The Hidden-Ball Trick

Spring is here and for baseball fans – there are still a few of them – that means spring training, and long lazy games in Florida and Arizona that don’t mean much at all, which makes them a whole lot of fun. The players are loose and happy, not the serious professionals of summer, and sometimes they do goofy stuff just for the fun of it, like trying that deeply ironic hidden-ball trick that kids use in pick-up games in the summer streets. The pitcher is staring at the batter, deciding what to throw next, and the runner takes a longer and longer lead off first – and suddenly the first baseman pulls the ball from his glove and tags the runner out. Damn. The pitcher never had the ball. The first baseman had faked tossing it back to him. That’s something no one ever sees with the serious professionals of summer – there the games count and those guys are paid millions for not being that dumb – but it’s good for a laugh in spring training. And then baseball gets boring.

Spring is here and somehow Donald Trump is president, and somehow he’s always playing the hidden-ball trick too, even if that’s not much fun for anyone but him. No one knows where the ball is. NATO is obsolete. NATO is the best thing ever and always was. The EU is stupid and Britain was right to leave it – France and all the other nations should too. The EU is wonderful and we support it fully. Mexico is our enemy, sending us the worst of the worst – the rapists and murderers and drug dealers – and were going build that wall and make them pay for it – and we might send troops down there to wipe out the drugs cartels, because the Mexican government is useless. Mexico is wonderful and our most important trading partner, and their people are wonderful, and their food is tasty – try the taco bowl. In each case, which is it? Who has the ball? Sometimes it’s Trump and sometimes in Mike Pence – or General Mattis, or Steve Bannon. Someone’s going to get tagged out and feel very, very stupid – and this isn’t a meaningless spring training game. This is the regular season.

The press is trying to straighten this out through careful reporting, but they don’t know who has the ball at any given time, and of course they’re the “enemy of the people” – they print “fake news” – they lie – they’re the most dishonest people that anyone has ever seen. That’s what Trump keeps saying, but before his first address to Congress, Trump invited a full array of network news anchors to lunch and told them he was open to a comprehensive immigration bill that included a path to legal status – but not citizenship – for undocumented immigrants.

This was amnesty. This was a major shift – no Republican had said anything like this many years, and certainly since the 2010 birth of the Tea Party – but the anchors were told that they had to source this to a “senior administration official” – so they did, and that generated a full day of positive news coverage for Trump – he was a humane and reasonable man. He didn’t want to hurt people and he certainly didn’t want to hurt the economy – and then he said nothing about this in his big speech.

He hid the ball, but CNN decided to report that Trump was deliberately lying to them:

CNN reported Wednesday on a senior administration official admitting that the White House intentionally misled reporters ahead of President Donald Trump’s congressional address in order to get generate positive press coverage as part of a “misdirection play.”

It was the old hidden-ball trick, but this isn’t baseball:

Host John King wondered why reporters should even trust the White House going forward. “It does make you wonder; so we’re not supposed to believe what the senior-most official at the lunch says – who then they allowed it to be the president’s name says – we’re not supposed to believe what they say?” he asked. “Maybe we shouldn’t believe what they say.”

Kevin Drum asks the obvious questions:

What are reporters supposed to do the next time Trump tells them something on background? Or any other White House official? Given their track record, can reporters believe anything they say?

Media blogger Erik Wemple and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen had a discussion about this in the Washington Post, with Rosen saying this:

For me the strongest case is refusing to cooperate when White House “officials” want to brief the press as a group (which means influence the story) without allowing their names to be used. I see no good reason for allowing this. Do you? When reporters go along with it they are advertising how meek and pliable they are. Here I would introduce a distinction that Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall employed a few days ago. “The rules of anonymous sourcing,” he wrote, “need to take into account when the sources are not those who need protection from those with power but rather those with power who want protection from their claims being scrutinized.” Bingo.

Journalists on the White House beat should not be collaborating with people in power who want protection from their claims being scrutinized. Let’s start with boycotting those situations and see what happens.

That is, avoid the hidden-ball trick by refusing to play ball, but Wemple isn’t so sure about that:

Hundreds upon hundreds of news outlets – okay, thousands – are interested in following the happenings at the White House. Yet the number of news sources at the White House – people who know what’s happening – is finite. Dozens maybe. With that imbalance hanging over the enterprise, it’s hard for a group of reporters competing against one another to secure the upper hand.

They’re trapped, and Rosen adds this:

The Trump White House has made that situation worse. By adding more highly ideological and Trump-aligned news organizations to the mix, Spicer and company have guaranteed that any “walk out” by the mainstream press would mean leaving the field – the room – to these players, which the mainstream press is loathe to do.

In short, walk away from the game and you’re not in the game at all – or any game. Find another career. You’re not a journalist.

The ball is always hidden, but the New York Times broke the story that others might work to find the hidden ball:

In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election – and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians – across the government. Former American officials say they had two aims: to ensure that such meddling isn’t duplicated in future American or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.

This is known as keeping your eye on the ball:

American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials – and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin – and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former American officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence.

Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.

That could be deadly, but Trump brought this down on himself:

Mr. Trump has denied that his campaign had any contact with Russian officials, and at one point he openly suggested that American spy agencies had cooked up intelligence suggesting that the Russian government had tried to meddle in the presidential election. Mr. Trump has accused the Obama administration of hyping the Russia story line as a way to discredit his new administration.

At the Obama White House, Mr. Trump’s statements stoked fears among some that intelligence could be covered up or destroyed – or its sources exposed – once power changed hands. What followed was a push to preserve the intelligence that underscored the deep anxiety with which the White House and American intelligence agencies had come to view the threat from Moscow.

So they did what they could to make sure everyone could find out where the possible hidden ball was:

Some officials began asking specific questions at intelligence briefings, knowing the answers would be archived and could be easily unearthed by investigators… At intelligence agencies, there was a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low level of classification to ensure as wide a readership as possible across the government… There was also an effort to pass reports and other sensitive materials to Congress…

Throughout the summer, European allies were starting to pass along information about people close to Mr. Trump meeting with Russians in the Netherlands, Britain and other countries….But it wasn’t until after the election, and after more intelligence had come in, that the administration began to grasp the scope of the suspected tampering and concluded that one goal of the campaign was to help tip the election in Mr. Trump’s favor. In early December, Mr. Obama ordered the intelligence community to conduct a full assessment of the Russian campaign.

And thus they made sure that traces of that assessment would not suddenly disappear, but that wasn’t all:

The disclosures about the contacts came as new questions were raised about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ ties to the Russians. According to a former senior American official, he met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, twice in the past year. The details of the meetings were not clear, but the contact appeared to contradict testimony Mr. Sessions provided Congress during his confirmation hearing in January when he said he “did not have communications with the Russians.”

Mr. Sessions said in a statement late Wednesday that he “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign.”

“I have no idea what this allegation is about,” he said. “It is false.”

No, it’s just hidden:

On Wednesday, a Justice Department official confirmed that Mr. Sessions had two conversations with Ambassador Kislyak last year, when he was still a senator, despite testifying at his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing that he had no contact with the Russians. At that hearing, Mr. Sessions was asked what he would do if it turned out to be true that anyone affiliated with the Trump team had communicated with the Russian government in the course of the campaign. He said he was “not aware of any of those activities.”

“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have – did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it,” Mr. Sessions said at the time.

However, Justice Department officials acknowledged that Mr. Sessions had spoken with Mr. Kislyak twice: once, among a group of ambassadors who approached him at a Heritage Foundation event during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July and, separately, in an office meeting on Sept. 8. The contacts were first reported by The Washington Post.

None of this is fake news, and the reaction was predictable:

The revelation prompted congressional Democrats to issue a torrent of statements reiterating their demands that Mr. Sessions recuse himself from overseeing any investigation into Russia’s contacts with the Trump campaign. So far, Mr. Sessions has demurred.

Representative Adam B. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday that if the reports about Mr. Sessions were accurate, “it is essential that he recuse himself from any role in the investigation of Trump campaign ties to the Russians.” Mr. Schiff added, “This is not even a close call; it is a must.”

Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House, called on Mr. Sessions to resign, saying on Twitter that “he is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country.”

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, backed up Mr. Sessions late Wednesday, calling the accusations “the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats.”

There was no denial of the contacts, just the statement that this was a bunch of poor losers picking on Trump – but they couldn’t hide the ball any longer – and Sessions was the one who convinced Trump to add Carter Page to his foreign policy team – and the FBI is all over Page about his deep connections to the Russian oil industry and to Putin. He was in Russia a lot during the campaign. Trump had cut Page loose months before the election – hiding that ball to win the game – but Carter Page will front and center again now.

Things are adding up, but of the New York Times bombshell story, Kevin Drum says this:

As the story acknowledges, it’s still unclear what all these meetings were about, but “the Russians, it appeared, were arguing about how far to go in interfering in the presidential election.”

This has the feel of a scandal that will pass into urban legend without anyone ever knowing for sure what actually happened. It’s pretty obvious at this point that something happened, but with every new disclosure it seems as if the truth drifts a little farther out of reach. Unless someone has a smoking gun tape somewhere, it’s not clear if this story will ever get resolved.

Perhaps so – that specific ball probably will remain hidden – but there’s a pattern here. For Trump, everything is misdirection. Abby Phillip and Ashley Parker look at that from the opposite end:

He blamed “the generals” for a raid that led to the death of a Navy SEAL in Yemen. He accused former president Barack Obama of fomenting protests against him and leaks within his administration. He blamed the judiciary for future terrorist attacks against the United States, and the media for the firing of his first national security adviser. He even blamed the weather for his smaller-than-desired inauguration crowd.

The one person President Trump never seems to blame is himself.

For a businessman who views the world through a binary win-or-lose lens, Trump has become the “don’t blame me” president – struggling to adjust to the reality of a job often revealed in shades of gray. The man in the nation’s highest elective office – who is eager to claim credit for positive developments – has yet to show signs of accepting responsibility or blame when things go wrong.

“When you run on a campaign of win, win, win, you never can admit a setback,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who has met with Trump several times. “If that’s the case, that’s a pathological situation.”

Or it’s just another way of hiding the ball:

Since his inauguration, Trump has railed against the “fake news” media and “leakers” for his own decision to fire his national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. He has continued to claim that he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton because of millions of illegal voters but has provided no evidence of such activity. When a federal court blocked the implementation of his controversial travel ban, he preemptively warned that the judge and the court system should be blamed “if something happens.”

“I guess it was Truman who said the buck stops here,” said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), referring to the plaque, mounted on a walnut base, that former president Harry S. Truman kept on his White House desk. “Part of campaign rhetoric is blaming the weather, blaming the other person, blaming the party. That ends with governance.”

But it didn’t end:

One of the most striking examples came Tuesday, when Trump – the commander in chief who authorized the mission – defended the raid in Yemen that claimed the life of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens while minimizing his own role in the decision-making process.

“Well, this was a mission that was started before I got here,” Trump said on Fox News. “This was something that was, you know, just – they wanted to do.”

My generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades,” he added. “And they lost Ryan.”

Many have pointed out that minimizing his own role in the decision-making process is ceding civilian control of the military – a basic concept that defines democracies, as opposed to third-world military juntas. The generals wanted to do this, so who was he to say they shouldn’t? Sure, they weren’t elected by anyone at all, but let the military decide things. Give them the nuclear codes. They’ll do fine – and they don’t have to answer to anyone – nor should they.

That’s not our country, but maybe he didn’t mean that and was just hiding the ball, but that won’t do in this case:

“I served under commander in chief George W. Bush. I disagreed with him. I didn’t vote for him, I thought his war was a mistake. But he took responsibility for it,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a former Marine Corps officer who served four tours of duty in Iraq. “President Trump is not a leader. He’s a coward. Real leaders take responsibility.”

“He’s a draft dodger who has never put his life on his line for the country and has no idea what it means to do so,” Moulton added.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) was similarly blunt. “When you’re talking about complicated Special Operations raids, the responsibility is the president’s, and you cannot pass responsibility down the chain,” Murphy said. “It involved a lot of men, a lot of planning, and ultimately that’s the president’s call.”

Trump doesn’t see it that way:

Passing blame is nothing new for Trump. Among many culprits during the campaign, he blamed a faulty microphone for a debate performance, a purported Internal Revenue Service audit for his refusal to release his tax returns and an intern for retweeting a message mocking Iowans before the primary.

The responsibilities of the White House seem to have only heightened that instinct. Trump said in a Fox interview this week that he “could never” acknowledge when he deserved criticism. “You know what, honestly, if I do that, if that does happen and if I take a hit, I won’t give you any additional ammunition,” he explained.

In short, don’t mess with him. It’s not his fault, whatever it is, but there’s the flip-side of that:

“The irony is he’s ‘Mr. Don’t Blame Me,’ but he’s also ‘Mr. I Want Credit,'” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic operative and former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

“It is consistent with his belief that he shouldn’t be held responsible for things he said or the things he did in his life before politics, and he now doesn’t think he should be blamed for the things he does in public life,” Ferguson added.

The man hides the ball. It’s an old trick. In baseball it’s good for a laugh, but this isn’t baseball – no one is fooled for long in real life. Everyone’s watching, as they should. This game may be over.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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