What We Didn’t Learn From Stephen Bannon at CPAC

I suggested that White House counselor Stephen Bannon visit CPAC to discuss his philosophies of politics and governance.  Instead, he did a joint appearance with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus that seemed mostly designed to suggest a united front in the face of consistent reports that the two are more like frenemies.

Bannon did make some comments about the priorities of the Trump administration.  Those comments, however, may raise more questions than provide answers.

Bannon, coming from a media background, broke the administration’s lines of work into three “verticals“: national security, economic nationalism, and “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Regarding national security, Bannon mentioned the executive orders on travel and immigration, the budget, ISIS, and possibly “what General Mattis and these guys think” (which may or may not be something discrete from the aforementioned items).

This description suggests Pres. Trump and Bannon still prioritize the threat of terrorism over threats posed by other major powers like Russia and China.  Although the threat of terrorism remains quite real, the nationalist approach Trump and Bannon may lead to the breakout of a major global conflict within what Russia or China come to see as their spheres of influence.

In the past, Bannon has suggested that Russia is a kleptocracy, but one motivated by nationalism and Judeo-Christian values of some sort.  The second part may be gravely mistaken.

The Trump administration also seems to think it may be able to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, which seems quite unlikely.

Russia is supporting nationalist and separatist movements in the West because Putin thinks it benefits Russia, not because he thinks it creates an alliance against ISIS or Iran.  Whatever Trump and Bannon think their priorities are, they will eventually be forced to deal with the fact that Putin seems to have different priorities.

Bannon’s relative silence on this point nevertheless caused me to reflect further on two points raised by the administration’s seemingly nationalist approach.

First, it is one thing to reject the last Bush administration’s occasionally Wilsonian neoconservative foreign policy, but it is quite another thing to undermine the alliances and institutions that kept us out of a nuclear war and world war since the end of WWII, just because they seem “globalist.”

Second, regarding the debate at National Review over nationalism vs. patriotism, it is one thing to ask, “Why is it a bad thing if people like their flag?” and another thing to ask, “Do we care whether Russia annexes the remainder of Ukraine?”

The Trump camp always rejects the label of isolationism; they have yet come up with a convincing argument that their rhetoric does not point in that direction.

It is true that Trump has appointed a number of people who do not share the Trump/Bannon view on Russia, NATO, etc.  The problems that arise from this are: (1) the admin’s uncertain voice breeds confusion that may raise the odds of foreign provocation; and (2) we may not truly learn which faction truly dominates until the Trump admin faces a crisis, as most admins do.

Regarding economic nationalism, one wishes Bannon recognized what hokum this is, but he seems quite committed to it.  He called Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP trade deal one of the “most pivotal moments in modern American history,” and we can only hope that’s Trumpian overstatement.

What dumping the TPP mostly means is that many of our Asian friends and and allies (incl Australia, New Zealand and India) will end up working out the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with China.  While China may not dominate that process, it will put China inside that tent and the U.S. outside it, with economic ramifications and potential influence on national security also.

This dynamic will make favorable bilateral agreements more difficult, much as the EU governs European trade policy.  Also, the EU has been increasing its trade with China, so this is already shaping up poorly.

In addition, as Jonah Goldberg noted over the weekend, economic nationalism is in tension with Bannon’s third vertical, the deconstruction of the administrative state.  As Goldberg notes: “Economic nationalism taken to its logical conclusion is socialism, with pit stops at corporatism, crony capitalism, and the like.”

Trump and Bannon may not be socialists, but neither were the Five Families, according to Coppola.  As Jay Cost has observed, protectionism historically results in political partiality, gamesmanship, and corruption.  There’s little to suggest this time would be different.

I am all for Bannon’s proposed deconstruction of the administrative state.  But if economic nationalism creates swollen bureaucracies at Treasury, Commerce, Agriculture, Transportation, Customs, the ITC, and CFIUS, is the administrative state really being deconstructed?

Moreover, Trump’s proposal to create an “American desk” at Commerce to oversee trade issues at best duplicates the cabinet-level U.S. Trade Representative and at worst weakens Trump’s influence on trade policy.

The deconstructive goal also raises questions about Trump’s appointments.  Some, like Scott Pruitt at EPA, seem more consistent with this philosophy than others.  Nevertheless, whether a cabinet comprised of people largely without cabinet experience (in domestic policy, anyway) will be able to tackle the Deep State effectively is an open question.

Moreover, the administrative state largely represents the problem of Congress abdicating much of its legislative power to the executive.  The deconstruction of these agencies is largely a matter for Congress, not the administration.  And whether any administration will ultimately embrace Congress retaking its power from the executive is yet another open question that is raised by Bannon’s CPAC appearance, but left unanswered.

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Further Down Mike Flynn’s Rabbit Hole

Believe me, I do not intend to get in the habit of writing on a Friday night for a Saturday posting.  However, given the traffic and feedback I got about “Another Flynn Conspiracy Theory,” it’s worth going a bit further down this rabbit hole in a timely manner.

As the kids say on Twitter: Are you ready for some game theory?

Yesterday’s posting was a piece of media criticism examining the evidence — or lack thereof — in a story asserting that fmr national security adviser Mike Flynn was ousted as the result of a campaign waged by fmr Obama adviser Ben Rhodes and a small task force of Obama alumni for the purpose of stopping Flynn from revealing secret aspects of Obama’s Iran deal.

That story is generally lacking in evidence and when acting as a media critic, I judge what’s on the page or screen.  And when commenting on the general reaction to the piece on the right, my general presumption is that readers also should judge what’s on the page or screen.

Nevertheless, I repeatedly stressed that Adam Kredo is a thorough reporter and that if he could have produced more evidence to support this conspiracy theory, he would have done so.  I also refused to dismiss the possibility that the attacks on Flynn were more organized than the groupthink of progressives inside and outside the bureaucracy attacking a weak link in the Trump administration.

The reason I did both things is because — when not wearing a media critic hat — I considered the possibility that Kredo knows or has reason to believe more than what he wrote in his story.

I have no evidence to support that speculation.  Zero, zip, nil, nada.  I have never had any kind of contact with Kredo.  I have had no contact with anyone at the Washington Free Beacon about this story.  That’s why my speculation wasn’t in yesterday’s posting.

But I did have that thought, which influenced the writing.

I had the same sort of speculation after reading Friday’s piece by Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard.  I have had contact with Hemingway, though I don’t know whether he knows this.  But I have had no contact with him or anyone affiliated with him about the story.

Hemingway writes that “in recent days there have been rumblings that Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor and architect of the infamous Iran Deal echo chamber; Obama National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor; and other Obama foreign policy officials have been active organizing and leaking against Trump.”  Hemingway links Kredo’s story, but notes its anonymous sourcing and Rhodes calling the theory bizarre.

Nevertheless, Hemingway argues that the consistent appearance of the silly suggestion that Flynn may have violated the Logan Act as a “tell” that there was some sort of campaign being waged against Flynn.  He concludes that “it’s worth trying to get a handle on how active and organized the Obama opposition to Trump is,” a sentiment with which I entirely agree.

I am not quite as sold on the idea that the Logan Act nonsense is a “tell.”  It could be.  OTOH, Dems accused then-candidate Trump of violating the Logan Act for suggesting that Russia should find the 30,000 emails deleted from the private server Hillary Clinton used to mishandle classified information.

The Left also accused Sen. Tom Cotton and 46 other Senate Republicans of violating the Logan Act for publishing a letter to Iran’s leaders that undercut Pres. Obama’s efforts to negotiate the Iran deal (at least this example relates to the Iran deal).  Before that, MoveOn had a petition drive suggesting then-Speaker of the House John Boehner violated the Logan Act by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress.

Plus, I’m old enough to remember when it was GOPers and conservatives who tended to bring up the Logan Act.  In 2007, Republicans claimed then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi violated the Logan Act (even if it shouldn’t have been prosecuted) by meeting with Syrian Pres. Assad.  Fmr. Pres. Jimmy Carter has been accused of violating the Logan Act over the years for his meddling in foreign policy well after his presidency ended.

In 1984, Newt Gingrich accused ten House Democrats, including then-Majority Leader Jim Wright, of violating the Logan Act for offering political advice to Daniel Ortega, leader of the Communist junta that ruled Nicaragua.  James Kirchick brought up the Logan Act not only with respect to Carter, but also regarding Sen. Ted Kennedy’s attempt to get the Soviets to meddle in the 1983 election.

Pres. Ronald Reagan suggested then-Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson had violated the Act during a mission to Cuba (while saying he would not seek a prosecution).

I guess what I’m suggesting is that the Logan Act is just one of those political talking points that people will invoke, given enough aggravation.  So maybe it’s not a “tell” in this case.  But maybe it is.

In either event, Hemingway’s mention of “rumblings” will ring true to anyone who has worked in DC or knows those who have.  Leaking and gossiping are fairly rampant in the Beltway.

And Hemingway mentions Vietor, who is not featured in Kredo’s story, which suggests those rumblings are not just the product of Kredo’s story.  Again, it’s not evidence.  But I’m not doing evidence right now.

People reading Hemingway might speculate that the rumblings extend beyond the Friends of Flynn that Kredo quoted.  Or that Hemingway knows — or has reason to believe he knows — more than he feels comfortable reporting.

But that leaves us with the question Hemingway raises, i.e., how do people get a handle on whether the Flynn/Rhodes/Iran theory is true?

I have a suggestion that will almost certainly be rejected.  If the theory is that Obama alumni orchestrated press leaks against Mike Flynn (or is campaigning against anyone else in the Trump admin), don’t ask anonymous Trump allies.  Instead, ask journalists.

Granted, most of the leak recipients are probably progressives who aren’t going to say a thing.  But the premise of the speculation that writers like Kredo and Hemingway know more than they can report is that anti-Flynn pitches were made to them or others like them.

Of course, it’s further possible that conservative journalists wouldn’t want to burn their lefty sources for both ethical and practical reasons, even by anonymously ratting out those sources to a fellow conservative journalist.  But keep in mind that those who would squeal loudest about this tactic are people who have no problem at all with government officials illegally leaking classified information for political gain.

If these politically-motivated leaks are the threat to the Republic many — including many conservative writers — seem to believe they are, people may want to wrestle with the ethical questions as I do.  The wrestling should not stop there either.

After all, once you take seriously the possibility that conservative journalists know (or have good reason to believe they know) more than they are reporting, you cannot dismiss the possibility that the Big Media journalists and the sources feeding them anti-Flynn material know (or have good reason to believe they know) more than they are reporting.

This leads us back to the unresolved questions surrounding Flynn’s firing.  Given the general tough-on-Iran line up of the Trump administration, are we willing to believe that Obama alumni went after Flynn on this big a scale out of pure personal pique?  If Pres. Trump dismisses the anti-Flynn leak stories as “fake news,” then why did he ask for Flynn to resign?  Why was Flynn cashiered for misleading VP Mike Pence if the FBI concluded Flynn was truthful in claiming it was unintentional?  And so on.

This is the problem: When you start going down a rabbit hole, you generally don’t know how deep it will go.

Update: If you’re into speculation about this topic, per my warning about what the Deep State or Big Media might know that we don’t, read HotAir’s Allahpundit on FBI Director Comey’s long and mysterious meeting with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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Another Flynn Conspiracy Theory

It’s a little hard to believe that people are still writing and talking about the ouster of fmr national security advisor Mike Flynn at the end of the week.  But since people are, let’s take a look at a story that seemed to excite the right and the Trump-friendly.

That story is a piece Adam Kredo wrote for the Washington Free Beacon entitled “Former Obama Officials, Loyalists Waged Secret Campaign to Oust Flynn.”  I tend to think Kredo is a solid reporter, so I also tend to think that most people who read it actually misread it or were misled by the headline.  What Kredo actually reported was that allies of Flynn have a conspiracy theory to explain his professional demise.

Yes, really.  Allow me to walk you through it.

Kredo’s lede is that Flynn’s fate was the “culmination of a secret, months-long campaign by former Obama administration confidantes to handicap President Donald Trump’s national security apparatus and preserve the nuclear deal with Iran.”

It seems fairly clear that there was a wide-ranging effort against Flynn.  It wasn’t really all that secret, given that most of it was conducted in the media.  Anonymous?  Yes.  Sometimes illegal?  Yes.  Secret?  Not so much.  More like “brazen.”

It is also pretty clear that former Obama administration personnel were involved in this effort.  The anti-Flynn stories in Big Media often relied on sources characterized as “former officials.”  No sane person thinks these were officials from some administration other than the Obama administration.

Was the point to preserve Obama’s Iran deal?  Stick a pin in that; we’ll come back to it.

Graf two asserts that the campaign is “said to include former Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes” and a “small task force of Obama loyalists,” according to “multiple sources.”

Who are these sources?  Fortunately, Kredo’s sourcing is far more specific than the sourcing in many of the anti-Flynn stories, so we know a fair amount about them.

These “[s]ources who spoke to the Free Beacon requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the situation and avoid interfering with the White House’s official narrative about Flynn.”  Given that fmr Obama officials likely don’t give a tinker’s damn about Trump’s narrative, the reader already may infer that perhaps the sources here are going to be pro-Flynn.

Indeed, Kredo specifically describes his sources as: (1) a “veteran national security adviser with close ties to the White House team”; (2) a “veteran foreign policy insider who is close to Flynn and the White House”; (3) a “senior White House official,” “who is a member of the White House’s National Security Council”; and (4) a “source who serves as a congressional adviser and was involved in the 2015 fight over the Iran deal.”

Given these helpful (better-than-Big-Media) characterizations, it is fair to infer that none of these sources has a direct connection to Ben Rhodes or any members of the purported task force charged with Flynn’s political assassination.  It is also fair to infer that they provided no evidence of said Rhodes/Iran-centric plot, because if they did, Kredo — again, a solid reporter — would have included that bombshell info in his article.

But evidence is never cited by these sources.  One says, “This pattern reminds me of the lead up to the Iran deal, and probably features the same cast of characters.” (Emphasis added.)  Another says, “It’s actually Ben Rhodes, NIAC, and the Iranian mullahs who are celebrating today. They know that the number one target is Iran … So they got rid of Flynn before any of the [secret] agreements even surfaced.”  A third says the leaks were “not the result of a series of random events.”  The fourth claimed that “in December the Obama NSC started going to work with their favorite reporters, selectively leaking damaging and incomplete information about Flynn. After Trump was inaugurated some of those people stayed in and some began working from the outside, and they cooperated to keep undermining Trump.”

All of the above may or may not be true.  None of it is evidence that Ben Rhodes led a small task force devoted to deposing Flynn.  And I really don’t like having to point out that Rhodes is being accused without evidence.

Lacking substantiation from his well-placed sources, Kredo reminds us that “Obama loyalists plotted in the months before Trump’s inauguration to establish a set of roadblocks before Trump’s national security team, which includes several prominent opponents of diplomacy with Iran.”  By this he means that Senate Dems worked to delay confirmation of Trump’s nominees, including Mike Pompeo as CIA Director.

There is no indication that Ben Rhodes or a shadowy cabal had anything to do with this, any more than with the delay Dems sought regarding most all of Trump’s nominees.

Kredo also reminds us that “until its final days in office, the Obama administration hosted several pro-Iran voices who were critical in helping to mislead the American public about the terms of the nuclear agreement.”  There is no indication that these meetings — the most recent of which was in April 2016 — discussed waging a campaign against Mike Flynn.

Kredo further reminds us that “top members of the Obama administration’s national security team have launched a communications infrastructure after they left the White House, and have told reporters they are using that infrastructure to undermine Trump’s foreign policy.”  By this, Kredo means that various Obama alumni are criticizing Trump on Twitter and have started a podcast.  Really, read the linked stories; that’s what they report.

Again, Kredo is a thorough journalist.  If he had better evidence of a Rhodes/Iran-centric plot, we wouldn’t be reading about tweets and a podcast.  In fairness, I haven’t been following the tweets or the podcast, so if they randomly included phrases like “John has a long mustache” or “The chair is against the wall,” I’d be willing to consider that…nah, I’d think they were trolling people.

Moreover, if the conspiracy theory propounded by the Friends of Flynn were correct, the bigger story would be that Trump, his chief counselor Stephen Bannon, SecDef Jim Mattis, SecState Rex Tillerson, CIA Dir. Pompeo, DNI-designate Dan Coats, UN Amb. Nikki Haley and the rest of the administration are thisclose to reversing their positions and caving in to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  That’s the unstated premise of the theory that Flynn had to be removed to preserve the Iran deal.

There is no evidence that Mike Flynn was the indispensible man to the fate of the Iran deal. The theory is, however, of a piece with other bizarre theories that never seem to be more than one or two degrees of separation from Flynn.

Occam’s Razor supplies a more plausible theory.  Mike Flynn was known by anyone paying attention to politics and government, inside and outside the intelligence community, as a loose cannon.  So much so that Trump could not risk hiring him for a job requiring Senate confirmation.  He was the easiest target, someone who would either self-destruct or hang himself if given a length of rope.

It did not take a left-wing conspiracy for the wolves to attack the weak member of the herd.  It took simple observation and pack behavior.

Of course, I don’t dismiss the possibility that the attacks on Flynn were more organized.  Paranoids have enemies too.  But if Kredo didn’t find the evidence, the conspiracy currently remains as unproven as the theory that people associated with the Trump campaign colluded with Russian agents.

That is what makes the response to Kredo’s story I observed on social media interesting.  By and large, people who had spent weeks coming to the conclusion that dark theories fueled by anonymous partisans are to be distrusted or dismissed mostly embraced a story sourced to anonymous partisans spinning a conspiracy theory for which they had no supporting evidence.

Confirmation bias: It’s a helluva drug.

Update: Here’s my speculation filled follow-up to this posting.

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