Strategic Idiocy

The polling doesn’t vary much now. About a third of America thinks Donald Trump can do no wrong. He’s the best thing that ever happened to America, and in America. Everyone else – with the exception of those who would rather not think about such things – find him appalling and dangerous. He’s a bullshitter in over his head. That’s why this went viral:

A savage opinion of Donald Trump’s presidency that went viral was delivered by one of Australia’s most seasoned political journalists, who is well known to viewers of the national broadcaster for his frank opinions.

Chris Uhlmann, the political editor of the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation, described Trump as “isolated and friendless” at the G20 leaders’ summit, and said his disastrous foreign policy had “pressed fast-forward on the decline of the United States”.

This was what was all over the internet:

Speaking on Sunday from the G20 conference in Hamburg, Uhlmann said Trump had shown “no desire and no capacity to lead the world” and was himself “the biggest threat to the values of the west”.

“He was an uneasy, lonely, awkward figure at this gathering and you got the strong sense that some of the leaders are trying to find the best way to work around him,” Uhlmann said.

“Where was the G20 statement condemning North Korea which would have put pressure on China and Russia? Other leaders expected it, they were prepared to back it, but it never came.”

Uhlmann said Trump was obsessed with “burnishing his celebrity” and had “diminished” his own nation to the benefit of Russia and China.

“We learned that Donald Trump has pressed fast-forward on the decline of the United States as a global leader. He managed to isolate his nation, to confuse and alienate his allies and to diminish America.

“He is a man who barks out bile in 140 characters, who wastes his precious days as president at war with the west’s institutions like the judiciary, independent government agencies and the free press.”

That’s why Donald Trump’s “disapproval” numbers are nearing sixty percent. That’s why there’s talk of impeachment – not even remotely possible with a Republican Congress of course. That’s why many hope the other shoe will finally drop. The Russians helped him win. He seems to be doing all he can to help them now. They must have been in on this together. There’s enough smoke. There has to be fire. There must be proof he’s Putin’s man in the White House – and that will do him in and we’ll be rid of him – he’ll slink away in shame.

That’s possible. The indirect evidence that Trump and the Russians were in on this together keeps mounting, but that killjoy David Remnick says slow down, and don’t get ahead of the reporting:

That’s one of the first lessons you’re supposed to learn as a novitiate in the church of journalism. Don’t assert what is not yet established by the facts. The consequences can be dire. In the rare case when Woodward and Bernstein stumbled during their Watergate reporting, it was because at one point they got a little ahead of their carefully established web of facts when it came to who was running the conspiracy. In the end, they were right, but the stumble allowed the Nixon Administration to charge, in modern parlance, #fakenews. “Shabby journalism” is what Ron Ziegler, the Sean Spicer of the Nixon era, called it.

Take what you can get for now:

The Trump Administration should not win any moral or political plaudits even if it turns out, in the end, that there was no collusion between the President’s campaign and the Russian government. Its countless sins of lying, conflict of interest, shady business transactions, character assassination, and so much else assures it a place in history as a uniquely grimy Administration. And we are not yet a half year into its reign.

Fine, but there is a lot of smoke:

There was the Wall Street Journal’s story last week that investigators have reviewed reports from intelligence agencies on Russian hackers discussing how to hack Clinton’s e-mails and get the material to Michael Flynn, the former NSA chief, via an intermediary, and that Peter Smith, a longtime Republican operative, had undertaken an effort to obtain the Clinton e-mails and suggested to those around him that he was working with Flynn. The excuse the Trump Administration had for that one was that Smith “didn’t work for the campaign” and that if Flynn was working with him “in any way, it would have been in his capacity as a private individual.”

There has also been a great deal of solid journalism committed by Adam Davidson of The New Yorker, Timothy O’Brien, of Bloomberg, and others on Trump’s business history and his links to disreputables in Russia and the former Soviet Union. All this begins to add up to an unlovely portrait of the President and his associates. In addition, the FBI and congressional investigators are sorting through what, if any, relationship there might have been between the hundreds of Internet trolls who pumped out false, undermining stories about Clinton, Russian sponsors, and the Trump campaign. It is unlikely that the full story of the role of WikiLeaks in this saga has been told yet, either.

And there’s this:

On his European trip, Trump has kept up his antic strategy of deflection and diversion, and, at the same time, he insists on demeaning his own intelligence services – on foreign soil, no less. To the embarrassment of an ungrateful nation, he tweeted that “everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!” Where to begin? No one in Europe was talking about John Podesta, who did not have control of the DNC server and who has cooperated fully with investigators.

Trump went on to say from one lectern at the summit, “I remember when I was sitting back listening about Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, how everybody was a hundred per cent certain that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? That led to one big mess. They were wrong, and it led to a mess.”

This is true up to a point, but is it applicable? What happened in 2003 is that the Bush Administration, led by Dick Cheney, pressured intelligence officials to provide the answer that it desired on weapons of mass destruction in order to invade Iraq; analysts themselves were hardly unanimous on the question of WMD.

This will add up eventually:

Yes, it is wrong to get ahead of the reporting. But the myriad implications of a hacked Presidential election, while too much to bear for the President – his ego seems to implode at any suggestion that his victory was possibly more complicated than the unambiguous “landslide” he imagines it to be – demands the answers that journalists, law enforcement, and Congress are pursuing. Part of that process is admitting error, as CNN did, quickly and responsibly recently after an errant story. Part of that process is having the patience to see what the truth, as it emerges over time, turns out to be. For now, we live in a moment when the President of the United States is, without shame, trying to intimidate the people whose business it is to come to an honest reckoning. He tries to intimidate the press. He has fired an FBI director and considered going further. It’s reasonable to wonder why.

It may be even more than reasonable to wonder why given this:

President Donald Trump floated, then seemingly disavowed, a deal for greater cybersecurity cooperation with Russia – an idea that drew dismay and mockery from lawmakers of both parties, and which numerous cyber analysts warned could even make the U.S. less secure.

Trump cryptically declared on Twitter early Sunday that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had “discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking & many other negative things, will be guarded … and safe.”

By Sunday night, Trump was tweeting apparent doubts that the idea was even feasible. “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen…”

He is in over his head:

Several former George W. Bush and Obama-era cyber officials insisted the latest deal would be unlikely to help digitally secure upcoming U.S. elections, and instead would widen the rift between America and its European allies combating Moscow’s online aggression – a broader Putin goal. And when the deal inevitably falls apart, former Bush homeland security adviser Fran Townsend said on Twitter that “#Russia will blame #US” – handing Putin a significant narrative-setting victory.

“It’s strategic idiocy,” said Chris Finan, a former director for cybersecurity legislation and policy in Barack Obama’s White House.

Even worse, the attempt at cooperation itself could result in the U.S. exposing even more secrets to a country that has already stolen so many, cautioned former Obama administration official R. D. Edelman, who negotiated with Moscow on cyber issues at both the State Department and White House.

“On the heels of their election hacking, giving a country with that record access to sensitive information about our cybersecurity capabilities – and perhaps inadvertently, our citizens – is a mistake,” said Edelman, who now leads a project on cybersecurity issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Internet Policy Research Initiative.

Even those who were not experts saw the strategic idiocy here:

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, including former GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, derisively compared the notion to partnering with Syria on chemical weapons or joining forces with North Korea on nuclear technology. Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois accused the president of “letting the fox guard the henhouse,” while Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) blasted the decision as “dumb as a rock.”

Trump got the message. He backed off. It was just a thought – but it’s safe to assume what had happened in Hamburg. Putin had suggested this. Donald Trump is impulsive and easily impressed, and has always been impressed with Putin’s wonderful leadership qualities, and this was bold – Trump thinks he’s bold – so he couldn’t resist this bold idea. America would be impressed with his boldness – at least his base would be – so he agreed. His handlers sent in Trump’s wife to break up this Hamburg meeting that had run on far too long. Melania Trump knows her husband. She knew he was in over his head, but of course he ignored her and kept on talking and talking this bold “man stuff” – and it was too late anyway. He went bold. Putin got just what he wanted – and by Sunday evening, four days later, Trump must have realized he’d been played, by the master at such things. He may be even more impressed by Putin now.

Others played him too:

WikiLeaks suggested on Sunday that its founder, Julian Assange, should lead the U.S.-Russian cyber security unit after President Trump announced the idea on Twitter.

“Why not put @JulianAssange in charge of it? He’s trusted by the public and has the CIA’s best stuff anyway,” WikiLeaks tweeted, replying to Trump’s tweet announcing he and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the idea.

In the NFL there’s a penalty for taunting. Perhaps there should be one in geopolitics too, but nothing is ever clear:

CIA Director Mike Pompeo has targeted Assange directly in the past, calling him a “fraud” in April.

“It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is, a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” Pompeo said.

“Assange is a narcissist who has created nothing of value,” the former Republican congressman charged. “He relies on the dirty work of others to make himself famous. He is a fraud – a coward hiding behind a screen,” he continued.

CNN reported in April the U.S. was preparing charges against Assange. He is currently living at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in order to avoid extradition to the United States.

That fellow is evil but everyone remembers what Trump kept saying during the campaign – “I love WikiLeaks!”

Julian Assange remembers. He systematically released all those stolen Hillary Clinton emails at just the right times. He was just reminding Trump of that. Julian Assange, and the Russians who stole the emails, got Trump elected. They’re still available. It’s fun to make Donald Trump look like an easily manipulated fool. Julian Assange knows. Vladimir Putin knows. Assange isn’t the narcissist who has created nothing of value here.

What can one expect from an easily manipulated fool? That would be strategic idiocy, and it runs in the family:

President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign, according to three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.

The meeting was also attended by his campaign chairman at the time, Paul J. Manafort, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kushner recently disclosed the meeting – though not its content – in confidential government documents described to The New York Times.

Maybe the other shoe just dropped:

The Times reported the existence of the meeting on Saturday. But in subsequent interviews, the advisers and others revealed the motivation behind it.

The meeting – at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, two weeks after Donald J. Trump clinched the Republican nomination – points to the central question in federal investigations of the Kremlin’s meddling in the presidential election: whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. The accounts of the meeting represent the first public indication that at least some in the campaign were willing to accept Russian help.

Damn, but don’t get ahead of the reporting:

It is unclear whether the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, actually produced the promised compromising information about Mrs. Clinton. But the people interviewed by The Times about the meeting said the expectation was that she would do so.

That’s trouble:

When he was first asked about the meeting on Saturday, Donald Trump Jr. said that it was primarily about adoptions and mentioned nothing about Mrs. Clinton.

But on Sunday, presented with The Times’s findings, he offered a new account. In a statement, he said he had met with the Russian lawyer at the request of an acquaintance from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, which his father took to Moscow. “After pleasantries were exchanged,” he said, “the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”

He said she then turned the conversation to adoption of Russian children and the Magnitsky Act, an American law that blacklists suspected Russian human rights abusers. The 2012 law so enraged President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that he halted American adoptions of Russian children.

That’s the trouble. The full details of the Magnitsky Act are depressing, and there’s this detail:

Since the passage of the Magnitsky Act, much of the looted $230 million has been found or frozen. Some was in Swiss and Latvian bank accounts; some was in offshore companies technically “owned” by Russian concert cellist Sergei Roldugin (who happens to be Putin’s best friend), and some was even in six-figure condos in Manhattan.

Who has been selling all those six-figure condos in Manhattan? Someone may have been doing some money laundering for Russian fat-cats, but that can wait:

On Sunday morning on Fox News, the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, described the Trump Tower meeting as a “big nothing-burger.”

“Talking about issues of foreign policy, issues related to our place in the world, issues important to the American people is not unusual,” he said.

But Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, one of the panels investigating Russian election interference, said he wanted to question “everyone that was at that meeting.”

“There’s no reason for this Russian government advocate to be meeting with Paul Manafort or with Mr. Kushner or the president’s son if it wasn’t about the campaign and Russia policy,” Mr. Schiff said after the initial Times report.

Josh Marshall smells blood in the water:

What I suspect is the most important detail in this story is the sources. The New York Times reports that they got the information from “three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.” They apparently talked after the release of the first story. This is highly, highly significant. Needless to say, advisors to the White House are not in the business of taking highly damaging stories and volunteering new information which makes them catastrophically damaging. The only reason a President’s allies ever do something like that is either to get ahead of something much more damaging or get a first crack at shaping the public understanding of something much more damaging. There’s really no other explanation. We don’t know yet what drove them to volunteer such highly damaging information. Five of them did it. It wasn’t a matter of one person going rogue.

Something odd is going on here:

It is always revealing if someone’s explanation of damaging information is both damning in itself and absurd on its face… While Trump Jr. does not say here that he met with Veselnitskaya to get damaging information about Clinton, he confirms that he was there for information that would help the campaign. Once that didn’t pan out, he concluded the meeting was a bust. Veselnitskaya’s claim that Russia was funding the Clinton campaign seems preposterous. Trump Jr. himself seems to suggest as much. But I’m not saying it is a preposterous accusation. I think it’s preposterous as part of Trump Jr.’s story. It’s true that the first WikiLeaks email release came roughly six weeks after this meeting, which occurred on June 9th. The first report that Russian government operatives had hacked into the DNC servers came one week later on June 14th. But Trump’s disturbingly close ties to Russia and affinity for Putin was already a topic of active discussion. Meanwhile, Putin was known to be particularly hostile to Hillary Clinton. This whole story just doesn’t add up.

Again, yesterday Trump Jr. said he met with Veselnitskaya to discuss the Magnitsky Act and Russian adoptions. Today he says he was lured into the meeting on the pretext of getting campaign information and only later had the Magnitsky Act sprung on him. His story changed completely after one day.

That’s strategic idiocy, but this isn’t:

Trump Jr. says in the statement that his father knew nothing about this. They know it’s bad and want to insulate the President.

That’s necessary:

May, June and July 2016 are critical months in the Russia story. A huge amount of stuff of consequence happened just in July. There are already suggestions, as yet unproven, that a top Trump associate was offered caches of email in the months or weeks just prior to the first WikiLeaks release on July 22nd, 2016. This story sounds quite similar, or at least the opening gambit to such an offer.

We have a growing number of stories like these, each seemingly damning but which we are told are mere coincidences and misunderstandings with no connection to any of the other stories. It’s just not credible.

Perhaps so, but that’s getting ahead of the reporting, and Kevin Drum adds this:

Whether it was a pretext or not, the Trump folks really did take the meeting in hopes that a very plugged-in Russian lawyer could deliver some dirt on Hillary Clinton. This is hardly proof of collusion, but it certainly moves things a little further in that direction.

The Trump White House has been asked over and over about meetings between campaign aides and Russian nationals. This certainly counts, but they didn’t reveal it even to the government until recently, and didn’t disclose it publicly until the Times forced them to. Even then, Don Jr. insisted that the meeting was only about Russian adoptions until the Times once again forced him to admit that it had actually been arranged based on promises of Russian info about Hillary Clinton.

This kind of prevarication is what keeps this scandal going. Team Trump keeps swearing they’ve disclosed everything and there’s no there there. Then it turns out there’s something else. Then they lie about that something else until someone forces the truth out of them. This is not how innocent people act.

But Drum doesn’t want to take this too far:

Hillary Clinton herself suffered during the campaign (and for years before that) from sometimes acting guilty even when she wasn’t. In the case of Clinton, I think this happened because of her profound distrust of the media. In the case of Don Jr., it could easily happen because he’s dumb enough to think he’s being clever. So it might not mean very much at all.

Or it might mean a lot:

I continue to believe there was no serious collusion between Trump and the Russians, but that’s mainly because I can’t believe anyone would be so stupid. But I admit this is not always a great heuristic. Plus, if there’s anyone who could be this stupid, it would be the extended Trump family.

Perhaps strategic idiocy does run in the family. There’s enough smoke. There has to be fire.

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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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