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Published: Sat, 17 Feb 2018 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sat, 17 Feb 2018 18:45:33 -0500


Feds Announce Indictments of Russian Nationals for Attempting to Influence American Elections

Fri, 16 Feb 2018 14:51:00 -0500

Today, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced a pack of federal indictments against 13 Russian nationals and three companies, accusing them of a conspiracy against the United States, wire fraud, and identity theft in efforts to influence American politics, including the 2016 presidential election. The 37-page indictment by Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller was released this afternoon and quickly followed by a press conference by Rosenstein. Here's a quick summary of the most important points: These Russians, through a St. Petersburg-based company named Internet Research Agency, put together a massive, expensive project to try to influence the outcome of U.S. elections beginning in 2014. The Russian defendants came to the United States to gather intelligence on political and social issues in the United States, but misled the U.S. government about their reasons for being in the country. They used both fabricated and stolen identities to set up personas, social media accounts, and bank accounts for the purpose of making it appear that they were politically engaged American grassroots activists. They then bankrolled advertising campaigns and rallies to influence the election outcome. The indictment makes it clear they believe the Russian influence campaign was primarily about disparaging Hillary Clinton and supporting Donald Trump. But they also note that the Russian groups even bankrolled an anti-Trump rally on the same day as an anti-Clinton rally to help create discord. But it wasn't all just Trump and Clinton: "They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump." The Russian defendants were directed to create "political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements." In the back half of 2016 they launched a campaign to try to discourage minority groups from voting in the presidential election at all or to vote for third-party candidates. The Russian defendants worked with U.S. people to magnify these messages and push these rallies while keeping their identities a secret. They even communicated with the Trump campaign, but both the indictment and Rosenstein's press conference today made it clear that they have no evidence that these Americans ever knew they were dealing with Russians. By deliberately concealing that they were Russians, this fraud prevented federal agencies like the Federal Election Commission and Department of Justice from enforcing laws and disclosure requirements for foreign involvement in domestic issues. There is nothing in these indictments related to any evidence or allegations of hacking into election systems. The charges are all related to misleading the federal government and engaging in fraud. No cyberwarfare. Rosenstein said at the press conference that there is no evidence that any of this behavior actually altered the election outcome. Jacob Sullum previously looked at the social media data and came away deeply unimpressed at the Russian effort's reach. Likewise, Jesse Walker took note that Russia's efforts to foment an anti-immigrant rally in Idaho did not appear to actually amount to much. The text of the indictment tends to affirm that what Russia was doing here was magnifying already extant cultural rifts in order to make them louder and appear more significant. Watch Rosenstein's press conference below: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> UPDATE: President Trump tweets a response: Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2018[...]

That Time the LaRouchies Won Two Primaries in Illinois

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 14:20:00 -0500

Arthur Jones, a man whose career includes a long stint in the National Socialist White People's Party, is on track to win the Republican nomination next month in Illinois' 3rd Congressional District. When this story first started attracting attention, some people added it to their list of signs that bigots are newly "emboldened" in the Trump era. But on closer examination, it turned out to be more of a sign that the Democrats have a stranglehold on the 3rd District: Jones is a perennial fringe candidate, and the only reason the old Nazi looks likely to actually win a primary this time is because he's the only candidate on the Republican side who bothered to sign up. That's the kind of thing that can happen in a race that one party is sure to lose. But this post isn't about Jones. It's about the déjà vu this story is giving me. It was in the same state, 32 years ago, that two followers of the proto-fascist crank Lyndon LaRouche managed to win the Democratic nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. That time there were some other candidates on the primary ballot—George Sangmeister and Aurelia Pucinski, respectively. When Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart beat them, the most widespread theory had it that they won by having less "ethnic" names. Below you'll find a 1986 C-Span interview with Fairchild, the would-be lieutenant governor. Asked at the beginning if LaRouche runs an "anti-Semitic, hate-filled, neo-Nazi organization," Fairchild, who was 28 at the time, describes the charge as "pretty heavy-duty stuff" and denies it. He then goes on to discuss his platform, which among other things included quarantining AIDS patients and using the military to fight the war on drugs. The talk also turns to some of LaRouche's trademark conspiracy theories, including the notions that Henry Kissinger is secretly gay, that Walter Mondale is a KGB agent, and that the queen of England is a drug dealer. But the best moment comes at 51:20, when a caller reads a passage from the LaRouchie book Dope, Inc.: In the late 1940s, University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman was installed as President of the Gold Seal Liquor Company—the original Capone enterprise. Friedman soon also assumed the presidency of the Illinois Liquor Dealers Association—a position from which he no doubt carried out his first experiments in "free market economics." "My understanding," the caller remarks, "is that the Milton Friedman who headed Gold Seal Liquors is a totally different Milton Friedman than Milton Friedman the economist." For the record, the caller's understanding was correct. The Republicans wound up crushing the LaRouche Democrats. Meanwhile, Adlai Stevenson III, who had been set to be the Democratic nominee for governor, instead created a third party—the Solidarity Party—rather than share a ticket with Fairchild and Hart. The punchline: After Stevenson returned to the Democrats, the Solidarity Party and its ballot line were seized by a group whose cultist reputation rivaled the LaRouchies'—the New Alliance Party. And the New Alliance Party had been created by one Fred Newman, a former ally of a fellow named Lyndon LaRouche. Here is the full C-Span interview: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="512" height="330" frameborder="0"> (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. Dope, Inc. was co-authored by David Goldman, who after leaving the LaRouche movement started blogging under the name "Spengler"; to see what he's up to these days, go here.)[...]

Republicans Aren’t the Only Ones Prone to Russia-Investigation Conspiracy Theories

Sat, 03 Feb 2018 14:15:00 -0500

(image) It has been a bad couple of days for those Republicans and conservative commentators who had warned pre-#ReleaseTheMemo that not only would the FBI malfeasance against President Donald Trump be revealed as worse than Watergate, but in fact "100 times bigger" than the underlying beef colonists had against King George III. But as Nick Gillespie pointed out this morning, it's also been a pretty bad 12 months for Democrat/lefty connect-the-dots, government-aggrandizing hyperbole as well.

It's gotten so routine that people barely notice it anymore. "Is it possible that the Republican chairman of the House Intel Committee has been compromised by the Russians?" political analyst John Heilemann asked on Morning Joe this Tuesday. "Is it possible that we actually have a Russian agent running the House Intel Committee on the Republican side?" Flipping on cable news Thursday it took me all of five seconds to hear the nonsense-burger phrase, "The Russians are attacking our Constitution." (Even sillier, such sentiments are usually preceded by throat-clearing about how this is the crucial underlying issue being lost in the din of day-to-day political shouting.)

We catalogue the heavy breathing on both sides in the latest episode The Fifth Column, recorded pre-memo and posted after. Kmele Foster, Michael C. Moynihan, and I also go down some Sockless Joe Scarborough musical rabbit holes, and end up with a surprisingly long conversation about the relationship between foreign policy "realism" and the Trump administration. You can listen to the whole thing here:

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Everybody's Talking About 'The Memo' and Ignoring the Surveillance Debate

Tue, 30 Jan 2018 12:45:00 -0500

The first thing you need to know about "The Memo" is that nobody can truly tell you what you need to know about "The Memo" in advance. That's part of the whole shtick. Here are some basics, though. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), previously an extremely pro-surveillance lawmaker, and his staff in the House Intelligence Committee crafted a four-page memo that claims to show that the FBI abused its surveillance authorities. The memo apparently claims that the FBI misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) with the now-infamous "Steele Dossier" in order to get permission to wiretap former Trump aide Carter Page and his conversations with Russian officials. All of this, they say, was part of a conspiracy to attack the Trump administration. Nunes' memo is currently classified. It has been seen by House lawmakers and, over the weekend, by FBI Director Chris Wray. Last night the House Intelligence Committee voted to begin the process of publicly declassifying and releasing the memo. This starts a five-day clock for Trump to weigh in on if he wants to keep the memo classified. The White House has suggested that it supports the memo's release; we'll see what actually happens. In the meantime, everybody wants to tell you what to think about the memo based on whether they're backers of Team Red or Team Blue. For those of us who are neither and don't care whose ox gets gored (or hope they all do), there are still reasons to care about what's happening, why it's happening, and the overall impact of this fight. Yes, This Memo's Release Is Politically Motivated. That's OK. The Democrats also prepared their own memo explaining what they believed happened with the wiretapping. The Republican-controlled Intelligence Committee declined to release the Democratic version. So only one party here—the party the president belongs to—will be able to publicly represent its interpretation of the surveillance of somebody close to the president. It's silly to pretend that this is not a deliberate effort to undermine the investigation of potentially inappropriate behavior between people close to Trump and foreign governments. It's also silly to deny that the Democrats' sudden insistence that the FBI is beyond reproach (yeah, right) is a deliberate attempt to undermine critique. But there might actually be an upside to all this political posturing. The average American knows very little about how federal surveillance works in practice. A sudden burst of transparency, even one-sided and politically motivated, can at least give everyone a better understanding of how the secretive foreign intelligence court actually works. And for better or worse, Trump is the president of the United States. Secret surveillance of people in the president's orbit by members of his own government is a big deal. It's completely appropriate to reject the idea that we should simply trust that FBI officials are behaving appropriately. They have a very lengthy history of doing otherwise. But the Memo Is Not Going to Tell You What Actually Happened. The Nunes memo is an interpretation of classified intelligence that was used to get authorization to snoop on Page. But it's not the intelligence itself. So if we're willing to acknowledge that part of the motivation to release the memo is to protect Trump, we have to acknowledge that this memo is probably not going to tell the whole story. Do not take this as a demand to keep the memo secret. We should see the memo. We should see the Democrats' memo. And at some point, we should be able to see the underlying intelligence. Note that Trump, as the president of the United States, has wide authority to arrange for the declassification and release of this intelligence information that supposedly has been misapplied in order to snoop on him and undermine his presidency. That little detail doesn't seem to capture as much attention. The Nunes' memo is one step removed from being able to see what the FBI actually presented. Again, this is not a d[...]

No, Russians Bots Aren't Responsible for #ReleaseTheMemo

Fri, 26 Jan 2018 18:05:00 -0500

Last week, Republicans began to call for the release of a memo authored by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes that purports to lay out a series of abuses connected to the FBI surveillance of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. As often happens these days, a Twitter hashtag, #ReleaseTheMemo, evolved around the effort and was widely retweeted by Republicans and elected officials. It didn't take long for a report to emerge that claimed Russian-sponsored Twitter accounts and bots were the real driving force behind the viral call for the release of the memo. Without worrying about the veracity of this convenient claim, all the usual suspects giddily spread the story across social media—probably because they have such a deep reverence for truth in the Era of Trump. The report also prompted Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, both California Democrats, to pull out every fearmongering catchphrase available to demand that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg perform an "in-depth forensic examination" on the "ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process." It's difficult, it seems, for some people to embrace neutral principles nowadays. But if you genuinely believe that President Donald Trump's distasteful tweets are attacks on the foundations of free expression, how could you not be alarmed by a pair of powerful elected officials demanding that social media companies hand over information about their users? What would they say if the president had sent a letter to Google insisting it give the executive branch an "in-depth forensic examination" of his political opponent's searches? As it turns out, reports today say that Twitter's internal analysis found it was mostly Americans, not creepy Slavic mind-control robots, who were behind the hashtags. Not that it really matters, anyway. If a group of Americans has a legitimate issue to rally around, how is it supposed to control what outsiders do? It's not as if #ReleaseTheMemo was secret or illegal. Republican politicians were openly using it. Yet if Feinstein and Schiff had their way, Twitter and Facebook would have moved to quash the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag for what apparently turned out to be solely partisan reasons. Sounds like a power that can be abused. Even if the two had been genuinely troubled by Russian hashtags—yes, suspend your disbelief—the source of "fake news" is not always easily discernible. Sometimes it comes to you from an anonymous Russian bot, and sometimes it's retweeted by a prominent journalist. Democrats have manufactured panic over amateurish Russian propaganda to not only claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin was "meddling" in the election but also to argue that interference had the power to turn the election to Trump. With this risible idea in hand, they have created paranoia about social media interactions and rationalized infringements on expression. Not long before demanding forensic investigations into hashtags, Feinstein was demanding that Twitter, Facebook and Google restrict their content more tightly, threatening, "Do something about it—or we will." Democrats have attempted to control interactions through the Fairness Doctrine or the IRS, and now through the Russia scare. Part of living in a free country is dealing with messy, ugly misinformation. Lots of people in the United States seem pretty impressed by how they do things in Europe. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May is launching a "rapid response unit" run by the state to "battle the proliferation of 'fake news' online." The "national security communications unit" will be tasked with combatting misinformation—as if it has either the power or ability to do so. In France, President Emmanuel Macron is working on a plan to combat "fake news," which includes the power to institute an emergency block on websites during el[...]

Wormwood’s Bad Trip Peddles CIA Conspiracies

Fri, 26 Jan 2018 15:00:00 -0500

Wormwood. Available now on Netflix. Nothing bores me more than weepy declarations of the end of American innocence. If there ever was such a moment, it came hundreds of years ago when the first slave ship arrived, the first Indian was shot, or maybe when the first witch was hanged. But there's no denying that much of the country was pretty stunned to learn in 1975 that a CIA employee named Frank Olson jumped out a 10th-floor hotel window after being secretly dosed with LSD by his own boss as part of a U.S. government mind-control experiment. Toppling governments in Guatemala or Iran at least had some sense of purpose, however foul; Olson's death sounded more like a tawdry, callous frat prank, a profound and pointless repudiation of the very concept of morality. Five decades later, investigative filmmaker Errol Morris' Wormwood is trying to convince us that it was something even worse, the ruthless murder of a political dissident with his six-part documentary Wormwood, a razzle-dazzle exercise in multimedia virtuosity that substitutes sinister showmanship for facts and silly sophistry for deductive logic. American innocence may have been lost a long time ago, but the casual acceptance of Wormwood's empty claims certainly suggests that the tides of American citizens' cynicism about their government are teaching new high points. "Wormwood" in the Bible refers literally to poison and metaphorically to bitter truth, and both usages underlie the documentary. It recounts the quest of Eric Olson, Frank's son, to prove his father was not just collateral damage in a CIA experiment in behavioral control experiment but the victim of a government execution. Frank Olson, a bacteriologist, began working during World War II as a civilian contractor for a U.S. Army biological warfare lab and then graduated to a Frankenstein-ish CIA unit dedicated to better covert living through chemistry. It provided poisons for CIA assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and leftist Congolese leader Patrice Lumemba and dabbled in the use of LSD and other hallucinogens as two-way weapons that might be used either to unmask Soviet moles in the West or create American moles behind the Iron Curtain. In 1953, Olson and several CIA colleagues attended a retreat at a rural Maryland hunting lodge to discuss their work with psychotropic drugs. The meeting turned out to be more hands-on than anybody expected; Sidney Gottlieb, who ran the drug program, spiked the drinks of nearly all the participants with LSD. The idea was to see how they'd react to the drug in a non-clinical situation. The result was the spook version of a 1960s college dorm party; a lot of giggling and incoherent philosophical debates. Olson, however, had the mother of all bad trips. Within a couple of days, convinced he had made a fool of himself at the retreat, he showed up at his supervisor's office to say he wanted to quit or be fired. As his condition deteriorated over the next 24 hours, Olson's bosses decided he needed psychiatric help. They sent him to New York to see a doctor named Harold Abramson, who was interested in psychiatry but had no formal training. (By trade, he was an immunologist.) But he had been a CIA contractor, had a security clearance, and, perhaps most importantly, had worked with the agency's LSD project. Olson, however, grew even more paranoid. He was convinced the CIA was drugging him further. He snuck out of a Broadway show to avoid the armed men he was certain were waiting outside to grab him and spent a night wandering the streets, throwing away his identification and money, on what he imagined were CIA orders. The next night he went flying out his hotel room window. Olson's family was told only that he had jumped or fallen, not about the LSD dosing. And for the next 22 years, that was that. But when government and media investigations into CIA domestic spying began in 1975, they soon came across a document listing what the a[...]

Conservatism's Not-So-'Secret' Society of Opportunistic Hacks

Thu, 25 Jan 2018 17:55:00 -0500

Before we say our final goodbyes to the "secret society" that for a few terrifying moments was puppeteering the deep-state opposition to President Donald Trump, a brief recap of one of conservatism's most embarrassing 41-hour stretches: * On Tuesday evening, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, made a startling accusation on Fox News about both the FBI and Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation: "So what this is all about is further evidence of corruption—more than bias, but corruption—at the highest levels of the FBI. And that 'secret society'? We have an informant who's talking about a group that was holding secret meetings off-site. There's so much smoke here, there are so many suspicions." Cue endless "Worse than Watergate" headlines in the conservative media. * Then on Wednesday night, ABC News obtained the "secret society" text-message in question, from FBI lawyer Lisa Page and to her agent-boyfriend Peter Strzok the day after Trump's victorious election: "Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society." In other words, it was probably a joke. * And on Thursday morning, Johnson told CNN congressional correspondent Manu Raju that "It's a real possibility" the text was written in jest. Oh, and the Justice Department's "conveniently" missing text messages between Strzok and Page from December 2016 and May 2017, that Johnson had been sounding the alarm about? This morning we learned they've been found. Before we blithely move on as if nothing untoward happened here (sample Americans for Limited Government press release: "Big win for Attorney General Sessions on lost and found FBI text messages, now House must release the memo"), it's worth lingering on how brain-bendingly stupid this whole episode obviously was from the get-go, and what that says about the barely twitching husk of governing conservatism. Start with Ron Johnson. A member of the original 2010 Tea Party wave in Congress, Johnson made a name for himself during his first term fighting Obama-administration executive overreach—suing the Office of Personnel and Management for writing broad interpretations of the Affordable Care Act, lambasting Obama's immigration executive orders, arguing that new Authorizations for the Use of Military Force should be passed for new conflicts, and otherwise leaning into his oversight job with vigor. Remember when an exasperated Hillary Clinton told a Senate committee "What difference, at this point, does it make?!" That was Ron Johnson she was talking to. So what kind of executive-branch oversight is the senator conducting on Homeland Security in his position as chair? This kind: When, as part of its investigation into possible collusion and conspiracy between a nuclear-armed adversary and an incoming administration, Mueller's investigators acquired the Trump transition team's emails from the General Services Administration (GSA), Johnson fired off a sternly worded letter about activities that potentially "disregarded federal statutes." Not by any Trump associates, mind you, but by the GSA. Johnson's letter, which came on the heels of a similar one from a Trump lawyer, contributed to another 48-hour storm on the right. "A coup in America?" ran the chyron over at Fox News. FrontPage Mag needed no such question mark. "Mueller's Sinister Coup Attempt," ran the headline in David Horowitz's journal. "The special counsel threatens the rule of law by stealing Trump transition documents." There was widespread speculation that Trump was preparing to fire Mueller. But then it was subsequently reported out that the GSA emails were almost certainly obtained legally, so the pack abruptly dropped that line of attack and moved on to the next available target. It's that sense of undisguised opportunism, and facially ridiculous connect-th[...]

Dianne Feinstein Ignores GOP Lawmakers, Blames #ReleaseTheMemo on Russians and Social Media Instead

Wed, 24 Jan 2018 12:35:00 -0500

Trust Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to try to turn a political controversy into an excuse to censor social media. A bunch of Republican lawmakers have been rallying around a classified memo by House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). The memo purports to show FBI abuses connected to the secret surveillance of people involved with Donald Trump's presidential campaign. The push to declassify the document was national news last week, complete with a hashtag campaign, #ReleaseTheMemo. It was discussed by every major news outlet. Several GOP lawmakers tweeted the hashtag. Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) are upset because a bunch of Russian-operated Twitter accounts may have jumped on this and attempted the magnify the hashtag campaign's reach. The two of them have sent a letter to Twitter and Facebook pretty much demanding that they investigate the extent of the Russian involvement in the hashtag campaign. And they want a response in three days: If these reports are accurate, we are witnessing an ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process. This should be disconcerting to all Americans, but especially your companies as, once again, it appears the vast majority of their efforts are concentrated on your platforms. This latest example of Russian interference is in keeping with Moscow's concerted, covert, and continuing campaign to manipulate American public opinion and erode trust in our law enforcement and intelligence institutions. Feinstein is confusing a symptom for a problem, as politicians often do when they have agendas to pursue. It's absurd to hold Russia responsible for the hashtag in any meaningful sense, given that Republican lawmakers were openly, overtly screaming it from the rooftops, on Twitter, and in front of every news camera they could see. A source familiar with how Twitter works told The Hill that the growth of the hashtag appeared to have happened organically. If Russian trolls and bots were involved, they were at most magnifying a conflict that was already underway. They didn't set this fire, and they weren't the chief force spreading it. Feinstein's political machinations here are twofold. She's trying to make the case that the feds must regulate social media because of foreign involvement in American elections; and second, she's using the familiar guilt-by-association logical fallacy to discredit her political opponents. Feinstein's love of censorship is well known. She flat-out wants to suppress online content that she deems dangerous. This lack of respect for Americans' speech rights and privacy is one of the few things she has in common with Trump. As for the guilt-by-association issue, it's remarkable how little people on either side are interested in engaging the surveillance issues that undergird this fight and instead want to make it all about attacking or defending Trump. I've already mocked Republicans acting outraged about the Nunes memo because a bunch of them just voted to expand the feds' power to snoop on American citizens for purposes unrelated to terrorism and espionage. On the very same day this hashtag campaign was launching, Trump signed that bill into law. The discussion of actual surveillance policy got drowned by constant efforts to either discredit Trump (by any silly memes necessary) or to discredit the FBI investigation. What's most obnoxious about Feinstein and Schiff's response here is how it simply does not engage the complaint that the surveillance state might have abused its powers when it snooped on and possibly unmasked the identities of people in Trump's orbit. Personally, based on my experience covering the federal surveillance apparatus, I doubt the Nunes memo actually reveals illegal conduct by federal officials. That's actually part of the pr[...]

'Worse Than Watergate' Is Worse Than Watergate

Wed, 24 Jan 2018 11:30:00 -0500

"This is worse than Watergate," Americans for Limited Government President Rick Manning claimed in a column yesterday. He was referring to the news that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had failed to retain five months' worth of text messages between FBI agents Peter Strzok (who was bounced from Robert Mueller's Special Counsel investigative team last summer for sending anti-Trump text messages) and his FBI girlfriend Lisa Page. "It is clear," Manning said, "that the American people need to know what was done by the Obama FBI and Justice Department to attempt to interfere with the 2016 election and the peaceful transfer of power." If slipshod data retention of a high-ranking federal investigator's phone messages doesn't strike you as a weird comparison to a president of the United States likely ordering the destruction of key evidence in an investigation into his own crimes, that may be because you have long grown numb to the phrase "worse than Watergate." It was the title of a 2004 book (about George W. Bush) by former Richard Nixon attorney general White House counsel John Dean, and it has for decades been the designated damnation for everything from the Iran/Contra Affair to the Affordable Care Act. As I wrote on this website more than a dozen years ago, "The potency of the very word [Watergate] helps explain...why we're always searching for someone worse than Nixon, and affixing the suffix 'gate' to every half-assed Washington scandal or minor-league journalistic triumph." Projection, and minimization, are often involved—by many accounts the most enthusiastic and influential "gate"-abuser was Richard Nixon's own official counter-puncher in Washington's early-'70s propaganda wars, William Safire. Rick Manning is hardly alone in deploying the "worse than Watergate" phrase to describe Justice Department actions concerning President Trump: In recent days we've also heard from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Sean Hannity ("far worse"), Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr ("way worse"), Herman Cain, and so on. This being contemporary American politics, there's a large camp of people staring at the exact same investigation and using the exact same phrase to decorate the exact opposite conclusion. Venerated Atlantic journalist James Fallows last May authored a piece titled "Five Reasons the Comey Affair Is Worse Than Watergate." Disgraced (though not disgraced enough) former director of national intelligence James Clapper last June told reporters that "Watergate pales, really, in my view, compared to what we're confronting now." Others in the anti-Trump WTW camp include former George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter, veteran political journalist Elizabeth Drew, and (as ever) John Dean. Could either side be right? If their darkest scenarios turn out to be true, sure. Say that Donald Trump had knowledge or suspicion that Vladimir Putin had kompromat about some of Trump's sex-related activities, and that the Trump empire was leveraged to the eyeballs with dodgy Russian finance, and that these factors contributed to Trump bringing on C-level Kremlin bootlickers like Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn, through which further ties were forged, including the sharing and dissemination of illegally obtained Hillary Clinton campaign emails, and perhaps some coordination involving Trump's state-targeting strategy and Russia-bot fake-news activities, and that everyone involved in these schemes (including Trump himself) serially lied about such collusion (including to federal investigators under oath), and then after all that engaged in a series of questionable actions design to thwart and even shut down investigation into all of it—then yes, such a compounding conspiracy and the attendant paranoia would look pretty damn Watergate-ish, with the possible [...]

Trump Turns One

Thu, 18 Jan 2018 09:30:00 -0500

The 45th president does not tend to elicit measured evaluations. Since even before his formal entry into national politics in 2015, Trump has acted as a powerful magnet on the body politic—attracting and repelling onlookers with equal force. A year ago, as we prepared to see a former reality television star sworn into the highest office on Earth, predictions abounded regarding the effects he was about to have on the country and the world. On one side were confident assertions that he would repeal the Affordable Care Act, bring back manufacturing jobs, and end political correctness once and for all. On the other were fears that he was a racist and a dimwit who would certainly abuse the powers of his station and might well start a nuclear war. On the Trump presidency's first birthday, the reality is less extreme than either set of prognosticators envisioned. The Republican Party under his leadership managed one major legislative accomplishment—tax reform that cut the corporate rate and is projected to add nearly $1.5 trillion to the debt—and failed after months of wrangling to enact an Obamacare replacement. Tensions with foreign governments from Iran to Russia to North Korea continue to simmer. The stock market has followed a dramatic upward trajectory, yet anger continues to grow over perceived wealth and income inequality. With the midterm elections now 10 months away, political polarization seems to hit new highs daily, but in many ways the checks and balances of our federalist system are working to keep even the current unscrupulous White House occupant from actualizing his most ambitious plans. As the 365-day mark approaches, have we reached a milestone worth celebrating or taken just another step in our national descent to unthinkable places? Reason asked 11 experts to weigh in on Trump's record so far. From positive signs on transportation policy and regulatory rollback to a worrying rise in nationalist sentiments and redoubled efforts to cleanse the United States of undocumented immigrants, the answers were a mixed bag, highlighting just how much uncertainty awaits the country in the year to come. —Stephanie Slade TAXES AND HEALTH CARE: Victory, Sort of, Maybe Peter Suderman At the beginning of 2017, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told GOP lawmakers that the new Congress would repeal Obamacare and pass deficit-neutral tax reform by August. At summer's end, Republicans, despite holding majorities in both chambers, had accomplished neither. But eventually they would accomplish parts of each. In March, the House was set to hold a vote on legislation that would have repealed much of the Affordable Care Act while setting up a new system of related federal tax credits. Ryan was initially forced to pull the bill from the floor due to lack of support, but after making a series of tweaks intended to provide states with more flexibility, the body passed a health care bill in May. GOP leaders congratulated themselves for making progress on the issue, but the plaudits were premature. The bill stalled out in the Senate. By September, the Obamacare repeal effort was dead and Republicans had moved on to more comfortable territory: rewriting the tax code. At the center of the new effort was a significant cut to America's corporate tax rate, which at 35 percent was the highest in the developed world. Donald Trump had campaigned on slashing it to 15 percent. The GOP aimed for 20. At first, the tax effort went much like the health care effort. There were disagreements between the House, which hoped to partially offset any revenue losses with spending cuts, and the Senate, which gave itself permission to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion. Republican senators also disagreed among themselves: Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R–Tenn.) worried about sinking the country furthe[...]

Don't Blame Ron Paul for Donald Trump

Wed, 17 Jan 2018 19:45:00 -0500

James Kirchick, writing in The New York Review of Books, offers the thesis that Donald Trump and his cause are somehow the fault of Ron Paul, the former Republican congressman from Texas and two-time seeker of the Republican presidential nomination (and one-time candidate of the Libertarian Party, in 1988). Trump, the headline asserts, owes a "Debt to Ron Paul's Paranoid Style." His bill of particulars connecting Paul and Trump: Kirchick in 2007 "had obtained a trove of newsletters that the libertarian gadfly had intermittently published from the late 1970s through to the mid 1990s, which were chock-full of conspiratorial, racist, and anti-government ravings." Further, "The ideological similarities between the two men, and the ways in which they created support, are striking." Among them in policy terms are that both men spoke out against entangling military alliances and the notion that we must be relentless foes of Russia; both said things that might appeal to white supremacists; and both in their private careers helped sell things to the public that positioned them as false "guru[s] of personal enrichment." Kirchick, perhaps carelessly, seems to imply that Paul was an Obama birther like Trump, which Paul was not. At any rate, Kirchick goes on to argue with quoted examples that the strategy of newsletter-era Ron Paul "was to appeal to voters on three bases—racial animus, anti-elitism, and nativism." He rightly notes that Trump's winning campaign in 2016 played to some of the same themes (two of which are pernicious; one, anti-elitism, is not necessarily so). Kirchick declares that Paul's message "shares the limited government principles of traditional libertarianism but places a heavier emphasis on conservative social values, white racial resentment, and isolationist nationalism." This stew, he notes, fed into a portion (how large a portion Kirchick doesn't pretend to know) of Trump's fan base. Kirchick's evidence connecting Paul and Trump, then, is the reason many people know James Kirchick's name to begin with: newsletters from the 1983–1996 interregnum between two of his stints as a congressman. What Kirchick is implicitly saying is that some of the people surrounding Ron Paul in the late '80s and early '90s—people who believed there was political capital to be gained by mixing anti-government ideas with right-populist white resentment—were not the utter loons assumed by most others in the libertarian community, who watched aghast as it happened in real time. In fact, he suggests, they were shockingly prescient. (Kirchick, like nearly everyone, most certainly including me, clearly also underestimated the political power of that toxic brew.) The gap between Kirchick's evidence and his conclusions, the underappreciated fact that makes this article's causal connection between Paul and Trump fail, is that he doesn't sufficiently stress his own reportorial entrepreneurship. He forgets (or wants the reader to forget) the reason people who hadn't followed Paul closely for most of his career found Kirchick's articles a potentially gamechanging newsbreaker: The Ron Paul who ran in 2008 and 2012 evinced none of those awful qualities that Kirchick highlighted in his reporting on the newsletters (which is why it was easy for most people, supporter and enemy alike, to grant that Paul likely didn't write them in the first place). I witnessed, both in person and via video, many dozens of hours of Ron Paul campaigning in those years. He did not have a standard stump speech, so I cannot authoritatively state he never said anything bad along those lines. But I never heard them. And that an inveterate Paul enemy such as Kirchick never quotes any either lends weight to the notion that white-backlash right-populist rage of the Trump variety was no part of Ro[...]

Trump Kills Incompetent ‘Election Integrity’ Commission, But His Voter Fraud Conspiracy Theory Lives On

Thu, 04 Jan 2018 12:10:00 -0500

Last night, in an unexpected announcement, President Donald Trump dissolved his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which had been assembled in March to add investigatory heft to the president's factually ludicrous claim that between three million and five million people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The commission, operationally managed by vice chair Kris Kobach, who as Kansas Secretary of State has emerged as the nation's leading elected voter-fraud conspiracist, had been riddled from the start by a lack of transparency, brazen attempts to create a national voter database out of compelled state data, and lawsuits from its own members. Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin spells out in detail how its demise marks "a victory for federalism." But not quite a victory for rationality. The White House's brief statement begins with the defiant sentence, "Despite substantial evidence of voter fraud, many states have refused to provide the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity with basic information relevant to its inquiry." This even though Kovach, in his capacity as the official in charge of overseeing elections in Kansas, has prosecuted just nine illegal voters, eight of whom (according to Mother Jones) "were citizens who voted in two different states, and most of them were over 60 years old, owned property in both places, and were confused about voting requirements." The president this morning made a Kinsley gaffe in his tweetsplanation of the decision: Many mostly Democrat States refused to hand over data from the 2016 Election to the Commission On Voter Fraud. They fought hard that the Commission not see their records or methods because they know that many people are voting illegally. System is rigged, must go to Voter I.D. — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2018 When the purpose of your commission is to root out a partisan conception of voter fraud, rather than the titular and theoretically bipartisan goal of election integrity, choosing a hack like Kobach makes sense. An advisory body seeking to live up to its actual name would better be composed of officials and specialists with respect on both sides of the aisle (and hopefully among those many on the outside of the two-party system), while focusing on all aspects of potential integrity violations, not just the most popular claim on one side. So does this mark the end of the administration's exertions on the issue? No. Trump "has asked the Department of Homeland Security to review its initial findings and determine next courses of action," whatever that means. And his habit of foregrounding partisan electoral math in personnel and policy decisions involving nonpartisan bodies has also taken expression in the potentially influential location of…the Census Bureau. The Department of Justice last month officially requested that the Census Bureau include in its decennial questionnaire for the first time since 1950 whether respondents are citizens of the United States, arguing that the information is necessary "to fully enforce" the Voting Rights Act. (The bureau does ask about citizenship in its annual American Community Survey, which is conducted on a sample basis, and has little comparative impact.) "This is a recipe for sabotaging the census," Arturo Vargas, a member of the Census Bureau's National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations, alleged to ProPublica. Critics warn that the question, coupled with the Trump administration's increased deportations (and threats thereof) of illegal immigrants, will lead to an undercounting of households, neighborhoods, and populations with higher proportions of undocumented residents. This in turn would change the composition of the House of Re[...]

Roy Moore's Claim of 'Systematic Voter Fraud' Is at Least As Plausible As Trump's

Thu, 28 Dec 2017 13:20:00 -0500

Roy Moore, who is still refusing to concede that he lost the Senate election in Alabama on December 12, has asked a state court to block certification of the results, arguing that his opponent, Doug Jones, benefited from "systematic voter fraud." Moore's recalcitrance is too much even for Donald Trump, who supported the Republican candidate despite the credible allegations of sexual abuse he faced. The president, showing rare magnanimity, congratulated Jones on the night of the election, and two days later his press secretary said Moore's concession speech "should have already taken place." Yet as Matt Welch pointed out a couple of weeks ago, Moore's allegation that Jones stole 20,000 or so votes in Alabama is at least as plausible as Trump's claim that he would have won the popular vote in last year's presidential election if it weren't for "millions of people who voted illegally." Jones beat Moore by 1.5 percentage points, while Hillary Clinton received 2.9 million more votes than Trump, a bit more than 2 percent of the total cast. Moore cites "three national Election Integrity experts" who concluded "with a reasonable degree of statistical and mathematical certainty" that "election fraud occurred." Particularly suspicious, in their view, is the 47 percent voter turnout in Jefferson County, where Jones beat Moore by a margin of more than 2 to 1. Jefferson County, which includes Birmingham, is the state's most populous county and 43 percent black, compared to 27 percent for the state as a whole. The results in Jefferson County do not look so suspicious when you consider that Moore was repelling Democrats and socially tolerant Republicans with his views on race, religion, and homosexuality long before he was accused of sexually abusing teenagers, which presumably did not make them keener to have him represent them in the Senate. Add the Jones campaign's concerted efforts to increase turnout by black voters, and what Moore sees as evidence of fraud looks more like evidence of revulsion's power to motivate participation in an off-year election. Moore's desperation is evident from an affidavit accompanying his complaint in which he states that he "successfully completed a polygraph test confirming the representations of misconduct made against him during the campaign are completely false." According to the affidavit, "the results of the examination reflected that I did not know, nor had I ever had any sexual contact with any of these individuals." That statement contradicts Moore's admission that he knew at least two of the women who said he dated them when they were teenagers, which gives you a sense of how reliable so-called lie detectors are. Leaving aside Moore's inconsistency and the peudoscience of polygraph tests, his affidavit does nothing to bolster his complaint, since the truth of the charges against him has no bearing on whether people actually voted the way that the soon-to-be-official numbers indicate. Thin as it is, Moore's case for throwing out the election results in Alabama is stronger than Trump's argument that he acually won the popular vote last year. After he took office, Trump told members of Congress somewhere between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 presidential election. He still has not provided any evidence to back up that claim, possibly because there is none. Update: Today Alabama Circuit Judge Johnny Hardwick rejected Moore's petition, and the Alabama State Canvassing Board certified the vote. The board consists of Gov. Kay Ivey, Attorney General Steve Marshall, and Secretary of State John Merrill, all Republicans. Merrill voted for Moore but said he has seen no evidence that fraud affected the outcome of the race.[...]

Roy Moore's Trumpian Conspiracy Theorizing About Voter Fraud

Fri, 15 Dec 2017 13:35:00 -0500

Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders lamented that the concession speech from losing Alabama Republican senate candidate Roy Moore "should have already taken place." This morning, President Donald Trump said that "I think he should" concede. This makes obvious sense, in light of the 1.44-percentage-point lead that Democrat Doug Jones has in the unofficial results, well over the 0.5-point difference that triggers a recount according to Alabama law. Ever since Tuesday night, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill—a Moore supporter—has emphasized that it's "highly unlikely" the ballots will be counted again. But Moore's "the battle rages on" intransigence makes all the sense in the world when judged by the example set by Trump himself. Trump, you'll recall, made the baseless charge three weeks after the 2016 presidential election that "millions of people voted...illegally." In January, he narrowed that figure down to between three million and five million illegal votes. If true—and it isn't—that would mean that between 2.2 percent and 3.7 percent of all votes cast were fraudulent (and monolithically in favor of the Democrat). What happens if you run those same numbers on the Alabama Senate race? Why, Roy Moore has a case! The margin between the top two finishers was 20,715 votes; an illegal voting rate of 2.2 to 3.7 percent would amount to between 29,615 and 49,807 fraudulent ballots cast. Stand tall, Roy! Sadly, Trump's flippant conspiracy theorizing about polling integrity has more than just a cultural influence on the right. The president has made it the basis for his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a garbage fire of an advisory board whose vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is the leading voter-fraud fabulist in the country. Kobach, who is currently running for governor with the support of the president's son, has had ample opportunity to act upon his startling contention that "the illegal registration of alien voters has become pervasive" in his state. And yet, according to Mother Jones, in 2015 he became the only secretary of state in the country with the power to personally prosecute voter fraud cases. Since then, Kobach's office has convicted just nine people for illegal voting, out of 1.8 million registered voters in the state. Only one of them was a non-citizen. The other eight were citizens who voted in two different states, and most of them were over 60 years old, owned property in both places, and were confused about voting requirements. Among Kobach's bad ideas for the country is a massive federal database of voters (what could go wrong?). The commission is being riddled by lawsuits, including, remarkably, by one of its own members, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap (read Dunlap's Washington Post explainer for a snapshot of Trumpian amateurishness). So yes, Roy Moore and his supporters are making fools of themselves spreading hoaxes and indulging in dark fantasies about voter fraud. But such pathologies have a seat in the same White House urging him to concede, and still threaten to convert conspiracy theory into federal election law.[...]

Everything You Wanted To Know About The Volokh Conspiracy: Podcast

Wed, 13 Dec 2017 09:05:00 -0500

"Intellectual honesty isn't just refraining from lying," says UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh in the newest Reason Podcast. "It's mentioning the arguments against you and explaining why you think that they're mistaken, as opposed to just omitting them, hoping that the audience isn't going to catch on." Volokh is the founder of The Volokh Conspiracy, "one of the most widely read legal blogs in the United States" [which] "has more influence in the field—and more direct impact—than most law reviews." The blog is written by mostly libertarian and libertarian-leaning law professors and court watchers, so we're excited as hell at Reason to now be hosting the Volokh Conspiracy on our website. It will remain editorially independent from Reason, though all of our readers will find much of interest and value in its content, which ranges from in-depth yet accessible glosses on the most important legal cases of the moment to disquisitions on pop culture. Volokh explained to me a few weeks ago that the blog began chafing under its home at The Washington Post partly because of that publication's paywall and partly because the newspaper would censor curse words even when they appeared in court documents that Volokh conspiracists were analyzing. When Volokh suggested would be a good home for the blog, I instantly agreed, only adding that we would insist on publishing curse words even when they weren't strictly necessary. In a wide-ranging interview about The Volokh Conspiracy, Volokh discussed the site's aims, why he thinks the government is sometimes right to force business owners to serve customers they don't like, and his high opinion (so far) of Donald Trump's appointments to the federal judiciary. In an age of deep polarization and intellectually mendacious debates, the Volokh Conspiracy remains a straight shooter when it comes to pursuing what its contributors see as the truth. "I hope even our libertarian readers appreciate that," says Volokh, "because then they know that when we do take a view that they agree with more, that's because we really, sincerely believe it and think it's the best argument, and sometimes perhaps they see that there are some points in which conservatives, or even liberals or moderates, might be more correct than the libertarian orthodoxy." Audio production by Ian Keyser. Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="" width="100%" height="300" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.) Subscribe at iTunes. Follow us at SoundCloud. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. This is a rush transcript. Please check any quotes against audio to ensure accuracy. Nick Gillespie: Today, we're talking with Eugene Volokh. He's a UCLA law professor and perhaps better known as the proprietor of The Volokh Conspiracy, a long-running legal group blog that I am excited to announce is coming to After being its own site and then being perched at The Washington Post for a long time, it is now coming to Eugene, thanks so much for talking to us. Eugene Volokh: Thank you very much for talking to me. Gillespie: Let's talk about The Volokh Conspiracy, which is obviously the premier group legal blog on the planet, I'm willing to say. There are, I guess, certain parts of Africa and some of the 'Stan' countries, I'm not familiar with their law blogs, but I'm pretty sure that The Volokh C[...]