Who’s resisting who? Michelle Alexander’s excellent first New York Times column

Michelle Alexander (MSNBC screengrab)
Michelle Alexander (MSNBC screengrab)

Did you read Michelle Alexander’s inaugural opinion column in the New York Times over the weekend? If not, kindly read it now.

The announcement in June of her hiring as a Times opinion columnist – as a black woman, as an eloquent, erudite civil rights activist, and as a holder of unshakeable ideals — was cause for celebration, especially given several other recent hires.

Now, her first column is out and it’s a powerful, progressive call to arms in the form of questioning the chief rhetorical conceit of the Trump era. Her alternate formulation: It’s Trump who’s resisting, not the “resistance.”

And what is he resisting? Nothing short of “the struggle for human freedom and dignity” and “the centuries-long quest to create a truly equitable democracy…. A new nation… a multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith, egalitarian democracy in which every life and every voice truly matters. ”

When you recognize that, you recognize that simply resisting Trump is not enough. Alexander explains:

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history.

Alexander’s primary focus has been on changing the criminal justice system. in 2010, she wrote what has become a seminal book in modern civil-right-activism: “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

The book began a long overdue and still ongoing national conversation about how the war on drugs and the resulting mass incarceration of poor people of color is effectively – and not accidentally – a racially-biased system of social control reminiscent of Jim Crow.

I’m proud to say that I was on the jury for one of the first (but hardly the last) prizes conferred on the book, the Constitution Project’s 2010 Constitutional Commentary award. Read Alexander’s devastating acceptance speech.

Different people will take different things away from Alexander’s column.

My biggest takeaway is that in the area that concerns me the most — the accumulation of power by the executive branch and the absence of effective check and balances – resisting Trump is, just as she writes, not nearly enough.

I’ve never been clear on what “the resistance” really is, or does. But I do know that any group that includes advocates of near-absolute executive power –just because they happen to share a temporary aversion to a specific president — can’t be trusted to pursue the kinds of reforms this country so desperately needs.

The good news is that the new and old groups out there fighting to preserve the independent judiciary, advocating for a more activist Congress, warning about the president’s unilateral national-security powers, and conducting intense oversight seem to be looking beyond the end of the Trump presidency.

The key is not just to be satisfied once Trump is gone.  It’s to learn from all the ways he violated norms, broke rules, coopted a major political party, used disinformation for political gain, attacked the judiciary, politicized law enforcement and the military, ignored foreign interference in our elections, turned the American people against each other, and generally demonstrated that the constitutional system of checks and balances is dramatically out of whack.

And then try to fix things.

Firing Rosenstein would cross a red line drawn by Democrats and resistance groups defending the rule of law

Rosenstein testifying on the Hill in December 2017. (House.gov)
Rosenstein testifying on the Hill in December 2017. (House.gov)

A New York Times article based on second- and third-hand reports from anonymous sources about comments Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made in the Spring of 2017 is being widely – and legitimately — perceived as someone’s attempt to pave the way for Trump to fire him.

Rosenstein is overseeing Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian governments, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself.

For Trump, who just last week tweeted about the “Illegal Mueller Witch Hunt,” getting Rosenstein out of the way would be an obvious first step to either de facto or de jure  closing down Mueller’s investigation.

A number of contingencies in place should Trump fire Mueller would also go into operation if he fires Rosenstein.

The Mueller Firing Rapid Response network includes dozens of grassroots groups like Moveon.org, Common Cause, Public Citizen, the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union.

Over 400,000 people have already signed up and promised to take to the streets — at more than 900 events, in every state — within hours of Trump crossing one of the agreed-upon “red lines” for the rule of law.

And the network’s plan specifies that the line would be crossed by “Actions that would prevent the investigation from being conducted freely, such as replacing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.”

“Obviously, today’s report in the New York Times has us again looking closely at our plans to confirm we’re prepared in the event that Trump fires Rosenstein and attempts to interfere with the independent investigation being led by Robert Mueller,” said Brian Stewart, a Moveon.org spokesman.

Congressional response, while less predictable, would also be quick.

In February, Congressional Democrats sent Trump a letter warning him that “Firing Rod Rosenstein, DOJ Leadership, or Bob Mueller could result in a constitutional crisis of the kind not seen since the Saturday Night Massacre.”

And in April, Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters: “I’d like to make something crystal clear to the president. Mr. President, any attempt to remove Rod Rosenstein will create the exact same constitutional crisis as if you fired Special Counsel Mueller. Don’t do it, do not go down this path. For the sake of our country, we plead with you. Don’t put this country through a constitutional crisis. Whether by firing Mueller, Rosenstein, or otherwise impeding this investigation from going forward. The rule of law is paramount in this country. No man, not even the president is above it.”

Press coverage of Trump’s grotesque tweet fails miserably to explain what’s wrong with it


Donald Trump’s morning tweet doubting Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser’s allegation of sexual assault was grotesque: pernicious and ignorant in the presumption that all sexual assaults are reported; misogynistic in its implication that the sexual assault wasn’t “as bad as she says”; dishonest in that he said he had “no doubt” about something he knew wasn’t true; and combative in that it dared her to bring forth nonexistent documents.

But to the New York Times, at least in its “breaking news” alert and initial report by Eileen Sullivan, it was only newsworthy because it “ended his dayslong restraint from commenting on the accusations.”

That was the only context provided.

Otherwise, the Times reprinted the tweet and then quoted from it.

At the Washington Post, John Wagner and Seung Min Kim added some context, but only after the first several paragraphs, noting:

Ford said she told no one at the time what had happened to her. She was terrified, she said, that she would be in trouble if her parents realized she had been at a party where teenagers were drinking, and she worried they might figure it out even if she did not tell them.

She said she recalled thinking: “I’m not ever telling anyone this. This is nothing, it didn’t happen, and he didn’t rape me.”

The Associated Press story by Alam Fram and Lisa Mascaro is, as of this writing, primarily about “Trump’s apparent shift in strategy.”

The National Institute of Justice, citing the Bureau of Justice Statistics, findd that “only 36 percent of rapes, 34 percent of attempted rapes, and 26 percent of sexual assaults were reported.”

The fact is that after sexual assault, it’s hard to know how to react — especially if you’re a minor.

Stories about Trump’s tweets shouldn’t be simply about the fact that he tweeted them. And they shouldn’t just assume that readers can understand what’s so wrong about them. Journalism requires context, here more than ever.

Previous presidents earned the presumption that most of what they said was worth reporting simply as news, with the context coming later. Not this president.


Highly relevant video from last night:

A good dissection:

And a father weighs in:

A New York Times columnist heard from:

Inae Oh at Mother Jones also points out that “Trump’s parallel made no mention of the string of sexual assault allegations—many of which include the very details of “date, time, and place” he claims is lacking in Ford’s story—that have been made against him.”

Appropriate speculation about motive:

Here is some research documenting the reasons why sexual assaults victims do not report immediately. (Hat tip: @bmyeung.)

It’s often fascinating to see breaking New York Times stories develop over the course of the day, using Newsdiffs. Here are the first set of changes made to the original version of the Trump tweet story, including the addition of a new fourth paragraph that says: “Many women are reluctant to come forward and report sexual assaults to authorities, in part because they fear they will not be believed.”

Oversight-in-exile group papers agencies as groundwork should Democrats get subpoena power after midterms

House Homeland Security Committee hearing room. (House.gov)
House Homeland Security Committee hearing room. (House.gov)

Things will change after the midterm elections, one way or another.

If Republicans maintain control of Congress, Trump will feel even more empowered to indulge his impulses, knowing he has two more years to operate essentially unchecked by the legislative branch.

But if Republicans lose control of one or both houses, Democratic committee chairs will use their regained subpoena power to demand answers about the many scandals burbling throughout the executive branch, virtually any one of which would have been an exception and an outrage in previous administrations.

American Oversight, launched in early 2017 to fill the void left by a supine Congress in the Trump era, has been laying the groundwork for future congressional investigations through the extensive use of Freedom of Information Act requests, followed by aggressive litigation.

The eventual goal of the group’s “parallel investigations initiative” is to pair FOIA litigation with aggressive congressional oversight, to create “a feedback loop of oversight that is much harder for agencies to resist,” according to the group’s website.

But even now it’s reaping some rewards. For instance, resumes turned over from Cabinet agencies have documented ridiculous levels of politically-motivated and under-qualified hiring,

The group is also working in parallel to what few investigation the current Congress is conducting. So when the chair and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee asked the Department of Homeland Security for documents related to preparation for Hurricanes Irma and Maria, American Oversight followed up with a similar FOIA request.

The FOIA process is a notoriously slow and sometime onerous way to get information from government agencies, where understaffed FOIA offices often slow-walk requests and over-liberally apply exemption rules.

But American Oversight founder Austin Evers, who handled oversight requests for the State Department in the Obama administration, said that congressional subpoenas aren’t a “magic wand” either.

“They are notoriously difficult to enforce against even the most faithful administrations – and no one should expect ‘complying with subpoenas’ to be the first norm that President Trump decides to obey,” Evers said.

“Our parallel investigations initiative will give congressional oversight an extra set of teeth. Unlike congressional document requests, there is mechanism way to enforce FOIAs in court quickly and aggressively. Congress can use what we extract at hearings and in negotiations, and if we get something they didn’t, it can be evidence of obstruction.”

Politico recently ran profiles of the prospective Democratic committee chairs “poised to torment Trump,” whose “questions cover a host of Trump scandals, including his tax returns; the Trump International Hotel; Russia, the 2016 election and Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin; security clearances; immigration, family separation and the border wall; and the president’s attacks on the media.”

And Axios reported on a spreadsheet “that’s circulated through Republican circles on and off Capitol Hill — including at least one leadership office — that meticulously previews the investigations Democrats will likely launch if they flip the House.”

The spreadsheet included 18 topics, several mentioned above, but also including Trump’s hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, White House staff’s personal email use, and discussions of classified information at Mar-a-Lago.

Clark Pettig, American Oversight’s communications director, said “we had already filed FOIAs on at least 11 of the topics on that list.”