After two years of carefully scripted public silence, Robert Mueller spoke on May 30. In eight minutes of words, as carefully scripted as his previous silence, Mueller delivered a message radically different in tone and substance than the Trumpian tweets about a “Russia hoax” and the president’s insistence that there was “no collusion.” Two months after Mueller delivered a 448-page report to Attorney General William Barr, he closed up shop and left his job as Special Counsel. Here is a Q&A based on my interview on China Radio International.
Q: What’s your takeaway from Robert Mueller’s eight-minute statement?
A: Robert Mueller made clear that he believed Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, misstated the findings of the report when Barr claimed that Trump had been cleared of wrongdoing. Mueller was precise and diplomatic in his wording. But the words were very damaging to Barr’s credibility among open-minded Americans, although in a deeply divided country, I’m not sure how many people are open to changing their minds about anything relating to Trump. The two points Mueller made abundantly clear: There was, and is, ongoing Russian interference in the U.S. electoral process, and he cannot and will not clear Donald Trump of attempting to obstruct justice.
Q: In Mueller’s speech, he detailed 10 instances where Trump had possibly attempted to impede the investigation, but said the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” Is he indicating an impeachment process?
A: Not exactly. He said the Justice Department policy is clear and that he abided by that policy. The question of whether a sitting president may be charged criminally during his or her presidency may be decided by a court at some point. Mueller did strongly suggest that it is up to Congress at this present time to formally accuse a sitting president, because the Trump Justice Department will not.
Q: Three more democrats are calling for impeachment, and one Republican has been calling for Trump’s impeachment, do you think the momentum will grow after Mueller’s speech?
A: The momentum is building slowly. The reason is that Republicans remain scared to death of Trump and his supporters. Some are afraid of being defeated in primaries. Some want to use their power in Washington to pursue their policy goals. And other simply agree with Trump’s ends and his tactics. Democratic congressional leaders want to focus the party’s efforts on defeating Trump at the ballot box in 2020 rather than impeaching him, which they could do, but there is no chance of convicting him in a Republican Senate. The same thing happened with Bill Clinton in 1999.
Q: What do you make of the division within the Democratic Party on this issue?
A: The party is divided between pragmatists, who want the House of Representatives to focus on policy issues and want Democrats to focus on electoral success, and idealists and ideologues who believe that Trump is a liar, a crook, a scoundrel, a mad king, a Russian dupe, an unfit charlatan, or some combination of those things.
Q: Mueller said he did “not believe it is appropriate” for him to testify before Congress, as House Democrats have asked. How do you look at this, and how is the Congress going to react to this that he doesn’t want to testify?
A: Mueller is a rare public figure in America who wants his words to speak for him. He wants to investigation and the report to be his legacy. He does not want to get into a personal political war with Donald Trump. Those battles have ended with damaged reputations for anyone who has gotten into a personal conflict with Trump for the past 35 years. Mueller, at his press availability, made it very, very clear that we should focus on the carefully crafted, very strong language in the report. Trump said the report cleared him. It obviously does not. Mueller wants every American to read every word of the report. He doesn’t want them to be forced to choose between political “sound bites.”
Q: Mueller has announced the formal closure of the special counsel office and his resignation from the justice department. If we look back at this investigation that went on for more than two years and costed over 25 million US dollars of tax payer’s money. Do you think it was worth it?
A: Absolutely. It was a fact-finding mission and a criminal investigation. It succeeded on both levels. The people of the world know much more about the Russian government’s aggressive and persistent efforts to elect Donald Trump and sow chaos in the American political system. Dozens of people have been convicted of criminal charges, including some of Donald Trump’s closest advisers. The Mueller investigation has spawned several ongoing criminal probes. But most of all, Mueller wrote a dispassionate, detailed report of the facts as he knew them, despite, as he strongly suggested, an aggressive attempt to obstruct his investigation.
China Radio International asked me to analyze the November 6 U.S. midterm elections. Instead of staying up all night watching the results in Washington, as I used to do during my 35 years of covering politics, I spent a day of my midterm (exam) week at Tsinghua University monitoring the returns, taking advantage of the 13-hour time difference to avoid sleep deprivation.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of my CRI Q&A:
Q: What’s your reaction to the election result?
A: It was exactly the result I expected. Donald Trump’s decision to divide the country along class and racial lines helped Republicans make gains in the Senate but it doomed them in the House. And I think Trump made a rational political decision: sacrifice the House to keep the Senate, where his nominees for executive office and the courts must be confirmed. This split verdict of the voters strengthens Trump as far as nominations are concerned, but it will make it hard for him to pass any legislation unless it is truly bipartisan. It also will subject him to aggressive oversight by the new Democratic committee chairmen in the newly Democratic House.
Q: To what extent do you think this is going to reshape the political landscape of America?
A: It confirms that 2016 was not a fluke and that Trump has realigned American politics. On the one hand, some suburban voters are switching to the Democratic Party, and women and younger voters are becoming more and more Democratic. But Trump has consolidated the realignment of white working-class voters and has managed to maintain the support of many educated white men in the suburbs. I think it means at least two more years of deeply divided politics and a focus by both parties on a few states that will determine the 2020 election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arizona and probably Florida.
Q: Donald Trump said two days before the elections that he planned to focus on the Senate. He declared the election results a “tremendous success” for Republicans. In what ways could this be a victory for Donald Trump?
A: Well, it’s a victory because he kept control of the Senate, and even strengthened the Republican majority. He is directly responsible for that with his highly charged rhetoric and his aggressive campaigning. Five new senators owe Trump their jobs. It means that Trump will have virtual carte blanche on nominations for administration positions and federal judgeships for the next two years.
Q: Do you think Donald Trump should be given the credit for Republicans keeping the Senate red?
A: Yes, he deserves credit. And so does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump figured out a way to motivate his base. Democrats were enthusiastic about going to the polls to vote against Republicans. They figured out a way, with the Supreme Court nomination fight over Brett Kavanaugh, to charge up Republican base voters. Trump understands the Trump voters better than the American media does.
Q: With divided leadership in Congress and a president who has taken an expansive view of executive power, is Washington going to see even deeper political polarization and legislative gridlock?
A: Because the Democrats control the House, there will either be bipartisanship or gridlock. Judging by Trump’s track record, I would bet on gridlock. Unless Trump completely changes his persona and suddenly becomes a statesman, Washington will devolve into gridlock and recriminations. The House will investigate Trump. The Senate will support Trump. The most likely compromises will come when Congress debates spending bills, because they have to figure out a way to agree to pay for government operations.
Q: The 2018 midterms are viewed by many as a national referendum on President Trump. Why is that? Is that what usually happens in the U.S.?
A: Midterms are rarely a referendum on the president. The 2010 midterms were a referendum on Obamacare and government spending to counteract the Great Recession. The 2006 midterms were not a referendum on George W. Bush but a rejection of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a saying in Washington that in Congress, all politics is local. In Donald Trump’s Washington, all politics is all Trump, all the time.
It was a referendum on Trump because he made it a referendum on himself. He could have made it a referendum on a strong economy, but he decided that dividing voters over issues such as immigration and judges would help Republicans keep the Senate. He was right about that, although Democratic Senate candidates got millions more votes than Republican candidates, and House Democratic candidates received a bigger majority of the two-party vote than either party has received since 2008. So the public spoke: Trump and Republicans are unpopular, but the American system, which gives each state two senators, benefits the smaller, more conservative states where Trump is popular.
Q: A survey released on the eve of the election shows that a quarter of Americans have lost friends over political disagreements and are less likely to attend social functions because of politics. What does it tell about the political environment in today’s American society?
A: It is toxic. I stayed off Twitter for much of the past week because there were too many angry people spending their time insulting each other. Social discourse in America is making people angry, depressed and divided. I hope that changes, but I’m not sure where the change will start.
Q: Why are we seeing more far-right activists using violence to express their political views, from the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democratic figures to the shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people?
A: Far-right activists feel empowered and emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and his successes. Trump is not responsible for crazed people who commit violent acts, but he does bear some responsibility for the lack of civility in public discourse and a failure to repudiate racial and religious hatred.
Q: Will the election result in any way influence the Trump administration’s trade policies?
A: I am an eternal optimist, and I think there’s a chance that Trump will try to cool down the rhetoric and try to find a negotiated settlement to the trade dispute with China. Election Day polling of voters found that only 25 percent of them believe that Trump’s trade policies are good for the American economy.
But it is also possible that, having declared victory, he will feel emboldened to continue to challenge traditional allies such as the EU and NATO, and get tough with China and even Russia, as we saw recently when he pulled out of the nuclear arms treaty.
Here is the complete text of my commencement address to the Global Business Journalism graduation ceremony at Tsinghua University on July 5, 2018.
大家好。Добрый день. Welcome.
I am honored, on behalf of the International Center for Journalists and the international faculty of the Global Business Journalism Program, to congratulate all of you on your successful completion of your studies.
This special group includes some of the best young journalists in China, along with a diverse mixture of nations: Japan, Russia, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Korea, Pakistan, Burundi, Azerbaijan, New Zealand, and the United States. Some of you already have made a mark on the world of business journalism during your Tsinghua years. I have great confidence that even more of you will have an impact in the years to come.
Since 2007, the Global Business Journalism program has improved the quality of journalism – and public understanding of business and economic issues – in China and around the world. You have benefited from cross-cultural learning, practical journalism training, and a varied curriculum featuring both Chinese and international professors at one of the world’s great universities.
In the GBJ program, about three-fourths of our students are women, and with rare exceptions, women are the top performers in our program. Yet many of these high achievers may face obstacles in the job market. Women suffer discrimination, overt and hidden, in hiring, promotion and pay. In many countries, it is acceptable to deny jobs or promotions to women because the employer fears they will become wives and mothers, and will not be as committed to their day jobs as men.
Subtle forms of discrimination continue to subvert women’s empowerment even in so-called progressive countries. A recent study of Twitter use by American political reporters found that of the 25 reporters who received the most social media replies from male political reporters in the United States, zero were women. And whose posts did male reporters share? Only three of the 25 most frequently shared reporters were women. It’s no surprise that the vast majority of “experts” quoted by male reporters tend to be male. It’s time for change.
Joyce Barnathan, president of the International Center for Journalists, was one of 10 prominent media leaders who last month proposed 14 steps to combat industry sexism. “It’s time to stop talking about the need for equality and start actively reforming the industry,” Joyce and the other leaders wrote.
We must overcome these insidious forms of male discrimination. In the words of the American civil rights anthem of the 1960s, “we shall overcome, some day.”
But a feminist author, Betty Millard, was unimpressed by the title, “Man Against Myth,” and produced her own tract in response: “Woman Against Myth.” She decried the cultural and religious customs cited to subjugate women around the world.
As Millard noted, Confucius wrote many centuries ago: “It is a law of nature that women should be kept under the control of men and not allowed any will of their own.” Confucius, without doubt, was a great man. But he was not always right.
Sadly, Millard’s analysis is still relevant today. A GBJ student, in his thesis this year, argued that Islamic feminists believe that “women’s struggle for equality with men is doomed to fail, as women are placed in ‘unnatural settings’ where they are denigrated and burdened with paid work on top of domestic labor.”
I believe in academic freedom, but I do not agree with the sentiments expressed in this quotation.
Fortunately, the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication is leading the way in empowering women. Our executive dean, Dr. Chen Changfeng, is a brilliant scholar and inspirational leader. Our associate dean for international affairs, my friend and GBJ co-director Dr. Hang Min, has earned a global reputation for media management and cross-cultural partnerships. Doctors Fan Hong and Dai Jia are popular GBJ professors, and Li Laoshi, Rose Li, is our indispensable international administrator. And more than half of the keynote speakers at our annual Tsinghua Business Journalism Forums have been women.
You see, women can achieve, if given the opportunity and freed of institutional and societal constraints. I hope that all of you in the graduating class of 2018 take inspiration from the accomplishments of your professors and your peers. It is sometimes harder for women to succeed in journalism. That’s the reality. Men still run most news organizations, and men make most of the hiring decisions. But through persistence and sheer excellence, women are gaining ground. I hope to live long enough to see some of you lead the journalistic, economic and even political worlds of the 21st century.
I close by quoting my favorite philosopher, my grandfather, Barrows Dunham. During a lecture in Massachusetts, he expressed optimism about the battle for social progress. “Even now,” he said, “we ourselves are determining the future, not by knowing what it will be, but by conceiving of what it can be.”
I look forward to you determining the future and changing our world. I will cherish your future achievements, unfettered by ancient superstitions and prejudices. Please stay in touch.
谢谢, 大家。Большое спасибо. Thank you.
I discussed the sudden resignation of U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn with China Radio International this morning. The interview came hours after White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Flynn had breached his trust with Donald Trump by lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the contents of conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Flynn’s call to Kislyak was intercepted by U.S. intelligence sources and a transcript was reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Here is a Q&A of my conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity:
Q: We know that Flynn resigned because of the scandal involving his talk with Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump was in office. But what law did he exactly violate?
A: He did not violate any law simply by talking to the ambassador. If he was promising a future Trump administration action in return for a certain Russian response to the Obama sanctions against Russia that had just been announced, he might have violated the Logan Act. That law, enacted in the year 1799, makes it a crime for unauthorized American citizens to negotiate with foreign governments involved in disputes with the United States, such as promising future U.S. government action.
The bigger issue is whether Flynn lied to the FBI, which is conducting a criminal investigation into Trump campaign ties to the Russian government, about this conversation. That would be a felony crime. Apparently, the acting attorney general informed Trump that Flynn may have lied to the FBI. Trump apparently kept that information from his vice president, Mike Pence, who lied to the press as a result. Trump and Flynn also lied to the press about this call — but it’s not a crime to lie to the press.
Q: Did Flynn have any other choices besides resignation?
A: Not really. According to the White House spokesman, Trump demanded his resignation. If that statement from Sean Spicer is true, then his only choice was to either resign or be fired. By resigning, Trump allowed Flynn to issue a statement explaining his point of view in the matter.
With this scandal, Flynn sets some sort of record for being forced to leave two consecutive White House administrations, first Obama and now Trump.
Q: White House spokesman Sean Spicer later said President Donald Trump knew weeks ago — at the end of January — there were problems with Michael Flynn’s Russia phone calls. Then what’s the long pause between Trump knowing the fact and Flynn’s resignation about? Why the wait?
A: This is the question that reporters — and many Republicans in Washington — want answered. The simple answer is that Trump knew Flynn lied, but the public did not know. We don’t know the backstory yet, but Trump may have thought he could get away with keeping Flynn on the job as long as the lies did not become public knowledge. Once the Washington Post published a report that Trump was told Flynn had lied (and did not tell Mike Pence or others in the administration), Flynn was gone in a day.
Q: Will there be an investigation of the phone call and everyone involved in the White House?
A: Yes, and no. Congressional Republicans say they will investigate Flynn and his ties to Russia. The Senate Intelligence Committee says it will conduct an investigation. The House Intelligence Committee chairman said today he will not investigate Trump’s conversations with Flynn, citing a concept called “executive privilege,” which shields a president’s discussions with aides from public disclosure.
Q: What political implications does this have on the presidency?
A: It elevates the importance of criminal investigations by the FBI and Justice Department into Russian attempts to influence the election, it removes Russia’s most vocal supporter from Trump’s inner circle and empowers Russia’s top critic in the Trump inner circle, Vice President Pence. In the U.S., it’s further evidence of chaos within the White House and reinforces the concept that White House officials regularly deceive each other and lie to the public. Whether that is true or not, the perception is becoming more widely accepted.
Q: Following Mr Flynn’s resignation, the White House announced that Keith Kellogg, who was serving as chief of staff of the National Security Council, would take over as interim national security advisor while the White House would scout for a candidate for the position. What do we know about Kellogg and how does his national security plan for the U.S. look like?
A: He is 72 years old. He is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. He was a top civilian official in post-war in Iraq. He was generally respected by people in both parties. He was the first retired general to endorse Trump’s campaign for the presidency when few in U.S. politics took it seriously. He has Trump’s confidence, but some mainstream Republicans believe he is not strong enough by to stand up to Trump’s most hawkish advisers, Steve Bannon and Steve Miller. They would rather have remain as a specialist in policy rather than the top administrator.
If Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a protege of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, is chosen, that is a sign of Mattis’ influence in the administration. If former CIA director David Petraeus is chosen, it is a good sign for the U.S. intelligence community. If Kellogg is chosen, it may be a sign that Trump values loyalty over everything else. The selection may tell us who’s up and who’s down inside the Trump White House.
A new beginning. There’s nothing like the first day of class each semester. Meeting smart young students who are eager to learn. My 35 years as a reporter were exciting and eventful, but my time in the classroom is personally rewarding in a very different way.
My Global Business Journalism Program has trained students from China and 58 other nations of the world, from the U.S. to Vietnam, Russia to Ukraine, Zimbabwe to Great Britain, Israel to Iran, South Africa to South Korea. It is an exciting incubator for the next generation of journalism leaders around the globe.
Tuesday was the first class in my spring semester course, “Multimedia Business Reporting.” Thanks to Weiyue Cynthia Chen, one of the best students I’ve ever taught, for creating this photo gallery of the Global Business Journalism Program in action. (And congrats to Cynthia for getting accepted to Michigan State for her Ph.D. studies!)
For more information, check out the International Center for Journalists’ web link. The deadline for 2016-2017 applications has been extended until March 20. Scholarship deadline is March 10. You can contact me directly if you have any questions.