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This Week In Garbageville

Making sense of the week's avalanche of news

Another week, another pile of ripe, mildewing news to sift through. Do you have to pay attention to any of it? Let's investigate.

Flyke Minn

Michael Flynn stepped down from his post as national security adviser on Monday night, after it was revealed that he'd discussed America's sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Inauguration Day. Since Flynn was not yet a government official, engaging in diplomacy could be a violation of the Logan Act. Moreover, Flynn apparently told Vice-President Pence (and the public) that his conversations with the ambassador hadn't touched on sanctions — as did the Trump administration. In his press conference, Trump argued that the substance of Flynn's phone call itself was fine, though Trump hadn't known about it in advance, and that the real problem — and the reason Flynn was fired — was that he had either lied about or couldn't remember the substance of the conversation.

Should I bother paying attention to this?

Conversations between the incoming administration and foreign diplomats during the transition period are routine and legal. Usually these conversations are framed as "introductions," but it would be naive to believe that they never dip into substance. It's not unreasonable that a diplomat would ask the incoming administration whether they intend to continue sanctions. The Logan Act is important, but no one has ever been convicted under its provisions. Like many laws, the spirit is more important than the letter.

The easiest way to interpret the facts that we know is to attribute them to general sloppiness and inexperience of the Trump administration, but that's just because it's hard to think of a motive for concealing a conversation that was (given what we now know) relatively innocuous. The problem is that this takes everything that the Trump administration said and did about the leaks at face value, and their stories are hard to swallow. For instance, after Flynn was fired, the Trump administration said that they had been suspicious of him for weeks, yet he continued to receive classified information during that time. And clearly the entire administration wasn’t suspicious, as Vice-President Pence's staffers later said he had been unaware of any concerns. Did Trump direct Flynn to talk sanctions? If so, why did Trump lie? If he did not direct Flynn to discuss sanctions, how is it possible that Flynn didn't remember what he talked about? If Flynn did remember what he talked about and lied, why would he lie? It's just … odd, and it's so strange that even the Republican-controlled Senate might look into the situation.

So, again, should you pay attention to this? Yes: The incompetence alone makes this story worthy of your time. Whether this is something more than that is unclear. The fact that the details of high-level diplomatic communications between the Trump administration and foreign nationals keep leaking out is also important.

Russia

On Monday, the New York Times reported that members of the Trump campaign had "repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officers" before the election. The report was based on information from current and former American intelligence agents, who said that this communication was discovered through routine surveillance of and phone taps on Russian officials.

Should I bother paying attention to this?

Yes. It remains the case, as it has for more than a year, that Russia was likely behind the hacks into the DNC email server. It's also true that the probable motive for the hacks was to help Trump and/or hurt Hillary Clinton. What we still do not know is whether the Trump campaign was complicit in any of this. "Complicity" could mean anything from aiding Russian spies in breaking into the DNC computers, to learning that Russia was behind the leaks and keeping that fact secret. Any level of involvement would be a huge scandal, and the possibility is strong enough to warrant an investigation.

But. The recent report in the New York Times, based on information from current and former American intelligence agents, is not itself proof of wrongdoing. The story relies on the fact that ordinary people just aren't equipped to interpret the facts on offer. For instance, as this interview with Russian investigative journalists points out, Russian spies are embedded in Russian society in a way that they are not in the U.S. They're spread not only throughout all branches of the Russian government, but outside of it as well. So it's possible to have an innocuous relationship with someone who is actually Russian intelligence without knowing it. It's even possible to not know that they are in the government at all. So while it sounds bad to an ordinary person that Trump's campaign was in contact with Russian intelligence, the truth could be complicated.

The fact that one could unwittingly talk to a Russian spy also means that the Trump campaign was not necessarily lying when repeatedly saying that they had not communicated with Russian officials during the campaign. So without knowing more about the context of the conversations, it's hard to know how to interpret the mere fact that they occurred. The actual content of the conversations would be useful, and the conversations were recorded. So if there was evidence of complicity, why didn't the sources just say that? Or to put it another way, why isn't the title of the New York Times story "Conversations Reveal Trump Complicity in DNC hack?" It's possible that the review of the conversations isn't yet complete and the evidence has yet to be revealed, but right now, we don't have a smoking gun. So, yes, this is important and you should pay attention to it. But wait for more information before concluding that this is the end of President Trump.

Immigration

An undocumented mother in Denver is hiding in a church basement to avoid deportation. A woman in court seeking protection from her allegedly abusive boyfriend was arrested by ICE agents. A DREAMer with no criminal record is being detained in Seattle. According to USA Today, nearly 700 people were detained last week — many of whom had committed no crime. And as a result of these arrests, scammers are starting to target immigrants; in New York City, people dressed as ICE agents tell immigrants to give them money or they'll face arrest.

Should I bother paying attention to this?

The Bush and Obama administrations' ICE agents also held routine raids, and sometimes people who hadn't committed a crime ended up facing arrest. But undocumented immigrants are clearly frightened: They’re calling advocacy groups at a heightened pace. The big question facing this spate of raids is what it could lead to, especially in an administration that does everything so sloppily. Will more DREAMers face deportation? Are we about to have a massive uptick in deportations? Trump said on Thursday, “We are gonna deal with DACA with heart" and "you have some absolutely incredible kids — I would say mostly — they were brought in here in such a way. It’s a very, very tough subject." These responses, like most Trump responses, tell us little, and his campaign made clear that immigration was going to be at the heart of his administration.

It's not clear what the Trump administration will do next, although it does plan to release a new executive order on immigration next week, now that the Ninth Circuit has put the travel ban on hold. In the meantime, there has been plenty of pushback, including a "Day With No Immigrants" protest involving restaurants in many cities, as well as protests concerning the DREAMer detained in Washington.

Town Halls

It's starting to feel like 2009 in here. Town halls — long the calling card of the Tea Party movement — now feature a veritable Justice League of discontent: Mormons yelling, "Do your job," old people in Wisconsin holding up pieces of paper reading "DISAGREE," and Coloradoans singing Woody Guthrie. As a result, many Republican lawmakers haven't planned any town halls yet this year, or are using next week's recess as a way to try out Facebook Live or virtual town halls. Others are just trying to write the turnout off as a result of paid protesters, which is sure to endear them to already frustrated constituents.

Moderate Democrats, who probably feel a bit of déjà vu right now, are also freaking out about potential protests, and begging Bernie to save them.

Should I bother paying attention to this?

This is more of a slow-burn issue to keep an eye on; conservatives didn't build their movement in a day. But if you're wondering what happens after the marches and the phone calls, this is the next step. And judging from the representatives who've fled meetings or won't even hold them anymore, these efforts aren't going unnoticed. Oh, and there's an app for that now.

If You Give a Trump a Press Conference

Thursday's press conference was like watching a bloopers clip of the entire election cycle. Given that 99.9 percent of predictions about the campaign were wrong, we're not even going to bother trying to figure out what this event — which managed to be mostly just a cooking show in which Judge Trump complained that all the questions didn't have enough sugar while being more than slightly racist — means.

Should I bother paying attention to this?

Judging from the past two years, it seems unlikely that anyone would look away even if we told them it would make them blind if they stared too long. And, as always, these moments are an easy way to learn what Trump would rather not talk about, i.e., "Hillary Clinton," "the media," and "I'm the least racist person you have ever met." If you're going to watch a Trump presser, read between the voluminous "very"s and "great"s and "my Electoral College win"s to get a CliffNotes version of what you should be paying attention to that week.

Bye Bye, Burger

Andrew Puzder, a man who owns fast food chains, doesn't like giving workers benefits, and gets defensive if you question his plan to put women in bikinis in his greasy ads, withdrew his labor secretary nomination this week. A resurfaced tape of an Oprah episode in which his disguised ex-wife detailed her abuse accusations — and Puzder's vow for revenge — hastened his downfall.

Should I bother paying attention to this?

Well, if you ever want to be a Cabinet secretary someday, it's important to remember to not be an awful person and never say the words, "I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American." If you don't like Trump's agenda or his Cabinet nominees, it's also useful to see what the two nominations that received the most forceful opposition — Puzder and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — have in common.

All you have to pay attention to now is who Trump picked as a replacement: Alexander Acosta — the only Hispanic Cabinet pick Trump has nominated so far. Sometimes defeating a Cabinet nomination can feel less like a resounding victory and more like Groundhog Day, depending on who gets chosen as a replacement.

Trump Mar-a-Lago Shenanigans

Trump keeps going to his country club in Florida on working vacations, calling it his "Winter White House." (Mr. Trump, if you're reading this, stop trying to make "Winter White House" happen. It's not going to happen.) On Saturday, Trump was there when North Korea conducted a missile test. Pictures that appeared to show him discussing the American response to the test with his aides and his guest, Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe, showed up on Facebook. Because Trump was doing all of this in the public dining room at the club.

Should I bother paying attention to this?

The president shouldn't be discussing sensitive national security matters in a public dining room where people can overhear him and record what he's saying. Obviously. It's hard to overstate how obvious this is. The House Oversight Committee is investigating security policies at Mar-a-Lago, but there are two broader points to be made: First, this level of public sloppiness about important things probably indicates even more sloppiness in private. Second, it seems like an obvious vector for corruption that Trump is conducting government business out of a club he owns and that has extremely high membership fees.