Saturday, July 20, 2019

Some Thoughts on the Mueller Report

It took me a while, but as of Friday I can say—unlike most Americans and unlike 99 percent of Republicans in Congress—that I have read the entire Mueller report. I figured it was my civic duty. So now, since I invested that much time in getting informed, I figure it’s also my civic duty to offer a few observations.
1. This is not easy reading. There’s a lot of legalese in it. And a lot of the detail was reported accurately by the “fake” news, so there were few surprises. But it was well worth reading.
2. Trump and his campaign perhaps did not conspire or coordinate with the Russians, but they were aware of their interference and welcomed it, rather than reporting it. Which says something about how they view the law (something to ignore).
3. While no Americans “knowingly” or “intentionally” supported the IRA’s efforts (IRA is Internet Research Agency, a Russian entity), many unwittingly furthered the IRA’s objectives. They got duped. This is important for all sides, because next time around, it could be the Democrats who get used by the Russians.
4. The election was close. A few thousand votes in three states made the difference. A Russian Facebook campaign that reached as many as 126 million persons and a twitter campaign that reached as many as 1.4 million certainly had an effect.
5. The Russian objective was to sow discord in American politics, which furthered Putin’s larger objective of undermining democracy here and around the world. He obviously felt that Trump would help fulfill this objective. He also sought to defeat Clinton, so he also supported Sanders in the primary. Which brings up an interesting question: In a face-off between Sanders and Trump, who would the Russians support? Probably Trump. See next point.
6. The chaos that Trump brings furthers Russian objectives. When he is gone, either in 2020 or in 2024, which candidate will the Russians support in order to bring down democracy? Or will China also get into the game? What if they support opposite sides? I think we’re in for a rough ride, because the Trump administration has done nothing to combat foreign interference in our elections. He can’t bring himself to admit there was Russian interference because it casts doubt over the legitimacy of his election, which it should. But his inaction opens the door for more interference in the future. Hold your hat.
7. The evidence of obstruction was sufficient, I thought, but after reading the complete accounting of it, I’m leaning toward Nancy Pelosi’s position. Trump probably isn’t worth it. And it would be symbolic anyway, since the Republican Senate will never convict Trump. The president was obviously trying to both derail the investigation and encourage his indicted chums to lie under oath, but he was probably saved from the worst attempted obstruction by disloyal staffers, primarily but not exclusively McGahn and Sessions. If they had followed orders, Trump would be facing certain impeachment. At this point, though, I think an impeachment process would get bogged down by Trump’s stonewalling, which would result in lengthy legal battles that might consume the rest of his presidency.
8. I suspect, though, that Trump might be in greater danger of eventual conviction for either campaign finance violations (the porn-star payments) or any number of corrupt business practices. That will certainly play out in the courts after his presidency, when he is no longer immune from indictment.
9. In some ways, Trump seemed to dance all around obstruction without quite stepping on it, but you get the impression that this was more dumb luck than skill. He seemed to be stumbling and bumbling in his efforts to kill the investigation. Part of the reason he probably got away with what he did is that he did so much of it in public. It simply got lost in the daily chaos of the Trump presidency. There is so much objectionable in Trump’s act that obstruction of justice seems rather inconsequential. Next to his racism, his perpetual lying, his undermining of democratic institutions, his kowtowing to brutal dictators, and his personal attacks, obstruction of justice just isn’t all that eye-catching. It is, however, illegal.
10. And this was apparently very important to Robert Mueller. The most surprising portion of the report, for me, was a lengthy section near the end where Mueller’s team put together a thorough legal analysis of the relevant obstruction laws to shoot every objection raised by Trump’s legal team completely out of the water. Even though Mueller refused to come to a conclusion on obstruction, for reasons he explained, he did indeed lay out a very clear legal pathway for Congress to follow. Which makes his testimony this week all the more crucial. I wonder what the questioners will be able to drag out of him.
A couple of quotes from the Mueller report are particularly significant, I thought. “In sum, in light of the breadth of Section 1512( c )(2) and the other obstruction statutes, an argument that the conduct at issue in this investigation falls outside the scope of the obstruction laws lacks merit” (section 2, p. 168). Also this: “Accordingly, based on the analysis above, we were not persuaded by the argument that the President has blanket constitutional immunity to engage in acts that would corruptly obstruct justice through the exercise of otherwise-valid Article II powers” (section 2, p. 178). If you understand what Mueller is saying, AG Barr completely and dishonestly misinterpreted the report. After reading it and listening to Barr, I have to wonder if he actually read it.
A final thought. I’m really tired of the Donald Trump show. I hope most Americans are similarly exhausted. We recently celebrated Independence Day in America. Trump, of course, tried to co-opt the holiday and make himself the center of attention. But I had a personal hope on July 4 this year. All I wanted was independence from Donald Trump. May that day come soon.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project

One of the interesting aspects of my job is that I am the primary proofreader for Royal Skousen’s Book of Mormon Critical Text Project. If you haven’t heard of the Critical Text Project, you really need to look into it. A good place to start would be here. Royal is a linguistics professor at BYU and has been working on the Critical Text for about thirty years. It is, and I am not exaggerating, the most important research on the Book of Mormon that has ever been conducted. It is amazing.
Royal is methodically coming to the end of the project, but so far it has produced fourteen rather large books, with three or four still to come, two of which I’ve been proofreading in the past several months. Volume 1 is a typographical facsimile of the extant portion of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon (about 28 percent survived water damage from 40 years in a leaky cornerstone in the Nauvoo House). Volume 2 is a typographical facsimile of the printer’s manuscript (in two parts). Volume 4 (which, for some reason, preceded volume 3) is titled Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon (in six parts). These books “analyze 5,280 cases of variations (or potential variation) in the text.” What Royal means by “the text” includes the original manuscript, the printed manuscript, and some 20 printed editions of the Book of Mormon by both the LDS and RLDS churches. Because Royal found more variants as he was publishing the six books, he decided to publish a second, more complete edition a few years ago.
In 2009, when he finished volume 4, Royal then published with Yale University Press a version of the Book of Mormon that is, as far as he can determine, the text that Joseph Smith actually dictated. There are 354 conjectured readings in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, which means that these are Royal’s best estimates, based on the textual evidence, of the words that Joseph Smith dictated but that somehow ended up different in the manuscripts or 1830 printing. And Royal has also restored the original text where it has been edited or otherwise altered over the years.
Since 2009, Royal has been working on volume 3, titled The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon (in maybe seven parts). The first four parts have been published, two titled Grammatical Variation and two titled The Nature of the Original Language. Grammatical Variation, as you might surmise, examines in detail the grammar of the Book of Mormon. I am one of a handful of people who have read all 1,281 pages of Grammatical Variation. Believe me, it’s not a page turner. It is a detailed examination of the sometimes strange grammar of the Book of Mormon, which turns out to be quite fascinating, if you like that sort of thing. But it is absolutely crucial for understanding what the Book of Mormon is. The Nature of the Original Language looks, primarily, at fascinating and sometimes perplexing parallels between the Book of Mormon text and Early Modern English constructions, some of which were camouflaged when Joseph edited the text in 1837 (and again, to a lesser degree, in 1840).
Part 5 of volume 3 explores the appearance of King James Bible text in the Book of Mormon, and we’re not talking here about just the large swaths of Isaiah or Matthew that are copied almost verbatim into the Book of Mormon. King James text (both Old and New Testament) appears all throughout the book, and it is often skillfully woven into the text in intricate and surprising ways. This fact leads to some conclusions about the Book of Mormon text that create some interesting dilemmas for scriptural purists.
Part 6, which I’m proofreading right now, is a careful examination of the spelling in the original and printer’s manuscripts. Two big takeaways here. First, Joseph’s scribes couldn’t spell worth a lick. Even Oliver Cowdery, who was passing himself off as a school teacher, was a horrible speller, although not as bad as Hyrum Smith. But he did sometimes learn how to spell words through the scribing and proofing process. To give you some idea of how bad the spelling was (and English spelling was indeed standardized by 1829), this book has over 400 pages of spelling blunders, some of them pretty awful. The second takeaway is that my appreciation for John Gilbert has skyrocketed. John Gilbert was the compositor (typesetter) who worked for E. B. Grandin. When you realize that he received a completely unpunctuated text with misspellings everywhere, it is frankly amazing that he was able to make sense of the manuscript. He made a few errors, but we can understand the Book of Mormon today largely because of the work of Gilbert.
The Critical Text Project started with FARMS in about 1988. FARMS, of course, became the Maxwell Institute, but Royal and the Maxwell Institute had a falling out after the publication of volume 4 and the Yale edition, so BYU Studies picked up the project. We published the first four parts of volume 3 and will publish the remainder. We also published the second edition of volume 4. When Royal is finally finished with this monumental work, he is planning to issue volume 5, A Complete Electronic Collation of the Book of Mormon. In his words, “This electronic, searchable collation is a lined-up comparison of the important textual sources and specifies every textual variant in the history of the Book of Mormon text.” It is, in other words, the raw data that Royal has used to conduct his research on the Book of Mormon. And he is going to make it available to other researchers so that they can continue the work he has started.
Let me say a word, in general, about the Critical Text. It is a staggering work of research. And I believe that nobody other than Royal Skousen could have pulled this off. It is so detailed, so thorough, and so professional that it will still be relevant in 50 years, maybe far longer. Already any serious Book of Mormon scholar has to use Royal’s Yale edition of the book if he or she wants to get the textual scholarship right. Using the latest LDS publication simply won’t suffice. For me, it has been both fun and informative to get a full preview of Royal’s most recent work. For most researchers, these are reference works. But I get to read them cover to cover. It’s not easy reading, but it is extremely educational. Royal has told me he needs my “jaundiced eye” to give the typeset pages one last look before they go to print. I take that as a compliment. I let most of his unique style quirks slide, but I do question him now and then on an assumption or a conclusion. And I find an occasional typo or misplaced word. Royal is stubborn about some things, but reasonable and generous about others. If one of his students or another researcher finds something that he uses in the Critical Text, he always gives credit. He is also not generating a defensive product. This is a work of careful scholarship. If he finds something that either goes against convention or is hard to explain, he simply presents it. Most important to him is to get the data out there so that we can all look at it and draw our own conclusions.
I’m looking forward to seeing the project finished. I’m sure Royal is too. He will retire when the final volume is published. And at that point, he will have completed one of the most impressive and useful research projects in LDS history.