Political Animal

Zero Tolerance Is Never the Answer

As calls for Senator Franken’s resignation rose yesterday, there was talk about the need for zero tolerance of sexual misconduct. For example, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) tweeted: “We must commit to zero tolerance—which is where I believe we as a country and Congress should be—and that means Senator Franken should step down.”

The arena in which I am most familiar with the use of zero tolerance is schools. It began as a slogan over 20 years ago to suggest that schools should draw a clear line about what was unacceptable behavior and administer harsh consequences to any student who crossed it. The entire effort was a huge failure that became the feeder for the school-to-prison pipeline. Here is an ABC News report on zero tolerance that aired back in 2003.

Since then there has been a lot of research documenting that zero tolerance was not effective in making schools safer and that it had terrible effects on students (especially black and brown boys) being funneled into the juvenile justice system.

Supporters of zero tolerance tended to suggest that critics were in favor of simply ignoring bad behavior. But as the report cited above demonstrates, there are much more effective ways of dealing with students and ensuring school safety.

The problem with zero tolerance in the schools was that it set up a system in which minor offenses were treated as seriously as major ones. Here is an interesting example:

In April of 2013, 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot was arrested after causing an explosion on school grounds. If this sounds like another case of how terrible dangerous our schools have become, well, the explosion was relatively minor; okay, it could only be called an explosion in the strictest possible sense of the word. Kiera was conducting a science experiment to see what would happen if she put toilet bowl cleaner together with aluminum foil inside a soda bottle. As you may have suspected, it causes a chemical reaction resulting a small pop- enough to blow off the bottle’s cap. This was apparently enough to catch the attention of school security, who called the police.

Despite there obviously being no ill intent whatsoever and Kiera’s status as a model student, she was summarily expelled from school, arrested and charged with possession and discharge of a weapon- a soda bottle- on school grounds. In an article written for the ACLU’s website, Kiera protests that although the charges were eventually dropped, she’s now forced to attend a school for troubled youths where she’s made fun of, mocked as a “terrorist” and presented with zero academic challenges.

What a travesty!

Marian Wright Edelman gave some other disturbing examples:

Would you suspend a student from school for four months for sharpening his pencil without permission and giving the teacher a “threatening” look when asked to sit down?…

Would you expel a student from school permanently because her possession of an antibiotic violated your school’s zero-tolerance drug policy?

I worry that this is where we are headed with calls for zero tolerance of sexual misconduct. As with students in school, there are behaviors that clearly cross a line, like taking a 14 year-old-girl to your home in the woods, undressing and asking her to feel your penis. That violates criminal statutes. But that is not the same thing as squeezing someone’s waist while taking a photo—which is actually less serious than squeezing her butt. All of those things could be problematic, but zero tolerance suggests that we treat them all same.

Many of the charges against Franken fall into a category that, due to patriarchy, are about crossing boundaries that haven’t been clearly defined. That is why, in order to deal with these issues, it is important to talk about them openly. Zero tolerance simply shuts all of that down.

When it comes to these gray areas, there is also the issue of context. As we see with Kiera’s case, it matters a lot whether she was doing a simple science experiment or trying to cause an explosion that could damage property or hurt someone.

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who always greeted me with a hug and kiss on the cheek. I never felt violated by that. As a matter of fact, just the opposite. I experienced it as a demonstration of his warmth. But I wasn’t surprised when he was fired from his job as the executive director of a nonprofit agency. Greeting women who work for you with a hug and a kiss is problematic because context matters.

At this point, a lot of people (especially politicians) are trying to position themselves as “tough” on this issue by gravitating to simplistic responses like zero tolerance. Those of us who are actually interested in real change need to speak up on behalf of responses that help all of us grapple with a difficult issue and set the stage for some common understanding of a complex problem. We shouldn’t settle for anything less.

The Latest Viral Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory

As Robert Mueller builds his case and moves closer and closer to the inner circle around President Trump, I suppose it’s inevitable that a political defense will be organized and launched. One component of that defense is to discredit not only Mueller, but the entire intelligence community, including especially the FBI. Heading up that effort today is Byron York, who is riffing off a “scoop” obtained in recent days by James Rosen and Jake Gibson of Fox News. On the merits, this is not much of a news story at all, but it will go viral and become as integral to the right’s belief system as the fact that Hillary Clinton engaged in a cover up of the Benghazi attacks.

Briefly, the revelation is that a man named Bruce Ohr who was serving as the associate deputy attorney general has just been demoted, and the supposed cause of this demotion is that he had personal contact with Christopher Steele, the British ex-MI6 officer who authored the infamous dossier on Donald Trump. These contacts happened during the election, but Ohr also met around Thanksgiving of last year with Glenn Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS, who had hired Steele to investigate Trump’s Russian connections. It’s not clear to me why this should be scandalous in the least, but it is supposed to confirm a conspiracy theory that the only reason that the intelligence community launched a counterespionage and counterintelligence investigation of Trump is because of this so-called fake or dodgy dossier, and that the whole thing was coordinated with Obama’s Department of Justice from the beginning.

In response, let me begin with something basic. All the way back in April The Guardian reported on how the American intelligence community became interested in the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. For a while, the answer actually served as fodder for a different conspiracy angle when Sean Spicer accused Britain’s version of the National Security Agency of bugging Trump Tower.

GCHQ first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents, a source close to UK intelligence said. This intelligence was passed to the US as part of a routine exchange of information, they added.

Over the next six months, until summer 2016, a number of western agencies shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians, sources said.

The European countries that passed on electronic intelligence – known as sigint – included Germany, Estonia and Poland. Australia, a member of the “Five Eyes” spying alliance that also includes the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, also relayed material, one source said.

Another source suggested the Dutch and the French spy agency, the General Directorate for External Security or DGSE, were contributors.

So, from late 2015 until the early summer of 2016, U.S. intelligence officials received alarming reports of contacts between Trump associate and Russian intelligence officers and assets. These reports came from the intelligence services of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia, the Netherlands, Estonia and Poland.

Let me add one other juicy tidbit to this before I move on:

According to one account, GCHQ’s then head, Robert Hannigan, passed material in summer 2016 to the CIA chief, John Brennan. The matter was deemed so sensitive it was handled at “director level”. After an initially slow start, Brennan used GCHQ information and intelligence from other partners to launch a major inter-agency investigation.

Now, ask yourself, who has more credibility? An ex-MI6 officer working under contract to do opposition research for Fusion GPS or the intelligence services of seven of our closest allies? Who had more influence, Christopher Steele or Robert Hannigan, the then-head of GCHQ?

Another problem with this “scoop” that York is pimping is that it really isn’t revelatory at all. Back in March, Howard Blum of Vanity Fair published a piece that explained how Steele put his dossier together and what he did with it. Blum reported that Steele had a preexisting relationship with the F.B.I.’s Eurasian Joint Organized Crime Squad dating back to when he was an active MI6 officer. Together they had exposed corruption at FIFA, the world’s governing soccer organization. He discovered in early August that one of the agents he knew from the Eurasian Squad was currently stationed in Rome, and he paid him a visit and shared what he had discovered in his research.

This man could not have been Bruce Ohr, although he certainly would have known him since Ohr served as the chief of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the Criminal Division before he rose to Deputy Assistant Attorney General. The chances are good that the man in Rome put Steele in touch with Ohr, and the chances are also good that the two men were already acquainted with each other.

We already knew something like this happened. On October 31st, 2016, David Corn reported in Mother Jones that A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump. Here’s the relevant part:

“It started off as a fairly general inquiry,” says [Christopher Steele] the former spook, who asks not to be identified. But when he dug into Trump, he notes, he came across troubling information indicating connections between Trump and the Russian government. According to his sources, he says, “there was an established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit.”

This was, the former spy remarks, “an extraordinary situation.” He regularly consults with US government agencies on Russian matters, and near the start of July on his own initiative—without the permission of the US company that hired him—he sent a report he had written for that firm to a contact at the FBI, according to the former intelligence officer and his American associates, who asked not to be identified. (He declines to identify the FBI contact.) The former spy says he concluded that the information he had collected on Trump was “sufficiently serious” to share with the FBI.

And what happened then?

The former intelligence officer says the response from the FBI was “shock and horror.” The FBI, after receiving the first memo, did not immediately request additional material, according to the former intelligence officer and his American associates. Yet in August, they say, the FBI asked him for all information in his possession and for him to explain how the material had been gathered and to identify his sources. The former spy forwarded to the bureau several memos—some of which referred to members of Trump’s inner circle. After that point, he continued to share information with the FBI. “It’s quite clear there was or is a pretty substantial inquiry going on,” he says.

So, even before the election was over, we knew that Steele had shared his dossier with a contact at the FBI and that there was a short delay before higher ups asked for a his source material and that he continued to cooperate with them.

Why, then, did he go to David Corn at the beginning of October? Howard Blum explains:

His duty done, Steele waited with anxious anticipation for the official consequences.

There were none. Or at least not any public signs that the F.B.I. was tracking down the ripe leads he’d offered. And in the weeks that followed, as summer turned into fall and the election drew closer, Steele’s own sense of the mounting necessity of his mission must have intensified.

As [Steele’s] frustration grew, the mysterious trickle from WikiLeaks of the Democratic National Committee’s and John Podesta’s purloined e-mails were continuing in a deliberate, steadily ominous flow. He had little doubt the Kremlin was behind the hacking, and he had shared his evidence with the F.B.I., but as best he could tell, the bureau was focusing on solving the legalistic national-security puzzle surrounding Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. With so much hanging in the balance—the potential president of the United States possibly being under Russia’s thumb—why weren’t the authorities more concerned? He decided it was time for desperate measures.

“Someone like me stays in the shadows,” Steele would say, as if apologizing for what he did next. It was an action that went against all his training, all his professional instincts. Spies, after all, keep secrets; they don’t disclose them. And now that the F.B.I. had apparently let him down, there was another restraint tugging on his resolve: he didn’t know whom he could trust. It was as if he were back operating in the long shadow of the Kremlin, living by what the professionals call “Moscow Rules,” where security and vigilance are constant occupational obsessions. But when he considered what was at stake, he knew he had no choice. With Simpson now on board, in effect, as co-conspirator and a shrewd facilitator, Steele met with a reporter.

In early October, on a trip to New York, Steele sat down with David Corn, the 58-year-old Washington-bureau chief of Mother Jones.

From Steele’s perspective, his efforts to reach out to the FBI had been fruitless. In truth, the were valuable, but they didn’t cause or initiate the counterintelligence investigation, nor did they cause the FBI to put their thumb on the scale against Trump during the election. In the end, the director of the FBI put his thumb on the scale against Hillary Clinton.

Of course, Steele was vindicated in thinking “the Kremlin was behind the hacking” and we’re all still wondering if Trump is “possibly under Russia’s thumb.”

So, what does Byron York really have here? How does this rebut the case that Mueller is building?

In the end, it doesn’t matter what the facts are. York’s pushing a story that will be believed on the right as if it’s the Lord’s gospel.

But it’s not a real story. It’s all bullshit.

Why Mueller Is Interested in Trump’s Records at Deutsche Bank

This week we learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller subpoenaed data on accounts at Deutsche Bank held by Trump and his family. Most of the reporting on this simply noted that the German bank has been a major lender to the president. But there is a lot more to it than that.

The first thing to keep in mind is that, as reported, Deutsche Bank was willing to lend Trump money when most U.S. banks wouldn’t due of a string of bankruptcies at his hotels and casinos. Because of that, they are his largest lender.

According to financial disclosures made by Trump during the campaign, he owes more than $714 million to several banks. But his biggest lender—by far—is Deutsche Bank, which has provided Trump at least $364 million in financing.

The bank to which Trump owes all of that money has been under investigation for their role in a $10 billion money laundering scheme of Russian oligarchs.

DOJ’s money laundering division along with the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York have been investigating the German lender over allegations it missed red flags that allowed Russians to launder billions of dollars out of Moscow using an elaborate trading scheme…

The New York state regulators alleged in the consent order that they found “serious compliance deficiencies” that “spanned Deutsche Bank’s global enterprise. These flaws allowed a corrupt group of bank traders and offshore entities to improperly and covertly transfer more than $10 billion out of Russia, by conscripting Deutsche Bank operations in Moscow, London and New York to their improper purpose.” The regulator added, “Deutsche Bank has represented that it has been unable to identify the actual purpose behind this scheme. It is obvious, though, that the scheme could have facilitated capital flight, tax evasion, or other potentially illegal objectives.”

While New York state regulators settled this case, the DOJ investigation has gone quiet since Jeff Sessions became the attorney general and Preet Bharara was fired as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had an explanation that has implications far beyond this case.

Under the Obama administration, financial institutions paid hundreds of billions of dollars in fines in the decade since the 2008 financial crisis. The DOJ had reversed decades of tradition by requiring banks to plead guilty to criminal charges ranging from market manipulation to sanctions violations.

In September, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said during a question-and-answer session after a speech at the Heritage Foundation that DOJ is reviewing its stance toward corporate prosecutions.

In addition to the president’s involvement with Deutsche Bank, his son-in-law’s records might be of interest to Mueller.

One month before Election Day, Jared Kushner’s real estate company finalized a $285 million loan as part of a refinancing package for its property near Times Square in Manhattan.

The loan came at a critical moment. Kushner was playing a key role in the presidential campaign of his father-in-law, Donald Trump. The lender, Deutsche Bank, was negotiating to settle a federal mortgage fraud case and charges from New York state regulators that it aided a possible Russian money-laundering scheme.

As with so many of Kushner’s suspicious activities, this one was not mentioned on his financial disclosure form filed with the Office of Government Ethics.

It is also worth noting the connection between Deutsche Bank and Vnesheconobank, or VEB, a Russian owned state bank that is under U.S. sanctions.

Deutsche Bank also has deep ties with Vnesheconobank, or VEB, the Russian state-owned development bank that’s known in U.S. intelligence circles as the de facto financial house of spies…

The two banks signed a cooperation agreement in 2006, “with a view to further intensifying the cooperation between the two institutions.” The agreement was signed by VEB chairman Vladimir Dmitriev.

In 2016, Dmitriev left VEB. He became the head of development of Deutsche Bank…

Dmitriev left VEB in February 2016 and was replaced by Sergey Gorkov, a crony of Russian President Vladimir Putin and one-time member of Russia’s federal security service.

Last December, the Russian ambassador arranged a meeting between Jared Kushner and Sergey Gorkov.

The White House Counsel’s Office was informed this month that the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, wanted to question Mr. Kushner about meetings he arranged with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, according to the government officials. The meetings, which took place during the transition, included a previously unreported sit-down with the head of Russia’s state-owned development bank.

Perhaps you can see why Trump threatened to fire Mueller if he started looking into his financial history at about the time that Deutsche Bank came up as part of the investigation. If there was a financial quid pro quo between Trump and Putin, it very likely ran right through the German bank.

The Sexual Abuse Scandals Make Asymmetric Polarization Harder to Deny

The big political question of the day is whether the Democratic Party’s housecleaning of sexual abusers (Al Franken, John Conyers), while Trump, Moore and Farenthold are still there will create a disastrous dynamic for the GOP brand. I can’t imagine it won’t—if not immediately, then in some karmic long run way. But what it might also accomplish is to provide a vivid, memorable, hard to deny example of the truth of asymmetric polarization.

There is a mountain of polling and political science showing that the GOP is just way more partisan than the Democratic Party. The data is quite clear that conservatives stay more firmly in their own media bubbles; that the 40-year trend of increasing polarization in Congress has been driven far more by GOP lawmakers becoming more conservative that Democrats becoming more liberal; that the GOP has become more ideological and its voters responsive to ideological signaling, whereas the Democratic Party remains a coalition of interest groups and its voters more receptive to calls for concrete government actions that address their problems.

These truths are seldom reflected, however, in mainstream press coverage. In fact, there is almost nothing reporters struggle with more. Many of them have read or seen the data and kinda-sorta know it’s true. But saying or writing it publicly makes them sound biased, so they are reluctant to do so. Plus, the truth runs somewhat counter to their personal experience in that the nature of their work brings them into constant contact with extremely partisan people on both sides.

But the polling on this one is pretty hard to deny: Republican voters are flatly more willing to tolerate sexual predators among their elected officials than Democratic voters are. You can try to chalk that up to demographics—that GOP voters are older, whiter, more resistant to feminism and forgiving of men’s misbehaviors. But the variability of their tolerance (71 percent of Republicans say a Democratic congressman accused of sexual harassment should resign from office, but only 54 percent would demand the same of a Republican, a far bigger partisan swing than Democratic voters show) gives the game away. If Roy Moore wins in Alabama and is not expelled by the Republican-led Senate (and it looks like he won’t be); if Republican leaders and commentators continue to stonewall in the face of growing calls to further investigate Donald Trump’s record of sexual assault; and if Democrats continue to purge the boors and abusers within their own ranks despite the political costs (which, though less high so far than for Republicans, is not nothing), it’s going to be noticeably more difficult for even the most both-siderish reporters and commentators to maintain their silence about the asymmetric polarization that is, practically speaking, the single most powerful force reshaping American politics and policy.