The country is potentially in a very dangerous situation

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Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to President Donald J. Trump, sits in on a meeting with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad, Iraq, April 3, 2017. ([Department of Defense] Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro). Accessed via flickr.com.
The story of Jared Kushner’s attempt to open a back channel of communication with the Kremlin is the first glimpse the public has into the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin (which the FBI has been investigating for a year now).

Given that there is a possibility of illegal activity here, let’s explore a few scenarios of how Trump could leave office in the coming years:

  1. He loses a re-election bid
  2. He is impeached and removed from office forcefully
  3. He completes two full terms

In all but situation 3, we may have a problem here. Given that Trump has praised foreign dictators for being “strong leaders” by instituting martial law, killing their own citizens by the thousands, destroying checks and balances with questionable power grabs, and the like – we know that Trump does not believe in democracy. And since he does not believe in democracy, we can’t be sure that he believes in the peaceful transition of power.

Can you foresee a situation where Trump has to leave office against his own will? Will he gracefully step down if he loses his re-election or, especially, if he’s impeached? Or will we have a constitutional crisis on our hands?

Democracy is inherently fragile, and is only as strong as the integrity of those willing to defend it.

Let’s just imagine in our heads a situation where Donald Trump loses his re-election to a Democrat in 2020. Given how 2016 went, we know the campaign is probably going to be a long, ugly, a demoralizing bloodbath between him and whoever runs in opposition. Trump may even label his opponent as a danger to the country, painting a scary and dangerous picture for voters of the ugly possibilities of what may happen to America if we allow this opponent to take office. We may have sweeping breaches of voting rights by 2020, given that the Republican party as a whole has shown little interest in protecting them. Trump may call the results rigged, or illegitimate; he may use everything in his power to throw mud into the gears of what has always been a peaceful transfer of power in this country. And using “everything in his power” – he’s the president of the United States. He has a lot of power.

But this isn’t even the scariest possibility. Let’s say the FBI, or leaks to the press, or any of the other investigations into his campaign uncover something illegal and impeachable. What if Trump calls it all illegitimate, as he’s already done so far? What if Congress strips him of his power and he says “no?” Trump for the most part controls the military and the police. Using that power to hold onto the presidency might sound like a far fetched scenario, but democracy is inherently fragile, and is only as strong as the integrity of those willing to defend it. As I said, we know Trump isn’t interested in defending democracy; from the looks of things he is only willing to defend himself. And remember that this country has gone to civil war in the past.

Those hoping that Trump will be impeached don’t account for the fact that this country will be in crisis if it comes to that. Even if Trump was successfully removed from power against his will, the extreme partisan divisions that exist right now could very well turn into deep trenches. Our people could turn on one another in ways we haven’t yet thought possible – those who support Trump and those who support his impeachment. Even now, more Republican voters trust Putin, possibly more than they trust Democrats. To think we would be able to pick up the pieces, unite as a country, and go back to normal in a situation like this is a long shot. If it came to that, there would be significant harm done to this country’s institutions, one way or another.

Even at this moment, Trump is using a very familiar playbook. Evan McMullin, who ran for president as a conservative independent in 2016, had this to say about it: “Accelerating investigations place the Trump administration in a familiar authoritarian quandary. Remaining in power subjects them to increasingly compromising scrutiny while offering the best protection from its consequences. So they become evermore willing to take extraordinary, illegal steps to hold onto power as a matter of self-preservation. It remains to be seen what form this will take in the case of the Trump administration.”

Let’s hope that if it comes to this, there are enough Americans left to put the country before party loyalty. But at the moment, in our current hyper-partisan political climate, I’m not convinced that’s the case.

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The left has a fake news problem

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“Louise Mensch MP, Corby and East Northamptonshire,” courtesy The Climate Coalition (UK), accessed via flickr.com

No, I’m not talking about CNN. I’m talking about conspiracy theorists who have found a following among news-starved liberals impatiently waiting for the FBI probe into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia to end in indictments or impeachment. It’s hard to even call them conspiracy “theorists” because they do not post theories, they post unfalsifiable “intel” from “sources” that claim that Trump, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and maybe even hundreds of others have secretly been indicted and that they will be arrested any day now.

The most prominent among these are Louise Mensch and Claude Taylor, who have amassed huge followings on Twitter and with their blog Patribotics. They make unverified and uncorroborated claims about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia by citing anonymous sources, or “insiders” as they claim. They put on the air that their claims have validity by echoing one another, and citing their own blog to back themselves up.

Mensch gained publicity by correctly identifying the existence of FISA warrants into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and Taylor did as well when he correctly identified the existence of grand juries looking into the same case. In both of these cases, Patribotics beat the mainstream media to the punch and were the first to report them. However, they use the momentum gained by being right once in a while to claim that they are just “ahead of the game” with the rest of their unverified stories – that the media just hasn’t published or caught up with them yet.

Typically in legacy news outlets – those with decades-long reputations to back up their credibility and trustworthiness – a story is only published with anonymous sources once it has been thoroughly vetted and corroborated. Anonymous sources will be corroborated by multiple staff members at say, The Washington Post, who will then publish the story. Typically, multiple other news outlets will also corroborate the story and independently vet the sources, and also publish it in a short period of time. This is how we as an audience know we can trust these sources without knowing who they are.

Take for example the story that broke Wednesday night about Greg Gianforte assaulting the Guardian reporter, Ben Jacobs. There were multiple refutations of the claim that Gianforte “bodyslammed” Ben Jacobs, both from Gianforte’s staff and from other conservative talking heads. However when the story was confirmed by Fox News, whose journalists had witnessed the assault first hand, we as an audience knew the truth. This level of corroboration is what makes the typical criticisms of anonymous sources weak.

This level of corroboration is also what the Patribotics team is missing, and why their stories can’t be trusted. Often times you won’t be able to find their sources and claims anywhere but Patribotics and their individual Twitter accounts. Sometimes they will post stories that are downright false, and once proven false, Mensch and Taylor bend over backwards trying to retroactively prove them true, or even just edit the original post to make it reflect new info. This is intentionally misleading and false, but it gets into strange territory when they attempt to undermine (or even outright harass) anybody who criticizes the weaknesses and veracity of their “reporting.”

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“How to spot fake news,” courtesy http://www.factcheck.org, accessed via commons.wikimedia.org

The stories about the FBI investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign are true. But be careful what you read out there. The internet is an environment where anybody can publish anything, so fake news and outright nonsense are prevalent. Make sure the reports you read are corroborated by more than one legacy news outlet before believing them. And most of all use extra scrutiny when reading reports that you hope to be true.


Edit 5/27/2017, 3:30 PM: Since it is a popular line of defense that Patribotics and their followers use to defend their unverified reporting, I felt the need to address this. Even if it comes out later that what they have reported is true (which has happened a few times), my points about their intentionally misleading reporting still hold. The fact that the Patribotics team is constantly posting “told ya so’s” when any small part of their reports happen to be true, the fact that they are constantly going back and editing old reports to reflect new information (often times even distorting the original false point to make it sound true given new facts), the fact that they are pushing potentially explosive ideas before having all the facts, and the fact that they lash out against critics – these are all intentionally misleading activities, regardless of how true any of it is, and should be red flags. The truth should be able stand on its own merits.

The Comey firing is not normal

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James Comey, courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/girardatlarge/28048181871

The James Comey firing is not normal. The President of the United States fired the man tasked with investigating him for crimes. The importance and weight of that sentence cannot be overstated.

Comparisons to Nixon have been floating around since the news came out. Nixon, in his Saturday Night Massacre, asked his Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor who was assigned to investigating Watergate. Elliot Richardson chose to resign rather than comply, thus yielding Department of Justice authority to his Deputy AG, William Ruckleshaus, who also resigned for the same reason. Finally authority of the DOJ fell to the Solicitor General, Robert Bork, who then (finally) fired the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.

The problem was that Nixon had ordered Cox fired because Cox was getting too close to honing in on Nixon for crimes related to Watergate. Instead of facing up to these crimes, Nixon abused his executive power and ordered Cox fired. Two acting Attorneys General chose to resign instead of follow this order because it was just that – an abuse of executive power. While Comey was not a special prosecutor, and thus there could have been any number of reasons to fire him – in a democracy, you cannot fire the person tasked with investigating you.

Well, actually, you can. It is within the powers of the President of the United States to fire the FBI Director. Investigations are carried out by the executive branch, and the President runs the executive branch. The reason I say you “can’t” do this is because it is an abuse of power. At this point it is up to Congress to hold the President accountable for these actions. But our current Congress is controlled by the Republican party, and Mitch McConnell as the Senate Majority Leader already shut this down, speaking of it as if it is no big deal, and as if we should all just move on.

McConnell has been very good at making extremes and abuses of power seem normal. He has made historic obstruction of government seem normal, even denying the sitting President from nominating a Supreme Court Justice to replace Antonin Scalia for a full year. Now he’s even making it seem normal for the President, whose campaign is under investigation for its ties to Russia and the Russian hacking of the 2016 election, to fire the FBI Director who is leading this investigation. He does this by brushing it aside, and moving onto other topics of discussion, thus nullifying any opposition or press narratives as time, and the news cycle, passes.

[T]he outrage isn’t over the fact that Comey was fired, it’s why he was fired.

And the spin machine is now running on full blast. Fox News has been trying to disarm the criticism with a lot of Whataboutisms from the start, and Trump has been throwing confusion into the narratives to get people arguing. Trump has been masterful at this for years now, and it is a major reason why he’s President today. The letter he wrote to fire Comey even stated that Trump had been informed by Comey on “three separate occasions” that he was not under investigation, even hinting that these conversations were recorded in a tweet yesterday. Which is bizarre, not only because it was brought up at all, but because Comey isn’t worried about any such tapes. This didn’t stop the press from running with the story, feeling the need to give legitimacy to these remarks, and thus the narrative is effectively mucked. Our divided country is once again divided along party lines on this issue.

Those defending these actions will have arguments like, “Comey needed to go for politicizing the Bureau, and Democrats are only up in arms about this because of partisan politics.” There is some semblance of truth to that. I agree that Comey overly politicized the FBI, both with his letter to Congress last November about the Clinton email case that probably turned the election in Trump’s favor, as well as constantly being in front of the camera and making news. However, the outrage isn’t over the fact that Comey was fired, it’s why he was fired. And the White House narratives to explain that don’t add up (especially since Trump and Sessions, who made the decision to fire Comey, constantly praised his handling of the Clinton email case until last week).

The more likely conclusion people are drawing is that he was fired for investigating the Trump campaign.

If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how you’d feel if Obama fired Comey last year when Hillary Clinton’s email investigation was still ongoing. Let’s even say he had some other reason for doing it. Wouldn’t you find it suspicious? Would you take the President at his word?

***

The Democrats are in a tough spot. On one hand, if they blow this up and grandstand about it, half of the country will think it’s all just partisan politics and the criticisms will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, however, if they don’t do enough then they are rolling over in the face of an abuse of executive power. Especially since so few congressional Republicans have joined in the criticism, the onus falls on the Democrats.

One option, as Adam Jentleson described, is to use every opportunity they have in the Senate to question Republicans about their denial of this abuse of power. Republicans can choose not to comment when asked by the press, they can hide from town halls, but hiding from the Senate floor is much more difficult. Mitch McConnell hopes this will go away with time (as it usually does), but the Democrats need to decide if this is a big enough problem to use all of the power at their disposal to resist.

And most of all – maybe the only way to truly ensure Congress acts as a check on the Executive – people need to vote. Vote for candidates who pledge to hold the White House accountable for their actions, in 2018 and always. Turn up the electoral pressure on those who refuse to acknowledge these problems, and all of a sudden we will see their attitudes – or their seats – flip.