What I wish the media would tell viewers about Trump
Plus: Democracy's Good Week and 9/11 Declassified
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The Ukraine-US-Trump Link
So first things first: For those of you who read my inaugural essay here, about how the MAGA-GOP was trying to lock in its minority rule in the United States, wow, last week’s election was a huge victory for democracy.
With the overnight call that Arizona’s Kari Lake was defeated, nearly all of the worst election deniers in the country went down to defeat.
We avoided the doomsday scenario in almost every direction—whereby election-deniers and bad-faith actors seized the mechanics of our voting apparatus ahead of 2024, where losers threatened or enabled violence from their supporters, and where normal election irregularities were seized upon to undermine the system at large. It was a shockingly normal election, in no small part because voters across the country seemed to vote for stability and sanity.
In fact, democracy seemed to have a rare good week around the world, from Kherson Oblast to Pennsylvania to Michigan. These stories may not be as unrelated as they sound: An interesting CNN piece overnight says that US intelligence believes Putin actually waited to retreat from Kherson until after the election to avoid giving Biden a “win,” another indication of how closely the Kremlin monitors and calculates US politics into its actions. (Putin, meanwhile, faces his own Doomsday Scenario, as The Atlantic put it this past week.)
But tonight, with the planned apparent announcement that Donald Trump will seek another presidential term, it’s important to remember that the fight against his unique brand of “semi-fascism” isn’t over. And that the stories of Ukraine and the US are more inextricably linked than we usually recognize—that, for instance, the Russian invasion in Ukraine is increasingly the work of the brutal private military known as the Wagner Group, whose oligarch head Yevgeny Prigozhin was the same one who led the Internet Research Agency’s attack on the 2016 US election.
Despite all the protestations and comments by GOP leaders over the last week that it’s time to move past Donald Trump, it’s worth remembering we’ve been here before, many times in fact: We were supposed to move past Donald Trump in the wake of 1/6, only to see Kevin McCarthy show up glowing at Mar-a-lago days later, and again even earlier this summer, it seemed like the January 6 committee hearings had pushed the party to distance itself from him in July, only to have the party faithful rally back to his side after the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago in August.
So here’s some context I wish more news outlets would add to their copy today about Donald Trump’s campaign announcement: We now know it’s a well-established fact that Donald Trump was aided in his 2016 electoral victory by not one but two separate criminal conspiracies—one of which Trump himself has skated by being implicated himself and the other that he tried to cover up and obstruct investigation of while president.
The further we get from 2016 with subsequent elections, the more it’s clear that Donald Trump’s incredibly narrow general election victory (and popular vote loss!) was an aberration; after all, Trumpism has been soundly defeated in all three subsequent elections: 2018, 2020, and 2022, with the exit polls, voter turnout, and data all backing up that Donald Trump is a drag on the GOP nationally.
So what was different in 2016? Sure, we didn’t know just how bad and dangerous Trump would be as president (although plenty of people were warning about it at the time), but the 2016 election also saw unprecedented efforts by Russia, Putin, and Yevgeny Prigozhin to meddle and shape the US electoral landscape, promote Donald Trump, and tear down Hillary Clinton.
Beyond that foreign interference—which led to dozens of federal indictments of Russian actors—there was also Donald Trump’s own criminal conspiracy to cover-up his hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, a conspiracy that eventually led to Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s indictment—and, in a roundabout way, to the current civil lawsuit by NY Attorney General Tish James against the outright fraud of the Trump Organization.
For reasons that haven’t ever been clear, despite Cohen’s indictment clearly indicating that he was “act[ing] in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1,” eg Donald Trump, the Justice Department never brought charges against Trump himself.
And the Mueller Report laid out in hundreds of pages of detail how Donald Trump as president obstructed the investigation of Russia’s meddling in 2016, another area where he has never faced criminal sanction.
As we look ahead to Donald Trump’s third presidential campaign today and tonight, I hope that all news outlets will remind viewers and readers that Trumpism has never won a presidential election yet without the help of multiple criminal conspiracies. And he’s currently under multiple criminal investigations, from Georgia to D.C., about the criminal conspiracies he tried to use to overturn his 2020 loss.
It’s history worth remembering—but it’s also an important warning about what we should expect from him in this third campaign too.
One of the lessons I learned in researching my WATERGATE book is how we keep learning more about past events even decades later, and that’s certainly true of September 11th two decades later.
Here’s a cool document that you might have missed in the news maelstrom of last week: A semi-obscure-but-important group called the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) helped release last week the interview summary of the 9/11 Commission’s joint meeting with President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
I used hundreds of these so-called “Memorandums for the Record” as part of my research for THE ONLY PLANE IN THE SKY, which recount the conversations commissioners and staff had with various witnesses, and they’re all illuminating, but this 31-page presidential MFR is just fascinating. It is worth flipping through if you have some a few spare moments, as an artifact of history.
One passage really stuck out to me: President Bush learns in the interview for the first time that it was actually the Secret Service who ordered the scramble of fighters out of Andrews Air Force Base—which, to be clear, isn’t exactly how the military chain of command is supposed to work.
Another thing you see in the document is the 9/11 Commission wrestling with the apparent disconnect that they eventually reported in their final report: There’s no real evidence, beyond Dick Cheney’s say-so, that he had presidential authorization to order the shootdown of hijacked airliners when he did so. In the interview, the commission clearly can’t make sense of the timeline that the vice president provides and when he actually spoke to the president.
I dove into this question in my 9/11 podcast last year, if you’re interested in more.
Three new books you should keep an eye out for:
My friend Drew Bratcher just published his first book of essays Bub: Essays from North of Nashville. Drew’s has always been a writer I admire, with deep southern roots, and his lyrical stories here mark him as what I’ve always known he was: One of the best southern writers of his generation. Use the promo code BUB25 and get the book for just $13!
Mike Pence and Michelle Obama might get all the press for their books out today, but also publishing today is WIRED writer-extraordinaire Andy Greenberg’s new book on the investigative efforts to bring down the crime lords of cryptocurrency, TRACERS IN THE DARK. One of the great myths of Bitcoin and crypto was that the money was supposed to be anonymous, but Andy follows the teams of investigators who figured out that it was actually just as traceable as “real” money. Andy is a great reporter and consistently one of the half-dozen-or-so peer reporters who makes me insanely jealous.
Andrew Weiss’s new graphic novel (!) about Vladimir Putin, ACCIDENTAL CZAR: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin, looks to be perfectly timed as the world ponders the fate of Russia’s president-for-life.
Thanks for reading this week’s Doomsday Scenario!
PS: Two project notes of what I’ve been up to recently:
I was interviewed for the new season of the American Public Media podcast, “In Deep,” about the rebuilding of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and the how the federal government’s promises of help fell short. I’m talking in Episode 3 about the history of FEMA and how it grew out of the nation’s civil defense efforts in the Cold War.
The Fordham Law Review has published a conference I spoke at earlier this year, about the 75th Anniversary of the Presidential Succession Act and . My remarks about continuity of government are here, but the whole conference was a fascinating—and troubling—reminder of how uncertain so many of the procedures about presidential succession actually are. It’s worth taking a look at John Fortier’s suggestions for reform.