Frank Rich on the National Circus: The Chilling Manning Trial

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FORT MEADE, MD - JULY 30:  U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning (R) is escorted by military police as arrives to hear the verdict in his military trial July 30, 2013 at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. Manning, who is charged with aiding the enemy and wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the internet, is accused of sending hundreds of thousands of classified Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and more than 250,000 diplomatic cables to the website WikiLeaks while he was working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Photo: Mark Wilson/2013 Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Bradley Manning gets convicted, Obama offers a "grand bargain," and Chris Christie and Rand Paul exchange blows.

Yesterday, Private Bradley Manning was convicted on multiple counts of violating the Espionage Act (which could result in 136 years of prison) but was found not guilty of the most serious charge against him, "aiding the enemy." What do you make of the verdict?
What matters here is not that Manning was found guilty of leaking — which he admitted to and will not get anything like 136 years for — but that he was found not guilty of “aiding the enemy.” That “not guilty” is a good thing, but it doesn’t mitigate the reality that “aiding the enemy” was a bogus and dangerous charge in the first place. The fact that the government would even pursue it is chilling to a free press. Under the prosecution’s Orwellian logic, essentially any classified information given by a whistle-blower to a journalistic outlet (whether WikiLeaks or the Times, which published Manning-WikiLeaks revelations) amounts to treason if “the enemy” can read it. Well, the enemy, whomever it may be at any given moment, can read anything it wants on the Internet, the government can (and does) stamp its every embarrassing action “classified,” and so almost any revelatory investigative reporting on national security (the Pentagon Papers, the Abu Ghraib revelations, you name it) could in principle lead to the death penalty (even if that punishment wasn’t sought in the Manning case). That’s a powerful deterrent, clearly designed to stop whistle-blowers, reporters, and news organizations from taking the risk of uncovering government misbehavior. It’s a particularly devastating blow at a time when investigative journalism is shrinking anyway because of the financial woes of the news business. The Obama administration’s increasingly virulent efforts to shut down hard-hitting journalism — exemplified as well, recently, by the attempt to force Times reporter James Risen to testify in another leak case — is not just outrageous on First Amendment grounds but also makes you wonder what else the White House is hiding. Let’s not forget that high among Manning’s revelations were the cockpits videos chronicling the killing of civilians in an American air strike. What else is there that the Obama administration is so desperate to keep quiet that it will take on leakers with a virulence unmatched by any modern White House? 

Another summer, another looming battle over the federal budget, with rank-and-file Republicans threatening to shut down the government rather than fund Obamacare and the President offering the GOP a "grand bargain"-style deal. We've seen this movie before. Is there any reason to think it could end better for Obama this time?
The Obama offer — to cut some corporate taxes in exchange for some job-creating spending — was not an alluring bargain anyway for either his party or the Republicans, and was surely dead on arrival. After all these years battling the Party of No, the president must know that and no doubt expected his proposal to be rejected immediately (as it was, not just by the tea-party right but by Establishmentarians like Mitch McConnell and the Wall Street Journal editorial page). So, what was the point of this week’s Kabuki theater? Mainly to keep establishing battle lines for the looming confrontation over a potential government shutdown. Offering a “grand bargain,” even if less than grand, sets Obama in sharp relief to those Republicans on Capitol Hill who are threatening to hold the budget (and the economy) hostage until by some miracle Obamacare is repealed. Obama’s poll numbers may be mediocre these days, but even without a shutdown, Congress hit its lowest approval rating in history last week in the WSJ–NBC News poll. And so the president has everything to gain by positioning himself as the constructive alternative to the right’s bomb throwers come fall. 

Chris Christie and Rand Paul have been publicly sparring for the last week over national security and federal spending. Is this just two big egos sticking out their chests at each other, or are we witnessing the beginning of the next phase in the much-discussed GOP civil war?
Rand Paul is the most interesting Republican politician out there today, mainly because he clearly doesn’t give a damn about offending anyone in his party’s leadership as he rapidly makes himself into the No. 1 tribune of the GOP base. When he ran for senator of Kentucky, he took on (and clobbered) the hand-picked candidate of Mitch McConnell. He (like two other 2016 prospects in the Senate, Mario Rubio and Ted Cruz) has thrown his support to those threatening the government shutdown. And most intriguingly, like his father before him, he is mounting a major challenge to the neocon foreign-affairs dictum of the Bush years — starting with his name-making filibuster against the Obama drone regimen. From a political point of view, I think Christie’s attack on Paul on foreign policy — delivered at the Aspen Institute, no less (was the Council on Foreign Relations unavailable?) — was a political mistake if his goal is to get the GOP nomination for president. By invoking 9/11 as a stick to beat Paul with, it was clear that the New Jersey governor has spent a lot of time listening to Rudy Giuliani, Henry Kissinger, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Dick Cheney, and John Bolton — but the Republican base is as sick of this crowd (and of America’s wars) as the Democrats are. And the response to Paul in his own party has been proving that. The Christie-versus-Paul battle for the soul of the GOP is beginning to look like the contest between Mitt Romney and all-the-others (including Ron Paul) in 2012. I think Christie may well find himself on the wrong side of his party’s internal politics and history. 

Earlier this week, Pope Francis gave a surprising press conference in which he said that he would not marginalize gay priests for their sexual orientation, while stopping well short of altering Church doctrine. Is this an important step? Or is it too little, too late from a religious body that is increasingly out of step with society?
It’s hard to imagine that anything Pope Francis would say in a press conference, even one as charming as this, would have any big effect on anything. That he expressed tolerance for gay people doesn’t have any effect on punitive church doctrine in any case, and let’s not forget that in the same press conference he also dismissed the idea of women priests. That said, the American reaction to Francis’s remarks was another indicator that to be gay-friendly, even somewhat nominally, is only a plus in terms of public relations now for prominent figures in all walks of life. I’d also add that I never thought I’d see the day when a pope would be more generous to gay people than some powerful figures in American government, including the forever gay-baiting Justice Scalia.