The Politics of Push-Pins and Yarn

One of the posts that gets the most recurring traffic here concerns Sean Connery’s advice on the Trump-Russia probe — or rather Jim Malone’s from The Untouchables: “Don’t wait for it to happen.  Don’t even want it to happen.  Just watch what does happen.”  I added: “Not that anyone will take that advice when there is punditry to be had.”  The second part certainly has proven to be true.

Over last weekend, we were treated to Sen. Lindsey Graham implying that the FBI improperly used the so-called Trump “dossier”(compiled by fmr British intelligence officer Christopher Steele on behalf of the professional dirt-diggers at Fusion GPS) to launch a national security investigation of people associated with the Trump presidential campaign.  Note that Graham chose to imply rather than accuse, perhaps because classified info is involved.

We also got a New York Times story rather pointedly claiming the investigation was not sparked by the dossier, but by warnings from Australia’s top diplomat in Britain that a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, had been talking about Russia having dirt on Hillary Clinton as early as May 2016.  Note (because most discussions of the NYT story don’t) that the investigation reportedly “was also propelled by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch.” (This isn’t the first story about early info from the Brits, not to mention Germany, Estonia, Poland and France.)

For those — on both sides of the aisle — who have chosen to involve themselves in the political parlor game of the Russia probe, this is terrific stuff.  Did Graham launch a preemptive strike on the NYT story?  Was the NYT story a rebuttal to Graham?  (Given the effort apparently sunk into the NYT story, I’d bet it was already in the works as a rebuttal to the general GOP attacks regarding the dossier… but this doesn’t really matter for my purposes here.)

The NYT story also came in for criticism from National Review’s Andrew McCarthy, who notes the story is arguably inconsistent with another NYT story from last April suggesting that a Russia trip taken by Carter Page was the event triggering the national security investigation:

[I]t turns out the Page angle and thus the collusion narrative itself is beset by an Obama-administration scandal: Slowly but surely, it has emerged that the Justice Department and FBI very likely targeted Page because of the Steele dossier, a Clinton-campaign opposition-research screed disguised as intelligence reporting. Increasingly, it appears that the Bureau failed to verify Steele’s allegations before the DOJ used some of them to bolster an application for a spying warrant from the FISA court (i.e., the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court).”

McCarthy is a very good attorney.  Then again, so is Gabriel Malor:

And there’s a problem even with the concept of “the dossier problem,” which was explained less than a month ago by… Andrew McCarthy.  (Note: This should not be read as me picking on McCarthy; quite the contrary.  I’ll be linking to and quoting him here precisely because he’s written more extensively and carefully about the investigation than just about anyone.)

On Dec. 9., in the course of asking why the Trump administration hasn’t declassified the FISA warrant application (still a good question, btw), McCarthy quite correctly noted that the dossier could have been used properly by the FBI to generate leads and evidence that became the ultimate basis for the FISA warrant:

There would be nothing untoward about such a process. It wouldn’t matter that the dossier was political ‘oppo’ research. The FBI gets leads from all sorts of shady sources; what matters is whether the information the Justice Department ultimately gives the court has been investigated adequately by the FBI.

Needless to say, if this is how it happened, the Trump administration would not want the information in the FISA application disclosed. To be sure, the information would not necessarily indicate there was any Trump-campaign collusion in Russian espionage. But it might show that (a) there were unsavory contacts between Trump associates and foreign government operatives; (b) there was enough FBI-verified information in the warrant application (which probably was not limited to the dossier’s allegations) for the FISA court to find probable cause to believe one or more Trump-connected people were acting as agents of a foreign power; and (c) parts of the dossier have been corroborated, which would destroy the Trump political claim that the dossier is a tissue of lies.”

Have things changed so much since Dec. 9 that “the dossier problem” needs a re-evaluation?  Not publicly.  On Dec. 16,  McCarthy was still asking whether the dossier was used to obtain the FISA warrant.

On Dec. 23, however, McCarthy wrote that he had “come to believe Steele’s claims were used to obtain FISA surveillance authority for an investigation of Trump.”  (The FISA warrant was supposedly not targeting Trump, so I presume he’s being colloquial here, even if that statement is arguably more inflammatory.)

His theory is that the FBI and DOJ had great faith in Steele and a political bias against Trump and consequently, “they made grossly inadequate efforts to verify his claims.”

Political bias in an investigation would be concerning.  Nevertheless, as recently as Dec. 6, McCarthy was pretty philosophical about the possibility.  He seems to have been moved on this point by FBI agent Peter Strzok”s “insurance policy” text (though the interpretation of this text has been disputed by sources presumably friendly to Strzok) and by the fact that Fusion researcher Nellie Ohr is married to then-deputy AG Bruce Ohr, who met with Steele about the dossier after the election and reportedly during the campaign.  (These are things worthy of investigation, but it should also be noted that special counsel Mueller removed Strzok from the investigation and Ohr got demoted upon learning of these issues.)

It’s also worth recalling that while the current narrative is about an FBI that treated Hillary Clinton with kid gloves while persecuting Trump, the reality is that there were also plenty of anti-Clinton leaks from the FBI during the campaign.  And many Trump-friendly folks who have nothing good to say about fmr FBI director Comey forget that the Democrats blame him for her loss (I find this highly debatable, but the man who publicly dragged Anthony Weiner and his laptop back into the news shortly before election day wasn’t exactly doing her any favors).  Partisans don’t like it when their presidential candidates are investigated and can be persuaded that bias was a significant factor in their misfortunes.  And perhaps it was, though on the current public record, I am not as convinced as McCarthy seems to be here.

As for the government’s faith in Steele, back on Dec. 9, McCarthy wrote:

Still, as I have previously pointed out, the reports compiled by Steele to generate the dossier run nearly three dozen single-spaced pages and contain scores of factual claims. Trump defenders have not mounted a point-by-point refutation, just a generalized dismissal, on the rationale that some likely misinformation and many unconfirmed claims render the dossier so tainted that it should be deemed totally bogus. That is not an unreasonable position, but neither is it a showstopper. In fact, some close observers contend, with thorough analysis, that some factual assertions in the dossier have been extensively corroborated (see, e.g., Natasha Bertrand, here, and former CIA officer John Sipher, here). Moreover, Steele, who is said to have enjoyed a good reputation among U.S. intelligence agents, maintains that 70 to 90 percent of his reporting is accurate. He believes his sources are reliable and notes that, though not verified, neither has most of the information been negated.”

Did the dossier suddenly get less extensively confirmed over the course of two weeks?  No.  Has a point-by-point refutation been offered?  No.

Moreover, as McCarthy noted on Dec. 23: “We do not have public confirmation that the dossier was, in fact, used by the bureau and the Justice Department to obtain the FISA warrant.”

Indeed, as McCarthy also noted, whether the dossier was used is a question House Intelligence Cmte Chairman Devin Nunes and other Republicans apparently pressed at a sealed meeting on Dec. 19.  We also have a leak from (presumably GOP) investigators claiming that the FBI corroborated few of the dossier’s claims (Reminder: this only matters if the dossier itself was used and unverified claims were presented to the FISA court).

But if NR’s David French is correct that we should withhold judgment on the NYT story about Papadapolous because there’s no way to evaluate anonymous sources and unpublished documents — and I do think this is correct — the same standard should apply to the anonymously sourced stories regarding the role of the dossier in this sordid tale.  As French wrote:

At this point, it’s safe to say the publicly available reports muddle the Mueller investigation so much that the only thing we ‘know’ is all sides have more than enough circumstantial evidence to justify their pre-existing hopes and dreams.”

It’s worth underscoring the “all sides” nature of this phenomenon.  The left has created its share of Russiagate bulletin boards figuratively plastered with photographs, news articles, and calendars, all strung together in webs of push-pins and yarn.  But as turned off as I’ve become by tribalism, I still care more when “my side” engages in the politics of push-pins and yarn.

(Of course, if you love the parlor game, you can assume that McCarthy, Graham, etc. know more than they’re saying — or that they believe they know more than they’re saying.  Or you can assume that someone who could nuke the collusion scandal and expose partisanship at the FBI by declassifying the warrant application would already have done so.)

Not that any of it is likely to matter.  If — as still seems likely — nothing much comes from either the supposed collusion scandal or the supposed “deep state” coup against the Trump administration, no one’s reputation is going to suffer for it, if past wacky scandals (e.g., the October Surprise, the alleged murder of Vince Foster, etc.) are any indicator.  The pols and pundits will skip along unscathed.  It just seems like a terrible waste of time for everyone to speculate about things where we will eventually get answers, particularly when those answers are likely to be unsatisfying to either side.

So why is this speculation going on, aside from the timeless attraction of conspiracy theories?  The partisan attraction for the left is fairly obvious.  As for the right, I have two theories of my own (which are mine).

First, it could be that behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, righties are simply adopting the Trumpian response of paranoia and fighting unnecessary battles.

Second, it may have to do with the fact that the Russia investigation was the most discussed story of 2017 on Twitter, the liberal base was out-shouting conservatives in this sphere by a considerable margin, and (like many issues) public opinion about the probe tends to break down along lines mirroring Pres. Trump’s low job approval numbers.  As a conservative, I’m less concerned about that than that the noisiness of the left online tracks increased enthusiasm for Democrats in 2017’s special elections and what that may portend for the midterms.

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