Thursday, May 24, 2018

Who do you think you're fooling?

From the manga JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Vento Aureo (1996)

Shorter Mr. Bret Stephens, "Did the F.B.I. Save Trump's Presidency?", New York Times, 24 May 2018:
My smoking hot take is that Trump should really be grateful to the FBI for purging his administration of the Russian stooges he was totally unaware of in his innocence because he's completely innocent right I mean this is obviously the case unless it isn't and he's actually dangerously complicit of which there's a maybe 49% probability in my opinion so sue me am I supposed to write this whole thing all over again?
It's two columns simultaneously, slightly at odds with each other, what you might call exoteric and esoteric if you know what I mean Only it's not so easy to tell which is which: the one of the headline, in which Trump's innocence is an assumption that doesn't even need to be mentioned,  and the one of the opening grafs, in which he scrambles to lay out some proof that Trump is innocent, not very satisfactorily in my view:
There has always been a relatively innocent and eminently plausible interpretation for why Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had so many suspicious ties to Russia. Let’s review:
First, the candidate himself took an indulgent view of Vladimir Putin. This was naïve, but it was no crime: Barack Obama also sought rapprochement with Moscow in 2008, despite Russia’s invasion of Georgia that year and the Kremlin’s notorious human-rights abuses.
One of the things about the Obama "reset" that is virtually always ignored is that it was founded in part on the possibility that you could ignore Putin. There was a nominally new government in Russia at the moment, from May 2008, under President Dmitry Medvedev, who had nothing to do with the Georgia war as it happens

General Baluyevsky admitted in 2012 that when the decision to attack Georgia was taken by President Putin before 
Dmitry Medvedev assumed the office of president of Russia in May 2008, a military action was planned and explicit orders were issued in advance before August 2008. Russia aimed to stop Georgia's accession to NATO and also to bring about a "regime change".
It would eventually turn out that Putin would be able to reconstitute his power base in his new office (though he never warmed to it, and decided to be president again just four years later instead of allowing Medvedev the decency of a second term), but Obama's gamble, that he could make something out of Medvedev's desire to present himself as a cool, modern, liberal, technologically savvy and America-curious president in contrast to Putin, wasn't a mistake. The proof is that he did in fact get something out of it: the landmark New START treaty for the reduction of nuclear weapons, signed in 2010 (which Trump told Putin over the phone, in their first call, was a "bad deal", no word on whether he's found out what it is yet), and agreement (in what now seems like it may not have been such a good idea) on backing the Franco-British plan to help the Libyan insurgency:
The two leaders had similar feelings. Both deeply disliked the Libyan regime and found Muammar al-Qaddafi repulsive. Both had met the Libyan leader and concluded that he had lost touch with reality. Even his son Saif al-Islam, a secular young man who frequently haunted fashionable Moscow nightclubs in the company of Russian oligarchs and models, was ashamed of his eccentric father, who never parted company with his traditional Bedouin tent, even on trips abroad. In the end, Obama and Medvedev agreed that they would not interfere with French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to oust the Libyan leader.
This does not reveal an attitude toward Putin completely comparable to Trump's "I wonder if he will be my new best friend",  or anything beyond the chill that set in as soon as Putin returned to the presidency.

It's also important to remember that, as we now fully understand (we didn't during the 2016 campaign), Trump's "indulgence" toward Putin isn't some kind of weird but harmlessly dotty mancrush but a business decision connected with his intensely pursued project, at least 12 years old now, of building a Trump Tower Moscow. He's been flattering and flirting with Putin since at least 2006 in the first instance because he hoped to make a shit-ton of money out of the relationship. The "new best friend" tweet was written in anticipation of the Miss Universe weekend after which he wrote,
"This was naïve, but it was no crime," writes Mr. Bret. I'd say it may not have been a crime, but it was certainly not naïve. Beyond that, the Stephens account is mostly fish in a barrel:
Second, Trump had extensive business ties to Russians, both as customers and partners. This, too, isn’t criminal, even if some of those customers and partners were.
It's also not a crime to lie about your business ties to Russian oligarchs and mobsters, persistently and specifically, even as the evidence you're lying continues to pile in, in August 2017:
“To be clear, the Trump Organization has never had any real estate holdings or interests in Russia,” the Trump Organization said Monday in a statement. Mr. Trump, however signed a nonbinding “letter of intent” for the project in 2015. Mr. Cohen said he discussed the project with Mr. Trump three times.
It's not a crime, but it's not a very good look if you want people to believe there's nothing untoward about your business ties to Russians. Especially if half the people you know are lying persistently and specifically about their relationships with Russians too.
Third, Trump ran a chaos campaign. It lacked the kind of vetting procedures that might have excluded political grifters like Paul Manafort or Carter Page. Trump hired Manafort in part because he owned an apartment in Trump Tower and promised to work for free. Page came aboard on the casual recommendation of Ed Cox, chairman of the New York Republican Party.
You can certainly convince me that Trump might not have understood what was going on when Manafort and Page, and George Papadopoulos (whose name Stephens doesn't mention), were dropped on his doorstep in that weird fortnight in March 2016, Papadopoulos immediately beginning to agitate for a Trump-Putin meeting (when that was revealed, in October 2017, is when Trump started calling him a "liar" and "low-level volunteer"). But you can't convince me he didn't get into it. It wasn't the fairies who gave him Felix Sater and Michael Cohen (neither mentioned in the Stephens column) either, and he has his own connection with the Agalarovs, and Dmitry Rybolovlev, and others. And then there's General Flynn.
Retired Gen. Mike Flynn, the future national security adviser, had his own financial ties to Russian companies and organizations that would stand to benefit from the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Russia. Flynn’s sudden advocacy for lifting sanctions was especially odd given that he was previously on record as an anti-Russia hawk.
In his guilty plea, Flynn acknowledged that he was reaching out to Russians during the transition at Trump's behest (this is the news that was buried when ABC's Brian Ross made an error in the dates and the story became about him and "fake news" instead). Trump denied, that, but in a very peculiar way:
The President has denied directing Flynn to make the contacts.
“No, I didn’t direct him,” Trump said in February, “but I would have directed him if he didn’t do it, okay?”
Fourth, Trump talks (or tweets) a lot of trash. When, at a rally in October 2016, he said “I love WikiLeaks!” because of its publication of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s hacked emails, did the candidate even understand that the U.S. government saw WikiLeaks as a vehicle for Russian political interference? Perhaps not.
Perhaps, but he was informed about it in his first national security briefing on August 17 2016, and began explicitly denying they were right about it on September 26:
He says: “I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She's saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don't — maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don't know who broke into DNC.”
So I think it's pretty clear he's heard about the theory.
Finally, Trump was ill-served by his inept son, Don Jr., whose bungled efforts to solicit damaging information on Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer would have constituted collusion, if anything had come of it. But Trump himself claims to have been unaware of the infamous Trump Tower meeting at the time.
So he does. Which didn't stop him from orchestrating the response when the fact of the meeting emerged, dictating lies about it from aboard Air Force One on his way home from Germany on 8 July. Quick work for somebody who's never heard of it before. This is the one thing, alongside Trump's unshakable determination not to sanction the Russian government, that convinces me he is a central part, though hardly a mastermind, of this conspiracy.

Collusion, as we've repeatedly been informed, is not a crime, but conspiracy is, and Junior and the mob of Trump Tower guests in June certainly did conspire, whether or not they did it effectively (longtime readers know I believe more things happened at that meeting than have been publicly confirmed, though Junior, Kushner, and Veselnitskaya likely were not in on them—Trump himself was, since he began predicting the arrival of email-related dirt on Clinton two days before the meeting).

Stephens goes back to the plan in the headline at this point and offers some pious gratitude to the FBI for exposing Manafort's and Flynn's evil doings (not Michael Cohen, though). In spite of the fact that Manafort was outed not by the FBI but by the postrevolutionary Ukrainian government releasing the black books that recorded the enormous payments he'd been receiving from pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, without informing the IRS or registering under FARA.

And then he piously allows that Trump might not be innocent after all:
he’s either profoundly foolish or, in ways we don’t yet understand, dangerously complicit. I still lean toward the former interpretation — just.
But it's a little late at that point in the column, Bret. Who do you think you're fooling? I don't think you're in such a pitiable state of innocence yourself. I think you're doing exactly what you do in the global warming columns, telling a story you know to be false and wrapping it in the pose of understanding "both sides" and not saying, just saying. I think you know exactly what you're leaving out and what you're distorting in this piece. You are now officially worse than Bill Kristol. Resign.

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