust in government that began well before the financial collapse in 2008, though it has sped up since. House Republicans showed their colors when they first blocked passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Plan, despite the urgent pleas of their own president, George W. Bush, and the speaker of the House, John Boehner. The seeds of a (largely phony) populist reaction were planted.
Second, there was the “Obama effect.” When Mr. Bush became president, Democrats worked with him to enact sweeping education reform early on and provided the key votes to pass his top priority, tax cuts. With President Barack Obama, it was different. While many argued that the problem was that Mr. Obama failed to schmooze enough with Republicans in Congress, we saw a deliberate Republican strategy to oppose all of his initiatives and frame his attempts to compromise as weak or inauthentic. The Senate under the majority leader Mitch McConnell weaponized the filibuster to obstruct legislation, block judges and upend the policy process. The Obama effect had an ominous twist, an undercurrent of racism that was itself embodied in the “birther” movement led by Donald Trump.

And:

Third, we have seen the impact of significant changes in the news media, which had a far greater importance on the right than on the left. The development of the modern conservative media echo chamber began with the rise of Rush Limbaugh and talk radio in the late 1980s and ramped up with the birth of Fox News. Matt Drudge, his protégé Andrew Breitbart and Breitbart’s successor Steve Bannon leveraged the power of the internet to espouse their far-right views. And with the advent of social media, we saw the emergence of a radical “alt-right” media ecosystem able to create its own “facts” and build an audience around hostility to the establishment, anti-immigration sentiment and racial resentment. Nothing even close to comparable exists on the left.

This is inarguable. The question is what to do about it. In my opinion, it’s long overdue for Democrats and liberals to start being very tough not just with Congressional Republicans, but with the entire right-wing media establishment that enables them. It’s an ideological struggle as important as the ideological struggle against fascism and communism were, and should be treated accordingly.

Celebration of Ignorance

Carl Sagan, in The Demon-Haunted World:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

President Trump’s earliest appearance in Panama Papers revealed

From The New York Daily News:

A real estate deal from the early 1990s is the earliest instance of President Trump’s name appearing in the Panama Papers, the massive trove of leaked documents detailing the ways in which the world’s richest people hide their business dealings from scrutiny and taxation.

The discovery, first flagged by investigative reporter Jake Bernstein on Friday afternoon, involves the purchase and subsequent sale of a condo at the newly constructed Trump Palace on the Upper East Side in the 1990s.

The deal involved a mysterious Panamanian company called Process Consultants, Inc., which bought a 16th floor condo at the Trump skyscraper in 1991.

Process Consultants was owned through so-called bearer shares, which can be used to transfer assets with complete anonymity. Such shares are popular among money launderers.

Three years after the purchase, Process Consultants put the Trump Palace unit up for sale, with the Trump Corporation as its exclusive broker. A woman from Hong Kong, whose name has appeared in other leaked documents, appears to have bought the apartment for $355,000, according to a contract.

As has been the case with most Panama Papers revelations, there’s no indication of who is actually behind Process Consultants or where that person’s money came from.

While using bearer shares doesn’t prove that Process Consultants was involved in something dubious, the quick condo flip is characteristic of money laundering.

Watch the stories about money laundering through condo sales.

Trump Delivers a Thanksgiving Message to the Coast Guard

Such a heartwarming message this Thanksgiving:

The Navy, I can tell you, we’re ordering ships, with the Air Force I can tell you we’re ordering a lot of planes, in particular the F-35 fighter jet, which is like almost like an invisible fighter. I was asking the Air Force guys, I said, how good is this plane? They said, well, sir, you can’t see it. I said but in a fight. You know, in a fight, like I watch on the movies. The fight, they’re fighting. How good is this? They say, well, it wins every time because the enemy cannot see it. Even if it’s right next to them, it can’t see it. I said that helps. That’s a good thing.

The President of the United States thinks the F-35 is literally invisible.

Vaccinate Your Children

From a really interesting article about the people still living in iron lungs:

“All the mothers were just terrified because people were just getting it right and left,” Lillard said. “They didn’t know if it was a virus or bacteria or how you caught it.”

Poliomyelitis is a highly contagious disease that can cause paralysis of legs, arms, and respiratory muscles. “The polio virus is a silver bullet designed to kill specific parts of the brain,” Richard Bruno, a clinical psychophysiologist, and director of the International Centre for Polio Education said. “But parents today have no idea what polio was like, so it’s hard to convince somebody that lives are at risk if they don’t vaccinate.”

I’ve long theorized that a big reason why anti-vaxxers have gotten any traction at all is precisely because vaccines are so effective. So many catastrophic diseases have been effectively eradicated by vaccines in rich countries that parents no longer perceive a meaningful threat. They are then free to indulge in the fantasy that the real threat is actually the doctors working to eliminate these diseases.

When Lillard was a child, polio was every parent’s worst nightmare. The worst polio outbreak year in US history took place in 1952, a year before Lillard was infected. There were about 58,000 reported cases. Out of all the cases, 21,269 were paralyzed and 3,145 died. “They closed theaters, swimming pools, families would keep their kids away from other kids because of the fear of transmission,” Bruno said.

By 1961, there were only 161 reported cases in the US. But in 1988, there were still an estimated 350,000 cases worldwide. That year, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and Rotary International began an aggressive campaign to end polio everywhere. Last year there were 37 cases reported in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

According to Bruno, if an infected person in either of those countries visited family in an area like Orange County, California, where many parents are opting out of vaccinating their children, “then we could be talking about the definition of a polio epidemic.”

The result of this ignorance and superstition is potentially catastrophic.