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The Daily 202: Epstein conspiracy theories showcase the paranoid style in American politics

The politically connected financier and registered sex offender apparently killed himself in jail, the Bureau of Prisons said on Aug 10. (Video: The Washington Post)

with Mariana Alfaro

With Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: President Trump is as much the product of America’s conspiracy-curious political culture as the cause of it.

Trump retweeted to his 63 million followers on Saturday a baseless conspiracy theory about the death of Jeffrey Epstein, the politically connected financier who had been facing multiple charges of sex trafficking involving underage girls. After authorities said he died by apparent suicide, Trump shared a message from conservative actor Terrence Williams, who suggested that Epstein’s death might be tied to former president Bill Clinton. Clinton spokesman Angel Ureña called the current president’s tweet “ridiculous, and of course not true — and Donald Trump knows it.”

On one hand, it’s stunning that the president of the United States retweeted a groundless suggestion that a former president was involved in a suspicious death. On the other hand, Trump has routinely peddled false conspiracy theories of the out-there variety. He spent years pushing the lie that his predecessor, Barack Obama, was not born in the United States. Two weeks ago, Trump promoted two Twitter accounts that have shown support for the online conspiracy theory known as QAnon.

But zany conspiracy theories have a long history of gaining currency and finding followers in the United States. In fact, there are almost daily illustrations of this strain of American culture. On the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing last month, for example, there was a fresh round of discussion about the conspiracy theory that NASA faked Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. (It didn’t.) There are “truthers” who claim that 9/11 was an “inside job” or that the Holocaust never actually happened. Chemtrails, black helicopters and Pizzagate have all entered the lexicon.

The Indiana State Department of Health recently approved a permit for John Dillinger’s body to be exhumed on Sept. 16 so that DNA testing can be performed on his corpse. The event, which will be recorded for a History Channel special, comes 85 years after the notorious bank robber was gunned down by FBI agents outside a movie theater in Chicago. The madam of a brothel tipped off the bureau to avoid being deported. Ever since that night in July 1934, a conspiracy theory has lingered that the government killed a body double. Historians who have studied the case, and the FBI, say this is nonsense. Nevertheless, the rumor has persisted.

Another old conspiracy theory has been enjoying a recent resurgence: that Lyme disease in the United States is the result of an accidental release from a secret government bioweapons experiment. The House even voted two weeks ago to include an amendment in the defense reauthorization bill that requires the Pentagon to reveal whether the military ever weaponized ticks. “As someone who has worked for more than three decades to understand the epidemiology and ecology of Lyme disease to reduce the risk of Americans getting infected, I am appalled that this conspiracy theory is taken so seriously that Congress is now involved,” writes Sam Telford, a professor of infection diseases and global health at Tufts University. “The idea … is easily disproved. Our legislators could better spend their time fighting for efforts to prevent disease instead of investigating a far-fetched story that’s based on misinterpretation and innuendo.”

More than 2 million people on Facebook have signed up and another 1.5 million have said they are interested in joining a raid on Area 51 in Nevada during the wee hours of Sept. 20. “Lets see them aliens,” the event page says. The page is clearly a satire, but the guy who set it up has grown increasingly worried that some people may not understand that it’s a parody and actually try to enter the clandestine facility in search of extraterrestrial treasures. “P.S. Hello U.S. government, this is a joke, and I do not actually intend to go ahead with this plan,” Jackson Barnes wrote in an addendum. “I’m not responsible if people decide to actually storm area 51.” An Air Force spokeswoman recently told my colleague Michael Brice-Saddler that authorities are prepared: “The U.S. Air Force always stands ready to protect America and its assets.”

QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory, is fueled by right-wing outrage online and in the real world. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

-- Twitter has certainly made it easier, and faster, to disseminate baseless conspiracy theories. Lots of people with blue check marks — meaning people whose identities have been verified by Twitter — were crawling out on unsupported limbs during the hours after news broke of Epstein’s death on Saturday, including a prominent television host and even a former senator.

-- But the conspiracy theories swirling around Dillinger, Area 51, Apollo 11 and Lyme disease all predate social media. They offer reminders that Americans have been buying into conspiracy theories since the founding of the republic. There’s a long history of deep-seated skepticism toward shadowy or secretive groups, from the Illuminati and the Freemasons to the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, and Yale’s Skull and Bones.

In his classic 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter described the paranoid style as “made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies,” such as “the megalomaniac view of oneself as … wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph” and “the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary.” His main insight was that it’s not just kooks who fall under the sway of kooky ideas. “In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds,” Hofstadter wrote. “It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

-- Skepticism of authority and official explanations dates to our rebellion against the British crown, but the loss of faith in government since Vietnam and Watergate has fueled this natural mistrust. For escapism, people turn to “House of Cards,” “Designated Survivor” and “Homeland,” all fictional shows that predate the Trump presidency and that portray dramatic conspiracies at the highest levels. Celebrities and athletes routinely espouse goofy conspiracy theories, and fans typically just roll their eyes. Some even say they still believe the Earth is flat. Seriously.

2020 Democratic presidential candidates on Aug. 11 escalated their criticism of President Trump, saying his rhetoric is stoking racism. (Video: The Washington Post)

-- Trump has flirted with many a conspiracy theory over recent years. As a candidate in 2016, he claimed Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, was with Lee Harvey Oswald before the Kennedy assassination and hinted that he might have been involved. There’s no evidence of this at all.

He entertained the baseless conspiracy theory that former Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who died in his sleep, may have been killed. “They say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow,” Trump said on a conservative radio show in February 2016.

That spring, he called the circumstances surrounding former Clinton White House aide Vince Foster’s suicide “very fishy” and called theories of possible foul play “very serious.” There were five official investigations into Foster’s death. None found evidence of foul play.

Trump has also repeatedly claimed, with no evidence, that he only lost the popular vote in 2016 because millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally for Clinton. He’s claimed falsely that Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks in the streets of New Jersey. And he’s insisted that the Obama administration spied on him. All these claims have been debunked thoroughly by fact-checkers.

Trump made at least 12,019 false or misleading claims during his first 928 days as president. “Trump’s proclivity for spouting exaggerated numbers, unwarranted boasts and outright falsehoods has continued at a remarkable pace,” Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly write this morning. “As of Aug. 5, he had made 12,019 false or misleading claims, according to the Fact Checker’s database that analyzes, categorizes and tracks every suspect statement the president has uttered. Trump crossed the 10,000 mark on April 26, and he has been averaging about 20 fishy claims a day since then. From the start of his presidency, he has averaged about 13 such claims a day. About one-fifth of these claims are about immigration … False or misleading claims about trade, the economy and the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign each account for about 10 percent of the total.”

“President Trump could use his megaphone for anything. But the president often uses it to amplify that which is the worst of us: personal attacks, bigotry and insane conspiracy theories,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said on his Sunday show. “This is no longer just irresponsibility and indecent. It’s dangerous.”

-- It’s easy to blame bots for amplifying conspiracy theories, but real people are spreading them too. And it’s not just, say, Russians trying to sow division. Abby Ohlheiser, who covers digital culture, explains: “An analysis by Hoaxy, a tool created by Indiana University to analyze the spread of questionable hashtags — and the possible involvement of bots in promoting them — showed that even before the president’s social media involvement, conservative comedian and Internet personality Terrence K. Williams was a key amplifier of the #ClintonBodyCount hashtag. ‘#JefferyEpstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead,’ read the tweet retweeted by Trump. Williams also asked his more than 500,000 followers to ‘RT if you’re not Surprised.’ For years, figures such as Williams have known that getting a hashtag trending fuels attention, and they’ve been good at getting it done.

“Mike Cernovich, an early expert at this who rose in profile after Trump’s election for his role in helping to spread the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, has long coordinated hashtag choices on live streams with his followers during breaking news. Hashtags like #ClintonBodyCount go viral before the news can catch up, in part because a bunch of people who know exactly how important it is to trend on Twitter are working to make it happen. And it’s worth understanding that, while hashtags such as these are amplified by bots, the accounts spreading conspiratorial hashtags also belong to plenty of actual people. Hoaxy’s analysis identified 985 Twitter accounts that were key to helping the hashtag spread; only 30 of those accounts had strong bot-like characteristics.”

-- Not all conspiracy theories are created equal. Some are relatively innocuous. Others are downright dangerous. The shooter in El Paso, for example, was apparently deeply influenced by a white-supremacist conspiracy theory called “the Great Replacement.” Promoted by French writer Renaud Camus, the idea is that elites are plotting to replace whites with nonwhite immigrants in Europe and around the world.

-- Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man who pleaded guilty to mailing improvised explosive devices to 13 people ahead of the midterms last fall, was sentenced to 20 years in prison last week. Asking for leniency, Sayoc’s defense lawyers said their client fell under the influence of conspiracy theories online. “He was not discerning of the pro-Trump information he received, and by the time of his arrest, he was ‘connected’ to hundreds of right-wing Facebook groups,” Sayoc’s attorneys wrote in a sentencing memo to the judge last month. “Many of these groups promoted various conspiracy theories and, more generally, the idea that Trump’s critics were dangerous, unpatriotic, and evil. … They deployed provocative language to depict Democrats as murderous, terroristic, and violent.”

-- Donald Trump Jr. complained on Sunday morning that “Trump Body Count” was trending on Twitter in his area while “Clinton Body Count” was not. The president’s son, perhaps because of the users he follows, was seeing more tweets pushing the Clinton-related conspiracy theory than the Trump equivalent. There’s no basis to either. But instead of making that point, Don Jr. wrote:


-- Corrections officers had not checked in on Epstein for “several” hours before he was found hanging in his cell on Saturday, a person familiar with the matter said last night. Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report: “Officers should have been checking on Epstein, who was being held in a special housing unit of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City, every 30 minutes, and, under normal circumstances, he also should have had a cellmate … But a person who had been assigned to share a cell with Epstein was transferred on Friday, and — for reasons that investigators are still exploring — he did not receive a new cellmate ... That left Epstein, who had previously been placed on suicide watch, alone and unmonitored — at least in the hours before his death — by even those officers assigned to guard him.”

The FBI, the Justice Department’s inspector general and the New York City medical examiner have all launched inquiries into what happened: “Barbara Sampson, New York City’s chief medical examiner, said her office conducted an autopsy Sunday but had not yet reached a determination on cause of death ‘pending further information.’ The medical examiner also allowed Michael Baden, a private pathologist, to observe the autopsy at the request of Epstein’s representatives, Sampson said. …

The two corrections officers assigned to watch the special unit in the detention center where Epstein was being housed were working overtime — one forced to do so by management, the other for his fourth or fifth consecutive day, the president of the local union for staffers said. Serene Gregg, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3148, said the Metropolitan Correctional Center is functioning with less than 70 percent of the needed correctional officers, forcing many to work mandatory overtime and 60- or 70-hour workweeks. She said one of the individuals assigned to watch Epstein’s unit did not normally work as a correctional officer but, like others in roles such as counselors and teachers, was able to do so.”

--Ghislaine Maxwell was, according to her accusers, Jeffrey Epstein’s protector and procurer, his girlfriend and his madam,” Marc Fisher reports in today’s newspaper: “She was, by all accounts, a soul mate and a mirror image. He grew up in Brooklyn with no money to speak of and never finished college. She is Paris-born, Oxford-educated, a jet-setter who partied with princes and billionaires. Together, Epstein and Maxwell allegedly built what prosecutors, police and a growing number of women described as a sex-trafficking operation that crisscrossed the nation to provide Epstein with three young girls a day.

The death of Epstein … leaves those who seek to hold someone responsible for the alleged abuse of dozens of girls with one prime target: Maxwell. The U.S. attorney in New York, Geoff Berman, assured the ‘brave young women who have already come forward and … the many others who have yet to do so’ that ‘our investigation of the conduct charged in the indictment — which included a conspiracy count — remains ongoing.’ … Maxwell, 57, has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing. According to people familiar with the investigation, authorities have had trouble locating Maxwell, who is believed to be living abroad.”

-- “Epstein’s death raises a lot of questions. Don’t jump to theories to answer them,” writes Michael Bromwich, a former DOJ inspector general: “There is an urgent need for a public accounting that examines all of the events surrounding Epstein’s death. … In the meantime, let’s do the unthinkable these days — tamp down the speculation, limit the conspiracy theorizing and postpone the condemnations, which at this point are based on little or no information. It takes time to gather and analyze the facts and draw reasonable conclusions based on the evidence. Let’s act like grown-ups and wait for that.”

-- A final word: Epstein doesn’t deserve to be a conspiracy theory. Style columnist Monica Hesse explains: “Epstein’s death by suicide this weekend has an element of finality to it, but not in a redeeming way. Rather, his passing feels like his final escape. From the legal ramifications barreling toward him, yes, but also from the searing visuals he deserved and the country needed. … We needed the images that expressed, fully and undeniably, that this was not a case of lying opportunists trying to ruin a wealthy man, as his attorneys have previous implied, but a case of children who were told they could receive legitimate training to become massage therapists, and instead encountered a man who demanded sex three times a day. …

“Epstein should not be remembered as a man who once lent his private plane to President Clinton. He should not be remembered as a man who socialized with President Trump. The glittery trappings of his fame should be the footnote of his Wikipedia entry. The bulk of it should be the names of every victim — Jennifer Araoz, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, Johanna Sjoberg — detailing all the things he did behind closed doors and with the help of enablers. … When you do what he allegedly did, you don’t deserve to be anything but paralyzed in your courtroom seat, as the world watches you go from powerful to pathetic, as your victims make it clear that your money and connections are incidental, that the girls you hurt were the heroes all along.”

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Police fired tear gas in Hong Kong's Wan Chai area on Aug. 11 after protesters set up barricades and blocked roads. (Video: Reuters)


-- The Hong Kong government canceled all departing flights from the island after an estimated 5,000 pro-democracy protesters flooded into the airport. This is the 10th week of mass demonstrations against the regime. Timothy McLaughlin and Anna Kam report: “The terminal of one of the world’s busiest international hubs became so packed that by early evening officials were forced to halt all departures. After more than two months of sustained protests and over 600 arrests, some under questionable circumstances, police are intensifying their crackdown, unleashing new, more aggressive tactics. Officers on Sunday disguised themselves as protesters to nab suspects, launched tear gas inside subway stations, and fired on protesters at close range with less-than-lethal ammunition. One young woman was shot in the face with what appeared to be a bean bag round, severely injuring her eye. It couldn’t be independently verified whether police had shot the damaging projectile. But the incident provided the latest rallying point for protesters. …

“The police actions appear to be part of broader efforts from the Hong Kong government, with support from officials in Beijing, to bring an end to the political crisis, through an approach that includes ramping up pressure on businesses, leveling heavy charges against arrested protesters and using state-controlled media to pump out increasingly shrill, conspiratorial claims about the protests and who is organizing them. … The Hospital Authority said 45 people were injured during the weekend protests and 25 remain in hospital. Two were in serious condition. … The government, in what has become a weekly ritual, condemned protesters on Monday, and said that a police officer was injured after being hit with a firebomb tossed by a demonstrator.”

-- As I wrote two weeks ago, this is the summer of protests, but autocrats are fighting back with new tools. Mass protests continued this weekend in Moscow, as well.

-- From a BBC reporter:

-- Guatemala elected right-wing candidate Alejandro Giammattei, a former director of prisons, as president in a runoff election. Sandra Cuffe reports: “During his campaign, Giammattei outlined his plan to keep people from wanting to leave, pledging to build an 'economic wall' through job creation. The country’s significant inequality and the abject poverty in rural areas have gone mostly unaddressed since Guatemala’s civil war, which ended in 1996. The current exodus reflects the loss of hope for many of Guatemala’s poorest. ... With more than 99 percent of votes counted, he held nearly a 16-point lead. Turnout was dismal. Only 42 percent of the country’s 8.15 million registered voters participated, far less than the 56 percent in the 2015 presidential runoff election.”

­-- Argentine President Mauricio Macri was snubbed by voters in a Sunday primary election. From the AP: “The preliminary results from Sunday’s voting suggest the conservative Macri will face an uphill battle going into general elections in October, marking a sharp turnaround from just under four years ago when the country’s left-leaning era appeared to be coming to a definitive end. With 88% of polling stations tallied early Monday, official results gave the presidential slate headed by Alberto Fernández and his vice presidential running mate, Cristina Fernández, about 47% of the votes. Macri and his running mate, Miguel Ángel Pichetto, had 32% — a wide margin that revealed the considerable depth of Macri’s weakness, potentially positioning the Fernández team to win in the first round of voting Oct. 27. … The pro-business Macri has the support of financial markets and Washington, but has lost popularity amid a deep economic crisis which drove the inflation rate to nearly 50% last year and slashed Argentines’ purchasing power. … The Fernández ticket, whose two members are not related, contends Macri must be defeated so they can fight the poverty and homelessness that they blame on his policies.”

-- A Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen targeted its own allies with airstrikes Sunday, a day after southern separatists seized control of the strategic port city of Aden from a U.S.-supported government, threatening to fracture the Saudi alliance and open a new front in the five-year conflict. Sudarsan Raghavan, Kareem Fahim and Ali Al-Mujahed report: “Even before the damage from those strikes had been assessed, the United Nations on Sunday said that as many as 40 people have been killed and 260 injured in the previous four days of clashes in Aden that erupted on the eve of one of Islam’s holiest periods, Eid al-Adha. Tens of thousands of civilians in the Red Sea city nestled on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula have fled their homes, while many others remain trapped without basic necessities, U.N. officials and aid workers said. …

“The seizure of Aden has exposed divisions within a Sunni Muslim coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that intervened in the conflict in March 2015. Together, they have been battling Iran-allied, Shiite rebels known as Houthis to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government and prevent Tehran from gaining regional influence. … Rifts have emerged over the past 18 months between the southern separatists, backed by the UAE, and forces aligned with Yemen’s government, backed by Saudi Arabia. … Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest nation, was already in the grips of what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen scholar at Oxford University’s Pembroke College, explains: “It is becoming increasingly obvious that the UAE and Saudi Arabia do not share the same end goals in Yemen, even though they share the same overarching goal of pushing back the perceived influence of Iran.”

-- “The UAE’s ambitions backfire as it finds itself on the front line of U.S.-Iran tensions,” by Liz Sly in Abu Dhabi: “One of America’s staunchest allies in the Middle East and a driving force behind President Trump’s hard-line approach to Iran is breaking ranks with Washington, calling into question how reliable an ally it would be in the event of a war between the United States and Iran. In the weeks since the United States dispatched naval reinforcements to the Persian Gulf to deter Iranian threats to shipping, the government of the United Arab Emirates has sent a coast guard delegation to Tehran to discuss maritime security, putting it at odds with Washington’s goal of isolating Iran. After limpet mines exploded on tankers off the UAE’s coast in June, the UAE stood apart from the United States and Saudi Arabia and declined to blame Iran. …

“Former U.S. defense secretary Jim Mattis once nicknamed the UAE ‘Little Sparta’ because of its stalwart support for U.S. military ventures around the world, including in Somalia and Afghanistan. Much of the recent war against the Islamic State was launched from the U.S. air base located at al-Dhafra in the UAE, an integral part of America’s security footprint in the Middle East. But as its relationship with Washington puts the UAE on the front line of a potential war, the Emiratis are shifting gears, calling for de-escalation with Iran and distancing themselves from the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric.

-- The Taliban said its latest round of talks with the U.S. on a deal to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan has ended. Both sides will now consult with their leadership on next steps. From the AP: “The eighth round of talks in the Gulf Arab nation of Qatar concluded after midnight and was ‘long and useful,’ Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement. He made no statements on the outcome of the talks. … There was no immediate comment on Monday from U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who on Sunday tweeted that ‘I hope this is the last Eid where #Afghanistan is at war.’”

-- The Department of Defense identified the U.S. service member who was killed Saturday in Iraq while advising Iraqi security officers. From ABC News: He was “35-year-old Gunnery Sergeant Scott A. Koppenhafer of Mancos, Colorado, who died ‘after being engaged by enemy small arms fire while conducting combat operations.’ A U.S. contractor was also killed in Saturday's attack, according to a U.S. official. The incident is currently under investigation, officials said in a statement. Koppenhafer was assigned to the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, Marine Forces Special Operations Command in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.”

-- American intelligence officials suspect that a new nuclear missile was involved in an explosion that released radiation off the coast of northern Russia last week, killing seven. From the Times: “American officials have said nothing publicly about the blast on Thursday, possibly one of the worst nuclear accidents in Russia since Chernobyl, although apparently on a far smaller scale, with at least seven people, including scientists, confirmed dead. But the Russian government’s slow and secretive response has set off anxiety in nearby cities and towns — and attracted the attention of analysts in Washington and Europe who believe the explosion may offer a glimpse of technological weaknesses in Russia’s new arms program. … Late Sunday night, officials at a research institute that had employed five of the scientists who died confirmed for the first time that a small nuclear reactor had exploded during an experiment in the White Sea, and that the authorities were investigating the cause.”

Dion Green held his father, Derrick Fudge, as he died after a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. Now Fudge's family is grappling with a loss that "makes no sense." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)


-- “Angry and fearful, Americans struggle to talk about guns and race,” Greg Jaffe reports from Omaha: “The room was packed with Rep. Don Bacon’s constituents, half of whom had come to cheer him on for his staunch defense of the Second Amendment and President Trump. The rest glared at him silently. ... Those gathered at Bacon’s town hall, like Americans around the country, wanted to address the tough problems laid bare by the recent shootings: guns, mental illness, racism and the gridlocked state of the nation’s politics. But the debate seemed stuck. Attendees were skeptical of each other’s motives, blind to each other’s needs and unsure how to start a productive conversation. … And so it went for more than an hour: Republicans were concerned about an overreaching government that was going to take away firearms. Democrats demanded that Bacon condemn the president as racist, push for stronger background checks on firearm purchases and ban assault weapons. There was plenty of civility but little left to say. ...

In 2007, a teenager killed eight people here when he opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle at a Von Maur department store, an attack that briefly grabbed the nation’s attention before fading from memory, like so many other mass killings. … Three weeks before Christmas, the killer grabbed an assault rifle from his stepfather’s closet and opened fire at the department store, near the customer service desk and the girls’ department. Then, he shot himself. … The store closed for 16 days, during the height of the holiday season, to patch the bullet holes and mop up the blood. Today, a plaque reading 'In Memory of Those Lost' hangs underneath the escalator to the men’s department. Before the El Paso shooting, it was the largest mass killing at a shopping venue in the United States. 'Back then, it was huge news,' said Samantha Flynn, 24, whose mother was staffing the gift-wrapping desk when she was killed. 'I’ve had a lot of people tell me they don’t remember it. I’m like, ‘You live in Omaha, and you don’t know?’”

-- Trump, who considers himself a branding wizard, is vexed by a branding crisis of his own: how to shed the label of “racist.” From Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker: “Throughout his career as a real estate magnate, a celebrity provocateur and a politician, Trump has recoiled from being called the r-word, even though some of his actions and words have been plainly racist. … Being called a racist has led Trump in recent days to lash out — in tweets and in public comments — behavior his advisers and allies explain as the natural reaction of anyone who does not consider himself a racist but is accused of being one. … The president views the characterization largely through the lens of politics, said one close adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations, explaining that Trump feels the charges of racism are just another attempt to discredit him — not unlike, he believes, the more than a dozen women who have accused him of sexual misconduct or the investigation into Russian election interference.”

-- Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Trump’s rhetoric is not to blame for the El Paso attack. Tim Elfrink reports: The day after the shooting, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) connected the attack to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, but on Sunday, Scalise said the massacre “evoked another attack with political overtones: The 2017 shooting by a left-wing activist and former Sanders volunteer that left Scalise in critical condition … ‘To try to assign blame to somebody else is, I think, a very slippery slope,’ Scalise said on CBS’ ‘Face the Nation,’ appearing just before Sanders on the show. ‘The president is no more responsible for that shooting as your next guest, Bernie Sanders, is for my shooting. He’s not, by the way, responsible. The shooter is responsible.’” 

-- For years, political considerations have limited the Department of Homeland Security's ability to address domestic terrorism. From the Times: “During the Obama years, the pressure to minimize the problem came largely from outside the administration, primarily from Republicans who saw it as a diversion from fighting Islamic extremism but also to a lesser degree from people on the left concerned about the implications for the civil liberties of American citizens. Under Mr. Trump, the skepticism is rooted inside the White House. 

Officials at the department have felt they could not broach topics like domestic terrorism and white supremacist violence with Mr. Trump because he was not interested in those concerns … One program left over from the Obama administration, a $10 million pot of money to pay for a community partnership program to prevent violent extremism, withered as participants withdrew after Mr. Trump issued a ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. Intelligence analysts in the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis who focused on domestic terrorism and collaborated with local law enforcement on domestic terrorism were dispersed to other counterterrorism programs.”

-- Mass shootings have become so commonplace that consumers are buying bulletproof backpacks, binder inserts and other bullet-resistant products for protection. Abha Bhattarai reports: “Retailers across the country say they have seen growing demand for bullet-resistant products for children — as well as for doctors, teachers, flight attendants and taxi drivers — giving rise to an industry of ballistic goods for everyday Americans … For the first time, Office Max and Office Depot have included bulletproof backpacks among their back-to-school offerings, while online retailers are marketing bulletproof whiteboards, chair cushions and kids’ puffer vests that tap into a growing sense of fear and helplessness. … Academics who study mass shootings say there is little, if any, proof that bullet-resistant products make children safer. Instead, they say, schools and lawmakers should focus on preventing gun violence by banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.”

-- The suspected gunman in an attack on a mosque in Norway may have been inspired by recent white extremist attacks in the U.S. and New Zealand, online posts suggest. Norwegian authorities said the attack is being investigated as a possible act of terrorism. From the Guardian: “In messages posted on the day of the attack, Philip Manshaus, a 21-year-old man who has been named by local media as the main suspect, described himself as ‘chosen’ by ‘Saint [Brenton] Tarrant,’ the gunman who killed 51 people at mosques in New Zealand in March. … In a meme also posted by Manshaus, three rightwing extremists suspected of being responsible for other attacks this year are depicted and praised as heroes of the white nationalist movement. Tarrant is described as having ‘addressed the Muslim problem’ while Patrick Crusius, who has been charged with the attack in El Paso, Texas, in which 22 people died, is praised for ‘fighting to reclaim his country.’ … Witnesses said Manshaus was wearing body armour and was armed with two ‘shotgun-like weapons’ and a handgun [at the time of the attack.] He was overpowered by people at the mosque before police arrived at the scene. One man was injured in the attack. Manshaus has been charged with the murder of a woman found dead in his home.”

-- Singer John Legend, an Ohio native, called for gun control while performing for a crowd of victims’ families and community workers affected by the Dayton shootings. From Timothy Bella: “‘My direct message to legislators, to the president, to all of them, is the NRA doesn’t represent America,’ he said … During the news conference with Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley (D), the 40-year-old Legend … said that while Americans might ‘feel like there’s nothing we can do, giving up is not an issue.’ … ‘We have to be able to live without the fear of being shot … We don’t have to live like this.’” 

-- The Dayton gunman showed signs of misogyny that were far more extreme than any of his political leanings. From ABC News: “In that, Connor Betts follows a bleak pattern among mass shooters. … Ten of 2018's 20 mass shootings, as defined by ABC News, were instances of domestic violence, including against intimate partners or family members.”

Missouri police arrested a 20-year-old man in full body armor, carrying a rifle and large amounts of ammunition inside a Missouri Walmart on Aug. 8. (Video: Reuters)

-- An armed man entered a Missouri Walmart on Thursday wearing body armor and carrying a loaded military-style rifle. Police say he told them that he was testing his Second Amendment rights. Hannah Knowles reports: “His wife told him it was a bad idea. His sister reminded him of what had happened in El Paso less than a week earlier … But Dmitriy Andreychenko went ahead with his plan for a ‘social experiment,’ according to police. … Andreychenko claimed he did not anticipate customers’ reactions, a Friday statement from a Springfield police officer says. ‘This is Missouri,’ he told investigators, according to law enforcement. ‘I understand if we were somewhere else like New York or California, people would freak out.’ Prosecutors on Friday charged Andreychenko, of Springfield, with making a terrorist threat, saying he recklessly disregarded the risk of causing a building evacuation by knowingly sowing fear.”

-- In Florida, a white supremacist was arrested for allegedly threatening a shooting at another Walmart. From ABC News: “Richard Clayton, 26, was arrested by Florida Department of Law Enforcement authorities on Friday in Winter Park after making an online threat last week, according to police. On Aug. 6, Clayton allegedly posted on Facebook, ‘3 more days of probation left then I get my AR-15 back. Don’t go to Walmart next week.’ … ‘Clayton appears to believe in the white supremacist ideology and has a history of posting threats on Facebook using fictitious accounts,’ Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials said.” 

-- New York eased a gun law in hopes that the Supreme Court would reject a legal challenge. That hasn’t happened yet. Robert Barnes reports: “As the nation renews debate over gun control, the Supreme Court must decide whether to press ahead with a Second Amendment case it has accepted for the coming term, its first in a decade. Gun-control groups operate under a no-news-is-good-news approach to the Supreme Court, leery of giving what they view as a strengthened conservative majority the chance to expand gun rights and weaken restrictive laws. In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York, which the court accepted in January, the city and state of New York appear to agree. … New York says it has given those who hold licenses to have guns on their premises exactly what they asked for — a greater ability to transport their weapons through and outside the city — and there no longer is a controversy for the Supreme Court to settle. … Those who brought the challenge said the city should not be allowed to get rid of the case and the constitutional questions it raises by making a last-minute change after years of resistance.”


-- Acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan said the timing of last week’s immigration raids at Mississippi food plants was “unfortunate,” but acting Customs and Border Protection chief Mark Morgan insisted the operations were not “raids.” Felicia Sonmez reports: “'I think words matter. These aren’t raids. These are targeted law enforcement operations,’ Morgan said on CNN’s ‘State of the Union.’ … U.S. authorities have in recent days strongly defended the raids amid outrage over images of weeping children arriving home to find their parents missing. The operation has also exposed what state and local officials say is a major shortcoming in ICE procedures for dealing with children, with parents caught up in immigration-related enforcement activities while at work unable to pick their children up from school, day-care centers and elsewhere …Both Morgan and McAleenan suggested Sunday that videos of children crying after their parents were taken away were designed to elicit sympathy from the public. … 

“McAleenan told NBC’s Chuck Todd that federal agents took the issue of the children’s welfare ‘very seriously.’ … McAleenan also suggested that the raids were carried out to serve as a deterrent to other potential migrants from Latin America. … Todd interjected, pointing out that Mississippi is not on the border. McAleenan responded that the move was part of a ‘balanced enforcement strategy.’ … On CNN, Morgan also took issue with the phrase ‘undocumented immigrants’ to describe those targeted by the raids. ‘These aren’t undocumented immigrants. These are illegal immigrants,’ he said. 

“Morgan parried questions about reports that Trump’s companies rely on undocumented immigrants. The Post reported Friday that a Trump-owned construction company has employed undocumented immigrants for years … Asked why the federal government is turning a blind eye to the reports about Trump’s companies, Morgan said he was offended by the question.”

-- For some of the kids whose parents were taken during the raids, the trauma is just beginning. From CNN: “Edna Perez, 14, clutches a white stuffed teddy bear that says ‘Jesus Loves Me’ as she thinks about the last time she heard her dad's voice, about how she may never see his little red car in their driveway again, about how she'd laugh when he chased her and her little sisters around the house. She's only spoken on the phone once with him since he was detained. She panicked when she heard a guard telling him to say ‘bye-bye.’ She shouted in the phone to tell him not to sign anything. She's worried he didn't hear her.” 

-- Thousands of members of the Jewish community in cities nationwide marked Tisha B’Av, their annual day of mourning, by protesting Trump’s immigration policies. In Washington, more than 250 Jews from the region spent the day protesting at Lafayette Square, across from the White House. (Rebecca Tan)


Anthony Scaramucci, who notably served as the White House communications director for 11 days, turned against the president: 

The Mooch told Axios that Republicans may need to pick a different nominee next year. “A couple more weeks like this and 'country over party' is going to require the Republicans to replace the top of the ticket in 2020,” he said.

Scaramucci also tweeted this New Yorker cartoon that goes viral every time a high-profile White House staffer leaves:

Trump was criticized for taking photos with a baby who survived the El Paso shooting after his parents died protecting him. A senator from Texas defended the president's actions: 

A Texas congresswoman highlighted some of the memorials that have popped up in El Paso:

Vegan Cory Booker found something to eat at the Iowa State Fair:

American fencer Race Imboden took a knee on the podium of the Pan American Games:


Trump spent part of the weekend raising money in the Hamptons, where many of his supporters have gone underground for fear of public shaming. From the New York Post: “‘We are all in the closet,’ said a boutique owner in Southampton who fears reprisals from his customers — most of them moneyed Democrats — if he speaks openly about his allegiance to Trump. ‘It’s like you have this disease and people want to run away from you.’”


Olympian Simone Biles completed a historic triple-double: 

The gymnast finished nearly five points clear of her nearest challenger and won the all-around competition at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. (Liz Clarke

John Oliver took a look at the president of Turkmenistan, who has some strange obsessions: 

And Trevor Noah joked that, if the world ends because of climate change, the only group of people we can't blame is scientists: