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 confirming 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, these anonymous 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 couldn’t 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 like CNN in the article I discussed previously, 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 revelations 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. They would have known that, given the hostility of journalists toward Trump, they would publish the leaks despite how uninformative they were and spin them as confirming those allegations without raising most 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 many other news organizations don’t care about that as long as they can harm Trump.
This story in the New York Times came in the wake of the resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor for what turned out to be a very short period of time. After Flynn was forced to resign, 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 say more about the use of anonymous sources from within the government 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. 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, 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.
If you ask me, there is nothing wrong with that, quite the contrary. As I have argued, we have very good reasons to be deeply skeptical about the intelligence used to justify Obama’s decision to impose more sanctions on Russia, in retaliation for its alleged interference in the US presidential election. This decision, based on claims that are clearly not supported by the publicly available evidence, has every appearance of being a political move. Obama must have known that, by imposing sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its alleged interference in the election, he would undermine Trump’s legitimacy. He could also have been throwing a bone to Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which is hysterical over the possibility of a détente with Russia. The sanctions imposed by Obama before he left the White House will make it more difficult for Trump to pursue a rapprochement with Russia. Indeed, if he wants to get rid of the sanctions Obama imposed on Russia, he will have to spend political capital that won’t be available for other things on his agenda and may therefore be tempted to give up the idea of a détente with Russia. 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, which is already what many people are saying. (It’s also worth noting that, while people in the intelligence community were very concerned with the protection of their sources and methods when they refused to release any hard evidence to support their claims about the alleged interference of Russia in the election, many of them apparently don’t mind leaking information that allows Russian officials to know their conversations are being monitored.) Thus, in my opinion, even if Flynn openly discussed the sanctions with Kislyak (which is impossible to know for sure without the transcript), he did everyone a favor. Even if you disagree with me on the opportunity of pursuing a détente with Russia, it’s what Trump said during the campaign he wanted to do and, therefore, it would have been perfectly legitimate for his soon-to-be National Security Advisor to broach the issue of the sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
In any case, what should be clear is that, even if Flynn did what he is being accused of, this would in no way confirm the crazy theories about Trump’s relationship with Russia that have been advertised as fact in the media for months. Yet that is exactly how this story is being spun in the media. If you don’t believe me, just watch Morning Joe after Flynn’s resignation and listen in particular to what Thomas Friedman from the New York times is saying, who compared what just happened to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. (Note that he explicitly says that he doesn’t care what Flynn told Pence and that it’s not the real issue for him.) Indeed, the other pundits on the show but also the hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, were barely less hysterical. If one is interested, one can easily find more examples of that hysteria in the media oneself, so I will just leave it at that. The problem with that kind of reactions in the media, which have become ubiquitous, is that it creates a toxic environment in which it’s impossible for people who are in favor of pursuing a détente with Russia to make their case, since they will immediately be accused of being useful idiots, Putin’s stooges, etc. This is even more true for people who are part of the administration.
Another thing which is said against Flynn is that, by talking about policy with the Russian ambassador before he was sworn in, he violated the Logan Act. The notion that people went after him because his actions constituted a violation of the Logan Act is beyond preposterous. As even the New York Times pointed out in the passage I quoted above, the Logan Act is an obscure statute that has never been enforced and, if it has not, it’s because it would be incredibly stupid, at least in the kind of circumstances we are talking about in the case of Flynn. It’s perfectly normal for a member of the incoming administration to be talking with foreign governments before he’s been sworn in to facilitate the transition. There is absolutely nothing sinister about this, especially if the person in question is trying to defuse tensions with another government, which again is the accusation that is made against Flynn. (One can never repeat that enough, given how absurd that is.) In any case, what is clear is that Flynn wasn’t forced to resign because he violated the Logan Act, because nobody really gives a shit about that. Which brings me to the actual reasons for his resignation.
Trump said that he asked Flynn to resign because he had lost trust in him after he misled Vice President Pence about the content of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. According to a New York Times article I already cited, Pence was “incensed” that Flynn had not told him everything about this conversation, which led him to deny on television that the issue of sanctions had been discussed with the Russian ambassador. The media is trying to spin that as a proof that Flynn 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 and this had leaked in the press, the media would have blasted him and Trump for trying to improve the relations between the US and Russia. He must have known that this would also be presented as tit-for-tat with the Russians for their alleged intervention in the election, even though as we have seen nothing of the sort was said during that conversation, even according to the New York Times and the Washington Post. Of course, his decision to mislead Pence about the conversation was stupid, as the rest of the story showed, but if he lied it’s important to understand why and, as we have seen, the current anti-Russia hysteria in the media probably had a lot to do with it.
As I have argued, the evidence for the various allegations regarding Trump and Russia is extremely weak, but the media has made them credible by inadequate reporting on the issue. As George Clemenceau, a famous French politician at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, said: “Slander, slander, something will always remain.” The media coverage of the allegations against Russia is not just remarkable by how what gets covered does get covered, but also by what does not get covered. For instance, as Ray McGovern reports, the German intelligence recently concluded that, despite widespread allegations that Russia was trying to interference in the election scheduled for September (which are repeated by the American media on a regular basis) , the evidence did not support those claims. Apparently, Merkel was not happy about the conclusion and ordered another report to be written, but fortunately someone in the German intelligence — whose intentions were probably very different from those of the US intelligence officials who recently leaked various information to the press — leaked the story to a newspaper. As McGovern notes, this is clearly relevant to the current debate about the alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election, yet it was almost completely ignored in the American media.
Thus, despite what Stelter thinks, there is really no reason to be thankful for the role of the media in this, on the contrary. Flynn’s resignation was probably just the latest episode in the war between Trump and the American deep state, which doesn’t want to hear about a détente with Russia. Indeed, Flynn was widely perceived, including in Russia, as one of the people among Trump’s advisers who were pushing for a rapprochement with Moscow, even though his view on Russia had not always been so favorable. As I noted before, he also made a lot of enemies in the intelligence community while he was Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, by criticizing the intelligence process that, according to him, resulted in overly optimistic conclusions about the state of the fight against islamic terrorism after Bin Laden’s death in 2011. With Flynn’s resignation, it looks as though the deep state just had its first scalp in Trump’s administration, but it’s doubtful that they will stop with him, especially if journalists continue to let themselves be used by members of the intelligence community who strategically leak embarrassing information to them. We already know that the intelligence community is hostile to Trump. Many people in that community, especially the CIA, have expressed their preference for Clinton over Trump during the campaign. For instance, Michael Morrell, former acting Director of the CIA under Obama, openly endorsed Clinton in August. He then went on to argue that the US should make Russia and Iran “pay a price” for their support of Assad’s regime in Syria and suggested killing some of their military advisers over there. Earlier that year, Michael Hayden, Director of the CIA under Bush, had clearly indicated his preference for Clinton, praising her for openness to intervention in Syria and Libya. Syria, where the CIA has been trying to overthrow Assad for years is probably a huge factor in the hostility of the Company toward Trump, who repeatedly criticized this effort during the campaign. It’s significant that support for Clinton from the CIA has come from people on both sides of the partisan divide.
To be clear, I’m not saying that journalists should not report on those leaks, but they should be more critical about their significance, not be so quick to jump to conclusions and discuss the obvious issues the leaks raise about the motivations of their authors. If they don’t, they are liable to being manipulated by people in the government who are hostile to Trump, though often not for the good reasons. But unfortunately many journalists apparently don’t care about that as long as they can harm Trump and generate traffic on their website, improve the ratings of their network or increase the number of subscriptions to their newspaper. Since many 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. As Greenwald pointed out in a piece I already cited, 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 a good thing, especially given how dangerous the tensions between Moscow and Washington are. Anyone who values democracy should also be deeply concerned by the possibility that unelected intelligence officials seek to undermine Trump, who despite his flaws is still the democratically elected President of the US, because they fear he might pursue a foreign policy agenda they don’t like. This sends the message that some policies are not up for debate in the American democracy, which is something that should frighten everyone, even people who oppose a rapprochement with Russia. There are many good reasons to oppose Trump, but his opponents should not get behind the efforts by the deep state, openly cheered on by people like Bill Kristol, to undermine him because they dislike his foreign policy.