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The United States, Russia, and the 2016 Election

[ 289 ] June 23, 2017 |

The Washington Post has a comprehensive report on Russian electoral interference and the Obama Administration’s attempt to handle it without unduly interfering with the US election.

In political terms, Russia’s interference was the crime of the century, an unprecedented and largely successful destabilizing attack on American democracy. It was a case that took almost no time to solve, traced to the Kremlin through cyber-forensics and intelligence on Putin’s involvement. And yet, because of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences.

Those closest to Obama defend the administration’s response to Russia’s meddling. They note that by August it was too late to prevent the transfer to WikiLeaks and other groups of the troves of emails that would spill out in the ensuing months. They believe that a series of warnings — including one that Obama delivered to Putin in September — prompted Moscow to abandon any plans of further aggression, such as sabotage of U.S. voting systems.

Denis McDonough, who served as Obama’s chief of staff, said that the administration regarded Russia’s interference as an attack on the “heart of our system.”

“We set out from a first-order principle that required us to defend the integrity of the vote,” McDonough said in an interview. “Importantly, we did that. It’s also important to establish what happened and what they attempted to do so as to ensure that we take the steps necessary to stop it from happening again.”

But other administration officials look back on the Russia period with remorse.

“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” said a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia. “I feel like we sort of choked.”

You need to read the report now. And then take a look at Thomas Rid’s series of Tweets on the cyber side of the equation.


To the extent that the report is accurate, it reinforces a number of important domestic and international political themes.

First, Moscow clearly believed that electing Trump, or at least weakening Clinton and faith in the US electoral system, served Russian interests. Of course, we already know this. But the length’s that Moscow was willing to, including tampering with the mechanics of the election process, should remove any doubts about the seriousness of the situation. For scholars and analysts, this means waking up to the degree that power politics are about far more than military and economic interests. But in terms of immediate US national interests, it highlights just how damaging Trump’s dispositions are to American security.

The reasons why Moscow preferred Trump over Clinton, and saw even a continuation of Obama foreign policy as a threat, are rooted in a desire to destabilize institutions and arrangements that have overall served the United States, and its allies, very well. It’s easy to dismiss the #neverTrump wing of the Republican foreign-policy establishment as neoconservatives overly prone to military adventures—because it’s generally true. But where neoconservatives, liberal hawks, and progressives should agree is in the desirability of the basic infrastructure—however in need of reform—of the liberal order.

Second, it should not require much elaboration to note the insanity of far-right fantasies concerning the Obama administration’s willingness to manipulate the political process in ways that undermine democracy. Ample evidence, even before the details of this story (again, if true), suggests that Obama and his advisors were far too cautious—and too concerned wth not putting their thumbs on the scale.

Third, we are facing a national emergency when it comes to the electoral process. The Obama Administration believes that it deterred much worse than classic information warfare. What will a Trump administration do? So far, they are attempting to weaken the sanctions voted on by the Senate. This should not bring comfort.

This goes far beyond coercive diplomacy. We can’t ‘slow walk’ the investigation into electoral meddling, and we need to throw serious resources behind electoral integrity measures designed, first and foremost, to secure the voting system. My gut instinct: this requires moving to paper ballots and rethinking how we secure voter rolls.

The second concern is how to cope with Russian information warfare. Here, the GOP is stuck in a political, but not a moral, vise. The marriage between right-wing media and foreign information warfare—both in form and content—serves Republican interests. It helped, at least at the margins, elect Donald Trump. But don’t think that the left doesn’t—or won’t—face a similar problem. We already saw this surrounding the Clinton-Sanders primary battle. In an era of intense political polarization, it’s going to be very hard to push back against disinformation that proves electorally useful. Over twenty years of embracing domestic disinformation laid the groundwork for extreme vulnerability.

Fourth, what does this mean for progressive policy toward Russia? I’ve spent many years trying to navigate between, on the one hand, a clear-eyed assessment of the clash between American and Russian interests and, on the other hand, a strong desire to avoid a new “Cold War.” When I volunteered as part of the unofficial Sanders foreign-policy cell, the course seemed clear: our bright line should be NATO allies. Regardless of whether NATO expansion was a good idea, the United States has an overriding interest in the security of our NATO partners. Ukraine, for its part, required a balancing act. Again, regardless of American mistakes, we needed a calibrated approach that did not recognize the legitimacy of, or facilitate, Russian efforts in Ukraine while also keeping in mind that Ukraine is not worth war with Russia. So, when it looked like Clinton would win the election, this meant progressives needed to prepare themselves for criticizing overly aggressive moves by a future Clinton administration.

Now, I just don’t know. I still worry about the risks of pushing the geostrategic relationship in overly confrontational ways. Indeed, the Trump administration seems to be sleepwalking into very dangerous territory in Syria, behaving schizophrenically toward NATO, and sending rather mixed signals about the overall relationship, This lack of obvious policy coordination at work here—and overall ambiguity it creates in the relationship—might prove the most dangerous of the possible approaches. It creates very significant risks of miscalculation. But it’s clear that the default position among too many progressives—of dismissing attention to Russia’s role in 2016 as ‘McCarthyism’, or seeing it purely through the lens of left-liberal policy fights—is hopelessly naïve.

I hate to be that person, but this is my bottom line: it’s all bad.

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Some Wikileaks Reading

[ 102 ] June 22, 2017 |

Critical writings on Wikileaks always seem to stir the hornet’s nest around these parts. So, in that spirit, here’s Sue Halperin reviewing a new documentary on Julian Assange, Risk, in the New York Review of Books:

Most egregious, perhaps, was Assange’s collaboration with Israel Shamir, an unapologetic anti-Semite and Putin ally to whom Assange handed over all State Department diplomatic cables from the Manning leak relating to Belarus (as well as to Russia, Eastern Europe, and Israel). Shamir then shared these documents with members of the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who appeared to use them to imprison and torture members of the opposition. This prompted the human rights group Index on Censorship to ask WikiLeaks to explain its relationship to Shamir, and to look into reports that Shamir’s “access to the WikiLeaks’ US diplomatic cables [aided in] the prosecution of civil society activists within Belarus.” WikiLeaks called these claims rumors and responded that it would not be investigating them. “Most people with principled stances don’t survive for long,” Assange tells Poitras at the beginning of the film. It’s not clear if he’s talking about himself or others.

Then there is the matter of redaction. After the Manning cache came in, WikiLeaks partnered with a number of “legacy” newspapers, including The New York Times and The Guardian, to bring the material out into the world. While initially going along with those publications’ policies of removing identifying information that could put innocent people in harm’s way and excluding material that could not be verified, Assange soon balked. According to the Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding in WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, their 2011 postmortem of their contentious collaboration with Assange on the so-called Afghan war logs—the portion of the Manning leaks concerning the conflict in Afghanistan—the WikiLeaks founder was unmoved by entreaties to scrub the files of anything that could point to Afghan villagers who might have had any contact with American troops. He considered such editorial intervention to “contaminate the evidence.”

“Well they’re informants. So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it,” Leigh and Harding report Assange saying to a group of international journalists. And while Assange has denied making these comments, WikiLeaks released troves of material in which the names of Afghan civilians had not been redacted, an action that led Amnesty International, the Open Society Institute, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to issue a joint rebuke. The group Reporters Without Borders also criticized WikiLeaks for its “incredible irresponsibility” in not removing the names. This was in 2010, not long after Poitras approached Assange about making a film.

This last part is interesting in light of my post of a few days ago. The first tracks with more general buzz that I was hearing back in 2010 about arrests and interrogations spurred by the cables.

Image by Coentor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“No Americans Killed”

[ 63 ] June 20, 2017 |

Chelsea Manning’s treatment was appalling, but that doesn’t mean we have to whitewash the indiscriminate document dump of diplomatic cables that helped turn Wikileaks into a thing. With that out of the way, I present to you a Buzzfeed headline.

Except that… wait for it… that’s not what the story actually indicates.

Regarding the hundreds of thousands of Iraq-related military documents and State Department cables provided by the Army private Chelsea Manning, the report assessed “with high confidence that disclosure of the Iraq data set will have no direct personal impact on current and former U.S. leadership in Iraq.”

The report also determined that a different set of documents published the same year, relating to the US war in Afghanistan, would not result in “significant impact” to US operations. It did, however, have the potential to cause “serious damage” to “intelligence sources, informants and the Afghan population,” and US and NATO intelligence collection efforts. The most significant impact of the leaks, the report concluded, would likely be on the lives of “cooperative Afghans, Iraqis, and other foreign interlocutors.”

Oh, well, then. Just foreigners. No harm, no foul. Indeed, take a look at the redacted lists on page 3-4.

Overall, when assessing Leopold’s summary, keep in mind that entire pages of the report—and large sections on effects—are redacted; the single pull quotation, noting that the disclosure of the Iraq data set likely entailed “no direct personal impact on current and former U.S. leadership in Iraq” means exactly that. And the “serious” damage to HUMINT and SIGINT is actually kind of a big deal.

Last year, while in seventh grade, my daughter did some exercises designed to show how the very structure of news reports can generate bias. If this piece had been out, I would’ve suggested she use it for the project.

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous

[ 90 ] June 17, 2017 |

You can’t make this stuff up.

Right-wing activists attempted to shut down the controversial performance of Julius Caesar that portrays the titular character as Donald Trump.

There is, of course, a certain pathos to self-proclaimed conservatives seeking to halt—through disruption—a performance of a classic work of literature by one of the most important authors in the western literary canon. I’m sure on most days at least some of these people complain about politically correct snowflakes on college campuses destroying western culture, what with their ‘trigger warnings’ and calls to ‘decolonize the curriculum.’

But the lunacy doesn’t end there. Julius Caesar is, of course, a tragedy. A group of conspirators, jealous and fearful that he will end the Roman Republic, brutally assasinate Caesar. But instead of saving the Republic, their actions precipitate its downfall. One has to be a bit dense to see this (somewhat lazy) interpretive decision as inciting violence against Trump.

But it gets better. So much better. There are the now-mandatory misspellings. And jokes about gerbils. And crackbrained attempts to claim that the performance incited the attack on the Republican congressional baseball team.

And then it goes completely off the rails.

 

Also, of course, no witches were burned in Salem or in The Crucible.

So, in summary:

1. A bunch of far-right agitators tried to shut down a play that represents Trump as a master military leader and politician, brought down by jealousy and fear, and whose murder ushers in dictatorial empire. Indeed, the first performance of Julius Caesar I ever saw had Marc Antony et al. switch to Nazi uniforms once the struggle following Caeser’s assasination gets underway. Subtle, I know.

2. One of those involved provides an analogy designed to demonstrate to liberals why he’s on the side of justice. What’s he do? He messes up the title of a rather famous American play—one that uses the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism. Even better, he suggests casting Hilary Clinton in the role of one of the characters falsely accused of being a witch. Because why not confirm every stereotype about Trumpistas?

Perhaps we are witnessing a performance art piece intended to showcase—in a negative light—the triumph of Trumpism over conservative intellectualism?

If not, all I can say is that it’s a very good thing the play wasn’t a reiminganing of Sir Ian MacKellen’s version of Richard III for the Trump era.

 

Durable Inequality in the United States

[ 241 ] June 15, 2017 |

I’ve been buried in work and travel. Indeed, I just returned from a trip to China that included Guangzhou, Shenzen,  Zhuhai, and Beijing. So I don’t know if any of my collaborators have blogged on Richard Reeves’ essay, “The Dream Hoarders: How America’s Top 20 Percent Perpetuates Inequality,” promoting his new book The themes will be familiar to longtime LGM readers. The upper classes use their social capital—their networks—and cultural capital—such as their knowledge of class codes and of the college admission process—to lock in advantages for their children in the form of internships, educational achievement, and the like. They also create social safety nets for their kids via intergenerational transfers of economic capital. The children of the upper classes can afford to fail. They can finance consumption beyond their income level, including the purchase of houses and other assets.

And here is the difficult part. The popular obsession with the top 1 percent allows the upper middle class to convince ourselves we are in the same boat as the rest of America; but it is not true.  However messily it is expressed, much of the criticism of our class is true. We proclaim the “net” benefits of free trade, technological advances, and immigration, safe in the knowledge that we will be among the beneficiaries. Equipped with high levels of human capital, we can flourish in a global economy. The cities we live in are zoned to protect our wealth, but deter the unskilled from sharing in it. Professional licensing and an immigration policy tilted toward the low-skilled shield us from the intense market competition faced by those in nonprofessional occupations. We proclaim the benefits of free markets but are largely insulated from the risks they can pose. Small wonder other folks can get angry.

The term “opportunity hoarding” entered into scholarly usage via my late advisor, Charles Tilly. I was relieved to find out that Reeves credits him in the book, because he hasn’t done so in the promotional essays that I’ve seen so far. He does not cite Pierre Bourdieu, even though much of his argument—as I implied above—also sounds like Boourdieu’s own analysis of how classes use cultural and social resources to maintain their position.

In the main, Reeves is correct. The system is rigged in favor of the upper classes, with the lower upper classes—thinking of themselves as “upper middle class”—carrying much of the water for the higher reaches of the income distribution. But the lower upper class is reluctant, when push comes to shove, to concede their perquisites. And why should they? Despite their carefully cultivated advantages, it won’t take much for their families to slide out of the upper classes. They carry debt to maintain these advantages. But most of them can service this debt, so they don’t see any advantage in blowing up a system that has, over the decades, replaced transfer payments with credit and, in consequence, shifted risk downwards. Indeed, many in the lower upper class now see the financial sector as the best way to climb the class system, so why burn that bridge?

What Reeves wants, it seems, is for the lower upper class to develop some consciousness.

The problem is that many of these efforts are likely to run into the solid wall of upper middle-class resistance, even those that simply require a slightly higher tax bill. A change of heart is needed: a recognition of privilege among the upper middle class, the ability to hold up a mirror. Some of us in the upper middle class already feel a degree of cognitive dissonance about the advantages we pile up for our own kids, compared to the truncated opportunities we know exist for others. We want our children to do well, but also want to live in a fairer society. My friend and colleague E. J. Dionne put it to me this way: “I spend my weekdays decrying the problem of inequality, but then I spend my evenings and weekends adding to it.”

We are all guilty, on some level, of taking actions on our children’s behalf that conferred an unfair advantage. If more of us start to feel Dionne’s cognitive dissonance, some political space might open up for reforms. The big question is then whether we are willing to make some modest sacrifices in order to expand opportunities for others or whether, deep down, we would rather pull up the ladder.

The danger here—and you can already see this in online reaction—is that Reeves comes across as blaming the “upper middle class,” when, in fact, he’s trying to break the mythology that holds together a political economy of exclusion. Yet, the white voters most part of the system that he describes—relatively wealthy and educated—may already be drifting toward the Democratic party and, concurrently, more receptive to these kinds of arguments. So, I ask, what do we do? His book appears to contain far-reaching proposals, but my sense is that there are much more fundamental structural features of our political economy—particularly involving credit, debt, and transfers—that help explain both the demand and supply of “upper middle class” opportunity hoarding.

Finally, the book does appear to discuss race, but I should stress that Tilly is particularly concerned with categories that form the basis of durable inequality, and race—as well as gender—is pretty important here.

Image by RoyBoy. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Buffoon Doctrine

[ 53 ] May 26, 2017 |

Not longer after Trump decided to ineffectually fire a whole boatload of cruise missiles at Syria, I co-authored a piece on why “Trumpian Unpredictability” is no virtue.

Thus, for the United States, unpredictability carries enormous risks. That’s true for Nixonian calculated irrationality, too, but much more so for Trumpian unpredictability. Rivals and allies can easily interpret mixed signals from different voices in the administration and frequent high-profile policy reversals as evidence that the president does not mean what he says, that he has no idea what he is doing, or that he can change his mind on a whim. Intentionally fostering uncertainty reduces the credibility of existing commitments.

Unraveling the American alliance network by undermining confidence in Washington is probably the worst way to implement an America First policy. It undercuts a major source of American strength without gaining the benefits that might follow from strategic retrenchment — that is, of making deliberate decisions about what commitments are key to American security and which can be shed, while taking steps to ensure that unwinding those commitments don’t harm vital interests and alliances.

However, Trump’s bizarre international tour raises an important question: how much damage can one buffoon do to American leadership? Most of our readers know that Trump insulted allies, engaged in bizarre behavior, and generally made a hash of things. For what it’s worth, Dusko Markovic, the Prime Minister of Montenegro said that Trump’s shove was no big deal. But he leads a country with a population smaller than the city of Washington, DC; Montenegro’s annual GDP is less than one quarter of the cost of the USS Gerald R. Ford. Trump could have pulled a Greg Gianforte on him and Markovic would have brushed it off. The important thing is that it was just another unforced error.

More important, Trump dressed down NATO members—yet again—for supposedly not paying their fair share. As I’ve argued before, Trump’s approach to burden sharing stems from deeply flawed understandings of the benefits of the US alliance system. And, as Andrew Moravcsik explains, the ledger itself looks very different when you take into account the de facto division of labor between the United States and the major European powers.

Collectively, Europeans spend more and deploy far more combat troops abroad than anyone except the US. Yet Europe’s real comparative advantage lies in the fact that it is the world’s pre-eminent “civilian superpower”. Its unique capacity to project economic and diplomatic power, often in situations where the US is powerless to defend its interests unilaterally, is just as essential to western security as American military might.

The EU is the world’s largest trading bloc — and Europeans know how to exploit it. Iran offers a recent illustration. Three decades of American sanctions hardly had any impact, since trade between the two countries is essentially nil anyway. Yet almost as soon as the Europeans imposed strong sanctions in 2014, Iran began to negotiate towards a nuclear agreement. Europe also provides two-thirds of the world’s official development assistance and is the largest funder of the UN and almost all other international organisations.

Indeed, given that Trump wants to mount a scorched-earth campaign against America’s diplomatic capabilities and its foreign-assistance program, perhaps Europeans should be dressing down the United States.

But the point isn’t just that Trump’s wrong on the merits. It’s that the merits are pretty much secondary to his conduct. Trump excoriated NATO members—and pointedly failed to mention America’s Article V commitment to defend NATO against aggression—at a ceremony commemorating 9/11.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. triggered NATO’s collective defense clause, known as Article Five, prompting alliance members to rally around their ally. It is the first and only time the clause has been invoked.

The unveiling of the World Trade Center memorial was meant to be symbolic of the United States’ commitment to the alliance — but Trump’s failure to mention Article Five left commentators doubtful.

Something like a third of the coalition troops killed in Afghanistan were from NATO member-states, or NATO partners, other than the United States. In other words, if Moscow hoped that Trump would cause needless frictions in the American alliance system, then it got its wish.

But we also should take a deep breath. While I believe that American institutions—at home and abroad—are more fragile than we often recognize, it’s going to take a lot more than these kinds of antics to bring NATO crashing down. Nonetheless, it is emphatically not a good thing that transatlantic cohesion depends on our allies taking the President of the United States neither literally nor seriously.

Image by Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve Crossed the Rubicon

[ 207 ] May 12, 2017 |

Trump’s interview with Lester Holt leaves no doubt that the Trump Administration, its surrogates, and GOP officials spent two days misleading the American people. The rationale crafted by Rosenstein was obviously pretextual, but as long as the administration stayed on message, they provided their allies with plausible deniability. Moreover, it is difficult to interpret Trump’s comments, and those of his Huckabee Sanders, as anything other than this: Trump fired Comey, at least in part, to influence the conduct of the Russia probe. The fact that this may fail is immaterial.

Here’s Huckabee Sanders:

“We want this to come to its conclusion, we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity,” she said, referring to the FBI’s probe into Moscow’s interference in last year’s election. “And we think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.”

More important, here’s Trump:

DONALD TRUMP: [OVER TALK] Well, all I can tell you is, well I know what, I know that I’m not under investigation. Me. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns. I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.
LESTER HOLT: Did you ask him to drop the investigation?
DONALD TRUMP: No. Never.
LESTER HOLT: Did anyone from the White House?
DONALD TRUMP: No, in fact I want the investigation speeded up.
LESTER HOLT: Did anyone from the White House ask him to, to end the
investigation?
DONALD TRUMP: [OVER TALK] No. No. Why would we do that? [OVER TALK]
LESTER HOLT: [OVER TALK] Any surrogates on behalf of the White House
DONALD TRUMP: Not that I know of. Look I want to find out if there was a problem with an election having to do with Russia. Or by the way, anyb- any anybody else. Any other country. And I want that to be so strong and so good. And I want it to happen. I also want to have a really competent, capable director. He’s not. He’s a showboat. He’s not my man or not my man. I didn’t appoint him. He was appointed long before me. But I want somebody who’s going to do a great job. And I will tell you we’re looking at candidates right now who could be spectacular. And that’s what I want for the FBI.

This may look innocuous, but it isn’t. Trump ties the removal of Comey to concerns about his ability to investigate the Trump campaign.

And now, today, the President of the United States falls back into a pattern that sounds an awful lot like intimidation of potential witnesses.

Max Boot—yes, Max Boot—sums up the situation:

Democrats already hold 48 seats in the Senate. It would not take many Republican defectors to join with the Democratic majority to paralyze the upper house — to refuse to act on any of Trump’s legislative priorities, from health care reform to tax cuts — until the Justice Department agrees to appoint a special counsel or until Congress agrees to authorize, and Trump to sign, legislation creating an independent commission. Republican Sens. Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, Richard Burr, and John McCain have already indicated they are troubled by the manner of Comey’s dismissal. Will they now reveal themselves to be men of honor and courage who are willing to stand up for the republic rather than the Republican Party? On that question hinges the future of the rule of law in America

Update: here’s the start of my “Tweet storm” (ugh) for why I’m completely freaked out right now.

Impeach Trump

[ 307 ] May 10, 2017 |

For a host of reasons, I was pretty skeptical of calls to impeach Trump. For one, it’s highly unlikely to happen—even advocating it seems like a distraction from more productive political activism. For another, I think it  hard to understate the risks of impeachment in an era of intense polarization. Although I think Trump’s call, during the campaign, for Russia to hack Clinton was sufficient collusion to discredit him, I also do not believe that it constitutes an impeachable offense. Indeed, as horrible as Trump is on a personal and political level, impeachment should absolutely not be a tool for enacting a constitutional coup. The Republicans tried this with Bill Clinton, and I think we underestimate, at our peril, the long-term damage done by that effort.

Despite the title of this post, I’m still not fully on the bandwagon. But if this John Dawsey story in Politico is accurate—and that’s a big if—I suspect we’ve crossed if not the Rubicon, then a significant line of some kind.

[Trump] had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.

Moreover:

The news stunned Comey, who saw his dismissal on TV while speaking inside the FBI office in Los Angeles. It startled all but the uppermost ring of White House advisers, who said grumbling about Comey hadn’t dominated their own morning senior staff meetings. Other top officials learned just before it happened and were unaware he was considering firing Comey. “Nobody really knew,” one senior White House official said. “Our phones all buzzed and people said, What?”

By ousting the FBI director investigating his campaign and associates, Trump may have added more fuel to the fire he is furiously trying to contain — and he was quickly criticized by a chorus of Republicans and Democrats. “The timing of this firing was very troubling,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican.

Trump had grown angry with the Russia investigation — particularly Comey admitting in front of the Senate that the FBI was investigating his campaign — and that the FBI director wouldn’t support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower [my emphasis].

This, and similar accounts, seem consistent with my prior post. Trump was angry at Comey for disrespecting him, not affirming his fact-free accusations against the Obama Administration, and, more generally, for not carrying Trump’s water on the Russia investigation. There are two sweeping implications. None are, sadly, surprising. But they now take on new urgency.

First, Trump is basically unhinged. In more technical language, he’s unfit to serve. I’m sure many presidents felt similarly about investigations against them—but Trump actually fired the head of the nation’s most important law-enforcement agency for falling to supporting an alternative reality. This is, in the terms laid out by Jacob Levy, the mark of an authoritarian—driven, perhaps, by temperamental deficiencies that raise serious doubts about Trump’s continued status as President of the United States.

Some of our past presidents have suffered from their own deficiencies and impairments, but few have surrounded himself with such a circle of charlatans, incompetents, ideologues, family members, and enablers. The exceptions to this parade of people who have no business near government include a handful of people at the NSC, the Department of Defense, Rick Perry at Energy—who, whatever his flaws, appears to take governance seriously—and a few others. Rosenstein, per Benjamin Wittes, was supposed to be one of the adults. But he has disgraced himself  by crafting a transparently post-hoc rationalization for Comey’s removal.

Second, and more important, if Trump fired Comey for failing to toe the line on FBI investigations—into, one the one hand, collusion between the Trump administration and Russia and, on the other hand, his accusations concerning Obama administration wiretappings—then he has used the power of his office to interfere with law-enforcement activity directly implicating himself. This is a profound abuse of power for personal benefit—one that throws us into a constitutional crisis.

Yes, Trump had every right to fire Comey. Nixon had every right to fire Archibald Cox. Both actions, however, demonstrate the unwillingness of the highest elected official in the United States to make his administration accountable to the rule of law. Even if there is no ‘there there’ to the Russia-Trump investigation, the Trump administration faces a host of other collisions with the rule of law and norms of democratic governance—many involving financial conflicts of interest implicating Trump’s own family. We can no longer pretend to have any confidence that Trump will allow other ongoing or future investigations to unfold in an orderly and proper manner.

This is far from the first, and likely far from the last, defining moment for Republican elected officials. I do not envy them. They tread dangerous and difficult ground. But we rightly judge the integrity of men and women by how they behave in such moments. It is time for genuinely independent and bipartisan investigations into the Trump administration—ones carried out with the clear knowledge that grounds for an impeachment are a plausible outcome.

Quick Note on the Comey Firing

[ 158 ] May 9, 2017 |

My friend has a theory, and it’s an interesting one. One variant of Trump’s Razor holds that all of his behavior is ultimately rooted in his narcissism. As has been clear for a while, he’s fairly easily to goad. He’s obsessed with slights against him. That kind of thing. So, here’s the deal.

First, reports suggest that Trump decided to fire Comey last week.

President Trump’s decision Tuesday to fire FBI Director James Comey has been in the works since at least last week, according to multiple media reports.  Senior officials at the White House and Justice Department were working on building a case against Comey since that time, according to The New York Times. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked to come with reasons to oust him. CNN reported the discussions were confined to the highest levels of the Trump administration. Shortly after Comey’s firing was announced, the White House circulated letters from Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, justifying the decision. Rosenstein cited Comey’s handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, which Trump repeatedly promoted during the 2016 campaign. The firing occurred weeks after Comey confirmed that the FBI is investigating whether Trump associates colluded with Russia in its efforts to meddle in the 2016 election.

Second, what happened last week?

FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday that it makes him “mildly nauseous” to think his decision to reopen the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails just days before the election could have impacted voters, but added he would make the same choice again.

So was Trump pissed that Comey might have dissed him? That he reaffirmed the existance of an investigation into connections between Moscow and members of the Trump Administration? Both?

The bizarre letter of dismissal certainly has the whiff of Trump in full petulance mode.

Realize that this theory actually makes things worse.

“[L]et him who aspires to such station, and is not one of the Medici, favour Liberty and the popular Power.”

[ 225 ] April 8, 2017 |
Photo: Alex Brandon, AP

Photo: Alex Brandon, AP

With only superficial changes, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld‘s new piece in Politico could have appeared—at one time or another—in a pro-government outlet in, say, Azerbaijan, North Korea, or Syria. Simply  substitute Jared Kushner’s name for that of Ilham Aliyev, Kim Jung-Un, Bashar al-Assad, or some other princeling—and we’re in business.

Honestly, the whole thing is such a dumpster fire that it’s hard to know where to begin.

By virtue of their close relationship with the president, Jared and Ivanka are able to speak truth to power without fear of suspect motives. This is a major advantage of family enterprises. The great merchant banking families were able to cover the globe, operating in distant seaports, with primitive communication and painfully slow transportation by dispatching family members as their emissaries in these far off lands. With shared values, deeper bonds of trust, greater respect for risk taking, and longer time frames, family dynastic wealth has been a huge force in the success of global enterprises. Today, companies like Ford, Wal-Mart, Mars Inc., and Campbell Soup still benefit from large family stakes and faith in the mission of the enterprise.

If I were setting out to defend the transformation of governance—in the world’s oldest extant democratic republic, no less—into a family business, I would probably not start out by genuflecting toward the Medici or invoking the same features of kinship-based trust networks that work well for organized criminal enterprises. But, then again, I’m not the Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management at the Yale School of Business.

What follows—after some noncommittal material about possible conflicts of interest and the fact that observant Jews don’t work on the Sabbath—is a long list of inexperienced people that held powerful positions in the White House. Sonnenfeld sprinkles in examples of insular and inbred administrations. The fact that many of these arrangements—the Nixon administration, the early Clinton years—proved deeply dysfunctional seems besides the point.

For Sonnenfeld Kushner is just like Kissinger—except for the record of scholarship and policy profile—or Harry Hopkins—except for a twenty-some year history in government and non-government service to the public welfare. Also, experienced hands in the Bush Administration brought us Iraq, Thus, nepotistic self-dealing at the highest levels of American government is totally fine. Because reasons. It’s particularly rich to read all of this forty-eight hours after we learned that Kushner met with Russian officials—and failed to disclose those meetings on the application for his security clearance. That’s enough, by the way, to get people stripped of their clearances and fired.

But, not to worry, because Sonnenfeld assures us, based—as best I can tell—on no evidence other than his conversations with Donald Trump, that Kushner is the bee’s knees.

Perhaps, too, it is time to stop the needless bomb-hurling at Kushner, a trustworthy, objective, smart, fresh voice working in the national interest, who unlike some of his colleagues in the White House, appears to work effectively and quietly with real facts and analysis rather than with public pronouncements, tweets, “alternative facts,” or threats.

As Daniel Drezner puts it:

I suppose that this might be amusing as a clickbait-y exercise in counter-intuitive punditry. Except that it’s actually rather frightening. No matter how smart, or capable,  Jared Kushner is…. well, it doesn’t actually matter. Indeed, I agree with Sonnenfeld that I’d rather have Kushner making policy than Bannon or Miller. So what? There are plenty of smart, capable, and even qualified people who could fill Kushner’s roles without eroding the foundations of our system of government. Essays like Sonnenfald’s normalize the destruction of norms that keep the United States from sliding into an outright kleptocracy, oligarchy, or banana republic.

Foreign Entanglements: Russia Edition

[ 21 ] April 1, 2017 |

I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting lately. Lots of travel and work. But I do have a shiny new episode of Foreign Entanglements—yes, I’ve joined the masthead there and thereby moved forward Rob’s plans for total LGM domination—in which I talk with Yuval Weber about Russia, Trump, and Syria. And yes, I can’t figure out how to embed the new video player.

Bonus: the roundtable that led me to ask Yuval to be my first guest on the channel.

…Update by Rob: Here we go!

A Number of Gas Grills in Thailand Have Exploded. Thus, We Have Decided to Ban the Importation of Canadian Grilling Utensils.

[ 47 ] March 21, 2017 |
640px-New_intl_terminal_trivandrum

By Mail2arunjith CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36745460

If you haven’t heard yet, the Department of Homeland Security has ordered carriers to force customers to check a number of electronic devices on flights originating from a number of airports in majority-Muslim countries.

Passengers on foreign airlines headed to the United States from 10 airports in eight majority-Muslim countries have been barred from carrying electronic devices larger than a cellphone under a new flight restriction enacted on Tuesday by the Trump administration.

Officials called the directive an attempt to address gaps in foreign airport security, and said it was not based on any specific or credible threat of an imminent attack.

The Department of Homeland Security said the restricted items included laptop computers, tablets, cameras, travel printers and games bigger than a phone. The restrictions would not apply to aircraft crews, officials said in a briefing to reporters on Monday night that outlined the terms of the ban.

The official explanation for this policy, as a number of commentators have noted, makes little sense.

The policy seems poorly calibrated, None of the proposed causes of the destruction of Metrojet Flight 9268 would either have been stopped or necessity the ban. The Somalian incident may have been caused by a laptop bomb, but why this necessitates targeting the specific airports affected by the ban remains unclear. The Brussels attack involved suicide bombers and took place outside departure security checkpoints.

This lack of compelling logic observers to speculate about more nefarious motives. Is this an attempt to undermine competitors to US airlines?


Is it a ham-handed security effort by an administration of dubious policy competence?


Other possibilities include animus toward Muslims—or, more broadly, people who aren’t white. That is, an attempt to simply make life more difficult for students, business travelers, and others—and perhaps deter travel to the United States. This is consistent with reports of aggressive visa denials to people traveling to the United States.


This tracks with the arbitrariness of the Muslim travel ban. Indeed, these kinds of policies might be a means of forwarding the same goals—the equivalent of “self-deportation” as an approach to undocumented immigration. Another benefit of continuing to push policies with threadbare logic and justification? It forces GOP officials and conservative media to defend them. In doing so, it makes them  complicit in an increasing number of irrational administration actions.

And that’s the basic problem. Trump, his handlers, and their minions lie—and bullshit—with such reckless abandon that it’s simply impossible to trust them about anything. This is becoming a major national security threat, not simply because of the substance of these lies, but also the Executive Branch needs basic credibility with foreign leaders—and populations—in order to effectively in protect American interests.

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