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

June 27, 2019

Jared Kushner and the Palestinian Pretense

By David K. Shipler

                Jared Kushner’s economic proposal for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is comprehensive, bold, and visionary, full of noble goals in commerce, trade, agriculture, manufacturing, road-building, local electricity production, water supply, education, vocational training, health care, women in the workforce, and the arts. Titled “Peace to Prosperity,” it imagines the West Bank as a trading center akin to Singapore or Dubai. Its calls for judicial independence, dependable contract law, anti-corruption measures, and administrative transparency that would be hailed by any “good-government” advocates. It envisions some $50 billion in international grants, loans, investments, and global expertise.  
                This would be nothing to sneer at if it related to reality. But to take it seriously, you have to play Let’s Pretend. So let’s pretend that the West Bank and Gaza constitute a normal country, independent but poor, with no Israeli overlords, and free to accept whatever outside assistance it chooses. Let’s pretend that the Palestinian rulers control their own borders so that people and goods can move easily, as Kushner recommends. Let’s pretend that West Bank land is all under Palestinian authority, rather than being fragmented into leopard-spot jurisdictions favoring expanding Israeli settlements and security concerns. And let’s pretend that the radical group Hamas no longer controls Gaza with a policy of relating to Israel by rockets alone.
                 In that fictional environment, Kushner’s plan is utopian in the best sense of the word. The document is silent on the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so depending on how charitable a reader wants to be, Kushner’s effort is either ignorant or presumptuous, either blind to the political resolution that would be required before his proposals can be implemented, or based on an assumption that a resolution will have occurred.
It should be obvious that this pretty economic dream cannot be realized without the political dream of Palestinian independence. The point could have been made dramatically by the Palestinian leadership, which missed an opportunity by boycotting the conference in Bahrain where the plan was presented. Also absent was Israel, which would have to make significant concessions.
It’s unclear exactly what Kushner and the Trump administration wanted or expected out of this proposal. President Trump displays a belief that money is the pivot point of human behavior, as in his promise to Kim Jong-un of North Korea that his country “would be very rich” if it relinquished nuclear weapons in exchange for aid and investment.
So, did the Trump family think that dangling prosperity in front of the Palestinians might bribe them into a conciliatory political posture? If that’s the case, Kushner and his colleagues have no grasp of the dynamics of Palestinian nationalism. While economic hardships weigh on many Palestinians, especially in the deep poverty of Gaza, the long-running conflict with Israel has been a territorial dispute fueled by the clash of historical narratives, national aspirations, and religious extremism on both sides.
When Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by moving the US embassy there, he foreclosed an American role in mediating impartially between Israel and the Palestinians, who also covet Jerusalem as their capital. When his ambassador, David Friedman, supported the prospect of Israel’s partial annexation of the West Bank—and given his support of Jewish settlements there—he slammed the door on Palestinian regard for the sincerity of any US proposal.
Indeed, ProPublica reported a year and a half ago that the Kushner Companies Charitable Foundation had contributed to the West Bank settlement of Beit El, from which militant Israelis harass and attack Palestinians. Significantly, Kushner’s economic plan makes no mention of the settlements, which have intruded on Palestinian grazing land and uprooted vineyards and olive groves. It laments the small amount of agriculture on the West Bank and calls for Palestinians’ “access to more land.” Is this a coded statement of opposition to Jewish settlements, or is it just plain hypocrisy?
Similarly, the plan’s repeated recommendations for the relatively free movement of people and goods across borders with Jordan, Egypt, and Israel could be read as a challenge to the intricate, onerous checkpoints and barriers that Israel employs around the West Bank and Gaza. Kushner envisions vibrant Palestinian production and exports with outside assistance to “develop beneficial free trade agreements.” He praises the talents of the Palestinian diaspora and urges technical help from Palestinians living abroad—who would probably not be allowed in under current Israeli policy. The plan also revives the old, abortive idea of a land route open to Palestinians, through Israel, between Gaza and the West Bank. Is he pressing Israel for fundamental change, or is he anticipating such a relaxation of tensions that fears of terrorism would no longer be an issue?
Ever since Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the 1967 war, Palestinians have found themselves largely stymied by Israeli authorities in developing their own substantial economic base. In the early 1980s, some international non-profit organizations were barred by the Israeli military government in the territories from giving seed money to embryonic manufacturing enterprises. Farming declined as land was confiscated and exports into Israel were restricted to curtail competition with Israeli producers. That threw more and more Palestinians into Israel proper for wage labor, where the pay is much higher than in the territories. But after Palestinian terrorist attacks prompted Israel to close and restrict border crossings, the commute became virtually impossible from Gaza and difficult from the West Bank.
The West Bank economy has improved somewhat, but whether Israel will permit or encourage the scale of independent Palestinian entrepreneurship and international trade proposed by Kushner is an open question.
And whether a Palestinian leadership would welcome the Kushner approach is also a question, given that it envisions a model of minimal government regulation and maximal capital enterprise, plus tax reform, that follows conservative Republican ideology. He urges strong property rights and a central registration of land ownership (many Palestinians have no deeds, which has made their land vulnerable to takeover by Israeli settlers). He suggests that a Palestinian government should privatize certain services.
The plan advocates massive funding in areas where his father-in-law’s administration has already cut off American aid. Is this another bit of hypocrisy, or a statement of dissent? And what of these statements, which might be applied as a counterpoint to Trump’s own behavior in office:
“Good governance requires rigorous systems that empower people to hold institutions accountable.”
“Robust civil society institutions and a free press are important parts of any well-functioning democracy. Preserving and expanding these important institutions within the West Bank and Gaza will require new laws and practices that protect their independence and improve their capacity.”
Hear! Hear!

June 16, 2019

Phantoms of War

By David K. Shipler

                On the night of August 4, 1964, as two US destroyers were reporting attacks by North Vietnamese PT boats in the Tonkin Gulf, Navy Commander James Stockdale took off from the USS Ticonderoga to fly support. He spent more than 90 minutes below 2,000 feet searching for North Vietnamese vessels. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” he wrote in a book twenty years later, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there . . . there was nothing there but black water and American firepower."
                Yet the imagined incident, coming two days after an actual attack, prompted President Lyndon Johnson to denounce Hanoi’s “repeated acts of violence” and order a bombing run against a North Vietnamese oil depot. The sortie of 18 planes was led, ironically, by Stockdale, who knew conclusively what had not happened but followed orders to help “launch a war under false pretenses,” as he said in his book. (He was shot down on a later mission, spent seven years as a POW, and in 1992 ran for vice president on Ross Perot’s ticket.)
                The cautionary tale of the Tonkin Gulf has been revived in recent days by the Trump administration’s assertions of absolute certainty that Iran was responsible for attacks on two oil tankers. The evidence is sketchy—primarily a video showing Iranian Revolutionary Guards removing, not planting, a limpet mine—and sundry sightings of Iranian vessels in the area, as they always are. There might be intercepted communications, called SIGINT (signal intelligence) in the trade, but they haven’t been released.

June 13, 2019

Trump Tells the Truth

By David K. Shipler

                In a rare moment of candor and accuracy, President Trump today used the word “incredible” to describe his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Upon her announcement that she will be leaving the post, Trump tweeted, “She is a very special person with extraordinary talents, who has done an incredible job!”
                The entire White House press corps suddenly found itself in unfamiliar agreement with a tweet from on high.
                Reactions to the unprecedented spasm of presidential honesty came swiftly from an array of eighth-grade English teachers. “While the adjective ‘incredible’ has been corrupted in slang to substitute for such superlatives as “amazing’ and ‘extraordinary,’” said Mrs. Matthews of Chatham (NJ) Junior High School, “all of my students know very well that it means, ‘not believable.’ Its root is credo, Latin for ‘I believe,’ and is made negative by the prefix ‘in.’” For emphasis, she slapped her 15-inch ruler on her desk, her routine method of keeping her students awake and attentive.
                Trump surely knows the proper definition of “incredible,” several other teachers observed, because he went for a couple of years to Fordham, a Jesuit college where precise thinking and respect for language are de rigueur, and then to an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania.
                Jane Doe, who covers the White House for the East Overshoe Gazette summed up the feeling among her colleagues: “We just hope his next press secretary is less incredible.”

In case you’re wondering, this is satire—although the Trump tweet is real.

June 3, 2019

The Circular Spectrum

By David K. Shipler

“It reminds me of the Soviet Union.”
--Philip B. Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center, on the Trump Administration’s politicization of climate science.

                The spectrum of political and social views is usually pictured as a straight line running from left to right. But the range of positions on some matters might better be rendered as a circle, with the line bent around until the two extreme ends are joined in common excess.
                Take the rejection of science, for example. On the right are the deniers of all the careful and extensive research documenting the human contributions to global warming. On the left are the deniers of all the careful and extensive research into the human immune system’s activation by means of vaccines. They are not identical in their suspicion of elites in the scientific community, but they are close enough to be put together at the bottom of that circle.
                And anti-Semitism. Typically seen on the extreme right among neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, ugly manifestations have also surfaced on the left. In the US, some college students have mixed anti-Semitic stereotypes into their criticisms of Israel, as has Democratic Congresswoman Ihlan Omar. Britain’s Labour Party is under investigation for anti-Semitism by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission. Seven members of Parliament quit Labour in February in protest over its leadership’s failure to deal sufficiently with anti-Semitism as well as Brexit.
                Left-right similarities can be seen on some college campuses that have been stages for intolerant assaults in both directions. Shortly after 9/11, conservative students and alumni monitored and reported liberal professors for views expressed in and out of class, and tried to get some fired. More recently, liberal and minority students have shouted down conservative and racist speakers, or have pressed administrators to disinvite them. These attempts to silence expression are less prevalent than they appear from the news coverage they receive, but they have special gravity at institutions supposedly devoted to free intellectual inquiry. In places of higher learning, especially, a viewpoint considered offensive is best confronted with solid research, sound argument, and precise rebuttal.

June 1, 2019

Bad Spellers for Immigration Shutdown

By David K. Shipler

                After years of dithering about the immigration issue, the national Bad Spellers (BS) movement has finally endorsed President Trump’s border wall and other tough restrictions. But the organization also warned that his proposal to base immigration on merit would pose great dangers to American culture.
                “The risks are obvious when you look at the pictures and the names of the eight co-winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee,” said a BS statement. “Rishik Gandhasri, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao, Rohan Raja—and, by the way, the only one who seems like a white Anglo, Erin Howard. All these kids with families originally from India or somewhere else in South Asia who can spell all those ridiculous words that nobody ever uses—are they even English words?”
                BS went on to point out what every red-blooded American knows, that the right to misspell is enshrined in the Constitution (First Amendment) and exemplified by our president, who was made an honorary member of BS even before his inauguration. “Donald Trump is a true repesentative [sic] of the Peopel [sic],” said the announcement at the time. “He knows how to capitalize randomely [sic] and use apostrofes [sic] at will. He’s all about substence [sic], not spelling.”
                The fear, BS explained, is that hordes of hostile “aliens” will invade the country and undermine its devotion to the pluralism of spelling and grammar, which are core principles practiced daily in tweets, emails, conversations, and even classrooms. The evolution of the English language will be frozen at a pompous stage. It is obvious from the spelling bee results, BS argued, that immigrants’ high regard for education and their ambition to get ahead threaten American values. “Here is the question: What freedom do we have if not the freedom to spell as we wish?”
                In an effort to appeal to Trump, BS drove its point home with this: “The insistance [sic] on propper [sic] spelling is just another form of political correctness.”

Full disclosure: This is satire!

May 27, 2019

A Memorial Day Reflection

By David K. Shipler

                Ronald Young died last year. He served his country for his entire adult life, not in uniform but in the ranks of those unsung Americans who campaign for peace, who use not lethal arms but the weapon of morality to call their country to its highest values. They should also be honored on Memorial Day.
For Ron’s memoir, Crossing Boundaries in the Americas,Vietnam and the Middle EastI wrote a preface from which this essay is adapted. It calls upon us to consider what lenses we use to see ourselves and our past.
History is written by the victors, as Winston Churchill observed. It is then interpreted by the powerful, and periodically reinterpreted as values mature and new voices are heard. In other words, history is malleable. Russians under communism used to joke about the disappearance of important figures from official recollections: “What is the definition of a Soviet historian?” The answer: “A person who can predict the past.”
We Americans like to think we’re more truthful than autocracies, and we are, but only to a degree. While no central government dictates what we learn about our history, we have multiple versions manipulated instead by a thousand points of institutional bias, from the Texas school board’s textbook requirements to the museums and monuments scattered across the country. In democracies, too, what is taught and known about the past is shaped by the cultural consensus of the present.
Not long ago, Native Americans (then called “Indians”) appeared in classrooms and films as ruthless primitives. If they were occasionally admired, it was only for their savage nobility—their exotic rituals and canny self-reliance—or as collaborators with the white man against their own. I went to school in the 1950s, and I cannot remember reading a line in a textbook or hearing a sentence from a teacher about the atrocities visited upon them.
Nor was slavery sufficiently woven into the American story. Not until the waning years of the twentieth century did visitors to Monticello, Mount Vernon, and other plantations see anything of the majority of residents who had lived there—the enslaved blacks who built and labored on the land. Tours concentrated on the owners’ elaborate mansions, furniture, silverware, and china.
That this has changed—that the powerless are now seen—is a tribute to America’s sporadic capacity for self-correction. We hail Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement that were so vilified and spied upon by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. What an FBI memo called a “demagogic speech” that made King “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country” we now celebrate as one of the most inspiring pieces of eloquence in our history: “I have a dream.”
Yet even this evolving self-portrait underestimates a whole subculture of America’s sons and daughters who struggled against established policies and norms. They include blacks who sacrificed to overturn segregation and whites who journeyed south to join them in the civil rights movement. They include those who defied the military draft to resist the war in Vietnam, protested United States aid for Latin American dictatorships, urged nuclear disarmament, demanded protection of the environment, and called broadly on their country to stand for peace and humane justice—not easy standards for a superpower to achieve, evidently.
These Americans have been the backbone of our conscience. If we sing of their achievements too softly, we miss essential ingredients of our country’s greatness.
Ron Young was one of those Americans. I first met him when he and his wife, Carol Jensen, visited Jerusalem, where I was a correspondent, from their home base of Amman, Jordan. Their task, for the Americans Friends Service Committee, was to cross the rigid boundaries that divided Israelis and Arabs—and the internal boundaries that divided Israelis and Arabs among themselves—so they could report to Quakers back home on the state of the Middle East and its faltering peace process.
Being a reporter was my job, too. But Ron and Carol seemed to be doing much more. In harvesting competing perspectives, they were also seeding a measure of interaction and dialogue. They were carrying the contrasting views across those boundaries and leaving them for contemplation by the other side. To believe that this would make a difference took enormous faith in people’s good sense and their capacity to listen, especially to voices different from their own.
Given the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace nearly forty years after their efforts, you might conclude that their faith was misplaced. But they never struck me as naïve. They honored the decency in people, respected their need for dignity, and looked at hard truths with a clear gaze. We need more of this realistic idealism. Lofty goals cannot be reached by cynicism.
So Ron’s story was the country’s story—or, a part of the country’s story not usually told vividly. Because he came of age by following pathways that led through the most momentous protest movements in the nation’s postwar experience, his personal narrative filled in the picture of a turbulent society reaching for moral poise.
He told me little of this during our long conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during those years in Jerusalem. Perhaps I never asked—a grievous failing for a reporter. But he also never volunteered, a measure of his humility. He was not a man obsessed with himself.
But he was a man driven by the desire to see injustice made right—not with the flashing rhetoric of hyperbole, not with unprovable accusations of conspiracy or venality, but with the quiet assurance that understanding can be nourished from those seeds of listening.
At a time when organized religion is most publicized for its intolerance, Ron held regard for the clergy of diverse faiths as catalysts of change. That began at the height of efforts to topple Jim Crow segregation, when he dropped out of Wesleyan to work at a black church in Memphis under the Reverend James Lawson, Jr., who set him to reading and thinking about topics far beyond the immediate racial conflicts, including the threat of nuclear war.
Ron visited the Dominican Republic after the United States invasion, went to Uruguay for a conference on nonviolence and social change, and would have been drawn more deeply into Latin America were it not for the escalation of the war in Vietnam.
He worked for the religious and pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He burned his draft card, campaigned with the peace movement, and led a delegation including religious leaders for discussions with non-communist South Vietnamese who opposed the war. His anti-war credentials enabled him to visit North Vietnam in 1970 as part of a small group of religious figures to deliver mail to and from American POWs and their families.
In later years he translated those early contacts with religious leaders into a longterm effort toward Middle East peace. It’s hard to think of anyone else with his deep experience who could mobilize Muslim, Jewish, and Christian clergy in the way that he did, to keep pressing the United States to keep Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects alive.
Ron was 75 when he died of septic shock. I don't know if he would want a flag lowered to half mast, but he deserves the tribute as much as any soldier who falls in battle. If you are ever tempted to despair that Americans have lost their moral compass, look into Ron Young’s generous life of active idealism. And remember that he has not been alone.

May 17, 2019

Endangering American Muslims

By David K. Shipler

                If the Trump administration goes ahead with its plan to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, hundreds of thousands of US citizens could face federal prosecution for providing funds and leadership to mosques and Islamic community centers across the country. That is because federal law prohibits “material support” for terrorist groups, and some key Trump insiders accept the slanderous allegation by anti-Islam activists that the Brotherhood effectively owns mosques and has infiltrated the United States.
                Muslim Americans and their institutions could also face rising jeopardy from local authorities and organized citizens, who would employ the designation to mobilize fear. Mosques already have difficulty in some locations getting zoning changes and building permits, and extremists could easily use the official label of “terrorist” to justify vigilante violence. In other words, the hatred stoked by President Trump and some of his allies would be granted the force of law.
While President George W. Bush kept the anti-Muslim movement at bay, even after 9/11, Trump has surrounded himself with admirers and promoters of vitriolic alarmists who portray Islam in sinister terms reminiscent of the smears and suspicions fueled by hunts for communists in the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
Stephen Miller, a leading White House adviser, has a long record, dating back to his senior year at Duke in 2007, of imagining what he terms “Islamofascism” as being at war with Western civilization. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, remains in the president’s inner circle after running Breitbart, the rightwing outlet that helped promulgate baseless assertions that Islamic centers were fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood’s stealthy program to subvert America by imposing Sharia, Muslim religious law.
Frank Gaffney, who served on Trump’s transition team, distorts Islamic sources to create an ominous specter of community centers, mosques, and Muslim organizations controlled by the Brotherhood. Gaffney has been praised by Bannon as “one of the senior thought leaders and men of action in this whole war against Islamic radical jihad.” Between 2013 and 2017, Mike Pompeo, now Secretary of State, appeared on Gaffney’s radio program 34 times, according to The Atlantic.

May 6, 2019

Democrats Miss the Target

By David K. Shipler

It is so easy for President Trump and his allies to distract Democrats into skirmishes on the sidelines of the big game. Yes, it’s outrageous that Attorney General William Barr played spin doctor on the Mueller report by distorting its content. Yes, it’s even more outrageous that Barr is defying a Congressional subpoena to be questioned yet again about why he said what he said about the report.
But what’s really important is what the report itself says, not what Barr says about it. That’s what Democrats should be focusing on. For if you read all 448 pages, as every citizen should, you’ll see a troubling picture emerge of a bizarre, uneducable president who tries to run the government as if he were the head of a crime syndicate.
He uses his office to manipulate and intimidate. He lies to his aides, and they lie to him. He grooms himself as a cult figure whose approval is granted or withheld to the favor or detriment of acolytes. Some tell him they will obey even as they decide to defy him. He issues implicit threats (though not of violence, so far), and clearly expects his underlings to break the law on his behalf. When they do not, they are deemed “weak” and marked for retribution.  
More to the point of the Mueller investigation, the evidence in the report supports an assessment that Trump did, indeed, attempt to obstruct justice in at least two of the cases investigated, and possibly in another five. Mueller stops short of making that judgment explicitly. But since his report is like a legal textbook on the conditions required to make the charge, and his evidence on both sides of each question is spread out dispassionately in precise detail, even a layman can see the obvious.
This is what Democrats should be talking about. This is what they should be holding hearings on. They don’t need Barr to pillory, and they don’t need the “unredacted” version of the report. There is plenty in the public pages if anybody bothers to wade through the dry prose.
At the report’s end, Mueller writes something akin to a legal brief, rebutting arguments by Trump’s lawyers that obstruction statutes are too narrow and the Constitution too broad in its grant of executive power to permit a president to be charged for such behavior. With citations of Supreme Court opinions and discussions of legislative intent, Mueller has produced a document ready-made for a prosecutor wishing to defend any appeal against either criminal charges or impeachment.
The national interest might have been better served if Mueller had not punted on the bottom-line question of whether he thinks Trump tried to obstruct justice. “We determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” he writes, content with an approach that responsible journalists know as a kind of forensic exercise: on the one hand this, on the other hand that. Let the readers make up their own minds. “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime,” Mueller says, “it also does not exonerate him.”
Yet the evidence he lays out so impartially draws you to a conclusion in almost every instance. Mueller defines the three conditions that must be met for an obstruction charge: first, an obstructive act likely to interfere with an investigation; second, a nexus between the act and an official proceeding such as a grand-jury or law-enforcement investigation; and third, an intent to impede the investigation.
(Late today, more than 450 former federal prosecutors issued a letter concluding that Trump would have been charged with obstruction had he not been president.)
The two Trump activities that appear to satisfy all three conditions involve his praise and hints of a pardon for Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, and his efforts to limit the scope of the special counsel’s investigation to future elections, excluding 2016.
Trump frequently used the Mafia term “flip” to disparage insiders who turn state’s evidence, and Manafort won Trump’s accolades for refusing to “break.” By contrast, Trump called Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, a “rat” for cooperating with the special counsel.   
 “There is evidence that the President's actions had the potential to influence Manafort's decision whether to cooperate with the government,” Mueller says in his analysis of whether Trump committed an obstructive act. The report notes that while Manafort pleaded guilty in one case and entered a cooperation agreement, he lied to investigators after Trump “suggested that a pardon was a more likely possibility if Manafort continued not to cooperate with the government.” Further, Trump’s public statements during Manafort’s trial in another case, “including during jury deliberations, also had the potential to influence the trial jury.”
A nexus with an ongoing investigation clearly existed, Mueller finds, and the intent condition was also satisfied: “Evidence concerning the President's conduct towards Manafort indicates that the President intended to encourage Manafort to not cooperate with the government.” Sections on Roger Stone, Trump’s adviser, are blacked out, because his prosecution is ongoing.
Trump’s attempts to limit the investigation’s scope also appear in the report as having met the obstruction law’s three conditions. This came about as Trump tried to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to scale back the investigation to future elections, although Sessions had recused himself. Oddly, Trump picked as his messenger Corey Lewandowski, a private citizen and former campaign manager. Lewandowski never delivered the request.
 The attempt “would qualify as an obstructive act if it would naturally obstruct the investigation and any grand jury proceedings that might flow from the inquiry,” Mueller writes, stopping short of giving the obvious answer. Since a grand jury investigation had become public knowledge at the time, the nexus to an official proceeding would exist if limiting the investigation “would have the natural and probable effect of impeding that grand jury proceeding.” That sounds like a no-brainer.
Finally, the report is crystal clear on intent: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President 's effort to have Sessions limit the scope of the Special Counsel's investigation to future election interference was intended to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the President's and his campaign's conduct.”
Mueller’s evidence places other episodes in a gray area between probable and iffy. Among those, the case against Trump seeming strongest is his repeated demand that Mueller be removed. Since the investigation would have continued anyway, “a factfinder would need to consider whether the act had the potential to delay further action in the investigation, chill the actions of any replacement Special Counsel, or otherwise impede the investigation.” The other two conditions—the nexus and the intent—appear to have been satisfied in Trump’s desire to get rid of Mueller.
 Trump’s actions portrayed by the report as less certain to qualify as obstruction of justice include his appeal to James Comey, the FBI director, to lay off Michael Flynn, the national security adviser; his dismissal of Comey; Trump’s repeated efforts to get Sessions to “unrecuse” himself and take over the investigation; and his orders to White House Counsel Don McGahn to deny that he tried to fire Mueller. Various caveats and questions are raised in all these cases, although a layman could be forgiven for seeing fire where there is smoke.
The report is refreshing because it embraces ambiguity where relevant, leaves room for debate on each of these episodes, and is full of solid research and sound reasoning, a rare display these days of intellectual honesty and impartial integrity.
Yet even without a final, ringing declaration of judgment, its cascading evidence provides a cumulative indictment of Trump—if not criminally, then in the broader sense of the term, as a president incapable and unfit, ignorant or indifferent to the law and the Constitution, unwilling to learn, and thoroughly incompetent to govern in a system that restrains authoritarianism. The Democrats should forget Barr and concentrate on what the report tells us about Trump.

April 30, 2019

Rethinking Russia--Part Two

By David K. Shipler

                Donald Trump certainly acted like a guilty man when it came to accusations that he and his campaign had cooperated with Russia in promoting his candidacy. If a playwright had created such a character, he would have been considered too obvious.
                This is the fourth key question in assessing Russia’s actions during the 2016 campaign. The first three—whether the Russians hacked the Democrats’ emails, whether the Russians impersonated Americans online to exacerbate fissures in the society, and whether those activities helped elect Trump—were examined in Part One. Now we look at numbers 4 through 6.
                4. Based on Trump’s display of anxiety about the Russia investigation, his attempts to stop it, his aides’ interactions with Russians, and the lies some told to Congress and FBI agents, the assumption of a cover-up seemed reasonable. Trump and some of his people acted as if they were hiding something illicit or illegal.
Furthermore, the Mueller report said, dozens of Russian tweets and posts were cited or retweeted by campaign officials, including Donald J. Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Michael T. Flynn. But there is no evidence that they knew of the Russian origins. And the investigation didn’t find cooperation or coordination or conspiracy. Rather, the evidence it lays out portrays a haphazard array of contacts among Americans and Russians in erratic pursuit of two apparent goals: profitable business opportunities and improved superpower relations.

April 29, 2019

Rethinking Russia--Part One

By David K. Shipler

                Imprecise thinking about Russia has afflicted the United States in the wake of the 2016 election. The lines between fact and speculation have been blurred. The evidence of Russian misdeeds has been expanded into broad, unproven theories about Moscow’s motives and the impact on the election results. Legitimate contacts between Americans and Russians have been clouded with suspicion. And together, all these parts—both Russian activities and American reactions—have hobbled the ability of the United States to engage Russia in the kind of fruitful relationship that would promote American national interests.
                The election interference was only part of a broad deterioration, notes Kenneth Yalowitz, a veteran diplomat who served many years in Moscow, and then as US ambassador to Georgia and Belarus. It was preceded by a series of damaging episodes that broke down dialogue. “The bureaucracies have no connections anymore,” he said. “There’s no systematic conversation any longer. We don’t know each other. Given the very difficult state of the relationship, this is the time we should be talking to each other.” Instead, he said, “Our policy is just sanctions and breaking agreements.”
The downward slide can be mapped with landmarks of hostility: the West’s expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, which ignited historic Russian fears of close encirclement; the European Union’s courting Ukraine, the home of defense industries and a Russian naval base; American support for street protesters’ ouster of Ukraine’s elected, pro-Moscow president; then Russia’s thinly-disguised invasion of eastern Ukraine and overt annexation of Crimea, which reanimated Western fears of aggressive expansionism; a Russian tit-for-tat maneuver in America’s back yard to help prop up the anti-US regime in Venezuela; Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which restored Moscow’s foothold in the Middle East; Moscow’s violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and President Trump’s scrapping the agreement instead of renegotiating; Russian backing for right-wing racist parties in Europe; Moscow’s cyber intrusions into politics and elections in Estonia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Germany, France, and Austria; and Russian money to support Brexit, seen as part of a grand plan by the Kremlin to break up European cohesion.
                It’s a grim and dangerous list. When the election is added, with the surrounding political anger, the rigor and clarity required to evaluate what has happened is going to be hard to achieve. Trump, who campaigned on improving the relationship, has handcuffed himself by appearing unduly pro-Russia. He has fawned over President Vladimir Putin, downplayed the election interference, tried to thwart Mueller’s investigation, and left real policy to such hawks as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
                Moreover, the American debate has been muffled, thanks largely to Russia’s having cemented its standing as an adversary. Unorthodox voices have been marginalized as they question conventional wisdom and hold Washington at least partly responsible for the rising tensions.