Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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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General Joseph Joffre, in the center, around the time of his successful command of French troops at the First Battle of the Marne in World War I. Behind him is General Philippe Pétain, revered for his service during that war, later reviled for his figurehead leadership of France's 1940s Vichy regime. Marshal Pétain is the guiding spirit of this Midterm Time Capsule series. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

As I write, the national news is dominated by the arrival of Hurricane Florence, and the political news has emphasized Donald Trump’s reaction to this event and last year’s Hurricane Maria. Other Atlantic pieces lay out some of the problems with Trump’s response: for instance, one by David Graham here and others by Vann Newkirk here and here. My purpose this evening is to contrast the way this president is reacting to a natural-disaster challenge with what his predecessors have done.

Let’s review the chronology:

  • On Tuesday, September 12, Donald Trump awarded himself “A pluses” for his administration’s hurricane-response efforts in Florida and Texas. In a tweet he also said that his team “did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!” That big one is of course Hurricane Florence, which as of this writing is beginning its landfall on the Carolina coast.
    Via Twitter
  • This morning, September 13, Trump sent out Tweets asserting that reports of large-scale casualties in Puerto Rico were hype and faked—and that the fakery was part of a scheme to “make me look as bad as possible.”
    Via Twitter
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The famous "Gerrymander" cartoon, drawn by Elkanah Tisdale and published in the Boston Centinel in 1812, showing an unfair districting map drawn by Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. Wikimedia

Back during the 2016 campaign, I put out 152 installments of the Trump Time Capsule series, chronicling what was known about this man at just the time the Republican party was deciding to accept (and then embrace) him as its nominee, and as the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were delivering him an Electoral College win.

I put it that way as a reminder that if a total of under 100,000 votes in those three states had gone the other way—about 44,000 in Pennsylvania, 23,000 in Wisconsin, under 10,000 in Michigan, together totaling about 1/1500th of the national electorate—then the Electoral College result would have matched the popular vote, and Donald Trump would never have taken office. And I emphasize this point to mark an underappreciated political-consciousness shift:

Until November, 2000, no living American had any reason to view the “Electoral College versus popular vote” distinction as anything other than a quaintly antique curiosity, since the most recent time there’d been any difference in results was back in 1888. That was before cars or airplanes had been invented; when not even one U.S. household in 100 had electricity; when most Americans lived on farms; and when the right to vote was mainly limited to white males.

Through modern America’s 20th-century rise, citizens and politicians alike, Republicans and Democrats and others, assumed that, whatever the theoretical oddities of 18th-century drafting, the U.S. would in reality function like the many other democracies it inspired, and base public office on public support. But now this era’s Americans have become inured to a minority-rule system that is outside the historical norms for a country where protection of minority rights was an important founding concern.

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Walter Cronkite of CBS in Vietnam, in 1968. US Marine Corps photo, via WIkimedia

Two very useful assessments of Bob Woodward’s mega-best-selling Fear, officially published today, are this one by Isaac Chotiner, in Slate, and this one by Andrew Prokop, in Vox.  They both make one of the enduring points about Woodward’s long-running inside-Washington saga: how easy it is to guess at least some of the people who have talked with him.

Partly that is because these figures are presented with ongoing interior monologues: “Powell wondered: was Cheney pushing the WMD evidence too hard? Might they regret the step they were about to take? Was he being hung out to dry?” “Petraeus thought as he left the meeting, Maybe this time, at long last, Obama would finally act.” Or in the latest book, “Cohn realized, this could mean economic war. If only there were some way to head it off.” None of these is a real quote, but any of them could be.

Back in 1976, Art Levine published in The Washington Monthly a famous parody of how Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s treatment of Richard Nixon’s resignation, in The Final Days, might have applied in the final days of Naziism. Only two books into the Woodward oeuvre, Levine highlighted the source-conscious tone. His piece began:

This was an extraordinary mission. Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo chief, settled in for the two-hour train trip to Berchtesgaden. The two sensitive and brilliant aides were leaving behind a hot, sunny Munich. It was September 15, 1943. Ahead of them lay the mountains and lakes of western Germany and Austria. The sun poured in at a forty-seven-degree angle through the windows. For most of the travelers, the trip was an occasion for relaxation, a brief respite from the war. Yet these two public servants were not in a holiday mood.

Goering and Himmler had heard rumors that the Fuhrer was anti-Semitic. It was all hearsay, innuendo, but still, the two men were troubled.

Another clue is that these figures come off so much better in the books. Precisely because of the interior monologues, they’re more rounded, they’re more aware of the trade-offs in public choices, they’re conscience-stricken, they’re trying to do the right thing. Thus, as both Chotiner and Prokop point out, the figures who show up in Fear as struggling hardest to save the country from Trump rank high on the probably-talked-with-Woodward list. (Of course there must have been many others—including some whom Woodward could cannily have concealed by not given them the “Mattis was worried...” treatment.)

***

But there’s a second ongoing point about Woodward’s books, which is: no matter how he obtained them, Woodward’s anecdotes, allegations, and narratives have to a remarkable degree stood up.

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This year a magazine has begun ranking colleges on vocational-training effectiveness. The Washington Monthly

As a one-time staff editor of The Washington Monthly magazine, I am biased in favor of that plucky enterprise and its approach to the world.

As a one-time chief editor of  US News & World Report, I am all too aware of the fatuousness imperfections of its college-ranking system. Being a pioneer in ranking has been the economic salvation of US News.  But the premise that vastly different institutions can be precisely ranked on overall quality has its obvious limits. What are the "best" ten lines of work, ranked one through ten, for your child to aspire to? What are the "best" twenty-five cities to live in -- or pieces of music to listen to, or food to eat? Or people to marry? The only sane answer is, "it depends," which is the answer when it comes to colleges and universities too.

***

As it happens, I wrote those two preceding paragraphs nine full years ago, during the 2009 version of “college ranking week” for a number of national magazines.

Back in the early 1980s, the number of prominent magazines doing the rankings was one: US News itself. You can read the background of how this became a business franchise for US News (which survives now mainly as a rankings organization), and why their decade-long near monopoly in rankings was so controversial, here in Slate back in 1999; here again one year later in Slate;  here at about the same time in The Washington Monthly; here in 2001 in the University of Chicago magazine; in The Atlantic in 2013 from John Tierney and two years later from Gillian White; and here in 2017 from Politico. (You’ll also see linked rebuttals from USN at many of those places, and for instance here.) And the Atlantic has some new features on the cost of education, out today: by Alia Wong and Amanda Ripley.

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William Henry Harrison was a veteran-politician. Should we have more? (A.S. Southworth and J.J. Hawes, at Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikimedia)

One more round, on whether in this Chickenhawk era—when the United States is always at war, but 99% of its population is not directly touched by the physical or even financial consequences of combat—having more “young veterans” in politics would improve  politics and policy.

These responses follow this item on a new PAC devoted to supporting young-veteran campaigns; these two rounds of previous reader comment; and my original Chickenhawk Nation piece from three years ago.

First, from a veteran of the recent Long Wars. He writes:

I was surprised by some of the blowback you have received. Yes of course being a veteran shouldn’t be a pre-req for civil service, and yes of course not all veterans are decent and as seen by the veterans in Charlottesville, some are downright un-American.

But most service members are forced to move to small towns all around the country and world and work with people of varying backgrounds and beliefs. We’ve seen American diversity up close and personally, in a stressful and patriotic environment, and worked with people we bitterly disagree with politically because we believed in an American ideal that is greater than Democrat or Republican.

Recently a veteran-turned-CIA-security-contractor threatened that he’d like to strangle Obama because of Benghazi. There’s a lot wrong with that, but it grinds my gears that a veteran-turned-mercenary is a normal thing now. If he still wore the uniform he’d be reprimanded for talking so foolishly (I guess unless he’s Tom Cotton). But mercenaries do what they want. And Erik Prince wants to be the Viceroy of Afghanistan.

This is a problem that only those of us who are part of the 1% have really engaged with, and as long as only 1% serve in the Long Wars, it will continue. ‘Of course our perspective is important, and of course it’s a good thing we’ve begun entering politics.’

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