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What if the Obstruction Was the Collusion? On the New York Times’s Latest Bombshell

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Shortly before the holidays, I received a call from New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt asking me to meet with him about some reporting he had done. Schmidt did not describe the subject until we met up, when he went over with me a portion of the congressional interview of former FBI General Counsel James Baker, who was then my Brookings colleague and remains my Lawfare colleague. When he shared what Baker had said, and when I thought about it over the next few days in conjunction with some other documents and statements, a question gelled in my mind. Observers of the Russia investigation have generally understood Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work as focusing on at least two separate tracks: collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, on the one hand, and potential obstruction of justice by the president, on the other. But what if the obstruction was the collusion—or at least a part of it?

Late last year, I wrote a memo for Schmidt outlining how I read all of this material, a memo from which this post is adapted.

Today, the New York Times is reporting that in the days following the firing of James Comey, the FBI opened an investigation of President Trump. It wasn’t simply the obstruction investigation that many of us have assumed. It was also a counterintelligence investigation predicated on the notion that the president’s own actions might constitute a national security threat:

In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.

The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.

The investigation the F.B.I. opened into Mr. Trump also had a criminal aspect, which has long been publicly known: whether his firing of Mr. Comey constituted obstruction of justice.

The following is an adaption of the memo I sent Schmidt. I have updated it in important respects in light of the reporting in the Times’s actual story. The analysis remains, however, tentative; I want to be careful not to overread the threads of evidence I am pulling together here.

The analysis that follows is lengthy and takes a number of twists and turns before laying out what I think is the significance of the whole thing. Here’s the bottom line: I believe that between today’s New York Times story and some other earlier material I have been sifting through and thinking about, we might be in a position to revisit the relationship between the “collusion” and obstruction components of the Mueller investigation. Specifically, I now believe they are far more integrated with one another than I previously understood.

Because I am certain the disclosures in this story will give rise to questions of leaks, let me start by addressing at the outset the portions of Baker’s testimony which I discuss in this post. To be very clear, I did not receive information about this from Baker. I received it from the New York Times only. And while I don’t know who gave it to Schmidt and Adam Goldman, who share the byline on the story, I am very confident it was not Baker or anyone associated with him. My assumption is that this material reached the Times from congressional sources, since the overwhelming majority of leaks of material available to Congress come from Congress, but I don’t know that for sure. Exactly one thing in the material I discuss below did come to me from Baker, and was not until today a part of the public record—and I flag that very clearly. None of this material is classified. The reporting that Schmidt shared with me made clear that the FBI specifically permitted Baker to answer the questions he addressed.

The public understanding of and debate over the Mueller investigation rests on several discrete premises that I believe should be reexamined. The first is the sharp line between the investigation of “collusion” and the investigation of obstruction of justice. The second is the sharp line between the counter-intelligence components of the investigation and the criminal components. The third and most fundamental is the notion that the investigation was, in the first place, an investigation of the Trump campaign and figures associated with it.

These premises are deeply embedded throughout the public discussion. When Bill Barr challenges what he imagines to be the predicate for the obstruction investigation, he is reflecting one of them. When any number of commentators (including Mikhaila Fogel and me on Lawfare last month) describe separate investigative cones for obstruction and collusion, they are reflecting it. When the president’s lawyers agree to have their client answer questions on collusion but draw a line at obstruction, they are reflecting it too.

But I think, and the Times’s story certainly suggests, that the story may be more complicated than that, the lines fuzzier, and the internal understanding of the investigation very different along all three of these axes from the ones the public has imbibed.

Let’s start by reexamining the most fundamental question: What is this investigation about? In his congressional testimony this fall, as Schmidt and Goldman had discovered, Baker made an arresting comment: the investigation “was about Russia, period, full stop.” The purpose of the investigation, he explained, was to assess what the Russians were up to with respect to the 2016 election. The FBI was trying to learn what the Russians had done and whether any Americans had done things in support of those efforts, either knowingly or unknowingly, so that they could understand the full scope of what the Russians had sought to do.

This quoted testimony immediately above reminded me of a passage Baker had written elsewhere, a passing discussion in an essay on a different subject which Baker wrote for Lawfare but has not yet published. This passage was cleared in pre-publication review by the FBI some months ago when we at Lawfare thought the essay’s publication was imminent. Here, too, Jim stressed that the investigation was about Russian activity. Here is the relevant passage:

A lot of the criticism seems to be driven by the notion that the FBI’s investigation was, and is, an effort to undermine or discredit President Trump. That assumption is wrong. The FBI’s investigation must be viewed in the context of the bureau’s decades-long effort to detect, disrupt and defeat the intelligence activities of the governments of the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation that are contrary to the fundamental and long-term interests of the United States. The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation regarding the 2016 campaign fundamentally was not about Donald Trump but was about Russia. Full stop. It was always about Russia. It was about what Russia was, and is, doing and planning. Of course, if that investigation revealed that anyone—Russian or American—committed crimes in connection with Russian intelligence activities or unlawfully interfered with the investigation, the FBI has an obligation under the law to investigate such crimes and to seek to bring those responsible to justice. The FBI’s enduring counterintelligence mission is the reason the Russia investigation will, and should, continue—no matter who is fired, pardoned or impeached (emphasis added).

There is a lot packed into this little paragraph, so let’s pause for a moment to unpack it. First, note the structure of Baker’s fundamental understanding of the investigation as fundamentally about Russia, with the U.S. component subsidiary to the investigation of Russian government activity. Note also that this construction is fully consistent with Jim Comey’s Mar. 20, 2017, congressional testimony in which he disclosed the existence of the investigation in the first place:

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts (emphasis added).

Comey’s construction of the investigation here is really the same as Baker’s. The investigation is not at its core an investigation of Trump campaign “coordination” with Russia, much less of Trump himself. The core of the investigation is of Russian government activity; the U.S. side is subordinate to that. It is an investigation of a foreign target that includes any “links” to “individuals associated with the Trump campaign” and “coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.” Remember as well that throughout the winter of 2017, Comey felt able to assure President Trump that the FBI was not investigating him.

This construction as, in Baker’s words, “always about Russia” is also consistent with the pattern of indictments brought by Mueller. With the partial exception of the Paul Manafort cluster of cases, which were—in any event—the subject of an additional, clarifying referral letter to Mueller and appear to have resulted from a preexisting U.S. attorney’s office investigation, nearly all of the people prosecuted by Mueller are charged in connection with Russian government activity or their own links to that activity. The Internet Research Agency and hacking indictments both involve Russian activity itself. The Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos cases both involve lies by “individuals associated with the Trump campaign” about their “links” to “the Russian government.” The portion of the Michael Cohen case that Mueller retained deals with lies about, among other things, interactions between the Trump Organization and the Russian government. Even the relatively obscure case against Richard Pinedo fits this pattern; Pinedo, after all, was accused of identity fraud in connection with Russian activity designed to interfere with the election. Anything that does not fit this pattern tightly—for example, the Turkish lobbying case against Flynn’s associates (spun off from the Flynn matter) or the Michael Cohen/Stormy Daniels matter—Mueller has kicked to other actors.

It was about Russia. Full stop. It was always about Russia. And it still is about Russia.

The best way to understand this probe is as an umbrella Russia-related national security investigation in which the bureau opened subsidiary files, some with a counterintelligence focus and some with a criminal focus, on individuals who proved to have substantial “links” to the broader Russian activity.

Second, let’s reexamine the relationship between the counterintelligence and criminal components of the investigation. People tend to draw a sharp line between the FBI acting as as criminal investigative agency and the FBI acting as an intelligence organization; this sharp line is a residue of the pre-9/11 period when there was, indeed, a high “wall” between the bureau’s two roles. That wall, however, came down in the now-famous FISA Court of Review opinion in 2002, after which the line between the counterintellingence and criminal functions became decidedly less stark. Put simply, an FBI investigation can be launched as a counterintelligence matter or it can be launched as a criminal matter, but when the bureau shows up, it shows up with all of its authorities, not just the ones associated with the particular type of investigation originally predicated. If FBI agents conducting a counterintelligence investigation find that a suspect has a kilogram of cocaine in his apartment, for example, they are empowered to make arrests under criminal authorities. People routinely describe separate cones of the Mueller investigation, a criminal cone and a counterintelligence cone; this is imagining a division significantly starker than the reality. 

The Attorney General’s Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations are explicit in providing that “all of the FBI's legal authorities are available for deployment in all cases” in order to “protect the public from crimes and threats to the national security and to further the United States’ foreign intelligence objectives.” As David Kris explains in his landmark treatise on national security investigations, “these three strands of authority are now explicitly braided.” As a result, as the guidelines make clear, the FBI’s “information gathering activities” need not be “differentially labeled” as law enforcement, counterintelligence, or affirmative foreign intelligence, and its personnel need not be “segregated from each other based on the subject areas in which they operate.” The guidelines further explain that, “[i]n many cases, a single investigation will be supportable as an exercise of a number of these authorities—i.e., as an investigation of a federal crime or crimes, as an investigation of a threat to the national security, and/or as a collection of foreign intelligence.” There are separate investigative missions, and there are a variety of different authorities, but there is only one FBI.

Comey actually made this point with respect to the Russia investigation in his original announcement of the investigation before Congress. “As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed,” he said. And Baker makes it explicitly in the passage quoted above as well: “Of course, if that investigation revealed that anyone—Russian or American—committed crimes in connection with Russian intelligence activities or unlawfully interfered with the investigation, the FBI has an obligation under the law to investigate such crimes and to seek to bring those responsible to justice.”

Baker’s formulation (“or unlawfully interfered with the investigation”) also includes, importantly, an obstruction of justice component as an organic feature of the counterintelligence probe. The significance of these statements, put simply, is that the investigation was something of a criminal-counterintelligence hybrid from early on.

Again, this hybrid is visible in the pattern of cases Mueller has brought, which reflects a clear use of criminal authorities to achieve counterintelligence objectives. To go back to the FISA Court of Review opinion from 2002, Mueller’s is a textbook example—albeit in a non-counterterrorism context—of the sort of hybrid investigation that the court was contemplating when it dismantled the wall. As the court wrote:

The government argues persuasively that arresting and prosecuting terrorist agents of, or spies for, a foreign power may well be the best technique to prevent them from successfully continuing their terrorist or espionage activity. The government might wish to surveil the agent for some period of time to discover other participants in a conspiracy or to uncover a foreign power's plans, but typically at some point the government would wish to apprehend the agent and it might be that only a prosecution would provide sufficient incentives for the agent to cooperate with the government. Indeed, the threat of prosecution might be sufficient to "turn the agent."

(Interestingly, Baker was, at the time of this ruling, the Justice Department’s counsel for intelligence policy and review. His name is actually on the briefs in this case.)

So the second key point is not to get hung up on whether this is a counterintelligence or a criminal investigation. It is an investigation born out of “the FBI’s enduring counterintelligence mission,” which operates as a hybrid of the two.

Third, against the backdrop of a hybrid investigation which was “always about Russia,” let’s now revisit the sharp line between the collusion and obstruction investigations. Everyone’s working theory has been that there was this collusion (which is to say counterintelligence) investigation cooking along and then the president tried to interfere with it, first by putting pressure on Comey and then by firing him. The theory goes that this pattern of conduct predicated a separate criminal investigation of obstruction. If you’re Bill Barr or Alan Dershowitz or Josh Blackman or the president’s lawyers, this seems wrong because—as they have all argued—it would be an investigation predicated on an Article II-sanctioned exercise of presidential authority. If you’re one of the myriad commentators who take a broader view of obstruction vis a vis presidential conduct, it seems like a sensible predicate for a criminal probe.

But what if the factual premise is more complicated than that? What if the pattern that jumped out at the FBI officials was that the President of the United States had just sought to interfere in an investigation of Russian intelligence activity and then boasted on television that his action was connected in some way to the Russia probe? What if the FBI knew that by the time he did so, the president had drafted a never-sent dismissal letter to Comey, and this letter also made clear that the Russia probe was on his mind at the time he acted? These are the facts that, the Times reports, led the bureau to open a new file on Trump:

After Mr. Comey was fired on May 9, 2017, two more of Mr. Trump’s actions prompted them to quickly abandon those reservations.

The first was a letter Mr. Trump wanted to send to Mr. Comey about his firing, but never did, in which he mentioned the Russia investigation. . . .

Even after the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, wrote a more restrained draft of the letter and told Mr. Trump that he did not have to mention the Russia investigation — Mr. Comey’s poor handling of the Clinton email investigation would suffice as a fireable offense, he explained — Mr. Trump directed Mr. Rosenstein to mention the Russia investigation anyway.

He disregarded the president’s order, irritating Mr. Trump. The president ultimately added a reference to the Russia investigation to the note he had delivered, thanking Mr. Comey for telling him three times that he was not under investigation.

The second event that troubled investigators was an NBC News interview two days after Mr. Comey’s firing in which Mr. Trump appeared to say he had dismissed Mr. Comey because of the Russia inquiry.

“I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it,” he said. “And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself—I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”

The facts actually got worse over the next few days. Because even as the bureau was beginning its obstruction inquiry, Trump boasted about his action to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, saying he had relieved pressure on himself by taking it.

Remember that all of this happened as the FBI was investigating “as part of [its] counterintelligence mission,” as Comey had only weeks earlier testified, “the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” an investigation that Comey had announced had criminal elements and “include[d] investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.”

Would not a sequence of overt interferences in the investigation by Trump himself, culminating in the decapitation of the investigation’s leadership and boasted about both on national television and—later—in an Oval Office meeting to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and flagged in a draft letter to Comey as specifically connected to the Russia probe, raise all kinds of red flags within the parameters of the existing investigation the FBI was already conducting? This was, after all, one heck of “link” between an “individual[] associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government”!

The reporting Schmidt shared with me about Baker’s testimony suggests rather strongly that the FBI did not think of the Comey firing simply as a possible obstruction of justice. Officials thought of it, rather, in the context of the underlying counterintelligence purpose of the Russia investigation. At one point, Baker was asked whether firing Director Comey added to the threat to national security the FBI was confronting.

“Yes,” Baker responds.

Later, having explained—as quoted above—that the investigation was “about Russia,” Baker explains what he means. To the extent that firing Comey was the result of a decision to shut down the investigation, he said, that would frustrate the FBI’s ability to ascertain what the Russians and their confederates had done. In other words, “not only would it be an issue about obstructing an investigation, but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done, and that is what would be the threat to national security.”

Put simply, I don’t believe the FBI, having an open counterintelligence investigation, simply opened a new criminal investigation of obstruction in the wake of the Comey firing. I think there likely was—and still is—one umbrella investigation with a number of different threads. That one investigation was (and is) about Russia. And it had (and still has), as a subsidiary matter, a number of subsidiary files open about people on the U.S. side who had links to Russian government activity. Each of these files had (and still has) all of the counterintelligence and criminal tools available to the U.S. government at its disposal.

So when the president sought to impair the investigation, having declared both in the draft letter dismissing Comey and to Lester Holt that his action was connected in some way to the Russia investigation, that raised both potential criminal questions and major counterintelligence questions—questions that could only have been reinforced when Trump later announced to senior Russian government officials that he had relieved pressure on himself by acting as he did. It did so both because it threatened the investigation itself and because it fit directly into a pattern of interface between Trump campaign officials and Russian government actors that they were already investigating.

Remember that the standards of predication are quite low. To open an investigation, the FBI doesn’t need proof of a crime, or even probable cause of criminal activity. It need only see evidence that “An activity constituting a federal crime or a threat to the national security has or may have occurred, is or may be occurring, or will or may occur and the investigation may obtain information relating to the activity or the involvement or role of an individual, group, or organization in such activity” (emphasis added). “May” is a very flexible word. So ask yourself this: If you were the FBI and already investigating Russian activity and you saw the president’s actions in May 2017, would you believe that it “may” constitute a criminal offense or “may” constitute a threat to national security or both?

What is the significance of all of this? I have two big takeaways.

First, if this analysis is correct, it mostly—though not entirely—answers the question of the legal basis of the obstruction investigation. The president’s lawyers, Barr in his memo, and any number of conservative commentators have all argued that Mueller cannot reasonably be investigating obstruction offenses based on the president’s actions within his Article II powers in firing Comey; such actions, they contend, cannot possibly violate the obstruction laws. While this position is disputed, a great many other commentators, including me, have scratched their heads about Mueller’s obstruction theory.

But if the predicate for the investigation was rooted in substantial part in counterintelligence authorities—that is, if the theory was not just that the president may have violated the criminal law but also that he acted in a fashion that may constitute a threat to national security—that particular legal puzzle goes away. After all, the FBI doesn’t need a possible criminal violation to open a national security investigation.

The problem does not entirely go away, because as the Times reports, the probe was partly predicated as a criminal matter as well. So the question of Mueller’s criminal theory is still there. But the weight on it is dramatically less.

This possibility, of course, raises a different legal puzzle, which is whether and under what circumstances the president can be a national security investigative subject of his own FBI given that it is ultimately he who defines national security threats for the executive branch. But that’s a question for another day.

Second, if it is correct that the FBI’s principal interest in obstruction was not as a discrete criminal fact pattern but as a national security threat, this significantly blurs the distinction between the obstruction and collusion aspects of the investigation. In this construction, obstruction was not a problem distinct from collusion, as has been generally imagined. Rather, in this construction, obstruction was the collusion, or at least part of it. The obstruction of justice statutes become, in this understanding, merely one set of statutes investigators might think about using to deal with a national security risk—specifically, the risk of a person on the U.S. side coordinating with or supporting Russian activity by shutting down the investigation.

It was about Russia. It was always about Russia. Full stop.

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Five ways to de-Trumpify your life in 2019

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Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore

Previously published at WGBH News.

The dawn of a new year is yet another opportunity for President Trump to make news in all the wrong ways — and another invitation for the media to obsess over every tweet, insult, lie, and outburst of unpresidential behavior.

Aside from denigrating journalists as purveyors of #fakenews and as the “Enemy of the American People,” Trump has actually been good for the media. Digital subscriptions at newspapers are up, audiences for NPR and political podcasts are growing, and donations are on the rise at ProPublica and other nonprofits. At the same time, though, the relentless coverage of our dysfunctional, falsehood-spewing president has resulted in an overwhelming sense of fatigue.

I’m here to help. No, we can’t ignore Trump — not when his policies result in the deaths of children at the border, or when he refuses to take seriously the apparent murder of a journalist at the hands of the Saudi regime, or when one of his former aides implicates him in crimes. But we can retake control of our news diet, slowing the torrent of Trump news, semi-news, and alleged news to a more manageable flow. Not only will it help us stay sane, but it will allow is to react appropriately when something genuinely terrible takes place.

Here, then, are five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life in 2019.

1. Ignore nearly all stories about Trump’s tweets. The media can’t disregard the president’s sociopathic Twitter stream entirely. Someone has to pay attention. All too often, though, some awful thing Trump said on Twitter winds up overshadowing some even more awful thing he’s doing IRL. You might say Trump does that deliberately. I don’t think so; rather, I think Twitter is where he expresses his truest self. But we need to keep it in perspective.Granted, it can be difficult when he posts a beauty like this:

But, really, was that any worse than what he tweets out on a daily basis? It’s time for all of us to move Trump’s tweets off center stage and to regard them as the sort of low hum that’s given off by fluorescent lights — always there, but usually not noticed.

2. Pay more attention to the world around you. I don’t mean you should take a walk in the woods, although of course you should. I mean you should immerse yourself more deeply in non-Trump news that’s unfolding both internationally and nationally — stories about climate change, war, rising fascism, space exploration, religion, sports, culture, and yes, stories about kindness and compassion and hope.

Politics is just one part of the human experience, which is something that political junkies like me have to remind ourselves of from time to time. And Trump is just one part of politics. Yes, Trump has been good for the business of journalism, but the downside is that news organizations load up their home pages and social media feeds with all things Trump in order to drive clicks and digital subscriptions and to drive us over the edge. We don’t have to take part.

3. Become a news locavore. If you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in your community, make changing that one of your New Year’s resolutions. It’s not just that it’s important. It’s that people who might have wildly divergent views about national politics usually have less trouble finding common ground at the local level.

There’s an old saying that there isn’t a liberal or conservative way to pick up the garbage, and there’s something to it. More important, though, is that when we get to know each other as individuals, what separates us tends to fade away and what we have in common moves to the forefront. As the journalist James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic shortly after the 2016 election, “at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.” (Fallows and his wife, Deborah Fallows, expanded that idea into a book called “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.”)

Part of making a commitment to localism means supporting local media. National and regional news organizations need your support, of course, but so does the startup community website you might be lucky enough to have — or even the corporate-owned weekly newspaper that employs your town’s only watchdog journalist. What she reports on is at least as important to your life as anything you’ll find in The New York Times or The Washington Post.

4. Stop watching cable news talk shows. If there’s a big breaking news story, you’re going to tune in CNN, and so am I. But the social value of the talk shows that CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News broadcast during prime time every evening is close to zero.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I recently watched Rachel Maddow’s and Sean Hannity’s top-rated talk shows on MSNBC and Fox, respectively. And though Maddow’s liberal program was more fact-based than the right-wing conspiracy theories that Hannity offers these days, both shows earn their money by exploiting the political polarization that defines life in 21st-century America. CNN’s idea of an alternative is to have liberal and conservative guests argue with each other.

There is quality news on television. At the national level, the network nightly newscasts are still respectable, and the “PBS NewsHour” offers substance, even if it’s too heavy on eat-your-peas seriousness. Surveys show that local TV newscasts are more trusted than other forms of news, and Boston’s choices are many and varied.

5. Change your relationship with social media. This is a tough one, which is why I’ve saved it for last. For most of us over a certain age, when I talk about social media I’m talking mainly about Facebook, with its 2.2 billion active monthly users. We all know the existential crisis Facebook is dealing with over the exposure of its repeated privacy violations, its manipulation of users via a Russian disinformation campaign, and its mysterious but highly effective algorithm, which keeps users engaged by feeding them content that plays into their fears and anger.

And yet Facebook is just so damn useful, connecting us with family and friends in some pretty powerful ways. For those of us who communicate for a living, Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms allow us to expand our reach beyond what was previously possible.

What should we do? Some people are quitting Facebook, and I respect that. Most of us, though, aren’t going to go that far. I’m not, at least not yet. Instead, I think we all ought to resolve to try to use Facebook responsibly in 2019. I can’t define what that means. But I imagine it involves some combination of using it mainly to stay in touch with people who are important to us, interacting on local and special-interest groups, and ignoring politically charged content even when we agree with it. It’s just not healthy.

None of these steps is aimed at eliminating President Trump from your life. That wouldn’t make any more sense than running around with your hair on fire every time he lies. There is going to be plenty of Trump news in 2019. Special counsel Robert Mueller will presumably submit his report at some point. The Democratic House may take up impeachment. The president will continue to act unpredictably, rashly, and, in many instances, horribly. We can hardly ignore it all.

But we can pay attention to what really matters — while at the same time downgrading Trump from a constant crisis to more of a dull, aching pain that never quite goes away.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

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Saudi Arabian censorship isn’t just a problem for Netflix

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Jerry Brown

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Late last night I saw this Twitter video clip of Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) leaving the governor’s office (presumably?) for the last time as Governor of California. It made me consider his remarkable and uncanny public career and my own memories of it, which now stretch over the course of a lifetime.

Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown, Jr. was sworn in as Governor of California in January 1975, about six months before my family moved to California in the summer of that year. He managed this feat at the remarkably young age of 36, taking over from Ronald Reagan and doing so, in no small part because his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown had been Governor from 1959 to 1967. Brown then had the audacity to turn around and immediately run for President in 1976 and then again in 1980.

As a young boy with hippie-ish parents newly moved to the state, Brown represented all the liberal and counter-culturish dimensions of our new home. I knew that he slept on a foam mattress in a private apartment, rather than living in the governor’s mansion, and that he dated Linda Ronstadt. As I got older and learned more about politics I discovered that Brown’s political legacy was considerably more complex, idiosyncratic and inconstant than all that. But that was the world I lived in at the time.

In his second term, Brown was saddled with a right-wing Lt. Gov., Mike Curb, who partly chained him to the state by threatening to override his policies when and if Brown left the state. Brown seemed increasingly out of place and out of time in his second term, especially when his predecessor as governor, Ronald Reagan, was elected President in 1980. This impression of a man of the past was cemented when Brown was defeated in his run for the Senate by then-San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson in 1982.

For me and for many, Brown’s tenure as Governor was summed up by his official portrait that debuted in 1984, two years after he left office.

It is probably the only memorable work of official portraiture, the only work of quality and significance I can think of until Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of Barack Obama was released in 2018. It was also an indifferent “fuck you” to all the canons of the form, especially in 1984, the high tide of Reaganism. (The painting is the work of Don Barchardy, also known as the longtime partner of novelist Christopher Isherwood, who died in 1986.)

California has a long progressive tradition going back to the early 20th century. But from the vantage point of today, when California is the national anchor of Democratic and progressive politics, it can be difficult to remember just how critical a state it was to the late 20th century national Republican political hegemony. From 1952 to 1988, Republicans won the state in every election except for 1964. California launched the careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. It also passed Proposition 13 in 1978, the bellwether of the national anti-tax movement which has dominated national politics for two generations. Brown, bizarrely, at first campaigned against Prop 13 and then switched positions and campaigned for it.

After the 1982 defeat Brown basically disappeared from public life until 1988 when he announced he was running to become Chairman of the State Democratic party. His reemergence came with a string of newspaper reports about how Brown had been in Japan studying Zen Buddhism and in Calcutta with Mother Theresa.

Here from the LA Times on January 23rd, 1988

Former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who was in Japan last year studying Zen Buddhism, is now in Calcutta working as a volunteer in Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Home for the dying and destitute.

“I have always been impressed with Mother Teresa and her works,” Brown told a reporter Friday by telephone. “Now that I have the time, I wanted to come here and see for myself.”

Brown said he has been in Calcutta for a week and plans to stay at least two more.

“The people here are wonderful,” he said, “volunteers from all over the world. They are all extraordinary.”

Brown’s duties at the home include bathing and otherwise comforting the patients, many of whom are dying of malnutrition.

Brown was elected Chair of the state party. Then he resigned to run for Senate, before deciding not to run for senate. Then he ran for President a third time in 1992. Ever the protean figure reinventing himself, in this race he would often introduce himself in cities like Boston and New York and in the post-Industrial Midwest as “an Irish politician from California.” His main role in that race was as Bill Clinton’s losing but barbed antagonist as an advocate of a 13% national flat tax. (He’d allied himself with supply-side gadfly Jude Wanniski.)

Here Brown disappears again, somewhat ignominiously, only to remerge at the end of the decade with what is likely his most audacious reinvention: as a normal politician who runs for office more or less on his own merits, governs and then runs again on a record. In late midlife he begins what is, if you set aside everything that came before it, an almost conventional political career. Brown was elected Mayor of Oakland in 1998, a job without an obvious political future, seeming to some as a kind of penance of sorts. He was reelected in 2002. He was elected Attorney General in 2006 and then to two successive terms as governor in 2010 and 2014.

Throughout his second tenure, Brown has presided over what is by almost any definition the most Democratic and progressive major state government in the United States, while also being the largest. But he’s done so with spending-skeptic side he retains from his first run in 1970s. Indeed last month he was telling reporters he doubts his successor will be able to restrain lawmakers’ appetite for new programs and spending. “I’d say we’re in for contentious times and for too many rules, too many constricting mandates and probably too much spending.” He is like a sometimes churlish older brother overseeing the progressive millennium.

Brown has not only had a successful two terms as governor. He’s maintained high political approval throughout his second two terms as governor and been the dominant force politically in a state in which the Republican party all but no longer exists. It is impossible not to conclude that Brown was a far more able governor in his 70s than he was in his 30s.

Brown turned 80 last April. He and his wife are moving to a ranch in rural Colusa County, population 21,000.

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14 days ago
Boston, MA
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Visualizing a Year of @realDonaldTrump

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President Trump thumbed his way through another year in the White House while staying busy on Twitter, compiling a good (great) collection of 2,930 touts, complaints, defenses and rants.

He left 2018 with this perplexing New Year’s Eve missive extolling the old-fashioned endurance of “Walls” and “Wheels” as one of his last.

As the message shows, the president’s twitter presence lately is crowded by an increasingly evergreen list of grievances (Democrats, Russia, fake news, etc). Still, plenty of his messages actually correspond quite neatly with news events.

Notice how the #maga hashtag, a political rallying cry, disappears after the midterm elections. He talks about The Wall and shutdowns in and around the shutdowns, of course. And he decries Special Counsel Robert Mueller most often around the times his former aides have appeared (and been convicted or pleaded guilty) in federal court.

These examples are obvious when plotted on a timeline with annotation:

Through it all, the president’s audience of followers grew steadily by 10 million users. He now has 56.7 million followers (me included). He’s No. 15 on that measure, according to, sandwiched between heavy hitters like @selenagomez and @britneyspears!

During 2018, @realDonaldTrump spread his tweets throughout the days of the week, with the president even finding time on the weekends to sound off:

This large collection of messages, scraped using twint, drew more than 300 million of engagements, with “likes” being most common by far. This one about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a year ago received a whopping 475,000 likes, topping the list.

Here’s how those engagements split proportionally:

Speaking of retweets, there were 57 million in 2018. They came at the rate of 200,000 per day in some months. This popular “they-just-don’t-get-it” mashup of video clips, for example, received more than 110,000 retweets alone in July:

And, finally, as in years past, those messages were a mix of endorsements, promotions, defenses and complaints. Among the more popular keywords (sorry, no word clouds here):

You can download the data as a CSV here. Happy New Year!

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20 days ago
Boston, MA
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Kurt Vonnegut --

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Eight rules for writing fiction:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

-- Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons 1999), 9-10.

Kurt Vonnegut: How to Write with Style
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21 days ago
Boston, MA
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