In this week’s newsletter, after our review of a particularly eventful Week In Trump, I ask the not-very-often-asked question: Is there a way to view the Trump-Russia investigation mindfully—and is there good reason to try? Then, in our background section, we offer links to articles on things ranging from impeachment prospects to cognitive biases. And as usual, at the very bottom, we have a link you can click to share the newsletter with friends if you’ve found it useful. I encourage you to click mindfully. And if you feel the urge to click mindlessly… well, OK, go ahead.
THE WEEK IN TRUMP
The Mueller Indictments: The prevailing interpretative narrative was that Mueller is playing a crafty and tough game by indicting Paul Manafort and an associate for money laundering and other crimes while also revealing a guilty plea by George Papadopoulos, a campaign aide, for false statements. This one-two punch signals that (1) Mueller will prosecute Trump aides even for crimes pre-dating the Trump campaign; (2) he already has a cooperative witness who may be implicating people in Trump-era crimes. Takehome for Trump-circle miscreants: make your deal with Mueller before others do, while you have maximum leverage. The news about Papadopoulos may give particular anxiety to Jeff Sessions, as Marcy Wheeler was among the first to point out.
Manhattan Truck Attack: By tweeting that the alleged attacker “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”, Trump may have undermined the eventual criminal case, some said. Trump also drew fire for labeling the U.S. justice system a “joke” and a “laughing stock” that is unable to deal effectively with terrorists. The attacker had immigrated from Uzbekistan, a fact that Trump supporters cited as validating Trump’s attempts to ban immigration from some majority-Muslim countries (though Uzbekistan hasn’t been on Trump’s immigration ban lists).
New Fed Head: Trump announced that he would nominate Jerome Powell for Federal Reserve Chair to replace Janet Yellen, thus departing from the recent tradition of nominating incumbents for a second term. The consensus among establishment financial types (Steven Rattner, e.g.) was that Powell was a sensible selection—surprisingly sensible, some said, paying Trump a complisult.
Something to Offend Almost Everyone: The House GOP released its tax cut plan, but hopes were dimmed by the many interest groups expressing opposition. For example: “the National Federation of Independent Business, a small business lobby; the National Association of Home Builders; Independent Sector, which represents charities; the National Farmers Union; and even the American Institute of Architects.” On the other hand, some very wealthy people were said to have a high opinion of the plan.
FROM RUSSIA WITH MINDFULNESS
Is there such a thing as a mindful way to view an investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia? Of course—there’s a mindful way to do pretty much everything! But maybe, before talking about how to view the Mueller investigation mindfully, I should explain what I think the point of viewing it mindfully is.
One thing a mindful view can do is keep you from getting obsessed with the Trump-Russia story. Not that obsession is necessarily a bad thing! Sometimes obsession is productive, and sometimes it’s fun and harmless. But it takes time, especially when, as with this story, there are many rabbit holes to go down—long and winding chains of fragmentary evidence and speculative hypothesis.
Certainly this detective-story kind of obsession isn’t the worst kind; it beats, say, the kind of obsession that Robert DeNiro had with Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Still, if your goal is to contribute to the resistance, then you need to leave time for that contribution.
Of course, you could argue that assiduously following the Russian story is contributing to the resistance. You can tweet about the story, post on Facebook about it, and in other ways spread the word about the Trump campaign’s nefarious dealings with Russians.
But how productive is that? At some point this investigation will end, and the evidence will come out. If it is damning evidence, then Trump will suffer whatever consequences the politics of that moment permit—and at that point it may make sense to engage fully in the politics of shaping the consequences. But amplifying the (already ample) outrage now isn’t going to make those consequences more severe, and it could make them less severe. The higher we raise expectations about how damning the evidence will be, the less damning it will seem when it comes out.
If you buy this argument that there is such a thing as getting too worked up about the Russia investigation, and some virtue in being more mindful, then we are back to the question of how exactly you approach something like this mindfully.
Well, for one thing, when new evidence emerges, try to assess it calmly and objectively, without letting your feelings push you toward one interpretation or another. Here’s a multiple-choice mindfulness test, based on evidence released by Robert Mueller this week:
In May of 2016 the now-famous George Papadopoulos wrote in an email to a Trump campaign official that “Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite some time.” The campaign official forwarded the email to another campaign official and wrote, “Let’s discuss. We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”
What did the official mean by “so as not to send a signal”?
(1) He didn’t want to send a signal to Russia—didn’t, for example, want the Russians to misconstrue the level of engagement that was appropriate at this point.
(2) He didn’t want contacts with Russia to become publicly known, because they would involve illegal or unethical or otherwise politically explosive activities.
(3) He didn’t want the contacts to be publicly known, just because known contact with the Russians would be politically damaging even if the contact itself wasn’t illegal or unethical or legitimately controversial.
All three of these strike me as real possibilities. But this week the overwhelming tendency, in non-right-wing media outlets where an interpretation was offered, was to choose (2). (The one prominent exception I’m aware of is this article in The Intercept.) Now, that may be the most plausible choice. (I personally would give it a 50 percent change, compared to, say, 30 percent for (1) and 20 percent for (3).) But what’s striking is that often people who embraced (2) didn’t say they thought it was the most plausible interpretation. They stated it as a fact, as if no other interpretation were conceivable. And I’d guess that in many cases they didn’t even entertain any other interpretation; their brain steered them to the interpretation that felt the best, and that was the end of the story.
So, there is no right answer to this mindfulness multiple choice question—unless, maybe, you say you’d rather not pick any answer until you hear more evidence. And, by the way, you get extra credit if you ask this question: If the Trump campaign really had deep and nefarious connections to Russia, why would campaign officials be talking about sending a “low-level” emissary to convey a message to Russia? Wouldn’t there already be some kind of secret but robust channel of communications through which they could send such messages?
Reserving judgment in the face of ambiguity may seem like a small thing. Then again, the difference between being mindful and not being mindful is a subtle thing. And a challenging thing—our brains often don’t want us to reserve judgment. But meeting the challenge is possible (especially, imho, if you do mindfulness meditation). And if you meet the challenge a lot, you can subtly but powerfully and positive change your whole way of being. Plus, you can save a lot of time—and have enough perspective to use it wisely.
Mueller’s public support is shaky, according to polling data from Lawfare’s Mieke Eoyang, Ben Freeman and Benjamin Wittes: “more than 45 percent have low confidence in Mueller, compared to just 30 percent that have above average confidence in him … It suggests that the wide array of attempts by the President and his political allies to muddy the waters on Mueller’s objectivity are working.”
A Democratic divide is growing over impeachment, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, as billionaire impeachment advocate Tom Steyer calls House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to sideline his efforts “dead wrong.”
A Republican divide is growing over tax reform, according to Politico, between “deficit hawks,” “moderates,” “demanding conservatives,” and “the perennial leadership headaches: Rand Paul and Ron Johnson.”
Tax Policy Center’s Howard Gleckman assessed the tax plan’s “winners and losers”: “Many middle-income households are likely to pay more under this plan, not less, [and] for many taxpayers the House bill would make filing more complicated.”
In a Vox interview, a cognitive scientist explains why we all think we understand things more deeply than we do.
Exit polls in 2016 undercounted the share of white, non-college educated voters in the electorate, according to a rich new election data analysis by the Center for American Progress.
Some Notre Dame college students are trying to bring back civility in debate, reported the Christian Science Monitor. Godspeed.
Out-of-work coal miners, convinced by Trump that coal will stage a comeback any moment now, are passing up job retraining, reported Reuters.
—by Robert Wright and Aryeh Cohen-Wade with contributions from Nikita Petrov and Brian Degenhart