This is very interesting. Senators of both parties from the Foreign Relations Committee have invoked a provision of the Magnitsky Act to force an investigation into the apparent death of Jamal Khashoggi.
That provision requires the president to reach a determination within four months on whether an extrajudicial killing has occurred against any individual who promotes human rights, including through freedom of expression, such as the missing Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. If an assassination is found to have occurred, the law requires the president to decide whether to impose sanctions on any individuals complicit in the death.
As you can see, the decisions all remain at the discretion of the President. But it does force the President to make these findings. He can’t just not address it.
Another point: One thing I found out tonight is that the US has not had an Ambassador in Saudi Arabia since January 2017. No one has even been nominated. This is all but unheard of with such a critical ally. That can seem like incompetence or disorganization. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. The Trumps have by no means ignored Saudi Arabia. It’s been central to their foreign policy. Rather the relationship has been managed by Kushner and more recently by Secretary of State Pompeo. Indeed, Kushner has rattled US intelligence officials by holding conversations with MBS out of the earshot of the US government – private one on one calls, not set up through normal channels and thus not memorialized or recorded in any way.
This bears all the hallmarks of personal government, which is really the central theme of the Trump presidency. Set aside diplomats, ambassadors and all the diplomatic paraphernalia of government. The President or strongman just makes deals, really personal deals, perhaps even ones the formal government doesn’t know about. It seems highly likely that Trump and Kushner wanted to manage the relationship directly and not have an Ambassador privy to their dealings.
A final point: The Post has a story out this evening with considerably more detail about intelligence intercepts that showed the Saudis were planning to lure Khashoggi back to the country and imprison him.
It was not clear to officials with knowledge of the intelligence whether the Saudis discussed harming Khashoggi as part of the plan to detain him in Saudi Arabia.
But the intelligence had been disseminated throughout the U.S. government and contained in reports that are routinely available to people working on U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia or related issues, one U.S. official said.
The intelligence poses a political problem for the Trump administration because it implicates Mohammed, who is particularly close to Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
The key point here is that this wasn’t some intercept that didn’t make it passed some initial review at the NSA or CIA. It was produced into intelligence reports and shared widely.
In the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation as a Supreme Court justice, several liberals have argued that if the Democrats win a majority again in the White House and Congress, they should consider packing the court and even limiting the tenure of court justices. I agree with these proposals by Paul Starr in The American Prospect and Barry Friedman in The New York Times. But the court’s role as a reactionary institution – one that desparately needs reform – began before Kavanaugh’s nomination.
The court became a reactionary institution – one that has subverted rather than protected American democracy – when it began in 1976 its series of campaign finance rulings. These rulings – from Buckley v. Valeo in in 1976 through Citizens United v. FEC in 2010 – have removed any restraint first on candidate spending in campaigns and then on individual and corporate donations to candidates and parties. The result has been that the underlying premise of political democracy – that political equality would trump (sorry to use that word) economic inequality — no longer prevails. Instead, economic inequality subverts political equality by giving the wealthy and economically powerful a greater say in our elections.
One can always cites elections where the losing candidate spent less money – the 2016 presidential election leaps to mind. But I’d bet that any comprehensive study of the last decades would show money has tilted elections toward Republicans. I’d cite, for one thing, what has happened in Arizona.
In 1998, Arizona voters tried to get around Buckley v. Valeo by passing a Clean Elections Act that gave candidates limited public funding, but in the case that rivals (and their supporters) tried to exceed these limits by private funding, matched their contributions. It levelled the playing field without restricting how much candidates could actually spend. In the 2002 election – an election year that generally favored Republicans – Democrat Janet Napolitano narrowly won the governorship over Republican Matt Salmon. Napolitano was easily re-elected in 2006. One reason she initially won was because Salmon was unable to outspend her. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the Weekly Standard wrote after the election:
On November 6, when most Americans were awakening to Republican electoral triumphs, Arizonans learned that they had bucked the trend by electing a left-wing Democrat as governor. What produced Janet Napolitano’s victory over GOP candidate Matt Salmon in a state with a 3-2 Republican registration advantage was not issues or personalities, but the nation’s most ambitious scheme for the public funding of election campaigns–a harbinger of liberal plans for remaking the nation’s political landscape.
But in 2011, the Supreme Court on a five-to-four vote (with Justice Kennedy, whom Kavanaugh is replacing, in the majority) struck down the key parts of the Arizona law on the spurious grounds – dating from Buckley v. Valeo — that it restricted free speech. Since then, Republicans have controlled all of Arizona’s major state offices, including the governorship. This year, in anticipation of a “blue wave,” David Garcia, the Democratic candidate for governor, was tied with Republican Doug Ducey, but since September, a massive amount of Republican spending – fifty to one on television ads – has doomed Garcia. Ducey now leads him by 15 points in the polls. If Arizona’s Clean Elections Act were still prevailing, it is very likely this race would still be tied.
There are two conclusions I’d draw from this. First, the problems with the court didn’t start with Kavanaugh this week or even Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. They started in 1976. Secondly, if liberals have any dreams of moving American beyond the New Deal toward a genuine social democracy, they need to find a way to overturn the spate of campaign finance rulings from the court and reinstitute a genuinely democratic reading of the first amendment in their place. If it takes packing (or threatening to pack the court, as Franklin Roosevelt did), that’s fine. It’s within the bounds of the Constitution.
Of all the things that have happened over the last two weeks, it’s not the biggest problem. But it has been gnawing at me. I believe it actually is a big deal, albeit in a somewhat oblique way. Let’s start with Senator Susan Collins today on CNN. Collins told Dana Bash: “I do not believe that Brett Kavanaugh was her assailant. I do believe that she was assaulted. I don’t know by whom. I’m not certain when.” I focus on Collins only because it is a simple, clear statement. But the great majority of Senate Republicans have made some version of the same argument.
So let’s just say it. This is a preposterous.
It’s possible Blasey Ford is lying about her account. I doubt it, given the evidence we have before us. But it’s possible. What is extraordinarily implausible is that Blasey Ford was attacked, clearly identified the attacker as Brett Kavanaugh, someone she knew reasonably well, and yet somehow confused him with someone else. This isn’t a case where she’d never met Kavanaugh before and picked him out of a line up. That kind of misidentification is plausible and happens. This is different. She already knew him. She knew what he looked like and she has a clear recollection that he attacked her. If someone you know violently attacks you or sexually assaults you, the identity of the person is indelibly fused into the memory because they are inseparable from the act. We don’t have to get overly technical about this. The point is obvious. If you know someone well and they attack you, you’re going to know it’s them and basically be certain about it.
But Collins doesn’t stop here and neither do her colleagues. She is not only sure Kavanaugh didn’t do it. She is also not sure “when” it happened. She and her Republican colleagues suggest that Blasey Ford may have been attacked at some different point in her life altogether – maybe in college? maybe as an adult? – and transposed it back on to her early teenage years.
This is more parlor game hypothetical than anything that is remotely likely to be true.
There is the phenomena of ‘recovered’ or suggested false memories, often in young children. But those memories are false. There’s really little basis to believe this in Blasey Ford’s case. She wasn’t at a pre-school gripped by parental moral panic, with zealous cops or social workers whipping false memories out of her. But if you really believed this was a false memory, the logical conclusion would be that she wasn’t in fact assaulted.
None of this makes sense.
So why is virtually every Republican going with the least plausible – verging on extraordinarily implausible – theory? Simple. It’s a poll-tested, reverse engineered theory that solves key political problems even though it’s almost certainly not true.
Blasey Ford was sympathetic and highly credible in her testimony. She had taken and passed a lie detector test. She described an event populated by Kavanaugh’s 1982 friend set, something all but impossible to achieve if she did not at least know him fairly well at the time. Republicans knew that for Kavanaugh to be telling the truth, Blasey Ford had to be lying. Remember. She didn’t pick him out of a line up. It really can’t be a good faith misunderstanding. She knew him. She was sure it was him.
But calling her a liar was politically toxic. So they needed a theory that fit each political need. First, Kavanaugh had to be telling the truth and must in fact be innocent. Second, Blasey Ford must think she is telling the truth. (The straightforward answer is that she’s lying. But that’s bad politics.) Ideally, the theory must posit that she was in fact assaulted, just not by Kavanaugh. Otherwise, there’s no basis for the politically required notional empathy. A less plausible scenario is that she has a false memory and she was never attacked at all. But that’s also bad politics. It sounds like saying she’s crazy and not a victim at all.
Collins and her Republican colleagues settled on the one scenario which checks all the political boxes but at the cost of being ridiculously implausible. She was attacked. But even though she is certain that she was attacked by a person she knew already, Brett Kavanaugh, in fact she was mistaken about who attacked her and might well have been attacked at a totally different point in her life. The assault becomes a purely notional placeholder to hold together a bad faith argument. There is zero chance they all come to this argument independently. This is some unknown strategist’s over-clever ruse.
The real point here is that no one can really believe this. Only the most casual cynicism gets you to this argument. It is a poll-tested, built-in-a-lab argument that is driven purely by political needs and can’t possibly be the product of actual belief or reasoning based on the evidence at hand. It’s pure cynicism that too many people are taking seriously.
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