Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fish in the Ocean of Story

Julia Zanes, Fish in the Ocean of Story II, 2008.
The way things have been going this week, anything anybody says is likely to be outdated about five minutes after you hit "publish", but I have a couple of things that might work out, riffing off Marcy Wheeler/Emptywheel—first, a post on Rep. Adam Schiff's remarkable narrative which impressed me so much on Monday—maybe I'll get to Rep. Devin Nunes later on.

On Schiff, she's skeptical about what she calls a "temporal feint" in the story, or "fudging the timeline". Respectfully—I think she's the smartest person over there on the edges of the Forest of Greenwald, and she certainly knows many things I don't, but this is narratology—she's poking at holes that really aren't there in the
passage which — if it were accurate — would be a tight little presentation of quid pro quo tied to the change of platform at the July 18-21, 2016 RNC. But it’s not.
This is the central sequence of July:
  • Page traveling to Moscow, making an anti-democratic, pro-corruption speech, and being offered the brokerage of the Rosneft sale which took place (as Christopher Steele predicted) in the fall;
  • The Trump campaign as represented by Page being offered kompromat material on Hillary Clinton, to be publicized in some deniable forum like WikiLeaks, "in exchange for a Trump Administration policy that de-emphasizes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and instead focuses on criticizing NATO countries for not paying their fair share";
  • the appearance of Manafort, Page, Gordon, Phares, and Sessions all getting together with Ambassador Kislyak in Cleveland for the Republican convention when the party platform was being finalized, and the expected Republican offer to provide weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces was removed from the text at the Trump campaign's insistence (in harmony with Steele's prediction, and the only request they had of the platform committee), though they later denied having anything to do with it;
  • the first appearance on WikiLeaks of material meant to embarrass Clinton, in the form of the emails stolen—by Russian intelligence sources, as it eventually turned out (and as Steele predicted)—from the DNC.
Wheeler's first objection is that the platform change wasn't really a "quid pro quo" (her expression, not Schiff's):
Republicans have noted that the changed platform matched the policy in place by the Obama Administration at the time: to help Ukraine, but stop short of arming them. All that said, the story on this has clearly changed. The change in the platform clearly shows the influence of Russophiles moving the party away from its hawkish stance, but it’s not enough, in my opinion, to sustain the claims of quid pro quo.
Well, duh. Trump hadn't been elected president yet, either. Trump couldn't possibly be president until after the November election, and his power to gratify his Russian supporters would be much greater if he did. You can think of the platform change as a kind of down payment or deposit, not to achieve a central Russian goal but to show that the Trump people were serious about working with them, because while it didn't give the Russians much, the Trumpers did run some risk in doing it—of exposing themselves as Putin's bitches, if you know what I mean, as subsequently happened.

Moreover, it's worth remembering that, as Steele said, Putin himself was motivated not by a positive attitude toward Trump but a negative attitude toward Clinton, whom he "hated" and "feared". Trump's people may have been too stupid to understand this, but the kompromat would have been released regardless, because his main aim wasn't to elect Trump but to weaken and humiliate Clinton; electing Trump would be a lovely frosting for the cake he was planning to bake in any case.

From Putin's standpoint, what he was doing with the Trumpers wasn't a quid pro quo at all, a deal where he would do some services for them for a particular payment. Wheeler's mistake is to restrict herself to the Trumpers' point of view here, and failing to understand that Putin was the controlling factor. He was inducting them into his gang, and the platform change was the minor violence in which they were to make their bones.

Next, Wheeler complains that Schiff's narrative
obscures the timeline of events, putting the release of DNC emails after the change in platform. That is true with regards to the Wikileaks release, but not the Guccifer 2 release, which preceded the platform change.
But the Guccifer 2 release was wholly ineffective; unsearchable and unedited. It was the WikiLeaks release, with its elegant packaging and helpful analysis telling you which emails to pay attention to and how they showed that the DNC had been illegitimately favoring Clinton over Sanders (which they really didn't, as many commentators have noted), that did the damage. The Guccifer 2 release might have been intended just to confuse the issue in the way Wheeler has gotten confused.

Wheeler's last point is somewhat fair: that Schiff conflates two of Steele's reports, one from late June saying that Russian intelligence had some kind of kompromat material on Clinton (mainly bugged conversations she had on visits to Russia which did not include "embarrassing conduct") that it intended to use with the one from late July identifying the WikiLeaks release of DNC emails as the fulfillment of a Russian promise, to make it look as if Steele had predicted the WikiLeaks release before it happened:
the references in Steele’s dossier Schiff invokes are not so clear cut — the dossier alleges Russia offered kompromat on Hillary unrelated to the stolen emails before any discussion of the Wikileaks emails. 
But she herself is doing some serious conflating, because the earlier Steele report refers to a couple of clearly different things: the dossier of bugged conversations which "had not as yet been made available abroad, including to TRUMP or his campaign team," and some entirely other "valuable information" that "the Kremlin had been feeding TRUMP and his team... on his opponents, including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary CLINTON, for several years". The emails are more likely to have belonged to that second basket; there's no evidence that they wouldn't have been a new part of the material with which the Russian agencies were planning to help the Trump campaign.

So it's not quite the case that Steele knew as of June 20 that Russians would start using some new material on Trump's behalf after the convention, but that was entirely coherent with what he did know, so that after it started happening and Source E ("an ethnic Russian close associate" of Trump) told him about where the WikiLeaks dump was coming from, he knew exactly how to interpret it. And he did have that incredible prescience about Carter Page and the 19% of Rosneft. Wheeler's critique doesn't make the whole thing even slightly less credible.

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