Life in these tribalized times: Friend, do you suffer a famous misfortune? Do you "live in interesting times?"
Let's put that a different way. Is it possible that you live in highly tribalized times?
If you do, you will likely be propagandized every day of the week. Consider Michael Crowley's report in this morning's New York Times, a report about Judge Emmet Sullivan, the federal judge who is handling the Michael Flynn case.
Are you being propagandized when you read Crowley's report? We're going to say that a case could be made.
Below, you see paragraphs 4 and 8 of Crowley's report as it appears in our New York Times print edition. In a bit of a mix-and-match, you also see the the headline which now appears online.
Below, you see paragraphs 4 and 8 from our print edition. In paragraph 4, Crowley is referring to a 2008 case in which Judge Sullivan threw out the corruption conviction of Senator Ted Stevens, charging prosecutorial misconduct:
CROWLEY (5/14/20): Judge in Flynn Case Renowned for His Independent StreakGood lord! By the time we'd read eight paragraphs, we'd been told that Judge Sullivan is both fiercely independent and ferociously independent. We'd also been told that he doesn't suffer fools.
The [Stevens] case cemented Judge Sullivan’s reputation for fierce independence and low tolerance for government misconduct—a reputation in the spotlight again now that he is entertaining a challenge to the Justice Department’s extraordinary motion to dismiss its criminal case against Michael T. Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser.
“He’s ferociously independent,” said Reid H. Weingarten, a prominent criminal defense lawyer and partner at the Washington firm of Steptoe & Johnson who has also argued before the judge. “He doesn’t suffer fools.”
In the the version of Crowley's report which now appears online, some editor has cleaned up the duplicate reference to Sullivan's fierce/ferocious independence. But in the headline, we're now told that the judge is renowned for his independent streak.
Simply put, we're being told that we should place our faith in this particular prince. We aren't being told that this particular judge may sometimes get out over his skis, as he did in the aborted sentencing hearing for Kelly in December 2018.
During that hearing, Sullivan seemed to accuse Flynn of treason, a capital offense. As you may recall, he walked back his peculiar remarks in an afternoon session.
At present, Sullivan seems to be tilting in the blue direction with respect to the Flynn case. He may be right in doing so. Similarly, he may have been right in throwing out the criminal conviction of Stevens, a conservative Republican who lost his Alaska Senate seat during the prosecution which Sullivan dismissed as corrupt.
At any rate, because Sullivan is tilting blue, you may find yourself propagandized with respect to his fierce independence, his ferocious independence, and his independent streak. Such importunings may sometimes occur in highly tribalized times.
You may not find yourself reminded of the fact that Sullivan, like everyone else, possesses imperfect judgment. You may not be asked to recall high-profile examples of same.
Was Sullivan right to dismiss the conviction of Senator Stevens? As we sit here today, we can't tell you, and let's face it:
You have no idea either!
That said, riddle yourself this. In throwing out that conviction, Sullivan was alleging gross misconduct by the federal prosecutors who were trying to put Stevens in prison.
In the current case, Attorney General William Barr is alleging significant misconduct by the federal prosecutors who charged Flynn with a federal crime. In paragraph 7 of his report (as it appears in our print edition), Crowley touches upon the possible conflict raised by these dueling concerns:
CROWLEY: Criminal defense lawyers and legal analysts in Washington said it was hard to predict how Judge Sullivan might act [in the Flynn case]. While he has expressed personal “disgust” in court for Mr. Flynn’s actions, he has also displayed a low tolerance for the sort of prosecutorial misconduct that the Justice Department claims as a justification for ending its case against Mr. Flynn.Conflict! In fact, Sullivan got way out over his skis in stating his "disgust" for the conduct he suggested might constitute "treason." But he has also displayed "a low tolerance for the sort of prosecutorial misconduct" being alleged by Barr.
Question! So federal prosecutors sometimes display imperfect judgment in the way they conduct their affairs? Do some prosecutors even drift over into the lane which can be scored as "prosecutorial misconduct?"
Obviously, yes—such things sometimes happen. But in this highly tribalized time, we blue consumers will rarely be reminded of that fact. It's even less likely that we'll be encouraged to wonder if that could have happened in the Flynn case, where such upright figures as James Comey were making major decisions.
Comey was once a blue consumer beast. Now he's a tribal untouchable. We blue voters are encouraged to avoid thinking about the possibility that he may have overstepped in the decisions he made—decisions which apparently left Sally Yates, another blue tribe hero, feeling "flabbergasted" and "dumbfounded" at one particular point.
(In the language of Sunday's Washington Post, Yates was "taken aback.")
We blue consumers will never be asked to imagine the possibility that Attorney General Barr, rightly or wrongly, may be acting in accord with his actual beliefs with respect to the Flynn case. In tribalized times, we tend to get handed heroes and demons, and not a whole lot in between.
Let's put that another way. Under current casting arrangements, Barr isn't fiercely independent. Unless you switch over to Fox!
Tomorrow, we may even offer a word on Barr's behalf, joined to a condemnation. For today, though, we will close with something we've long found amusing.
Heroes like Comey chased Kelly around because of his phone calls with Ambassador Kislyak. Right at the start of a frequently awful interview with Dahlia Lithwick, Slate's Marty Harris describes "the heart of who Michael Flynn is" and the heart of the ongoing case:
HARRIS (5/14/20): It’s worth getting at the heart of who Michael Flynn is. Flynn was a shoo-in to be Trump’s national security adviser. Some even floated his name as a potential vice president. Though Flynn had been the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama, his views had moved sharply to the right over the years.According to this fairly conventional summary of the case, Flynn told Kislyak not to retaliate against the U.S. as a result of the new sanctions. As a result, the Russkies didn't!
Before Trump even took office, Flynn was getting involved with highly sensitive foreign policy. A few weeks after the election, Sergey Kislyak, who was Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., gave Flynn a call. He was worried about sanctions Obama had put in place as punishment for Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. [Kislyak] was wondering: Should Russia respond here and escalate things? And Flynn tells him, Just sit tight. That’s why we’re talking about a criminal investigation into Flynn now, four years later.
The Russkies didn't retaliate against the United States! On this basis, we're somehow supposed to be angry at Flynn even "now, four years later."
That has always struck us as a puzzling though comical story. But these are highly tribalized times, and stories like that will take hold.
Tomorrow: What we saw on cable TV during the Mueller years
Sullivan over his skis: The Washington Post's Aaron Blake describes Judge Sullivan's semi-meltdown concerning Flynn's possible "treason:"
BLAKE (5/13/20): [P]erhaps the most controversial aspect of the December 2018 sentencing hearing was when Sullivan invoked treason. Sullivan asked the government whether it had considered charging Flynn with that much more serious offense, given that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak shortly after then-President Barack Obama had imposed them on Russia.According to Blake, Sullivan later "clarified" that he hadn't meant treason when he kept saying treason.
“I really don’t know the answer to this question, but given the fact that the then-president of the United States imposed sanctions against Russia for interfering with federal elections in this country, is there an opinion about the conduct of the defendant the following days that rises to the level of treasonous activity on his part?” Sullivan asked.
The government said it hadn’t considered charging Flynn with treason, but Sulivan pressed again: “All right. Hypothetically, could he have been charged with treason?”
Sullivan later clarified that he wasn’t alleging that Flynn might have committed treason but that he was merely probing how generous the government had been in its plea deal.
Was that really a "clarification?" The use of such forgiving terms may be common in tribalized times.