Issue #72: May 4–11, 2019

In this week’s MRN we: (1) summarize a week in which Trump administration bellicosity was directed more at Iran than at Venezuela (stay tuned for next week’s pendulum swing); (2) complain about how obediently Facebook and other social media companies abet America’s reckless foreign policy; (3) consider trying to love Trump; (4) come to our senses; (5) steer you to background readings on things ranging from psychedelic mushrooms to colonizing outer space to the emotional reactions of liberals to the Mueller report.

–Robert Wright

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House vs. White House: The House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Attorney General Barr in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over an unredacted copy of the Mueller report. With the Trump administration signaling an intent to defy congressional investigatory power broadly (by, for example, getting former White House Counsel Don McGahn to withhold documents), the stage seems set for a long court battle over the administration’s expansive claim of executive privilege.

Empire state: A bill passed by the New York State Senate, and likely to be signed into law, would allow the state to give an individual’s income tax returns to certain congressional committees. Since Trump is a New York resident, the president’s state tax returns could thus wind up in the hands of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has tried without successto get Trump’s federal tax returns from the IRS.

Bolton beats war drums: In anticipation of possible conflict with Iran, the Trump administration dispatched B-52 bombers and a Patriot anti-missile battery to the Middle East, and accelerated the deployment of an aircraft carrier group. The administration cited evidence that Iranian proxies might strike American forces in Iraq or Syria, but the significance of the evidence was debated, and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who broke the news of this development, has been known to exaggerate and cherry-pick evidence.

Nuclear options: Iran announced that in July it will quit complying with some parts of the nuclear deal that the US withdrew from a year ago unless other nations that are party to the deal give it economic relief. Though all those nations opposed the US withdrawal, the European ones in particular have succumbed to US pressure and joined in the harsh economic sanctions Trump imposed on Iran after abandoning the deal.

Challenging Roe: Georgia’s governor signed into law a ban on abortions performed after a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which can be as early as six weeks, with exceptions only for cases of rape and incest. Georgia is the latest of six states to pass “heartbeat” laws, which are being challenged in court and could lead to a reconsideration by the Supreme Court of its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

Another school shooting: One student was killed and eight were wounded in a school shooting at a Denver-area charter school. Eighteen-year old Kendrick Castillo died trying to stop the shooter.

The art of the trade deal: After this week’s trade talks with China failed to result in a deal, Trump raised tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent. China threatened “countermeasures,” but talks were expected to resume.

Non-tenacious D: The White House announced that Trump will nominate acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan as the permanent replacement for James Mattis, who resigned as defense secretary in December. Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, doesn’t have the military expertise or stature that Mattis, a retired Marine general, sometimes used to counteract extreme administration hawks such as National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Gaza battle: Hamas and Israel reached a ceasefire after two days of conflict that left 4 Israelis and 25 Palestinians dead. The violence began when a sniper along the Gaza border wounded two Israeli soldiers, and it escalated rapidly into an exchange of Israeli airstrikes and Palestinian rocket launches, leading to the biggest death toll since the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.


by Robert Wright

Bolton’s friend Zuckerberg: Last Sunday Trump’s famously bellicose national security adviser, John Bolton, issued a statement alluding darkly to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” regarding Iran. As it happened, even as he was warmongering, I was writing a piece about how Facebook and other social media companies have been aiding and abetting the Trump administration’s belligerent foreign policy. The piece ran in Wired on Tuesday. Lest MRN readers who want to read it should have to spend time trying to outsmart Wired’s semi-permeable paywall, I offer the piece here:

Why is Facebook Abetting 
Trump’s Reckless Foreign Policy?

When I first read that Facebook has an employee whose title is “global head of counterterrorism policy,” I was surprised. I had always thought of counterterrorism policies as things that governments, not companies, had.

But it turns out this distinction isn’t always as meaningful as I’d thought. One job of Facebook’s global head of counterterrorism policy—a national security expert named Brian Fishman—is to do what the US government wants done. This subservience would raise questions even if we didn’t have a president with a famously reckless foreign policy. But we do, and so far Facebook seems willing to abet it.

Consider President Trump’s deeply hostile policy toward Iran. Ostensibly its goal is to change Iran’s behavior, but both national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo have advocated changing its regime. And there is concern among longtime Bolton watchers that this aspiration will lead to war.

Trump’s Iran policy consists of imposing economy-crushing sanctions, coercing other nations into joining in them, and doing various other antagonistic things. One such thing came last month when the Trump administration declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. This was the first time in history that the US had slapped the terrorist label on a foreign government’s military—or for that matter on any part of a foreign government.

This development alarmed some foreign policy observers, but it didn’t give Facebook pause. The day after Trump’s move, Instagram, a Facebook property, blocked the accounts of high-ranking Revolutionary Guard officers. And the next week The New York Times reported that Fishman had said Facebook would have zero tolerance for any group the US deems a terrorist organization.

So basically Trump can tell Facebook to de-platform any part of any foreign government—including, presumably, an entire foreign government—and Fishman, along with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, will reply with a crisp salute? Under Facebook’s current policy, that would seem to be the case.

When I asked Fishman to justify this policy, he said it’s designed to keep Facebook on the right side of the law, which prohibits Americans from providing “material support” to any group deemed a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.”

But, I replied, the law goes on to spell out the things that would constitute “material support,” and none of them sound much like “letting these groups post on your social media platform.” Fishman said, “I’m not a lawyer. I’m a policy guy.” And apparently Facebook’s lawyers have advised the company to err on the side of caution. (By the way, in addition to respecting the government’s terrorist designations, Facebook has its own definition of a terrorist group, so the list of groups it bans goes beyond the government’s list of terrorist groups.)

Of course, one way to get clarity on the law would be to not de-platform Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, see if Trump’s Justice Department tried to prosecute you, and be prepared to take the matter to court. But Fishman said Facebook has “no plans” to seek clarity via the courts.

It may seem amazing that Trump has the power to declare, in effect, that none of the 125,000 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard can have accounts on Facebook or Instagram. But that’s nothing. The Trump administration is said to be preparing to put the terrorist label on the Muslim Brotherhood, a social services and political activism network that has way more members than that in more than a dozen countries.

The heart of the Muslim Brotherhood is in Egypt. In fact, Trump’s push to deem the group terrorist came after Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, encouraged it during a White House visit last month. So, are members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood indeed, as the terrorist label would suggest, associated with the killing of innocent civilians?

Well, in the sense of being the innocent civilians who get killed, yes. A few years ago President Sisi’s troops gunned down hundreds of them while they were peacefully demonstrating. What they were protesting was the fact that he had deposed Egypt’s democratically elected president (a Muslim Brotherhood member) in a coup.

David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times wrote last week that “even experts critical of the Brotherhood agree that the organization does not meet the criteria for a terrorist group,” and Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution has written that “there is not a single American expert on the Muslim Brotherhood who supports designating them as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.”

When I asked Fishman about the Muslim Brotherhood, his answer gave me a bit of hope. He said that, if Trump deems the group a terrorist organization, Facebook will “assess [our policy] very carefully”—though he sounded more concerned about the practicality of enforcement than about the wisdom or legitimacy of it; he said the Brotherhood is so sprawling and amorphous as to make it “hard to understand even where the edges are.”

Maybe I shouldn’t single out Facebook for criticism. Other social media platforms do things that align uncannily with Trump’s foreign policy. Last month Google blocked two Iranian government broadcasters’ access to YouTube. And last year, the security firm FireEye (whose early investors included the CIA) identified “a suspected influence operation that appears to originate from Iran” and promotes “political narratives in line with Iranian interests”—and within hours of this announcement, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had suspended all accounts associated with the operation.

I don’t doubt that Iran’s state media, and other pro-Iran outlets that have been blocked by American social media companies, have said untrue or offensive things. But what are the chances that they say untrue or offensive things at a higher rate than President Trump? Yet I’m pretty sure Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey didn’t spend his recent sit-down with Trump threatening to de-platform him.

When major social media platforms mute the expression of the Iranian government’s perspective, it’s that much easier for the White House’s relentless anti-Iran rhetorical campaign to carry the day, and that much easier to sell regime change to America and to the world. And if the Iraq War taught us anything, it’s that turning down the volume on claims made by an adversary and its supporters—claims such as, “really, we don’t have weapons of mass destruction, which is why international inspectors haven’t found any!”—can come at a high cost.

Eerily, we now—as during the run-up to the Iraq War—have an administration saying misleading things about an adversary. John Bolton said this year that “Iran continues to seek nuclear weapons.” There is zero evidence for this claim, and there is considerable evidence against it. Because Iran has continued to comply with the nuclear deal that Trump abandoned, its nuclear energy processing plants are subject to an extremely strict monitoring and inspections regime; there’s basically no way these plants could be producing weapons-grade material without us knowing it.

This isn’t the first time there’s been cause to doubt Bolton’s ability to assess evidence. In 2002 he said, “We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq.”

There have always been times, certainly including the run-up to wars, when national media companies, for better or worse, did the bidding of the American government. (Google “Judith Miller, New York Times, Iraq War.”) But Facebook, Twitter, and Google, though American companies, aren’t national. Their content is published internationally and originates internationally; they are global discourse platforms. If the Iraq War fiasco is any guide, it would be in America’s interest for them to start acting like it.

Loving Trump: James A. Baker, who until late 2017 was general counsel of the FBI, says that some people would consider him justified in hating Donald Trump. Apparently Trump had him removed from his job, and Trump has also “tweeted and spoken about me personally, uncharitably and by name, on several occasions.” Nonetheless, Baker wrote this week on the Lawfare blog, “I will try to love him. I will try to love him as a human being. I will try to love his family. And most importantly, I will try to love his supporters—all of them.”

Baker’s extraordinary essay doesn’t spell out with crystalline clarity the form this love will take or the logic behind it. There are definitely pragmatic considerations; he notes that anger and hatred don’t seem to have succeeded in reducing support for Trump. But there are also less pragmatic considerations; he quotes both a Christian and a Buddhist—Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama—in the course of his reflections.

See what you think. If you have strong reactions to Baker’s essay, one way or the other, I’d love to hear them:

Secret New York rendezvous instructions: If you’ll be attending my talk at Union Theological Seminary in New York this Tuesday evening (RSVP for free tickets here), and you’re sticking around to meet up with other MRN readers and me, here’s what you need to know: After my talk, and after some audience Q and A, the guy operating the video camera near the back of the chapel (our own Mark Sussman) will lead you to the secret meetup room, where you can hang out while I spend a little time talking to people who approach me after the talk (assuming some do).


In a Twitter thread, former Pentagon official Ilan Goldenberg raises questions about the quality of the intelligence cited to justify this week’s deployment of force toward Iran, about the motivations of the various administration actors, and about the media’s characterization of the deployment. In Truthdig, Gareth Porter is even more skeptical.

In the New York Times, political scientist Ariane Tabatabai explains how Europe could keep Iran from following through on its threat to quit complying with parts of the nuclear deal.

In Vox, Ella Nilsen explains what it will mean if the House, as seems likely, follows the lead of the House Judiciary Committee and cites Attorney General Barr for contempt of Congress.

A New York Times investigation found that Trump declared over $1 billion in losses on his taxes between 1985 and 1994. Most of the losses came from failed business ventures, though Trump did have brief success as a stock speculator, buying shares in a company, convincing investors that he was going to buy the whole company, then selling the shares after the stock price rose.

A graphics-rich New York Times piece lays out the data on US school shootings since 1970.

The US detained 109,000 migrants along the Mexican border in April, a six percent increase since March and the highest number since 2007.

In the New York Times, Manny Fernandez reports on “good Samaritans” who are being arrested for offering help to illegal immigrants.

In a 6,000-word New York Times op-ed, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes argues that the government should break up his former company, which he says has grown into a monopoly that gives Mark Zuckerberg too much power. Casey Newton of the Verge provides a TLDR version of the Hughes piece, along with background about the Hughes-Zuckerberg relationship.

The Washington Post reports that Trump has harbored doubts about National Security Adviser John Bolton since last month’s US-backed coup attempt in Venezuela failed to dislodge President Nicolás Maduro.

The Washington Examiner reports that if Trump starts a war with Venezuela or Iran he could “destabilize his reelection coalition,” which includes a contingent of staunch anti-interventionists.

In the Nation, Benjamin Schneider writes about progressive urban housing policy, arguing that affluent liberals who live in single-family homes are an impediment to reform.

In New York Magazine, Eric Levitz argues that Democratic presidential candidates would be wise to attack Trump for rolling back environmental rules and says that some of the most politically effective attacks would focus on environmental issues other than climate change.

Politico reports on discontent among some economists in the Agriculture Department, who say the administration is retaliating against them for publishing reports that reflect poorly on Trump’s farm policies.

At Just Security, Mexican diplomat Pablo Arrocha Olabuenaga describes the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty and explains why it matters that Trump announced last month that the US will exit the agreement.

Tim Fernholz in Quartz writes about how competition between four rocket manufacturers, including companies founded by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, could remake the US approach to national security and space exploration. This week Bezos unveiled a model of a lunar lander and outlined his vision for colonizing space.

After voters in Denver passed a referendum to effectively decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms, Michael Pollan, author of a bestselling book on psychedelics, argued in the New York Times that full legalization should await further research. (Pollan talked about his book, How to Change Your Mind, and his experimentation with psychedelics, with MRN’s Robert Wright last year on

CBS censored part of an episode of its online drama “The Good Fight” that satirized censorship in China.


Researchers say that the Dunning-Kruger Effect— the tendency of people to overestimate their competence—affects our ability to remain impartial in matters of race and sex discrimination. Two studies found that “the least egalitarian participants were also the ones that overestimated their egalitarianism the most.”

In a Wired piece called “The Existential Crisis Plaguing Online Extremism Researchers,” Paris Martineau writes about the challenges of combatting online extremism and the psychological toll of studying it. [Hat tip to MRN reader (and Patreon Patron!) Dave.]

Russiagate skeptic Aaron Maté filmed a conversation with his father, the physician and author Gabor Maté, about liberals’ emotional reactions to the Mueller report and how trauma affects politics.

In the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk argues that, because the issues that drive conversation on Twitter don’t reflect the public’s main concerns, political leaders should stop relying on Twitter to set the agenda.

“The mystical services sector,” which includes astrological readings and crystals, has grown into a $2.2 billion internet-driven market.

In the New York Times, Paul Romer, the 2018 Nobel laureate in Economics, proposes that a progressive tax on revenue from targeted ads could force some tech companies to change their business models or limit their growth, curbing what Romer calls their “threat to our social and political way of life.”

In Lion’s Roar, Erric Solomon, drawing on management principles and Buddhist teachings, gives step-by-step guidance for handling interpersonal conflict, particularly in meditation circles.


This week, with John Bolton beating the Iran war drums, Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico was pushing S.1039, the Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act, which he introduced last month along with 12 co-sponsors, two of them Republican. The bill would prohibit military action against Iran without congressional authorization—as would the House version, H.R.2354. If you support these bills, you can call the capitol switchboard at 202 224-3121 and, after being directed to the office of your senator or representative, register your support.


—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart, Mark Sussman,

Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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