Brian Stelter wrote a self-congratulatory piece for CNN in which he praises journalists for their role in Flynn’s resignation. According to him and many other people in the media, investigative journalism and information leaked by courageous people in the administration led to Flynn’s resignation, which he evidently think is justified. (Among other things, he approvingly quotes Joe Scarborough, who called the person who leaked the content of Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador a “patriot”.) I will come back to the use of anonymous sources from within the administration below, but first I want to talk more about why Flynn was forced to resign.
The New York Times published a piece on what happened in the White House since January, which led to Flynn’s resignation this week. Here is how the conversation Flynn had in December with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, is described in that article:
The issue traced back to a call last December between Mr. Flynn, then on tap to become Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, and Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. President Barack Obama was imposing new sanctions on Russia and expelling 35 diplomats after the election meddling.
The day after the sanctions were announced, Mr. Putin said Russia would not retaliate in kind, as has been the custom in the long, tortured history of Russian-American relations, instead waiting for a new administration that he assumed would be friendlier.
Inside the Obama administration, officials were stunned. Mr. Trump publicly welcomed the decision. “Great move on delay (by V. Putin),” he wrote on Twitter. “I always knew he was very smart!”
Around the same time, Obama advisers heard separately from the F.B.I. about Mr. Flynn’s conversation with Mr. Kislyak, whose calls were routinely monitored by American intelligence agencies that track Russian diplomats. The Obama advisers grew suspicious that perhaps there had been a secret deal between the incoming team and Moscow, which could violate the rarely enforced, two-century-old Logan Act barring private citizens from negotiating with foreign powers in disputes with the United States.
The Obama officials asked the F.B.I. if a quid pro quo had been discussed on the call, and the answer came back no, according to one of the officials, who like others asked not to be named discussing delicate communications. The topic of sanctions came up, they were told, but there was no deal.
The Washington Post also published a piece on that issue a week ago, which described the conversation Flynn had with Kislyak as follows:
Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
All of those officials said Flynn’s references to the election-related sanctions were explicit. Two of those officials went further, saying that Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by President Barack Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president.
“Kislyak was left with the impression that the sanctions would be revisited at a later time,” said a former official.
Thus, even according to the New York Times and the Washington Post, Flynn only told Kislyak that his government shouldn’t overreact to Obama’s decision to slap new sanctions on Russia, on the ground that Trump’s administration would seek a détente with Moscow. As I pointed out the other day, there is nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, Flynn should be congratulated for doing that and it’s Obama who should be criticized, since his decision to impose new sanctions on Russia was nothing but a shady political move. He was just trying to undermine Trump by making the claims that he was thrown the election by Putin, for which there is no serious evidence in the public record, look more credible. He was also throwing a bone to Washington’s foreign policy establishment, who wanted to make it more difficult for Trump to seek a rapprochement with Russia. Indeed, if Trump wants to get rid of the sanctions Obama imposed on Russia, he will have to spend political capital that won’t be available for something else. Moreover, any move in that direction by Trump would immediately be spun by the media as confirmation of the view that he is Putin’s creature or, as Paul Krugman (who is evidently angry that, with Clinton’s defeat, he didn’t get the job he coveted in her administration) repeatedly called him, the “Siberian candidate”.
The article in the New York Times also claims that Bannon pushed for Flynn’s resignation because he saw in him a rival on national security. I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t find that very plausible, given that Bannon and the populist wing of the Republican party has supported him for months. I think it’s more likely that he saw that Flynn’s situation had become untenable within the administration and decided to join the bandwagon so that he wouldn’t have to fall with him. In any case, what is clear is that the people who went after Flynn, both in the government and in the media, also want Bannon’s head and he knows that. Speaking of this, I pointed out the other day that some people in the populist wing of the Republican party were apparently going after Priebus, who as I noted is very close to Ryan. The Atlantic has a piece which discusses the allegation that Bannon was behind this attack on Priebus. In the article, several people close to Bannon deny it, but I still think it’s plausible for the reasons I explained a few days ago and, clearly, establishment Republicans agree with me. Having said that, it’s also possible that Bannon just want to remind Priebus and, through him, establishment Republicans that even after Flynn’s resignation he can still fuck with them. After all, as some people cited in the Atlantic point out, he still needs Priebus and Republicans in Congress to enact his agenda.
Anyway, after this digression, let’s go back to Stelter’s claim that we should be thankful for the role played by the media in Flynn’s resignation. As I have already noted, Flynn didn’t do anything wrong by talking with Kislyak, on the contrary. Still, although it’s impossible to know fore sure without the transcript of this conversation, he seems to have lied about the nature of that exchange. The media is trying to spin that as a proof that he was up to something ominous, but that’s clearly not why he lied, since as we have seen there is nothing wrong with what he did. The explanation is that he knew that if he said that he’d told Kislyak that Trump would review the sanctions against Russia, the media would have blasted him and Trump for trying to improve the relations between the US and Russia, even though no reasonable person could disagree that it would be a good thing. In other words, if Flynn lied, it’s just because people in the media are retarded and will use any excuse to go after Trump. So despite what Stelter thinks, there is really no reason to be thankful for the role of the media in this, quite the contrary. What happened is just that biased journalists were used by the deep state to prevent a détente with Russia.
This story about Flynn isn’t the only case in which the media has uncritically reported vague, unverifiable claims made by anonymous sources in the government. Journalists have been doing that for months to claim that Trump had nefarious connections to Russia. accuse Russia of having thrown the election to Trump. Again, I plan to write a long post about this, but here I want to talk briefly about recent articles which, relying on anonymous sources in the intelligence community, purported to promote that claim. First, a few days ago, CNN published a piece according to which US investigators had corroborated some aspects of the ridiculous dossier that Buzzfeed published a month ago. However, when you read the article, it’s clear that it doesn’t contain anything interesting. It also illustrates precisely what can go wrong when journalists uncritically rely on anonymous sources without asking the right questions. Given the relationship between Trump and journalists, it’s probably not for lack of trying…
The only thing in the dossier which, as far as we can tell from this article, has been corroborated is that “intercepts … confirm that some of the conversations described in the dossier took place between the same individuals on the same days and from the same locations as detailed in the dossier”. (CNN explicitly says that, according to their sources, none of the salacious aspects of the dossier have been corroborated.) But without more details, this claim is pretty much empty, because it could mean something totally uninteresting. Indeed, the dossier in question reports conversations between, for instance, Putin and Russian oligarchs that have nothing to do with Trump. Thus, even if the US intelligence had really been able to confirm that, it would have little to no bearing on the allegations about Trump contained in the dossier. I guess one could argue that, if some aspects of the dossier were corroborated, it would make the rest of the dossier more credible even if those aspects were unrelated to the allegations against Trump. But some allegations contained in the dossier which are directly related to Trump have already been disproved, so even if CNN’s information were accurate, this argument would be particularly convincing. Moreover, the dossier published by Buzzfeed was a piece of opposition research and, therefore, has been no doubt been fed to countless journalists — something many of them acknowledged after Buzzfeed published it — who evidently have been unable to confirm any of it, despite the fact that — contrary to what is often asserted — the dossier contains many potentially verifiable claims.
Even more problematic, with a handful of exceptions, the dossier published by Buzzfeed doesn’t give a specific date for any of the conversations it describes. Except for a meeting between Putin and Yanukovych that allegedly took place on August 15 near Volgograd and a meeting between Igor Sechin and Carter Page which allegedly took place on July 8 or 9, whenever a specific date is given in the dossier, it’s about a conversation between a contact of the person who wrote it and one of the sources he claims to have in the Russian government. The other conversations which are described in the dossier are said to have taken place in “June 2016”, in “late July 2016”, in “mid-September 2016”, etc. It’s possible that, when the US officials who talked to CNN said that they had been able to confirm that some of the conversations described in the dossier took place on the day it says they have taken place, the US officials who leaked this information were talking about conversations between the contact of the author of the dossier and his sources in the Russian government. Given what they apparently told CNN, there is simply no way of ruling that out. But, if that’s what they meant, then it’s absolutely uninteresting and their intentions were extremely misleading.
On the other hand, if they were talking about the conversation that allegedly took place on August 15 between Putin and Yanukovych, then CNN could and should have at least verified that it’s consistent with Putin’s official agenda, but there is no indication in the article that it even tried to do so. (Kurt Eichenwald wrote a piece in Newsweek a few days before the election in which he explicitly mentioned this meeting with Yanukovych, but it’s absolutely clear when you read the article that he was relying on the dossier published by Buzzfeed, which by the way is yet another proof that it had been widely circulated among journalists who didn’t hesitate to use the claims it contains, without informing their readers that what they were saying was entirely based on completely unverified opposition research paid for by Trump’s opponents.) So I did what CNN should have done and checked Putin’s official agenda for August 15. As it happens, Putin was in Volgograd that day, but this could just mean that, unlike the people at CNN, the person who wrote the dossier published by Buzzfeed isn’t a complete moron and made sure that what he wrote wasn’t inconsistent with publicly available information. Moreover, Putin was apparently pretty busy that day, since he took part in two events during his trip to Volgograd. (Putin was also in Sochi, almost 1,000km from there, the next morning to meet with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan.) It’s really not clear why he would have chosen such a busy day, during which he was presumably followed by journalists most of the time, to have such a sensitive meeting. I get that the story about which the meeting is supposed to have been about was published by the New York Times on August 14, but that’s still a lot for one man, especially since it’s really not clear why Putin would have taken the risk to meet with Yanukovych personally about this when he could just have sent another person.
The other possibility is that CNN’s sources were talking about the meeting which, according to the dossier published by Buzzfeed, took place on July 8 or 9 between Carter Page and Igor Sechin. We know that Page was in Moscow during that period since he gave a talk over there on July 7. The dossier mentions that event, but can’t even get the school right. It claims that Page gave a talk at the “Higher Economic School in Moscow”, which probably refers to the Higher School of Economics. I know that school because I gave a talk over there last October, but that’s not where Page gave his talk. It was at the New Economic School, which is a completely different institution. (Unlike the Higher School of Economics, which is public, the New Economic School is a private institution.) This doesn’t really inspire confidence in the reliability of the dossier or in that of the people who told CNN they had corroborated some of the claims it contains… Since the folks at CNN decided to report what anonymous intelligence officials, people who are in the business of deception, told them about their investigation of the dossier published by Buzzfeed, they should obviously have raised those questions, but they did not. This shows that, in publishing that article, CNN wasn’t really interested in the truth, but was only trying to hurt Trump. It’s clear that, given how vague what their sources told them was, whatever they were able to corroborate in the dossier, assuming they’re not lying about that, it may well have absolutely no bearing on the allegations about Trump’s relationship with Russia. But they would have known that, just by saying that some of the claims in the dossier had been corroborated without being able to say more, CNN would make those allegations more credible.
Meanwhile, the New York Times also published a long piece on the alleged ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia, with the headline “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence”. This makes it sound as if we are going to be treated with shocking revelations which confirm the allegations made throughout the campaign that Trump had conspired with Putin, but upon reading the article, it’s clear that, as the article that CNN published about the Russian dossier on Trump, it’s almost completely devoid of content. The article says that, according to anonymous sources in the intelligence community, intercepts have shown that some of Trump’s associates had been talking with members of Russian intelligence during the campaign. But we already knew that several people in Trump’s campaign had done business in Russia and, as even the New York Times acknowledge in the article, “it is not unusual for American businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society”. (Incidentally, if you think this isn’t also true of the US and other Western countries, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.)
Moreover, according to the New York Times, the officials they talked to “would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians”. Well, those officials aren’t very helpful, are they… Further, still according to the article, “it is unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself”. Finally, the New York Times acknowledges at the outset that, while “the intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election”, the officials they talked to “said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation”. In other words, if you only pay attention to the actual content of the article, as opposed to the headline and how the New York Times tries to spin it, it’s clear that it doesn’t really contain anything that we didn’t already know or that we could have guessed. But this didn’t prevent countless people from sharing it and claiming that it shows that, as they have been saying for months, Trump is working for Putin.
Again, the New York Times relied uncritically on anonymous sources who presumably are not particularly fond of Trump (otherwise they wouldn’t be leaking information which they can’t possibly ignore will be used against him), but the authors of that piece apparently didn’t ask any questions about the obvious issues these leaks raise. In particular, they did not discuss the question of why the officials who talked to them would not say anything about the content of the conversations they allegedly intercepted, even though whether those revelation have any import clearly hinges on that. As far as we can tell based on what the article says, it’s entirely possible that the conversations in question don’t reveal anything nefarious on the part of anyone in Trump’s campaign, although clearly that’s not the impression that the New York Times seeks to convey. If that’s the case, it probably means that people in the intelligence community who are hostile to Trump decided to tell journalists that some people around him had talked to Russian officials, even though they know that it doesn’t support in any way the allegations that Trump colluded with Russia during the campaign. They would have known that, given the hostility journalists are toward Trump, they would publish the leaks despite how uninformative they are and spin them as confirming those allegations without raising any of the obvious problems with that story.
Indeed, unless they want to be manipulated, the issues I raised are exactly the kind of questions that journalists should ask when they are fed leaks from people who will only talk on condition of anonymity. But clearly people at the New York Times and in most other news outlets don’t care about that as long as they can harm Trump. Since journalists won’t do their job, it’s up to ordinary citizens, including people who oppose Trump, to read the press critically. But, unfortunately, Trump’s opponents despise him so much that they will use anything against him. Thus, in the past few months, we have seen many people on the left, who are supposed to be critical of the deep state and suspicious of unverifiable claims leaked anonymously by people in the intelligence community, openly cheer attempts to discredit Trump by any warmonger that come their way. Even if you disagree with everything else Trump is doing, his desire to pursue a rapprochement with Russia is clearly a good thing, especially given how dangerous the tensions between Moscow and Washington are. So you should think twice before you share propaganda whose main goal is to prevent any such rapprochement from taking place.