Issue #28: Feb 11–Feb 17, 2018

MRN’s hardworking staff, which had been hoping for a leisurely holiday weekend, is wondering why Robert Mueller had to release his latest big indictment on a Friday. Meanwhile, we offer you a summary of the week’s (ample) Trump-related news, then some reflections on responding mindfully to tragedies like the Florida school shooting, then a lot of backgrounds links, then some news you can use, and then, finally: the latest addition to our Most Beloved Readers list.   

–Robert Wright

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Mueller goes global: The special counsel indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations for violating various laws, including laws against foreigners spending money to influence American elections. The White House issued a statement saying the indictment “indicates” that “there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia.” A truer characterization would be that the indictment doesn’t say there was collusion but doesn’t say there wasn’t. It does say that at least some people associated with the Trump campaign were “unwitting” in their interactions with Russian operatives who had concealed their identities. In any event, the indictment is the first formal allegation of Russian election interference to emerge from the investigation, and it is highly detailed. And by alleging a number of specific crimes, the indictment implies, as the BBC noted, “that any Americans who had knowledge of the Russian activity participated in a criminal endeavour and consequently could be vulnerable to prosecution.”

Narrative complication: One item in the indictment Trump is likely to emphasize: shortly after the election the Russians covertly supported not only a pro-Trump demonstration but a demonstration “protesting the results of the 2016 US presidential election.” This and other assertions in the indictment are consistent with the longstanding view that the goal of Russian election interference wasn’t just to help Trump but to disrupt the American political system and thwart Hillary Clinton. (The indictment says the Russian initiative began in 2014 and that the Russians worked to help Bernie Sanders during the primaries, even as they worked to harm Trump rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.) This doesn’t preclude the possibility that there was a quid pro quo between Trump and the Russians, but it complicates that narrative. (Though the item in the indictment that seems to most complicate the narrative could be in that respect misleading; it’s conceivable that the demonstration to protest the election results was set in motion before the election, when a Clinton victory was presumed, and the Russians never pulled the plug on it.)

Mass shooting at a Florida high school: After the second deadliest shooting at an elementary or secondary school in American history, Trump promised to make schools safer by tackling “the difficult issue of mental health” but didn’t address gun control, and was widely criticized by liberals for that omission. (The National Rifle Association spent $30 million supporting Trump in 2016, more than it had ever spent on a candidate.) In media and social media there was much support for a new gun control push. Of course, that’s standard post-mass-shooting procedure, and is typically followed by legislative inaction and waning activist energy. But this time there is a twist that could prove significant: a number of students who lost friends and classmates in the shooting are using social media to demand gun control legislation.

When talking points converge: The FBI admitted that it had failed to follow up on a warning last month that the Florida shooter was dangerous and might commit a school shooting. Some conservative outlets that had criticized the FBI over its role in the investigation of the Trump campaign criticized it anew, on fresh grounds. Florida’s Republican Governor, Rick Scott, called for the resignation of FBI Director Christopher Wray.

DREAMers deferred (cont’d): The Senate failed to muster the requisite 60 votes for any of four different immigration proposals designed to secure continuation of the DACA program, which allows undocumented immigrants who came as children (“DREAMers”) to stay and work in America. The plan most closely associated with Trump’s immigration proposal, which pairs restrictions on legal immigration and money for a border wall with a path to citizenship for DREAMers, received the fewest votes. The urgency of settling the DREAMers’ fate receded last month after a court injunction put on hold the order by Trump that would have ended DACA on March 5. A second federal district judge this week issued a similar injunction. The Supreme Court is expected to decide on Tuesday whether it will expedite a review of the case.

Stormy with a chance of more storms: Trump attorney Michael Cohen said the $130,000 paid to porn star Stormy Daniels, allegedly to keep her quiet about a 2006 affair with Trump, came out of his own pocket. But his wording left open the possibility that he had been reimbursed by Trump. Meanwhile, The New Yorker reported that a Playboy model had also been, in effect, paid to keep quiet about a 2006 affair with Trump. In this case the payment ($150,000) came from the National Enquirer, which is run by a close friend of Trump’s, and was ostensibly for the exclusive rights to her story—a story the Enquirer never ran. The payment was made a few days before the 2016 election.

Budget fudge: The Trump administration released its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019, which features steep cuts for the EPA, the State Department and anti-poverty programs (including a much-criticized proposal to slash money for food stamps and instead offer food boxes). The White House said the budget would save $3 trillion over 10 years, but said this claim is contradicted by the budget’s own “Budget Totals” section, which shows annual deficits through 2025 higher than last year’s deficit. The good news: A president’s proposed budget often bears little resemblance to the spending that will actually be authorized by Congress.

Travel ban loses again: For the second time, an appeals court ruled against Trump’s travel ban. The Fourth Circuit decision invoked Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric in concluding that animus toward a religious group lay behind the ban.

Infrastructure Week! The administration finally released a “Legislative Outline” of its infrastructure plan. The 53-page document envisions $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending, but only $200 billion of that would come from federal funds. The rest would come from state and local governments, which could raise money by taxes or bonds or by tapping the private sector. Critics argued that reliance on the private sector would steer money away from worthwhile projects that wouldn’t turn a profit. Trump signaled support for a 25-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax hike to help pay for the proposal, though one analysis estimates that would eat up 60 percent of the benefit from the recently enacted income tax cuts. And, since gas taxes are “regressive”—that is, the lower your income the bigger a fraction of your income they consume—the rich, who benefited disproportionately from the tax cuts, would see those benefits barely touched, while many lower income people would see their benefits substantially eroded.

If there’s one Korea Pence won’t stand for… Vice President Pence, who had drawn notice at the Olympic opening ceremonies for not standing when North and South Korean athletes marched together under a flag showing a unified Korea, seemed to recalibrate his attitude shortly thereafter. In an interview with the Washington Post on the plane back from the Olympics, Pence indicated that the US was abandoning its previous refusal to talk to North Korea until the communist country takes steps toward denuclearization. The US will persist with sanctions on North Korea but “if you want to talk, we’ll talk,” he said.

An insecure administration: Fallout from the resignation of Staff Secretary and alleged spouse abuser Rob Porter continued. Congressional testimony by FBI Director Christopher Wray seemed to contradict White House claims about how long ago  the security checks on Porter that unearthed the allegations had been completed. And NBC News reported that, as of late last year, over 100 top White House officials, including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, were working without a full security clearance. Chief of Staff John Kelly issued new rules that will restrict the access to classified information of staffers who have only interim security clearances. Speculation that Kelly might resign over the Porter fiasco was intensified by the Wray testimony but receded as news about the Florida school shooting and the Mueller indictments moved to center stage.

Thanks, Obama! According to a Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general report, VA Secretary David Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and airfare for his wife during a European trip. His chief of staff, who allegedly made false representations to an ethics lawyer and altered a relevant email, will retire, the department announced Friday. Shulkin is the only holdover from the Obama administration in Trump’s cabinet.

America’s longest war: More than sixteen years after the US invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban issued a letter calling on the US to begin peace talks.



How do you respond mindfully to a mass shooting at a high school? There are at least two things that question can mean. 

(1) How do you deal mindfully with the emotions aroused by the shooting? For example: feelings like fear and anxiety (which you may feel if you have a school-aged child); or outrage (if you think politicians should offer better policy responses than they’re offering); or despair (if you believe politicians will never change, or you just feel that things are spinning out of control).

A meditation teacher, if asked this question, might say something like: you should experience these feelings mindfully, and this may give you a kind of critical distance from them, so they don’t dominate and distort your thinking.

And a meditation teacher trained in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) might add some facts to facilitate this perspective.

For example: There are more than 50 million public school students in America. So, to judge by the school shooting statistics of the past two years, the chances of a child of yours dying in a school shooting this year are less than one in a million.

And when you read about the “18 school shootings” that have occurred in 2018, remember that this statistic rests on a broad definition of a school shooting: the discharging of a firearm on school grounds. In about half of these “shootings,” no one was shot. Some of the others were either suicides or led to injuries but not deaths. If you define a mass shooting as a shooting that kills at least four people—as this Washington Post tally does—there have been two mass shootings at schools over the past three years (plus one at a college).

Obviously, none of this means we don’t have a serious problem here. As that Washington post tally shows, the number of mass shootings, including school shootings, has been clearly if unevenly rising over the past few decades.

Besides, the damage done by mass shootings doesn’t stop with the physical casualties. Whether or not these shootings are labeled “terrorist” they have the psychological impact that terrorism is meant to have. And the terror isn’t confined to the communities where they happen. I recently learned that one of my daughters was for years afraid to go to movie theatres because of a much-publicized shooting at a theatre.

If more people responded mindfully to mass shootings—experienced their emotional reactions without being dominated by them—these psychological wounds would be at least somewhat lessened. And if enough people reacted mindfully, there might be healthy second order effects.

After all, the less enthralled you are by your emotions, the less time you’ll spend clicking to see the latest (quite possibly erroneous) update on the shooter’s personal history. And the less such clicking there is, the less the media will inundate us with unsettling, and sometimes traumatizing, imagery.

What’s more, with fewer pictures of a mass shooter popping up on websites and TV screens, troubled souls might be less inspired to emulate the shooter. Nikolas Cruz, the Florida shooter, had reportedly written on a website this fall, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” When people say they’re going to be a professional  anything, that often means that, somewhere along the way, a role model got their attention.

All of this leads to the second meaning of the question about how to respond to a school shooting mindfully: (2) How do we as a society respond to the school shooting calmly but deliberately, with careful attention to the most important factors? In other words, how do we react in ways that will reduce the number of future shootings and the toll they take?

Well, for starters we can hope that, as I’ve already suggested, there is a connection between the first and second meanings of the question. In other words, the more people there are who react mindfully in the first sense—the more people who deal with their emotional reactions to the shooting skillfully—the less of a psychological toll the shootings will take on the public; and, maybe, the less likely each shooting will be to inspire emulation.

Maybe. But all of this highlights a challenge for those of us who aspire to mindfulness. Even if our natural reaction to mass shootings is in some sense an overreaction—based, implicitly or explicitly, on an exaggerated idea of how prevalent such shootings are—doesn’t this “overreaction” have the welcome effect of mobilizing public opinion, galvanizing us into doing something about what is clearly a serious and growing problem? If people, in pursuit of mindfulness, become so dispassionate about these shootings that they quit worrying about how to curtail them, then what pressure will politicians feel to address the problem?

This is a critical question, not easily answered. But I think part of the answer is that the intense passion aroused by mass shootings often fails to translate into meaningful reform anyway. After the Las Vegas concert massacre, there was a burst of enthusiasm for banning “bump stocks.”

You’d think that would be uncontroversial, since a bump stock basically transforms a semi-automatic rifle into a machine gun—and machine guns are illegal. But nothing happened, and much of the passion eventually faded; outrage is a hard thing to sustain. And if the murder of 58 concertgoers wasn’t enough to sustain it, what would it take?

One reason the National Rifle Association is such a powerful lobby is that it has a big base of supporters whose passion is less prone to fading. They keep giving the NRA money, and they can be counted on to punish politicians who defy the NRA’s will. There are plenty of people on the other side of the issue, but they don’t have the same passion—or, at least, their passion waxes and wanes, depending on when the latest mass shooting was, on where exactly we are along the nation’s emotional roller coaster.

Mindfulness doesn’t numb you to your emotions, but it makes them less of a roller coaster. It brings a measure of equanimity. So commitment to a cause—a commitment likely to fade if based on the passions of the moment—can endure. What’s more, a mindful attitude can preserve a sense for the big picture—like, for example, the fact that, even aside from mass shootings, thousands of Americans are killed by handguns every year.

At least, in theory mindfulness can bring all these things. I don’t want to understate the danger that meditative calm can subdue the activist impulse. This can happen, and I’ve seen it happen.

So we’re left with a deep challenge for the mindful activist: loosening the grip of emotional reactions—like fear and outrage—that might have been energizing in their own way, while preserving a different kind of energy, a tightly focused concern that can coexist with equanimity. If the balance is struck well, the result can be potent: someone who is undistracted by emotional reactivity, someone whose commitment remains undulled by setbacks. None of us ever strikes the balance perfectly. But maybe if more people gave it a try we’d find that it beats the alternatives.

—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)



The BBC offered “seven key takeaways” from the Mueller indictments, and the Guardian, not to be outdone, offered “ten key takeaways.” The Lawfare blog assessedthe significance of the indictments.

In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick interviewed an educational psychologist who is advocating a nationwide teachers’ walkout on May 1 unless there is clear progress toward stricter gun control. A New York Times editorial explained how “the NRA can be beat.”

The Washington Post’s fact check team questioned the widely shared claim that there have been 18 school shootings in the past six weeks, but notes “more than 150,000 students … have experienced a shooting on campus since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.”

In the Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor evaluated the significance of Pence’s trip to the Olympics and his statements about North Korea afterwards.

In the Christian Science Monitor, Scott Peterson explained why recent events in Syria—including the downing of an Israeli jet by Syrian anti-aircraft fire and the killing of Russians by American air strikes—bring the risk of “an even wider war.”



Former CIA analyst Jung Pak argues that depicting Kim Jong Un as a tempestuous madman risks bad policy decisions. She discussed the topic further on the Global Politico podcast.

In Quartz, Ana Campoy offers some rarely discussed reasons to think immigration has been good for America. (“Smiling… is more common in countries that are historically diverse.”)

In Politico, Jeff Greenfield explains why Democrats “shouldn’t get too confident” about the midterm elections.

Shortly after the 2016 election, Robert Wright (where have we heard that name?) interviewed sociologist Arlie Hochschild about her book Strangers in Their Own Land, based on her extensive conversations with Trump supporters. The video interview is here. The audio-only version can be downloaded from that same page or, if you subscribe to either The Wright Show or, via a podcast app.



Are you a Norman Rockwell kind of citizen—someone who doesn’t just read the news, and doesn’t just vote, but actually shows up at town hall meetings and tells your elected representatives what’s on your mind? No? Well, neither are we. But it’s not too late for all of us to change!

The Townhall Project—whose Facebook page is here—helps Americans find out when their congressional representatives will be holding live events in their area. And by all accounts politicians do pay a lot of attention to the vibes they pick up at these meetings. So you might give it a shot.

To take a hypothetical example: Suppose you were someone who supported gun control, and suppose discussion of gun control was in the air…



MRN reader Anne catapulted herself onto our Most Beloved Readers list by sending us this three-sentence email: “How do I donate to this newsletter? I don’t want you to go away & you must have operating expenses. Thank you for all you do!”

Anne is right: We have operating expenses, and if we don’t find new ways to meet them, we will go away. For that reason, we’ll probably start appealing for donations in a few months. We may go with a common Patreon model: you wouldn’t have to donate to keep getting the newsletter, but monthly donations might give you access to some sort of “bonus” material.  

For now, though, our message is: No, don’t send us money! But, yes, there is a way you can help us out that is very valuable. Namely: help spread the word. Use Twitter or Facebook or Email or telegraph or whatever to make other people aware of the newsletter. That way when we roll out our big Patreon appeal, we’ll have enough readers so that the money will come pouring in, and we can relocate our staff members to luxurious condos in Trump Tower. Or, at least, we’ll have enough money to keep putting out this newsletter and maybe start putting out some other things, like a podcast.

So please use our precision-engineered social media icons to share the newsletter, or one of the newsletter’s sections. Or, if you’re not much for social media, do a mass email to selected friends heartily recommending us. And when you’re done with your mass email, feel free to follow in Anne’s footsteps and send us a non-mass email:    

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

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