First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Donald Trump, preparing to address the United Nations Carlo Allegri / Reuters

American presidents usually address the United Nations General Assembly in the fall—as you can see here, and as Donald Trump did on Tuesday. Sometimes they also do so in the spring*, or on other occasions as the need arises.

American presidents usually receive a respectful hearing at the UN.

-  Sometimes it is more than just respectful, as when John Kennedy made his speech in 1961 calling for a new series of nuclear test-ban treaties. (“The events and decisions of the next ten months may well decide the fate of man for the next ten thousand years… And we in this hall shall be remembered either as part of the generation that turned this planet into a flaming funeral pyre or the generation that met its vow ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’ ”)

- Sometimes the reception is merely polite, as when Richard Nixon spoke to the UN during the Vietnam war, or Ronald Reagan while pursuing his “Star Wars” / Strategic Defense Initiative program against the Soviet Union.

- Very occasionally the reaction has fallen short of simple politeness, as when Hugo Chavez, then strongman of Venezuela, spoke one day after George W. Bush, during the Iraq War. Chavez said that the dais still reeked of sulfur, because “yesterday the devil came here.”

But two things were unusual about Trump’s speech on Tuesday.

It was, to the best of my knowledge, the first presidential UN speech that challenged the very idea of international cooperation and standards. (Ronald Reagan, 1985:  “America is committed to the world because so much of the world is inside America…. The blood of each nation courses through the American vein and feeds the spirit that compels us to involve ourselves in the fate of this good Earth.” Donald Trump, 2018: “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”)

And, it was the only one, ever, to be greeted by openly mocking laughter, including from representatives of America’s closest allies, as David Graham described here. Criticism and disagreement, yes — they go with the territory of representing America’s enormous power. But ridicule is something new. The moment is too obvious to belabor as a symbol, so I simply note it as a fact.

Republican Senators who have said anything about this performance: to the best of my knowledge, none.

Forty-one days to go.

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(Emily Jan / Gabriela Fernandez / The Atlantic)

We’re bringing back our #ReadingMyAtlantic Instagram contest and we’re so excited. The first iteration of this contest launched last year, and in the months since, we have been blown away by the creativity of our readers. We’ve loved seeing where you took your magazine with your babies and furry friends. We’ve watched you take us around the world to see the Louvre and the solar eclipse. And now, we want to see more!

The October 2018 issue is a special one. It features a line-up of stories that attempt to answer the question: Is democracy dying? For example, the historian Yuval Noah Harari argues “Why Technology Favors Tyranny.” The Pulitzer Prize–winning author Anne Applebaum takes us to Europe, where the arc of history is bending away from liberalism. And Yale Law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld  examine how tribalism  threatens the American notion that we are bound not by blood, ethnicity, race, or religion, but by respect for our country’s founding beliefs. Not exactly light reading, we know, but we’re hoping this issue might spark some inspiration. Grab your copy and a phone or camera, and show us where you’ve been #ReadingMyAtlantic lately.

A reminder on how to enter: Snap a picture or boomerang of you (and your friends! Family! Pets! Get as weird as you’d like with it) reading your copy of the October issue, and share it on Instagram, using this hashtag: #ReadingMyAtlantic (Tip: make sure your profile is public for this so we can see it). We’ll select a winner in early October. The prize includes a one-year digital subscription and an Atlantic swag bag — including an Atlantic t-shirt, baseball cap, notebook and a limited-edition poster of the “My President Was Black” cover, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The winner’s post will also be shared from our account, so give us a follow. Full contest rules can be found below.

Brett Kavanaugh, before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing, with his wife, Ashley, seated behind him. Reuters / Jim Bourg

I have been off line, traveling for actual reporting, over the weekend, and re-appear to find… argh!!! There is no possible way to keep up. So as a brief time-capsule register of where things stand, six weeks before midterm election day, here are two markers of things that have changed in the past few days.

(1) There is no longer “just one.” The most significant recent development in the Brett Kavanaugh case would appear to be the dispatch from Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker, alleging an episode of sexual assault by Kavanaugh when he was an undergraduate at Yale. Why is this significant?

(a) Of all the reporters whose accounts go contrary to official Trump administration claims, from the venerable Bob Woodward to the more recently eminent Ronan Farrow, I am not aware of anyone whose decades-long track record stands up better than Jane Mayer’s. If she has had to retract, apologize for, eat crow about, or otherwise retract significant factual illustrations, I’m not aware of it.

(b) In the etiology of sexual-aggression claims, the offense history very rarely seems to be “there was just that one time.” Either the number of plausible sexual-abuse claims against a prominent figure is zero — against Barack Obama, against George W. Bush, against Kavanaugh’s fellow Georgetown Prep alumnus Neil Gorsuch, etc  — or it eventually amounts to a significant number.

Cosby, Weinstein, the gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, and the like may be extreme cases. But in general the pattern we’ve all learned to expect is: If there is one, there is more than one. Conversely: if the number remains firmly at one, it’s easier to raise doubts about that lone accuser.

With the Mayer-Farrow story, the number of specific allegations against Brett Kavanaugh broke the more-than-one threshold. No one working for Kavanaugh’s confirmation can say so, but this news substantially changes expectations, and apprehensions, about what other claims might yet turn up.

(c) On the expectations front, I’ll lay out my own.

In my reporting life and as a citizen, I’ve watched over the decades many cycles of “rumors” and “questions” about sexual misconduct by prominent (male) figures run their course. Not in every case, but in the vast majority of them, as the evidence finally comes out and mounts up, it has usually weighed on the side of the accuser, not the accused. Where there is smoke, there has usually been fire.

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For my wife, Deb, and me in recent years, a big theme has been the renewal of America at the local level. Here’s the latest proof:

It comes with the arrival late Friday night of young West Fallows, shown above. She made her appearance just before midnight on September 21 — officially, the last hour of summer — weighing in at 6 pounds and 7 ounces, in Santa Barbara, California.

Her parents, our son Tom and his wife Lizzy Bennett Fallows, are tired, happy, and beginning to reflect on what lies ahead, now that they have three daughters age four and below. Good luck to them all!

Previously in this series: Welcome Jack Fallows in August, 2011; Welcome Tide Fallows, in June, 2014; Welcome Eleanor Fallows, in February, 2015; and Welcome Navy Fallows in May, 2016.

It doesn't seem that long ago that Deb and I viewed the concept of grandchildren as a remote possibility, of purely theoretical interest. (Of course, it doesn’t “seem” that long ago that we were visiting grandparents of our own. The wheel turns.) Now there are five of the little creatures on hand, which both in concept and in their personal reality we of course find marvelous and delightful. Jack and Eleanor, with their parents Tad and Annie, live in Dallas; Tide, Navy, and now West are with Tom and Lizzy in their new home town of Santa Barbara.

Congratulations to mother, father, big sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, other grandparents and forebears, and lovely little West.

Members of Congress tee off at the Columbia Country Club CQ Roll Call via AP

Last night around 1 a.m., I mentioned that a fevered and insanely conspiratorial tweetstorm then online was almost certain to disappear. It was filed by Ed Whelan, a friend of Brett Kavanaugh’s and a prominent figure in conservative judicial circles; it laid out elaborate (but crazy) forensic evidence pointing to one of Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep classmates as the likely “real” aggressor in the long-ago attempted-rape case; and it was nuts.

This morning, about 14 hours after the posts originally went up, Whelan removed the several-dozen tweets he had painstakingly put together and replaced them with this:

Via Twitter

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Way back in Trump Time Capsule #4, when Donald Trump was about to clinch the Republican presidential nomination, I mentioned Trump’s long-standing weakness for conspiracy theories. These ranged from his lunatic suggestion that the father of (then-rival, now supplicant) Ted Cruz had been involved in the JFK assassination, to his “a lot of people are saying ...” suspicion-mongering about the death of Vince Foster, who committed suicide while serving as White House counsel during the Bill Clinton years.  

Context point #1: “A lot of people are saying” is Trump’s trademark way of floating usually false information, as in “A lot of people are questioning [Obama’s] birth certificate.”

Context point #2: When Brett Kavanaugh, now Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, was an aide to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr in his investigation of Bill Clinton, he personally led efforts to unveil the “real” story of Foster’s death. The historian Sean Wilentz said more about this effort in the New York Times, here.

On Thursday, the modern equivalent of the “Cruz’s dad did it” theory, or the “real” story of Vince Foster, entered the midterm politics of 2018. It did so in the form of a deranged-seeming several-dozen-elements-long Twitter storm by a very prominent conservative figure, who set himself the task of figuring out who “really” waged a sexual attack many years ago on Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who says that the teenaged Brett Kavanaugh did so.

The tweet-storm came from a man named Edward Whelan, and here’s why it merits notice today:

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Border Patrol agents taking a Central American child into custody, this past June, in McAllen, Texas. John Moore / Getty

Here are some items from the news that barely break the consciousness-barrier, amid the Kavanaugh confirmation fight and other chaos, but that I expect will be considered significant in the history of our times:

(1) Children. Starting back in the Clinton administration, U.S. immigration authorities have been under court supervision for handling any children who are caught with parents or other adults during border crossings. Together the rules for treating children are often referred to as “Flores standards” or “the Flores settlement,” after Flores v. Reno, a case filed back when Janet Reno was attorney general.

The rules are complicated, and you can see more here and here. Apparent violations of Flores, along with basic cruelty, were at the heart of the controversy about separating children from parents at the southern border this past summer.

One important part of current Flores standards is that children apprehended along with adults can’t be held for more than 20 days. Having lost a long sequence of court rulings about its “zero-tolerance” approach and other immigration policies, the Trump administration is now proposing essentially to de-impose the Flores limits, through new regulatory guidance. You can read more about what the changes would mean here. (The new approach is likely to be challenged in court, too.)

(2) The future. Human activity produces roughly five times as much carbon dioxide as emissions of methane. But methane is vastly more powerful as an agent of climate change. You can see the details here and here, but as an approximation methane is at least 80 times stronger than CO2 in its short-term climate effect, and as a recent article put it, “its impact is 34 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period, according to the latest IPCC Assessment Report.”

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Statement from the White House, with Donald Trump's order that closely protected secret information be made public. Screenshot from White House Press Office

Because these details tend to get lost in the froth, let’s pause to note two extraordinary steps Donald Trump took in the past 24 hours.

One of them is literally unprecedented; the other is a sharp departure from modern norms. I’m not aware of any member of the governing GOP majority objecting to either of them.

They are:

(1) Declassifying FISA warrants and messages from FBI agents. Presumably because he thinks these messages might embarrass people he considers enemies, on Monday Trump ordered the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice (which includes the FBI) to make public “without redaction” a variety of text messages, reports, and even FISA warrants all involved in the Russian-influence probe.

Why did this matter? Because the FISA warrants, the FBI reports, and these other documents presumably contain details on how the government knows what it knows. Who its sources are, what informants and moles it has developed, which surveillance systems work, which enemy codes have been broken. Recall the familiar (though disputed and even disproved) claim that in World War II Winston Churchill let the Luftwaffe bombing of Coventry proceed — rather than evacuate the city, which could have tipped off the Germans to how much the British knew. Whether or not that story is correct (probably not), as a parable it illustrates how important protecting “sources and methods” can be. And in this case Trump decreed: I don’t care.

The “Gang of Eight” within the Congress is supposed to be the bipartisan bulwark against misuse of the intelligence system. Today a “Gang of Four” — the Democratic half of the full-scale octet Gang — protested bitterly against Trump’s decision, and appealed to the FBI and intelligence establishment to ignore it, or slow it down.

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From a cartoon by Kal, of the Baltimore Sun, after the Anita Hill hearings in 1991. Courtesy Kevin KAL Kallaugher, Baltimore Sun

At the moment, in mid-September—with no way of knowing how the midterm elections will go, or what legal entanglements lie ahead for Donald Trump—we do have one possible gauge of how far the politics of 2018 have actually deviated from previous norms.

It involves the prospects for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Through post-World War II political history, there have been distinct moments when a nomination curdles, or sours—and when the assumption shifts from likely approval, which is the starting point for most selections by most presidents, to likely failure.

  • In 1987, Ronald Reagan’s pick to succeed Lewis Powell on the Court, a 41-year-old federal judge named Douglas Ginsburg, withdrew from consideration less than two weeks after he was announced, because of an (unbelievable in retrospect) controversy about marijuana use. The complications of sticking with him were piling up too fast. (Previously Reagan had named Robert Bork for this seat; that nomination went down, after a bitter fight, by a 42-58 vote, with 58 voting against him. After Ginsburg bowed out, Reagan turned to Anthony Kennedy—whose retirement this year opened the seat Kavanaugh would hold.)
  • In 2005, George W. Bush’s pick to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor on the Court, a 60-year-old White House staff official named Harriet Miers, withdrew from consideration three weeks after she was announced, in the face of Democratic criticism about her lack of judicial experience and Republican doubts about her policy views. The fight to defend her seemed not worth the cost. (Samuel Alito was eventually confirmed for this seat. )
  • In 2009, Barack Obama’s pick as the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, withdrew from consideration two weeks after Obama was sworn in, because of (again penny-ante in retrospect) questions about his failure to declare use of a private-car service as taxable income, and related personal-finance issues. Losing him hurt Obama badly, but at the time the fight to keep him seemed likely to hurt more.

Anyone who has been around politics has seen similar episodes, when opposition starts cresting, and one of three outcomes is in view:

(1) A nominee fights bitterly—and hangs on, as Clarence Thomas did for his seat on the Supreme Court in 1991.

(2) A nominee fights bitterly—and loses, as Bork did in 1987.

(3) a nominee sees defeat impending, and decides to get out of the way (or is moved out of the way) to cut losses and minimize the public humiliation.

If these were normal times, we’d say that option (3) is in view for Brett Kavanaugh.

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Senator Jeff Flake, of Arizona, shown while seated, but standing up today. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

According to the Washington Post just now, Senator Jeff Flake, of Arizona, who is a Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, has said that a vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court should be delayed, until his latest accuser (Christine Blasey Ford) can testify.

As the story says:

In an interview with The Post, Flake said that Ford “must be heard” before a committee vote.

“I’ve made it clear that I’m not comfortable moving ahead with the vote on Thursday if we have not heard her side of the story or explored this further,” said Flake, who is one of the committee’s 21 members. Republicans hold an 11-to-10 majority on the panel and Flake’s opposition to a vote could stall the nomination….

“For me, we can’t vote until we hear more,” he said.

Good for Senator Flake. (Assuming he backs this up.)

On the merits, this is not even a close call. As I argued in a long post last night, as David Frum argued today, and as Garrett Epps explained with rich legal-political detail, a rush to judgment is the last thing the Senate should be contemplating with Kavanaugh.

He is being considered for a lifetime appointment to one of the most powerful, and least accountable, roles in American governance. Two very experienced senators (Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein) have directly accused Kavanaugh of lying under oath about his past political activities. If the accusations of sexual aggression are true, then he has lied to investigators and senators about this as well.

I don’t know the underlying truth of any of these matters. But neither do the senators. There is simply no defensible argument, on any front, for rushing to an irrevocable decision whose consequences could last for decades.

(Irrevocable? As I explain in this piece, once a justice is sworn onto the Supreme Court, he or she is effectively above the law. The last impeachment of a justice was in 1805—and that justice, Samuel Chase, stayed on the Court. The evidence about Clarence Thomas has mounted since his rushed confirmation 27 years ago, but it doesn’t matter. Decades? Kavanaugh is 53 years old. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85. If he lasts as long as she has, he could be there for eight more presidential races. )

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Donald Trump hardly knew Paul Manafort. Except when Manafort was running his presidential campaign. Here they are, with Ivanka Trump, at the Republican convention, in a scene I witnessed personally from the convention floor. Rich Wilking / Reuters

Two days ago, Paul Manafort made his plea-bargain deal with Robert Mueller’s federal investigators. As part of the terms, he says he will cooperate fully and truthfully with the federal team—knowing that his sentencing can be delayed until his “efforts to cooperate have been completed, as determined by the Government.”

As an example of a subject on which he might have useful information to share, I send you back to Trump Time Capsule #71 from the original campaign-cycle series. You see its headline below.

The Atlantic.

What we know now, and could only assume and guess and infer then, was that Manafort was lying — and so were many other people in the campaign.

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Justice Thurgood Marshall, first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court, whose retirement opened the seat Clarence Thomas now holds. Thomas J. O’Halloran, via Library of Congress

The most cynical decision George H. W. Bush made as president was to nominate Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

The choice was cynical because of Thomas’s race. In 1991 Bush had a vacancy to fill when Thurgood Marshall—the first African American ever to sit on the Court, the man who had successfully argued the historic Brown v. Board of Education case before the Court as a lawyer for the NAACP—decided to retire.

Clarence Thomas’s views were the opposite of Marshall’s on just about every front, as Juan Williams (then of the Washington Post, now best known from Fox News) explained in an Atlantic profile several years before Thomas’s nomination. But Bush knew that liberal critics of Thomas’s conservative views would be in a bind. If they opposed him—a graduate of Yale Law School, who had started out as a poor child in the segregated South—they would of course be blocking a black successor to America’s first-ever black justice.

Thomas himself left no doubt about this framing of events, saying in his opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee that criticism of him had amounted to a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”

Bush’s cynicism came through in his announcement of the Thomas choice,  implausibly claiming that “the fact that he is black and a minority has nothing to do” with the selection. The only reason for the choice, he said, was that Thomas was “the best qualified [candidate] at this time.”

The “best qualified” claim was risible. Thomas was 43 years old and had spent only a year-plus as a judge. In an editorial opposing his confirmation, The New York Times said:

If the Thomas nomination is to be judged on the merits, it fails.

The fault, in the end, is not that of the nominee but of the man who nominated him … By nominating this black conservative, President Bush serves a narrow partisan interest when the public has a right to expect him to nominate a lawyer or judge of proven distinction.”

But of course Thomas made it through a bitter confirmation process. He won approval from the Senate on a vote of 52-48 and took what had been Thurgood Marshall’s seat at age 43. He is only 70 years old now and conceivably could be on the Court through several more presidencies. Already he has been a fifth vote in such history-changing 5-4 decisions as Citizens United in 2010 (which ushered in nearly limitless money in politics); Heller in 2008 (which ushered in the novel concept that Second Amendment protection for a “well-regulated militia” extended to any individual who wanted to own firearms); and Bush v.Gore in 2000 (which ushered in  … )

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