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Due Process Is Good, He Said Controversially
Gaetz, Greenwald, and accusations in the Twitter age
I interviewed friend Glenn Greenwald yesterday about his new book, “Securing Democracy” (review on the way). For those not familiar, that’s the one where Glenn and his husband David Miranda shepherded a major corruption story into print, resulting in the freeing from prison of a left-leaning former president, defying the government of Jair Bolsonaro, perhaps Donald Trump’s biggest supporter on the international political stage.
At the outset, Greenwald and I were joking because he was trending on Twitter again, the sixth time in six weeks (a non-Trump record?). He was listed just above Usher, whom the world was piling on for allegedly paying strippers in Vegas with $100 bills with his face on them instead of real money. The site exploded in “Usher bucks” memes, including a whole subgenre just about Usher jumping Harriet Tubman in line. This one got 4,000 likes:
Of course, we say “allegedly,” because you never know:
The Sapphire club told TMZ that Usher spent thousands of real dollars on the dancers. There appears to be a statement on Instagram from the dancer who originally demanded Usher be “blasted” on social media, now saying, “I never said that was the ONLY money he threw.” Who knows, but:
“I wish I was trending for that,” Greenwald joked. After his article about the Matt Gaetz case, trolls and blue checks rolled out an innuendo parade. He was a hypocrite for saying the New York Post’s Hunter Biden expose shouldn’t have been blocked, a “MAGA troll” who defends “40 year-olds who sleep with kids” (the contribution by “antiracism educator” Tim Wise), and a defender of white supremacists who hates women and is himself an ephebophile (look it up) who groomed his own husband, among many other things.
The first time I knew something changed on my side of the political aisle in the attitude toward accused people was the Maria Butina case. The New York Times ran a headline, “Maria Butina, Suspected Secret Agent, Used Sex in Covert Plan,” that was wrong in one place, and misleading in another. Butina hadn’t traded sex for information, just joked to a friend that that was all she could pay for his help in getting her car inspected. As for being a “Suspected Secret Agent,” that was only true if you were going by the definition of “agent” as per the “Agents of Foreign Governments” act, something south of genuine espionage, which most readers probably didn’t understand.
Even after the “mistake” about using sex was corrected, brethren in the press gleefully ran “Red Sparrow” stories, even though there was never much evidence, not that she traded sex, was a spy, or was knowingly anything. Her sentencing memo — this is her accusers speaking now — described her as “not a trained intelligence officer” but an “access agent” of a type that “may or may not be witting.” She may very well have been guilty. Still, reporters and political liberals both were once more squeamish about accusing people of serious crimes, particularly sex crimes. The calculus in Butina’s case was that she was Russian who dated a Republican operative and mixed up somehow in the 2016 election scandal, making her a Trump person, so to hell with her.
The Butina scandal came out as I was getting ready for the release of I Can’t Breathe, about the police killing of Eric Garner. I’m aware the vast majority of people who are unfairly treated either by the media or the criminal justice system are not suspected foreign agents or politicians. One of the reasons I wrote the Garner book is that I disliked offhand media descriptions of him as an ex-con and petty criminal. Ordinary people, particularly poor people, are the ones most regularly railroaded, and no one needs to pore through social media looking for such injustices. You find them every day in criminal courts.
The only protection most have against accusations is in the law, and in whatever meager level of general respect the public maintains for it. In the Trump years, belief in concepts like the presumption of innocence started to erode among those who once believed most in them. Do people like Carter Page need reporters to weep for them? No, but there was never any evidence that Page was an “agent of a foreign power.” In fact, it turned out there was quite specific evidence that he worked with the C.I.A. against Russia. It should have been a basic issue of media propriety to be publicly sorry about that, even in brief, but it wasn’t.
One of the first things that caused Greenwald to run afoul of conventional wisdom was the observation with regard to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation that indictments are not proof. He was slammed, but what do you know, the government ended up dropping at least one of the cases Mueller filed against a Russian defendant, once the issue of having to publicly disclose evidence was raised. This was after the defendant called the government’s bluff and showed up in court — demonstrating, prosecutors later said bitterly, the defense’s “intent to reap the benefits of the Court’s jurisdiction.”
That argument — that the defendant’s intent to actually exercise legal rights shows guilt in itself — is the kind of thing liberals used to decry all the time, coming from “tough on crime” Republicans. Opinions like that occur when you’ve fallen too far into the habit of judging people rather than evidence. Suddenly process becomes a canard, and you even get lawyers saying that hiring a lawyer is evidence of guilt:
Whether it was unconcern with attorney-client privilege after the raid of Michael Cohen’s office, disinterest in the implications of the case of despised Julian Assange, or the embrace of concepts like “not exonerated” (the opposite of presumed innocence), people who probably once described themselves as progressives seem to have lost touch with core ideas in recent years.
That doesn’t mean running around proclaiming that O.J. didn’t do it or that such-and-such a politician isn’t an awful person who should probably be voted out of office. It doesn’t mean you can’t say something like, “Matt Gaetz should probably be jailed for his haircut alone.” It does mean distinctions exist and it’s good to know what you’re dealing with before strapping people in the dunking chair. This is particularly true in accusations of sex crime, where the public can quickly lose interest in rights, something organizations like the ACLU used to understand after watching debacles like the Wee Care and McMartin preschool cases.
With Gaetz, the Republican congressman from Florida, you’re not voting for the guy or raising money for his re-election campaign by asking for more to go on than an anonymously sourced New York Times report. The paper cites “three people with knowledge of the encounters” in claiming Gaetz “had sex” with “multiple women,” while also claiming officials are examining “whether” he had sex with a 17-year-old and “whether” she was compensated for it. That means the possibilities run from Gaetz having consensual encounters with adults to consensual encounters with sex workers to, possibly, an encounter with a 17-year-old.
I don’t like stories like this because the Times gets to use a report of one kind of encounter to sell the possibility of another kind, for which they have less evidence. This is the same device that led to all sorts of problems in the story of Democratic congressional candidate Alex Morse, whose consensual adult encounters were spun into allegations of abuse and predation, and calls for his resignation. The Gaetz case is different in multiple ways, not the least being that his friend Joel Greenberg has already been federally indicted on 33 serious offenses, but from a reporting standpoint there’s almost nothing concrete in view yet with Gaetz himself.
That hasn’t stopped outlets from taking indulgences like “Gaetz’s allies now fear that Greenberg is preparing to strike a deal with prosecutors to deliver Gaetz.” Such speculations were a regular feature in Clinton-era scandals like Whitewater, and also in recent years, when stories like “Anxiety Grows for Trump After Raid On His Personal Lawyer” were common. Propping up a prostitution scandal using those grasping techniques looks particularly bad when a memoir written by the president’s son that includes scenes of hanging in motels with pimps and sex workers is being hailed all over as a “singular memoir of grief and addiction,” or “a gritty, self-realized, and honest account of addiction and grief” (do Vanity Fair and The Washington Post have the same headline writer?).
As to the people claiming that there’s hypocrisy in Greenwald’s attitude toward Hunter Biden versus Gaetz, come on. The issue with the Hunter Biden story was a) Facebook and Twitter blocking access to an expose during an election season, and b) the bulk of the press running with the outrageous, CIA-backed narrative that it was “Russian disinformation.” Greenwald has been consistent in his approach to cases like Gaetz’s dating back to the Eliot Spitzer affair.
None of this means Gaetz won’t eventually be found guilty. But there’s not even enough to know of what yet, and it can’t become a problem to say so in public. I know Glenn doesn’t care about the gross social media innuendo — he’s dealt with more serious problems — but the impact is on the next person with a byline who might be thinking about voicing an unpopular opinion. If that becomes impossible to do without being denounced as sexually predatory Russia-loving Trumpite scum, our political world will become even more of a wasteland than it already is.