Journalism is about more than just keeping track of the shiny objects

Special counsel Robert Mueller.
Special counsel Robert Mueller.

With the reality show that is the Trump presidency going into a total frenzy – jamming a week’s worth of plot twists and cliff hangers into a single day – it’s hard for political journalists to keep up.

And when so much is new and shiny all the time, and it’s an adrenaline-pumping challenge simply to figure it all out and get it all down, stopping to explain the significance of what’s going on feels old and boring by comparison.

But readers and viewers deserve to have the information they need to put the chaos in context.

Sure the ups and downs of Rod Rosenstein are interesting, but what’s most important is that if he resigns under pressure or is fired, Trump is one gigantic step closer to ending Robert Mueller’s investigation into his own campaign’s collusion with Russia. And that’s a genuine constitutional crisis, because the Constitution requires the president to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” which has widely been interpreted to mean that the president cannot act for corrupt or self-interested reasons. But who would enforce that? Congress? The courts? What can the public do?

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the 24th paragraph of this morning’s New York Times tic-toc that any substantive mention was made of the enormity of what’s at stake. And that came in the form of reporting on two tweets from Sen. Susan Collins.

The Washington Post story alluded fairly high up to Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani’s recommendation that if Rosenstein is replaced, “they should put a brief hold on the investigation and review it from beginning to end.”

But the Post waited until the 23rd paragraph before briefly alluding to what it called “alarm on the left that his removal would signal a collapse of the traditional independence of the Justice Department.”

In both articles, there was a great deal more discussion about the effects on the midterm elections than on the peril to our constitutional democracy.

Recall, as I wrote on Friday, that firing Rosenstein would cross a red line drawn by Democrats and resistance groups defending the rule of law. (As would, presumably, his resignation under pressure.)

As for the breathless coverage of the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the focus is almost exclusively on the he-said-she-said elements, the strategy of the Republican congressional leaders, and the on-again-off-again nature of Trump’s attacks on the alleged victims.

The profound misogyny that underlies so much of this story is left almost completely unstated.

Kavanaugh’s allegedly toxic behavior toward women doesn’t come in a vacuum – it come in the context of an ideology that considers women’s control of their bodies an “unenumerated right” that is not “deeply rooted in history and tradition.” The GOP’s reluctant agreement to let the first accuser speak —  while insisting that nothing she says will be of any value — only requires a little unpacking.

And as I wrote on Friday, Trump’s malicious and misogynist tweet about the first allegation led to intense media coverage of how he had broken his silence, rather than about how grotesque it was and how his own treatment of women has been hostile and hateful, as reflected in his personal actions and government policy.

Will today’s coverage of Trump’s latest comments put into proper context his attacks on the credibility of women accusers and his literally mocking the notion that a woman’s allegations could have real consequence? I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.

Rosenstein’s would-be replacement said he would have indicted Hillary Clinton

Matt Whittaker at 2014 Iowa Senate Republican debate. (Screengrab)
Matt Whittaker at 2014 Iowa Senate Republican debate. (Screengrab)

Matthew G. Whitaker, who reportedly would become acting deputy attorney general should Rod Rosenstein get fired or resign, wrote in a July 2016 USA Today opinion piece that he would have indicted Hillary Clinton for criminal violations of the Espionage Act.

Rosenstein’s departure in itself would cross a red line set by Democrats and resistance groups defending the rule of law. Whitaker’s views on indicting Clinton now adds to those concerns.

Whitaker, writing soon after then-FBI Director James Comey took the extraordinary step of preempting a Justice Department decision about whether to bring charges, argued that Clinton’s handing of classified email amounted to gross negligence as described in 18 U.S.C. section 793(f).

“Director Comey’s judgment was that ‘no reasonable prosecutor‘ would bring the case,” Whitaker wrote. “I disagree.”

Whitaker is now chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Justice officials told the New York Times on Monday that while Noel J. Francisco, the solicitor general, would assume oversight of the Russia investigation in lieu of Rosenstein, Whitaker would become acting deputy attorney general.

Only days after Whitaker wrote his op-ed, delegates to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland were roaring “Lock Her Up.” It became the convention’s unofficial slogan – and a major feature of campaign rallies.

Trump himself, in the second presidential debate in October 2016, threatened Clinton. “I’ll tell you what. I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it. But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” he said. When Clinton replied that “it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” Trump shot back: “Because you’d be in jail.”

There is so much wrong with a political party, a presidential candidate, and then a president calling for the criminal indictment of their ultimately defeated political opponent that most news organizations don’t explain. I guess they assume that it’s so core to democratic rule that people understand it intuitively.

But they’re wrong. It’s important to explain these things. And I’ll give it a try:

  1. The criminalization of politics is a violation of core democratic values including freedom of speech. We don’t put people in prison for their viewpoints.
  2. Jailing your political opponents is the act of an authoritarian regime, not a democratic one.
  3. Presidents can’t just use the executive branch’s law enforcement powers however they want.  Article II, Section 3 states that the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” The means, among other things, that the president may not act for corrupt or self-interested reasons. And, as the Protect Democracy Project explains: “While he may shape generally applicable enforcement priorities, he may not prevent the enforcement of the laws that Congress has enacted against himself or his allies.”
  4. The use of prosecutorial power for political reasons undermines confidence in the Constitutional right to due process and equal protection under the law.

I could and probably should go on, but I’ll leave it to readers (in the comment section) and future blog posts.

As for Whitaker, he weighed in again in May 2017 with an opinion column at The Hill defending Trump’s decision to fire Comey.

Comey “served his country honorably,” Whitaker wrote. “[B]ut he also became so embroiled in the heated politics of the 2016 election and its aftermath that change was needed. President Trump made the right decision.”

He repeated his case against Clinton:

Clinton set up an entire secret, unsecured communications structure outside of the government she was charged with serving at the highest level; she was the Secretary of State. Classified information that, in the wrong hands, could potentially bring harm to our country – and many in service to our country – was available to be appropriated. Her server was hacked by multiple countries and unfriendly actors.

[There is, in fact, no evidence that Clinton’s servers were hacked.]

And although Whitaker wouldn’t oversee Mueller’s investigation (you can’t have an “acting acting attorney general), it’s pretty clear what he thinks of it.

Whitaker wrote that he hoped Comey’s firing would herald “a fresh slate for the FBI and the Department of Justice.”

And by that he clearly meant the end of any investigations of Trump campaign collusion with Russia. In his view:

Calls for an independent counsel or commission to investigate allegations that Russia tried to interfere with our elections ring hollow when similar calls for special counsels during the scandals of the Obama administration were dismissed out of hand by the same people making these demands now….

Hollow calls for independent prosecutors are just craven attempts to score cheap political points and serve the public in no measurable way.

At the time he wrote both pieces, Whitaker was serving as executive director of the nonprofit Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), oOne of several right-wing dark-money groups that fought President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

Right Wing Watch, a project of People for the American Way, took note of comments Whitaker made during his unsuccessful run for the Iowa Republican Senate nomination in 2014. Asked at a debate what criteria he would use to determine whether to support or attempt to block President Obama’s federal judicial nominees, Whitaker said that he would ask if nominees are “people of faith” and “have a biblical view of justice.”

“As long as they have that worldview, then they’ll be a good judge,” he said. “And if they have a secular worldview, where this is all we have here on earth, then I’m going to be very concerned about how they judge.”

Whittaker was hired by Sessions to be his chief of staff in October 2017.

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.

ONGOING UPDATES

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.”