The Simple Reason Why The Trump-Russia Collusion Story Isn’t Going Away
Since I was born in the former USSR, am so Eastern European that my Ancestry DNA results just say “get an Adidas track suit and start squatting in pictures,” and partially made a living dissecting conspiracy theories on my blog, the drumbeat about the secret Trump-Putin connection has been really playing with my head. On the one hand, I have an old Soviet reflex that gives anyone who says that the government is up to something shady the benefit of the doubt.
Why? Because my former government did shady things all the time, and if you grow up with leaders who you can’t trust as far as you can throw — and whose great heft at their old age made throwing them a real challenge even for Strongman competitors — and with a brand new generation of leaders caught embezzling billions through fake charities just months ago, you tend to perk up and pay attention to allegations about their improprieties. But on the other hand, as a professional skeptic, you never want to take down a conspiracy theory yesterday, then credulously promote one tomorrow. In my experience, most conspiracies turn out to be fake or vastly overblown, while being extremely catchy and forcing you to challenge your assumptions.
In the case of Trump’s possible connections to Russia, the GOP would really appreciate their hopes of the entire thing being a whole lot of nothing but partisan grumbling to pan out so they can direct all their energies to going forward with their wildly unpopular agenda. And yet, not only is no one at the FBI, or the CIA, or the NSA giving them an easy way out of this, almost every day another weird story surfaces, another vague, non-committal but serious-sounding quote from an intelligence agency or the FBI appears, or a leak about shady happenings in the White House makes the headlines.
Too much smoke is on the horizon for people to let go of this story and a passionate denial that anything unbecoming or questionable is happening is like telling a police officer who stopped you for fishtailing across the road at night that you’re not drunk or high, then ranting about other drivers and the Constitution while slurring your words and constantly grabbing on to your vehicle to prop yourself up. Maybe there’s a legitimate medical reason for all this behavior, but it sure as hell looks strange and isn’t getting better.
From Russia With Bots?
Let’s start with the basics. Russian hackers and bots are nothing to dismiss, and many Western intelligence agencies have been dealing with them for a while, noting that they’re getting better and better at what they do. They’re basically a logical extension of the KGB’s weaponized propaganda methods used to ferment distrust towards Americans, including a successful ploy to convince millions that AIDS was a bioweapon rather than a totally natural virus that found its way into human bodies.
And so far, every pice of basic, motive-establishing circumstantial evidence for the bizarre news cycle that surrounded the year-long drama that was Election 2016 points to Russia or people on Putin’s indirect payroll, though how much was a calculated plan vs. how much was just pure luck given both candidates’ extraordinary lack of popular likability is very debatable. It may well be that if Russia decided that it was worth meddling in American elections, Putin would tilt the field towards anyone but Clinton, even if it was Trump, who is now a punchline in Russian comedy skits. (Sadly, the clip is only available in Russian.)
Now, with the recent leak of some CIA hacking tools, the pro-Kremlin side of the story tried to shift the blame to the intelligence agency, alleging that the DNC and Podesta hacks were its handiwork, and Russia was framed. This is odd because a long time courier for WikiLeaks once insisted that there was no hack, rather a disgruntled insider leaked the e-mails, and there being no reason for the CIA to damage Clinton’s chances, and both explanations very much contradict public forensic reports on the hacks, which the right wing media sphere immediately tried to discredit by playing Six Degrees of Soros or Democrats or Google.
And isn’t it already kind of suspicious that a simple question of whether an organization was hacked, and if so, by whom, has a totally different answer depending on who you speak to and what was in the right blogs or headline news stories last night? Does no one know, or are they all just reaching for the next plausible explanation? Dig far enough, and you’re going to start mining the Clinton-esque territory of what we mean by “was” when we ask “was hacked” and “who” when we ask by whom.
But you know what, let’s ignore this for now. As a professional techie, I get that attribution in hacks is fiendishly complicated and obfuscation tools are plentiful and relatively simple to use. Yet when we ignore the tools and look just at the people, things don’t get better at all. In fact, the biggest reason all the Russian hacking and meddling allegations seem to be staying put is the bizarre behavior they display even during softball questioning, and the odd zealousness of their defense that the thing they just lied about was just the typical business someone in their position does every day.
Instead of leaving nothing but smoke for their antagonists to ponder, they seem to be emitting more and more of it every other day when we find out they covered up the occasional meeting, or failed to disclose a business relationship, or flew to a haven for offshore shell corporations posing as the president’s emissary for some shady discussions. Many of them also seem to be on the payroll of an ultra-libertarian tycoon with a data mining company which claims to have the most definitive profile of every American through social media.
The Spy/Ambassador We Forgot We Met…
No, there’s nothing wrong with doing private consulting for a Russian bank or oil company, meeting with an ambassador, or just a businessman looking for a way into the American market. So why sweat bullets and insist that no one in your campaign or administration has ever so much as seen Russian dressing, much less heard a Russian accent outside of a movie, never mind actually meeting a real live Russian? Then, after someone finding evidence that a meeting took place, suddenly remember that you actually met several times at important campaign events.
You also talked about Ukraine, Crimea, and Syria, and mentioned looking into sanctions implemented as a response to an attempt at a stealth invasion of a sovereign nation. Because it’s politically toxic to talk about this? Maybe it is, but that’s not the question or the problem. The question is a simple “did you meet so and so, yes or no?” Though it should be noted that if you know a meeting is going to be political poison, maybe you shouldn’t have it in the first place as not to arouse suspicion, or just because it’s unseemly.
Even more shady are the obvious but never discussed connections between some of the players involved in destabilizing NATO and the EU. Nigel Farage is connected to Robert Mercer, as are Conway, Bannon, and several others in the Trump administration. Mercer’s company deployed AI to help target the anti-EU messaging on the Leave campaign during Brexit, effectively giving a few million dollars worth of computing time and consulting effort to UKIP.
I really doubt the supposedly Jedi-like powers attributed to the models made by Cambridge Analytica, but the sheer scope of the data and training that’s necessary to make it work is expensive and we know that systems like these can be effective at boosting engagement and presenting options you’d like.
It’s basically Netflix for right wing news, which isn’t shady in itself. But what is weird is giving that time and effort for free, and then paying Breitbart to do something, very very similar, giving Bannon six figures per year to help boost Trump, so much so, some employees started calling it Trump’s Pravda, and with a major part of his effort fanning WikiLeaks dumps of hacked DNC and Podesta e-mails.
After the election, not only are Farage, Trump, and Bannon having dinner at one of Trump’s hotels, but Farage is visiting Assange in person, for some odd reason he couldn’t seem to recall. Meanwhile, Flynn is chatting with Russian officials and hiring people who would later go on to compromise the House investigation into this bizarre mess by leaking raw intelligence to Nunes, the representative in charge of it, and also a member of the transition team just to round out the conflicts of interest.
Meanwhile, random campaign staffers and advisors are fessing up to contact with Russians they had denied only a few months ago, while insisting that what contact they did have was benign and typical business for them, even though some of the people they met are known by the FBI and CIA to be spies. At the same time, IT professionals in Russia are being arrested for treason and its ambassadors are dying of heart attacks after “a brief illness” or acute cases of gunshots to the head.
For just innocent interactions between politicians, diplomats, and business tycoons, there are an awful lot of off-the-record meetings and cover-ups and simple, binary questions are always met with vague hedging, shrugs, or just outright, bold-faced lying quickly debunked within hours.
Something Strange Won’t Investigate Itself
Nothing in this story over the past six months has escaped some shady and bizarre overtone, and no one seemed to be telling the whole truth, even as both allies and antagonists teed up the easiest, most straightforward means for them to divert suspicion. It’s like dealing with a roommate who spends lots of time texting people with ambiguous names in his contact list, comes and goes at weird times of day and night, avoids talking about his friends or what he does for a living, and always pays his half of the rent and utilities with a stack of fresh $100 bills.
Maybe he’s involved in a legal business which has some sort of stigma to it and operates in cash to avoid trouble with a bank that bows to moralistic campaigns, like amateur porn, or a legal marijuana dispensary. But it sure seems shady if you don’t know that and he refuses to tell you, doesn’t it? And what if the more you ask, the more he starts trying to avoid you or hide what he’s doing? You’d have even more questions and it’s doubtful anyone would blame you for being concerned and wanting not to deal with him any longer because you’re not sure what may happen next should you try to dig any deeper, or even if you let it go now.
At this point, if you called the police and told them exactly what’s going on, they would probably be very interested in investigating. They wouldn’t have enough probable cause to obtain warrants, but they would start thinking of excuses to stop your roommate and ask some questions. How would it look if a friend of your roommate were to come by at the time and start telling the cops that you’re the suspicious one, his friend didn’t do anything that’s in any way odd, and besides, they should be investigating you for snooping on your roommate and making false police reports?
Then another one of his friends calls the officers aside and say he’ll talk to them, but he wants to know he’ll have immunity from possible prosecution and it’s not like he’s admitting that he or his friends did anything wrong, but he’ll tell you more if you assure him that he won’t have to face any sort of charges. It’s probably shortly after that when the cops go to the judge to ask for a search warrant, not shrug and move on and let the whole matter drop.
Well, the same logic applies to the Trump administration and its surrogates in Congress and the media. As long as they skulk about, telling you that it’s not at all suspicious for diplomats and businesspeople to secretly plot how to do great things like improve the economy or healthcare while on the payroll of a tech magnate and meeting the occasional Russian spy or politician with ties to corrupt oligarchs looking to launder their money, people are going to be very skeptical that nothing is going on.
This is doubly so when denials of obvious red flags in all caps on Twitter are followed by a counter conspiracy theory in which these acting suspiciously are presented as the victims of a nefarious ploy. If anything, when it comes to fanning the flames of Trump’s Russian connections, it was Trump and his people who were their worst and most dangerous enemies. And now they’ve dug themselves into a hole way too deep to get out of with just one simple, straightforward explanation much of the public would ever find believable. In short, this Russia thing is not going to suddenly go away with yet another Tweetstorm filled with wild accusations.
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