Political Animal

In North Carolina, Disapproval of Trump Equals Support for Impeachment

Let’s keep in mind all the usual caveats about polling results, especially when the subject is Donald Trump. For the purpose of discussion, however, we can assume that most polls are at least in the right general ballpark. Consider the following findings from Public Policy Polling’s survey of North Carolinians.

PPP’s newest North Carolina poll finds that Donald Trump continues to be unpopular and that voters in the state are evenly divided on the question of impeaching him.

46% of voters approve of the job Trump is doing to 51% who disapprove of him, in a state that he took by 4 points in 2016. 48% of voters support impeaching Trump, with an equal 48% opposed. At this point disapproval for Trump and support for impeaching Trump have become almost the same thing- only 7% of voters who disapprove of Trump are opposed to impeaching him.

The Tarheel State is important because it’s competitive. Barack Obama carried it in 2008 before losing it narrowly in 2012. Trump’s four point victory there was one of his smallest winning margins. The PPP poll results show some slippage for the president, and this is reflected in the head-to-head matchups.

We tested the 5 leading Democratic candidates in head to heads with Trump and he trails 3 of them, while it’s very close against the other two. Joe Biden has a 5 point advantage at 51-46, Elizabeth Warren has a 3 point advantage at 49-46, and Bernie Sanders is up 50-47. Trump and Kamala Harris tie at 47, and Trump has a slight advantage over Pete Buttigieg at 47-46. It’s notable that regardless of the Democrat he’s tested against, Trump always polls at 46-47% in North Carolina.

These numbers match my intuition, for whatever that is worth. Trump is persistently holding on to a shocking percentage of his supporters, and this provides him with some hope of carrying the states he won in 2016. But he’s still somewhat weaker and should now be considered an underdog in North Carolina and in the national campaign. If this were the only finding in this poll, I wouldn’t consider it worthy of much conversation.

What stands out in the results is the intensity of the opposition to Trump. It’s one thing to prefer a Democratic candidate, and quite another to think the president should be tossed out of office before he has a chance to run for reelection. In North Carolina, 51 percent of the voters disapprove of the job Trump is doing. That’s a depressingly small majority, but it is still a majority. Yet, fully 48 percent want him impeached.

PPP says that only seven percent of Trump disapprovers are opposed to impeachment, which amounts to about three percent of the voters they surveyed. In other words, if you’re not drinking his kool-aid, you’re already convinced that he isn’t fit for office.

The president might take heart that the state is currently split 48%-48% on the question of impeachment, but given his 46 percent job approval number, that’s a startlingly poor number for him.  He’s fortunate that the Senate needs a two-thirds majority to convict, because he’s not looking too likely to win on a majority vote.

If you’re North Carolina senator Thom Tillis and you have to run for reelection next year, it’s hard to figure out what to make of these polling results. Already, a majority of your voters disapprove of the president and nearly half of them support impeachment. But most of these people will be voting against you no matter what you do. The problem is the lack of wiggle room in the middle. If you vote to acquit the president, you’ll probably have no hope of getting about half the votes cast in your state. On the other hand, if you anger the 46 percent of voters who support the president, how many of them will still mark their ballot for you?  You’ll win some compensation in the middle by doing the right thing, but will it be enough?

If Tillis stakes his ground strongly on one side or the other, he could get the worst of both worlds. Yet, straddling the middle could be deadly as well, as it would please almost no one. If he were to strongly support impeachment, he might get enough compensation to make up for angering his base, but he might still fall victim to an overall backlash against his party, especially if Trump is acquitted. If he were to strongly oppose impeachment, he’d be relying on stronger differential turnout for Republicans to put him over the top, but even a popular incumbent president almost never wins an enthusiasm war. The out-party is usually far more motivated. Tillis could seek to anger as few people as possible by saying very little and then casting a vote to convict with a little solemn speech. But this would limit the credit he’d get without preventing disillusionment from his base.

If I were advising him, I’d tell him to do the right thing and let the cards fall where they may. He doesn’t want to defend a person like Trump and then lose anyway. But if I was going to advise him on how to win, I’d probably tell him that his best hope is to be a visible proponent of conviction.

This is not an obvious choice. A lot would depend on whether or not he was actually convicted.

If Trump were thrown out of office, the Republicans would have a different candidate and that might help Tillis all by itself. The main focus would still be on the presidential race, and it’s possible that the state could revert to its slight preference for the GOP. This would at least remove the headwinds, as he wouldn’t have to outperform the top of the ticket.

If, on the other hand, Trump were acquitted despite Tillis’s strong support for conviction, he’d be on a more equal footing with his Democratic opponent as they faced an electorate where conviction was the likely majority sentiment.

If Tillis opts to convict, he should not be shy about it because he’s going to need to appeal to the majority sentiment to make up for the backlash he faces from the right.

If he opts to acquit, he should probably start looking for a new job. But, if he opts for acquittal, he’s going to need every last Trump-supporting vote and he’s going to need Trump to carry the state. That means he should back Trump to the hilt.

A final consideration for Tillis is the prospect of a primary challenge. The filing deadline for the March 3, 2020 primary is December 20, 2019. It appears that he already has two challengers. Neither of them are competitive in fundraising, and the stronger of the two, Garland Tucker, only had $108,488.29 cash on hand at the end of June. Tillis had over $4 million.  While the threat of a primary is something he has to consider, he doesn’t look overly imperiled at the moment. That could certainly change between now and March. Surely, the president could help Tucker rapidly fill his coffers. If the vote comes after December 20, at least Tillis won’t have to worry about any additional challengers.

He, like many of his Republican colleagues, doesn’t have good political options, so he should probably follow his conscience. There simply isn’t an obvious winning position to take, so he should take the one that will be easiest to live with when he’s on his deathbed.

Senate Intel Committee Affirms What Barr Refuses to Acknowledge

On Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Republican Richard Burr, released the second volume of their bipartisan three year investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. While the committee’s first report focused on the hacking of election systems, this one zeroed in on the role of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and their use of social media. Here is the most significant finding.

The Committee found, that the IRA sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin…where the Intelligence Community assessed that the Russian government “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him,” the Committee found that IRA social media activity was overtly and almost invariably supportive of then-candidate Trump, and to the detriment.of Secretary Clinton’s campaign.

That affirms the conclusions of the Mueller report.

As set forth in detail in this report, the Special Counsel’s investigation established that Russia interfere in the 2016 presidential election principally through two operations. First, a Russian entity carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Second, a Russian intelligence service conducted computer-intrusion operations against entities, employees, and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents.

While Donald Trump has both acknowledged and denied Russian interference in the 2016 election, he is now focused on shifting attention to the conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered to support Clinton. But Attorney General William Barr has launched an investigation into the origins of the FBI probe and is traveling the globe to pressure our allies into supporting his own agenda. While it has been difficult to determine Barr’s intentions, Natasha Bertrand suggested two.

* examining the intelligence community’s role in the Russia probe—and, in accordance with Trump’s desires, looking at whether the help provided by U.S. allies in the Russia probe, including the U.K., Italy, Australia and Ukraine, may itself have constituted foreign interference, and

* the question of how the intelligence community determined that Russia intervened specifically to help Trump win rather than to just sow chaos and distrust in the Democratic process.

I have noted that, in his public statements, Barr has gone out of his way to avoid saying that Russia interfered in the election in order to support Trump. In his four-page summary of the Mueller report, this is what the attorney general wrote.

The Special Counsel’s investigation determined that there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. The first involved attempts by a Russian organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), to conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election…

The second element involved the Russian government’s efforts to conduct computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election. The Special Counsel found that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks.

Comparing that to what Mueller wrote, it is clear that Barr left out the statement that the Russian social media campaign “favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”

Here is what the attorney general said during a press conference on the day he released the Mueller report.

[T]he report details efforts by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company with close ties to the Russian government, to sow social discord among American voters through disinformation and social media operations.

Once again, he left out the fact that the social media campaign was designed to support Trump and disparage Clinton. It is clear that those are not insignificant omissions. The Mueller investigation found that, when it was announced that Trump had won the election, someone whose name is redacted sent a message to Russian oligarch Kirill Dmitriev which simply said, “Putin has won.” We now learn that IRA operatives raised a glass in celebration.

Messages obtained by the Senate Intelligence Committee showed IRA operatives celebrating Trump’s victory. After the elction, one operative wrote, “We uncorked a tiny bottle of champagne … took one gulp each and looked into each other’s eyes. …. We uttered almost in unison: ‘We made America great.'”

While it is impossible to accurately calibrate the impact Russian interference had on the outcome of the election, it is obvious that these Russians thought that they had helped Trump win the presidency. That is something that neither Trump nor Barr are willing to acknowledge because it raises questions about the legitimacy of the 2016 election.

When a Journalist Choses Truth Over Balance

Chuck Todd has often been criticized as a journalist for his adherence to bothsiderism. The most egregious example was when he blamed Democrats for the unpopularity of Obamacare and proclaimed that it wasn’t the media’s job to call out Republican lies. But here’s a more recent example.

That struck me as a form of gaslighting. But as Jay Rosen notes, something recently changed.

I would suggest that the change actually happened a few days before that interview with Senator Johnson.

It was Trump’s statement that both Ukraine and China should investigate his potential political opponent that finally flipped a switch for Todd, leading him to announce that, “a national nightmare is upon us.”

The change in Todd hasn’t gone unnoticed by right wing media. After the interview with Senator Johnson, Mark Hemingway wrote about “Chuck Todd and the demise of true journalism.”

Chuck Todd’s first question to Johnson was about the Wisconsin senator’s statement that he “winced” at the suggestion that military aid to Ukraine was potentially linked to investigations into Biden family dealings in that country. Johnson pivoted to attacks on President Trump by the media and intelligence agencies over the last two years…

What Todd is telling viewers is that official investigations from Johnson’s committee, the Justice Department, and the attorney general are actually just outgrowths of a conspiracy theory.

After sighing loudly, Todd said, “I have no idea why Fox News conspiracy propaganda stuff is popping up on here.”

While Todd’s dismissal of Johnson was met with applause from fellow journalists, was this an appropriate stance from a newsman purportedly concerned with facts?

The Trump campaign and administration were investigated for several years both by an internal counterintelligence probe at the FBI and a powerful special counsel. Many apparent abuses of power at the FBI during that probe have been found and are being officially investigated.

The critical word from Hemingway comes in the last sentence of the first paragraph when he says that Johnson “pivoted” from the question Todd asked about his reaction to the news that military aid to Ukraine had been linked to the president’s demand for an investigation into his political opponent. The senator didn’t want to answer that question, so he “pivoted” to conspiracy theories about attacks on the president by our intelligence services. And yes, calling them “conspiracy theories” is an appropriate stance for a newsman concerned with the facts. To give them credence is to chose balance over truth, which is what the conspiracy theorists are counting on. It was because Todd didn’t comply that he is now being pilloried by the right.

Just to be clear, Senator Johnson is no stranger to conspiracy theories. For example, he warned about ISIS militants intentionally infecting themselves with Ebola and then traveling to the United States. He suggested that there was a “secret society” of FBI managers meeting offsite to plot their strategies to take down the president. Finally, he actually held a hearing to suggest that Medicaid expansion fueled the opioid crisis.

What Hemingway and Trump’s enablers want is for mainstream journalists to give as much credence to their conspiracy theories as they do to the truth. But as Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein wrote back in 2012, “a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” It appears that Chuck Todd has finally grasped that, when it comes to Republicans and Democrats, we are dealing with an “unbalanced phenomenon.” He’ll certainly pay a price for that awareness when it comes to Trump’s enablers and supporters, but he is standing squarely on the ground of good journalism.

Our First Amendment Responsibility

Americans tend to be fiercely protective of and willing to exercise our First Amendment rights— to speak, to pray, to gather in the name of causes we believe in. What we don’t hear as much about is First Amendment responsibility. During the past several weeks, a young Swedish teenager and climate activist, Greta Thunberg, gave us a subtle example of what this responsibility looks like.

“Yes, I write my own speeches,” she said on Facebook, “but since I know that what I say is going to reach many, many people, I often ask for input. I also have a few scientists that I frequently ask for help on how to express certain complicated matters. I want everything to be absolutely correct so that I don’t spread incorrect facts, or things that can be misunderstood.”

At 16 years old, Thunberg exhibits a profound respect for the power of words. She understands that because the universe has put a megaphone in front of her mouth, she needs to be very careful about what comes out of it. She knows what she doesn’t know. She appreciates that she might want to ask a couple of experienced experts to read over her speeches, as well as an extra set of eyes to check for spelling, grammar, and any nuances among complicated terms or theories. She is being responsible with what she understands is a sacred privilege – to say what is on her mind and in her heart.

If only every person with a Facebook or Twitter account was so prudent.

We have more platforms available today than ever before on which to practice our right to free speech. Before the Internet and social media, the best and perhaps only way to get one’s ideas into public view was to write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper or national publication. Back then, ideas were subject to review by at least one other person before being given the benefit of ink and paper. Now, there is no editorial board; there’s often not even spell check. Even at the highest levels of government, shooting off at the mouth is held up as an example of courageous authenticity. The rock on which Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram rest is the collective certainty that we can all say to a wide audience whatever we want, however we want to say it. This relatively new phenomenon—the freedom of the digital revolution—is generally accepted as a positive development for our speech rights. Yet, as with all growth, there are accompanying pains.

Social media makes each user an editorial board of one. This is an adult-sized responsibility that today’s young tweeters and posters probably do not appreciate. As a society—and as parents and teachers—we need to teach kids to drive the Internet like we teach them to drive cars. If we don’t, then many of them will crash in ways they likely do not have the foresight to imagine.

Take this recent example. Carson King is the Iowa football fan who held up a sign during a game asking for beer money and ended up raising almost $3 million for a local children’s hospital. When the local newspaper went to cover this feel-good story, the reporter did a background check on King and uncovered some nasty tweets he posted as a 16-year-old, high school sophomore.

Then, we watched Mr. King crash. During what should have been a shining moment for him, he was called to account, in the most public and humiliating way possible, for exercising his First Amendment rights before he was wise enough to appreciate the consequences. In another era, the world would never know about his youthful ignorance and indiscretion. But, alas, he is among the first generation of humans to have their teenage years documented for all time. His is a cautionary tale, and the lesson is this: you are free to say, write, and post whatever you wish, but you are accountable for whatever comes of it tomorrow, next year, or even thirty years from now.

We can lament that as a sad farewell to a bygone time when adolescent mistakes were anonymous and forgotten, or we can use it as an opportunity to teach responsibility not just to teenagers but to adults as well. Young Thunberg is astute enough to realize the harm that could come from, as she says, “spreading incorrect facts, or things that can be misunderstood.” So, too, then should be every Tweeter with  scores and scores of followers—whose words, in some cases, have the power of societal and political consequences. The least we can learn from Thunberg’s activism and King’s altruism is that one is never too young or too obscure to make headlines through social media.

Since King’s tweets were unearthed, he has humbly acknowledged his mistakes and asked for forgiveness. Fortunately, he seems to have been forgiven. There has been widespread agreement in the media, both conventional and social, that he has compensated for whatever harm he might have caused as a kid with his philanthropic spirit as an adult and, maybe more importantly, by serving as a reminder of the perils of carelessly exercising free speech.

In an interesting twist, the reporter who originally uncovered King’s unsavory tweets had his own questionable Twitter history—an important reminder to practice humility as we collectively adjust to the cultural change brought on by social media. We are all human, and we all say things that we wish we could take back or revise. We can agree to be held accountable without lapsing into finger-pointing and stone-throwing judgement.

Some will say this is an argument for censorship and political correctness. It’s not. It’s a suggestion for discipline and self-control when speaking to the anonymous, digital audience. It’s so easy to forget the listener when one posts from the solitude of a tiny, handheld screen. And it’s easy to underestimate the very long, perhaps permanent, shelf life of online musings. So before tapping “post,” we would all benefit from pausing and thinking about the examples of Greta Thunberg and Carson King.