Letters From an American

Where to Start?

The pandemic, street protests, Russian meddling, election security?

Where to Start?

Portland police are seen in riot gear during a standoff with protesters in Portland, Oregon on August 16, 2020. Protests have continued for the 80th consecutive night in Portland since the killing of George Floyd. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

August 29, 2020

With the end of the Republican National Convention on Thursday, the race to the November election is in high gear.

Trump has made it clear he will run on the idea that he has defeated the coronavirus and rebooted the economy, while rioters from the “radical left” are destroying American cities, aided and abetted by Democrats. But the convention’s picture of the president and the nation America were so wildly untrue that fact-checkers have stayed busy ever since.

Vice President Mike Pence rewrote history to argue that Trump managed the pandemic wonderfully. “President Trump marshaled the full resources of our federal government from the outset,” Pence said. “He directed us to forge a seamless partnership with governors across America in both political parties.”

In fact, there is really no debate over the reality that Trump did not acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis for six to eight crucial weeks, despite warnings. He refused to invoke the Defense Production Act to speed up the production of critical medical supplies and instead told states they were on their own. When states then tried to buy their own supplies, the federal government often intercepted the shipments and handed them to private distribution systems to send to places the administration determined needed them most, redistributions that were often attributed to political favoritism.

Most attendees at the president’s speech did not wear masks, and speakers at the convention referred to the pandemic in the past tense. But coronavirus has not gone away. Although the overall number of new cases is declining, hot spots remain, especially as schools and universities have reopened over the past two weeks. At the University of Alabama, 1200 students have tested positive for Covid-19 since classes resumed less than two weeks ago; Florida has seen nearly 900 students testing positive in the same period. America is still suffering close to 1000 deaths a day from Covid-19, bringing our numbers over 180,000 people.

Pence also boasted that we have gained back 9.3 million jobs in the last three months, with no acknowledgement that it is Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic that devastated the economy in the first place, or that we are still 13 million jobs down from where we were before the coronavirus.

Trump’s narrative that cities are in crisis, and the violence is caused by the “radical left,” is not supported by the evidence, either.

First of all, there is less violence than he suggests. Crime has actually been dropping in the US for a decade, and protests are isolated. American cities are not in flames. On Twitter, a user claimed that: “There’s this creepy vibe in DC right now where it’s obvious how bad the city’s been destroyed by rioters, and yet people are almost afraid to point it out or oppose it. You almost have to whistle past the boarded up windows as if it’s all just normal.” Other users ridiculed him by posting photographs of peaceful city scenes, noting that a number of places closed early in the summer because of Covid, but that the only “creepy vibe” was the new fortified wall around the White House.

But Trump is likely aware that white Americans tend to associate Black Americans with crime, so he is hitting the idea that the Black Lives Matter protesters are violent. In fact, most of the violence occurring appears to be associated either with the police who, according to a new report published in The Guardian, have been infiltrated by white supremacists, or with far-right activists.

In June, ABC News obtained an intelligence bulletin from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center warning that “anarchist extremists continue to pose the most significant threat of targeted assaults against police.” They singled out violent extremists such as members of the boogaloo anarchist movement. Indeed, the police officer Pence spoke of at the convention who was killed in Oakland, California, was allegedly killed by a boogaloo supporter, not by protesters, as Pence implied. And, of course, the two people murdered and one injured in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23 were allegedly killed by Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old white man who came to town to face down the protesters.

To the extent there is unrest in the country, Trump has no interest in quelling it. He has refused to condemn the right-wing thugs, and his supporters have championed Rittenhouse as a hero. Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson said that Rittenhouse “had to maintain order when no one else would.”

In Portland, Oregon, today, a pro-Trump caravan that included the neo-fascist Proud Boys went into the city to face down protesters there. After tensions between them and the assembled protesters escalated, caravan members began shooting people with pepper spray and paintballs, and driving into crowds. Tonight, someone was shot and killed, although who and why is unclear; the details are still sketchy.

The narrative that dangerous Black people are causing violence that white men must suppress for the good of the community serves Trump’s election narrative, but it is a trope right out of Reconstruction. In 1873, for example, in Colfax, Louisiana, white southerners murdered as many as 150 of their Black neighbors, while 3 white men died, one likely shot by his own compatriots. Despite those shocking numbers, newspapers reported the events at Colfax as a riot of Black men, put down by law-abiding whites who were restoring law and order.

There is another worrisome development today. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) announced that it will no longer brief Congress in person about election security and the interference of foreign entities in our democracy. It will still provide written intelligence reports, but Congress will no longer be able to question officials about what they know.

There is a long backstory to this development. Despite all evidence — including that of the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee — Trump has maintained that Russia did not interfere on his behalf in 2016. Now, despite the conclusions of our Intelligence Community that they are doing it again, he maintains they are not.

Back in February 2020, a senior career intelligence officer who worked for Joseph Maguire, then the acting DNI, warned Congress that Russia is once again targeting our election to aid Trump. The president was so angry that he fired Maguire, and replaced him first with Richard Grenell, a staunch loyalist, and then with Texas Representative John Ratcliffe, whose earlier appointment to the position had been quashed by Republican Senators because he lacked the necessary qualifications for the post. Ratcliffe made it clear he did not believe Russia was attacking our elections, no matter what the Intelligence Community said.

This summer, there has been tension between congressional Democrats and the DNI because his office has suggested that China, Iran, and Russia are all equally responsible for assaults on our election when, in fact, it is clear Russia is far and away the prime culprit. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-CA), and Ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee Mark Warner (D-VA), all members of the so-called “Gang of Eight” which hears classified intelligence, have repeatedly called on the DNI to brief Congress on the actual intelligence.

Now, Ratcliffe is saying the Office of the DNI will not brief Congress at all in person, suggesting concern over leaks. The Democrats say he is deliberately withholding information from the American people that they need before they vote. Schumer wrote: “DNI Ratcliffe has made clear he’s in the job only to protect Trump from democracy, not democracy from Trump. Our intel officials have said there’s an … assault on our democratic process from Russia. Pres. Trump is simply using John Ratcliffe to hide the ugly truth.”

Trump tonight confirmed that the DNI decision was designed to stop information about Russian interference from reaching the American people. He tweeted: “Probably Shifty Schiff, but others also, LEAK information to the Fake News. No matter what or who it is about, including China, these deranged lowlifes like the Russia, Russia, Russia narrative. Plays better for them. @DNI_Ratcliffe doing a great job!” (There is no evidence that Schiff has ever leaked any information.)

Tonight Trump also retweeted an advertisement for an edition of a show on One America News (OAN) that regurgitates Russian propaganda. It is the story, instigated by Russian intelligence, that Biden was involved in a corrupt bargain in Ukraine, the very story he pressured Ukraine to produce last year.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.