Monday, May 25, 2020
Sunday, May 24, 2020
May 23, 2020, 11:43 PM (12 hours ago)
Friday, May 22, 2020
Thursday, May 21, 2020
Of course, in recent years this confidence has grown tougher to maintain. The industry I've long covered, technology, has lost its rebel edge, and grown monopolistic and power hungry. The economy at large echoed these trends, leaving all but the wealthiest out in the cold. All the while the entire planet veered toward uninhabitability.
And yet, for much of the last year, I remained an optimist. A re-energized Democratic Party looked poised to push for grand solutions to big problems, from health care to education to climate change. There was finally some talk about reining in monopolies and creating a fairer economy. Things weren't looking good, exactly, but if you squinted hard, you could just make out a sunnier future.
Now all that seems lost. The coronavirus and our disastrous national response to it has smashed optimists like me in the head. If there is a silver lining, we'll have to work hard to find it.
To do that, we should spend more time considering the real possibility that every problem we face will get much worse than we ever imagined. The coronavirus is like a heat-seeking missile designed to frustrate progress in almost every corner of society, from politics to the economy to the environment.
The only way to avoid the worst fate might be to dwell on it. To forestall doom, it's time to go full doomer.
Why so glum? It is not just that nearly 92,000 Americans are dead and tens of millions are unemployed. It's not just that our federal government has been asleep, with Congress unable or unwilling to push a disaster-response bill on anything like the scale this crisis demands, and an inept president unable to muster much greater sympathy than, "It's too bad." It's not only that global cooperation is in tatters when we need it most.
It is all these things and something more fundamental: a startling lack of leadership on identifying the worst consequences of this crisis and marshaling a united front against them. Indeed, division and chaos might now be the permanent order of the day.
In a book published more than a decade ago, I argued that the internet might lead to a choose-your-own-facts world in which different segments of society believe in different versions of reality. The Trump era, and now the coronavirus, has confirmed this grim prediction.
That's because the pandemic actually has created different political realities. The coronavirus has hit dense, racially diverse Democratic urban strongholds like New York much harder than sparsely populated rural areas, which lean strongly to the G.O.P. That divergent impact — with help from the president and his acolytes — is feeding a dangerous partisan split about the nature of the virus itself.
Consider the emerging culture war about wearing masks or about whether to take certain unproven therapies. Look at the protests over whether it's safe to reopen. Now play these divisions forward. As The Times's Kevin Roose wrote last week, when a vaccine does emerge, what if many Americans, fed on anti-vax rumors, simply refuse to take it?
The virus's economic effects will only create further inequality and division. Google, Facebook, Amazon and other behemoths will not only survive, they look poised to emerge stronger than ever. Most of their competition — not just small businesses but many of America's physical retailers and their millions of employees — could be decimated.
Worst of all, it's possible that the pain of this crisis might not fully register in broad economic indicators , especially if, as happened after the 2008 recession, we see a long, slow recovery that benefits mainly the wealthy. There are already signs that this is happening: Thousands died, millions lost their jobs, but stock indexes are rebounding.
The economic impacts feed into the political ones: The virus-induced recession could further destroy the news industry and dramatically reduce the number of working journalists in the country, our last defense against misinformation.
Even worse, the virus is making a hash of emerging solutions to entrenched problems. As The Times's Conor Dougherty chronicled in "Golden Gates," his recent book on America's housing crisis, activists have lately been finding success in pushing to build more housing in restrictive regions like the San Francisco Bay Area. The virus may put such reforms on ice. And consider the grim future of public transportation after the pandemic: Will people just get back in their cars, driving everywhere they go?
I called a few economists, activists and historians to discuss my growing alarm about the future. Many were less pessimistic than I am; some suggested that the virus could prompt much-needed action. The most instructive example is the Great Depression. In the 1930s, after years of inaction, reformers who came into office with Franklin D. Roosevelt were able to push through laws that improved American life for good.
Matt Stoller, an antimonopoly scholar at the American Economic Liberties Project, a think tank, agreed that this crisis could be the jolt we need to fix American institutions. But he also noted that the United States has failed to make the best of our most recent national calamities. The 9/11 attacks pushed us into needless quagmires in the Middle East. The 2008 recession deepened inequality.
Let us not squander another crisis. We need to take a long, hard look at all the ways the pandemic can push this little planet of ours to further ruin — and then work like crazy, together, to stave off the coming hell.
Office Hours With Farhad Manjoo
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Wednesday, May 20, 2020
If Trump likes hydroxychloroquine,
he'll love camel urine
I hate to toot my own respirator, but I totally scooped the world on the story about President Trump taking hydroxychloroquine.
I deduced last month that he was taking high doses of the anti-malarial drug, because he was showing obvious side effects of the hydroxychloroquine cocktail he had been touting: Confusion. Aggression. Unusual behavior. Unsteadiness. Paranoia. Change in hair color. Difficulty speaking.
Now some are reacting with horror because he confirmed he's actually taking the stuff (with a zinc chaser), which has been found to cause heart trouble but apparently is not effective against the coronavirus. Who knew that when Trump called hydroxychloroquine a "game changer," the sport he had in mind was Russian roulette? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speculated that the "morbidly obese" Trump is putting himself in danger. Fact-check: Mostly false! His obesity is garden-variety, not morbid. He has room for many more pills, supplements and tonics.
That's a good thing, because Trump ordered about 30 million doses of hydroxychloroquine, now of dubious value. But he shouldn't limit himself to his favorite drug. At this moment, his highest service to the country would be to commit himself to personally testing other unproven treatments for covid-19.
The president has botched the pandemic response, and he is now botching the economic recovery. But he could put his talents to use by serving as a full-time lab animal, a national guinea pig, a cavy-in-chief. He probably won't find a cure, but Trump, by acting as a one-man FDA, would do something almost as helpful: Distract himself from doing yet more damage to the country.
Claims about hydroxychloroquine to treat covid-19 have gained traction despite a lack of scientific evidence. How did this happen? (Elyse Samuels, Meg Kelly, Sarah Cahlan/The Washington Post)
First, Trump will want to take up smoking, or at least slap on a nicotine patch; French researchers think that will prevent the virus.
Next, he'll want to fumigate the Oval Office by burning the harmala herb, an anti-viral touted by Turkmenistan, and fill the air with volcanic ash from the Philippines.
He'll quaff a bitterroot tonic from Madagascar called Covid Organics, together with a blend of "purgative" herbal extracts from China said to combat the "noxious dampness" responsible for the pandemic.
And of course, he'll go through a couple of bottles of his favorite quarterback Tom Brady's "immunity blend supplement," out this week, featuring larch tree extract and elderberry. "You're gonna love it," Brady says.
You know what else Trump will love? Covering himself in cow dung and drinking cow urine. Some in India believe this to be particularly effective if done while performing a ritual in front of a fire.
However, some in the Middle East believe camel urine to be more effective as an antiviral; Trump will be able to settle this dispute conclusively.
Wikipedia, my main medical source for unproven remedies, also lists cures involving: getting vaccinated against the virus by touching your television; a $400 "spiritual vaccine"; the use of "Namaste" as a greeting; and the application of a cotton ball soaked in violet oil to one's posterior.
But how will he know for sure if a remedy works? Simple: If Trump can hold his breath for 10 seconds, he is negative for covid-19. This should be at least as reliable as the antibody test that turned out to be accurate about 20 percent of the time.
Trump will tell America and the world, once and for all, whether it is true, as some Facebook users have learned, that red soap and white handkerchiefs are more anti-viral than those of other colors. He will answer YouTube users wondering whether a blend of rum, bleach and fabric softener sanitizes hands. He will see if Alex Jones's "SuperBlue" toothpaste eradicates the virus.
Our selfless president will inhale high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide. He will inject his lungs with household cleaners. He will expose himself to all manner of light rays. He will gargle salt water. He will sterilize his nostrils with cocaine. Around his neck he will wear a Japanese anti-viral pendant, in his eyes he will put makabuhay sap, and on his skin he will rub CBD oil. He will eat garlic and bananas, onions and lemons, burdock root and poisonous datura seeds. And at the end of each day he will take five deep breaths and then cough.
I guarantee that if the president isolates himself in the Oval Office and devotes himself to doing all this and nothing else, he will be safe from the virus. And the rest of us will be safer, too: There's not much opportunity for mischief when you're spending your days applying violet-oil cotton balls to your derriere in a room darkened by volcanic ash.
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
So I was right to be suspicious. The story broke today that Steven Linick, the State Department Inspector General Trump has announced he is removing, was not simply looking into whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan had used staff members for personal errands.
Linick was finishing up an investigation of Pompeo's decision last year to approve billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia against the wishes of a bipartisan majority in Congress. State Department officials were recently briefed on the inspector general's conclusions.
The 2018 Saudi arms deal was important at the time, but has been so eclipsed by other events we could likely all use a refresher. Here's my best shot at pulling the story together. A warning: I expect that I don't have all the pieces perfectly in place (I can't tell yet how many authorizations for sharing nuclear technology were secretly permitted, for example) because there are so many moving pieces. I apologize in advance for errors, and promise I'll get this material more fine tuned as the story warrants.
It starts with the fact that in 2018, Congress took a stand against the Trump administration's willingness to look the other way after the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and writer for the Washington Post. On October 2, 2018, Khashoggi disappeared in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul where he was going to retrieve documents so he could remarry. Evidence gradually leaked out that Khashoggi had been murdered, and our intelligence agencies concluded that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (often called MBS), had authorized the killing.
But Trump refused to acknowledge that connection, and sidestepped the law requiring him to report to Congress about the murder. This raised questions about the administration's relationship to the Saudis, especially in two areas: first, the apparent friendship between Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and MBS; and second, the efforts of administration officials, originally led by General Michael Flynn during the transition, to work around established channels to export nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. This deal would be worth a lot of money if they could pull it off.
(Multiple whistleblowers warned the House about this, and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform published a report on it in February 2019. The administration granted authorizations to two U.S. companies to share the technology for nuclear power plants shortly after Khashoggi's murder. Members of the administration continued to meet with nuclear power developers for the Middle East, a plan that appears to have been part of Kushner's Middle East peace plan, prompting bipartisan groups of lawmakers to try to block the deals out of concern that Saudi Arabia would develop a nuclear weapon. Energy Secretary Rick Perry secretly approved six authorizations by March 2019, but as near as I can tell, Pompeo refused to release the names of the companies who got those authorizations.)
Meanwhile, the Saudis were embroiled in a war in Yemen, which was causing a humanitarian crisis. Congress opposed supporting the Saudis in that war. In April 2019, it passed a resolution to withdraw support for the Saudis in that conflict, but Trump vetoed it and Republicans in the Senate refused to override his veto.
There is a law, the Arms Export Control Act, which requires that the president give Congress 30 days notice before selling arms over a certain value to another country, so lawmakers can weigh in on the sales. But the law also permits the president to bypass Congress if he declares that "an emergency exists that requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States."
In May 2019, Trump abruptly extended a longstanding emergency declaration with regard to Iran, which enabled Pompeo to approve the sales of 8.1 billion dollars worth of arms to three Arab nations, but primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite congressional disapproval. Congress members and career Foreign Service officers opposed the sales, which included sensitive national security technology. But Pompeo pushed hard for them. "These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran," Pompeo said.
Lawmakers of both parties were furious, and both houses voted to block the sales, but Trump vetoed their measures. At this point, In June 2019, the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked Linick to launch an investigation into the way that State Department officials, including Pompeo, had handled the arms sales. They saw no credible justification for an emergency that required sidestepping congressional approval, and noted that many of the weapons would not be ready for shipping for a year or more, negating the idea they were for an emergency. Their letter strongly hinted that the decision threw work to defense industries with inappropriate ties to the administration.
Pompeo refused to be interviewed by the inspector general's office, and asked Trump to fire Linick. Trump claimed he had "never even heard of" Linick, but "many of these people were Obama appointments. So I just got rid of him."
This story strikes me as big. The arms sales themselves are a big deal, but I wonder if there is a connection between the sales and the attempt to share nuclear technology with the Saudis. Lots and lots of money at stake there. And Flynn-- who is also in the news these days as the Justice Department seeks to drop his case-- was deep into the project, too.
Too many moving pieces to have at all a clear view yet. We'll see.
Or not. This afternoon, Trump announced he is currently taking the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. The White House physician released a letter that did not confirm the president's statement. Indeed, it skirted the issue altogether, simply saying that the president and the doctor, Sean P. Conley, had discussed the drug, and "we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks."
It is hard to imagine any doctor would have prescribed a drug whose side effects include heart attack to an older, overweight, president. It seems more likely that he is not actually taking such a drug, but said so because he was looking either to boost the drug again or to grab headlines away from the story about the Saudi arms sales. If so, it worked well; media outlets have prioritized his statement about taking the drug over the story of the Saudi arms sales and their connection to the firing of the State Department's inspector general. The story has also taken attention from the fact that more than 90,000 American have now died from Covid-19.
A quick follow-up to the story of North Carolina Senator Richard Burr stepping down from his position at the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has replaced him with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has, in the past, been a hawk on Russian interference in American elections. This was a better appointment than I feared.
Once again, we'll see.
Monday, May 18, 2020
Three stories tonight.
One from the future, one from the past, and one from the present.
From the future…
The story of Trump's 30-day notice that he was firing Steve A. Linick as inspector general of the State Department bothers me for a different reason than the obvious. Of course, Trump's continuing purge of inspectors general is not okay. Neither is Republican senators' willingness to go along with it.
But I am also curious about something else. The media is reporting that Linick was looking into whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan have been using staffers to conduct their personal business. But that story is actually not new: there have been similar complaints about the Pompeos since 2018.
So why was Linick on the chopping block now? It is just a further purge? After all, he is the fourth inspector general to be fired lately. Or was there something else going on? Pompeo's aggressive Christian stance at State, combined with his affinity for propaganda outlets like Breitbart, has always made me nervous about how he is approaching foreign affairs, so it is entirely likely I'm overly suspicious. But the Pompeo story is something I'll be watching in the future.
From the past…
Today is the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court's decision outlawing school segregation. The decision was made under a Republican Chief Justice, Earl Warren, who had previously been the governor of California, and the decision was unanimous. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," the court said.
It handed down the decision in the midst of the Army-McCarthy hearings, which ran from April to June. In these televised proceedings, Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, also a Republican, but part of a small faction that hated America's active post-World War Two government, tried to prove that the government that had pulled the nation out of the Depression and mobilized it for war was welcoming communism into America. Communism had spread even into the military, McCarthy charged. Seeing the senator bluster and bully on television, rather than hearing his frightening charges tidied up in newspapers, turned Americans against him. His star fell after the hearings, and he died of complications from alcoholism two years later.
But school desegregation gave his warnings and his bullying style a new lease on life. Brown v. Board enabled opponents of the postwar government to tie racism to their hatred of government regulation of business and provision of a basic social safety net. They insisted the Supreme Court's decision proved that the activist government Americans had embraced in the 1930s and 1940s was designed simply to redistribute wealth from hardworking white taxpayers to lazy African Americans. Government officials and programs, paid for with taxes, offered black Americans benefits like good schools and the military protection necessary to attend them. This argument would attract southern Democrats to the Republican Party, and by 1970, the party would abandon the cause of civil rights in favor of an anti-communism that was shot through with racism.
All these decades later, the formulation embraced by opponents of Brown v. Board has landed us in a spot where any government activism, even requirements that people wear masks during a deadly pandemic, is greeted with fury by a part of the population that sees any government action that helps ordinary Americans as socialism, and usually links that to race.
And from the present…
I have walked by this scene my whole life and never paid much attention to it. A new eye and a new angle turned it into something else altogether.
Happy Sunday, Everyone. Let's buckle up for a busy week.
Thursday, May 14, 2020
With Trump behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in most polls, with unemployment worse than it's been since the Great Depression, and with almost 85,000 Americans dead and no sign of a let-up, Trump knows he's in trouble. Welcome "Obamagate," a scandal Trump says is "the biggest political crime in American history, by far!"
But even Trump cannot say what, exactly, the crime is. When asked by Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker, he said: "It's been going on for a long time. It's been going on from before I even got elected. And it's a disgrace that it happened." But when pressed to name an actual crime, all he could say was: "You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the papers, except yours."
The "scandal" generally seems to be an attempt to argue that Russia did not, in fact, attack our 2016 election, and that the efforts on the part of the FBI to investigate those attacks, and the connections between members of the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, were not legitimate attempts to protect our nation from attack. Instead, they were an effort to undermine first Trump's election and then his administration.
Here's what actually happened: On July 31, 2016, the FBI, then directed by James Comey, opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether people in Trump's campaign were coordinating, intentionally or by accident, with the Russian government. What sparked the investigation was information that campaign member George Papadopoulos had boasted that the Russians had damaging information on Trump's opponent Hillary Clinton.
At the same time, CIA Director John Brennan was bringing together officials from the FBI, CIA, and NSA to investigate Russian interference in the election.
The FBI investigation, named Crossfire Hurricane, focused on people with known ties to Russia or Russian oligarchs. That included former General Michael Flynn, who had worked as a consultant for Russian companies (as well as Turkish ones). Flynn had sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a formal dinner in Russia in December 2015, for which he was paid at least $45,000, but he skipped the clearance a retired military official should have had to do accept payment from a foreign government. Flynn began to advise the Trump campaign in February 2016, and at the Republican National Convention led the crowd in chants of "Lock Her Up!"
On November 10, President Barack Obama warned Trump against hiring Flynn for a sensitive position, but eight days later, Flynn became Trump's National Security Advisor. On December 29, Obama expelled 35 suspected Russian intelligence agents from the U.S. in retaliation for Russian interference in the 2016 election. That day, Flynn spoke on the phone with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, whom he had known since 2013. U.S. intelligence agencies routinely monitored Kislyak, and they briefed Obama administration officials, who thought the call sounded like Flynn and the Russians had a secret agreement.
The FBI interviewed Flynn on January 24, 2017. He lied about the content of the call. This sent acting Attorney General Sally Yates rushing to Trump's White House Counsel Don McGahn to warn him that Flynn was possibly open to blackmail by the Russians. On February 8, Flynn denied speaking to Kislyak about sanctions, but when intelligence officials indicated that he had, he claimed that "he couldn't be certain the topic never came up." Flynn resigned at Trump's request on February 13, 2017.
The next day, Trump met with Comey and asked him to drop the case against Flynn. Comey refused. Trump fired him, then told Kislyak "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off." Trump's Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the case because he, too, had met with Kislyak. The Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (appointed by Trump) then appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller, former head of the FBI, to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, including whether Trump campaign officials had worked alongside them….
And, as our intelligence agencies had, Mueller concluded that yes, the Russians attacked our 2016 elections, and that members of the Trump campaign accepted their help, although his report did not go so far as to assert they were deliberately working in tandem.
So, too, did the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, which is due to issue the fifth and final volume of its investigation in the next few weeks.
When Trump continued to insist that the Crossfire Hurricane Investigation was illegitimate, the inspector general of the Department of Justice, Michael Horowitz, investigated and concluded that it was indeed legitimate (although he excoriated the FBI for mistakes agents made in the reapplications of wiretapping authorizations for one of the people they were investigating, Carter Page).
In the midst of the Mueller investigation, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and after cooperating with the Mueller investigation, has been awaiting sentencing.
Last Thursday, the Justice Department, now under strong Trump supporter Attorney General William Barr, asked the judge to throw out Flynn's case, reiterating that the Russia investigation was not legitimate, and therefore that his lies were not material. This has led close to 2000 former DOJ officials to call for Barr's resignation.
The idea appears to be to turn the tables and claim that those investigating Russian interference were the criminals, while those caught in the investigation are victims. Thus Obama and Vice President Biden, along with the career intelligence and justice officials who tried to defend the country against foreign interference, are all part of a "Deep State" conspiracy to injure Trump.
Trump's appointees are helping him create this disinformation. His acting Director of National Intelligence, Richard Grenell, who has been vocal about his conviction that Russia did not attack us in 2016, recently declassified a list of U.S. officials who called for the "unmasking" of the individual mentioned in intelligence documents, the man who turned out to be Michael Flynn. Requests for such "unmasking" are common; names help officials understand the significance of the reports they are reading. Indeed, unmasking has increased dramatically in the Trump administration. But in Trump's narrative, the unmasking of Flynn was a "massive thing" that shows the unfairness of those investigating the Russian connections in 2016.
Today, three Republican Senators released the names of those who asked to unmask Flynn. The Senators are: Ron Johnson (R-WI), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), and Rand Paul (R-KY). The list included more than three dozen Obama White House officials, including Biden, Comey, Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper. Paul has called for hearings on the matter, much like the many, many hearings Republicans held about Hillary Clinton's emails, and much like the investigation Trump wanted Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce.
While requests for unmasking are common, there is something interesting here: the requests are mainly from BEFORE Flynn's call with Kislyak, and come from Treasury, NATO, and intelligence officials. "If you want to be transparent and fair, show us the document that led all these senior authorized government officials to request this information, that freaked them out all at the same time," national security lawyer Mark Zaid commented to the Washington Post.
Still, today on the Fox News Channel, Trump said, "This was all Obama. This was all Biden. These people were corrupt. The whole thing was corrupt and we caught them. We caught them."
Then, tonight, we learned that the FBI served a search warrant on Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) for insider trading in stocks in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. A warrant for a senator would have had to be approved at the highest levels of the Department of Justice, where Barr holds sway. Burr is not the only senator who made exquisitely timed stock trades after hearing a private briefing for senators on the dangers of the coronavirus; Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) did, too, along with one or two others.
So why Burr? Remember I mentioned that the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed with the Mueller investigation, and that It was due to release the final volume of its report soon? Burr is the chairman of that key committee. If he is discredited enough to lose his chairmanship, McConnell will get to choose his replacement. And it's a pretty safe bet the committee will no longer support the conclusions of the Mueller Report.
Still, the game is not over. Judge Emmet G. Sullivan has appointed a former judge, John Gleeson, to oppose the request of the Justice Department to drop the case against Flynn and, in addition, to see whether Flynn has committed perjury. This might well rehash the evidence about Russian interference in our affairs that seems to have been pushed aside by the Ukraine scandal, impeachment, and now the pandemic.
In any case, it should help to combat the disinformation campaign intended to convince us that down is up and up is down, and that the Russia scandal belongs to anyone but Trump.
"We caught them."
Crossfire Hurricane IG report: https://www.justice.gov/storage/120919-examination.pdf