Here Is the Latest Campaign Faux Controversy

I can't tell if this faux controversy is actually getting much attention, but I know my readers all want to stay up to date:

Donald Trump’s campaign sought an apology Saturday from his Democratic rival after Hillary Clinton took aim at the Republican’s supporters, suggesting that half of them are what she called “deplorables.”

....“To just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?,” Mrs. Clinton told donors in New York City. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” The former secretary of state added that “some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.” The Trump campaign quickly punched back, saying that Mrs. Clinton had revealed “her true contempt for everyday Americans.”

I'm sure this will be followed up on social media with lots of folks "fact checking" Clinton and showing that she's right. Let's take a look. Yep, here's one:

Typical Hillary shill. The Reuters poll he links to clearly shows that less than half of Trump's supporters are deplorable. At most it's 49 percent, and the average is only 43 percent. As usual, Hillary Clinton is spinning and exaggerating for her own benefit. No wonder Americans don't trust her. A tisket, a tasket, Hillary's in a basket.

OK, fine, that was lame. But hopefully everyone just skips this whole affair. It's one of those things that belongs in the category of stuff literally everyone knows but can't say out loud. Trump's outreach to the racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic community is pretty obvious and hardly needs any further evidence. Every campaign reporter in the country knows this. The question is, can they say it? Or will they just "report the controversy" and declare that it "casts a new shadow" over a "struggling campaign"? I guess we'll see.

UPDATE: Well, it's now on the front page of the LA Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. So I guess it's getting some traction. Is this just because it's a slow weekend news day? Or will it last? Come back Monday for your answer!

Friday Cat Blogging - 9 September 2016

Here is Hilbert minding his domain in the deep, dark undergrowth of our backyard. So majestic. So serene. So feline. King of the jungle indeed.

What do you think of Vladimir Putin? Personally, I think he's a thuggish autocrat, and the fact that Donald Trump seems to admire him is just one more nail in the coffin of Trump's obvious unsuitability to be elected dogcatcher, let alone president of the United States.

But criticism of Putin—and Trump's embrace of him—has recently become something of a lightning rod on the left, proving once again that there's nothing too trivial for lefties to fight over. Today, for example, Glenn Greenwald charged Democrats with hypocrisy over their newfound belligerence toward Russia. The current story among Trump-hating liberals, he says, is that:

Russia is a Grave Enemy of the U.S.; anyone who advocates better relations or less tension with Moscow is a likely sympathizer, stooge, or even agent of Putin; and any associations with the Kremlin render one’s loyalties suspect.

....Despite the fact that Russia has ceased long ago to be guided by anything resembling Communism, this linking of one’s political adversaries to the Kremlin is such a potent tactic in the U.S. because of decades of Cold War rhetoric about Moscow. Referring to Putin, Matt Lauer this week asked of Trump: “Do you want to be complimented by that former KGB officer.” Denouncing Trump’s praise of Putin, Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel called the Russian President “a communist leader that’s a potential enemy!” Explaining why Trump’s comments about Russia are so remarkable, The New York Times contended that “Mr. Trump has made improved relations with the Kremlin a centerpiece of his candidacy” in “a fashion that would have been unheard-of for a Republican during or immediately after the Cold War.”

The whole thing is Greenwaldian in length, not even counting all the videos he wants you to watch, and you may or may not want to read the whole thing. The basic gist is that Obama took office promising to "reset" relations with Russia, and Democrats in general are usually in favor of relaxing tensions with global adversaries. But now that Trump is the one trying to relax tensions, Putin is once again a big, bad guy.

And, you know, fine. There's no question that presidential campaigns cause some measure of hypocrisy all around. But this is one of those things where context matters a lot. Obama really did try to cool relations with Russia, culminating in his successful passage of the New START treaty. But then Russia annexed Crimea and secretly invaded Ukraine. This naturally caused considerable nervousness among the Baltic states, who were worried the same thing might happen to them. All of NATO imposed sanctions on Russia over this, and Obama made it clear that NATO guarantees applied to the Baltics. As usual with Obama, his rhetoric remains relatively restrained, and he's continued to try to work with Russia here and there. But Putin has made it pretty clear that his interests and ours diverge considerably.

Then, of course, there's Putin himself, a guy who jails dissidents, muzzles the press, murders his political opponents, and has apparently tried to hack the DNC in order to interfere with American elections. All in all, there's pretty good reason to despise Putin personally and oppose him politically.

But Trump admires Putin because he's a "strong leader." He declined to support NATO guarantees of the Baltics. He wants to reorient NATO away from Russia entirely. He welcomed Russia's incursion into Syria, even though it was pretty clearly not intended to fight ISIS. He suggested that Putin's human rights record wasn't really anything to be worried about. He pretty clearly signaled that he doesn't care much about Russia's invasion of either Crimea or Ukraine. And as Will Jordan points out, this all makes a difference. Among Democrats and Independents, views of Putin haven't changed much. But among Republicans, Putin's approval ratings have shot up. There's not really any explanation for this aside from Trump's odd love affair with the guy.

Like Obama—and Greenwald—I'm happy to dispense with jingoism and adopt a generally calm approach toward Russia. But Trump has gone quite a ways beyond this, and it's perfectly fair to criticize him for it. I don't want a president who seems to think that Putin is his buddy. Or that Putin admires him. Or that we should casually toss aside treaty obligations. Putin would eat Trump for lunch, and I'd just as soon remain clearheaded about what a loathsome human being he is.

National Review editor Rich Lowry says that regardless of the Washington Post's opinion, Hillary Clinton's email affair won't go away:

It will remain with us, if for no other reason than that it is impossible for Hillary Clinton to be truthful about it. She is never going to admit that she wanted to hide her records in violation of the rules from legitimate press and congressional inquiries.

Does this mean everyone has finally figured out that email accounts are just as unclassified as email hosted on a private server? The fact that there's disagreement about whether State Department officials are careful enough with sensitive information has nothing to do with the fact that Clinton's email was hosted privately.

Instead we're all in on the idea that Clinton set up her email account on a private server in order to evade FOIA requests. There is no evidence of this at all. None. That doesn't mean it's not true, of course. It just means no one has ever produced anything other than "well, of course she did" as an argument.

That leaves us with general fact patterns rather than specific evidence one way or another. So let's take a look at those fact patterns. I covered this briefly last night, but it's worth doing it in a little more detail. There are two big things to look at:

  • Virtually all of Clinton's official emails were sent to people with addresses, which means they were retained on government servers. This is not—repeat not—a good reason to shrug our shoulders at Clinton's use of a private server. That's still fair game. Nevertheless, Clinton obviously knew that her emails to addresses would be retained, which means a private server offered no real protection against FOIA requests. The only real protection, as always, is to conduct business via telephone or face-to-face.
  • Clinton retained her emails for years after she left office and turned them over to State without complaint when she was asked. Then she wiped her server. If she were truly intent on evading the law, she would have deleted them after she left the State Department and just taken the hit for it.

If, despite this, you think Clinton was trying to evade FOIA, you're ascribing to both her and her staff (a) idiocy, (b) Nixonian levels of calculated corruption, and (c) a widespread conspiracy to aid in a scheme that could easily send them all to jail—not to mention the Platte River tech they supposedly suborned to delete her archives.

None of this makes any sense. Clinton's enemies, of course, are already convinced that she has the necessary level of malevolence to do all this. They've believed that without any real evidence for 25 years. But even they don't believe she's an idiot, and you'd truly have to be an idiot to try to evade FOIA requests this way. Someone who was truly malevolent and calculating and smart would do the simple and obvious thing: make sure her conniving staff was instructed to conduct all illegal business only over the phone. Easy peasy.

In the end, the only story that makes sense is a different one: Clinton was trying to protect her private emails. Those emails wouldn't be captured on servers. Those emails wouldn't be turned over to State. But having initially made the technically boneheaded decision to have only a single email account, she was stuck. The only way to protect her personal emails was to go through the laborious process of separating them out and then wiping them from the server and from all backups. But since everything was in one account, that meant wiping all the official emails too. More detail on that here.

Bottom line: In the end, the whole story about Clinton trying to evade FOIA or the Federal Records Act just doesn't make any sense.

The funny thing is that there's one thing about the whole episode that does bother me, but it doesn't get much attention. Clinton's initial decision to use one device and one account for all her emails was dumb but understandable. However, there had to be multiple people on her staff who realized it was dumb. This means that either her staffers were afraid to tell her this, or she ignored their advice. Either way, it doesn't speak well for her organization.

Today we learn just how easy it is to trick Donald Trump. Yesterday he was interviewed by Larry King on RT, a TV network funded by the Russian government. That's probably not a good look, especially for a candidate already viewed as alarmingly cozy with Vladimir Putin. So what happened?

Poor Donald. He used to be so sharp. Probably suffering from dysphasia or something.

The Washington Post writes today that the Hillary Clinton email story is "out of control":

Judging by the amount of time NBC's Matt Lauer spent pressing Hillary Clinton on her emails during Wednesday's national security presidential forum, one would think that her homebrew server was one of the most important issues facing the country this election. It is not.

…Ironically, even as the email issue consumed so much precious airtime, several pieces of news reported Wednesday should have taken some steam out of the story. First is a memo FBI Director James B. Comey sent to his staff…Second is the emergence of an email exchange between Ms. Clinton and former secretary of state Colin Powell…Last is a finding that 30 Benghazi-related emails that were recovered during the FBI email investigation and recently attracted big headlines had nothing significant in them…The story has vastly exceeded the boundaries of the facts.

Imagine how history would judge today's Americans if, looking back at this election, the record showed that voters empowered a dangerous man because of…a minor email scandal. There is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton's wrongs and Mr. Trump's manifest unfitness for office.

I'm not quite sure how to take this. On the one hand, hasn't the Washington Post hyped the email story as much as anybody? On the other hand, even if they have, they still deserve credit for seeing the light.

The email story is one of the hardest kinds of stories for the press to handle appropriately. At the beginning of a story like this, it's impossible to know if there's something to it. Then the facts drip out slowly over the course of months as everyone chases leads. At some point it becomes clear that there's no there there, but reasonable people can disagree on when that point is. Personally, I'd date it from sometime between October last year, when Trey Gowdy's committee was unable to find anything even marginally corrupt during an 11-hour inquisition of Clinton, and July this year, when FBI Director James Comey made it clear that she had done nothing remotely serious enough to warrant prosecution.

But that's it. Since at least July we've basically known the contours of the entire affair. Clinton was foolish to use a single email account hosted on a personal server—which she's acknowledged—but that's it. Beyond that, it was an unclassified system and everyone treated it like one. The retroactively classified emails are more a spat between State and the intelligence community than anything else. Nor is there any evidence that Clinton was trying to evade FOIA by hosting her email on a private server. That would have been (a) deliberate and calculating deception on a Nixonian scale; (b) phenomenally stupid since nearly all of her emails were sent to addresses and were therefore accessible anyway; and (c) unusually half-assed since she retained the emails for years after she left office and turned them over as soon as State asked for them. Only an idiot would try to evade FOIA like this, and even her bitterest enemies don't think Hillary Clinton is an idiot.

Emailgate has been investigated and reported to death. Unless some genuine bombshell drops, further leaks should be treated as obvious partisan attacks, not news, and further production of emails should be noted briefly on page A17. Let's not turn this into another Whitewater.

And with that out of the way, can we now move on to the Clinton Foundation? It's been investigated to death as well, and the only thing we've learned is that Doug Band needs to shut his pie hole a little more often. Aside from that, literally every shred of evidence points to (a) appropriate behavior from Hillary Clinton and her staff; (b) Bill Clinton leveraging his fame to raise money for charity; and (c) billions of dollars spent on worthy causes. Beyond that, you might find Bill's personal moneymaking enterprises a little off-putting, but that's all. So how about if we give the Foundation a rest too?

I'm feeling overwhelmed. Everywhere I turn, I find yet another nugget that's hardly worth a blog post but nonetheless feels like a nutshell version of politics this year. So consider this post a time capsule. Someday you can show it to your grandkids to demonstrate how far off the rails our country went in 2016.

Reporters have been griping forever about Hillary Clinton not holding a press conference. She's been interviewed plenty of times by national reporters, but I guess that's not good enough. So over the past few days she's finally decided to open up more, and this morning she even held a full-fledged presser. Here is Chuck Todd's reaction:

Hillary just can't win, can she? Here's a headline from The Hill:

There are two ways you can take this. Option 1: By God, we are going to make this story about the emails no matter what. Option 2: It's a snarky acknowledgment of the fact that once they finally got their press conference, reporters didn't even bother asking about the very thing they've been obsessed with for months. My money is on #1.

Moving on, the latest idiot right-wing conspiracy meme, promoted by lunatic late night conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, is that Hillary Clinton was wearing an earpiece at the Commander-in-Chief forum last night. Donald Trump Jr. passed along the news:

Followed by a retweet of this:

That's right: the Republican candidate's campaign is now passing along psychotic delusions from Alex Jones. Before long they'll be channeling the ghost of Rasputin. Meanwhile, at last night's forum Trump insisted that in his recent intelligence briefing he learned that President Obama had blown off the intelligence community. "I have pretty good with the body language. I could tell they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending." This is a pretty outrageous breach of what's supposed to be a classified briefing, and it's also a lie. Intelligence professionals agree pretty unanimously that no briefer would ever do such a thing.

But did Trump really lie? Last night I used Trump as a flimsy excuse to name check famed physicist Wolfgang Pauli, so today I'll use Trump as an equally flimsy excuse to bring up famed mathematician Kurt Gödel. In 1931 Gödel proved that in all mathematical systems1 there are true statements that are unprovable. Paul Waldman says that's our problem with Trump. He uses Trump's claim to have a secret plan to crush ISIS as an example:

Here’s the problem this presents. What he’s saying is so transparently phony that it just boggles the mind, yet you can’t do an “objective” fact-check on whether Trump has a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State, because you can’t prove that he doesn’t. But he doesn’t.

....Now let me point to a second exchange in the forum, when Lauer asked about the intelligence briefing Trump received....Just as with his secret ISIS plan, I can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Trump is lying here, but he’s lying. If the briefers told him “what our experts said to do,” it would be unprecedented. And the idea that they communicated with their “body language” that they are unhappy with the administration’s decisions? Please.

We could call this Trump's Incompleteness Theorem: In all political campaigns, there are false statements that are unfalsifiable. Literally everyone knows that Trump is bullshitting, but the rules of the game don't allow anyone to say so.

In other news, Wells Fargo was fined $185 million because it opened 1.5 million bank accounts and applied for 565,000 credit cards—without telling the customers involved it had done so. That is not a typo. They opened fake accounts and applied for fake credit cards. This outrageous scam was uncovered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Trump wants to eliminate. In fact, the entire Republican Party wants to eliminate it. They think it's too tough on banks.

Finally, today is the 50th anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek in 1966. Normally, this wouldn't be something I'd mention in a political blog, but the episode titled "Mirror, Mirror" is surprisingly apropos of this year's presidential campaign. Whenever someone asks what's going on, just say, "We're in the Spock-with-a-beard universe." That should be enough.

1Technically, his theorem applies only to mathematical systems complex enough to describe the natural numbers. In other words, every mathematical system we actually care about.

IAEA: Iran Not Cheating on Nuclear Deal

I know nobody cares about this, and I apologize in advance for burdening you with actual information. So I'll keep it short:

Iran has kept to a nuclear deal it agreed with six world powers last year limiting its stockpiles of substances that could be used to make atomic weapons, a report by the U.N. nuclear agency found.

The confidential report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seen by Reuters did not point to any violations in Tehran's observance of the deal which was opposed by hardliners inside Iran and by skeptics in the West.

I guess you can click on the link if you want more details. But why would you? It's all so boring, after all.

Tell Us How You Really Feel, Kevin

Here are three recent takes on Donald Trump. First, Jonathan Chait:

I had not taken seriously the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidency until I saw Matt Lauer host an hour-long interview with the two major-party candidates. Lauer’s performance was not merely a failure, it was horrifying and shocking....Most voters, and all the more so undecided voters, subsist on a news diet supplied by the likes of Matt Lauer. And the reality transmitted to them from Lauer matches the reality of the polls, which is a world in which Clinton and Trump are equivalently flawed.

Here's Matt Yglesias:

What Donald Trump said at Wednesday night’s Commander-in-Chief Forum on the aircraft carrier was shocking. He specifically defended Vladimir Putin as superior to Barack Obama, suggested women serving in the military should expect to be raped, hinted at a political purge of the officer corps, blatantly lied about his own past statements on Iraq and Libya, and called on the American military to commit war crimes.

....But this isn’t a media story. It’s a Trump story. And it’s about whether we, and the American public, are willing to stay shocked. We’re used to Trump’s lying and his nonsense because we’ve been hearing it for a long time. But it’s not normal.

And finally, for the win, here is Nancy LeTourneau:

Every now and then I have a “moment.” It tends to come when I realize that the Republican Party of the United States of American has nominated a guy to lead the most powerful nation on the planet who talks like this.

When those moments hit, I literally get speechless. I subsequently see headlines that talk about how the polls are narrowing or about pundits trying to suss out what a President Trump would REALLY do on immigration and imagine that I must have fallen into some worm hole in which an alternate reality exists simply to mock us.

This can’t really be happening, can it?

LeTourneau's reaction is precisely mine. Sure, I can churn out blog posts about Trump that are alternatively snarky, shocked, analytical, etc. And God knows, millions of words have been spilled trying to explain the guy. But on the occasions when I stop to really think about this election, my mind goes sort of fugue-like. My mental state is something like this:

What the fuck is going on? Donald Trump! Donald fucking Trump! He's a jackass reality TV star. He's goddamn clueless. For fuck's sake, this can't be happening. Can it? Fucking fuck. Why isn't anyone calling it out? It's like Alice in fucking Wonderland. How can we be doing this? Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

I guess you can see why I don't generally share these moments with you—though I shouldn't really call them moments. This internal narrative is pretty much in my head every time I write a post about Trump. I just suppress it in order to get some G-rated words onto the blog.

I have a feeling Nancy and I are far from alone in feeling this way. And it's a first. I obviously haven't been a fan of any of the GOP's recent presidential candidates, but I've never felt this way before. We are well and truly down the rabbit hole.

The Long-Awaited Trump Pivot Is Here

National Review editor Rich Lowry captures my deepest fear:

There was a lot of skepticism about Trump’s latest purported pivot when he made Kellyanne Conway his campaign manager last month, but he has indeed pivoted. He is always going to be the same guy with the same idiosyncratic cluster of views — e.g., taking Iraq’s oil — but his campaign has done much more to get him in settings where he isn’t shouting, and that can only help him. Mexico City, Detroit, the Virginia Beach vets forum, his national security speech are all examples of non-rally events where he is not red-faced and yelling. The rallies have to be very alluring to Trump — gatherings of thousands of people where he can have a hell of time providing the entertainment. But they reinforce what is worst about his image for the new voters he has to try to reach.

Trump's biggest liability is that he goes on TV constantly and acts like a crazy man. That appeals to some people, but it turns off a lot more. As long as he keeps doing this, the folks who don't want a crazy man in the White House will vote for someone else.

But a lot of voters have very short memories. It's always been true that if Trump can manage to act relatively sane for a mere few weeks, that would be plenty of time for a chunk of credulous voters, pundits, and hacks to decide that he's turned over a new leaf and wouldn't be a crazy man after all. So far—knock on wood—the remarkable thing is that Trump hasn't been able to do this for even a few days, let alone a few weeks. And yet, he still could.