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Nothing to See Here!

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After the blockbuster Washington Post scoop about Kushner landed last night, the New York Times followed up to tell it like it is — that everything is just fine:

Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, spoke in December with Russia’s ambassador to the United States about establishing a secret communications channel between the Trump transition team and Moscow to discuss strategy in Syria and other policy issues, according to three people with knowledge of the discussion.

As Yglesias observes, the spin Haberman et al. are accepting uncritically here is…not very plausible:

Documentary evidence or sworn testimony may emerge some day to confirm this characterization of events, but on its own terms it seems hard to believe for three reasons.

One is that it’s not clear why a Syria backchannel the Times is positing would require access to the Russian government’s secure diplomatic communication channels.
The other is that it’s not clear from the Times’ account why the backchannel was never established. In the Post’s story, Russia rejected the use of diplomatic channels as unworkable and then Kushner dropped the matter since the ability to evade US government surveillance was evidently key to whatever he wanted.
Last, the Trump White House simply lies very frequently. Sometimes they lie about obvious, easily checkable facts like how many people attended Trump’s inauguration or whether or NATO members owe a financial debt to the United States. When a group of people lie frequently, it seems sensible to discount their future self-serving but unverifiable claims.

The third point is particularly crucial. There’s nothing wrong with reporters printing the administration line, per se, but given that these people lie about everything unless a claim can be corroborated it really needs to be approached with a great deal of skepticism, skepticism that is notably lacking in the story. Davies is again relevant here:

Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless. Case after miserable case after bloody case we went through, I tell you, all of which had this moral. Not only that people who want a project will tend to make innacurate projections about the possible outcomes of that project, but about the futility of attempts to “shade” downward a fundamentally dishonest set of predictions. If you have doubts about the integrity of a forecaster, you can’t use their forecasts at all. Not even as a “starting point”. By the way, I would just love to get hold of a few of the quantitative numbers from documents prepared to support the war and give them a quick run through Benford’s Law.

Application to Iraq This was how I decided that it was worth staking a bit of credibility on the strong claim that absolutely no material WMD capacity would be found, rather than “some” or “some but not enough to justify a war” or even “some derisory but not immaterial capacity, like a few mobile biological weapons labs”. My reasoning was that Powell, Bush, Straw, etc, were clearly making false claims and therefore ought to be discounted completely, and that there were actually very few people who knew a bit about Iraq but were not fatally compromised in this manner who were making the WMD claim. Meanwhile, there were people like Scott Ritter and Andrew Wilkie who, whatever other faults they might or might not have had, did not appear to have told any provable lies on this subject and were therefore not compromised.

The Vital Importance of Audit. Emphasised over and over again. Brealey and Myers has a section on this, in which they remind callow students that like backing-up one’s computer files, this is a lesson that everyone seems to have to learn the hard way. Basically, it’s been shown time and again and again; companies which do not audit completed projects in order to see how accurate the original projections were, tend to get exactly the forecasts and projects that they deserve. Companies which have a culture where there are no consequences for making dishonest forecasts, get the projects they deserve. Companies which allocate blank cheques to management teams with a proven record of failure and mendacity, get what they deserve.

I hope I don’t have to spell out the implications of this one for Iraq. Krugman has gone on and on about this, seemingly with some small effect these days. The raspberry road that led to Abu Ghraib was paved with bland assumptions that people who had repeatedly proved their untrustworthiness, could be trusted. There is much made by people who long for the days of their fourth form debating society about the fallacy of “argumentum ad hominem”. There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”, but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world. Audit is meant to protect us from this, which is why audit is so important.

Having said that, it’s hard to imagine the Times breaking from its saturation EMAILS! coverage running a false “nothing to see here” story about Russia and Trump less than two weeks before the election or something:

Oh. And, again, let me note that the reporter who got spun like a top by the alt-right faction of the FBI also published one of the most egregious Clinton Rules “TROUBLING QUESTIONS CAST SHADOWS RAISED TROUBINGLY [lede] no wrongdoing whatsoever by anyone [graf 32]” stories of the campaign. Comparing the Clinton Foundation stories with this spinning for Trump and Kushner is a clear indication of real and ongoing problems at the NYT political desk.

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  • humanoid.panda

    The most obvious rejoinder to this story is this: if Flynn wanted to be briefed by Russian military officials, the US and the RF have a good, solid infrastracture of secure phone lines that I am certain the Obama administration would have given him access to (and if they didn’t, he could have waited a month). Or he could have had some quiet meetings with the Russian defense attaches. The only reason to want to have a secret backchannel using Russian infrastracture is hiding the conversations from the American IC. And then the question becomes: if this all about Syria, why hide?

  • humanoid.panda

    And of course, this story has “leaks from Jared” written all over it. Which is really the key factor in the Times coverage of the administration. Meggie Haberman, their head political reporter, gets a lot of plaudits for running stories about the inner workings, which, to be fair to her, are usually unflinching in showing how crazy and disjointed and over his head Trump is. But to get those stories, she needs to be talking to the administration, to people who are willing to basically stab the boss in the back. But that means she is easily spinned by her sources when the topic at hand is them, and not the boss or other underlings..

    • Maggie wanted a scoop… she went to Jared.

      • ZakMcKrackenAndTheAlienMindbenders

        Maggie is basically the Derek Jeter of political reporters.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yeah, there’s a reason that Ivanka and Jared get so many Times puff pieces written about them.

    • jamesepowell

      Quite a few of us could easily take any Maggie Haberman article on Trump or his administration and produce a “This is how she would have written it if it were Clinton or her administration.”

      And whether the reason is her own biases or her editors, I don’t believe she is not aware of the differences.

  • Mike Furlan

    Can anyone find a case where foreign interference benefiting a political party has been considered a crime by that political party?

    As long as the Republicans hold their majority in either the House or Senate none of this matters.

    • humanoid.panda

      Also, we are doomed, and even if we win the election, they will just declare martial law.

      • Mike Furlan

        Nah. The $400,000 that our oligarchs just paid Obama shows that they were very pleased by his work on their behalf.

        There is no reason for them to fear a future Democratic victory.

        • humanoid.panda

          You see, you could have saved all the mental trouble it required you to type this comment if you just created a “I’m a moron” macro on your keyboard. Would have saved me the trouble of writign my incisive comment, too!

          • Scott Lemieux

            It’s appalling that a great Foghorn Leghorn icon is being wasted on such shitty takes.

            • John Revolta

              “Boy’s about as sharp as a basketball.”

              • Q.E.Dumbass

                “Bowling ball,” you mean.

                • John Revolta

                  Well now, I feel about as sharp as a sack o’ wet mice

            • Mike Furlan

              Scott the NY Times has been wrong on every important issue since at least Gulf War 2. Why are you surprised or upset about this story? It is what they do. Just cancel your subscription and move on.

              The Republican party has been conspiring with foreign countries for domestic advantage almost my entire life. Nixon and the Vietnamese War peace talks, Reagan and Iranian hostages and then Iran Contra. (Oliver North came out of it as a hero to his party) And now Trump and the Russians. And the American people have chosen to give them control of the government so nothing is going to happen.

              I don’t like it but I’m not pretending to be shocked and outraged by anything we’ve seen so far.

              So what do we do?

              Most recently I’ve donated to the Ossoff campaign. And have come to the painfull conclusion that I’ll have to be donating a lot more in the years to come.

              Been to marches and demonstrations since the DC Womans march. But I think money matters more.

        • So none of this matters as long as the Republicans hold Congress, but if the Democrats take Congress, none of this matters.

          • efgoldman

            none of this matters as long as the Republicans hold Congress

            Removal by impeachment and trial is off the table, sure.
            But nothing congress does (or fails to do) is going to stop the saturation bombardment of indictments against the family and the campaign aides once it starts.
            I also expect, if Schneiderman’s grand jury finds RICO violations, money laundering, and/or conspiracy committed by Velveeta Voldemort his very self, he’ll at least release the findings and might even go so far as to see how hard he can push a NY State indictment.

            • Mike Furlan

              Trump should have been locked up a long time ago.

              http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/11983400

              • Brad Nailer

                David Cay Johnston should be–and should have been–on every TV news show there is. His book was as useful to me in learning about our president-to-be (I read it during the campaign) as Molly Ivins’ Shrub was about that guy.

                Surprised that Trump wants to run the White House like a crime syndicate with himself as the capo di tutt’i capi? We shouldn’t be, since Johnston (and probably others) told us a long time ago how Trump did a lot of business with the New York (and New Jersey?) mob. He probably likes the way those guys do business.

  • Q.E.Dumbass

    One of the reasons I’ve entertained the idea of a Clinton gubernatorial run (and also getting a golden unicorn that shits palladium and farts blowjobs on my 25th birthday) is that the governor would have the ability to throw the Sulzberger family into New York’s most state-of-the-art woodchipper– the governor does have the right to dispose of publishing families in such a way, right?

    I am not a crackpot.

  • brad

    I occurred to me last night that if Cillizza and certain NYT reporters were to have been paid/blackmailed by Russian elements to influence their coverage there probably wouldn’t have been a difference in what was actually produced.
    I’m not so conspiratorial as to say I think this happened, which is a point I’d like to underline. But shit like this Kushner reveal makes it harder for me to completely dismiss the idea.

    • Pat

      I’m more of the opinion that one or a couple of editors have been compromised. If I were a Russian oligarch, I’d certainly go for the more anonymous guys who have more power over story assignment and placement.

      It can be something as easy to do as a well-placed mistress or two.

    • scott_theotherone

      I’m not so conspiratorial as to say I think this happened

      Nor I. But I would be very, very happy to see an “it would be irresponsible not to speculate” type thing take off whenever Cillizza is mentioned. (Or, perhaps, the “rumors” about Mickey Kraus and goats is a more appropriate analogy.)

    • Derelict

      Why not take the obvious explanation? Republicans reliably cut taxes on the wealthiest people, so why wouldn’t wealthy publishers and star reporters push Republican talking points at every turn?

  • One more reason to discount this story is that Kushner’s people took a day to come up with it. Last night, all his lawyer could say was “he has no recollection,” but then today he suddenly remembers his earnest attempt to broker peace in Syria? Right.

    • MattF

      ‘Has no recollection’ is simply and flatly unbelievable. Which, I think, is the point of the post.

    • humanoid.panda

      Nah, you are confusing the timeline. There were 3 stories breaking last night.

      1. The big WaPo scoop.
      2. The Nytimes thing, that came two hours later.
      3. A Reuters story about conversations Kushner had with Kislyak during the campaign, to which the reaction was “The Kush can’t be bothered with detals.”

      • I guess I’ll just thank the universe for not alerting me to this Haberman story until today.

        So, Kushner talks with Kislyak two or three times during the campaign, but this is completely mundane and he can’t even remember whether it happened. But in early December when he decides that the Syrian Civil War is the sort of problem that only a slumlord with rich family can fix, Kislyak is the person he reaches out to to coordinate with Russia. But when he can’t keep this coordination secret from US intelligence, he decides that it’s just not worth the bother. This is a plausible story.

        • Moondog von Superman

          In early November, the NY Times broke the story of the mysterious Trump “server relationship” with a Russian bank.

    • Hogan

      “Oh, THAT conversation with the Russian ambassador about communication channels that the US government can’t monitor. Right right right. One meets so many people.”

  • Simple Mind

    Putin is a rich man ($2.5+ billion). Lavrov is a rich man ($2+ billion). This is where the Trumps likely go for their cash and why they need a direct line. Secondarily, they want the social media/analytics disinformation tips from the Kremlin back office.

    • MattF

      Rumor has it that Putin is -much- wealthier than that.

      • Simple Mind

        Your are absolutely right. Two more zeroes: it’s $200/250 billion. Thanks.

        • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

          IOW, Trump is trying to learn from Putin how to steal more effectively.

          When the student is ready, the master will appear.

    • Pat

      The key thing was getting the hacked emails from the DNC with the carefully placed Russian disinformation, which was engineered to drive the FBI director to make a stupid public comment.

      That kind of help ain’t cheap.

  • lhartmann

    And McMaster doubles down…

    • jeer9

      Yeah, a tough one to square.

      For someone who’s in there for allegedly patriotic, idealistic reasons (A sane person must be present! Why not me?), his actions and responses are looking more and more problematic.

      • Pat

        It’s a lot easier to write a masters’ thesis saying “Dudes shoulda told the President THE TRUTH” than it is to actually tell the President the truth. In a way that is effective.

        • Moondog von Superman

          I don’t think a person could effectively tell this president that his fly is unzipped.

          • Bardi

            Much less that he has no clothes, though, I must say, the idea of telling a nude emperor that their fly is unzipped, I would be interested in the response.

      • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

        It’s really hard to keep your integrity intact in the whorehouse.

      • Captain C

        To be fair to HR, the gap between reality and “what I have to say to preserve my job” is becoming increasingly unbridgeable.

  • randy khan

    My initial response upon seeing this was that it’s not actually that helpful an explanation – (a) it confirms they did it; and (b) the supposed reason is stupid, as others have noted, because there was no reason to do it that way. The most innocent explanation is that they were too stupid to realize that’s not how you’d open up a back channel, which is sort of plausible, except that Flynn was involved, and he certainly would have known better.

    • LosGatosCA

      Flynn’s ability to process reality seems to have degraded appreciably from any time in the past when he could actually hold a job.

      • efgoldman

        Flynn’s ability to process reality seems to have degraded appreciably

        Basically why Obama fired him.

  • President Putinfluffer

    There’s nothing wrong with reporters printing the administration line, per se, but given that these people lie about everything unless a claim can be corroborated it really needs to be approached with a great deal of skepticism,..

    Face it Libs!

    Every day you compare what I said yesterday to what I’m saying today you’ll fail to predict tomorrow!

  • scott_theotherone

    Actions like these are why I smile when I delete my several times a week email pleas from the New York Times to please please please renew my subscription.

    • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

      I have the same satisfaction with appeals to “come back” to Barrons.

  • No Longer Middle Aged Man

    I’m confused here. I read the NYT article yesterday and thought it was absolutely devastating to Kushner – secret links to the Russians, using their secure communications network, that only he, Flynn (!), and Trump knew about? In a meeting with the Russian Ambassador that was never reported? The explanation offered in the article, that is was to enable Flynn (again !) to communicate discretely with the Russians about Syria, was ludicrous but ultimately an irrelevant detail to the bigger picture.

    I don’t see how any of the NYT story whitewashes Kushner or minimizes his utter idiocy. The guy comes across in the article as clueless to just how out of his depth he is. It even has him meeting with Russian banker close to Putin a few days later.

    And wtf has happened to Jamie Gorelick? She’s pushing to head of the line for the Lanny Davis-Alan Dershowitz award.

    • I’m confused here. I read the NYT article yesterday and thought it was absolutely devastating to Kushner – secret links to the Russians, using their secure communications network, that only he, Flynn (!), and Trump knew about? In a meeting with the Russian Ambassador that was never reported? The explanation offered in the article, that is was to enable Flynn (again !) to communicate discretely with the Russians about Syria, was ludicrous but ultimately an irrelevant detail to the bigger picture.

      But the Washington Post had just broken the story hours earlier. The Times story just added the detail about Kushner’s explanation. So, what was new wasn’t incriminating, and what was incriminating wasn’t new.

      • efgoldman

        But the Washington Post had just broken the story hours earlier. The Times story just added the detail about Kushner’s explanation.

        And once again, with a completely new cast if characters top to bottom, WaPo is stealing NYT’s lunch money and locking NYT in their locker.

      • randy khan

        As I said above, the new detail didn’t actually seem to help much. (And, let’s be fair here: If Kushner had come up with this explanation in response to the WaPo, it would have been in their story, too.)

        • JonH

          “If Kushner had come up with this explanation in response to the WaPo, it would have been in their story, too”

          Apparently they tried to get it into the WaPo story, but the WaPo insisted on identifying them as being close to Kushner. The sources wouldn’t go for that, so it didn’t go in the story.

          Presumably the sources wanted their spin to look independent and unbiased, rather than being transparent, desperate codswallop.

  • vic rattlehead

    I can’t fucking stand Haberman. I wipe my ass with that paper (although reading on my iPad makes this…i advisable).

    • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

      is “i advisable” a typo (understandable on a pad) or a reference to i-everything these days?

    • JonH

      I vaguely recall her posting a number of WTF?! braindead tweets during the campaign, but I can’t recall them in any detail.

  • efgoldman

    There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”, but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error

    Yeah, but…. the current maladministration and W’s lies were quantitatively and qualitatively different.
    W’s merry band coordinated specific lies about a specific subject (generally, Iraq) in order to push policy in a specific direction. They then proved incompetent to carry out the policy they created.
    Tangerine Torquemada lies every time he opens his mouth, as a way of communication, being both the narcissist he is and probably on the cusp of dementia. His lies are not coordinated with anyone else’s (Sphincter doesn’t count – he’s just a mouthpiece), they constantly contradict what he said before, they have no policy effect and generally only his ignorant supporters, unmoored from realty as they are, believe them.

    • msdc

      In other words, it’s the difference between lies and bullshit.

      (h/t Harry Frankfurt, whom historians will remember as one of the most important intellectuals of the early 21st century, assuming we still have historians)

  • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

    the reporter who got spun like a top by the alt-right faction of the FBI also published one of the most egregious Clinton Rules “TROUBLING QUESTIONS CAST SHADOWS RAISED TROUBINGLY [lede] no wrongdoing whatsoever by anyone [graf 32]” stories of the campaign.

    Not having a Times subscription (happily), I’m not sure about who this reporter is or what his/her subsequent career there has been.

    Would I be correct in assuming that there have been no negative consequences to these mistakes, and more likely, some sort of rewards for making them?

    • free_fries_

      No punishment, don’t know about reward.

      But wouldn’t you know, Eric Lichtblau post election started seeing a link btwn Trump and Russia

  • Jean-Michel

    The Post is now more or less directly challenging the Times report, specifically its rather hazy attribution:

    Scott Wilson‏
    @PostScottWilson

    We talked to these “people” too. We would not publish their account unless we could signal they were speaking for Kushner. They refused.

    He wrote in a subsequent tweet that they’re actually “paid to speak for Kushner,” in which case the NYT is (yet again) committing some pretty serious journalistic malpractice.

    • msdc

      Wow. Time to increase the level of my Post subscription.

      • tsam

        They have been doing much better lately

    • Hogan

      “Now that’s a fuckin burn.”
      –Mrs. O’Leary’s cow

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