At the Event Horizon

Astronomers can’t see black holes. They’re black. They’re so dense that light can’t escape them. This has to do with the relationship of mass to gravity. Neil Armstrong was lighter on the moon, a small body. He could sort of bounce around – but on massive Jupiter he would be crushed. Black holes are far more massive. Everyone knows this, except evangelical creationists not all that impressed with science, and science fiction writers, who have their nifty spaceships zipping through black holes suddenly to end up on the other side of the universe, just where they want to be. Those nifty spaceships, trying that, would be crushed to something far smaller than a grain of sand – but that doesn’t matter much. The stories are fun – but the science is clear. The black hole sucks everything in and crushes it. It even sucks in light itself.

That’s a problem. Astronomers find black holes by observing gravitational distortions – the light from nearby visible stars being bent in odd ways, when there’s nothing there. Something’s there. Some incredibly massive object is there, bending that light, and they can also define what they call the “event horizon” – the point far enough from the black hole that light can escape.

So what? No one cares about such things, but sometimes science provides useful metaphor. Politicians, like all bodies, have a specific gravity. Some float, some sink, but what matters is that some politicians have gravitas. What they say is taken seriously by enough people so that they can suck in all criticism and crush it. Their goof-ups don’t matter. What comes to light gets sucked back in by their gravitas. What happened never happened. No light escapes. Gravitas is a kind of gravity.

That’s a foolish notion. There’s always an event horizon, that odd point where light overcomes gravity, and Donald Trump is finding that out. The light is finally escaping his pull. He never had all that much gravitas in the first place – bluster isn’t gravitas – and now the Russia thing is escaping his pull:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, facing a storm of criticism over newly disclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, recused himself on Thursday from any investigation into charges that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

His announcement, delivered at a terse news conference, came after a day of rapid-fire developments in a murky affair that has shadowed President Trump, jeopardized his closest aides and intensified pressure for a full inquiry into Moscow’s attempts to influence the election as well as the policies of the new administration.

Many top Democrats demanded Mr. Sessions’ resignation, and a growing number of Republicans declared that he should not take part in any investigation into the case, given his own still largely unexplained role in it.

But Mr. Trump stoutly defended Mr. Sessions, one of his few early champions on Capitol Hill. “He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional,” he said in a statement, which accused Democrats of engaging in “a total witch hunt.”

No one is buying that, except for Rush Limbaugh perhaps, so this fell flat:

Mr. Sessions insisted there was nothing nefarious about his two meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, even though he did not disclose them to the Senate during his confirmation hearing and they occurred during the heat of the race between Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and Mr. Trump, whom Mr. Sessions was advising on national security.

It didn’t help that the DNC and Hillary Clinton leaks started popping up a few days after the second meeting – perhaps no more than a coincidence, but there’s nothing now to suck those suspicions back in: He was on his own:

Mr. Sessions’ decision to recuse himself was one of his first public acts as attorney general. He said he made the decision after consulting with Justice Department officials, and he denied misleading Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, when he said in his confirmation hearing that he had not met with Russian officials about the Trump campaign.

“In retrospect,” Mr. Sessions told reporters, “I should have slowed down and said, ‘but I did meet one Russian official a couple of times, and that would be the ambassador.'”

That sounds lame, and led to the release of another bit of light:

On Thursday, the White House confirmed that Mr. Flynn had his own previously undisclosed meeting with the ambassador in December to “establish a line of communication” between the incoming administration and the Russian government. Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and now a senior adviser, also participated in the meeting at Trump Tower.

That was going to come out sooner or later, so it was best to volunteer this, but that didn’t help much:

Two other Trump campaign advisers also reportedly spoke with Mr. Kislyak last year at an event on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention.

Carter Page, a businessman and early Trump foreign policy adviser, told MSNBC on Thursday, “I’m not going to deny that I talked to him,” but said in an earlier statement that he would not comment about the event, which was off the record. Additionally, J. D. Gordon, a retired naval officer who advised Mr. Trump on national security, told USA Today that he had had an “informal conversation” with Mr. Kislyak, and played down its importance.

Everything is coming out now, as the Trump gravitational pull weakens:

There is nothing unusual about meetings between presidential campaigns and foreign diplomats. Mr. Kislyak was one of several envoys at the Republican National Convention, where his first meeting with Mr. Sessions, according to the attorney general, was a brief encounter after a panel organized by the Heritage Foundation. Ambassadors also attended the Democratic convention, though it was not clear whether Mr. Kislyak was among them.

“Active embassies here consider it as their assignment to stretch out feelers to presidential hopefuls,” said Peter Wittig, the German ambassador, who met most of the Republican candidates, though not Mr. Trump. “I don’t consider it as something unusual or problematic.”

The trouble in Mr. Sessions’ case is that his meeting came as the nation’s intelligence agencies were concluding that Russia had tried to destabilize the election and help Mr. Trump. Mr. Sessions’ initial lack of disclosure of the meetings with Mr. Kislyak fed suspicions that it was more than run-of-the-mill diplomacy.

Josh Marshall sees where this is going:

This scandal has all the attributes of the vast and shattering scandals in which people who at least appear to have only indirect or limited roles themselves keep getting pulled under or compromised by it. I know “vast and shattering” is a pretty portentous phrase. Certainly, this revelation itself doesn’t shake anything to its foundations. But why did Sessions have this meeting at all? It seems at best ill-conceived, coming in the heat of allegations of inappropriate connections between Trump and Russia last fall.

This makes no sense:

Sessions and his aides claims this morning that a) he forgot or b) that he met with a lot of other ambassadors so it doesn’t matter or c) that it somehow didn’t count as a meeting because they didn’t discuss the election are all either off-point or ridiculous. It is no more than pretty transparent after-the-fact caviling. Any contact with senior Russian officials was going to be scrutinized in this context. Concealing it would set off alarm bells.

So here we go:

Big scandals work like this. People who don’t even appear to be that close to the action keep getting pulled under for what seem like needless deceptions. The answer is usually that the stuff at the center of the scandal is so big that it requires concealment, even about things distant from the main action, things that it would seem much better and less damaging simply to admit.

We’ve all heard the old saw: It’s never the crime, it’s the cover-up. This is almost never true. Covering scandals for any length of time is enough to tell you that. People are generally able to make judgments about how much trouble they’re in. We think the ‘cover up’ is worse than the crime because it’s actually very seldom that the full scope of the actual crime is ever known. The cover-up works better than you think. The other reason the cover up is a logical response is that it usually works. You only find out about it when it doesn’t. So it’s a good bet.

That’s why Marshall was the first to use the black-hole metaphor:

Astronomers can’t see black holes directly. They map them by their event horizon and their effect on nearby stars and stellar matter. We can’t see yet what’s at the center of the Trump/Russia black hole. But we can tell a lot about its magnitude by the scope of the event horizon and the degree of its gravitational pull, which is immense.

The Trump-Russia Black Hole is a useful metaphor. It sucks in and crushes folks like Jeff Sessions – he is not coming out the other end – but at the event horizon, light escapes.

There’s no escape:

Congressional Republicans, straining to defend the Trump administration amid investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, resisted growing calls on Thursday for a special prosecutor or select congressional committee to review the matter, even as Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any inquiry.

Good luck with that:

Initially, the fallout seemed to spawn fissures among Republicans: Several, including Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine, were quick to call for Mr. Sessions’ recusal, defying party leaders – including President Trump – who had said earlier on Thursday that they saw no reason for it.

But by day’s end, consensus appeared to have been restored: Mr. Sessions would step aside in any investigation. And that, Republicans suggested, would be enough, at least for now.

That may not work:

“First and foremost, any talk of resignation is nonsense,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, before which Mr. Sessions testified.

He praised Mr. Sessions as “an honest and forthright public servant,” and thanked him for pledging to send a letter to the committee “to clear up any confusion regarding his testimony.”

Democrats were unmoved.

“They only do the right thing when they are caught doing the wrong thing,” Mr. Schumer said of the Trump administration.

That hurt, and this was lame:

“My concern is,” Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said, “why are our Democratic senators so dog-gone rude” to Mr. Sessions?

They hurt his feelings, but the guy is lame:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Fox News that he did not know whether Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign.

That assessment differs from U.S. intelligence agencies, which released a report just in January declaring that “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”

The report also said Moscow did so in part because it “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Did they say that? He hadn’t realized that, but there’s this:

Trump himself acknowledged for the first time in January that he believed Russian operatives hacked the Democratic Party during the election, though even then, he disputed reports that the Russians acted to help him win. At his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions acknowledged that he was not well informed about Russia’s cyber provocations.

When Sen. Lindsey O. Graham pointed out that the FBI had concluded Russia was behind the intrusion, Sessions observed, “at least that’s what’s been reported.” Later, he allowed, “I have no reason to doubt that.”

He seems a bit clueless, even about what he once knew, and Karen Tumulty adds another twist:

Trump’s difficulties have been compounded by some of his own tendencies – among them, his inclination to personalize issues that potentially have much broader implications.

Thus, he sees questions about Russian influence in the U.S. electoral system as a challenge to his own legitimacy as president.

“The Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly (306), so they made up a story – RUSSIA. Fake news!” Trump tweeted on Feb. 16, referring to the number of electoral votes he won in November.

That same day, his instinct was to bristle and reply it was “not a fair question” when a reporter for an Orthodox Jewish weekly magazine asked him about rising incidents of anti-Semitism.

More recently, the president has denounced recent vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and community centers. But he has also suggested that those incidents might actually have been orchestrated as an effort to “make people look bad,” implying that they were actually “false flag” hoaxes meant to impugn his own supporters, a small fraction of whom have expressed anti-Semitic sentiments on social media and elsewhere.

This is not gravitas, and she also cites this:

“First of all, the attorney general should have proactively brought up his Russian contacts at the [confirmation] hearing,” said Ari Fleischer, who was George W. Bush’s White House press secretary. “It could have been and should have been a big nothing,” assuming that Sessions is telling the truth that his conversations with the ambassador did not delve into the subject of the election.

“In Washington, you know that when you’re in the middle of a red-hot situation, you’ve got to get it all out on the table, and say it now,” Fleischer added.

Otherwise, you get sucked in and crushed, and Jamelle Bouie notes that Jeff Sessions is a weak man:

On Monday, Sessions said he hasn’t read the Obama-era Department of Justice reports on police abuses in Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri. And on Tuesday, in his first speech as attorney general, he announced his plan to end federal monitoring of troubled police departments. “We need, so far as we can, in my view, [to] help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness,” said Sessions, suggesting that it harms police to hold them accountable for civil and human rights abuses.

This was predictable. Sessions’ career is defined by his hostility to civil rights advocacy and criminal justice reform. From the moment of his nomination, it was clear he would pursue a draconian agenda of reaction. That this wasn’t enough to deter his nomination is the advantage of Republican partisan control and the general deference given to presidential nominees.

Which is to say Sessions was lucky. Lucky to have signed up with the Trump campaign, lucky to have ridden Donald Trump’s improbable victory to a high-ranking spot in the administration. But his luck may be running out.

And it’s not just him:

For the past two months, we’ve seen a steady drip of information regarding Trump, his campaign, and Russia. Each time, it throws his administration into chaos. Sessions won’t fall like Michael Flynn, but looking at the plumes of smoke coming from the White House, it’s hard to believe there isn’t fire. The only real question is who it will burn next.

But there is artificial gravity:

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday accused FBI Director James Comey of withholding crucial information about its probe into Russian interference in the election and raised the prospect of subpoenaing the agency.

“I would say at this point we know less than a fraction of what the FBI knows,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters after a briefing with Comey.

“I appreciate we had a long briefing and testimony from the director today, but in order for us to do our investigation in a thorough and credible way, we’re gonna need the FBI to fully cooperate, to be willing to tell us the length and breadth of any counterintelligence investigations they are conducting,” Schiff said. “At this point, the director was not willing to do that.”

The Trump-Russia Black Hole is still sucking in the light:

During the briefing, Schiff said, Comey faced “repeated questions about the scope of any investigation they were doing” and “individuals that may be the subject of any counterterrorism investigation.”

“The director declined to answer those questions,” Schiff said.

Let there be darkness:

Schiff raised the prospect that it could have been Sessions’ Justice Department that advised Comey to be less than forthcoming. “It was unclear whether that decision was a decision he was making on his own or a decision that he is making in consultation with the Department of Justice,” he said.

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment on Schiff’s allegations.

And keep things dark:

House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) said Thursday that information about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ conversations with a Russian ambassador “should never have made it to the public domain.”

“We cannot overlook the fact that the methodology of the collection and the content of that transcript never should have made into the public domain,” Gowdy said in an appearance on MSNBC. “And people may like that it did today, because it hurts Republicans, but what it really does is it hurts our country because you are leaking classified information.”

He said that “all facets” of Sessions’ contacts are important, but the leak particularly so.

Nothing is supposed to leak from the Trump-Russia Black Hole, damn it! Except that there was this:

Federal investigators looked into Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ contact with Russian officials before the election, according to a report published Thursday by the Wall Street Journal.

Investigators probed Sessions’ contacts during the time when he served as a senior adviser to President Donald Trump’s campaign, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter. That examination was part of an investigation into ties between Trump aides and Russia, and its outcome was unclear.

One unnamed source said the FBI played a role in examining Sessions’ contacts, and the agency was left “wringing its hands” about how to proceed.

Okay, Jeff Sessions was himself under investigation by the FBI and then Trump made him attorney general, and the FBI works under the attorney general’s justice department – so now what? As the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating all this:

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) dodged questions the same day about whether FBI Director James Comey briefed members of the Senate Intelligence Committee about Sessions’ contact with Kislyak.

Things are strange at the event horizon, but light keeps escaping:

Donald Trump Jr was probably paid at least $50,000 for an October appearance before a Kremlin-linked think tank, the Wall St Journal reports.

The event was at the Paris Ritz and hosted by the Center for Political and Foreign Affairs. It came less than one month before Trump Sr. was elected president. Fabien Baussart, the think tank’s president, nominated Vladimir Putin for a Nobel Peace Prize last year. His wife Randa Kassis said she told Trump Jr at the meeting, “Without Russia, we can’t have any solution in Syria.”

Kassis heads a Moscow-backed Syrian opposition group, and Baussart is a staunch defender of Russia’s role in Syria.

The Trump Organization did not deny that Trump Jr was paid to appear, but said he had “been participating in business-related speaking engagements for over a decade.”

Is that so? Things are very strange at the event horizon, and there was this:

A Republican bill to replace Obamacare is reportedly hidden somewhere on Capitol Hill – and on Thursday morning, legislators and reporters ended up on a bipartisan wild goose chase to find it.

Republicans have been hard at work drafting a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. House Speaker Paul Ryan has repeatedly promised it is coming quite soon. Yesterday, multiple news outlets reported that some Republican legislators would have a first chance to look at the bill Thursday.

The briefings would be secretive. Members wouldn’t actually receive copies of the legislation. The copies would remain locked in an undisclosed room for members to look at – but not take home.

Democratic House members and Republican senators were not to be included in this process. But by Thursday morning, they decided to take the matter into their own hands.

They sought the light:

The draft legislation was rumored to be in H-157, a nondescript meeting room in the House of Representatives. When legislators arrived, Capitol Police were guarding the entrance, and dozens of reporters were waiting outside for the much-anticipated legislation.

But the first Congress member to arrive – Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who appeared to have a mobile printer in tow, perhaps to make copies of the bill – was promptly denied entry.

“We’re here asking for written copy of this because this should be an open and transparent process,” Paul said after being denied entry into Room H-157. “This is being presented as if it’s a national secret, as if it’s a plot to invade another country.”

Darkness won that one, but Paul Waldman sees this:

That’s not the mark of a party confident that what it’s about to propose will be well received. Republicans are facing two problems at the moment, one external and one internal.

The external problem is the public, which has grown increasingly wary of repeal as the possibility has become more real and attention has focused on what would actually be lost if the ACA disappears. Watch an interview with a Republican, and you’ll notice that a few common questions make them squirm.

Those would be these:

Can you promise that no one who has coverage now will lose it? (No)

Can you promise that out-of-pocket costs aren’t going to increase? (Those costs will increase, by design.)

What does your plan do for people who are on the Medicaid expansion now, many for the first time? (Some might remain on it, at least in the short term, but there are no guarantees how many.)

What happens to people who still can’t afford coverage after the tax credits you’re proposing? (They’re screwed.)

Doesn’t your plan make things a lot more complicated for people with preexisting conditions? (Yes)

Doesn’t your plan constitute a giveaway to the rich? (Yes)

This isn’t going to work:

Ryan can’t keep his plan secret forever. Once it’s unveiled, we’re going to have a lengthy and detailed debate about it, and those kinds of questions are going to be asked again and again. At some point the Congressional Budget Office will score the bill, and we’ll get a nonpartisan judgment of the wreckage it will cause. That will be a very bad day for Republicans.

You’ve got ultra-conservatives who aren’t willing to accept a half-measure (backed up by right-wing pressure groups) at odds with ordinary conservatives who’d like something that minimizes the upheaval and political risk of repeal. Their differences look irreconcilable, and if either group bails, repeal is dead. It’s even possible that what Ryan and other leaders come up with will be unacceptable to both groups, losing support from both the right and the left within the GOP. If there’s a solution to that conflict, no one seems to have located it yet.

That’s another black hole. Republicans believe in them. What comes to light gets sucked back in by their gravitas. What happened never happened. No light escapes – until it does. There’s always that event horizon. Gravitas is a kind of gravity, but there’s now none of that here, if there ever was.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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