Run into a Trump apologist in your local cafe and what exactly should you say? | Catherine Bennett

Run into a Trump apologist in your local cafe and what exactly should you say? | Catherine Bennett

Instead of hiding behind civility, maybe it’s time for us to shame those flouting decency and norms

Should Trump hirelings be confronted in restaurants? Delightful as it was when the president’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, became the latest of his favourites to be thus embarrassed, the resulting civility debate has seemed fairly, viewed from the UK, theoretical.

Few British restaurant owners will ever have to have to choose, as did Virginia restaurateur Stephanie Wilkinson, between adherence to long-cherished codes of civility and the clear risks of denying service to someone who has chosen, like Sanders, to promote the interests of a child-caging, homophobic, woman-molesting, massacre-finessing, Putin-appeasing barbarian. (Huckabee Sanders was evicted before Trump also barged in front of a 92-year-old woman he had kept standing in the heat.)

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Heart doctor to George HW Bush dies in bicycle shooting

Heart doctor to George HW Bush dies in bicycle shooting

Dr Mark Hausknecht was riding through Houston medical complex when another cyclist opened fire

A cardiologist who once treated the former US president George HW Bush has been fatally shot by another cyclist while riding through a Houston medical complex. Police were trying to determine if the shooting was random or a targeted act.

The shooting happened around 9am on Friday as Dr Mark Hausknecht was going northbound through the Texas Medical Center, said Troy Finner of Houston police.

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The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: Planet of the Tapes

The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: Planet of the Tapes

Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)


Today in 5 Lines

  • President Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen reportedly recorded Trump before the 2016 election discussing payments to an ex-Playboy model who claimed they’d had an affair.

  • The White House said Trump “is not considering supporting” a referendum on independence for eastern Ukraine that was suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Helsinki.

  • Ohio State University announced that more than 100 former students have made sexual-misconduct allegations against Richard Strauss, a former wrestling-team doctor.

  • Police said at least 17 people were killed after a duck boat capsized during a storm in Branson, Missouri.

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly told Republicans that if Democrats continue demanding records about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, McConnell will wait to hold a confirmation vote until right before the midterms.


Today on The Atlantic

  • Changing Their Tune: A new talking point has bubbled up among some supporters of President Trump, writes McKay Coppins: “It was a positive thing that the Russians hacked the 2016 election.”

  • African or French?: A spat between Daily Show host Trevor Noah and French Ambassador Gérard Araud reveals a divide between the French and American conceptions of identity politics. (Rachel Donadio)

  • Everything Is Fine: White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has emerged as a warrior in President Trump’s culture war, operating under a shocking assumption: “There are things that are more important than truth.” (Megan Garber)

  • Obama Doesn’t Have the Answer: The former president continues to offer hopeful solutions to America’s problems. But he still doesn’t understand President Trump or the forces that put him in office. (Vann R. Newkirk II)


Snapshot

An asylum seeker from Honduras reunites with her five-year-old son in Brownsville South Padre International Airport in Brownsville, Texas, after five weeks of separation. Loren Elliot / Reuters

What We’re Reading

Facts Are Piling Up: Politico editor Blake Hounshell used to be skeptical that the special counsel would ever find Donald Trump guilty of colluding with Russia. Not anymore.

Small-Scale Power: The past several years of American politics have been about liberalism, conservatism, and now, populism. “Maybe the next era of public life will be defined by a resurgence of localism,” writes David Brooks. (The New York Times)

Finding a Third Way: Centrist Democrats really want a 2020 candidate who can offer a moderate alternative to Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s economic visions. The problem is, they can’t find one. (Molly Hensley-Clancy, BuzzFeed)

The Stage Is Set: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this week affirmed an injunction blocking California’s ban on large-capacity magazines. If the case makes it to the Supreme Court, it could reset the gun-control debate, writes David French. (National Review)


Visualized

California vs. Mississippi: Here’s what it takes to get an abortion in one of the most restrictive states in America—compared with one of the least. (Audrey Carlsen, Ash Ngu, and Sara Simon, The New York Times)

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Can the Cohen Tapes Bring Down Trump?

Can the Cohen Tapes Bring Down Trump?

After a tumultuous week, The New York Times reported on Friday that the FBI has in its possession tape-recorded conversations between attorney Michael Cohen and then-candidate Donald Trump in September 2016. In one of the conversations, the two men can be heard discussing potential hush-money payments to a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, with whom Trump had an affair. CNN reportedthat the FBI had also seized recordings of other, “more mundane” conversations with the president.

The revelation of the tapes comes almost 45 years after the most famous secret presidential tape revelation of all—the moment on July 16, 1973, when the head of the Federal Aviation Administration and former deputy assistant to the president, Alexander Buttterfield, told the Senate Select Watergate Committee in a televised hearing that President Richard Nixon had recorded his Oval Office conversations. The tapes helped bring an end to Nixon’s presidency. This time, Cohen’s tapes probably won’t have the same effect.

The Watergate Committee, chaired by the folksy North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, had started its televised hearings in May. Throughout the summer, the nation had been riveted as the senators questioned administration officials about what Nixon’s White House had been up to. The most dramatic testimony took place in late June, when former White House Counsel John Dean said that Nixon had discussed methods to cover-up information and even stifle the investigation through “silence money” and promises of clemency.

But Republican support for the president remained strong and the idea of impeachment remained far-fetched. Even after Dean testified, Nixon remained confident that he could survive. As John Farrell writes in his award-winning biography of the president, the testimony until that point was “hearsay.” At one point, Dean had suggested that conversations were recorded, but he had no evidence to prove that was the case. As a result, Dean’s allegations were his word against the claims of President Nixon. One Republican pollster told White House officials, “Barring some new sensational revelations, it would appear that the tempest … has passed its peak.” Administration officials believed that they would be able to discredit people like Dean as opportunistic and self-serving. “Why on earth should I believe anything that John Dean says….” television personality Dick Cavett asked his viewers. Polls showed that only about 50 percent of those surveyed believed Dean.

But in mid-July, everything changed. Senate Watergate staffers found evidence through interviews that the White House did indeed tape conversations. Committee lawyers Scott Armstrong and Don Sanders confirmed the discovery during their secret pre-testimony interview on Friday, July 13, with Butterfield, who they dragged into their offices. Sitting in a messy Senate room, the lawyers handed Butterfield a transcript that one of Nixon’s lawyers had turned over to the Republican staff. Looking at the document, Butterfield understood immediately that they knew this was the transcript of a conversation that had been taped. “I thought to myself that this had to come from the tapes—the very thing I’m worrying so much about. So, I just hemmed and hawed.” Sanders then asked Butterfield directly if there were any listening devices in the Oval Office.  Butterfield did not feel comfortable lying to them and feared ending up in jail. “I’m sorry you asked that question,” he told them, “Yes, there was, and that’s where this document had to come from.” When Butterfield admitted to lawyers the existence of the recordings, he recalled, “They were ecstatic.” Sanders tracked down committee member Republican Frank Thompson, who was having a drink at the Old Carroll Arms Hotel, and told him the news.

Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt had been recording White House conversations. Although Nixon had initially taken down Lyndon Johnson’s recording system, in 1970 he replaced it with a noise-activated system that recorded everything, instead of the manually operated system used by his Texas predecessor. Only a small number of people, including Butterfield, knew of the existence of the tapes.

By this time much of the country was tuned into the hearings. Even popular soap operas reported a steep decline in their ratings, as viewers switched to the real-life drama in D.C. In dramatic testimony on Monday, July 16, with television cameras covering the proceedings, Butterfield, who was a surprise witness, revealed to the nation that the president had recording devices in the White House that automatically taped conversations. When Thompson, to the consternation of some Democrats who wanted more credit, asked, “Are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?” Butterfield responded: “I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir.” Butterfield went onto explain that the president had been taping the conversations “for posterity.” He had been in charge of having machines installed that automatically recorded the Oval Office telephone and conservations in numerous rooms.  

The committee counsel Samuel Dash announced to the press: “We now know there are records of those meetings. I don’t have to draw the line underneath and add it up.” Nixon, who was in the hospital after having suffered a sharp pain in his chest, instinctively feared how the recordings would make him look. His chief of staff, Alexander Haig, was terrified that the tapes of any president would be destructive.

“Suddenly,” Martin Schram wrote in Newsday, “the Watergate scandal is more than just one man’s word against another’s.” For the first time, it became possible that members of Congress would be able to actually hear the president talking about matters related to Watergate. It would be his words against his own public denials.

The Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward called the tapes a “pivot” in the scandal. Nixon would fight as hard as possible to block access to them for almost a year. He rejected proposals to destroy the tapes before they were subpoenaed by Congress—Vice President Spiro Agnew advised, “Boss, you’ve got to have a bonfire”—based on the belief that executive privilege would be enough to protect them. He still wanted to preserve the material for the historical record. He told Haig the conversations on the tapes would “protect” him. He was wrong.

On July 24, 1974 the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 (Justice William Rehnquist recused himself) that he had to turn over the tapes. Despite an intense investigation that had lasted for over a year and taken place through the tenure of a number of different officials, it was the ability of members of Congress to hear Nixon asking the CIA to stop the FBI investigation that had an impact unlike anything else. It had not actually been clear before then that the constitutional system would work. Fifteen days later, Nixon left office.

Will the Cohen tapes possibly have the same impact? The answer depends in part on what they contain, and on what the public hears. But our political world has changed. Watergate itself generated so much distrust in government that it lowered public expectations of leaders. This is triply true with Trump, whose own loyal supporters seem to understand that he is an extremely flawed man but still love him. Unless there is direct evidence on this or other tapes of his culpability in illegal activity, just hearing Trump discussing untoward, unethical, or even slightly illegal things not rising to the level of impeachment won’t have the same kind of political impact. Indeed, he still survives despite all of the shocking things that he has already said in front of television cameras and on his Twitter feed.  

The United States is now so fiercely partisan that shocking tape recordings will still have trouble shaking the political landscape. That congressional Republicans continued to stand by Trump despite his scandalous behavior with Russia has made it clear that almost nothing can overwhelm partisan loyalty. Even if there is a damning tape, the president and his Republican allies in the House would attack the material as fake and illegitimate, part of a “witch hunt.” Unlike Nixon, who fought tooth and nail to prevent the tapes from being released, Trump seems more likely to focus on moving to control the narrative. This has consistently been his preferred strategy with scandal: Get the information out to the public and then control the spin. Nor did President Nixon have Fox News hosts to explain why the tapes don’t prove anything about the president’s wrongdoing. Trump can count on his Fox friends.

The biggest political risk for Trump’s opponents is that the tapes, if they focus primarily on sex scandals and shady real-estate deals that don’t quite reach the level of high crimes and misdemeanors, may actually help deflect attention from more damaging issues. Indeed, news of the Cohen tapes might be perfectly timed for the president, shifting the conversation away from treason and toward Trump’s sex life, just as the Access Hollywood tapes in October 2016 drowned out the public warnings by President Obama’s intelligence chiefs that Russia was attempting to sway the election results.

Of course, Nixon, too, initially thought that he would survive, and that the tapes might even help his case. He was wrong. Butterfield’s testimony turned out to be a crucial step in bringing down Nixon’s presidency. The lesson of 1973 is that the impact of secret recordings is impossible to predict.

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