Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

31 May 2017

Is Trump a Traitor?


[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: Asking the right question is nearly always the beginning of wisdom. Ask the wrong one, and your answers will be irrelevant at best, useless at worst.

Many Democrats and other detractors of our president are asking, in effect, is he a traitor. Did he somehow collude, conspire or cooperate with Russians to undermine our government and way of life?

I have seen no evidence, let alone convincing evidence, that he did that. What Trump did do is get elected by any means possible and necessary. Isn’t that what every electoral campaign is all about? (Recall, for example, the spectacle of Hillary and Bill, who are anything but racists, playing the race card in their unsuccessful primary campaign against Barack Obama in 2008.)

Trump has ignored, minimized and dismissed the conclusions of virtually all our intelligence services: that Vladimir Putin wanted Trump elected president and took concrete and apparently effective steps to achieve that end. It’s also reported that Trump and his team had a lot of past, present and nascent money deals with Russians, including work, real-property, or name-licening deals with Russian officials, oligarchs and/or Mafiosi.

But does all that amount to treason? Probably not, unless there’s such a thing as treason by negligence. Trump did what Trump does: act always with utter carelessness and inattention to detail, minimizing or ignoring hard evidence that does not conform to his cozy narcissistic world view, and lying whenever convenient to make a political point.

But was his goal in so doing to help Russia and to hurt us? Did he yearn to become one who “goes over” (the original Latin meaning of “traitor”) to the other side? It’s hard to see how. His goals were to enrich himself and his family and aggrandize himself, as is his narcissistic wont, without regard to consequences. A secondary goal—still far from realization—was to “make America great again.”

Yes, there is still a lot of ground on which Trump might legitimately be impeached and removed from office. He may have violated the Emoluments Clause. He’s almost certainly violated the spirit, if not the letter, of multiple modern rules on conflicts of interest. And he may well be guilty of obstructing justice—in a sort of ham-handed, unsubtle way—by trying to push Comey off the scent of Trump and his team, later by firing Comey, and now by attempting to stack the deck of the follow-up investigations of Trump and his cohorts pending in Congress and the FBI.

Our Founders did us a grave disservice by not giving us a simple vote of “no confidence” in our chief executive that most parliamentary democracies have. In its stead, they gave us a procedure for “impeaching” an undesirable chief for “High Crimes and Misdemeanors”—a phrase which reeks of lawyers and legalism.

But in the final analysis, interpreting that phrase is an entirely political exercise. The phrase means whatever a majority of our House of Representatives (for impeachment) and two-thirds of our Senate (for conviction and removal) say it means; no more, no less. Our Supreme Court, which is the ultimate arbiter of our law, has no say in impeachment proceedings. (Recall the impeachment, but not the conviction, of Bill Clinton for receiving fellatio from a White House internet and lying about it.)

And so we who would love to see Trump back in private life come up against a hard reality. We just don’t have the votes. There are nowhere near enough votes in either House to impeach or remove Donald J. Trump for anything. So investigating him for treason—one of the least likely bad things he may have done—is a huge waste of time.

So, at present, is investigating Trump for all those other potentially impeachable things he may have done. Whatever evidence the investigators find will be useless, in our constitutional order, until Trump’s opponents have the votes. They don’t now. So we can expect investigations of Trump and his team to proceed with all the deliberate speed of a Congress having had two centuries’ practice in dragging its heels elegantly.

Meanwhile, we have three burning questions that cry out for answers. All have little to do (at least directly) with Donald Trump.

Vladimir Putin has made no bones about wanting Trump, not Hillary, in the White House. Virtually unanimously, our intelligence services have been screaming bloody murder (as much as they can without unlawfully disclosing state secrets) that Putin took concrete and probably effective steps to achieve that end.

So our three important questions are simple. What concrete steps did Putin take? How effective were they? And what do we do to prevent Vladimir Putin from choosing our next president, if not our next Congress, on our behalf?

We do know three things from simple history. First, Hillary looked like the likely, if not inevitable, winner up to a couple of weeks before the election. Second, only three things cropped up late in the campaign that might have changed that consistent picture.

First, James Comey unprofessionally (and possibly illegally) made public the then-recent discovery of Hillary’s emails on a computer that the disgraced pol Andrew Weiner shared with his wife, Huma Abedin, who was a Hillary campaign official. Second, sensitive emails of Hillary’s and the Democratic National Committee were hacked and make public through shadowy agencies associated with Russia. Third, our intelligence services reported that fake news from suspected Russian-backed sources, distributed late in the campaign, may have helped throw the election to Trump.

So all we know so far is that two of the three sources of the “October Surprises” that may have put Trump in the White House appeared to have come from Russia. The other one came from James Comey.

In the absence of specific evidence as to the relative effects of these three sources of influence, we can only give them equal weight. Thus, at this stage of analysis, two-thirds of the acts that probably threw our presidential election to Trump came from Russia.

Our own intelligence services are virtually unanimous on this point, if not on my rude numerical analysis. No one appears to be investigating Comey, if only because he’s already been fired. So two-thirds of the evidence, and probably roughly two-thirds of the effect on our election, is, insofar as Congress is concerned, being completely ignored. Our elected representatives are blowing off the fact that our chief foreign rival, Russia, picked our president with (at this stage of our knowledge) two-thirds probability.

Trump himself doesn’t care. He and his team are in the White House, and they don’t much want to rehash how they got there. But that in itself is far from treason.

The GOP doesn’t care for similar reasons. But it ought to. Maybe next time Putin will pick a Democrat. (He certainly seems to have a preference for the inexperienced, incompetent and impulsive, and the GOP has no monopoly on them.) And if we don’t figure out how Putin did it this time and how we can stop him, nothing will prevent him from doing it again.

Every American ought to care, and ought to care deeply. Our chief foreign rival, with subtlety and guile, seems to have picked our chief executive and put him in office without firing a shot, and apparently without exciting much suspicion or objection outside our own intelligence services.

As I have reasoned before, the investigation of what Putin did and how he did it must be public because the effect of what he did was not on our intelligence services or on our pols alone, but on our electorate. As has been reported many times, Putin did not hack the vote talleys. What he hacked was our voters’ minds, with direct propaganda based on real, hacked secrets, and also on fake news.

That’s a subtle thing to do, and a hard thing to defeat, especially in a land where virtually no speech is illegal. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bring this patent subversion of our system to ground and try to counteract it. To do nothing is to put our elections in Putin’s and Russia’s hands without a murmur of objection. How treasonous would that be?

Coda: Quick Confirmation

Quick confirmation of the importance of running Russian cyber-interference to ground came from an unusual source: the very woman who had the election stolen from her. In an interview with computer experts Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher published in recode and in the Boston Globe late May 31, Hillary Clinton discusses the reasons for her unexpected loss. While still emphasizing Comey’s unprofessional late disclosures of his then-new e-mail evidence, she also recognizes how important were social media, bot armies that placed fake news on them, and the Russian-led weaponized fake news.

Here are a few key quotes from her interview:
    “[T]here have been some studies done since the election that if you look—let’s pick Facebook—if you look at Facebook, the vast majority of news items posted were fake. They were connected to, as we now know, the 1000 Russian agents who were involved in delivering those messages.”
    “We see now this new information about Trump’s Twitter account being populated [sic: repeated?] by millions of bots. And it was such a new experience. I understand why people on their Facebook pages would think, ‛Oh, Hillary Clinton did that, I did not know that. Well that’s going to affect my opinion about her.’”
    [Asked whether she’s rethinking her campaign’s rule not to use fake news itself:] “I’m not rethinking it, but everybody else better rethink it, because we have to figure out how to combat this.”
    “[T]he Mercers did not invest all that money [in Cambridge Analytica and weaponized retail propaganda] just for their own amusement. We know they played in Brexit, and we know that they came to Jared Kushner and basically said, ‛We will marry our operation,’ which was more as it’s been described, psychographic, sentiment, a lot of harvesting of Facebook information, ‛We will marry that with the RNC. On two conditions: You pick Steve Bannon, and you pick Kellyanne Conway. And then we’re in.’ Trump says, ‛Fine, who cares,’ right? . . . Now, the question is where and how did the Russians get into this. And I think it’s a very important question.”
On that question rests the future of American democracy, and maybe liberal Western democracy generally. Propaganda has always been the most subtle and powerful tool of totalitarians. Weaponized, personalized and automated with AI, it becomes a super-weapon. Hillary may not have been its first casualty, but she is the most important to date.

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