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.

Read the rest at WGBH News. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Yes, media could have done better. No, it wasn’t their fault.

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy
Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

The media, for all their faults, did not elect Donald Trump. His supporters knew exactly what they were doing. They heard it all—the racism, the misogyny, the personal attacks, the Russia connection, Trump University, and on and on and on. And they decided they’d rather vote for a bomb-thrower than continue with the status quo.

On this day of all days, I am loath to cite polling as a way of explaining anything. But as Bill Schneider wrote for Reuters, exit polls revealed that only 38 percent of voters believed Trump was qualified to be president, compared to 52 percent for Hillary Clinton. What does that tell you?

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Prediction time

Hillary Clinton has been ahead by about four points in the polls. My guess is that she’ll actually win by around six points, based on two factors.

First, she’s on the upswing, and was even before FBI director James Comey said, uh, never mind. Second, by all accounts she has an incredibly strong get-out-the-vote effort and Donald Trump has nothing.

No prediction on the Electoral College except that it won’t be close. And the Democrats will narrowly regain the Senate.

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How the media blew the 2016 presidential campaign

Photo (cc) 2015 by brunosuras.
Photo (cc) 2015 by brunosuras.

Maybe none of it mattered. Maybe the media’s widely derided coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign had little effect on where we stand days before this horror show comes to its merciful conclusion.

Consider: A Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll released Friday evening showed Clinton with a four-point lead—identical to President Obama’s margin of victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. As New York Times columnist David Brooks said Friday on the PBS NewsHour, “Everyone is dividing based on demographic categories. And, sometimes, you get the sense that the campaign barely matters. People are just going with their gene pool and whatever it is.”

But even if voting patterns are largely preordained in this hyperpolarized era, that’s no reason to let the media off the hook. Journalists have an indispensable role in our political system. They have a responsibility to provide us with the information we need to govern ourselves in a democratic society. And they have let us down.

Read the rest at U.S. News & World Report. And talk about it on Facebook.