Trump, Surveillance, Leaks, Hysteria

Partisanship has a way of coloring views of the news, especially of highly-charged stories involving Trump campaign and transition officials turning up in government surveillance.

This week, CNN reported: “The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.”

Righties, particularly those of the anti-anti-Trump bent, focuses on the “supposed” and the “possibly” to conclude the story was No Big Deal.  The story is certainly qualified, but the dismissal tends to ignore the fact that it’s a report on an ongoing investigation and that unless some sort of charge is brought, it’s a fair bet the evidence will be below the level needed to bring charges.

Conversely, the same basic group of righties thought this week’s press event by Rep. Devin Nunes — chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — (helpfully transcribed by Lawfare) was a Very Big Deal.

Nunes initially claimed that: “on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.  Details about persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.  Third, I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked. And fourth and finally, I want to be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia, or the investigation of Russian activities, or of the Trump team.”

He added that the collection itself appeared to have been legal (i.e., were likely part of conversations of or with foreign surveillance targets), which casts doubt on the claim reported by Fox News that documents may show the Obama administration was using the cover of legitimate surveillance on foreign targets to spy on President-elect Trump (unless your definition of “spy” is incredibly broad).

Also, as noted by the Lawfare bloggers: “In his initial statement, [Nunes] makes what seem to be bold and unequivocal claims, but he then spends the question and answer period significantly undercutting several of them.”  Indeed, Nunes now says he does not know “for sure” whether Trump or members of his transition team were on the phone calls or other communications at issue.

It’s odd that the same people who relied on qualifiers to proclaim the CNN story to be No Big Deal overlook the contradictions and ambiguities in the Nunes claims to deem them a Very Big Deal.  By which I mean not odd at all if you can hear the the tribal beating of partisan drums in the background.

Nunes, however, further raises the serious allegation that Trump or members of his transition team were “unmasked” (i.e., their identities were not redacted as would usually be the case for U.S. citizens in cases of incidental collection) in cases without foreign intelligence value, and that said reports were widely disseminated.  This is precisely the concern civil libertarians have raised about our foreign surveillance efforts during the post-9/11 era.

FWIW, Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Dem on the House Intelligence Committee, claims Nunes told him most of the names at issue were masked, but that Nunes claimed he could still figure out the likely identities of the people involved.  The resolution of that question of fact will be significant.  The closer Schiff is to being right, the less likely that the “smoking gun” suggested by Fox News sources will be found.

Nevertheless, this claim is consistent with what I thought was a very odd March 1 New York Times story that reported: “In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election — and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians — across the government.  Former American officials say they had two aims: to ensure that such meddling isn’t duplicated in future American or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.”

Note: The Nunes claims do not involve Russia, but the notion of widely spreading sensitive material regarding the Trump camp is a common theme.

I found the NYT story odd because it is essentially an unfavorable admission by the leakers, raising the question of why they would want this dispersion effort made public.  Stupidity and hubris can never be ruled out.  But there is another possibility.

It could be that the leakers wanted this brazen taunt in print precisely to provoke a reaction.  They may have thought Trump might be goaded into tweeting about it, and every news cycle consumed with stories that Trump associates were picked up in foreign surveillance is a bad one for Trump, because most don’t follow this story closely and the center-left media isn’t going to put a neutral or pro-Trump spin on the coverage.

Trump didn’t tweet about it, but it may have caused people to come forward with the documents that caused Nunes to go public (and then to the White House before consulting the Committee).  The leakers admit they want investigators to find the material they dispersed.   And so long as the general gist of the story from the media is that people in Trump’s camp were under some sort of cloud, the leakers may be quietly happy with Nunes, especially if it turns out he exaggerated.

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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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