What do EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and now-famous high-end troll Kevin Williamson have in common? No, they haven’t both been fired (yet). They’re both featured in this week’s newsletter! Along with lots of Trump-related news, lots of background links, some reader emails, and some news you can use (or not, as you see fit).
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THE WEEK IN TRUMP
Pruitt imperiled: A confluence of stories spelled trouble for embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. The New York Times reported that Pruitt had demoted or reassigned multiple EPA employees who were critical of his lavish spending (e.g., proposing to purchase a “$100,000-a-month charter aircraft membership that would have allowed Mr. Pruitt to take private jet trips for official business”) and unusual requests (e.g., that he be driven in a bullet-proof vehicle and have a 20-person security detail). And the Daily Beast revealed that, contrary to Pruitt’s previous protestations, the industry lobbyist from whom he was renting a $50 per-night room in D.C. did indeed have business before the EPA. John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, has recommended that Pruitt be fired, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Just Pruitt: Through all his travails, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency stayed focused on his mission of dismantling policies designed to protect the environment. On Monday Pruitt said he would roll back an Obama-era requirement that automakers’ fleets average over 50 miles per gallon by 2025. This penchant for relaxing regulation is said to be a big reason Trump has so far stood by Pruitt (who, Trump tweeted on Friday, is “doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege”). But Pruitt’s troubles would, if nothing else, seem to diminish the chances of his replacing Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, which Trump has reportedly considered.
Syria: This week saw an intra-administration battle—Trump versus pretty much everyone else—over how long to keep American troops in Syria. Trump—sounding like candidate Trump of 2016, the skeptic of costly foreign military interventions—said publicly that he wants to “bring our troops back home” and “start rebuilding our nation” even as others in the administration were publicly emphasizing the need to stay in Syria until remaining ISIS fighters are vanquished and liberated areas are stabilized. In the end a compromise was reportedly reached: Trump gave the Pentagon six months to eliminate ISIS and extract the 2,000 US troops from Syria, but publicly the White House didn’t specify a timeline, promising only a “rapid end” to US involvement. Of course, Trump has been known to change his mind, and six months allows for plenty of that. And the incoming National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, almost certainly oppose withdrawal, and may have more influence on Trump than their predecessors.
And speaking of Bolton: The legendary warmonger is scheduled to officially take office as Trump’s national security advisor on Monday. But CNBC reported that White House attorneys are examining ethical complications that could be posed by the two political action committees he runs. There was at least the slim possibility that Bolton’s appointment could be delayed, if not derailed, by conflicts of interest. Our thoughts and prayers are with the conflicts of interest.
That wily Mueller: Special counsel Robert Mueller has told Trump’s attorneys that the president is not a “target” of his investigation but merely a “subject” of it, the Washington Post reported. Some Trump advisers fear that Mueller is using this distinction to bait the president into submitting to an interview, which could produce incriminating evidence that would move Trump into the “target” category. According to CNN, Mueller is also investigating whether Russian oligarchs illegally funneled cash to the Trump campaign—by, for example, giving money to American think tanks and companies whose political action committees then made donations to the campaign. Meanwhile, the Trump administration placed new sanctions on various Russian elites, including some Mueller has scrutinized for suspected links to the Trump campaign.
Trump’s anti-Amazon strategy illuminated: Trump escalated his feud with Amazon chairman and CEO Jeff Bezos—who owns the Washington Post, which Trump reportedly hates—in multiple tweets, causing the company’s stock to plunge. In the process, Trump gave clearer clues as to how he may try to punish Amazon and hence Bezos for the Washington Post’s perceived sins. The previous week, Trump had complained that Amazon uses the US as a “Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.)”—which seemed odd, since the job of the Post Office is to be “delivery boy,” and whatever rate Amazon pays it is a rate the Post Office must have deemed worthwhile. But this week Trump, after reiterating in a tweet that the Post Office loses a “FORTUNE” to Amazon, added that “this will be changed.” Which raises the specter of an administration raising postal rates paid by one company in an attempt to punish a media outlet for its coverage of the administration (or to coerce it into mending its ways). This is the kind of thing that makes the Department of Homeland Security’s just-disclosed plan to compile a global database of journalists and publications (and to label each publication according to its “sentiment”) seem more ominous than it might seem in a different administration.
Storm? What storm? For the first time, Trump answered a question about the $130,000 payment made in 2016 by his attorney to Stormy Daniels in exchange for her agreeing not to disclose a 2006 sexual affair with Trump. He denied knowing anything about it. His statement may have strengthened Daniels’s argument that the non-disclosure agreement is void; her lawyer tweeted, “You can’t have an agreement when one party claims to know nothing about it.”
The China Syndrome: The stock market gyrated wildly this week as investors kept changing their minds about whether the US and China are on the brink of a trade war. The previous week Trump had directed the U.S. Trade Representative to propose tariffs on at least $50 billion worth of Chinese goods to punish China for its habitual appropriation of US intellectual property. On Monday, in response, China announced a 25 percent tariff on $3 billion worth of American goods, scheduled to go into effect on April 9. On Tuesday, the USTR came back with its delineation of the $50 billion worth of Chinese goods: 1300 products, which would carry a 25 percent tariff. This led China to on Wednesday propose extending its tariff to an additional 106 American products worth $50 billion, but without a scheduled date of implementation. Lawrence Kudlow, Trump’s chief economic adviser, then helped soothe freaked out investors, and reverse a steep market decline, by depicting the US tariffs as a negotiating tactic. (They can’t go into effect until after a public review process that will last more than a month, after which Trump would have six months to decide whether to follow through.) All was briefly well. But Thursday evening Trump directed USTR to “consider” tariffs on an additional $100 billion worth of Chinese goods, and on Friday US stocks fell by more than two percent.
The bottom line: The conventional wisdom among mainstream financial commentators is that (1) American grievances over China’s taking US intellectual property—particularly its adopting technologies of companies that manufacture in China—have at least some validity, even though companies sometimes consent to it as a cost of doing business in China; (2) But Trump’s moves don’t evince a coherent strategy for addressing the problem; (3) China’s bargaining advantage is that Trump, unlike China’s leaders, has elections to fear (China’s new tariffs, perhaps not coincidentally, disproportionately harm red states); (4) Trump’s bargaining advantage is that he can place tariffs on a lot more goods than China can—precisely because of the big imbalance between imports and exports he complains about. On the other hand, if it gets to the point where that matters—if China has run out of American imports to put tariffs on, while the US is still slapping new tariffs on Chinese imports—we’ll be in a full-fledged trade war.
Caravan dodged: Trump turned his Twitter ire on a caravan of about 1200 Central Americans headed toward the US border by foot and by vehicle, many of whom are seeking asylum from political violence in Honduras. The caravan is an annual event organized by US-based group Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders), providing security in numbers to those fleeing their homelands. On Monday, Trump demanded Mexico stop the caravan before it reaches the American border, and on Thursday he claimed victory. But organizers noted that it’s traditional for most caravan participants to disperse in Mexico, with only a fraction pushing on to the US. And the Mexican government said it didn’t ask the caravan to disband.
Nevertheless he persists: Even as the Caravan scare was dissipating, Trump ordered National Guard troops to the southern border. The White House cited a one-month spike in illegal border crossings as the reason—and, more generally, “a drastic surge in illegal activity,” “deadly transnational gangs,” a “crisis,” and so on. (The Texas Tribune, citing government statistics, reports that, notwithstanding the recent spike, border crossings are at historic lows.) The Democratic governors of California and Oregon, and the Republican governor of Nevada, would not commit to sending their state divisions of the National Guard.
#BlueWave update: Democrats savored another down-ballot election victory as Rebecca Dallet became the first liberal non-incumbent candidate in 23 years to win a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She won the statewide contest with a campaign that charged Trump with attacking “our civil rights and our values.” Gov. Scott Walker, running for a third term in November, warned on Twitter that “we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI.” Then again, playing up that risk has its benefits; five tweets later he was asking for contributions to help fight “the flood of outside money” supporting Democrats.
HOW TO DEAL WITH THE KEVIN WILLIAMSONS OF THE WORLD
By now pretty much everyone has weighed in on whether the Atlantic was right to fire the just-hired conservative writer Kevin Williamson after it turned out he had repeatedly said women who get abortions should be punished as murderers, even if that means executing them.
But few if any people have done this: Turn the Williamson episode into a sermon about the virtues of mindfulness. Or, better still, a sermon about how America may be unsaveable if more people don’t become mindful. And if you can’t find that in the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, where can you find it?
Let’s start with the question of why Williamson was hired in the first place. Leave aside the question of what exactly Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg knew about Williamson’s extreme views on abortion when he hired him. Wasn’t there plenty of other evidence that amplifying Williamson’s voice at this point in American history is an inherently bad thing?
I’m not talking about Williamson’s ideology. I think it’s more important than ever that Americans be exposed to opinions they disagree with. But the point of that exposure is to help Americans in different political tribes understand each other, and understand what lies behind views they find alien. And Williamson presents his views in a way that actively discourages understanding—not because he’s not clear, but because he’s so acerbic and confrontational.
Williamson made a few appearances on bloggingheads.tv, which I run, some years ago, and after he was fired I delved into the archives, perused the titles of various segments, clicked on a segment that sounded like it might be lively, and, sure enough, within the space of ten minutes I heard him (1) call people who were part of the Occupy Wall Street movement “idiot punk kids” and (2) as his interlocutor laid out some statistics about income inequality, interject, “You’ve committed a logical blunder.”
For all I know, his interlocutor had committed a logical blunder—but there are less confrontational ways to suggest as much. Similarly, there are ways to opine that some demonstrators are ill-informed or naïve without using the words “idiot” or “punk”. And these are actually pretty mild instances of Williamsonism. Politico media columnist Jack Shafer, in an admiring column about Williamson, wrote, “where other writers might stop at mean, Williamson keeps going all the way to cruel.”
These kinds of things—derogating your ideological opponents, failing to exercise even minimal diplomacy in disagreement—activate the defense mechanisms that are part of the psychology of tribalism. The result is to virtually ensure that people who disagree with you will, rather than re-examine their views or yours, grow firmer in their conviction that their side is right and yours is not just wrong but bad. The Kevin Williamsons of the world don’t just fail to improve America’s political predicament; they make it worse.
Jeffrey Goldberg knew before hiring Williamson that he’s an acerbic troll. Just look at the memo Goldberg wrote mid-controversy, when he was still defending the hiring: “I was also aware of Kevin’s judgmental, acerbic, polemical style, and when we started talking about writing possibilities at The Atlantic, I raised my concerns about the trollish qualities of some of his writing and tweeting. A couple of months ago, in one of our conversations, I mentioned some of his more controversial tweets, and in the course of that conversation, he himself came to the conclusion that Twitter was a bad place for him to be, and he spiked his account.”
Stop me if I’m reading too much into this, but: So Goldberg knew Williamson is a noxious troll, but his qualms were put to rest when Williamson suggested that he destroy the most glaring evidence of this fact?
There are two problems with this approach:
1) It didn’t work. There was enough residual evidence of Williamson’s tweet about executing women who have abortions that phase one of the controversy ensued. And then came phase two: After Goldberg wrote the memo defending Williamson, it turned out the tweet wasn’t an isolated heat-of-the-moment misfire; Williamson had taken the same position on at least one other occasion.
2) It shows that Goldberg didn’t mind hiring a noxious troll. (Or, to invoke a friend of mine’s characterization of the undeniably smart Williamson, a noxious “high-end troll”.) Which means Goldberg was happy to give America exactly what it doesn’t need when it’s descending into tribal warfare of such intensity that people like Donald Trump can get elected president.
Now for some full disclosure:
(1) Goldberg is someone I’ve never gotten along with, going all the way back to my first encountering him in a pre-Iraq-war debate about the wisdom of invading Iraq.
(2) If he who is without sin shouldn’t cast the first stone, I should have shut up several paragraphs ago. I’ve written my share of snarky and gratuitously mean stuff (even if I can safely say, along with virtually all living journalists, that I’ve never rivaled Williamson in the “consistency of noxiousness” department.)
If I have an excuse for being hypocritically judgmental, it’s that most of my crimes were committed back before tribalism threatened to engulf America. (Plus, I was younger…)
Goldberg has his excuses, too. There has always been an incentive for editors to hire noxious trolls—and the incentive is higher in the web age, when editors can count the troll-generated page views, and the attendant ad dollars, and when the financial standing of so many media outlets is precarious. Indeed, to not succumb to this corrupting logic takes an editor of rare conscientiousness whose platform is blessed with a formula for high-minded financial viability. So the problem here isn’t Goldberg, even if he’s not exactly the solution; the problem is the logic of journalism.
Or, to put it another way: the problem is human nature. The problem is that readers with normal human minds click on trollish clickbait, so people who run media outlets have a strong incentive to publish trollish clickbait.
Which leads, finally, to the mindfulness-based moral of the story: The more people there are who peruse the web mindfully, and don’t reflexively follow the impulse to click on trollish clickbait and then shower the troll with traffic-amplifying disdain (or ardent approval, depending on their tribal identity), the less influence journalists like Kevin Williamson will have.
It would be great to instantly overhaul the incentive structure that governs American media—by say, somehow getting publishers to try to accumulate karma points instead of dollars. But that’s not going to happen, and for that reason shaming editors into making more conscientious hires, while worth trying, won’t, by itself, bring peace to American politics.
The only way to change the incentive structure is to change what readers do and don’t click on. Which means it’s the readers who have to change. Collectively, they have tremendous power, and the more of them who exercise it, the better. Vote with your fingers.
LOCAL NEWS: MORE ON MADDOW
My reply to MRN reader Bo, who had complained about my complaint about Rachel Maddow, drew a few replies.
One of the replies was from Bo, who wrote that “of any of the TV hosts, I find Ms. Maddow to be the most mindful of them all” and suggested that, um, yours truly is less than a paragon of mindfulness because I “belittled” Maddow to no good end. There may be some truth in that; I am definitely not a paragon of mindfulness. And there is some truth in another point Bo made: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander”—and, Bo asked, don’t we at MRN sometimes tailor our content to perceived audience demand, which is what I had suggested Maddow was doing? This is indeed a peril, but so far I think it hasn’t exerted a massively corrupting influence. (OK, maybe we could have done with one or two fewer Stormy Daniels items…)
MRN reader Esti said she agreed with me that “the Russia coverage is way over the top. It’s not only Rachel Maddow. It’s the whole afternoon/evening lineup at MSNBC. Issues such as the census, the environment, education, abortion, civil rights, healthcare, foreign policy, our involvement in Yemen, and more, don’t get any air time at all.”
Manya wrote, “I totally agree with you about Rachel. Too much Trump all the time. I have stopped watching MSNBC and only look at PBS newshour and BBC because they cover international news.”
And, finally, Ivan had some criticisms of Maddow (for sometimes playing “news/entertainment tricks”) but closed with this: “However, I value her work in bringing seemingly disparate events together to show how they fit a pattern. Sometimes it’s downright brilliant and obviously the result of great teamwork.”
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
Trigger warning: If either (a) the very thought of trying to muster empathy for, or even dispassion toward, Donald Trump is deeply painful or (b) picturing Trump in scanty clothing would totally gross you out, then you should read no further. But if you are undaunted by these prospects, we offer you this email from MRN reader Natalie:
We all look the same in a hospital gown
I work in an emergency room. When I walk into a patient’s room, I see a human being, or several, if there are family members with the patient. I cannot tell initially whether that person is rich or poor. I cannot tell what kind of clothes they wear or what their past was. I cannot tell what they have been through in life, but I am sure they have been through some pain.
Sometimes I picture Donald Trump in a hospital gown. Inevitably, he will be in one. Whether it is just the aging process, or some other reason, he will probably at some point need to be hospitalized. He can even wear his red hat that says “Make America Great Again” with his gown on if he wants, but he’s still a human who has lived a life.
We spend too much time in this country reading Twitter and either villainizing POTUS or admiring him. This is kind of, I have realized in doing it myself, a true waste of energy. I totally understand the logic — it’s scary to think about what he’s doing in our White House. It’s actually getting terrifying. But there is a point where we just have to stop for a moment and center ourselves.
So, I suggest that moment can be visualized with putting the Donald in a hospital gown. It leans towards not only humanizing him, but also realizing that his reign will end. It will. At some point in time, whether or not you like him, he’s done in the White House. He’ll be moving out.
Take a short break from Twitter. Trump, just like the rest of us, is not impervious to illness. Maybe it will be a kidney stone. Maybe it will be something GI related. Maybe he’ll fall down a step or something, maybe he’ll break a toe. Who knows. But as much as he may think he’s invincible, he’s not.
This is not to say that we stop marching or calling our representatives or voting in November. This is just to say that we take a little time to regain our sanity and not be constantly entangled in our current government chaos.
So perhaps today, even for a very short time, maybe even a hour, take a break, breathe deeply, follow my suggestion and smile, knowing the only true law of the universe is impermanence.
Conservative Matt K. Lewis argues that some of Trump’s criticisms of Amazon point to valid concerns.
In the Washington Post Heidi N. Moore asks whether the various companies Trump has attacked really have cause to fear him.
In Politico Maggie Severns and Marriane Levine describe how John Bolton used his Super PAC to put himself in a position to be named Trump’s next national security advisor.
As Bolton and Mike Pompeo approach entry into the Trump administration, their involvement with Islamophobic groups has come under scrutiny, the New York Times reports.
“President Trump has presided over the systematic dismantling of the American refugee resettlement system as we know it,” writes Matthew La Corte of the Niskanen Center.
In the Boston Globe Jeffrey Sachs argues that Trump’s intention to withdraw from Syria is smart.
In the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins explains how Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has amassed influence and how he plans to use it—and where Jared Kushner fits into his plans.
Impeaching and convicting Trump in the Senate is a mathematical impossibility, arguesPolitico’s Bill Scher—and, anyway, it may turn out that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, contrary to received opinion, can indict a sitting president.
In an op-ed from 2017, Janine Zacharia writes that students should be taught media literacy as a way to combat the spread of misinformation. (Thanks to MRN reader Pam for alerting us to this.)
In the Atlantic Peter Beinart asks why Democrats “keep capitulating on defense spending.”
The Economist’s annual worldwide assessment of the state of democracy finds that democracy continues “its disturbing retreat” and grades the US a “flawed democracy” for the second year in a row.
NPR reports on nascent technology that can create fake audio of a person speaking—and on its possible political uses.
And, finally, some content from MRN sister-site (or at least cousin-site) bloggingheads.tv: Robert Wright talks with (1) lefty Aaron Maté, who contends that this Russiagate thing is way overblown; and (2) righty Michael Brendan Dougherty, who looks at Trump from the not-entirely-unsympathetic perspective of a Buchananite conservative.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
If you want to try to help build bridges between America’s warring political tribes, you might think about joining Better Angels. We can’t vouch for it from personal experience, but MRN reader Landon, who alerted us to it, is giving it a try. (And it carries the David Brooks seal of approval.)
And if you happen to live in Providence, Rhode Island and want to be put in touch with Brad, let us know. You may ask: But why would I want to be put in touch with Brad? The answer is that Brad sent us an email:
“I write to share a small project that a few of us have been doing: Sitting quietly, 2x a week for just 20 minutes, at a local ‘linear park’ in Providence, Rhode Island (next to the jogging path that runs down the middle of Blackstone Blvd…). It is a concrete way to manifest ‘mindful resistance’ and I hope it will catch on.”
Confession: Because Brad’s email slipped between the cracks, it’s been a few months since he wrote this. So it could be that by now Brad has moved onto other things, or even to another city. Then again, you probably don’t live in Providence anyway, so you can just think of Brad as a role model…
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade & Brian Degenhart