Saturday, November 2, 2019

Don't shoot the comedian

Volodymyr Zelenskyy last March, at a taping for his comedy series Servant of the People. Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images via NPR.

Pleased on Thursday to note Washington Post confirming my speculation of Wednesday ("Vindman heard Trump himself asking Zelenskyy for the same thing, as a "favor", so you can see how serious it must have begun to seem, to him and to Eisenberg too, who decided to hide the transcript away before they had even finished editing it"):
Moments after President Trump ended his phone call with Ukraine’s president on July 25, an unsettled national security aide rushed to the office of White House lawyer John Eisenberg....
Vindman told Eisenberg, the White House’s legal adviser on national security issues, that what the president did was wrong, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
Scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad, Eisenberg proposed a step that other officials have said is at odds with long-standing White House protocol: moving a transcript of the call to a highly classified server and restricting access to it, according to two people familiar with Vindman’s account.
It seems more and more likely that somebody, perhaps Eisenberg himself, did delete some words from the draft transcript file and scrupulously replace them with ellipses (which means that those, all three in places where Trump was making his demands for investigations, were the only changes that were made), and it's certain that he refused to make the two corrections Vindman referred to proposing in his testimony; and Emptywheel was right to suggest
It’s also possible that whatever the other two ellipses in the TELCON hide are things he believes should remain secret. Vindman certainly would know what those ellipses hide, even if he didn’t recommend adding those details back in, and surely got asked about it yesterday.
I don't think the changes make a really important difference to the text, though, and I'm really fatigued with arguing over whether there's some still more secret transcript somewhere that is more accurate—the original document, created automatically by speech recognition software, was less accurate than the final product edited by experts:
“When I got to the Situation Room and my predecessor explained this incredibly inefficient process that we use, I had a lot of questions,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a 30-year U.S. intelligence veteran who managed the Situation Room during the Obama years. “I said ‘Why don’t we just record the call and write a transcript based on that?’”
Pfeiffer said his predecessor told him that the White House stopped taping presidential calls in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon recorded 3,700 hours of conversations, transcripts of which were used by Watergate investigators and during impeachment hearings that followed.
Pfeiffer said White House lawyers finally approved the idea of having a duty officer, wearing a headset, sit in a separate room, and repeat what was said on the call into voice-to-text software — again without creating any audio recording.
Individuals familiar with Trump White House procedure say one Situation Room staffer, using voice-to-text software, repeats each word the president says and another listens and repeats what the foreign leader says. The software turns the words they repeat into text and a rough draft of the telcon is produced.
That draft is given to subject matter specialists on the NSC, who edit the draft for accuracy. Each draft is separately preserved. After it’s finalized, it’s turned over to the national security adviser — Bolton, at the time — or the deputy, who was Kupperman, for their approval. White House lawyers also play a role in approving NSC documents.
After that, the telcon is given back to staffers tasked with preserving the document as a presidential record. (Deb Riechmann/AP)
If there are "separately preserved drafts" then there really is stuff in the NICE system that could be looked at. Vindman (NSC specialist) would have had his own annotated copy of the draft. But we know that Vindman didn't subtract anything but only added. There might be something in the generation before the draft Vindman was working on, the original machine-made voice-to-text version, but I can't see Eisenberg grabbing that, after Vindman warned him that the transcript was evidence of a crime, deleting stuff and adding ellipses, and then giving it to Vindman to edit after concealing some of the evidence Vindman was worried about. Whatever there is as a result of this process is not hugely different from what we got, and is absolutely incriminating enough in conjunction with the Taylor and Vindman evidence and whatever else we don't yet know about.

I really object to emptywheel referring to Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a "corrupt hack" and claiming that Trump had "succeeded in corrupting Zelensky, who ran on a platform of ending corruption". I think this is a good place to embark on discussing what's wrong with emptywheel, why she's often so extremely difficult to read and why she sometimes seems so psychologically wrong: because she masters all the documents but lacks what I call narratology.

An example is in the last-linked post, where she quotes The Times
The omissions, Colonel Vindman said, included Mr. Trump’s assertion that there were recordings of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. discussing Ukraine corruption....Mr. Trump’s mention of tapes is an apparent reference to Mr. Biden’s comments at a January 2018 event about his effort to get Ukraine to force out its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin.
But wait, she goes on to say, Vindman's tapes are plural, but The Times ties them to a single recording, that of Biden's Council on Foreign Relations talk in January 2018! There must be more!
at the very least, there are the US versions of prior communications in which Biden would have emphasized the importance of firing Shokin. And there may well be other recordings reflecting that the ask happened, for example of Poroshenko talking to Arseniy Yatsenyuk about it. Given that getting Poroshenko to act on corruption was a key focus of Obama’s policy, it would have been a key focus of SIGINT collection. So if we had the ability to collect such conversations, we would have done so. And if we did, those recordings would still be sitting at NSA available to anyone with the need to know.
Trump would have legal access to all of that and, given his focus on Ukraine and “corruption,” an excuse to pull it up....
The idea that Trump, the man who hasn't even been able to find out that Stealth aircraft are not really invisible, could have been aware of and interested in checking out "all of that" documentation at the NSA, is too ridiculous to contemplate. What Trump knew about was Biden's "bragging" (as he called it in the phone call) at the CFR talk, and he knew about it not from US intelligence services but Fox News, where Sean Hannity and others have been lying about it. That's where Trump gets his information. John Solomon first published it in The Hill in April 2019
Two years after leaving office, Joe Biden couldn’t resist the temptation last year to brag to an audience of foreign policy specialists about the time as vice president that he strong-armed Ukraine into firing its top prosecutor.
and it was on Fox the following day, and Trump repeated it in a Fox News interview in May, garbling and exaggerating the story:
Trump: Biden, he calls them and says, “Don’t you dare prosecute, if you don’t fire this prosecutor” — the prosecutor was after his son. Then he said, “If you fire the prosecutor, you’ll be OK. And if you don’t fire the prosecutor, we’re not giving you $2 billion in loan guarantees,” or whatever he was supposed to give. Can you imagine if I did that?
A little over a month before he called Zelensky and asked him, as a "favor", to have his prosecutor investigate the CrowdStrike matter, Mueller, and Joe Biden (so I guess we don't need to imagine it), with the implied threat of cutting military aid.

No, Marcy, Vindman's use of a plural does not prove that Trump was rooting around for evidence at the NSA. Maybe the tape became "tapes" the same way the billion dollars became "$2 billion or whatever" it Trump's mouth, or maybe it was completely inadvertent, but it isn't evidence of anything.

A similar literalness infects her analysis of Zelenskyy's side of the phone call
In the call that Zelensky surely expected would remain private, he repeated much of what the back channel advisors had cued him to say. In addition to scolding Europe for not supporting Ukraine as well as the United States and providing assurances that he would and already had made personnel changes Trump wanted to see, Zelensky repeatedly agreed to cooperate on investigations... in response to clear demands from Trump. First he asked for an investigation into 2016.... Then he made several demands that Zelensky investigate Biden.... He then seems to demand that Zelensky reinstate Viktor Shokin, the corrupt prosecutor Biden (and much of international community) called to be fired.
But Zelenskyy does not agree in a clear way to cooperate on investigations. He fails to use the code words Sondland had told him to use ("I will leave no stone unturned"). On the question of the CrowdStrike investigation he notes that he "understands and is knowledgeable about the situation," but folds it into remarks about all sorts of investigations: "I also plan to surround myself with great people and in addition to that investigation, I guarantee as the President of Ukraine that all the investigations will be done openly and candidly." After Trump asks about Biden, he absolutely refuses to hire the criminal Shokin: "The next prosecutor general will be 100% my person, my candidate," and adds that the case isn't actually the case, but he will work on the latter: "The issue of the investigation of the [Biden] case is actually the issue of making sure to restore the honesty so we will take care of that and will work on the investigation of the case." And as I was saying earlier, on Marie Yovanovitch, he takes care to say that "It was great that you were the first one who told me she was a bad ambassador" meaning nobody who knows her would say so.

And then of course he didn't start any investigations, "openly and candidly" or otherwise, over the next six weeks, after the phone call of 25 July or after the Madrid meeting in the first week of August between Giuliani and Yermak, which was the same time as the Ukrainian government learned the Javelin missiles were being held up for sure, as The Times reported 23 October:
The problem was not bureaucratic, the Ukrainians were told. To address it, they were advised, they should reach out to Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, according to the interviews and records.
Zelenskyy intended for Trump to believe he was going to do this stuff, but he didn't intend to do it. His words were meant to buy some time and keep the big man from getting enraged. Just as when he said at the UN, Trump glowering down on him from the other side of a vaseful of flowers, that he hadn't felt "pushed" or "pressured" at all, and the now famous phone call had been "normal".
GREENE: I mean, he clearly doesn't want to be here. You just have to look back to September, when the impeachment process was just starting. Zelenskiy was at the U.N. in September, sitting awkwardly next to Trump.
PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: I'm sorry, but I don't want to be involved to Democratic open - elections - elections of U.S.A.
That's from the outtakes to a very sympathetic piece on NPR yesterday morning, profiling Zelenskyy in terms of his acting and comedy career (as you've probably heard, in his last hit series he played the role of a president, like an Aaron Sorkin series with a sense of humor, and it was this that propelled him into the office for real—and he's more of a genuine star than I realized), and focusing on the terrible awkwardness of his position between Russian invasion and its 13,000 dead on the one hand, and Donald Trump and his scary whimsy on the other.
"That military assistance was a strong signal of American support for Ukraine," says Steven Pifer, who served in the late 90s as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. "So that's the official policy. And then you have the second policy, which the president seems to have outsourced to Rudy Giuliani."
Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, had been digging for information about the Bidens in Ukraine.
"That's part of the whole quid pro quo conversation with the Ukrainians," Pifer says. He says it left Zelensky in "a horrible position."
"It seems to me that President Zelenskiy is figuring out a path to navigate this without angering President Trump but also without doing stuff that plunges this country into our domestic politics," Pifer says. "It doesn't help Ukraine in any way to become a football in our 2020 election."
Don't shoot the comedian, he's doing his best.

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