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History Lesson
September 4, 2019

The FBI is monitoring activist groups who are protesting U.S. immigration policy at the southern border, Yahoo News reports. That sounds extreme, considering most of the evidence cited in a report by the Phoenix FBI office reportedly described nonviolent protest activity.

Activists and civil rights advocates are reportedly worried by the news. They think the government is trying to stifle legitimate civil disobedience and government opposition by labeling it violent extremism or domestic terrorism. But Mike German, a former FBI special agent and fellow at New York University who has written about surveillance of activists, said that while the report appears to be evidence of the bureau's overreach, the FBI has long zeroed in on nonviolent activists.

"It's been a feature of the post-9/11 counterterrorism effort by the FBI to focus on nonviolent civil disobedience and to prioritize it," German said. "For several years after 9/11, the FBI called environmental activists the no. 1 domestic terror threat, even though there's not a single homicide related to environmental 'terrorists' in the United States." German cited a 2010 report from the FBI's inspector general which criticized the bureau for classifying nonviolent claims related to protests by groups like PETA and Greenpeace as "terrorism."

The FBI, for its part, said the report out of the Phoenix office was "intended to be informative in nature" and contains "appropriate caveats to describe the confidence in the sourcing of information and the likelihood of the assessment." Read more at Yahoo News. Tim O'Donnell

April 16, 2019

Stonehenge still has its mysteries, but a new study offers up some intriguing information on the people who presumably built the stone circle in southwest Britain starting in about 3000 BC. The people who erected the mysterious stone monument descended from Neolithic farmers who brought agriculture to Britain in about 4000 BC, after traveling across the Mediterranean to the Iberian peninsula from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey and Greece) in about 6000 BC, researchers in London report in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Anatolian migrants brought agriculture to all of Western Europe, populated before then by small groups of hunter-gatherers, but two things set the British settlers apart, the researchers found.

First, unlike the majority of Neolithic farmers who traveled to Central and Western Europe along the Danube, the Neolithic Britons traveled across the Mediterranean and first settled in modern-day Spain and Portugal. Second, they didn't appear to mix with the darker-skin hunter-gatherers. "We don't find any detectable evidence at all for the local British western hunter-gatherer ancestry in the Neolithic farmers after they arrive," Tom Booth, a specialist in ancient DNA from London's Natural History Museum and co-author of the study, tells BBC News. "That doesn't mean they don't mix at all, it just means that maybe their population sizes were too small to have left any kind of genetic legacy."

"In addition to farming, the Neolithic migrants to Britain appear to have introduced the tradition of building monuments using large stones known as megaliths," BBC News reports. "Stonehenge in Wiltshire was part of this tradition," though there's evidence of megalithic structures along Europe's Atlantic coast. But history didn't end with the Anatolian immigrants. In about 2450 BC, the shrinking population of Neolithic farmers was almost entirely replace by a new group, the Bell Beaker people, from mainland Europe, the researchers found. Peter Weber

January 17, 2019

"This wasn't the argument that I set out to make," that Congress must impeach President Trump, Yoni Appelbaum says at The Atlantic. But after researching the previous three impeachments in U.S. history, it became clear pundits and Democratic leaders "have overlearned the lessons of Bill Clinton's impeachment, which backfired on his accusers" in 1998, "and entirely forgotten the real significance of Andrew Johnson's" in 1868.

By Appelbaum's estimation, Trump's multi-pronged "attack on the very foundations of America's constitutional democracy" already more than qualifies him for impeachment and removal from office, but even if the Senate disagrees and fails to convict, the process is its own remedy "in five distinct forms," he explains in The Atlantic's March cover story, posted online late Wednesday:

In these five ways — shifting the public's attention to the president's debilities, tipping the balance of power away from him, skimming off the froth of conspiratorial thinking, moving the fight to a rule-bound forum, and dealing lasting damage to his political prospects — the impeachment process has succeeded in the past. In fact, it's the very efficacy of these past efforts that should give Congress pause; it's a process that should be triggered only when a president's betrayal of his basic duties requires it. But Trump's conduct clearly meets that threshold. The only question is whether Congress will act. [Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic]

"It is absurd to suggest that the Constitution would delineate a mechanism too potent to ever actually be employed," Appelbaum writes. "With a newly seated Democratic majority, the House of Representatives can no longer dodge its constitutional duty. It must immediately open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and bring the debate out of the court of public opinion and into Congress, where it belongs." Read the entire history lesson and argument for impeachment, including where Bill Clinton's accusers went wrong and Hillary Clinton's earlier cameo in impeachment law, at The Atlantic.

January 8, 2019

Despite some misgivings, the major American TV networks — NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox — are broadcasting President Trump's prime-time Oval Office address on what he's calling a "crisis" at the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump is expected to make his case for declaring a national emergency that could allow him to start building his border wall, despite constitutional concerns. There's also trepidation he will repeat falsehoods he and his aides have been telling. "My network will be carrying Trump's Wall speech live," Stephen Colbert joked. "So at 9 p.m. Tuesday, tune into CBS to See B.S."

In November 2014, President Barack Obama asked the networks to broadcast his own prime-time immigration speech from the White House, focusing on what would become the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The networks said no, though some individual affiliates did carry Obama's speech live. Obama was butting into sweeps week, but also "there was agreement among the broadcast networks that this was overtly political," a network insider told Politico at the time. "The White House has tried to make a comparison to a time that all the networks carried President Bush in prime time [in 2006], also related to immigration. But that was a bipartisan announcement, and this is an overtly political move by the White House."

"This turnabout where George W. Bush gets free airtime to promote his immigration idea but then Obama doesn't get free airtime for his ideas because it's 'overtly political,' and then Trump gets free airtime for an overtly political message on immigration, is striking," Matthew Yglesias says at Vox. "It's particularly striking because, in this case, this mismatch is partisan rather than ideological — Bush and Obama had broadly similar approaches to immigration while Trump has a different one." In 2014, The Washington Post's Jaime Fuller suggested that relatively few people would've watched Obama's address even if it were broadcast on all the networks. The same may be true of Trump's speech. Peter Weber

September 6, 2018

White House officials dishing anonymously to journalists, including specifically to Bob Woodward, is nothing new in Washington. All presidents have had to deal with leaks and insider sniping, though most have fared better than what President Trump apparently calls his den of "snakes."

"We had people who left the Bush administration and turned on us immediately," Eric Edelman, an undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, tells Politico, specifically mentioning former Press Secretary Scott McClellan. "But to have people inside the administration doing this while they're there, no." Former President Barack Obama, on the other hand, did have a mole of sorts, using the then-new medium of Twitter, as Politico explains:

In 2013 Obama administration officials hunted for a self-identified but unnamed official who tweeted internal gossip and biting commentary under the handle of @NatSecWonk, lambasting figures from Obama adviser Ben Rhodes to Hillary Clinton's daughter, Chelsea. An elaborate analysis of the tweets focused suspicion on a midlevel National Security Council nuclear arms expert named Jofi Joseph, who was caught after he tweeted information planted in a sting operation. Joseph confessed and was fired. He is now a tax consultant. [Politico]

Joseph did not get a fat book deal, but if you're curious about his @NatSecWonk body of work, Marc Ambinder wrote about it in The Week. Peter Weber

June 6, 2018

President Trump's rationale for piling tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the EU last week was certainly controversial. Turns out it's also historically questionable.

Trump cited "national security" when he imposed a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tax on aluminum Friday. In a call on May 25, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Trump to explain the justification.

"Didn't you guys burn down the White House?" Trump replied, sources told CNN.

Middle school history graduates may recognize that it was actually Britain that committed that particular offense, and during the War of 1812. Of course, Canada was a British colony back then, and troops torched the White House in retaliation for an American attack in Ontario. So Trump could've been making an accurate joke — but CNN's source says it probably wasn't taken as one. Kathryn Krawczyk

January 31, 2017

On Monday evening, acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed Justice Department lawyers that as long as she headed the DOJ, its lawyers "will not present arguments in defense of the executive order" President Trump issued on immigration from seven Muslim nations because she's not "convinced that the executive order is lawful." President Trump promptly fired her, saying Yates "has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order."

Yates had been planning to leave the department a few days after the Senate confirmed Trump's nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and she reportedly knew her letter could lead to her early termination. But sometimes "the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that's improper." That last quote is from Jeff Sessions — whose protégés reportedly wrote Trump's executive order — talking to Yates at her deputy attorney general Senate confirmation hearing in March 2015. "If the views a president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or deputy attorney general say no?" Sessions asked. "Senator, I believe that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution," Yates replied.

Sessions went on to compare the president to a business executive. "Sometimes, the lawyers have to tell the CEOs, Mr. CEO, don't do that, we'll get us sued," he said. "It's going to be in violation of the law. You'll regret it. Please. No matter how headstrong they might be, do you feel like that's the duty of the attorney general's office?" Yates said yes.

Before wrapping up, Sessions strolled down memory lane: "I remember John Ashcroft, attorney general for Bush, he's been celebrated, when he was in the hospital, they tried to get him to sign a document that dealt with terrorism that he thought went too far, he refused to do so. So, I hope that you feel free to say no, in the character of John Ashcroft and others who said no to President Nixon on certain issues." Ashcroft was consulted in the hospital, Sessions did not mention, because Bush was first turned down by the acting attorney general, James Comey, who is now head of the FBI. You can watch the entire Sessions-Yates exchange at C-SPAN. Peter Weber

January 19, 2017

Senate Republicans are pressing Democrats to confirm at least seven of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees on Friday, in the hours after Trump is sworn in, while Democrats say they are probably open to confirming a handful, including Trump's picks for defense (former Gen. James Mattis), homeland security (former Gen. John Kelly), and CIA director (Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas). With 48 votes, Democrats can't stop any nominations, but if they don't agree to a voice vote, they can delay the confirmations.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), echoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), argued that seven nominees is only fair. "In 2009 when President Obama was sworn into office, there were seven Cabinet members confirmed on his first day in office — seven," he said. "That's a demonstration of the good faith and the civility that ordinarily extends in the peaceful transition of power." That's also not the whole story.

First, the Senate only confirmed six Obama nominees on Inauguration Day 2009 — the secretaries of agriculture, education, energy, homeland security, interior, and veterans affairs. The seventh, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was already in office, a holdover from the George W. Bush administration. Democrats also had a much larger 58-41 majority.

The biggest difference, though, is that Obama's nominees had been vetted — and in fact, three of his nominees withdrew their names before a vote: commerce secretary nominees Gov. Bill Richardson (who said a federal pay-to-play inquiry would cause an "untenable delay" in his confirmation) and Sen. Judd Gregg (a Republican who decided under partisan pressure that he had "irresolvable" ideological differences with Obama), and HHS secretary pick Tom Daschle (a former Senate majority leader who admitted failing to pay $128,000 in taxes on unreported income and use of a chauffeured car).

On Wednesday, CNN's Jake Tapper, who covered the Daschle story, explained how the Obama and Trump nominations are different. "The Senate committee was vetting Tom Daschle, they had issues and questions," he said. "I don't see that same sort of diligence going on in the committees. They seem to be rushing through a lot of these nominations."

Historically, "Cabinet nominations tend only to fail when dragged down by scandal or impropriety," not "policy disagreement or extreme political views," says Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight. "Only a scandal big enough to force the famously unapologetic Trump to reverse himself and withdraw a nomination is likely to bring down any of his appointees." Peter Weber

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