Wednesday, February 7, 2018

First Comes the Facts, Then Comes The Story

One portion of Glenn Simpson's Senate Judiciary Committee testimony of August 22, 2017 about the research performed on Trump/Russia in 2016 caught my eye:

"Generally speaking, when we do a research project for a new client and they ask us -- you know, they explain, you know, what situation they're involved in, if it's a lawsuit, for example, or some other dispute, a lot of what we do is related to disputes, they say -- you know, we say we will conduct an open-ended inquiry that's not goal directed and the results of the research will guide whatever decision you want to make about how to use it. So the range of possibilities with, you know, research are you could file a lawsuit, you could put it in a court filing, you could take it to a government agency, you could give it to Congress, you could give it to the press, but you don't really prejudge, you know, how you're going to use information until you know what you've got. So we generally don't let our clients dictate sort of the -- you know, the end result of things because we don't think that's an intelligent way of trying to do research and, you know, a lot of what we do is decision support. Your clients are frequently trying to make a decision about how they want to proceed, whether they want to -- you know, if someone thinks they've been defrauded, you can file a lawsuit, you can go to the police. You would decide that based on what you find out about the, you know, evidence of a fraud. So that's generally the way we do it."

As a former consultant, I can say that makes perfect sense. The skill set of Simpson, himself a former reporter, to research and uncover information, to understand and compose a sensible, meaningful narrative derived from the credible details differs dramatically from the skill set to take facts, cherry-pick the ones that can be twisted to serve your purpose, ignore the inconvenient facts, and compose a false and misleading narrative. The latter is not consulting. It's marketing - and, when it is all lies, distortions, and false accusations, a pretty dismal form of marketing at that.

What is astounding in the current environment is that:

-Republicans in Congress can get away with trashing Steele and his work without completely betraying their awful gamesmanship, or that

-Trump maintains support of any Republicans besides the newly engaged "deplorables" of the 2016 campaign, based on his long history of lies and distortions and composing false narratives.

My Team Your Team

"Hero or hired gun? How a British former spy became a flash point in the Russia investigation" reads the headline in the Washington Post.

What could be wrong with that? Two sides to every issue.

First of all, the headline is a distortion. In a different universe, more like the world in 2010, Republicans and Democrats alike would have been concerned (and were concerned) about Russian active spying operations in the U.S. When the "Illegals Program" was uncovered and arrests were made, no Republican was saying - "How do we know these people are really spies? The Obama administration is biased."

But that was then. This is now.

I have read hundreds of pages of detail in testimony and articles about Steele and the so-called dossier. The relevant material does not call him a "hero". Chalk that up to our media compulsion to call people heroes. But why in this case?

Context matters. Who is Christopher Steele? He was the head of the Russia desk for U.K. Intelligence agency, MI6, before retiring. So he is a professional who has great contacts and tremendous expertise at ferreting out the truth about Russia.

The rational:
Steele was hired as a consultant to research Trump's close relationship with high place Russians.
Steele possesses the expertise to perform faithful research on this issue.
The credibility and professional reputation of Steele as a consultant requires faithfulness to the truth.
The findings of Steele or any researcher can be made the subject of distortions and cherry-picking by anyone acting in bad faith for political purposes, but such actions do not and would not impugn the integrity of Steele's work.
The research by Steele could also be made subject, at least in part, to attempts by Russian agents to provide bad information, but not only is Steele expert on assessing sources and information, but the information he provided in the dossier has held up remarkably well to severe scrutiny, especially given the raw nature of the intelligence in the document.

Calling Steele a "hired gun" and therefore potentially unreliable does not pass the smell test. That charge conflates two different types of operations: Consulting as research and Consulting as marketing. The conflation is intentional on the part of the accusers, acting in bad faith to the truth. Marketing would be the work of someone like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone.

If WaPo wanted to tell us "How a British former spy became a flash point in the Russia investigation", they would be better off telling us - every issue related to politics is treated by us as a he said/she said debate between two equal and opposite sides, with the truth left to the reader based on his or her own presumed bias.

Christopher Steele is a lifelong British subject. Any reasonable person would assume that he does not normally care about American politics. Why would Steele care about U.S. domestic policy? Even on foreign policy, his concerns would exist at a high level where, at least traditionally, in the U.S., Republicans and Democrats normally agree on such matters as the importance of the Western alliance. But if a candidate for the U.S. presidency seemed to be under the thumb of the Russian government, Steele would surely be horrified and anxious to share that intelligence. In normal times, we would not call that bias.

Yet this turn of events leads to headlines that read "Hero or hired gun?" which is misleading. Steele became a "flashpoint" due to the necessity of one "side" to discredit the intelligence he has provided.
Efforts to discredit him line up with a growing list of distinguished and credible experts including Robert Mueller who must be vilified for the current administration and their lackeys in Congress to prevail.

Put differently, with Trump as president, accusations of bias become a.most a tautology when speaking about anyone who opposes an adversarial foreign power imposing its will on the United States.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Middle Ground is Unsafe

Josh Marshall makes an important point in The GOP and Big Lie Politics:

"The biggest impact of the Nunes Memo – and the accompanying wave of propaganda – is that conventional news and commentary is incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere. This is a pattern we’ve seen again and again. It’s one of the hallmarks of this political age. It’s worth saying it again: conventional media is not equipped to deal with willful lying in the public sphere."

In this piece on Talkingpointsmemo, Marshall distinguishes between Fox's propagandistic reporting and reality-based reporting.  His first example of faulty reality-based coverage is Chris Cillizza . We have called out problems with Cillizza's reporting in Running on Empty and Confusion about Confusion. The problem with Cillizza is a tendency to lean to the middle in his analysis, which is similar to false balance.  False balance dictates that if you have a story that presents a narrative that seems to favor an outlook that is more to the left, then, as an "objective" reporter, you need to offer up your own arguments that might come from the "other side", regardless of  your own assessment of the reality. So it is a matter of saying - "here is the story from the left, but here is the story from the right." And the implication for the reader is OK, here are two stories and you decide which is faithful to the truth.

The problem with Cillizza is, like some other pundits, the inclination to head straight to a narrative that hugs the middle - sort of like the "Third Way".

TPM quotes Cillizza on CNN today:

"I think ultimately – I’m actually with [former Trump advisor Jason Miller] in that – I don’t know that either of these [memos] are the smoking gun that either side wanted. I know conservatives insist the Nunes memo – I shouldn’t lump them together – some conservatives think the Nunes memo, now that it has been released, proves once and for all that everything is totally fine and that Donald Trump is exonerated. I don’t think that’s so. I don’t think the Schiff memo is going to say, oh, my gosh, here it is, the smoking gun we have been waiting for."

But that mischaracterizes the reality by presenting a case of two dueling memos that start equally out of the gate, are both to be taken seriously on their own terms, and then the public decides what to believe based on these memos. The Democrat's memo was only necessitated by the Nunes memo. Democrats did not want to have to write any such memo. They are concerned with the danger of releasing classified information solely for rank political purpose. Nunes, of course, had to recuse himself early in the investigatory process when he was caught collaborating with the White House even as he was charged as head of the committee with leading the investigation. And so on. In this environment, Cillizza feels compelled to navigate to the middle.

TPM does not quite capture the worst problems with Cillizza, but Marshall's explanation of the problem of the reality-based press is expressed well, reading in part:

"This is actually quite black and white. There’s no evidence of politicized intelligence or law enforcement or counter-intelligence work at all. Actually not any. All the evidence is based on false claims, logical fallacies or intentionally misleading representations of how standard law enforcement procedures work. There’s also a high brow version of this which redirects the conversation toward longstanding and legitimate concerns about whether the FISA system is consistent with the rule of law in the first place. This is a grave error which only confuses the situation and makes general considerations about the rule of law into a tool of someone trying to trample on it."

By insisting on balance in reporting or, as in the Cillizza case, reporting directly from the middle as somehow representing the "safe ground", reality-based reporters, even while acting in good faith, fail miserably because bad actors - think Fox News - can so easily outmaneuver their definition of objective journalism.

Another recent example of the weakness of the objective journalists is illustrated by the NYT piece:

How Our Reporter Uncovered a Lie That Propelled an Alt-Right Extremists Rise

Despite recent history the Times still believes that calling out a lie matters - in this case, a neo-nazi's lie claiming military service in Iraq and doubling down on the lie when caught (remind you of anyone?) As if that matters. The nazi's followers are supposed to care about the lie and, what, ask him about it? Stop following him? Stop being neo-nazis? Sorry NYT, that is not how this works.  He got himself a profile in the Times. That's all that matters.

What did the Times expect?

The Times reporter tells us:

I had pictured the phone call going a lot of different ways, but I hadn’t quite prepared for this.

I thought he might swear at me and then hang up. Maybe he would try to turn the conversation around, attacking me and the credibility of The New York Times. Or maybe he would become contrite and emotional, and finally answer some real questions. But I never thought he would just deny it."

Contrite and emotional? Really?

Unfortunately, at the NYT, reporters are slow learners. They have been so steeped in their belief of a rational universe, that they can not believe that the world is populated by vast numbers of basically irrational people who begin with a strongly held belief and then collect facts (or lies, it doesn't matter which) to support that belief and who feel free to rely on logical fallacies to inform their views.

Will the NYT ever learn? Will Chris Cillizza? Not likely. Not any time soon.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

But I'm a Republican!

What's happening in America today is like a slow motion train wreck when the engineer is drunk,  the brakes fail, and the cars head toward a bridge that has just collapsed into a lake. When so much goes wrong at once, if we try to understand what happened, the blow by blow of the cars collapsing on one another as they plunge into the lake does not help us understand.

Much of our current political analysis goes into detail about the awfulness of the current situation, but separating the key elements of the continuing tragedy from other significant factors is difficult, now that so much has gone wrong. Some commentators finish their essays with "This will not end well." But a fair question to that would be - "What makes you so sure this will end?".

Amanda Carpenter writes in Politico "I'm a Republican. Why is My Party Gaslighting America?" OK, but a better question might be, "What Took You So Long to Notice?". Carpenter was communications director for Ted Cruz and wrote speeches for Jim DeMint.

One problem is the title of the piece. Saying "I'm a Republican" is supposed to lend greater credibility to Carpenter than we should afford any person who is a Democrat because she is supposedly going against an established bias. But that logic fails in several ways. The same logic argues that she worked for Ted Cruz, who was the last man standing in the Republican presidential primaries against Trump. The article even notes Trump's attack on Cruz's father, but could also note the attacks on Cruz' wife. If "I am a Republican" is supposed to signify credibility, then similar logic can be employed to counter argue "I am a Ted Cruz operative and therefore any of my criticisms of Trump can not be believed." So credibility needs to be based on a record of, well, credibility, not membership in a particular group.

And, to take this same point, further - ad nauseum - then Rod Rosenstein can be called a "Democrat from Baltimore", which is false on both counts and lifelong Republican Mueller can be accused of favoring the Democrats. Anyone who challenges those claims is suspect. Which leads to anyone who challenges the current occupant of the White House is suspect. Which is how we lose the rule of law and ultimately end up with an autocracy.

If we want to take note of membership in a particular group, we might better pay attention instead to the fact that Amanda Carpenter is only the latest in a growing list of conservative Republican political operatives and former officeholders who are willing to call out Trump for the horror that he represents. These people are to be believed not because they are Republicans, but because their arguments, supported by the facts, make sense!

False balance got us into this mess. Not because balance as a starting point is bad, but balance has its limits. When bad actors are willing to stretch the rules and norms of behavior and behave indecently, efforts at balance become strained.  Political reporters ignore known facts and prior and current patterns of behavior. What if this time, everything that is happening is unlike anything that has ever happened in the past? Assuming that is possible - how could that be impossible? - assuming that is possible, forcing balance becomes false and provides support for deliberately false narratives. The false narrative is taken seriously, sucking energy away from truthful narratives, effectively equating a web of lies with a carefully developed honest story.

Nevertheless the Carpenter article is helpful because it adds to the growing chorus of Republican operatives who are quite conservative, complaining about the Republican-led Congress that is ditching democratic institutions in order to buttress the looming Trumpian autocracy. And Carpenter makes a valuable contribution to public understanding by noting Trump's use of vagueness as a weapon in his arsenal - referring to Trump's penchant throughout his career of "casting vague aspersions". Vague accusations are tougher to rebut precisely due to their vagueness.

And finally she highlights the use of the false narrative as a weapon. When the truth is your enemy, only false narrative can save you. In the case of Trump, there is no detailed story that is any way believable and supported by evidence that can depict him as an innocent party. The only way to buttress his story is to avoid telling it completely and distract with lengthy conspiracy theories about anyone who opposes him.  Obama. Clinton. That worked for a while, but is being stretched thin. So it became Comey and McCabe. But that is not enough. Rosenstein is at risk and, of course, Mueller. For anyone who has not himself committed crimes, supporting Trump through all of this requires an observer to ignore this Trumpian pattern of behavior that has extended to Republicans in Congress.

This is not going well.

Next up: Suspending the 2018 elections as a "temporary" measure.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Tomorrow is Another Day and Tomorrow Never Comes

"Trump surprises his lawyers and alarms his friends by saying he will talk with Mueller" reads the seemingly innocuous headline in WaPo. But a more accurate headline would say "Trump surprises no one by saying he will talk with Mueller."

Such proclamations from Trump fit a pattern of behavior. When he seems cornered and may even feel cornered, he makes whatever statement which, coming from him, would, if true, best serve his interests. He makes these statements without regard to future events or actual intent, knowing full well that the traditional rules that apply to anyone else do not apply to him. His support is based on faith and the full support of so-called Fox News. No supporter is ever going to hold him to his word.

Presenting himself as eager to talk to Mueller makes him appear both positive and innocent to his supporters and comes at no cost because he will not be held accountable later if he refuses to testify and gives any reason, however implausible, for that refusal. The WaPo piece mentions that the tax returns have never been produced speaking of a "Houdini-like willingness to wiggle out of commitments." But there is a method to this madness:

An implausible and nonsensical excuse for not doing something is more powerful than a reasonable justification - by being illogical, it is irrefutable with logic

Why? Because a reasonable justification can be refuted with reason, with logic and lead to a sensible back-and-forth rational discussion. But Trump survives on illogic and fallacy. There is no way to make rational arguments against irrationality. If supporters are willing to ignore rationality, Trump can get away with this forever.

Take the Trump tweet of May 12, 2017
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!

Even though this tweet fits the Trumpian pattern of endless lies and obfuscation - backed into a corner, he comes out with a distracting statement, a justification for the present or a promise for the future built upon a lie.  If you think of Trump as anything like a rational human being, which he is not, you can't help but think - "Oh, so there may be a record of some kind, not exactly tapes, but objective evidence that would make Comey out to be a liar." Just sending us down that road serves the purpose of the day. For Trump, there is no tomorrow to worry about.

For whatever tomorrow brings will just mean a new and different lie - a "surprising" statement according to our reality based, but still often clueless press. In a sane world, Trump would always be presumed lying with every statement he makes and, if at a later date, he was found not to be lying, then the headline would read "The Time That Trump Was Not Lying."

Monday, January 22, 2018

Family Ties or Son of From Russian With Love

The New York Times loves comparing presidents with other presidents. From this perspective, every action by Trump, in order to be understood and evaluated, needs to be compared with the action of a different president, usually beginning with a president of the opposing party and usually more recent to be considered most relevant. As a result, the NYT feeds the Trumpian narrative of blaming Obama for anything bad and taking credit for anything good.

The NYT takes this one step further, adding greater historical perspective in They Were Bad. He May Be Worse, an Opinion piece by historian Sean Wilentz.

The problem with comparing Trump with past presidents, the Times is telling us that past is prologue, there is a spectrum, and we can begin a reasoned analysis by assuming that Trump falls somewhere within that established spectrum.

But what if Trump is the first president who comes into office as the head of an extensive family-run, Russian-backed criminal enterprise. Current investigations, if allowed to proceed, may demonstrate that Trump and his family are dependent on a powerful foreign adversary, a billionaire who controls a vast criminal enterprise of oligarchs and crime families. That is, of course, Putin.

Any opinion article that compares Trump with other U.S. presidents that ignores the possibility (really the likelihood) that Trump is a money launderer for Russian criminals effectively normalizes Trump even while pretending to criticize him with comparisons to the worst presidents.

Trump is the first president who has no background in government or experience as a general in the military. He bears no resemblance to prominent business people in the U.S. by temperment, intellect, or other indicators of capability. If we need to make historical comparisons for better understanding, let's start with organized crime families or other masters of extensive criminal enterprises and then ask, why was no mafia head never president of the U.S.?

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Cowardly Lyin'

Trump's tweet alleging the reason he will not travel to England is such a classic Trump deflect, distract, accuse move, it bears further analysis.

Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!

In England, as in much of Europe, Trump is regarded with disdain, especially due to his efforts to deepen racial resentment. So many Londoners have been prepared to protest any visit, that there has been some question as to whether Trump would dare travel to England and showcase his unpopularity, or whether the invitation to him would be withdrawn.

So he clearly wants to avoid England because he would be met with massive demonstrations of animosity and England might still withdraw the invitation. But that is reality and Trump denies reality:

1. Deny the real reason for cancelling the trip.
2. Deflect attention to Obama, a favorite target, whether or not there is any relevance
3. Distract from the issue of visiting London with an irrelevant subject - the new embassy
4. Accuse the Obama administration of malfeasance (ignoring the role of the Bush administration to relocate the embassy for security reasons)
How long can Trump continue with these tired tactics? At some point, even his supporters might prefer a president who is willing to face reality, admit responsibility and be accountable for his own actions. Blaming Obama, Clinton, Holder, Rice, and Lynch at all times should start to feel strained to these people. In fact, not facing the fact that he is unwelcome in England and lying about his actions betrays a cowardliness. We always knew that he is a bully. And bullies are always cowards deep down. But this latest instance does not involve any bullying. He is just a straight out coward.