“My son has very dark skin and unusual grey eyes. They are so intense that you first see his eyes and then the rest of his body,” said Mona, who I picked up for an Uber ride at nearby Howard University, located at northwest of D.C. Our conversation began when she asked about my name and how it was pronounced. It’s a question I’m often asked and, instead of the usual courtesies, I usually cut short the exchange by saying that my name was not meant to be pronounced. It’s my signal that I am ready to chat and put the interlocutors in a comfortable position. They giggle.
It is known that DC, the swamp, is an American political hotbed. But to hear exciting and intelligent talk about politics I had to fly across America, to a distant conservative state, Texas, which is known more for guns than liberal discourse.
Austin, of course, isn’t mainstream Texas. And the Texas Tribune Festival is put on by the eponymous Texas Tribune, a thriving non-profit member-supported newsroom in the state capitol.
Both the future of journalism and the future of American politics were well represented. The festival gave the impression of a post-Trump American incubator.
In darkness less than 50 yards away, a young man in a group of 20 or more college-age young people carousing on the beach in Sag Harbor Hills at about 10:15 p.m. on the night of July 4 yelled the racial epithet “N____r” at a group of black people as they were having a barbecue and playing Charades on the deck of a waterfront house on Ninevah Place.
Sunny Hostin, a legal correspondent for ABC, and a host of “The View,” and her guests couldn’t believe what they’d heard. She has been renting in the historically African-American community for 12 years and had always felt safe and secure there, she said.
“Everyone was so stunned. Everyone just jumped up. I thought I must have misheard,” said Ms. Hostin in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I know everyone on that beach but these voices were not familiar.”
One of her astonished guests called out, “Really?”
“Then they yelled it again,” Ms. Hostin said. “We were so stunned.”
“What?” one of her guests called.
“This is America!” came the reply, Ms. Hostin said. “We are patriots!”
“Yes, this is America,” answered one of her guests, after which the people on the beach began shooting off fireworks, Ms. Hostin said.
Ms. Hostin called the police. Officers “in one or two cars” arrived in minutes with emergency lights flashing, she said, but the crowd had scattered and police found no one on the beach.
The incident continued into the night, as the loud group came back calling the party “pussies” for calling the police. This time the police managed to stop two of the harassers and question them, the SagHarborExpress.com reported, in a story that stirred up the already anxious community. What used to be a mellow and sleepy town on the western coast on South Fork of Long Island was seeing a conversion in the post-Trump era. By mid-August, when I spent some time in the area, I realized that the incident may have been a symptom of the major transformation of the black community there, a minority enclave within an otherwise predominantly rich and white area.
“The dilemma — which he (Trump) does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them.”
The op-ed, published in the New York Times by an anonymous senior official in the Trump administration, begins like an announcement of a soft coup only to grow into a military seizure a few sentences later: “But we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic. That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”
As I write this post, Accuweather tells me it is 92 degrees Fahrenheit (33 Celsius) on the street outside my house and adds that it actually feels like 100 (38C). It’s hot and muggy at 4 p.m.in downtown D.C! The streets of the capital are almost empty. If not for the frequent overflight of three Marine One presidential choppers, Washington might sound more like the capital of cicadas and fireflies. Not exactly a good time for Ubering.
Sitting behind the wheel, stranded in a mass of cars waiting for the red light to turn green, a mirage appeared before my eyes: a skinny and elegant female figure molded as if by the hands of Alberto Giacometti, swinging among honking cars, gliding into the center of the crossing. She zipped among the moving obstacles, made a sharp right turn and vanished. Everything happened fast, silently, her figure upright on a small scooter, her long hair waving goodbye to drivers trapped in cars.
I have been an Uber driver for a few months now. As a rule, I don’t drive more than three days a week, for three to four hours a day. If you want to hire me, my Uber app will show you that my rating is 4.82, which puts me in the 90th percentile of five-star Uber drivers. But that figure does not mean much; the hard-earned rating can be turned into dust with one rider’s negative evaluation. When a driver’s ratings reach the red line–that is, an intolerable 4.6–Uber starts monitoring the driver, and they can be easily deactivated, the Uber term for being fired. How can one slip from high to low in an instant? It happened to me one lovely spring morning when exploring a new, off-track neighborhood.
Whether history repeats itself as a tragedy or a farce seems to be of little importance in the United States, a country where history stomped fresh trails, different from the rest of the world. And yet, this is an exceptional time, of the Broadway spectacle “Hamilton“, the unprecedented presidency of Donald Trump, and the inimitable collision of politics and culture. So, history, it seems, is kicking back. As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker:
On rare occasions, the American musical can still be central to what we should call our ceremonial culture. A song-and-dance show on Forty-sixth Street can occasionally touch so profoundly on some central preoccupation of a period that, even if relatively few of us actually get to see it live, it still becomes a kind of hearth at the center of a national celebration.
On June 13, at 5:45 a.m., the President of United States posted the following tweet: “Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!”
As usual, President Trump used pompous words to try to position himself among the greatest presidents in the history of the United States. Trump assumed the tone of JFK, who in 1962 pulled the country back from the edge of war as an unprecedented Russian nuclear threat kept the world teetering on global destruction for 13 days. Contrary to the intensity of the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was never an imminent nuclear threat from North Korea, no matter how much President Trump likes capital letters. There was also no sigh of relief when Trump returned from the meeting with the North Korean dictator, a signed agreement in hand that, according to its beneficiary, saved America. Read more »
In October 2016, when my wife and I moved to Capitol Hill, in Washington DC, I wanted to get a sense of the space. So I started the new adventure by rambling along Pennsylvania Avenue without any particular aim. Everything was beautiful and sunny and easy going compared to crowded and condensed Manhattan, where I spent the previous six years. Penn Avenue looked like a broad, lazy river, adapted to the smooth temperament of a southern city. Then an ugly building hit me between the eyes. I stopped, scanned the offending monster, different from everything else within the Federal Triangle, the palatial seat of American power.
I tried to understand what I was looking at. The only person I saw somewhat connected to the building, as I observed him from across the Avenue, was a man jogging on the terrace that runs around the entire the second floor of the building. One round, then another, the same person both times. Nobody else entered or left the building. Was it a prison?
No. It was the J.Edgar Hoover Building, the headquarters of the FBI. The fortress was erected in the late sixties, right in the heart of the American Capital, and is considered one of the best examples of Brutalist architecture, as described here: “In Brutalist structures, unprocessed concrete surfaces are commonly used to create rugged, dramatic surfaces and monumental sculptural forms. The concrete of the Hoover Building shows the marks from the rough wood forms into which the liquid concrete was poured. The exterior is constructed of buff-colored precast and cast-in-place concrete. The intent was to attach sheets of polished concrete or granite to the exterior. The exterior walls were built to accommodate these attachments, but this plan was abandoned as the building neared from across.”
It is an outstanding building. As Paul Goldberger, writing for the New York Times in 1975, observed: “This building turns its back on the city and substitutes for responsible architecture a pompous, empty monumentality that is, in the end, not so much a symbol as a symptom—a symptom of something wrong in government and just as wrong in architecture.”
It’s a building that tells you not to come closer, not to dare pass by, not to look. But why is it positioned in the middle of other shiny, monumental, imperial-like architecture, halfway between the Capitol Hill and the White House? Why not hide it somewhere in the woods of Virginia or Maryland, the way they did with the CIA and NSA headquarters? Why this ugly, fake Corbusier of the ominous Orwellian look, with thick walls that hide cryptographic vaults, exercise rooms, a film library, a firing range, and 80,000 square feet of laboratory space; a medical clinic, morgue, a printing plant, a test pattern and ballistics range, and probably an entire military army arsenal.
My impression and image of the FBI until that time was created by movies like Blues Brothers and Twin Peaks. I never had anything else to do with those Hollywood stereotyped guys in black suits and sunglasses. So standing in front of this mythical institution, I could not resist imposing the unfriendly caricatures on it, a European tendency. But I thought I might as well start my Washington experience by entering into one of the nerve centers of this country.
As I walked into what I remember as a very dark lobby, I noticed a sign that visits and tours of FBI headquarters have been interrupted. “For security reasons,” the desk officer told me. Oh well, there went my short FBI career. If not for the suspended FBI tour, I would probably not have visited another unattractive building just across the avenue – the newly restored Old Post Office, transformed into Trump International Hotel. Only one month before the elections, the latest Trump Hotel had a soft opening, showing off its brand new Presidential Hall, ready for the special events. But it was the lobby of the hotel that interested me. So I walked in and after a couple of visits wrote a story about the city and the country that was about to become Trumpland.
A year and a half later, the three front doors of the Trump International Hotel, practically around the corner from the White House, are sealed. No more walks into the lobby; the other entrances of the colossal building are reserved for the people coming by invitation in cars and after security control. As I wrote this, I called the FBI, and they told me that the building is open for tours again. The reversed situation is more than symbolic; the radical change may even be making me a fan of the FBI, perhaps even the CIA.
A year ago, I would never have said this. But with the deterioration of many other institutions in America, the hope is that special counsel Robert Mueller will be able to conclude the investigation on the probably illegal activity of the sitting President of the U.S., his family members, and collaborators. I do not see any other way to bring this country, which still has an inimitable impact on the rest of the world, back under the rule of law.
For the last two weeks, I was traveling in Europe, and I deliberately did not follow the national U.S. news. Firstly, because I was tired of it, and secondly because I was convinced that I was not missing anything. And yet, as Daniel W. Drezner noted in the Washington Post, this is what happened in one week of news abstinence:
The Justice Department providing a Very Special Briefing to Devin Nunes, Trey Gowdy, and the president’s lawyer.
The Trump administration contemplating further abuse of the national security portion of U.S. trade law to slap a 25 percent tariff on automobiles and auto parts.
An Associated Press expose into Elliott Broidy’s pay-for-play schemes to lobby the Trump administration on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Jared Kushner finally securing his permanent security clearance, and Ivanka Trump finally getting her China trademarks.
The White House announcing via a tweeted letter that Trump would not attend the scheduled June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore without any warning for key allies.
The subsequent “summit or no summit?” drama that has played out since Trump canceled the summit, including Trump’s optimism that it will take place.
Poland offering $2 billion to host a permanent U.S. military base.
Trump claiming that a background White House briefing never took place.
Continued controversy over the policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.
Trump continuing to push his “Spygate” claims in a conscious effort to sow distrust of law enforcement.
It’s a lot, but let just stop on the last one, the so-called Spygate. It’s interesting that an accurate reconstruction of the launch and evolution of Spygate is almost impossible. Vox.com started its timeline reconstruction on June 6 with the headline, “Trump, Fox News, and Twitter have created a dangerous conspiracy theory loop. The president tweeted literal “fake news” about the so-called “Spygate” controversy. The story behind the tweet is revealing — and scary.” Is there more? According to Vox.com, Spygate was formally launched by the president’s tweet on June 5:
“Wow, Strzok-Page, the incompetent & corrupt FBI lovers, have texts referring to a counter-intelligence operation into the Trump Campaign dating way back to December 2015. SPYGATE is in full force! Is the Mainstream Media interested yet?”
The supposed source for this claim came from text messages between two FBI employees, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page (here is the background on this story as it appeared in January after Robert Mueller removed Strzok from his team). The two were having an affair during the 2016 campaign. Their text messages reveal that they were openly hostile to Trump and supportive of Hillary Clinton. None of those texts mentioned anything about a counterintelligence operation against the Trump campaign as early as December 2015. So where did the president get that idea?
Apropos, Vox.com quotes ThinkProgress, a site that lists the events that led to Trump’s tweet. A day earlier, an anonymous Twitter account notes that Page texted Strzok in December 2015 about “oconus lures,” which in FBI parlance means intelligence operations aimed at arresting someone outside the continental United States. The texts do not mention Trump and had nothing to do with him, since the FBI’s investigation into Trump opened in July 2016. But the anonymous Twitter user speculates the FBI wanted to run a baited Sting Op using foreign agents against Trump.
Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump blog, picks up the tweet in an article Monday, and by Tuesday evening the story spread to Fox News. At 7:22 pm, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs tweets about the oconus lures texts. At 8:37 pm on Tuesday, Trump sends his tweet about the conspiracy theory.
About an hour later, Fox News host Laura Ingraham says on air that “when you read those texts, it certainly looks like they [the FBI] were trying to put more lures into the campaign in December 2015.” Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, one of her panelists, agrees with Ingraham’s interpretation, saying that it is now “clear” that the FBI investigation into Trump started earlier than July 2016.
“So what happened,”, writes Vox.com, “is that a conspiratorial interpretation of texts between two FBI employees, one entirely unfounded in the actual evidence, got laundered from the fringe right-wing media to the right-wing mainstream through Fox News personalities — and eventually reached up to a member of Congress and the President of the United States.”
Anticipating the above is a New York Times piece, from May 28, that does its own reconstruction of Spygate, concluding with a similar, slightly more sophisticated conclusion. It quotes Joe Meacham, a presidential historian, and biographer. “The effect on the life of the nation of a president inventing conspiracy theories in order to distract attention from legitimate investigations or other things he dislikes is corrosive,” he said. “The diabolical brilliance of the Trump strategy of disinformation is that many people are simply going to hear the charges and countercharges, and decide that there must be something to them because the president of the United States is saying them.” So where do we stand? Whom shall we believe? What is true?
The fact is that even the singular news organizations are on different pages, and on different dates tell us different stories that are, apparently, the results of their investigation teams. Some of these stories may lead to a different conclusion than just simple attribution of the mess to the Trump team. Take the New York Times story on the operation by the code name Crossfire Hurricane, which was the secret origin of the Trump investigation. Published on May 16, weeks before the explosion of Spygate, the article details an event in the summer of 2016, when the F.B.I. dispatched a pair of agents to London on a mission so secretive that all but a handful of officials were kept in the dark. They were meeting the Australian ambassador, Alexander Downer, who had evidence that one of Donald J. Trump’s advisers knew in advance about Russian election meddling. In the F.B.I. interview, he described his meeting with the Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. This, according to the paper, 100 days before the election ignited the investigation. And one of the persons talking to the Australian ambassador was Peter Strzok, who was later removed from the Mueller investigative team. There are other stories we know little about, but all this tells us that the FBI might sit on a whole lot more information than the media speculates about every day.
London and Cambridge–, the eternal venues of excellent spy stories–, seems to be at the center of Spygate too. The thin pretense that the FBI was there for a grab prompted the actions of a retired university professor in Britain named Stefan Halper. Halper, an American who taught for years at Cambridge University in the UK, met there with several Trump campaign advisers in mid-2016. The goal of these meetings was to assess whether there were any real links between the Trump campaign and Russia, enough to fuel a wider investigation, detailed in the must-read report by the Washington Post.
So if it’s true, as Vox.com suggests, that “the entire ‘Spygate’ controversy is not a debate between two rational sides, but rather a fight between the truth and a pro-Trump camp looking for evidence that can be spun to justify the president’s narrative, if mere fact that the president is championing “Spygate” means that Republicans at all levels, from Congress to Fox News to the rank-and-file voters, are more likely to believe in it,” what can we do, but wait? The voices of the investigators are missing, but their action is the only one that can empower and convince the Congress to check the possible abuse of power by this president. Until that day, there is nothing much to be done.