The Unknown Known

It was February 12, 2002, it was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the question at the press briefing was about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups, and this was Rumsfeld’s answer:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult one.

That was an indirect way of saying that the Bush administration didn’t really know what Iraq had done or was doing, dressed up as philosophic mediation on the nature of knowledge itself – a deep dive into theoretical epistemology. Those unknown unknowns are a real problem. Reporters could chew on that. That would stop them from asking the one deadly forbidden question – “You really don’t know what you’re doing, do you?”

That worked for a day or two, but later, psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek would argue that beyond these three categories there is a fourth, the unknown known, that which we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know.

That’s a real problem too. Some things are obvious to even the most casual observer, but there are those who insist that those things just aren’t so. The war in Iraq was a fine idea and a great success! Global warming is a hoax! Massive tax cuts pay for themselves! Trade wars are good and easy to win! And of course that whole Russia thing is a hoax – the Trump campaign had nothing to do with Russia and did nothing with Russia, and Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 election at all. There was no collusion. There is no obstruction of justice. There’s nothing there. That’s an unknown known. Everyone knows that.

Everyone knows the opposite, or knows it now:

Former national security advisor Michael Flynn has given special counsel Robert Mueller “first-hand” details of contacts between President Donald Trump’s transition team and Russian government officials, a bombshell court document filed Tuesday says.

Mueller in a sentencing memo said Flynn’s “substantial assistance” to his probe warrants a light criminal sentence – which could include no jail time for the retired Army lieutenant general.

That assistance, which includes 19 interviews with Mueller’s team and Justice Department attorneys, related to a previously unknown “criminal investigation,” as well as to Mueller’s long-running probe of the Trump campaign’s and transition team’s links or coordination with the Russian government.

That is to say that Mueller is closing in on any coordination with the Russian government by Trump, by his transition team, on obstruction of justice too – for trying to hide this stuff and trying to screw up any investigation of it – and something new – a mysterious criminal investigation – but Mueller isn’t saying much:

“The defendant provided firsthand information about the content and context of interactions between the transition team and Russian government officials,” the memo says. Mueller’s memo almost completely blacks out details of what Flynn might have said.

What? It seems the nation will have to wait for that:

Flynn pleaded guilty last December to a single count of lying to federal agents about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the presidential transition in late 2016. Flynn has cooperated with Mueller’s ongoing probe since pleading guilty.

“Given the defendant’s substantial assistance and other considerations set forth below, a sentence at the low end of the guideline range – including a sentence that does not impose a term of incarceration – is appropriate and warranted,” Mueller’s office wrote in the memo filed Tuesday.

Mueller’s memo says that some of Flynn’s benefits to the probe “may not be fully realized at this time because the investigations in which he has provided assistance are ongoing.”

Yes, there is more to come:

Mueller is expected to file another court document later this week in connection with ex-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Those documents will detail Mueller’s allegation that the longtime Republican consultant Manafort, who pleaded guilty in August to multiple crimes unrelated to the campaign, had lied since then to investigators after agreeing like Flynn to cooperate with Mueller’s probe.

The walls are closing in, and Politico offers additional detail:

Flynn had been under scrutiny for months ahead of his plea deal for his connections to Russia. He memorably sat next to President Vladimir Putin of Russia at a 2015 gala in Moscow sponsored by the Russian news agency RT, whose propaganda was later cited by the U.S. intelligence community as a facet of Putin’s plan to interfere in the 2016 election.

Flynn also drew investigators’ attention for his business ties to Turkey. On the day of the 2016 election, he wrote an op-ed supporting the extradition of the Turkish dissident Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the U.S., and hailed Turkey as the United States’ best ally against the Islamic State. He was also suspected of failing to register as a lobbyist for the Turkish government when he assumed his position as Trump’s national security adviser.

Congress has also investigated Flynn’s business connections. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the likely incoming chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has raised questions about Flynn’s efforts to promote within the White House a deal to jointly build nuclear power plants across the Middle East with a Russian company under U.S. sanctions. In late 2017, Cummings made public a whistleblower’s testimony alleging that Flynn’s business partner pushing the nuclear deal bragged that Trump would tear up existing sanctions on Russia to help pave the way for the plan.

Flynn’s ultimate downfall, though, was the result of phone calls he held with the Russian ambassador to the United States at the time, Sergey Kislyak, during the presidential transition. Leaked details of the call indicated that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak, something that the incoming administration – including Vice President Mike Pence – denied publicly. Flynn resigned in February 2017, just weeks after being sworn in, amid FBI scrutiny of the phone calls.

So, no jail time for this guy? He must have spilled a lot of beans, amazing beans, and then there’s this:

Flynn’s name also came up in another unusual episode: the hunt by GOP operative Peter Smith for Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails. In an episode chronicled by The Wall Street Journal just weeks before Smith’s apparent suicide, Smith purportedly mounted a well-financed attempt to get Clinton’s emails on the dark web and told contacts that he was affiliated with Flynn and other members of the Trump campaign.

Members of the Trump campaign were offering big bucks to anyone who would steal Clinton’s emails? Those unknown unknowns are a real problem. But maybe everyone kind of knew that already. That might have been an unknown known. Some things are obvious to even the most casual observer, and then the bullshit ends.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reports on that actually happening:

Republican senators emerged from a briefing Tuesday about journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing and essentially accused the Trump administration of misleading the country about it – and even covering it up for Saudi Arabia.

In remarks after a briefing from CIA Director Gina Haspel, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) suggested there is no plausible way that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman didn’t order the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, and said that the evidence is overwhelming.

Is it? There was this:

This is completely contrary to the narrative that has been put forward by President Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. Trump has said it’s unknowable whether the crown prince was actually behind it – despite the CIA concluding this with “high confidence” – while Pompeo said last week that there was no “direct reporting” implicating him.

Trump and Pompeo were pulling a Rumsfeld there – some things just cannot be known – but these guys weren’t buying it:

Graham said Tuesday that you’d have to be “willfully blind” to not know Mohammed was responsible – a clear rebuke of Trump’s argument that this whole thing resides in some kind of gray area.

Graham was also asked about Pompeo’s comments and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ comments that there was no “smoking gun.” The senator said there was indeed a “smoking saw” – a reference to the reported bone saw that was brought to dismember Khashoggi – and that Pompeo was being a “good soldier” by toeing the administration’s line. So that’s basically saying Pompeo aided Trump’s “willful” effort to obscure the truth.

“If they were in a Democratic administration,” Graham said of Pompeo and Mattis, “I would be all over them for being in the pocket of Saudi Arabia.”

Corker was about as full-throated, saying, “If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes” – another clear rebuke to Trump’s statement and Pompeo’s and Mattis’ suggestions that this is some kind of unknown.

Something was wrong here:

Corker also suggested that the briefing last week, which featured Pompeo and Mattis but not Haspel, was entirely misleading. When asked whether there was a difference in the message about Mohammed’s culpability, Corker compared it to the “difference between darkness and sunshine.”

In fact, as Blake notes, they’re angry:

These senators aren’t just accusing the administration of missing the point on Khashoggi; they’re saying they feel misled and that the administration has obscured the truth. Graham saying he’d question Pompeo’s and Mattis’ motives if this were a Democratic administration is a particularly striking statement – and one from someone who is a frequent Trump ally these days. Corker has been more of a Trump critic, but his suggestion the he feels last week’s briefing wasn’t on the up-and-up is also remarkable from a Republican.

Questioning Trump is not unprecedented for Republicans in Congress; the fact that they are going there on Pompeo and even Mattis, who is perhaps the most bipartisan figure in the administration, shows the severe degree of concern about the lack of consequences. These senators are serving notice that they won’t back down without a fight – a fight that could tar both Pompeo’s and Mattis’ legacies.

And there is Rumsfeld’s legacy. What can we really know about anything? When those in charge of war and peace and all the rest say such things, the nation panics.

Panic may be appropriate. Damian Paletta and Philip Rucker report this:

After his Argentine steak dinner last weekend with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Trump announced that they had reached an “incredible deal” to temporarily suspend his trade war. But days later, Trump declared, “I am a Tariff man.”

Trump last week proposed stripping away electric-car subsidies from General Motors as punishment for the automotive giant moving to cease production at plants in the United States and Canada. But then his chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said the White House would do no such thing. Targeting a single company, he explained, would be illegal.

Then there is the way Trump talks about how the economy works – imprecise at best, ignorant at worst. For instance, the president routinely says that China and other countries are paying billions of dollars to the United States because of his tariffs. But that is false. Tariffs are paid by companies, often U.S. firms that import foreign-made products.

And that cost is passed on to their customers. The price of what they import, or produce with foreign components, spikes. American consumers pay the price for that, so what Trump says just isn’t so, and that has consequences:

Once again this week, world leaders, U.S. lawmakers and jittery investors have been reminded that Trump’s words cannot always be trusted.

The whiplash nature of Trump’s economic policies and pronouncements bore tangible consequences on Tuesday, when U.S. stock markets cratered amid investor skepticism of Trump’s China talks. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 799 points, or 3.1 percent, while the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index fell 3.2 percent and the NASDAQ dropped 3.8 percent.

This was a Trump Crash:

Global markets demand consistency and reliability, but Trump delivers neither. Instead, he makes knee-jerk announcements that surprise investors, lawmakers and even some of his own aides and advisers, who sometimes find themselves reversing course depending on the president’s whims.

“The words are noisy, but markets can’t wear noise-canceling headphones,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. “You can’t delineate the noise from policy because sometimes the noise is policy. Markets like certainty. They need to know the rules of the road, whatever they are, to move forward.”

There are increased signs that investors, after hanging on any signal from Trump and his advisers about the status of economic planning, are beginning to understand that many of the statements lack any real substance.

They are asking that one deadly forbidden question – “You really don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” And they have their answer:

Trump’s aides have described the president as obsessed with the stock market’s performance, which he sees as a numerical validation of his personal performance. Trump spent much of late 2017 and early 2018 cheering big gains, which he claimed were stimulated by his presidency – in particular, his moves to cut taxes and roll back regulations. But markets have moved wildly in the past two months, in part because of Trump’s erratic policy pronouncements – a pattern that only seems to worsen when there are signs the economy is showing signs of future weakness.

In short, he panics, and everyone runs for the hills, or shrugs:

Trump often makes off-the-cuff – and sometimes inaccurate – statements related to the economy. On Thursday, Trump wrote in a tweet blasting GM for its plant closures and layoffs that BMW had “just announced a major new plant. The U.S.A. is booming!”

That was false. BMW has made no such announcement.

And this was just more of the same:

Analysts attributed Tuesday’s market jolt to uncertainty about Trump’s dinner on Saturday with Xi in Buenos Aires on the sidelines of the Group-of-20 summit. U.S. and Chinese officials have publicly disagreed over several substantive points.

Chinese officials did not confirm the White House’s initial claims that China had agreed to buy large amounts of U.S. agricultural products and remove tariffs on U.S. automobiles. Kudlow later said there was not an actual agreement for China to remove auto tariffs, though he said that he expected Beijing to eventually do it as a show of good faith.

Adding to the confusion, Trump sent tweets Tuesday threatening import penalties on Chinese products.

“President Xi and I want this deal to happen, and it probably will,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “But if not remember, I am a Tariff Man. When people or countries come in to raid the great wealth of our Nation, I want them to pay for the privilege of doing so.”

But they are not the ones who pay! Oh well. The upscale bars in and around Wall Street will do great business. Everyone down there will be drinking heavily after the market-close each day. Invest in scotch.

But there’s a method here:

A former White House official explained that Trump considers his unpredictability and sudden shifts a virtue because he thinks they help ensure his opponents – in this case, the Chinese – stay off balance.

“It introduces so much confusion and chaos into a situation that by the time it’s all over with he’s the only one who really knows what he thinks, including his own staff,” said the former official, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss Trump’s tactics.

That’s not a method:

Andy Laperriere, a trade specialist and head of U.S. policy research at Cornerstone Macro, said, “There is a sense that what was portrayed as meaningful progress, when you look at the fine print, doesn’t feel that way. In reality, China did not agree to reduce or eliminate the tariff on cars,” he continued.

“They haven’t agreed to any specific purchases of agricultural products. And I think, even more importantly, China does not seem inclined to make any concessions on the big issues that would be the subject of negotiations over the next 90 days.”

That’s because something is missing:

One reason for the confusion is the lack of any formal document or agreement from China and the United States detailing progress.

In past White Houses, officials had lengthy discussions about foreign and domestic policy changes, and they briefed lawmakers and outside allies ahead of time to ensure there would be no surprises. But in the case of the China talks, the public was left to read a White House statement and comments from Chinese officials, then interpret discordant Twitter messages from Trump.

There are far too many unknown unknowns here, but at least some things are obvious to even the most casual observer:

A tea party activist who helped the Texas Republican Party draft its 2018 platform proudly declared himself a “WHITE NATIONALIST” last week.

“Damn Right, I’m a WHITE NATIONALIST and very Proud of it,” Ray Meyers wrote on Facebook last Tuesday, in response to someone else’s post that accused President Donald Trump of being a white nationalist.

The Texas Observer, which reported on the Facebook post Tuesday, noted Meyers’ connections in the Republican Party: He is the founder and chairman of the Kaufman County Tea Party, was on the Ted Cruz presidential campaign’s “Texas Leadership Team” and served as a delegate for Cruz at the Republican National Convention in 2016.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone was surprised by this, or by Ray Meyers’ careful clarification:

In a phone call Friday, Meyers told the Observer that identifying himself as a white nationalist “doesn’t have anything to do with race.”

“I am Anglo and I’m very proud of it, just like black people and brown people are proud of their race. I am a patriot. I am very proud of my country,” he said. “And white nationalist… all that means is America First. That’s exactly what that means. That’s where the president’s at. That’s where I’m at and that’s where every solid patriotic American is. It doesn’t have anything to do with race or anything else.”

Yeah, sure:

Merrill Perlman wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review last year: “Adding an adjective to indicate what ‘their’ nation is can turn ‘nationalism’ into a polarizing term. A ‘white nationalist’ generally wants a nation of white people. Whether that means creating a separate nation of just white people or pushing those who are not white out of their current nation depends on which branch of ‘white nationalism’ is talking.”

And the Southern Poverty Law Center defines white nationalist groups as those that believe “white identity should be the organizing principle of the countries that make up Western civilization.”

Some things are obvious. There may be unknown unknowns, as Rumsfeld said, but there is the obviously obvious. Mueller has the goods on Trump and his crew and he’s closing in, and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia did order the murder of a journalist that offended him, and our president is fine with that, and tariffs and trade wars are dangerous and no one wins there, ever, and someone has stoked white fear and panic and anger, and that may explode soon. Donald Rumsfeld once mused about what we can know. What can we know, really? We can know lots, actually, and do.

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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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2 Responses to The Unknown Known

  1. barney says:

    Good read. Thank you.

  2. c u n d gulag says:

    Excellent, as per usual!

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