Sep 18, 2019

UFOs are real and a new Trump team member.

UFOs are real and a new Trump team member.

Plus, why people are upset about Felicity Huffman's jail sentence.

Today’s read: 9 minutes.

Tangle is a little longer than usual today, and all I can say is that it’s because there was just so much insane news in the last 24 hours I couldn’t decide what to leave out.

A wild Fox News clip.

What D.C. is talking about.

Robert O’Brien. He’s America’s newest national security adviser, taking over the post after John Bolton stepped down (or was fired, depending who you ask) last week. O’Brien was previously serving as the State Department’s chief hostage negotiator, and joins the post as global tensions are hitting a crescendo (think: Saudi Arabia’s oil fields up in flames, North Korea continuing to test nuclear weapons, crucial elections in Israel, a trade war with China and lots of espionage involving Russia). O’Brien is perhaps best known for flying to Sweden and helping negotiate the release of A$AP Rocky a few weeks ago. O’Brien will become Trump’s fourth national security adviser in three years, the most any president has ever had in their first term.

What Democrats are saying.

Robert who? O’Brien was one of the finalists for the post, but not who most people in D.C. were expecting. The pick has left a lot of people scratching their heads. He’s already being called a “lightweight” and framed as unqualified for the position at a time when an experienced national security adviser would be of the utmost importance. Others are wondering where they’ve heard that name before, and then remember this Trump tweet from a few months back:

At the time, a lot of people were wondering who Trump was attributing the tweet to. Eventually, the White House claimed it was O’Brien who said it, though the State Department never confirmed it. Now a lot of Democrats are wondering if O’Brien just kissed enough butt to get the job and Trump has essentially installed someone he knows he can run over whenever he wants (traditionally, national security advisers are known to challenge the presidents they work for).

What Republicans are saying.

Depends which Republicans. Some are happy Trump has tapped someone for the post who won’t cause too much trouble. A lot of Trumpist conservatives support the president’s hardline stance on Iran, his instinct to pull America out of wars overseas, and his general skepticism about how things are done. Having someone like O’Brien in this post could effectively make Trump his own national security adviser, which excites Trump’s biggest supporters (and concerns basically everyone else). Joyce Karam, who works at The National, is one of the most recent reporters to interview O’Brien. I’m not sure what her politics are, but she described O’Brien as “pragmatic, soft spoken, almost the anti-Bolton,” which is music to a lot of Trump supporters’ ears. Karam also says he is not a hawk, worked with Mitt Romney, and is a good manager. On the other hand, Ryan James Girdusky, a big Trump supporter who writes a nationalist newsletter, was less impressed. He called O’Brien the “one most like Bolton” and began sharing excerpts from O’Brien’s 2016 book. In it, O’Brien argues that American involvement overseas needs a restoration. Curt Mills, who writes for American Conservative Magazine, argued that Trump is just setting himself up for more conflict and disagreement. He called O’Brien “Bolton lite” and said it’s proof the personal always wins with Trump: he chose the guy he liked, and soon he’ll find out O’Brien doesn’t see eye to eye with him on the issues that matter.

My take.

It’s tough to make a judgment this early. My initial read on the choice is twofold: one, Trump often sees things through the lens of television and personal flattery. On those two notes, O’Brien fits the bill. He’s a handsome guy who has a badass title (“hostage negotiator”) and has been effusive in his praise of POTUS. He’s also been quite critical of Obama, decrying his “weakness” on national security matters. All of this puts you on the fast track to winning over Trump, based on how he’s made appointments in his first couple of years. Others have speculated that this choice is tied closely to the upcoming election. Internal campaign workers for Trump believe he could pick up a quarter of the African-American vote, and they might actually believe tapping the guy who got A$AP Rocky out of jail overseas could help. If that sounds like a dumb, vaguely racist take, please know that it’s not my idea.

All told, I’m not sure O’Brien is so different from Bolton. He may not be an Iran hawk, but he certainly believes in American intervention overseas. He’s also a big fan of military spending and “peace through strength,” whatever that means. One thing I want to note, too, is about his experience. I’m not making the case any of the previous national security advisers are better or worse, but it seems worth comparing O’Brien’s experience to theirs. It may paint a clearer picture of the concerns. Take these notes, via David Priess on Twitter:

Michael Flynn: 33 years in the U.S. Army, Lieutenant General, spent two years as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

H.R. McMaster: 34 years in the U.S. Army, Lieutenant General. Deputy commanding general of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. Taught at West Point.

John Bolton: Worked at the Departments of State and Justice and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Assistant secretary of state and twice assistant attorney general. Served as undersecretary of state and ambassador to the U.N.

John O’Brien: Worked as a lawyer. Alternate rep to the U.N. General Assembly in 2005-2006. Served on two public-private partnership commissions and worked as special presidential envoy for hostage affairs for 16 months.

Story of the day.

A few months ago, after several flight cancellations, I had to drive from New York to North Carolina for a wedding. During the trip I spent a few hours between 2 and 4 a.m. listening to niche conservative radio on AM channels in the backwoods of North Carolina. I heard two different radio hosts talk about U.S. Air Force pilots spotting UFOs and how more stories were going to start coming out about it. As much as I wanted to believe it (I’m a big fan of UFO conspiracies), it sounded like absurd conspiracy theories. But… it turns out they weren’t? The stories are starting to be reported more and more now, and a piece in VICE yesterday really caught my attention. You can read it here and see the headline below.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: Tangle is about streamlining the information news consumers want to know. My job is to simplify and condense the news so you can stay informed without having to wade through story after story. If you have a question you want answered, you can simply reply to this email.

Q: What are the reasons behind what people are saying about Felicity Huffman’s jail sentence? I’ve seen some people saying it’s too short and some saying jail time wasn’t necessary at all.

- Ann, Chicago, IL

Tangle: Thanks for the question, Ann! I decided to tackle this question today because I think it has some interesting political threads, namely how Americans are changing their view on prison and the justice system. It’ll take me a little bit to get there, but I will.

First off, some background: Felicity Huffman is the actress, best known for her role on Desperate Housewives, who was recently caught up in a very juicy college admissions scandal. Huffman was charged with spending more than $15,000 to help get her daughter into college. More specifically, she gave that money to a man named William Singer, who was running a ring of schemes and bribes to help get wealthy parents’ children into various universities. In Huffman’s case, Singer used the money to get someone to correct Huffman’s daughter’s SAT scores. Lori Loughlin, another well-known actress, gave more than $500,000 to the same man to falsify athletic records and get her daughter admitted to USC on a bogus scholarship by pretending the daughter was a coxswain on a crew team (even though she had never rowed crew).

In the end, the plans became public after a major FBI sting operation on a different case accidentally uncovered the schemes. The operation was infamously dubbed “Varsity Blues,” and 33 parents were charged. Almost immediately, the story became something of a cult hit. It had so much bias-confirming news packed inside: wealthy parents are buying their kids admission to good schools, the system is rigged, the FBI has awesome names for its sting operations, celebrities are the worst, the children of celebrities are spoiled brats, colleges admissions are a total hoax, etc.

There was also lots of vitriol. So many people who had been rejected from good schools saw this as proof their hard work meant nothing. In all my years writing and reading in the public space, I have a hard time remembering more hate-filled comments than the ones that came out about Huffman, Loughlin and their daughters as this story broke. People were really, really pissed. Now, months later, the judgment has come down. A Boston judge imposed a 14-day prison sentence on Huffman, a $30,000 fine, one year of supervised release and 250 hours of community service. Loughlin and the other parents are still waiting to be charged, but Huffman’s sentencing brings us directly to your question.

In some circles, the sentencing is actually considered a “message” being sent to the other defendants. Typically, if someone doesn’t have a criminal history, is accused of this kind of crime (with 0 to 6 months of prison time as the baseline guidance), and is as remorseful has Huffman was in court, they don’t get jail time. The usual outcome is probation, home confinement or community service, as The Mercury News reported. Huffman’s crime was probably the least serious of all the defendants, and the sentencing means they are likely to do some jail time. All this is to say — for her crime and given the context — Huffman got a pretty harsh outcome. Mostly, that’s because there is so much national attention on this case and so many people are upset about how it went down.

And yet, as you noted, a lot of people are upset it was too light of a sentence. That’s because in an even larger context, when considering the 2.2 million people in jail across America, Huffman’s sentence (which she’ll probably serve in a cushy low-security prison) is infuriating. Some people noted that Crystal Mason is serving five years in prison for trying to vote. Other people were quipping that new vaping laws can send someone to jail for six months if they have too many vaping products in one place. Here are some responses:

For what it’s worth, my take on this is quite different. I actually wish we lived in a world where none of Huffman, Mason or McDowell were punished with time in prison. I don’t think we need more humans in cages for non-violent offenses, and I often question the efficacy of even putting people who are violent offenders behind bars (though that’s a much more complex and nuanced debate to have). Still, the reaction to Huffman’s sentence — and the awareness about harsh punishments for other people — all speak to a larger political issue of the mass incarceration system. In fact, with all the partisan politics in today’s world, doing something to reduce how many people we have in prison is a rare instance where people on both the left and the right care a lot about the same issue. It’s why Donald Trump is trying his best to champion prison reform and why so many libertarian and conservative-minded Americans will gleefully cheer with Bernie Sanders when he talks about legalizing marijuana or reducing the prison population. I happen to think that the rights of the incarcerated, and reducing the number of incarcerated Americans, is likely to be the next great civil rights movement of our time. The people who are calling for Huffman to face more jail time than she is are actually expressing grief and anger at the harsh penalties so many other people have faced for seemingly lesser crimes. And the people who think she shouldn’t be serving any jail time at all are — implicitly or not — expressing an understanding of what deserves prison time and what doesn’t. Both of these groups could find common ground on reducing the number of people in prison, and I think both of them — one day — will.

Warren surging.

Bombshell Netanyahu story.

Yesterday, Tangle covered the Israeli elections. Things are still neck and neck and no clear winner has emerged. But a bombshell piece was published in the left-leaning Haaretz yesterday, detailing a story about Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to delay the elections in order to execute a military operation in the Gaza strip. You can read it here.


Two disturbing stories emerged yesterday about a Republican state senator and a major Democratic donor. First, Pennsylvania Republican State Senator Michael Folmer was arrested on child pornography possession charges. Folmer was caught uploading the pornography to Tumblr, and when the state executed a warrant on his home they found child pornography on his phone. You can read more here. Then, Democratic donor Ed Buck was charged with operating a drug house after a 37-year-old man suffered a nonfatal overdose at his apartment. Two other men had already died at Buck’s house, both of them African American, and Buck was accused of injecting the latest victim with methamphetamine at his home. A February complaint said Buck "had a predatory and injurious system of soliciting Black men and watching them cling to life." You can read more here.

A story that matters.

Ever wonder how gerrymandering works? In North Carolina, where a state panel declared previous election maps unconstitutional, politicians have been redrawing their districts for weeks straight. Republicans were accused of drawing the maps for explicit partisan gain, and now they are being asked to redraw the lines without considering who voters will support. One Republican state senator was captured coming in, seeing his district drawn in an unfavorable way, and then trying to change the district’s line to keep his election safe. But when his preferred lines were rejected, he announced his retirement. Check out this Twitter thread. Or read this story from NPR.

Have a nice day.

A tiny goldfish in the United Kingdom became England’s smallest surgery patient ever. Veterinarians removed a tumor from Molly the fish’s abdomen in a 40-minute surgery that cost the owners about $100. The goldfish weighed just one gram. As someone struggling to keep his very sick betta fish alive, this story really hit home. Click.

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