Writer and recovering graduate student Anne Helen Petersen wrote this on Monday*:
Petersen elaborated to say that she was specifically referring to acquaintances posting the work of British quasi-journalist Louise Mensch and New Hampshire writing professor Seth Abramson. Both are key figures in the #Resistance tweetstorm community, and both have been covered and dismantled before, but the recent flurry of news involving Michael Flynn and Trump lawyer John Dowd’s obstruction-of-justice miniscandal has them cooking again.
Mensch is perhaps most famous for having written in May that the “marshal of the Supreme Court” had spoken to Donald Trump about his allegedly impending impeachment. (In reality world, the marshal of the Supreme Court is the person who handles security at the Supreme Court building, not an illuminati supercop.) She’s now “reporting” that, in addition to that still-impending impeachment, Trump has already been indicted a bunch of times. (The indictments are ostensibly under seal.)
Mensch also recently wrote that Paul Ryan was recorded accepting Russian cash at the Republican National Convention. In other words, she is Out There. Seth Abramson, who appears to have added more than 200,000 Twitter followers in the last six months, is a more interesting or at least more complicated case; his schtick is less credulous fabulism than hyperbolic sleight of hand. Using only the same reported mainstream media articles that everyone else in the country reads, Abramson creates an atmosphere in which the collapse of the Trump administration and disgrace/imprisonment of everyone involved with it is perpetually imminent. He’s not making things up, per se; he’s just recycling information you could find on any news site and adding sinister what-if hypotheticals to create conclusions that he refers to, quite seriously, as “investigatory analyses.” Here’s a recent example:
Abramson’s tweet concerns Dowd’s claim that he ghostwrote a Donald Trump tweet that implied Trump knew before Michael Flynn was fired that Flynn had lied to the FBI. (Lying to the FBI is a crime, so if Trump later asked James Comey to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn, as Comey says he did, such a request could constitute obstruction of justice.) I find it objectionable in seven ways.
1. “ATTENTION.” Beginning a tweet with a word in all caps suggests special importance and resembles the BREAKING tags many journalists put on tweets that introduce previously unreported information, but in this case, the word doesn’t actually mean anything besides “this is a tweet.”
2. “Has lied, is lying, or does lie.” Abramson could have just written “lied,” but that wouldn’t have sounded as intense and technical. “LOUD NOISES: If John Dowd becomes known to have been material to an incident of falsehood instantiation,” etc.
3. “Donald Trump admitted committing a crime.” The crime being admitted to would be obstruction of justice, but Trump crucially does not acknowledge that he ever asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation. According to Trump, he let the FBI’s investigation into Flynn proceed unmolested. This may well not be true, of course, but it’s not simply a fact that Trump admitted to a crime.
4. “He has himself committed a crime.” This is a big stretch. Dowd’s claims about the authorship of the tweet were made to Reuters and Axios, not to anyone in law enforcement. Abramson’s idea is apparently that creating public uncertainty as to whether Trump wrote the alleged admission of obstruction constitutes obstruction itself. I’ve read a lot about this story and haven’t seen anyone else suggest that Dowd might seriously be prosecuted in this bank-shot manner, and I spoke to two Slate staffers with law degrees who found the scenario farfetched.
5. “Disbarred immediately.” Disbarments require investigation and hearings; they aren’t automatic.
6. “America needs an answer on this right now.” Or later. Later, once the situation has actually been investigated by the highly qualified special counsel prosecutors who are self-evidently doing a thorough job, would be fine too!
7. “If.” Finally, there’s the “If.” Snuck carefully in behind “ATTENTION,” it’s the key word in Abramson’s tweet and in most viral resistance posts. If X happened, then Y catastrophe would befall Trump and his advisers. If such and such supposition about a sketchy report of this and that is true, then Trump was compromised by the Soviets in 1987 and has been manipulated as an intelligence asset ever since.
Anyone who’s familiar with history or has, like, ever watched a true-crime documentary knows that Robert Mueller’s investigation is unlikely to produce a definitive, indisputable, universally satisfying and convincing account of Trump-Russia collusion. Responsible writing about the subject can acknowledge this without minimizing the seriousness of what we do know; what Abramson et al. are selling is the idea that every fact is knowable and every speculative suspicion justified, if you make the right connections and assumptions. But I guess the nice thing about living in a world of if is that you’ll never run out of material.
*Correction, Dec. 5, 2017: This post originally stated that Anne Helen Petersen’s tweet was sent on Monday night. The tweet was sent Monday.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus