Yesterday, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was forced to reach out to her supporters to reassure them that all the news they’ve been hearing about investigations of the candidate’s emails was nothing to worry about. As Politico reported, campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri fired off a 700-word missive that insisted that the latest bombshells to explode during this summer from hell for the former secretary of state was mere noise they should ignore. Her goal was to keep donors and activists repeating their main talking point: “there is absolutely no criminal inquiry into Hillary’s email or email server.” Clinton loyalists have been conditioned to think of all of her scandals as political attacks from the “vast right wing conspiracy” against the former first family. Yet clinging to the presumption of innocence afforded all those under investigation by the authorities isn’t the ideal stance for a presidential candidate. It may be difficult to believe that the Justice Department of a Democratic administration will ever treat her the way they would anyone else in this position and slam her and her aides with indictments. But at some point the Clinton camp is going to have to realize that denial is not going to be enough to keep her leaky ship afloat.
For now, the Clintonistas are sticking to their story that claims that her awful poll results about trust and the rise of an implausible rival has nothing to do with the email scandal. Yet the news this week that Senator Bernie Sanders has already overtaken Clinton in New Hampshire and is beginning to move within striking distance in Iowa should have shaken her. If that wasn’t bad enough, the fact that Gallup shows her net favorability at its lowest point since December 2007 makes it clear that her assumptions about an easy win are falling apart.
The standard explanation for the Sanders surge is that voters are bored and that Democrats want a semblance of a race. Even Sanders’ big crowds and increasingly good poll numbers can be explained away if you believe Democrats will choose Hillary once it’s clear that his candidacy is more than a symbolic protest. But the drip-drip-drip of scandal is eating away at her confidence.
It might have been possible for her campaign to browbeat the New York Times into backing down from its initial story last month about a criminal probe into the email scandal. But this week Clinton was forced to turn over her email server and a thumb drive to the FBI. Even worse, the Inspector General for the Intelligence Community told Congress that at least two of the four emails that were discovered on her wiped home server were classified as being “top secret,” making the possession and transmission of such information a potential crime.
It should be remembered that the explanation for the initial news about the investigation was that it was not Clinton but her aides who were being investigated. But now that we know that Huma Abedin, Clinton’s “shadow” and “keeper” is being put under the legal microscope and lawyering up, the problem can’t be treated as tangential to the candidate.
Though Palmieri told Clinton backers not to read too much into these stories, Clinton is in real peril. But her problems must be separated into two categories.
The first is legal jeopardy. It almost goes without saying that if this were anyone other than a Democratic icon that was being probed, indictments, and public humiliation would be a certainty, as figures like former CIA director David Petraeus could tell Clinton. There seems little doubt that Clinton violated rules and that she and her aides mishandled classified information because of her obsessive desire for secrecy. We can grant her a presumption of innocence and assume there was nothing incriminating in the emails that were deleted and/or wiped from her home server about Benghazi or even the conflicts of interest resulting from donations to the Clinton Family Foundation from those who dealt with the State Department. But the technical violations of security regulations are in and of themselves serious and would, at the very least, be enough to get an ordinary official’s career destroyed.
It is possible that career prosecutors in the Justice Department who are already thinking about their futures after President Obama leaves office might pursue these violations with a vigor they might not have had earlier in his administration. Nor should we doubt the integrity of the FBI personnel who will be working on this case. But it is also hard to believe that Attorney General Loretta Lynch or President Obama will permit the Department to torpedo Clinton with indictments in an election year.
But even if we take it as a given that the criminal probes will go nowhere as long as the Democrats are in power, the political fallout from this can’t be dismissed. It may be that most of those who are already Clinton supporters will simply put their fingers in their ears and ignore the awful news about their candidate no matter how bad it gets. But the erosion in her support is real. Sanders isn’t being embraced by more Democrats because most of them really want a socialist rather than to elect our first female president. Democrats may not listen to anything Republicans say about her, but even they know that virtually everything she said about her emails in her March press conference was a lie.
The more the public sees of Hillary and the more they hear about her behavior, the less they trust or like her. Democrats may think it’s her turn and assume that the enormous amounts of money she and her husband have amassed will, along with their ruthless campaign attack machine, demolish all opponents in her way. But as the news about the server, the security violations, and the government investigations show that she is her own worst enemy. And that is a problem that denials from her staff can’t fix.
Clinton Campaign Denial Strategy Not Working
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Has Mattis gone rogue?
At the core of the Qatar dispute is the question of Qatar’s support for extremism. While many Gulf states have histories of donating to or promoting radical Islamism, many have made real reforms. Saudi Arabia, for example, became much more serious about the need to curtail support for radical groups after the Kingdom started suffering blowback with terrorists targeting foreigners living in Saudi Arabia and senior Saudi officials. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, meanwhile, has cracked down not only on the Muslim Brotherhood but has also moved to sever the life-line Egypt often provided Hamas leaders in Gaza. Qatar, however, continues to set itself above the rest in its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and other moderate Arab states are rightly confused, if not frustrated, by the muddled U.S. response so far. After all, diplomats and official from these states say, both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States have both long beseeched them to take a no-nonsense approach to extremism and to operate in a coordinated fashion against regional threats.
When they finally do, the White House flip-flops and the State Department urges compromise and negotiation. Evenhandedness is not a virtue when one side is right and the other wrong. To negotiate with regard to the acceptance of terrorist groups is, however, a very dangerous precedent. If the United States re-engaged in Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda’s bases there or began operations in Syria to counter the Islamic State, Washington would greatly resent outside powers demanding that the United States compromise with either.
In the wake of the Qatar crisis, now in its second month, Turkey set up a military base in Qatar, much to the outrage of the states seeking to pressure Qatar into compliance. That base’s closure remains a key demand among moderate Arab countries.
Now word comes that the U.S. military is planning to conduct military exercises in Qatar with the Qatari and Turkish militaries. Daily Sabah, a once independent paper which was seized by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and transferred to his son-in-law, quoted Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah as saying, “Qatar, Turkey and the U.S. regularly conduct military drills in Qatar. In the near future, a joint drill will begin by the three countries.”
Like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has sought to temper President Trump’s impetuousness on a number of foreign policy issues. While this can often be a good thing when done behind-the-scenes and in the course of a normal policy process through the National Security Council, the Pentagon conducting its own private foreign policy creates confusion and risks antagonizing allies.
Mattis already displayed a tin ear for timing when, just days after Trump sided with the moderate Arab states and called Qatar out on its funding of extremists, the Pentagon announced a multi-billion dollar arms sale to Qatar. To conduct military exercises in Qatar with Turkey suggests Mattis is choosing sides and endorsing the positions of Qatar and Turkey. Perhaps he is motivated by the desire to maintain access to the al-Udeid Air Base. If this is the case, though, he confuses the Pentagon’s preference for the status quo with broader U.S. interests. To prioritize preservation of the al-Udeid Air Base over broader interests effectively tells Doha that it need not reform its behavior and that it can use the U.S. presence as a “get out of jail free card.”
Should Qatar’s announcement of military drills be true and should Mattis go ahead with the exercises, he also risks undercutting efforts to repair the damage which the Obama administration caused with America’s traditional allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Those governments remain furious with how they believe President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry threw them under the bus.
Mattis may be more refined than Tillerson in his efforts to blunt Trump’s excesses. To conduct his own foreign policy, however, is bad in any instance. To do so in such a counterproductive way and to again betray moderate states, which have only done what successive U.S. administrations have asked them to do, may risk damaging alliances beyond the point of no return.
Anger over health care clouds the left's judgment.
Nate Silver spoke for most of the liberal blogosphere when he objected to the mainstream media’s coverage of Senator John McCain’s speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
McCain appeared in the Capitol just days after he had a blood clot removed from above his left eye. Amid that process, doctors discovered that a particularly malignant form of brain cancer was responsible for the clot. Despite his condition and his recovery, McCain made his way back to Washington to vote on a motion to proceed with a debate over the process of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Following his critical vote, which allowed the motion to carry only after the vice president broke a tie, McCain gave a stirring address extolling the virtues of the republic and the Senate, while also castigating his congressional colleagues over their approach to the health-care reform process.
“Among younger and less traditional reporters on Twitter,” Silver began, “a lot of people are pointing out McCain’s inconsistency in scolding McConnell’s process but nevertheless voting for the motion to proceed.” Silver added, however, that more traditional reporting outlets in print and on television were far more awed by the remarks. They didn’t seem to recognize the inconsistency that so irritated the Twitter-verse.
“Longtime readers of FiveThirtyEight know that I have a lot of beefs with the establishment media,” Silver wrote. “Moments like these, where they elevate style over substance, are a big part of why.”
The self-selected, cloistered, like-thinking population of professional cynics on political Twitter is a bad target for professional statistical analysts to critique. Moreover, this criticism is a value judgment founded not in rationality but pique.
McCain’s speech on the floor of the Senate was worthy of all the praise it received if only because not every political observer has yet abandoned basic human decency (a frailty that political Twitter discourages). McCain is by any definition an American hero who spent his life serving his country. On what may be his last speech to the nation from the upper chamber of Congress, the man deserves a hearing. Silver and his colleagues did not give him that.
McCain’s speech was mostly dedicated to the dysfunction of the body in which he serves. “When I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body, I’m not so sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today,” he said. “Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.”
McCain implored his colleagues to ignore the professional rabble-rousers who have made a career of sowing internecine discord. “To hell with them,” he said. “They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.” If this speech started to sound like an appeal to bipartisanship, that became explicit in the following sentence.
The senator said that the virtue of the American system is found in those features that stifle one-party governance. “Top-down” “parliamentary maneuvers” that abandon the process of regular order to govern without bipartisan consent have poisoned and radicalized the country. And to repeat Democratic mistakes by shutting the other party out of the process of reforming one-sixth of the American economy would be a mistake.
“I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered,” McCain said. “I will not vote for this bill as it is today.”
Only ignorance of what a motion to proceed is or rage-induced blindness over the concept of repealing the Affordable Care Act could lead Silver or those for whom he speaks to make their claim. McCain’s vote to proceed with a debate is entirely consistent with regular order, to say nothing of his stated reverence for the process of deliberation in the Senate. His insistence that he would not support the health care bill as it exists, without major reforms (including a bipartisan buy-in and, likely, a return to the committee process), is also intellectually consistent.
I would add that it is clear that the activist left with whom Silver has lumped himself simply didn’t, or wouldn’t, hear the substance of McCain’s address. The senior senator from Arizona delivered a moving and eloquent statement of affection for the extraordinary history of the American republic. He painted a portrait of the United States as a fundamentally moral nation. He shared his love for the institutions that have made the American Constitution the world’s longest surviving governmental charter. And while he criticized American politics and the politicians who practice it, his reverence for the American system of government—to say nothing of the prosperity and security it has afforded the American people for nearly a quarter thousand years—was infectious.
The left dislikes that kind of sentimentality. They find it mawkish, at best; chauvinistic, at worst. But an American who has dedicated his life to his countrymen, often at great cost, is owed a little maudlin schmaltz, even if the popular Twitter clique does not share those sentiments. Not only was McCain’s vote consistent with his opinions, his speech was a moving tribute to the country he loves. It’s a shame, but a telling one, that the left didn’t hear any of it.
Donald Trump sees disloyalty even in his closest supporters.
In a performance that would have shocked sensibilities if they weren’t already flogged to the point of numbness, President Trump delivered a nostalgic, campaign-style stem-winder on Monday to a troop of boy scouts. The commander-in-chief meandered between crippling self-pity and gauche triumphalism; he moaned about his treatment by the “fake media,” praised himself for the scale of his Electoral College victory, and pondered aloud whether to dub the nation’s capital a “cesspool” or a “sewer.” Most illuminating in this manic display was an exposition on the virtues of fealty. “We could use some more loyalty; I will tell you that,” the president mused. These days, Trump seems fixated on treachery—among Republicans in Congress, among his Cabinet officials, and among his subordinates in the administration. His obsession may yet prove his undoing.
Donald Trump wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign. That has become obvious, and not just because Trump’s new communications director (whose portfolio seems to consist of inflating the president’s ego in friendly media venues and purging the administration of experienced political professionals) admitted as much. Trump told the New York Times that Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from any investigation into the campaign was “very unfair” to him personally. The president has criticized his “beleaguered” attorney general for taking a “weak” position on prosecuting Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, and investigating the Ukrainian government’s efforts to support the Clinton campaign.
This is all post hoc. Trump expressed no interest in re-litigating the charges against Hillary Clinton (which his former FBI director dismissed as beyond the scope of prosecution) in November of last year. The tenor of Trump’s agitation with his attorney general is proportional to the tempo of new revelations regarding the special counsel investigation into the president’s campaign, many of which were first revealed to the public cryptically in Trump’s own public pronouncements. As a self-described campaign operative, Sessions was obliged to recuse himself from any investigation into the campaign’s activities, and he did so in February. The move reportedly irritated Trump at the time, but his outrage has boiled over only as the probe has begun to ensnare his family.
There is no small amount of absurdity in the fact that Jeff Sessions is perhaps the most loyal of Trump’s associates in Washington. His every action has been designed to shield Trump from the consequences of his own recklessness. When Donald Trump was still regarded by the majority of GOP officeholders as a liability and a usurper, Sessions was the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse the rogue candidate. He was a stalwart campaign-trail surrogate and turned in a workmanlike performance at the Justice Department. When Trump fired his FBI director, Sessions refused to testify before Congress as to the nature of pertinent conversations between the president and his Cabinet. When privilege did not protect those conversations, Sessions insisted that he had simply forgotten many of the particulars.
Perhaps more than most, Sessions helped to make Donald Trump the president. As attorney general, the former senator has been effective in overseeing an increasingly restless Justice Department populated by people who chafe amid Trump’s regular attacks on them and their superiors. Even now, by declining to be goaded into resignation, Sessions is protecting the president. Trump seems to imagine that Session’s removal would clear the way for a new attorney general, who would be free to dismiss Robert Mueller and dissolve the special counsel’s office at will. But that wouldn’t happen. Trump would merely ignite a political firestorm and be faced with the task of finding another person to serve as a punching bag atop his least favorite agency.
This is all to say nothing of the fact that such a masochistic individual would have to be confirmed by Republicans in the Senate. In that process, lawmakers would surely seek assurances that the new attorney general would not touch the special counsel’s office. The Republican-led Congress is already conducting four of their own investigations into Trump’s campaign. The president’s extraordinary relationship with Russia has forced the GOP-led legislature to prepare a sanctions bill that robs the presidency of its freedom to administer those injunctions.
This all might seem like hostility, but it’s precisely the opposite; it’s guidance of a kind that a political novice with self-destructive impulses sorely needs. But this sort of protection, too, has led the president to wallow in melancholy and a sense of betrayal. “It’s very sad that Republicans do very little to protect their president,” he wrote of the incoming sanctions bill.
The kind of paranoia on display in Trump’s attacks on his most loyal partners in government is not unfamiliar. It is the kind that mistakes a desire for self-preservation—an instinct found in every successful political actor—as weakness and perfidy. Trump is fortunate enough to have surrounded himself with people devoted enough to him to know when his requests are inappropriate or when the president is better served by preserving the appearance of their independence. The fact that Trump finds even that kind of pantomimed insubordination intolerable is disturbing. This is a man who would sacrifice competence for sycophancy. In a less robust system of constitutional laws, they are the impulses of a leader who would corrupt the very government he manages. They still might.
In his attacks on Sessions—an early Trump supporter, a dedicated public servant, and a man with more goodwill among Republicans on Capitol Hill than the president may ever possess—Trump might have gone too far. Even Trump surrogates who are loath to criticize the president when he most deserves it are no longer being shy. Perhaps they know the bell will toll for them one day, or maybe they sense the danger of the moment. If past behavior is a guide, these defections won’t compel Trump to rethink his conduct. In fact, they might only reinforce in Trump the notion that he is surrounded by traitors.
I have written before about Steven Salaita. Once a tenured professor of English at Virginia Tech, he resigned from that position on the strength of an offer from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign to serve in the American Indian Studies program. But in the summer of 2014, UIUC rescinded the offer, mainly over of a series of reprehensible Salaita tweets.
Let the tone of one exemplify many others: Concerning three kidnapped Israeli teens—there was already reason to believe they had been killed—Salaita opined, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” As I noted at the time, reasonable people could disagree about whether the offer should have been rescinded.
Ultimately, UIC paid $875,000 to make the case go away. But it was troubling that some on the left chose not only to defend Salaita’s academic freedom—as one might defend the freedom of the Westboro Baptist Church to say vile things—but also that they made him into a kind of hero. To this day, he remains an elected member of the National Council of the American Studies Association and is still from time to time invited to give lectures at prestigious places about how he is not allowed to speak.
He has been occupying a chair in American Studies at the American University of Beirut. But that was not a tenured or tenure track position and, apparently, no one else will offer him a job. So he has decided to leave academia.
We will now be endlessly subjected to the claim that Salaita cannot find a job merely because, as he puts it, he has “disdain for settler colonialism.” The problem is, he says, that academia is a “bourgeois industry that reward self-importance and conformity.”
That is nonsense.
First, Steven Salaita’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, roughly that Zionism is the problem and that turning Israel into a pariah state is a prudent and moral way of dealing with it, may be foolish and morally obtuse. But it is hardly out of bounds in academia and well over a thousand academics have expressed public support for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Many of them occupy tenured positions at prestigious colleges and universities and, at least as far as I can tell, pay no professional cost for holding the very same set of views Salaita wants us to think is too hot for academia to handle.
Second, in the field Salaita inhabits, a pro-BDS position is not a nonconformist position. It is famously the official line of the American Studies Association. The Association for Asian American Studies, which preceded the ASA in passing a boycott resolution, passed the resolution unanimously with nary an extension. Over four years ago, I observed that not one scholar in that field had publicly dissented. As far as I know, that remains the case today. Salaita himself, in spite of a thin scholarly record, was offered a job at UIUC, the flagship of the Illinois system, presumably on the strength of his activism. There is no doubt in my mind that were it not for his disgusting tweets, he would be happily tenured at U of I spouting the same line he was spouting before he got into trouble.
Of course, people who take radical positions, even if those positions are popular in their subfields, may find themselves under closer scrutiny than people who don’t, even at colleges and universities that are supposed to value unconventional thinking. That’s unfortunate, and should be decried. Indeed, the U of I’s defense of its decision to rescind Salaita’s offer in terms of civility was unconvincing and rightly earned the disdain of academic freedom organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Association of University Professors. People do sometimes lose their jobs over this kind of thing. But Salaita’s views are not what undid him. He was undone by his own callousness and recklessness, neither of which has he found any reason to regret.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Has Washington given up on Syria?
Last week, I wrote about one of the troublesome byproducts of the Trump-Putin summit in Hamburg: a ceasefire in southwestern Syria that Israel worries will entrench Iranian control of that area bordering the Israeli Golan Heights. The day after my article came out, the Washington Post reported on another troubling decision that President Trump has made vis a vis Syria: Ending a CIA program that had provided arms and training to anti-Assad forces.
Gen. Tony Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, insisted that this decision was not a sop to Russia. But whether intended that way or not, that is the effect of this decision. The Post quoted a current U.S. official as saying: “This is a momentous decision. Putin won in Syria.” That seems indisputable. By stopping support for the anti-Assad forces, the U.S. is conceding that Bashar Assad—Russia and Iran’s client—will stay in power indefinitely.
The U.S. continues, of course, to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, the misleading name of the largely Kurdish YPG rebels that are besieging the Islamic State city of Raqqa. But the YPG has no interest in overthrowing Assad and no interest in governing Arab areas. Their objective is to set up a Kurdish state, Rojava, in northern Syria, and they have friendly relations both with Damascus and Tehran. There is no way that the Kurds can rule the majority of Syrian territory, which is populated by Arabs.
That will leave multiple factions to battle it out for control of most of Syria: the Iran-Assad-Russia axis (spearheaded by Hezbollah and other Iranian-created militias, and backed by Russian air power), the al-Nusra Front (the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which is rumored to get support from Gulf states), and the Islamic State, which may be down at the moment but hardly out. These factions have their differences, but they are united on certain core essentials. All are rabidly anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli, and all are violent jihadists, whether of the Shiite or Sunni persuasion.
It is not in America’s interest for any of these groups to control a substantial amount of Syrian territory. Yet President Trump has now made the puzzling decision to stop support for the only faction that could keep substantial swathes of Syria out of jihadist hands.
Granted, the moderates loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army have been losing ground for years. That is largely the fault of President Barack Obama, who unwisely refused to heed the advice of the officials in his administration who advocated a vigorous train-and-assist program for non-jihadist rebels. Such a program would have had a much greater chance of working in earlier years. America’s failure to help the moderates has led many fighters to defect to more radical groups, and many of our allies have been killed or expelled.
But it would not be impossible to reverse these trends, and trying would be worthwhile. There are, after all, scores of military-age Syrian men who have fled the country as refugees. If the U.S. had the will to act, they could be trained, armed, and organized into an effective military force on Jordanian or Turkish soil and then sent with U.S. advisers and U.S. air support to secure Syrian territory. We currently provide that kind of aid to the Kurds, but we have cut off the Arab fighters, who are willing to risk their lives to fight against one of the biggest war criminals in the world—Bashar Assad, who is responsible for upwards of 400,000 deaths.
This decision makes little sense on strategic or moral grounds. Instead of abandoning the moderates, we should be doing more to buttress them. Even if it’s too late to overthrow Assad, who is more secure than ever since Russia entered the conflict in 2015, it might at least be possible to limit him to a few major cities and the Alawite heartland and prevent jihadists from taking control of most of the Syrian countryside. If we stop trying, we are conceding much of Syria to the Iran-Russia camp indefinitely. That is not in our interest, nor in that of our regional allies. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, will be very happy.