The Deeply Disturbing Implications of the Washington Post Story of the Inadequate US Response to Russian Hacking, and a Long Term Proposal

It is almost impossible to force oneself to read the Washington Post’s brilliant reporting of the US failure to respond adequately to the Russian election-related hacking.

However, attention must be paid, and the implications go far further than judgements about the Obama administration, that I am sure will go well explored in classic blame the victim manner.

First,  I think we have to admit that the current situation of a largely unpunished and undeterred coup/attack on the US has to be broadly blamed on the entire political process in the US.  While the lack of response, either public or covert, is hard to defend either now, or then, it has to be seen as in part the product of the hyper-politicization of foreign policy.  The Obama administration was operating in a toxic environment in which any honest reporting or respect was, and would be thrown back in the face of the government and the electorate, without any concern for considerations other than short term victory.   The administration could not ignore the reality of that environment.

That must be recognized as a product of Trump active encouragement of hacking, of his trivialization of any reporting, and of his contempt for truth.  The enablers carry as much if not more of the blame.

Second, we must be honest about where we are.  We no longer can be confident that the American people control our own fates through the political process.  It was and has to be assumed to be about to be again, another Pearl Harbor.  (That the US has its own long bi-partisan history of interference in other counties electoral, and political processes, not to mention coups, does not make this any less serious, it only makes it harder to defeat.)  Given the massive reluctance of Trump to take this threat in any way seriously, or even to recognize the risks of the legitimacy this has already lost him, we can have no faith that the governmental system will protect us against more and worse future surrenders of control.  (If Trump is forced out, as I strongly believe he has to be, and will be, this last is no longer true, but issues of trust and legitimacy will long remain.)

Finally, we have to build a new layer of institutions that protect the integrity of our political system regardless of short term interest.  For a start, I can imagine a Commission led by prior presidents, with an independent staff, with direct access to the intelligent services.  The Commission would have a mandate to issue public reports, including on the credibility of challenges to our democratic electoral system, and to publicly and privately urge actions of all kinds, thereby making it easier for presidents to take needed actions without being effectively accused of putting partisan interests first.  While hacking will be one part of the charter of duties, all forms of foreign interference and collusion will need to be included.

The problem, as always, and as we learned in the cold war, is that is is almost impossible to give groups power that is not democratically constrained without then in fact surrendering democracy to those powers.  In the absence of the consensus of  the cold war years, the need is even greater than it was then, and the risks are far greater.

It is a measure of what Trump and his enablers have wrought, and what his opponents have failed to do, that we now face this choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Rants From The Madman”

Famously, when Jimmy Carter was president, the Boston Globe “accidentally” ran a headline over an editorial that read: “Mush From the Wimp.”  There was no Internet to make it go viral, but today surely it would.

Today, to label Trump’s tweets as “rants from the madman” seems almost an understatement, and there is already plenty of obvious commentary.  So here are some addition questions:

When will be start seeing resignations from the national security team?

Is the legal team now obliged to formally withdraw representations that they have made to the Fourth, and Ninth Circuits, and to the Supreme Court.  Remember, lawyers can not make affirmative mis-representations to a court.

Will we see resignations from the Solicitor General’s Office, or just an inability to find staff to do the work?

Is there any chance that the Supreme Court will now grant review in the “travel Ban case.”  The risk of them being dissed during the process, such as after hearing, or after decision, is great.  If I were Roberts, I would take no action till the Ninth Circuit agrees with the Fourth (as it surely will), and then see if I have seven or more votes to put the President firmly in his place.  If not, I would do nothing, at least till there is a split from another Circuit.  I do not see how the Court can afford to be seen to be baling Trump out after today.  And, a 5-4 either way would be an absolute institutional disaster for the Court (US v. Nixon was 9-0).

Does the almost systematic dissing of one cabinet member after another mean that a 25th Amendment majority is starting to build up?  What is Pence thinking tonight.

Many previously loyal Republican commentators seem numb tonight.  Republican politicians have fallen largely quiet.  When will they start raising issues of Presidential inability to do the job? 

Finally, whatever else you can say, you can not argue with the fact that each week, things move faster an faster.   Things that would, the prior week, have seemed crazy to suggest, actually happen.

Our brains are lagging indicators.  Like any tipping point, when it comes, it will come quicker than we can possibly expect.

 

This May All Be Over Much Quicker Than Anyone Expects

There are several reasons why the received wisdom about the speed of the Trump removal process may be completely wrong.  Not surprisingly, most of the reasons relate as much to the political as to the legal context.

One:  Perhaps most importantly, unlike in prior impeachment situations, even this early, almost everyone in Washington really wants Trump gone.  There are literally only about 50 people for whom this is not true.  The difference between the parties this year is that the Democrats are not upset when people figure it out, but the Republicans are terrified about their base doing so.  (When the Republicans say they want to get all the facts out about malfeasance on their side, you know the subject of the investigation is in deep trouble.)

Two:  A prima facie case of obstruction of justice by President Trump has already been made out, most of it from his own statements and admissions.  This comes from his firing of Comey, his statement that he performed the firing because of his feelings about the Russia investigation, his statement to the Russians that he (and they) have gained from what he believed to be the successful firing.  While that alone is probably enough, there will be plenty more.  This could go to a grand jury very quickly.

Three:  This time round, no one seems to be suggesting any barriers, such as Executive Privilege or National Security, to getting the information quickly.  This is in very marked contrast to 1972 – 1974, when it took well over a year to resolve the barriers.  I think the main reason is listed in number one  above, that no one wants to protect Trump, it is just that one party does not want that fact to be too obvious.  It is also partly that Trump has waived many of the legal issues by his tweeting and statements.  I think it is less the reason for the absence of such privilege claims that the legal issues have already been resolved — US v. Nixon gave Nixon no outs, but clever lawyers have since then, with a sympathetic audience been able to find new arguments — it’s just that there is no such sympathetic audience outside the immediate Trump family and their hangers on.

Four:  It really does not matter whether a President can be indicted or not.  You just charge a conspiracy to obstruct justice, name the President as an un-indicted co-conspirator, and get all the information to Congress.  This is what happened with Nixon, in that case with the permission of the judge overseeing the grand jury (the now largely forgotten hero John Sirica.)

Five:  In today’s digital environment, not only is there additional evidence everywhere, but the process of finding and putting it in the right order will move much quicker.  In the Watergate investigation it look months to get all the interlocking evidence hand typed onto sorted color-coded index cards.  The timeline can be ready for grand jury presentation soon.

Six:  If they can get rid of Trump, the Republicans want it done as fast as possible.  This is because the other prong of the investigation, the one dealing with the underlying Russia collusion, is going to take much longer, but if successful, it is potentially much much more damaging to the legitimacy of Republican power.  If by the time we get a new President it is clear that the Democrats should or might have won without the collusion, the pressure on Pence to offer the Vice Presidency to Tim Kaine will be immense, and we will be in a period of coalition government.  If the Republicans do not accept something like this, they will be killed at the next election, whether midterms or the presidential.  Even if they do accept it, much of their radical agenda is gone.

So, almost all the rational incentives align in the same direction.

The only questions are whether the Republicans can figure this out, and if the Democrats want and are able to, can figure out how to take advantage of the alignment.

Actually, the main reason I now think that impeachment is the more likely route is that Republicans do not have to be the ones obviously triggering the process, at least until very near the end of the game.  In contrast, if they used the 25th Amendment, it would basically Republicans starting and managing the process.

But, that choice of remedy analysis assumes that new bombshell inherently destructive of Trump’s relationship with his core base comes out — and that might happen tomorrow at 5 PM.  Tax returns, anyone.

 

 

 

An Additional Example of The Breakdown of Nation State Autonomy– White House staff and Trudeau

At one level, this is astonishing. From The Hill.

White House officials enlisted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to help convince President Trump not to unilaterally withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), according to a Monday report.

The unique and potentially embarrassing approach, which was first reported by Canada’s National Post, apparently worked. Following phone calls with Trudeau and Mexican President Peña Nieto, Trump backed off of reported plans to pull out of NAFTA last month.

Instead, Trump announced that he would renegotiate the 23-year-old deal agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

I am sure this will draw attention mainly as yet another example of the dysfunction of the White House and its nominal occupant.

But the idea that the staff of a nation’s chief executive would find it appropriate to bring in as an ally the chief executive of another country to change their own bosses mind is in fact merely symptomatic of the fact that today the real disputes are between loose alliances of elites whose loyalties and communications now cross national boundaries.

It is related to the interest of foreign countries in state by state politics in the US, is reflected in part by Flynn, and whoever else is ultimately implicated in “Russiagate,” (what did the President know, and when did he know it?) not thinking through what they did.  It is surely also reflected in the myriad state department staff who have tried to reassure elites among our allies that we are not yet as unpredictable as monitoring twitter might suggest.  Think about the conversations between Brussels officials and the British Civil Service right now.  Or between Bannon and LePenn.

At least arguably, the problem for Flynn, and whoever, is not that they had conversations, but that they made no distinctions between our friends and our allies, or rather that their actions reflected a lack of understanding that there is a distinction.

The fact is that as national interests become more and more interconnected, this is an almost inevitable process.  The questions are how to manage it so that the interests of the excluded are not even more abandoned, and how to see this as part of the process of creating trans-national institutions and governments.  Would the United States ever have been established if the leaders of the thirteen states had not already somewhat  known each other, and known whom they could trust.

We need very new ways of thinking about this.

Why Did Sessions Not Report His Russian Contact to the FBI?

According to the Washington Post:

One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race.

Given the context, I find it hard to believe that Sessions would not have told State, FBI, CIA or NSA about that contact.  Moreover, surely any sane politician would have written a “memo to file” as a future potential defensive tool.  I would have assumed that they one or more of the above would have known anyway.

I regard the apparent absence of both (or even just a failure to report them by now), as something close of consciousness of guilt — although I have no personal knowledge of such general procedures, or what he did.

This story is just not going to go away.

 

Any Innocent Administration Would Be Urging a Full Investigation to Repair Their Credibility

To be effective, a government has to be credible.  To be effective the Trump administration is desperately in need of a process that will both give in a breather in the short term, and credible proof of innocence in the long term about the whole Russia thing.

So they should be out there leading the establishment of such a process on investigation into the Russian scandal.  It would have to be set up so its product would be so solid and so credible that it was essentially unanswerable.

So why are they not doing so.  Well, there are three possible reasons.

  1. That they are so short term oriented that they do not understand this truth about credibiity.
  2. That they are in such chaos that they are unable to put any investigation together.
  3. That they are so guilty that the last thing they want is an investigation of any kind.

I will go with number three.  But if number two is true, we should see the investigation set up in a few weeks.  If number one is the reason, then it may take a bit longer, but wiser heads should prevail relatively soon.

Or perhaps most likely, all three could be true, in which case this story will play out much faster than we expect.

 

 

The Globalization of Politcs May Be the Most Important Long Term Impact of Trumpism

For a long time a sacred (and therefore honored in the breach) principle of international relations was that of non-interference in other countries internal affairs.

Indeed, when NATO intervened in the Balkans, many, including progressives, were deeply worried about the violation of this principle, and the precedent it might set for the future.

Of course, these days, we understand that as a practical matter there are multiple ongoing ways of engaging with and interfering with other countries political system, yet no real coherent intellectual structure for describing, let alone regulating it.  What we do know that the last election has gotten us to the point where we realize the extent of the threat to democracy and democratic principles in the way this game in evolving.  In the package of such techniques are stealing data, publicizing true or false data, undermining confidence in communications, creating confusion, and falsifying communications in such a way that the parties do not even know it.

That countries are interfering in each others’ processes more and more is just a reflection of how deeply and continuously their interests intersect, and of how much more that is case that ever before.

Rather than just panic, I would urge that we should see the globalization of politics implicit in this interventionist paradigm as an opportunity both to advance democracy, and the integration of our world.

The core imbalance is between transparent engagement and non-transparent interventions.  Examples of transparent engagement are public information campaigns, people from other countries urging policy choices, explanations of the other countries points and view, needs, and alignment with the interests of the country sought to being influenced.  Remember that to suppress information about such things means that the overall process of global vision integration is held back.

Such transparent engagements actually provide more information for those who make the decisions about how to vote and how to lead.  Such transparent engagements only work if they are seen to be advocating for policies that are in the real interests of those with the actual voting and decision-making power.  Otherwise, they have the opposite effect of moving people in the opposite effect (as may already at least be happening with Putin’s US adventures.)

In contrast, non-transparent interventions, as we will continue to see in the US, undermine stability in “target” countries, at least in the short term, tend to destabilize the international system, and are likely to result in escalations of interference that may spill over into other realms of force.

Now, therefore, somehow non-transparent interventions have to be banned and actually so strongly de-incentivized that they they do not occur.  Interestingly, most countries probably have in place rules that prohibit all such interventions.  So the prohibitions need  to be generally narrowed to apply only to non-transparent interventions.

This would also require specifying the requirements and conditions of transparency.  Such conditions would include full disclosure of financing, means, scope, intent, and engagement with groups in the country targeted.  Moreover, systems of monitoring would be needed to ensure that non-transparent influencing attempts, and purportedly transparent ones that are in violation of the requirements,  would be identified and publicized.  Of course, the model for this exists (although far too weakly) in current rules governing in-country regulation of improper attempts at persuasion.  Finally enforcement mechanisms would include shaming, sanctions, and ongoing additional monitoring — in other words reflecting the monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for other violations of international norms, such as the development of nuclear capacity in violation of treaties.

Given that the most insecure countries are the most fearful of such non-transparent interference, they might be willing ultimately to accept an international regulatory structure.  Countries like the US would have to abandon frequently use non-transparent techniques (except those justifiable in self-defense terms) in order to persuade the more  insecure countries to accept such a structure.

Just not this year, I suspect.  If it happens, however, it will be because a consensus develops in the US and beyond that the risks of the current escalation are too great.  If so, we will be able to thank Putin and Trump, and this may be their greatest legacy.