Crooked Hillary redux: Making sense of the Uranium One distraction

Photo (cc) 2014 by clement127

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

To understand the current Trumpist obsession with Hillary Clinton and the Uranium One story, you first need to know what it is not. Uranium One is not a scandal or even a discrete set of facts that can be weighed and assessed. Rather, it is a talisman wielded by President Trump’s most ardent defenders in the hope of warding off the burgeoning Russia scandal.

Thus we have absurd characters like Sean Hannity of Fox News calling it “one of the biggest scandals in American history involving another country.” And The Daily Signal, a right-wing website published by the Heritage Foundation, asking, “Why isn’t the mainstream media covering Uranium One?” And Conrad Black, who speculates in The New York Sun that special counsel Robert Mueller will — or at least should — go after Clinton’s allies the Podesta brothers for their role in Uranium One now that the Russia inquiry has fallen apart. Because, you know, nothing says fallen apart quite like the indictment of two former Trump campaign officials and a guilty plea from a third, with the promise of more to come.

David French, a prominent anti-Trump conservative, explained in The New York Times what’s going on:

The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump combined with the deep distaste for Democrats grants extraordinary power to two phrases: “fake news” and “the other side is worse.” “Fake news” erects a shield of disbelief against the worst allegations and allows a person to believe that Mr. Trump is better than he is. For too many Republicans, every single troubling element of the Russia investigation — including multiple administration falsehoods about contacts with Russian officials — represents “fake news.”

The Trump supporters pushing the Uranium One story are impervious to facts not because they’re stupid but because the purpose of telling it is to put the media on the defensive. Nevertheless, there are facts, and I’ve endeavored to find out what they are by consulting the nonpartisan website FactCheck.org.

The verdict: There’s nothing to the claim, first made by then-candidate Trump in 2016, that the United States gave away 20 percent of its uranium to Russia and that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, was responsible. The facts are incredibly convoluted —we are, after all, talking about the Clintons. The full narrative encompasses the Clinton Foundation, a speaking fee paid to Bill Clinton, and a dubious book called “Clinton Cash,” written by a conservative activist named Peter Schweizer, promoted by Stephen Bannon, and, for reasons that have never been credibly explained, used by The New York Times as the basis for some of its reporting on the Clintons. But, FactCheck.org says:

It may be that individuals and companies sought to curry favor with Hillary Clinton and even influence her department’s decision on the Uranium One sale. But, as we’ve written before, there is no evidence that donations to the Clinton Foundation from people with ties to Uranium One or Bill Clinton’s speaking fee influenced Hillary Clinton’s official actions. That’s still the case.

Vox has a shorter, easier-to-follow take on the deal that calls the Republican conspiracy theory involving Uranium One “a thoroughly debunked and verifiably false charge.” Vox, in turn, cites a report by yet another nonpartisan fact-checking site, PolitiFact, which rated Trump’s accusations against Clinton as “mostly false.”

It’s also worth keeping in mind that Trump, not Clinton, is president — something that you might forget if you get pulled into the Fox News rabbit hole. (Hannity went so far as to call Hillary “President Clinton” the other day.) Even if there were reason to believe Clinton had been involved in wrongdoing (again, there isn’t), the value to the public of pursuing her at this point is not very high. On the other hand, the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians goes to the very heart of our democracy.

“The right-wing response to Robert Mueller’s investigation is to change the subject, preferably to an alleged ‘scandal’ involving Hillary Clinton,” writes CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, who adds: “This creates a thick layer of fog, making it hard to see what really matters. Maybe this is the goal. Regardless, it poses a challenge for journalists who are trying to convey the truth.”

The truth is that the Uranium One story isn’t about the truth. The Trump White House and its allies are essentially gaming the media’s old-fashioned dedication to balance — regardless of the facts — by flinging unsupportable charges that will be reported alongside the Russia news in the name of being fair and objective. Trump’s allies, who despise Clinton, will grab onto those stories and denounce everything else as “fake news.”

It’s an ugly and depressing situation with no clear solution.

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Margaret Sullivan on the media’s terrible coverage of the Clinton campaign

There’s a very strong Margaret Sullivan column in today’s Washington Post on the media’s terrible coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s especially good to see her call out The New York Times, for whom she was its best public editor before moving on to the Post.

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Once again, the Times bends over backwards for Trump while the Post lets him have it

It seems that every day The New York Times finds a way to say something hopeful about President Trump while The Washington Post sticks with reality as we can all see it. There are many examples I could dredge up, but let’s start with today’s papers. First the Times’ Glenn Thrush:

Harvey Gives Trump a Chance to Reclaim Power to Unify

Hurricane Harvey was the rarest of disasters to strike during the Trump presidency — a maelstrom not of Mr. Trump’s making, and one that offers him an opportunity to recapture some of the unifying power of his office he has squandered in recent weeks.

Now a tropical storm as it continues to inundate the Texas and Louisiana coasts, Harvey is foremost a human disaster, a stop-motion catastrophe that has already claimed at least 10 lives and destroyed thousands of structures. But hurricanes in the post-Katrina era are also political events, benchmarks by which a president’s abilities are measured.

Mr. Trump is behaving like a man whose future depends on getting this right.

Now the Post’s Jenna Johnson:

Even in visiting hurricane-ravaged Texas, Trump keeps the focus on himself

As rescuers continued their exhausting and heartbreaking work in southeastern Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the rain continued to fall and a reservoir near Houston spilled over, President Trump grabbed a microphone to address hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside a firehouse near Corpus Christi and were chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”

‘Thank you, everybody,” the president said, sporting one of the white “USA” caps that are being sold on his campaign website for $40. “I just want to say: We love you. You are special…. What a crowd. What a turnout.”

Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters.

As I said, these contrasts are a regular occurrence. I don’t know what to attribute them to, but I wonder if the Times’ bend-over-backwards approach to Trump is the flip side of its decades-long obsession with Clinton non-scandals, from Whitewater to emails. Yes, the Times has done plenty of great investigative reporting on Trump, and it seems to be locked in a steel-cage death match with the Post to see which paper can dig up the most dirt on him. But then there are these weird tonal lapses.

The Times and the Post are great papers. The Times features better writing and has a much broader mandate. But the Post’s fierce coverage of national politics and its unapologetic attitude toward Trump have long since made the Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe.

Update. From my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder:

I’m sure that has something to do with it. Yet Trump has been known to pick up the phone and call Post reporters, too. There’s no question that the Times is the paper Trump, a New Yorker, most cares about. I don’t know how much of a factor that is.

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Obama’s choices: Making sense of The Washington Post’s big exclusive

Earlier today I did some tweeting on the bad choices that then-president Barack Obama faced over Russian meddling in the election — the major theme of The Washington Post’s astonishing exclusive. I’ve pulled my tweets into what Twitter calls a Moment. Please have a look.

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The Comey firing

James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.

President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey appears to be highly suspicious for all the reasons others have already stated. In a democracy, you just can’t get rid of the person who is investigating your administration for possible wrongdoing.

Yet I have to point out that there is nothing in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s report that is wrong. Comey was a terrible FBI director in many respects, and he mishandled the public aspects of the Hillary Clinton email investigation in every way imaginable.

As late as Tuesday, several hours before the firing, we learned that he had grossly overstated (under oath) the extent to which former Clinton aide Huma Abedin forwarded emails to her estranged husband, former congressman Anthony Weiner. It was the Abedin-Weiner connection that formed the pretext for Comey’s announcement just before Election Day that he had reopened his investigation, a move that likely cost Clinton the presidency.

Of course, Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had no problem with Comey’s sabotage of Clinton’s campaign at the time, and their claims that they are deeply, deeply troubled by it now are absurd. The outrage with which the Comey firing has been greeted is entirely justified.

But if President Obama had fired Comey the day after the election, or Trump shortly after his inauguration, it’s not likely that many people would have objected.

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James Comey is back. And this time his FBI is taking aim at Trump’s inner circle.

James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.
James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.

FBI Director James Comey, who did more to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign than anyone other than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is back. Investigations are under way into the Trump inner circle’s ties to Russia — and leaks from those investigations are one of several factors in the chaos that has defined Trump’s presidency. As we all wonder what will come next, it’s a good time to take a look at what Comey has wrought.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Making sense of the intelligence agencies’ report on Russia and the election

Vladimir Putin. Photo (cc) by xx.
Vladimir Putin. 2015 photo via Kremlin.ru.

Like all of us, I am trying to make sense of the intelligence agencies’ report in which they found that the Russian government, going right up to the Shirtless Horseman himself, interfered in the 2016 election on Donald Trump’s behalf.

I have read all of it. And it is hard to overlook the lack of any actual evidence, which is apparently laid out in classified versions of the report. As a result, a number of observers are erecting “caution” signs to guard against anyone drawing a definitive conclusion. Scott Shane writes in The New York Times:

What is missing from the public report is what many Americans most eagerly anticipated: hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election attack. That is a significant omission: Mr. Trump has been expressing skepticism for months that Russia was to blame, variously wondering whether it might have been China, or a 400-pound guy, or a guy from New Jersey.

On Twitter, too, I’m seeing skepticism from the right and, of course, from the ubiquitous Glenn Greenwald, who’s been going off on it for hours. Here’s one example:

But I think focusing on the lack of evidence overlooks the central reality: Reams of evidence were put before us over the course of many months during the presidential campaign. Consider what we know for a fact:

  • Emails were stolen from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
  • Those emails landed at WikiLeaks, whose leader, Julian Assange, is clearly (and at the very least) a Russian ally.
  • WikiLeaks published multiple emails that were embarrassing to the Clinton campaign and none that reflected badly on Trump.

So yes, in one sense the intelligence agencies offered no evidence for their assertions. But in another, more important sense, we’ve already seen the evidence. The main role of the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA was to tell us that they agree, that we’re not crazy, and what we all saw play out was exactly what it appeared to be.

Did Russian interference cost Clinton the election? As Sam Wang has written at the Princeton Election Consortium, FBI Director James Comey’s horrendously misguided last-minute decision to reopen the investigation into Clinton’s private email server almost certainly put Trump over the top. Wang writes:

Opinion swung toward Trump by 4 percentage points, and about half of this was a lasting change. This was larger than the victory margin in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. Many factors went into this year’s Presidental race, but on the home stretch, Comey’s letter appears to have been a critical factor in the home stretch.

Russian interference was less of a factor than Comey’s letter. But it nevertheless kept the media’s and the public’s attention on Clinton and emails, even though questions about her server and hacking by the Russians had nothing to do with each other. We can’t know for sure, but my sense is that Comey’s actions by themselves elected Trump, and that Russian subterfuge added to the damage.

What happens now? If it could somehow be shown that Trump himself had colluded with the Russians, he might face impeachment and even prosecution on espionage charges. The word treason tends to get thrown around way too lightly, but a Trump-Putin alliance to steal the election might very well qualify.

Such actions would require not just persuasive evidence that Trump was involved but also principled members of the Republican Congress and of Trump’s Justice Department. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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Russia revelations should prompt a revolt by the Electoral College

Moscow Cathedral. Photo is in the public domain.
Moscow Cathedral. Photo is in the public domain.

Politico last Monday revealed the existence of a longshot effort to deny Donald Trump the presidency: a plan for members of the Electoral College to coalesce around Ohio Gov. John Kasich as an alternative. The idea would be to persuade Democratic electors to switch to Kasich, and then hope a decent-size share of Republican electors could be persuaded to abandon Trump.

With the Washington Post reporting that the CIA has concluded what has long been evident—that the Russians intervened in the election on Trump’s behalf—the moment for such an audacious gamble may have arrived. Kasich, who is deeply conservative, especially on social issues, may not be the best choice. Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney might be better. But anyone who resembles a normal politician would be preferable in what is turning into a real moment of national crisis.

The need is so obvious that it feels wrong to say this is almost certainly not going to happen. But that is the truth. If there is any chance of this taking place, here’s what has to happen:

  • One universally respected Republican has to declare his willingness to serve if the Electoral College chooses him. Even though Clinton won the popular vote by quite a bit, it really does have to be a Republican, since the Republicans won the Electoral College and control a majority of the votes.
  • Clinton has to come out publicly, endorse the plan, and urge all of her electors to support the compromise alternative. In a perfect world, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer would appear on stage with her. We do not live in a perfect world.

If no candidate wins the minimum 270 votes when the electors meet on December 19, the election will be decided by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Then we’ll see whether the members prefer Trump—or will instead switch to the Kasich/Romney/Bush alternative.

Talk about this post on Facebook. And in case you missed it, here is my WGBH News article from earlier this week on the Electoral College and slavery.

Report shows how the media failed us in the 2016 campaign

Photo (cc) 2016 by Mike Mozart.
Photo (cc) 2016 by Mike Mozart.

In a close election, you can point to any single factor and say that was responsible for the outcome. The presidential election was not close in the popular vote (Hillary Clinton is ahead by 2.7 million votes), but the margin of victory in the states that put Donald Trump over the top in the Electoral College (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin) was narrow indeed.

Now comes Thomas E. Patterson of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School, to tell us that the press failed in its coverage of the general-election campaign. Plenty of us have been making the same argument, though I tend to believe that the coverage of Trump was so wildly negative that the more plausible explanation is his voters knew and didn’t care.

But Patterson takes that into account. His data-based findings show that coverage of Trump and Clinton was more or less equally negative. As a result, the landscape flattened out, with voters deciding Clinton’s emails were every bit as serious as Trump’s bragging about sexual assault, his hateful rhetoric, his dubious business dealings, and on and on and on. Patterson’s report is chock full of quotable excerpts. Here’s a good one:

[I]ndiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it. Large numbers of voters concluded that the candidates’ indiscretions were equally disqualifying and made their choice, not on the candidates’ fitness for office, but on less tangible criteria—in some cases out of a belief that wildly unrealistic promises could actually be kept.

Patterson also finds that Trump got more coverage than Clinton, giving him the opportunity to define both himself and her. Another important observation: Even when coverage of both candidates is uniformly negative, it tends to help the political right, since it’s conservatives who are promoting the message that government doesn’t work.

Clinton's "scandal" coverage, week by week, showing the effect of Comey's reopening of the email investigation.
Clinton’s “scandal” coverage, week by week, showing the effect of Comey’s reopening of the email investigation.

My own caveat about Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state: You can choose to believe that it was not a serious matter. In fact, I think there’s a strong case to be made that the importance of that issue was vastly overblown (see Matthew Yglesias at Vox).

But I also think it’s difficult to assign too much blame to the media given that James Comey, the director of the FBI, came forward in July to say Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information, and then reopened his investigation just before the election. Reporters report what the head of the FBI says, and if what he says is wrong and/or politically motivated, that generally doesn’t come out until much later. In any case, Comey took a tremendous amount of criticism in the media for his late hit on the Clinton campaign.

To get back to my opening point: The election was close enough that the media’s failures might very well have been sufficient to tilt the outcome toward Trump.

Patterson’s study was the fourth in a series dating back to the earliest days of the campaign, and was “based on an analysis of news reports by ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, the New York TimesUSA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.”

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The Electoral College and the legacy of slavery

Illustration via Wikimedia Commons.

Is the Electoral College a vestige of slavery? It’s a question that has been debated from the moment it became clear that Donald Trump would become the next president despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

An answer that will satisfy everyone is not possible. But a provocative law-journal article published in the aftermath of George W. Bush’s victory over the 2000 popular-vote winner, Al Gore, strongly suggests that slavery is indeed at the root of it. With the Electoral College scheduled to ratify Trump’s victory on December 19, it’s time to take a look at how and why this strange institution was created.

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