Is It Irresponsible to Speculate? It Would Be Irresponsible Not to.

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I have always wanted to use the above title as a headline. I must confess, however, that it’s not my own original language. Peggy Noonan – a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan now near the end of a staggeringly long, well-compensated, yet puerile career – is the author. She is the savant who wrote speeches for a president despite reaching at least the age of 50 without knowing how to use a rhetorical question. Noonan wrote it in an evidence-free column for the The Wall Street Journal back in 2000 accusing President Bill Clinton of having nefarious motives for returning the six-year-old Cuban boy Elián González to Cuba. Elián’s mother had drowned while trying to flee with her son from Cuba to the United States. The boy’s father, who was still in Cuba, wanted Elián to return to Cuba. Noonan was speculating that perhaps  Cuban President Fidel Castro was blackmailing Clinton into making this decision. Yes, for anyone not alive or politically aware in the year 2000, this was a thing. And yes, it was as crazy as it sounds. Irresponsible not to speculate, indeed.

The point here, of course, is about President Donald Trump, Russian efforts to affect the outcome of the election that made Trump president, and the growing number of people in Trumpland who met or spoke with Russian officials. Several Trumpers at first conveniently forgot that they had met or had phone calls with Russian officials. Caught red-handed, they then conveniently recalled that they did not discuss the campaign or anything substantive during those undisclosed – and again, previously forgotten – contacts. Given just these facts, wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to speculate about why Trumpers are not remembering contacts with Russian officials but then remembering that the contacts were not substantive after confronted with evidence that the contacts indeed took place?

We now know of at least four prominent Trump advisors and officials who communicated with the Russian ambassador amidst denials by the Trump campaign, the Trump transition team, or the Trump Administration. Writing specifically about now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ unprompted lie during his confirmation hearing that he had not met with any Russian officials, veteran muckraker Josh Marshall poses some interesting questions:

Why are there so many unforced errors? Why conceal this meeting? Frankly, why lie about it? As I said, big, big scandals work like this. People who don’t even appear to be that close to the action keep getting pulled under for what seem like needless deceptions. The answer is usually that the stuff at the center of the scandal is so big that it requires concealment, even about things distant from the main action, things that it would seem much better and less damaging simply to admit.

We’ve all heard the old saw: It’s never the crime, it’s the cover-up. This is almost never true. Covering scandals for any length of time is enough to tell you that. People are generally able to make judgments about how much trouble they’re in. We think the ‘cover up’ is worse than the crime because it’s actually very seldom that the full scope of the actual crime is ever known. The cover up works better than you think. The other reason the cover up is a logical response is that it usually works. You only find out about it when it doesn’t. So it’s a good bet.

Let’s put together a narrative:

  • During the 2016 campaign, Trump invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and make them public. Trump reveled in the hack of the DNC’s and John Podesta’s emails and used the steady drip of their release to constantly reinforce his main, yet extremely vague, critique of Clinton as corrupt.
  • The U.S. intelligence community (IC) came to the conclusion that Russia was interfering in the election to help Trump and/or sow chaos in our country. The IC was confident enough to warn the Obama Administration.
  • The Obama Administration was convinced enough to get the IC on the record with their conclusions and to protect evidence of Russia’s interference and potential Trumper collusion.
  • Candidate, then President-elect, then President Trump alternately dismissed and questioned the bases for the conclusion that Russia interfered in the election when asked about the issue. When he acknowledged Russia might have been involved, he also claimed it had no effect on the outcome of the election.
  • The campaign, the transition team, and the Trump Administration all denied contacts between its advisors and officials with Russian officials WHILE those contacts were taking place. ONLY when confronted with evidence that the contacts happened have Trumpers acknowledged them. When finally acknowledged, Trumpers proffered lame “nothing to see here”-style excuses.

Those last two points are key to understanding the Trump Administration. There is always – ALWAYS – another excuse to be made, even if it has no actual relationship to the matter at hand. Whether Russian interference mattered or not to the election outcome – and the evidence suggests it did – that’s not really even the point. A foreign country meddling in an election is a serious national security matter, period. Even if we grant that it didn’t affect the outcome, which we shouldn’t, we want to know how it happened, what its purpose was, and how to counter it.

A thought experiment: Imagine Trump and some other people are in the same room. Trump lets out a real nasty fart. How does this play out? People begin to gag and wonder aloud where the smell is coming from. Someone says somebody must have farted. Everyone denies it, but people next to Trump say, “Hey, I was standing right next to this guy. I heard him.” Trump first simply denies it. Then he continues to deny it, saying odd things like: “It wasn’t me, you must have heard something else.” Then: “How would you know, your ears weren’t pointed at me.” Then: “That was my sock squeaking against the sole of my shoe you heard and it happened at the exact same time that somebody, who wasn’t me, farted.” Then, without actually acknowledging that he farted, Trump says, “What’s the matter with you people anyway, haven’t you ever farted?” Then: “What’s the big deal? You can leave the room whenever you want.” But then someone sees a brown spot on the back of Trump’s pants. That someone points it out, and Trump says, “I was eating a Snickers bar before I got here. I must have gotten some chocolate on my fingers and then brushed my fingers against the back of my pants at the exact spot where my asshole is.” Someone says, “Oh come on dude, do you want us to test your pants for fecal matter? Just admit it.” If Trump breaks here, which he may not – he may just go on denying, ad infinitum – he now says, “It was the taco bowl I had for lunch. Not my fault. Someone ordered it for me. Why do I always fart when I eat taco bowls, anyway?” By this time, Trump may even believe that he never farted in the first place.

Would it be irresponsible to speculate that the Trump-fart story is actually an allegory for what we’re seeing now with the possibility that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to affect the outcome of the election? Or would it be irresponsible to speculate that the Trump-fart story is actually an allegory for the Trump Administration getting blackmailed into doing Russia’s bidding? Or would it be irresponsible to speculate that the Trump-fart story is actually an allegory for the Trump Administration simply returning favors for help during the election?

To be fair, we should also consider the story on the merits. Perhaps there is a way to reconcile what are known facts with innocent motives – innocent, at least, of deliberately harming one’s own country. Again, I point you to Talking Points Memo‘s Marshall, who has done a lot of reporting on the ties between Trump, Trumpworld, Russia, and Ukraine. Marshall weaves a narrative that fits the facts and absolves Trump (though not necessarily his circle) of any nefarious motives with regard to his own country. However, Marshall recognizes three acute problems with the theory: 1) there are still many facts that have less than compelling explanations, such as Sessions’ actions; 2) these facts are merely what we know now and there are reasons to expect a lot more will come out; and 3) it would almost certainly involve illegal or immoral acts unrelated to matters of betraying one’s country.

There’s an NBC News timeline of relevant events here and a Sessions-specific one here from The Washington Post. For another timeline and some interpretation, I suggest Matt Yglesias’ post from today here

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