If we have many more weeks as full of Trump-related news as this one, the hardworking MRN staff may have to take a week off and head down to Mar-a-Lago for some R and R. But for now we’re soldiering on! This week, after a concise-yet-pretty-thorough assessment of the famous “Nunes memo,” we move on to other news and then stop and dwell on the political significance of last week’s Grammy Awards. Then we bring you an array of background links, plus some News You Can Use. And all of this is preceded by the usual encouragement/plea to share the newsletter, or parts thereof, on social media or by email.
–Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
THE WEEK IN TRUMP
At last it can be told: The long-awaited “Nunes memo”—which Trump has reportedly considered using as cause to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who initiated the Mueller investigation—was finally released. Trump opponents deemed the memo much ado about little. Trump allies took a very different view. As of Saturday Rosenstein’s job seemed safe for the time being; there would be no immediate constitutional crisis, as some had feared.
As for the substance: The memo was prepared by the Republican majority of the House Intelligence Committee, which is chaired by Devin Nunes, and its central claim is this: the FBI and Justice Department, in seeking a warrant to wiretap former Trump campaign aide Carter Page in October of 2016, failed to disclose reasons to doubt the objectivity of the source of some evidence cited in the warrant request. The allegedly tainted evidence came from the famous “Steele dossier,” prepared by Christopher Steele with funding from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. In reply, Democrats alleged that the Nunes memo (1) mischaracterized committee testimony to falsely suggest that the Steele dossier was essential to the warrant request; (2) failed to mention other evidence, not from the Steele dossier, cited in the warrant request; and (3) was wrong to suggest that the warrant request hadn’t made any mention at all of political motivations behind the Steele dossier, even if the Clinton campaign and DNC weren’t mentioned by name. Democrats also noted that, by the memo’s own account, the investigation into Russia’s alleged election meddling had begun months before the warrant request, on the basis of evidence unrelated to the Steele dossier. And a number of legal analysts seriously doubted that, even assuming the accuracy of the Nunes memo, the conduct it alleged would violate rules set by the Supreme Court for evidence disclosure in warrant requests (though others reserved judgment).
And as for Rod Rosenstein’s role: Even if accurate, the Nunes memo would seem to offer no solid basis for firing Rosenstein, who didn’t enter the Justice Department until well after the warrant request. It’s true that he signed off on a reauthorization request for the Page wiretap made nine months after the initial request. But the FISA courts require that each reauthorization request make a case for the wiretap anew, drawing on evidence gathered via the wiretap. So in this case, one expert argued, “the original ‘poison’ of the Steele memorandum did not taint the subsequent renewals” and so doesn’t taint Rosenstein. Nonetheless, within hours of the memo’s release, the group Tea Party Patriots Action put out an anti-Rosenstein video. And the Nunes memo seemed designed to facilitate such follow-up. Its artfully vague wording gives readers enough room to falsely conclude that Rosenstein signed off on the initial warrant request, when in fact he was involved only in the last of three subsequent reauthorization requests.
The view from Trumpland: All of the above is in one sense beside the point. So is the fact that a number of mainstream conservatives—people who often but not always support Trump’s policies—weren’t too impressed by the Nunes memo. (Matt Lewis called it “somewhere between a bombshell and a nothingburger—but closer to the nothingburger.”) Given our fractured media landscape, the memo will feed the view, among many in Trump’s base, that the FBI and Department of Justice are full of anti-Trump miscreants who slanted the investigation from start to finish. Indeed, less attention may be given to the legalities surrounding the FISA warrant request than to the tangled tale of FBI official Bruce Ohr, whose wife worked for Fusion GPS, which hired Steele to prepare his dossier. And this and other such tales do warrant careful scrutiny. But, given human psychology and the tribal state of our politics, careful scrutiny is not what many people will give them. So suspicions about the “deep state” will simmer, and the prospect of a constitutional crisis may arise again down the road, possibly before long.
Sell: The stock market, whose rise Trump has trumpeted as validation, plummeted the day the Nunes memo was released, dropping by an ominous (to Revelation afficionados) 666 points. But analysts called the timing coincidental; the culprit wasn’t the memo but rather data suggesting that inflation may finally be on the horizon, and with it tighter monetary policy. Over the course of the week the market lost 4.1 percent of its value. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for black Americans, whose decline Trump had taken credit for, rose appreciably.
What Reagan Wrought: In Trump’s first State of the Union address, he called (unironically) for national unity and seemed uncharacteristically presidential. The speech got lower-than-average thumbs ups from viewers, but it may well have set a SOTU record for most “human props”—people placed in the audience so the president can single them out for praise or sympathy or some other form of emotional button- pushing. In 1982, when America’s now-hallowed human prop tradition was inaugurated by Ronald Reagan, there was only one prop (Lenny Skutnik). This year there were about a dozen, ranging from a one-legged North Korean refugee to the parents of an American who died shortly after release from a North Korean prison to (needless to say) parents of children killed by members of MS-13, the Latino gang that Trump tends to mention when the subject of immigration comes up. Which it did…
Immigration Deal on Ice: Trump used Tuesday’s SOTU address to reiterate his offer to give “Dreamers” a path to citizenship in exchange for wall funding and other things, including strict limits on “chain migration” (aka “family unification”). But several Democrats booed when Trump claimed that chain migration allows “a single immigrant [to] bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.” (Politifact graded the statement “Mostly False.”) And prospects for further dialogue in the near term receded as the drumroll for the Nunes memo began.
Watchdog Subdued: Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Mick Mulvaney has stripped enforcement powers from the office charged with rooting out racial discrimination in lending, the Washington Post reported. The Post called the move “part of a broader effort to reshape an agency” the Trump administration has “criticized as acting too aggressively.”
The Week In Exits: The State Department’s third highest ranking official, 35-year diplomat Tom Shannon, announced his departure for “personal reasons.” Shannon was one of the most experienced diplomats in the department, and his departure, accordingto Bloomberg News, leaves unfilled seven of the nine senior positions listed on the department’s website. Meanwhile, one day after Politico revealed that Brenda Fitzgerald, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bought tobacco stocks, she resigned. And K.T. McFarland, Trump’s former deputy National Security Adviser, withdrew from consideration to become ambassador to Singapore. Democrats in congress have alleged that she misled them about the Trump administration’s interactions with Russia.
Korean War (cont’d): Expected nominee for Ambassador to South Korea Victor Cha, despite having won assent from the South Korean government, had his job offer revoked. The Washington Post and CNN reported that Cha lost the gig because he opposed plans for a military strike against North Korea, though the administration claims otherwise. Cha quickly published an op-ed airing his concerns about the much-discussed “bloody nose” strike scenario. Meanwhile South Korean politicians worriedthat Trump is serious about a military strike. The New York Times reports that tension is rising between the White House and Pentagon, as military officials resist presidential pressure to develop North Korea strike plans.
Nuclear War (cont’d): The Trump administration released a Nuclear Posture Review that called for the development of a new category of “lower yield” nuclear weapons that would expand the array of circumstances under which nuclear weapons could be used.
THE WEEK IN COGNITIVE EMPATHY: THE GRAMMIES
Among the feedback we got this week was an email from MRN reader Scott, who writes, “I’m digging the whole taking-readers-seriously bit.” So this week we’ll take another reader seriously. That reader is Scott.
Elsewhere in his email Scott writes that, “because MRN is starting to find its shape,” we should stick with “the exact same format” this week as last week. Since the only innovation in last week’s newsletter was what Scott calls the “POV carousel”—taking an issue and looking at it from various people’s points of view (as initially recommended by taken-seriously MRN reader Denise)—sticking with the format means repeating that exercise. So we’ll now take another spin around the carousel.
And we might as well give this feature a name. Let’s call it The Week In Cognitive Empathy—both because cognitive empathy is a fancy term for seeing other people’s point of view, and because this name has the acronym TWICE, which, as it happens, is the number of times the feature has appeared.
The subject of this week’s TWICE: The Grammy Awards.
Sunday’s awards ceremony featured a fairly viral segment in which a series of celebrities read from the famous Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury, focusing on excerpts that were particularly unflattering to Trump. The culminating celebrity was Hillary Clinton. Predictably, the spot got blowback from the right.
At the risk of massive oversimplification, there are three points of view here:
POV 1: Hillary voters in the viewing audience. They by and large loved this, presumably.
POV 2: Trump voters in the viewing audience. They were less enthusiastic, presumably. And there’s a particular subset of them who are of special interest: those who voted for Trump in part because they subscribe to the narrative that coastal “cultural elites” are, at best, indifferent to their fates and, at worst, contemptuous of them.
To these particular Trump voters, the spectacle of coastal cultural elites on stage at the Grammies bashing Trump presumably has the effect of reinforcing this narrative. After all, if you’re laughing at Trump, aren’t you laughing at the people who voted for him? And what better vindication of the view that Trump stands against the evil coastal elites than to see Hillary Clinton, the candidate he opposed, in league with them?
This reaction presumably reinforces the motivation to vote for Trump in the future. Which could be significant, since at least some Trump voters have lost enthusiasm for him and might not vote for him next time around—unless, perhaps, their motivation to vote for him is reinforced. Indeed, that kind of reinforcement might even get them to get out and vote Republican in November’s mid-term elections, when they might otherwise have sat the election out.
POV 3: The people at the Grammies who decided to do this. In one sense it’s a bit of a puzzle why these people decided to do this. After all, if I’m right about POV 1 and POV 2—if indeed the Fire and Fury bit could (however modestly) strengthen a powerful pro-Trump narrative, energize Trump’s base, and even draw some who were straying from the base back into it—then one might well ask why the anti-Trump folks at the Grammies would do something so tactically dubious.
I think the answer is that the folks at the Grammies are like the rest of us: They care deeply about the esteem of their peers. And they know that if they do a clever anti-Trump bit, their peers will love it.
I don’t mean this is necessarily their conscious motivation. Our desire for peer respect is so pervasive as to often escape our own awareness. But it’s powerful.
And if you ask why the Fire and Fury bit so predictably earned its creators the respect of their peers, the answer is in a sense tribalism. Trump’s identity as the enemy is now so well established that insulting him just feels good, and that good feeling outweighs tactical considerations that might prevail in calmer times, if the tribal lines were less deeply drawn.
This is why a deep tribal divide is so hard to heal: it leads people on both sides to do things that intensify the feeling on the other side, sustaining or even deepening the divide.
I could of course be wrong about various parts of this analysis. Maybe very few Trump voters felt their pro-Trump narrative reinforced by the Fire and Fury bit—and maybe few were watching anyway. And, anyway, isn’t there some tactical value in elites signaling their ongoing disapproval of Trump?
Could be, yes. And if the decision to do the Fire and Fury bit resulted from this kind of careful cost-benefit analyis, with due consideration for the way the bit would play with various audiences, then my hat is off to the people who made the decision. But I’m guessing there was no such calculus. And there really should be one. After all, the people who run the Grammies are powerful. And, if I may invoke the lyrics of the song Party Queen, by the punk rock band RVIVR (which, so far as I know, has never won a Grammy), “The old gods sing to me: ‘With power comes responsibility’”.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
An Axios online poll conducted on Thursday and Friday found that a much higher percentage of Democrats (64) than Republicans (38) gave the FBI a favorable rating. For independents the number was 49.
The Democrats embarrassed themselves with their “childish protests” at the State of the Union address, scolded the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank. Politico’s Michael Grunwald supplemented the economic data cited by Trump in the SOTU with some data Trump is unlikely to cite.
Democrats will find it hard to resist Trump’s immigration deal, argued Tom Edsall in the New York Times.
In Mashable, Sasha Lekach talked to experts who warn about the consequences of the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which advances the principle “that cyberattacks against America could result in nuclear war.” In The American Conservative, Mark Perry lists other unfortunate implications of the review.
Kyle Kondik of the Center for Politics lays out a district-by-district midterm election road map for Democrats, concluding “the race for House control is about a coin flip.”
Think Progress reports on a study that finds a link between Trump’s words and hate crimes in South Asia.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari did a deep dive into the relationship between Yemen’s tribes and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and came up with some policy proposals that, if followed, might reduce the number of Yemeni-killing American drone strikes.
In Dissent, Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum write about the roots of conspiracy theorizing and suggest some ways to fight it.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
Pop a Bubble: Are you tired of living in the cozy comfort of your existing world view? Does part of you yearn for the adventure of having your bedrock beliefs challenged? Or, if the answer to those questions is no, would you at least like to take a serious shot at challenging someone else’s beliefs? In a Wired piece titled “Our Best Hope for Civil Discourse Online is on… Reddit,” Virginia Heffernan recently sang the praises of a Reddit section called “Change My View.” Feel free to give it a try and report back to us about the results at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if you’re comfortable with your world view, and have no desire to challenge anyone else’s, you can use that email address to just give us feedback about the newsletter. You can even go so far as to challenge the very foundation of our world view. Good luck with that.
—by Robert Wright, Brian Degenhart, and Colleen Smith