Political Landscaping

A major terrorist attack has a masking effect – all other news disappears. The world is a dangerous place, more dangerous than it’s ever been – maybe. Hitler tried to eat the world. The Japanese tried to eat their half of the world. The Soviet Union had enough nukes to end the world, and we had even more. Danger is relative – but of course we need to do something. No one quite knows what that is, but this was Manchester and these are the British. They will no doubt “keep calm and carry on” – they always do – the legacy of the Blitz and all that.

Americans don’t “keep calm and carry on” – Americans fret – and President Trump has just thrown our lot in with Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf States, and Egypt, against Iran, those damned Shiites. This is a bit absurd – ISIS and al-Qaeda are Sunni terrorist groups. Iran fights them. Iran despises them. The government we settled for in Iraq is Shiite too – chummy with Iran now – so we spent two or three trillion dollars and sacrificed five thousand American lives to set up a Shiite government there. We created and now support an ally of Iran.

Oops. And now Iran has overwhelming reelected a moderate leader who wants to open up to the West and try to calm things down. Yes, Iran is a theocracy, but it’s also a democracy. Iran has elections. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. They don’t have elections. They never will – but we’ve thrown in our lot with them – and they’re Sunnis, like ISIS and al-Qaeda. ISIS and al-Qaeda get a lot of money from Saudi clerics and private citizens. Go figure – but something had to be done, and this was something, so President Trump did this – even if there’s something terribly wrong with that syllogism. We must do something. X is something. We must do X. Trump never took symbolic logic.

That is, however, the big story. This terrorist attack will eat up more than a few news cycles, but that only masks what’s really shifting here at home. It seems the Civil War is ending:

A Mississippi state lawmaker is under fire after calling for the lynching of leaders who supported the recent removal of Confederate monuments in Louisiana.

In a Facebook post published Saturday night, Mississippi Rep. Karl Oliver went on a diatribe about the controversial statues in his neighboring state, which have been taken down in recent weeks:

“The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, ‘leadership’ of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State.”

Fine, but on Monday afternoon his office issued this statement:

I, first and foremost, wish to extend this apology for any embarrassment I have caused to both my colleagues and fellow Mississippians. In an effort to express my passion for preserving all historical monuments, I acknowledge the word “lynched” was wrong. I am very sorry. It is in no way, ever, an appropriate term. I deeply regret that I chose this word, and I do not condone the actions I referenced, nor do I believe them in my heart. I freely admit my choice of words was horribly wrong, and I humbly ask your forgiveness.

The South will not rise again. Billie Holiday will not need to sing Strange Fruit again – which is fine, because she died in 1959 – and that wasn’t all:

The Supreme Court struck down two North Carolina congressional districts on Monday, ruling that lawmakers had violated the Constitution by relying too heavily on race in drawing them, in a decision that could affect many voting maps, generally in the South.

The decision was handed down by an unusual coalition of justices, and was the latest in a series of setbacks for Republican-led legislatures. In recent cases concerning legislative maps in Alabama and Virginia, as well, the Supreme Court has insisted that packing black voters into a few districts – which dilutes their voting power – violates the Constitution.

The South will not rise again:

The ruling on Monday was the second Supreme Court victory for North Carolina Democrats this month. Last Monday, the justices declined to hear an appeal of a decision that had struck down parts of a restrictive North Carolina voting law that, among other things, tightened voter identification requirements and cut back on early voting.

A federal appeals court had ruled that the restrictions were an unconstitutional effort to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The Supreme Court will soon consider yet another North Carolina election law appeal, this one from a federal trial court’s decision that found some of the state’s General Assembly districts had been tainted by unconstitutional racial gerrymandering.

The American “political landscape” is changing – no more trees with strange fruit, even metaphorically – and Mark Joseph Stern adds this:

The broad ruling will likely have ripple effects on litigation across the country, helping plaintiffs establish that state legislatures unlawfully injected race into redistricting. And, in a welcome change, the decision did not split along familiar ideological lines: Justice Clarence Thomas joined the four liberal justices to create a majority, following his race-blind principles of equal protection to an unusually progressive result.

That was odd, but maybe not that odd:

It may seem puzzling that Thomas, of all justices, cast the deciding vote to give the liberals a majority. But really, his vote should not have been a surprise at all. Thomas is arguably the most consistent justice on racial gerrymandering: He opposes it no matter its ostensible purpose. In the 1990s, Thomas disapproved of race-conscious redistricting designed to empower black Democrats; today, he objects to race-conscious redistricting designed to empower white Republicans. While liberals and conservatives switched sides, Thomas stuck to his guns. And on Monday, his consistency handed Democrats – and the principle of equality – a remarkable victory.

Things are setting down, and in more ways than one:

For the first time in its history, MSNBC ranked number one in both total viewers and the key adults 25-54 demographic during primetime for a full week among the big three cable news networks, according to Nielsen data.

For the week of May 15, MSNBC averaged 2.44 million viewers with 611,000 in the key demo from 8 p.m.-11 p.m., beating out CNN and Fox News in both measures. In total day viewership for the week, CNN has ranked number one in cable news among adults 25-54 for six straight days (May 14-19), marking the network’s longest winning streak in that measure in six years. Fox News finished first in total viewers with 1.5 million and second in the demo with 321,000. MSNBC was second in total viewers with 1.2 million total viewers and third in the demo with 281,000. CNN finished third in total viewers with 1.05 million but first in the demo with 353,000.

In addition, Fox News ranked number three in primetime in the key demographic for five straight days with 497,000 viewers, the longest streak at number three the network has had in that measure in 17 years, since June 2000.

That hurts, but this hurts even more:

Four primetime MSNBC programs were number one for the week in total viewers in their respective time periods: “The Rachel Maddow Show,” “Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell”, “The 11th Hour” and the midnight re-air of “The Rachel Maddow Show.” Maddow had the top ranked non-sports program in all of cable for the week.

The tall and cheery young lesbian nerd with her PhD from Oxford is killing it, and from Mashable there’s this:

The win also comes as scandal plagues Fox News. The channel is now without its most popular primetime host, Bill O’Reilly, who was unceremoniously let go after a recent series of sexual harassment allegations. The channel is also without Megyn Kelly, who was hired away by NBC. Fox News is also without its founder, the late Roger Ailes, who was also ousted following sexual harassment allegations.

MSNBC has taken advantage of Fox’s struggles as well as a particularly bizarre news cycle. With the Trump administration generating what feels like a scandal a day, the channel’s left-leaning coverage has become a destination for viewers.

Fox News, meanwhile, has done its best to shield its viewers from Trump’s missteps. It has instead been giving more time to conspiracy theories.

That is not going well:

Fox News staffers are growing increasingly dismayed as network star Sean Hannity and others continue to promote the unfounded conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer was murdered last year for talking to WikiLeaks.

The Daily Beast spoke to nearly a dozen reporters, pundits, and hosts inside Fox News who all conveyed the same sentiment: Hannity is “embarrassing” the network, and the promotion of the Rich conspiracy theory is senselessly cruel to a grieving family.

“ARE WE STILL AIRING THAT SHIT?!” one Fox News political reporter, who says they are furious that the conservative cable-news giant is entertaining the conspiracy theory, messaged The Daily Beast when informed of recent coverage.

The whole thing was bullshit all along:

The theory that the Hillary Clinton political machine had Seth Rich, 27, murdered because he allegedly had contact with WikiLeaks has been fodder for pro-Trump trolls on Reddit, 4Chan, and Twitter for months. No actual evidence exists proving the theory – beyond conspiratorial innuendo from trolls and Julian Assange – and Washington, D.C. police suspected that Rich was killed last summer in a botched robbery in the neighborhood.

And yet the conspiracy came back to Hannity’s attention last week when Fox regular Rod Wheeler, a private investigator allegedly hired by a Trump-supporting millionaire, claimed that proof existed of Rich’s contacts with WikiLeaks. Fox 5 D.C. ran with his assertion, as did FoxNews.com. Major players in viral conservative media including Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, and The Drudge Report immediately latched onto this as a smoking gun.

Hours later, the story began to crumble.

Wheeler since rescinded the claim after the Rich family sent him a cease-and-desist letter. The family, via a spokesman, has additionally pleaded with Hannity and others to stop “manipulating the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda.”

Now no one there is happy:

Multiple sources said that hard-news reporters and staffers at the network are aghast at the network’s ongoing coddling of the baseless story and wonder why it has been allowed to continue.

“The other reporters I’ve talked to about this are similarly pissed about the whole thing,” another Fox reporter said. “Some find it embarrassing, others downright heartless to spread this.”

“It’s just gross,” the reporter added.

The American “political landscape” really is changing:

Several staffers said there exists a general sense of exhaustion from the network’s endless stream of controversies, from sexual-harassment and racial-discrimination lawsuits to the scandal-plagued ousting of several executives and primetime stars.

“Mostly we’re keeping our heads down,” one politics reporter told The Daily Beast.

“I mean, have you seen some of the stuff we put on air?” the reporter continued.

Everyone has, but at least to mask all that they can report on the Manchester terrorist attack for a few days. Hannity will blame that on Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or Rachel Maddow – and fewer and fewer people will watch Fox News.

Many will still watch, but this will be hard to mask:

President Trump asked two of the nation’s top intelligence officials in March to help him push back against an FBI investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and the Russian government, according to current and former officials.

Trump made separate appeals to the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and to Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, urging them to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election.

Coats and Rogers refused to comply with the requests, which they both deemed to be inappropriate, according to two current and two former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private communications with the president.

Yes, the Washington Post had another scoop:

Trump sought the assistance of Coats and Rogers after FBI Director James B. Comey told the House Intelligence Committee on March 20 that the FBI was investigating “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

Trump’s conversation with Rogers was documented contemporaneously in an internal memo written by a senior NSA official, according to the officials. It is unclear if a similar memo was prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to document Trump’s conversation with Coats. Officials said such memos could be made available to both the special counsel now overseeing the Russia investigation and congressional investigators, who might explore whether Trump sought to impede the FBI’s work.

Trump seems to want to be impeached, or he has no impulse-control:

White House officials say Comey’s testimony about the scope of the FBI investigation upset Trump, who has dismissed the FBI and congressional investigations as a “witch hunt.” The president has repeatedly said there was no collusion.

Current and former senior intelligence officials viewed Trump’s requests as an attempt by the president to tarnish the credibility of the agency leading the Russia investigation.

Trump may have not thought about that, but he should have thought about that:

Senior intelligence officials also saw the March requests as a threat to the independence of U.S. spy agencies, which are supposed to remain insulated from partisan issues.

“The problem wasn’t so much asking them to issue statements, it was asking them to issue false statements about an ongoing investigation,” a former senior intelligence official said of the request to Coats.

But wait, there’s more:

In addition to the requests to Coats and Rogers, senior White House officials sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly with Comey to encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, according to people familiar with the matter. The officials said the White House appeared uncertain about its power to influence the FBI.

“Can we ask him to shut down the investigation? Are you able to assist in this matter?” one official said of the line of questioning from the White House.

The answer was no, given this town’s history:

Trump’s effort to use the director of national intelligence and the NSA director to dispute Comey’s statement and to say there was no evidence of collusion echoes President Richard Nixon’s “unsuccessful efforts to use the CIA to shut down the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in on national security grounds,” said Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel at the CIA. Smith called Trump’s actions “an appalling abuse of power.”

To be generous, maybe Trump didn’t realize that, but Kevin Drum isn’t generous:

Trump is not only corrupt, he’s an unbelievable moron. He personally asked the NSA director and the overall director of national intelligence to publicly weigh in on an ongoing investigation. Not only that, he basically asked them to lie, since they weren’t privy to what the FBI was doing. In what universe did Trump think that either of them would respond positively to such a blunt request? Or that this kind of thing wouldn’t leak?

What’s more, in addition to directly asking Comey to shut down the FBI investigation, he apparently had some of his aides call senior intelligence officers to ask them to intervene with Comey.

Drum sees two big questions here:

What is Trump afraid the investigation will find? Whatever it is, apparently Michael Flynn is afraid of it too.

When do the impeachment proceedings begin?

If there really are contemporaneous memos from Comey, Rogers, and maybe Coats, and if all three can be called to testify about their conversations with Trump, then what more do we need? This is Nixon-level stuff.

Callum Borchers, however, is not surprised by this:

Trump’s request might have been out of bounds, but it was not out of the blue. Asking others to do his dirty work has been the president’s MO since his first full day in office.

The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty and Juliet Eilperin reported in January that on the morning after Inauguration Day, Trump personally asked the acting director of the National Park Service to produce photos that would make Trump’s inaugural crowd appear as large as possible and combat the media’s (accurate) reporting that attendance had been smaller than it was for Barack Obama’s swearing in, in 2009.

When the New York Times and CNN reported in February that members of Trump’s campaign team had been in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials throughout the election, the White House asked the FBI and several lawmakers to push back on the stories. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees, agreed but the FBI declined.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged the request in a Feb. 27 press briefing, saying that the FBI “came to the conclusion that they did not want to get in the process of knocking down every story that they had issues with.”

Earlier this month, Trump enlisted Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to compose a memo that was later used to justify the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director. Multiple White House spokespeople told the media that Trump acted on Rosenstein’s recommendation; Then Trump admitted in an interview with NBC News that he “was going to fire Comey regardless of recommendation.” Rosenstein also told senators last week that he knew Trump’s decision had been made in advance.

Rosenstein might not have known that the White House would frame his memo as the catalyst for Comey’s termination, however. The Post reported that Rosenstein threatened to quit over the way his letter was presented to journalists, though he later denied that he contemplated resignation.

Borchers says it’s easy to see what’s going on here:

It all adds up to a pattern that is consistent with Trump’s fixation on loyalty. He wants and expects the people around him to defend him at every turn, even when it means misleading reporters and the public.

The good news is that several recipients of Trump’s requests have been principled enough to turn them down.

There really are those principled enough to do that, and Megan McArdle offers what a conservative now sees from inside Trump’s Washington:

I’d venture to say that most of them have by now heard at least one or two amazing stories attesting to the emerging conventional wisdom: that the president either can’t, or refuses to, follow any kind of policy discussion for more than a few minutes; that the president will not be told no, or corrected about anything, forcing his staff to take their concerns to the media if they want to get his attention; that the infighting within the West Wing is unprecedentedly vicious, and that those sort of failures always stem from the top; and that his own hand-picked staffers “have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him.” They hear these things from conservatives, including people who were Trump supporters or at least, Trump-neutral. They know these folks. They know, to their sorrow, that these people are telling the truth.

They can also compare what they’re hearing to what they heard, both on and off the record, during the last Republican administration. Even in Bush’s final days, when the financial crisis was in full swing and his approval ratings hovered around 25 percent, there was nothing like this level of dysfunction inside the White House, this frenzy of backbiting leakage.

So even though they agree with conservative outsiders that the media skews very liberal, and take all its pronouncements about Republicans with a heavy sprinkling of salt, they know that the reports of this administration’s dysfunction aren’t all media hype. They have seen the media report on their own work, and that of their friends; they know what sort of things that bias distorts, and what it doesn’t. Washington conservatives know that reporters are not making up these incredible quotes, or relying only on Democratic holdovers, or getting bits of gossip from the janitor. They know that the Trump administration is in fact leaking like a rusty sieve – from the top on down – and that this is a sign of a president who has, in just four short months, completely lost control over his own hand-picked staff – which is why the entire city, left to right, is watching the unfolding drama with mouth agape and heads shaking.

They see the current political landscape – a barren wasteland – and McArdle says they see something else:

Here’s the final thing that they know: that if you want to do anything big in Washington, there’s a lot of smaller stuff that has to happen first. You don’t write code or build a building without a lot of stuff that probably seems expensive and unnecessary to the customers, and our product requires similarly careful planning and management.

Some of the hoops that a president’s staff must jump through are legally required; some of them are simply necessary to make sure that your bill doesn’t explode on the steps of the Capitol, or die a gruesome public death in the Supreme Court. They include: appointing policy staff; deciding on policy goals, strategy and tactics; keeping the staff from descending into the infighting that inevitably besets any large organization; providing regular oversight of evolving policies to make sure they adhere to the president’s goals; setting up channels and a process to get input from Congress and legal advisers; writing a very detailed plan that provides guidance to staff and legislators, and reassurance to the public; and having your political and communications strategy lined up long before you roll out that plan. Insiders know that this process looks cumbrous and unnecessary to outsiders; they also know that getting majorities in Congress, and legislation that will survive a court challenge, is a Herculean task that cannot be completed without many thousands of people devoting many thousands of hours to these labors.

That’s not happening, because it can’t happen:

What conservatives in Washington also know is that the Trump administration hasn’t even completed the first step. And that political capital, vital to pushing a policy forward against the inevitably fierce resistance from special interests, is a rapidly depreciating asset. Which is why they know one more thing: that unless something changes, Trump poses no threat to the establishment, other than the same risk that they’d face from any ordinary Republican president — that the unpopularity of the man in the Oval Office will dribble down-ticket, and cost them seats in the next election.

And that’s that. There will be talk of that Manchester terrorist attack for a few days, but that will pass. The Brits will keep calm and carry on. Here, where no one is calm, and proud of it, what that event masks will appear again – a political landscape laid waste by Donald Trump. He was in the landscaping business all along – and he made Rachel Maddow a star. Things do change.

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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