In “Ode to Obama” Mr. Blow says you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Ain’t that the truth — Trump would pave paradise and put up a parking lot if he could make a dime. Mr. Kristof, in “When Backpage.com Peddles Schoolgirls for Sex,” says the authorities are making progress in restricting a website as a medium for sex trafficking. Ms. Collins ponders “Trump, Sex and Lots of Whining” and invites us to meet the luckiest victim in the world. Here’s Mr. Blow:
The dark clouds of the coming administration rolled in this week with a fury, producing a flood of strange and worrisome news.
There was the utterly terrifying confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions as our next attorney general, at which he signaled in no uncertain terms his hostility to the protective posture that the Justice Department has taken to safeguard vulnerable populations over the last eight years.
There was the long-awaited news conference conducted by the president-elect that, predictably, turned into a circus of boasting, hubris, hostility, distraction and deflection.
And then there was the release of the unsubstantiated intelligence report, with its nausea-inducing claims, which I don’t know what to do with.
But there was a calm in the midst of the storm, a rock of familiarity and stability and strength: On Tuesday night, President Obama delivered his farewell address in his adopted hometown, Chicago, as a forlorn crowd looked on, realizing the magnitude of the moment, realizing the profundity of its loss.
As the old saying goes: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Whether you have approved of the Obama presidency as a matter of policy or not, it is impossible to argue that Obama was not a man of principle. Whether you agree with individual decisions or the content of his rhetoric, it is impossible to argue that he did not conduct himself with dignity and respect and that he did not lead the country with those values as a guiding light.
I have not always agreed with the president’s positions or tactics, and this feels normal to me. Freethinking people are bound to disagree occasionally, even if a vast majority of their values align.
I was particularly frustrated with what I believed was his misreading and underestimation of the intensity of the opposition he faced, and his approach of being a gentleman soldier in a guerrilla war. I was harsh in my critique; some would say too harsh. In 2009, I wrote: “The president wears outrage like another man’s suit. It doesn’t quite fit.” In 2011, I called him “a robotic Sustainer-in-Chief.”
But none of those differences in opinions about strategy injured in any way my profound respect for the characteristics of the man we came to take for granted: bracingly smart, exceptionally well educated, literate in the grand tradition of the great men of letters. He was scholarly, erudite, well read and an adroit writer.
And he was an orator for the ages. We got so used to elegant, sometimes masterly speechifying, that I will admit I sometimes tuned it out. We had an abundance of riches in that regard.
But listening to the president’s farewell address, I was hit with the force of a brawler that the decency and dignity, the solemnity and splendor, the loftiness and literacy that Obama brought to the office was extraordinary and anomalous, the kind of thing that each generation may only hope to have in a president.
In a way, it was the small things, the way he made reference to Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird” in his discussion of race relations in this country. It was the ease of confidence that comes from having read the book and not just the speechwriter’s script.
That made me think of the two presidents who will bracket Obama: George W. Bush, who Karl Rove claims was a voracious reader, but whose articulation and disposition betrayed a man struggling for intellectual adequacy, and Donald Trump, a man who comes across as possessing more anger than acumen and whose ghostwriter said of him: “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”
Even more impressive is Obama’s skill for raising and parsing delicate issues like race, so that all of the people involved feel respected and represented, so that all participants in the debate feel that they have been truly heard and seen.
He hasn’t always gotten this right. No human being has always gotten everything right. Holding him to that impossible standard hardly seems fair. But he started from a very strong and respectable position and has grown even more steady and sure from there.
So as the end of his presidency draws close, America is confronted with the reality of what is being lost. It is no wonder that a Quinnipiac University Poll released Tuesday found that “American voters approve 55–39 percent of the job President Barack Obama is doing, his best approval rating in seven years.” For comparison, Trump’s approval rating as the president-elect is only 37 percent.
Obama wasn’t perfect, but neither is anyone — you or I — and neither was any other president. But Obama is a good man and a good president. Some would argue that he was great on both counts.
We will remember that — and miss it — when Trump’s whirlwind of scandal, conflict, crudeness, boorishness and vindictiveness barrels into Washington.
We can but pray that the country survives. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
As a 16-year-old high school sophomore living in Boston, Asia Graves was sold on the internet “like a pizza,” she recalls, handed over to be raped by strange men every day.
Along with thousands of other girls, she was sold through what amounts to an online brothel called Backpage. It dominates the online sex trade and is implicated in almost three-quarters of the reports of child trafficking in the United States.
Yet this week offers a moment to celebrate. Under political and legal pressure, Backpage on Monday closed its “adult” advertising section, used to peddle women and children for sex. There’s also an overdue effort to hold its executives criminally and civilly liable.
“There’s been a lot of progress,” notes Graves, who eventually escaped her pimp — but only after he gouged her face with a potato peeler and stomped on her, breaking her jaw. She was cheering this week as a Senate subcommittee held hearings on Backpage and discussed tightening the law on websites like it.
I’ve been writing about sex trafficking since the 1990s, because at its worst it’s an echo of slavery. It’s also a topic rife with hypocrisy. We denounced the Catholic Church and Penn State for tolerating child sexual abuse, but we have collectively tolerated websites like Backpage that sell children for sex.
That has steadily been changing. Credit card companies stopped processing payments for ads in Backpage, undermining its business model. Kamala Harris, then California’s attorney general and now its new senator, filed criminal charges in December against Backpage executives, with arraignment scheduled for this month. Civil suits in Washington State against Backpage are proceeding. A film about trafficking, “I Am Jane Doe,” opens in theaters next month and shines a light on Backpage as “the Walmart of human trafficking.”
Most important, a Senate subcommittee, led by Rob Portman, a Republican, and Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, has done outstanding work investigating Backpage and showing how it achieved a valuation of more than half a billion dollars by working with human traffickers.
A devastating new subcommittee report shows that the company protects pimps from their carelessness by deleting hints that a girl is underage. For example, if a pimp tries to post an ad for a “Lolita,” “little girl,” “school girl” or “amber alert,” those terms are automatically stripped from the ad — but it is still posted, so the girl will still be sold for sex.
One Backpage document indicated that by 2010, more than 70 percent of its ads in the adult section were being edited like that, suggesting that the company was far more involved in manipulating content than it ever let on.
Sure, some people selling sex are adults acting on their own to make money, and that’s not a concern of mine. If Backpage carefully verified names and ages, I’d be fine with that. But Backpage has more stringent rules for selling a dog than for selling a kid.
I’ve written repeatedly about Backpage over the years because the stories haunt me. My first column about Backpage involved a 13-year-old girl whom I called Baby Face. Her pimp had kicked her down a stairwell for trying to flee, and she was hurting and bleeding and couldn’t bear another rape, but her pimp sold her on Backpage anyway. He took her to an apartment building and waited outside after telling her which apartment to go to.
Terrified and desperate, Baby Face instead pounded on the door of a different apartment. When a surprised woman answered, Baby Face asked for a phone and called her mom and then 911. Her pimp went to prison, but Backpage simply profited from the sale, as it always has.
Look, human trafficking is a complicated issue. If Backpage is put out of business, other websites may fill the void, and indeed, when Backpage closed its adult section, ads selling sex immediately moved over to the site’s dating section.
We need Congress to amend the Communications Decency Act to clarify that companies like Backpage don’t get protections when they permit pimps to sell kids on their websites. There is a mounting bipartisan effort to pass such an amendment, and I hope President-elect Donald Trump will show leadership on this as well. We also need local police departments and prosecutors to go after pimps and johns, rather than sometimes targeting the children who are the victims.
One mom, Nacole (she didn’t want her full name used to protect her family’s privacy), told me how her 15-year-old daughter was sold for more than three months on Backpage.
“How could such a horrific, morally bankrupt business model find success in America?” she asked at the Senate hearing. She said her daughter had been advertised on the website as a ‘Weekend Special.’”
It’s too late to protect that girl, who is still struggling to recuperate. But when children are sold for sex online as weekend specials, they’re not the ones who should be ashamed. We all should be.
And now here’s Ms. Collins:
Finally, Donald Trump held a press conference. I know you want to hear the sex-in-Russia part.
The world learned this week about memos from a retired British intelligence officer on relations between the Trump campaign and the Russians. They included some speculation about whether there were compromising videos of Trump cavorting in a Russian hotel that might explain his enthusiastic support for Vladimir Putin.
The report wasn’t prepared by our intelligence agencies — it was opposition research done on contract for some other campaigns. It had been bouncing around Washington for a while. You didn’t hear about it because nobody could confirm any of the allegations.
But a summary of the memos showed up in the briefing Trump got from the intelligence agencies last week. Wouldn’t you have liked to be there to see the reaction?
Then a version of the report showed up online, and naturally it came up Wednesday at Trump’s press conference.
About that press conference. Here are some of the things we learned:
■ The reason he hasn’t shown up to answer questions from reporters since July is “inaccurate news.”
■ The Russians don’t have any secret tapes of him behaving badly in a hotel room because every time he goes to hotels abroad, he warns everybody: “Be very careful, because in your hotel rooms and no matter where you go, you’re gonna probably have cameras.” Of everything Trump said during the press conference, this was perhaps the most convincing.
■ He is not going to divest himself of his businesses, but his two adult sons will be running them. He was just doing this out of his ethical heart, since there are no conflict-of-interest rules for the president. (“… as president I could run the Trump Organization — great, great company. And I could run the company, the country. I’d do a very good job, but I don’t want to do that.”)
■ He’ll release his taxes once the audit is finished. (You remember that audit. Its friends call it Godot.)
■ The inauguration is going to be “a beautiful event” because “we have great talent.” (Military bands were mentioned.)
■ “If Putin likes Donald Trump I consider that an asset, not a liability.”
■ “Over the weekend I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai.”
He was all over the place. It was, in a way, a great strategy. We’ve been waiting for a long time to hear how Trump would deal with his businesses, and his refusal to divest drove ethics watchdogs crazy. But on Wednesday, the whole topic got drowned in the hubbub over the leaked report. And Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. And his theory on hotel cameras.
This kind of rapid-fire diversion could be the work of a political genius, but in fact it’s just how our next president’s mind naturally seems to operate. It bounces hither and yon. The only ongoing focus is what it all means to Trump. Did he look good? How was the crowd? Did anyone betray him?
He was definitely playing the victim when it came to the leaked report. He blamed the intelligence services, which he compared, with great originality and careful choice of words, to Nazis.
Keep in mind that although government investigators have been looking into these allegations for a long time, they never became public during the campaign. “I would never comment on investigations — whether we have one or not, in an open forum like this,” F.B.I. Director James Comey said during one of the multitudinous Senate hearings this week.
This is, of course, the same guy who told Congress — 11 days before the election – that the F.B.I. was investigating Hillary Clinton emails that wound up on a laptop owned by Anthony Weiner, a.k.a. “Carlos Danger,” estranged husband of her aide and world-famous sex texter.
The F.B.I. later announced it had found nothing. Meanwhile, people who were already voting in some states had been reminded to connect Clinton with a guy who sent pictures of his private parts to strange women. Clinton thinks it cost her the election. There’s no way to tell. She got nearly three million more votes than Trump, but by the rules we live under, she lost. End of story.
Trump is never going to admit his win was anything but a record-shattering triumph. But his preening, and his whining about being persecuted by the intelligence services, really twists the knife.
Since the election, the media and many Democratic politicians have wrung their hands over their failure to pay attention to the legitimate anger in the Trump-tilting parts of the country. And good for them.
But it’s time to remember that there are about 66 million Clinton voters who have a right to be angry, too.