Saturday, April 27, 2024

On Our "Virtual Route 66" (Final M-End Edition): On the Week That Was


While out and about this week in our community, our team captured this to underscore the simple beauty we're blessed with here in Southern California as we gear up for a new month of service.

We present a final curated month-end snapshot of our World as we look forward to the continued privilege of serving:

Text reads: The Most Feared and Least Known Political Operative in America

Illustration of Susie Wiles wearing sunglasses that contain vivid reflections of Ron DeSantis (left) and Donald Trump (right) with a dark pink sky in the background.

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk for POLITICO

With the White House Correspondents’ Dinner coming up tomorrow, it’s once again time for the POLITICO Magazine Media Issue — our deep dive into the people and institutions behind the stories that shape politics. And we’re starting out with a deeply reported profile of perhaps the most consequential shaper of stories in 2024 and beyond.

She crushed Ron DeSantis. She saved Donald Trump. She’s become the most celebrated and feared, the most admired and reviled operative in politics. But unless you work in politics yourself, you probably don’t even know who she is.

In this week’s Friday Read, Michael Kruse charts the rise of Susie Wiles, Trump’s most influential adviser, from her work for traditionalists like John McCain, to her explosive divorce from the DeSantis campaign and her ultimate MAGA conversion.

“She’s a leading reason Trump has every chance to get elected again — even after his loss of 2020, the insurrection of 2021, his party’s defeats in the midterms of 2022, the criminal indictments of 2023 and the trial (or trials) of 2024,” Kruse writes. “The former president is potentially a future president. And that’s because of him. But it’s also because of her.”

Read the story.

Since October 7th, the Israeli bombardment, siege, and invasion of Gaza has led to the deadliest period for journalists since the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) began gathering data more than 30 years ago. 

At least 90 Palestinian journalists and media workers have been killed in this war, according to the CPJ

In this video, watch Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein, Bassem Youssef, W. Kamau Bell, and a whole host of Zeteo contributors pay a very special and unique tribute to Palestinian journalists killed by Israel. 

And then ask yourself the question: Why has there been such silence from so many prominent Western journalists over the killing of their colleagues in Gaza?

“I am in shock that a lawyer stood in the U.S. Supreme Court and said that a president could assassinate his political opponent and it would be immune as ‘an official act,’” lawyer Marc Elias, whose firm defends democratic election laws, wrote today on social media. He added: “I am in despair that several Justices seemed to think this answer made perfect sense.” 

Elias was referring to the argument of Trump’s lawyer before the Supreme Court today that it could indeed be an “official act” for which a president should be immune from criminal prosecution if “the president decides that his rival is a corrupt person and he orders the military or orders someone to assassinate him.”

The Supreme Court today heard close to three hours of oral argument over Trump v. United States, which concerns former president Trump’s claim of absolute immunity from criminal charges for “official acts”: in this case, his attempt to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 presidential election and to stay in office against the will of the voters. 

That is, like the authoritarian leaders he admires, Trump tried to steal the 2020 presidential election and seize the presidency. Sometimes I worry that the enormity of that crime against our democracy is becoming normalized. 

It was not normalized by grand jury members who reviewed the evidence of that effort; they indicted Trump in August 2023 on four counts. But Trump responded by claiming that a president cannot be prosecuted for official acts and that a former president cannot be prosecuted unless the House of Representatives has impeached him and the Senate convicted him. 

Justice Clarence Thomas, whose wife, Ginni, participated in that effort, did not recuse himself from today’s hearing, and the court did not object to his presence.

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post noted that the justices on the court seemed to be weighing “which poses the greater risk—putting a criminal president above the law or hamstringing noncriminal presidents with the risk of frivolous or vindictive prosecutions brought by their successors.” 

The liberals on the court focused on the former—after all, the case is about whether Trump should answer to criminal indictments for trying to overturn our democracy. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson noted: “If someone with those kinds of powers, the most powerful person in the world with the greatest amount of authority, could go into office knowing that there would be no potential penalty for committing crimes, I’m trying to understand what the disincentive is from turning the Oval Office into, you know, the seat of criminal activity in this country.”

In contrast, the right-wing justices focused on the risk of vindictive prosecutions, which has been the heart of Trump’s argument for complete immunity. Trump insists that without immunity, a president will be afraid to make controversial decisions out of fear of later prosecution. Such a lack of immunity would destroy the presidency, he has argued, claiming that he is simply trying to protect the office. 

And yet he is the first of 45 presidents to be charged with a crime, and no previous president made any claim of immunity.

Nonetheless, the right-wing justices made it clear they were more interested in the future than in the present. In their comments they stayed far away from Trump and focused instead on presidents in the past and the future. (Conservative judge Michael Luttig noted: “The Court and the parties discussed everything but the specific question presented.”)

Justice Neil Gorsuch said: “I’m not concerned about this case, but I am concerned about future uses of the criminal law to target political opponents based on accusations about their motives.” Justice Samuel Alito tried to turn the argument for accountability upside down by suggesting that complete immunity would be more likely to encourage presidents to leave office, because if a president knew they could be prosecuted for crimes, they would be less likely to leave peacefully. 

Indeed, Marcus wrote: “The conservative justices’ professed concerns over the implications of their rulings for imaginary future presidents, in imaginary future proceedings, seemed more important to them than bringing Trump to justice.” Constitutional law professor Anthony Michael Kreis was more concrete in his reaction; he found it “[u]nbelievable that Supreme Court justices who see forgiving student loans, mandating vaccines, and regulating climate change as a slippery slope toward tyranny were not clear-eyed on questions of whether a president could execute citizens or stage a coup without being prosecuted.”

The court’s decision will likely take weeks and thus will delay Trump’s trial for crimes committed in his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, likely until after the 2024 election. On Monday, April 22, former representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), who served as vice chair of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, called out Trump’s attacks on the legal system and delays to avoid accountability. In a New York Times op-ed, Cheney reminded the justices that delay would mean that the American people would not get to hear the testimony and evidence Special Counsel Jack Smith has uncovered before the 2024 election. 

“It cannot be that a president of the United States can attempt to steal an election and seize power but our justice system is incapable of bringing him to trial before the next election four years later,” she wrote.

And yet, here we are. 

Voters’ right to know what a candidate for president did to overthrow the will of the people in a previous election is at stake in today’s arguments. But so is the rule of law on which our democracy stands. The rule of law means that laws are made according to established procedures rather than a leader’s dictates, and that they are reasonable. Laws are enforced equally. No one is above the law, and everyone has an obligation to obey the law. 

As Justice Elena Kagan noted today: “The framers did not put an immunity clause into the Constitution. They knew how to; there were immunity clauses in some state constitutions. They didn’t provide immunity to the president. And, you know—not so surprising—they were reacting against a monarch who claimed to be above the law. Wasn’t the whole point that the president was not a monarch and the president was not supposed to be above the law?”


“[W]here, say some, is the King of America?” Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, the 1776 pamphlet that convinced British colonists in North America to cut ties with their king and start a new nation. “[I]n America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.”


The U.S. is sending $1 billion worth of military supplies to Ukraine in the latest tranche of weapons, announced moments after President Biden signed the recently passed $95 billion aid package for Kyiv, Taiwan, Israel, and more Tuesday morning at the White House. 


Against the drones: The new weapons delivery includes “.50 caliber rounds to counter Unmanned Aerial Systems,” which Ukraine has been shooting down in greater numbers since Iran began supplying the invading Russian military with one-way attack drones often referred to as Shaheds. 


There are also lots more artillery rounds and of several varieties (HIMARS, 155mm, 105mm, and more). More Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles are also en route—as well as claymore and “anti-armor mines,” reflecting a particular defensive focus for this latest package. 


The White House already sent Ukraine long-range ATACMS missiles, multiple outlets reported Wednesday after Biden signed the bill into law, citing unnamed U.S. officials. The transfer of those missiles, which some experts and lawmakers have been encouraging for months, occurred secretly in March so as to retain a certain element of surprise for Ukraine.




Those missiles, with a range of about 190 miles, were apparently used twice so far, “striking an airfield in Crimea and Russian troops in southeastern Ukraine,” the New York Times reported. More than 100 ATACMS have been sent so far, U.S. officials said. (The U.S. had previously sent a shorter-range ATACMS variant months ago; it carried older cluster munitions not as widely in use among U.S. forces around the world.)


Shipments to Ukraine have already begun, U.S. officials say. As the prospects for a new aid tranche grew brighter last week, the Pentagon began moving arms and gear into position for quick transfer to the beleaguered country, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. C.Q. Brown told reporters on Wednesday. Added Bill LaPlante, the Pentagon’s buyer-in-chief: “Literally, right now, there are planes flying probably with equipment to Ukraine.” Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reports


The supplemental will also renew the U.S. Army’s quest to produce 100,000 artillery shells per month. That goal, set for next summer, would more than triple the current production, Lt. Gen. James Mingus, service’ vice chief of staff, said at a CSIS event on Wednesday. Army officials had earlier said progress toward the goal would depend on some $3 billion in a Ukraine supplemental. Defense One’s Sam Skove has more, here.


Developing: Potential anti-radar missile sales. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced potential sales of Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missiles and related support to Poland ($1.275 billion) and to the Netherlands ($700 million).


Decamping from Niger


U.S. diplomatic and military officials traveled to Niger’s capital city this week “to initiate discussions on an orderly and safe withdrawal” of the remaining thousand or so U.S. forces from the country, the Defense Department announced Wednesday. The U.S. delegation included Ambassador to Niger Kathleen FitzGibbon and Africa Command’s Air Force Maj. Gen. Kenneth Ekman. 


Context: Niger’s military overthrew elected President Mohamed Bazoum in a July 2023 coup, which was one of eight to hit West and Central African nations since 2020. Niger itself endured four prior coups since gaining independence from France in 1960. In the months since, the anti-democratic junta has fostered a closer relationship with Russian officials;’’’p and mercenaries, and—without a sense of irony—declared that a 2012 security pact with the U.S. violated Niger’s “constitutional and democratic rules.” That pact had permitted U.S. troops to operate a drone base outside the city of Agadez for the purposes of fighting terrorists and combating extremism in the region.


FWIW: “Since the 2010s, the U.S. has sunk roughly a quarter billion dollars into the outpost,” which is “in addition to more than $500 million in military assistance provided to Niger since 2012,” Nick Turse of The Intercept reported in March. (The Wall Street Journal last week referred to the site as a “$110 million U.S.-built drone base.”)


“Amid discussion underway since July 2023, we have been unable to reach an understanding” with junta leaders, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement Wednesday. “The United States is proud of the security cooperation and shared sacrifice of U.S. forces and Nigerien forces, a partnership which effectively contributed to stability in Niger and the region,” he added. 


U.S. officials are particularly concerned about Niger’s uranium mines, whose output Washington fears could be sold to Iran. The country supplies about 5% of the world’s uranium, including an estimated 20% of the European Union’s needs. 


Next week, two U.S. officials will travel to Niamey for follow-on discussions with Nigerien officials. That U.S. team is expected to include Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Christopher Maier and Air Force Lt. Gen. Dagvin Anderson from the Joint Staff. Other U.S. troops are also staged nearby in Benin and Chad, though they only number in the dozens—nothing like the contingent in Niger. U.S. officials are reportedly considering moving their drone assets to Benin, Ivory Coast, or Ghana. Togo may also be an option. 


Could Chad be next to evict U.S. troops? “This month, the top Chadian air force general ordered the U.S. to cease activities at a major air base in the country [Adji Kossei], questioning the legal grounds for the American presence,” the Journal reported last week. “U.S. officials are trying to assess how widespread that sentiment is among Chad’s leaders and military commanders,” Michael Phillips of the Journal wrote. 


For the record, the U.S. military “remains committed to countering violent extremist organizations in West Africa,” and “will continue to support whole-of-government approaches to work with African leaders to maintain stability and address terrorist threats in the region, including addressing core issues that drive insecurity,” Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement Wednesday evening. 

Related reading:

· Russian troop arrival spells end for US military presence in Niger,” the Financial Times reported Wednesday from Lagos;

· Russia's lies helped persuade Niger to eject US troops, AFRICOM says,” Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reported in March; 

· See also, “Russia exploits Western vacuum in Africa’s Sahel,” via Military Periscope, writing Tuesday

Despite US aid for Ukraine, Europe needs to step up

INTERNATIONAL VIEW  •  2024-04-25  •  Ulrich Speck
Despite US aid for Ukraine, Europe needs to step up

Europeans cannot rely on America to take responsibility for Europe’s security. If Trump is elected later this year, everything could change. By committing more now, Europe could save itself considerable pain later.

The Philippines and China are on a collision course

INTERNATIONAL VIEW  •  2024-04-25  •  Patrick Zoll, Taipeh
The Philippines and China are on a collision course

Beijing is ratcheting up its pressure on Manila, which is increasingly relying on the military support of its partner countries. All signs point to further escalation over disputed maritime territory in the South China Sea.

An Iran vs. Israel war would be catastrophic for Lebanon

INTERNATIONAL VIEW  •  2024-04-26  •  Daniel Böhm, Beirut
An Iran vs. Israel war would be  catastrophic for Lebanon

Pro-Iranian Hezbollah militias have been waging a border conflict against Israel from Lebanon for weeks and the conflict is threatening to escalate. The skirmishes could spark another civil war.

Conspiracy theories have always haunted US politics

BEHIND THE HEADLINES  •  2024-04-24  •  Alan Cassidy
Conspiracy theories have always haunted US politics

Many Europeans are shocked at the spread of conspiracy theories in U.S. politics. Yet paranoia has been part of American democracy since its founding. Are conspiracy theories the «engine» of the American political system?

Study: Migrants in Switzerland dominate low-wage jobs

INSIDE SWITZERLAND  •  2024-04-26  •  Albert Steck
Study: Migrants in Switzerland dominate low-wage jobs

A new study finds that foreign-born workers in Switzerland are disproportionately found in low-wage professions in which recruitment is difficult. Among teachers and police officers, on the other hand, the number of immigrants is low.

April 22, 2024

By Marc Cooper

This edition is about the number one movie currently in the U.S., Alex Garland’s Civil War.

Don’t worry if you have not yet seen it.  There are no spoilers.  Mostly because there is absolutely nothing in the film to spoil.

The story, set more or less in the present or the very near future, is about an American Civil War that has torn most of the country apart.  There seems to be a vaguely Trumpian President in power. He is in his third term and has dissolved the FBI (though we don’t know if he did this because he was faced with an armed uprising or were these acts the cause of the revolt.   He is on the verge of losing the war to something called the Western Forces – an alliance between, are you ready, California and Texas!

No, this isn’t an intentional comedy. Though the thought itself belongs in a stand up act. That one detail should be enough to tell you this movie is a waste of time as it has absolutely nothing, zip, nada of substance to transmit. Oh, wait…I take that back. We do learn that War is Hell, a lot of people die, cars and buildings get wrecked, shopping malls are turned to rubble, highways are littered with shot-up cars and, in this case, we also learn that some folks in The Great Flyover of the Heartland are ignoring the bloody, rather apocalyptic conflict and are going about their usual, small daily lives.  Choosing Texas and California and secondarily Florida as the spearhead of the rebellion is an obvious, cheap and clunky ploy by Garland to not offend anybody across the current political divide and for the audience to make sure Garland is not taking sides. 

I mean, who would want to choose a side in a civil war where the oldest democracy in the world is about to collapse.

The film follows four journalists scurrying to D.C. before it falls so they can get “the big story” with one print reporter determined to get the last interview with the embattles president.  Along the way they witness extreme violence, grotesque sadism, burning forests, and they have nothing to say to each other or to us about what is going on and who is who. Of the four the two photojournalists are the real subject of the story. A world-weary veteran played by Kirsten Dunst and a much younger naïve college aged woman who Dunst takes under her wing.

But so what? We learn nothing.  There’s even an extended sequence in a civilian refugee camp and even there the film does not stoop to giving voice to a single one of them. And these reporters also, ask no questions.  It’s phantasmagorical.  Earlier in the film, when an unidentified gaggle of armed men are found torturing two captives, again nothing is explained. The younger photog wonders out loud why are they doing this.

And…then..drumroll…spotlight…stop action…close up on Dunst as she is about to speak the key line of the movie, the line that is supposed to win you over to her cynical, remote and unemotional detachment, the line that writer Garland would have us believe unlocks the central moral of the story, the money shot:  Sounding like a Ivory Tower journalism professor of 1957, Dunst lectures her mentee:  “Once you start asking yourself those questions, you can’t stop,” Lee replies sharply. “So we don’t ask. We record so other people ask. You want to be a journalist? That’s the job.”

Journalists are not supposed to ask questions? They are not supposed to provide context, even for photographs. Or is Dunst sloppily speaking only of photojournalists?  That doubt has been cleared up by director Garland in several public statements basically affirming that the sentence in question is the whole point of the movie and is precisely the correct position to understand the film and presumably journalism and maybe even the whole wide world.

Garland has said publicly, the movie is meant to be as politically objective as possible. “The kind of journalism we need most — reporting, which used to be the dominant form of journalism — had a deliberate removal of a certain kind of bias,”

“If you have a news organization which has a strong bias, it is only likely to be trusted by the choir to which it’s preaching, and it will be distrusted by the others. So that was something journalists used to actively, deliberately, consciously try to avoid. […] And then the film attempts to function like those journalists. So this is a throwback to an old form of journalism, being told in the manner of that journalism.”

Do I really need to take the above apart?  Is it not obviously just plain stupid?

Having been a journalist since 1971, I can attest to the fact that there are lot of clueless, detached and deeply cynical, not to mention, plain old mediocre journalists out there.  But they are not the really good ones. They are space fillers.

I have worked closely with many combat photojournalists while covering the wars and uprisings in Latin America.  They are the most exposed, the most vulnerable of any press corps and by definition they are the most courageous. And I know three who were killed.  This specie of reporter is most usually the best informed and also the most passionate and the most engaged. Few people are willing to risk their lives to just take pictures about a cause or a conflict that they don’t have some at least minimal stake in.  After all, their primary subjects are people, and in order to best capture them they have to know who they are politically, what is driving them etc. and how to best capture that sentiment in an image.  And given their vulnerability, they are quite often the best source for safe passage through combat zones. 

Garland has protested the accusation that the film is abstract to the point, IMHO, of being vacuous.

 “I cannot see how it’s abstract,” he told Polygon in an interview ahead of the film’s release. “There is a fascist president who has dismantled the Constitution sufficiently to be able to stay for three terms, has removed one of the legal institutions that could threaten his position doing that, and is causing violence, attacking his own citizens. It might be abstract, possibly, on first blush — but to me, that does not stand up to any inspection at all, in terms of the actual content within the film.” 

Comically, there’s more exposition in that statement than there is the 109 minutes of the movie.

There’s also some great irony in the Garland’s wishcasting about what makes good journalism. I would argue, as I have for years, that one of the primary reasons the American people are so politically immature, apathetic and irrational is precisely because of the way the mainstream media has always opted for “objectivity,” thereby releasing themselves of any responsibility to explain in depth what might really be in play because, you know, that would be partisan.  So if Garland’s little crew of reporters had been in Berlin as the Red Army deposed Hitler or near Hiroshima when the US vaporized a hundred thousand civilians, I guess they still would have nothing to say or explain. 

They would, in the words of Dunst, “not ask.”

The producers of the film and Garland clearly made this movie, as all movies are made, to make money. OK, his timing was good and he has cashed in. Bravo.  But he doesn’t seem to get that his desired muting of an aggressive press is in part what has produced the conditions that make civil war suddenly thinkable in the US.  It can be traced back to the media celebration of Trump as candidate in 2016 and the normalization of this dangerous, authoritarian imbecile during his tenure…and to a great degree, once again now during his haphazard re-election campaign.

In the film, Garland makes two references to people in the American Heartland who –apparently untouched by the violence of the conflict—just ignore it and carry on life as usual.  Too bad Garland didn’t book a ticket to Des Moines and sit out the last couple of years pondering his navel instead of making and then inflicting this trash film on a country already in sufficient pain and confusion without it.++