Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The road to perdition.

Why, exactly, is anyone surprised? FBI Director James Comey did as Congress asked on Monday when testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. He confirmed that neither the FBI nor the Department of Justice have any information supporting Donald Trump's tweets accusing Barack Obama of tapping his phones.

This cannot have come as a surprise to anyone. Since Trump first tweeted his accusation two weeks ago, defenders of the President have been scurrying to his defense. As President, they argued, Trump must have sources of information that the rest of us don't know about. Yet it was apparent from the outset that it was just more of the same old, same old. Trump's information source for the first tweet--accusing Barack Obama of bugging his phones--was a rant by right-wing talk show star Mark Levin that was written up in Breitbart. Levin did suggest that phones in Trump Tower may have been under surveillance, but all of the information he cited referenced legal investigations--a fact that Trump omitted from his comments on the matter. The second tweet was more egregious--accusing the British spy agency GCHQ of tapping his phones on Obama's behalf--and Trump himself later acknowledged that his only source of information was comments made by Fox News "analyst" and Trump groupie Andrew Napolitano that Trump saw on TV.

This was vintage Donald Trump, full of bluff and bluster, and animated by conspiracy theories for as long as he has been in the public eye. This is the man who boasted that he got his military intelligence from the Sunday morning shows, who claimed to know more about ISIS than the Generals, and who eschewed the daily intelligence briefings. This is the man whose rivals in the Republican primaries warned that he was a con man, a pathological liar, and a cancer on the Republican Party. Yet any number of senior, respected Republican members of Congress still saw fit to place their own credibility on the line in his defense.

And, true to form, in the wake of Comey's testimony giving the lie to the entire episode, the White House responded by confirming that Trump has no intention of withdrawing--much less apologizing for--his accusations. The only question that was left at the end of the day was how on earth could anyone be surprised?

For all the build up, we actually learned little new from this week's testimony by James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers. They confirmed what had long been concluded by any reasonable observer: that Russia's President Vladimir Putin led an information operation targeting our presidential election, and that the FBI was continuing to investigate Russia's actions, as well as potential collusion in Russia's operations by Trump campaign operatives. Comey described Putin's strategy as having three distinct objectives: first, to seed chaos in our election and damage public confidence in U.S. democratic institutions; second, to undermine Hillary Clinton as a candidate and--presuming she was expected to win--her credibility and capacity as President; and, finally, to support Donald Trump's campaign. In response to Republican pushback, Comey specifically emphasized that it was not just that Putin deeply detested Clinton and wanted her to lose, Putin wanted Trump to win.

Republicans have been dragged kicking and screaming to accept the fact of Russia's efforts on Donald Trump's behalf. It was not enough that Republicans won the presidency, they seemed determined to feel clean and righteous about how things transpired. Even as many Republicans ultimately came to acknowledge over the past few months that the Russian operation was real, they were always quick to caveat any discussion of Putin's efforts with the disclaimer that, 'of course, nothing Russia did impacted the results of the election.' If nothing else, that codicil to the discussion of Russia's efforts was debunked by the tenor of Monday's testimony.

We will, of course, never know what the impact ultimately was of Russia's operation on the outcome of the election. Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College by virtue of a combined 77,000 vote margin in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, representing a mere 0.06% of the 127 million votes cast across the country. It was an outcome that has been attributed by some to Clinton's lack of an effective campaign message and evident disdain for the white working class voters who flocked to Trump, and by others to James Comey's own interventions into the race. But given the closeness of the race--Republican disclaimers notwithstanding--one simply cannot dismiss the impact of Russian intervention as a factor that may have tipped the balance. Russia's cyber and disinformation efforts--including the steady stream of WikiLeaks disclosures--had the effect of a months-long campaign of attack ads designed to drive up Clinton's negatives.

Even as Comey and Rogers were testifying before the House committee, Trump tweeted out in his own inimitable fashion to try to spin their words as an affirmation that Russia's operations had no impact on the outcome. Told of Trump's tweet, Comey retorted in real time that Trump was misstating his and Rogers' conclusions. Rogers had testified that there was no evidence that voting machines were tampered with, but, Comey stated to correct the record, neither he nor Rogers meant to suggest that the Russian efforts had no impact on the outcome. The target of the Russian campaign was not the voting machines, it was the voters. And in that regard, Comey suggested that it was likely that Russia will be back again in two or four years, seeking to wreck further havoc in our elections, for the simple reason that they will conclude that their efforts this time around were successful.

Last Sunday, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd suggested that, in the wake of the ongoing controversy surrounding the tweets, Donald Trump was struggling with a credibility gap that was threatening his ability to push the healthcare bill through the House. The healthcare vote, scheduled for tomorrow, looms to be a crucial test of how badly Trump has been weakened by his continuing conduct and his nationally televised rebuke at the hands of James Comey and Mike Rogers.

It was not surprising that just a day after their testimony, the stock market suffered its worst one day decline of the year--as traders began to question whether Trump would be able to deliver on the tax cuts he has promised--and conservatives in the House began to push back against Trump's demands that they fall in line and support his healthcare bill.

Chuck Todd's comments raised the question of how a conspiracy theorist and demagogue who long ago sacrificed any claims to credibility could suddenly have a credibility gap. The answer, of course, is that Republicans have been steadfast in their to determination to convince themselves that Donald Trump is someone other than who he really is. Just ten months ago, Marco Rubio warned that they were dealing with a con man, and Ted Cruz warned that Trump was a pathological liar.

That was the Donald Trump who loomed in the background as the House committee listened to testimony, the man who Rick Perry suggested early on was a cancer on conservatism, a toxic mix of demagoguery and mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party on the road to perdition. Republicans--who sat shaken and ashen-faced as Comey spoke--had to be asking themselves how far down that road they are prepared to go.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Putin, Trump and the rise of the deep state.

Last week, an Agence France-Presse news report published in Le Soir, a major French language daily newspaper, made the rounds on social media. The story suggested that the campaign of leading French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron was being funded by Saudi Arabia. The report was immediately retweeted by right-wing National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. It was fake news as it turned out--actual fake news, not the Donald Trump variety. It was clickbait mocked up to look like Le Soir, with the intention of slandering the leading presidential contender in the upcoming French elections. Like déjà vu all over again, it provided a stark reminder that ours are not the only politics that have been under attack.

Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front party as an extreme right-wing, nationalist movement. She has led the normalization of the National Front in France, and the parallel rise of right-wing populist movements cross Europe. The National Front's anti-immigrant, anti-globalization platform in the French presidential race mirrors that of the Donald Trump campaign.

The National Front has received significant funding from a Russian bank. Marine Le Pen supported Russia's annexation of Crimea, opposes sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, and proposes to pull France out of both the European Union and NATO. If Le Pen were to win the French elections beginning next month, it would change the face of Europe. She is currently in a dead heat in the first round of polling, though well behind in a projected second round runoff. If she does prevail, it would mark a dramatic victory for the cyber and information operations that Vladimir Putin has orchestrated against the West.

Russian fear of and hostility toward the West is not new, and not unique to Vladimir Putin. It may not seem relevant to Americans as they consider Putin's aggressive behavior, but Russia is a country with no natural defenses--neither oceans nor mountains--that has been surrounded over the centuries by innumerable external enemies. Only the Russian winter and spring mud enabled Russia to withstand invasions by Sweden, France and Germany in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. If Russians seem paranoid, it is not because people haven't been out to get them. In America, the attack on Pearl Harbor, 2,500 miles from the mainland, is our only experience with being invaded. We cannot relate to the impact on a national psyche of being invaded repeatedly over the centuries.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been in a state of demographic decline and economic turmoil, and under political siege by the West, as the European Union and NATO have each expanded into former Soviet states that once protected Russia from the west. It is no secret that Putin has trying for years to push back against western encroachment into what he terms Russia's "near abroad," and Russia's efforts to influence and undermine elections across Europe over the past several decades are part of that effort.

Putin's objectives in recent years have included (i) undermining public confidence in core democratic institutions in the advanced western democracies , (ii) building support for opposition parties that might challenge the pro-western, anti-Russian political consensus across Europe, and (iii) driving a wedge between European public opinion and the United States, which has led the alliance of western advanced industrial democracies since the end of World War II.

The election of Le Pen in France would constitute Putin's second major victory in his cyber warfare and information operations strategy, because he is already well underway to a first victory in the United States. By all accounts, Putin's objectives in operations against the United States have similarly been to undermine public confidence in democratic institutions, as well as to undermine the widely anticipated Hillary Clinton presidency by polarizing public opinion against her and undermining her political stature such that she would be less effective once elected.

The media and political focus continues to be on whether a collaborative relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign can be proven. Last week former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reiterated that the U.S. intelligence services had no evidence documenting such a relationship, though reiterated as well that the intelligence community believed that Putin--whose animosity toward Clinton was well known--clearly preferred that Trump win.

And for good reason. If Putin's goals have been to undermine public confidence in and support for core democratic institutions across the U.S. public, Donald Trump has proven to be as good an agent of change as he could have hoped for. Whatever their relationship, Trump has systematically sought to undermine public confidence in our electoral system, the judiciary, the press and the intelligence services.

And it has worked. In the wake of Trump's continuing insistence that the American electoral system is rigged and rife with voter fraud--despite the lack of any credible evidence--two-thirds of Trump supporters, and nearly half of the electorate as a whole, now apparently believe, that voter fraud is significant.

With respect to the fourth estate, Trump's cynical campaign to brand major news outlets as purveyors of fake news--ultimately declaring them to be enemies of the people--has similarly worked, as recent polling suggests that 65% of Republicans and 44% of the general public have bought into Trump's contention that reporters makes stories up out of whole cloth.

Trump's ongoing war with the intelligence services has put Putin within reach of the Holy Grail of the Russian intelligence: driving a wedge between the U.S. intelligence services and the President, leaving the public uncertain of what information on the threats to the nation they should believe.

Putin understands well that public faith in the integrity of the election system, the independent judiciary and the free press are central to the stability of western democracies. It is what separates them from countries like Venezuela. Or, for that matter, Russia.

Most recently, in the wake of Trump's tweets claiming that Barack Obama bugged his phone, Donald Trump and his senior strategist Steve Bannon have begun to push the narrative that there is a "deep state" that is plotting to overthrow his presidency. The deep state--a cabal of the intelligence services in collaboration with the former president--is a conspiracy theorists dream. It likens the United States to countries like Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, where real power is widely viewed as tightly held within the military and intelligence circles. Where the deep state rules, democracy is an illusory concept.

So far, the deep state narrative has had limited traction beyond Trump's most partisan stalwarts, though on Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dutifully doubled down on it. But the Wikileaks dumping of the CIA Vault 7 documents should add credibility to the deep state narrative among conspiracy theorists and Trump supporters alike, suggesting that like the news media, the CIA is the enemy of the people. 

The fake news attacks against the French elections should serve as a reminder that we actually have real enemies, and they aren't the news media or the CIA. It may be hard for Republicans embroiled in the heat of our daily politics to keep matters in perspective, but investigating whether or not the Trump campaign was in cahoots with Russian intelligence is not about party loyalty. It is about, first and foremost, a very cunning foreign adversary who has succeeded in undermining the integrity of our election and those of our allies. And, second, it is about whether one political campaign conspired with a foreign adversary for its own political advantage. It is about the security and integrity of our democracy.

And then there is the very separate issue of Donald Trump's conduct. Whether out of some alignment of interests with Putin--or more likely for his own self-interested reasons--the Manchurian President who now sits in the Oval Office has repeatedly acted to undermine core institutions of our democracy to an extent that only Vladimir Putin could have imagined. Each time he has gone off with one more unhinged attack, various Republicans have spoken out, while a far greater number have tried to sweep the significance of what he has said or tweeted under the rug. But there is nothing insignificant about any of it, and taken as a whole--whether Russia was involved or not--it is a big, big deal.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Donald Trump is a master troll, and Saturday was the pièce de résistance, his masterpiece. With a single tweet accusing Barack Obama of tapping his phones, Trump has thrown the nation's politics into a state of frenzied disarray once again.

In the ensuing fire drill, everyone assumed their proper roles. Major newspapers and investigative journalists headed off to respond to his claims. Senior members of Congress abandoned whatever they were doing to address the media. The Secretaries of State and Defense rushed to assure nervous allies across the globe that they should ignore the lunatic in the White House.

This time, Trump amped it up a notch, suggesting that the FBI and the former President orchestrated illegal surveillance against him. And they rose to the bait. FBI Director Jim Comey demanded that the Department of Justice refute Trump's claim and defend the integrity of the FBI. Caught between defending the integrity of Jim Comey and Donald Trump, officials apparently checked to see who signed their paychecks and declined to come to Comey's defense.

Then--no doubt to Trump's glee--Barack Obama denied Trump's accusation. Trump's trolling worked; by his denial, Obama gave Trump supporters all the evidence they needed to know that Trump's claim must be true, and no doubt deepened their resolve to defend him in the escalating battles that are inevitably in store.

Perhaps the most successful impact of Trump's tweets on Saturday is that he has framed the story as being about illegal actions by the FBI and Barack Obama. There is no evidence, people are screaming, there is no conspiracy. But they are wrong. There may not be a conspiracy, but there certainly is evidence.

The story began last Thursday evening on Mark Levin's radio show. Levin, a conservative talk radio star and former Reagan administration official, laid out his case that Barack Obama wiretapped Donald Trump prior to the election and orchestrated a "silent coup" against him. On Fox News, Levin walked through public newspaper accounts of the FBI seeking FISA court approval for surveillance because of evidence that suggested collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to support the election of Donald Trump. Notably, Levin did not suggest the taps were illegal or done without warrants, he simply connected that fact of FBI surveillance of Trump associates to Obama's presence, and concluded "police state."

Trump is an eager consumer of right-wing conspiracy agitprop, and by Saturday morning the Obama silent coup theory was the subject of a Trump twitter storm.

The facts are in Trump's favor, but facts and truth are not the same thing. By all accounts, it appears that the FBI did have active wiretaps that included individuals in Trump Tower. When those taps were put into place, Barack Obama was the President, and the FBI by definition worked for him. Therefore, by Trump's syllogistic logic--sufficient logic for his followers to buy in--Obama "had" the phones in Trump Tower tapped.

But the facts as laid out by Mark Levin actually describe a somewhat different story. Unlike Donald Trump's intimation that the taps were illegal and orchestrated by Obama, Levin's own argument described them as legal taps approved by the FISA judge, specifically targeting Russian banks suspected of wiring funds to the Trump campaign.

Levin never makes the case--or even suggests--that Barack Obama directed anything the FBI did. The fact that the White House received information on the investigation--which Levin does highlight in a manner suggesting there was a conspiracy--is well known. The fact that Barack Obama knew of the investigation into the relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign and did not make that information public, or otherwise act on it, remains a particularly sore point for the Clintons and many Democrats.

The evidence Levin complied pointed to the Russia dossier, which was first made public earlier this year. The 35 page dossier comprises a series of intelligence memoranda--prepared by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele--regarding communications between the Russian government and the Trump campaign over a seven month period from June through December of last year.

The dossier was originally published by Buzzfeed on January 10th, the same day that CNN reported that Donald Trump had been briefed about its contents by the Director of National Intelligence and the heads of the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. The contents of the dossier were widely greeted by the media with skepticism, as the information could not be independently verified. Clearly, however, by the fact that the most senior members of the intelligence community briefed the President-elect about its contents, the substance of the dossier was not being dismissed out of hand.

And now, Mark Levin and Donald Trump have reminded the world that the FBI has indeed taken the dossier seriously, and that it has been leading a coordinated criminal investigation into evidence connecting the Trump campaign to Russian efforts to subvert the American presidential election. Somewhere, in hiding for his life since the publication of the dossier, Christopher Steele must be smiling at the irony of Trump's tweet.

The irony is that through his raucous defense of the President last Thursday, Mark Levin unintentionally smoked out the new, presidential Donald Trump, who had made an appearance before a joint session of Congress just two days earlier. The world understood that the test of the new Donald Trump was whether, in the wake of his widely acclaimed speech, he could show the self-discipline to avoid one of his 6 a.m. off-his-meds tweetstorms, lashing out at who-knows-who for having done who-knows-what. And there it was, at 6:35 a.m. on Saturday, an enraged Trump took Levin's bait and ran with it, insinuating that Barack Obama and the FBI had illegally tapped his phone; accusing his predecessor in the White House of "police state" tactics.

Once again, Donald Trump has trolled the country to great effect, but the substance of what he and Mark Levin have done is to bring the focus of the FBI investigation to light. Up until now, Jim Comey has been reluctant to talk in detail about the FBI investigation into the relationships between Russia and the Trump organization. Now--particularly if the Department of Justice declines to refute Trump's allegations--Comey may have little choice but to acknowledge the direction of the FBI investigation into the substance of the relationships laid out in Christopher Steele's dossier. Tweets that Trump imagined might put Comey in a corner and neuter the investigations underway by the intelligence agencies might, at the end of the day, have the opposite impact.

Since Saturday, the media has focused on whether there is evidence to support what they suggest is Trump's claim that the FBI and Barack Obama conducted illegal surveillance against him. But they are missing the point. Trump never actually suggests in his tweets that anything illegal was done. The real story is the one hiding in plain site: The Russia dossier. That is the story that Trump has been seeking to evade since Carter Page--a long-time Trump associate who appears several times in the dossier--disappeared from the campaign in mid-2016. It is the story Donald Trump and Mark Levin inadvertently brought back to life this week, and that--because of Trump's Saturday morning tweetstorm--we now know that the FBI is continuing to pursue.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Donald Trump's extraordinary, extraordinary moment.

For a moment there, it appeared that Donald Trump had turned a corner. He delivered a speech to Congress last Tuesday widely acclaimed to be presidential in tone. Pundits had suggested in the hours leading up to the speech that Trump would unveil a softer tone on immigration. He was going to heed the words of his new National Security Advisor and eschew the use of the term radical Islamic terrorists. A New Donald Trump was going to emerge.

When I listened to Donald Trump's speech to Congress, the extent of my halo effect problem with him made it difficult for me to buy into the New Donald Trump theory. After several years of listening to him, I have developed a pretty bad attitude. I am predisposed to not believe anything he says. It is a terrible admission--particularly now that he is sitting in the Oval Office--though not one that I believe is unique to me.

Trump has worked hard to earn my distrust. For years, all I heard from Donald Trump were words that were consistently, demonstrably, and most of the time intentionally, false. For the past half decade or more, back to the Birther movement, he has been the most aggressive practitioner of rumor mongering and fake news as a political tactic in the country, enthusiastically repeating or promoting one conspiracy theory or another.

As he started to speak on Tuesday, reading from a teleprompter, he spoke to the threats against Jewish communities across the country and the shooting of two Indian software engineers in Kansas. He spoke with a presidential tone about a nation "that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms." He evoked the words of JFK and the responsibility of each generation to continue the pursuit of truth, liberty and justice. "I am here tonight," he pronounced, "to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart."

I recognized the voice, but the words seemed out of place. The simple act of saying that the message of unity was deeply delivered from my heart, highlighted how at odds his words were with the persona that he cultivated so assiduously. I could not help but recall a tweet from David Duke earlier that day. David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the KKK and a prominent personality within the alt-right, tweeted, "President Trump, do you think it might be the Jews themselves making these [threatening] calls to get sympathy to push their ethnic agenda." Then, a few hours after Duke's tweet, Trump floated the idea to a group of states attorneys general that the rash of threats to Jewish communities might be "false flag" efforts "to make others look bad."

That was the Donald Trump I knew; the Donald Trump who has spent years walking a fine line between his flirtations with racists and bigots, and adhering to the standards of civil society; the Donald Trump who, in direct contradiction to his words in that speech, has given license to the rise in hateful actions we have seen across the country for months now, against immigrants, against minorities, against gays and trans people, and against Jews. Tuesday, it appeared, was just one more day. In the morning, Donald Trump was David Duke's guy; that evening, he gave a speech that pundits declared proved that he had finally embraced the mantle of the presidency. But it was all just words.

He read the speech from a teleprompter, and it was clearly a speech with input from those close to him who were trying to clean up his act and put words in his mouth. He stuck to the script diligently, and he delivered it well, but I just knew that this was not the @realDonaldTrump. It was just a matter of time and we would hear the @realDonaldTrump slip into the speech.

And it happened. He could not control himself. "Tonight, as I outline the next steps we must take as a country, we must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited. Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force..."

Busted. As the Gipper would have said, There you go again.

Back in August of 2015, on Sarah Palin's cable show, Trump rolled out this meme, an alternative fact which would become a stock piece in his stump speech and elemental to his American carnage leitmotif. There are, he insisted then, foreshadowing his speech on Tuesday, “93 million people out of work. They look for jobs, they give up, and all of a sudden, statistically, they're considered employed.” 

It was a meaningless number then, and it is a meaningless number now. His number includes students, retirees, the infirm and those working in the home. But Trump is addicted to hyperbole, the mundane facts of the world as it is bore him. It is a lot more interesting to paint a picture of a nation in ruins than talking about the 7.8 million officially unemployed, or even the somewhat larger number including underemployed and discouraged workers. Trump's interest was not then, and is not now, in accurate information. 93 million out of work was emblematic of his deceptive, deceitful use of fake news and alternative facts to rile up his base. Mexican rapists. Syrian terrorists. Muslim presidents. False flag attacks by Jews. All part of the bombastic dissembling of the man who is now our president.

Yet lo and behold, in the hours after the speech, cable news pundits confirmed that which they had predicted. Donald Trump came off as presidential. His tone and bearing exceeded that very low bar that has been set for him. As it turned out, he hardened, rather than softened, his tone on immigration, and he uttered the words radical Islamic terrorists with particular relish--as if to rebuke H.R. McMaster for suggesting that he should do otherwise--but he placated those pundits and network analysts by giving a nod to paid family leave.

For more than a year now, over the course of the campaign, and now into the early weeks of his presidency, we have been promised at critical moments that, this time, Donald Trump is going to pivot. And like Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football, each time people believe that this time will be different.

And yet, the pivot never comes. This Tuesday, we were duped again, suckered in one more time. For twelve hours or so following the speech, it looked like he had done it, he was softening his tone, managing his Twitter finger, becoming presidential. He was pivoting! A measure of his success was the vitriol launched from the left against Democrat activist turned CNN analyst Van Jones who declared Trump's recognition of Carryn Owens "one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics. Period." To those that feared that Trump would finally rise to the occasion and become a unifying president, the notion that Trump might get his act together as Jones suggested was terrifying.

But they needn't have worried. By the next day, the illusions of a normalized Donald Trump faded quickly. The Washington Post turned the attention of the political world to Jeff Sessions' dissembling about his Russian contacts, and Donald Trump returned to full coverup and deflection mode. The tweeter-in-chief resumed his morning ritual. And there was Lucy, walking away with the football, shaking her head and laughing, as those who had bought into the New Donald Trump story lay flat on their backs, like Charlie Brown taken in once again.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.