Issue #41: May 20–May 26, 2018

Note: After next week’s issue, the newsletter will go on an extended summer vacation. Next week I’ll elaborate on what “extended” means. And this week (see “Mailroom” section, below) I ruminate a bit on why we’re taking a long break. As for how we’ll spend the break: Well, in addition to lying in hammocks sipping mint juleps, we plan to spend some time thinking about how to improve the newsletter. You can help us do that by taking this very short survey.

–Robert Wright

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 THE WEEK IN TRUMP

Broidygate: Details about how Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates used money to influence Trump’s foreign policy continued to accumulate—and the story took on newly sordid overtones. The Associated Press did a deep dive into former RNC official Elliot Broidy’s multi-pronged effort to get Trump to side with the two countries against their rival Qatar. The AP piece left little doubt about Broidy’s motivation; after he reported success in (for example) convincing Trump to meet with UAE’s crown prince, a company of his landed a UAE contract worth up to $600 million. But what about Trump’s motivation? Why was he so amenable to Broidy’s entreaties?

Well, at about the same time, in a deal negotiated by Trump attorney Michael Cohen, Broidy paid Playboy playmate Shera Bechard $1.6 million to guarantee her silence about an affair she had that resulted in an abortion. Ostensibly, the affair had been with Broidy. But in New York Magazine, law professor Paul Campos has argued—speculatively but powerfully—that the affair was with Trump. And this week that theory gained currency via a Washington Post piece by Paul Waldman, who linked the playmate payoff specifically to the UAE and Saudi influence campaigns. In this scenario, Broidy increased the influence he could exercise with Trump on behalf of those two countries by doing Trump a dual service: he provided the hush money, and he implicitly agreed that, in the event that the payoff was revealed, he would be the fall guy. Since the larger goal of the anti-Qatar campaign was to undermine Iran, that means that at least some increment of the ferocity of Trump’s ongoing anti-Iran campaign may be a byproduct of a past sexual indiscretion—and of an abortion that, if publicized, might not sit well with Trump’s evangelical base.

Trump’s war on Iran (cont’d): Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed that the US will impose “the strongest sanctions in history” on Iran unless it meets a list of demands that, pretty much all observers agree, it isn’t going to meet.

Investigation investigated: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein responded to Trump’s demand for an investigation of possible “spying” on the Trump presidential campaign by referring the matter to the Justice Department’s inspector general. Trump’s demand grew out of reports that an FBI “informant” communicated with Trump campaign advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos after the FBI learned of suspicious contacts they had with Russians. There was disagreement about whether Rosenstein, in accommodating Trump, had ill-advisedly and dangerously damaged a norm against presidential interference in the Justice Department or had done a good job of damage control.

Korean summit put on pause: Trump cancelled his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But the letter announcing the cancellation left open the possibility of continued dialogue, and the next day—after a conciliatory North Korean response—Trump said the summit might still take place, possibly even on June 12. In justifying the cancellation, Trump had cited bellicose rhetoric emanating from North Korea. That rhetoric had come in response to remarks by administration officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, that North Korea deemed threatening. Some observers said Bolton had skillfully sabotaged the summit; he reportedlyadvocated the cancellation, whereas Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opposed it.

Chinese trade war put on pause: After three days of talks with Chinese negotiators, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that “we are putting the trade war on hold.” The US will hold off on its threatened $150 billion in tariffs and will roll backsanctions against a big Chinese telecom firm; China, for its part, said it would hold off on retaliatory tariffs and would increase purchases of American goods by an unspecified amount. Mnuchin said negotiations would continue, but some observers predicted little near-term progress, and Trump seemed to corroborate their doubts with a somewhat opaque tweet: “Our trade deal with China is moving along nicely, but in the end we will probably have to use a different structure in that this will be too hard to get done and to verify results after completion.”

Banking regulations relaxed: Trump signed legislation loosening the “Dodd-Frank” bank regulations enacted after the financial crash of 2008. The bill, supported by 16 Democrats in the Senate and 33 in the House, exposed fault lines in the Democratic Party. Progressive populists like Sen. Elizabeth Warren opposed it vociferously. But the Democratic namesakes of Dodd-Frank—former Sen. Chris Dodd and former Rep. Barney Frank—have argued that the changes are “not a big hand out to Wall Street” and that they provide needed relief to community banks and credit unions. The Washington Post noted that Frank now sits on the board of a mid-size bank.

Non-cushy jobs: Trump issued executive orders that will make it easier to fire civil servants and will reduce the amount of their work time they can spend on union activities.

Jared cleared: Jared Kushner has finally been given a permanent security clearance, allowing him access to top-secret intelligence, the New York Times reported. The clearance had been held up by questions about Kushner’s entanglements with various foreign actors. As it happens, this Times report comes a week after the Times reportedthat the Qatari government is on the verge of helping to bail out the financially troubled real estate business controlled by Kushner’s family.

Don’t meet the press: The EPA barred The Associated Press, CNN, and the environmental news organization E&E from a meeting on water contaminants. Other reporters were allowed to attend, but journalists from these organizations were told the room was at capacity, and some were forcibly removed.

MAILROOM: WHY IS BIGGER BETTER?

A few weeks ago, MRN reader Denise emailed us with a good question: Why is bigger better? She was replying to my call for readers of the newsletter to spread the word about it on social media. I had said that, though we had reached the 8,300 subscriber mark, subscription growth had slowed, so we could use a boost.

She wrote, “I wonder about the desire for this and so many other things good unto themselves to spread. Is it the ‘resistance’ part? That 8k resisters just aren’t enough?”

Since the slowed subscription growth is connected to the fact that this newsletter will take an extended summer vacation after the next issue, I figured I’d address Denise’s question and say a bit about the connection.

The question itself—Why is growth so commonly sought?—is one I’ve often pondered. For example, I live near a college, and until recently one of its virtues was that it was small enough so that students could get from one class to the next by walking and without fear of being tardy. But now the college has expanded its student body and the size of its campus to a point where that’s no longer the case. The college has become a less intimate place. Something in its character has been lost.

If you asked the college’s trustees why they keep expanding, they’d probably say something like, “Well, we like to think that this college does some good. And, of course, the more good the better.”

If ever there was a piece of logic that’s hard to argue with, it’s “the more good the better.” (Try arguing for the position that more good isn’t better and see how you do!) And I guess that’s what I’d say about this newsletter: We like to think we’re doing some good, and the more good the better.

Or, to put a finer point on it: When Denise asks her question—“8k resisters just aren’t enough?”—our answer is: Well, when what you’re resisting is what Donald Trump represents, more resisters is definitely better.

Of course, there’s also the question of whether the newsletter really is doing much good—whether we’re really making people in any sense better resisters. If we’re not, then doubling or tripling the number of people we’re reaching isn’t worth the trouble.

Answering that question is hard; impact is famously hard to measure. But I think the impact question is related to another part of Denise’s email. After asking about “the desire for this and so many other things good unto themselves to spread,” she wrote, “Is spreading the natural result of people enjoying a thing? And then therefore, not spreading = not enjoying?”

Actually, yes, I think that, as a rule, if people are really enjoying something, really getting something out of it, it is likely to spread. And, though providing enjoyment isn’t the ultimate purpose of this newsletter, I think that if it’s doing the kind of good it aims to do, readers should find it gratifying in some sense. If a newsletter like this is really fulfilling its mission—being the best newsletter it can be—then readers should feel inspired to spread the word.

And that doesn’t seem to be happening on a very large scale. Those social media icons you see in this newsletter aren’t getting clicked a whole lot. On weeks when I make a salient and strong appeal for people to click them, the click rate goes up, but not astronomically. And then the next issue it goes back down.

I take this to mean that this newsletter needs to change. And so long as we’re putting the newsletter out each week, it’s hard to reflect very deeply on how it should change—or to carefully ponder the question of what changes are feasible, given the limits on our resources. I mean, sure, if I had no other vocational obligations, I could work on this newsletter each week and still have plenty of time to think about it’s future. But that’s not the case, and lately my overall workload has felt pretty oppressive.

So we’re going to take some time off, gather some information about what readers like and don’t like about the newsletter, what they’d like more of and what they’d like less of, and then we’re going to try to envision a version of the newsletter whose impact would justify the amount of work that goes into it.

That could lead to a couple of things: A newsletter that involves as much work as the current version involves (maybe even more!) but has more impact than this version has; or a newsletter that has roughly as much impact as this version has but involves less work (maybe a stripped-down version that retains most of what readers are finding valuable). Or it could lead to something else.

So we’re taking a long break to think about this. Next week I’ll say more about what I mean by “long” (something that, at the moment, I’m still trying to figure out). Meanwhile, you could do us a great service by taking a short survey about the newsletter and/or dropping us a line with your thoughts on the matter: feedback@mindfulresistance.net.

–Robert Wright

BACKGROUND

In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman, writing about Trump’s claim that the FBI planted a “spy” in his campaign, argues that the media needs to stop letting Trump’s reckless rhetoric set its agenda.

In The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald reports that the man identified as the FBI’s “informant”—or, as Trump would have it, its “spy”—did once serve as a spy during a presidential campaign. In 1980 he oversaw an operation, involving CIA operatives, that secretly shared internal information about the Carter administration’s foreign policy with the Reagan campaign.

Republicans are preparing a new push to repeal Obamacare, Stephanie Armour and Siobhan Hughes report in the Wall Street Journal.

In the Arizona Star, Curt Prendergast and Perla Trevizo write about parents who are separated from their children in the course of being prosecuted for illegal immigration.

Patrick Eddington writes in Slate about a gadfly activist in Arizona who is challenging the constitutionality of Customs and Border Police internal checkpoints.

In the Christian Science Monitor, Scott Peterson reports on how Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is being processed in Iran.

In The American Conservative, William Hartung and Ben Freeman report on how Saudi Arabia used its “well oiled lobbying machine” to help kill the Iran deal.

The title of this piece by Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution is self-explanatory: “Don’t let Israel and Saudi Arabia drag the U.S. into another war.”

In the New Yorker, Robin Wright argues that Trump’s “all-or-nothing” style of diplomacy “intrinsically increases the dangers of conflict.”

Bloomberg’s Yalman Onaran views the Dodd-Frank rollback as one of “1,000 Cuts to Dodd-Frank,” while Politico’s Michael Grunwald questions the “Dodd-Frank freakout” on the left.

 

DEEP BACKGROUND

In Bloomberg, Cass Sunstein argues that terms like “political polarization” don’t fully capture the degree of conflict in the US today; he says we are in nothing less than a “Manichaean moment.”

Last month in the New York Times magazine Nitsuh Abebe argued that the “devil’s advocate” is an endangered species and blamed this on the fact that social media platforms have “turned all speech into public pronouncements.”

In Wired, Jason Pontin offers “four rules for learning how to talk to each other again.”

Recode publishes an infographic of media company ownership. Plot spoiler: a small number of companies have a lot of power!

The Nation examines the consequences of the Toys R’ Us shutdown on 30,000 mainly low-wage employees, on highly paid executives, and on the private equity companies that bought the company in 2005.

CNN’s Julia Horowtiz contends that China is “playing the long game” against Trump, “standing firm on big issues” while “buying years of goodwill and geopolitical influence” with global investments in infrastructure.

In The Intercept, Jon Schwarz argues that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s views on foreign policy are “largely indistinguishable from the Republican Party in general and Trump specifically.”

study in the journal PLOS One found that, before the 2016 presidential election, “Republicans showed greater in-group favoritism than Democrats,” whereas after the election, “Republicans no longer showed in-group favoritism, while Democrats showed out-group derogation.”

 NEWS YOU CAN USE

On June 12th, the second anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, a group of students and activists from across the nation will hold a National Die-In Day to honor those whose lives have been lost to gun violence and to push for stricter gun control laws. The organizers hope to bring over 100,000 activists to Washington, DC for the event in addition to holding hundreds of smaller gatherings across the country. If you feel like advocating for tighter gun control, you can find details via the National Die-In Day Twitter account.

 

—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart,
Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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