There is Help

Have you or a loved one embarked on a futile bid for the Presidency? Has your campaign begun to attract the scorn of family, friends, pundits,and public alike?

When you’re ready to reach out for help, we invite you to contact the trained professionals at Timber Hollow. We understand the hopelessness, the shame, the self-loathing, and the miscellaneous lesser feelings that have swept you into the ranks of brazenly unqualified and woefully uninspiring contenders for the highest office in the land.

Call 1-800-DONTRUN for a free telephone assessment!

Selecting a treatment facility is never a decision to be made lightly. At Timber Hollow, you will be entrusting your care to our world-renowned faculty of psychiatrists, social workers, nurse-plumbers, asbestos removers, chemical weapons specialists, and lepidopterists. We will partner with you to develop a customized recovery plan that, depending on your medical history and presenting symptoms as well as who happens to be working the front desk at the time of your arrival, can include group and individual counseling, bovine therapy, high-voltage acupuncture, and filtered waterboarding. The Timber Hollow team will be with you every step of the way, united in our dedication to the task of puncturing your delusions and helping you set a new life course.

We are the oldest and most heavily fortified candidacy recovery center east of the Potomac. Our multimodal approach boasts an industry-leading success rate of up to 80 percent, if you count the patients living in medicated stability at our flagship long-term residential facility, Hubris House, along with those eventually deemed fit for re-release into the wild.

Here’s what current and former clients are saying:

Amid cutting-edge style and contemporary comfort, the board-certified professionals at Timber Hollow awakened me to the fact that my weak grasp of the issues and deficient understanding of the public interest was compounded by a total lack of voter appeal.”

I have been clean and candidacy-free for over 30 days.”

Their lifetime guarantee gives me the comfort of knowing I can return as needed in 2024, 2036, 2048, and beyond.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. How can I tell the difference between a credible campaign and Borderline Presidential Candidacy Disorder (BPCD)?

A. The diagnostic process, as we go about it at Timber Hollow, is complex, lengthy, nuanced, and idiotically expensive. That said, this simple self-test will help you assess your level of risk:

·      Have phone calls to your campaign manager been going unanswered?

·      Do infants recoil at the prospect of being photographed with you? 

·      Are you the mayor of New York City?

Q. I am inquiring for a friend who suffers from a multitude of complicating ailments. Would you be equipped to handle such a case?

A. It is not uncommon for us to field calls from individuals concerned about someone other than themselves. While it would be unethical for us to express firm conclusions without an on-site evaluation, we would be glad to advise you on techniques that have proven effective in convincing unwilling subjects to seek help—shrink-wrapping, for example. As to your other question, no worries: Dual diagnosis is our middle name. In addition to our unrivaled experience with Borderline Presidential Candidacy Disorder (BPCD), we know our way around such common co-occurring conditions as stench mouth and basal cell megalomania.

Q. Can I use leftover campaign contributions for my treatment?

A. We will work with your lawyer and accountant to come up with a payment plan.

Q. What has science concluded about the underlying causes of this insidious condition?

A. A range of influences may be involved (Pumpernickel, Weissmuller, Layabout, 2006). Childhood trauma can play a part (Wolfbein, Shakeshack, Von Dragonspiel, 2011). Life stressors sometimes enter the picture (Johnson, Johnson & Johnson, 2002). Biological factors may be implicated (Euripides, Eumenides et al., 434 B.C.).

Q. Can we hold out any hope for a cure?

A. Deep in the laboratories of the Timber Hollow Institute, our researchers are developing a vaccine that should be ready for testing by the end of the century.

Originally published in The American Prospect.

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SCOTUS SCREWUS!

The Supreme Court does not “serve one party or one interest.” Thus spoke Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. at the outset of the 2018-19 term. This week, in one of the final decisions of the term, Roberts put the Court’s seal of approval on the kind of computer-assisted gerrymandering used by the Republican Party to win five out of eight Wisconsin seats in the U.S. House of Representatives with the backing of about 47 percent of the state’s electorate.

Roberts wasn’t defending such practices as right or fair, he insisted; he was merely declaring his inability to find a rationale for the federal judiciary to get involved. Since the Founders had not believed in totally unfettered democracy, state legislatures can undermine democracy as much as they please — there you have the gist of Roberts’ opinion.

Dissenting Justice Elaine Kagan summed it up like so: “In the face of grievous harm to democratic governance and flagrant infringements on individuals’ rights — in the face of escalating partisan manipulation whose compatibility with this nation’s values and law no one defends — the majority declines to provide any remedy. For the first time in this nation’s history, the majority declares that it can do nothing about an acknowledged constitutional violation because it has searched high and low and cannot find a workable legal standard to apply.”

Alas, there were precedents. This is the same body that equates money with speech and now requires proof of an explicit written or spoken agreement to trade Favor A for Payment B in order to find a public official guilty of bribery or corruption. And let us not forget the 1996 case in which the Court ruled that it was perfectly OK for a state to deny a ballot line to a Third Party choosing to endorse a major-party candidate. “The State’s strong interest in the stability of its political systems… does permit the State to enact reasonable election regulations that may, in practice, favor the traditional two party system,” wrote Justice William Rehnquist in that case.

The founders, whose motives are often hailed as paramount by today’s conservative justices, hoped to steer America clear of political parties entirely. Now we have the Court validating laws that not only favor one party over another but maintain a two-party lock on most U.S. elections.

That 1996 decision, by the way, kept the Working Families Party from setting up shop in Florida and endorsing Al Gore in 2000, which likely would have added – let us say — at least another 538 votes to his statewide tally. In other words, the Court with its earlier ruling had made the election close enough that it could then hand the presidency to George W. Bush by curtailing the recount that was threatening to take it away from him.

Elizabeth Warren Wants Us to Look Under the Hood

OK pundits, you can stop speculating about which Democratic candidate will be the first to go after Joe Biden. Elizabeth Warren wins that race. She’s been going after him since the mid-1990s.

Biden was then a U.S. Senator and a champion of “bankruptcy reform,” by which he and many of his peers meant legislation making it harder for people to go bankrupt or purge their debts. (This and other good Warren stories are well told by Emily Bazelon in the current New York Times Magazine.) Filings for bankruptcy had been on the rise, and Congress seemed willing to blame the filers: they had spent beyond their means (too much “Tommy, Ralph, Gucci and Prada,” as Newsweek put it), knowing they could take advantage of a permissive legal system – that was the theory that prevailed in the halls of power.

Warren was a law professor who had studied the data and concluded otherwise, tracing 90 percent of consumer bankruptcies to a job loss, a medical problem, a divorce or the death of a spouse. And the economic consequences of such events, she noted, tended to hit women harder than men. In a 2001 journal article, Warren criticized feminist organizations for the “limited scope” of their policy concerns, pointing to consumer debt and bankruptcy rules as neglected “women’s issues.” The National Organization for Women (NOW), as it happened, had singled Biden out for praise as a sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act. Warren suggested that NOW would be equally justified in censuring Biden for pushing bankruptcy reform. “Why isn’t Senator Biden in trouble with grass-roots women’s groups all over the country, and with the millions of women whose lives will be directly affected by the legislation he sponsors?” she asked.

While the government was tightening the screws on consumers, it was loosening the rules for lenders. A series of deregulatory measures and court decisions had wiped out the effectiveness of the state usury laws that once restrained interest rates across the country. Banks were beginning to stick their customers with unreadable and unnegotiable contracts containing “gotcha” fees that made debt costlier and harder to escape than it appeared. The politicians of Biden’s state, Delaware, had played a large role in letting this happen, and they had collected heaps of money from Delaware banks and financial institutions while they were about it.

Warren wondered aloud if there might be a connection between that money and the drive for bankruptcy reform. Biden did not take kindly to the inference. “I am so sick of this self-righteous sheen put on anybody who wants to tighten up bankruptcy,” he commented during one of the Senate hearings with Warren as a witness.

At a subsequent hearing (shortly before final passage of the bill in 2005), Biden acknowledged the validity of some of Warren’s testimony, but added that she really ought to be complaining about credit-card interest rates, not about bankruptcy reform. Warren replied that she would gladly complain about both; since Biden was not proposing to cap interest rates, however, she didn’t think it was right for him to “take away the last shred of protection from these families.”

At the time, Warren had no thought of running for the Senate, no less the Presidency. But she had already begun to pick a fight that she continues to wage on the 2020 campaign trail. It’s the fight against a three-decades-long process of rewriting the rules of the U.S. economy to the benefit of corporations, banks and the ultra-wealthy, and it pits her against a long line of Democrats who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and awareness, have helped that process along.

Warren started out as a Republican, and she is eager to tell anyone who asks (or doesn’t, like Bazelon) that her favorite president is Teddy Roosevelt. The Teddy she has in mind is the trust-buster, who fought monopoly not only for stifling competition and consumer choice — the only objections recognized by today’s Supreme Court — but as a threat to democracy. “If you go back and read his stuff,” Warren told Bazelon, “it’s not only about the economic dominance; it’s the political influence.”

She admits to a fondness for Teddy’s cousin Franklin as well. But while other New Deal fans focus on the safety net and spending programs, Warren emphasizes FDR’s efforts to regauge the rules of the economy and, as Bazelon writes, “the significance of the legislation (like the Glass-Steagall Act) that Democrats passed to rein in bankers and lenders and the agencies (the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) that they put in place to enforce those limits. Warren credits this new regulatory regime, along with labor unions, with producing a golden era for [white male] workers over the next four and a half decades” and, alongside the many enduring injustices of the postwar era, “the greatest middle class the world had ever known.”

Like Warren, most of the Democrats running for President see rising inequality as a problem. What sets Warren apart is her preoccupation with the underlying rules of the economy and her explicit rejection of the Clinton (and perhaps the Biden) theory that Democrats can solve the problem by throwing programs at it. “It’s structural change that interests me,” Warren told Bazelon. “And when I say structural, the point is to say if you get the structures right, then the markets start to work to produce value across the board, not just sucking it all up to the top.”

That is Warren’s rationale for proposing, along with her impressive plans for things like student-debt forgiveness and a wealth tax, legal action to break up the tech giants, legislation to reestablish the Glass-Steagall wall between basic banking and Wall Street speculation, and a sweeping anticorruption bill that would close the revolving door between Congress and the world of corporate lobbying.

These are not easy sells. Warren worries that she will have trouble getting voters to open the hood and ponder the components of the economic-justice engine. “It’s like teaching class,” she says. “’‘Is everybody in here getting this?’ And that’s what I just struggle with all the time. How do I get better at this? How do I do more of this in a way that lets people see it, hear it and say, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

It’s a message that may or may not help Warren win the Presidency. But she already has people listening. That’s one of the best things to be said for the contest up to now.

On Beyond Mueller. Step 4: Where do we go from here?

Time-travel with me to a day when Donald Trump is gone and books about his downfall crowd the bestseller list. How will the spring of 2019 be remembered? How will chroniclers of the resistance evaluate our response to the murky end of the Mueller investigation?

Not our finest hour, they could say. After over-investing in the search for a Trump-Russia conspiracy to subvert the 2016 election, we lost heart and focus when the inquiry came up short – that’s a likely line of criticism. But posterity will cut us some slack, I suspect, if it can add that we did not take long to come out of our post-Mueller funk and get back on task.

We could start by cleansing our thoughts, for now, of the criminal scenario the Special Prosecutor’s office was created to investigate. That would free up brain space to reflect on what made Trump and his Presidency abhorrent before the Russia business and the Mueller probe claimed so much of our attention. In the first place, there was the character and record of the man – his self-absorption, lying, thieving, sexual and economic predation, racism, immigrant-ism and unapologetic longing for the powers of an autocrat. Then came his decision, greatly magnifying the threat posed by Trump in his own right, to embrace the plutocratic agenda of the Republican Party and its moneyed overlords, in exchange for their agreement to back his hate-mongering, demagoguery and use of public office for self-enrichment.

That shady bargain with Republicans, not Russians, was the core conspiracy. And it rested on a foundation of corruption – plain old money corruption — that was and remains an area of tremendous vulnerability for Trump & Co., and thus of tremendous opportunity for those struggling to bring down his regime and set our country on a better path.

The opportunity is hard to grasp at present. Especially hard, it seems, for Democrats. They had hitched their wagon to the Mueller probe and the promise of evidence that would set the wheels of justice in motion and stir the conscience of Americans across the political spectrum, some Republican lawmakers included. Instead, the Republicans seem to be as united and craven as ever, while Democrats are more divided, less confident, and sliding back into politics as usual. With voter surveys indicating limited enthusiasm for a move toward impeachment, influential voices in the paarty are counseling Democratic office-holders and candidates to lay off the confrontation, put on a smiley face and stick to an upbeat, policy-centric message about health care and other “kitchen table” issues on which their side stands strong in the polls. Let’s just talk about “what we plan to do for the country,” says one of those instructors, Massachusetts Congressman (and nominal presidential candidate) Seth Moulton.

It’s a strategy that makes perfect sense as a way for centrist Democrats like Moulton to reassert control over the party and stay on the right side of their wealthy benefactors. A presidential candidate talking as they propose would stand a fair chance of winning the White House in 2020, as Hillary Clinton nearly did in 2016, after all. It’s a guaranteed loser of a message, however, if the goal is, say, economic justice or true democracy or a healthy future for our country and the planet. And it would be sure to sow more of the massive cynicism and distrust that got us into our current political fix.

I don’t claim endless powers as an oracle. My picture goes fuzzy when I try to glimpse the timing, means or final triggering events of Trump’s removal from office. But I’m getting strong signals about a decision that needs to be made in the here and now in order to get us to that result as swiftly and as decisively as possible. We – the combined forces of the opposition – should resolve to keep pounding away at the corruption and criminality at the heart of this administration.

Elected by fraud and fluke, Donald Trump has given us the crookedest presidency in our national memory, if not our history. It was rotten from the start. Two and a half years in, its rottenness is more obvious than ever. That is so, let us not forget, partly thanks to the work of the Mueller team, for in the course of not finding exactly what they were looking for they unearthed a heap of other crimes and intimations of crime. That evidentiary haul – related to Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Deutschebank, and on and on – helped the Democrats retake the House of Representatives last year. Although many voters don’t seem to greatly care, it’s part of why Trump remains so widely reviled, despite low unemployment and inflation numbers of the kind that are supposed to correlate with high presidential approval.

Yes, the Dems may be stymied in their efforts to summon the witnesses of their dreams. No, Robert Mueller may never be willing to say aloud much more than he has put down in his report. But there is plenty more for Congress – and journalists and prosecutors – to investigate; and they can proceed with confidence that more dirt will surface. Never has anyone with so much to hide commanded so much attention; that is a formula guaranteed to keep the flow of ugly information coming. By November 2020, Trump’s crimes could be his undoing if he’s still in the White House and on the ballot; those crimes could also be an impossible burden for the Republican Party to bear. It’s a wildly unpredictable situation, to be sure. But Trump himself clearly doesn’t think he’s home free, and no one else should think that, either.

So the House can and must carry on, in a no-nonsense way, with the business of oversight and investigation, and Democrats would probably do well to accept the political risk of announcing an impeachment inquiry if that’s what it takes to get hold of the right witnesses and materials and get the public to pay attention.

Every bit as important, they – their presidential candidates and others – should keep talking about corruption, not as an alternative to the airing of policy ideas but in the same breath. As in: We will make health care universal and rein in the power of the insurance companies and big pharma. Here’s our Green new Deal, and here’s our plan to check the influence of the fossil fuel industry. Corruption is what makes it chronically impossible for this Administration and Congress to deal with any of the issues that matter most to most Americans. Voters know it, and they need to hear Democrats say it. That’s the story that has to be told, loudly, convincingly and repeatedly.

It is a powerful story, and a potentially unifying one. The Democratic Party likes to call itself a big tent. There is a case to be made for letting it be a tent big enough tent to accommodate people on both sides of Medicare for All, a wealth tax, or even impeachment. But as Democrats have demonstrated through their surprisingly serious and sweeping package of clean-government reforms, HR1 (approved by the House in its first big symbolic act of 2019), they can come together – moderates and progressives, the party establishment and its activist base – on the need for strong anti-corruption measures in order to lay the foundation for a country worthy of being called a democracy and a government capable of advancing the common good. They had better.

Herblock Now and Forever

The Washington Post is a big deal of a newspaper in my life. It’s the one I used to work for. I had the great fortune to be there in the glory days after Watergate and “All the President’s Men.” A hard-hitting investigative reporter I was not: profiles, feature stories and reviews were more my métier. But even so, my heart skipped a beat when I entered that newsroom. A lot of good energy. A lot of fine people.

Last week I paid a visit to the Library of Congress to check out a gallery semi-permanently dedicated to one of the finest of Washington Post people, Herbert L. Block. The cartoons of Herblock (as he signed them) reminded me of his genial presence and era-straddling genius, and of the Post’s brave stands against McCarthy and Nixon and its forthright defense of civil liberties, racial justice and the rule of law.

That exhibit also stirred a longing for more Herblockian courage and breadth of vision in America’s current hour of trial.

The news media has been tough on Donald Trump personally. Looking back at the past week’s worth of Washington Posts, for example, I see accounts of Trump’s failed effort to have the former White House counsel clear him of obstruction of justice; of the President’s latest acts of cosying-up to Vladimir Putin; and of his newly revealed tax data and how it squares with his claims of business genius.

That coverage coexists, however, with a great deal of clickbait (about the Royal baby, the New Jersey “bear brawl,” and Alyssa Milano’s campaign for a “sex strike” etc. etc.), far too many stories that treat Trump and his henchpeople with normalizing respect, and heaps of punditry. Will Candidate So-and-so be able to raise enough money to be conmpetitive? Can the Bernie Sanders campaign survive Joe Biden’s entry into the race? Will the “booming” economy sweep Trump to reelection? Every story aims to predict the future. Every reporter wants to be a handiapper.

We have a hate-mongering lunatic as President. He has deputized a gang of kleptocrats and corporate stooges to run key agencies of the United States government, undermining their already suspect ability to act in the public interest. He makes no secret of his desire to expand the powers of his office toward autocracy, and has taken dangerous steps in that direction. He has bent an entire political party to his will. Trump & Co. are engaged in a daily assault on democracy, social and economic justice, and freedom of the press.

That is the huge story of our time, but you wouldn’t always know it from the newspapers. Herblock would be disappointed in us.

On Beyond Mueller. Step 3: Appreciate what we’ve got

The Special Prosecutor’s work is done, and we have not seen any of these developments:

  • Charges filed against Donald Trump or a member of his family
  • Official finding of a Trump-Russia conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 elections
  • Official finding of obstruction of justice
  • Bipartisan outrage in Congress
  • Drive toward presidential impeachment or removal by other means

It is easy to dwell on what might have been. It is harder, in the moment, to appreciate the good results of this investigation.

Good result No. 1: It happened. It was real. Dodging many bullets, Mueller and his team kept at it for nearly two years. In that time, as David Cole points out in The New York Review of Books, they produced more than 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants and 280 orders for electronic evidence; interviewed roughly 500 witnesses; had 80 people testify before grand juries; and secured indictments, convictions or guilty pleas from 34 individuals and three businesses.

They learned a lot, and they told us a lot. They might not have. Failing to find evidence of a chargeable conspiracy with Russia, Mueller could have gone with the Trump/Barr/Republican theory of the case, in which the absence of a clearly identified “underlying crime” renders all else moot. Under that reading of his mandate, the Special Prosecutor’s office could have handed us a short statement of legal findings. Instead, we got a 448-page report documenting, among other things, two large-scale Russian plots to mess with an American election; many unsavory and/or ill-explained dealings between Trumpland and Putinland; a tacit if not explicit agreement by the two camps to help each other out; many new disclosures or inklings of criminality on the part of Trump entities and associates; and a litany of presidential efforts to halt or impede the search for wrongdoing. (See my handy guide to what’s new or confirmed and important in the Mueller report.)

In the end, Mueller declined to offer a conclusion on the matter of obstruction. Into that interpretive void leaped a gleeful Attorney General William Barr with his summary judgment of no collusion, no nothing, case closed. Meanwhile, Barr contrived to keep the facts from speaking for themselves until his cover story had had a chance to sink in.

The country would surely be better off if Mueller, after a long recitation of obstructive acts, had plainly described them as indictable but for the Justice Department’s policy against indicting Presidents. The report makes that point clear to anyone not predetermined to reject it, however, and the legal niceties cited by Mueller to explain his reticence flow out of a general posture of extreme caution that, however maddening to a nonlawyer (and to some lawyers), was probably crucial to his ability to hang in there as long as he did without being fired or squelched – another achievement we can be thankful for.

The what-ifs abound. Imagine everything in the Mueller report coming to us as fresh news in one mighty convulsion, without all the advance tremors. Could Trump & Co. have kept their congressional apologists in line? Would anyone outside the inner gang be buying their cries to move on – or to investigate the investigators?

Maybe not, but the mini-revelations took their own toll on the Administration. Pollsters have noted a peculiar and persistent fact about President Trump’s approval ratings: they go down just about whenever public attention focuses on the words and deeds of Donald Trump and his henchmen. In the months leading up to the 2018 elections, Americans heard much about Paul Manafort’s $10,000 ostrich coat, Roger Stone’s self-advertised role as a pipeline to Wikileaks, and Michael Cohen’s plea deal implicating the President as a co-conspirator. That kind of media coverage probably helps explain why “the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” ranked just 1 percentage point behind the economy as the electorate’s top concern, according to a pre-election poll by NBC and The Wall Street Journal.

Without all the early glimpses of Mueller findings, who can say if the Democrats would have retaken the House of Representatives last year. The counter-factuals are easy to conjure up, but hard to play out.

Clouds of uncertainty still hang over any attempt at a Mueller post-mortem. One of the biggest and murkiest clouds involves 12 as-yet-unrevealed criminal inquiries that Mueller’s office handed off to other law enforcement bodies. Are those bodies working those cases? Will anything come of them? When? What if any steps did Mueller’s people take to prevent the Administration from scuttling them or keeping them under wraps until the country has stopped caring?

A full and final assessment of the Special Prosecutor’s service to the country will depend on answers to such questions. His service is already, unquestionably, large.

A handy summary of the Mueller report

It was a fine idea in principle.  Unfortunately, the Attorney General assigned the task to someone lacking in principle: himself.

Let us correct his error. Here’s my 8-page guide to the 448-page original – an item-by-item account of what’s new (or confirmed) and important. (PDF version available here.)

Russian hacking of Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton emails
This was the first of two massive efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections. Units of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU) hacked multiple Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton campaign computers and email accounts, stealing hundreds of thousands of documents and releasing them through the GRU’s own outlets, “DCLeaks” and “Guccifer 2.0,” and later through WikiLeaks. MR Vol 1, p. 4.

Russia’s disinformation campaign                  
The second effort was spearheaded by Russia’s Internet Research Agency. The IRA had 100 people working on the election, with separate teams devoted to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. IRA-invented social media entities (such as “Miners for Trump”) organized dozens of rallies. “The IRA’s ‘United Muslims of America’ Facebook group had over 300,000 followers, the ‘Don’t Shoot Us’ Facebook group had over 250,000 followers, the ‘Being Patriotic’ Facebook group had over 200,000 followers, and the ‘Secured Borders’ Facebook group had over 130,000 followers.” What Jared Kushner recently dismissed as just “a few Facebook ads” was a disinformation campaign that reached between 29 and 126 million people altogether.

“Multiple IRA-controlled Facebook groups and Instagram accounts had hundreds of thousands of U.S. participants. IRA-controlled Twitter accounts separately had tens of thousands of followers, including multiple U.S. political figures who retweeted IRA-created content. In November 2017, a Facebook representative testified that Facebook had identified 470 IRA-controlled Facebook accounts that collectively made 80,000 posts between January 2015 and August 2017. Facebook estimated the IRA reached as many as 126 million persons through its Facebook accounts. In January 2018, Twitter announced that it had identified 3,814 IRA-controlled Twitter accounts and notified approximately 1.4 million people Twitter believed may have been in contact with an IRA-controlled account.” MR Vol 1, p. 14-15.

Goal of Russia’s interference
By February 2016, the IRA was seeking to promote Donald Trump and trash Hillary Clinton. “The release of the documents was designed and timed to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and undermine the Clinton Campaign.” MR Vol 1, p. 36.

The Trump campaign welcomed Russian help and expected to benefit
Trump and his team were broadly aware of Russia’s efforts, welcomed them, built a public relations strategy based on them – and repeatedly denied their existence. “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” (In other words, the Trump campaign “knew there was a crime” and ‘ran toward that crime,’ as Max Bergman of the Moscow Project put it.) MR Vol 1, p. 1.

The number of Trump-Russia contacts
The Mueller report documents more than 30 additional contacts during the campaign and transition periods, bringing the total to at least 140. These include contacts with intermediaries and Wikileaks on the part of Donald Trump and 18 associates. New York Times analysis.

Why there were no conspiracy charges related to election interference
Here’s how Susan Hennessey and Quinta Jurecic of Lawfare explain it: “The Mueller report describes, in excruciating detail and with relatively few redactions, a candidate and a campaign aware of the existence of a plot by a hostile foreign government to criminally interfere in the U.S. election for the purpose of supporting that candidate’s side. It describes a candidate and a campaign who welcomed the efforts and delighted in the assistance. It describes a candidate and a campaign who brazenly and serially lied to the American people about the existence of the foreign conspiracy and their contacts with it. And yet, it does not find evidence to support a charge of criminal conspiracy, which requires not just a shared purpose but a meeting of the minds.”

Why Josef Mifsud reached out to George Papadopoulos
Mifsud is the Malta-born “Professor” who in May 2016 told George Papadopoulos that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. According to Papadopoulos, it was only after he brought up his work for Trump that Mifsud took an interest in him. MR Vol 1, p. 83.

Mifsud’s extensive Russian intelligence ties
According to the Mueller report, Mifsud “maintained various Russian contacts while living in London” including “a one-time employee of the IRA” and “an employee of the Russian Ministry of Defense.” MR Vol 1, p. 83.

Papadopoulos informing Trump higher-ups about Russian “dirt”
We know he shared this information with two foreign diplomats, and it is hard to imagine why he would have been more discreet with the Trump campaign. Nevertheless, both National campaign co-chair Sam Clovis and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller said they could “not recall” any such disclosure, and Papadopoulos himself waffled on this point. MR Vol 1, p. 93.

Roger Stone’s outreach to WikiLeaks
Stone, a long-time Republican “dirty trickster” whose official role in the Trump campaign ended in August 2015, continued to freelance on Trump’s behalf, made it his business to connect with WikiLeaks, and claimed to have succeeded. Although it is unclear how much he learned beyond scuttlebutt, Stone appears to have had a hand in getting Donald Trump fired up about the Hillary Clinton emails.

Mueller’s office evidently learned a good deal more about the Trump-Stone-WikiLeaks dealings. That topic may be explored in the redacted portions of pages 51-59 of the report’s first volume. The unredacted bits have Trump, Cohen, Rick Gates, and Paul Manafort discussing WikiLeaks.

Stone was later key to the appointment of his friend Paul Manafort to head the Trump Campaign’s RNC operation and subsequently to serve as campaign manager. Their noncooperation with the Mueller investigation makes it hard to determine what role Stone and Manafort may have played, separately and/or jointly, in encouraging Russia’s election interference. MR Vol 1, p. 51-59.

Trump’s fixation on finding Hillary Clinton’s emails
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Trump claimed to have been joking when he spoke those words at a press conference on July 27, 2016. But he proceeded to press Michael Flynn to go after the supposedly missing emails. Flynn recalled that Trump “made this request repeatedly.” According to the Mueller report, “The Trump Campaign showed interest in WikiLeaks’s releases throughout the summer and fall of 2016… Gates recalled candidate Trump being generally frustrated that the Clinton emails had not been found.” MR Vol 1, pp. 51 and 54 etc.

The Russians may also have been listening
The report points out that “within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement, GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office.” MR Vol 1, p. 49.

Further efforts of Trump backers to get the emails
Flynn contacted Republican operatives Peter Smith and Barbara Ledeen, who both reached out to people they believed (falsely, it seems) to be Russian hackers. As Ryan Goodman of JustSecurity has noted, “Ledeen provided updates to Flynn throughout the summer of 2016. In an email to Smith, Ledeen wrote, ‘The person I described to you would be happy to talk with you either in person or over the phone. The person can get the emails which 1. Were classified and 2. Were purloined by our enemies.’ Ledeen also wrote that she thought the Clinton email server was ‘in all likelihood’ already breached and that the Chinese, Russian and Iranian intelligence servers could reassemble the email content. Smith rejected Ledeen’s proposal, but proceeded with his [own] initiative for which he ‘raised tens of thousands of dollars.’ He told others involved in that effort including the funders “that he was in contact with hackers who with ‘ties and affiliations to Russia’ who had access to the emails, and that his efforts were coordinated with the Trump Campaign.” Smith also claimed to have knowledge of WikiLeaks’ internal decision-making in his email communications with others apprised of his efforts. But the Special Counsel’s office was unable to find any evidence that campaign staffers “initiated or directed” these efforts. MR Vol 1, p. 62.

Ledeen, for her part, obtained a trove of emails that (when analyzed at Erik Prince’s expense and by her request) proved to be phony. MR Vol 1, p. 64.

Trump and the Trump campaign appeared to have advance knowledge of WikiLeaks releases
In the late summer of 2016, “Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming.” MR Vol 1, p. 54.

Michael Cohen did not travel to Prague
This was an apparent mistake in the Steele Dossier, which reported that a phone belonging to Cohen made contact with a cell tower near Prague, Czechoslovakia, during a period when (we now know) Russia had a team of hackers working there. MR Vol 1, p. 139.

Julian Assange was out to get Hillary Clinton
He told WikiLeaks associates that she was “a bright, well connected, sadistic sociopath.” MR Vol 1, p. 44.

The Trump campaign had a communications plan ready for the release of the Clinton emails
The Trump campaign became convinced that WikiLeaks would release the emails, and by late summer 2016 had developed a press and messaging strategy for that eventuality. MR Vol 1, p. 44.

Trump Tower meeting was apparently unrelated to emails or election fraud
While Donald Trump Jr. and others clearly hoped for more, the dirt offered to them by the Russian lawyer and Kremlin agent Natalia Veselnitskaya consisted of allegations about the American businessmen Bill Browder and the Ziff brothers. She claimed they had committed financial crimes in Russia and contributed some of the proceeds to the Democratic National Committee or the Hillary Clinton campaign. Veselnitskaya was seeking promises of sanctions relief in return, but the Trump side viewed her information as old news and not useful. MR Vol 1, p. 117.

No proof that Donald Trump Sr. knew about the Trump Tower meeting in advance
Mueller found “no documentary evidence” of that. MR Vol 1, p. 114.

Donald Sr. directed Donald Jr. to conceal the purpose of the meeting
Confirming previous news accounts, Mueller found that the President dictated a statement in which his son made the meeting out to be about adoption policy. The effect was to avoid mention of the two main topics of discussion – sanctions relief and the supposed “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. To cover himself, Don Jr. added the word “primarily.” MR Vol 2, p. 102.

Why Donald Jr. was not charged with a campaign finance violation
Despite Don Jr’s “If it’s what you say it is, I love it” email, Mueller and his office decided not to bring charges. They cited two reasons: first, he might not have realized he was doing something illegal; second, it would be hard to prove the value of the actual dirt in question. MR Vol 1, p. 186.

Paul Manafort’s keen interest in sending polling data to Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs
Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, initially to manage the Republican National Convention. In April or early May, he instructed his deputy Rick Gates to draw up regular campaign update memos, including internal polling data, for Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime Manafort associate described by the FBI as a Russian intelligence operative. Gates understood that Kilimnik would pass the information along to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with whom Manafort had a financial dispute. MR Vol 1, p. 129 etc.

Why did Manafort want Kilimnik to have this information?
Manafort was in desperate financial straits, and Deripaska had sued him for recovery of a roughly $18 million investment in the bungled or fraudulent Black Sea Cable deal. Gates believed Manafort sent polling data to Kilmnik partly in order to win back Deripaska’s favor and convince him not to move forward with his lawsuit. MR Vol 1, pp. 131 and 135.

What was in the polling data?
Pollster Tony Fabrizio, brought into the Trump campaign by Manafort, found evidence of surprising strength in a set of midwestern battleground states. At a meeting in New York City (see below), Manafort specifically mentioned Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. MR Vol 1, p. 130.

The Cigar Bar meeting
On August 2, 2016, Manafort and Gates met with Kilmnik at the Grand Havana Room on Fifth Avenue, a members-only club located in a Fifth Avenue building owned by the Kushner family. Kilimnik had been talking in Moscow to the ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. He wanted Manafort to support a Ukrainian “peace plan” that would certify Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. They also discussed the Trump campaign and its battleground-state strategy. Manafort did not want any outsiders to know about this meeting. Kilimnik used coded language to request the meeting, and he and Gates left separately. MR Vol 1, p. 130.

What (if anything) was the polling data used for?
We don’t know. The data was conveyed to Kilimnik via WhatsApp and deleted on a daily basis. The Special Prosecutor’s office failed to uncover any specific evidence of Manafort’s interest in Russian election interference and drew no conclusion about what Kilimnik, Deripaska, or Russia did with the information. Those failures are largely due, however, to what the Mueller report describes as “questions about Manafort’s credibility and our limited ability to gather evidence on what happened to the polling data after it was sent to Kilimnik…” MR Vol 1, p. 131.

According to independent research, the IRA’s Facebook ads were heavily concentrated in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two of the states narrowly won by Trump. In these and other states, we know that much of the Russian messaging was designed either to bring out low-income white voters, or to discourage African-American voters.

After leaving the campaign in mid-August 2016, Manafort remained in touch with Trump, Bannon, Kushner and Gates, and with Kilimnik and his Russian and Ukrainian associates. MR Vol 1, p. 141. Shortly before election day, according to Politico, Manafort gave Trump “pointers on how to handle the Clinton email news and urging him to make a play in Michigan.”

In other words, Manafort may have fed information to Russian intermediaries in the expectation that it would be used to bolster Trump’s chances of winning the election, and he may have helped the Trump campaign take advantage of Russia’s assistance in the closing days of the campaign. The Special Prosecutor could not rule any of this out. In that sense, the Mueller report does not exonerate Trump and Co. on the cooperation/conspiracy/collusion question, contrary to the claims made by the White House and Attorney General William Barr.

Putin’s “all hands” meeting with major oligarchs
Several weeks after Donald Trump’s surprise victory, Vladimir Putin convened what one participant described as an “all-hands” meeting of top Russian businessmen. Putin wanted them to help cultivate a good relationship with the Trump transition team and to press the issue of sanctions relief. One of these men, Peter Aven of Alfa Bank, gave an account of the meeting to Mueller’s team. Aven and Putin also had a one-on-one meeting, where Putin, according to Aven, urged him to take steps to protect his bank from additional U.S. penalties. Aven perceived this as an order, not a request, and understood “that there would be consequences if he did not follow through.” MR Vol 1, p. 146.

The Seychelles meeting
Putin’s directive sparked a “flurry” of Russian outreach efforts, including a failed attempt by Aven to set up a meeting with Jared Kushner. Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, was more successful. With the help of George Nader, an adviser to the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, Dmitriev was able to arrange a January 11, 2017 meeting in the Seychelles Islands with Erik Prince – the founder of Blackwater, an associate of Steve Bannon’s. and a funder of Republican and pro-Trump conspiracy theories. At that meeting Dmitriev referred to Putin as his “boss” and made the case for a U.S.-Russia reconciliation proposal that called for joint anti-terrorism efforts and “‘win-win’ economic and investment initiatives.” (Dmitriev also met with a Kushner friend named Rick Gerson.) MR Vol 1, 147-155.

Prince lied about the meeting
In his congressional testimony, Prince characterized it as a business trip that had nothing to do with Russia, suggesting that his conversation with Dmitriev was unplanned and incidental.

Steve Bannon also denied knowledge of the meeting with Dmitriev, and the text messages between him and Prince were deleted on both their devices
Contrary to what Prince eventually told the Special Prosecutor’s office, Bannon said he had not been informed of the meeting beforehand, and would have objected. “The conflicting accounts provided by Bannon and Prince could not be independently clarified by reviewing their communications, because neither one was able to produce any of the messages they exchanged in the time period surrounding the Seychelles meeting. Prince’s phone contained no text messages prior to March 2017, though provider records indicate that he and Bannon exchanged dozens of messages. Prince denied deleting any messages but claimed he did not know why there were no messages on his device before March 2017. Bannon’s devices similarly contained no messages in the relevant time period, and Bannon also stated he did not know why messages did not appear on his device.” MR Vol 1, p. 156.

Trump’s panic over Mueller appointment
On May 17, 2017, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, Trump “slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.’ The President became angry and lambasted the Attorney General for his decision to recuse from the investigation, stating, “How could you let this happen, Jeff?” The President said the position of Attorney General was his most important appointment and that Sessions had “let [him] down,” contrasting him to Eric Holder and Robert Kennedy. Sessions recalled that the President said to him, “you were supposed to protect me,” or words to that effect. The President returned to the consequences of the appointment and said, “Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency. It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.” MR Vol 2, p. 78.

Trump’s efforts to derail the Mueller investigation
Once it became clear that Trump’s own actions were being looked at, he made a series of attempts to end or limit the investigation.

  • In May 2017, he discussed “knocking out Mueller” with White House Counsel Don McGahn. Trump wanted McGahn to tell Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Mueller should not be allowed to run the Russia investigation because of supposed conflicts of interest (such as a dispute over fees at a Trump golf course). According to McGahn, Trump said things like, “You gotta do this,” “You gotta call Rod,” “Mueller has to go,” and “Call me back when you do it.” McGahn interpreted this as a presidential order to fire Mueller, and planned to resign rather than obey it, although he ended up doing neither. MR Vol. 2, p. 88.
  • In June, Trump asked Corey Lewandowski to have Attorney General Jeff Sessions limit the inquiry to the threat of future Russian interference. MR Vol 2, p. 90.
  • In July, Trump told Reince Priebus to demand Sessions’ immediate resignation. MR Vol 2, p. 94.

Additional Trump attempts to encourage lying and obstruction
The Mueller report cites a total of 10 potential instances of obstruction. In addition to those related to the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the above efforts to squelch the Mueller investigation, these include:

  • Coaching Michael Cohen to lie about the Trump Tower Moscow deal – to minimize its seriousness, misrepresent its timeline and downplay Trump’s own interest and involvement.  MR Vol 2, p. 19.
  • Encouraging Cohen, after his arrest, not to cooperate with Mueller’s office. In a phone call, Trump told Cohen to “hang in there” and “stay strong.” Later he tweeted: “Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked & respected. Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don’t see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!”  MR Vol 2, p. 154.
  • Praising Manafort for his noncooperation.  “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family,” Trump tweeted in August 2018. “‘Justice’ took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’—make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!” MR Vol 2, p. 126
  • Having one of his lawyers tell Michael Flynn to keep the President posted on any information implicating Trump that Flynn might disclose to the Special Prosecutor’s office, and warning Flynn that his withdrawal from a joint defense agreement was a sign of hostility toward the president – and would be called to Trump’s notice as such. MR Vol 2, p. 131.
  • Hinting at a pardon for Paul Manafort. “The president intended to encourage Manafort not to cooperate with the government. He “intended Manafort to believe he could receive a pardon.”

The Mueller report pointed to these and other actions as collective evidence of a “pattern” of behavior that was “capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations.” MR Vol 2, p. 157.

Trump used lawyers, surrogates and indirect language to dodge an obstruction charge

  • Rather than explicitly tell Cohen to lie, Trump pointed out that Trump Tower Moscow was not a deal yet, and added, “Why mention it if it is not a deal?” MR Vol 2, p. 19.
  • Cohen worked extensively with a Trump lawyer to craft his initial statement to Congress on the Moscow Tower deal. But Cohen never spoke directly to Trump during that process. “The President’s conversations with his personal counsel were presumptively protected by attorney-client privilege, and we did not seek to obtain the contents of any such communications,” Mueller writes. This, he continued, “precludes us from assessing what, if any, role the President played.” MR Vol. 2, p. 154
  • The communications between a Trump lawyer and Michael Flynn’s lawyer could have intimidated Flynn and affected his “decision to cooperate” and “the extent of that cooperation.” Because of attorney-client privilege, however, the Special Prosecutor’s office “could not determine whether the President was personally involved in or knew about the specific message his counsel delivered to Flynn’s counsel.” MR Vol 2, p. 74
  • When Trump asked McGahn to tell Rosenstein that “Mueller has to go,” etc., the President never actually used the word “fire.” MR Vol. 2, p. 86.

Trump might have been trying to obstruct justice in order to protect himself and his family against the exposure of criminal or shameful acts unrelated to election fraud
“In this investigation, the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference. But the evidence does point to a range of other possible personal motives animating the President’s conduct. These include concerns that continued investigation would call into question the legitimacy of his election and potential uncertainty about whether certain events — such as advance notice of WikiLeaks’s release of hacked information or the June 9, 2016 meeting between senior campaign officials and Russians — could be seen as criminal activity by the President, his campaign, or his family.” MR Vol 2, 157.

Trump Tower Moscow deal was, on paper, a boondoggle for Trump
After many abortive discussions of such a project, the idea was revived in 2015 by Felix Sater, a New York-based real estate developer and longtime Trump associate. Sater negotiated a broad agreement with Andrey Rozov, CEO of a company called IC Expert, to build a skyscraper planned as the tallest building in Europe. A letter of Intent called for the Trump Organization to receive “between 1% and 5% of all condominium sales, plus 3% of all rental and other revenue. For the project’s hotel portion, the Trump Organization would receive a base fee of 3% of gross operating revenues for the first five years and 4% thereafter, plus a separate incentive fee of 20% of operating profit. Under the LOI, the Trump Organization also would receive a $4 million ‘up-front fee’ prior to groundbreaking. Under these terms, the Trump Organization stood to earn substantial sums over the lifetime of the project, without assuming significant liabilities or financing commitments.” MR Vol 1, 71.

Discussions of Moscow project continued well into 2016, while Trump was saying he had no business deals in Russia
“From the fall of 2015 until the middle of 2016, Michael Cohen spearheaded the Trump Organization’s pursuit of a Trump Tower Moscow project, including by reporting on the project’s status to candidate Trump and other executives in the Trump Organization.” MR Vol 1, 67.

Was Donald Jr. subpoenaed? Did he testify or invoke the Fifth Amendment?
Not clear. In the Mueller report, a line is redacted after a sentence about his declining an invitation to testify voluntarily.

12 unknown matters referred for independent investigation?
We don’t know what they were, or how many may have involved alleged criminality on the part of Donald Trump or the Trump Organization, Foundation or inaugural committee. Equally important, we don’t know which if any investigations are being actively pursued. Those decisions are now presumably up to an Attorney General who seems to view himself as the President’s lawyer. MR Appendix D-1.

What Does the Day Hold in Store? You Never Know.

7:12 am: Confusion. Disarray. Aimlessness.

7:45 am: There’s a crow outside my window.

8:30 am: I default to TennisTV, which transports me to Monte Carlo!

8:30-10 am: Erstwhile bad boy Fabio Fognini, seemingly down for the count at multiple points along the way, comes back to win the biggest tournament of his life.

10 am: Inspired by his example, I mobilize for a walk to Starbucks and order a mocha from Nick Lardner.

10:30-ish: I stroll up Livingston Street, mocha in hand, to a nearby park for some reading and writing.

Noon: On to Trader Joe’s.

1:30 pm: A walk down Albemarle Street.

2:45 pm: Bread Furst, just in time for the end of Emma Lardner’s shift. No telling how long these kids will be living nearby. Let’s make the most of it!

Circa 3:30 pm: Home. Emma puts the flowers in a vase. I put the vase on an afghan that my mother made for me long ago. Nice!

Emma at the window.

3:52 pm: The miracle of texting.

4:30: Out on the court.

6:10 pm: Home again. A clean refrigerator! You don’t see one of those too often. (Courtesy of Emma Lardner.)

8 pm: Dinner for two. (My doing. Pretty fancy. Note the capers on the salmon.)

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On Beyond Mueller. Step 2: Listen to Masha Gessen.

Coming Thursday: the Mueller Report in some form!

While we wait, I’m going through the Gessen Report – the findings of the émigré Russian journalist Masha Gessen as laid out in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Slate and The Atlantic, among other places.

Since the first hints of a Trump-Russia plot to upend the 2016 election, Gessen has been skeptical. She knows as well as anybody what Vladimir Putin and his gang are capable of. Gessen’s 2013 book Man Without a Face was a chilling account of the Russian president’s rise to power; in it she also told the stories of some of the vast number of people imprisoned, poisoned, gunned down or blown to bits after doing something that displeased Putin or made their liberty or survival inconvenient from his standpoint. But Putin and Trump are best understood, in Gessen’s view, not as co-conspirators or master and puppet but as a pair of thieving demagogues riding the same global populist wave, both appealing to an imaginary past of traditional values and promising to cut through the rigmarole of democracy and due process in order to make their countries “great again.”

Of course, the quirkiness of Trump’s victory (by 44,292 votes in Pennsylvania, 22,748 votes in Wisconsin and 10,704 votes in Michigan) makes any factor crucial by a certain logic; and we have plenty of evidence of Russian hacking and trolling directed against Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But if Gessen is inclined to question Putin’s responsibility for an evil deed, I am inclined to listen.

Even if the search for collusion hits the jackpot someday, that idée fixe could prove to be an unhealthy distraction. We might do better, as Gessen suggests, to devote our closest attention and best thinking to the domestic side of the story and to what is beyond dispute – the fact that in 2016 upwards of 45 percent of the U.S. electorate decided to back a chronic liar, race-baiter, sexual predator, career criminal and tax-dodger who was running “not for president but for autocrat”; and the corollary fact that our country is now governed by a regime of thugs, rogues, kleptocrats, hacks and corporate lackeys, with one of the two major political parties almost entirely bent to their will.

Throughout the Mueller investigation, Gessen has been telling us to let go of the tantalzing idea of a truth – any truth – with the power to set us free. That is a fantasy linked, in her mind, to a misperception of Trump supporters as ignorant and deluded people who would make better decisions “if they just knew differently.” A vote for Donald Trump actually makes quite a lot of sense, according to Gessen, if we imagine ourselves in the world of many who made that choice – a world in which you are continually sensing the erosion of your status and privilege, regularly confronted with “things that make you uneasy,” and feeling less and less “comfortable in your own house, in your own town, in your own skin.” If all that is so and if your would-be leaders have little to show you or say to you, it becomes perfectly reasonable to decide that “this representative democracy thing” doesn’t serve you; “and so,” Gessen says, “you go and lob a grenade at it, when the grenade becomes available.”

Gessen has divided her life between Russia and the United States, and she brings the painful experience of her time there to her observations of life here. In a New York Review of Books essay published soon after the 2016 election, she set forth a series of rules for survival in a looming autocracy. Her first rule: “believe the autocrat.” By that she means to take the threats seriously and oppose them with “stubborn, outraged, uncompromising resistance.” In that spirit, Gessen excoriated Hillary Clinton for a milquetoasty concession speech that was both woefully inadequate to the occasion and entirely consistent with a campaign that had “offered no vision of the future to counterbalance Trump’s all-too-familiar white-populist vision of an imaginary past.”

Gessen is also gay, with a son adopted from a Russian orphanage for the children of HIV-positive women, at a time when, she has written, “no other Russian citizen would have adopted him, so great was the fear of AIDS, and so rare were adoptions generally.” She emigrated in 2013, after a wave of anti-gay propaganda in which one prominent apparatchik specifically warned against letting Russian children grow up in “perverted families like Masha Gessen’s.” She took her own advice: she believed him.

We are not Russia. The United States still has an opposition party, flawed as it is; candidates can get on the ballot without the regime’s permission; most of our adult citizens can vote if they make an effort; and the counting of votes is generally on the up and up. Our elections are, if not exactly fair, at least real – real enough that when, as in 2018, a large majority of the electorate gets fed up with the ruling party, the opposition comes away with narrow control of one of the two chambers of our national legislature. Unlike Russia, we still have many uncaptured media outlets and a galaxy of journalists, political commentators and comedy-show hosts who daily and nightly exercise their right to denounce or ridicule our leaders.

While we’re on the subject of America’s good fortune, it remains possible in this country to be a dissident or resister without living in physical fear. No federal police force stands ready to round up – or rough up – the President’s enemies. His hooligans do not control the streets. When Donald Trump feels like stirring up nationalist hysteria, he fills the internet and the airwaves with rants against oncoming hordes of criminal immigrants. But he is mostly content to lie about events rather than to foment them: we have seen nothing comparable to, say, the Russian apartment bombings of 1999 – a cycle of supposed terrorist acts, many of them encouraged if not concocted by government agents provocateurs in order to set the stage for Putin’s emergence as a full-on dictatorial thug with a mass following.

Trump and Co. may not think they could get away with that kind of thing. For that, we can count ourselves lucky. If we heed Gessen’s advice, we will not for a moment take our luck for granted.

Test Drive: The 6 Stages of Social Media Madness

I’ve come down with a case of blogger’s remorse. It’s not that I regret something I blogged or the decision to start a blog. What’s bothering me is my failure to take full advantage of the medium.

A blog should be a zone of spontaneity — a place for the visceral response, the casual pronouncement or the whimsical proposal. I’ve been thinking too hard and posting too little. That, at any rate, is the premise of my new feature, Test Drive. It’s for big ideas with an uncertain shelf life. So here goes my six-stage theory of the development of the social media platform.

First stage: You create something neat and useful. It helps people do good stuff, like reconnect with old friends, watch humans and animals behave cutely, or sow democracy across the Arab world.

Second stage: Your platform gets crowded. Wall Street takes notice.

Third stage: You invest in a fancy proprietary algorithm to grow your user base, keep people engaged longer, suck in advertisers, and set yourself up for an initial public offering or a big-bucks buyout.

Fourth stage: You make heaps of money and find yourself atop a global business colossus.

Fifth stage: You hear from people who think your algorithm encourages nonsensical, ugly and dangerous content. You dismiss them as fuddy-duddies.

Sixth stage: Your platform becomes an agent of terror, hatred, mass murder and tyranny around the world. Since the criticism is now impossible to ignore, you express concern and announce counter-measures that sound serious but are designed to fail, because success would undermine the business model and possibly strip you of a few of your gazillions.

For a fine illustration of the syndrome, check out the “Theory of Everything” podcast episode on YouTube’s paranoia engine. ToE’s Andrew Callaway maps the experience curated by YouTube for the young male followers of the pop psychologist Jordan Peterson (“Twelve Rules for Life”). You start out with Peterson’s moderately crazed lectures on the importance of cleaning your room and the perils of getting involved with designing women. Then – before you can say “hypergamy!” – you’re down the rabbit hole, with no exit in sight, listening to mysoginistic rants against man-hating feminists (“It’s not just your girl or your wife. It’s all women out there…. I don’t know how else to put it: we are the expendable gender.”) and Proud-Boyish tips on how to restore your alpha malehood and be extra horny and extra-aggressive with the girls you meet at the bar. Thank you, YouTube.