A Not-So-Implausible Conspiracy Theory

The June 2016 meeting between the Trumps and the Russians is the subject of ongoing scrutiny by the media, the public and – it appears – the special counsel appointed to look into the question of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Much more effort will likely be expended in this area, trying to suss out what happened in that 20-30 minute meeting.

Those efforts are important, but here’s reality: The moment the Trumps’ visitors stepped off the elevator on the 25th floor of their tower to sit down with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, the Trumps became pawns of the Russians. It doesn’t matter what was actually said or done.

By way of explanation, consider who was on the field that day: Starting with the visiting team, we have Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian attorney with close ties to the Russian elite, two people, Rob Goldstone and Irakly Kaveladzeare beholden to the Agalarov family, a former Soviet counter-intelligence officer, Rinat Akhmetshin, and a translator, Anatoli Samochornov.

Playing for the home team, we have the aforementioned Trump, Kushner and Manafort.

Now, if I were the kind of guy who was a former intelligence officer who used to catch and run spies for one of the most vicious (and effective) intelligence agencies in the world, the kind of guy who has been in power for nearly two decades and runs his country like a private bank for himself and his friends, the kind of guy whose political opponents serendipitously end up dead – if, in other words, I was Vladimir Putin – I would view this meeting as a lever. I could – with very little effort I suspect – convince the visitors – all of whom are tied to me, my country or my friends – to tell any story I wanted about what was said, what documents were provided, how the home team reacted.

Absolutely anything.

If I were Vladimir Putin’s kind of guy, I could probably get the visitors to swear that Ms. Veselnitskaya promised the Russians would arrange for the release thousands of Clinton campaign e-mails if Don Jr. promised that his dad would look the other way on Ukraine. Or that the Trump organization would wire $100 million to a Cayman Islands bank in exchange for help. Or that he’d pimp out Melania, Ivanka or Tiffany.

Or anything else. Let your imagination run.

Lest you think this is unrealistic, consider this thought experiment: sooner or later, the visiting team is going to be called to testify before Congress. If all five participants come to the witness table and in shaky, tremulous voices describe a more-or-less consistent version of what happened in that meeting, who can rebut them? After a solid year of lying, dissembling, omitting, misdirections, incomplete answers, amended forms and convenient forgetfulness, can anyone honestly claim that Don Jr., Jared and Paul have MORE credibility than five earnest people who haven’t spent all that time lying in public on a near-daily basis?

What if someone on the visiting team happened to record the meeting? Or at least has a recording that purports to be from the meeting? Before you say no way could something like that be faked, read this article.

Of course, the beauty of a lever like this is that you don’t actually have to use it in order to make it effective. All you have to do is let your opponents know that you have the lever and that you’re prepared to use it. You would also offer them a carrot in the form of a “promise” that the visiting team would continue to be helpful in terms of denying anything untoward happened as long as the Trump administration continued to cooperate.

Now, when could the Russians have let the Trumps know of the existence of such a carrot-and-stick arrangement? Could they have told them…

  • During the undisclosed conversations between Mike Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak?
  • During the undisclosed meetings between Jeff Sessions and Kislyak?
  • During the undisclosed meeting between Jared Kushner and Kislyak?
  • During the undisclosed meeting between Kushner and Russian banker Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank?
  • During President Trump’s unpublicized meeting in the Oval Office with Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov?
  • During the 2:15 meeting between President Trump and Putin at the G20?
  • During the just-disclosed one-on-one meeting between the two at the G20 dinner?

Those are just a few of the possibilities. Turns out there’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to cataloging the many ways information like this might have flowed to the Trumps.

“The Russians are not our friends,” said Mitch McConnell. Similarly, Vladimir Putin does not admire, respect or want to be friends with Donald Trump. Everything I’ve ever read about the man suggests that people are important to him only to the extent that they’re useful to him. The Trumps, through ineptitude, greed or entitlement, have made themselves extraordinarily useful. As I’m putting the finishing touches on this article, I’m seeing reports that the Trump administration has ended its program to supply arms to anti-Assad rebels in Syria, something long sought by Moscow. As one current official described the decision, “Putin won in Syria.”

See how useful the Trumps can be?





lead_960“What would Andrew Shepherd do?”

Liberals (or “hyper liberals” as I was recently called) of a certain age have something of a wet dream fantasy about the 1990s movie The American President. For those of you who haven’t seen it or have forgotten it, it’s the gauzy reimagining of the Clinton presidency without the messy bits of scandal and – prominently –  without the First Lady.  With snappier dialogue, better cheekbones and a tragicom plot line of the widowed President Andrew Shepherd raising a daughter and finding love in the Lincoln bedroom, it’s a reliable feel-good movie on a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon. Spoiler alert: turns out it’s possible to be an ethical, honest elected official, speak the truth, fix the economy, settle the debate on gun control, eviscerate the politics of division and get the girl.

Thus, in times of controversy, we liberals of a certain age are prone to ask the question, “What would Andrew Shepherd do?”

Fortunately, Aaron Sorkin anticipated just the sort of event we’ve seen play out this week and it’s an instructional – albeit fictional – bit of content:

INT. THE SITUATION ROOM – NIGHT. SHEPHERD, A.J., the SECRETARY OF STATE, the SECRETARY OF DEFENSE, and about a dozen or so Pentagon, Security Council, and Joint Chiefs OFFICIALS are doing exactly what they’re trained for.

CHAIRMAN (continuing) “…The F-18’s are fired up on the Kimitz and the Kitty Hawk. They’re just waiting for your attack order, Mr. President.”

SHEPHERD “And we’re gonna hit Libyan Intelligence Headquarters?”

MAN “The N.S.A. confirmed they’re the ones who planned the bombing.”

CHIEF OF STAFF “What’s the estimate?”

GENERAL “We’ll level the building.”

SHEPHERD “Libyan I.H.Q’s in the middle of downtown Tripoli — are we gonna hit anything else?”

GENERAL “Only if we miss.”

SHEPHERD “Are we gonna miss?”

GENERAL “No, sir.”

SHEPHERD “How many people work in that building?”

CHAIRMAN “We’ve been all through–”

SHEPHERD “How many people work in the damn building?”

DEPUTY “I’ve got those number here. There are three shifts, so it–”

SHEPHERD “The fewest. What shift puts the fewest people in the building? The night shift, right?”

DEPUTY “By far. Mostly custodial staff and a few–”

SHEPHERD “What time does the night crew go on?”

DEPUTY “They’re on now, sir.”


CHIEF OF STAFF: “It’s immediate, it’s decisive, it’s low risk, and it’s a proportional response.”

SHEPHERD Someday somebody’s going to have to explain to me the virtue of a proportional response.

There’s a SILENCE. SHEPHERD gets up and starts to head out the door.

CHAIRMAN “Mr. President?”

SHEPHERD “Attack.”


SHEPHERD is with CHIEF OF STAFF and a couple of AIDES, all of whom look as though they’ve been called out of their homes in the middle of the night.

CHIEF OF STAFF “Robin, as soon as our planes have cleared Libyan airspace, you can call the press. I don’t know when we’ll have the full B.D.A.–”

AIDE 1 “General Rork says around O-Eight Hundred.”

AIDE 2 “Sir, what do you think about a national address?”

SHEPHERD “The last thing I want to do is put the Libyans center stage.”

AIDE 3 “I think it’s a great idea, sir. You know Rumson’s gonna be talking about your lack of military service.”

SHEPHERD “This isn’t about Rumson. What I did tonight was not about political gain.”

AIDE 3 “But it can be, sir. What you did tonight was very presidential.”

SHEPHERD “Leon, somewhere in Libyan right now there’s a janitor working the night shift at the Libyan Intelligence Headquarters. He’s going about his job ’cause he has no idea that in about an hour he’s gonna die in a massive explosion. He’s just going about his job ’cause he has no idea that an hour ago I gave an order to have him killed. You just saw me do the least presidential thing I do.”

AIDE 3 “Yes, sir.”

I’ve never been in the White House situation room. I’ve never been a part of a decision like this. I can’t say definitively what President Trump’s decision making process was in terms of if and how we should respond to Syria’s gassing of its citizens. I can only judge by what I can observe from afar, what I know of Mr. Trump by studying him over the last year or so and what’s reported in the not-fake news. Based on those sources, it appears to me that Mr. Trump’s decision to dramatically increase our engagement in one of the most difficult geopolitical issues in the world went something like this:

“”Oh, look at what’s on TV now…That’s terrible…this Assad guy is a bad dude…I want to punch him in the nose…that’ll show him who’s in charge…I’ll tell the generals….oh, look at what’s on TV now…”

I also suspect that President Trump does not see his decision as “the least presidential thing I do” but just the opposite. My profound fear is that he enjoyed this exercise of presidential power – 59 cruise missiles is a pretty substantial mood shifter – and that it felt good. I fear that he’s right now watching television again and seeing people across the political spectrum praise him (or at least not criticize him so robustly as on other issues) and thinking, “That worked…people like it…we have lots of those missiles…nobody likes that North Korean guy…I want to punch him in the nose…that’ll show him who’s in charge…China will respect us…I’ll tell the generals….”

In other words, not an Andrew Shepherd moment.

  • Austin


It’s a Tough Moment for Liberals

NEW SLAUGHTERThis is a tough and perhaps evolutionary moment for liberals. Meaning the intramural conflict over what if anything to do about Syria.

It is fair to describe the standard progressive-liberal attitude towards American military intervention as one of intense if not intractable skepticism … to the point of knee jerk pacifism. And the rationale for that attitude is pretty solid.

Liberals, with a more nuanced view of history, aren’t just suffering from a Cheney-Bush Iraq hangover, where we were flat-out lied to and thrown into an incompetently managed war that when all is said and done (with veterans’ benefits and interest) may end up costing multiple trillions of (unbudgeted) dollars, but we also remember and continue to process the Tonkin Gulf charade that got us into Vietnam, followed by the atrocities of indiscriminate carpet bombing, napalm and white phosphorous attacks. And sliding further back, having studied history, we haven’t forgotten the blanket fire-bombing of not just Tokyo but four dozen other Japanese cities by Gen. Curtis LeMay/FDR in WWII, followed by two nuclear bombs.

After that we factor in all of this country’s nefarious, frequently counter-effective intelligence activities.

Point being; on a strictly historical basis, the United States stands on a very shaky pedestal from which to claim a moral prerogative to punish someone else for gross abuses of “accepted norms”.

But as much as those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it, history is never a precise mirror on the present. Time, social evolution and technology wear away at the perfect echo from then to now. 2013 is not 1943. Great nation states have not fought a war against each other for almost 70 years, the longest “peaceful” interlude in recorded history, and are unlikely to engage in one for the forseeable future, given the tight interdependency of the world economy. The respective populations of the United States, Russia, China, etc. are simply too well-informed about each other to accept the easy, jingoistic demonization of “the enemy” corrupt governments served up in the past, much less the likelihood of total annihilation.

Those are key facets of the liberalizing effect of technology.

Closer to the moment, Barack Obama bears no imaginable kinship to Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, the architects of the Iraq fraud and disaster. There is no case to be made that Obama is eager for military conflict. On the other hand he is not naive about the presence of abominable cruelty in human nature.

The split among liberals over Syria seems to break along the lines of those whose cynicism toward American motives is complete, and those who believe every new situation, with new characters in leadership in a different era is unique and must be dealt with in a way unburdened by the frauds, failures and genocidal slaughters of those who made military decisions in the decades before them. An irony is that a group for whom “nuance” is regularly embraced as a virtue is engaged in an internal debate over whether there are shadings and distinctions in a chemical weapon attack by a desperate dictator that make Syria distinct from … Iraq, Vietnam and so on.

The former say, “No. Our motives in this situation are no more pure or moral than Cheney-Bush’s in Iraq. No American president or administration can ever be trusted again. War of any kind at any time is wrong. So, no. Never.”

The latter argue that intervening against indiscriminate slaughters like Rwanda and Kosovo and like what Assad is perpetrating on his civilian population are actually far closer to having moral standing in the liberal concept of such a thing, than reacting with the full, profit-pumping apparatus of the military-industrial complex to the “Red Menace” in Vietnam or the oil-tainted imperative in Saddam’s Iraq.

For the latter group, and I count myself among them, the immorality of American/international inaction in Rwanda is still one of the most guilt-inducing memories of the last generation. By what standard was ignoring that “moral”? And how is that different from what Assad is doing in Syria? in the potential consequences to us? The price of gasoline?

And to be sure, the vitality of the debate is almost entirely among liberals. Conservatives, having long since sold their souls to reflexive, unexamined partisanship have, for all intents and purposes, no role in the current debate. They continue to say only whatever they need to say to weaken Obama and stay a step ahead of the next far-far right conservative primary opponent. Consequently, they have no credible standing in matters of practical morality. They are noise without signal.

Obama is going to have to make his case over the next few days, and make it far better than Colin Powell and George W. Bush made their’s for Iraq. Regardless of your views of the moral obligations of the lone mega-state in slaughters like this one in Syria, every liberal is well-advised to bring all the skepticism they can muster to whatever Obama says. And I believe he welcomes both the skepticism and the debate.

But … if they’re being intellectually honest, liberals also have to fully and honestly process the morality of inaction. As Obama said in his press conference in Russia the other day, there’s no one else the entire planet turns to in moments like this. Ever. We are the whole game, and therefore, the moral debate goes, we have a special responsibility to do what is reasonable to destabilize blatant state-sponsored homicide.

If progressive liberals want to sustain and build on their viability as effective leaders — not just on economic and social matters where they are clearly more far-sighted, but the whole range of leadership responsibilities — they/we are going to have to accept that episodes like Syria are a fact of life and may have to be dealt with in very unpleasant, antithetical-seeming ways when dialogue and diplomacy simply are not an option.

Syria: At Least Someone’s Actually Thinking About It

NEW SLAUGHTERMy good friend Jim Leinfelder kicked over this “dialogue” on what to do/not do with Syria, wrItten by the New Yorker’s George Packer.  It’s intended to engender a rational conversation about the situation, our “responsibilities”, morality, etc. Allow me to jump in

It begins …

So it looks like we’re going to bomb Assad.


Really? Why good?

Did you see the videos of those kids? I heard that ten thousand people were gassed. Hundreds of them died. This time, we have to do something.

Yes, I saw the videos.

And you don’t want to pound the shit out of him?

I want to pound the shit out of him.

Continue reading “Syria: At Least Someone’s Actually Thinking About It”