Friday, February 02, 2018

Russia-Russia-Russia (again)

The Russia-Trump scandal rolls on. It is and continues to be a defining element of the Trump Presidency.

I continue to maintain that it's possible and necessary to keep several things in mind simultaneously.

1. Nuclear war is a imminent risk that literally has the possibility of destroying the human race. I've always been concerned to hear the climate crisis described as the most serious risk to the future of humanity. And it is a gigantic risk for humanity, in many ways. But nuclear war is the more immediate one. And one in which irreparable damage can been done in a matter of minutes and hours rather than decades and centuries.

2. The US and Russia have the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons. The two countries need to be cooperating to reduce their own stockpiles and to promote international nuclear arms reduction. It's inevitable that in some way, other issues in bilateral relations will affect arms control. But both countries should make real efforts to decouple the nuclear negotiations from other issues.

3. The US and Russia routinely interfere in each other's politics in ways legitimate and illegitimate. And that will continue. Both countries have a legitimate national interest in minimizing such interference. But it's worthwhile for everyone to keep the rhetoric of moralistic outrage within sensible limits. Even if the Other Side does not.

4. Putin's government is a rightwing, authoritarian, oligarchic regime. And apart from any illegal interference in elections in other countries, diplomatically and by example it promotes such regimes in Europe and the United States. But that doesn't mean that everything the Russian government does in internal or foreign policy is unworthy of practical evaluation by observers that aren't also flaming rightwingers.

5. The evidence we have so far about Russian interference in the 2016 election is serious. Much of what is in the public record may be circumstantial. But some of it, like Donald Trump, Jr. expressing obvious willingness to accept oppo research material directly from a shady Russian source, is fairly explicit. It needs to be seriously investigated, as the Special Counsel Robert Mueller seems to be doing.

6. Many Republicans and some on the antiwar left are still insisting that there is no evidence of Russian hacking in the 2016 election. I'm still saying now what I I've been saying at least since January of last year, when the formal report was released by the Director of National Intelligence. The FBI, the CIA and the NSA are all saying that it's very likely that the Russian government did so. And with a slightly lower level of confidence on the part of the NSA, that Russia passed the DNC material to Wikileaks. That needs to be taken seriously. The public should not take it on faith. Either a serious Congressional review, which is unlikely to happen with Republicans in control of both Houses of Congress, or one by some sort of genuinely independent commission needs to be done so that the public can have better confidence in those findings.

7. The neoliberal shock-therapy economics pushed onto post-Soviet Russia first by Old Man Bush's Administration and then by the Clinton Administration was a serious failure, unless you're an oligarch who came out on top. Including massive involvement in Russian internal politics. Time cover 07/15/1996:

8. The Clinton Administration and the Cheney-Bush Administration were both reckless in the eastward expansion of NATO. That doesn't mean that the expansion could be easily rolled back, even if the major NATO members wanted to do so. Russia's military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine are understandable in real-political terms as a response to NATO expansion. That does not mean that the Russian motives were pure, or that the West has to formally accept the formal annexation of the Crimea, other portions of Ukraine, and parts of Georgia. But it doesn't mean that Western policymakers need to be realistic in understanding what military threats those may pose for NATO. Including recognizing how destruction Western regime-change temptations in other countries have often been.

9. The Democrats have a mixed record on how they've handled the Trump-Russia issue. They are very right to insist that it be taken seriously. They haven't always been as careful as they should have about taking public postures that appeared to go well beyond the information in the public record. Take this exchange with Hillary Clinton in one of the Presidential debates, Trump to Clinton: 'No, You're the Puppet' Bloomberg Politics 10/19/2016:

At this time, what was in the public record were the DNC Wikileaks releases and this Joint Statement from the Department Of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security 10/07/2016:
The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow—the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.

Some states have also recently seen scanning and probing of their election-related systems, which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company. However, we are not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government. The USIC and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assess that it would be extremely difficult for someone, including a nation-state actor, to alter actual ballot counts or election results by cyber attack or intrusion. This assessment is based on the decentralized nature of our election system in this country and the number of protections state and local election officials have in place. States ensure that voting machines are not connected to the Internet, and there are numerous checks and balances as well as extensive oversight at multiple levels built into our election process.
This was serious. But not as specific as the January 2017 DNI public report.

Trump had made a public comment saying he hoped Russia had access to Clinton's emails the Republicans were claiming showed misconduct on her part. We know now that this statement came after the notorious Trump Tower meeting of Don Jr. with the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. But that was not in the public record at the time of that debate.

Hillary also used the phrase "17 intelligence agencies" that she said agreed on the finding quoted above. When I heard that in the debate, my first thought was, "We have 17 intelligence agencies?" I also didn't recall it being reported that way and wondered if she weren't gilding the lily there. We the DNI issued the January 2017 public report, it was very explicit that the findings were based on the work of the three agencies that would be expected to focus on counterintelligence efforts: the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA. If we count the Office of the DNI, that adds up to four intelligence agencies, not 17.

In retrospect, it's hard not to wonder if Hillary hadn't received some more substantial information on Trump's dealings with Russia. But it's hard to believe that her charge in October 2016 that Trump was a "puppet" of Vladimir Putin was credible to anyone but the most uncritically partisan Democrats.

10. The mainstream media have indulged in some of the same kind of carelessness. Rachel Maddow has spent the last year smirking and cracking smug jokes about Trump and the Russians and spinning unflattering scenarios about the possible implications of each new bit on news on Trump-Russia that are sometimes long on imagination and short on analysis. Going for sensationalism is a big and understandable temptation. But it makes the real picture harder to understand rather than easier.

11. Focusing on Russia trying to interfere with the 2016 election is a necessary and important thing. Trying to argue that the Russians were responsible for Trump's Electoral College win is a much more speculative matter, one that is almost impossible to prove. Any realistic analysis has to take into account other major factors, particular low turnout of the core Obama voters in some key states.

On the other hand, McClatchy reported last month, "The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency." (Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, FBI investigating whether Russian money went to NRA to help Trump 01/18/2018). The NRA did spend significant amounts supporting Trump:
... the NRA reported spending a record $55 million on the 2016 elections, including $30 million to support Trump – triple what the group devoted to backing Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. Most of that was money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors.

Two people with close connections to the powerful gun lobby said its total election spending actually approached or exceeded $70 million. The reporting gap could be explained by the fact that independent groups are not required to reveal how much they spend on Internet ads or field operations, including get-out-the-vote efforts. [my emphasis]
There are no legal charges against the NRA over this. If, and I stress if, it turns out that they did take money illegally from Russia and they used it for get-out-the-vote operations in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, then we could talk in more concrete terms about direct effects on the outcomes. I hope the way I'm describing this indicates what a long shot possibility I think that is.

11. There are people who would like to use the Trump-Russia scandal to promote agendas that have more to do with ginning up wars than protecting American elections. Professional warmongers like Max Boot and Butcher's-Bill Kristol are unlikely to be opposing Trump because they think he's too likely to start wars. Unfortunately, some leading Democrats are using the scandal to try to pose as tougher on foreign policy than the Republicans without offering a peace vision of what a new direction in foreign policy could be.

12. It's possible and useful to counter that hawkish agenda without echoing Republican talking points about there being "no proof" of the Trump-Russia connection.

13. The circumstantial evidence makes it possible that there will be instances exposed of high-level Trump campaign co-operation with Russian emissaries, some of which will be shown to be seriously illegal. Obstructing justice in the official investigation, lying to the FBI, lying to Congress, lying to the FBI are serious crimes in the themselves. But those crimes could also be strong circumstantial evidence of underlying bad acts and/or crimes. But the most serious Trump-Russia connections could also very likely be in the Trump Organization's financial and business dealing with Russian entities rather than campaign collusion as such.

This interview with Russian expert Stephen Cohen cautions about careless accusations. I think Cohen tends to downplay the seriousness of the evidence on Russian interference in the 2016 elections and Trump's vulnerability to blackmail or manipulation by the Putin government. But he's worth listening to. Russiagate is Dangerous, Will Washington Get the Memo? 02/02/2018:

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