“I may declare a National Emergency, dependent on what’s going to happen over the next few days.”
President Trump has a track record of pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. From his refusal to release his tax returns to his violations of the emoluments clause to his profiting from presidential visits to his own properties, the president tends to get what he wants by doing something outrageous, holding to his position, and before the issue can be reasonably addressed, doing something else outrageous to redirect people’s energy and attention.
Such incrementalism is noted at the Holocaust Museum as emblematic of how, in a remarkably short amount of time, Adolf Hitler took Germany from a democratic republic to a nation where the government rounded up groups of the country’s own citizens and exterminated them. The latter was not Hitler’s stated agenda initially, but bit by bit, he moved the nation to that place.
The largest catalyst for Hitler’s consolidation of power was an event called the Reichstag Fire. In the middle of the night on February 23, 1933, an arson fire started in the German Parliament. In response, the the next day, the German government passed the Reichstag Fire Decree, suspending many of the rights of the German citizenry on an emergency basis. The emergency decree remained in effect throughout World War II. This decree, and the accompanying claim of extraordinary circumstances requiring extraordinary measures, enabled Hilter to incrementally accomplish things that the Germany’s democracy would not otherwise have accepted.
The United States has its own equivalent of a Reichstag Fire Decree, ready to implement in the event of a national emergency. Once the President declares the United States to be in a “state of emergency,” a number of changes take place. Among them are:
President Trump has suggested that if Congress does not require U.S. taxpayers to pay for the U.S.-Mexico border wall that he had promised that Mexico would pay for, he will accomplish the building of the wall by declaring the U.S.-Mexico border a “National Emergency.” The concept of border crossings – little changed in decades – suddenly being labelled a national emergency is laughable on its face, and hopefully will be met with swift and effective resistance from Congress,.
However, Trump’s suggestion should be of concern.
For him, declaring the border a National Emergency is yet another trial balloon, testing public reaction, and making it just a little more acceptable, expected, and “normal” when, for example, a terrorist attack occurs and he is able to more easily and successfully declare a National Emergency. At that point, he may get his way, and God help us all.
Are You “Over-Sharing?”
Leaking in the Age of Trump
There are some things that cannot be undone. You cannot un-have a bad experience. You can’t un-lose your virginity. And you cannot un-say something that you have already said. That last one is particularly important for journalists and people in government right now. Our right to freedom of speech needs to be brought back into balance with the responsibilities that come with it.
We live in extraordinary times. Each day, bright, flashing signs indicate that our President may be incompetent, corrupt, compromised by a foreign power, mentally unstable, and/or have authoritarian tendencies. World leaders are responding to this situation in various ways, most of them not positive for the United States. Fake news is now a daily part of our information landscape. Our world feels increasingly chaotic.
As our alarm bells go off, it is reasonable to want to alert others to the dangers that we see. But decades of norms and protocols have developed for how certain information should be handled. Now more than ever, it is important to remind ourselves of, and adhere to, those protocols. This is especially true for the press and those in government, because their words can have the largest impacts.
For many in government, there are already very clear ground rules in place for the disclosure of information. They involve labels like “Confidential,” “Classified,” “Secret,” and “Top Secret.” Those labels have been attached to the information for a reason.
Government employees considering sharing such information online or with the press should think twice. The potential consequences are not just the legal problems related to getting caught. There are potential unintended consequences of that information going beyond its specified reach, including one or more person’s lives being put in danger, a vital relationship with an international ally being damaged, an enemy nation gaining advantage against the United States, terrorists accessing useful information, or other severe and unforeseen problems.
Even information that is not classified and seems very important for the public to know may be more appropriately communicated through different channels. Given the craziness of our current government situation, many public employees may feel that they are being patriotic and serving an essential role in our democracy when they contact the press or Wikileaks with a piece of incriminating evidence about the President or someone in his Administration.
In reality, however, that information, while certainly interesting and essential, may compromise important investigations. when shared publicly For example, if the President, his Administration, or those who were involved in his campaign are guilty or corruption or treason, it may tip them off as to what is currently known about their activities. This can help them have a better sense of what not to lie about when questioned by the FBI or Congress. Such public disclosures therefore do not serve the investigation or the public, even though the information may seem like it is important for everyone to know right away.
A more appropriate way to handle incriminating information related to Donald Trump, his campaign, or his Administration is to contact the team of Independent Prosecutor Robert Mueller, make a detailed record of what the information was, when you disclosed it and to whom, and try to keep some piece of proof of the information so that if they do not take proper action, you can move the information credibly through other channels later.
Law enforcement can be thankless work. When months of hard work has resulted in the apprehension of a suspect, it may be gratifying to tell the press the specifics of the incredible police work that was involved. And the work truly is impressive, it is interesting, and we the public are grateful for it. But the public does not need to know about it. Leave us with some mystery, let your work have a bit of a mystique: tell the press that the arrest was the result of “fantastic police work,” “diligent officers,” and “lots of long hours,” and leave it at that: we don’t need any more detail.
Disclosing the sources and methods provides valuable information for other criminals and terrorists to adjust their tactics to be more effective and avoid being caught. There is little if any benefit to the public knowing exactly what evidence or techniques resulted in the capture of the serial killer, what technology was used to uncover the pedophile ring, or what clues led to the arrest of the terrorists.
The only time that we need to know details about your sources, methods, and creative investigative insights is if you used potentially illegal or unconstitutional tactics. The public needs to know this in order to collectively decide if laws need be expanded to aid law enforcement, or if government power is creeping in ways that need to be put in check.
The field of journalism faces many pressures today. The 24-hour news cycle, the perceived need to be first with the story, the constant flow of information to the public from a range of sources, the demands of corporate media owners, and the periodic major catastrophes where news anchors are placed in the bizarre position of having to discuss the same event for hours on end while saying enough new things to keep people’s attention – all force journalists at times to betray their better instincts.
When people in law enforcement, the intelligence community, other government employees and White House staff become so concerned about something that they feel the need to contact the press, the news media are faced with the additional burden of being the grown-up in the room, exercising the essential judiciousness that their sources are not using regarding what information should or should not actually be passed on to the public. The press can turn an unfortunate indiscretion into a global incident.
An example is the recent terrorist attack on Manchester, England during the Ariana Grande concert. US government sources leaked to the news media photos that had been part of the investigation, as well as the name of the suspect, which British authorities had not yet wanted to disclose. Some US news outlets then included that information in their stories about the event. That decision in this situation caused the British government to temporarily suspend sharing of critical intelligence with the US government related to terrorism. Repeats of such blunders by other US media in future could result in a slow or even a complete stoppage of the vital flow of intelligence to our government.
Journalists should apply similar guidelines to those recommended for law enforcement and government employees. US news media are rightfully protective of their own sources, tot the point where “anonymous sources” have become commonplace in stories about matters of the highest magnitude. But at times, the press seem to have little discretion when it comes to disclosing the methods used by law enforcement, or revealing information that could compromise investigations such as the ones into the Trump campaign.
What can be said here, Mr. President?
Despite your frequent campaign scoldings of Hillary Clinton for e-mailing classified information using a private server, you clearly seem absolutely clueless as to how to handle sensitive information. In the span of two weeks, you shared highly classified information with the Russians – apparently in the course of some off-the-cuff boasting – and then told the not-particularly-stable President of the Philippines that we were stationing two nuclear submarines off the coast of North Korea. You enraged a Middle East ally, Israel, and our other international allies are losing their patience as well– and losing their desire to share vital intelligence with us.
During the campaign, World War II/Korean War veteran and former Virginia Republican Senator John Warner repeated the old military maxim “Loose lips sink ships,” adding for emphasis “got that, Trump?” Mr. President, either you must want to put the idea to the test, or you did NOT get it.
The items below might seem obvious, but the past couple weeks have shown that they must be said. The following are the things that the President of the United States, with extremely rare exceptions, should not say publicly or even to foreign leaders who are not our closest allies and who do not have a need to know:
Information from your briefings – particularly intelligence briefings
Information about impending military operations, including troop numbers, troop locations, timing, weapons to be employed, locations of the weapons, or possible ways that the enemy can make the weapons less effective
The nuclear codes
The identity of the person carrying the “nuclear football”
Names or other identifying information or locations of US spies, intelligence personnel, Navy SEALs, Special Forces Officers, or similar people in our allies’ forces
Military or other key vulnerabilities of the United States or our allies
Methods used by the United States or our allies for tracking or apprehending terrorists
Gossip or catty comments about America’s international allies
Any information that has not been confirmed by a credible source
Information that others could potentially use to blackmail you, your staff, or those who held high positions in your campaign (you should instead report this information immediately to Independent Prosecutor Robert Mueller)
This is by no means a comprehensive list, and as absurd as it is, it still assumes a minor degree of common sense. Mr. President, you may yet demonstrate your tremendous skill at finding something outrageously inappropriate to do that nobody would have considered a possibility until you did it. Oh hey, here’s one now: apparently it’s been discovered that you have been encouraging other world leaders to contact you on your cell phone rather than on a secure government line. Nice work.
UC Berkeley just cancelled a speech by conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, citing safety concerns in the wake of the violence that broke out on campus in February just before a speech by former senior Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. The violence that cancelled that event had been committed by people who identify with the political left and with the anarchist movement. This is a shocking and disturbing development at a college that has a long and proud tradition of embracing and encouraging free speech, but it is also a development that is emblematic of a larger problem that should spark some serious introspection on the part of today’s left.
Don’t get me wrong: I think that Ann Coulter is a horrible, horrible person, and I disagree with her on just about everything. I believe that she cynically cultivates a brand of conservative extremism intended to push people’s buttons: she knows that the more provocative her ideas are, the more buzz she will generate, which translates into the large following that she has made a career successfully parlaying into profits. I often question whether she even believes half of what she says.
Nonetheless, I support her right to be heard. College in particular is supposed to be a place where budding adults can experience a smorgasbord of new ideas, new philosophies, new lifestyles, and new kinds of people. It is often the first major test of the foundational values instilled by family. As young adults, college students get to evaluate the merits of their new experiences, and the appropriateness and worthiness of incorporating the new ideas into their own lives.
When voices like those of Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are excluded from that mix, it deprives students of the richness that a full breadth of viewpoints can offer. But far worse, it breeds closed-mindedness and communicates a stark insecurity about the ability of the “correct” ideas to stand on their own. Perhaps ugliest and most ironic of all, this censorship is often committed by people who boast of being “tolerant.”
When I was in college, people of all kinds of extremes came to speak on campus. Students got upset. They protested. They got angry. But ultimately, the speakers got to be heard, no matter who they were.
I remember a World War II vet saying once, regarding some American political pariah, “I don’t agree with a damn thing that that SOB says, but I’ll fight to the death for his right to say it.” I respect that. That is a perspective that seems far more in keeping with the spirit of “free speech” that we on the left claim to value so deeply. The First Amendment was not put in place to protect palatable, agreeable speech.
When we go down the road of saying, in effect, “no free speech for people we disagree with,” we head in the direction of authoritarianism.
I realize, and cringe, that this means that really ugly ideas will be heard, but that is healthy: when it is normal for all sides and all ideas to be aired, the idiocy of bad ideas is glaring enough that they don’t gather steam.
This is a very important concept for us on the left to start absorbing, because the resentment fueled by decades of our behavior toward those with differing ideas is part of why we’re now stuck with a Trump as our President. It’s how Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire, could present himself as an oppressed victim and not be laughed off the stage. Trump was enough of a rich, media-savvy blowhard that he was able to be heard, and because that was such an anomaly, such a rarity, he was seen as a symbol to rally around, someone who had made it through to “finally” speak for millions of people who had come to hold similar ideas but felt like they had been repeatedly silenced by “political correctness.”
Think about what it is like to be shut down for trying to express an idea that is important to you – not being given the opportunity to communicate a complete thought and the reasoning behind it and then not being given the respect of a debate, but instead being simply, abruptly and smugly labeled and written off – end of discussion. Think about what years, even decades of this treatment as a second-class citizen must be like. Some of us, of course, don’t have to use a lot of imagination to understand what that kind of treatment is like, having experienced it from the birth due to the color of our skin, our place of birth, our gender, who we are attracted to, etc.
But think, then, about how infuriatingly hypocritical it must feel to see the same people who have done this to you parading around the streets carrying signs proclaiming their tolerance and love. Salt in the wounds?
Allowing undesirable ideas to be heard does not equal agreeing with them. Allowing undesirable ideas to be heard does not mean that you are willing to let them flourish. Bad ideas, exposed as a normal part of a healthy democratic discussion, die of their own weight. Allowing undesirable ideas to be heard is simply the baseline of respect that we should offer one another as human beings, as a starting point to being a civil society. And contrary to what many on the left seem to think – and this is really important – denying that respect and shutting people down does not prevent the ideas from existing or even growing: it merely forces them underground and causes them to grow more twisted and distorted amid grinding bitterness, rage, and lack of sunlight. Trump’s voters have been there for decades. They are largely people whose mildly distasteful ideas, denied the dignity of hearing and discussion, were allowed to simmer and become something far less likable.
UC Berkeley’s decision to cancel Ann Coulter’s speech was wrong but understandable. The school was worried about the safety of their students in the event that violence should break out again.
But the anarchists and Trump-opposing students who started fires and committed other acts of violence a couple months ago to stave off a speech from Milo Yiannopoulos should take a moment to absorb that they did no favors for the cause of true tolerance, for the legitimacy of their own beliefs, or to prevent those who agreed with Mr. Yiannopoulos from doubling down even harder on their support of him. The handful of people who behaved destructively instead vividly displayed their own intolerance, and contributed to a further deepening of the divide in our country. In driving the monster from the village, they merely fed it.
Ann Coulter deserves the right to say what she thinks as much as Bernie Sanders, Rachel Maddow, Elizabeth Warren, or any other American. As long as Coulter and people like her continue to get shut down, their ideas will only get meaner and uglier.