Upheaval at Fox, But It’s Still Rupert’s Empire

Bill O’Reilly is out after 21 years of holding the flagship position on-air at Fox News Channel, as the sexual harassment charges and settlements piled up.  But no one should seriously doubt that Rupert Murdoch remains the Palpatine of his media empire.  Indeed, the turmoil at the network even now proves it.

To be sure, people will opine that O’Reilly’s ouster represents a victory for Rupert’s sons, James and Lachlan, bolstered by senior executives at other divisions within the Murdoch empire who chafed at the seeming special treatment for the man with the falafel.  And it is nice that 21st Century Fox is being dragged into the late 20th Century.  I know people who still work there and the HR office doesn’t need to be run by Roger Sterling and Don Draper.

But what Rupert understands is money.  Not just the relatively small-to-him sums being paid out to settle claims brought against O’Reilly or former program honcho Roger Ailes, or to buy out their contracts.

Rather, he’s likely looking at the threat posed by FNC’s highest-rated show being boycotted by prestige advertisers.  FNC’s primetime has always been based on the model of talk-radio-with-pictures; Rupert undoubtedly noticed what happened to the revenues and clearance for the entire conservative talk radio sector once a similar boycott stuck to Rush Limbaugh.

But the turmoil that has gripped FNC over the past year largely has been caused by Rupert’s control over his vision for the operation, both before and after yanking O’Reilly off camera.

The general narrative has been one of Rupert fighting his sons over the direction of the network he created with Ailes many years ago.  As right-leaning talk video, it has attracted largely the same demographic as right-leaning talk radio: white seniors.

James and Lachlan would like to start the transition that will be inevitable as its core audience literally dies and is replaced by another generation that may not have the same politics as the current one.  Rupert sees the current FNC as a yuge cash cow and is loath to fuss with the formula.

While I might prefer the sons’ vision for FNC, I can’t blame Rupert for the impulse to not fix what isn’t broken, especially when you have to answer to stockholders.  That said, there is also an argument that you can stagnate and lose when you don’t take the initiative to innovate from time to time.  And it is very much a question of timing that is probably unknowable.

All of that said, consider that the departures of Ailes and O’Reilly were basically forced upon Rupert by the circumstances, not by choice.  OTOH, Rupert chose to let Megyn Kelly leave last year — and FNC’s schedule would have been far more stable had he met her asking price.

That choice was quite consciously one in the direction of a Trumpier FNC, as is yesterday’s decision to give Eric Bolling a show while moving the rest of The Five to primetime.  And it is most evident in the meteoric rise of Tucker Carlson, who has surfed the shock waves at FNC from weekends to Greta Van Susteren’s slot into O’Reilly’s chair.

Carlson is nothing if not flexible.  He has been a middle-of-the-road conservative for CNN, a provocative prankster at the Daily Caller, a libertarianish righty for MSNBC, and now a Trumpian tribune for Fox (even dropping his signature WASPy bow tie in favor of more proletarian neckwear).

As Carlson told McKay Coppins recently: “I’m not much of an economic conservative, and I’m not conservative at all on foreign policy.  If your politics don’t change when circumstances do, you’re an idiot, you’re a reactionary.”

I could write a longread deconstructing that quotation alone, but today is not that day.

Rather, the important thing now is that Carlson’s chameleon-like adaptability has provided him with an opportunity, but one that comes with its own inherent challenge — and one Rupert has imposed on FNC in general.

The challenge of boarding the Trump Train is that it doesn’t run on tracks.  You have no idea where it’s going to make stops.  Indeed, Trump has recently been making a raft of policy shifts seemingly away from populism and nationalism, and toward a far more conventional Republican approach.

Carlson’s reaction has been to do things like debate Lindsey Graham for agreeing with Pres. Trump’s new position on Syria, and to bring Ann Coulter on to chastise Trump.*

Carlson thus seems (so far) to be taking the Bannonesque position of holding Trump accountable to that segment of his core voters who were really serious about Trump’s advertised nationalism and populism.

But what if that’s not a yuge segment of Trump voters, let alone Fox News viewers?  What if Trump’s support is driven more by the tribal drums of traditional partisanship, by GOPers who voted for Trump because he was a better choice than Hillary Clinton, who like his recent turn towards more traditional Republicanism, and are just more inclined to side with the President over some griping talking head on Fox?

Carlson has changed his politics to fit what he thinks are vastly changed circumstances.  But he’ll be judged by an audience that may become less incline to cheer New Tucker at the very moment he’s received the big promotion.

And again: Rupert runs a capitalist empire; he won’t think twice about demoting Carlson if the ratings decline — or dispatching any of the people at FNC who have trimmed their sails to the Trumpian winds of months past.  In that regard, Rupert is the alpha chameleon of his empire.  It’s not easy being green, but that’s his preferred color.

*[Aside: Carlson’s inferior knowledge of the Middle East compared to Graham, much like his flailing idiocy about capitalism when trying to debate Mark Cuban, tends to prove my point that Carlson should debate tomato cans less, to keep in shape.  I reiterate this even though the New New Left’s collegiate antifa are a major symptom of what’s wrong with America these days and need to be exposed.  Carlson’s taking the big chair and will need to up his game if he wants to stay there.]

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Do Trump Statements Come With an Expiration Date?

Many of you may be familiar with Jim Geraghty‘s Rule from 2008: “All statements from Barack Obama come with an expiration date. All of them.”

But what about statements from Donald Trump, in light of his seeming about-face on attacking Syria?

I ask because Philip Klein (a smart guy, particularly on healthcare policy) has an… interesting explanation of how to square Trump’s attack on Syria with his campaign rhetoric: “Though he didn’t try to convey any sort of coherent grand strategy, his own disjointed heterodox statements actually made people feel that on a gut level, he was basically where they were.”

Well, I’m old enough to have heard that theory before:  “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”  That was Barack Obama, in the prologue to The Audacity of Hope.

And this is why the whole concept of “taking Trump seriously, but not literally” was such a transparent dodge by his supporters and apologists.  It was apparent to anyone who pays attention to any area of policy that candidate Trump had almost no knowledge of or facility with policy and was unable to even adequately describe his own policies on his own website.  It’s one of the reasons that most people thought he lacked the knowledge or temperament to be President during the campaign.

Now he’s President Trump and his team has asked his intelligence briefers to cut down on the number of words in the daily briefing book and use more graphics and pictures.  And it was pictures of child victims of the Assad regime that ostensibly prompted Trump to shift his position.

For now, it’s working.  Having fired Michael Flynn and removed Stephen Bannon from the NSC, Trump does seem to have mostly followed through on his promise to hire the best people when it comes to natsec, e.g., James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and Nikki Haley.

Trump’s also getting good press for striking Syria, even from quarters who were afraid to publicly criticize Obama’s feckless foreign policy while he was in power.

Moreover, Trump voters are so deafened by the tribal drums that many don’t even notice his inconsistency.

But while Klein notes that the potential for problems if things escalate in Syria is still hypothetical, it’s not exactly unlikely either.  And even if Syria does not grow as a challenge for the U.S., there will inevitably be others.

When the going gets rougher, it’s entirely possible that Trump’s voters, not to mention the media, will focus more on the incoherent leadership at the top.

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The Most Important Part of Trump’s “Not the State of the Union” Speech

Tonight, Pres. Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress (tradition dictates that it is not a SotU because such speeches are ostensibly evaluating the past year, which newly-elected Presidents are discouraged from doing).  To understand the most important thing about this address, review the data presented by Charles Franklin, a co-developer of the HuffPo’s Pollster site and Director of the Marquette Law school poll:

I have seen folks on the right take heart from the latest WSJ/NBC News poll, which has relatively good numbers for the GOP, indicates that people are hopeful about the direction of the country, and even finds that a bare majority thinks the media has been too critical of Trump (here’s my prior posting on that last subject).  But that hopeful mood ultimately will wax or wane depending on Trump’s performance.

The WSJ/NBC poll numbers for Trump himself fall pretty much at the average of the current polling and he remains a few points underwater.  People will say those are good numbers… for Trump.  It’s not clear voters will be grading on a curve as we go forward.

Maybe I’m presenting an overly gloomy portrait of Trump’s political position.  But take a look at the “bullet points” the administration sent the media in advance of the speech (and compare them to the goals Trump counselor Stephen Bannon set forth at CPAC).

What you don’t see in those bullet points is much about Trump’s signature issues of immigration and trade. This despite Trump inviting families of victims of illegal immigrant felons to attend (perhaps to offset the immigrants and refugees Dems invited).

What you do see is an emphasis on basic GOP issues like tax reform and Obamacare.

What you also see promoted is a speech “that crosses the traditional lines of party, race and socioeconomic status.”  One that will emphasize “[m]aking the workplace better for working parents” and “[m]aking sure every child in America has access to a good education.”  Trump is also expected to “reach out to Americans living in the poorest and most vulnerable communities, and let them know that help is on the way.”

This is the sort of messaging the Trump camp brings out when it thinks it is in trouble.  For example, the childcare tax credit championed by Ivanka Trump was emphasized as The Donald was headed into the GOP convention, and again during the final week of the race.  The only other time it got attention was when Ivanka had a dust-up about it with Cosmopolitan magazine.

This speech, as advertised, is the soft Trump — the one ostensibly humanized by association with his kids, the one marketed when the Trump camp is trying to appeal to suburban white women.

Of course, the speech will be delivered by Trump, which means the advertised speech may get skipped in favor of another defense of the size of his Inaugural audience, an attack on the media, or his opinion of whatever stories appear on Fox & Friends this morning.

But the advance spin on the address tells us a bit about how the White House views its current political position.  And that’s the most important part of the speech.

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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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Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump, Revisited

Consider this an update or continuation of an earlier posting arguing that when considering the political prospects for a heterodox president like Donald Trump, one might consider other recent heterodox presidents like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Under the Bill Clinton scenario, the president’s party and associated movement goes along (in varying degrees of reluctance) with a more centrist president, despite losses suffered by the party and a cloud of personal craziness, mostly from an aversion to the other side winning.  Under the Jimmy Carter scenario, the president’s party supports some of the heterodox positions at first, but relations with Congress ultimately deteriorate, contributing to a failed presidency and a change in the political direction of the country.

Pres. Trump has been in office for only a month, so it’s far too early to judge which type of scenario will play out here.  Nevertheless, it may be useful to mark out a starting point.

The current political environment provides a fair amount of evidence that a substantial segment of the right cares much more about what they’re against instead of what they support.  Half of Republicans see Vladmir Putin as an ally while Russia secretly deployed a new cruise missile U.S. officials say violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.  This seems like a party and perhaps a movement that will have plenty of tolerance for Trump and his issues — for now, anyway.

The administration’s relationship to Congress, otoh, seems to remain dodgy.  Trump’s legislative agenda seems to lag that of his predecessors.  The administration gently grouses that Congress doesn’t want to be told what to do… until it does.  Those on the Hill suggest they initially welcomed Trump’s benign neglect, but are paralyzed by the lack of any White House guidance on tax reform, Obamacare and infrastructure spending (the last perhaps being kicked into 2018).

Meanwhile, Corey Robin has written a lengthy comparison of Trump and Carter for the lefty journal n+1.  There’s plenty of interest to agree and disagree with in the article.  For example, Robin notes the generally declining vote share for Republican presidents from 1972 through 2016 without addressing the gains of Republicans at virtually every other level of government.

Robin’s observation that the general lack of prior government experience in Trump’s cabinet may hinder his ability to deliver the change he promised, however, is worth considering, even if the administration’s goal is to greatly diminish the administrative state.  Apart from the Carter example, when Pres. Reagan picked George Schultz as Secretary of State, the latter had experience that equipped him to anticipate and fight bureaucratic resistance within Foggy Bottom.

More significantly, Robin highlights that part of Carter’s dilemma was sitting atop a party that was in transition between the remnants of the New Deal and the influx of the New Left.

Today, Trump sits atop a GOP split between its coastal donor class, a bloc of supposed True Conservatives, and perhaps the sort of nationalists Trump’s senior counselor, Stephen Bannon, would like to make the dominant faction.

How this schism gets resolved has a fair amount to do with how many of the supposed TruCons are are amenable to Trump’s populist nationalism.  This cannot be predicted with any certainty, but the Carter and Clinton examples may yet be instructive.

Clinton and Carter are still considered heterodox.  The Democratic Party and progressivism more generally have continued their leftward trajectory despite them.  Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in part because she went from being perceived as one of the more left-wing influences in her husband’s administration to a retrograde figure by large segment of her party today.

Why did Clinton and Carter fail to fundamentally reshape their party?  One big reason is that progressivism is supported by an expansive web of institutions, including grassroots activists, publications, think-tanks and other organizations, all devoted to advancing a broadly New Left agenda (and increasingly a New New Left agenda).

Carter essentially had no such institutions supporting his agenda.  Bill Clinton had a few – notably the Democratic Leadership Council – which has since gone the way of the Dodo.

Small-government conservatives may find themselves with less power during the Trump era, but can take some comfort in the fact that movement conservatism has institutional support similar to that progressivism had to sustain them during the Carter and Clinton years.   Trump’s victories caused Tucker Carlson and others to declare these institutions a failure; in fact, they were blamed for not achieving a purpose for which most of them were never designed to fulfill (excepting the activists).

The fact that the GOP nominated and elected a heterodox figure like Donald Trump does not necessarily signal that the party has undergone a realignment or that the conservative movement is dead.  The United States and Europe may have reached a more nationalist moment, but there has been much less of a foundation laid to sustain that mode of politics on this side of the Atlantic.

The real questions are more along the lines of whether Trump will get involved in more state party leadership fights (he won in Ohio after several rounds of deadlocked voting). Or whether Trump acolytes can succeed in down-ticket races without his celebrity.  Or whether Trump is interested in creating – or coopting – the infrastructure of institutions that supported Ronald Reagan and have extended his philosophical and political legacy for decades.

Trump is getting the big ovations at CPAC today.  Whether and how much more he’s willing to do beyond flying a few miles in Marine One remains to be seen.

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Are You Not Entertained?

There is a line of ridicule that Ace of Spades has been pursuing for years on Twitter.  Harsh, but not entirely unfair:

The media does love their shows.  Progressives love their shows.

But they’re not the only ones.  At least, I’m guessing that the audience for Tucker Carlson figuratively defenestrating low-level lefty competition isn’t wildly progressive.

I also don’t think many progressives voted for the former host of The Apprentice to be President of the United States.

And it wasn’t progressives who cheered Pres. Trump’s most recent press conference, or his campaign-style rally in Florida.  Someone else was cheering.  He really gave it to the media didn’t he?  And the media played their role as foil, just as though it was one of those WWE shows at which Trump was such an excellent performer.

Of course, the media had it coming, didn’t they?  They enabled an anti-democratic revolt by the Deep State that at least contributed to the firing of Trump’s national security adviser.  That’s an entirely legit complaint, even if we may not know whether it might be an exceptional case, even if righties didn’t say much about FBI leaking political intrigues surrounding the investigations of Hillary Clinton, and even if Trump has himself expressed contempt for political norms and the law on occasion.

But what about Trump’s presser on Sept. 16, 2016?  That was the event where Trump finally admitted Pres. Obama was born in the United States.  As you may recall, part of Trump’s entrée to Republican politics was an appeal to Birtherism — and it was the first time of several he would accuse his political foes of literally not being American.

But that was okay, wasn’t it?  Democrats had called Republicans un-American before.  Of course, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio aren’t Democrats, but it was okay to suggest they aren’t citizens because…why was that again?  Does it matter?  No one took that literally or seriously, amiright?   It was just Trump being outrageous.  It was very entertaining.

Anyway, after he won the nomination, the Trump campaign decided he needed to ditch the Birtherism.  Trump never likes to retreat from a position, so this was kind of a big deal.

What did Trump do?  He started the event, held at his DC hotel, with a parade of war veterans declaring they were not the “deplorables” Hillary Clinton had recently attacked.  Trump then appeared onstage to blame Clinton for starting Birtherism (which isn’t really true, though Mark Penn proposed a similar tactic in 2008) and very briefly declare Obama was born in the U.S.  Then, instead of taking questions, he tried to take the press pool on a promotional tour of his hotel.

Some might have called that breathtakingly cynical, even for Trump.

Many on the right, however, called it awesome.  They ate it up.  Wow, did you see how he trolled the media?  Granted, he did it to distract from his attempt to clean up his grubby political roots…but he trolled the media!

Of course, the media had it coming, didn’t they?  The MSM is biased.  They’re the opposition.  Trump has all the right enemies.  And gets away with being outrageous.  So entertaining.

By the way, did you hear that Milo Yiannopoulos is a featured speaker at CPAC this year?  Sure, he makes anti-Semitic remarks and is a fellow traveler of the alt-right.  And sure, his remarks about relationships between adults and young boys at a bare minimum should make your skin crawl.

But you know, Milo’s just being a provocateur, saying outrageous things to promote himself.  He has all the right enemies, doesn’t he?

Plus, CPAC isn’t representative of the right as a whole; it’s just someplace Donald Trump donated a ton of money before he got invited onto their stage.  Trump is going to be there again this year, as is Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who was the last guy to offer Milo a platform. (I recommended Bannon go to CPAC, but since he’s double-billed with WH Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, it’s virtually certain he’s not taking my advice.)

I’m guessing Trump, Bannon, and Milo will get a lot of media coverage at CPAC, because it’s bound to be a show.  The media does love their shows.  Progressives love their shows.

On this point, Ace can be pretty harsh. But not entirely unfair.

Update: CPAC disinvites Milo…

…because of the man-boy love comments.  Apparently, the anti-Semitic/alt-right sewage is still kosher with the so-called American Conservative Union.

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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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Deep Concern About the Deep State

Blogging my ambivalence about the ouster of Mike Flynn as Pres. Trump’s national security adviser, I noted that one of the benefits of this little side blog is that I don’t have to have an immediate and firm conclusion about such things.

Accordingly, I read with great interest the pieces by Eli Lake and Damon Linker making the case that we should be deeply worried about the “Deep State” politically assassinating a public official in this manner.  These pieces were shared widely on social media by conservatives.  They make a forceful case, albeit one lacking in context.

At the outset, I should note my comments are not addressed to Lake or Linker, but to those in their audiences who seized on their arguments to declare that the leaks are the only “real” issue here.

Candidate Trump campaigned as a consistent critic of the intelligence community.  So much so, in fact, that political junkies openly joked about the likely blowback to Trump.  “The last POTUS to wage war against the IC was Nixon and we all know how that turned out.”  Ha ha ha.  The jokes were based on people knowing the Deep State will retaliate when attacked.

In this political moment, this observation — obvious to anyone interested months ago — is now taken by some as legitimizing politically motivated leaks.  This is, to put it mildly, hogwash.  When Pres. Trump notes the uptick in the homicide rate in major American cities, he’s not endorsing murder.  Political leaking isn’t necessarily right; it is foreseeable.

Indeed, we need not harken back to the bell-bottomed days of yore for an example.  On the eve of the 2016 election, there was a rather large flurry of politically-motivated leaks, primarily from Trump-friendly FBI agents upset that FBI director Comey declined to recommend espionage charges against Hillary Clinton, and that Justice Dept. officials allegedly stiff-armed their probe of the Clinton Foundation.  Fox News went so far as to report — and retract — a story that an indictment was likely to result from the FBI’s investigation.

The Right’s response to these leaks was not to express deep concern about the Deep State.  The reaction ranged between crickets and barely restrained glee.  Republicans generally were far more interested in whether the leaks were correct than whether they were proper.

I could suggest that this reaction on the Right helped legitimize political leaking far more than noting such leaks happen.  I could suggest that righties who have taken to dismissing any anti-Trump news based on anonymous sources largely seem to have been fine with news based on anonymous sources who were anti-Clinton.  I could note that righties didn’t torch Fox for that rather big piece of “fake news.”

OTOH, at the same time, I had an argument with a liberal journalist.  I contended that the progressives’ deep concern with the FBI leaks was largely a function of whose ox was being gored.  Those who know me should be able to look up that exchange without much difficulty.  This is not a new position for me.

I am concerned with political leaks, especially where national security concerns are involved.  I wrestle with where the lines should be drawn, in part because of the risk that my political priors will unduly influence my opinion on an issue that ideally should be beyond ideology or partisanship.

But given that such leaks are easily foreseeable, my question is why a candidate who didn’t pass up chances to bash the IC seems to have had no plan to reform the IC.  Was hiring Mike Flynn the plan?  If so, I can’t help but notice the Deep State got him ushered out of the White House in record time.  Literally.

If this sounds like blaming the victim to you, please note that Trump sits behind the Resolute desk.  He is not powerless.  Those truly and deeply concerned about the Deep State should demand action and reform instead of using their often newfound concerns to excuse the most powerful man in the world whining about how unfairly Mike Flynn was treated.

Or, to put it in the argumentum ad masculinum often favored by Trump’s biggest supporters, they should put on their big boy pants.

UpdateAccording to the NYT, Pres. Trump “plans to assign a New York billionaire to lead a broad review of American intelligence agencies, according to administration officials, an effort that members of the intelligence community fear could curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview.”  Trump picks a Friend of Stephen Bannon who has virtually zero natsec experience instead of his DNI-designate, Dan Coats.  I wonder how many people who had concerns about the Deep State yesterday will applaud this bold new stroke? (Yes, that’s partially sarcasm.)

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Tucker’s Tomato Can Television

‘Member when righties laughed at lefties who went nuts for sharing videos of the format “WATCH [Lefty TV personality] DESTROY/EVISCERATE/SLAY [Righty politician or issue]”?  I ‘member.

And yet I see righties giving the same sort of treatment to similar clips from Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight.

The most recent virality involved Carlson taking on USA Today Deputy Editorial Editor David Mastio over an editorial noting that White House counselor Stephen Bannon and the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi share a belief in a “clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.”  That’s not quite right; Bannon stated in 2014 that “we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.”  But USAT drew its conclusions (correct or not) based on the totality of Bannon’s comments about Islam, as noted in the editorial.

Carlson led off his segment with Mastio by means of a pop quiz:

Like Mr. Wurtzel, I tend to think “Bannon doesn’t behead journalists” comes across as damning the man with faint praise.

Carlson, however, does behead journalists, figuratively, and he draws quite an audience.  Beyond the social sharing, his ratings are yuge.

This should surprise no one.  Carlson knows the formula.  In the long history of cable news morphing into infotainment, when Jon Stewart famously compared CNN’s Crossfire to pro wrestling, Carlson was one of his direct targets.  (Carlson has claimed he never understood Stewart’s point.)

Of course, Tucker Carlson Tonight isn’t as scripted as the WWE.  But it’s not unlike watching a favored heavyweight boxer work his way toward a title belt by sparring with a series of tomato cans.

On Crossfire, Carlson had to tangle with seasoned pros like James Carville or Paul Begala nightly.  On Fox, virtually none of Carlson’s recent foils have nearly his experience in what passes for debate on television.  And as often as not they are: C-list writers for outlets like the Huffington Post, Elite Daily, and Teen Vogue; generally unknown writers like Mastio or Fortune’s Mathew Ingram; writers with, um, colorful histories like Kurt Eichenwald; and the occasional businessman, college student, or random crank.

Even against inexperienced guests with weak-to-outlandish arguments, Carlson resorted to a straw man argument versus Mastio, and guilt-by association with Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca.

Carlson’s obviously a smart guy and just as obviously talented on camera.  But he risks re-enacting the moment in Gladiator where Maximus, after swiftly dispatching his vastly inferior opponents, bellows to the audience, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?”  Because they clearly were not.

And even if the crowd remains entertained, you might ask how lefties giggling over the Stewarts, Colberts, Olivers, and Bees worked out for them.  I can tell you from experience that junk food is tasty, but makes you flabby in excess.

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Why Steve Bannon is on the NSC

When Stephen Bannon, assistant and chief strategist to Pres. Trump, was named a “regular attendee” of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee, co-equal to members of the NSC who must be Senate confirmed, the defenses from Trump-friendly pundits tended to fall within two categories.

First, defenders noted that Bannon’s status as as an “invitee” of the NSC and a a “regular attendee” of the Principals Committee does not legally require Senate confirmation.  This is correct, although this will not change Bannon’s influence over the NSC’s process and outcomes.

Second, Bannon was compared to Obama political advisor David Axelrod, though the Axe claims he merely observed the Principals Committee debate over U.S. strategy in the war with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  According to Axelrod, he and other political types did not attend regular meetings of the Principals Committee or their deputies and were not invited to weekly meetings on terrorist threats.

Trump aides have suggested Bannon is qualified for these roles based on his former Naval service or his experience at Breitbart, but I don’t think anyone else is taking those claims seriously.

So why have Bannon on the NSC?  The answer may rest in inverting the second concern regarding people like Axelrod.

Trump ran and won on a nationalistic “America First” worldview that elevates certain domestic political interests over supposedly more “globalist” concerns (and other domestic concerns that go unmentioned).  This was apparent not only regarding issues like immigration and trade, but also in a foreign policy motivated by a less interventionist impulse than other recent administrations.

Given the degree to which the administration’s skepticism of internationalism represents a break with the status quo, perhaps we should not be surprised that Trump wants Bannon representing this perspective during the NSC’s deliberations.

NSC decisions may be life-or-death for our troops.  Past administrations always sought to signal that those decisions would not be tainted by politics.  The administration has not argued that the politicization of the NSC is a feature, not a bug.  That’s probably because it sounds bad.  But it seems to be the real argument for having Bannon on the NSC.

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