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USA: Some interesting stories from @NewYorker

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With Donald Trump down in Palm Beach for the Presidents’ Day weekend, the national media is operating on a split-screen basis. The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, is still receiving a lot of attention, and rightly so. Especially in Washington, though, the indictment handed up on Fridayby Robert Mueller, the special counsel, has moved to the top of the news agenda. Since I spent much of the week focussing on the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I’ll start there.

On Friday evening, President Trump and his wife, Melania, went to Broward Health North hospital, near Parkland, and visited some survivors of the school attack, which killed seventeen people. Appearing before the press cameras, the President hailed the hospital’s staff, saying, “The job they’ve done is incredible.” Displaying the inimitable mastery of the English language for which he is known, Trump added, “It’s sad something like that could happen.” After leaving the hospital, where they stayed for about an hour, the Trumps also visited the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, where he again praised the staff members for their response to the tragedy. He also said they deserved a raise.

As far as it went, the Presidential visit was well timed and necessary. It wasn’t immediately clear, however, whether Trump met with any of the victims’ families. And he certainly didn’t promise to deliver any of the things, including a crackdown on assault weapons, that some grieving parents have demanded, most notably Lori Alhadeff, whose fourteen-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was buried on Friday. The anguished plea for action that Alhadeff made to CNN on Thursday night will long stay in the mind of anyone who saw it. So far, though, the only pledge Trump has given is that he will hold a meeting about school safety at an undisclosed date with some governors and state attorneys general. This was a predictably pathetic response, as I noted Friday in a post which was inspired by Alhadeff’s plea.

With the Republican Party so deeply in hock to the gun lobby, and Trump seemingly so unwilling to buck the Party leadership on anything of consequence, it would have been naïve to expect anything better. After all, it is only a few months since the deadly shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Sutherland Springs, Texas, which between them took eighty-four lives and injured hundreds more. Since those massacres, Congress’s only response has been to try to further loosen the gun laws. In December, the House of Representatives passed the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would allow people to carry concealed guns across state lines. The bill has long been a legislative priority of the National Rifle Association. Perhaps the most telling quote of the week came from David Jolly, a former Republican congressman for a district in Florida, who spoke about Republicans and gun policy on CNN. “Republicans will never do anything on gun control,” Jolly said. “The idea of gun policy in the Republican Party is to try to get a speaking slot at the N.R.A. and prove to that constituency that you are further right.”

As almost always happens after mass shootings, apologists for the gun lobby are looking for diversions. Their initial response was to suggest that the killer, Nikolas Cruz, must have been mentally ill, and that somehow this was the problem. Then they focussed on the failings of the F.B.I. after it emerged that an informer had warned the agency in January that Cruz posed a violent threat, and had even talked about possibly attacking the school. On Fridayevening, Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida and a close ally of the N.R.A., called on Christopher Wray, the F.B.I. director, to resign, saying that the public apology Wray issued on the Bureau’s behalf earlier in the day was insufficient.

Of course, the real root of America’s endemic gun violence, including gun violence in schools, is the astonishing prevalence of firearms in this country. Anyone who doubts this truth should go back to a useful explainer that the Times published in November. The article pointed out that Americans make up about 4.4 per cent of the world’s population, but they own about forty-two per cent of the world’s guns, and they account for nearly one in three of all the world’s mass shooters. “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns,” the article rightly pointed out. It didn’t add that all other explanations are attempts at obfuscation, but that would have been true, too.

Now, about Mueller’s indictment of thirteen Russians for trying to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election. The best place to start is the thirty-seven-page indictment itself. The defendants, who are all linked to a Russian group called the Internet Research Agency, “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system,” the indictment said, and their operations “included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump…and disparaging Hillary Clinton.” Among the tactics the Russians used: stealing the identities of U.S. citizens to post disparaging information on fake social-media accounts; buying political advertisements on social-media accounts; staging political rallies; and communicating with “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.”

Although the broad outlines of this Russian “information warfare” campaign was already known, or suspected, Mueller’s investigators have uncovered a lot of damning new detail. The complaint says the campaign was carried out by a staff of dozens, who worked in shifts at the Internet Research Agency’s headquarters in St. Petersburg. It was financed by a Russian billionaire named Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, who is close to Vladimir Putin, and it cynically exploited some of the deepest fissures in American politics. An article at the Hill noted that the Russians created online identities with names like “Blacktivist,” “United Muslims of America,” “Army of Jesus” and “South United.” Relying partly on these creations, they tried to encourage minorities not to vote for Clinton, posting messages that said things like “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein” and “most of the American Muslim voters refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wants to continue the war on Muslims in the Middle East and voted yes for invading Iraq.”

Predictably, the reactions to the indictment divided along partisan lines. Trump and his supporters quickly leaped on the fact that the indictment didn’t allege that anybody from the Trump campaign knew about the Russian disinformation campaign or colluded with it. But the language that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein used in announcing the charges was careful and narrowly drawn. “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge,” he said. It is evident that Rosenstein wasn’t precluding the possibility of Mueller making such an allegation in a subsequent court filing. “The fact that this indictment doesn’t allege misconduct on the American side does not necessarily mean that Mueller lacks evidence to support such an allegation—or that he will not develop it in the future,” a lengthy post at the Lawfare blog pointed out. “This indictment deals with a limited subject matter: one aspect of the Russian operation—that involving social media influence measures—undertaken by non-governmental actors. It makes a point of not addressing the conduct of U.S. actors. That is neither inculpatory or vindicating. It is, rather, a deferral of the matter to another day.”

Trump’s critics were also eager to point out that the indictment made a mockery of Trump’s repeated efforts to dismiss claims of Russian meddling. The indictment contained internal messages from Russians working at the Internet Research Agency, and it gave a detailed account of the methods the group used. “The question is whether Mr. Trump will at last accept the fact of Russian interference and take aggressive measures to protect American democracy,” the Times said in an editorial on Saturday. “For starters, he could impose the sanctions on Russia that Congress overwhelmingly passed, and that he signed into law, last summer. Of course, this would require him to overcome his mysterious resistance to acting against Russia and to focus on protecting his own country.”
My own key takeaway from the indictment was that Mueller has greatly strengthened his own position, and Rosenstein’s, too, which is all to the good. Countering the misleading claims of some of Trump’s supporters, the special counsel has shown that he is engaged in vital work, and that he has already turned up a good deal of incriminating evidence relating directly to Russia, some of which we may not yet know about. (It was reassuring that news of these charges didn’t leak in advance.) If, following this public demonstration of the professionalism of Mueller and Rosenstein, Trump were to go ahead and fire them, it would be very difficult for senior Republicans to accede to such an outrageous action. “These Russians engaged in a sinister and systematic attack on our political system,” Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, said after the indictment was made public. “Today’s announcement underscores why we need to follow the facts and work to protect the integrity of future elections.” Ryan is a confirmed Trump enabler, to be sure. But having made this statement, even he, surely, couldn’t stand with Trump against Mueller. Or, at least, one would hope that he couldn’t.
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