During an emotional address at the daily White House press briefing, Chief of Staff John Kelly defended President Trump’s handling of a phone call with a Gold Star family and described his own son’s death in Afghanistan. Former President George W. Bush warned against the rise of “nativism” and said bigotry in America “seems emboldened.” Ohio Representative Pat Tiberi said he’s resigning from Congress to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable. Senator John McCain threatened to seek a subpoena to get more information on the attack in Niger that killed four U.S. service members. Former President Obama will speak at a rally for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam in Richmond at 6 p.m. ET.
‘How Money Became the Measure of Everything’: It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that Americans started using economic terms to quantify their well-being. (Eli Cook)
Problematic Influence: Publishers like Google and Facebook are increasingly targeting readers with personalized news—a development that comes with a lot of risks. (Adrienne LaFrance)
Is Public Corruption Legal?: Matt Ford explains how a 2016 Supreme Court ruling could have long-term effects on America’s republican institutions.
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
Victory on His Watch: Since Donald Trump’s inauguration nine months ago, ISIS has lost much of its territory—and Trump has played a significant role in that transformation. (Jonathan S. Tobin, National Review)
Order in the Court: Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch is reportedly irritating his colleagues on the bench—especially Justice Elena Kagan. (Mark Joseph Stern, Slate)
A Fight for Honor: Former White House strategist Steve Bannon and Senator John McCain represent two rival factions within the Republican party: the hedgehog versus the honey badger. (Bret Stephens, The New York Times)
Rigged: Ari Berman explains how voter suppression helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. (Mother Jones)
Leaked: An internal White House “wish list” obtained by Crooked Media shows the objectives and fixations of the Trump administration—from sex education to childhood obesity. (Brian Beutler)
‘Nationalism without a nation’
by Elizabeth Bruenig
In a short but insightful blog post, Bruenig reasons that the nationalism most closely associated with Trump is more transactional in his mind than it is for many of his devoted followers.
—Senior editor Adam Serwer
‘I’m Crying for My Motherland’: In the past two months, nearly 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Burma to Bangladesh to escape persecution. See photos of the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. (Alan Taylor, The Atlantic)
Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Grassley are two of the oldest and longest-serving members of Congress, and both could be sticking around for the foreseeable future. The Atlantic’s Michelle Cottle reported on Monday that younger politicians are growing frustrated with what they view as out-of-touch lawmakers clinging to power by continuing to serve well into their 70s and 80s.
Do you think there should be an age limit for politicians? Why, or why not?
Share your response here, and we'll feature a few in Friday’s Politics & Policy Daily.
-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly made some extraordinary remarks during Thursday’s White House briefing. They were extraordinary not only because Kelly seldom speaks on the record to the press and was doing so for the second time in a week, but also for the deeply personal nature of what he said—discussing the death of his son in combat, a topic he has in the past been careful to avoid. Yet Kelly’s defense of President Trump, who is embroiled in a self-inflicted crisis over his condolences for the families of fallen servicemembers, also contained the grain of a strong rebuke to the president.
Kelly began with a description of what happens when a soldier, sailor, marine, or airman or -woman is killed in battle. Then he said:
Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you as Americans don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate but required.
Kelly’s point is correct—as my colleague James Fallows wrote in 2015, the military is increasingly cut off from the mainstream of American culture, with terrible consequences for both. (It is a critique that sweeps in the president, who assiduously avoided serving in Vietnam.)
On Wednesday, Representative Frederica Wilson said that in a call to the family of Sergeant La David Johnson, who died in Niger earlier this month, Trump had told Johnson’s widow, “He knew what he was getting into when he signed up.” Trump denied ever saying that, but as I wrote on Wednesday, it seemed possible that Trump had simply been speaking about soldiers’ sense of duty. And that’s what Kelly, contradicting Trump’s denial, said. Kelly said the president had asked him what to tell the family.
I said to him, “Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. Let me tell you what I tell them, let me tell you what my best friend Joe Dunford told me, because he was my casualty officer, he said, ‘Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were. Because we’re at war. And when he died’—in the four cases we’re talking about Niger and my son’s case in Afghanistan—‘when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.’ That’s what the president tried to say to four families the other day.”
Kelly then laced into Wilson. “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me,” he said. “When I listened to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them. Because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery. Went over there for an hour and a half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”
He then continued to attack Wilson on other matters, but the core of his critique was that she had improperly politicized the matter. (Wilson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
It’s hard to hear or read Kelly’s words about his son’s death and not be moved, especially given his reticence in the past; his decision to open up now seems telling, even if it’s not immediately clear what it tells. Likewise, his defense of the president’s call as well-intentioned is plausible, and his comments about the insulation of military grief from most of society are important. But the charge of politicization is less credible, not because of anything Kelly said, but because of who he works for.
After all, it’s Trump who, when asked about the deaths in Niger during a press conference on Monday, opted to personalize the question and treat it as a challenge to his reputation for offering condolences. It is also Trump who, in that answer, unfairly and inaccurately accused previous presidents of not offering condolences. (Kelly confirmed that he had told Trump that Obama did not call him after his son’s death, though he added, “That was not a criticism.” Contra Trump’s jab, he suggested it was reasonable for presidents not to call every family, especially during periods when there are many casualties.) And it was Trump who, as further reporting has revealed, was not telling the truth about having called all or nearly all of the families of servicemembers who died during his presidency.
Kelly argued that the political debate over the past few days was proof of the coarsening of American culture.
“When I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country,” Kelly said. “Women were sacred and looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we’ve seen from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, was sacred. That’s gone. Religion. That seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.”
It wasn’t clear what “recent cases” Kelly meant; it would be surprising if it was a reference to allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein and others, coming from the chief of staff for a man caught on tape boasting about sexual assault. It’s hard to know exactly what Kelly meant with that final sentence, but one reading is that it is a swipe at Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents who spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Trump responded to that speech with days of insult and attacks on the Khans. Kelly may very well have a valid point about the politicization of military suffering, but if he wants to single out culprits in that desacralization, he could start with his boss’s comments, from both last summer and this week.
For a few days earlier this month, it looked like the years-long corruption probe targeting New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez would fall apart seven weeks into his trial. At issue was the prosecution’s “stream of benefits” theory, which argues that the steady flow of donations and gifts from a wealthy Florida doctor to the Democratic senator—and the flow of favors from the senator to the doctor—amounted to quid pro quo corruption.
During a hearing last week, Judge William Walls seemed to signal that argument was dead on arrival by citing a recent Supreme Court ruling that has vexed public-corruption investigators across the country. “I frankly don’t think McDonnell will allow that,” Walls told prosecutors, referring to the decision in McDonnell v. United States that fundamentally changed the standard for bribery.
Walls eventually decided to let the case proceed, declining to throw out most of Menendez’s charges. But the close call underscores the continuing fallout from McDonnell last year. That ruling, like a series of others from the Court in recent years, recast actions once eschewed in politics as reasonable behavior for elected officials. The justices have portrayed these rulings as necessary on First Amendment grounds. But the long-term effects could imperil the public’s faith in democratic institutions.
“There’s a way in which a lot of the Supreme Court decisions have been ever narrowing what corruption means,” Tara Malloy, a staff lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, told me. “And McDonnell is one further example of it.”
The case narrowed what could be defined as an “official act” under federal corruption statutes—the quo of a quid pro quo, so to speak. Since McDonnell, it only applies to direct exercises of a government official’s power, like voting for legislation or signing an order. More seemingly mundane activities, like urging other officials to intervene in someone’s favor or setting up meetings for donors, do not qualify.
Before the decision, federal prosecutors brought cases against Democrats and Republicans alike by arguing that “official act” applied to all sorts of actions taken by public officials. Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican, was convicted in 2015 after taking more than $175,000 in luxury gifts, personal loans, and more from Johnnie Williams, a Virginia businessman who received favors from the governor. On appeal, McDonnell argued his actions were part of being an elected official and fell beyond what federal bribery laws could prohibit.
The Supreme Court agreed. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the Court’s opinion, appeared to anticipate a public backlash. “There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” he wrote. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.” All eight justices sided with McDonnell, with the ninth seat vacant after Antonin Scalia’s death in February.
“The concern of the Court was that the prosecution not define ‘official act’—which is what the statute there required—too broadly,” Malloy said. “They thought that ‘official act,’ according to the prosecution, was basically anything a public official did by reason of their position or through the resources of their position. And the Court said, ‘No, no, no.’”
At the same time, Roberts also took an exceedingly generous view of McDonnell’s activities. Where the Justice Department saw an elected official providing special perks for a lucrative donor, the chief justice saw the risk that “conscientious public officials” could be hauled in by prosecutorial zealots. “Officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse,” he mused, as if to suggest judges and juries would not be able to tell the difference.
Randall Eliason, a George Washington University law professor and former federal prosecutor, described McDonnell to me as “a lawyerly opinion in the worst sense of the word.” By focusing on just one aspect of the statutory definition of “official act,” he said, the Court missed the broader issues with the relationship between McDonnell and an influential donor who showered him, and his wife, with lavish gifts. He offered a jarring hypothetical that illustrates how officials could leverage their power in a post-McDonnell world:
Currently, I could set up a system where I’m a governor and I tell everybody who might want to meet with someone in my cabinet to make a pitch, or try to get a contract, or advocate for some program. I could say, “Okay, I’ll set up a meeting for you. The cost is $10,000.” And that just goes in my pocket. That’s not a campaign contribution; it’s not going to be reported to the public anywhere. That’s just going to be a gift for me, and I’ll set up the meeting. I’m not going to tell anybody what to do, I’m not going to tell them what to decide, I’ll just get you in the room. And if you don’t pay me, no meeting.
Eliason and other legal observers had thought McDonnell could prevail in his appeal, but the scale of the ruling came as a surprise. “I mean, access is valuable, right?” Eliason told me. “And you can just pay for access as long as the official doesn’t actually agree to decide something for you, but can get you in the room with the other movers and shakers who are going to do it. Now that’s not considered corruption.”
Three months after the ruling, the Justice Department abandoned its efforts to prosecute McDonnell and his wife. “After carefully considering the Supreme Court’s recent decision and the principles of federal prosecution, we have made the decision not to pursue the case further,” it said in a terse press release. McDonnell celebrated the outcome, telling reporters his “wrongful” conviction was “based on a false narrative and incorrect law.”
If it hasn’t already, McDonnell could affect how prosecutors build corruption cases and limit the range of behaviors for which they’ll pursue charges. Those watching the Menendez case in New Jersey could be even more motivated to do so. But Malloy also warned that McDonnell fits into a broader pattern of how the Roberts Court approaches corruption in politics, and what it could do in future cases.
“We’re not simply talking about these criminal prosecutions. We’re talking about the full range of laws that attempt to protect the integrity of government,” she said, citing statutes on ethics, political transparency, and campaign finance the justices have taken a narrower view of. Malloy attributed the shift to the departure of Sandra Day O’Connor in 2005.
“Once upon a time, for instance, a campaign-finance law could be justified if there was a concern that money could provide influence or access to officials,” she explained. “The Supreme Court in recent years has said, ‘No, no, no, we don’t really care if your campaign contribution gets you access or ingratiation or a whole bunch of favors. We think corruption is much more like quid pro quo and maybe even just cash for votes.’”
In the 2003 case McConnell v. FEC, for example, O’Connor voted with the majority to uphold most of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law. Seven years later, a five-justice majority—including Samuel Alito, O’Connor’s replacement—overturned McConnell in Citizens United v. FEC to allow unlimited independent expenditures in political campaigns. And in 2014, the Court struck down aggregate limits on campaign donations in McCutcheon v. FEC.
Following the justices’ decision last year, McDonnell’s impact quickly reverberated through other public-corruption cases, including two high-profile prosecutions in New York. In July, a three-judge panel in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the conviction of Sheldon Silver, once the powerful state-assembly speaker. The judges ruled that the jury instructions had conformed to the pre-McDonnell standard of “official acts” and couldn’t be reconciled with the Supreme Court’s ruling. Three months later, in September, the Second Circuit also overturned the conviction of Dean Skelos, the state senate’s former majority leader, on similar grounds.
Silver had been convicted of extortion, fraud, and money laundering in 2015. Prosecutors said he helped funnel state funds to a Columbia University cancer researcher in exchange for millions of dollars; they also connected him to favorable-treatment deals for two real-estate development firms. Skelos was found guilty of eight corruption-related charges the same year for allegedly using his influence to secure jobs and payments for his son. Federal prosecutors plan to seek retrials for both Silver and Skelos, who were known as power brokers in the state.
McDonnell also came down as federal prosecutors were preparing to go to trial against Menendez, a senator since 2006. At the crux of the case is his friendship with Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist and frequent campaign donor. Prosecutors have depicted Menendez as a personal legislator of sorts to Melgen. He allegedly used his political influence to help obtain visas for Melgen’s girlfriends, secure contracts for him in the Dominican Republic, and intervene in a Medicare billing dispute with the Department of Health and Human Services.
Menendez has denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyers argue the favors don’t rise to the newly heightened standard of official acts. Federal prosecutors, for their part, argue that the stream of benefits that flowed from Melgen to Menendez meet the threshold under federal law without linking specific quids to specific quos. Even though Walls declined to dismiss the charges against the lawmaker, he could still dismiss some of them later in the trial if the prosecution fails to present enough evidence. And like McDonnell himself, Menendez could also challenge any convictions under the stream-of-benefits theory on appeal.
Behind these legal doctrines and prosecutorial theories are questions about the popular legitimacy of the republican system—about voters being able to trust that the officials they elect aren’t the puppets of the country’s richest patrons. What McDonnell and other recent public-corruption rulings risk are institutions where cash and favors flow freely, where consequences are exceptional, and where public vice is made indistinguishable from civic virtue. No Americans expect a government of saints, but they expect their government to be able to root out the sinners in its midst.
The question to President Trump on Monday sounded relatively innocuous: “Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?” It’s certainly not the kind of question that seemed likely to set off several days of heated controversy.
But the hubbub that has ensued, centering on Trump’s response to the deaths of four soldiers in Niger and, more broadly, the way he deals with grieving military families, is yet another example of how this president inflicts crises on himself. This pattern has happened several times since Trump entered office, with the tussle over the size of his crowd on Inauguration Day and his claim that Barack Obama “wiretapped him.” In each case, Trump’s bluster and his seeming obsession with Obama have led him to commit serious unforced errors.
As is now well known, Trump took that question as an opportunity to unfavorably compare previous presidents’ methods of consoling Gold Star families to his own, suggesting his predecessors had done little or nothing, while he tried to call the family of every fallen soldier. That answer was off-key not only because of the unsolicited slur of other presidents but also because Trump so quickly made the story about himself. While the gap between the October 4 deaths and the October 16 comment remains unexplained, Trump could easily have offered an anodyne statement praising the men’s valor and the importance of U.S. troops to fighting violent extremism.
In fact, Politico reports that the National Security Council staff drafted exactly such a statement for release on October 5, the day after the deaths. “The heroic Americans who lost their lives yesterday did so defending our freedom and fighting violent extremism in Niger,” a draft read in part. “Our administration and our entire nation are deeply grateful for their sacrifice, for their service, and for their patriotism.” Yet for reasons that are still not clear, the statement was never released. Putting it out might have dampened any questions about the mission—which, it is increasingly appears, was ridden with problems—and avoided the press-conference question.
Instead, Trump took the opportunity to claim he called nearly every family of a fallen servicemember. “I’m going to be calling them. I want a little time to pass,” he said. (It’s worth noting that Trump seemed to be short-circuiting his own communications staff by holding the press conference, making the error his alone.) On Tuesday, he added, “I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died.” By making the debate about himself, by attacking former presidents of both parties and thus guaranteeing their staffers would jump into the fray, and by inviting reporters to dig into the matter—“You could ask General [John] Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?” he said Tuesday—Trump was begging reporters to peer under rocks they might not have otherwise noticed.
Predictably, once they started turning over rocks, there was some gross stuff beneath them. First there was Trump’s call to the widow of La David Johnson, killed in Niger, which only came Tuesday night, when Trump was facing pressure. The call was a fiasco, ending with the widow in tears and Johnson’s grieving mother feeling her family had been “disrespected.”
Then came an Associated Press story reporting that contrary to his claim, Trump had not called every family of a servicemember killed on his watch; in fact, he had snubbed one despite repeated requests, and had not even sent letters to others.
Then The Washington Post published a devastating follow-up. “At least 20 Americans have been killed in action since he became commander in chief in January,” the paper reported. “The Washington Post interviewed the families of 13 and found that his interactions with them vary. About half had received phone calls, they said. The others said they had not heard from the president.”
Furthermore, Trump had offered $25,000 to the family of slain Corporal Dillon Baldridge of Zebulon, North Carolina, and offered to establish an online fundraiser for them during a conversation in June. The Baldridges had never seen the money nor heard another word, the Post reported. Once contacted by the paper, the White House said Wednesday the check was in the mail.
The anecdote is stunning for several reasons. First, it’s odd for the president to offer a five-figure check to one family and not to others. Second, it’s odd to offer huge sums and then not follow through—though as David Fahrenthold demonstrated during the campaign, promising large checks and then not following through has been a signature Trump move for decades. Third, Trump should have known that he had made promises like this and not followed through, and that by encouraging reporters to look around, he was inviting disaster. It was like Gary Hart telling the press they could feel free to look into his personal life, only adding the explosive element of national reverence for the military.
Audaciously, White House Press Secretary Sarah H. Sanders on Wednesday attacked Representative Frederica Wilson, who first disclosed the fiasco of the call to the Johnson family, for “trying to politicize this issue,” as though Trump had not done that with his answer at the press conference on Monday.
Where will the latest self-inflicted crisis go? It is, of course, unpredictable. Respect for the troops has typically been a dangerous third rail for politicians, though Trump has grasped the electrified rail repeatedly throughout his presidency and lived to tell the tale. But the Inauguration Day and “wiretapping” incidents both offer some hints.
In each of those cases, the error was unforced. Photos that revealed that the crowds at Trump’s inauguration were smaller than at Obama’s first inauguration were, perhaps, wounding to the pride of a man who wants everything to be the biggest and best, but the story would have quickly faded. Yet whenever there’s a comparison with Obama on the table, the president seems unable to resist the bait. The Trump administration decided to pick a fight, deleting a National Park Service tweet comparing crowds and marching then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer out the next day to upbraid reporters and insist to them, against all available evidence, that in fact Trump’s crowds were bigger. A day after that, Kellyanne Conway went on Meet the Press and uttered her infamous claim about “alternative facts.” That pair of incidents immediately poisoned whatever good will or willingness to start afresh the press corps might have had, established the administration’s weakness for bogus claims, and, with“alternative facts,” provided a convenient shorthand for that tendency.
The wiretap claim followed a similar arc. With stories of Russian interference in the election bubbling in March, Trump uncorked a series of tweets on a Saturday morning, beginning with, “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” There was no evidence for the claim except speculation by conservative journalists Mark Levin and Breitbart, but once again, the specter of Obama seemed to drive Trump to distraction.
Trump proceeded to demand that Congress investigate and insisted he had evidence for his claim, even as he failed to provide it. The ensuing circus led to Representative Devin Nunes, a close Trump ally and the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, being forced to recuse himself from the Russia investigation (though he continues to involve himself). Later in March, James Comey testified to Congress that there was no evidence of a wiretap—a conclusion the Trump Justice Department has since affirmed—and also disclosed that the FBI was investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the election. Nunes’s tainting of the House Intelligence Committee process and Trump’s decision to fire Comey on May 9 were both key catalysts of Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, which threatens the Trump administration on many fronts.
If these two examples hold, here are three predictions: In the immediate term, Trump’s unforced error will crest and then decline, eventually fading into a new news cycle. In the longer term, however, this flap will undermine faith in the administration and have unintended side effects for Trump’s presidency. Finally, whatever else happens, it’s only a matter of time before Trump finds himself unable to resist another comparison with Barack Obama, and as a result, inflicts another crisis on himself.
With most big cities’s economies continuing to grow, the most pressing issue they face is how to connect their low-income communities to the opportunities that growth creates. New efforts developing in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Chicago show the many creative alternatives cities are exploring to respond to that challenge—and the obstacles they face.
From 2010 through 2015, all of the 100 largest metropolitan areas added jobs, and 98 of them increased their total economic output, according to calculations by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
But in most cities, that revival has largely bypassed communities of concentrated poverty, like large swathes of Chicago’s predominantly African-American South Side or mostly Hispanic East Charlotte. Across the country, many cities have fueled their growth by importing streams of young college graduates from elsewhere, while struggling to place their own low-income kids on a track to obtain the education necessary to compete for those same jobs. Compounding the problem, longtime residents and commercial establishments in moderate- and low-income neighborhoods can find themselves pushed out by rising rents as developers pursue young white-collar workers flocking to urban environments.
These frustrations echoed through a panel I moderated this week in Charlotte at an Atlantic conference on race and criminal justice. Since 2010, according to Brookings, the area has ranked in the top 20 among large metros for growth in terms of jobs and overall economic output. But activists in Charlotte’s African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods uniformly said that dynamism had failed to reach their communities. “It’s growing so much, but it’s leaving a lot of people behind,” said Oliver Merino, an organizer at the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy who works mostly with Hispanic families.
More mayors are confronting these complex issues head-on. They are looking for ways to channel more of their growth into neglected neighborhoods, or trying to leverage the tax resources the growth provides, or both. “The common thread is mayors and other local leaders see outsized growth coming into their communities … and want to make sure it is equitably distributed,” said Brooks Rainwater, the director of the National League of Cities’s Center for City Solutions.
Charlotte has examined these problems more systematically than most. After a study led by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty ranked it last among the 50 largest metropolitan areas in promoting upward mobility for low-income kids, local leaders convened a task force on opportunity that produced an extensive report this spring. That effort urged the city to focus mostly on three areas: expanding access to early-childhood education, building a better bridge between high school and post-secondary education, and strengthening families.
In late September, a follow-up report from the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners presented a detailed plan for advancing the most important of those recommendations, the one on early-childhood education. Today, the county study noted, less than one-third of the roughly 12,000 children who enter kindergarten each year attend publicly funded preschool for four-year-olds. The study laid out a plan to cover all of them—at no cost to families earning twice the poverty level or less, and with sliding-scale tuition fees for those from more affluent families. Simultaneously, it said, Charlotte should invest in upgrading the quality of its preschool teachers.
The report proposed raising either sales or property taxes to help fund an annual cost for preschool that would reach about $75 million when fully phased in. Endorsing those taxes would mark a tangible first step toward Charlotte’s leaders demonstrating they are committed to tapping the community’s growing prosperity to expand opportunity for all their residents.
In Chicago—a less genteel place where these issues of growth versus need provoke even more friction—Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already undertaken most of the initiatives the Charlotte opportunity task force proposed. (He’s funded a big expansion of pre-K, as well as a community-college scholarship for high-school graduates who maintain good grades.)
In the city budget Emanuel released on Wednesday, he charted a new way for cities to provide opportunity for the many by tapping resources that now mostly benefit a few. Emanuel proposed a first-in-the-nation fee on ride-sharing services like Uber to fund mass transit. The city estimates the fee (eventually up to 20 cents per ride) would provide $20 million annually to help fund the Chicago Transit Authority’s massive ongoing upgrade of bus and subway services.
That tactic creatively responds to the risk that ride sharing will affect mass-transit systems exactly as Federal Express affected the U.S. Postal Service: by siphoning away more affluent consumers, while leaving the public service with diminished resources to serve those who can’t afford alternatives. While ride sharing has usefully expanded people’s choices for getting around, to ensure that transportation remains affordable and accessible for all residents, “I have to keep mass transit competitive,” Emanuel told me.
All of these initiatives would be easier for cities if their respective states or leaders in Washington were helping them. But while Republicans with few ties to urban America are controlling Congress and most state houses, that help isn’t likely.
Even so, Emanuel’s unexpectedly difficult reelection in 2015, and Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts’s defeat last month in a Democratic primary, shows that mayors can’t be complacent about waiting for growth to trickle down into all of their neighborhoods. They will need to keep advancing the kind of ideas Charlotte and Chicago are now considering—and likely go beyond them to confront even more difficult dynamics of racial segregation and bias in housing, education, and policing. Cities face a future of inexorably rising tensions if the renewed flow of opportunity now coursing through them only widens the moat between their places of prosperity and need.
ARECIBO, P.R.—“There’s no way there were just 45 deaths,” said Myrna Conty, an environmental activist whose work takes her regularly across the most remote parts of the island. She scoffed at the radio reports of the official death toll, a common refrain among Puerto Ricans whose personal stories—a cousin who died needing dialysis here, a neighbor who simply hasn’t been heard from there—when multiplied 3.5 million-fold make the official estimate seem impossible.
We’d followed the path that Hurricane Maria’s eye had taken along the highway to the west of San Juan. Three weeks after the storm, the tropical green was just starting to come back, sprouting over the brown wounds of mud and giant trees pulled up from their roots. Here in Arecibo, a small municipality about 40 minutes from San Juan on a good day, high-water marks from the flood stood out on building walls, seven or eight feet high. Obliterated houses marked the deserted hamlets along the road. Smokestacks had been snapped in half and wires lay slack where giant power pylons had fallen. The Río Grande de Arecibo that cuts through the municipality remained an swollen brown expanse, still threatening to drown bridges and homes. Arecibo was a ghost town.
But Conty’s dismay was also about the destruction that couldn’t be seen. For Conty, an old-guard environmental warrior in the countryside, Arecibo had been one of the key battlegrounds in her groups’ fights to contain poisons that affect much of Puerto Rico. But all of the signs around us showed that the battle had been—at least for now—lost. Across the island, residents already beset by water and food shortages are also facing real threats of contamination that have already spread illness and worse. “All of this is just the beginning,” Conty said. “This is catastrophic.”
Maria blew through the island in a matter of hours, but what was left behind wasn’t just traditional hurricane damage. The storm uncovered and intensified long-term environmental challenges that have long blighted Puerto Rico and now threaten its future. And securing a viable future for the island will mean more than just rebuilding what was lost from the wind and rain—it will require addressing those challenges in sustainable ways.
Residents across the island have had to drink water contaminated with sewage, and their water purification systems have largely failed in the wake of the storm, the AP reports. In the municipality of Dorado, about 15 miles to the west of the capital, citizens resorted to drinking well water from Superfund sites, according to local news reports and an EPA brief. The vulnerability of Superfund sites during disasters has been vividly illustrated by the ecological damage in Texas during Hurricane Harvey—and before that, in Louisiana during Katrina and New Jersey during Sandy—but in Puerto Rico, where water deliveries have been bottlenecked by supply and infrastructure issues, those vulnerabilities are much more pronounced.
CNN reported on Saturday that the Puerto Rican water utility had pumped water from a well in the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Site, which had been closed off to avoid human exposure to the carcinogens tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene, in order to distribute water to citizens who’d queued up in long lines. While the well in question had been found to be within certain federal safety standards for the industrial chemicals chloroform and PCE, residents await further tests to assess the quality of the Dorado water.
“Following reports of residents attempting to access water wells at Superfund sites in Puerto Rico, EPA sent assessment teams to evaluate sites in Dorado, Caguas, and San Germán, Puerto Rico,” a spokesperson with the EPA’s Region 2 office said. Those teams are looking at the security of the contaminated sites and the condition of the wells they contain, but still have not been able to visit five Superfund sites on the island.
But wells are only one of the avenues by which people are exposed to water pollution, especially where flooding from Irma and Maria was worst. Arecibo is one such place. Myrna and I visited the Battery Recycling Company, an old temporarily-closed facility that in its heyday smelted used batteries into lead ingots, and now sits behind a rusting fence just off the highway. The site was just added to the Superfund list in July of this year, after the EPA found that lead dust from the facility had contaminated local homes and families.
While the Region 2 office says that after Maria, the EPA “completed the assessment of Battery Recycling Company Superfund site in Arecibo on September 22,” and that it had “not identified any contaminants leaving the site,” residents were skeptical. A man who greeted us near the facility, who declined to be identified, shared photographs of the entire facility still flooded four days after the storm. Conty, who leads a coalition of local residents against the siting of additional incinerators and landfills in the areas, echoed their concerns. “This was all flooded,” she told me. “That water has to be contaminated with lead, because it’s in the ground. It’s everywhere.”
Even without the danger of pollutants leaching from Superfund sites, the water in Puerto Rico is still a problem. The Río Grande de Arecibo, which carves its way into the highlands from Arecibo, and is connected to the interior town of Utuado by the Río Viví tributary, has been polluted at multiple points along its route. The EPA found that an active paper and plastics factory in Utuado has been dumping and leaking wastewater in the Viví for 40 years, and the factory itself was named to the Superfund National Priorities List in 2009. Further downstream, the municipality of Arecibo was cited in 2012 under the Clean Water Act for dumping stormwater and untreated sewage into the river, after which the waste wound up in homes that had been flooded by the river. The river has been declared an “impaired” watershed under that act, from both chemical and biological pollution. And that’s the same water that brought an eight-foot inundation and a layer of mud to Arecibo during the storm.
Other parts of the island face the danger of long-term corruption of drinking water supplies after Maria. I found Ruth Santiago, an environmental lawyer based at the Inter American University Law School in San Juan, holding an open-air legal clinic session, training lawyers to offer pro bono legal aid for numerous environmental and housing complaints. Santiago told me that communities in southeastern Puerto Rico, where much of the island’s power is generated, had seen their grievances with the local industry balloon since the storm.
“On Saturday [October 7], we were over at Miramar in Guayama, which is a coastal community of fishers and former sugar cane workers and people who’ve sort of been excluded from the kinds of development you might see in the metro area,” Santiago said. “We were at the house of Mavet Colon-Perez. She’s 17 years old, and she took it upon herself to take a picture of the mountain of coal ash.”
Colon-Perez’s photos show what residents of Guayama claim is large-scale leaching of lime and other chemicals from local waste piles from the AES coal plant. AES Puerto Rico did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but a September 18 press release on the company’s website says that “AES-PR has implemented the necessary measures to guarantee the safety of the communities surrounding its plant in Guayama and that of its personnel activated to work during the hurricane.”
Since Santiago’s visit, lines of communication and roads out of San Juan have worsened. I was unable to reach Colon-Perez or her family to confirm Santiago’s account, or the local authorities to secure comment. But residents from dozens of other municipalities have contacted Santiago’s legal clinic since the storm with their concerns over drinking water and industrial pollutants.
Just as the dire situation in Puerto Rico after the storm is at least in part an outgrowth of existing financial and infrastructural woes, the ubiquitous threats of contamination are outgrowths of problems that plagued people before the storm. Indeed, the island’s financial crisis was also an environmental crisis. Much of the commonwealth’s debt is attributable to PREPA, the island’s government-owned power authority, whose ongoing problems produced rolling blackouts even before Maria.
Like most islands, Puerto Rico is largely reliant on petroleum derivatives and coal for power, using very few renewable sources, even as backups for the primary grid. For years the PREPA has shipped diesel and fuel oil to the island for use in its centralized power plants, a power plan that ensures environmental fallout and maximizes emissions.
The other major portion of the Puerto Rican portfolio is coal, a source that might provide more problems for residents recovering from two hurricanes. The AES facility in Guayama is the lone coal-power plant on the island. It sits just miles away from the oil-power PREPA Aguirre plant in Salinas. In May, AES filed a petition with the EPA to lift some of the restrictions of its placement of coal ash, citing the island’s economic problems.
Southern communities have long complained about coal-ash waste from the plant, and in 2016 environmental activists in the southwestern community of Peñuelas were successful in blocking coal-ash dumping there. But since the island’s landfills are overflowing, piles like the mountain of coal-ash that Colon-Perez documented near Guayama still dot the Puerto Rican landscape, and waste disposal has become a pressing concern.
According to Santiago, who hails from Salinas, the problems of coal power and waste disposal impose a severe burden on the most vulnerable populations in Puerto Rico. “Places here near landfills, plants, and coal ash tend to have a higher poverty rate, a higher unemployment rate, and one of the highest levels of people of African descent,” Santiago told me. “It’s a classic environmental-justice situation.”
Conty, who has been involved in protests against the conversion of an old asbestos-lined paper mill into a waste-to-energy incinerator in Arecibo—a plan touted as an answer to both the island’s trash and the energy problems—agreed with that assessment. “It’s always in the poor communities,” she said as we toured the flooded grounds of the mill. Somehow the signs that Conty’s activists placed on a tree in front of the proposed site asking passersby to honk their horns to support the anti-incinerator group survived the storm that had stripped sheets of metal and girders from the mill itself. “I take it as a sign that Maria was actually against the incinerator,” Conty said.
The problems in Puerto Rico feel almost too big to grasp. The mounting pressures of an aging and inefficient energy infrastructure, multiplying contaminated sites, waste disposal, and the most contaminated drinking water supply in the United States have long pointed in the direction of disaster. And now the problems are so much bigger. Tons of manmade debris and millions of pounds of foliage clog streets and waterways, and threaten to produce an acute trash and pollution crisis in the months to come. At least four hurricane-related deaths have been attributed to diseases like leptospirosis from bacteria in water, a number that seems likely to rise.
And in the constant state of emergency, the most expedient solutions—like rebuilding the fossil-fuel grid, utilizing even more diesel power, lifting coal-ash restrictions, and creating new incinerators—will likely be pursued regardless of their contribution to long-term environmental problems. Additionally, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt seems determined to ease the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act guidelines that help contain the worst of the pollution from landfills and plants.
But some citizens are attempting to combat pollution even as they work to stave off the worst after the storm. In the flickering downtown lights of San Juan, the prominent Puerto Rican journalist Jay Fonseca regularly holds meetings of concerned citizens who are attempting to offer services that FEMA and the local government have been unable to provide, but in a sustainable manner. I attended one such meeting last Wednesday. “We just said ‘Fuck it, we’ll do it,’” Fonseca told me afterwards. “We don’t want politics involved, and we aren’t asking for their permission.”
To provide those services, Fonseca’s ad hoc group is utilizing a new online disaster response and triage app, Connect Relief, in order to gauge the needs of desperate people across the island and find sustainable ways to meet them. Right now, reusable water filters are the most pressing concern, but the group has pursued a number of initiatives—from setting up solar-powered microgrids to using unused shipping containers to create “islands of sustainability” in relief camps. One member of the group, Maria Elena García of the Organización Pro Ambiente Sustentable (OPAS), says that she plans to study the U.S. Virgin Islands’s effort to create a chop-and-compost program for organic storm debris instead of burning it as a template for Puerto Rico’s trash problems.
Fonseca’s own pet project is the creation of a solar-powered laundromat, where local families can rotate laundry shifts on any day the sun is shining. “It’s a model community,” he told me.
Unfortunately, solar power is mostly unattainable as a source of immediate relief for most Puerto Ricans. These days, San Juan is abuzz with the name of Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, who donated $250,000 and an unspecified number of Powerwall solar batteries to the island, but so far those donations have provided little in the way of scalable energy. On October 5, Musk floated the idea on Twitter of Tesla helping rebuild the entire Puerto Rico power grid using renewable sources, but no concrete plans have yet emerged. When reached for comment, a Tesla spokesperson told me in an email that “it is too preliminary to comment on a story at this point, but [we] welcome you to follow Elon on Twitter.”
Necessity prevails, and those places that do have access to solar power have been pillars of the recovery. They offer glimpses of what life on Puerto Rico might look like in a more sustainable future. At the northern tip of the island, in Old San Juan, Eddie Ramirez’s Casa Sol bed and breakfast has become the de facto hub of the surrounding neighborhood, since (as the name implies) the business is completely powered by solar panels and a solar battery.
“I figured that we lived on a tropical island,” Ramirez said, “so going solar seemed like a good idea at the time.” Ramirez’s good idea is now a one-stop shop for community residents, who often come by to freeze their water, charge their phones, or do their laundry. The hotel lost four solar panels in Hurricane Maria, but Ramirez was able to quickly replace them after the storm passed.
Like many intact hotels, Casa Sol also houses journalists, FEMA contractors, charity workers, and storm victims who lost everything. But unlike most other hotels, residents at Casa Sol can grab hot showers, use WiFi, and even watch the news now and then when the battery is charged. “Just like everyone here, I try to do my part,” Ramirez told me. “It’s not a lot, but it’s what we have.”
Most places in Puerto Rico don’t have a Casa Sol nearby, and most residents don’t have the means to purchase solar batteries. But Ramirez’s example shows the simple advantages that investment in resilience and renewable energy can have in a disaster, a need that will only be more pressing in the years to come. The most ominous portent for Puerto Rico is that experts don’t view this extreme hurricane season and multiple direct hits to the island as aberrations, but as previews of the new normal in the near future of a changing climate.
David Ortiz, the executive director of the Enlace Latino de Acción Climática, says that climate change has already been wreaking havoc on the island, and that it now creates a positive feedback loop with related environmental terrors. “We didn’t need a hurricane to say climate change exists, because we’ve been seeing it already,” Ortiz notes. “I think people are learning that they need to better prepare themselves. Folks aren’t understanding that climate change is real. But they are now.”
The impacts on Puerto Rico in the past two years alone look like something out of a disaster movie. With changes in ocean temperature and acidity, corals in the island’s barrier reef have suffered bleaching. Beaches have eroded, and wetlands have been degraded. Agriculture has suffered three straight bad seasons, and in 2015 the territory faced a severe drought that forced authorities to implement widespread water rationing. And now Irma and Maria have brought the message home: Here, sustainability is literally survival.
For Ortiz, in the wake of federal decisions that have left the island disadvantaged in almost every way and local decisions that have worked against sustainability almost at every turn, the onus is on Puerto Rican citizens to ensure their own survival. “We’re all victims helping victims,” Ortiz told me. “You’re suffering too, but at the very same time you’re leading a relief effort. It’s hard. It’s mentally exhausting, and it’s also physically exhausting.”
“This could take us backwards, but this is an opportunity to move forward,” he continued. “We can redefine ourselves as a people, as an island, and as a country, and recognize that we live in a different world now.”
President Trump criticized a new bipartisan deal aimed at stabilizing Obamacare exchanges, a day after he publicly praised the proposal. Trump disputed an account that he was insensitive during a phone call with the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, one of four U.S. servicemen killed in Niger on October 4. But Johnson’s mother said Trump “did disrespect” her son. The White House reportedly drafted a sympathy statement for Trump to make after the servicemen were killed, but he never released it. Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended Trump’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey and said he had not been questioned by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Drama in the Scouting World: The Boy Scouts’ decision to admit girls into its Cub Scouts program is a major reversal that could offer more opportunities for young girls—while ultimately hurting the Girl Scouts. (Elaine Godfrey)
Real Consequences: Last week, President Trump ended cost-sharing reductions, a move health-policy experts argue caused instability in the individual-insurance market. Here’s what that means for people relying on Obamacare. (Olga Khazan)
The Devastation to Come: The extent of the damage left behind by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has yet to be realized. “All of this is just the beginning,” said one environmental activist. “This is catastrophic.” (Vann R. Newkirk II)
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
What Trump Promised: President Trump reportedly offered the father of a fallen U.S. soldier $25,000. But he never followed through. (Dan Lamothe, Lindsey Bever, Eli Rosenberg, The Washington Post)
Modus Operandi: After almost a year in office, President Trump has solidified his doctrine: “Obama built it. I broke it. You fix it.” (Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times)
Just Threats: Steve Bannon has threatened to go after the Republican establishment ahead of 2018, but the former White House strategist “hasn’t demonstrated the ability to put tactical bite behind his bark.” (Josh Kraushaar, National Journal)
What Else Is Keeping the GOP in Line?: If President Trump signs a tax-reform bill, “he might as well be signing his political death warrant.” Matt Latimer explains why. (Politico)
A 21st Century Police State: Welcome to Kashgar, a city in remote Western China that one researcher calls the “frontline laboratory for surveillance.” (Magha Rajagopalan, BuzzFeed)
‘Inside the Campaign Merch Graveyard’: Elaina Plott discovers what happens to all the campaign merchandise—from Jeb! t-shirts to Marco Rubio cufflinks—after the race is over. (GQ)
How Single-Payer Works: Democrats are eyeing a change to the nation’s health-care system. See how the system is funded now—and how it would look under a single-payer plan. (Kim Soffen, The Washington Post)
Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Grassley are two of the oldest and longest-serving members of Congress, and both could be sticking around for the foreseeable future. The Atlantic’s Michelle Cottle reported on Monday that younger politicians are growing frustrated with what they view as out-of-touch lawmakers clinging to power by continuing to serve well into their 70s and 80s.
Do you think there should be an age limit for politicians? Why, or why not?
Share your response here, and we'll feature a few in Friday’s Politics & Policy Daily.
-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)
PHILADELPHIA—During the 15 months that Allen Woods has been held, awaiting trial, at a federal detention center downtown, he has only seen his six-year-old son once. This has been hard on them both, as they used to spend time together almost every day. Woods would pick his son up from school, take him to T-ball practice—all the things that an involved parent does.
“A child that was raised with both parents and one is suddenly taken away—he is going to be confused,” the boy’s mother, Chamira Williams, told me. “He has been depressed, confrontational, not understanding why he can’t see his father. It’s hard.”
The detention center is the federal version of the local county jail; most inmates there haven’t been convicted of a crime, while a small minority is serving short sentences. The center’s rules, which appear to be the most restrictive in the country, prohibit any inmate awaiting trial from having a visitor who is not an immediate family member; only a parent, step-parent, foster parent, sibling, child, or legal spouse qualifies. That means that Williams, Woods’s ex-girlfriend, is barred. And without relatives willing or able to accompany her son on a visit, the restrictions effectively block him, too. “I should have the option to take him to see his father,” Williams said.
In theory, the impact of this policy would be minimal, as it applies only to the pretrial period. But in reality it can take months or years for a case to make its way through the court system—delays brought on and exacerbated by public-defender shortages and case backlogs. Woods faces charges of possession of large amounts of marijuana with the intent to distribute. Ironically, when he is finally sentenced—and no matter the verdict—he will have a much easier time seeing his son.
Woods is one of two named plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit filed last week against the detention center’s warden, which alleges that the visitation policy makes it “impossible or unreasonably difficult for many pretrial inmates to see their minor children while in custody.” It estimates that, out of the roughly 900 pretrial inmates, there are more than 100 whose children have a tough time visiting—whether those kids are with a romantic partner they aren’t married to, with an ex-girlfriend or -boyfriend, or with an ex-spouse. Woods’s attorney, Dana Bazelon, told me that prior to the policy change in July 2016, the visiting room would be “packed” any time she went to see a client, but “now it’s a different world in there—there are just not as many visitors.”
The lawsuit argues that the policy infringes upon the inmates’ constitutional rights—to freedom of association, against cruel and unusual punishment, and against unequal treatment without a rational basis. The suit also claims the rule is at odds with a Federal Bureau of Prisons directive that “encourages visiting by family, friends, and community groups to maintain the morale of the inmate.” Bazelon found no rule so restrictive when she surveyed other federal detention centers; they all allowed at least some visitation from non-family members. At the state level, the Mississippi Department of Corrections tried limiting visitors to its facilities to immediate family last year, citing security concerns. But the short-lived policy was postponed indefinitely following a rebuke from family members and prisoner advocates.
There are two exceptions to the Philadelphia center’s rule: one for inmates who have no living immediate family members, and another for inmates who can show a demonstrable need, including seeing a child whose other parent is not their legal spouse, Michael Carroll, the detention center’s public-information officer, wrote in an email. Those exceptions, however, can be difficult to secure. Bazelon has helped 10 or so clients apply for one, but all were denied.
The reasons varied. One inmate, for example, was rejected because he’s not listed on his son’s birth certificate. To change that, he would need to submit a notarized form to the state, but having a notary visit the prison would cost him $150—money he doesn’t have. Another could not track down the death certificate of his estranged father in order to prove he had no living family. And another asked that his ex-girlfriend be allowed to bring their child because his immediate family would not, due to a conflict. The warden’s rejection letter simply restated the center’s policy on visitors, and didn’t explain why he didn’t qualify for an exception.
Asked about the policy’s impetus, Carroll told me that restricting visitors “was necessary to enhance the safety and security of the institution.” He specifically cited an “increase in the amount of illegal drugs entering the facility through the visiting room.” Carroll did not respond to request for further comment—on the severity of the increase, any additional security steps taken, or how long the policy will stay in place. Without those answers, it’s difficult to assess officials’ plans. Bazelon, for her part, told me “the security issues that they raised could be addressed with fairly easy security measures or steps that don’t involve restricting access to kids”—like more guards in the visiting room or increased video surveillance.
That’s more or less how New York City’s Riker’s Island, the country’s largest pretrial lockup, has handled its own contraband problem. In 2015, administrators brought in more drug-sniffing dogs, installed machines to detect hidden cellphones, and launched an “amnesty program” wherein visitors are allowed—and encouraged—to hand over illicit items without risk of punishment. With these measures in place, guards seized drugs from 45 percent more visitors the following year. All along, inmates could be seen by both friends and family.
More forgiving policies reflect years of academic research, which suggest that maintaining close ties with loved ones provides emotional relief for inmates and helps with their transition back into their communities after release. Fewer studies, however, have evaluated how contact with an incarcerated parent helps children deal with the stress of their absence. In a 2015 study from Child Trends, a nonpartisan childhood-research nonprofit, the authors explained that the loss of an “attachment figure,” the psychological term for an adult with whom a child is emotionally bonded, can be potentially—and unsurprisingly—traumatic. “One thing that policymakers can do is make it easier for children to maintain positive relationships with their parents during the period of incarceration,” the authors wrote.
Woods is awaiting his trial date at the end of this month. Williams continues to struggle with helping her son cope, and he still asks frequently when he can visit Woods. “Children should have the option to see their parents no matter what the situation is,” she said. “Whatever reason he is in there, that has nothing to do with family.”
On Wednesday morning, another leading Republican senator suffered an injury that has struck lawmakers throughout the Capitol in the last nine months: presidential policy whiplash.
President Trump can’t seem to decide whether he wants Congress to pass a bipartisan deal to shore up the Affordable Care Act. On Tuesday afternoon, the president praised and appeared to endorse an agreement that aimed to stabilize the law’s faltering exchanges by restoring crucial insurer payments that Trump had cancelled last week. Hours later, however, Trump was telling a conservative crowd that he opposed “providing bailouts to insurance companies.” And by Wednesday morning, the president had formalized his criticism in a tweet.
I am supportive of Lamar as a person & also of the process, but I can never support bailing out ins co's who have made a fortune w/ O'Care.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
“Lamar” is Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican health committee chairman who negotiated the bipartisan accord with Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, the panel’s top Democrat. In the you’ve-got-to-give-something-to-get-something style of congressional dealmaking, the Alexander-Murray legislation would restore what are known as “cost-sharing reduction” payments to insurance companies for two years—a Democratic demand—while also making it easier for states to opt out of some of Obamacare’s regulations, which Republicans insisted on. The goal of the bill is to shore up the law in the short term and head off premium increases resulting from Trump’s refusal to reimburse insurers for subsidies they are required to pay out to lower-income consumers.
Unveiling the compromise on Tuesday, Alexander made sure to emphasize that Trump had encouraged his dealmaking, and the president himself had boasted—inaccurately—that his decision to cancel the insurer payments last week had brought both parties to the negotiating table. The president had called Alexander twice in the last two weeks, the senator said, and told him “he doesn’t want people to be hurt in the interim.” Trump said as much in public on Tuesday. “It will get us over the immediate hump,” he told reporters. “It is a short-term solution so that we don’t have this very dangerous little period.”
The president called Alexander again on Wednesday morning to offer encouragement, the Tennesseean said at an event hosted by Axios. But Trump’s subsequent tweet could scuttle the deal altogether, providing cover to conservatives who are already denouncing it as a cave to Democrats and a retreat from the Republicans’ longstanding, if unrealized, commitment to repealing and replacing Obamacare entirely.
As if on cue, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan signaled opposition to the agreement after withholding judgment a day before. “The speaker does not see anything that changes his view that the Senate should keep its focus on repeal and replace of Obamacare,” Ryan spokesman Doug Andres said. In his own series of tweets, Alexander tried to offer a path forward, saying that while his legislation had “strong language” to guarantee insurers wouldn’t simply pocket the payments from the government, he would work with Trump to make it even tighter.
Trump’s flip-flop may be jarring to Alexander, but it’s not surprising. For a president who campaigned as a decisive deal-maker, inconsistency has been a hallmark of his first year in office. Back in July, my colleague David Graham catalogued his ever-changing positions on health care.
But Trump’s handling of this latest episode closely tracks his more-recent moves on immigration. In September, the administration announced an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, raising the specter that millions of young people brought illegally to the U.S. as children could be at risk for deportation. As on the insurer payments, Trump couched his decision in legal terms, arguing that the administration could not act without the approval of Congress. Then, he surprised both his party and the public by floating the outlines of a deal with Democrats in which he would agree to protect DACA recipients in exchange for additional border security measures.
Yet that position, too, did not last long. After blowback from conservatives, Trump issued hardline demands that departed wildly from what he told Democrats he could accept. More than a month after Trump’s first optimistic meeting with Democrats on immigration, the DACA deal has gone nowhere.
The flirtation with bipartisanship on health care could follow the same murky path. Once again, Trump revoked a policy and is forcing Congress to restore it. But his own inconsistency seems to be standing in the way. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill often issue vague demands for “presidential leadership” when they don’t want to take responsibility for a problem or make a decision themselves. In this case, however, Trump’s opinion matters to Republicans. They need to know, first of all, whether he would sign legislation if they pass it, and second, whether he will help defend the law to conservative voters who may recoil at a measure propping up Obamacare. “You cannot govern a country if you do not know what a bill does and keep a consistent policy about it,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said on Wednesday.
The president’s tweet isn’t necessarily a death knell for the Alexander-Murray deal, just like his wish list on immigration doesn’t preclude an eventual compromise on DACA. A number of Republican senators have already signaled their support for the Obamacare fix, and they could pressure the party leadership to bring it to a vote. Given that the agreement enjoys broad support among Democrats, it would likely have the votes to pass if it got the chance.
A more likely scenario, however, is that Democrats will demand that Republicans add the legislation to a broader deal to prevent a government shutdown in December. Democrats will also be pushing for a DACA bill at that time, and Trump likely will try to use those issues to extract victories of his own on a border wall, increased military spending, and other priorities.
Then again, Alexander and Murray might not have to wait that long for their Obamacare compromise to get a boost. With this president, few policy positions are permanent, and he might well change his mind again.
Last week, the Boy Scouts of America announced it would reverse its century-old policy of no girls allowed—and the Girl Scouts aren’t happy.
“Why not ask us how we could help them serve the 90 percent of the boys they’re choosing not to serve instead of pursuing serving girls?” asked Lisa Margosian, the Girl Scouts’ Chief Customer Officer, in an interview.
On October 11, the Boy Scouts said it will begin accepting girls into its Cub Scouts program, as well as establish a program for older girls to earn their Eagle Scout Award. The reaction from many, including some former Boy Scouts, was one of outrage: Why should girls join a boys’ organization when there’s already one specifically designed for girls? The Girl Scouts felt the same way. In a blog post on October 11, the organization called itself the “girl leadership expert,” and stressed the power of the “single-gender environment.”
The Boy Scouts’ decision is a major reversal from an organization that has always been staunchly committed to single-sex programming, and has, in its early history, bristled at the idea of girls getting involved in scouting. While the change does offer another choice for young girls, it also introduces a new competitor into the field of girls programming, which could ultimately hurt the Girl Scouts and undermine their mission to cultivate leadership skills and self confidence in young girls. (For full disclosure, I was a Girl Scout throughout elementary and high school, although I’m no longer directly involved with the organization.)
Starting next year, the Cub Scouts, which is an introductory Boy Scout program made up of boys in first through fifth grades, can opt to create girls-only packs or co-ed packs with girls-only dens. (In Cub Scouting, packs are comprised of dens, which are smaller groups of scouts.) And by 2019, the Boy Scouts say they will also offer a program for older girls to earn the Eagle Scout Award. The Boy Scouts currently offer a handful of smaller co-ed programs, like Venturing and Sea Scouting, but none are as prominent as the Cub Scouts.
The Boy Scouts say they’re doing it to make life easier for busy families with multiple children who might want to enroll their kids in a single organization. But the move could also help the organization grow its steadily declining membership.
In its official response to the news, GSUSA accused the Boy Scouts of adding an “accelerant” to its “house fire” of an organization, referencing recent allegations of sexual abuse within the Boy Scouts, as well as accusing it of offering “deficient programming.” Margosian told me she was disappointed when she learned of the Boy Scouts’ decision. “In many communities across the country we’ve really worked together to serve youth,” she said. “So I think it’s disappointing that when they started to contemplate this three years ago, they didn’t reach out.”
The two organizations disagreed over how clued-in the Girl Scouts were before the decision to admit girls was made. The Boy Scouts said they held several phone and in-person meetings with the Girl Scouts to discuss the move, but the Girl Scouts say that no one from BSA reached out to them before or after the announcement—that the Girl Scouts took the initiative to contact BSA but were only able to after the issue of admitting girls was already decided.
In clear contrast with the Girl Scouts’ swift and aggressive comments denouncing the Boy Scouts’ decision, Margosian said she isn’t worried that girls will choose Boy Scouts over Girl Scouts. “There will be some girls who make that choice, but the reality is we, for 105 years, have really focused on serving girls and their emotional, psychological, and developmental needs,” she said. “We’ll be sorry for those girls because they will miss out on the best experience, and that’s just a shame.”
The experts I spoke with were doubtful that the Girl Scouts’ current membership would be significantly affected—but they acknowledged that they might lose some potential scouts. “I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of impact as far as a whole bunch of Girl Scouts deciding to join the Boy Scouts,” said Elizabeth Searing, an assistant professor of public administration and policy at SUNY Albany and Director of the Institute of Nonprofit Leadership and Community Development. “The experience of the two organizations are very different.”
Both groups, Searing says, are embodiments of existing cultural norms—their mottos, their structures, and even their messaging. The Girl Scout program is designed to build girls’ confidence and promote girls’ participation in STEM fields, where there are historically fewer women than men. It’s also designed with the idea that single-sex environments work best for developing girls’ leadership skills.
“Who this is going to capture are the girls who are not into what Girl Scouts does,” Searing said, noting that she used to be a Girl Scout troop leader but that she and her daughter both left the organization to focus more on camping. She says the development might be good for girls like her daughter who simply weren’t interested in the Girl Scout model.
The Boy Scouts say their Cub Scouts’ program offers a more gender-neutral approach, and they don’t plan on tailoring it for girls. From a societal perspective, their decision means more options for girls to pursue their interests. As my colleague James Hamblin wrote on Monday, accepting girls into the Cub Scouts might put the Boy Scouts in a better position to address gender fluidity and will give boys more opportunities to interact with girls.
But it doesn’t seem like the move was intended that way.
“I find it interesting that now it seems to be cast as a progressive move on the part of the Boy Scouts,” said Susan Miller, an assistant professor childhood studies at Rutgers University. “It’s hard for me to believe it’s a philosophical change.” Rather, she said, “it’s kind of an attempt at a hostile takeover.”
In an interview, Boy Scouts spokeswoman Effie Delimarkos denied this. “This isn’t an intent to take away any membership from the Girl Scouts. This is an effort to try to extend the benefit of scouting to families.” she said. “If families love the Girl Scout program, then we hope they stay and grow and advance in the program.”
But the about-face on gender is surprising, and experts say they were just as blindsided as the Girl Scouts claim to have been. After all, the Boy Scouts have never been as welcoming or open to change as the Girl Scouts. Barbara Arneil, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, told me that observing the complicated relationship between the two organizations “is all the context you need to understand why the Girl Scouts are quite justifiably upset about this decision.”
In a 2010 essay published in Perspectives on Politics, Arneil described the Girl Scouts’ progressive streak as being baked in at the organization’s conception. In 1910, the father of scouting, Robert Baden-Powell, established the Boy Scouts Association in the United Kingdom. But, despite enthusiasm from girls who had eagerly attended the first Scout Rally in 1909, he excluded them from the group, and later started a separate group for girls called the Girl Guides.
In 1912, Juliette Gordon Low held the first U.S. meeting of the Girl Guides in Savannah, Georgia. The Boy Scouts were vehemently against the group, and took pains to disassociate themselves from the girls: After the Girl Guides changed their name to the Girl Scouts in 1915, the Boy Scouts sued them for using the word “scouts,” claiming they “sissified” the word. And during the Girl Scouts’ early years, the Boy Scouts encouraged them to emphasize domesticity over traditional scouting. “From that very beginning they were two different organizations,” Arneil said, “with Girl Scouts speaking to the equality of girls.”
The scouting movements grew throughout the early 20th century, but in the 1970s, both groups’ membership began to decline. The organizations offered different responses to the changes brought on by the Civil-Rights Movement, with the Girl Scouts making a point to embrace diversity and be open to change, while the Boy Scouts, Arneil said, became “very reactive, very conservative, and very exclusionary.”
Though it originally had segregated troops, the Girl Scouts pushed for desegregation in the 1950s, and in 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. described the organization as "a force for desegregation.” The Girl Scouts were organized as a non-sectarian group, and in 1993, the organization voted to allow girls to substitute another word for “God” in the Girl Scout Promise, encouraging members “to establish for themselves the nature of their spiritual beliefs.” In 2011, the Girl Scouts clarified that it would accept all girls who identify as female, including lesbian and transgender girls.
The Boy Scouts, on the other hand, have had many well-known membership controversies. The organization continues to prohibit atheists and agnostics from its membership, and it wasn’t until 2015 that it lifted the ban preventing “open and avowed homosexuals” from holding leadership positions. Transgender boys were allowed to join the organization starting in January of this year. Because of these differing policies, Arneil said, “the Girl Scouts grew back in numbers, whereas the Boy Scouts continually declined.”
When asked about her organization’s history, Delimarkos told me that the Boy Scouts have made a great effort to improve communication with their membership, and make scouting accessible to all kids. After all, she says, all youth organizations need to focus on nurturing all young leaders, regardless of their gender.
But the experts I spoke with, including Arneil, aren’t so sure it’s an overall positive move. “It’s taken so long for the Boy Scouts to embrace change, so I think that the idea of them opening up … is a very good thing,” Arneil said. But ultimately, their choice to include girls and take on their sister organization as a market competitor, could be seen as “another example of this long history of hostility toward the values of the Girl Scouts.”
Thirteen days after Sergeant La David Johnson was killed in Niger, and a day after Donald Trump boasted about his actions to console grieving families in contrast to his predecessors, the president called Johnson’s family Tuesday night.
It didn’t go well.
Representative Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, was with widow Myeshia Johnson when Trump called. “She was crying the whole time, and when she hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, ‘He didn’t even remember his name.’ That’s the hurting part,” Wilson told MSNBC.
“He said, ‘Well, I guess you knew’—something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’ You know, just matter-of-factly, that this is what happens, anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die. That’s the way we interpreted it. It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid.”
Trump disputed that account in a morning tweet, claiming he had proof that Wilson was not telling the truth:
Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
Trump did not say what his proof was; on several occasions, he has promised to produce recordings of conversations, only to fail to do so or admit he had none.
But Johnson’s mother Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who was also in the car, told The Washington Post, “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.” She declined to elaborate but told the Post that Wilson’s account was accurate.
In Trump’s defense, comforting people who have just lost a family member is difficult. They are, reasonably, upset and angry. (Dana Perino tells a story of George W. Bush being moved to tears by an angry mother.) Perhaps the president intended to say something about the sense of duty soldiers feel, and it was simply taken the wrong way.
But it’s difficult to give Trump too much benefit of the doubt, or to take seriously the White House’s statement that “the president’s conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private.” By taking a question on Monday about his response to the Niger attacks as an invitation to brag about his outreach to military families, the president chose a fight about his methods of consolation, and chose to make it a public one.
On Monday, Trump told reporters he had written letters to the families of the four men who were killed in Niger, and that he intended to call them. He explained the delay, saying, “I'm going to be calling them. I want a little time to pass.”
Trump also claimed that his predecessors hadn’t done anything like that. “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls, a lot of them didn't make calls,” he said. Later in the press conference, he backed off a little. “President Obama I think probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn't. I don't know. That's what I was told. All I can do—all I can do is ask my generals. Other presidents did not call. They’d write letters. And some presidents didn't do anything,” he said.
On Tuesday, Trump returned to the fight, saying Obama had not called John Kelly, then a Marine general and now White House chief of staff, after Kelly’s son Robert was killed in Afghanistan. “I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died,” Trump said.
It is not just that Trump claimed, falsely, that his predecessors had insufficiently consoled grieving families of servicemembers. He also spent most of the last month wrapping himself in the flag while waging a fight with NFL players and other athletes who have kneeled or undertaken other protests during the National Anthem. The athletes say these protests are a way of bringing attention to police violence and racism. But Trump has insisted that the kneeling “has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem.” The president has used his powerful Twitter account to pass along the idea that players who kneel are slighting the American military.
Even as he insists that NFL players are disrespecting the military, Trump did not make any public comment about the deaths in Niger until he was asked about it at a public press conference. Only after this prodding, and his bragging that he called every family he could, did Trump make a call to La David Johnson’s family. And when he did, he botched the call badly enough that he left Johnson’s widow in tears and his mother feeling disrespected. The president cannot be both the foremost patriot and the utmost consoler while at the same time dragging his feet on calls and angering military families.
What’s more, the Associated Press reports that despite Trump’s claims, he has not actually called the family of every fallen servicemember. In some cases, he has been very attentive. During a speech to a joint session of Congress in February, Trump celebrated Carryn Owens, widow of slain Navy SEAL Williams Owens, in a widely praised moment. Aldene Lee told the AP she had a touching call with Trump after her son Weston Lee was killed in Iraq.
But not everyone had that experience, the AP found:
After her Army son died in an armored vehicle rollover in Syria in May, Sheila Murphy says, she got no call or letter from President Donald Trump, even as she waited months for his condolences and wrote him that “some days I don’t want to live.”… The Associated Press found relatives of two soldiers who died overseas during Trump’s presidency who said they never received a call or a letter from him, as well as relatives of a third who did not get a call.
In summary, Trump spent weeks portraying himself as the defender of the flag and the military, then dragged his feet on responding to the deaths of soldiers, then lied about how he handles deaths, and then offended the family of a slain soldier. Meanwhile, intentionally or not, Trump has entirely derailed any conversation about the mission the soldiers were conducting in Niger.
Having decided to push his line on Tuesday and then attacked Wilson on Wednesday, the president now has a choice on whether to escalate or to try to calm matters. Trump has picked a fight with Gold Star families before, after Khizr Khan’s dramatic speech at the Democratic National Convention. (Notably, one common thread between the Khan and Johnson cases is that both cases involve families of color.) At the time, that seemed like political suicide, and Trump was the target of widespread bipartisan condemnation. Yet a few months later, he was elected president. And now, serving as commander in chief, the AP revelations and the Johnson family’s anger suggest he may soon again be feuding with the families of servicemembers killed in action.
Last week, the New York Times and The New Yorker published multiple allegations of abhorrent sexual misconduct against the movie producer Harvey Weinstein, drawing on years of costly investigative reporting; risking legal retaliation that could cost millions to litigate; and forcing its subject from his powerful perch in Hollywood, where his ability to lure aspiring film starts into hotel rooms is all but gone.
The episode was a credit to the reporters, editors, and publishers who broke the story; an example of why it is vital to support an independent press that probes wrongdoing; and a spur to examine all the factors that delayed the truth outing for so long, including apparent failures by some journalists and news-gathering organizations.
Still, it was surreal to see pundits employed by populist news organizations that didn’t break the story characterizing it as a dark moment for the liberal mainstream media.
Take Sean Hannity, who works at the Fox News, which didn’t break the story, and beneath Rupert Murdoch, who owns all sorts of media properties that didn’t break the story. “Everybody in Hollywood knew. This wasn't a secret,” Hannity declared. “Everybody knew apparently in the news media too, and everybody in the political world.”
Did Brit Hume know? Did Bret Baier? Did Chris Wallace?
His guest, RNC spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany, called out NBC, which employed Ronan Farrow before he took his reporting to The New Yorker. “I just have to say Sean, this is sick,” she said. “This is the media elite covering for the Hollywood elite.” But she wouldn’t know the story save for liberal media elites in L.A. and New York City!
Nevertheless, the segment ended with this surreal exchange:
Hannity: Journalism is dead, Kayleigh, I've been telling people forever. Is this now the final nail in the coffin?
McEnany: It should be!
Tucker Carlson, another Fox News pundit, used his show to attack a long list of liberals for staying silent despite knowledge of abuse, among them magazine editor Tina Brown. She worked for Harvey Weinstein while running Talk magazine starting in 1998. “Brown conceded yesterday that there were whispers about Weinstein’s behavior,” Carlson said. “She admits she saw Weinstein give favorable treatment to beautiful women he was cultivating. She saw him quash negative articles about himself by leaking information about other stars. Yet despite all of that, Brown tells us, nobody really knew for sure. Oh, come on. I worked for Talk magazine at the time. Trust me. Tina Brown knew. She was Weinstein’s business partner for two years and a famously perceptive person. And yet until now she’s never mentioned any of it.”
The condemnation was intentionally vague. Tina Brown “knew” what, exactly? That Weinstein was a creep? That seems obvious. That multiple women had accused Weinstein of sexually assaulting them? That is rather different knowledge. Did she have it? If so, did she have proof those rumors were true? Because there are right-leaning media outlets that savage liberal women who alleged sexual misconduct without proof. And what if Brown had proof but the victim didn’t want to go public?
I don’t know what Brown knew, or when. Neither does Carlson. But I do know that Carlson is sanctimoniously scolding a woman for failing to call out Weinstein, despite all the legal and social risks that doing so would have entailed, even as Carlson explicitly holds himself to a very different standard on the same subject.
Here’s a relevant passage from a GQ profile of the Fox News host:
At Fox, he has a resolute policy of see no evil, hear no evil. “I have few rules, but ‘Don’t criticize the boss’ is one of them,” says Carlson. He offers platitudes of thanks to Roger Ailes, who, like O’Reilly, left the network following widespread accusations of sexual harassment. “He was an amazing guy,” says Carlson. “He was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, a really insightful, deep person and a great guy to talk to.”
For a smart man, Carlson can play dumb with the best of them—he is well informed, except when it doesn’t serve him. Call it Tucker Disassociation Syndrome. Ask where he sees Fox News going after a year of chaos and he chuckles. “I’ve been so busy with my show, I haven’t thought about it at all.” He professes to know little about Sean Hannity’s ludicrous charge that nefarious killers somehow connected to the Democratic Party had murdered Seth Rich, a low-level DNC staffer. I ask Carlson about his take on the Hannity-Rich fiasco. “If I attack Hannity for being a right-winger, I would be adding my voice to a chorus,” says Carlson. “I’d rather express opinions that aren’t being expressed elsewhere.”
Compare how Brown talks about Weinstein now that the allegations against him are public with how Carlson talks about Roger Ailes now that the allegations against him are public; one wonders how the Fox host can be such a sanctimonious demagogue on air without losing all respect for himself when the lights dim. The liberal Brown turns out to be superior by the Swamp-dwelling pundit’s own standards. And that’s to say nothing of how he and his network have treated multiple, credible accusations of sexual misconduct against the president of the United States.
A similar dearth of self-awareness played out at Breitbart. Its namesake founder, Andrew Breitbart, created a “Big Hollywood” vertical way back in 2009 with the explicit mission of taking down an industry he regarded as deeply corrupt and filled with bad people. It is hard to imagine a scoop that would’ve been more beloved to the Los Angeles-based company than taking down a huge producer and major Democratic donor.
Nevertheless, here’s John Nolte, who has been around Breitbart since almost the beginning:
The national media knew.
The entertainment knew.
And for decades they have protected, enabled, and openly celebrated evil.
Which makes them evil.
Nolte would be unable to make those undifferentiated condemnations of “the national media” if not for the reporting, editing, and lawyering of national, mainstream media organizations. He signals moral superiority with the best of them when attacking the liberal media; yet the alternatives he allies with are parasitic on it.
Breitbart’s overarching posture toward the mainstream media is as shortsighted as it is idiotic. My colleague McKay Coppins captured it in his recent Columbia Journalism Review article “What If the Right-Wing Media Wins?” Its most memorable quotes come from the Breitbart News Washington editor Matt Boyle. “Journalistic integrity is dead,” he said. “There is no such thing anymore. So everything is about weaponization of information.” It’s a position one might come to if surrounded by the sort of people who disproportionately staff Breitbart, or if trying to rationalize a dearth of integrity in the media product one helps produce; but it cannot account for the New York Times’ and the New Yorker’s work on Harvey Weinstein.
“We envision a day when CNN is no longer in business,” Boyle declared. “We envision a day when The New York Times closes its doors. I think that day is possible.”
If Matthew Boyle had gotten his way last year, Harvey Weinstein would still be a powerful Hollywood producer able to summon aspiring teen actresses to his hotel suites.
If he ever gets his way, the beneficiaries will be corrupt, powerful actors in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley, and elsewhere—corrupt actors on the left and on the right—because like a petulant child throwing a tantrum with lit matches in a dry forrest, Boyle and his ilk will have destroyed that which they lack the talent to recreate.
Why didn’t NBC provide better backing for Ronan Farrow after assigning him the story?
I’d like to know.
I’m glad that the New York Times is delving into the matter, as it possesses the professional talent to find an answer. As yet, The Daily Beast has offered more information than the entire conservative media. I’m glad to know Jake Tapper of CNN is on the case too; that the Columbia Journalism Review is doing press autopsies of the coverage; and that various mainstream media organizations are probing the ways that the press could have performed better, as is routine in this industry of ombudsmen, press critics, and journalism reviews. If the right-wing media were a fraction as self-critical about their tribe’s shortcomings they’d have more to offer.
They could begin here: A Weinstein groping incident “made tabloid headlines in April 2015, and the New York Daily News even reported at the time that Weinstein’s denial might be contradicted by an NYPD sting tape, which hadn’t surfaced until Farrow’s piece,” Politico reports. “The same day, entertainment gossip site Defamer—once part of the Gawker Media empire—asked readers for information about Weinstein’s ‘open secret’ and optimistically predicted that ‘accusations that once existed only as loud whispers were finally being dragged into the light.’”
So much for a liberal conspiracy of silence.
Meanwhile, the victim of that incident, Battilana Gutierrez “was smeared in the gossip pages as a gold digger.” Smeared in which gossip pages? Among others, The New York Post, a Rupert Murdoch owned tabloid and one of the only papers to endorse Donald Trump. The Huffington Post published this screenshot of the Post’s 2015 coverage:
Even now, right-wing populists will not investigate how this happened.
Right-wing press critics like Sean Hannity and John Nolte are not invested in truth enough to tackle angles that reflect badly on their tribe, even when its behavior is worse on a story they purport to care about. They work for organizations that advanced the Weinstein story much less than even NBC, yet still dedicate all their energy to attacking the left, evincing not an ounce of curiosity about how their tribe might produce journalism that better serves the public. It’s as if, without admitting it to themselves, they see their tribe as incapable of reporting even scoops they believe everyone knows. God save America if they ever reduce the Fourth Estate to their level.
When Donald Trump last week opted to decertify the nuclear agreement that Barack Obama forged with Iran, it appeared to fit a pattern in the president’s emerging foreign policy. In withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Paris climate-change accord, in announcing that he was “canceling” the U.S. opening to Cuba, Trump seemed similarly determined to dismantle Obama’s achievements in international affairs. “The organizing principle for how he approaches foreign policy appears to be, in part, trying to look like he’s doing the opposite of his predecessor,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national-security adviser, told me.
But to the extent that Obama’s foreign-policy legacy is under threat, it’s not only Trump that’s doing the threatening. Some accomplishments are fraying for reasons that have nothing to do with the 45th president’s apparent contempt for the 44th. Obama’s legacy partially depends on his bets that certain countries—Cuba, Iran, Burma—would, with time, respond positively to diplomacy, which the former president once described to The Atlantic as “the element of American power that the rest of the world appreciates unambiguously.”
Yet in the admittedly short time since Obama left office, those bets haven’t paid off unambiguously. The Obama administration’s efforts to encourage Burma’s transition to democracy and to create favorable conditions for Iranian leaders to moderate, for instance, are now in jeopardy in large measure because of actions taken by those governments. These shortcomings raise questions about whether Obama, who considers himself a realist, was overly optimistic about the possibilities of engagement.
Conversely, Trump has quietly continued some of his predecessor’s initiatives. In substance though obviously not in style, Trump has retained certain features of Obama’s campaigns against ISIS and North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. The focus on Obama’s record also obscures the broader challenge Trump poses to U.S. foreign-policy traditions that stretch back decades.
Consider the cases in which events beyond Trump’s control are undercutting Obama’s policies. Obama made the first American presidential visit to Burma to reward democratic reforms by Burma’s authoritarian military government. Now Burma’s security forces—with surprisingly little resistance from the nation’s democratically elected, semi-empowered leaders, including the reputed democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi—have engaged in what UN officials have condemned as “ethnic cleansing” against a Muslim minority group. The torching of villages and slaughter of civilians has sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. This outcome was hardly unforeseeable. In late 2016, as Obama lifted U.S. sanctions against Burma, the country’s military carried out a brutal scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya that presaged its more recent one.
Then there’s the Cuba opening. The Trump administration recently expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the United States, pulled non-essential personnel from Cuba, and warned Americans not to travel to the island. They did this not to erase Obama’s Cuba policy, but because someone—and there’s no public evidence yet that it was the Cuban government—appears to have sickened nearly two dozen American diplomats, perhaps using mysterious sonic weapons. (Rhodes acknowledged that the U.S. government had to respond to the attacks on its officials, but said Trump’s reaction was too “punitive.” As for the lack of democratic reforms by the Castro government since Obama touched down in Cuba to “bury the last vestige of the Cold War in the Americas,” Rhodes argued that “they’ve proceeded at the pace of reform that I think would be expected—we never promised a transition of the Cuban political system quickly. What we wanted to see was more engagement, more investment in the Cuban private sector, and ultimately the promotion of reform in Cuba through American travel, American commerce, American and other ideas reaching Cubans.”)
Meanwhile, Obama prided himself on keeping the United States out of new military quagmires—on endeavoring to leave his successor with a “clean barn”—but his failures to halt North Korea’s nuclear-weapons advances, tame the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan, and stanch the bloodletting in Syria saddled the Trump administration with the prospect of new or renewed military conflicts in those countries. In announcing a troop increase in Afghanistan, for example, Trump argued that Obama’s war plans were too focused on withdrawal timelines rather than “conditions on the ground.” In explaining why Trump launched strikes against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons, after Obama recoiled from a similar decision in 2013, National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton claimed that the president thought it would help restore American “resolve in the war.”
Even with Iran, the situation is more complicated than the headline news of Trump declining to certify Obama’s nuclear deal. (It’s worth noting that in decertifying, Trump has has left the agreement itself intact, but asked Congress to consider whether the United States should remain in the pact, blow it up, or seek to revise it legislatively.) Obama administration officials always insisted that the nuclear deal was just that: a deal to prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. And judged by these narrow goals, the 2015 agreement has been successful. The U.S. government, UN inspectors, and the other world powers who negotiated the pact all agree that the Iranians are upholding the obligations they undertook in exchange for relief from international sanctions.
Still, what some Obama administration officials hoped but rarely said explicitly—that Iran might moderate its behavior in the Middle East by the time certain restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities lapsed after 10 or 15 years—hasn’t yet come to pass. As Philip Gordon, Obama’s top Middle East adviser until 2015, has noted, part of the administration’s theory in thinking about these “sunset” provisions was that “openness and engagement creates constituencies for cooperation” and that most Iranians, especially young Iranians, “want change in their system.” When Iran joined “the international community,” when it became less “insecure,” a new generation of leaders might recognize that “they would have more to lose by having a confrontational approach,” he said.
Gordon acknowledged, however, that there were “no guarantees.” And while Iran has tacitly cooperated with the United States against ISIS since the nuclear deal was signed, it has pursued confrontation with America in other areas. Iran has persisted with developing ballistic missiles, and sponsoring militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that the U.S. government considers terrorist organizations. As the Islamic State has been uprooted, the Islamic Republic has wrested influence away from the U.S. in Iraq and joined forces with Russia and Hezbollah to prop up an American opponent, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria. “Iran actually is in a much stronger position across the region today than it was two years ago or five years ago,” The New Yorker’s Robin Wright recently observed. That is “the grounds on which the Trump administration is basing its new policy.”
Explaining his theory of diplomatic engagement in 2009, Obama observed that “in light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable—and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies.” But recent events suggest that the Nixon-goes-to-China move doesn’t always produce economic uplift and international integration. Sometimes what follows is ballistic-missile tests and stricken diplomats and the near-purge of an entire ethnic group.
The not-Obama narrative also overlooks areas in which Trump has largely continued Obama’s policies, such as the military campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and even (with the glaring exception of the administration’s escalating rhetoric about initiating another war on the Korean peninsula) elements of the previous administration’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear program, including military exercises, the deployment of missile-defense systems, and the use of sanctions to pressure North Korea into talks.
Even when Trump has appeared to wipe out Obama-era initiatives, the truth in many cases has been less dramatic. Rhodes pointed out that while Trump has placed some new restrictions on American travel and business ties to Cuba—restrictions, incidentally, that have yet to be implemented—he has not severed the diplomatic relations that Obama restored. As for the Paris climate agreement, Rhodes added, the United States can’t fully withdraw until 2020, which means a future administration could rejoin it, and every other country is sticking to the pact, which means “it remains the framework within which the world is going to deal with climate change.”
Danielle Pletka, a senior vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, expressed similar skepticism about Trump’s actions—but argued that in several instances they didn’t go far enough in overturning Obama’s initiatives. “I think of the Trump administration as [having] a very scattershot, not principle-driven, not ideology-driven foreign policy,” she told me. “And insofar as things have gotten rolled back, they’ve gotten rolled back in very nominal ways rather than in meaningful ways that actually reverse the failures of the previous eight years.”
In Syria, for example, “the Trump administration doesn’t say, ‘We need a systematic effort to roll back the failings of the [Obama] administration and show once again that America is the tribune of human freedom in the world,’” Pletka noted. “What they say is, ‘Oh wow, episodically, that chemical-weapons attack was a horror. Let’s hit those guys.’”
Trump has also made clear that his iconoclasm extends far beyond the last administration, according to Jeremi Suri, a historian of the American presidency at the University of Texas at Austin. Trump hasn’t just nixed the TPP; he’s signaled that the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico—which was implemented under Bill Clinton, after the groundwork was laid by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—could be next. And though it’s common for a new administration to try to distinguish itself from the previous one, Suri said what sets Trump apart is that he “is trying to undo these broader strategic commitments that in fact predate Obama—many of them go back to Ronald Reagan.”
It’s more common for presidents to make tactical adjustments to predecessors’ policies—see Obama trying to exit Iraq quickly without fundamentally changing the U.S. role in the Middle East. As a result, from Eisenhower and Kennedy to Bush and Obama, there has often been more continuity than change when it comes to the grand strategy of U.S. foreign policy.
That’s why Rhodes is alarmed by Trump’s flippant handling of the commitments the United States made to Iran, its European allies, and China and Russia as part of the international pact. Trump’s decision not to certify the nuclear agreement seemed to stem from “a desire to tear up the deal … [prompting] a search for a justification for tearing up the deal,” Rhodes says. The risks of that approach may not yet be apparent, he adds, but they will be. “There’s a tail to the things that you do on foreign policy—it takes some time for the chickens to come home to roost,” he said. “And it can feel like there’s no cost to standing up and decertifying the Iran deal. But you’re playing a serious game of chicken in terms of what comes next—whether or not Iran restarts its nuclear program, whether or not the Europeans defy additional U.S. sanctions, whether or not there is an increased risk of conflict in the Middle East, whether or not the dollar as the world’s reserve currency is put at risk because we continue to use our sanctions as an extension of domestic politics.”
Speaking to reporters last week, John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, offered a different interpretation of why Trump has pursued the policies he has. “I don’t mean any criticism to Mr. Trump’s predecessors,” Kelly said, before laying the criticism on thick: “But there is an awful lot of things that were, in my view, kicked down the road that have come home to roost, pretty much right now, that have to be dealt with.”
Updated on October 17 at 5:42 p.m. ET
When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, Congress may fix what President Trump tried to break.
Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Patty Murray of Washington state announced a tentative agreement on Tuesday that would shore up Obamacare’s shaky insurance exchanges, offering the first glimmer of bipartisan dealmaking after months of GOP attempts to rip out the law.
The accord between Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate health committee, and Murray, the panel’s top Democrat, would restore for two years the payments to insurance companies that Trump canceled last week. And in what Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer described as “anti-sabotage provisions,” the deal would also force the administration to spend $106 million in funds that it cut from outreach programs to encourage enrollment in the health law’s exchanges.
In exchange, Democrats agreed to expand eligibility for cheaper, catastrophic insurance plans and to make it easier for states to opt out of some of Obamacare’s regulations—while still protecting the law’s core protections for people with preexisting conditions and the requirement that insurers cover essential health benefits.
“Overall we are very pleased with this agreement,” Schumer told reporters. After a lunchtime briefing from Murray, Schumer said there was broad support among Democrats for the deal. But more importantly, it appeared to win an endorsement from Trump just days after he scrapped the very payments—which he derided as an insurer bailout—the senators are trying to restore. “It will get us over the immediate hump,” the president said when asked about the agreement at a White House press conference. “It is a short-term solution so that we don’t have this very dangerous little period,” he added, while insisting that Republicans would continue trying to replace the law entirely.
Alexander and Murray have been negotiating for more than a month, since the GOP’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare initially failed over the summer. But their talks took on new urgency after Trump announced last week that he was axing the payments known as “cost-sharing reductions,” which reimburse insurance companies for subsidies that the federal government provides to lower-income Americans who buy coverage on the ACA exchanges. Those payments have been the subject of litigation from House Republicans over whether Congress explicitly signed off on them when it passed the health law. Trump cited the lawsuit in withholding them, but his administration had been making the payments anyway for months, and the timing of his decision to cut them off was widely seen as an attempt to unravel Obamacare just weeks before next year’s enrollment period is set to begin.
The president’s move prompted immediate spikes in premiums in certain states, and it raised the possibility that more insurers would leave the market altogether. Democrats were outraged, and many Republicans were annoyed over the possibility that they would draw the blame from constituents who’d see their health-care bills go up and their choices go down. “After he did what he did, the negotiations got better for us,” Schumer claimed. A document sent to Republican offices summarizing the agreement on Tuesday warned of “chaos” in the insurance markets if it was not enacted and that the fallout would create a “four-lane highway to single-payer” favored by liberals.
While Trump’s endorsement could be crucial, the fate of the Alexander-Murray deal is uncertain. It will need to win the support of Republican leaders in both the House and Senate, none of whom were willing to give it yet. “We haven’t had a chance to think about the way forward yet,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the Republicans met on Tuesday. Before the Senate failed in its last repeal attempt in September, Speaker Paul Ryan had warned that the House would not consider an attempt to shore up the ACA. His office wasn’t commenting on Tuesday.
It’s also unclear just how firmly Trump will back the agreement once all of its details are known. In recent days, the president has veered from declaring Obamacare dead and boasting about his role in killing it to taking credit for spurring an outbreak of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. As recently as Friday, Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, was pooh-poohing the framework that Alexander and Murray were working on.
Alexander insisted to reporters and then in a speech on the Senate floor that Trump was encouraging his effort. The president, he said, had called him twice in recent weeks and told him he “doesn’t want people to be hurt in the interim.” But the Tennessee senator acknowledged that it wasn’t his agreement with Murray that mattered, but whether “a significant number of Republican and Democratic senators” would soon get behind it. “We wouldn’t have come to an agreement ourselves if we didn’t think that was likely,” Alexander said.
At a minimum, Republicans were demanding substantive changes to the ACA’s waiver program that would relax insurance standards for states, and it remains to be seen whether the Alexander-Murray deal would meet their test. Democrats were willing to expedite the process and allow governors to sign off on waivers without approval from their state legislatures. But they were leery of changes that could allow states to wriggle out of Obamacare’s core requirements, which is what Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah had been pushing for as part of the GOP repeal proposals.
Conservatives had been warning against any agreement to prop up what they consider to be a failing law. “A deal that helps people sign up for Obamacare when Obamacare should be repealed doesn’t sound encouraging,” tweeted Dan Holler, a spokesman for the advocacy group Heritage Action. Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, also panned the agreement. “The GOP should focus on repealing & replacing Obamacare, not trying to save it. This bailout is unacceptable,” he said in a tweeted statement. Indeed, Democrats had been worried that Trump’s attacks on the insurer payments as an industry payoff would doom their chances of winning Republican support for an agreement to restore them. But Schumer said the ultimate legislation would address that concern. “They cannot use the money for themselves,” he said of the insurers. “They have to pass it on to consumers.”
Representative Tom Marino withdrew his name from consideration to be the White House drug czar following the publication of a news report that revealed he had tried to hinder government efforts aimed at combatting the opioid epidemic. Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray reached a bipartisan deal to stabilize Obamacare, which President Trump supported as a temporary fix. After Senator John McCain condemned the “half-baked, spurious nationalism” in America’s foreign policy, Trump said he would “fight back.” A federal judge in Hawaii blocked the third version of Trump’s travel ban the day before it was slated to take effect. The Defense Department launched an investigation into the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger.
Commanding Without Policy: President Trump’s main achievements in office thus far have not hinged on any policy proposals of his own. Instead, he’s largely focused on dismantling Obama-era policies. (David A. Graham)
LBJ, Culpable Commander in Chief: From The Butler to Selma, Hollywood has tended to emphasize President Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil-rights legacy. But that ignores the recklessness with which he handled the Vietnam War, argues Julian E. Zelizer.
Claiming Victories: Is Trump responsible for the Dow hitting an all-time high? Despite his tweets, writes Gillian B. White, the president has a very small role in the stock market’s success.
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
Us Too: As allegations of sexual misconduct against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein swirl in Hollywood, women in California politics are calling out the “pervasive” culture of harassment in their industry. (Melanie Mason, Los Angeles Times)
Tillerson, Unraveled: Nine months into his presidency, Donald Trump still hasn’t built a rapport with his secretary of state. The question now isn’t what’s preventing Rex Tillerson from quitting; “it’s what’s stopping Trump from firing him.” (Jason Zengerle, The New York Times)
The Mutineers in 2018: If President Trump continues to align himself with the Republican establishment, like he did in his press conference with Mitch McConnell on Monday, then he risks losing the loyalty of the “vanguard of insurgents” from which his campaign sprang. (Noah Rotham, Commentary)
Trump’s Silence on Talk Radio: Conservative talk-radio hosts, including Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, are some of President Trump’s most vocal supporters. So why hasn’t he done a single interview with either of them since becoming president? (Oliver Darcy, CNN)
Innocent and in Jail: Some prosecutors are jailing innocent crime victims and witnesses in an attempt to compel them to appear in court. The stories of these New Orleans material witnesses, however, reveal something more sinister. (Sarah Stillman, The New Yorker)
Putting Up Roadblocks: Since Republicans were unable to pass health-care reform, President Trump has taken steps to chip away at Obamacare. Here’s what the Trump administration has done to undermine the law. (Kim Soffen, The Washington Post)
Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Grassley are two of the oldest and longest-serving members of Congress, and both could be sticking around for the foreseeable future. The Atlantic’s Michelle Cottle reported on Monday that younger politicians are growing frustrated with what they view as out-of-touch lawmakers clinging to power by continuing to serve well into their 70s and 80s.
Do you think there should be an age limit for politicians? Why, or why not?
Share your response here, and we'll feature a few in Friday’s Politics & Policy Daily.
Being a liberal in the Donald Trump era is tricky. On the one hand, you’re grateful for any conservative who denounces the president’s authoritarian lies. On the other, you can’t help but notice that many of the conservatives who condemn Trump most passionately—Bill Kristol, Bret Stephens, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin—remain wedded to the foreign policy legacy of George W. Bush. And in criticizing Trump’s amoral “isolationism,” they backhandedly defend the disastrous interventionism that helped produce his presidency in the first place.
The godfather of this brand of hawkish, anti-Trump conservatism is John McCain. Sure, McCain—being a Republican Senator—doesn’t condemn Trump as forthrightly as his “neoconservative” allies in the press. But the terms of his critique are similar.
Look at his speech on Tuesday after being awarded the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal. In a clear swipe at Trump, McCain warned that, “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history. We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad.”
As a man, McCain is as honorable as Trump is dishonorable. But this narrative is false. The last seventy-five years of American foreign policy are not the story of a country consistently pursuing democratic ideals, only to see them undermined now by a fearful “blood and soil” isolationism.
Between 1947 and 1989, the defining imperative of American “international leadership” was anti-communism. At times, anti-communism nurtured ideals of freedom, human dignity and peace. In the name of anti-communism, America protected fragile democracies in West Germany, Italy and Japan. In the name of anti-communism, the United States fed Europe’s starving post-masses via the Marshall Plan. In the name of anti-communism, the United States committed itself to Western Europe’s defense, thus keeping German nationalism in check and laying the groundwork for a postwar economic boom.
But anti-communism also justified America’s overthrow of elected governments in Iran, Guatemala and Chile. It justified Ronald Reagan’s decision to label Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress a terrorist organization and America’s longtime assistance to the kleptocratic Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. And far from keeping the peace, it led the United States to drop more bombs on Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War than it had during World War II.
Since 1989, this moral duality has continued. The United States has sought to extend its global preeminence while battling a range of enemies—from “rogue states” seeking “weapons of mass destruction” to hyper-nationalists murdering ethnic minorities to jihadist terrorist groups—that challenge the American-led order. During the Gulf War, this imperative led the United States to strengthen the United Nations and defend international law. But during the Iraq War, it led the United States to defy international law and obliterate the Iraqi state, thus creating the conditions for ISIS. In Bosnia and Kosovo, American power helped stop genocide. In Libya, it helped create chaos.
The point is that American “leadership” sometimes furthers the ideals that Americans revere and sometimes it desecrates them. Sometimes it makes America stronger; sometimes it doesn’t. McCain’s implication is that it’s only when American “abandon[s]” and “refuse[s]” its leadership role that it fails its people and the world. But that’s not true. Over the last fifteen years, in a spasm of military hyperactivity, the United States has toppled governments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, in wars that have cost America dearly, and bred more conflict in their wake. Trump won the Republican nomination, in part, because—facing establishment candidates who would not criticize George W. Bush’s foreign policy—he condemned such adventures and pledged to avoid new ones.
McCain is right to (obliquely) condemn Trump’s hostility to refugees, his indifference to human rights and obsession with ensuring that America’s allies don’t rip it off. But that’s not the same as foreign policy restraint. Sometimes America best serves its people and its ideals by not trying to bend the world to its will. Harry Truman was right to reject preventative war when the Soviet Union was racing towards an atomic bomb; Dwight Eisenhower was right to accept a draw rather than seek the reunification of Korea in 1953; John F. Kennedy was right to admit failure in the Bay of Pigs rather than launch an American invasion of Cuba; George H.W. Bush was right not to march to Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War, and Barack Obama was right to accept an imperfect nuclear deal with Iran rather than risking a fourth war in the greater Middle East.
John McCain once understood that. As a young congressman in 1985, he told the Los Angeles Times that America was neither “omniscient nor omnipotent. If we do become involved in combat, that involvement must be of relatively short duration and must be readily explained to the man in the street in one or two sentences.” In violating that principle, George W. Bush—with the support of an older John McCain—helped discredit the Republican foreign policy establishment, and lay the groundwork for Trump’s nationalist insurgency.
Now McCain and many of his hawkish allies are criticizing Trump’s amoral nationalism, which is good. But until they question the disastrous overstretch that helped create it, they will remain his useful ideological foils.
With the political press in a volley of anonymous leaks and counterleaks about how Barack Obama did or did not console John Kelly after his son’s death, it’s important to reflect on how we got here—and what it shows about President Trump’s methods of controlling the media and the news cycle.
First, a brief timeline. On October 4, four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger, a country where the United States is not formally at war, and where American troops were supposedly in an advisory and training role. For 12 days, Trump said nothing about the deaths, even as he opined about plenty of other things. The White House was not forthcoming with information, either.
On Monday, Trump threw an impromptu press conference, and was asked about the deaths. “Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?” a reporter asked.
Reading that question charitably, the reporter wanted to know both why the voluble Trump had been so quiet and also what had happened to the soldiers and why they were on patrol in Niger. But Trump took it only to have the first meaning, and as an affront. He reacted somewhat defensively, comparing himself—as he is wont to do—to previous presidents:
I’ve written them personal letters. They’ve been sent, or they’re going out tonight, but they were written during the weekend. I will, at some point during the period of time, call the parents and the families—because I have done that, traditionally. I felt very, very badly about that. I always feel badly. It’s the toughest—the toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens, soldiers are killed. It’s a very difficult thing. Now, it gets to a point where, you know, you make four or five of them in one day—it’s a very, very tough day. For me, that’s by far the toughest.
So, the traditional way—if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Aides to both Obama and George W. Bush reacted angrily, saying both men had taken many steps to console the families of slain service members. A few moments later, reporter Peter Alexander of NBC asked how Trump could claim Obama never called families, and Trump backed off, a little:
I don’t know if he did. No, no, no, I was told that he didn’t often. And a lot of presidents don’t; they write letters. I do a combination of both. Sometimes—it’s a very difficult thing to do, but I do a combination of both. President Obama I think probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. All I can do—all I can do is ask my generals. Other presidents did not call. They’d write letters. And some presidents didn’t do anything. But I like the combination of—I like, when I can, the combination of a call and also a letter.
Trump’s claim that some presidents “didn’t do anything” appears to be bogus, but there’s also no indication that Obama called the family of every soldier, sailor, marine, or airman who died during his presidency (nor, for that matter, that Trump has done so). In anti-Trump precincts, there was immediate fury—first, that he had claimed that some presidents didn’t reach out to families at all, and second, that he’d turned the question of slain soldiers into a matter of oneupmanship with other presidents. Four Americans were dead, the president had golfed rather that attend the return of their coffins, and now here he was making it a political matter.
But by inspiring that immediate fury, Trump had already shifted the conversation away from the question of why the troops were in Niger, and away from the question of why Trump had said nothing about their deaths until asked. Then on Tuesday morning, he picked up on the grain of truth in his original statement—Obama had not called the family of every slain soldier—and pushed it forward.
“As far as other presidents, I don’t know, you could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama? I don’t know what Obama’s policy was,” Trump said on Fox News radio, referring to his chief of staff, John Kelly, whose son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
That has produced a new maelstrom. First, several journalists reported, using unnamed sources, that Obama had not called Kelly. Then others reported, again with unnamed sources, that Kelly sat with First Lady Michelle Obama at a gold-star breakfast in 2011. Still others dug up old comments from Kelly that emphasized how Kelly hadn’t wanted his son discussed publicly. “The death of my boy simply cannot be made to seem any more tragic than the others,” he wrote in an email.
So by Tuesday afternoon, Trump had pushed the conversation even further away from the actual question of the fallen soldiers. He’d begun with a largely false diversion about other presidents’ consolations; then, he focused on the deeply narrow question of whether Obama had called the Kellys. This is a clever trap for media outlets. If they don’t take Trump’s lead and report out whether Obama called Kelly, he’ll bash them for not pursuing questions unfavorable to Obama; if they do take his lead, they’re following him down a rabbit hole. (This does not justify the use of unnamed sources on this story; if current White House staffers or Obama-allied sources want to participate in this volley, why can’t they be named?)
Is Trump’s decision to bring Kelly’s son into the debate tacky and graceless? Of course it is, especially in light of Kelly’s past statements begging superiors not to bring it up. Yet the pundit outrage on Kelly’s behalf is peculiar. He’s a grown man, a retired four-star general, and if he is offended by it, he always has the option to remonstrate with Trump or even to resign. Harping on Trump’s gracelessness is perhaps cathartic for his critics, but it’s only going to make him look bad to people who already dislike him. His fans, by contrast, will see a case of the president being crucified for making a claim—Obama didn’t call every gold-star family—that turned out to be true.
And that’s where things stand now. The debate is now over what Barack Obama did or didn’t do and, to a lesser extent, whether Trump’s response measured up. We still don’t know whether Trump’s letters to the families of the fallen soldiers have actually been sent.
CNN reports that almost two weeks after the deadly firefight, the Pentagon still doesn’t understand what happened, and is conducting a preliminary review to see whether there should be a formal investigation and whether military procedures need to be changed. The president of the United States has made no comment on the deaths of four soldiers except to exculpate himself. Beyond that, a president who promised to pull the United States back from its engagements around the globe hasn’t made any statement to the American people about why Special Forces soldiers were in Niger, why they were out on patrol despite their advisory role, who was responsible for their deaths, or why it’s important for U.S. troops to be in West Africa.
Trump is eager to talk about the troops when he is accusing NFL players of disrespecting them by kneeling during the National Anthem. But conversations about what American troops are doing in places like Niger and why are complicated, difficult, and uncomfortable for Trump and everyone else involved. It’s much easier to snipe about which president’s consolations were most patriotic than to actually talk about the troops as anything more than a signifier.
President Lyndon Johnson has enjoyed a remarkable run in Hollywood. Next month, the most recent addition to the fictional canon will be Rob Reiner’s LBJ, a movie starring Woody Harrelson as the oversized Texan who dominated American political life like almost no one else in the 1960s. Reiner’s film revolves around Johnson’s transition from serving as a frustrated vice president to becoming the president in November 1963 following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The film culminates with the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 that desegregated public accommodations in the South. Like many recent films on LBJ, Harrelson plays Johnson as crass and ugly, but also as a politician whose heart was in the right place on the key domestic issue of the time.
In certain respects, producers, directors, writers, and actors who tend to lean toward the left have treated their work of this president as part of a broader effort to rescue American liberalism from its worst mistakes, to capture the hope that existed with Johnson’s White House in 1964 and 1965 before it was overwhelmed by Vietnam.
The irony for anyone who had been alive in the tumultuous Age of Aquarius is how easy it has become for intelligent audiences to forget the issue that loomed largest in the dark days of 1968: Vietnam.
The effort to save Lyndon Johnson “the southern liberal” from Lyndon Johnson “the war monger” started back in the 1970s. Films have undertaken a heroic effort to remind audiences of the progressive vision that shaped LBJ when he finally reached the Oval Office. In the 1978 television film King, LBJ was played by Warren Kemmerling as a shrewd politician who helped guide Martin Luther King Jr. toward the kind of grass-roots activities that would pressure Congress into voting for civil-rights legislation. In Lee Daniels’s The Butler, Liev Shreiber memorably captures an LBJ who starts by sitting on a toilet barking out racial expletives at his advisers as he asked them to help him keep black protesters “off the street” and insultingly telling his African American butler to bring him prune juice to relieve his constipation, but evolves into a president visibly moved as he watched the violence unfold in Selma on television when the police beat activists protesting for voting rights. More recently, an HBO film based on the Tony Award-winning play, All the Way, showed LBJ (played by Bryan Cranson) to be a principled liberal Democrat who was genuinely committed to pushing a bold civil-rights agenda even while he worried about a very serious political backlash. Robert Schenkkan’s riveting story captures all of the legislative cunning and political capital that Johnson deployed to move the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Selma was more critical of Johnson, emphasizing the ways that the president was complicit in J. Edgar Hoover’s smear campaign against King. Even in Selma, though, Ava DuVernay shows Johnson’s sympathy to the civil-rights cause amidst his overwhelming political fears about the activists going too far and too fast.
Hollywood has also portrayed LBJ as a skillful politician who knew how to get things done. In the era of constant gridlock that followed the 1960s, this story possesses continued appeal. Johnson’s crass and blunt mannerisms have been used to dramatize how the president’s forceful personality enabled him to move legislation through Washington’s tortured political process. Few actors have replicated the buffoon-like character that Rip Torn portrayed in a television film about J. Edgar Hoover in 1978. Instead, much more common has been the kind of acting offered by Randy Quaid in the 1987 television docudrama LBJ: The Early Years, when he brought to life the savvy and hardball style that accounted for Johnson’s meteoric rise to power, from working as a secretary to a member of Congress in the 1930s to becoming president three decades later.
Most films looking at Vietnam—like Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July, and Full Metal Jacket—have focused on the war itself and the experiences of veterans. The movies that turn to Washington have tended to paint Johnson as a Shakespearean character, tragically pushed into bad decisions. In one of the handful of movies that deals primarily with Johnson’s foreign policy, HBO’s Path to War, viewers saw Michael Gambon’s Lyndon Johnson as a tortured leader deeply committed to domestic reform but pushed by an array of devious, hawkish advisers and military officials deeper into the jungles of Vietnam. “I’m going to nip this in the bud,” Johnson promises Martin Luther King Jr., unaware of the kind of quagmire that he was getting the nation into. “I want war like I want polio,” LBJ says to Jack Valenti. “Shooting and bombing, it goes against every bone in my body.” Viewers see a president who, as he is remembered in popular mythology, was out of his league when dealing with foreign policy and, as a result, agreed to disastrous mistakes. The real villain in the film is not Lyndon Johnson—he is tragic—but Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, played by Alec Baldwin to resemble Dr. Evil. He keeps promising the president that eventually the U.S. will be able to get out. The film was much stronger with regards to LBJ than Thirteen Days, an otherwise powerful account of the Cuban Missile Crisis that relegates Johnson to a minor role, primarily for comic relief.
Younger viewers who have grown up with these films could easily forget the front-page stories when Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection in 1968. “Johnson’s War” was raging in Southeast Asia, with American soldiers being sent home every week in body bags. Americans all over the country had family members who were already in the war or others who could soon be drafted. They watched with bated breath as the president and his advisers updated the country about what was happening overseas. By the time he left office in January 1969, LBJ had become the epitome of a bad president. The left hated him for betraying them by abandoning their domestic causes and bringing the nation into a deadly, imperialistic war. Conservatives didn’t think much of LBJ either. They believed that his misguided domestic policies had made conditions worse for law-abiding Americans, while the president’s refusal to unleash all of the nation’s airpower on communist troops had resulted in ground forces being bogged down in the jungles of Vietnam. Mainstream liberal Democrats felt more sympathetic to LBJ’s policies, but concluded that he had undermined the standing of their party and created the opportunity for someone as odious as Richard Nixon to succeed. The 1960s, they said, were supposed to end with a burst of liberal progress but instead ended with an untrustworthy, communist-baiting, law-and-order Republican taking over the presidency. Johnson was to blame.
Historians have not been as kind to LBJ as Hollywood when assessing his impact on America’s role in the world. Foreign-policy historians have produced important work in recent years showing how Vietnam was neither an inevitable mistake nor a military operation pushed on an unknowing president by advisers. Rather, a cohort of outstanding scholars has used archival records, particularly the White House presidential recordings, to show that Johnson very much knew the risks he was taking by accelerating this war, and repeatedly ignored the warnings of multiple advisers and colleagues who told him that a war in Vietnam was unnecessary and unwinnable. The most important work on this subject, Fredrik Logevall’s Choosing War, brilliantly recounts how Johnson understood all of the risks associated with sending troops into this battle and heard repeatedly from southern hawks, liberal Democrats, and foreign leaders that a negotiated settlement would be better.
But as a result of both his machismo and his desperate efforts to prevent Republicans from attacking him as weak on defense, the same sort of baldly political calculation that brought him success on domestic policy, Johnson decided to escalate the American military presence in the deadly jungles of the region. Vietnam, according to Logevall, was the result of poor presidential decision making, mistaken calculations, and a commander in chief who fully understood the problems with this operation but moved forward anyway.
The time has come for a good film that captures this other side of LBJ: not the tragic leader but the culpable commander in chief, the president who sought to protect his political standing through disastrous decisions. Americans need to see a talented actor portray Johnson reading Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s famous 1965 memo, in which he wrote that “politically, it is always hard to cut losses. But the Johnson Administration is in a stronger position to do so than any Administration in this century. 1965 is the year of minimum political risk for the Johnson Administration. Indeed, it is the first year when we can face the Vietnam problem without being preoccupied with the political repercussions from the Republican right.” Cut to the next scene: Johnson kicks Humphrey out of his inner circle of advisers and only gives the hawks a seat at the table.
This Hollywood story of Lyndon Johnson’s failure is needed more urgently today than ever before. There is still a strong tendency to believe, against all odds, that the “political system” or the so-called “adults in the room” will somehow protect the United States from the worst instincts of a president when it comes to war and peace. Somehow, Americans say to themselves, democracy will survive dangerous presidential bluster, the emasculation of diplomacy, and constant militaristic threats.
That hope is misplaced. Ken Burns’s gripping PBS documentary on Vietnam shows how bad the situation can become. Schenkkan has written a sequel play to All the Way, entitled The Great Society, that puts more emphasis on the second half of LBJ’s administration. As Americans learned with Lyndon Johnson, a president with far more experience, gravitas, and political commitment than Donald Trump can lead the nation right into a devastating war.
Downplaying the ways in which Johnson was directly responsible for Vietnam risks underestimating the horrendous outcomes that can result from reckless presidential decisions.
President Trump’s pick to be White House drug czar, Representative Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, withdrew his name from consideration on Tuesday following the publication of a critical news report. It detailed how a law he wrote at the behest of pharmaceutical distributors has made it harder for the federal government to combat the opioid epidemic.
Trump announced Marino’s withdrawal on Twitter, calling him “a fine man and a great congressman!” His exit seemed likely after the president repeatedly declined to give him a vote of confidence during a press conference on Monday.
The fourth-term Republican congressman had been at the center of a joint investigation by The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” that seemed to have all the elements of the D.C. “swamp” culture Trump has pledged to drain. Former top officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration alleged that a law Congress wrote and passed without significant public debate effectively stripped the agency of its power to go after opioid distributors who turned a blind eye to suspicious sales, which poured millions of prescription pain pills into U.S. cities and towns.
The whistleblowers, led by the former head of the agency’s Office of Diversion Control, pinned much of the blame on ex-DEA officials who passed through the Beltway’s infamous “revolving door” and became highly-paid industry lobbyists. But it was Marino, a former prosecutor, who introduced and shepherded to passage the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which raised the standard for the DEA to be able to suspend shady drug shipments. The Post and “60 Minutes” reported that the text of the bill was actually written by a former senior lawyer at the DEA, and Marino overcame objections from the agency and the Justice Department to get a version of the legislation passed by Congress and signed into law last year by former President Barack Obama. When reporters tried to interview Marino in person for the story, his office called the Capitol Police.
This is the second time Marino has pulled out of consideration to be the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Trump had been weighing his nomination in the spring before Marino cited a “critical family illness” in withdrawing his name. But with the job still unfilled months later, the White House announced in early September that Marino would indeed be the president’s nominee. As Trump noted on Monday, Marino had been one of the earliest congressional supporters of his campaign.
On Monday, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he would introduce legislation to repeal the law that Marino got passed. But that may not be so easy: Later in the day, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah delivered a floor speech defending the measure and accusing the Post and “60 Minutes” of airing a “one-sided” account of its enactment. Marino, who has not spoken publicly about the report, will remain in Congress.
Last week was a banner week for Donald Trump—after the first week of his presidency, perhaps the most productive, at least in terms of raw political accomplishments.
The two big headlines, pulling the plug on subsidies in Obamacare insurance markets and tossing the Iran nuclear deal to Congress, are both highly fraught. Yet with these two decisions, President Trump has brought himself closer to following through on major campaign promises than nearly anything else he has done as president.
There are two notable things about the moves. First, they are both incomplete. President Trump has neither repealed and replaced Obamacare, nor has he shredded the Iran deal. Second, they have real potential downsides. Ending the Obamacare subsidies could end with millions of people losing their health insurance, a disaster both moral and, potentially, political. And decertifying the Iran deal could allow it to build nuclear weapons, and undermine American credibility in the Middle East and beyond for decades to come. Taken together, though, they show how Trump’s accomplishments at this stage in his presidency are almost entirely destructive, rather than constructive. Trump made his reputation as a builder, but he’s made demolition his mode in the White House.
Trump has not yet found a way to get Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Several attempts by lawmakers came to naught—and although it’s still possible that leaders in the House and Senate could try to revive repeal, neither leaders nor rank and file seemed eager to fight another bruising internecine fight, and the repeal effort only went as long as it did because Trump almost single-handedly willed it to do so. Part of the problem is that the Republican Party is deeply divided over the aims of a replacement, and so is the president. His statements about what he wants out of a new system are self-contradictory and frequently change.
While Trump has not yet found a way to fix the health-care system, he has found a way to further break it—and to get political credit for doing so. As my colleague Olga Khazan explains, the revocation of the subsidies could destroy the entire market for private insurance, which is just what Trump would like credit for.
“You saw what we did yesterday with respect to health care,” he said Friday at the Values Voter Summit. “It's step by step by step. And that was a very big step yesterday. Another big step was taken the day before yesterday. And one by one it's going to come down, and we're going to have great health care in our country.… We're taking a little different route than we had hoped, because getting Congress—they forgot what their pledges were. So we're going a little different route.”
As for that “great health care,” Trump is leaving it all up to Congress, trying to force it to come up with something. He still hasn’t put forth a coherent health plan of his own. It’s no wonder that GOP lawmakers are expressing unease about the subsidies’ demise. Between their own dysfunction and Trump’s disinterest, the prospects for avoiding market collapse seem dim.
The Iran deal fits a similar mold. Trump promised during the campaign to negotiate a better deal with Tehran, but since he entered office, reality has begun to pinch him. Neither Iran nor the American allies who are party to the deal are willing to reopen it. Trump seems to have preferred to simply walk away from the deal, though his aides convinced him instead to instead decertify it and, yet again, pass the buck to Congress.
That’s risky, as the president acknowledged during a Cabinet meeting on Monday. “I'm not going to blame myself,” he said of Congress. “I'll be honest. They’re not getting the job done.”
I have written previously that the chaos and disorder that characterize the Trump administration often eclipse his accomplishments, which will shape American society for decades. But nearly all of these things—with the notable exception of appointing Justice Neil Gorsuch and a handful of other federal judges—are cases where Trump has dismantled something, not built it. This is true of a slew of environmental regulations overseen by both the EPA and the Interior Department; financial-industry regulations; and the Paris climate accord, from which Trump has announced plans to withdraw the United States.
What these things share is that they are all doable by executive fiat, without the involvement of Congress. Trump doesn’t have to negotiate with leaders in Congress, try to strong-arm legislators (a task which he has approached with everything from indifference to incompetence), or wait for action. The judicial nominations are similar, in that although they require Senate consent, Trump has not faced any major battles over nominees thus far. (However, of 50 Trump nominees to courts, only seven have been confirmed so far.) The problem is that Trump has not found ways to use executive orders to achieve proactive measures. It is much easier for a liberal president to enact new things with executive orders, as Barack Obama did, than it is for Trump to achieve his goals through the same means. And when he has tried, as with his travel ban, he has often been slapped down by the courts.
Even when Congress is not a factor, however, the Trump administration appears to struggle to work constructively. On October 9, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced he would move to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era carbon-regulation rule. While the Trump administration, with its obsession with coal jobs, seems to lean toward scrapping the rule entirely, many figures in the energy industry actually favored not total elimination but a softer rule, because they fear courts will otherwise step in and require stricter rules. The EPA says it’s going to write a new rule, eventually, but no one seems to expect that to happen any time soon.
The political ramifications of Trump’s destructive approach are difficult to read. The funny thing about much-maligned campaign promises is that politicians usually intend to keep them, and usually succeed. If Trump continues to fail to actually get things done, will that hurt him?
One test case might be tax cuts. It’s the last, best chance for the Republican Party to achieve a major legislative victory, having struck out on health care and everything else so far. Senator Lindsey Graham said of reform on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, “If we don't, we're dead.” That may be true for the GOP in Congress, but it’s unclear if it applies to Trump. The president’s Gallup rating over the eventful last six weeks has bounced between 37 and 38 percent—miserable, but apparently in a stasis impervious to most outside forces.
Why has his support proven so resilient? For one thing, many Trump voters harbored ambivalence about him in the first place. They didn’t necessarily think he had the temperament to be president, exit polls showed; they thought he was not qualified. But their level of pessimism, and anger at the way the government was working, meant that they didn’t care—when Democrats warned that Trump would blow up the system, they nodded in agreement, and figured that was a good thing. Whether or not Trump is managing to fix health care or negotiate better deals, he’s destroying the status quo quite effectively. He’s helped out by slavish defenders like Newt Gingrich, who argues that anyone who takes issue with Trump is simply bitter: “Donald Trump really is draining the swamp, and the alligators are really unhappy.”
Trump also inoculates himself from any danger caused by his habit of tearing down and not rebuilding by not telling the truth about it. Michael Kruse nicely illustrated Trump’s habit of simply claiming he has achieved what he manifestly has not.
Trump can exaggerate his accomplishments, and he can shift some blame to Congress, and he can portray it all as swamp-draining, but at some point these tactics are likely to reach a limit, even if it’s impossible to guess quite when. The challenge is underscored by Trump’s signature campaign promise: He’ll have to build the wall, and some other things besides it, to succeed.
On October 4, four American Special Forces soldiers were killed during an operation in Niger. Since then, the White House has been notably tight-lipped about the incident. During a press conference Monday afternoon, 12 days after the deaths, President Trump finally made his first public comments, but the remarks—in which he admitted he had not yet spoken with the families and briefly attacked Barack Obama—did little to clarify what happened or why the soldiers were in Niger.
Trump spoke at the White House after a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and was asked why he hadn’t spoken about deaths of Sergeant La David Johnson and Staff Sergeants Bryan Black, Dustin Wright, and Jeremiah Johnson.
“I’ve written them personal letters,” Trump said. “They’ve been sent out or they’re going out tonight, but they were written during the weekend. I will at some point during the period of time call the parents, or the families. Because I have done that traditionally. I felt very, very badly about that. It’s the toughest call—the toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens. Soldiers are killed. It’s a very difficult thing. Now it gets to a point where you make four or five of them in one day, it’s very very tough. For me that’s the toughest.”
Those comments join Trump with many of his predecessors, who have also spoken publicly about the burden of sending troops into battle, and the wrenching process of speaking with the families of slain servicemembers. But then Trump went on to suggest that other presidents hadn’t done what he did.
“The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls,” he said. “I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice, so generally I would say that I like to call. I’m going to be calling them. I like a little bit of time to pass.”
NBC’s Peter Alexander challenged Trump on that claim a few minutes later in the press conference, and the president softened his claim, at least with regard to Obama.
“I don’t know if he did. I was told that he didn’t often. A lot of presidents don’t. They write letters. I do a combination of both. Sometimes it’s a very difficult thing to do,” he said. “President Obama I think probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn’t, I don’t know, that’s what I was told. Other presidents did not call, they’re write letters, and some presidents didn’t do either.”
This is classic Trump rhetoric. Any time he is challenged on any action, he promptly compares his own record to past presidents. He doesn’t require that the comparison be true. Having claimed that Obama didn’t call families of slain soldiers, Trump promptly backed down—he didn’t argue that Alexander was wrong, he just changed his claim.
There was immediate outcry, from aides to various former presidents. Ari Fleischer, press secretary to President George W. Bush, told HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel that Bush wrote letters to families and often met with them in person. Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former aide to Obama, tweeted that it’s “a fucking lie … to say President Obama (or past presidents) didn't call the family members of soldiers” killed in action. Tommy Vietor, a former Obama spokesman, wrote in an email that the 44th president “spent time with families of the fallen and wounded warriors throughout his presidency through letters, calls, visits to section 60 at Arlington and regular meetings with gold star families.”
It’s not hard to see where Trump might have gotten this idea. He has on multiple occasions repeated false information disseminated through bogus news outlets, including the claim that Obama was not born in the United States and did not have a birth certificate. In 2012, for example, the Trump-friendly blog The Gateway Pundit claimed that Obama used an autopen to sign letters to the families of slain soldiers, a claim the White House denied.
Whether Trump intended it this way or not, his strange, untrue, and apparently unpremeditated attack on past presidents was a diversion from the issue at hand: Why were the soldiers in Niger, and why hadn’t he spoken about it sooner? This is a pattern with Trump, in which he manages to say something so inflammatory, or so untrue, or both, that it obscures the central question.
Trump did, in a roundabout way, acknowledge the administration’s slowness to respond. When the body of the fourth slain soldier returned to Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, Trump was golfing with Senator Lindsey Graham. On October 5, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters, “As many of you are aware, U.S. forces are in the country to provide training and security assistance to the local armed forces in their efforts to counter violent extremist organizations.” The following day, asked why Trump had not yet spoken, she said, “We’re continuing to review and look into this.”
Even as he attacked predecessors for their supposed inaction, Trump was acknowledging that nearly two weeks after the attack, he had still not contacted the families. “I actually wrote letters individually to the soldiers we’re talking about and they’re going to be going out today or tomorrow,” he said.
The broader question, of what the soldiers who were killed were doing and what went wrong, remains unaddressed by the president, and Trump’s jab at other presidents may, unfortunately, help to keep it that way. The Special Forces soldiers were deployed to Niger, as Sanders mentioned, in an advisory role. The government has been spare with details about what they were doing or why troops who were supposedly only working in an advisory and training role would have been out on a patrol where they were ambushed. CNN reported that the ambush occurred as they exited a meeting with local leaders. This is not the first time that U.S. service members have been killed in combat while supposedly not in combat roles. The Obama administration appeared to blur the lines between training and combat for such deployments, and the Niger case raises the possibility that the Trump administration is doing the same.
But U.S. Africa Command has formally said only that the four slain soldiers were working on a counter-terrorism mission, without more details. Trump, meanwhile, is happy to talk out of school about former presidents, but he remains tight-lipped about why the slain soldiers were in harm’s way.
During a news conference, President Trump said he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are “closer than ever before” and are working together to push the GOP agenda forward. Trump also said he’ll “be looking into” Representative Tom Marino, his drug czar nominee, after a report found the lawmaker helped pass a law hampering efforts to slow the opioid epidemic. U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban for five years, pleaded guilty to desertion. The Supreme Court agreed to hear a major case dealing with digital privacy and the Fourth Amendment. Astronomers detected the merging of two neutron stars for the first time.
Ethics Questions: Manhattan’s district attorney is under fire for donations he received during his campaigns, highlighting a key problem with America’s system of electing its prosecutors. (Matt Ford)
Older and Wiser?: Some young members of Congress are growing impatient with their older colleagues, many of whom are well past retirement age and determinted to stay in office. (Michelle Cottle)
The Power of #MeToo: On Sunday, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to tweet #MeToo if they have been sexually harassed or assaulted, and by Monday morning, the hashtag had been tweeted nearly half a million times. (Sophie Gilbert)
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
A Lot at Stake: Republicans in and outside the White House are reportedly afraid that if Democrats take control of the House in the midterms, they’ll double down on the Russia investigation—and file articles of impeachment against President Trump. (Sara Murray, CNN)
‘The Danger of President Pence’: Donald Trump’s critics have said that they’d prefer if Mike Pence became president, but a Pence presidency has its own set of risks. (Jane Mayer, The New Yorker)
Constitution Crash Course: In their responses to President Trump’s executive order ending Obamacare insurance subsidies and his attacks on the free press, both liberals and conservatives have proven that they need a refresher on the Constitution. (Jay Cost, National Review)
Victory for the Drug Industry: A Washington Post and “60 Minutes” report found that members of Congress and major drug distributors joined forces to usher forward a law that weakens efforts to limit the flow of opioids. (Scott Higham and Lenny Bernstein)
Extraterrestrial: Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera is a Miami Republican who says she’s been visited by aliens throughout her life. She’s also running for Congress in 2018. (Alex Daugherty and Patricia Mazzei, McClatchy)
What Is Hate Speech?: Take this quiz to see which statements violate Facebook’s rules on hate speech. It’s harder than you think. (Audrey Carlsen and Fahima Haque, The New York Times)
Do you think there should be an age limit for politicians? Why, or why not?
Share your response here, and we'll feature a few in Friday’s Politics & Policy Daily.
-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)
The drab White House briefing room is no place for a wedding, so on Monday afternoon, President Trump and Mitch McConnell headed to the Rose Garden to renew their vows.
“My relationship with this gentleman is outstanding, has been outstanding,” the president said about the Senate majority leader whom he had spent the late summer attacking and who his former chief strategist is now trying to depose. “This man,” Trump said, pointing to McConnell, “is going to get it done.”
For 40 minutes, the two Republican men stood side by side outside the White House, sharing a microphone and a message—and even, once or twice, smiling at each other. Trump praised McConnell for delivering to him the unsung success of his presidency with the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice and several more young conservative jurists who likely will extend his legacy decades beyond the end of his term. McConnell returned the compliment in a way the president in particular would appreciate: by countering the rampant media reports about acrimony between them. “We’ve been friends and acquaintances for some time,” the Kentuckian asserted. “Contrary to what some of you may have reported, we are together totally on this agenda to move America forward.”
Never in modern times has a president had to so publicly make amends with a congressional leader of his own party. But then again, rarely has a president gone so far out of his way to antagonize an ally who is so crucial to his own success.
“Mitch, get back to work,” Trump snapped at McConnell over Twitter in August, blaming him for the Senate’s repeated failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. When a reporter asked if McConnell should be replaced as the GOP leader, the president offered far less than a fulsome endorsement and encouraged the press to ask him again in a few months. The next month, Trump abandoned McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to strike a fiscal deal with Democrats.
The Trump-McConnell marriage was always one of convenience, linking the blustery and impulsive businessman with the tight-lipped D.C. insider and political tactician. So, too, is this rapprochement.
Having failed repeatedly to keep their promise to repeal Obamacare, Republicans are launching an equally arduous effort to rewrite the tax code in which party unity will be just as critical. The first major test comes this week, when the slim Senate GOP majority will try to pass a budget setting the parameters for the tax cuts and approving the use of the reconciliation process that will allow the party to circumvent a Democratic filibuster if and when the final bill comes to the floor. The House approved its version earlier this month, and if the Senate succeeds this week, the two chambers will have to reconcile the differences in a conference committee.
As with health care, McConnell will need at least 50 out of the 52 Republicans to vote for the budget, which would allow tax cuts to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion over a decade. But just hours before his meeting with Trump, the majority leader learned that his margin would be even slimmer due to the absence of ailing Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Cochran has been homebound with what his office says are urological problems, and though he was due back in the Capitol this week, his chief of staff announced Monday morning that his absence would continue indefinitely.
With Cochran out, McConnell can afford to lose no more than one Republican on the party-line budget vote. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a frequent defector on health care, said Sunday she was likely to support the measure. But Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky could vote no, as he did on the Senate’s budget resolution in January. Trump played golf with Paul on Sunday, and afterward the Kentucky conservative had some kinder words for the tax plan he had previously criticized. “We think we’re in good shape for the budget. We hope,” Trump said, perhaps wishfully, as he stood next to McConnell on Monday.
Yet if the Trump-McConnell relationship is transactional, and McConnell’s job is to deliver votes for the president’s agenda, what does he get in return? Trump offered a possible hint in the Rose Garden, but not quite a commitment. Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, has declared an open war on McConnell’s leadership and on just about all of his members up for reelection next year. He’s currently meeting with and backing primary challengers who will vow to oppose McConnell as leader in 2019.
“I can understand fully how Steve Bannon feels,” Trump said earlier Monday before a Cabinet meeting. But after his lunch with McConnell, the president’s tune changed a bit. He said most GOP senators were onboard with his agenda and he suggested he might try to persuade Bannon to stand down in some races. “Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing,” Trump said. “Some of the people he may be looking at, I’m going to see if I can talk him out of that.” Then, in a fit of overstatement, the president added: “Just so you understand, the Republican Party is very, very unified.”
Though he is a cautious public speaker, McConnell is openly disdainful of primary challenges to incumbent Republicans. Taking the microphone on Monday, he reminded reporters—and perhaps the president—that in his view, the party lost its shot at a Senate majority in 2010 and 2012 because Tea Party activists had succeeded in nominating Republicans who proved to be unelectable in November. That changed in 2014, when McConnell and the GOP establishment took a much stronger hand in contested primaries. “The goal here is to win elections in November,” McConnell said. “Winners make policy, and losers go home.”
If Trump disagreed with the majority leader, he kept uncharacteristically quiet. But the makings of an arrangement for this second, loveless marriage had become clear. Trump gets his tax cuts, and maybe another shot at repealing Obamacare. McConnell gets some job security—first for his campaigning incumbents next year, and then for himself.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether American courts can issue warrants for data stored overseas under current federal law, adding another major case on digital privacy and the Fourth Amendment to its docket this term.
The justices agreed to hear U.S. v. Microsoft on Monday at the request of the federal government. A three-judge panel of federal appellate judges sided with Microsoft last year to quash a warrant issued for emails stored on the tech giant’s servers in Ireland. At stake is whether federal prosecutors can compel Silicon Valley to hand over data from anywhere in the world under existing law, or whether that immense power is bounded by the borders of the United States.
Monday’s addition joins a series of major criminal-justice cases on the justices’ plate this term. Foremost among them is Carpenter v. United States, in which the high court will ponder whether the government needs a warrant to obtain the location history of a suspect’s cellphone. Because the existing precedents are four decades old, whatever decision the justices reach will likely be a landmark ruling on the Fourth Amendment’s application to modern technology.
At issue in Microsoft is another ubiquity of the digital age: email. Federal prosecutors asked a federal magistrate judge to issue a warrant allowing them to search a Microsoft-provided email account. The prosecutors said they believed it was being used by an unidentified suspect “to conduct criminal drug activity,” according to court filings. The judge granted their request under Section 2703, a provision of the Stored Communications Act of 1986 that governs warrant applications for electronic records.
Microsoft complied with part of the request by providing some records on the account stored within its U.S.-based systems. At the same time, the company declined to hand over any data stored on servers at a data center in Dublin, which included the contents of the email account itself. Though Microsoft can access the account from the United States, that data—the zeroes and ones electromagnetically inscribed on a computer server—is physically located in the Irish capital. Microsoft’s lawyers argued this placed it beyond Section 2703’s intended reach.
The magistrate judge rejected Microsoft’s efforts to nix the warrant, as did a federal district court on appeal. The case then moved to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel sided with the tech giant. In her majority opinion, Judge Susan Carney concluded that Congress did not intend for Section 2703 to apply overseas when it drafted the Stored Communications Act in the mid-1980s.
“In keeping with the pressing needs of the day, Congress focused on providing basic safeguards for the privacy of domestic users,” she wrote. “Accordingly, we think it employed the term ‘warrant’ in the act to require pre-disclosure scrutiny of the requested search and seizure by a neutral third party, and thereby to afford heightened privacy protection in the United States.” Accordingly, Carney ruled, Congress did not explicitly allow the provision to apply overseas.
Microsoft has used the case to urge Congress to revise the Stored Communications Act, which predates the internet revolution by a decade but still governs how prosecutors interact with it. Mass adoption of email didn’t go far beyond academic and military networks until the mid-1990s. Even then, only about one-third of Americans owned a personal computer in 1995; that number grew to 84 percent by 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.
“The continued reliance on a law passed in 1986 will neither keep people safe nor protect people’s rights,” Brad Smith, the company’s chief lawyer, wrote on Monday. He also raised privacy concerns about the government’s interpretation of Section 2703. “If U.S. law enforcement can obtain the emails of foreigners stored outside the United States, what’s to stop the government of another country from getting your emails even though they are located in the United States?” Smith asked.
For the government, the case is a frustrating dispute in which an American company based on U.S. soil won’t hand over potential criminal evidence to which it has unrestricted access. The Justice Department told the Supreme Court that the Second Circuit’s ruling “is causing immediate, grave, and ongoing harm to public safety, national security, and the enforcement of our laws” in its petition filed earlier this year.
“Under this opinion, hundreds if not thousands of investigations of crimes—ranging from terrorism, to child pornography, to fraud—are being or will be hampered by the government’s inability to obtain electronic evidence,” the government claimed. Thirty-three states also filed a brief with the court urging the justices to review the case. Tech companies have begun using the Second Circuit’s ruling to resist warrants from their law-enforcement agencies as well, the states said.
The Court has yet to set oral arguments for the case, which will likely occur sometime next spring. A final decision will be issued after then and before the justices’ annual June recess.
As the ranks of college administrators have swelled in higher education, one task they’ve undertaken is more aggressively training students—and at times, faculty members— in what is variously called “cultural competence” or “diversity and inclusion.”
The aims of these efforts are laudable.
College ought to be as welcoming to students from historically marginalized groups as it is to anyone else; and it ought to prepare all students for civic life in a hugely diverse society.
But when training faculty members or educating students so that they are “culturally competent,” a process that should involve telling them pertinent facts, is instead used as a pretext to indoctrinate them into a contested ideology, the laudable becomes objectionable.
A sound approach to teaching “cultural competence” might inform by exploring the history of blackface; or why Sikhs carry a small knife; or common challenges that orthodox Christian students experience on secular campuses; or the historical experience of a Native tribe with many members enrolled; or differences in classroom culture that Chinese exchange students might exhibit; or the hijab’s meaning. Such particulars would best be shaped by the composition of the student body at a given institution.
But a flawed approach leaves students less culturally competent than when they began. Consider a widely circulated educational sheet, derived from an academic text, that seems to have originated in the UC system before being circulated at UC Santa Cruz, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, the court system of Philadelphia, and beyond. It lists what it calls examples of “racial microaggressions” that “communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons.”
The following statements are included:
The UCLA professor Eugene Volokh once criticized this microaggressions sheet for going beyond “evenhandedly trying to prevent insult” to actively stigmatizing contested viewpoints, an inappropriate measure for administrators at a public university. I shared that objection at the time, but recently came upon another as powerful.
The Cato/YouGov survey on free speech and tolerance that I reported on last week included questions about whether folks find the same sentiments expressed above offensive.
Among the results?
Telling a recent immigrant, “you speak good English” was deemed “not offensive” by 77 percent of Latinos; saying “I don’t notice people’s race” was deemed “not offensive” by 71 percent of African Americans and 80 percent of Latinos; saying “America is a melting pot” was deemed not offensive by 77 percent of African Americans and 70 percent of Latinos; saying “America is the land of opportunity” was deemed “not offensive” by 93 percent of African Americans and 89 percent of Latinos; and saying “everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough” was deemed “not offensive” by 89 percent of Latinos and 77 percent of African Americans.
Public-opinion data cannot tell us whether a given statement is wrongheaded; and if campus progressives want to marshal substantive reasons for why any of the above statements should be eschewed, they ought to be free to articulate those arguments, and should receive a fair hearing by people who engage them on the merits. At times, I’m sure I’d agree with their analysis rather than the culture at large. I’m persuaded, for example, that “unauthorized immigrant” is the best locution.
But the literature was not circulated as the perspective of campus progressives on what should not be said; it was circulated as if it represented what offends and demeans people of color, even though huge majorities of African Americans and Latinos say, when actually consulted, that those very same statements are “not offensive.” (I have not yet found comparable survey data on the opinions of Asian Americans.)
The effect was to misinform any young people who accepted its assertions in two ways: they would have left college falsely confident that they understand what others find offensive and demeaning; and falsely perceiving folks who use the aforementioned phrases as offending others—willfully or through discreditable ignorance of widely held norms—even as those alleged “micro-aggressors,” who perhaps belong to a socioeconomic class less likely to attend college, saw themselves as being affirmatively friendly and inoffensive, and turn out to have a better grasp on what others think.
It’s easy to understand why administrators are tempted to simply tell people how to be culturally competent, rather than ensuring that pertinent facts are taught and urging individuals to apply reason to them; if I were on a college campus where a clueless white undergraduate from a deeply out-of-touch family non-hatefully donned blackface, my first impulse would be to say, “That’s hugely offensive, don’t ever wear it again!” rather than undertaking the more demanding task of educating the individual in question.
The censure might even have the same effect.
But even if almost everyone is on the same page when it comes to blackface, Holocaust denial, or racial slurs, it appears some powerful college administrators are incompetent at formulating a broader picture of what it is to be culturally competent, and are sometimes the ones who’d most benefit from remedial education.