A timeworn TV commentator and professor of politics, in the moments before Robert Mueller ’s testimony began last week on MSNBC, told the audience that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election was an “act of war” by a “sworn enemy of the United States.”
Notice how each word is the sheerest nonsense. There is no forum in which countries “swear” their enemyhood. Congress has not declared war on Russia. Our $27 billion in annual trade with Russia does not implicate thousands of Americans in trading with the enemy. If Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic emails, this is a crime, not an act of war, and has been treated as such by the special counsel. And heaven help us if Facebook ads are an act of war. The U.S. conducts, and has for decades, espionage, disinformation, propaganda and other kinds of influence campaigns in numerous countries around the world. Thankfully we do not consider ourselves at war with them.
Don’t get me wrong. The Russian actions during the election, and especially their flagrancy, were an insult to U.S. power, and likely offered as such. I doubt the Kremlin is much pleased with the result, but a response is still required to deter such actions in the future. But what can it mean when grey-haired commentators are employed to speak childishly of these matters to the public?
Or take a sentence in the New Yorker magazine, known for its care with writing. A staff writer positively disdains any interest in who promoted the Steele dossier or why. “There are questions worth exploring about the Steele dossier, having to do with, say, the transparency of campaign spending. But they are not the questions congressional Republicans are asking,” she sneers.
This evasion is so trite as to have a name: the red-herring fallacy, or pretending to refute an argument by changing the subject. That such a sentence passed muster with an editor is an embarrassment (and no favor to the writer). At least be the truth teller you presumably got into journalism to be, and say you don’t wish to know any truths that might tend to incriminate anyone other than Donald Trump.
Ditto the several cable hosts who shrilly promoted the theory that President Trump was an actual traitor and now, with equal shrillness, insist he’s a traitor for not echoing their partisan exaggerations about Russian meddling. In any other time, this dodge would not be enough to keep them in their jobs.
The U.S. is not in a position to get in a moral snit about such meddling, but we are certainly in a position to exact a price for it, and should. At the same time, let us stop lying to ourselves: 99.99% of the consequential effect of Russia’s low-budget actions arose from the panting eagerness of U.S. partisans to weaponize those actions against their domestic opponents. Indeed, if we were to parse the meanings of the word “collusion,” it would not reflect well on Rep. Adam Schiff, who objectively has been invaluable to any supposed Russian desire to confound and embitter U.S. politics (though my real guess is that Russia wants nothing so much as sanctions lifted, and has only shot its foot off).
It needs to be understood whether the Mueller report, and the Mueller investigation itself, was essentially a product of disinformation (and whose disinformation). Did the Steele dossier’s lies really originate with Russian sources, and to what purpose? Was the dossier embraced by members of the U.S. government because they believed it or because it was useful against a presidential candidate they disapproved of? (Pretending to believe false intelligence may not be an actionable dereliction, but the question needs to be asked.)
We need to know whether the secret Russian intelligence that James Comey used as justification for his improper, protocol-violating actions in the Hillary Clinton case was, in any sense, real intelligence. Did it bear any intelligible, logical relation to his actions, or was it a cipher, a piece of digital flotsam, that he seized upon disingenuously as an excuse to clear Mrs. Clinton’s path to the nomination?
These questions are not just necessary for historical accuracy. They are of scintillating journalistic interest. If you’re a reporter who can’t simultaneously disapprove of Mr. Trump (as many journalists do) and see their urgency, you should rethink your career choice. (I believe it was the psychoanalyst Karen Horney who said the professions function partly to attract those least capable of exemplifying their values.) News consumers might marvel that so many journalists at least are so devoted to their partisan allegiances, but devotion has nothing to do with it. It’s just dumb conformism and lack of imagination. As in any field, one learns not to be surprised that so many unprepossessing persons are in positions of authority.
Happily, we don’t need to worry about one thing. The hysterical rhetoric on Russia will disappear instantly when it’s no longer useful against Donald Trump.
The clarity with which Mr Jenkins presents is refreshing.
On Aug. 17, 2015, 63 days after Donald Trump’s escalator ride at Trump Tower, a lightbulb went on. Certain pro Trump emails that colleagues and I were receiving were coming from Vladimir Putin’s internet trolls. “The Kremlin is now in the Donald’s corner . . .?” I emailed a co-worker.
The most valuable thing said last week was said by Sen. Jim Risch during a hearing, when he pointed out that the American people “realize that there’s people attempting to manipulate them.”
The least valuable was the prediction by three intelligence chiefs that Russia’s meddling will continue through 2018 and 2020. It may or may not, but what else were they going to say? There’s no upside to “estimating” anything else. This is a big part of what’s wrong with our intelligence establishment, handling inherently ambiguous matters and overwhelmingly incentivized, at least at the top, to say whatever is most politically and institutionally expedient.
Let’s be realistic: The Russian propaganda activities detailed in Robert Mueller’s indictment last week had less impact on the election than 20 seconds of cable TV coverage (pick a channel) of any of Mr. Trump’s rallies.
Only the media’s beloved hindsight fallacy suggests otherwise. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s campaign made good use of Russia to discredit Mr. Trump in the eyes of voters. What was the net effect on the vote? The press doesn’t know. Worse, it doesn’t know that it doesn’t know.
Ditto the media’s new favorite song that the U.S. has done nothing to punish Mr. Putin’s provocations. The U.S. government does not tell the public everything it does. American warplanes recently killed dozens, perhaps as many as 200, Russian mercenaries in Syria employed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a key figure in the Mueller indictment. For the first time in the Syrian theater, a man-portable antiaircraft weapon appeared in the hands of the Syrian opposition, shooting down a Russian jet. The U.S. government has denied a role, but the message, if that’s what it was, would be historically resonant. The U.S. used such missiles to raise the cost of Soviet adventurism in Afghanistan and Angola in the 1980s.
Let’s hope so, because such means will be necessary in Mr. Putin’s case, not just waving legal paperwork at him as Mr. Mueller has done.
That said, give Mr. Mueller credit. So far, we’ve relied on partisan leaks and memos to tell us what little we know. His court filings, insufficient as they are, at least contribute to the air-clearing.
His latest includes information that could only have come from U.S. intelligence intercepts. He cites reports that Russia’s alleged operatives filed with each other, and even an email one operative sent to a relative. But this also highlights a problem. Mr. Mueller is dependent on U.S. intelligence agencies, which share only what they want to share.
James Comey’s intervention in the Hillary Clinton email matter now is widely understood to have been prompted by a false, possibly planted, Russian intelligence intercept of some kind in March 2016.
News reports as well as basic logic suggest U.S. intelligence agencies, at some point, would have started monitoring Christopher Steele’s communications. They likely know more about his alleged Russian sources and their credibility than they are telling.
Both episodes have done far more to inflame U.S. politics than anything outlined in the Mueller indictment. Yet here’s betting a Battle Royal lies ahead before we get the truth out of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Remember your Watergate: The CIA is a natural, perhaps irresistible, instrument for pressuring the FBI. Did Obama intelligence chieftains John Brennan and James Clapper use their positions to lean on Mr. Comey to spy on the Trump campaign or protect Mrs. Clinton? Is the intelligence community even now trying to shape Mr. Mueller’s probe by what it decides to share with him? If we had to guess based on what we know today, the answer is yes.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act, the basis for many of Mr. Mueller’s charges against the Russians, was passed in 1938, aimed at Nazi propagandists, who were active in the U.S. in ways very similar to the Putin regime. Implicit was the idea that Americans can’t be insulated from foreign influence, but they can certainly understand who is trying to influence them.
The Washington Post, in a lengthy reconstruction last year, concluded that President Obama held back from doing more to inoculate the American people against Russian influence because he didn’t want to upset the apple cart of an expected Clinton victory. That’s one mistake future administrations will find it harder to make.
Even so, keep in mind that the most consequential Russian meddling may well have been via the administration’s own handling of the Steele dossier and the Hillary Clinton email controversy. If so, the real struggle is yet to come. It will involve pulling teeth to get information from the FBI and CIA that they don’t want us to know.
As with Republicans who came before, they are guilty of “something”; the only question is when we will find it….
Pressing in on many of Donald Trump’s critics finally is the unreality of a Putin Trump conspiracy to put him in the White House, so now the switch has been to accuse him, after the election, of violating the Logan Act in demanding concessions from (not granting concessions to) Russia on behalf of an ally, Israel.
If that doesn’t work, he can be accused of obstruction of justice—the crime of interfering in the investigation of noncrimes. His financial history is also ripe. And his sexual history. The Al Franken episode is a Rubicon. Mr. Franken’s offenses may be real but have so raised the stakes that politicians must now live in fear of even the false allegation.
So apparently closes a chapter in which to doubt the Putin-Trump conspiracy theory was a sign of mental illness, which opened its own can of worms. “Splitting” is a mental symptom, all right, especially in borderline personality disorder. Splitting is also a method of columnists. Example: All true things about Donald Trump are bad, all bad things about Donald Trump are true.
Trump is guilty of something. It’s Robert Mueller’s job to figure out what, even if today’s theory of the crime is the obverse of yesterday’s.
Splitting columns write themselves, and tend toward lists, as if piling up claims is a substitute for examining them. So Christopher Steele is said to be a “credible” ex-spy, though unasked is what exactly he was in a position to be credible about: only that he faithfully relayed claims made by his source’s sources to his sources, and a little bit about how this game of telephone was set in motion—i.e., money was dished out.
Once upon a time, no reputable paper would print a sensational claim from a source who won’t vouch for its truth, who got it from a source he won’t identify, who got it from a source he can’t or won’t identify, and all were paid.
Citing Mr. Steele’s credibility is not even a competent appeal to authority, since his credibility derives from a profession that specializes partly in disinformation.
We could go on. Nothing in George Papadopoulos’s charge sheet for lying to the FBI suggests the words “emails of Clinton” referred to Democratic National Committee emails. Yet this allowed the press to assume the Trump campaign was in touch with Russian intelligence about a then as-yet-unpublicized real crime.
You’d be surprised at the papers that didn’t quote the words “emails of Clinton” so as not to lend evidence against their own assumption that these were DNC emails. An honorable exception was the Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky, who wrote: “But at that time, it was well known that Clinton had deleted tens of thousands of emails she deemed personal from her private server. Those messages were of great interest to Republicans. . . . It was unclear to what emails the professor was referring or if he truly had access to any messages damaging to Clinton.”
Let us go now from the psychological motive to the sociological motive—i.e. from self-deceiving to others-deceiving:
If a particular perception of an event somehow appears to have become the social norm, people seeking to build or protect their reputations will begin endorsing it through their words and deeds, regardless of their actual thoughts.
So-called reputational cascades, as described here in a 1999 paper by Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein, are particularly powerful. Sean Hannity, if confronted with proof of Trump collusion, for the sake of commercial survival would have to recant. But a negative can’t be proved, so anti-Trump conspiratorialists will never have to recant, at least not until they have something equally damning to lay against Mr. Trump.
Just maybe, though, an intertwined story can start to be noticed. “He was the top counterintelligence agent and an asset to the bureau and America.” Variations on this quote appeared in several news stories about Peter Strzok, the high-ranking FBI official removed from the Mueller task force due to anti-Trump text messages with his paramour.
But here’s the real question: Why was the FBI’s No. 2 counterintelligence official so hip-deep in the Hillary Clinton email investigation? Mr. Strzok, it turns out, conducted the key interviews. He scripted the exact words used to chastise Mrs. Clinton without implying criminal liability.
Think back to now-forgotten reports in the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN that an intelligence intercept, later understood to be a Russian plant, played a pivotal role in FBI Chief James Comey’s decision to intervene publicly in the Clinton email matter.
More than ever, it seems probable that his intervention was contrived as a counterintelligence exercise from the start, not a criminal inquiry to find out if Mrs. Clinton had committed a crime. Mrs. Clinton would win. Russia’s plan to discredit her victory must be foiled. So began a cascade of incompetent or worse FBI meddling in U.S. domestic politics, which will turn out to be the story of the decade once the Trump collusion story has given up the ghost.
By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
WSJ Dec. 1, 2017 7:01 p.m. ET
Robert Mueller’s special prosecution machine grinds on, and on Friday it crushed former national security adviser Mike Flynn on the ever-ready charge of lying to the FBI. The guilty plea is a tragedy for the former three-star general and head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, but whether it is ominous for the Trump Presidency depends on what Mr. Flynn is telling Mr. Mueller.
Prosecutors signaled Mr. Flynn’s cooperation by filing an “information,” rather than an indictment, on charges of making false statements about his meetings with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in two December 2016 meetings. The meetings discussed the U.S. and Russian responses to sanctions that President Obama had imposed on the Kremlin for meddling in the 2016 campaign.
This specific charge is surprising because, as a seasoned intelligence officer, Mr. Flynn had to know that the U.S. would be listening to Mr. Kislyak’s conversations and have transcripts. CNN reported on Feb. 17 that “the FBI interviewers believed Flynn was cooperative and provided truthful answers,” even though he first said sanctions were not discussed and later said he couldn’t recall.
A Congressional source also tells us that former FBI director James Comey told the House Intelligence Committee on March 2 that his agents had concluded that Mr. Flynn hadn’t lied but had forgotten what had been discussed. Perhaps the FBI changed its view.
Or perhaps Mr. Flynn felt he was facing more serious charges that could be mitigated by copping a plea to a single count and cooperating. A legal defense would require hundreds of thousands of dollars that a longtime military family doesn’t have, and his son, Michael Jr., was also under investigation. News reports Friday said the son won’t now be prosecuted.
Mr. Flynn could still face up to six months in prison, and his sentencing will be postponed and depend on what his plea agreement says is his “substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense.” Mr. Mueller is known for his brutal mercy.
How this relates to the claim of Trump campaign collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign isn’t clear. Mr. Flynn’s meetings with the Russian ambassador occurred after the election. The press corps is hyperventilating that a statement filed in connection with Mr. Flynn’s plea says an unnamed senior Trump transition official spoke with Mr. Flynn about what he should tell the Russian ambassador. News reports Friday identified that official as Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law.
Yet there is nothing scandalous, or even unusual, about a presidential transition meeting with a foreign ambassador. The statement says Mr. Flynn was advised that the transition team at Mar-a-Lago “didn’t want Russia to escalate the situation”—which also isn’t a crime even if they should have waited until taking office before conducting foreign policy.
For what it’s worth, Mr. Trump’s attorney Ty Cobb on Friday portrayed Mr. Flynn’s plea as no big deal: “The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation [as national security adviser] in February of this year. Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”
Nothing in Friday’s documents shed more light on what happened during the 2016 presidential campaign. Perhaps Mr. Flynn has more secrets to share, and Mr. Mueller seems to be targeting Mr. Kushner for a turn of his screws. But in today’s hyperpartisan Washington it pays to wait for the evidence.