Issue #38: Apr 29–May 5, 2018

In this issue of MRN, we begin with our usual attempt to separate the week’s signals from its noise (and we persevere in the face of an even-finer-than-usual intertwining of the two!) and end with a suggestion for the activist-inclined who oppose torture. In between, you’ll find links to background readings plus a few words about meditation apps plus one reader’s possibly seminal aspiration to launch the first-ever virtual meetup of MRN readers.

–Robert Wright

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THE WEEK IN TRUMP

Dynamic duo: The first week of Mike Pompeo’s tenure as secretary of state was not encouraging for those who support preserving the Iranian nuclear deal and avoiding war with Iran. And it didn’t exactly discredit fears about the development of a bellicose synergy between Pompeo and recently installed National Security Adviser John Bolton, both of whom have advocated regime change in Iran.

Right after his swearing in, Pompeo flew to the Middle East. On Sunday, standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, he denounced Iran as a threat to Israel and said that “the United States is with Israel in this fight.” Pompeo had no doubt been informed that, within hours of his comments, the Israeli military would launch strikes against military installations in Syria, an attack that killed dozens of people, including both Syrians and Iranians. So it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Pompeo’s first significant act as America’s top diplomat was to embrace the lethal violation of international law and set the stage for US involvement in any ensuing war.

The next day Netanyahu unveiled an archive of covertly obtained Iranian documents that, he said, showed that Iran can’t be trusted to comply with the nuclear deal. But their upshot seemed to be only that until 2003 Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program whose existence it had never conceded. And this much had been assumed by the people who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal—a deal whose highly intrusive monitoring and inspections regime is, after all, premised on the idea that Iran isn’t necessarily to be trusted.

Nonetheless, the White House issued a statement saying the documents were “consistent with” what the US has “long known: Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide.” After people noted that the monitoring and inspection regime undermines this claim, and that Trump’s own intelligence officials have said as much, the White House amended the statement, changing “has” to “had.” It attributed the original statement to a “clerical error.” But even in Trump’s White House that degree of incompetence seemed implausible, and veteran observers surmised that the initial claim had come from Bolton, who has long professed this very belief, evidence notwithstanding.

Trump’s deadline for saying whether the US will continue to abide by the terms of the Iran deal or re-impose sanctions is next Saturday, May 12. Various people—ranging from John Kerry to European officials—are working to salvage the deal.

More immigrants face expulsion: The administration is ending the temporary protected status that 50,000 Honduran immigrants have had since 1999, the year after a hurricane hit their country. They will have to leave the US within 20 months unless they can find other legal grounds for staying. By virtue of earlier such Trump administration rulings, 200,000 Salvadorans, 45,000 Haitians, and 9,000 Nepalese also face expulsion.

Tragicomedy: The annual White House Correspondents Association dinner provided a case study in the dynamics of  tribalism. Comedian Michelle Wolf delivered a monologue that featured a riff on Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The riff was harsh, but early reports that it involved “intense criticism of [Sanders’s] physical appearance” were misleading at best; Wolf made no reference to Sanders’s physique or face, unless you count an obscure allusion to eye makeup. Still, if your tribe’s narrative is that liberal elites hold you in contempt, a phrase like “criticism of her physical appearance” can acquire a life of its own. Wolf was denigrated as a liberal villain while being lionized as a Resistance hero. She thus joined Trump in illustrating two facts about contemporary America: (1) a good way to get more famous is to generate outrage; (2) a good way to gain status within your tribe is to deepen antagonism with the other tribe.

Trump up: Public support for President Trump seemed to grow appreciably this week. According to the Real Clear Politics poll aggregator, the difference between Trump’s disapproval and approval ratings had by Friday dropped from 12.4 to 8.6 points in seven days, reaching its lowest level since May of 2017. Explanations differed: The previous week’s auspicious diplomatic signals from North Korea? Kanye West’s vocal show of support for Trump? (This theory was championed by Trump, who cited a Reuters poll of African-American attitudes toward him.) Reaction against the White House Correspondents dinner? All of the above?

Tensions not defused: Two days of trade talks with China ended with no apparent progress toward averting a trade war and with no date set for continued negotiations.

EPA exodus: Three top aides to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt quit this week, as more reports of Pruitt’s questionable associations surfaced. The Washington Post reported that Pruitt has arranged unusual foreign trips with the help of lobbyists and conservative donors, though some have been canceled after drawing scrutiny. The New York Times reported that in 2003 Pruitt bought a home with a lobbyist and then championed the lobbyist’s agenda in the Oklahoma state legislature. According to The Washington Post, more EPA departures may be coming.

Mission creep: America’s involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen is more extensive than the Pentagon had acknowledged, the New York Times reported. In addition to providing intelligence and logistical support for the Saudi bombardment, the US has placed special forces along the Saudi-Yemeni border to help find and destroy Houthi military assets in Yemen.

Cleanup on aisle Rudy: Rudy Giuliani, newly installed as one of Trump’s lawyers, sparked a contagion of confusion by saying that Trump had reimbursed Michael Cohen for the $130,000 that Cohen gave Stormy Daniels to keep her from saying she had an affair with Trump. Giuliani strained to reconcile this scenario with Trump’s earlier claim to have known nothing about the hush money, but even many Trump-friendly commentators weren’t satisfied. Trump, who had initially tweeted in seeming support of Giuliani’s remarks, then suggested vaguely that Giuliani didn’t have his “facts straight.” And Giuliani issued a statement that, while not retracting the reimbursement claim, did say that another of his remarks about the case hadn’t necessarily reflected Trump’s understanding of things. As for why Giuliani, apparently in consultation with Trump, decided to launch this public relations fiasco: One guess was that the goal had been to insulate Cohen from charges of violating campaign contribution laws, and thus reduce future pressure on him to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. (Though having reimbursed Cohen without reporting the payment could place Trump himself in legal jeopardy.) And speaking of pressure to cooperate with Mueller:

Manafort’s day in court: In a preliminary hearing, a federal judge cast doubt on whether fraud charges brought against Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, fall within Mueller’s authority. The judge said to a prosecutor on Mueller’s team: “You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud. … What you really care about is what information Mr. Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment.” The judge deferred his ruling on a request by Manafort’s lawyers that charges be dismissed, pending his review of a classified memo detailing the scope of Mueller’s authority. A ruling favorable to Manafort would reduce the chances of Mueller’s gaining his cooperation.

Other Mueller matters: The New York Times reported on 49 questions Mueller’s office had told Trump’s attorneys it would like to ask Trump. The chances of that wish being granted may have dropped when Trump reshuffled his legal team, bringing on Clinton impeachment veteran Emmett Flood, who is expected to take a more confrontational tack than did departing attorney Ty Cobb.

Nice numbers: The unemployment rate fell below 4 percent for the first time in 18 years. Trump tweeted, “3.9% Unemployment. 4% is Broken! In the meantime, WITCH HUNT!”

 

 MAILROOM

MRN reader Isaac writes in with an excellent idea:
In addition to facilitating meet ups of Mindful Resisters in physical space, would you consider facilitating meet ups in cyber space? If 4-6 other subscribers were interested I would like to organize a weekly group video chat, probably sometime on Sunday afternoons, where we could discuss the Week In Trump and some of the issues raised in that week’s newsletter.

Any chance you would be willing to put something to that effect in the newsletter and forward any interested individuals my way?

Absolutely! If any of you would like to participate in the first ever VMRM (Virtual Mindful Resistance Meetup), let us know and we’ll send you Isaac’s way. And, Isaac, if you do wind up having a meetup, feel free to discuss whether VMRM can be improved on. MRCM? (Mindful Resistance Cyber-Meetup.) MRMM? (Mindful Resistance Mind Meld.) And so on.
MRN reader Jim, from Austin, asks “how one might get started with mindfulness meditation. Is there, for an example, a smartphone app to be recommended?”

There are lots of meditation apps—Headspace10 Percent Happier, and various others. I’ve never used one, but I gather that most of them are basically content delivery systems—they put you in touch with guided meditations and other content from various meditation teachers. And, ideally, they put you in touch with such content in a way that’s more efficient than, say, meandering across the vast terrain of dharmaseed.org—though that, too, has its virtues. The question is how good a job a given app does of putting you in touch with content that works for you. The only way to find out is to try one. Sampling their content is usually free, though premium versions are, needless to say, often available.
MRN reader Jennifer writes:
I haven’t heard many people discussing a question that has bewildered me for some time now. Chemical weapons are abhorrent, but killing people via other means is just fine? Why are we more concerned with the way that people are killed than the fact that they are being killed? I don’t get it.
It’s a good question. The standard answer is this: Chemical weapons kill in particularly excruciating ways, and allow for the killing of particularly large numbers of people with relatively little expenditure of money and effort; they make atrocity easy. And they are especially effective as instruments of ethnic cleansing, the brutal displacement of entire populations. We don’t often see the horror of chemical weapons on a large scale, but that’s because the norms and laws against their use have been fairly effective—though as recently as the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, chemical weapons were used by Saddam Hussein to kill more than 50,000, and possibly as many as 180,000, Iraqi Kurds.

Some people say that, of the three kinds of weapons called “weapons of mass destruction”—chemical, nuclear, biological—chemical weapons are least deserving of that title. And, when we move from the realm of state-conducted killing to terrorism, that’s certainly true. It’s hard for only a few terrorists, even if skilled and well equipped, to use chemical weapons to kill, say, tens of thousands of people. Biological weapons, in contrast, can in principle spread worldwide via contagion and kill millions. And a single nuclear weapon can kill hundreds of thousands or, in an extremely dense urban setting, millions.

Anyway, as for Jennifer’s main point: Yes, I agree that sometimes too much emphasis is put on the kind of killing. Thus, many American foreign policy elites singled out for special condemnation Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s use of “barrel bombs” in cities. And it’s true that barrel bombs—and for that matter all “dumb” bombs—aren’t as surgical as modern “smart” bombs and so may kill more indiscriminately.

On the other hand, the people decrying the use of barrel bombs were often people who had supported America and its allies when they flooded Syria with weapons that were used by rebels to kill God knows how many people with God knows how much collateral damage. Not to mention the fact that these weapons sometimes entered the black market and wound up in the hands of the people America had hoped they’d be used to kill.

We’re all good at seeing the brutality inflicted by people we hate, and less good at seeing the brutality we inflict. And, yes, sometimes focusing condemnation on one kind of weapon rather than another abets this tendency. But the body of international law that prohibits the use of chemical weapons seems very much worth upholding—though, unlike virtually all recent American presidents, I only support upholding it in ways that are themselves consistent with international law. (I emphasized this point in my recent conversation with Damon Linker about international law, which is linked to below, in the DEEP BACKGROUND section.)

—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)

 

 

 LOCAL NEWS

Thanks to all the readers who heeded our plea to share last week’s issue of MRN on social media. The issue got more than twice as many shares as any issue we’ve ever put out. And that presumably explains the significant uptick in new subscriptions—we’ve now cleared the 8,400 mark, and the 8,500 milestone is dimly visible on the horizon.

But MRN reader Annette thinks we can do better! She writes, “You need to increase the linking buttons available so we can share to more locales on the net. LinkedIn, for example, but there are others…”

As you can see, we have not obliged Annette by adding a clickable LinkedIn icon alongside our Twitter and Facebook icons. However, we offer the following tip on how to share the newsletter—or any of its subsections—on LinkedIn or any place else (reddit, comments section of the New York Times, text message, New Jersey Turnpike billboards, etc.)

In principle our tip is simple: copy and paste the link to the newsletter or to a particular subsection of it. But following this tip is complicated by the fact that most people are reading this newsletter in their email, not on the web—so they might reasonably ask, Where is the link that I’m supposed to copy and paste?

The answer to this question can be found in our newsletter from a couple of weeks ago. Just go to this section of that newsletter and read the guidance under the word “shareable”. (Plot spoiler: Try clicking the Twitter icon at the top of this section and see if you find anything copy-and-pasteable.)

 

BACKGROUND

In the Atlantic, Philip Gordon, who helped negotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, tries to envision the consequences of Trump’s possible abandonment of the deal on May 12. 

In the Washington Post, arms control experts Colin Kahl and Vipin Narang worry that Trump’s misunderstanding of what brought North Korea to the negotiating table “could doom prospects for peacefully deescalating one nuclear standoff — and applying these misguided lessons to Iran could manufacture yet another.” 

Politico reports that Trump’s legal team is betting Mueller won’t try to indict Trump and therefore is attacking Mueller’s credibility to help ward off impeachment.

In the Nation, Aaron Mate warns that it’s unwise for the Resistance to put so much emphasis on the Russiagate scandal, because there may be less to the scandal than meets the eye.

The Washington Post reports on research from Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA suggesting that emphasizing Trump’s transgressions is of limited value in increasing Democratic voter turnout and in some cases may hurt turnout.

In the New York Times, Natalie Kitroeff asks why, as unemployment has fallen persistently, wages haven’t grown commensurately.

In the New Yorker, Robin Wright reports that Kim Jong-un’s “charm offensive” is working in South Korea, where many believe he will “more than match wits with” President Trump when the two have their summit.

DEEP BACKGROUND

Brothers Brian and Ed Krassenstein, with more than a million Twitter followers between them, are famously energetic supporters of the Resistance. A piece in ThinkProgress raises some questions about them.

The percentage of Americans lacking health insurance rose for the second year in a row, to 15.5%, after falling to 12.7% during Obama’s final year in office. Jordan Weissman notes in Slate that the increase was concentrated among Republican voters, and tries to figure out why.

A national Pew poll finds that “in the past, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to have positive views of elected officials who make compromises, but that is no longer true.”

A Wall Street Journal analysis of polling data vividly conveys, via graphics, how far from monolithic GOP voters are. The analysis separates voters who primarily support the party from those who primarily support Trump and then contrasts the views of the two groups on policy issues and on questions about Trump’s character and performance.

On bloggingheads.tv, MRN’s Robert Wright debates Damon Linker of The Week about the merits of taking international law seriously.

 

 NEWS YOU CAN USE

Next week the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will begin hearings on the nomination of Gina Haspel to be CIA Director. She faces a challenging hearing; she reportedly ran a CIA “black site” where detainees were tortured and allegedly played a role in the destruction of evidence of torture. The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a peace and justice advocacy group associated with the Quakers, is urging opponents of her nomination to contact their congressional representatives. The FCNL also suggests other tactics for building opposition to the nomination. For people in the Washington, DC area, the FCNL offers free training in grassroots activism every Wednesday at the Quaker Welcome Center

 

—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade & Brian Degenhart

 

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