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Sensemaker: America’s reckoning

Sensemaker: America’s reckoning

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Amnesty International accused Russia of war crimes in Kharkiv, including the use of cluster bombs on civilian targets.
  • The UK prepared to publish legislation that would unilaterally rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol that enabled Boris Johnson to “get Brexit done” (more below).
  • The Sydney Morning Herald retracted a column whose author appeared to threaten to out the actor Rebel Wilson as gay. 

Worth watching – for fans of dancing and magic as well as rugby: this showreel of Phil Bennett’s greatest tries, compiled by the BBC to mark his death at 73.

America’s reckoning

One down, five to go. Live congressional hearings on the 6 January 2021 insurrection continue today with testimony from Trump’s campaign chief, who told Trump his claims of voter fraud would fail in the courts and saw the defeated president go on peddling them anyway.

The first hearing last Thursday showed nearly 20 million Americans a tightly choreographed primetime show peppered with clips, pre-recorded interviews and video montages in the service of one goal: to persuade them Trump was at the centre of a “sophisticated” and “coordinated” plot to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.

All the networks bar Fox covered the hearing – the clearest possible reflection of a polarised nation with a big aggrieved minority still covering its ears. 

Key moments: 

  • “It was doing grave disservice to the country.” Trump’s former attorney general Bill Barr on false claims about voter fraud. In pre-recorded testimony, Barr said he’d always considered Trump’s stolen election claims to be “nonsense” and said as much to the president. For the committee this is an important point to land: it will be part of a gradual accretion of evidence that Trump knew, or at least had been told, that his claims weren’t legitimate. 
  • “I accepted what he was saying.” In a pre-recorded video interview, Ivanka Trump told the committee’s investigators she had “accepted” it when Bill Barr told her there was no evidence the election had been stolen. Trump hit back saying that she had been “checked out” and wasn’t involved in looking at the election results. 
  • “What I saw was a war scene.” Capitol police officer Charlotte Edwards – who was injured during the riot – on what she witnessed on January 6th. The violence she described was underscored by a 12-minute video of insurrectionists breaking down windows and doors and storming the building. 
  • “We were invited by the President of the United States.” A compilation of interview tapes with Jan 6th rioters showed many believed they had gone to Washington and the Capitol at Donald Trump’s request. The implication: Trump must have known something like this would happen. 

The arc

Session one laid the groundwork for what’s to come, and that rests on two central claims:

  1. That Trump oversaw a “seven-part plan” to overturn the election. The steps of the plan weren’t outlined in the hearing – expect to hear more on exactly how Trump and his team cooked up the voter fraud allegations, pressured state election officials to alter results and tried to stop the Vice President from ratifying them.
  2. That Trump “summoned the mob”. So far no direct line of communication between Trump and leaders of the groups that attacked the Capitol has been revealed. If there is one, that would be an explosive piece of news.

No-shows

Aside from Bill Barr and Ivanka Trump, few high-profile witnesses from the Trump side appeared in Thursday’s session and a number of key insiders won’t appear in the hearings at all. They include

  • Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, charged with criminal contempt of congress by the Department of Justice last year. He told reporters on 5 January “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow”. 
  • Mark Meadows, Trump’s White House chief of staff, who handed over texts and other records to the committee but stopped cooperating and was found in contempt of Congress in December last year after refusing to appear before the committee.
  • Dan Scavino, Trump’s head of social media and close confidant, who would have been close to the action (or inaction) in the White House on 6 January. He also rejected the committee’s subpoena. 

Still to come

Key witnesses to look out for include

  • Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Mark Meadows who’s been trailed in the press as a star witness. She’s already given over 20 hours of interviews to investigators and may appear live in one of the hearings. It was Hutchinson who revealed that Trump had approved of his followers’ calls to “hang” Mike Pence. 
  • Chris Stirewalt, an ex-Fox News political editor, who’s likely to testify that his former employer was responsible for stoking claims of election fraud. Stirewalt was fired soon after approving Fox’s decision to call the election for Biden. 

To ask

  • What is Merrick Garland thinking? Democrats want to change Republicans’ minds, but they also want Biden’s attorney general to indict Trump on criminal charges of attempting to overturn an election and obstructing the work of Congress. So far Garland hasn’t shown his hand. Not many people think he has the stomach for the fight even if he was handed all the evidence he needed.
  • Who knew what, when in Trump’s inner circle, specifically about plans to create “alternate” (fake) slates of electors from swing states to overturn the electoral votes of legitimate ones? 
  • Will any of this move the dial at the midterms? So far, unlikely. The single most plausible scenario for November remains that Republicans retake the House and shelve or bury any 6 January investigations still underway. 
COMMENT

A very British QAnon conspiracy

Matthew d’Ancona

Johnson’s supporters are now claiming that there is a shadowy plot to bring him down – and promising absolutely anything to keep him in office. This has become a battle between delusion and reality


CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE

Southern wheat
In a good year Argentina produces almost as much wheat as Ukraine, more than half of it for export. This year’s crop is not forecast to match last year’s record of nearly 22 million tonnes, but the FT says Argentine farmers still hoped to be able to export more than usual to help compensate for global shortages created by Russia’s blockage of Black Sea ports and its alleged theft of Ukrainian wheat for its own purposes. But a strict 10 million-tonne export quota imposed by their Peronist president, Alberto Fernández, means they won’t be able to. He has set the limit at 10 million tonnes, down from 14 million last year. Similar decisions in India to prioritise domestic markets will worsen global shortages and hunger, hitting the Middle East and North Africa hardest. 


CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING

Northern Ireland
The UK government will introduce a law today that would create red and green channels for goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – red for those headed to the EU and therefore needing full customs checks; green for those headed no further than the province and therefore needing minimal checks only. What’s not to like? A number of things, as Tory rebels point out, chief among them that it unilaterally rewrites an international treaty (the Northern Ireland Protocol), and includes a catch-all provision to rewrite it again if deemed to threaten peace or prosperity. The government insists the bill won’t break international law. Saying this doesn’t make it so, but the only reason ministers might pause is to wrangle unionists into line by making a resumption of power-sharing at Stormont a condition of Westminster doing battle with Brussels again. As for the battle itself, Team Johnson seems to relish it as red meat for the red wall and a timely distraction from food prices.


TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGS

“Sentient” chatbot 
A while ago Blake Lemoine changed his mind about Isaac Asimov’s third law of robotics after a chat with a chatbot. The law, which is not an actual or scientific law, says a robot must protect its own existence provided doing so doesn’t injure a human or disobey human orders. It’s not clear from a WaPo piece that has sparked debate across the net exactly how the chatbot changed Lemoine’s mind. What is clear is that his employer, Google, has suspended him for claiming the chatbot was sentient. The bot uses Google’s AI-based LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications). Lemoine said he was able to engage with it as with “an 8 year-old kid that happens to know physics”. Google insists there’s no evidence LaMDA is sentient, and plenty that it’s not. Awkwardly, one of its own vice presidents, Blaise Aguera y Arcas, wrote in a rare bylined piece for the Economist last week that he too “increasingly felt like I was talking to something intelligent” when dealing with LaMDA. Then again, what’s the use of AI if it’s not intelligent?


The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Gun deal
Ten Republican senators in the US have done what they and / or their forbears wouldn’t do after the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings of 2012 and 2018 respectively. They’ve said they will approve a gun control bill. Ten is enough to create a supermajority along with 50 Democrats and so defeat a filibuster and, in principle, become law. The bill would enhance background checks on gun buyers under 21, expand the reach of an existing ban on convicted domestic abusers having guns, and allow states to pass their own laws allowing local officials to temporarily confiscate from people deemed too dangerous to have them. It wouldn’t ban military-grade assault weapons, or impinge much at all on the rights of over-21s to equip themselves as if for war, but Democrats and the White House have welcomed it as progress, which it is.


Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Let them eat Venison
The UK government publishes a food strategy today that its own food advisor says is “not a strategy”. The advisor, Henry Dimbleby, wanted ministers to prioritise health and the environment by urging people to eat less meat. Instead, the main goals of a document that bears little relation to Dimbleby’s 2021 blueprint are, Boris Johnson says, to “back farmers, boost British industry and help protect people against the impacts of future economic shocks”. There’s nothing in it about sugar or salt taxes and the most eye-catching mention of meat in a leaked draft was a move to encourage more consumption of “responsibly sourced venison”. George Monbiot, the environmentalist, told the Kite Festival yesterday that meat-rearing uses 51 per cent of UK land to produce 1 per cent of its locally-grown protein. 

The week ahead

UK

13/6 – Office for National Statistics publishes latest GDP figures; London tech week begins; Housing secretary Michael Gove questioned by parliamentary committee on levelling up plans, 14/6 – First flight to Rwanda; 5 years since Grenfell fire; ONS publishes unemployment figures; Unison annual conference in Brighton, Royal Ascot starts, 15/6 – Covid-19 schools infection survey released and latest figures on behaviour of people testing positive; Women’s prize for fiction announced, 16/6 – Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee interest rate decision, 17/6 – Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza speaks at Confederation of School Trusts annual conference, 18/6 – Rugby Union premiership final

World

13/6 –  Eurosatory defence industry exhibition event begins in Paris; biennial gathering of World Trade Organization (MC12) in Geneva; 14/6 – European drug report for 2022 released; 40 years since Argentine surrender in the Falklands war marked; 15/6 – Nato defence ministers meet in Brussels; Federal Open Market Committee interest rate decision, 16/6 – US Open golf tournament tees off in Massachusetts; 17/6 –Vladimir Putin speaks at St Petersburg International Economic Forum; Corpus Christi feast; Iceland National day, 19/6 – Westminster Kennel Club Dog show held in New York; second round of voting for Colombia presidential election and French parliamentary election; Juneteenth celebrated in US

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images


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