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    Support for Tunisian President Slipping After Parliament Vote

    Turnout was meager in two rounds of voting for a Parliament stripped of much of its power, with most political parties barred from the elections.Tunisia, the only Arab country to emerge from the Arab Spring protests of more than a decade ago with a democracy, has not had a Parliament since its president suspended the assembly and established one-man rule in July 2021.But when the names of the North African country’s newly elected members of Parliament were finally announced on Tuesday, after two rounds of voting, it did not seem like a comeback for democracy. In the end, perhaps what the election results signaled most strongly was fast-fading support for President Kais Saied.Only 11.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the runoff on Sunday, only slightly more than the 11.2 percent in the first round — the lowest turnout in any global election in decades, according to Max Gallien, a political scientist at Britain’s Institute of Development Studies. At least two of the president’s loudest supporters lost their bids, though several others won.“The loss of people who claim to be close to Saied is another indicator of the shallowness of the political project he is advancing: no vision, no strategy, no team,” said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst who directs the Columbia Global Centers in Tunis.Banking on his initial widespread popularity, Mr. Saied rewrote Tunisia’s post-Arab Spring Constitution last year, giving himself sweeping authority and demoting Parliament to an advisory body, stripping much of its power. He also issued a new electoral law banning political parties from involvement in the election, so that voters chose individual candidates rather than voting for party lists as they had done in previous elections.As a result, Parliament was set to be a patchwork of individuals without party affiliations, platforms or agendas to hold them together. The very fact that the winners participated, however, signaled a degree of support for the president: It meant they were willing to at least lend some legitimacy to his new program. Opposition groups boycotted the election.The parliamentary elections were widely seen as a gauge of what Tunisians thought of his plans, and of whether Mr. Saied was sincere about preserving Tunisian democracy, as he had pledged to do. On both, critics and analysts charged, Mr. Saied fell flat.In some districts, only one candidate ran, negating the need for any runoff at all. Women won just 25 of the assembly’s 161 seats, according to Tunisia’s electoral authority, compared with 68 who held seats in 2014. Mr. Saied now controls the elections authority after replacing its formerly independent board.The election of a new Parliament was supposed to be the next step in Mr. Saied’s plan to remake the country’s political system, one that he claims will be a truer, more direct democracy. In reality, it has put nearly all power in his hands, unchecked.A photo released by the Tunisian presidency shows President Kais Saied at a polling station during the first round of parliamentary elections in Tunis in December.Tunisian Presidency, via ia ReutersFar from saving the country from economic and political crises, as many hoped he would after he seized power, the president has offered few solutions as Tunisia staggers through a downturn that has left shelves bare of basics such as sugar and bottled water, families hard-pressed to feed themselves and the government unable to pay salaries.Disenchantment with Mr. Saied’s handling of the economy appeared to be a major factor in the meager turnout in July’s constitutional referendum, where about 30 percent of voters approved the president’s new Constitution.Mr. Saied had called on supporters to vote for the new charter, but after announcing the date of the parliamentary election — the first round was in December — Mr. Saied did little to promote the vote.That, Mr. Cherif said, “confirms that he sees little interest in parliamentary democracy.”Mr. Saied has never been shy about his contempt for Parliament.“Approximately 90 percent didn’t take part in voting because the Parliament, for them, doesn’t mean anything anymore,” he said in a meeting with his prime minister on Monday, according to a video his office posted on Facebook.He had a point.Police officers outside a polling station in Tunis on Sunday.Mohamed Messara/EPA, via ShutterstockMany Tunisians continue to blame the political parties who dominated Parliament over the last decade for stymying Mr. Saied’s reforms, giving him an opening to ban them from the electoral process. Anti-Saied protests remain limited.Though reliable polling is also scarce, the president’s political opponents appear even more unpopular than he is, leaving Tunisians stuck between two unpalatable choices.Still, growing numbers have expressed fear of Mr. Saied’s increasing authoritarianism as the president prosecutes and jails critics. A political activist, Chaima Issa, was questioned last week by a military judge over critical comments she made about Mr. Saied on the radio, while a former prime minister from a major opposition party, Ali Laarayedh, was imprisoned in December.Yet the outcry over Mr. Saied’s rollback of rights and freedoms Tunisians won after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising has remained limited — apart from members of the opposition, who used the flop of the elections to call for Mr. Saied’s resignation and early presidential elections to replace him.“The results show that 89 percent of Tunisians have ignored this charade,” Ahmed Najib Chebbi, a veteran politician who leads the National Salvation Front, a coalition of opposition factions, said at a news conference after the runoff vote. More

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    Manhattan Prosecutors Begin Presenting Trump Case to Grand Jury

    The Manhattan district attorney’s decision represents a dramatic escalation of the inquiry, and potentially sets the case on a path toward criminal charges against the former president.The Manhattan district attorney’s office on Monday began presenting evidence to a grand jury about Donald J. Trump’s role in paying hush money to a porn star during his 2016 presidential campaign, laying the groundwork for potential criminal charges against the former president in the coming months, according to people with knowledge of the matter.The grand jury was recently impaneled, and the beginning of witness testimony represents a clear signal that the district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, is nearing a decision about whether to charge Mr. Trump.On Monday, one of the witnesses was seen with his lawyer entering the building in Lower Manhattan where the grand jury is sitting. The witness, David Pecker, is the former publisher of The National Enquirer, the tabloid that helped broker the deal with the porn star, Stormy Daniels.As prosecutors prepare to reconstruct the events surrounding the payment for grand jurors, they have sought to interview several witnesses, including the tabloid’s former editor, Dylan Howard, and two employees at Mr. Trump’s company, the people said. Mr. Howard and the Trump Organization employees, Jeffrey McConney and Deborah Tarasoff, have not yet testified before the grand jury.The prosecutors have also begun contacting officials from Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, one of the people said. And in a sign that they want to corroborate these witness accounts, the prosecutors recently subpoenaed phone records and other documents that might shed light on the episode.A conviction is not a sure thing, in part because a case could hinge on showing that Mr. Trump and his company falsified records to hide the payout from voters days before the 2016 election, a low-level felony charge that would be based on a largely untested legal theory. The case would also rely on the testimony of Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former fixer who made the payment and who himself pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the hush money in 2018.Still, the developments compound Mr. Trump’s legal woes as he mounts a third presidential campaign. A district attorney in Georgia could seek to indict him for his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state, and he faces a special counsel investigation into his removal of sensitive documents from the White House as well as his actions during the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.Mr. Bragg’s decision to impanel a grand jury focused on the hush money — supercharging the longest-running criminal investigation into Mr. Trump — represents a dramatic escalation in an inquiry that once appeared to have reached a dead end.Under Mr. Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the district attorney’s office had begun presenting evidence to an earlier grand jury about a case focused on Mr. Trump’s business practices, including whether he fraudulently inflated the value of his assets to secure favorable loans and other benefits. Yet in the early weeks of his tenure last year, Mr. Bragg developed concerns about the strength of that case and decided to abandon the grand jury presentation, prompting the resignations of the two senior prosecutors leading the investigation.One of them, Mark F. Pomerantz, was highly critical of Mr. Bragg’s decision and has written a book that is scheduled to be published next week, “People vs. Donald Trump,” detailing his account of the inquiry. Mr. Bragg’s office recently wrote to Mr. Pomerantz’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, expressing concern that the book might disclose grand jury information or interfere with the investigation.District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, center right, jump-started the inquiry last summer into Mr. Trump’s role in the hush money paid to the porn star Stormy Daniels.Karsten Moran for The New York TimesAlthough he balked at charging Mr. Trump over the asset valuations, this is a different case, and Mr. Bragg is now a bolder prosecutor. He has ramped up the hush money inquiry in the weeks since his prosecutors convicted Mr. Trump’s company in an unrelated tax case, a far cry from his unsteady early days in office, when Mr. Bragg was under fire from all quarters for unveiling a host of policies designed to put fewer people behind bars.For his part, Mr. Trump has denied all wrongdoing and chalked up the scrutiny to a partisan witch hunt against him. He has also denied having an affair with Ms. Daniels. If Mr. Trump were ultimately convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of four years, though prison time would not be mandatory.“This is just the latest act by the Manhattan D.A. in their never-ending, politically motivated witch hunt,” the Trump Organization said in a statement, adding that reviving the case under what it called a “dubious legal theory” was “simply reprehensible and vindictive.”A spokeswoman for Mr. Bragg’s office declined to comment. Mr. Pecker’s lawyer, Elkan Abramowitz, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A lawyer for Mr. McConney and Ms. Tarasoff declined to comment.The panel hearing evidence is likely what’s known as a special grand jury. Like regular grand juries, it is made up of 23 Manhattan residents chosen at random. But its members are sworn in to serve for six months to hear complex cases, rather than for 30 days, as is the case with panels that review evidence and vote on whether to bring charges in more routine matters.The investigation, which has unfolded in fits and starts for more than four years, began with an examination of the hush money deal before expanding to include Mr. Trump’s property valuations. Last summer, Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors returned to the hush money anew, seeking to jump-start the inquiry after the departures of Mr. Pomerantz and Carey R. Dunne, the other senior prosecutor in the investigation.The district attorney’s office, working with the New York attorney general, Letitia James, is also continuing to scrutinize the way that the former president valued his assets, the people with knowledge of the matter said.Over the course of the investigation into Mr. Trump, the hush money payment was discussed within the district attorney’s office with such regularity that prosecutors came to refer to it as the “zombie theory” — an idea that just won’t die.The first visible sign of progress for Mr. Bragg came this month when Mr. Cohen appeared at the district attorney’s office to meet with prosecutors for the first time in more than a year. He is expected to return for at least one additional interview in February, one of the people said.The lawyer who represented Ms. Daniels in the hush money deal, Keith Davidson, is also expected to meet with prosecutors.Mr. Trump’s company was instrumental in the deal, court records from Mr. Cohen’s federal case show.Although Mr. McConney and Ms. Tarasoff were not central players, they helped arrange for Mr. Cohen to be reimbursed for the $130,000 he paid Ms. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.Allen H. Weisselberg, the company’s former chief financial officer, was also involved in reimbursing Mr. Cohen. And, according to Mr. Cohen, Mr. Weisselberg was involved in a discussion with Mr. Trump about whether to pay Ms. Daniels.Mr. Weisselberg is serving jail time after pleading guilty to a tax fraud scheme unrelated to the hush money deal, a case that also led to the conviction of the Trump Organization in December. Although he was the star witness for the district attorney’s office in that case, Mr. Weisselberg has never implicated Mr. Trump in any wrongdoing.Without his cooperation, prosecutors could struggle to link Mr. Trump directly to the misconduct.In 2018, when Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance charges stemming from his role in the hush money payments, he pointed the finger at Mr. Trump, saying the payout was done “in coordination with, and at the direction of” the president. Federal prosecutors agreed that Mr. Trump was behind the deal but never charged him or his company with a crime.The cooperation of Allen H. Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s former chief financial officer, will be key to the prosecution’s case against Mr. Trump.Jefferson Siegel for The New York TimesThere is some circumstantial evidence suggesting that Mr. Trump was involved: He and Mr. Cohen spoke by phone twice the day before Mr. Cohen wired the payment to Ms. Daniels’s lawyer, according to records in the federal case.For prosecutors, the core of any possible case is the way in which Mr. Trump reimbursed Mr. Cohen for the $130,000 he paid Ms. Daniels and how the company recorded that payment. According to court papers in Mr. Cohen’s federal case, Mr. Trump’s company falsely identified the reimbursements as legal expenses.The district attorney’s office now appears to be focusing on whether erroneously classifying the payments to Mr. Cohen as a legal expense ran afoul of a New York law that prohibits the falsifying of business records.Violations of that law can be charged as a misdemeanor. To make it a felony, prosecutors would need to show that Mr. Trump falsified the records to help commit or conceal a second crime — in this case, violating a New York State election law, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. That second aspect has largely gone untested, and would therefore make for a risky legal case against any defendant, let alone the former president.Defense lawyers might also argue that Mr. Trump, who was a first-time presidential candidate, did not know that the payments violated election law. And they could take aim at Mr. Cohen, arguing that he is a convicted criminal who has an ax to grind against Mr. Trump.In its statement, the Trump Organization noted that “the narrow issue of whether payments to Michael Cohen were properly recorded in a personal accounting ledger back in 2017 was thoroughly examined” by the federal prosecutors who charged Mr. Cohen and concluded he had engaged in a “pattern of deception.”Mr. Pecker’s testimony, however, could bolster the prosecution’s contention that Mr. Trump was involved in planning the hush money payment. A longtime ally of Mr. Trump, the publisher agreed to look out for potentially damaging stories about Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign. He agreed to this at a meeting in Mr. Trump’s office.In October 2016, Ms. Daniels’s agent and lawyer discussed the possibility of selling exclusive rights to her story to The National Enquirer, which would then never publish it, a practice known as “catch and kill.”But Mr. Pecker balked at the deal. He and the tabloid’s editor, Mr. Howard, agreed that Mr. Cohen would have to deal with Ms. Daniels’s team directly.When Mr. Cohen was slow to pay, Mr. Howard pressed him to get the deal done, lest Ms. Daniels reveal their discussions about suppressing her story. “We have to coordinate something,” Mr. Howard texted Mr. Cohen in late October 2016, “or it could look awfully bad for everyone.”Two days later, Mr. Cohen transferred the $130,000 to an account held by Ms. Daniels’s attorney.Michael Rothfeld More

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    The Durham Fiasco Is a Warning of What’s to Come

    Thank goodness Speaker Kevin McCarthy has created a House subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government!Last week, The New York Times reported on an outrageous example of such weaponization, the flagrant use of federal law enforcement powers to target an administration’s political enemies. I’m talking, of course, about the John Durham special counsel investigation, which was meant to root out the ostensibly corrupt origins of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, and quickly came to embody the sins that Donald Trump and his allies projected onto the F.B.I.Trump’s circle insisted, falsely, that the Mueller inquiry was a hit job that employed Russian disinformation — via the Steele dossier — to frame Trump, all part of a plot cooked up by the Hillary Clinton campaign. Durham seems to have bought into this Trumpist conspiracy theory, and to help prove it, he tried to employ what appears to be Russian disinformation to go after the Clinton camp. More specifically, he used dubious Russian intelligence memos, which analysts believed were seeded with falsehoods, to try to convince a court to give him access to the emails of a former aide to George Soros, which he believed would show Clinton-related wrongdoing.Astonishingly, The Times found that while Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr and Durham were in Europe looking for evidence to discredit the Russia investigation, Italian officials gave them a “potentially explosive tip” linking Trump to “certain suspected financial crimes.” Rather than assign a new prosecutor to look into those suspected crimes, Barr folded the matter into Durham’s inquiry, giving Durham criminal prosecution powers for the first time.Then the attorney general sat back while the media inferred that the criminal investigation must mean Durham had found evidence of malfeasance connected to Russiagate. Barr, usually shameless in his public spinning of the news, quietly let an investigation into Trump be used to cast aspersions on Trump’s perceived enemies. (The fate of that inquiry remains a mystery.)This squalid episode is a note-perfect example of how Republican scandal-mongering operates. The right ascribes to its adversaries, whether in the Democratic Party or the putative deep state, monstrous corruption and elaborate conspiracies. Then, in the name of fighting back, it mimics the tactics it has accused its foes of using.Look, for example, at the behavior that gave rise to Trump’s first impeachment. Trump falsely claimed that Joe Biden, as vice president, used the threat of withholding American loan guarantees to blackmail the Ukrainian government into doing his personal bidding. Hoping to get Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to substantiate his lies, Trump tried to use the threat of withholding American aid to … blackmail the Ukrainian government into doing his personal bidding. The symmetry between accusations and counter-accusations, in turn, fosters a widespread cynicism about ever finding the truth.It’s important to keep this in mind because we’re about to see a lot more of it. Now that they control the House, Republicans have prioritized investigating their political opponents. McCarthy has stacked the Oversight Committee, central to the House’s investigative apparatus, with flame-throwing fantasists, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar and Lauren Boebert. Further, as Politico reported in a “field guide” to the coming Republican inquiries, McCarthy has urged Republicans to treat every committee like the Oversight Committee, meaning all investigations, all the time.There are going to be investigations into Hunter Biden, and investigations into the origins of the pandemic. There will likely be scrutiny of the F.B.I.’s search of Mar-a-Lago and Biden’s handling of classified documents. And, as my colleague David Firestone on the editorial board put it over the weekend, “Republicans in the House are launching a new snipe hunt” for proof that the F.B.I. and other intelligence agencies were “weaponized” against conservatives.These all promise to be congressional equivalents of the Durham inquiry. Certainly, most if not all congressional investigations are politically motivated, but there is nevertheless a difference between inquiries predicated on something real, and those, like the many investigations in the Benghazi attack, meant to troll for dirt and reify Fox News phantasms. House Democrats examined Trump’s interference with the C.D.C. during the acute stage of the pandemic. House Republicans plan to look into what the Republican congressman Jim Banks termed the military’s “dangerous” Covid vaccine mandates. There might be an equivalence in the form of these two undertakings, but not in their empirical basis.It remains to be seen whether our political media is up for the task of making these distinctions. The coverage of Trump and Biden’s respective retention of classified documents offers little cause for optimism. Again and again, journalists and pundits have noted that, while the two cases are very different, there are seeming similarities, and those similarities are good for Trump. This is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since by speculating about political narratives, you help create them.“John Durham has already won,” said the headline of a Politico article from last year, noting his success in perpetuating the right’s fevered counter-history of Russiagate. Of course he didn’t win; he would go on to lose both cases arising from his investigation as well as the honorable reputation he had before he started it. What he did manage to do, however, was spread a lot of confusion and waste a lot of time. Now the Republican House picks up where he left off.The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram. More

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    Will Americans Even Notice an Improving Economy?

    Imagine that your picture of the U.S. economy came entirely from headlines and cable news chyrons. Would you know that real gross domestic product has risen 6.7 percent under President Biden, that America gained 4.5 million jobs in 2022 and that inflation over the past six months, which was indeed very high last winter, was less than 2 percent at an annual rate?This isn’t a hypothetical question. Most people don’t read long-form, data-driven essays on the economic outlook. Their sense of the economy is more likely to be shaped by snippets they read or hear.And there is a yawning gulf between public perceptions and economic reality. Recent economic data has been positive all around. Yet a plurality of adults believes that we’re in a recession. In an AP-NORC survey, three-quarters of Americans described the economy as “poor,” with only 25 percent saying it was “good.”You might be tempted to say, never mind the data, people know what’s happening to the economy from personal experience. But there’s a big disconnect on that front, too.Even with 75 percent of the public saying the economy is poor, a majority of Americans rate their own financial situation positively. On average, people seem to be saying that they’re doing reasonably well but that very bad things are happening to somebody else.This “I’m OK, you aren’t” syndrome was especially clear in a Federal Reserve survey carried out in late 2021; we won’t have the 2022 results until later this year, but I expect them to look similar. According to the 2021 survey, 78 percent of households said they were doing “at least OK” financially, a record high; only 24 percent said the national economy was “good or excellent,” a record low. Assessments of local economies, for which people have some personal knowledge, were in between.Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about the disconnect between economic perceptions and reality. In the past, however, I got a lot of pushback from people insisting that the public was in deep shock over the resurgence of inflation after years of more or less stable prices.At this point, however, that’s becoming a harder position to sustain. Since last summer prices of some goods, notably of eggs, have soared, but other prices, notably of gasoline, have plunged. As I said, the overall inflation rate in the second half of 2022 was around 2 percent, which has been normal for the past few decades, while the unemployment rate in December, at 3.5 percent, was at a 50-year low. Oh, and inflation-adjusted wages, which fell in the face of supply-chain problems and the Ukraine shock, have been rising again.So what explains the public’s sour view of what is objectively a pretty good economy?Partisanship is clearly part of the story. One striking aspect of that AP-NORC survey was that Democrats and Republicans weren’t that different in their assessments of their personal financial situation; majorities of both groups rated their condition as good. But 90 percent of Republicans said the national economy was poor. A longer view, from the Michigan Survey of Consumers, finds Republicans rating the current economy worse than they did in June 1980, when unemployment was above 7 percent and inflation was 14 percent.What about media coverage? Some of my colleagues get upset about any suggestion that economic reporting has had a negativity bias that affects public perceptions. Yet there’s actually hard evidence to that effect. The Michigan Survey asks respondents about what news they’ve heard about specific business conditions; all though 2022 — as the economy added 4.5 million jobs — more people reported hearing negative than positive news about employment.All of which raises an obviously important political question: Will Americans even notice an improving economy?To be fair, we don’t know whether the economic news will stay this good. Although many forecasters have backed off predictions of imminent recession, experts I talk to consider a growth hiccup over the next quarter or two to be likely. There’s also a raging debate among economists over whether we’ll need a sharp rise in unemployment to keep inflation low.But let’s assume that we get past any near-term wobbles and enter 2024 with both unemployment and inflation low. How many Americans will hear the good news?At this point we have to assume that as long as a Democrat sits in the White House, Fox News and Republicans in general will describe the economy as a disaster area whatever the reality. What’s less clear is how mainstream media will cover the economy, and what voters in general will perceive.Reports say that Biden’s political team plans to “lean into the economy” for the 2024 election. Indeed, while nothing is certain in economics (or life), Biden will most likely be able to run on a record of solid growth in incomes and jobs, with the inflation surge of 2021-22 receding in the rearview mirror.But we can safely predict that many people, not all of them Republican partisans, will insist, no matter what, that his record was a disaster. And I, at least, have no idea what voters will end up believing.The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram. More

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    America Is Breaking Our Hearts

    Gail Collins: Bret, I have a lot to ask you about government spending and deficits and … all that stuff. But first, we really need to talk about all the recent mass shootings and what to do about them, right?Bret Stephens: In Britain or Germany these sorts of mass shootings are, at most, once-every-other-year events. Over here, hardly a day goes by without something like this happening. And the horror doesn’t just lie in the carnage. It’s that we’ve become accustomed to it. Dostoyevsky wrote, “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!” That’s the state of our nation.Gail: I wondered whether I should even bring the matter up yet again. But we can’t just give up and shrug in silence.Bret: You know I’m in favor of repealing the Second Amendment, not for the sake of banning guns but for making it much harder for just anyone to own them. Otherwise, in a country with more firearms than people, I doubt that ordinary gun control can make a real difference. Your thoughts?Gail: Do love the fact that I converse with a conservative who wants to repeal the Second Amendment. Sign me up.Bret: Don’t get your hopes up that I’m speaking for other conservatives.Gail: It may seem crazy in the face of all this carnage, but I’ve always wondered if we could change the argument to gun pride — that people shouldn’t be allowed to own guns until they prove they can shoot. Just hit a reasonably sized target. Obviously you don’t need a good aim to fire an assault rifle into a church or movie theater, but if we could just come to a consensus on requiring competence, that might be a first step toward rational firearm regulations.Bret: I would design the test differently. Start with a 100-question test on gun use, safety and legal requirements, with a passing grade of 90. Next, a psychological fitness test, conducted in person by trained personnel. Then heavy liability insurance requirements for gun store owners. Oh, and a drug test for purchasers. Anything to hinder disturbed young men, who are most frequently the culprits in the worst of these mass shootings, from getting their hands on rapid-fire weapons.After that, gun owners can boast to their friends that not only can they shoot, but also that they’re smart, sane, solvent and sober. But you wanted to discuss … government spending.Gail: That’s the issue of the moment, right? Congress has to do something about raising the debt ceiling or the economy will collapse somewhere down the line. Or at least that’s the theory.Republicans want to tie the raising of said ceiling to major league cuts in spending. No matter how much Kevin McCarthy swears that won’t involve cuts to Social Security or Medicare, it’s almost impossible to imagine they aren’t on the table. What’s your recommendation?Bret: Well, the Republicans’ current strategy has all the intelligence of Foghorn Leghorn, the Looney Tunes rooster: They’re trying to play a game of chicken with the Biden administration when, deep down, they know they’re the ones who are going to chicken out. It would be economically destructive and politically suicidal to let the federal government default on its debt. So we will probably go through this terrifying charade until a handful of swing-district Republicans break ranks and vote with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling.Gail: I do like that last scenario you mentioned. But don’t you think the bottom line is problematic, too? If Congress cuts spending to balance the budget as some Republicans have suggested, it could mean big cuts to very popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.Bret: Other than trying to find ways to slow the rate of spending growth, I can’t imagine there would be cuts to either program. They’re popular with Republican voters, too, after all. And there’s no way anything is going to happen except on a bipartisan basis. Any suggestions for fixes that don’t involve large tax increases?Gail: Well, some people may regard this as a tax increase, but I want to propose some tax fairness. For some reason, Social Security payroll taxation stops at about $160,000. So a person making a million dollars a year doesn’t pay anything on about $840,000.Let’s get rid of that ceiling, Bret. What do you say?Bret: I wouldn’t object to raising the cap provided Democrats would be willing to push up the retirement age by four or five years. As for Medicare reform, my guess is it will never happen. Instead, I’m betting that in 20 years we’re going to have a terrible but “free” single-payer system for part of the population and an excellent but expensive universe of private providers. As for actual budget cuts, maybe we could end stupid subsidies like the one for ethanol production. But that one is way too popular with farm-state Republicans.Different subject, Gail: Memphis.Gail: Bret, I spent a lot of my early career — way back in the ’70s — hanging out with the chief of police in New Haven, Ed Morrone, who was just so smart. He told my husband Dan, who was a police reporter then, that the most important job of a cop was “to keep people who hate one another apart.”Bret: Oh, it’s like figuring out the seating arrangement at Thanksgiving. Sorry, go on.Gail: In those days, that made so much sense. But in Memphis, the people doing the hating were the police themselves, who apparently got mad because a driver they had targeted for some reason made them run until they were out of breath and then started crying for his mother while they began beating him up.Now we have a dead young man, a bereaved family and a city in turmoil. Every well-run law enforcement organization in the country is going to have to cope with a new level of suspicion. Those cops have ruined their own reputations, deeply wounded community relations, and I am confident they’re going to pay for their terrible misdeeds after criminal trials.Your thoughts?Bret: I was moved by Tyre Nichols’s mom, RowVaughn Wells, when she said she’d pray for the police officers who killed her son, along with their families. It’s a spirit of compassion and dignity the city desperately needs now.Gail: Not just the city, the whole country.Bret: That said, I’m also reluctant to draw sweeping conclusions, either about this case or from it. Memphis has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country, and the city desperately needs competent and effective policing. Police brutality obviously remains a serious challenge throughout the country. But so do reports of de-policing, in which cops retreat to their precinct stations because they don’t want to be out on their beats, or the equally dangerous trend of demoralized and demonized police departments that have led to serious staffing shortages across the country.Gail, at the end of our conversation last week — sometime after I’d committed the mortal sin of endorsing gas over electric stoves — we promised readers that we would discuss who, among Democrats, would be the best candidate to face Ron DeSantis should he become the G.O.P.’s presidential nominee. Give me some names.Gail: Well gee, I was looking forward to another discussion about kitchen stoves, but OK.Bret: Of all the ways I’ve irritated our readers over the years, who knew that my ignorance of induction cooktops would be the worst?Gail: We both wish Joe Biden would retire and open the door for someone younger, but it sure doesn’t look likely. If he runs, Governor DeSantis, who’s 44, would be a daily reminder that Biden is in his 80s.Bret: If it gets to that, Biden had better hope that Donald Trump brings back Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party to split the conservative vote. Because otherwise, President DeSantis it shall be.Gail: Age isn’t a problem for most of the Democrats who’d be likely to succeed Biden as nominee. And there’s a raft of promising possibilities people are talking about — a half-dozen governors, several senators and a couple of members of Biden’s administration.Some of the names I like hearing are Senator Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, and Josh Shapiro, the newly ensconced governor of Pennsylvania. Kamala Harris, you will note, is not on my list.Bret: I noticed.Gail: The public needs a chance to look all these people over in a serious, long-term way. Which would happen if Biden announced he isn’t running again. Please, Mr. President …Bret: One other strong contender I’d like to mention: Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary and former governor of Rhode Island. She would be the best candidate in a general election because of her strong centrist appeal — and the best president, too. And people ought to start keeping an eye on Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland, even though it is probably much too soon for him — or Josh Shapiro, for that matter — to start considering a presidential bid.Gail: Yeah, I guess it’s only fair that people who get elected governor should put in a year or two before they start running for higher office.Bret: Before we go, Gail, I was saddened to read about Victor Navasky’s death this month at 90. I probably disagree with 99 percent of what gets published in The Nation, the magazine he led for so many years. But he was a happy warrior for his causes, wrongheaded as some of them were (like championing the innocence of Alger Hiss). But I’ll take a cheerful opponent over a sour fellow-traveler any day.The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram. More

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    Donald Trump Isn’t the Only One to Blame for the Capitol Riot. I’d Know.

    I spent 12 months holed up in a windowless cubical den or locked in my home office investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol and working on a report that my fellow investigators and I thought would blow open the story. When it was released, the press described it as “monumental.” This paper called it “damning.” And it was — for former President Donald Trump, since he bears primary responsibility for the attempted insurrection. But the report could only tell part of the story.Other political, social, economic and technological forces beyond the former president had a hand, whether intentionally or not, in radicalizing thousands of people into thinking they needed to attack the seat of American democracy. Only by understanding how those people lost faith in our governing institutions can we as a country figure out how to protect our democracy from threats like the attack on the Capitol.As an investigative counsel for the Jan. 6 Committee’s “Red” Team, which investigated the people who planned and attended the riot, as well as the domestic extremist groups responsible for much of the violence, I tracked more than 900 individuals charged by the Department of Justice with everything from parading in the Capitol to seditious conspiracy. We interviewed roughly 30 of those defendants about their motives. What my team and I learned, and what we did not have the capacity to detail with specificity in the report, is how distrust of the political establishment led many of the rioters to believe that only revolution could save America.It wasn’t just that they wanted to contest a supposedly stolen election as Mr. Trump called them to do, they wanted to punish the judges, members of Congress, and law enforcement agencies — the so-called political elites — who had discredited Mr. Trump’s claims. One rioter wondered why he should trust anything the F.B.I., D.O.J., or any other federal entity said about the results. The federal government had worked against everyday Americans for years, the rioters told us, favoring entrenched elites with its policies. For many defendants — both those awash in conspiracy theories, as well as some of the more reasonable Trump supporters at the Capitol that day — a stolen election was simply the logical conclusion of years of federal malfeasance.With the legitimacy of democracy so degraded, revolution appeared logical. As Russell James Peterson, a rioter who pleaded guilty to “parading, demonstrating, or picketing” in the Capitol, said on Dec. 4, 2020, “the only way to restore balance and peace is through war. Too much trust has been lost in our great nation.” Guy Reffitt, who earned seven years in prison for leading the charge up the Capitol steps while carrying a firearm, made a similar case later that month: “The government has spent decades committing treason.” The following week, he drove 20 hours to “do what needs to be done” because there were “bad people,” “disgusting people,” in the Capitol. Oath Keepers convicted of seditious conspiracy and other crimes, like their leader Stewart Rhodes, had long believed that a corrupt group of left-wing elites were preparing to upend American freedoms and that only militias like themselves could save the Constitution. Their loss of faith in the federal government had led them to the delusion that their seditious behavior to keep Mr. Trump in power was patriotic.Strikingly, these comments came not only from domestic violent extremists; some came from people who appeared to be ordinary Americans. Dona Sue Bissey, a grandmother and hair salon owner from Indiana, said shortly after the attack that she was “very glad” to have been a part of the insurrection; Anthony Robert Williams, a painter from Michigan, called Jan. 6 the “proudest day of my life.”Since the 1960s, political scientists have surveyed Americans and measured the steady decline of public faith in the federal government. Again and again, they have described the predictable consequences of people believing that the deliberative system has lost its legitimacy; almost always, they will turn to alternative means to get what they want, even if it means destroying their government in the process. The attack on the Capitol was a perfect example. William Dunfee, an Ohio pastor facing felony and misdemeanor charges, told his congregation on Dec. 27, 2020, that settling “your differences at the ballot” did not work, so they should make the “government, the tyrants, the socialists, the Marxists, the progressives, the RINOs” in Washington “fear” them.Some have criticized our report because it focused on Mr. Trump and his Big Lie instead of diving more deeply into other causes, such as declining faith in government or racial resentment or economic inequality, which pushed people to believe patriotism required storming the Capitol. Far from ignoring those concepts, we have released many of our documents publicly and archived the rest so that historians, political scientists, sociologists and many others can scrutinize our findings in ways we could not, examining the causes and consequences of Jan. 6 with a longer time horizon than we had.Our report proposed several straightforward fixes to prevent another sitting president from contesting a fair election. But solving the core problem — lost faith in government — will take more time, and a battery of far more complex remedies.The most important step elected officials can take — aside from choosing not to undermine our institutions for their own political gain — is to advance a comprehensive set of election and campaign finance reforms to make politicians more responsive to their constituents than to the money and voices of the few. Congress could also create universal election rules that encourage all citizens to vote while reassuring a skeptical public that the elections are secure. But beyond that, our leaders need to build trust broadly by tackling economic inequality and reinvesting in communities devastated by globalization and technological changes. At the most basic level, politicians should refocus locally on building roads, lowering crime and revitalizing small business districts, instead of looking for votes by harping on divisive national topics.Such reforms would not be a silver bullet. A few of the defendants we interviewed complained of being misled by social media, which seems to have pushed them into conspiracy theory rabbit holes like QAnon. Many also had not-quite-veiled racial resentments that drove their lack of faith in government. But at the very least, these reforms might begin to convince citizens that their government works for them, not just the rich and powerful. Once we can restore that baseline trust, we can better avoid future attacks, both physical and intangible, on our democracy.Mr. Trump did not appear out of a vacuum to upend democracy. His presidency was the culmination of years of political degradation during which voters watched our political institutions rust to the point of breaking. Like any good liar, Mr. Trump succeeded by building his lies off a truth; people no longer trust the federal government because they see its corroded institutions as corrupted for the few against the many. Until we fix that problem, we will not free ourselves from the threat of future political violence and upheaval worse than Jan. 6.James Sasso served as senior investigative counsel for the Jan. 6 committee.The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram. More

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    Bill Barr’s Image Rehab Is Kaput

    Former Attorney General William Barr has spent the last year in a desperate salvage operation for what’s left of his legal and ethical reputation. During his 22 months in office, he allowed his Justice Department to become a personal protection racket for his boss, Donald Trump, and left prosecutors, the F.B.I. and other law enforcement officials subject to the worst impulses of the president. But then, in his 2022 memoir, Mr. Barr did an about-face, bashing Mr. Trump for lacking a presidential temperament and singling out his “self-indulgence and lack of self-control.”In the book, he urged Republicans not to renominate Mr. Trump in 2024, accusing the former president of going “off the rails” with his stolen-election claims by preferring the counsel of “sycophants” and “whack jobs” to that of his real advisers. Clearly concerned that history was paying attention, he was even stronger in his videotaped testimony to the Jan. 6 committee, loosing a variety of barnyard epithets and bitter insults to describe Mr. Trump’s legal strategy. He said the president had become “detached from reality” and was doing a disservice to the nation.The hollow and self-serving nature of this turnabout was always apparent. Mr. Barr never made these concerns public at a time when his dissent would have made a difference. Instead, he left office in 2020 showering compliments on his boss, praising Mr. Trump’s “unprecedented achievements” and promising that Justice would continue to pursue claims of voter fraud that he must have known were baseless.But if Mr. Barr harbored any fantasy that he might yet be credited with a wisp of personal integrity for standing up for democracy, that hope was thoroughly demolished on Thursday when The Times published the details of what really happened when Mr. Barr launched a counter-investigation into the origins of Robert Mueller’s report on the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. The reporting demonstrated a staggering abuse of the special counsel system and the attorney general’s office, all in a failed attempt by Mr. Barr to rewrite the sour truths of Mr. Trump’s history.It was bad enough when, in March 2019, Mr. Barr tried to mislead the public into thinking the forthcoming Mueller report exonerated Mr. Trump, when in fact the report later showed just how strong the links were between the campaign and the Russian government, which worked to help defeat Hillary Clinton. A few months later Mr. Barr assigned John Durham, a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, as a special counsel to investigate Mr. Mueller’s investigation, hoping to prove Mr. Trump’s wild public allegations that the federal intelligence officials had helped instigate the claims of Russian interference to damage him.Attorneys general are not supposed to interfere in a special counsel’s investigation. The whole point of the system is to isolate the prosecution of sensitive cases from the appearance of political meddling. But the new Times reporting shows that Mr. Barr did the opposite, regularly meeting with Mr. Durham to discuss his progress and advocating on his behalf with intelligence officials when they were unable to come up with the nonexistent proof Mr. Barr wanted to see. (Aides told Times reporters that Mr. Barr was certain from the beginning that U.S. spy agencies were behind the allegations of collusion.)When the Justice Department’s own inspector general prepared to issue a report saying that, while the F.B.I. made some ethical mistakes, the investigation was legitimate and not politically motivated, Mr. Durham lobbied him to drop the finding. When that effort was unsuccessful, Mr. Barr reverted to his usual pattern of trying to spin the report before it was issued, disagreeing with its finding before it was even out. Mr. Durham then followed up with a similar statement, shattering the clear department principle of staying silent about a current investigation.The two men even traveled to Britain and Italy together, pressuring government agencies there to disclose what they told U.S. spy agencies about the Trump-Russia connections. That infuriated officials of those governments, who said they had done nothing of the kind, and no evidence was ever found that they had. But on one of those trips, The Times reported, Italian officials gave the men a tip which, people familiar with the matter said, linked Mr. Trump to possible serious financial crimes. (It is not clear what those crimes were, and more reporting will be necessary to reveal the details.) Did Mr. Barr follow protocol and turn the tip over to regular prosecutors in his department for investigation? No. Instead, he gave it to his traveling companion, Mr. Durham, who opened a criminal investigation but never made it public and never filed charges, and when word began to trickle out that a suspected crime had been discovered, he falsely let the world think it had something to do with his original goal.The Durham investigation, of course, has never presented any evidence that the F.B.I. or intelligence agencies committed any misconduct in the course of the Russia investigation, bitterly disappointing Mr. Barr and especially his patron, Mr. Trump, who had assured his supporters for months that it would produce something big. Desperate for some kind of success, Mr. Durham indicted Michael Sussmann, a lawyer who had worked for Democrats in their dealings with the F.B.I., over the objections of two prosecutors on the special counsel team who said the case was far too thin and who later left the staff.Mr. Sussmann was acquitted last May of lying to the bureau, and the jury forewoman told reporters that bringing the case had been unwise. Mr. Barr later tried to justify the trial by saying it served another purpose in exposing the Clinton campaign’s starting the Russia narrative as a “dirty trick.” The trial did nothing of the kind, but it did expose Mr. Barr’s willingness to abuse the gratuitous prosecution of an individual to score political points against one of Mr. Trump’s most prominent enemies.One of the other casualties of this deceitful crusade was the deliberate damage it did to the reputations of the F.B.I., the intelligence agencies and officials in Mr. Barr’s own department. All of these agencies have had many problematic episodes in their pasts, but there is no evidence in this case that they willfully tried to smear Mr. Trump and his campaign with false allegations of collusion. They were trying to do their jobs, on which the nation’s security depends, but because they got in Mr. Trump’s way, Mr. Barr aided in degrading their image through a deep-state conspiracy theory before an entire generation of Trump supporters. Republicans in the House are launching a new snipe hunt for proof that these same government offices were “weaponized” against conservatives, an expedition that is likely to be no more effective than Mr. Durham’s and Mr. Barr’s.But weakening the country’s institutions and safeguards for political benefit is how Mr. Barr did business in the nearly two years he served as the nation’s top law enforcement official under Mr. Trump. He has a long history of making the Justice Department an instrument of his ideology and politics; when he was attorney general in 1992 during the Bush administration, the Times columnist William Safire accused him of leading a “Criminal Cover-up Division” in refusing to appoint an independent counsel to investigate whether the Bush administration had knowingly provided aid to Saddam Hussein that was used to finance the military before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Under Mr. Trump, Mr. Barr did the opposite, demanding that an unnecessary special counsel do the bidding of the White House and trying to steer the investigation to Mr. Trump’s advantage. His efforts came to naught, and so will his campaign to be remembered as a defender of the Constitution.David Firestone is a member of the editorial board. Mr. Firestone was a reporter and editor at The Times from 1993 to 2014, including serving as a congressional correspondent and New York City Hall bureau chief, and was executive editor for digital at NBC News until 2022.The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram. More

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    To Understand Why Republicans Are Divided on the Debt Ceiling, Consider Dr. Seuss

    The Tea Party is over. Cultural issues seem to animate G.O.P. voters.“On Beyond Zebra!” is among the Dr. Seuss books that will no longer be published, a fact many Republicans are aware of. Scott Olson/Getty ImagesTo Understand Why Republicans Are Divided on the Debt Ceiling, Consider Dr. SeussOne of my favorite polling nuggets from the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency wasn’t about Afghanistan or inflation or classified documents.It was about Dr. Seuss.In early March 2021, a Morning Consult/Politico poll found that more Republicans said they had heard “a lot” about the news that the Seuss estate had decided to stop selling six books it deemed had offensive imagery than about the $1.9 trillion dollar stimulus package enacted into the law that very week.The result was a vivid marker of how much the Republican Party had changed over the Trump era. Just a dozen years earlier, a much smaller stimulus package sparked the Tea Party movement that helped propel Republicans to a landslide victory in the 2010 midterm election. But in 2021 the right was so consumed by the purported cancellation of Dr. Seuss that it could barely muster any outrage about big government spending.Whether issues like “On Beyond Zebra!” still arouse Republicans more than the national debt takes on renewed importance this year, as Washington seems to be hurtling toward another debt ceiling crisis. The answer will shape whether Republicans can unify around a debt ceiling fight, as they did a decade ago, or whether a fractious party will struggle to play a convincing game of chicken — with uncertain consequences.Unfortunately, our trusty Seuss-o-meter for gauging Republican interest in fiscal policy isn’t readily available today. But heading into the year, there were very few signs that the debt had reclaimed its Obama-era position at the top of the list of conservative policy priorities.Understand the U.S. Debt CeilingCard 1 of 5What is the debt ceiling? More