Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Dramatic Readings: Priebus

Screenshot from CNN broadcast of 20 February 2017

Another sketch in my project of dramatizing the Mueller Report, this one dealing with less boring characters than Mueller himself, and forcing me to invent the dialogue myself, since Mueller reports only the content, not in general the words.

As before, the aim is to clarify what the Report is and is not saying by letting the witnesses speak directly, like the participants' reminiscences in a TV documentary, mediated by some kind of voice-over (VO) narration where I'm allowed to speak a bit for myself, mostly through congressional-style pointed questioning. It also involves scrambling the Report's time sequence a bit, to bring together the individual threads that get stranded in Mueller's cop-report style.

I'm seriously trying to find a way of communicating the story somewhat concealed in the Report, to a broad public, ideally in a real documentary film or stage performance, but at any rate in readable form, at this point where the public doesn't seem to be catching on and the House committees are prevented by Trump's and Barr's continuing obstruction from doing it in the way Sam Dash and Sam Ervin did it in 1973. I have no idea if this approach works, I'm blinded in one of those trees-vs.-forest situations, and would appreciate being told one way or another.

PRIEBUS: Reince Priebus, sir, serving at the time as chairman of the Republican National Committee, and incoming chief of staff to President Trump, so I was spending a lot of time working with Trump headquarters in those first weeks of January, getting the system set up.
VO: And you got a call from the president, on January 12?
PRIEBUS: I did. He was upset.
VO: He was upset, on January 12? About what?
PRIEBUS: A column in the Washington Post. By David Ignatius. It was a kind of report, on General Mike Flynn, who was the incoming chief of the national security council, and the column said that Flynn had had a telephone conversation with the Russian ambassador, Ambassador Kislyak, on December 29.
VO: The day President Obama announced the new package of sanctions on Russian individuals and entities over the Russian interference in the election?
PRIEBUS: That's correct. Ignatius said the call or calls might have undercut the new Obama sanctions, and that could be a violation of the Logan Act.
VO: The 1799 law that makes it a crime to negotiate with a foreign power over a dispute with the United States if you don't have authorization from the United States.
PRIEBUS: Right. The president was upset about that. He said, "What in the hell is this all about?" So I called Flynn.
FLYNN: General Mike Flynn, former director Defense Intelligence Agency, former national security adviser. Priebus told me he'd spoken to the "boss", meaning Trump, and I needed to "kill the story", meaning the story David Ignatius had written about me, and I felt like I was coming under a lot of pressure, so I got my deputy K.T. McFarland to call Ignatius and tell him no discussion of sanctions had occurred.
McFARLAND: K.T. McFarland, former deputy national security adviser. The general told me, "I want to kill the story," so I called Ignatius and told him the story was inaccurate, the general had not mentioned sanctions in the call with the ambassador, and they added that denial to the piece.
VO: And was that true, that the general hadn't mentioned sanctions?
McFARLAND: No, that was not true.
VO: And you knew that because?
McFARLAND: I was at Mar-a-Lago—
VO: The president's luxury hotel and club in Palm Springs—
McFARLAND: —When the calls were made, I was at Mar-a-Lago with the president-elect and members of the senior staff and General Flynn was on holiday in the Dominican Republic, but he was scheduled to talk to Ambassador Kislyak, and I talked to him by phone about what he should say with regard to the sanctions, first of all telling him that we didn't want the Russians to escalate the situation.
PRIEBUS: Yes, she said it needed to be "cooled down". And the president complained, "Obama did those sanctions to embarrass me", delegitimizing his election.
McFARLAND: And thereafter Flynn, from the Dominican Republic, made his call to Kislyak and then reported to me that Russia wasn't going to do anything to escalate, as was confirmed when President Putin announced the next day that there would be no retaliation at all.
VO: And President Trump tweeted, "Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!" But at this point something odd happens to the record. Ms. McFarland's recollections give you the impression of a lively discussion in Florida about what Flynn should be saying to Kislyak, including Mr. Priebus, and the President-Elect, and Flynn himself remembered talking about the call with Stephen Bannon on January 1 and possibly with Trump himself two days later.
FLYNN: Bannon seemed to know about the phone conversation with the ambassador, and we agreed that we'd succeeded in stopping the train on Russia's response. I know I talked to Mr. Trump about the sanctions when I got back from Dominican Republic, on January 3, but I don't recall whether I talked to him about the call itself, or whether I mentioned the call in conversation with any other officials that week.
VO: But a couple of weeks later, according to Priebus, after the Ignatius piece came out, he had had no clue of these discussions, and was interviewing Flynn trying to find out what had happened that day and whether Ignatius was right.
PRIEBUS: Stephen Miller and I questioned General Flynn and he told us he didn't talk about sanctions at all. Stephen?
MILLER: And he told Vice President Pence and Press Secretary the same thing. We never imagined he might be lying to us. He's a general!
OK, trying to come up with a voice for Miller I get a little silly.

It's pretty interesting, in any case, how putting together this material (mostly from Vol. II pp. 24-26 and 29-30) opens up avenues for new questioning that could have been done in the House hearings, especially of McFarland ("Did you report to anybody on the contents of Flynn's calls to Kislyak? If not, why not?"), because it sure sounds to me as if Priebus and Miller should have known, as a lot of people seem to have done (not least whoever leaked the story to Ignatius), and obviously Bannon, who told Mueller he didn't remember this part of the conversation; after which I'd like to question Flynn about what Priebus and Miller said to him (this is just about the exact point where the Report stops citing Flynn's interviews and starts citing the public Statement of Offense instead, so it could involve things belonging to the secret counterintelligence investigation).

What narratological imagination sees in Priebus's report is the opposite of what he said they were doing: he and Miller, or perhaps just Miller, coaching Flynn and encouraging him to maintain the falsehood, with outside-the-loop figures like Pence and Spicer and ultimately with the FBI. Of course I realize we're dealing with real life, not a movie script, and this is where narratological imagination can get melodramatic, in its anxiety for a clear plotline.

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