Political Animal

Mueller Ups the Ante on Paul Manafort

When I want to remind myself that Robert Mueller currently knows a lot more than we are aware of about a potential conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians to influence the 2016 election, I think about the fact that Michael Flynn has already reached a plea agreement with the special counsel’s investigation. We have heard absolutely nothing so far about what he has revealed. But his fate (and perhaps that of his son) rests on full cooperation, so there is a lot more to come.

It has become increasingly clear that the other target Mueller is focused on flipping is former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Just this week we have seen two things that increase the pressure on him. The first is that Manafort’s former business partner, Richard Gates, is reported to have reached a plea agreement that will be announced shortly. To the extent that Mueller lacked information that could put Manafort away for a very long time, that should fill in the blanks.

Yesterday, Mueller upped the ante even further, perhaps with testimony that has already been provided by Gates.

In a surprise development, a lawyer who worked at the firm that produced a report for Paul Manafort’s Ukrainian lobbying campaign has been charged with lying to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team. The charges were revealed in court documents filed on Friday that became public on Tuesday.

The lawyer, Alex Van Der Zwaan “willfully and knowingly” made “materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements and representations” to the investigators about his conversations with Manafort deputy Rick Gates and an unnamed third person, prosecutors alleged in the new court filings.

What we see is that even lawyers are not exempt from charges if they lie to the investigators.

In light of all of this, it is important to keep in mind that the special counsel cut off any possibility of a Trump pardon for Manafort months ago.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is working with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on its investigation into Paul Manafort and his financial transactions, according to several people familiar with the matter.

The cooperation is the latest indication that the federal probe into President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman is intensifying. It also could potentially provide Mueller with additional leverage to get Manafort to cooperate in the larger investigation into Trump’s campaign, as Trump does not have pardon power over state crimes.

As a remind of why Manafort’s testimony could be crucial to this investigation, here is what was reported in the Steele dossier:

The “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation” between the Trump campaign and Russian leadership was managed on the Trump side by Paul Manafort. To the extent that Christopher Steele’s sources are correct, Manafort holds the keys to the entire game.

Contrary to what right wing media would have you believe, Sen. Dianne Feinstein recently wrote that “Not a single revelation in the Steele dossier has been refuted.” If this item turns out to be true, it makes sense that Mueller is pulling out all the stops to apply pressure on Manafort to flip.

Quick Takes: “There’s Something Happening Here…”

Over the last several years we seem to have gotten caught in a predictable script after every mass shooting. Republicans offer their thoughts and prayers, suggesting that it is too soon to politicize a tragedy. Democrats call for common sense gun safety measures for a few days and then everybody forgets about it until the next mass shooting.

But these young people from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have jolted us out of that script and this is the anthem that keeps playing in my head as I read about the impact they’re having.

So far these young people have done countless interviews, travelled to Tallahassee today to push for more gun laws, will participate in a CNN town hall tomorrow, and are busy planning a nationwide “March For Our Lives” on March 24th.

They are also inspiring others.

Earlier this afternoon, George and Amal Clooney responded to their efforts.

“Amal and I are so inspired by the courage and eloquence of these young men and women from Stoneman Douglas High School,” George Clooney said in a statement. “Our family will be there on March 24 to stand side by side with this incredible generation of young people from all over the country, and in the name of our children Ella and Alexander, we’re donating $500,000 to help pay for this groundbreaking event.”

“Our children’s lives depend on it,” he added.

Almost immediately, that commitment was matched by Jeffrey and Marilyn Katzenberg as well as Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw and Oprah Winfrey. As fast as that is all happening, I suspect that we’re just getting started.

Of course the right-wingers are losing their minds over the idea that young people are being empowered to fight for their own safety. People are accusing them of being coached by the “deep-staters” at the FBI; not having their own agency and instead, being manipulated by people like George Soros; and they are being referred to as “traumatized teens” who shouldn’t be allowed to make policy. Anyone else remember David Bowie’s song “Changes?”

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

It strikes me that Republicans, who completely discarded African American voters in the 60’s and have recently done their best to alienate women, Hispanics and immigrants, are now doing their best to ensure that the next generation of voters is committed to their downfall. Contrary to everything they’ve been saying over the last couple of days, it has always been the passion of young people that inspired change. For example:

A Mississippi lunch counter

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Soweto, South Africa

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Tienamen Square, China

Cairo, Egypt

A U.S. presidential election in 2008

Republicans can either pay attention now and learn the easy way, or ignore these young people and learn the hard way what Ms. Ella Baker knew long ago.

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm
To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale

Our Revolution Endorsed Dennis Kucinich in the Ohio Governor’s Race

I’ve written several times about the importance of governors’ races in 2018. That is especially true in states like Ohio, where both houses of the state legislature are currently controlled by Republicans. In listing the top 10 governors’ races to watch, Politico included Ohio, where there’s no incumbent since John Kasich is term-limited.

In the Republican primary, the contest is between Attorney General Mike DeWine, who represented Ohio in the U.S. Senate until 2006, and Lt. Governor Mary Taylor, who is running as a conservative firebrand against the establishment DeWine.

There are currently seven candidates running in the Democratic primary. But the race is likely to come down to two of them. Richard Cordray, who served as Ohio’s attorney general before being tapped by Obama to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is a slight favorite. It should come as no surprise that Elizabeth Warren endorsed Cordray as soon as he entered the race.

The other Democrat who has a chance to win the primary, especially if the field remains so large, is Dennis Kucinich. For a lot of people, he is the progressive firebrand who ran for president in 2004 and 2008. But lately he has sounded more like a Trump supporter.

Kucinich, who has been a Fox commentator for years, praised Trump’s inauguration speech (you know, the “American carnage” one), and argued in February that U.S. intelligence agencies forced Michael Flynn to resign as Trump’s national security advisor. In May, he agreed with Sean Hannity that the “deep state” was out to get Trump, and in a July Fox appearance, he called Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskay “a bunch of nothing.” Kucinich has also repeatedly met with and defended Syria’s murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Since that summary was written, Kucinich went on Fox News to announce his candidacy. It’s one thing to reach out to Trump supporters with an economic message about tackling income inequality. But dismissing Russian interference, while echoing right-wing conspiracy theories about the “deep state,” is a whole different ball game.

Nevertheless, Bernie Sanders’s organization, Our Revolution, has endorsed Kucinich rather than Cordray. Here was my reaction when I saw that on Twitter:

It is true that there are some major differences between Kucinich and Stein. Kucinich is running as a Democrat, rather than a Green Party candidate, and he has great name recognition in Ohio (hardly anyone had ever heard of Stein). But both of them have bad-mouthed the Democratic Party and embraced right wing talking points about the role that Russia played in Trump’s election.

As we learn more about how foreign actors meddled in our politics in 2016, the reality of a coming “blue wave” in 2018 is very likely to spark a repeat performance—perhaps even from domestic forces who embrace the same goals. The fact that Kucinich is positioning himself similarly to Stein is cause for caution, if not alarm.

In the Democratic primary for Ohio governor, there is an actual progressive in the race with a proven track record. That is why this endorsement is such bad move for Our Revolution—an organization that is increasingly viewed as divisive rather than strategic.

Addressing the Human Problem With Social Media

The recent Mueller indictments have added fuel to the discussion about how social media, especially Facebook, played a role in the 2016 election. As I noted yesterday, Evan Osnos raised a question that, in our attempt to hold social media platforms accountable, hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.

The power of news illiteracy. At the heart of the Russian fraud is an essential, embarrassing insight into American life: large numbers of Americans are ill-equipped to assess the credibility of the things they read. The willingness to believe purported news stories, often riddled with typos or coming from unfamiliar outlets, is a liability of today’s fragmented media and polarized politics.

I think he has a point about news illiteracy. But it goes way beyond that. Here is how Roger McNamee described what is happening in his article for the most recent edition of the Washington Monthly:

Whenever you log into Facebook, there are millions of posts the platform could show you. The key to its business model is the use of algorithms, driven by individual user data, to show you stuff you’re more likely to react to. Wikipedia defines an algorithm as “a set of rules that precisely defines a sequence of operations.” Algorithms appear value neutral, but the platforms’ algorithms are actually designed with a specific value in mind: maximum share of attention, which optimizes profits. They do this by sucking up and analyzing your data, using it to predict what will cause you to react most strongly, and then giving you more of that.

Algorithms that maximize attention give an advantage to negative messages. People tend to react more to inputs that land low on the brainstem. Fear and anger produce a lot more engagement and sharing than joy. The result is that the algorithms favor sensational content over substance. Of course, this has always been true for media; hence the old news adage “If it bleeds, it leads.” But for mass media, this was constrained by one-size-fits-all content and by the limitations of delivery platforms. Not so for internet platforms on smartphones. They have created billions of individual channels, each of which can be pushed further into negativity and extremism without the risk of alienating other audience members. To the contrary: the platforms help people self-segregate into like-minded filter bubbles, reducing the risk of exposure to challenging ideas.

Here is how Tristan Harris, former Google executive and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, put it during an interview with Ezra Klein:

Ezra Klein: I had Jaron Lanier on this podcast a couple months ago, and he said something I’ve been thinking about since then. He said that the key to a lot of social media is [that] negative emotions engage more powerfully than positive emotions. Do you think he’s right about that?

Tristan Harris: Oh, absolutely. Outrage just spreads faster than something that’s not outrage.

When you open up the blue Facebook icon, you’re activating the AI, which tries to figure out the perfect thing it can show you that’ll engage you. It doesn’t have any intelligence, except figuring out what gets the most clicks. The outrage stuff gets the most clicks, so it puts that at the top.

Frankly, it isn’t just social media that operates this way. I am reminded of something David Frum wrote back in 2010 about right wing media.

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

While this is a much bigger issue for right wing media, there are left wing sites that I avoid because too many times I’ve clicked on salacious headlines only to find that the facts don’t back up the outrage.

During 2016, there were countless headlines that described the election as one that was all about anger. Given what we know now, we need to ask how much of that was organic among voters and how much was fueled by social media in particular and partisan media in general. The candidates the Russians chose to support on social media—Trump and Sanders—were the two that relied primarily on fueling outrage in the population.

Frum nailed what is behind all of this: the hunt for advertising dollars. I once attended a talk by Bill Doherty, professor in the Family Social Science Department at the University of Minnesota. He began by asking the audience, “What is the goal of television?” If you answered anything related to entertainment, you’d be wrong. The real goal is to produce eyeballs for advertisers. That is true of social media and, as all of the people above described, the best way to do that is to appeal to people’s outrage. That is not simply a media problem. It is a human problem that the media exploits.

I believe that this is the central issue we face when it comes to meaningful political discourse in this country. What we have is a situation where people both seek out and are fed information that fuels their anger and keeps them locked in bubbles that reinforce their existing viewpoints. But it basically comes down to a chase for advertising dollars via the promotion of anger.

Right now most of the solutions being put forward to fix social media have to do with generating ideas that open up those platforms. McNamee has a helpful list in his article on how to do that (something that is often lacking in the discussion). But it is hard for me to imagine those ever being truly effective as long as revenue and profits are dependent on providing clicks for the advertisers.

A much more daunting solution would be to develop more informed social media consumers. Much like everyone else, I’m not sure how we go about doing that. But I tend to go back to the fact that Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008 on a message of “hope and change” during the depths of the Great Recession, when voters might have been the most susceptible to outrage. I suspect that Marshall Ganz identified why.

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope.

While we sift through ideas about how to improve social media platforms, it is equally important for those of us interested in solving this problem to think about how we can generate hope and enthusiasm in response to anger, rather than anxiety and fear. When Facebook programs its algorithms to those positive reactions because they generate clicks for the advertisers, we will have tackled the human problem associated with social media.