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

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.