The past 24 hours in Trump-Russia news, explained


There was a flurry of news developments on several Trump-Russia fronts Tuesday and Wednesday morning as we learned of new investigation details, a new indictment, a Supreme Court move, and a planned administration departure.

The biggest news was that a poorly redacted court filing from Paul Manafort revealed new details about what special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating — including that Manafort had shared polling data related to Trump’s presidential campaign with an associate tied to Russian intelligence.

Meanwhile, the Russian lawyer who met Don Jr. and Manafort at Trump Tower got indicted by federal prosecutors in New York on a matter unrelated to the Mueller investigation. The Supreme Court made its first significant move connected to the Mueller probe, in a suit involving a foreign govermment-owned company that remains largely secret. And reports claimed that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and supervised him for a year and a half, will soon step down.

Major questions about the Mueller investigation, such as what the special counsel has found out about President Trump and how much longer the probe will continue, remain unanswered. But here’s the significance of what we learned just over the past 24 hours.

Paul Manafort’s lawyers’ sloppy redaction revealed that he shared Trump campaign polling data with Russian
In a court filing this week, Paul Manafort’s lawyers responded to special counsel Robert Mueller’s claims that he violated his cooperation agreement by lying repeatedly. (After being convicted of financial crimes in Virginia in August, Manafort agreed to a plea deal to avert a second trial on separate charges in Washington, and committed to cooperating with investigators.)

But though parts of the public version of this filing appeared to be redacted by black bars, it quickly became apparent that the text underneath those redactions could be revealed by simply copying and pasting from the document.


The Russian lawyer who met Don Jr. at Trump Tower was indicted in a separate matter
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced the indictment of Natalia Veselnitskaya — the Russian lawyer who infamously met with Donald Trump Jr. and top Trump campaign officials at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign and who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Now, the indictment (filed in December and newly unsealed) is unlikely to go anywhere. It’s highly improbable Veselnitskaya will come to the United States and face arrest. And it has no explicit link to the Trump-Russia investigation or the Mueller probe.

What it does do is provide context to that Trump Tower meeting — specifically, about what Veselnitskaya may have been up to and about her links to the Russian government.

The New York Times and AP bungled their fact checks of Trump’s speech — badly


Fact-checkers wandered into false equivalency territory Tuesday night after President Trump’s Oval Office address on immigration and Democrats’ response to it.

The Associated Press was clobbered on Twitter after it anointed the Democratic claim that Trump was at fault for the shutdown “false,” saying that the Democrats are at fault too. As the AP put it on Twitter: it takes “two to tango.”

The New York Times, meanwhile, attempted to fact-check a “should” claim made by Democrat Chuck Schumer — the kind of statement that doesn’t really lend itself to a fact check at all.

Fact-checking has evolved during Trump’s time in office — mainstream news outlets are far more likely to call a lie a lie than they used to. Even on Tuesday night, big outlets relied on policy expertise to clearly dispute Trump’s false claims.

But the night also revealed that outlets still feel the urge to find fault on both sides or assign neutral blame for political problems. The political press has long wanted to cover politics like a sport, to cover the plays of each party as if they are morally and ethically the same. On a night when the president looked the public in the eye and lied about why the government has been shut down for weeks, the press needs to not fall into the false equivalency trap.

The Associated Press tried to fact-check who is to blame
Following Trump’s speech, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered a rebuttal in which they placed blame for the shutdown squarely at Trump’s feet.


“The fact is, on the very first day of this Congress, House Democrats passed Senate Republican legislation to reopen government and fund smart, effective border security solutions,” Pelosi said. “But the president is rejecting these bipartisan bills, which would reopen government over his obsession with forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall — a wall he always promised Mexico would pay for.”

Blaming Trump is entirely reasonable. The shutdown began last month, when Republicans still controlled both the House and Senate, and after the Senate unanimously passed a funding bill that would’ve kept the government open but didn’t fund Trump’s wall.

But in response to criticism from his far-right supporters, Trump at the last minute decided not to support the Senate bill. During an Oval Office event with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump even said he was “proud to shut down the government” and vowed he wouldn’t blame Democrats for it.

The controversy over laws punishing Israel boycotts, explained

Israel boycotts

S 1, the very first bill the new US Senate considered in 2019, had nothing to do with ending the partial shutdown and reopening the government. It was instead a grab bag of different proposals related to the Middle East, and a controversial one at that. Most of the debate centered on Title 4 of the bill, a provision that would give states a legal blessing to punish companies that choose not to do business with Israel or Israeli-owned enterprises, a key demand of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Twenty-six states have adopted laws that punish companies that choose to boycott Israel. Defenders of the law see them as necessary to protect an ally from hostile activists, while critics argue that the laws are unconstitutional infringements on free speech. So far, the only two federal courts to consider such bills have sided with the critics; Title 4 is designed to provide more legal cover for state BDS laws in future hearings.

Historically, pro-Israel bills have sailed through the Senate (and the House). But this time, there was a twist: The bill, written by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), lost a vote on the Senate floor on Tuesday night. Forty-three Democrats banded together to filibuster it, enough to block the bill from moving forward for the time being.

The immediate reason for the bill’s defeat was the shutdown: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is refusing to pass anything until the government is reopened. But the controversy that surrounded it also speaks to the larger concerns about how state-level anti-BDS laws, which can apply to individuals working as independent contractors, have been used to repress free speech rights.

Israel boycotts

Even more broadly, the fact that this bill was controversial at all reveals how the politics surrounding Israel is changing. Support for Israel, so long a bipartisan issue, is becoming polarized, with Republicans willing to back Israel virtually unconditionally while Democrats are more willing to question Israeli policy and US support for it.

The two parties’ approaches to Israel are changing, and faster than some may have anticipated. The fight over the anti-BDS bills shows how.

What anti-BDS bills do

BDS, a loose movement that dates back to roughly 2005, aims to force Israel to change its approach to the Palestinians through external pressure. BDS activists want companies to stop doing business in Israel, consumers to stop buying Israeli products, and academics and cultural figures to stop collaborating with Israeli colleagues. The movement’s supporters bill it as the spiritual heirs of the boycotts targeting apartheid South Africa in the 1980s; its opponents bill it as an anti-Semitic campaign aimed at the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.

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