Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 26, 2017

Speak Loudly and Carry a Small Stick

By David K. Shipler

            When will we stop listening to Donald Trump? Yes, he’s president with a lot of power to make people’s lives miserable, but his tweets? Please. His latest, at this writing, is an attack on an ad (“a bad one”) for the “failing @nytimes” scheduled to air during the Oscars ceremony. The Times ad declares: “The truth is hard. The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.” How fitting that Trump should make his debut in the art of reviewing TV commercials by panning one that extols the virtue of truth.
It might be imperative in a democracy to remain shocked, to sound the alarm again and again. But at what point does the public become numb to presidential absurdity? How literally do we take his historical allusion, for example, calling the “fake news” media the “enemy of the people.” Did Trump know that he was borrowing a line from Lenin and Stalin that was used as a condemnation deserving of death or imprisonment? The phrase is so heavily weighted that it was avoided in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953.
            The Times ad selling truth follows the exclusion of the paper’s reporters, plus those from CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and several other news organizations, from an informal briefing by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, whose contempt for the press seems to have begun in college when the student newspaper called him Sean Sphincter. Editors then insisted it was just a mistake, a typo. Yeah, sure. Spicer doesn’t seem to have healed.
            His briefing ban got news media huffing and puffing indignantly, and rightly so on principle. But let’s be candid for a moment. Sitting through Spicer’s lies and fulminations must be torment. If I were covering the White House, I’d be relieved at being excluded. I learned very little at most White House briefings I attended in the 1980s, when I was The Times Chief Diplomatic Correspondent. When I read recently that the State Department hadn’t been doing its customary daily briefing under Trump, I silently envied those who now cover the place. Every day was a tedious bore, with reporters trying mightily to advance a story a quarter-inch as the press secretary flipped through a loose-leaf binder to find the page with the pre-cooked answers to anticipated questions. I loathed those sessions and got much more out of individual interviews in diplomats’ offices.
Indeed, when I worked at The Times, I knew hardly any reporters who liked the White House beat. A few did, but most found it too confining, the news too formulaic, the information flow too dependent on silver-tongued officials who could slide their way so smoothly around a fact that it usually floated away unscathed. Trump’s White House is different, of course, because it’s permeated with leaks. It’s so appalling that it must be more fun to cover.
You see, in the perverse but essential world of a free press, the worse the situation, the better the story. This came through to me once during several days and nights I spent at a Bronx firehouse, one of New York City’s busiest. As it happened, nothing happened. That is, there were no fires other than one pile of trash smoldering in a vacant lot. The firefighters, keen to show me the tough side of their jobs, were reduced to telling stories.
One after another, they described one “good fire” after another “good fire” from last week or the week before, and I finally realized that they and I were kind of in the same line of work. I told them that they spoke of a “good fire” the way we journalists spoke of a “good story.” Not to be too cynical about it, but a bad situation makes a “good story.” They got it.
So, the obnoxious, dangerous White House is a “good story,” even as some of Trump’s cabinet secretaries try to sweep up the mess he makes with his tweets. If their clean-up operation continues thoroughly enough, perhaps his tweets and his rants—which are still in the mode of campaign rhetoric—will gradually be taken less seriously and become like scribbled epithets in the margins of actual policy. In foreign affairs so far, that seems to be happening. Not so in domestic affairs, including immigration, where his tough talk has animated tough enforcement. The same is likely in some of the regulatory agencies that protect Americans, which are poised for actual destruction by his appointees.

At this point, then, alertness to the health of our precious democracy requires us to keep listening to the small man with the big mouth, in case his words—damaging enough as words—get translated into action. Someday, perhaps, the country will be able to ease its tension by tuning him out. But not yet.

February 16, 2017

Lies Beget Lying

By David K. Shipler

            If you lie to your children, they will learn to lie to you. If you lie to your spouse, you will create a family culture of falsehood in which he or she will, unless strongly honest, lie to you as well. If you lie to your employees, don’t expect them to pass uncomfortable truths up the chain of command. And if, as president, you lie to the country and perhaps to your staff, many of them will breathe the miasma of fabrication that emanates from the top, and will surely assume that lying is an acceptable way of life in the White House.
            So President Trump’s dismissal of Michael Flynn for lying is like a projection of Trump’s own personality flaw onto his subordinate. It is worth noting that this happened only when the Flynn offense became public, courtesy of the “dishonest” Washington Post, which Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he hadn’t seen—a lie in itself, given that he’d been told two weeks earlier by the Justice Department about the contents of wiretapped conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador.
Does anyone think that the then president-elect did not authorize those conversations, that Flynn just flew solo without consulting with Trump? Is it possible that Trump ordered, or at least approved, Flynn’s discussing the post-Ukraine sanctions with the ambassador, perhaps obliquely suggesting that they could be eased by the incoming administration? Then, in the poisonous atmosphere of the West Wing after the inauguration, might Trump have wanted the substance of those discussions held closely, even from Vice President Mike Pence, who is no Russia fan? So, was Flynn just following his boss’s wishes in telling Pence that sanctions had not been discussed?
And by the way, shouldn’t the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency know that the Russian ambassador’s phone calls are monitored by the National Security Agency? Did Flynn figure on Trump’s having his back if transcripts were ever leaked? Note that the day after asking for Flynn’s resignation, Trump called him “a wonderful man” who was treated unfairly by the “fake media” and outed by leakers who committed a crime.
You see, Mr. President, this is what compulsive lying at the top leads to. Everything down below begins to look like a lie as well.

February 10, 2017

The Propagandist and the Press

By David K. Shipler

            It might be time to recognize that President Trump’s tweets and ill-tempered outbursts about the press are not just scattered impulses but part of a foundation being carefully laid to stifle investigative reporting and robust expression by the country’s news organizations. And a large plurality of Americans will be with him, as he showed during the campaign, when roars of approval greeted his threatening vilification of reporters covering his rallies.
            Now, in office, he and his new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, are in a position to test the limits of the First Amendment by various means, including legal actions that might be too expensive for any but the major news outlets to withstand. These could include extreme measures to silence government whistleblowers, aggressive demands on reporters to identify their confidential sources, and even moves to prosecute editors for publishing classified information. A Trump administration might make another attempt at prior restraint, which was repelled in 1971 by the Supreme Court, 6-3, when the Nixon administration tried to block publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War.
            Some responsible news organizations are already bracing for the onslaught and have redoubled their efforts to dig beneath the visible news. They now include on their websites instructions on how to use various encrypted communications to “share news tips with us confidentially,” as The Washington Post explains. The Post, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, for example, include links to such mechanisms as WhatsApp, Signal, SecureDrop, Strongbox, and Pidgin, with details on how much information about sender and receiver is retained by the providers. Even where the texts of messages are encrypted, some providers keep metadata—users’ phone numbers, email addresses, and time stamps—which could be subpoenaed by government to show that an official has been in contact with a reporter.  
These invitations to get in touch are useful, but they’re passive. The press also needs to assign beat reporters to regulatory agencies that have never received much day-in, day-out coverage. Getting into the weeds where mid-level officials reside, and finding what the columnist James Reston used to call “the man with the unhappy look on his face,” is essential for documenting the subtler shifts in rules and enforcement that are likely under Trump and the team of dismantlers he has assembled.

February 3, 2017

Trump's Next Target: Muslims in America?

By David K. Shipler

            Under a proposal reportedly circulating in the Trump administration, the Muslim Brotherhood would be listed by the Departments of State and Treasury as a terrorist organization. It would be a legally questionable step, given that the Brotherhood is so diffuse that it probably wouldn’t qualify as an “organization.” But at least until a successful court challenge, the designation could subject many Muslims in the United States, including American citizens, to prosecution under the law that punishes those who provide “material support” to terrorist groups.
            That is because key White House officials evidently accept the assertion by anti-Islam conspiracy theorists that many mosques, Islamic centers, and Muslim rights associations in the United States are fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood and training grounds for jihadists. Despite the absence of evidence, several top aides, including Trump’s senior counselor Stephen K. Bannon and national security advisor Michael Flynn, have given credence to activists who see a grand scheme engineered by the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate government, subvert the West, and impose shariah law—all this by Muslims who account for a mere 1 percent of the country’s population.
 As chairman of Breitbart News before joining the Trump campaign, Bannon provided a large megaphone to the small fringe of anti-Muslim propagandists. He distributed their alarmist warnings without a hint of skepticism, and without raising questions about their sources, which invariably disintegrate under scrutiny. Flynn served on the board of advisers for ACT for America, a radical group that agitates against Islamic centers and organizations.
 Islamic centers throughout the United States house mosques, schools, and facilities for community gatherings. But their image of innocent good works masks a sinister purpose, according to John Guandolo, a former FBI agent and periodic guest on a show Bannon hosted, broadcast on SiriusXM Radio. In a December 2015 edition, for example, Bannon accepted without challenge Guandolo’s contention that over 75 percent of the Islamic centers are “owned by the North American Islamic Trust, which is the bank for the Muslim Brotherhood here.”

January 26, 2017

The Leading US Manufacturer—of Problems

David K. Shipler

             The truckload of problems that new presidents suddenly face when they enter the Oval Office must not be enough for Donald Trump, because he is manufacturing his own to add to the pile. These are problems that did not exist beforehand. Some are inventions of his fertile imagination, others are new and damaging twists to old issues whose scars had long healed.
            Here is a short list:
            Mexico. As a cardinal rule of national security, you do not pick fights with a peaceful friend who shares a 2,000-mile border. You do not risk stoking anti-American radicalism that could bring an antagonistic government to power and turn your neighbor hostile. You do not endanger your security by jeopardizing the anti-drug cooperation that has developed. You do not provoke Mexico's president to cancel a visit to Washington. And if you don’t want more Mexicans to cross illegally into the US, you don’t make it hard for them to get decent jobs at home. By bullying companies not to build factories there and by imposing steep tariffs on their goods, you damage their economy and create more incentive to come to the US.
            China. If you want to address the actual, serious tensions that exist with China—trade, military expansionism, and the like—you don’t reopen the one-China policy by engaging with Taiwan, an approach with no gain for the US. If you’re a post-election Trump and you can’t resist tramping around awkwardly inside the carefully groomed garden of foreign policy, at least try to think more than one stomp ahead. And if you commit a clownish faux pas by speaking with the president of Taiwan, let it pass and be seen in Beijing as a rookie mistake. Don’t follow it up with threats to use some recognition of Taiwan as a bludgeon against China in other areas. Since Nixon, China has grown accustomed to the US accepting the fiction that Taiwan is just a Chinese province. It’s silly to us but essential to Beijing, which could probably invade and seize Taiwan before Trump could tweet, “Sad.”

January 19, 2017

America Enters a Fourth World

By David K. Shipler

            Beginning at noon Friday, when Donald Trump becomes the most childish, reckless, and truthless president in modern American history, the United States takes the first step into a new category of nations: those once mighty and noble that are falling into frailty and disrepute. Unless our institutions and traditions turn out to be stronger than our people—which is entirely possible—we will become the charter member of what can be called the Fourth World.
            It is a place of undoing. It is a place where moral values of the common good are picked apart, strand by strand, until only the shreds of caring and justice remain. It is where progress is dismantled: progress—albeit fitful and incomplete—in mobilizing the society through government to protect the impoverished from utter ruin, the innocent from false imprisonment, minorities from tyranny, children from hunger, families from dangerous foods and medicines and polluted air and water, and the earth from the end-stage of catastrophic global warming.
            There is nothing divinely ordained about America’s greatness. Once Trump and the radicals who will populate most of his cabinet finish their efforts to destroy what has been painstakingly constructed over decades, it will take a generation to recover. That is the actual time when it will be appropriate to plead, “Make America Great Again!”
            The Fourth World will come after the Third World, a term coined in 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, a French demographer, to mean poor, undeveloped countries “ignored, exploited, scorned, like the Third Estate,” he wrote in L’Observateur. His reference to the Third Estate dated back to the gathering storm of the French Revolution, when Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes used it to refer to the common people, as opposed to the clergy (First Estate) and the nobility (Second Estate).

January 12, 2017

To Russia With Love

By David K. Shipler

            It is impossible now, in the maelstrom of information and disinformation swirling around Donald Trump and Russia, for the United States to deliberate reasonably about its relationship with Moscow. It could happen if Trump were just slightly nuanced and sophisticated, because he is clearly disposed to patching things up with Putin. That would be a good thing if the open hand were accompanied by a clenched fist, to be raised when necessary.
Oddly, though, Trump cannot summon an unkind word about Russian policy and behavior, possibly because he sees the world in black and white, is consistently blind to shades of gray, and is determined to overturn all the tables and chairs of conventional thinking in Washington. He has thus polarized, not persuaded, and has helped fuel a dangerous hysteria about Russia in the national security and political establishment. It is reminiscent of the Cold War, when the Moscow-Washington global competition was viewed as a zero-sum game, with every gain by one seen as an equivalent loss by the other.
But the Russia-US relationship today is not a zero-sum game. It includes intelligence sharing on terrorism, the potential for joint efforts in Syria, collaboration in space and science, work on climate change and preserving the Arctic, and on. The relationship is an intricate tangle of conflict and cooperation, of clashing and mutual interests, of risks and rewards. Hillary Clinton clearly understood this. So, it seems, does Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, as indicated in his Senate confirmation hearing. But the President-elect shows no sign of seeing the cross-currents or looking past his next move. He plays checkers while Putin plays chess.

December 29, 2016

Facts, Fantasies, and Foreign Policy, Part II

By David K. Shipler

            Secretary of State John Kerry made the speech this week that he should have made three years ago, when it might have had an impact greater than to antagonize. In a well reasoned analysis of the harm being done by Israel’s practice of settling Jews on territory to be used for a Palestinian state, he warned that prospects for peace were being curtailed. He justified the US decision not to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements this way: “If we were to stand idly by and know that in doing so we are allowing a dangerous dynamic to take hold which promises greater conflict and instability to a region in which we have vital interests, we would be derelict in our own responsibilities.”
            But standing idly by while settlements have been expanded is exactly what the United States has done for decades. It has never put its money where its mouth is. It has used plenty of words but no real leverage. It has never made Israel pay for this “dangerous dynamic.”
The most recent punishment, in fact, was President Obama’s award to Israel this fall of $38 billion in military aid, which, Kerry noted, “exceeds any military assistance package the United States has provided to any country, at any time, and that will invest in cutting-edge missile defense and sustain Israel’s qualitative military edge for years to come.” Israel gets more than half the entire military financing that the US provides to the entire world. For this, Obama gets denounced as anti-Israel by right-wing American Jews and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist claque.
            Words have weight in foreign affairs, no doubt. And every Republican and Democratic administration, through Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama, has tried—and failed—to sway Israel through vehement words, criticizing the settlements in the contested territories as “obstacles to peace.” To that standard indictment has occasionally been added the charge that the settlements violate international law that governs the rules of war and occupation, as the recent UN resolution stated.
But no financial penalty has been imposed. In effect, because money is fungible, American aid goes into one pocket, freeing Israel to use funds from another pocket to subsidize settlements through housing loans, roads, power lines, water and sewer hookups, and security by the army.

December 26, 2016

Facts, Fantasies, and Foreign Policy, Part I

By David K. Shipler

            Donald Trump, the hot-air balloon who floats and weaves untethered to facts, is poised to create foreign policies (there will be many simultaneously) based on his fantasies and myths, which he will sell convincingly to a plurality of adoring Americans and spineless Republicans in Congress. He is even less curious about the world than George W. Bush. Into this knowledge vacuum will flow the imaginary demons and fairies conjured up by officials in modern America’s most extreme right-wing government, which he is now assembling.
            It will be a dangerous time. But let’s not pretend that fantasy-based foreign policy is unprecedented. It induced the United States to overthrow legitimate, nonthreatening governments and enter at least two losing wars: Vietnam and Iraq, with more to come, undoubtedly. Paranoia is one of America’s most prominent afflictions.
            The New York Times columnist James Reston used to call the State Department the Fudge Factory, an apt name to any reporter who tried to cover it. Attempting to pin down a hard fact of policy was like nailing a custard pie to the wall. Only occasionally would you come across a candid foreign service officer, usually in a US embassy abroad, who would share insights openly into the country that you both were working to understand. I treasured those folks and still count one of them from the embassy in Moscow, Ken Yalowitz, as a close and trusted friend, who went on to become an ambassador himself, to Belarus and Georgia.
             One key mission of both the State Department and intelligence agencies is to act as fact-gathering machines. They are populated with experienced people who speak the local languages, know local history, and are charged with reporting back to Washington. It’s hard to think that Trump will ever listen to them. Indeed, all signs point to ideological pressure for subordinates to avoid thinking differently from his latest tweets, lest they lose their positions.

December 8, 2016

On Whiteness

By David K. Shipler

            About 20 years ago, I asked a small class of white students at the University of Maine what percentage of the American population they thought was black. Maine is one of the whitest states in the union, so these students—all from Maine—saw hardly any African-Americans in their daily lives. But their estimates were high: One woman thought 50 percent of the country’s population was black. Another student agreed, and a couple of others guessed 40 and 30 percent. The actual figure was 13 percent (and, at the time, 0.4 percent in Maine).
            Why such exaggeration? And what did it signify? Was it one seed in the tangle of identity issues that brought Donald Trump to power two decades later?
            For a long time, in the midst of campaigns for affirmative action and other remedies to the wrongs of racial discrimination, polling has found many whites exaggerating not only the numbers of blacks but their prosperity and privileges. Last summer, only 2 percent of white Trump supporters, and just 13 percent of all whites surveyed, agreed that “white people benefit a great deal from advantages that blacks lack,” according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, 62 percent of blacks recognized the existence of white privilege.
            An earlier Pew poll showed African-Americans at least 20 percent more likely than whites to think that blacks were treated less fairly by the police, by the courts, by mortgage lenders, in the workplace, in stores and restaurants, and when voting in elections.