Lying for Fun and Profit

People lie because lying works. There was that seminal 1979 book on lying – Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life – by the formidable Sissela Bok – the daughter of two Nobel Prize winners and married to the then-president of Harvard. She explained it’s not as simple as deciding lying is bad. Everyone says that, and that’s nonsense. Little white lies and meaningless pleasantries make social life, and society itself, possible – and of course they make marriage possible. “Does this dress make me look fat?” Lie.

That’s okay, and then there are those big awful lies one sometimes must tell to survive in this nasty world. People used to lie about being gay. Some still do. The alternative was too dangerous. And there’s everything in between those extremes, along with the usual self-serving often-absurd purposeful lies told to get what you want and couldn’t otherwise get. That may be the only category of lying that is actually morally reprehensible, but it’s not that simple. If you tell those sorts of lies over and over, so that you eventually think what you’re saying is actually true, are you actually lying? The intention to deceive disappears if you’ve come to believe your own nonsense. You cease being a moral monster. Now you mean well. You’ve just become stupid instead, but at least you’re not lying.

That seems to be the case with Donald Trump, as Emily Stewart notes here:

Nearly three-quarters of Americans are worried about foreign interference in United States elections – and six in 10 are concerned President Donald Trump isn’t taking it seriously.

A new CNN poll conducted by SSRS released Tuesday found that 58 percent of Americans don’t think the president is taking the investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election to heart. Fifty-five percent of Americans say they think Trump has tried to interfere with the investigation into Russian meddling…

If a majority of Americans doubt the president is taking Russian meddling seriously, it’s with good reason: He has repeatedly cast doubt on Russian interference operations in US politics and cast the matter as a “hoax.” Fact-checking website Politifact declared Trump’s continued proclamations that Russian interference is a “made-up story” as its 2017 Lie of the Year.

Was that a lie? If you eventually think what you’re saying is actually true, are you actually lying? That seems to be the case here:

President Trump has on more than one occasion accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of meddling. “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said of Putin last November while speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One.

A few months earlier in July, the president said something similar in an interview with Reuters after having met with Putin. “I said, ‘Did you do it?’ And he said, ‘No, I did not. Absolutely not.’ I then asked him a second time in a totally different way. He said absolutely not,” Trump said.

That was good enough for Donald Trump:

As recently as last month, Trump was claiming the Russia investigation was a Democratic hoax. “For 11 months, they’ve had this phony cloud over this administration, over our government. And it has hurt our government. It’s a Democratic hoax that was brought up as an excuse for losing an election that frankly the Democrats should have won,” he said at a press conference. At the same conference, he repeated the words “no collusion” seven times in a single answer.

He believes that, but others, reluctant to call him a liar, have opted to decide he’s merely being stupid about Putin:

Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month that Russia is almost sure to interfere again in the 2018 midterms. “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives that its past efforts have been successful and views the 2018 midterm US elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Coats, the nation’s top spy, said. “Frankly, the United States is under attack.”

Experts say that counteracting Russian interference efforts must be a concerted effort that involves the White House, multiple federal agencies, state and local officials, private companies, the media, and citizens. And even then, there are no guarantees.

Tuesday’s CNN poll shows Americans are taking it seriously – and it is alarming that they don’t think the president is.

In short, he’s not really a liar, but he is being stupid and that hurts:

US Cyber Command chief Adm. Mike Rogers told lawmakers on Tuesday that he has not been granted the authority by President Donald Trump to disrupt Russian election hacking operations where they originate.

Asked by Democratic Sen. Jack Reed if he has been directed by the President, through the defense secretary, to confront Russian cyber operators at the source, Rogers said “no I have not” but noted that he has tried to work within the authority he maintains as a commander.

He’ll do what he can:

While he did not agree with Reed’s characterization that the US has been “sitting back and waiting,” Rogers admitted that it is fair to say that “we have not opted to engage in some of the same behaviors we are seeing” with regards to Russia.

“It has not changed the calculus or the behavior on behalf of the Russians,” Rogers said about the US response to Russia’s cyber threat to date.

“They have not paid a price that is sufficient to change their behavior,” he added.

That’s the problem:

Trump has yet to levy a single sanction to punish Russia for election interference, despite the fact that Congress almost unanimously passed legislation that took effect on January 29 requiring him to do so, and despite senior intelligence officials testifying that Russia is trying to disrupt the 2018 midterms.

Rogers clearly indicated on Tuesday that the US response to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election has been insufficient and has done little to deter ongoing attacks.

The NSA chief went on to tell lawmakers that the US is smart enough and strong enough to prevent Russian election hacking but admitted not enough is being done.

Mike Rogers didn’t call Donald Trump a liar. He opted to imply that Donald Trump was merely stupid – dangerously so – but no one should be surprised. There’s that twenty-nine-year-old former Ralph Lauren fashion model who worked for Ivanka Trump, helping expand her fashion label (the Ivanka Trump Collection) and modeled for her online store, and in October 2014 began working directly for Donald Trump in The Trump Organization. She gets it:

Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, told House investigators on Tuesday that her work for President Trump, who has a reputation for exaggerations and outright falsehoods, had occasionally required her to tell white lies.

But after extended consultation with her lawyers, she insisted that she had not lied about matters material to the investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible links to Trump associates, according to three people familiar with her testimony.

She admitted she worked for a liar, and that she had lied for him, but here she knows better than to be a liar herself:

The exchange came during more than eight hours of private testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. Ms. Hicks declined to answer similar questions about other figures from the Trump campaign or the White House.

She also pointedly and repeatedly declined to answer questions about the presidential transition or her time in the White House, lawmakers who sat in on the testimony said, telling investigators that she had been asked by the White House to discuss only her time on the campaign. They added that she did not formally invoke executive privilege.

Sometimes it’s just best to shut up:

A fixture of Mr. Trump’s inner circle throughout the campaign and in the White House, Ms. Hicks is viewed as a valuable witness by investigators. She was involved in the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director in May and the drafting of a statement in July in response to questions about a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Russians and top Trump campaign officials. The statement and its drafting have attracted the interest of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.

Ms. Hicks refused to answer questions about both, lawmakers said.

That was probably the best alternative:

Investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller have recently been asking witnesses about Donald Trump’s business activities in Russia prior to the 2016 presidential campaign as he considered a run for president, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Questions to some witnesses during wide-ranging interviews included the timing of Trump’s decision to seek the presidency, potentially compromising information the Russians may have had about him, and why efforts to brand a Trump Tower in Moscow fell through, two sources said.

The lines of inquiry indicate Mueller’s team is reaching beyond the campaign to explore how the Russians might have sought to influence Trump at a time when he was discussing deals in Moscow and contemplating a presidential run.

That “hoax” thing is looking more like a lie now:

Questions have also touched on the possibility of compromising information that Russians may have or claim to have about Trump, according to two sources familiar with the matter. That subject matter echoes claims in a controversial dossier written by a former British spy who was paid by an opposition research firm underwritten by Trump’s Democratic opponents.

Several lines of questioning to witnesses have centered on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, which was held in Moscow, and unsuccessful discussions to brand a Trump Tower Moscow, two sources said.

And there’s this:

A second area of focus was what happened during the event. The source said questions also focused on meetings Trump had with Russian business people or government officials, leading the source to believe the investigators were probing the possibility of “kompromat,” or compromising material, on Trump.

Along these lines, the source said, investigators were interested in logistics surrounding Trump’s hotel room in Moscow: Who was there? Who would have access to it? Who was in charge of security? Who was moving around with him during the trip?

Someone may be lying:

Trump did not mention during the presidential campaign that his company explored these two business deals in Russia. Instead, he insisted that he had “nothing to do with Russia.” Even when talking about his past dealings with Russians – like the Miss Universe pageant – Trump never referred to the prospective deal that fell through a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

Donald Trump’s past business dealings have been an area of interest to counterintelligence officials. CNN has previously reported that before the special counsel’s appointment in May, the FBI had combed through the list of shell companies and buyers of Trump-branded real estate properties and scrutinized the roster of tenants at Trump Tower reaching back more than a half-dozen years.

Yes, it’s only a lie if you know you’re lying, but Trump seems to know he’s lying:

Last year, Trump said he would view any investigation of his or his family’s personal finances as a “violation” by Mueller that crosses a red line. Trump’s lawyers previously have said that Trump’s business dealings from the time before he was a presidential candidate do not fall under the scope of what Mueller is authorized to investigate by the Justice Department.

That may not matter. Mueller has a mandate to look into means and opportunity, and to look into motivation too. The president’s legal team knows that. They’re blowing smoke.

Don’t lie, even by omission:

Jared Kushner, senior adviser and son-in-law to President Trump, had his security clearance downgraded Friday, sharply limiting his access to some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets amid concerns raised by the ongoing investigation of his background, two White House officials said Tuesday.

Kushner was one of several White House officials who received a memo Friday announcing that because of their interim security clearances, their status was being downgraded from the “Top Secret/SCI” level to the “Secret” level, a far lower level of access to classified information.

The memo came after White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly had set a Friday deadline for all staffers operating under an interim clearance to have their temporary clearance revoked, and after Kelly came under scrutiny for his handling of domestic-abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter – who had also been operating under an interim clearance.

Kelly had to do this:

Because he had an interim clearance, Kushner was not supposed to be able to see the president’s daily intelligence briefing or have access to other top-secret program information, one administration official said. But the rules were not enforced with regard to the access rules for the president’s son-in-law.

Earlier this month, a top Justice Department official alerted the White House that significant information requiring additional investigation would further delay Kushner’s security-clearance process…

Kushner kept amending his application for his security clearance. He kept “remembering” foreign contacts over the years – major players. He’d add a few more, and then a few more. This was never going to end, and that was the problem:

Kushner’s inability to obtain a final clearance has frustrated and vexed the White House for months. As someone who meets regularly with foreign officials and reads classified intelligence, he would typically have a fast-tracked background investigation, security-clearance experts said.

Friday’s downgrade represents a significant loss of access for Kushner, who routinely attended classified briefings, received access to the President’s Daily Brief intelligence report and issue requests for information to the intelligence community.

That had been necessary. Kushner had been Trump’s de facto secretary of state, in charge of Middle East peace efforts and all bilateral matters with Mexico and China. Foreign governments knew this. Deal with Kushner. Rex Tillerson was a pleasant figurehead – not that Tillerson seems to mind that. He’s been dismantling the state department for a year now. He knows he doesn’t matter. The family matters, but now even our ambassadors will know more than Kushner:

Mark Lowenthal, president of the Intelligence & Security Academy and a former U.S. intelligence official, said Kushner’s downgraded clearance level is “a very severe limitation” and will hurt his ability to manage the Middle East peace process.

“This is a very severe limitation because some of the information passing through the White House is more highly classified than ‘secret,'” Lowenthal said. “He can no longer see the President’s Daily Brief, and it also means there are certain meetings he can’t be in, because most National Security Council meetings will involve materials above the ‘secret’ level. The briefings he will get will have to be severely watered down.”

That’s not going to work:

Bradley P. Moss, a national security lawyer, said Kushner’s status will deny him the most sensitive information pertaining to Middle East peace negotiations.

“It completely undermines his ability to be fully informed in the context of any discussions and negotiations,” Moss said. “He’s not going to have access to a lot of the intelligence on the ground, on any intercepted communications between countries involved in the negotiations, and he’s not going to be able to get full-detailed background information on the major players. I’m sure they’ll produce a reduced version for him, but it won’t give him the full range of information.”

But there’s a reason for that:

Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.

Among those nations discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage were the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, the current and former officials said.

The idea was to bypass Rex Tillerson and deal with the goofy kid, and that worried a few people:

H. R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, learned that Kushner had contacts with foreign officials that he did not coordinate through the National Security Council or officially report. The issue of foreign officials talking about their meetings with Kushner and their perceptions of his vulnerabilities was a subject raised in McMaster’s daily intelligence briefings, according to the current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

But it’s more than that:

Within the White House, Kushner’s lack of government experience and his business debt were seen from the beginning of his tenure as potential points of leverage that foreign governments could use to influence him, the current and former officials said.

They could also have legal implications. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has asked people about the protocols Kushner used when he set up conversations with foreign leaders, according to a former U.S. official.

Officials in the White House were concerned that Kushner was “naive and being tricked” in conversations with foreign officials, some of whom said they wanted to deal only with Kushner directly and not more experienced personnel, said one former White House official.

They were right to be worried:

Officials from the UAE identified Kushner as early as the spring of 2017 as particularly manipulable because of his family’s search for investors in their real estate company, current and former officials said….

In 2016, Kushner was simultaneously running his family business, Kushner Cos., and helping to oversee Trump’s campaign. One of his top business concerns was what to do with his family’s investment in 666 Fifth Ave. in New York, which the company bought under his direction for $1.8 billion in 2007, the highest price paid at the time for a U.S. office tower. The purchase became troubled as the Great Recession hit, and Kushner refinanced it, leaving the company with a $1.2 billion debt that comes due in January 2019.

The Manhattan property has been a particularly nettlesome problem inside the government because Kushner’s company has sought foreign money on the project.

That was a bad idea:

Kushner and his company had proposed a redevelopment plan that would double the building’s size, requiring major new investment. Before Trump took office, Kushner and other company officials explored several options for the financing. They met with an executive of a Chinese-run insurance company, Anbang, which had bought the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. They also discussed a possible investment by the former finance minister of Qatar, who oversaw an investment fund. But after Kushner served as Trump’s senior adviser for a few months in the White House, questions arose about potential conflicts of interest, the financing talks ended, and neither Anbang nor the Qatari fund signed on…

Questions have also been raised about whether Kushner discussed financing with a Russian banker. He met in December 2016 with Sergey Gorkov, the top executive of Vnesheconombank. The bank has said they talked about “promising business lines and sectors,” but Kushner told Congress that the meeting did not involve any discussion about his family’s company.

No one believed that. This was a mess, as the anti-Trump Republican political strategist Rick Wilson notes here:

If you’ve ever filled out a form SF-86 for a U.S. government security clearance, you’ll know the hassle of dealing with the sheer volume of information it entails. Listing contacts, personal, financial, and travel information in enormous, painstaking detail isn’t trivial, and even small errors will get the form kicked back to you or your clearance rejected. Applicants are required to spell out in great detail the specifics of foreign travel and overseas contacts. Investigators need to know where you’ve made your money and to whom you have debts.

I did it in my early twenties when my life was relatively uncomplicated, and it was still a pain in the ass. It’s not easy, and it’s not supposed to be.

It’s even harder when you’re a corrupt, entitled snake who repeatedly lies about your finances to federal investigators and serves as a living, breathing poster child for privileged venality. It’s even harder when you’ve rather clumsily attempted to use both your familial relationship and proximity to the president of the United States to save your family’s failing real estate empire.

Wilson is not impressed:

Kushner is a man who needs a billion dollars fast, and is willing to cast shame on the winds to get there. The stench of his venality and desperation hangs around him like stripper perfume, cloying and obvious. Jared all but hiked up his sassy pink petticoats while whistling, “Hey, sailor!” to the Chinese, Israeli, Arab, and Russian investors he begged to invest in his failing 666 5th Avenue white elephant.

Kushner has no one to blame but himself. His ambition exceeded his abilities by orders of magnitude so vast it would take a team of advanced mathematicians a generation to devise a system by which to measure the differential. Even his simpering beta-male, child-voiced affect couldn’t hide his spectacular reach and overpowering thirst for the power, influence, and financial rewards of Washington.

That may be unfairly harsh, but Wilson notes the real problem here:

The almost certain knowledge that Robert Mueller isn’t done with Jared by a long stretch doesn’t make it any easier for Trump, even as the red flags thrown up by Rod Rosenstein over the president’s son-in-law and very special adviser were one more sign of the urgency of closing up the leakiest, riskiest White House in history. The best part of this trap is that Trump will be tempted to do the one thing that will make his political situation more politically tenuous and legally risky by restoring Jared’s clearances. It’s within his rights as the president, but he would be dumber than a sack of hammers to do so. A smart president would have already told Jared to pack up and get the hell out, but… oh, who are we kidding?

This battle was only ever going to end one way…

There’s a lesson here. Don’t lie by omission. Don’t lie for fun and profit. And above all, don’t tell lies over and over, so that you eventually think what you’re saying is actually true. Donald Trump fell into that trap. Jared Kushner fell into that trap. Hope Hicks got it right. Just shut up.

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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