Trump’s Reichstag Fire Drill

Trump’s Reichstag Fire Drill

Trump’s Reichstag Fire Drill

“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:

(Courtesy of )

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.

– rob rünt

Are You “Over-Sharing?” Leaking in the Age of Trump

Are You “Over-Sharing?” Leaking in the Age of Trump

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.

Government Employees

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

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.

The President

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
  • Weapons technology
  • 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
  • Business secrets
  • 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.

– rob rünt

Trump’s Relationship With the Press

Trump’s Relationship With the Press


Trump’s Relationship With the Press

During his Wednesday press conference, Donald Trump displayed what is likely to be a pattern in his relationship with the press: he shut down CNN reporter Jim Acosta, refusing to take his question and calling CNN “fake news.”

The move was an obvious retaliation for CNN’s breaking the story about a former British intelligence officer’s report about compromising material that Russia may possess and wish to use to blackmail our soon-to-be President. Trump’s treatment of Acosta was also a clear message to other Washington reporters: no matter how big your news organization, if you report something that displeases the President, you will lose access to him. The exchange prompted this Facebook post from former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather:


Here is the article from Columbia Journalism Review to which Dan Rather is referring.

In order to fully understand the implications of Presidential exchanges like what took place in that press conference, one needs to look at today’s media landscape and Trump’s history of interacting with it.

Many news outlets today face high levels of public distrust – some rightfully earned, some not. Trump was brilliant throughout his campaign at playing that to his advantage, painting the media with a broad brush as dishonest, and having that message resonate with his supporters. The obvious implication of his repeated slams is that if the journalists’ version of events is a lie, his version must be true.

Donald Trump is also notoriously litigious, having been involved in thousands of lawsuits over his lifetime. On the campaign trail, he suggested rewriting the law to make it easier for a President to sue journalists.

Lastly, many of our more reputable news outlets are struggling today. The major newspapers and the three major broadcast TV networks of 40 years ago are now competing with 24-hour cable news, which is in turn competing with thousands of bloggers, tweeters and YouTubers: everyone is trying to have the edge, to be the first to break a story, to get the biggest share of an increasingly fractured audience. At the same time, in their struggle to remain financially solvent, many major news outlets have cut journalistic staff to a minimum, and the concern of further layoffs is always looming.

Enter Donald Trump: a fresh-from-the-tabloids-and reality-TV figure who was a household name before his Presidential run, who says and does entertaining and controversial (and therefore “newsworthy”) things every day. During his campaign, he proved to be a guaranteed ratings grabber, and news outlets consequently provided him hours of free coverage that none of his competition enjoyed (it might be argued that this excessive free coverage from day one of his campaign contributed to his electoral victory). The lucrative nature of covering Trump was best summarized in February, 2016 by CBS Chairman Les Monves when he said “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” (Full Article – Politico).

Now imagine that you are a reporter assigned to cover the White House. Your job requires that you have access to the President and his Administration, and your journalistic responsibility to the public requires that you ask challenging questions to get at important truths that the President may wish to conceal.

Mr. Trump is forcing a powerful and disturbing dynamic into this equation which has a high potential of distorting both of the afore-mentioned responsibilities: you now feel an unspoken pressure from your boss not to report in a way that might alienate your news organization from the President or that could risk bringing on a time-and-resource-draining lawsuit from him.

For those reporters willing to set aside their integrity, there are likely to be ample rewards from the Trump Administration: key interviews with high-ranking figures, the opportunity to be the first to get a “scoop” spoon-fed to them by Trump. For reporters wanting to operate in the long-standing journalistic tradition of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” there may be significant repercussions from this Administration.

That is a prospect that should concern every American, because complete and accurate information is essential to hold those in power accountable. What you can do is to support quality journalism financially when you see it, so that news outlets see some reward for holding to their ethics.

– rob rünt

The Importance of Critical Thinking in the Age of Trump

The Importance of Critical Thinking in the Age of Trump


The Importance of Critical Thinking in the Age of Trump

It goes without saying that we are living in a crazy, unprecedented time in America right now. Trump’s surrogates, either as a result of internal Administration chaos and confusion, or as a deliberate strategy to test ideas and keep everyone off balance, have regularly conveyed positions of Trump’s that he later denies are his actual positions. Trump himself expresses positions or versions of reality and later denies having said them. And federal employees, likely to experience dramatic changes in their duties, missions, salaries or employment, are reasonably assuming the worst and reacting accordingly –at times contacting the press to spread the word. Everyone in the country (who is paying any attention) is on pins and needles.

In such an atmosphere, it is profoundly difficult for the news media to be completely certain that they are always getting the story right. They are expected to be first with a story, and bear the weight of being the first line of defense in guarding our democracy. We all need to be very critical, now more than ever, as we take in information – through social media, in conversations with friends and family, and even when we look to long-established reputable news sources. We need to thoroughly evaluate the legitimacy of any “facts” before we take them in as actionable, and we need to be prepared to continually watch for updates or changes to those facts based on better information.

This is the America in which we live today – a country where a DC pizza joint can find itself the center of a bizarre YouTube-fueled horror story about a Hillary Clinton-run pedophile ring, where a gunman ultimately shows up on the doorstep demanding to see the underground tunnels where the children are being imprisoned.

Fake news is not just the realm of the right wing. The left will begin to see more and more of it as well, and we must be wary of what we take in. Trump is erratic and seems emotionally unstable, and the craziest news about him can seem thoroughly believable. Many of us are deeply worried about what his Administration will mean for us, those we love,our country and the world, and are ready to believe the worst.

But running with misinformation is not what we need right now. We need vigilance and a deep passion for justice paired with strong critical-mindedness and clear-eyed sobriety. I am doing my best to double- and triple-check everything that I post and run it through the best filters of logic and reason that I can, but I will be guilty of posting incorrect information from time to time too. My apologies in advance for any times that I may get the story wrong.

At the very least, Snopes can be a good (though also imperfect) preliminary resource for fact-checking some of the most outrageous online information that you may come across.

– rob rünt




In the early morning hours of February 27, 1933, a fire rapidly engulfed the German Parliament, known as the Reichstag. The building was gutted, and firefighters found several bundles of what they determined to be fuel sources. A young communist named Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested nearby and was sentenced to death for setting the fire.

Less than a month earlier, Adolf Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. Historians widely credit the fire – and the resulting anti-communist and anti-immigrant hysteria that Hitler stirred in the German population – with Hitler’s ability to quickly consolidate power. The day after the fire, he convinced German President von Hindenburg to indefinitely enact an emergency decree suspending civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the ability to communicate by mail or phone without government intrusion. Historians still debate whether the Reichstag fire was actually set by Nazis or communists. It should also be noted that Hitler did not rise to power advocating the mass extermination of human beings.

In the United States, on September 11, 2001, 21 terrorists used commercial airlines to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with an additional plane crashing in a field in Pennsylvania. As the day wore on, news anchor Tom Brokaw, struggling for something new and profound to say after hours of nonstop coverage, called the attack “an act of war, nothing less than that” and likened it to Pearl Harbor. After the attack, America responded militarily against an entire country, Afghanistan, for a criminal terrorist act committed by 21 individuals.

President Bush later turned his attention to Iraq as a potential source of terrorism that needed to be responded to “preemptively,” warning that we could not “wait for the final proof – the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” So we went to war with Iraq over what most Americans now acknowledge (and what critical thinkers at the time recognized) as flimsy evidence.

In the meantime, Americans had quickly come to accept things previously unacceptable: government intrusions into electronic communications without judicial authorization, torture of suspects, indefinite detainment, secretly authorized executions by American drones overseas – which sometimes killed innocent people, and which continued even into the final months of the Obama Administration.

The number of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 has been small, even with many of the above measures reversed under Obama.

Last week, in response to Federal Judge James Robart putting a temporary nationwide  hold on the executive order on immigration, Donald Trump tweeted “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” The Trump Administration then asked an appeals court for an emergency stay of Judge Robart’s order.


What follows from this point is purely speculation and should be taken as such.

I call your attention to the language used above: “emergency” stay; “If something happens blame him.” Given how few terrorist attacks have happened in the past 15 years, such imminent crisis-oriented language from the White House sounds very dire (Full Article – New York Times). Terrorist attacks are horrible, but they also account for far fewer deaths in America than many other obscure causes (Source: START). And if the goal is to prevent needless American deaths, thousands of times more Americans die each year from smoking (Source: Center for Disease Control), which is preventable, or heart disease (Source: Center for Disease Control), which is also preventable.

Trump is surely aware of how September 11 caused many Americans – even many who had opposed President Bush – to get behind their President. As former news anchor Dan Rather said on September 17, 2001, “wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

And if Trump is not aware of the history of the Reichstag fire, his Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor Steve Bannon – former executive chair of the alt right/white nationalist news source Breitbart, a man with a thorough knowledge of history, and a man who Trump inadvertently signed an executive order appointing to his National Security Council – certainly is.

Vigilance, perspective and critical thinking are important tools for Americans right now.

– rob rünt

Note: After writing this piece, I discovered that economist Paul Krugman wrote a piece published on Friday indicating that he is of a similar opinion (Full Article – Daily KOS).

“We’re going to have to do things we never did before … that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy.”

Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
November, 2015
(Full Article – Huffington Post)


Fake News

Fake News

Fake News

On December 4, 2016, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch drove a couple hundred miles to a Washington DC pizza restaurant with an assault rifle and demanded to see the hidden underground tunnels where the children were being kept for a child sex ring with ties to Hillary Clinton and ritual Satanism. He fired three shots during the course of his attempt to “self-investigate,” but thankfully nobody was injured. The well-intentioned man had become enraged after familiarizing himself with a conspiracy theory perpetuated in numerous YouTube videos which all seemed to tell a similar story about the pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong.

The videos claimed that words like “pizza” and “cheese” were undeniable code words for a pedophile’s preferred kind of child. When the owners of the pizza joint wanted to hold a Clinton Campaign fundraiser, and asked Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta to prepare some of the food as a special feature for the event, Podesta’s response – revealed in leaked e-mails – was irrefutably incriminating evidence that he liked young boys: “I’ll do a pasta.”

Pizzagate was an example of “fake news” having unintended consequences. Fake news was a relatively new phenomenon that increasingly emerged during the 2016 Presidential Campaign. After the incident at Comet Ping Pong, Michael Flynn Jr., son of Trump’s disgraced National Security Advisor, tweeted his continued belief in the legitimacy of the conspiracy theory:


Fake news originated from numerous sources during the 2016 Campaign. Some, like the “pizzagate” story, began on alt-right chat rooms and took on a life of their own as different people added to them with YouTube videos laying out their own theories or new clear connections that they were finding to unrelated facts and information. Some fake news stories came from sketchy entrepreneurs in America and abroad who saw that outrageous news about Hillary and Trump was an easy guarantee of web clicks that they could use to sell advertising and make a buck. Some fake news was created and distributed for partisan purposes. And some appears to have been generated and spread with the blessing of the Kremlin in hopes of keeping Hillary Clinton from gaining the Presidency. Many of these stories got traction through social media – particularly Facebook and Twitter, as the incendiary but false headlines generated titillation and outrage and were shared widely.

For whatever one may think of Donald Trump, he is an absolute master at powerful branding – at bluntly redefining things and making those definitions stick through constant repetition. And he has now done that by redefining the term “fake news” and co-opting it for his own use.

Many have long since forgotten what “fake news” meant a whopping four months ago. Now the term is used to constantly call into question the legitimacy of any news story – from reputable journalists – in which undesirable information about the President is brought to the surface. The new definition successfully shifts attention away from blatant fabrications that had successfully helped Trump win the election, and redirects attention to cultivate an overblown degree of skepticism toward the mainstream news media.

Questioning the information we are getting right now is legitimate. The mainstream press see the wellbeing of the nation in general and the sanctity of the First Amendment in particular – their bread and butter – to be under threat, and many are accordingly a bit concerned. They are operating in a crazy-making new landscape in which different supposedly credible representatives of the Trump Administration give them conflicting information, the President is openly hostile toward the press and changes his firmly stated positions on issues sometimes in the course of a week, and rumors and hysteria are flying throughout the government and the nation in general. In such an atmosphere – combined with the already existing 24-hour news cycle where it is important to be first with a story – getting the story right is not always easy, but I believe that journalists are generally doing their best, and are not intentionally trying to present anything “fake.”

What is dangerous about the term “fake news” is the inherent subtext that comes with it: do not trust facts, do not trust your own eyes and ears, do not trust traditional news sources. The only source of information upon whom you can confidently and consistently rely is the President himself.

Demonization of the news media has been used successfully in the past by other authoritarian leaders to help achieve their ends: Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Putin, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler. The latter branded the media the “lügenpresse,” or “lying press.”

“We must challenge this statement and this sentiment that the news media is the enemy of the American people. This sentiment may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.”

William H. McRaven
Retired Four-Star Admiral/former Navy SEAL who organized and oversaw the operation that killed Osama bin Laden
Washington Post – 2/24/17

Is the press “the enemy of the American people,” as President Trump asserted last week? Absolutely not. At a time like this, it is essential that we support the news outlets that we consider the most credible and accurate, so that they can continue steadfastly doing their work that is so vital to our democracy, without the threat of being hamstrung or worse by a President who does not always like what the facts reveal about him.

– rob rünt