Sunday, April 28, 2019

More Than Mere Anarchy

Couldn't find a decent illustration for "mere anarchy", which has been taken over by Woody Allen and Moby (in separate efforts), but here's a fabulous widening gyre, by Hiroshige.

Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, introduces his version of a take we'll be hearing a lot of, I'm sure, on the Mueller Report ("The Mueller Exposé")
Roughly four thousand, two hundred and twenty-seven Trump-era news cycles ago, there was a rather famous book called “Fire and Fury.” The author, Michael Wolff, used an interesting tactic to gain access to the Trump White House: He allowed his subjects, the president included, to believe that he was going to write a positive account of the Trump administration, and then used that access to produce an account of an administration in constant chaos, and a president who was understood by everyone around him to be unfit for the job.
One way to approach the Mueller report, if your sense of civic duty requires you to approach it, is to see it as a more rigorous, capacious version of “Fire and Fury.” Mueller's exposé was backed by subpoena power rather than just sweet talk, but ultimately it delivers the same general portrait: Donald Trump as an amoral incompetent surrounded by grifters, misfits and his own overpromoted children, who is saved from self-destruction by advisers who sometimes decline to follow orders, and saved from high crimes in part by incompetence and weakness.
Sure he's disgusting, but his quick-witted staff (as opposed to the corrupt staff that "surrounds" him, apparently he's got both) stops him from committing all the crimes he's inclined to commit, so we ought to be able to live with that for another four years. And what an "interesting" unethical slob that Michael Wolff was, allowing Trump to think he was going to tell comforting lies about the president when he was secretly planning to tell the truth the whole time. Now let's get back to the horse race!

... because it adds to a well-understood reality, the report will probably have the same modest political impact, the same limited media half-life as prior, less-extensive exposés, and we will be back to talking about whether Joe Biden can beat Bernie Sanders and whether Sanders can beat Trump.
As ever, Ross is careful to avoid unsophisticated or immature judgments—he doesn't push the view that there's anything wrong with an amoral, incompetent, and weak president, as some frazzle-brained innocent like Friedman might find himself doing. Ross is just keeping his readers informed about the facts. It's not as if there were some important moral issue at stake, like whether divorced persons should be permitted to take communion. It's just the US government being its usual feckless but entertaining self. As the bartender said to the horse sitting down at the bar, "Why the long face?"

The column's big example of how the Mueller Report is pretty much the same thing as Fire and Fury—gossip that won't affect elections—is from the Trump campaign's strange démarche at the 2016 Cleveland convention to censor the Republican platform, at what has always looked like Russian request:
Just to read the Mueller report’s paragraphs on the change to the G.O.P. convention platform on Ukraine, long a minor locus of Putin-Trump quid pro quo conspiracy theorizing, is sufficient to recognize how much freelancing and chaos dominated the Trump campaign, and how little direction was offered from above.
Really? Let's have a look at the first, summary paragraph on the subject (I:123):
Trump Campaign officials met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the week of the Republican National Convention. The evidence indicates that those interactions were brief and non-substantive. During platform committee meetings immediately before the Convention, J.D. Gordon, a senior Campaign advisor on policy and national security, diluted a proposed amendment to the Republican Party platform expressing support for providing “lethal” assistance to Ukraine in response to Russian aggression. Gordon requested that platform committee personnel revise the proposed amendment to state that only “appropriate” assistance be provided to Ukraine. The original sponsor of the “lethal” assistance amendment stated that Gordon told her (the sponsor) that he was on the phone with candidate Trump in connection with his request to dilute the language. Gordon denied making that statement to the sponsor, although he acknowledged it was possible he mentioned having previously spoken to the candidate about the subject matter. The investigation did not establish that Gordon spoke to or was directed by the candidate to make that proposal. Gordon said that he sought the change because he believed the proposed language was inconsistent with Trump’s position on Ukraine.
(Note a small incoherence in the ordering of the first two sentences, reporting events of 18-20 July, before the rest of the paragraph, on events of the previous week, 11-12 July.)

I don't see any evidence of chaos here. I do see what Douthat means by "freelancing"—simply accepting Gordon's assertion that he did it on his own initiative because he believed Trump wouldn't have liked the thing—but that's not what the report does; it says that Mueller was unable to establishthat word again—Gordon's reason for demanding the platform change.

And in fact we can see why by referring to the Special Counsel's written exchange with Trump, in which it was one of the 19 out of 22 questions Trump couldn't answer:
Response to Question IV, Part (f): I have no recollection of the details of what, when, or from what source I first learned about the change to the platform amendment regarding arming Ukraine, but I generally recall learning of the issue as part of media reporting. I do not recall being involved in changing the language to the amendment.
He might have been involved in it, he might not—\_(ツ)_/

According to [delegate Diana] Denman, she spoke with Gordon and Matt Miller, and they told her that they had to clear the language and that Gordon was “talking to New York."803 Denman told others that she was asked by the two Trump Campaign staffers to strike “lethal defense weapons” from the proposal but that she refused.804 Denman recalled Gordon saying that he was on the phone with candidate Trump, but she was skeptical whether that was true.805 Gordon denied having told Denman that he was on the phone with Trump, although he acknowledged it was possible that he mentioned having previously spoken to the candidate about the subject matter.806 Gordon’s phone records reveal a call to Sessions’s office in Washington that afternoon, but do not include calls directly to a number associated with Trump.807 
Ah, Senator Sessions, the Trump campaign's major advisor on national security issues—could calling him be characterized as "talking to New York" in the sense of talking to the leadership of the Trump Tower–headquartered campaign? (Gordon has told the Special Counsel's Office that his calls to Sessions were not about the platform change—yes, "calls" plural, I:126 fn 807. But Gordon doesn't always tell the truth on the subject.)

Sessions was also a board member at Dmitri Simes's Center for the National Interest, a think tank that has "unparalleled access to Russian officials and politicians", which sponsored Trump's 25 April foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel, where Trump didn't mention Ukraine but did say (in words written for him mainly by Sessions's protégé Stephen Miller) that
Russia, for instance, has also seen the horror of Islamic terrorism. I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only is possible, absolutely possible. Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon. Good for both countries.
Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can’t make a deal under my administration, a deal that’s great — not good, great — for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table. It’s as simple as that. We’re going to find out.
We're also told that that Simes helped out with the writing of the speech (I:105):
In mid-April 2016, Kushner put Simes in contact with senior policy advisor Stephen Miller and forwarded to Simes an outline of the foreign-policy speech that Miller had prepared. 613 Simes sent back to the Campaign bullet points with ideas for the speech that he had drafted with CNI Executive Director Paul Saunders and board member Richard Burt.614
Simes received subsequent draft outlines from Miller, and he and Saunders spoke to Miller by phone about substantive changes to the speech. Sessions attended—the VIP reception beforehand was where he first met Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the subject of his original lie to the Senate Foreign Relations committee. The speech was coordinated by Simes and Jared Kushner, who'd been working together on refining the candidate's foreign policy in conjunction with Sessions and J.D. Gordon, the Mueller Report tells us (I:103-104)
under the assumption “that Hillary Clinton is very vulnerable on national security and foreign policy issues.” The memorandum outlined key issues for the Campaign, including a “new beginning with Russia.”
Gordon and Sessions also both show up as featured speakers at the Global Partners in Diplomacy event for 40 foreign ambassadors sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the State Department and held in Cleveland on 19 July, the second day of the Republican Convention; Gordon's speech, we're told, called for improved US-Russia relations, and Sessions may have taken an audience question from Kislyak, but couldn't recall specifically what he'd said in his "few minutes" of conversation with the ambassador in the reception line, in another of the encounters he lied to Al Franken about but later discussed with the Special Counsel's Office. Simes wasn't in Cleveland, but guess who was (I:124):
Later that evening, Gordon attended a reception as part of the conference. 784 Gordon ran into Kislyak as the two prepared plates of food, and they decided to sit at the same table to eat.785 They were joined at that table by the ambassadors from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and by Trump Campaign advisor Carter Page. As they ate, Gordon and Kislyak talked for what Gordon estimated to have been three to five minutes, during which Gordon again mentioned that he meant what he said in his speech about improving U.S.-Russia relations.
Two countries with which Donald Trump has had complex financial dealings, and good old Page, just back from the visit to Moscow in which he gave the speech that (I:100)
criticized the U.S. government’s foreign policy toward Russia, stating that “Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change." 567
and also
met with friends and associates he knew from when he lived in Russia, including Andrey Baranov, a former Gazprom employee who had become the head of investor relations at Rosneft, a Russian energy company. 572 Page stated that he and Baranov talked about “immaterial non-public” information.573 Page believed he and Baranov discussed Rosneft president Igor Sechin, and he thought Baranov might have mentioned the possibility of a sale of a stake in Rosneft in passing Page recalled mentioning his involvement in the Trump Campaign with Baranov, although he did not remember details of the conversation.
which sounds an awful lot like a twin of the story Christopher Steele relayed in his memos of 19 July, 18 October, and 20 October 2016 (which people who know more than me generally regard as bogus or disinformatsiya, but I think this demonstrates that however wrong the story may be it does have a factual foundation)—and
On July 8, 2016, while he was in Moscow, Page emailed several Campaign officials and stated he would send “a readout soon regarding some incredible insights and outreach I’ve received from a few Russian legislators and senior members of the Presidential Administration here.”577 On July 9, 2016, Page emailed Clovis, writing in pertinent part:
Russian Deputy Prime minister and NES board member Arkady Dvorkovich also spoke before the event. In a private conversation, Dvorkovich expressed strong support for Mr. Trump and a desire to work together toward devising better solutions in response to the vast range of current international problems. Based on feedback from a diverse array of other sources close to the Presidential Administration, it was readily apparent that this sentiment is widely held at all levels of government.
And there seems to be a good deal more but it's blacked out as grand jury material. But when Page was hanging out with Gordon and Kislyak over dinner in Cleveland on 19 July, sounds like they might have had plenty to talk about.

What it doesn't sound like is chaos. It looks like what I'd like to call "collusion", if the word hasn't been totally ruined for further use: like "playing together"—all these names that keep colliding in embarrassing ways seem to have been working to accomplish mutually agreeable purposes, like a gang on a fairly consistent set of paths, not all criminal, and aware of each other's activities if not always very clearly. Even the distinguished think-tanker Dmitry Simes was trying to hawk "Clinton dirt" to Kushner on 17 August 2016 (a recent article in the Washington Examiner claims it was a tape of Bill-Monica phone sex supplied not by Russians but rogue US intelligence workers which is redacted for privacy reasons from the Mueller Report I:109, but this must be a fabrication given that Simes himself spoke of "'a well-documented story of highly questionable connections between Bill Clinton' and the Russian government, 'parts of [which]' (according to Simes) had even been 'discussed with the CIA and the FBI in the late 1990s and shared with the [Independent Counsel] at the end of the Clinton presidency'", loc.cit.).

I've conjectured that the platform change was intended as an agreed-on signal to the Russian forces that the Trump forces had agreed on some final terms that if they succeeded in electing Trump they would eliminate sanctions on Russia, whereupon WikiLeaks began publishing its curated edition of the DNC emails (with helpful analyses for journalists and a good search function). The Mueller Report doesn't address the question of why they might have done it at all, but bringing so many suspicious folks plausibly into the story, from the highest levels  (Trump himself and Sessions) on down, doesn't make me more likely to see it as "mere anarchy" the way Wolff's book arguably did. Douthat is just blowing smoke, and he's been careful not to study the thing too hard. He'd rather not know too much.

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