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Greta Van Susteren: Lies, truth and journalism

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Greta Van Susteren has given me the opportunity to write about something I’ve wanted to explore in depth for some time. She left her job as a Fox News commentator last year, and then signed onto NBC News; she now anchors an MSNBC show, For the Record with Greta. Greta recently replied to a comment I made on her Facebook page. More on that in a moment.

When her MSNBC show was announced, I remember thinking how odd it was that someone who had worked for arch-conservative, rapidly pro-Trump Fox News could be comfortable, not to mention credible, at MSNBC which, of course, is leading the anti-Trump charge among the cable networks. When I finally got around to watching her show, I thought, how vanilla. Her “on the one hand, on the other” format was non-informative and, worse, missed the entire point of journalism, which is to distinguish between truth and fiction. Still, I thought I knew what Greta was trying to do: fair and balanced journalism, the kind Fox News claims, falsely, to practice. Get both sides together and have a reasoned discussion, to see if there’s common ground.

Normally, I could respect that, but these are not normal times. With Trump, the stakes are much too high for dithering. So, a few days ago, I sent a comment to Greta. I suggested that her “cocktail-style” format is more suitable for Wolf Blitzer’s CNN—a network that is befuddled and hapless in the face of Trump’s onslaught of lies.

Greta, who seems like an enormously decent person, was kind enough to reply. “If you want to listen to someone who just takes sides…you are right…I am not your person. I look at the facts and try to figure out what is fair and right….I don’t just take sides.” To which I responded, “The two sides [i.e., lies and truth] are not intellectually or honestly equal. Surely you know that.”

Sometimes it’s appropriate for people with opposing views to sit down and work things out. Let’s say you think the Stones are better than the Beatles. I disagree. We can have a reasonable and informed conversation without, perhaps, ever coming to agreement, because, in a sense, we’re both right. Who’s to say?

But not all dialecticals lend themselves to such equal treatment. Let me make an extreme example. Imagine a debate between someone who believes the Earth is round and someone who thinks it’s flat. (I actually had this conversation with a friend.) The person who thinks it’s flat (my friend) argues that photographs of our planet taken from outer space prove that the world is flat. When the other person (me) points out that that’s crazy, that every photograph ever taken of Earth from space shows that it’s round, the flat-earther declares those photos have been faked.

Now, if you take the Greta Van Susteren point of view, both sides are entitled to equal treatment. You sit them down and give each a chance. Greta might ask the person who thinks the Earth is round, “Can you prove that the photos of round Earth have not been faked?” That would be the approach of someone who “does not take sides.”

But, obviously, that approach would be ludicrous. There is no intellectual equivalence between a flat earther and a round earther! Why would someone like Greta, with her massive power of hosting a national T.V. program, give a flat earther air time, and waste the valuable time of her viewers? Is it in the interest of “fairness,” or does it merely perpetuate disinformation?

But that’s what her “Both sides have a right to speak” results in: a debate between truth and rubbish: for example, between Kellyanne Conway defending Trump’s statement that his inaugural crowd was the biggest in history, against actual photographs proving that it was dwarfed by Obama’s. How can a T.V. news host possibly not take sides? Why would she not want to defend truth and order the truth denier off her stage?

Greta subscribes to the old newspaper ideology that both sides in a debate deserve to be listened to respectfully by us, the public. That once was true in journalism, but it’s now an anachronism. Trump neutralized it, at least for the time being, with his very first birther lie, and he and his surrogates continue their assault on truth. Networks like CNN, which lacked the courage to repudiate Trump’s lies, succeeded merely in normalizing him. There is a difference between truth and lies—a stark, epistomological difference that must be acknowledged if human reason is to rule over superstition. Pretending that truth and lies both deserve respectful treatment is deliberate, and dangerous, obfuscation.


At the Wall Street Journal, new cracks in Trump’s support

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Six days a week, I check out the Journal’s op-ed pages to see when their support for Trump will start to erode. So far, Rupert Murdoch’s writing puppies have been well-trained. They remain fixated on their “Jail Hillary, Kill Obamacare, Give Trump a chance, The Left loves terrorists” silliness. But this past week—the worst so far in Trump’s presidency—was so bad that even the Wall Street Journal is showing the strain.

First, on Wednesday, William A. Galston, a conservative Brookings Institution employee who had been a reliable apologist for Trump, in “A Turning Point for Trumpinology” hit Trump hard on foreign policy. All American presidencies for the past 70 years, he writes, have been united in running foreign affairs along “conventional postwar lines” upon which our allies could depend. Now, under Trumpism, “The true north of [American foreign policy] points to [Steve] Bannon’s truculent, aggressive nationalism,” making America “the epicenter of instability in the world.” Trump’s take on global affairs, Galston concludes, is “wrongly understood” [by him, not by us], and, in language shockingly inflammatory for a think-tank intellectual, Galston accuses Trump’s “enablers” (Rex Tillerson, James Mattis) of “helping him peddle this poison as medicine.”

Then, a day later, two more columns. Karl Rove’s “Political Death by 1,000 Tweets” concluded with remarks that have been widely quoted: “Increasingly it appears Mr. Trump lacks the focus or self-discipline to do the basic work of the presidency.” Pretty tough stuff for a Republican. Granted, Rove resented being shut out of Trump’s inner circle, but even so, with this piece, his criticism has reached an apex. “[C]hronic impulsiveness,” “sabotaging his own agenda,” “confused,” are jabs that could have come from Nancy Pelosi instead of from George W. Bush’s Brain. With the dire warning that the Trump administration’s existence is “at stake,” Rove’s shot across Trump’s bow is a not-so-distant early warning sign that the conservative base is nearing the limits of its patience.

In the same issue of the paper was Daniel Henninger’s “Can Trump Govern”? think piece. The title alone suggests his conclusion: “Yes, but the window is closing.” The White House, he charges, has been creating “an environment toxic to governing.” Henninger can’t bring himself to join The Resistance—yet. But you can feel his inner struggle: part of him wants to support the president, another part of him recognizes that “blood is in the water” and “the Russia story [is] becoming Trump’s Watergate.” Henninger is as good an example as there is of the anguish Trump supporters feel, as week after week brings more bad news. When Henninger writes that “The White House has arrived at a binary choice: Choose chaos or choose success,” what he’s really describing is his own inner dialectic: Support Trump, or bail.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest the Wall Street Journal is turning into the New York Times. Most of Murdoch’s puppies remain solidly revanchist, and will go down with the ship. Probably the last to admit she’s wrong—dead wrong—will be Kimberley A. Strassel, whose Friday piece, “All About James Comey,”—you won’t believe this—blames everything on, yes, Comey. And I do mean everything: RussiaGate, Trump’s obstruction, the Flynn affair, the hearings, the special counsel. “If only…Mr. Comey [had] chosen to retire in, say, 2015 to focus on his golf game,” none of this would have happened. If she believes that, I have a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell her. Well, I guess every about-to-expire regime has a Magda Goebbels, willing to take a bullet for her dead führer in the bunker.

Anyhow, Trump, Bannon and their cohort will blow off Rove-style criticism as the disgruntled last gasps of a dying Republican establishment, and no doubt Trump’s dwindling supporters in red districts will agree, telling themselves that all he’s doing is keeping his promise to “drain the swamp.” The problem for Trump is that his hardcore supporters don’t really think rationally: they’re reactionary (in all senses of the word), reacting to situations on impulsive, emotional bases—like Trump himself. Sooner or later, when the rightwing media they depend on begins to go south on Trump, the virus of doubt will infect them too: that’s how politics works. And all this will happen as the country gears up for the 2018 Congressional elections.

I know that three columns on two consecutive days in the Wall Street Journal do not make for an irresistible tide. They do, however, signal a shift in the prevailing winds, providing us tea leaf readers some insight into how things are going on the right. And, from here on the left, I have to say I like the direction.


Confessions of an anti-Trumpist: “I want him to suffer”

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Schadenfreude. One of those quintessentially German words, for which we have no equivalent in English. The roots, translated, are “Damage” and “Joy.” The definition: Pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.”

Fans of The Simpsons may remember the word being used by Lisa, in the episode (“When Flanders Failed”) when Homer manipulates to have Ned Flanders’ left-handed store go out of business. When he succeeds, Lisa accused Homer of schadenfreude, which she defines as “shameful joy.”                              

Feelings of schadenfreude are all-too-human; who among us hasn’t secretly wished for an enemy to be brought low, or been pleased when one fails? I feel schadenfreude sometimes, and when I do, I also inevitably feel guilt, as though I should be a mixture of the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, thinking thoughts of lovingkindness to all.

Well, as long as I’m in the confession business, I’ll ‘fess up to this: I am taking pleasure in seeing Donald Trump suffer. That he is suffering emotionally due to the scandals is evident. Now, the conventional stance Democrats are supposed to take is, “I wish President Trump well because, if he succeeds, America succeeds,” and that is, I suppose, true, as far as it goes. But there are plenty of reasons to think that America will do just fine when and if Trump goes away, and that the country would in fact be better off without him. So, from that point of view, one can wish ill upon Trump without wishing harm to America.

But why would anyone wish harm on Trump? Isn’t that uncharitable? It’s a good question. So here’s my personal explanation for my Trumpian schadenfreude.

I didn’t much think about him one way or the other until he started the birther stuff. Of course I knew who he was: billionaire real estate tycoon, media showboater, New York blowhard, Mar-a-Lago, The Apprentice, the wives and mistresses, etc. etc. ad nauseum. But he was just another piece of detritus floating on the Sea of Celebrity, about which I care nothing.

Until birtherism. It was such an awful lie from the start, so blatantly malicious, that it immediately put Trump on my radar: Really Bad Person! And then he stayed with it for years, repeating the lie even after everybody else (except the lunatic fringe right) knew it was false. As I recall, it wasn’t until sometime last year, when he was running for president, that he finally conceded Obama to be American, although he did so begrudgingly.

To list Trump’s subsequent lies, smears, defamations and insults would take a book; I don’t have to, because you know them, too. This thug has shanked both Clintons, both Obamas, all Democrats and many ordinary people (the Gold Star parents, that reporter with a disability, immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, scientists, gay people) so many times that I just can’t forgive him for bringing dishonor into the White House and rancor into the national conversation. He has needlessly and stupidly rabble-roused the tea party into fury, besmirched our political system, upset the international order in a way that is not helpful to America, and dragged the nation down. These are all very bad things. I take my politics seriously; for me, “forgive and forget” is not going to happen; I’ll leave that to others. Donald Trump declared a war on truth, kindness, fairness, decency and respect, and continues to wage it to this day.

And he did so deliberately, with malice aforethought. He himself does not care about the damage he has caused and continues to cause—does not care how much hurt he inflicts on innocent people—does not care if he’s caught in lie after lie—does not care about anything, except his personal power and wealth and bamboozling what few credulous supporters remain in his camp. It has simply been an awful, traumatizing experience for those of us who believe in honor and in this country. Every president in my lifetime has been a gentleman—Republicans and Democrats alike. Not this one. He has brought our politics to a dark, unholy place, because he is dark and unholy inside. I resent him for what he’s done to America. And for that, I want him to suffer.


Comey takes center stage, as the Republican coverup mounts

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Early morning, June 8: We don’t know at this point what Comey will or will not say at today’s hearing. But we do know what happened yesterday, when The RussiaGate Four—Coats, Rosenstein, Rogers and McCabe—stonewalled their way through and made history with their illegal non-answers before a Senate Committee empowered with their oversight.

The optics of that were a disaster for them. As I posted yesterday, They now find their professional reputations in tatters—like those of almost everyone else associated with this president.”

Flynn? His career is destroyed. Kellyanne Conway? She’s a punchline. Sean Spicer? Two words: Melissa McCarthy. Rex Tillerson? From all-powerful CEO to licking Trump’s boots. Devin Nunes? Trump’s lackey in the Congress. Betsy DeVos? The billionaire who wants to destroy public schools. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell? Grinning baboons carrying Trump’s water. Mike Pence? A servile, conscienceless drone. Jeff Sessions? Lucky if he’s not indicted. And the Republican Party, overall? “Democratic Edge in Party Affiliation Up to Seven Points: Democrats 45%, Republicans 38%,” according to the latest Gallup Poll.

Donald J. Trump is King Midas in reverse: everything he touches turns to dross.

It’s sad for The RussiaGate Four, I suppose. All are said to have given long and honorable service to their country. But look how quickly that can erode. All it took was the obvious coordination of their non-answers, the way they were scripted, their affronts to the Senators and thus to the Constitution, their dodging, their smirking, their frat-boy winking at each other and at friendly Republican Senators, the look in their eyes that telegraphed to the world how guilty they knew they were, the way everyone knew they are not members of the conspiracy to conceal.

In an hour, all four went from “distinguished public servant” to “joined the coverup.”

All eyes now turn to Comey.

No one knows what he’s going to say. His lengthy “Statement for the Record,” released yesterday, is a bombshell. Still, the Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee appear hell-bent on doing everything they can to continue the coverup: we already know that “a furious and frustrated Trump” and his surrogates are prepared to attack Comey with everything they have. The smearing has started, with the right wing “Great America Alliance” creating TV ads calling Comey “just another DC insider only in it for himself.” It’s ridiculous, of course—no sane person believes it–but we’re reached a point where Republicans have divorced themselves from sanity and are left with nothing but emotional appeals to their low-information base.

So, I suspect we’re going to end up with the same Rorschach test we’ve had with Trump all along: the evangelical-tea party will claim he’s been exonerated, while the rest of us will adjudge that, at the very least, Trump tried to obstruct justice. (And let’s not forget that some of Trump’s surrogates may well end up being charged with the crime of colluding with Russia in our election.)

But Trump’s involvement will be he-said, she-said: Comey will say he “felt” pressured to drop the investigation of Flynn. Trump and his surrogates will say that Comey’s “feelings” are irrelevant, that what counts are facts, and that Trump never pressured Comey. And we, the American people, will be no closer to the truth.

There’s supposedly no way to indict a sitting president; the only Constitutional way to hold one to account is through Impeachment. Since Impeachment is a political process, it’s unlikely the House of Representatives will do anything, regardless of how strong the evidence is. The current crop of Republicans in the House is virtually 100% evangelical (which means they do not answer to the Constitution, but to a “higher cause” they think of as a God that has taken sides with the Republican Party) and/or 100% tea party, which means they are fueled by anger and resentment, but not by facts, reason or law. We Americans therefore have to consider the very real possibility that Trump will get off scott free, even though a majority of us believe that he committed serious crimes.

When and if Trump feels he’s home free—that he could “shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his voters wouldn’t care”—he will tell himself he’s invincible and invulnerable and “vindicated,” to use the silly word coined yesterday by his lawyer. Those close to him—Ryan, McConnell and the compromised Republican establishment—will be his echo chamber. “They tried to destroy you, Mr. President, but they couldn’t,” they will tell him. The right wing media will hammer the message home: “The Pelosi-Schumer Democrats threw every smear they could find at the president and failed.” Everybody on the right will become emboldened, and the further on the right they are, the bolder they’ll be. Throw in one big domestic terror attack, and America as we’ve known and loved her may be a thing of the past.

I really hope I’m wrong.

 


The RussiaGate Four circle the wagons, join coverup at Senate Intel hearing

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Back in 1973-74, “The Watergate Four” were the highest-ranking of the President’s men implicated in the crimes: John Mitchell, John Erlichman, Robert Mardian and Bob Haldeman. All four eventually were indicted, with three going to jail.

Yesterday, we saw the unmasking of the RussiaGate Four:

Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence

Rod Rosenstein, Acting Attorney-General

Adm. Mike Rogers, Director, National Security Agency

Andrew McCabe, Acting Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation

With their stonewalling, all four publicly joined the coverup. They now find their professional reputations in tatters—like those of almost everyone else associated with this president.

One by one, they took the exact same position: Refusing to answer questions. Punting. Evading. Hiding behind Jim Comey’s skirts.

Typical were exchanges between them and the Democratic Senator from New Mexico, Martin Heinrich, who wanted to know, simply and as a matter of fact, if the meetings between them and Trump actually occurred, as was widely reported

Heinrich did not ask for the content of the meetings, or what was said, or what wasn’t said. He did not ask if any of them felt pressured, or didn’t feel pressured. He simply wanted to know if the meetings happened.

He got no answers.

Coats: “I do not share that with the general public.”

The others agreed.

Why could they not even say whether or not the meetings occurred? We all know they did. The fact that they wouldn’t answer “speaks volumes,” an angry and frustrated Heinrich said.

Immediately afterwards, the Independent Senator from Maine, Angus King, took up Heinrich’s line of inquiry.

“Why wouldn’t you answer Sen. Heinrich?” he asked.

McCabe: “I don’t want to step into the Special Counsel’s lane.”

Sen. King: “I want a legal definition of why you can’t answer. Why does the Special Counsel take precedence over this Committee?”

McCabe declined to explain. Admiral Rogers did instead: “I feel it would be inappropriate to answer.”

King, visibly upset, grew heated.

“I don’t care about your feelings,” he said. “I want an answer. You took an oath to give this committee the truth and nothing but the truth so help you God.”

Admiral Rogers: “I stand by my previous comments.”

I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this since Watergate. Here are the top four intelligence chiefs of America, testifying under oath before a Senate committee, refusing to answer the simplest questions. Their basic excuse was that they didn’t want to interfere with Mueller’s investigation. But, as the Democratic Senators pointed out, Mueller has not asked anyone not to testify; as Sen. Warner said, “Mr. Mueller has not waived you off from answering these questions. So our questions deserve answers and the American public deserves answers.”

But still, the RussiaGate Four stood mute before the bar of history, and of the law, and stonewalled to protect their boss. For me, the most astonishing moment came when Sen. King once again asked the four why they refused to answer questions, or even provide a legal basis for their refusal to do so. Admiral Rogers finally spilled the beans: “Because of Executive Privilege, I have to talk to the general counsel in the White House.”

Wow. There it is, right out in the open. Trump’s people have said he is not going to invoke Executive Privilege, at least in Comey’s case. And he has not yet invoked it in the case of the RussiaGate Four. Yet here is the Director of the National Security Agency stating he has to clear his testimony with the lawyer for the person of interest under investigation, the man who may have broken multiple laws, the man who alone has the power to fire all four of them: the President of the United States.

Ball’s in your court, Mr. Comey.


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