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      •  Trump Legal News: Eight Days a Week
      •  Saturday Q&A

Trump Legal News: Eight Days a Week

Maybe the rest of the world of politics takes time off over the weekend, but the Donald Trump legal train is in perpetual motion, kind of like the one in Snowpiercer. There was significant news out of two different states yesterday, namely Florida and Georgia.

We'll start in the Sunshine State, since that news is more straightforward. As promised, Judge Aileen Cannon issued an order covering the timing of Trump's Mar-a-Lago classified documents trial. It says that the trial will begin sometime in the 2-week window commencing May 20, 2024. Mathematically, that choice is somewhat Solomon-like, in that it splits the difference, scheduling things roughly 6 months after what Special Counsel Jack Smith wanted and roughly 6 months before what Trump wanted.

In practice, however, that's about the worst timing possible from the perspective of Trump and the Republican Party. The trial would commence after most or all of the primaries, and would likely conclude shortly before the Republican National Convention, scheduled for July 15-18. The Party could literally find out just days before making a nomination that the choice of the rank-and-file is a convicted felon. What on earth would the GOP do in that circumstance? It's not like the primary voters wouldn't know this was a possibility. The Convention would probably have to stick with him.

It is, of course, possible that there will be further delays. If so, we won't have to wait until next May to find out. The Judge's order lays out a detailed schedule for all pre-trial business; it takes up more than two of the seven pages. So, it will be clear by the start of the new year, if not sooner, whether or not things are on track. It's also worth noting that this schedule leaves plenty of room for other trials, ones that might not involve complicated security clearances and the like.

And that brings us to Georgia. We often get questions about why Fulton County DA Fani Willis hasn't brought charges yet, since she implied months ago that an indictment was imminent. New reporting from The Guardian, assuming it is correct, would seem to answer that question: Willis is preparing a racketeering case.

Racketeering was always a possibility, and we (and others) noted it several times last year. It's not a simple case to make, hence all the extra time, but the statutes are written in such a way that it's easier to secure convictions for multiple, complementary crimes, while imposing a harsh sentence. The two complementary crimes that Willis is pursuing, per The Guardian, are: (1) influencing witnesses and (2) computer trespass (which includes things like breaching voting machines). Significantly, for a racketeering conviction, Trump does not have to have committed the criminal acts himself, he just has to be part of an "enterprise" that committed the criminal acts. Remember that the crime of racketeering was first put on the books to allow the government to go after mafia kingpins who use intermediaries to do the dirty work.

Team Trump, for its part, is still trying to get Willis' investigation quashed. Inasmuch as the 200-plus-page motion on that point that was filed last week took a grand total of 4 hours to be rejected by the all-Republican Georgia Supreme Court, the former president is back this week with a 600-plus-page motion, once again filed late Friday night. Will it take the Georgia supremes 12 hours to kick this one, since it's three times longer? Maybe. If we were on the Georgia Court, we would issue an order that says: "NO!" and be done with it.

So, big news despite the weekend. There will be much talk on the Sunday news shows, and probably reaction pieces on Monday, which we'll aggregate if they seem useful. (Z)

Saturday Q&A

An unusually high number of first-time correspondents this week.

Current Events

D.S. in Lancaster, PA, asks: If Alabama goes forward with its new maps that don't include a second majority-Black district, thus disregarding the Supreme Court's ruling, what domino effect would you expect to see? Will judges force them to change their map? If Republicans decide on the mantra that "the SC has ruled, let them enforce it," do you see Democrats responding in kind when it comes to things like abortion?

(V) & (Z) answer: You can never be sure with some of today's judges, but this should be a simple matter. Black citizens affected by the illegal maps, presumably backed by the ACLU or NAACP, will file suit in district court. The judge that hears the suit will take notice of the Supreme Court's decision, and tell Alabama to go back and draw the maps correctly. The state legislature can try to appeal, but the case is straightforward, and there's an obvious need for quick resolution, so wasting the next year should not be plausible.

If the Alabamians do not straighten up and fly right in short order, and if they continue to defy SCOTUS' ruling, then a judge will and should appoint a special master to draw maps on the legislature's behalf.

While it is certainly the case that blue states are going to push back against Dobbs and other right-wing decisions in any way they can, within the bounds of the law, it is not probable this is going to give them cover to start completely ignoring the federal judiciary. Again, Alabama should lose in court, quickly and completely.

You might also ask why the Alabama legislature would pursue this course if they are going to lose. And there are two answers to that: (1) There's little downside in trying to subvert the rules in hopes of a miracle, since the worst thing that happens is that they just end up being forced to comply with SCOTUS' ruling, and (2) Alabama clearly has some sizable number of racist voters (see Sen. Tommy Tuberville's dithering on white supremacists), and they will presumably appreciate the legislature trying to "fight the good fight."

R.W. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: I'm hoping you can expand upon what you meant when you wrote: "We also don't object to a collective decision by, say, parents to police the books that their children see." It appeared that you were contrasting it to the situation in Florida where a single irate parent can have a book removed. But would the "collective decision" you mention be a unanimous decision? A majority vote? Something else? I can see making a case for the idea that if every single parent wants a book removed, it should likely be removed. But surely you don't believe that a book should be removed simply because a majority of parents object to it. Or do you?

(V) & (Z) answer: There's no one-size-fits-all solution here. In general, since teachers and school staff have been entrusted with shepherding students' education, we think they should also be trusted to decide what books are, and are not, apropos. That said, if some meaningful number of parents express reasonable concerns about a particular book, we can understand a school deciding to take that under advisement. Although even in that scenario, the final decision should be in the hands of the educators, not the parents. And if the parents don't like the final decision, they can always tell their children not to read [Book X]. If the child disobeys, that's the parents' issue, not the school's. And, of course, if a parent is unhappy with the school's repeated decisions on books, school boards are generally elected, so a parent can try to vote out the current board and possibly even run for board member.

P.R. In Arvada, CO, asks: So, is it really true that when Black history is taught in Florida, teachers have to point out that there were benefits for slaves? Are they able to point out how shi**y a deal it was, or purely the positives? If so, aside from food and lodging, what were the benefits?

(V) & (Z) answer: You can look at the standards, and confirm for yourself, but while there is allowance for discussing the horrors of slavery, in the portion where the standards address the subject of life under slavery (SS.68.AA.2.3), there is the note: "Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit." What this refers to is that some enslaved people became skilled blacksmiths, shipwrights, farmers, potters, etc., and those skills were marketable even after the slave system was brought to an end.

We will point out that if Floridians want to achieve their goal of "softening" slavery, and thus arguing that white antebellum Southerners weren't THAT bad, there's a way to do it that is entirely historically acceptable. The factories of the North, in that era (and afterward), were also awful places for laborers. So, a comparative exercise could demonstrate that while slavery was deeply problematic, the 19th century was a terrible time for poor and working people of all stripes, and that exploitation of labor by capital was the rule of the day in both sections.

Of course, teaching it in this way somewhat indicts the capitalists of the present day, many of whom fund politicians like Gov. Ron DeSants (R-FL). So, don't expect to see this incorporated into the Florida standards anytime soon.

M.A. in Knoxville, TN: Since Florida's new Black history standards perpetuate the lie that Black people were happy as slaves ("slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit"), as well as focusing on acts of violence perpetrated by Blacks, they can be considered racist. Florida also has a law allowing parents to challenge books that deal with racism from schools, which is what led to schools removing hundreds of titles from their shelves

Combining these two, can parents who object to the racism in new textbooks conforming to Florida's new Black history standards challenge the textbooks and get them removed from schools? I'm having trouble finding the exact facts of the book ban law, but it sure seems like a possibility.

(V) & (Z) answer: Not likely. Florida's anti-book laws apply to books that have not been subjected to a critical review by state authorities. If and when textbooks based on the new standards are adopted, those textbooks will have been reviewed by a curricular committee and/or by district-level staffers.

K.D. in Alkmaar, The Netherlands, asks: Quite a bit has been made of the Hollywood strike, Fran Drescher's rising profile, and the parallel with Ronald Reagan, who also once headed the actors' union. Do you see a future for her on the anti-capitalist extreme of the political spectrum? At least the slogans ("A Nanny State Now!") would write themselves.

(V) & (Z) answer: Anything is possible, of course, but it does not seem likely to us. Outside of Reagan, George Murphy and, arguably, Charlton Heston (president of the NRA), none of the other Screen Actors' Guild presidents have become serious political actors (Melissa Gilbert tried to run for Congress, but it didn't go anywhere).

Drescher also has a couple of issues she would face if she tried to make the move into politics. The first is that she's 65, which is a wee bit on the old side to be starting a political career. The second is that it's hard to see what office she might pursue. She could shoot for the House, but most of the districts near her residence in Los Angeles are in the hands of incumbents, and the others have attracted a lot of interested candidates. California's two U.S. Senate seats are locked up for the foreseeable future, as is the L.A. mayoralty. She could try to replicate Reagan and run for governor in 2026, but she'd be pushing 70, and there will be aspiring governors coming out of the woodwork that year, since the Democratic bench is deep in California.

P.R. in Saco, ME, asks: Do you have any readers who could speak to the nitty-gritty economics of the trillions-of-trees idea with some measure of accuracy? That's assuming the staff environmentalist/economist is too busy, of course.

(V) & (Z) answer: We are always happy to hear from someone whose expertise exceeds our own, but we don't think this is all that tough a question.

To start, the Republicans did not pluck this idea out of thin air. The notion that planting trees is a (big) part of fighting global warming has been around for decades. The organization that champions this particular cause is the Trillion Tree Campaign, which was originally the Green Belt Movement (1977) and then the Billion Tree Campaign (2006) before acquiring its current name in 2018.

As to the costs, the general notion is that governments will provide the necessary land, while donors will pay for the trees. If you look at the organization's webpage, they have various projects you can contribute to, and each lists the "cost per tree." Those costs vary wildly, depending on the species of tree that is needed, the difficulties of transport and planting, etc. On the cheaper end, trees planted in Kenya right now cost 16 cents each. At that rate, you could cover the cost of a trillion trees for less than the U.S. spends each year on cleaning up after extreme weather events. On the more expensive end, trees planted in Ireland cost $11 each. To plant a trillion trees at that rate would take the entire federal budget for more than 2 years.

That said, the real problem is not the money, it's the vastness of 1 trillion. This project planted its 1 billionth tree in 2007. Since then, it's planted about 14 billion more. So, let's say they average around 1 billion trees a year. Not bad, but to get to a trillion, they'd still need another millennium at that pace. House Republicans are right that planting trees is a good idea, but they are wrong in presenting it as a panacea that will allow Americans to avoid making some additional, tough choices/sacrifices.

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, asks: I can understand why you guys might not have wanted to give this story the gravitas of rating its own article. I also can picture in my mind, you having a vigorous debate about whether to mention it at all; but maybe the weekly Q&A is the best format for to do so. I was wondering what you thought about Donald Trump's latest post on Truth Social, which features a quote from his past where he was talking about Iran but clearly is not in this context. The audio goes, "If you fu** around with us, if you do something bad to us, we are going to do things to you that have never been done before." When you combine that with the interview Trump did this week with an Iowa radio station, which was basically "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, Version 2.0," it's pretty scary.

I don't want to give credence to every batsh** crazy stupid thing that Trump says; but when I worked in recruiting, there was a saying that held a lot of weight in my hiring decisions, "Past behavior is a sure indicator of future performance." It might not work with mutual funds, but it was always dead on about new hires. I enjoyed when managers hired employees over my objections and later (and the record was just 2 days after the employee's first day) came crawling back to ask me to figure out how to fire them for the very thing I warned them about. To me, it seems just incredibly stupid when facing indictment charges for fomenting an insurrection for Trump to be threatening another, and I have to wonder just how many strands of hair his lawyers have left on their heads!

(V) & (Z) answer: Trump encouraged violence in the past, and he'll encourage it in the future, whether he's president or not. The only question is how many of his followers take heed. We would guess that they would be more likely to follow the suggestions of a sitting president than they would a guy who lost two elections in a row and who can't issue pardons.

J.C. in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, asks: Could you address Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's claims that the second part of Joe Biden's ad took what she said out of context? I read through her claim and it seemed to hold water, in which case it would be a bit sleazy on Biden's part, on the level of "you didn't build that." But I think I'm missing something because I don't expect that of Democrats, or Biden.

(V) & (Z) answer: First of all, everyone who says something that comes back to bite them in the rear end claims their words were either: (1) misquoted or (2) taken out of context. Since Greene is on video, #1 isn't going to fly, which leaves her with #2.

Beyond that, of course her words were taken out of context. Nobody actually thinks that she's pro-Biden, and everyone surely knows that her actual point was to lambaste the President. Here is the falsehood-laden conclusion that follows the stuff you see in the clip:

And Joe Biden is attempting to complete socialism. Meanwhile, we are now $32 trillion in debt with record high homelessness and 40-year-record inflation. We're losing the U.S. Dollar as the number one world currency. We're losing our freedoms. Our government is one big fat bloated machine and it's killing the American dream.

But taking words out of context is only dishonest when you try to give a false impression of what a person actually said. In this case, it is as clear as day that: (1) This is a rundown of the things Biden has done, and plans to do, courtesy of one of his political opponents, and (2) If you vote Republican, you're voting for a party that thinks that these are all bad things.

C.W. in Buffalo Grove, IL, asks: There will be a delay in the T**** document trial due to his attorneys needing to get security clearances.

The case isn't about taking those specific documents. How would the defense strategy change by reading a secret document about nuclear weapons? Why isn't it sufficient for affidavits to be filed that the documents in question have secret classifications?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are defense arguments that could very well be predicated on what's in the documents. For example, the defense could assert that Angela Merkel's favorite ice cream flavor really isn't a national secret, and should never have been classified. Or, they could argue that the information in [Document X] and the information in [Document Y] is the same, and that there should not be charges for each document.

The bottom line is that the defense, within reason, has to be given all the information possible, so as to mount the best defense possible. In the end, they may not need a particular bit of information, but there's no way to be sure of that until the trial is over.


C.P. in Fairport, NY, asks: I don't understand the rationale behind forgiving student loan debt—why has the Biden administration chosen this kind of debt to forgive, presumably with conditions, vs. other debts like credit card debt and mortgage debt?

(V) & (Z) answer: The philosophical reason, if we may use that word, is that most people who have student debt are young. If they begin their professional life in a financial hole, they may not be able to get a start on the long-term financial projects like home ownership and 401k savings plans that ultimately lay the groundwork for a secure, middle-class existence and a stable retirement.

The practical reason is that the federal government is the holder of most student debt (92%). Most mortgage debt, and all credit card debt, is held privately. So, the Biden administration is not in a position to forgive those.

Also, many people believe education at all levels should be free or almost free, as it is in many other countries. Relieving some debt is a step towards (retroactively) makeing it at least less expensive.

R.P. in Northfield, IL, asks: OK. Why the heck is Joe Biden's approval rating so low? By many measures, he's really accomplishing some good things—unemployment is decreasing, the economy is faring quite well, inflation is falling. Foreign affairs is a strength of his, and he's demonstrating that he's using that skill to accomplish a lot. Domestically speaking, that new commercial he made using Marjorie Taylor Greene's own words to tout his accomplishments says it all. It's a laundry list of his successes. I know there are always going to be haters, but the low rating must mean that even a fair number of Democrats don't approve of the job he's doing. So again, what the heck?

(V) & (Z) answer: We think about this all the time, and don't have a great answer for you. The odds are pretty good there won't be a good answer until a fair bit of time has passed and scholars can look at the big picture.

What is clear is that voters on both sides of the aisle have gotten more parsimonious with their approval. It used to be customary that, on the whole, more Americans approved of the president than disapproved. For example, Dwight D. Eisenhower's average Gallup approval was 65%, John F. Kennedy's was 70.1%, and Lyndon Johnson's, even with the Vietnam War, was 55.1%. Since LBJ, however, only three presidents have finished with an average above 50%: Ronald Reagan (52.8%), George H.W. Bush (60.9%) and Bill Clinton (55.1%). If you toss out Bush as a fluke powered by his sky-high Gulf War numbers, it's really just two of the presidents in the last half-century, and Biden is not likely to buck the trend.

It is certainly the case that presidents can no longer count on their own party to be squarely behind them; there are always some Democrats these days who think a Democratic president is too lefty/not lefty enough, and always some Republicans these days who think a Republican president is too righty/not righty enough. However, what appears to be the most significant dynamic is the almost total lack of aisle-crossing. There is virtually nothing a Republican president can do these days to win the approval of Democratic voters, and virtually nothing a Democratic president can do these days to win the approval of Republican voters. That is probably a product of the partisan media, at least in part, but may also be due to other, somewhat hard to identify, factors.

M.N. in Lake Ann, MI, asks: In your item "Biden and DNC Raise $72 Million," and in similar reporting on fundraising, you discuss campaign ads and how, in some cases, the number of ads won't be as important to a particular race and therefore the fundraising totals are not as important other than as a sign of enthusiasm. I do wonder, though, how door-knocking efforts and other outreach/get-out-the-vote/voter registration/local events would be funded? It seems to me that for some, maybe even many, voters this kind of contact could very well sway their vote, kind of the way that getting to know someone who is LGBTQ may change someone's anti-LGBTQ sentiment, and this kind of effort may have been of vital importance in places like Georgia in the Senate runoff elections last time. Would these types of efforts be funded by a campaign itself or would these more likely be funded in other ways? If funded by the campaign, it seems like having a larger amount of cash would still be a big advantage for a given candidate.

(V) & (Z) answer: In today's partisan environment, door-knocking doesn't matter that much at the presidential level (or for most other federal offices), since most people have their minds made up. On the other hand, voter registration and get-out-the-vote operations are a pretty big deal, and absolutely can be difference-makers.

That said, the cost of these efforts is split across many different entities, including the campaigns, the party committees, various partisan and non-partisan PACs, etc. Further, there are plenty of workers who are volunteers, and so require no funding at all. That means that presidential fundraising isn't particularly instructive when it comes to judging how effective a registration and/or GOTV operation will be.

Note, incidentally, that this is a fairly big wildcard heading into 2024. In 2020, since the Republicans were largely denying the pandemic, their face-to-face efforts were operating at full power. The Democrats, by contrast, largely did not have face-to-face efforts for fear of propagating COVID-19. That disparity won't hold next year. To put it another way, Biden 2024 won't be campaigning with one hand tied behind its back.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: Given Trump's legal problems and that he is not an incumbent, shouldn't he do far worse in 2024 than he did in 2020?

(V) & (Z) answer: Certainly, that should be the case, but you can never be sure. Trump's hopes for regaining the White House largely rest on three things: (1) that people who were repelled by him in 2020 will have become less repelled by 2024 and will give him another look, (2) that people will be unwilling to vote for an allegedly demented octogenarian and (3) that various voter-suppression efforts in swing states will be effective.

B.L. in Ringgold, GA, asks: I've read your site pretty much every day since Day 1 in 2004, but I am a lifelong conservative and a "Never Trumper." I see no way the GOP nominates anyone other than Trump for the 2024 election, and he therefore stands a reasonable chance of winning the general election. I will swallow my pride and vote Democrat for the first time in my life if I must (instead of third party or sitting this one out like I did in 2016 and 2020), but I'm really, really hoping it doesn't come to that.

A thought came to me earlier this week: What is the feasibility and/or legality of someone forming a "MAGA Party" or the "Trumpublican Party" and finding someone else in this great country of 330 million people named Donald Trump, collecting the required signatures to get said Donald Trump on ballots in at least a few critical states (my home state of Georgia comes to mind), and allowing enough of Trump's own cult followers to stumble all over themselves and cast their votes for the wrong Donald Trump to ensure the election is shifted in favor of Joe Biden? I live at ground zero for GOP insanity (Marjorie Taylor Greene's district), and I can attest that there shouldn't be any issue getting a fair number of Trump supporters to cast a vote for "more MAGA and less RINOs."

(V) & (Z) answer: It's not impossible to run a Distinguished Gentleman-type scam, but there are a couple of problems. First, such an effort, particularly if any money changes hands, could be deemed to be election fraud. There's a fellow in Florida who is awaiting trial right now for trying to pull off this very scheme in 2021 (in a local election, not with Donald Trump).

The second problem is that you might fool people in a lower-tier election, but in a presidential election, it would get all kinds of attention, and Trump voters would know to be on the lookout for the correct candidate. Not helping with such a scheme is the fact that many localities have laws on the books that require clarifying information be placed on the ballot if two candidates have similar/identical names (often a middle initial, sometimes a short biography) to reduce confusion.

And finally, Republicans would have a field day with this, shouting loudly that the Democrats know that Joe Biden can't win, so they have to resort to sleazy tricks. The damage, we think, would be considerably greater than any gain.

Note incidentally, that there are two well-known Donalds Trump, namely the former president and his son. Should someone want to undertake this scheme, how many additional Donalds Trump would they have to choose from, according to the Social Security Administration? We'll put the answer below, for anyone who wants to guess.

J.A. in Rutland, VT, asks: In discussions of who has met the qualifications for the first Republican debate, it seems a potential eliminator is always skipped over. What about the requirement to promise to support the Republican nominee in the general election, whomever? Doesn't that eliminate Chris Christie, or is it assumed everyone would lie to get in, so that's not really not even a real qualifier?

(V) & (Z) answer: All they have to do is sign a promise to support the eventual candidate. That promise is unenforceable, and everyone knows it. So they, including Christie, will sign whatever is put in front of them, and then they'll ignore it next year.

If Christie wants to avoid blowback about violating what he wrote (and get lots of PR), after the nomination, he could say: "I hereby endorse Donald Trump. There I did it. But I am not going to vote for him and urge you not to vote for him because he is a buffoon and a threat to democracy. In fact I am going to work my tail off for the next 4 months trying to make sure he is not elected.

C.O. in Livermore, CA, asks: I've been enjoying the site since the spring of 2004, and I am finally sending you gents a question. There has been a lot of talk about the No Labels party lately. What do you think of the possibility that the No Labels party could force a contingent election by virtue of denying both the Democrats and the Republicans 270 electoral votes in order to win? As a corollary to that, the current House delegations are 25 Republican majority, 23 Democrat majority, and 2 ties. In what direction are pollsters forecasting the 2024 election could alter that balance, since it is that congress and not the present one that would be voting in a contingent election if one were held in 2024?

(V) & (Z) answer: There is zero chance that No Labels forces a contingent election in the manner you describe, as there is zero chance that No Labels is going to win any state. The only way there would be a contingent election is if there was a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College. It's possible that No Labels could be a part of that, if they happen to swing a close state or two from one major candidate to the other. But it's not very likely.

As to House delegations, there's no real way to project that. We're too far out, first of all. Second, and more importantly, there are just too many moving parts. In many cases, including all of the one-member House delegations, a single seat would flip the delegation. There are too many situations like that, where polling will be scarce until late 2024, and where the outcome will be within the margin of error, to be able to say with any confidence what the next Congress will look like.

With that said, we'll tell you that outside of a red wave (in which case all bets are off), the delegations the Democrats could plausibly lose are Alaska, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Outside of a blue wave, the delegations the Republicans could plausibly lose are Arizona and Wisconsin. Minnesota and North Carolina are the two current tied delegations, and could go either way, or could remain tied.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: Referring to your item on Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Who is vulnerable to falling down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole? I suspect one must be in a particular emotional state to be susceptible, and I know there's some speculation that previous trauma might prime someone to indulge in such thinking, but exactly what state of mind is required as a jumping off point? If trauma is a factor, then RFK Jr. certainly had plenty as a boy. I also harbor a suspicion that an underlying paranoid personality disorder might be more widespread in the general population than is currently recognized—but what do I know?

(V) & (Z) answer: This will seem obvious, but the single best indicator as to whether or not a person is likely to buy into a conspiracy theory is... that they have already bought into some other conspiracy theory. Once you've crossed that bridge—you no longer worry much about the quality (or existence) of the evidence—then it's easy to live in La La Land.

So, what makes people likely to cross that bridge for the first time? Trauma, as you note, is one major trigger. A lot of anti-vaxxers, for example, are people trying to cope with the stresses of having borne an autistic child. Even thought the autism is (usually) nobody's fault, a parent wants to point the finger, and not at themselves, so they blame the vaccines. Underlying psychological issues are another possible trigger. Also, parents who believe in conspiracies are more likely to have children who believe in conspiracies, for obvious reasons.

Another correlating factor, and we're going to explain this carefully, so please read this whole paragraph, is religiosity. Believing things based on faith is the literal opposite of believing things based on evidence. And if a person already embraces religious dogma based on faith, it's not too hard to transfer that to non-religious stuff. This is not to say that all religious people are particularly prone to conspiratorial thinking. Many adherents approach their faith in a manner that is as analytical and thoughtful as is possible (religious scholars call this "rational inquiry"). For example, Jewish people, certain sects of Buddhism, and certain sects of Christianity (most obviously Catholicism) are strongly associated with a critical-thinking approach to faith. But some religious sects—in the United States, most obviously many flavors of evangelical Protestantism—largely eschew a critical approach. That makes them rather fertile ground for conspiratorial thinking.

C.B. in Joppa, MD, asks: The children of RFK Sr. are all shrewd politicians with either former or current political aspirations as well as professional careers in part tied to their name. As a MD resident, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was a very effective lieutenant governor and has a great career. My question is: Since part of the Kennedy charm is the name and the brand, why don't the other Kennedys slap down RFK Jr., as he is clearly a national embarrassment to the Kennedy name?

(V) & (Z) answer: They have. Nearly all members of the family have said publicly that while they embrace RFK Jr. as a relative, they are repelled by his political views, and that they will be supporting Joe Biden. Just yesterday, Jack Schlossberg, who is JFK Sr.'s only grandson, endorsed Biden and called his great uncle "an embarrassment."

S.P. in Cranston, RI, asks: What can you tell me about polling for the California U.S. Senate race? I recently received a fundraising appeal from Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) saying that she is in the lead or tied with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) in recent surveys. Is that accurate? (I'm from the Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, wing of the Democratic party, and really admire Rep. Barbara Lee, D-CA, but also think Rep. Porter would be a good, progressive choice, so if Porter's in a close race with Rep. Schiff I might be tempted to send some money her way.)

(V) & (Z) answer: Here is the short answer to your question. The available polling shows that Porter and Schiff are neck-and-neck, and neither of them is likely to put this thing away until people cast their ballots next year. So, if you want to send money to Porter, go ahead, because she's definitely not a lost cause.

And now the longer answer. There has been very, very little high-quality polling of this race. In part, that is because it's so far away. In part, it's because California is pretty expensive to poll. And in part, it's because the jungle-primary-style system that the Golden State uses makes it very, very tough to project the outcome of a race that's already got eight "name" candidates in it.

The most recent poll of the race from a trustworthy pollster (in other words, not someone working for one of the campaigns) was from The Public Policy Institute of California. It had Porter at 19%, Schiff at 16%, Lee at 13%, Eric Early (R) at 7%, James Bradley (R) at 6%, Sarah Sun Liew (R) at 5%, Jonathan Reiss (R) at 4%, and Frank Ferreira (I) at 3%. As you can see, Porter is clearly viable, and will remain so until ballots are cast, unless something shakes the race up. The most likely event that could cause such a shakeup is if Lee drops out and endorses Schiff.

M.M. in Bloomington, IL, asks: I see coverage of Gov. Gavin Newsom's (D-CA) supposed 28th Amendment, but I don't see the actual text. The devil (as always) is in the details; is there an actual text for the proposal?

(V) & (Z) answer: There was no proposed text in his press release, we couldn't find a proposed text on the Internet, and we would be very surprised if a proposed text exists, as it's much smarter to limit one's self to a statement of principles like the one Newsom put in his release.

When you just list principles, like "Instituting a reasonable waiting period for all gun purchases," then the discussion can be about the merits of that principle as an idea. Once you actually try to draft an amendment, you demonstrate how hard it is to come up with a correct set of words, and you open yourself up to a million questions like "But what if this situation arises?" and "What about this potential loophole people might exploit?"

Of course, someone really serious about gun control might propose an amendment that carefully defined what the terms "militia"and "well-regulated" in the Second Amendment mean and that the right to bear arms applies only to members of these well-regulated militias, not nonmembers.

C.F. in Nashua, NH, asks: I thought the point of the anti-abortion movement was to stop all abortions. Why are Republican states only banning at 6 weeks? Didn't SCOTUS give them permission to ban them entirely?

(V) & (Z) answer: We will give you three answers, and you may choose the one(s) you find to be most compelling.

First, those states that have chosen something other than a total ban are trying to give themselves some political and/or legal cover, so they can say that they are only trying to protect human life, and that they are not overreaching.

Second, where did 6 weeks come from, as opposed to 5 or 7 or 8? Primarily from the anti-abortion group Faith2Action. That organization successfully lobbied North Dakota to pass a "no abortions after 6 weeks" bill, which was then the most restrictive deadline in the country. Many other red states just copycatted North Dakota.

Third, why did Faith2Action (and some other groups) settle on 6 weeks? Because that was the most aggressive cutoff they could get away with, and still claim some evidentiary basis for the policy. At 6 weeks, a fetus begins to produce electrical activity, and when an ultrasound scan is conducted, it sounds like a heartbeat. That gave rise to the notion, one not really supported by the science, that 6 weeks is when the "fetal heartbeat" begins. Given the need to sell abortion bans to courts and/or the voting public, "No abortions after the heart starts beating" sounds a lot better than "No abortions at all," or "No abortions after [Week X] 'cause we said so." Those who make anti-abortion policy know that a 6-week ban is not especially different from total ban, since relatively few women will be able to figure out they are pregnant AND secure an abortion in that timeframe.


L.S. in Black Mountain, NC, asks: I'm curious if young, relatively inexperienced judges (like, oh, say... Aileen Cannon) can consult with older, more experienced jurists about issues and questions around cases before them. Not in the sense of "what should I do?"but more like accumulated wisdom/experience relevant to the issues. If Judge Cannon were able to do this, whom might she consult? Other judges on her court?

(V) & (Z) answer: It's not only possible, it's expected. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but a very junior judge like Cannon would generally consult with the more senior judges of her district, particularly those who had assumed senior status (and so, are retired or semi-retired), as well as the person who sits as chief judge (currently, the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida is Cecilia Altonaga, who has a sterling reputation).

Depending on the judge, there are also other potential outlets for them to seek advice. Many of them clerked for one or more federal judges, and remain in touch with their former boss(es). Also, it's not unheard of for jurists to maintain a relationship with some of their law professors and/or some of their former colleagues, and to bounce ideas and questions off those folks.

B.M. in Chico, CA, asks: Is the $3,300 limit for individual contributions limited by election or by candidate? For example, if a Ron DeSantis donor gave $3,300 and then decided to support another candidate after a poor debate performance, would they be able or unable to contribute to someone else's campaign?

(V) & (Z) answer: The limit is per candidate. So, you can give $3,300 each to DeSantis, and Trump, and Nikki Haley, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), and Chris Christie, and Mike Pence, and Vivek Ramaswamy and it's all legal. It is quite common for folks, often business types, to just write a maximum check to every semi-viable presidential candidate. That way, the donor can make sure that whatever piece of bread ends up in the White House, they've already buttered it.

M.A. in Knoxville, TN, asks: Donors to federal campaigns are allowed to give a maximum of $3,300 to a candidate for their primary campaign and another $3,300 to the general campaign. What happens to the general election donations when a primary candidate fails to make it to the general? Does the candidate get to keep those or do they have to return them? Also, how do candidates keep things separate when big donors given the maximum at once?

(V) & (Z) answer: The candidate will usually try to keep the donations, which they can use for a future campaign or they can distribute to other candidates. But if the donor asks for their money back, the request has to be granted.

And accounting for $6,600 donations isn't any more difficult than any other large-scale accounting operation. When you make a donation, you have to give the campaign certain identifying information, and they associate your donation with your identifying information. If you try to donate again, and your donation would put you over the limit, then the candidate's database flags that and refunds your money. Most campaigns these days collect their money through WinRed or ActBlue, and you can be very sure those are set up very carefully to make sure no laws are broken.

Also, you didn't ask, but we will note that there is a scenario where a candidate for federal office can collect the $3,300 three times. In states with runoffs, like Georgia, it's legal to accept $3,300 for the primary, $3,300 for the general and $3,300 more for the runoff.


T.P. in Cleveland, OH, asks: Apropos of the new Oppenheimer film: (1) Was the United States in a position (militarily/industrially/technologically) to begin conquering the world on August 10, 1945?, and (2) Were there other similar points in history when a country was in a position to conquer, say a continent or a big chunk thereof, but chose not to? If so, what were their reasons?

(V) & (Z) answer: The United States probably was in a military, industrial and technological position to conquer a huge chunk of the world in August of 1945. It was the only major power that was not hammered to pieces by the war, and also the only country to have nuclear weapons.

However, the United States was not in a policial position to do so. Democracies in general, and Americans in particular, are leery of imperialism. In addition, the country had just fought a long, brutal war with a majority-draftee armed force. There's no way the American public would have stood for it if that armed force was converted into an instrument of territorial acquisition.

As to the latter portion of your question, the dominant attitude among the nations of the world before 1900 was "might makes right." As a general rule, if a nation wanted a particular piece of territory (or colony), and it had the power to seize that territory (or colony), then it went for it. Almost invariably, if a nation chose not to expand its holdings, it was because: (1) the benefits did not justify the costs, or (2) they didn't think they would be able to administer the territory successfully.

That said, there are a few notable examples of imperial restraint. Surely the most familiar one is that in the 19th century, the British Empire could have grabbed huge chunks of the Americas, but largely chose not to. There was certainly some self-interest in there; trying to administer big pieces of North America from thousands of miles away did not work out so well for them in the 18th century. But part of it also was that they were trying to be respectful of the sovereignty of their former colony and, by then, increasingly important ally and trade partner.

A.E. in Oakland, CA, asks: I watched a PBS Frontline documentary, "Clarence and Ginni Thomas," the other day. I was shocked to discover that Thomas had a mere 1 year as a Federal judge before he was nominated for the Supreme Court. A friend tells me that the American Bar Association had him rated as number 24 (or 26th) on their recommendation list. Two questions: (1) How does Thomas' background compare to all the other Supreme Court justices? What is the average (and mean) number of years that Justices served as judges, prior to being selected to the Supreme Court? What is the longest? What is the shortest (I find it hard to believe that any individual had less than Thomas)? And: (2) What is your view of how George H.W. Bush managed to push through Thomas? Please elaborate on the particular circumstances.

(V) & (Z) answer: There is no good way to answer the question about justices' previous service, in part because we don't have good records for many of the 18th and 19th century jurists, and in part because "judge" is a fungible term and it's not necessarily clear what does and what does not count towards service time. Does being a justice of the peace count? How about serving as a chancellor of the chancery court? A presiding officer at courts martial?

What we can tell you is that arriving at the Supreme Court with limited or no judicial experience is actually pretty common. In generations past, seats on the Court were often regarded as patronage positions, and so went to prominent politicians rather than experienced jurists. Of the 17 chief justices, for example, eight had never served as a judge before occupying the big seat (John Marshall, Roger Taney, Salmon Chase, Morrison Waite, Melville Fuller, Charles Evans Hughes, Harlan Fiske Stone, Earl Warren). It's less common today for someone to arrive on the Supreme Court without bench experience, but not unheard of, as there are other ways to become qualified to serve. In fact, Thomas isn't even the justice with the least previous judicial experience to sit on the current court. That honor goes to Elena Kagan, who was never a judge before being appointed (though she did serve as solicitor general and as dean of the Harvard Law School).

Although Kagan is a little unusual by modern standards, the fact that it takes a while to be reasonably qualified to serve (undergrad, law school, early career), but that presidents want their judges to be on the Court as long as possible, means that most justices have only a few years' bench service under their belts (under their robes?) before being appointed. The most experienced of the current justices, when they got to the Supreme Court, was Ketanji Brown Jackson. She either had 9 years or 13 years on the bench, depending on whether you count her 4 years as Vice Chair of the United States Sentencing Commission. Most of the others had only a few years. The most experienced, all time, was Horace Harmon Lurton, who had 25 years' bench service before joining the Supreme Court. The trade-off is that he was already 65 when appointed, and he died with his robes on, just 4 years after taking his seat.

It is also common these days to identify promising candidates, and to seat them on the lower courts with the notion that they are just warming up for nomination to the big court. This is what happened with Thomas; it was clear that Thurgood Marshall was in poor health, that George H.W. Bush might get to name his replacement, and that the replacement really needed to be Black. So, Bush's staff scoured the country for candidates who were conservative, had the proper pedigree, and were Black. There were not so many people who checked all three boxes, but Thomas did, and he was hustled onto the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit so he'd be available for elevation. It's surely not what the fellows who wrote the Constitution intended, but it's not unique to Thomas; the same thing was done with Amy Coney Barrett and David Souter, among others.

M.V. in San Francisco, CA, asks: Thank you for replying to my question. One thing I am curious about is: I am not a historian like (Z), but my Google and ChatGPT searches did not yield the contents of the "Cannock" letter, as you posted (yes, it is jarring to read that bad handwriting in blurry low-definition image, with almost-certainly-deliberately-bad-English grammar). Did (Z) have to go Indiana Jones hunting for this in UCLA library books that were not yet scanned? Otherwise, how can a non-historian like me find this stuff (without Google, ChatGPT, and the like, I am blind)?

(V) & (Z) answer: There was no need for a library trip, per se. At least, not a physical one. Google Books is largely not included in Google's search engine index, presumably for copyright reasons. However, you can search the books directly. Take that piece of knowledge, and add in that (Z) had a pretty good idea of several books that probably had the letter's text within, and there you go. And once the exact text had been located (in All the President's Men, as it turns out), it wasn't too hard to track down the image.


J.A. in Kansas City, MO, asks: I was wondering, after reading the item about potential AI-generated misinformation, if has hired a staff-AI?

I know you guys are busy. And with your other staffed resources typically indisposed, I can see a definite productivity boost by using AI-generated content.

Does have an editorial policy regarding content generated by the staff-AI (assuming one is hired and isn't into the digital jungle juice)? Will AI-generated content be noted as such at the end of a post? Inquiring minds want to know!

(V) & (Z) answer: We don't have real-time information or access to specific websites or organizations, including, and don't have information on whether has hired a staff AI or what their editorial policy might be.

However, it's worth noting that the use of AI-generated content is becoming more prevalent in various industries, including journalism and online media. Many organizations are experimenting with AI to automate content creation and improve productivity. AI can generate content quickly, but it's essential to ensure that it adheres to ethical standards and maintains accuracy and transparency.

Regarding editorial policies for AI-generated content, different organizations may have different approaches. Some may choose to disclose AI-generated content at the end of a post to be transparent with their audience. Transparency is crucial to maintaining trust between a website and its readers...

Those three paragraphs are pretty much what you get with ChatGPT. The prose is flat and lifeless, and specific details are either scarce or inaccurate. If the time comes that our writing is not easily distinguishable from what the AI bots crank out, it will be time for us to hang up our mortar boards, because either the AI will have gotten way, way better, or we'll have gotten way, way worse.

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

T.B. in Bozeman, MT, asks: In his opinion on the recent emergency mandates to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, "these measures were perhaps the greatest intrusions on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country."

I immediately began thinking of the many instances of "intrusions on civil liberties" in American History (race-based slavery, anyone?). But then it occurred to me that perhaps this claim would serve as a good crowd-sourced question for your readership. What do your readers think is "the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country"?

We got many answers in response, some of which quite reasonably take Gorsuch to task:

J.Z. in Baltimore, MD: I don't usually answer these, either because I don't feel I have a full enough grasp of all the history, or because I can't pick one over another as "greatest ever." This one, though, I'm not only going to answer, I'm going to walk a very fine line to do it. Outside of the concept of "owning" another human being, the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in this country is undoubtedly the internment of Japanese Americans. "But," you'll protest, "it says during peacetime." Noted. The internments lasted until late March of 1946. Perhaps the staff historian might remind us of when, exactly, V-J Day was?

G.L. in Kelowna, BC, Canada: Presumably Gorsuch inserted the word "peacetime" in a desperate effort to avoid people pointing out that the Japanese internment camps would have longed for useful public health measures. America's long history of racism, of course, did not start with jailing people based on ethnicity, nor even with the mildly more inconvenient peacetime activity of owning human beings like property. Whether or not you had access to certain services, where you could sit on a bus, what opportunities like education were legally available to you depended on the color of your skin until well within the lifetimes of people among us today. Tens of millions of Americans were denied the legal right to enter into a recognized relationship with the person they love until less than a decade ago. Praying the wrong way in early colonies could lead to death, and of course the First Nations might have some opinions on whether the complete upending of their civilizations and loss of some 90% of their population while being forced to reside on small remnants of their former land (or, in some cases, small remnants of another Nation's land) was done in 'peacetime' or if it escapes Justice Gorsuch's gaze due to being an invasion. He might even want to dwell on what kind of an intrusion on civil liberties it is to take a woman and force her against her will to carry a child she either does not want or cannot safely bear.

While it would be nice to suggest that Justice Gorsuch's knowledge of American history apparently runs the full length of April 2020 to February of 2021 if he believes that encouraging people to take basic health precautions constitutes "the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country," that ignores the politicians across the U.S. who in that time actively encouraged the terminal end of their constituents' civil liberties by encouraging the spread of a deadly pandemic, and forbade them and their institutions from taking the health precautions that are the basic function of government. While some brainwashed victims may take solace from the ridiculous initial claim, there is zero chance that the author believes it to be in any way connected with truth.

C.W. in Carlsbad, CA: First of all. I must point out that this statement by Gorsuch can only be interpreted as political subterfuge, rather than a wise observation by a respected jurist. That comment was not made using any kind of proper analysis. Why bother making the distinction of "peacetime," as opposed to "wartime," which is apparently the only situation where so-called intrusions on civil liberties are allowed without critique? Evidently wartime constitutes an existential crisis that makes these intrusions okay. (How is a highly contagious and potentially deadly virus NOT an existential crisis? Should Biden have asked Congress for a declaration of war against COVID?) Further, the statement is deliberately ambiguous as to whether "peacetime" intrusions on civil liberties are actually bad. This is nothing more than a Q-like come-on to do "research" in Reddit or Twitter. I'm convinced reading Gorsuch's statement that the Trumpian-age of misinformation is still with us.

Ironically, perhaps one of the greatest intrusion on civil liberties was the recent Dobbs decision. There have been other recent SCOTUS rulings that reduce or eliminate certain liberties enjoyed by specific classes, but every woman is impacted in that there are now certain health choices she can no longer make. Time will tell.

J.B. in Montgomery, IL: Red scares. Any of them. Sacco and Vanzetti, "Tailgunner" Joe, and pretty much any other socialist/communist/anarchist panic from the 1870s to today.

J.E. in Austin, TX: Lynchings.

J.J. in Johnstown, PA: To me, by far the "the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country" would have to be the ever increasing frequency of mass shootings. It's nearly impossible to go more than a day without reading about how innocent people were gunned down going about their daily lives. When they were very rare, a mass shooting usually involved someone avenging some imagined "wrong" against them from colleagues or schoolmates. But now, they are mostly about just taking innocent lives for no reason. If any readers say that they don't, every once in a while, think when going to a busy movie theater, shopping center, or other large gathering that "it might happen here," they are lying. I can't see how anything else intrudes more on "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

S.P. in Harrisburg, PA: I agree with Justice Gorsuch—COVID measures. Can you think of any other time where so many aspects of our freedoms were violated—mask requirements, mandatory vaccines, limits on gatherings, show your vaccine card to enter a public place, forced closing of businesses—and all without the possibility of debate, and many of which turned out to be ineffective?

T.G. in Warwick, RI: I would rank the mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples as a severe case of violating liberties. It included expulsion from ancestral lands, de facto genocide, and disallowing citizenship until well into the twentieth century.

W.P. in Bellingham, WA: The greatest intrusion on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country is the Patriot Act.

P.K. in Marshalltown, IA: Enshrined in the U.S. Constitution for over a decade, the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol, is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country. With support strongly rooted in the fears of the dominant WASP culture of the time, this "reform"targeted the lifestyles and cultures of Catholic and Jewish ethnic groups at a time when the New Immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe struck fear in the hearts of WASP America—embodied, in particular, in Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race (1915). The only "thou shalt not"amendment enshrined in the Constitution, it came into force in a climate of repression that included restrictions on immigration based on countries of origin (1921, 1924) and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan (particularly in the Midwest). The anti-Catholic sentiments aimed at Al Smith during the presidential campaign of 1928 further embodied these sentiments. As with restrictions on abortion, there were many who figured out ways around the limitations on alcohol, but Prohibition spawned an organized crime structure opposed to its enforcement (and one that outlived its lifetime). In the end it took the same Constitutional process required to pass the amendment to remove it in 1933 in the form of the Twenty-First Amendment. That's a most serious level of intrusion, kids.

E.K.M. in Delaware, OH: Slavery should get the first 10 spots on any list due to its brutality, amorality, and our nation's purposeful selection of slavery as the economic foundation of the colony its first 150 years and the nation's for its first four score and seven. In 11th place I choose the continuing civil liberty crimes against Black Americans since Emancipation. Next would be our society's failure to establish full equality for women.

K.C. in Corpus Christi, TX: The death penalty? Seems to be a fairly severe intrusion on liberty.

M.W. in Northbrook, IL: The broadcast of Fox News in any public place.

Here is the question for next week:

T.J.R. in Metuchen, NJ, asks: If the Democrats nominated their version of Donald Trump, who would that person be, why do you say so, and would they be electable?

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