Senator and War Hero John McCain roils Washington

May 13, 2018

Senator John McCain roils Washington for speaking out on torture and a Trump nominee

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been receiving treatment for brain cancer, but he revived a tense debate over torture this week by speaking out against Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA. (Tasos Katopodis/AFP/Getty Images)

Sen. John McCain is 2,200 miles from Washington and hasn’t been on Capitol Hill in five months, but he showed this week that he remains a potent force in national politics and a polarizing figure within the Republican Party.

From his home in Sedona, Ariz., where he is receiving treatment for an aggressive and typically fatal type of brain cancer, McCain has challenged and praised the Trump administration’s actions on national security — his voice limited to news releases and Twitter.

But his declaration Wednesday in opposition to Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee for CIA director, has uniquely roiled the political scene. The denunciation has prompted reactions from fellow senators and a former Vice President, as well as intemperate remarks from some Republicans aligned with Trump, including a White House aide.

It has revived the fierce debate over torture and its effectiveness in extracting information in the years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — from a man who speaks from experience. McCain was held for 5½ years in a North Vietnamese prison, often deprived of sleep, food and medical care, after a jet he piloted was shot down over Hanoi.

And while McCain is not expected to cast a vote, his opposition to Haspel — based on her record overseeing controversial CIA interrogations of suspected terrorists — has injected uncertainty into her confirmation.

As Republicans and Democrats come to grips with a Senate without him, McCain has remained in Arizona, receiving visitors on the deck of his cabin.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of McCain’s closest friends, returned this week from an extended visit there and described his outlook: “One foot in front of the other.”

“We’re talking about the future,” Graham added. “We talk about what’s going on in the Mideast. I was pleasantly surprised [by his vigor], and I’m looking forward to going back.”

But there is little expectation on Capitol Hill that McCain, 81, will ever return to his old haunt as elder statesman, jet-setting diplomat, military expert and conscience of the Republican Party. That is the subtext of his forthcoming book, “The Restless Wave,” an elegiac volume set for release later this month in which McCain recounts and defends his efforts to expose and prevent torture, combat Russian expansionism and advance the postwar international order.


“Before I leave I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations,” he writes. “I would like to see us recover our sense that we are more alike than different. We are citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one. Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it.”

McCain also questions Trump more directly in the book, acknowledging “glimmers of hope” in his foreign policy but expressing grave doubts about Trump himself.

“I’m not sure what to make of President Trump’s convictions,” he writes, adding, “The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values.”

McCain’s illness has added gravity to his opposition to Haspel, who as a senior CIA official during the post-9/11 war on terrorism oversaw “enhanced interrogations” of terrorism suspects that some — including McCain — have described as torture.

During a confirmation hearing Wednesday, Haspel pledged that she would never allow the CIA to engage in those types of interrogations under her watch. But she repeatedly declined to characterize the CIA’s previous interrogation methods as immoral, saying they were authorized under the law.

The same day, former vice president Richard B. Cheney — the leading proponent of the interrogation techniques inside the George W. Bush administration — told the Fox Business Network that the CIA’s actions did not amount to torture. He also argued, in contradiction of a Senate report on the issue, that “it worked.”

“If it was my call,” he said, “I’d do it again.”

Hours later, McCain issued a statement declaring that “the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.”

“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense,” he said. “However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

That denunciation infuriated some Republicans who have seen McCain as a motivated opponent of Trump and have moved away from the more idealistic strain of conservatism that McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, has embodied.

The Washington Post and other media outlets reported Thursday that Kelly Sadler, a White House communications official, dismissed McCain’s opposition in a staff meeting, saying, “It doesn’t matter; he’s dying, anyway.”

The White House has not disputed the report. “I’m not going to comment on an internal staff meeting,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday.

Separately Thursday, retired Air Force Gen. Thomas McInerney said during an appearance on the Fox Business Network that torture “worked on John” during McCain’s years in captivity. “That’s why they call him ‘Songbird John,’ ” McInerney said.

Neither Sadler nor McInerney has publicly apologized. Independent accounts of McCain’s time in North Vietnamese captivity do not include any suggestion that he offered material information to his captors, and McCain says the same. He did, by multiple accounts, refuse offers of early release based on his status as the son of a Navy admiral.

His defense fell to his family and some of his old friends in Washington. His wife, Cindy, tweeted a rebuke at Sadler, and daughter Meghan addressed the attacks during Friday’s broadcast of “The View,” the ABC daytime talk show she co-hosts.

“I don’t understand what kind of environment you’re working in when that would be acceptable, and then you can come to work the next day and still have a job,” she said.

She added: “My father’s legacy is going to be talked about for hundreds and hundreds of years. These people? Nothingburgers. Nobody’s going to remember you.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden issued a sharp statement, accusing the Trump administration of hitting “rock bottom.”

“John McCain is a genuine hero — a man of valor whose sacrifices for his country are immeasurable,” he said. “As he fights for his life, he deserves better — so much better.”

It is possible, though unlikely, that McCain’s opposition to Haspel’s nomination could sink her prospects for confirmation. Most Democrats have opposed her appointment; Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) both cited McCain in announcing their opposition to Haspel on Friday.

Several senators have yet to announce their intentions, and one key vote belongs to Arizona’s junior senator, Republican Jeff Flake, who recently visited McCain in Sedona and said Thursday that McCain’s words were weighing heavily on his decision.

“I’ve always shared McCain’s views on torture and looked up to him on this,” he said.

Sean Sullivan, Seung Min Kim and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.–alert-national&wpmk=1

Michelle Wolf Blasted Open the Fictions of Journalism in the Age of Trump

May 1, 2018

Michelle Wolf Blasted Open the Fictions of Journalism in the Age of Trump

On Saturday, the comedian Michelle Wolf, performing at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, delivered the most consequential monologue so far of the Donald Trump era. Some of the attendees claimed to have walked out of the dinner in protest during the performance; others, like the President’s Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have been lauded for remaining stoically in place in the face of scathing humor. The tension of it all might have been too much. The Times’ White House correspondent Peter Baker lamented on Twitter, “I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.” Commentators wondered—not for the first time—whether the White House Correspondents’ Association should discontinue the tradition of having comedians perform at the function.

Wolf’s monologue—sharp, unflinching, and pointedly unfunny in places—called bullshit on the role laughter has been performing in Trump’s America. Over the last year and a half, much of the culture has sought relief in humor in much the same way as citizens of extremely repressive countries. Back in the early nineties, in her book “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed,” the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić described laughter as the ultimate personal triumph over the daily humiliations of life under Communist rule. In today’s Russia, people make jokes about the fear Vladimir Putin inspires (he opens the fridge and the jellied meat begins to quake, but he reassures it by saying he is getting the yogurt) or the suicidal nature of Russian foreign policy (we’ll retaliate against American sanctions by bombing the Russian city of Voronezh), the same way that they used to joke about Leonid Brezhnev’s inability to talk or stay awake during official functions. Jokes serve a transparent purpose: they reclaim the power to define—and inhabit—reality. They also reclaim the goodness of laughter, for regimes weaponize laughter to mock their opponents, creating what the cultural theorist Svetlana Boym called “totalitarian laughter.” Its opposite is anti-totalitarian laughter.

I recognize laughter in the age of Trump as though it were a cousin of anti-totalitarian laughter. It is the reaction to seeing act-based reality, as when “Saturday Night Live” essentially reënacts White House press conferences, or when late-night comedians offer up what amounts to straightforward reportage and analysis. The hunger for a reflection of reality is so desperate that, I have discovered repeatedly over the last year and a half, one can reliably get laughs simply by quoting Trump during a public talk.

Last month, Hillary Clinton got laughs and applause during her Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, which concluded PEN America’s annual World Voices Festival, by merely referring to Trump’s lie about the size of the crowd at his Inauguration (around the twenty-three-minute mark here). There was nothing funny about any of it: not about the President’s lies, nor about the grief that this had not been Clinton’s Inauguration, nor about the fact that, speaking a year and a half after her electoral loss, addressing the friendliest of all possible audiences, Clinton was as stilted, scripted, and unapproachable as ever. She was still campaigning, still losing, and there was no reason to laugh.

Political satire in less troubled times exaggerates existing facts, pointing out the absurdities inherent in all ideologies, or playing up smaller disagreements and failures for bigger laughs. But Trump is hard to exaggerate—it is enough, it seems, merely to mirror him. But why does faithful portrayal of fact-based reality elicit laughter in a country that has a free press and a healthy public sphere in which, it seems, reality is robustly represented? What do late-night comedians reclaim from the Times?

Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner suggests an answer. She called the President a racist, a truth as self-evident as it has proved difficult for mainstream journalists to state. Her humor was obscene: she joked about the President’s affair with a porn star; about his “pulling out,” as promised (of the Paris agreement); and about the G.O.P.’s former deputy finance chair Elliott Broidy’s $1.6 million payoff to a former mistress. She also made mincemeat of White House staff, House and Senate Republican leaders, the Democrats, and journalists on the right and left, in their presence or in that of their colleagues.

The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner is a peculiar institution. It brings together White House correspondents, other members of the news media, and the people they cover: government employees and elected officials. (In years past, though not so much in the Trump era, it also attracted a gaggle of Hollywood celebrities.) What makes these dinners possible are fictions about civility and performance. There is a fiction that holds that journalists and their subjects can eat and socialize together and yet maintain the distance necessary to continue performing their professional roles. There is a fiction that they can laugh at one another and themselves and not take offense, that the divisions among guests are ultimately bridgeable, that all of them inhabit the same reality, and that both the humor and the objects of the humor are innocuous.

The same fiction continues to dominate our public sphere. In this story, Trump performs the role of President, albeit poorly, and those in the media maintain a strained civility in their coverage of him. In this story, the statement that the President is a racist is still controversial. In this story, the media can discuss his affair with a porn star, and even the question of whether he used a condom, without undermining respect for the office. This is an essential pretense, because respect for the office of the President is indeed a value that should transcend the current Presidency. But it is this pretense, and these fictions, that cast a pall of unreality over most media coverage and make late-night comedy shows the better news outlets. And then there is the pretense that the late-night comedians exist in a parallel universe, separate even from the television channels that broadcast them.

Wolf’s routine burst the bubbles of civility and performance, and of the separation of media and comedy. It plunged the attendees into the reality that is, in the Trump era, the stuff of comedy. Through her obscene humor, Wolf exposed the obscenity of the fictions—and the fundamental unfunniness of it all. Her last line, the most shocking of her entire monologue, bears repeating: Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

Fareed Zakaria on Macron’s State Visit to Washington DC

April 29, 2018

Fareed Zakaria on Macron’s State Visit to Washington DC

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria


Emmanuel Macron came, saw and conquered Washington this week. But the French President is trying to do something much harder than generate buzz and goodwill. He is trying to stop President Trump from dividing the Western alliance and disrupting the (already turbulent) Middle East. Watching him at work — flattering Trump, then politely disagreeing with him, all while proposing compromise solutions — is like watching a skilled dancer execute a complex set of moves. It remains to be seen whether Macron can pull it off, but thank goodness he is trying.

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“Emmanuel Macron came, saw and conquered Washington this week. But the French President is trying to do something much harder than generate buzz and goodwill. He is trying to stop President Trump from dividing the Western alliance and disrupting the (already turbulent) Middle East. Watching him at work — flattering Trump, then politely disagreeing with him, all while proposing compromise solutions — is like watching a skilled dancer execute a complex set of moves.”–Dr. Fareed Zakaria


Macron thinks that “Donald Trump will get rid of the Iran deal for domestic reasons,” he told me and a small group of journalists on Wednesday. What will ensue, he predicted, is “a period of tension.” That might be an understatement. Tehran has signaled that if Trump pulls out of the deal on May 12 — when he faces a deadline on whether to restore sanctions on Iran — the most likely result is that Tehran would also withdraw. And as Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told me on Monday, “Once we withdraw, all the restrictions on our nuclear program end.”

Zarif said that, in the accord, Iran made a much stronger pledge than most realize. “President Trump does not seem to have read the agreement. The third line of it states: ‘Iran commits to never developing nuclear weapons.’ There is no time restriction on that. The word we use is ‘never.’ The time restrictions relate to voluntary limits on our nuclear energy program that we have undertaken to give the international community confidence that we are sincere in our intentions.”

Macron is not so sure that Iran would withdraw from the deal. “If Iran pulls out as well, the U.S. might put very tough sanctions on it and things would spiral downwards,” he said. He plans to urge President Hassan Rouhani to temper the Iranian reaction and agree to find a new way forward.

Image result for Macron and Trump at The White House

Macron has pushed Trump privately and publicly to keep the Iran deal. “It sets a terrible precedent for the world’s leading power to renege on an agreement that it spearheaded and signed,” he said. And Macron sees it as part of a dismaying pattern from an administration that has decided to pull out of the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, weakened its commitment to the World Trade Organization and now seems determined to scuttle the pact with Iran.

But Macron is also critical of Iran. “Since the agreement was signed, Iran has made some decisions. It expanded its regional interventions [in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria]. It has strengthened its ballistic missile arsenal. It appears to have used the proceeds from sanctions relief to fund its militias and external operations more than provide relief to its population. All these decisions have consequences,” he said.

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French President Emmanuel Macron answers a question from student in the audience during a town hall meeting at George Washington University in Washington, April 25, 2018.

In any event, Macron is determined not to wring his hands, but rather to find a way forward. Hence his artful proposal for a new nuclear deal. While this may sound like Trump, Macron is actually suggesting something quite different. The first pillar of his new approach is adherence to the existing nuclear deal, unamended and unabridged. But he proposes three additional pillars that would address Iran’s ballistic missile program, counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, and extend the commitments Iran has made beyond various timelines in the current deal (which range from eight to 25 years).

In other words, were Iran to agree to start discussing these topics, the current deal would stay intact. It’s not clear that the Iranian government would accept this demand. And it’s not clear that Trump would agree to a framework in which the agreement that he has branded “the worst deal ever negotiated” would remain in place. Both sides would have to climb down from their positions.

One Iranian who is well-versed in the issues made an interesting observation about why the nuclear deal has had so many critics in both Washington and Tehran. For 40 years, the United States and Iran have settled into a pattern of behavior. The United States sees its role as applying pressure and threats to Iran, while Iran thinks its role is to bravely resist. The nuclear deal was an effort to break with the past and create a new dynamic of dialogue. But it generated a backlash in both countries.

Macron is trying to forge a new path for dialogue and diplomacy. If he fails, it will be because too many in Washington, and even in Tehran, have gotten comfortable with the old pattern. By mindlessly sticking to it, they seem to be leading us down a path of tension, conflict and, perhaps, even war.

c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


The Changing Shape of Protests in the Second Year of the Trump Era

April 7, 2018

The Changing Shape of Protests in the Second Year of the Trump Era

Since Donald Trump took office, the tenor of liberal mass protest has grown sophisticated not just in its messaging but in its sense of how local political power can be. Photograph by Scott Heins / Bloomberg / Getty


In the past month, teachers in three conservative and comparatively poor states have gone on strike, and, in that short time, certain patterns have developed. In West Virginia, Kentucky, and, most recently, Oklahoma, the teachers have worn red clothing, and they have had a protest song—Twisted Sister’s hair-metal anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It”—which, at the Oklahoma state capitol on Monday, was played enthusiastically on drums and brass by several dozen of the state’s band teachers. The strikes have been organized on Facebook rather than called by union leaders, and, in West Virginia and Oklahoma, the teachers have rejected lawmakers’ initial offers of pay raises; they have said that they also want to change the systematic underfunding of education. “The real midterms are happening right now, in Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona,” the left-wing political theorist Corey Robin tweeted on Sunday.

The tenor of liberal mass protest has changed in the fifteen months since Donald Trump became President. The early demonstrations (the counterprotests at the Inauguration; the vast and furious crowds at the Women’s March, a day later; the more anxious ones that gathered at airports, calling for the release of sequestered Iranian graduate students and Iraqi grandmothers, after the President issued his first travel ban targeting predominantly Muslim nations) had a feeling of holding the country back from a precipice. There was talk of creeping fascism, and a sense that the Trump Administration was a bad dream from which the country might awake if people pinched themselves hard enough. At a Los Angeles march in November, 2017, protesters carried signs that read, “Let this nightmare end.”

The protests in the second year of the Trump Administration have taken on a different character. For one thing, they have been somewhat less about Trump. As a gun-control movement coalesced in the aftermath of the massacre of seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, its villain was not Trump but the National Rifle Association (N.R.A) and the influence it exerts in Washington and state legislatures around the country. The student activists from Parkland have been careful to argue that their call for gun control is in the reasonable mainstream, in contrast to the inflexible, extreme positions taken by politicians loyal to the N.R.A. “Our platform is moderate and common sense,” Matt Deitsch, a recent Stoneman Douglas graduate, who served as the head of messaging and outreach for the March for Our Lives, tweeted this week. “Anything that polls with a supermajority in our country cannot be seen as left / right.”

The Parkland protests were sophisticated not just in their messaging but in their sense of how local political power can be. In Sacramento, California, during the past two weeks, there have been demonstrations in response to the police killing of Stephon Clark, a young, unarmed African-American man who was shot after allegedly running away from officers who had confronted him in the yard of his grandmother’s house. The protests have aimed to shut down civic life in the city—blocking an interstate that runs through downtown Sacramento, delaying the start of a Sacramento Kings game. Shortly after the killing, Clark’s brother Stevante took over a Sacramento City Council meeting, and for three days demonstrations were held outside the offices of the county’s District Attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, who many residents believe has failed to hold cops accountable. These beliefs existed before Clark was killed. A few days before the shooting, a leader of the local Black Lives Matter chapter, Tanya Faison, had called for volunteers to follow police officers around Sacramento, recording what they did, as a method of citizen surveillance. The plan, she told reporters, was an unarmed version of a tactic the Black Panthers used, half a century ago.

The red-state teacher revolts have been especially precise in their tactics. They have focussed on the long-running matter of how conservative states, some of which require legislative supermajorities to raise any tax at all, pay for their schools. A common refrain in Oklahoma, where school funding has been so aggressively cut that about a fifth of schools now open for only four days each week, has been that many teachers have taken home about the same pay for a decade or more. The images that have circulated are of textbooks so old that they must be held together by duct tape. Schools are in bad shape all over, not just in states run by conservative politicians; in Baltimore, for instance, many public schools closed this winter when the city could not heat them. But, as Paul Waldman pointed out in the Washington Post this week, Hillary Clinton won nineteen of the twenty states where teachers are paid the most in the 2016 election, and Trump won nineteen of the twenty where teachers are paid the least.

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Robert Mueller is taking his own sweet time and spending American taxpayers’ money as if there was no tomorrow, all in the name of thoroughness.

The world of American politics right now is bracing for two events: the outcome of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and the midterm elections. Together, these two concerns occupy so much of the horizon that it is difficult to see much else. Mueller is following his own private timeline, discernible to the public only in glimpses. But the midterms are beginning to take shape—or, at least, the stakes of the elections are. Since the ascendance of the Tea Party, in 2010 (and, in some places, since long before then), politics in many parts of the country have been arranged around a program of cutting taxes and radically limiting governmental services. In November, we will know quite a bit more about whether that approach will continue to be a major part of our politics, or whether it will prove to be an ideological fad that took over for a while, and then dissipated. In the past few months, Democrats have continued to win special elections in places where they used to lose handily. Thousands of people have declared themselves candidates for public office. And the confidence of teachers in red states has grown: in Oklahoma, they rejected an offered fifteen-per-cent pay raise; in Arizona, they are demanding a twenty-per-cent hike. Those are not the bargaining positions of people who assume that the public will abandon them. It is the posture of those who assume, like the student activists from Parkland, that they are taking the common-sense position, that, even in red states, they have behind them a critical mass of support. (A recent poll released by the Oklahoma Education Association found that ninety-three per cent of Oklahoma residents believe the state legislature “has not done enough to increase funding for Oklahoma students and public schools.”)

In the months after Trump took office, it seemed like the nation’s politics had shifted for good; that the new normal would be cyclone after cyclone of angry populist feeling on the left and the right. But the demonstrations of the past few months have suggested not a split country but a broken political system: in a less toxically partisan time, a slightly more restrictive gun-control regimen or a steadier rate of funding for the schools could be resolved by subcommittees, instead of through marches. The increasingly extreme Republican regimes of this decade—Scott Walker’s in Wisconsin, Sam Brownback’s in Kansas, Mary Fallin’s in Oklahoma, and Paul Ryan’s and Donald Trump’s in Washington—have tended to act as if narrow electoral majorities were a mandate for vast political change, and as if those groups who supported their opponents should have no voice at all. For the past decade, these politics have redesigned actual towns and cities, leaving them with books with rotting bindings and schools that close on Fridays because they can’t afford anything more. But people live and teach in those towns, and they take notice of changes like these. Eventually, a bill comes due.


Benjamin Wallace-Wells began contributing to The New Yorker in 2006, and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015. He writes mainly about American politics and society.