In this week’s newsletter, after providing everything you really need to know about the past seven days of Trump-related news, we look at the prospects for progress on the North Korea nuclear issue. (There’s hope!) Then, in the Local News section, we hear from a few MRN readers and unveil our first Pledge Week—which, unlike the NPR version, doesn’t involve separating you from your money. Then we connect you to articles on a bunch of topics (Bannon, Berlusconi—and that’s just the B’s!). We close with an outlet for your activist energy.
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THE WEEK IN TRUMP
Big Rocket Man: Trump surprised pretty much everyone by agreeing to talk directly with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, whom he had previously called a “madman,” a “maniac,” and “Little Rocket Man.” The meeting would make Trump (whom Kim has called “a mentally deranged U.S. dotard”) the first sitting president to meet with a North Korean leader. It’s unusual for such a high-stakes, high-level meeting to be arranged on such short notice, with so little diplomatic road-paving, and observers were divided on whether it was a good idea. Some said Trump was being played—that Kim would use the visit to elevate his stature domestically and internationally, and make no big concessions. But Trump tweeted that Kim, in the meetings with South Korean officials that led to the breakthrough, had discussed “not just a freeze” of his nuclear weapons program but “denuclearization.” Very few experts think there’s much chance of North Korea dismantling nuclear weapons within the next few years, if ever. (As for why, and why the Trump-Kim summit might be good news nonetheless, see NORTH KOREA: THE CASE FOR DOUBT AND HOPE, below.)
States act on guns: Florida Governor Rick Scott, who carries an A+ rating from the NRA, defied the NRA by signing into law a gun control bill in the wake of the school shooting in his state. The new law raises the age for purchasing rifles to 21, implements a three-day gun-purchase waiting period, and makes it easier for the government to take guns from people deemed dangerous. The law also allows some teachers and school employees to carry handguns, a move the NRA supports. Still, the NRA immediately sued Florida, arguing that the 21-year-old age requirement violates the 2nd Amendment. Earlier in the week, Oregon’s governor signed the first gun law since the Florida shooting, a measure preventing domestic abusers and those under restraining orders from owning guns and ammo. Bills that would expand gun rights are moving in five other states.
Elephant-killing incentivized: The Fish and Wildlife Service overturned an Obama-era ban on importing such big-game trophies as elephant tusks and lion hides from Africa. Trump had previously expressed support for the ban, and some of Trump’s prominent allies in conservative media spoke out against the change.
Steel Wielded: Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, but the initiative had evolved significantly since it was announced a week earlier amid much criticism. Canada and Mexico will now be exempted, pending the outcome of NAFTA re-negotiations, and there may also be exemptions for others, including the European Union, which has said it will retaliate if not exempted. The New York Times said the tariffs look like “less the beginning of a [trade] war [and] more the beginning of a new round of haggling.” CNN said the exemptions weaken Trump’s argument that the tariffs are necessary for national security, making them more likely to be struck down by the World Trade Organization.
Cohn heads home: Perhaps ironically, in light of how limited the tariffs may wind up being, Gary Cohn, the top White House economic adviser, resigned after he lost the intra-administration argument against them. In addition to being a free trader, “Gary Globalist” was a moderate on such issues as immigration and was associated with the White House’s “Javanka” faction in opposition to the ethno-nationalist faction that was originally embodied in Steve Bannon and is now associated with such aides as Stephen Miller.
What comes after surreal? The Stormy Daniels case accomplished something experts previously considered impossible: it got weirder—and perhaps, from Trump’s perspective, more threatening. The adult film star filed a lawsuit against the president claiming that he failed to sign the 2016 “hush agreement” that, she says, guaranteed her silence about a 2006 sexual affair in exchange for a $130,000 payment. She contends that this failure frees her to discuss the affair. Some analysts think the lawsuit could eventually lead to testimony about the case from Trump and Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and could provide evidence that the payment violated campaign laws. Meanwhile, it emerged that Cohen had obtained a temporary restraining order preventing Daniels from speaking publicly about the alleged affair. This news didn’t exactly dampen discussion of the Daniels story, and other bits of news also helped keep it alive. (Among the odder details: Trump, apparently, was supposed to sign the non-disclosure agreement with the pseudonym “David Dennison,” but failed, perhaps fatefully, to fill in this fake name.)
Sessions versus sanctuaries: The Justice Department sued California for passing three “sanctuary state” laws protecting undocumented immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to Sacramento and vociferously defended the suit in a speech to the California Peace Officers Association, saying California’s laws “frustrate federal law enforcement” and “undermine the duly-established immigration law in America.” The Los Angeles Times editorial board rebutted: “California isn’t stopping federal enforcement … it is saying that it won’t help.”
The week in Mueller: Special Counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that, a few days before Trump took office, a Trump associate tried to establish a back channel between the Trump team and the Russian government, according to the Washington Post. The Trump associate is Eric Prince, brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and founder of the mercenary merchant Blackwater (“mercenary merchant” in the sense of actually marketing mercenaries, not in the sense of being mercenary, though Blackwater, since sold and renamed Academi, may have been that). Prince is said to have discussed the matter at a meeting in the Seychelles with a Russian banker, a United Arab Emirates crown prince, and a Lebanese American who is cooperating with Mueller and has testified about the meeting (and who, reportedly, is also suspected of illegally funneling money from the Emirates to Trump’s campaign effort). There have long been reports that Jared Kushner tried to set up a back channel to the Russian government in December of 2016, a few weeks before the Seychelles meeting.
War on drug dealers: The White House is studying the possibility of making certain kinds of drug dealing punishable by death, the Washington Post reported. Trump had earlier suggested combating the opioid crisis by executing dealers.
Resistance Rift: Laura Moser, a Texas congressional candidate who has come to symbolize tension between establishment Democrats and left-leaning progressives, beat back establishment efforts to derail her candidacy. In Tuesday’s primary she secured a place in the May 22 runoff after the official House campaign arm, in an unprecedented attack on a fellow Democrat, amplified (misleading) charges that she had denigrated Texas in 2014. Moser, a supporter of Bernie Sanders, appeared to gain votes from the attack. The May 22 runoff against the more conventionally liberal Lizzie Pannill Fletcher may become an ideological proxy war between progressive activists and the party establishment. Establishment pragmatists argue that Democrat candidates who lean too far to the left could reduce the chances of retaking the House in November’s mid-term elections.
NORTH KOREA: THE CASE FOR DOUBT AND HOPE
If you intensely dislike someone, it’s only natural to not welcome news of their triumphs. So when Donald Trump unveiled what he considered a big diplomatic triumph—an impending meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—you may have at some level not wanted the “triumph” to be a true triumph. I know that was my reaction.
And even if you managed to view this aversion to a Trump triumph mindfully, and eventually let go of it, you could still, upon rational reflection, be ambivalent about the news. After all, Trump will no doubt claim that his reckless bellicosity is what brought North Korea to the table. And this could not only bring more reckless bellicosity from him, but perhaps make his re-election more likely.
All this, I think, helps account for the virality of some tweets launched by arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis immediately after news of the Trump summit broke. Three consecutive tweets together got more than 12,000 retweets and more than 23,000 likes:
North Korea has been seeking a summit with an American president for more than twenty years. It has literally been a top foreign policy goal of Pyongyang since Kim Jong Il invited Bill Clinton. (1/3)
I wonder if Trump’s “aides” have explained that to him. Or, if in their toddler-handling, they have led him to believe that this offer is something unusual. Or perhaps he imagines that only he can go [to] Pyongyang. (2/3)
This is literally how the North Korean [propaganda] film “The Country I Saw” ends. An American President visits Pyongyang, compelled by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs to treat a Kim as an equal. (3/3)
Lest Lewis end on an entirely negative note, he added this afterthought:
PS: To be clear — we need to talk to North Korea. But Kim is not inviting Trump so that he can surrender North Korea’s weapons. Kim is inviting Trump to demonstrate that his investment in nuclear and missile capabilities has forced the United States to treat him as an equal.
It’s fitting that this last tweet got more retweets (14,000) and likes (31,000) than the three others combined, because it pretty precisely resonates with the state of mind of many of us: ambivalent, at best, about Trump being able to claim some great triumph, but recognizing the value of dialogue and hoping it reduces the chances of war, especially nuclear war.
But how hopeful can we really be, given that Lewis’s view is the consensus view in the arms control community—namely that North Korea is very unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons in the near future and pretty unlikely to give them up in the distant future? I’d say we can be guardedly hopeful—not hopeful that North Korea will denuclearize, but hopeful that the chances of a massively lethal calamity will drop.
First, it’s important to understand some powerful reasons Kim is unlikely to surrender his nuclear arms:
1) Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear program in exchange for the US ending sanctions, and, some years after thanking him, the US bombed Libya and supported a regime change operation that led to his death.
2) Saddam Hussein, having abandoned his nuclear weapons program, acceded to US demands that UN inspectors enter the country to verify this fact, but the US ordered the inspectors out of the country and launched an invasion of Iraq that led to his death.
3) The US reached a deal three years ago that rolled back Iran’s nuclear research program and intensified international monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities, and now Trump says he plans to renege on the deal and tear up the agreement—indeed, he has already started undermining the deal. And there are rumblings about military conflict with Iran.
If Gaddafi and Hussein had possessed a nuclear deterrent, they’d probably be alive; countries with nukes tend not to get bombed or invaded. And Iranian leaders may have cause any day now to wish they had a nuclear deterrent. In short, Kim Jong-un would have to be crazy to de-nuclearize anytime soon.
Which brings us to the good news: Kim Jong-un isn’t crazy.
Remember: Russia and China have long had the power to, respectively, destroy and decimate America. One among several reasons they haven’t done so is that their leaders aren’t crazy; they would prefer not to die in a retaliatory nationwide immolation. Well, there’s never been any good evidence that Kim Jong-un is any less rational or self-interested than leaders of Russia and China (notwithstanding the occasional hysterical headline).
Even Kim’s seemingly reckless behavior—testing nukes and ballistic missiles after Trump (recklessly) warns of grave consequences—isn’t all that reckless. Kim knows that America knows that any sustained attack on North Korea would produce, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of dead South Koreans and US soldiers—not via nuclear assault, but via conventional artillery barrage. He has very good reason to think Trump is bluffing.
And, there’s more evidence of Kim’s rationality. All those “reckless” missile and nuke tests have gotten him what he wants: recognition of his stature in the form of a summit with a US president.
So, though a world without nukes would be nice, we don’t really need North Korea to denuclearize in order to keep the chances of nuclear war roughly where they’ve been for decades. Deterrence can work with North Korea as it has worked with China and Russia.
What we do need is to reduce the chances of some grave misperception, such as Kim’s mistakenly thinking the US has launched an attack and reacting accordingly. And (so long as Trump is president) we need to reduce the chances of the US actually launching an attack. (Yes, Trump on any given day is probably bluffing. Still…)
In principle, progress on this front is doable. Just normalizing relations with North Korea, and opening up channels of communication, should reduce the chances of a grave misperception by Kim and an attack by Trump. (Normalization could mean, among other things, formally ending the Korean War, which technically was put on hold by the 1953 armistice agreement.) Easing sanctions would also help, since commerce between countries makes them less likely to attack each other, both by making them more interdependent and by encouraging fine-grained communication. And, of course, having fewer starving North Koreans would be a nice bonus.
Presumably the easing of sanctions would come in exchange for something—like a moratorium on missile tests and/or nuclear tests. But the fact is that the easing would, in and of itself, be good for all concerned. That’s the way non-zero-sum games, such as commerce and avoiding nuclear war, work; outcomes can be win-win. It isn’t the case that everything we “give” to North Korea is a loss for us.
There’s one other benefit to lifting the sanctions, and it’s pretty big. Arguably, the greatest nuclear threat North Korea poses to the world has nothing to do with missiles. It has to do with the prospect that a North Korean leader, desperate to feed his impoverished people (or face their wrath), would start selling nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. So the less desperate the North Korean leader, the better off we all are. And, again, making life better for the long-suffering North Koreans would be a nice bonus.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
Remember, from last week’s newsletter, Vivian of southern California—the MRN reader who wanted to find out if there are any mindful resistance meetups in her area? We have good news: MRN reader Evan writes in to say that he too is in southern California and likes the meetup idea.
So if you live in the LA area and feel a fresh energy emanating from somewhere, there’s a chance it’s coming from the first southern California Mindful Resistance meetup! Of course, there’s also a chance it’s all in your head, or that a nearby nuclear reactor has melted down. Anyway, if you’re in southern California and you’d like to add your energy to any such endeavor, just email us and we’ll put you in touch with the right people. (We’re very well connected.)
Meanwhile, in northern California—way northern, like hours north of San Francisco– there’s MRN reader Cathy, who writes, “When readership grows, I would be interested in helping form a group in the Eureka/Arcata area in Humboldt County, CA.” So if you’re in Eureka/Arcata…
But back to Vivian and Evan. If you’re wondering what they have in common (aside from the letters v, a, and n), it’s this: They’re both generous.
Vivian writes, “Please let me know if/how I can support your mission.” Evan writes, “I would gladly pay a subscription to support what you do and keep it ad free…Patreon or other platform.”
Which brings us to: Our first ever Pledge Week. But this isn’t like NPR’s pledge week, for two reasons.
1) We’re not interrupting any programming—you can just scroll down the page if you want. (But you’re better than that, right?)
2) We’re not asking for money!
Here’s what we ask: Go up to the top of the newsletter, and use the email icon to forward this newsletter to three friends you think might appreciate it.
Or, if you don’t have three friends you think would appreciate it, email us at email@example.com and tell us how we could make the newsletter more interesting to your friends! (We’re sure they have good taste.)
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
In Foreign Policy, arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis explains why he thinks Trump’s North Korea talks could have a very bad outcome. In Axios, Barbara Slavin argues that the talks could wind up saving the Iran nuclear deal.
Politico’s Zachary Karabell argues Trump doesn’t have the power to start a full-blown trade war.
In Politico, Bill Scher does a deep dive into the tension between the Democratic party establishment and progressive activists, a tension manifest in last Tuesday’s primary vote in Texas’ 7th Congressional District.
The Trump administration, in a surprise move, defended the Affordable Care Act by refusing to let Idaho permit the sale of insurance plans that don’t include Obamacare’s consumer protections.
Does the West Virginia teachers’ strike augur a new wave of labor action?
Management at Sinclair, the biggest owner of local television stations in the U.S., is instructing local news anchors to insert a pro-Trump script into news broadcasts.
The Weekly Standard’s David Byler cautions that Trump’s bad poll numbers don’t mean he can’t win in 2020.
Polls show a (slight) decline in support for Trump’s tax reform law, says New York’s Eric Levitz.
In The New York Times, Sam Dolnick profiles a liberal who reacted to Trump’s election by going seriously off the grid—working hard to “avoid learning about anything that happened to America after Nov. 8, 2016.”
In Slate, Yascha Mounk compares Trump to Italy’s Berlusconi.
NYT reports that Steve Bannon is in Europe, where he aims to become “the infrastructure, globally, for the global populist movement.” (That’s right: He doesn’t say he wants to build the infrastructure; he says he wants to be the infrastructure.)
A study of Twitter shows that false new stories spread more quickly than true ones. (Then again, false news stories are typically designed to be viral, whereas true stories, though perhaps selected and shaped by considerations of virality, are somewhat constrained by reality.) And the journal Science published a piece on how to study the fake news problem more systematically.
Juliet Macur profiled a small town in Indiana suffering from an epidemic of drug abuse and youth suicide.
Farhad Manjoo and Mark Oppenheimer each wrote about how taking an extended break from social media changed their understanding of the news (though how extended Manjoo’s break actually was has been called into question).
In NYT, Katherine Mangu-Ward argues that much left-right conflict on social media and elsewhere involves a “smugs-versus-trolls” dynamic.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
As early as this coming week, the Senate could vote on a resolution that could ultimately lead to an end to American support of the Saudi-led military campaign against Yemen, which has led to thousands of civilian deaths and shows no signs of ending. Currently the US provides crucial logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi coalition, not to mention weapons.
The resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 54, introduced by Republican Senator Mike Lee, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, would force a Senate vote on whether to continue the support. Here Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy (one of at least 40 NGOs that have endorsed the resolution) makes the case that passage of the resolution is within reach, and names several senators whose votes could be crucial. If you want to encourage your senators to vote in support of the resolution, here are the basic avenues through which to convey that message.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade & Brian Degenhart