Friday, January 06, 2017

No Method to the Madness

by Michael Dorf

In recent days, President-elect Trump has seemed to walk back his dismissal of the intelligence community's confident assessment that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic email accounts and their release via WikiLeaks. As with all things Trump, the walking back could be reversed at any moment and comes with only deflection, nothing resembling an apology. Here, in two tweets, we learn that it was not Trump who credited Julian Assange over U.S. intelligence officials but merely the "dishonest media" that misattributed this sentiment to him and that Trump is a "big fan" of "Intelligence."

Whether Trump remains a big fan of "Intelligence" after he has his first encounter with some actual intelligence remains to be seen. Today, Trump is scheduled to receive the briefing that President Obama received yesterday. Presumably that will include classified information that was not in the public hearing conducted by the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. It's possible that when the evidence is laid before him, Trump will conclude that it was Russian hackers after all.

But don't count on it.

Another possibility is that Trump--who is in many respects the embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger effect--simply won't understand what he is told and so will continue to think that China or a 400 pound guy in bed was behind the hacking. (Note to self: For future column, ask why the standard catalogue of groups of people Trump insulted during the campaign--Mexicans, Muslims, women, etc.--does not include people who weigh more than they would like. But I digress.)

It's also possible that Trump will get the briefing, will be persuaded that yes indeed there is overwhelming evidence of Russian hacking, and then simply lie about what he heard. The tweet pretty much writes itself: Good briefing on hacking. No clear intel who it was. Must rebuild intel after Obama and Dems ruined it. MAGA.

To be sure, there is yet another possibility. Maybe Trump has inadvertently stumbled onto something. U.S. intelligence is hardly perfect. Trump is right that the WMD assessment leading up to the 2003 Iraq War was a terrible failure--although much of the blame for that must be laid at the feet of the Bush Administration for pushing the intelligence professionals for a particular answer. Still, the fact that Trump says something isn't, by itself, a sufficient reason to conclude that the thing he says is wrong. At this point, we in the public have only the assurance from the intelligence agencies that they are confident the Russians were behind the hacking. Maybe the declassified report to be released next week will be so damning that reasonable people will have no choice but to accept its findings, but until that happens, as this skeptical Rolling Stone article notes, we have only a "trust us."

In light of the bipartisan consensus among people who have seen more than I have, I'm inclined to think that Trump's skepticism is unwarranted. Or at least I'll assume that for the balance of what I say here. So what is he up to? Why does Trump want to begin his presidency at odds with the intelligence professionals?

I continue to think that the best answer is one that I floated a couple of weeks ago, when I asked why Trump doesn't just condemn Russian hacking. I wrote then Trump's opposition to an investigation is not based on any sort of rational calculation. It is simply the product of his huge-but-fragile ego. Anything that is in any way connected with the possibility that he didn't win a ginormous unpresidented victory without any help from anybody must be met with the overwhelming force of Trump's blustering denials and fabrications.

I'll end on a dire note. Even though I think Trump is not making any sort of rational calculation, in a sense, his acting out is harmless to him and maybe even beneficial. The intelligence officials whom Trump has insulted will most likely put professionalism above ego and give him the same information they would give any president. But even if not--if Trump's criticisms of the intelligence community end up driving a wedge between him and them--the result could "benefit" Trump. A terrorist attack that goes uninterrupted because the president does not have the full cooperation of the intelligence services is just the sort of tragedy that could create a rally-'round-the-president effect. At that point we could expect Trump to revive some of his more outrageous proposals--the Muslim ban, torture, etc.--and we would likely see increased public support for these plans.


David Ricardo said...

Other than this statement by Mr. Dorf

“Still, the fact that Trump says something isn't, by itself, a sufficient reason to conclude that the thing he says is wrong.”

which we would all like to agree with but have great trouble doing so, this is an excellent analysis of both the issue and the Trump temperament. And there is now collateral damage from this issue and the FBI Clinton e-mail issue which is extremely damaging to American law enforcement and intelligence.

That damage is in the form of ‘leaking’ now becoming standard practice as the FBI and the intelligence community seek to either defend themselves against partisan attacks or to influence political issues. We saw this in the Comey Affair where at least some of the motivation of Mr. Comey to interfere in the 2016 election was fear that individuals within the FBI would leak all sorts of stuff if he did not come forth with his letter to Congress in which he said the FBI re-opened the email investigation. And the investigation still leaked information like a huge sieve, so much so that the reputation and the effectiveness of the FBI is highly compromised.

And now it appears that the classified intelligence report that the President saw on Thursday and that Trump will see on Friday has been leaked to the Washington Post. While Trump is allowed public criticism of the intelligence community, they of course cannot respond directly. So we are seeing leakage of highly classified material as a way for them to rebut the Trump lies and distortions. This is a terrible thing and shows the danger of a Trump presidency; his lack of understanding of how to conduct himself and the resultant destruction to institutions critical to American safety and prosperity. America may never recover from the damage this man will do to the nation.

Shag from Brookline said...

Some Republicans have criticized Pres. Obama's sanctions against Russia as not tough enough. The NYTimes in an editorial supported the sanctions but seemed to suggest that the Obama Administration might disclose (leak?) information on Putin's personal finances located outside of Russia for Russian people to consider. While Putin might retaliate, I assume that while his bro-mance with Trump continues it would not include disclosing Trump's tax returns. Who knows what is the real basis for this bro-mance. Presumably some people within the Trump campaign might have knowledge or information on this. Nixon's 1968 campaign secrets on thwarting LBJ's Vietnam peace efforts were recently revealed based upon H.R. Haldeman's notes of conversations with then candidate Nixon. Nixon to his death denied any such claims of interference with LBJ's efforts at peace. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link and there may be several weak links within the Trump campaign inner circle. Haldeman's notes were handwritten and not disclosed until, as I recall, 2007. Electronic communications may not be so readily hidden and kept secret. National security issues are at stake. We still don't have enough information on Trump's business interests worldwide to determine potential conflicts with his presidency.

I share Mike's direness, including how Trump might publicly use today's intelligence briefing in an unintelligent manner to support his to Russia with love positions.

Joe said...

When someone not of a political mindset but with liberal sympatheties asked me about Trump being elected on Election Day, I said it was horrible and people will get hurt. Or, something along those lines. It seemed all hypothetical before the election where, mea culpa, I thought the American voting public would not elect this asshole. But, that doesn't mean it wasn't well founded. It would be nice if nothing REAL horrible happens, but we are scientific minded sorts here. The odds aren't THAT in our favor here given the person in question.

Shag from Brookline said...

I have down loaded Eric Posner's "Can It Happen Here? Donald Trump and the Paradox of Populist Government" to which a link is available at Posner's Blog. A short 11 pages, it is described as a chapter in a forthcoming publication edited by Cass Sunstein. I plan to read this tonight or tomorrow morning. Perhaps chapters by other contributors will became available via the Internet. Actual governing can be hard even for a very smart person.

Trump's news on who will pay for the Mexico border wall brought to mind the "Unknown Comic" of yesteryear who wore two bags over his head. Perhaps Mexico will build its own border wall, just in case Trump's wall breaks down.

Shag from Brookline said...

Here's the URL ay SSRN for Posner's chapter:

It's worth a read. Now to search for more chapters.

Shag from Brookline said...

Here's a headline I imagined I might see after Friday's intelligence briefing of President-elect Trump:


Maybe The Onion did this earlier?

Shag from Brookline said...

Consider The Donald's tweet in reaction to the efforts of House Republicans to eliminate the independent House ethics commission, stating that the House has more important priorities even though the commission may not be appropriate and can be addressed later down the road. The Donald may have had a not so subtle message regarding Emoluments that Congress can address for his benefit, with one hand washing the other. Caramba, it's like a tag-team corruption tango.